This is Part II of our journey through nine decades of film, choosing one movie from each that any student of film should see; Part I is here.
You know which one this is going to be, it’s the one that sparked this conversation. The Godfather was Francis Ford Coppola’s adaptation of a bestselling pulp novel. The backstory on the making of the movie is almost as interesting as the movie itself.
But only “almost,” because the movie itself, as I wrote elsewhere, rivals Kane as the peak of American filmmaking. There had been “gangster” movies before, but Godfather changed everything – it portrayed people with depth, with emotion and families and idiosyncrasies, and it did so in a story that was almost operatic.
The movie’s impact on popular culture was far greater than Kane’s, and rivals anything Star Trek or Star Wars ever dreamed of. (You’ve Got Mail, anyone?) Mob movies were never the same. (Imagine Goodfellas or The Sopranos in a world where Godfather never existed. It’s almost impossible.) I saw it as a sixteen-year-old, when my dad took me to see it at the drive-in, three years after it’s release.1
I’m going to break one of my rules (they were more like guidelines) and go ahead and mention The Godfather II here.2 It remains the only true sequel in history to win Best Picture. (LOTR was a single story, from a single book, filmed at the same time, broken up into three movies. Return of the King was not a sequel.) Coppola does subtle things across the two movies that are still impressive forty+ years later. (Watch the two movies back to back, and pay special attention to everything about Diane Keaton.) In II he goes both forward and backward from The Godfather’s timeline, and throws in De Niro to go with Pacino, getting the former his first Oscar in the process. It’s really, really hard for a sequel to be 75% as good as the original; this one comes close to 100%. (There are those who consider II better then the original, but I am not one of them.)
Other choices: Star Wars, for hopefully obvious reasons, and Alien, in the running for the scariest movie ever made.
Dystopian futures have been all the rage in youth books since Katniss Everdeen made her appearance several years ago, but in the 80’s, dystopian was strictly an adult affair. Both 1982 and 1984 are infamous for their respective depictions of worlds just slightly darker than James Bond’s tuxedo; the latter for the book of the same name, and the former for the release of Blade Runner.
Like Kubrick before him, Ridley Scott examines what it means to be human, but instead of Kubrick’s aliens, Scott uses androids, called “replicants” in Scott’s justifiably famous (and bleak) vision of a future LA. (Signs you’re old: we’re only four years away from the movie’s setting.) The title refers to those who hunt down and “retire” replicants who have illegally made their way to earth from the off-world colonies to which they’re supposed to be restricted.
Harrison Ford was at the peak of his popularity, following two turns as Han Solo with the previous year’s Indiana Jones. He would have been hard-pressed to choose a character more diametrically opposite both of them than Rick Deckard. Deckard is the futuristic equivalent of a noir private detective — tired, burnt out, and on edge. Sean Young plays … well, that’s part of the question, isn’t it, what/who is it that Sean Young plays? Rutger Hauer plays one of the earliest of the endless string of bad guys that he has played over the last forty years, but this is one of the most memorable.
Many an argument has been had about which Blade Runner to watch; there are a seemingly infinite number to choose from. There’s the original theatrical release that allegedly no one likes but is the reason the movie is famous, the international release, the original director’s cut, and the supposedly “final” director’s cut. Don’t worry too much about it, just pick one, otherwise too many moments will be lost in time.
Other choices: Empire Strikes Back, again for hopefully obvious reasons.
Humans aren’t very good at remembering. As individuals, we often can’t remember where we put our keys ten minutes ago. Do you remember the Rwandan genocide? How many were killed? Why? Collectively, we don’t fare any better, which is why Santayana said we were condemned to repeat our past.
With Schindler’s List, Stephen Spielberg wanted us to remember two things: how horrific Nazi Germany was, and how an ordinary person can choose to do the right thing even in that kind of ****. It does not need to be said that Spielberg succeeded spectacularly.
If there was ever any question about the power of images, they should be dispelled by this movie. I had read probably a dozen books on the Holocaust before I was out of high school, including one specifically on the Warsaw uprising, but the twenty minutes of the clearing of the ghetto in Schindler was the hardest twenty minutes I’ve ever spent watching a movie. Spielberg’s choice of black-and-white intentionally gives the movie the look and feel of a documentary, which makes the contents all the more chilling.
It is the hardest movie on this list to see. You will not want to see it again. But everyone, everyone, should see it once.
Other choices: The Matrix, Toy Story.
It won’t be from lack of trying, though — this is a movie that makes you think. And in this century, that’s a pretty momentous thing.
By the time you’ve reached the end (beginning?), you’re unsure of almost everything that’s happened. Just like Leonard. Ask anyone who’s seen it to tell you the story in its natural order of one through twenty, and eight times out of ten you’ll get a blank look.
So far so good, but the director wants to induce the same disorientation in the audience that his main character has, so he tells his movie in reverse. Imagine the movie was a 120 minute long stick, cut into twenty 6-minute pieces; the movie shows us the twentieth section, then the nineteenth, and so forth, all the way to the first.
Christopher Nolan began the new century exploring just that. In Nolan’s Memento, Guy Pierce plays Leonard, a man with no short-term memory due to a special kind of amnesia. He is searching for his wife’s killer, and having to take notes to remember the clues; he goes so far as to get tattoo’s for some of them.
Sure, flashbacks, but flashbacks are typically brief moments in time out of the entire narrative. Even a movie such as Liberty Valance that is told almost entirely in flashback still moves forward as a whole. But what if it doesn’t?
What are the assumptions about a movie? One of them is that the movie moves forward. This is a natural assumption — after all, physical film can only move one direction off the reel.
Ninety years into the the world of movies, it starts to get harder to come up with something original. (See any Michael Bay movie.) In movies, as in other arenas, one of the ways to do so is to challenge assumptions.
Other choices: WALL-E.
UPDATE: You should always do your own due diligence on the movies you watch; the Parent’s Guide section of IMDB is usually a pretty good place to find out why a movie has the rating it has. Memento is one of the movies that is littered with bad language that serves no purpose. Watch this one on network TV or basic cable.
Our current decade is only half-way over, so we can’t yet name a winner. However, let’s look at a couple of contenders.
As much as I hate to mention Nolan twice in a row, Inception might be my favorite movie of the last ten years. It begins with something as rare as a unicorn in today’s Hollywood: an original idea. In the screenplay Nolan began while he worked on Memento, dreams are things that can be induced, re-created, and inhabited by others in order to steal ideas. Leonardo DiCaprio plays one such thief who is presented with an entirely different kind of problem: to plant in idea during a dream. It is called, of course, inception, and it is the holy grail of dream thieves, thought to be impossible because people’s minds can detect foreign ideas as easily as their fingers can feel a splinter. It’s never been done successfully, but DiCaprio thinks he’s the one who can crack it.
The movie is as disorienting in its own way as Memento. There are dreams within dreams within dreams, and as with real dreams, it’s not obvious when you’re in one. Every person who inhabits dreams has to have a talisman, something just a little off, so they know when they’re in the real world. Something happens with one of those talismans during the course of the movie. Was it a mistake? Did it matter? Inception is a movie you want to watch again immediately after it ends. Maybe Nolan planted that idea in our mind…
A Pixar movie has been in Other Choices multiple times, but none of them has made it to the pinnacle. Inside Out might. Like almost all Pixar movies, it has a great premise: the emotions that drive us really do drive us. Our brains have a control center that’s run by Anger, Disgust, Fear, Joy and Sadness. You can tell who’s in control on the inside by what’s going on on the outside.
Riley is a pre-pubescent girl whose life so far has been mostly run by Joy. But a new city and a new school and a new year has gotten more of her other emotions involved. And that in turn has gotten more of her parents’ other emotions involved. I’ve already written about Riley’s, and Joy’s, discovery that Sadness deserves a place at the table. Inside Out is a reminder than when Pixar is at its best, it doesn’t just make great animated films, it makes great films. (Sadly, the next four Pixar movies are all sequels; the Disneyification of Pixar, their journey to the Dark Side, is complete.)
As I said at the beginning, I’m not claiming these are the best movies (although many of them are). But while we can add other movies to the list, I don’t think we can take any of these away from it. Each gives us something new, something fresh, something unique, and shows us where movies have been and perhaps even where they could go, if they left behind their obsession with Opening Weekend.
See them all. Otherwise, we might have to go to the mattresses.