I swear to Bernard Brogan I’ll finish this list one day. But I backed up the original only a week or so before the old forum went, hinting at a level prescience that deserted me with the nags this season. So here they are:
1 Oldboy (Korea - 2003)
The reason I’m doing this first is that there’s a Spike Lee remake due out in October. I expect there to be a lot of controversy about this film, and the merest explanation of the reason for the controversy will be completely plot-spoiling.
A businessman is arrested for drunk and disorderly behavior. Shortly after his release he is kidnapped and held in a room. He has no idea who is detaining him or why. While locked up, he discovers his wife was murdered the night he disappeared and he is the prime suspect. After 15 years in the same room, he is suddenly released without any explanation as to either why he was held or why he’s been released.
What follows is at times gruesomely violent and shocking – you may never visit a dentist’s again after one scene in particular. Not everyone will like this film and it probably isn’t one to sit down and enjoy with the missus of a Sunday night. It’s a gripping thriller though, although if you know the plot in advance a good deal of the tension is taken out of it, which is why I would advise anybody with a remote interest in it to see it now before Hollywood destroys it.
2 Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead (2007)
Sidney Lumet burst onto the movie scene in 1957 when his directorial debut, 12 Angry Men, became an instant Hollywood classic. Exactly 50 years later, after a career that had included such highlights as The Verdict, Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon, he bowed out with this film that seemed to slip under the radar of the film watching public despite widespread critical acclaim.
Brothers Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Hank (Ethan Hawke) Hanson both desperately need cash and lots of it but can see no way of acquiring it legally. Andy comes up with solution with which Hank reluctantly agrees to cooperate – to rob a family-run jewellery store - despite neither of them ever having committed a serious crime before. While not divulging any details, Andy assures Hank the job will be simple, quick and victimless – nobody will be hurt and insurance will compensate the store owners. On the day, things go awry. Very badly awry.
The storyline jumps back and forth in time to slowly reveal the circumstances and character flaws – the greed, insecurities and cowardice - that drag the brothers towards inevitable catastrophe. There’s more than a whiff of the Shakespearean tragedy about this, Hoffman in particular puts in a terrific performance portraying the crumbling Andy.
I’m not going to try tell you this is one of the best films ever made – it isn’t. But it was for my money comfortably one of the best films in the year of its release, despite receiving no Golden Globe or Academy Award nominations. It marked a huge return to form after a quarter of a century for a former giant of the directing world – who died four years after its release- and ought to have been hailed as such in my view. Worth a watch to see if you agree.
3) The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three
No, not the utterly pointless remake from a few years ago, the original.
New York City provided the backdrop for some of the 1970’s most enduring classic films – The French Connection, Shaft, Dog Day Afternoon and Taxi Driver among them. Less heralded, but well deserving of its place in that pantheon, is this terse thriller by Joseph Sargent. Whereas I find many films from that decade, even the great ones, have a tendency to drag their arse a bit, there is no wasted celluloid here – the pace remains brisk throughout and it clocks in at just 104 minutes.
Four armed men hijack the front car of a Subway train and its 17 passengers. They demand one million dollars to be delivered to them in one hour or they’ll shoot one hostage for every minute the money is delayed. Walter Matthau plays the surly Police Lieutenant thrown into a negotiation process over the radio with the cold and calculating leader of the gang (Robert Shaw), as he tries to gain more time to save the lives of the passengers while trying to figure out a way to apprehend the hijackers. Both Matthau and Shaw excel in their roles as they each deal with the distractions of others around them with other agendas and priorities.
Whilst neither the action nor plot are earth-shattering, the film works best at an atmospheric level. Though entirely fictional, it has an air of realism that many dramatizations of actual events lack. From the wiseass cynicism of the dialogue, the total lack of consideration for political correctness and David Shire’s excellent film score, this could only have been made in the New York of the 1970’s – part of the reason the remake was such a dud. Quentin Tarantino was evidently a big fan – keep an eye (or rather an ear) out for one aspect of this film that he pinched for Reservoir Dogs.
4 The Long Good Friday
The first British film in this list and one of that country’s finest gangster flicks. Bob Hoskins plays Harold Shand, a ferocious crime boss who has risen to a position of great power in London’s underworld. He has big plans to move towards more legitimate means of making money, with dreams of transforming London’s then derelict Docklands into the kind of cash cow Las Vegas became for the Mafia. But somebody clearly has other plans. A series of attacks on his associates from unknown enemies sees him embark on a ruthless pursuit of his known foes to determine which of them is making a move for his empire.
The storyline is not flawless and credibility suffers a little in places but Hoskins delivers a masterful performance as the quintessential Cockney villain.
5) Volver (Spain)
Whatever anybody thinks of Pedro Almodóvar and his films, nobody could ever accuse him of plagiarism. There’s simply no mistaking his cinematic trademarks; the vibrant colours, the comedy, the melodrama and willingness to create characters still very much on the edges of society (in Spain and elsewhere) when he made his directorial debut on a shoestring budget in 1980.
Those themes have continued through his work to this day, and fascinating though the various homosexuals, transsexuals, drug abusers, prostitutes etc he has brought to life on screen have been over the years, for me his obsession with the taboo has at times detracted from the human emotions he’s attempting to portray. In that sense, Volver is perhaps the least Almodóvar of Almodóvar’s films, as here the protagonists are much more conventional (though his enduring penchant for the use of the colour red is never more prevalent than in this). Forced to mine deeper into his characters, he produces a modern masterpiece that stands both as his finest achievement and the ideal introduction to his work.
The title means ‘to return’ (and is pronounced bol-ber if you find yourself having to say it ) which is exactly what the mother of Raimunda (Penélope Cruz) does, three years after she died in a house fire with her husband. The plot does at times appear so far-fetched as to be ridiculous, all I can say is that judgement on the storyline’s credibility should be reserved until you’ve seen the whole film. There’s plenty of typical Almodóvar wit sprinkled through it, and while the subtitles do enough to get across the humour, my Spanish-speaking other half tells me there’s a lot of this that just doesn’t translate (like the way a non-English speaker could never truly understand why getting a Louthman to say ‘star bar’ is so funny ).
And if you’re of the opinion that Penélope Cruz isn’t much of an actress based on her Hollywood films, you need to be judging her on this.
6) The Killing Fields
One of those films that few people dispute is great but has somehow fallen out of the public’s consciousness of the great films.
It’s based (reportedly with little dramatic elaboration) on the true story of two journalists, American Sydney Schanberg and Cambodian Dith Pran, who are in the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh at the time of its fall and takeover by the Khmer Rouge in 1975 and the paths their respective lives take from that point. At heart it isn’t a political film or war film, the emphasis is always on the human element of a plight created by Cold War politics and its ensuing wars. This direction brings the viewer into the world of the main protagonists, particularly Pran as he endures the unspeakable horrors that Pol Pot unleashes upon his own people.
There’s a tragic post script to the film in real life. The part of Pran is played by Haing S Ngor, a Doctor and first time actor who had himself survived the Cambodian genocide. He was later shot dead in Los Angeles’ Chinatown by a street gang during a mugging, reputedly when he had refused to hand them over a locket containing a photo of his wife who had died giving birth in a Khmer Rouge concentration camp (although there have been claims over the years that the mugging was a cover for a politically-motivated murder).
And here’s where the Roman-style personal story comes into it!
I first saw The Killing Fields one Sunday night when I was 20. I had literally never seen anything like it and couldn’t believe that something like that could happen in my lifetime without the UN, US or somebody intervening to stop it. I had so many questions and thoughts in my head after it I literally didn’t sleep for hours until I promised myself that if I found out that anything like that was happening in the world now, I would attempt to stop it in some small way. That pledge was the first step on a personal journey that took me into volunteering for the ultimately successful global campaign to end Indonesia’s occupation of East Timor, a genuinely life-changing few years that taught me an awful lot about how the world really works and to understand why the likes of this genocide is allowed happen again and again across the planet to this day. Perhaps at another time it wouldn’t have had the same impact on me or maybe another film would have had the same effect but as it was, I can genuinely say this film (and the experiences I lived ultimately as a result of having watched it) changed my life and my view of the world. Can’t say whether it was ultimately for the better or worse but it definitely changed me.
7) Eastern Promises
First time for a couple of weeks I’ve been able to update this list though as last Sunday week showed both I and anyone wanting to watch these have plenty of time on our side.
Fans of David Cronenberg will probably dismay at me choosing a film so untypical of his usual horror and science fiction influenced output. Well the truth is I’m not familiar with most of his work as those genres don’t really interest me. I came across this film though and liked it enough to include it. That said, his reputation for the gory rears his head here; this is a violent film but not gratuitously so in my view.
Naomi Watts plays Anna, a British midwife of Russian extraction, who finds a diary written in Russian on the body of a 14-year old girl who dies while Anna is delivering her child. She attempts to track down the girl’s family so that she can find a home for the orphaned child but soon finds herself entangled in London’s Russian Mafia. What unfolds isn’t for the faint of heart but Viggo Mortensen’s turn as a conflicted mob chauffeur is excellent and this is well worth a viewing in my book.
8 Goodbye, Lenin! (Germany)
On such a nice weekend I think something slightly lighter than my usual fare is called for. So I’m going with this black comedy/melodrama that’s now almost a decade old.
It’s the autumn of 1989 in East Berlin in what were to become the dying days of the German Democratic Republic. Anti-government demonstrations demanding reform are gathering pace and when Christiane, a loyal supporter of the Communist regime, sees her son Alex being arrested for taking part in one of these protests, she suffers a near-fatal heart attack and slips into a coma. By the time she awakes, the Wall has fallen. Warned by doctors that the slightest shock might cause another, probably fatal, heart attack, her children decide she must be shielded from the tumultuous events in the world around her and concoct increasingly desperate schemes to shield her from the post-Communist reality of her surroundings. Simultaneously, a romance develops between Alex and Lara, the nurse looking after his mother. What develops is ultimately much more a love story than a political/historical drama but for me skilfully stays the right side of being mawkish.
And before anyone says it, yes there is another film set in East Berlin in the 80’s that will make this list!
9) Gomorrah (Italy)
I would consider most of the films in this list entertaining if not always enjoyable. There are some that are frankly neither but are such strong pieces of filmmaking to make them worthy of recommendation. Gomorrah most definitely fits into this latter category.
This is a mob film but probably unlike any you’ve ever seen before. Whereas the stock Mafia film focuses on the high rollers in mansion being driven around in limousines, this is a film about those at the other end of the ladder whose lives are destroyed by the consequences of their activities. Set and filmed on the Camorra-ridden streets of Napoli, there’s nothing glamorous whatsoever about its characters and nothing sensationalised in the depiction of the unravelling of their lives. As its subject exerts its control over Italian society in diverse ways, so the film intertwines five separate stories of characters entangled in the Comorra’s web in different ways and to various degrees. This film is violent, bleak and at times the pace dawdles as if to emphasise that life in this hellhole is essentially humdrum punctuated by episodes of extreme violence – some may find that boring, I find it greatly adds to the film’s credibility, echoing Italy’s era of classic neorealist films.
Perhaps the critical praise it has received in some quarters has been excessive but on the other hand I feel its uniqueness and the bravery with which it tackles it subject makes it a must-watch. I can’t guarantee you’ll like this but I’d be surprised if you leaves you unaffected or unmoved.
10) Midnight In Paris
Woody Allen tends to have that ‘marmite’ effect– there are at least as many people around who can’t stand the man or his films as those that adore him. This film might be described as “a Woody Allen film for people that don’t like Woody Allen” as he doesn’t appear in it himself, Owen Wilson taking the ‘Woody Allen’ part. Some may say I’m stretching my assertion that there would be no fantasy-based films among my list but I’d class it more as a smart romantic comedy that manages to escape the usual pitfalls of films described under that banner.
Wilson plays Gil Pender, a screenwriter who is enjoying commercial success but not artistic satisfaction with his work in Hollywood. With his love of the ‘Lost Generation’ writers like Hemingway and Fitzgerald, he dreams of being a novelist and moving to Paris but his materialistic fiancée wants none of it. They visit the city on holiday and immediately start to drift apart, especially after Gil gets lost alone one night in the back streets and ends up in a very unexpected place.
This isn’t a profound movie but rarely has the old adage that the grass is always greener on the other side been evoked with such warmth and humour.
11 The Motorcycle Diaries (Argentina/UK)
A lot of people’s perceptions of this film seem to be coloured by what they expected of it beforehand. If you’re anticipating a blow by blow account of what turned aspiring young Doctor Ernesto Guevara into iconic Revolutionary figure Che Guevara, I’ll warn you now - this isn’t it. Nor should it be, as it was his later experiences in Guatemala that played a much greater role in pushing him from the ranks of the passively disaffected to a man of action. The upside of that is that it appeals to a wider audience, you certainly don’t have to identify with Guevara’s later actions or beliefs to appreciate this film.
It’s 1952 in Buenos Aires and Guevara teams up with his friend Alberto Granado on a voyage of discovery around South America – a quite radical idea of itself at that time. What starts out as a youthful adventure with the main purpose of having fun evolves into something different, as the impact of the pervasive poverty on the lives of the people they encounter gradually seeps into their consciousness and slowly transforms their view of the world and their role in it.
The film probably works better as a road movie and coming-of-age drama than as an exploration of the making of a revolutionary – simply because it’s so difficult to capture the essence of the latter without being trite. There’s a warmth and humour throughout the film that’s engaging enough to sustain through some slower paced episodes. Some of the cinematography is excellent – by rights every tourist board of the countries they visit ought to pay royalties to the films’ producers for some of the scenic shots in this.
Trivia – the actor who plays Alberto Granado, Rodrigo de la Serna, is a second cousin of Guevara in real life (although he wasn’t born until 9 years after Guevara’s death).
12) Donnie Brasco
It’s often been said that Al Pacino hasn’t starred in a decent film for 20 years. Whilst I’d agree that in recent years he has become something of a caricature of himself, there has been a tendency to throw the baby out with the bathwater and dismiss everything post Carlito’s Way. For me this mob drama based on a true story is the pick of his latter-career efforts and stands up pretty well alongside his earlier work.
Pacino plays Lefty Ruggerio, an aging mobster whose life is unravelling at the seams. The comfortable life he imagined he’d have for himself after 30 years of loyal service to the mob hasn’t materialised and his home life is a mess. But in Donnie Brasco (Johnny Depp), Lefty sees a protégé – someone to succeed where he failed. Problem is that Donnie Brasco doesn’t exist – he’s an undercover alias of FBI Agent Joe Pistone on a mission to infiltrate the Mafia. The longer he plays the role of a mobster however, the more the line where Pistone ends and Brasco begins becomes blurred and the more the question of to whom he really owes his allegiance looms.
For me this film is pretty much as good as it could be, constrained as it is by having its main plot line having to tally with actual events. There’s an obvious comparison to Goodfellas here and while this film can’t match the slickness and witticisms of Scorsese’s work, personally I preferred the lack of glamorisation of the mob lifestyle and for me the ending to this is much more resonant.