8. Cars

At the beginning of Cars, which I have recently watched several times, Lightning McQueen is selfish. At the end, he commits an astonishing act of selflessness. His change is credible, the lesson obvious yet well-conveyed.

It’s a standard lesson for a kids’ flick. The more interesting theme of Cars, which goes pretty deep, is what it says about small towns. Radiator Springs, if not quite a shit hole, has definitely lost its sheen when McQueen arrives by accident (on his way to the big race). He calls it “Hillbilly Hell.” The few people, or I guess they’re all talking cars, who live there are nice and proud, but they’re also pathetic. Luigi, who owns the tire shop, hasn’t had a sale in years. He and his neighbors become whimpering beggars any time a potential customer drives through.

Then their road gets fresh paving, and Luigi decides to paint his store, and pretty soon everyone’s pitching in to make Radiator Springs a little nicer.

James Taylor sings a song in the middle of Cars, over flashbacks explaining through clear, gorgeous visuals that Radiator Springs, nestled among beautiful rock formations along Route 66, once thrived. Then Interstate 40 went in, bypassing the town, and everything slowly crumbled, leaving business owners with frowns on their big car faces, feeling deserted.

This is an extremely effective little commentary on the real history of Route 66, and on the plight of American small towns generally. And because it’s Pixar, the message comes through with hopeful, earnest optimism.

What I really love, though, is that once McQueen finds his soul with the good people-cars of Radiator Springs, it’s VROOM->>> to “the biggest event in the history of racing,” says announcer Bob Cutlass. Little ideas, conflicts, and story pieces pay off in surprising and clever ways over the huge action scene at the end of Cars. It is so much fun.

Kids love this movie. They LOVE it. So while I’m watching a brilliant take on the United States economy, my daughter sees funny talking cars with lots of bright colors zooming around.

It works out great. Cars never gets old.

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7. Elmer Gantry

Burt Lancaster is in close-up when his character Elmer Gantry yell-preaches “I’VE SEEN THE DEVIL PLENTY OF TIMES!” His flaring eyes look crazy. His scene-stealing hair soars off the sides of his big head, like either devil horns or flames.

But is Gantry the Devil? No way.

Lancaster’s Best-Actor performance belongs in the pantheon, but Elmer Gantry (1960) endures because its eponymous protagonist so plainly personifies the greed and hypocrisy of profiteering politicians and preachers. The theme is timeless. Like congressional candidates and televangelists, Gantry obviously does not believe what he preaches; he’s passionate but completely insincere.

The film opens on the actual novel by Sinclair Lewis, first line highlighted: Elmer Gantry was drunk. He was elegantly drunk, lovingly and pugnaciously drunk. Enter Gantry, with his lunchbox jaw and flaming demon hair, telling a dirty joke in a bar and laughing his ass off. His smile is not replicable. Burt Lancaster could smile twice as wide as you or I. So dominating was his beefy grin, the book says. They cast the right actor.

That smile is a weapon for a salesman, but Gantry’s down-and-out when we meet him. He needs something new to sell.

He finds religion, stumbling upon the revivalist roadshow of Sister Sharon Falconer, and hitches his wagon.

He’s elegantly, lovingly and pugnaciously drunk at the beginning of the movie, yet later he decries alcohol, and wields an ax as he leads raids on illegal speakeasies. (It’s prohibition-era). He and Falconer of course decry temptations of the flesh, but they also fuck each other.

And this is where it gets fascinating. Gantry is clearly a phony, but when his prostitute ex-girlfriend throws herself to him, he demurs. Why? If he’s such a cad and a scoundrel, why not hit it?

He has a soul. He’s not the Devil.

Then again, many people die screaming in a fire in Gantry’s church, including Falconer, and the last shot is Gantry walking away from the ashes with a smile on his face, probably to a bar.

Damn… I almost fell for it too. You’re good, Gantry, but you’re also very bad.

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6. Raging Bull

Thirty minutes into Raging Bull, Jake LaMotta is too damn creepy. Despite being married, he’s horn-dogging a blond 15-year-old, and he has nothing to say except “Come closer” and “Sit here.” No connection is sought; dude just wants to fuck.

At that point I’m so grossed out that I wonder whether Raging Bull, released in 1980, might simply not rank among Martin Scorsese’s best movies. I wonder if it lacks the crazy, kinetic propulsion that makes Goodfellas, The Departed, and The Wolf of Wall Street such fun rides. I wonder if Rocky is better.

Nope. You just gotta learn to live with the dog. Get over wishing LaMotta weren’t so bad and Raging Bull becomes a masterpiece. “Was I really like that?” the real LaMotta asked his wife (says IMDB.com) after seeing the movie. “You were worse,” she said, which is nuts because Scorsese and De Niro’s LaMotta is despicable. Obsessively jealous and violent, he cheats on his wife and even punches her. He goes to jail and deserves it. “I’m not an animal,” he weeps behind bars, after battering his head and hands into the wall. He kind of is an animal, though, which makes him more human than most movie heroes, and certainly more human than most sports movie heroes. This is what it looks like when the monster inside a man drives.

In the ring, he stands with his arms down, taking Sugar Ray Robinson’s best punches, again and again, punches so hard they splatter blood on the judges and disfigure LaMotta’s face. LaMotta loses that fight, like he so often lost in life. But, as he boasts in a delightful display of poor sportsmanship, “You never knocked me down, Ray.” Same as in life: As powerfully as the bull raged inside, and for all the terrible places it took him, he stayed up.

Rocky has a clean arc, culminating at The Big Fight. Raging Bull is different, more art than entertainment, a perfect portrait of a flawed human fighting his own raging nature. It’s a harsh, insightful experience, and one of the greatest films ever made.

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5. The Good Dinosaur

The line “I drowned that croc in my own blood” is unexpected in a cute movie for kids. Indeed, my almost-3-year-old daughter kept crying “That scares me,” and covered her eyes multiple times during The Good Dinosaur. “The little dinosaur is scared tambien,” I kept telling her. (We live in Mexico.) “Being scared is OK. He’s being brave.”

This film is tough. I saw Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian in the journey of Arlo, brontosaurus runt, and his caveboy Spot. It’s like a G-rated The Revenant.

In an alternate reality, dinosaurs evolved into talking, farming family units. The Good Dinosaur is a feast of mythic western archetypes, firstly the fine family working hard on its ranch, like the start of Shane or Unforgiven. A strong river runs through Arlo’s family’s ranch, and the jagged, snowy peaks of Clawtooth Mountain lord above.

Arlo becomes lost in the wilderness beyond those peaks, and the characters he encounters on his frightened trek home are lessons in handling fear. An insane styracosaurus (like a triceratops), who collects pets with names like Dreamcrusher, seems to have been so afraid that he lost his mind forever. Villainous pterodactyls say they conquered their fears through something like religion. “I’ve seen the edge of the storm,” Thunderclap sermonizes, eyes red and bulging, “and I forgot what fear is!”

Arlo and Spot are helped by tyrannosauruses, a father and his son and daughter, buffalo herders who have lost their herd. These are 40-foot-tall, stone-tough cowpokes, who explain around a campfire how they’ve survived in the Wild West. The daughter chewed the end of her tail off, because she would have died otherwise. The father, his facial scar tremendous and disfiguring, drowned that croc in blood.

It’s an elemental survival western, crafted with the Pixar palate of rich characters and beautiful animation (though there’s a shot of a T-Rex herding cattle across a plain at sunset that surpasses beauty, into evocation).

My daughter never watches stuff that scares her; she usually cries until I turn it off. She finished The Good Dinosaur, though, which is very good. She can be brave.

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4. Iron Man

Genesis scene of the genesis hero of the Marvel Cinematic Universe: Tony Stark is in a Humvee rattling fast on a dirt road in Kunar Province, Afghanistan. It’s war, but he’s in a slick pin-striped suit, and holding a cocktail. The soldiers he’s with won’t talk, so he turns on the charm. He simultaneously hits on and insults the female officer who’s driving, and she loves it. They all do. Tony is rich, famous, brilliant, awesome.

An explosion takes out the vehicle ahead, and Tony watches the soldiers he’s just befriended get killed. From this moment on, he’s never the same, and this is profound because comic-book movies are our new myths, and Iron Man has some deep-seeded American neuroses to iron out for us.

Seriously. The first time Tony puts on the suit to go fight, it’s because he’s mad from watching news reports about American weapons (he made) in the hands of terrorists. With fury on his face, he dons the costume and blasts halfway across the world to rescue innocent civilians from violent fanatics. Then he saves an American soldier who’s about to die.

We can’t just do that when we see bad news, can we? But by God we wish we could. America has wrought so much havoc in that part of the world, and here’s a man with the powers to solve that problem. Iron Man might be a mythic response to collective guilt; mythic because he works.

He’s a great superhero because he looks cool, and can fly and blast laser beams. And he’s a great character because for all his mastery of technology (no one is better with computers and engines), Tony can’t attain joy. By the end of Captain America: Civil War, he’s a broken man lashing out in pure thoughtless rage. Maybe he’s never recovered from seeing those soldiers die in Afghanistan.

Captain America is a WWII fighter, a pumped and primed member of the greatest generation, transplanted into our confused modern era to scold and help us. Hulk is anger’s power. These characters mean something. Iron Mean means we have issues.

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3. Captain America: Civil War

“He is critical to the movie,” Captain America: Civil War director Anthony Russo told io9.com of Spider-Man, “or else he wouldn’t be in the movie.”

I thought this was bullshit after seeing the flick. Spider-Man has fun in the showcase superhero fight, but it’s a fight – Russo and his writers could have easily figured a way for Captain America and Winter Soldier to get away (which plot-wise is all that needed to happen) without Spider-Man.

It wasn’t the fight where he was critical, though. It was his other scene, with Tony Stark (Iron Man). Peter Parker saves Stark’s soul.

This whole modern comic-book-movie-universe era began with Iron Man in 2008, because Robert Downey Jr. brought everything he excels at to the role. His journey through seven (!) Marvel movies has been a pure hero’s arc. After starting cynical and sarcastic, he learned humility and responsibility and almost sacrificed himself to stop a nuke from decimating New York (in The Avengers).

It’s been bad since, and Civil War is his darkest time. He has a fat black eye for most of the movie. A dead boy’s mom calls him a murderer. Pepper Potts dumped him. Captain America, friend and colleague, keeps punching him. Tony feels this stuff, because he’s a sensitive guy with alcohol and trauma issues, whose brash attitude masks deep pain. Civil War even digs up his dead parents. It’s brutal.

But in the first scene with Spider-Man, we see Tony’s joy return. He’s finally funny, hitting on Peter Parker’s hot aunt and admiring the web shooters Parker made for himself… like a young Tony Stark. There’s life in Tony’s eyes around Spider-Man, while with the Avengers, and all the guilt and disagreements and problems that team brings, it’s just shitty.

It had been irksome seeing Iron Man get more popular than Spider-Man, but we were just waiting. It turns out they held him back for the perfect amount of time. Now, at the end of a true hero’s saga, Tony can help build and train Marvel’s all-time greatest superhero, then pass him the torch of the entire Marvel Universe.

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2. Spider-Man 2

Peter Parker, even with his Spider-Man powers, can’t deliver a pizza on time, so he’s fired from that job. He hides from his landlord because he can’t make rent. His college professors are sick of him missing class and turning in assignments late. His best friend hates him. He can’t date the woman he loves. And his big fight with the supervillain? Spider-Man loses.

He loses and loses and loses, and it plays brilliantly where the other Spider-Man movies so far (two others starring Tobey Maguire and two starring Andrew Garfield) failed terribly. They never found the balance between superhero and sensitive nerd. Spider-Man 2 lets the nerd stuff prevail, deploying its superhero sparingly. In one scene, Peter throws his costume in the trash.

Michael Chabon, the great novelist who wrote The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, is one of the credited writers, so perhaps it’s his insight into humanizing fictional characters that makes the sad-sack stuff so right. Mary Jane practically begs Peter to admit he loves her, and it’s all he wants, but he can’t. That is essence of conflict, cooked perfectly.

This is becoming less true, but special effects were never quite good enough to make Spidey’s web-slinging and wall crawling look realistic. Alan Moore has said his comic book Watchmen should not have been a movie because “There are things that we did with Watchmen that could only work in a comic, and were indeed designed to show off things that other media can’t.” I wonder if the same is true of Spider-Man. He’s Marvel’s greatest hero, so fluid and strong and awesome-looking on the page, but that doesn’t quite translate to film. The costume looks wrong as literal material. Most heroes fly and punch really hard, maybe shoot lasers, which looks great in a movie, but Spider-Man swings and flips in an agile, twisty way no actor could ever copy.

So Spider-Man 2 puts Spider-Man away, except in cases of emergency. The true conflict of this mega-hit blockbuster is small and vast enough to fit inside a human heart. A loser is in love. Poor guy.

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1. Quo Vadis

A quivering dumb fuck exactly like Donald Trump burns down Rome in the 1951 MGM classic Quo Vadis (lampooned with pointed affection by The Coen Brothers in Hail Caesar, where George Clooney gets kidnapped off the set of a movie exactly like Quo Vadis, and clever ’50s movie-studio intrigue ensues).

If Trump wins, a prominent Republican will commit public suicide while flames engulf our American empire.

Emperor Nero, great monster of human history, is the glorious villain, and you can only think “man-baby,” like what Jon Stewart just called Trump, as doughy, dull-eyed Nero whines and pouts hysterically, not knowing he’s insane. He practically sucks his thumb and diddles his pee-pee as he slaughters innocent, helpless Christians with tigers; crucifies men upside down; and plays a ridiculous harp while singing stupidity as all of Rome burns, by a fire Nero started but publicly pins on Christians.

“THE PEOPLE WON’T BELIEVE SUCH A LIE!” insists the George Clooney guy, Robert Taylor, a Roman general who loves a Christian girl.

“But they are believing it,” says Petronius, Nero’s political adviser. “People will believe any lie, if it is fantastic enough.”

There it is.

Nero mewls bullshit, like “The world is mine, and mine to end,” but the people will believe any lie. He is exactly like Donald Trump. (“We’ll build a big beautiful wall!” “They’re rapists!” “They cheered as the World Trade Center came down.” All that jive.)

Petronius knows it’s cynical, standing by while a mad man-baby massacres his own people. “Out of force of long habit,” he says, “I’ve become content only to be an amused cynic.” Petronius winds up killing himself, slitting his wrists and then ruminating on his complicity as he bleeds out.

Are you listening, House Speaker Paul Ryan? If you stand by, you are complicit. Petronius killed himself, and this is absolutely the fate awaiting Ryan, or sell-out New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, or whichever corrupt cynic is cast as Trump’s VP.

Ride alongside a mad leader and the blood is on your hands too. You’ll kill yourself, Christie, you bitch, if you have a soul.

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