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.
I’m not an expert on how the rankings on IMDb are calculated, but if you take a look at the ratings for the best films you can see long stretches of similar score averages towards the bottom of the list (anything above an 8.0 out of 10 stands a good chance of making it onto the list), with each division growing shorter and shorter as you move up the list. Then, as you hit the top, there’s a big jump for The Godfather – which is understandable, as it’s a film of nearly-universal acclaim. I read Mario Puzo’s novel a few years ago and enjoyed it immensely, but I was curious as to what made the material such excellent fodder for film, and I was never able to garner exactly why The Godfather routinely was called the greatest film ever made from the way it’s mentioned among film critics. So now I’ve finally seen it, the most glaring omission in a film-lovers required viewing rectified, and I’m going to join the chorus of people who sings its praises without being able to nail down specifically what makes it so amazing.
The story is about the transfer of power from aging crime boss Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) to his reluctant son Michael (Al Pacino). Unlike nearly every other film about the Mafia that shows up in the Top 250, the film has very little to do with the inner workings or organised crime; it’s more about a family than the family, a familial drama writ large. It’s easy to look at the film and find threads of commentary on the change of generations, the violence that lies under a veneer of civility, the different faces of masculinity, all this and more, but the real reason the film is so accredited has nothing to do with its content. The opening sequence, the wedding, fills up over a half-hour yet never feels slow. The whole film is over three hours and yet you could easily watch more. The dramatic moments are subtle and the subtle moments an imperceptible part of the whole experience. The Godfather may be the crowning achievement of the push for greater realism in 1970s cinema: it feels like watching life, only a better version of it with more interesting situations and a clean narrative arc. Its greatness is self-evident, a film of such undeniable quality of craft that even attempting to dissect it seems pointless.
Feel free to read this and the next review in reverse order; they were written that way and naturally I watched the films that way, because one is a sequel of the other. There’s an odd logic to sequels that they must be inherently lesser than the original film, since for the most part you need the original to exist in order for the sequel to make sense. In rare circumstances the sequel will surpass the original, but usually by shedding the elements that don’t work to focus on the ones that do; rendering the original unneeded, in other words. You don’t get sequels that take the original and just continue the story, as if there was always meant to be a second act; same tone, same feel, essentially the next chapter in the same film. So in a way The Godfather: Part II is even more impressive than the original for being able to re-bottle the lightning and expand on the saga of the Corleone family without needing to succumb to the fate of every other sequel ever made. Why mess with perfection, after all?
The film serves as both sequel and prequel, with one narrative following Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) as the new Don doing whatever is necessary to maintain his position at the top, and the other showing a young Vito Corleone (Robert De Niro) rising from poor immigrant landing on Ellis Island to the head of one of the Five Families of New York. Just as subtle and immaculate as the first, it’s fitting the pair should appear side by side in IMDb’s rankings, as one could easily watch one after the other and have them flow together seamlessly. Where the first film is a simple drama painted on a grand canvas using the backdrop of the Mafia, the sequel is both more a tragedy and more directly connected to the life of organised crime, framing the endless cycle of retribution among mobsters as the last days of the Roman empire, a once-mighty institution now crumbling. “I don’t feel I have to wipe everybody out,” Michael says, “just my enemies,” but in the end it comes to the same thing for the Don. As he ends the film alone, his family broken beyond repair, we can’t help but think back on his father Vito’s death of a heart attack while playing with his grandson, and imagine the endless ways everything could have turned out better.
I’m going to cheat a little with this review. I haven’t (re)watched this film as I write this, but I do feel I’m familiar enough with it to go from memory. I’ve never made a list of my favourite films ever, as I find it very difficult to assign the order after the first three places or so and I always think I’ll forget something that I like better than an entry on the list, but if I did Pulp Fiction would be in that top three. (Number one and two, if you’re curious, are My Neighbor Totoro and Terminator 2.) It’s one of the few films where I’ve still committed to memory long stretches of the dialogue, hearing songs on the soundtrack in another context just makes me think of the scene in the film they were used, and I could very easily watch the whole thing a second time after the credits come up, so I think I can be forgiven for not using up two and a half hours to go over familiar territory.
The loosely-interlocking stories of Los Angeles criminals are told in out-of-order segments: a typical morning for enforcers Jules (Samuel L. Jackson) and Vincent (John Travolta) cascades into a black comedy-of-errors, boxer Butch (Bruce Willis) turns around a fixed match and must make a clean getaway, and Vincent is tasked with taking out his boss Marsellus’ (Ving Rhames) wife Mia (Uma Thurman) on a not-date. Giving the film and overview makes it seem relatively innocuous, and that’s ultimately the impression it leaves despite Tarantino’s requisite violence and harsh language; it has neither the brutality of Reservoir Dogs or Kill Bill or the tension of Inglourious Basterds or Django Unchained. People have attempted to ascribe a deeper meaning to the events in the film, but I choose to believe Marcellus’ briefcase is just a McGuffin and does not actually contain his stolen soul and that there is no spiritual level to the film despite the chills I get every time I hear Jules contemplate the passage of the Bible he has memorised. It’s just… cool, a dark and bizarre comedy from a lifelong film nerd who buried the references to old films deeper and made the end result more accessible to the less film-nerdy public. Does it maybe reflect on society, the way that such violent and morally-empty entertainment is regarded so highly? Maybe, but if laughing as Vincent deadpans “I just shot Marvin in the face” is wrong, then I do not want to be right.
It would make sense to wait until the last film on the list to bring up Stephen King, but I’m actually going to focus on him here instead. King’s far and away my favourite writer, and I’ve read and re-read his magnum opus, the Western/high fantasy/post-apocalyptic/cosmic horror Dark Tower series, quite a number of times, and for all I’ve bemoaned Westerns during my reviews it might come as a surprise just how much I enjoy the Western pieces of the novels. A large motivator for watching all these films is to be able to put a lot of scattered pieces of film history into context, but with The Good, The Bad and the Ugly I get to put into context Tower‘s central character, based very obviously on Clint Eastwood‘s role; that’s what I knew going in, but on finally watching it I understood a lot more about the perception of the Western genre as a whole.
The Man With No Name (Eastwood) competes and colludes with two other gunfighters – jovial but mercurial Tuco (Eli Wallach) and sadistic executioner Angel Eyes (Lee Van Cleef) – for a buried stash of Confederate gold as the Civil War rages around them. Alliances break as quickly as they are formed, as no one man knows the whole location of the gold; the treachery seems more an excuse to pair the different leads together rather than any commentary on the nature of men when the stakes are high, but that’s perfectly alright as there’s plenty of chemistry and charisma shared among the trio. It feels like the Dollars trilogy is a natural evolution of sorts, where the first installment introduces us to the blueprint of a Spaghetti Western hero, the second section adds a little depth and detail around its main characters, and finally here we have characters solid enough that you get a sense of their motivations and not just a memory of their actions. The locations for each scene are amazing, the endless wastelands and haunted empty towns I imagine as part of a dirty Western setting, and now I see this film’s influence in so many other places that have looked to add in some Western imagery. Similarly, although I must have seen his name in the credits of at least a dozen films on the list already, hearing Ennio Morricone’s much-referenced score in context gave me a proper appreciation for just how talented a composer he was. I might not understand Westerns completely, but after seeing the one that’s the first point of reference, I feel like I’ve at least unlocked the understanding of how they’re seen in popular culture.
When you hear that stakes are life-and-death, typically you might image high action, chase sequences and ticking clocks and the like. If your characters are struggling against death, you image they’re going to fight against it in a physical way – physicality allows for close calls and narrow scrapes, it’s kinetic and explosive and momentous, and it is most certainly not boring. Boring would be the opposite – people sitting in one place, just talking, not even with any time limit on how long they had to talk for before they needed to act. There’s a reason that exciting films with life-and-death stakes are full of running and jumping and detonating and things breaking: you can’t make people sitting around talking as exciting.
Flying in the face of that assertion is 12 Angry Men, set almost completely in a jury room as a jury on a murder trial is turned from a near-unanimous guilty vote to one of unequivocal innocence by a lone dissenter (Henry Fonda). This is about as stripped-down as a film can get – all of the action takes place on a single set, the characters are never given names and only the briefest of backstories, even the specifics of the case aren’t completely outlined before the jury begins deliberating. The situation is totally divorced from social context, cleverly introducing prejudice against the nameless defendant as being one of “Them” without needing to specify just who They are and how they are different from the Us that make up the jury; even far into the future when the specific pieces of evidence and testimonies are no longer relevant pieces of technology, they could be easily substituted for the devices of the day and the story could be preserved intact. It’s a blank slate, and it allows for nothing to distract from the character interaction – like each member of the jury, we the audience meet the major players first as complete strangers, seeing only glimpses of their personality by the way they hold themselves and react to others, with no cheap film shortcuts of establishing who will act which way beside a couple of hints from the way they dress. It’s an extremely pure experience, the kind of thing that appeals on a level of appreciating what skill it takes to craft such an intricate situation, showing the tide of opinion turning and prejudice being overthrown, out of basically nothing to begin with.
One must be careful when it comes to filming sensitive subject matter, and during the lifespan of cinema there isn’t a sensitive subject that can even come close to the Holocaust in terms of needing to break out the metaphorical kid gloves. The organised systemic erasure of a people is such an incomprehensible evil that we still have difficulty fully understanding it; putting ourselves in the shoes of anyone involved, either victim or perpetrator, seems impossible. It still remains a raw subject decades on and will likely continue to do so as long as there are those who knew those who survived the Holocaust, so any reference in the media must be discrete and tasteful, utterly respectful and unwaveringly serious. With such heavy looming guidelines, it seems that often films centred around the Holocaust – or even any “lesser” tragedy – straightjacket themselves too much in presenting the impact of the situation: to the point that they lose sight to remaining a good film.
Schindler’s List recounts the life of Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson), a suave profiteer, during Nazi occupation of Poland, who begins using Jewish labor as a money-saving exercise and ends the last months of the war sheltering over a thousand refugees as employees of a (completely defunct) munitions factory. This may seem inappropriate to say, but this film felt incredibly watchable – you’re not having fun watching it, by any means, but there is a greater story about the unending well of goodness that can be found in humanity beyond the typical “this is a horrible event that we should never forget” narrative. Similar to the way Saving Private Ryan finds room in the typical war narrative for heart-pumping battle sequences, Steven Spielberg frames a subtle narrative about Schindler’s transformation and redemption and his stand against evil as personified by his counterpart, sadistic concentration camp overseer Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes). Goeth’s monstrosity is as simultaneously understated and deeply human as Schindler’s compassion, and the interplay between the two actors would be amazing and nuanced were it to be put into a context with less weight behind it. When I was younger I had it in my head that I thought Spielberg to be a bit overrated as a director – a little too mainstream, maybe – but it’s precisely that mass accessibility that makes him such a talented director: any filmmaker could take the Holocaust and show you a tragedy, but very few could find a way to make it an inspiration.