The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

So here we are. The end of the line, number one, the greatest film ever as per the list I have been so diligently working from. Like so many other people I heard about The Shawshank Redemption through word-of-mouth, it being a poor performer at the box office that solidified its viewership through the medium of VHS, and when I saw it I felt it was pretty alright and didn’t give much thought about it later on – one of the other novellas from the Stephen King collection the film was adapted from made a greater impact on me when I had read it, perhaps that had something to do with it. So flash forward however many years when I find my way to using IMDb and figure out there’s a list of the best films ever, and it comes as a surprise to find this film at the top. Was it that good? I’ll have to re-watch that some day. And then some more years pass, and finally I’ve seen it again.

Banker Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins), convicted of killing his wife and her lover, bonds with fellow inmate Ellis “Red” Redding (Morgan Freeman), assists Warden Norton (Bob Gunton) in a complex money-laundering operation, and never succumbs to the soul-crushing weight of being behind Shawshank’s walls. Robbins is oddly distant for the entire film, but intentionally so, playing up the dignity that keeps separate from the other prisoners, and Freeman, though warm and likeable, suffers a little from this role being the one he would reprise for basically the rest of his career. It’s a fine film, a fine tale about holding on to hope in hopeless circumstances, but following The Godfather it can’t help but feel lacking – I don’t want to undercut Frank Darabont as so far he’s three for three with me in adapting works of an author that continually prove incredibly difficult to adapt to the screen, but it does come off as quite simple and plain compared to Coppola’s rich saga. I feel much the same now as I did when I first saw it: it’s good, but it’s not great. I can’t help but think that it retains its position on IMDb’s big list because of a certain strain of people that resist to the death being told what to think and refuse to ever change their minds once set – they’re not content to accept the traditional answer to “What is the best film ever made?” and champion instead this once-obscure underdog of a film, this casual rental they picked up on a whim and turned out to be surprisingly good actually. It seems a bit of a shame to close this project with a whimper instead of a bang, and I do like the film; it’s just there’s a handful of others I’d rather see at the top of the list.

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The Dark Knight (2008)

I would love to come back to Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy some ten, twenty, thirty years later, to see the way that time judges them. All three parts made it into IMDb’s Top 250, but a lot of this feels like it’s because they’re popular films in the age of the Internet and it is the folks of the Internet that ultimate decide what ends up on the list; I already found the shine coming off the last entry in the series, and while I quite like the first film as a perfect example of how to explain a superhero and their psychology to a person who doesn’t take for granted that the moment a character is bestowed with great power they will automatically take up the great responsibility of fighting crime, it’s nothing much beyond that. The Dark Knight, though, the middle film, the one that neither sets up or closes out the arc but escalates it, that I feel has the most longevity. I’ll just have to see if I’m right every ten years or so.

With Gotham City no longer beholden to its criminal families thanks to fearless district attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) and masked vigilante Batman (Christian Bale), the leaders of the underworld turn to a mysterious anarchistic figure in an attempt to regain control of the city: the Joker (Heath Ledger). Let’s be honest, Ledger’s portrayal of the iconic Batman villain, a twitching morass of contradictions and chaos with no history and no grand plans other than to watch the world burn, is the biggest draw of the whole film; every second he’s on the screen is mesmerising, a performance with all the bewildering intensity and destruction of a train wreck. The polar opposite he provides to the major figures in the film – not only to Batman, the arch-nemesis he uses to define himself, but also the moral Dent, the structured crime families, and even the wider society of Gotham itself – is the fuel the film runs on; there are been villains more cruel and wicked and villains that have been more satisfying to feel burning hatred for, but there has never been a villain that more thoroughly embraces the terrifying idea that the stability of a society is a fragile, tenuous agreement, and that it only takes the slightest push, the smallest thing out of the ordinary, to send it plunging headlong into an anarchistic nightmare.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)

One of the big themes that great works draw from is humanity – unsurprising, since we’re all human – and the equalising factors that show in some way that we’re all the same. There’s never been a single text that perfectly sums up the human condition, and most likely never will be given just how many facets there are to mankind as a whole, but even though there’s no consensus on the things that do make us all the same, the fact remains that the narrative almost always runs that we are all the same. We all have a common ground. We are all a small part of the same collective, and there should be no label and no method of recategorisation that can break off a select few from the whole. There should be nothing possible to erase one’s humanity.

In One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, repeat felon and anti-authoritarian Randle Patrick McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) feigns a mental illness to be transferred from prison to a mental institution, only to be placed under the supervision of rigid disciplinarian Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher). Despite being disruptive and rebellious, McMurphy treats his fellow patients as equals, just another bunch of guys not too different from the ones he was previously locked up with, seeing past their illnesses in a way the hospital staff cannot and eventually usurping Nurse Ratched’s authority on the ward. She is truly one of cinema’s greatest monsters, not just because she is the very face of emotionless authority, the law and the rules and the bureaucracy embodied, but because she believes that keeping her patients in a strictly-controlled regime that drains them of their humanity – “works on them”, as Chief Bromden (Will Sampson) would put it – is the best thing for them, treating them more like ill-tempered beasts that need to be sedated rather than people that need to be fixed. That she can barb and control people the way she does without any malice is the dark counterpoint to the reminder of every person’s fundamental sameness, but it makes the payoff and emotional resonance greater each time the ward defies her; they are not defeating some demon, some outsider, some other, they are standing up to the very worst humanity has to offer, the voice of order that drones commands to fall in line and to follow the rules because the rules are there to be followed, and they are discovering that they are stronger.

Inception (2010)

I think Inception may be the most overrated film on this list.

Now, let’s not misunderstand here. Overrated doesn’t automatically mean bad; all the films that fall at the top of the list are going to be overrated in some way, in that people will describe them as the pinnacle of filmmaking and that nothing else could ever come close and you may as well stab your eyes out after seeing them because there can’t be anything better you could possibly see after that… well, perhaps not that much hyperbole, but you understand. Even the greatest of films can be overhyped. Inception is not one of the greats. It’s good, but it’s not a part of that upper echelon of films that define the language of film and encapsulate fragments of the human condition and all those other things the absolute best examples of cinema should do. It’s an action film with a cleverer-than-most explanation for its clever action sequences, held together with all the cohesion of a waking dream. It’s a layman’s grasp of philosophy overlaid with chases and guns. It’s the post-millennial The Matrix.

Dominic Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), a thief who steals corporate secrets from sleeping targets while sharing their dreams, assembles a team for the difficult task of planting an idea instead of taking one. The surreal science-fiction concept is presented in a very grounded way, in that we’re just expected to take it as fact that the technology to influence another’s dreams exists and to not worry too much about the science behind it. The method of planting a notion in a sleeper’s subconscious involves constructing ever-deeper layers of dreams – the ‘dream within a dream’ motif the film is so known for – forming the basis of the action sequences where, as outside stimulus affects the dreamer on a ‘higher’ level, the effects are passed down through the ‘lower’ levels of dreams. It creates some extremely memorable scenes without ever becoming overly confusing despite juggling multiple timelines of events unfolding at different paces, but after the initial ‘oh wow, that looks cool’ impact there’s not all that much left over. Whether we take the events of the film at face value or whether the entire film was a dream of Cobb’s to move through his past guilt is immaterial, as it doesn’t change much about how to read what happens in the film; it’s akin to wondering if we’re not all a part of some omnipotent being’s dreams and then going on with your day.

Goodfellas (1990)

People are fascinated with the Mafia. Organised crime as a whole is an especially attractive subject – the societies that lie parallel to the lives of normal people, with different but no less rigid codes of conduct – but there’s something special about the mob, providing material for countless books, films, television series, video games, et cetera, et cetera, with either based-in-fact credentials or with the names and situations drawn from the general understanding of the way this particular brand of gangsters operate. Just look at this list of films – spots number two and three are occupied by the most famous films about mafioso. People want a look in to this lifestyle, they can’t get enough of it; they want to get close enough that they feel they’ve experienced it.

Goodfellas, adapted from non-fiction crime book Wiseguy, chronicles the life of Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) as a gangster, from his introduction into the benefits of a criminal lifestyle as a young man to his rise as part of a crew of thieves alongside James Conway (Robert De Niro) and Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci) to his eventual fall by turning informant after losing everything to drugs and paranoia. If you wanted a film to be your primer into the world of the Mafia, a jumping-off point to understand not just the way that subculture works but what the appeal of it is both to people as a setting within fiction and to people in the real world as a lifestyle, you could ask for no better film than Goodfellas. Mobsters, as Hill explains, get to live lives different than those of other men – the best example, to me, is the scene where Henry and his associates end up doing a little time in prison around the midpoint of the film, setting up their own private kitchen separate from the other inmates cooking steak and lobster, kings of the penitentiary. But all that power comes at a price – the pressure, the living in constant fear of a retribution for a meaningless slight that ends with a bullet to the head and disappearing into an unmarked grave, is enormous even before Hill gets involved with cocaine, which further compounds his stress and paranoia. The matter-of-fact way life as a gangster is portrayed makes it seem almost like just another type of career, a kind of step above high-power politician or Wall Street mogul – the same pressures, the same excesses, amplified tenfold and available to the common man – and that I believe is the root of all that fascination.

Unlisted: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013)

I really enjoyed the first entry into the Hobbit trilogy – it was slowly-paced and managed to capture of the tone of the book very well, faithfully rendering many of the memorable scenes in the fist six or so chapters of the story. The story of Bilbo Baggins, an unassuming homebody who gets shoved into a wild adventure by the wizard Gandalf and finds in himself a depth of bravery and cunning he never knew he possessed is much beloved for a reason – it’s a classic fantasy tale with an excellent narrator, this quaint little fish-out-of-water among a band of hardened warriors.

But since Bilbo managed to find himself at the end of the first film, apparently we can move on and do something completely different for The Desolation of Smaug.

The comfortable pacing that allowed for dwarven songs and character interaction is replaced with computer-generated roller-coaster rides, sections of the book skimmed over to allow more time for pointless asides to provide credibility for characters barely- or non-existent in the original text. For a film titled The Hobbit, there was a severe lack of hobbit for the first half, so much so that when Bilbo took prominence on the screen after a long absence (to find the hidden door into the Lonely Mountain) I nearly said out loud, “Oh, are you still here?” Taking the focus off Bilbo attempts to make the whole film just as serious an affair as The Lord of the Rings, and it’s… not. It’s not a story about events that shape the whole world but how one adventure affects an unlikely adventurer, and aside from his conversation with Smaug the dragon there was none of that story in this film. I don’t care about Azog the Defiler, I certainly don’t care about Tauriel and her silly love triangle with Legolas and Kili, and these additional elements stealing focus made me care less about the canonical-but-background elements like Gandalf’s uncovering of the Necromancer, Thorin’s quest to become king, and everything about Lake-town: they’re uninteresting if you don’t have that very quiet, very English voice providing running commentary on all of it and wishing they were back at home where they would have seven square meals a day, but also occasional being surprised at their latest feat of daring. Even if the third film manages to restore the tone, that can’t make up for the anemic second entry. Extremely disappointing.

The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

What is it that makes trilogies so appealing to people? Is there a special structure that only emerges with a three-story arc that can’t be achieved more (or less) entries in a franchise? Is that the average number of films in a given universe that the audience is willing to tolerate before that universe overstays its welcome? Do people just really enjoy the number three? There have been many, many three-part stories told with films, some planned from the beginning and many more retroactively constructed after the fact, and it is an almost iron law that the third and final film will fail at being the spectacular conclusion envisioned and instead serves as a reminder of how the series is flagging, how the time has come for it to end, and it’s better that it go out with a bit of effort rather than peter out in obscurity.

Years after the passing of the Dent Act, the judicial power needed by the police to break up organised crime and focus of the series’ second installment, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) must emerge from seclusion and once again become the Batman to face the greatest threat to Gotham City yet: Bane (Tom Hardy), a poetic mercenary bent on plunging the city into self-induced destruction. I like my super-heroics to have some grounding in reality and thus I like Nolan’s realism-heavy universe, and I thought I liked the final third of it but upon a rewatch I found that not so much to be the case. The plot feels crowded and convoluted, juggling far too many separate stories in order to wrap the universe up and ending up looking inferior to the other two much cleaner films, the result being that all the major characters come off as feeling underused. A second viewing of Bane reveals him to be rather empty beyond his physical presence, interesting in the moment and quite forgettable as soon as he’s off-screen, unable to sustain focus like Heath Ledger‘s Joker nor given the screentime allotted to Bruce himself during his origin for the audience to understand him; perhaps the big reveal of him not being the true villain undercuts a large portion of his grandstanding and demagoguery. The action and the tone make The Dark Knight Rises fit in well with the established world, and it does eventually do a nice job at tidying up the loose ends, but I can’t help feel there’s something lacking from the final act.