43. Citizen Kane

In The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, by Michael Chabon, the title characters, cousins making comic books together in 1940s Manhattan, see Citizen Kane. Chabon’s description of its inspirational affect is the great movie review that isn’t actually a movie review. Here’s the kicker:

Without the brooding shadows and bold adventurings of the camera, without the theatrical lighting and queasy angles, it would have been merely a clever movie about a rich bastard. It was more, much more, than any movie really needed to be. In this one crucial regard — its inextricable braiding of image and narrative — Citizen Kane was like a comic book. 

Kane’s technique, from composition of shots to the structure of its screenplay, was unique in its time and endures as the masterclass for how film tells a story.

But I like the rich bastard stuff.

The first line is “Rosebud,” spoken by Charles Kane before he dies. The movie follows a reporter digging into Kane’s life to find what Rosebud means. Through flashbacks, an epic story unfolds. As a young man he became a media mogul who manipulated the news. As an older man he ran for high office and was toppled by scandal. He craves ever more throughout his life, until dying alone in a castle surrounded by billions in accumulated artwork, wild animals, and all manner of expensive junk.

Spoiler alert, so stop reading if you haven’t seen this 1941 blockbuster everyone’s heard of.

Rosebud was his sled, a toy from before his impoverished parents gave him away to be raised by a rich man. Kane accumulates fortune and treasures beyond anyone’s dreams, but his sled is the meaning of life. It makes me think he regrets.

I live in a golden age of evil men running media and government, and I do not understand. Why don’t The Koch Brothers care about other people’s children? Is Dick Cheney haunted by the deaths he hath wrought? Does Trump equate success with lying?

Follow the money, but Citizen Kane says they’re missing something, and they know it, and they’ll die lonely and sad. It inspires me to hope.

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42. Watchmen

Adrian Veidt is weird. Wearing a gold costume, he sits alone in his arctic fortress watching a wall of TVs that switch channels every hundred seconds, because “meanings coalesce from semiotic chaos before reverting to incoherence.” Known as “the smartest man in the world,” he has his own action figures, loves to brag, and celebrates like he scored a winning touchdown when his plan prevails at the end. Even after killing half a city, he’s almost precious. And despite attacking New York, his opponents are in “moral checkmate” because it was undeniably for the greater good.

That’s the ambiguous, compelling version of Veidt in the ’80s graphic novel. There are countless ways 2009’s movie adaptation stinks, but let’s focus on what makes it worse than the typical cinematic bastardization of a beloved book. In adapting the un-adaptable, filmmakers twisted Veidt’s gloriously ambitious scheme – deceive and disappear the world’s top artists and scientists; frame or kill all superheroes; put world powers on the brink of nuclear war – into something provably gratuitous. Movie Veidt undermines his inspiration by being both charmless bore and blood-fucking madman. Writer Alan Moore’s book Veidt knows he needs just one phony attack; director Zack Snyder’s superterrorist Veidt destroys the world’s major cities, murdering 15 million. Why kill exponentially more people if it makes no difference plot-wise? It’s, again, provably gratuitous. It’s sick.

Further, it slanders Dr. Manhattan, the god-like nuclear-deterring former physicist who abandons humanity until an argument on Mars with his girlfriend convinces him all life is precious. Manhattan seems content at the end of the book, engaged again, and he deserves it after his hard road. Movie Manhattan (a shallow moper) flees the world as a despised enemy, framed by Veidt because the screenwriters didn’t craft a better ending despite adapting a book with a much better ending.

The flick is grim and shitty – iconic characters disgraced, wearing painted rubber suits (with nipples), their meanings and fates subverted.

Manhattan says he longs to see a thermodynamic miracle, “like oxygen spontaneously becoming gold.” This groundless and fake-looking slow-motion gore-a-thon is the opposite: it turned gold into garbage.

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41. Ghost in the Shell

Slapping a loaded magazine into her rifle, the robot who feels human tells her boss “I’ll leave the detective stuff to you.” Unraveling conspiracies ain’t her line; Sector 9 assault team leader Major Motoko Kusanagi is a weapon, a killer assigned to find the hacker called Puppet Master.

An animated feast of philosophy and action, Ghost in the Shell is Japanese anime that belongs beside Blade Runner and The Matrix in the Pantheon of thoughtful sci-fi gun-and-fist-fight movies.

In 2029, humans augment their bodies more and more with robots parts, because cyborgs are stronger. “Humanity,” however, “has underestimated the consequences of computerization.” The Puppet Master is a consequence, a potential enemy born in an ocean of information. But is he/she/it alive?

To get to him/her/it, Major battles a walking tank that looks like a giant war spider.

Ghost in the Shell’s action is better than Blade Runner’sWe meet Major midway through an assassination mission, when she turns invisible and explodes a diplomat’s head. Then a thrilling chase concludes with a wet, high-tech street fight.  

In quieter moments, against a stormy techno-urban background (like Blade Runner’s), characters earnestly debate what it means to physically bond with computing technology. They’ve plugged in so deeply that consciousnesses are ghosts and bodies are shells. The network rules. Ghost in the Shell is from 1995, almost a decade before Facebook, but this line reminds me of social networking: “The only thing that makes me feel human is how I’m treated.” 

The network starts manipulating people, implanting false memories and convincing them they’re something they’re not. And a government agency has stupid mistakes to cover, so of course the problem worsens. 

The best part? This all happens in an hour and 20 minutes! Such efficiency – a package of interesting philosophical questions and unique, sleek violence. Why aren’t movies short anymore?

The Puppet Master thinks he knows what’s required for something to truly be alive: mortality and procreation. But he/she/it is reaching. He/she/it doesn’t really know, because Ghost in the Shell doesn’t have answers. All it can give us is a fun, provocative ride, with cyborgs and a spider tank.

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40. The Incredibles

At a screenwriting workshop in Mexico, Professor Mark Schwartz told my class about inciting incidents and sudden reversals; that the hero drives the story, and the villain erects roadblocks; that thematic lines begin early and run throughout; and that a love interest provides the destination. There are always exceptions, but the formula is eternal.

The film Schwartz showed to demonstrate these story-theory tenets was Brad Bird’s 2004 action cartoon The Incredibles, whose opening scenes are a masters’ class in setup. We meet Mr. Incredible first in an interview, where he lays two theme lines: the world always needs saving, and he thinks he’d like a simple life raising a family.

The breakneck action that follows establishes Mr. Incredible as a confident and supremely skilled superhero. Over a single evening he frees a cat in a tree, ends a police chase, foils two robberies, saves a jumper from committing suicide, saves a boy from blowing up, and saves a train full of people from derailing. (The boy who almost blew up, Buddy, sets another theme line – be true to yourself – before being coldly cast away by Mr. Incredible. Buddy will return as the villain, putting up roadblocks.)

Inciting incident? The people Mr. Incredible saved all sue, and superheroes are ordered into hiding. Mr. Incredible hangs up his supersuit and goes to work as an insurance agent, forswearing his powers….

Flash forward 15 years and the plot begins.

This was my daughter’s favorite movie when she was 2. She’d pump her little arms and ask for “the movie with corre corre robot.” Corre means “run” in Spanish, and she likes when Dash, Mr. Incredible’s son, runs through the jungle at a hundred miles per hour. She also likes the big robots. We watched it twice a week for months. Now she’s 3 and we still watch it sometimes, and it’s always fresh.

These are signs that The Incredibles might be perfect:

  1. After dozens of viewings, it does not get old.
  2. It is loved, equally for different reasons, by both a screenwriting professor and a baby.

Even The Godfather can’t claim that last one, despite my efforts.

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39. Logan

Logan ends with over-the-top action – commandos, leaping mutants, and superpowers like ice breath and telekinesis.

Six months before Logan came out, a photograph of the first page of its screenplay was released online, probably so people could read this: “Basically, if you’re on the make for a hyper choreographed, gravity defying, city-block destroying, CG fuckathon, this ain’t your movie.”

They promised a good movie, not just a good comic-book movie.

(Context: Logan, aka Wolverine, has metal claws and super healing, and is the greatest X-Man. Hugh Jackman has played him eight times.)

Three Mexicans try to kill Logan and steal his car in the first scene, attacking with guns and a crowbar. The fight is dirty. Logan stabs through heads and severs limbs.

Logan repeatedly references the 1953 film Shane, archetype for the story of a mysterious stranger riding into town to rescue peaceful people from fiendish oppressors. We’re in the future, though, 2029, so add a sci-fi sheen. Logan, reluctant hero, is old and in pain and angry about his past. His friends are dead for unexplained reasons, and he meets more death in the second act after helping a farmer fight corporate goons. Logan, through these scenes, is a throwback to great old movies, with its own nasty twists and claw violence.

But the gritty-western ethos is shit upon when Logan switches from interesting into yet another effects-laden chase/battle. There is gravity defiance, Logan even takes drugs to jump farther. And a city block may not get destroyed, but superkids use powers to fight and it looks stupid.

The graphic novel Old Man Logan does the western stuff better – he begins as a farmer who renounced violence – and features fights against Spider-Man’s granddaughter, Red Skull, and the Hulk. It proves that dark authenticity and comic-book action can mix.

Despite countless villains from decades of Wolverine comics, the toughest foe in Logan is a cheesy clone. Why not a scrappy Sabretooth brawl at the end, something rough and tough that keeps the screenplay’s promise?

Logan lied. If you’re on the make for true grit, this ain’t your movie. Not quite.

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38. Spotlight

Nudniks say the press has liberal bias, but reporters (not columnists but actual reporters) are in the business of facts. Confirm. Verify. Scour documents. Interview witnesses who might not want to talk. It’s work.

Spotlight showcases the work. Powerful men have committed illegal acts and want the truth hidden, putting them directly opposed to city-level reporters.

The chilling line in Spotlight comes during a sermon, when the priest declares, as powerful people so often declare, that “Knowledge is one thing but faith, faith is another.” A Boston Globe reporter on the paper’s “Spotlight” team sits beside her nana, listening. After that she stops attending church.

“Knowledge is one thing but faith, faith is another.” He’s saying faith is better. No.

I cannot be objective about Spotlight. I spent my 20s as an editor and reporter in newsrooms, with my own desk in a room full of desks, working out-loud with friends I mostly respected, papers stacked everywhere and someone always on the phone. Making daily newspapers meant getting to court on time and arguing with clerks about making copies. It meant doors slammed in my face. Spotlight captures the job – details as tiny as their pens, their clothes, their boss hierarchy, their taking calls for quotes late at night. They go in person to accost lawyers who don’t return calls – an essential move because lawyers and reporters are natural enemies.

And then there’s the Mark-Ruffalo-for-Best-Supporting-Actor (he lost) clip, as reporter Mike Rezendes, yelling at his editor while their colleagues all watch: “We gotta nail these scumbags! We gotta show people, THAT NOBODY CAN GET AWAY WITH THIS!”

Ah, the yelling. Spotlight’s a movie, of course, taking cinematic liberties, but there’s anger with knowing your hard work to expose malfeasance might be wasted. If faith trumps knowledge, we’ve lost. Sometimes reporters want to yell their fucking lungs out.

Reporters are constantly lied to because powerful people do dirty deeds – could be sexual abuse by priests or corruption or murder – in the dark. They need it dark. Aggressive journalism is the light, how honest people fight. It can cure societal ills.

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37. Birdman

Rat-at-tat boom and Riggan Thomson contemplates death, or tries to show his daughter he’s a good man, or debates the laziness of criticism with a New York Times critic, or agonizes over money, or agonizes over his new Broadway play, or drinks, or fist-fights his top supporting actor backstage, or levitates, or flies, or smashes all the objects in his office with his mind, and as Riggan hurriedly stomps around the hallowed St. James Theater – periodically donning wig and mustache, getting into character, and stepping onstage to rehearse, with an audience, as the broken man at the center of the play he wrote and is directing based on Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love – he is being harassed and haunted and pep-talked by the voice of the character, Birdman, he portrayed in the 1990s, in a film franchise that laid the groundwork for Robert Downey Jr. to make $400 million playing Iron Man over and over and over and over, which is a bit insulting to the greatest actors on Broadway, who don’t wear rubber and fight green screens but instead mine deep internal places and effectively portray powerful emotions on stage nightly, in plays written to tell story through dialogue, and among the best of these actors is Mike, who challenges the rest of the cast with such extreme energy that they scream at him and fight with him and when he’s offstage he’s so thoughtful and dour because he’s peculiar, and drunk, and as Edward Norton is playing Mike you wonder if he’s stealing Birdman, he’s so good, but then opening night gets closer and Michael Keaton’s performance as Riggan is so compelling and vulnerable that you don’t want to blink and a jazz drummer pops off a poetic beat and director Alejandro González Iñárritu edits this beautiful movie without a cut so it looks like a single, continuous shot and when it’s over you step off the ride around Broadway and shake your head and smile because it ends so well and you have just experienced edgy fun at philosophical heights films rarely reach.

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36. 12 Years a Slave

If I saw 12 Years a Slave only once, I’d probably remember a sad experience, a film whose rape and torture laid me low. Subtract the emotional wallop, though, and one hell of an entertainment remains. The pulpy horror starts with a pair of liars named Hamilton and Brown who look, in top hats at night, like gothic Jack-the-Ripper types. They drug and kidnap Solomon Northup, then sell him down a path whose signs say Run Or Fight And You Will Die, its menagerie of villains ending with drunken torturing rapist supervillain Edwin Epps (played with a frenzied, righteous commitment to evil by the great Michael Fassbender).

Brad Pitt’s terrible performance is the only acceptable excuse to claim this is not a great film, but Pitt is ancillary anyway. By the time he arrives with his “fearful ill” speech and saves Solomon, we’ve met someone more important. Patsey picks 500 pounds of cotton a day, while at night enduring rape and torture. She gets whipped (basically flayed) until she passes out, punishment for the offense of wanting to be clean. She begs Solomon to kill her: “God is merciful and he forgive merciful acts. Won’t be no hell for you. Do it. Do what I ain’t got the strength to do myself.”

Solomon’s happy ending is an emotional scene, powered by the huge crying eyes of actor Chewetel Ejiofor, but it’s not the ending that matters. How wonderful for Solomon, but in the previous scene, as he rides away from Epps’s hellish plantation, the background goes blurry just before Patsey faints. Then she’s gone. It’s easy to miss.

The hero is finally free, emerging from hell, but Patsey, exemplar of sympathy (in rare peaceful moments, she sings and makes little black and white corn-husk dolls), is left lower than ever. Her ending is tragic, and true to American history.

I want to enjoy a movie this well-made, this full of danger and grandiose bellicose bad guys. But I can’t. Its truth is too vile. And this is where greatness is achieved – when something so entertaining is too important to enjoy.

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35. Rogue One

A thumb through my eye is the decision to give Darth Vader only a cameo; to utilize the greatest villain in movie history (AFI says it’s Hannibal Lecter, followed by Norman Bates, then Vader. WRONG!) for about three minutes. Why? The top villain in Rogue One is a forgettable puss. Why?!

The Death Star, world-destroying superweapon, is prepared to blast its huge ray for the first time. This project is not above Vader’s pay grade; he could easily have been responsible for turning on the Death Star and thwarting the rag-tag Rogue One team.

Vader has a scene at the end, a scene I fear oblivious Star Wars fans adore, where he kills a bunch of rebels in a hallway. He flashes force and ninja skills, but this scene is bullshit. At the end of the hallway, a man struggles to hand off plans that will ultimately enable Luke to blow up the Death Star. Vader spends enough time twirling his lightsaber and slicing up expendables that the data escapes. Vomit! A badass Jedi master of the dark side could have absolutely prevented a hand-off down a hallway.

I get it: It’s a side story. It’s tangential fan fiction. It’s entertainment. No matter if Rogue One doesn’t play with Joseph Campbell’s hero myths, like other good Star Wars movies. No matter that the heroes are thinly realized, never near as fun as Han and Chewbacca, or even Luke and Leia. It’s Star Wars. People like it. A beloved trilogy is now a blockbuster Disney franchise, new movie and merchandise released annually. So it goes.

It’s the decision… The decision torments like a vaporous demon, haunting and taunting. Why? Why?! Writers Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy, and director Gareth Edwards, were given a soulful, compelling, powerful, murderous, awesome-looking and iconic bad guy. As a stand-alone prequel to Star Wars, Rogue One required one thing: rebels must steal and deliver data. Instead of hunting them with Vader, filmmakers staged giant battles, full of explosions.

I don’t fucking get it.

But maybe now, after writing this down, I’ll get over it.

God dammit…

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34. Speed

Am feeling weird about America lately. Children of Men messed with my mind. (We gotta get over immigration.)

So: Speed. 1994. What more perfect action plot than Speed? No time for politics or even opinion when – as Evil Dennis Hopper helpfully and delightedly explains – “There’s a bomb on a bus. Once the bus goes 50 miles an hour, the bomb is armed. If it drops below 50, it blows up. What do you do?”

Then he repeats, scarier: “What do you do?

How evil we talkin’? The first scene is him stabbing a guy through the head! And he’s no grand-scheming or mass-manipulating evil mastermind, like the Joker or President-elect Trump. Evil Dennis Hopper does not use fear as a weapon; he uses bombs. He has no politics; he wants money. He laughs, swears, watches football, makes beautiful bombs and is, so far as killing goes, heartless. “Don’t fuck with daddy,” he says before pushing a very bad button.

Our champion in the arena against this glorious wack-job is Young Keanu Reeves. People (my friends) disparage Keanu because his characters in lesser films don’t look real when they’re falling in love, or being sad. Sometimes he’s funny when he’s not supposed to be. Yet when a tough job must be done, few are better. Keanu excels with guns; he can fight; he’s fast and runs and jumps and twirls. He’s great at getting mad, but not depressed. When his partner dies in Speed, there’s no scene with Keanu at the bar fighting back tears, reciting lines about how great the guy was. There’s no time for that. There’s a bomb on a bus and it can’t go below 50. No feelings!

Of course we must return from Speed. It can’t last forever. Sandra Bullock debuts in this movie and is sunny and spectacular. Young Sandra and Young Keanu can’t help canoodling, but she warns him “relationships that start under intense circumstances, they never last.” She’s right. They made a sequel and he’s not it. She’s with Jason Patric. Yuck.

Yuck! When Speed’s over you’re back in the real world, all fucked up and shitty.

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