Vrai’s Favorite Things: Movies (20 to 16)
We’re back again, continuing the anniversary month tradition of Listing Stuff. You may notice something of a pattern this time around.
15. Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988)
It’s 1947, and private eye Eddie Valiant has just been handed a hell of a case: famous Toon Roger Rabbit insists he’s been framed for the murder of a Hollywood producer, and begs Eddie to help clear his name. Despite his hatred of toons Eddie agrees, and begins to uncover a far more sinister plot preying on Toon Town.
Now and then I convince myself that I love the noir genre. Then I hit the straightforward examples of the genre and often find that this isn’t true in their purest forms (the lurid, cynical leering at subcultures, the inherent strain of misogyny, seriously what the fuck Black Dahlia) – and I remember that what I truly adore is new takes and tweaks on that selfsame collection of tropes. Which is a long way around to saying that this is a marriage of noir elements, top notch comedy elements, and one of the best marriages of live action and animation ever put to screen.
The film’s love for animation seeps out of every pore, guided by the seasoned hand of Richard Williams. The entire cast commits fully to the strange reality presented on-screen, the pitch-perfect casting further helped along by little touches like having the voice actors do initial blocking alongside the physical actors (as opposed to the more modern tennis ball trick).
It’s also a tightly controlled film, though the deliberately unhinged animation scenes might not seem like it. As much as the movie lives in that grey zone between being “for” children and adults, it also knows just how to play the tonal meshes to make certain moments count – when to let cartoon logic be funny and when to be terrifying, when to let Chris Lloyd give you nightmares and when to pull back for some plain arched-brow weirdness. It’s a film that knew the risks it was taking and barreled into them head on, paying off in a unique treat that’s aged far, far better than most of its animation/live action mashup cohorts.
14. The Thing (1982)
A research camp in the Antarctic is invaded by a shapeshifting creature that is able to absorb and imitate its victim with perfect clarity. As it begins picking people off, paranoia quickly sets in.
This is one of the most perfect horror films ever made, not to put too large of a gauntlet on the table. Its grasp of tension and pacing is impeccable, with each new revelation upping the stakes and stopping to breathe just enough to keep the viewer from being able to numb themselves. Its setting makes for a fascinating examination of hyper-masculinity, with metaphorical dick waving over leadership roles in the group’s micro societal structure often taking precedence over the actual flesh eating monster prowling amongst them. It features Keith David playing a rare live action role, and he’s just as compelling here as he is lending his voice to Goliath or Dr. Facilier or Captain Anderson.
And it has some of the most visceral, memorable practical effects in horror, elevating its monstrous body horror from gut-testing spatterfest to an art of how the human body can be contorted into uncanny and then just barely recognizable shapes – a fact that knows how to pair itself with the human cast’s “inhumanity to man” far better than the subgenre with the greatest claim on that plot type (zombies. I’m talking about zombies). It is arguably “just” a genre picture, but it’s so perfectly crafted as to make it unmissable for any horror fan.
13. A Christmas Story (1983)
The memories of nine year old Ralphie, a kid growing up in the Depression who wants nothing more than a Red Ryder BB Gun for Christmas.
At the risk of sounding like a pompous hipster, I am constantly startled by reminders of how commercialized this film has become. I literally cannot remember a year when it wasn’t a staple in my home, to the point that I learned what faded film looks like after you watch a tape too many times; and simultaneously, I remember only a handful of people having any idea about this movie that I’d assumed was an institution in every home. And yes, I do sort of miss that feeling, even if I can now by leg lamp cookie cutters to my heart’s content.
Alongside the Muppets (which do not feature in this countdown solely because I couldn’t find a single film that fully encapsulated how much the franchise means to me, though Muppet Christmas Carol came close), this movie is one of the most entrenched bricks in my comedic foundation. The dry wordplay, the arch commentary, sparse but well-deployed physical gags, awfulness that retains an air of warmth beneath it – this movie has a little bit of everything, and I can’t look at it without thinking about how much I unwittingly absorbed.
And as overexposed as it probably seems now, it’s still a fantastic watch. A little sleepy in its pacing, maybe (the byproduct of emerging from a short story collection), but punctuated at turns by a sharp and acidic observational eye and a full-on embrace of the absurd through its protagonist, who rings more than a few bells to any precocious kid with an overly active fantasy life. Pretty sure I’ll be seeing this movie every winter to come.
12. The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
FBI trainee Clarice Starling is given the chance to hunt down a killer nicknamed “Buffalo Bill,” who’s been kidnapping and skinning young women. But to track her target down, she’ll have to seek advice from (and submit to the mind games of) the infamous Hannibal “the Cannibal” Lector.
I confess I’m at a loss trying to explain myself here. This film is so well known, so influential on both the films that followed in its wake and the procedural genre as a whole (not to mention one of the only horror films in history to which the Oscars deigned to give an award), and so discussed that every reason I come up with for liking it feels painfully redundant.
For example, there’s the electric performances by both Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins (who won a Best Actor Oscar despite having a combines 15 minutes of screen time, so compelling is he), which despite comprising a very short portion of the film and being presented almost entirely through a very simple shot/reverse shot style create the film’s most memorable moments (alongside a relationship that is both fascinating and deeply fucked up). There’s the strength of Clarice as a character, whom many writers would afterward spawn legions of Strong Female Characters that failed to live up to the complexity presented here (and bless this film for presenting Clarice’s battle against institutionalized sexism while backing off of the novel’s “literally every man will make comments about wanting to fuck our heroine”).
There’s the brooding, heavy soundtrack and grimy camera filters that never feel like a chore despite the film’s clear urge to have artsy prestige, the bizarre dark humor and energy that Hannibal’s appearances inject into the film whenever it threatens to be unbearably grim, the plot’s skillful interweaving of Clarice’s character arc and the ticking time bomb of the main case. It’s just…good. It’s fucking good, and if I’m just one more voice in the accepted chorus then I’m alright with that. Some works last for a reason.
11. The Fly (1986)
Brilliant scientist Seth Brundle has created teleporter pods that seems due to revolutionize modern technology; but an accident while testing the pods causes Brundle to begin undergoing first miraculous, and then horrifying, bodily changes.
“Well this seems redundant,” I imagine some of you are saying to yourselves. This is also a body horror movie focusing on the loss of humanity as played out through gore effects, and it came into theaters a whole four years after The Thing had come and gone. And you’re definitely right that Cronenberg owes John Carpenter a certain amount of thanks for what this film became. But at the same time, those four years allowed The Fly to add in some truly fantastic thematic depth and additional emotional resonance. It’s also one of the best examples of a remake in film history from back when that term actually meant something, taking a compelling idea and remounting it with new meaning.
While the overt narrative is about a man turning slowly into a grisly fly-human hybrid (something it’s hard not to spoil given the story’s cultural ubiquity), I can’t think of another film that so perfectly captures the slow terror of degenerative illness: the little adjustments that give way to big, sloughing moments of loss; the feeling of loss of self alongside the indignity of a failing body – and the film’s body horror, helmed by Cronenberg at the sweet spot in his career between “sexual anxiety body horror” and “observations of human failing,” is often most horrifying for how borderline mundane it feels. The tiniest touches, like the sounds of Brundle slurping up a vomit-sugar mixture offscreen, become its most pulverizing. Down to its smallest details it is agonizing and acute, and far more powerful than the original story’s “what has science wrought” narrative. Goldblum gives the performance of his career as Brundle, shifting on a wire from sympathetic to loathsome to tragic with an unexpectedly masterful hand.
But it’s Geena Davis’ Veronica, a reporter who winds up becoming involved with Brundle, who carries the film’s devastating heart. Her combined shame and horror as she’s plagued by nightmares of being infected by Brundle’s illness are among the film’s most powerful moments, a portrait of resentful grief that I’d put directly next to Silent Hill 2 in effectiveness.
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My top 20 films would mainly be LOTR movies, TDK, Godfather Movies, the Ten Commandments, Les Msierables and Sucker Punch. And very probably the Prequel trilogy. Not sure what would fill out the rest. Jurassic Park and Jurassic World would have a fighting shot.
An admirably eclectic list; I doubt many would have both The Thing and Legally Blonde in their top 20. I look forward to the rest.
I think the overcoat-wearing macho private detective who solves crimes and treats women and gay men in an appalling manner is the least interesting part of the legacy of film noir*. The more memorable noir heroes have none of that unbearable swagger. They tend to be more or less ordinary people or small crooks who get in situations way in over their heads and rarely come out as unambiguous winners. They don’t have the time or inclination to go ogle at scary subcultures.
There’s of course no getting around the fact that there’s misogyny in film noir, but there’s lots of interesting things about the genre’s approach to gender. Noir is not afraid to depict its men with genuine weaknesses, like debilitating alcoholism (Nightmare Alley, The Lost Weekend), violent tendencies that actually cause real problems (In A Lonely Place, Where the Sidewalk Ends), or just general vulnerability (anything starring John Garfield). In a somewhat feminist vein, Laura and The Sweet Smell of Success are great studies of male entitlement and the desire to control female sexuality. Finally, even with the rampant madonna-whore complexes and the glee with which some of them are punished, I wouldn’t want to live in a world without the great performances of Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity, Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce, Lauren Bacall in The Big Sleep, Bette Davis in The Letter and Peggy Cummins in Gun Crazy, just to name a few. The great Ida Lupino, Hollywood’s only female director of the period, was also involved with film noir as both a director and actor.
And, to close this overly long comment, I’ll offer a small nitpick: Anthony Hopkins won best lead actor for The Silence of the Lambs.
*And a surprisingly minor part of the original period. Out of all the noirs people still regularly talk about, I count four starring a PI. Three of them were made in the genre’s infancy before the end of WWII (The Maltese Falcon, Murder, My Sweet, and The Big Sleep), and the last one was made towards the end as a left-wing piss-take on the Mike Hammer novels (Kiss Me Deadly). Compared to those, there are dozens of films with criminals or even regular cops as protagonists.
Was it best actor? I could’ve SWORN it was best supporting. Hmm. Learned a thing. And I’m ALWAYS about getting good noir recs – as much as I’m frustrated by the genre’s nasty picadillos, when it’s good it is WONDERFUL.
Well, it is really a supporting role, but the studio decided to campaign for best lead. It paid off, and Silence of the Lambs became one of only three films to have won the five most important Oscars (best lead actor and actress, script, director and picture), the other two being It Happened One Night and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. This comes up surprisingly often in trivia contests.
Out of those, at least Laura is available on Netflix. If you like spotting LGBT characters in Code-era Hollywood films, the character played by Clifton Webb is a curious case. He’s coded as gay via all the usual methods, aside from the part where he’s in love with a woman. Whatever one makes of that, he’s a very memorable character who must have been an influence on Addison deWitt. Plus, young Vincent Price.
We share so many favorite films. XD
I’m eager to see the rest of your list.