15. Network

What kind of person turned TV news into shit? Faye Dunaway won an Oscar for playing Diana Christensen, a network exec who talks business while she fucks because it gets her to a quick climax. When the nightly news anchor goes literally insane on live TV, his ratings skyrocket and Christensen hatches a scheme: Turn the news into an entertainment show. Network (1976) fictionalizes popular journalism’s turn from tasty medicine into tastier poison. How huge would Christensen have orgasmed if she’d known that one day whole news networks would run nothing but ratings bait for 24 hours a day?

People generally prioritize entertainment above knowing what’s going on. The consequence (so far) is rampant corruption, and America’s next president could be a celebrity con man who openly despises hard news. This is profoundly important because a functioning democracy needs aggressive journalism (ask Jefferson)… and we need our souls. Howard Beale tells his viewers they’re “humanoids” – creatures who look human, but aren’t. “You’re beginning to think that the tube is reality, and that your own lives are unreal. You do whatever the tube tells you!” He wildly begs his audience to turn off their TVs, then he faints. Applause. Commercial.

Sinister forces are rising. A mega-corporation buys the network, and Beale proclaims “When the twelfth largest company in the world controls the most awesome God-damned propaganda force in the whole godless world, who knows what shit will be peddled for truth on this network?”

Beale’s rants, and his meeting with a demonic mogul who explains the world in cynical and completely believable terms, are what makes this film famous, but it’s ultimately about humanity, and love. Max Schumacher, Beale’s boss and best friend, falls hard for Christensen. He leaves his wife for her, but ultimately realizes his mistake. “You’re one of Howard’s humanoids,” Max says. “If I stay with you, I’ll be destroyed… like everything you and the institute of television touch is destroyed.” Max saves himself by walking away.

Beale calls himself “an angry prophet denouncing the hypocrisy of our times.” Paddy Chayefsky, Network’s writer, was the prophet. We are the humanoids.

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14. Aliens

This movie changed my life when I watched it as a kid, on a black-and-white TV, late at night during a sleepover at Chris Havener’s house. I’d never seen anything rated R. I truly didn’t know there could be a movie where monsters fought commandos and the battle was taken so seriously. (Now every movie is like that.)

I remember everything from that viewing, but the scene that stands out is Burke’s death – possibly because it’s a cutaway kill, so the TV station didn’t have to edit anything out; possibly because I dislike The Man.

A college professor told me Alien (1979) is about the period in American history (around Reagan’s election) when working-class people realized their bosses didn’t care about them. The Weyland Corporation is fine if its grunt employees die, it just wants the alien because it’s worth a fortune.

That spirit lives on in Aliens (1986), James Cameron’s everything-bigger action sequel. Cameron’s film trumpets themes of war and motherhood, but it also splatters profit-first villainy.

“I work for the company,” says Burke (Paul Reiser!), after he brings Ripley her cat, “but don’t let that fool you. I’m really an OK guy.” Burke acknowledges there that company men are considered bad people. He, though, is different.

Except we’ll learn later that he’s not different; he’s totally evil. He looses facehuggers on a child, and he hatches a plan to kill everyone else onboard so he can sell the monster to Weyland’s “weapons sciences division.”

“I don’t know which species is worse,” Ripley tells Burke. “You don’t see them fucking each other over for a goddamn percentage.”

A notoriously satisfying director, Cameron of course gives us Burke’s reckoning. Fleeing a fire fight, Burke comes face-to-face with one of the creatures he hoped to bring back. It shakes, hisses, and opens long mouths of dripping teeth. We don’t see what happens next, but Burke is either dead right then, or off to be bound and impregnated with a creature that will kill him as it hatches from his ribs.

He should not have prioritized profits above people. May others know same.

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13. The Night of the Hunter

“HATE” is tattooed on the knuckles of his left hand. A woman in sequins dances sexily onstage, and he responds to her by clenching that HATE hand into a fist, slipping it into his pocket, and snicking open his switchblade. It cuts a hole and protrudes. He looks up to God and whispers, “There are too many of them. I can’t kill a world.”

Then a cop taps Harry Powell’s shoulder, he’s arrested, and in prison he learns of a widow hiding $10,000. Widows with money are his favorite.

Legendary critic Roger Ebert called Robert Mitchum his favorite movie star, and wrote that The Night of the Hunter (1955) was his best movie. Mitchum usually kept it cool, but this is the flick where his freak flag flies.

Powell preaches God’s word like a charming, handsome reverend, but he’s a serial killer. Twenty-five wives, we’re told, “and he killed every one!” That number is over-the-top, but so is the character, and so is the movie. In one weird scene, his new wife Willa lies in bed thanking him for bringing God into her life… and she knows he’s about to kill her! Shot in a room made tiny by shadows at sharp angles, Powell holds his left HATE hand up to God, fingers flexing like a claw. He looks like Dracula, or a werewolf. Then he pulls his knife and kills her.

It’s a monster movie after that. Willa’s children know where the money is, and after Powell’s menacing charm offensive fails, they flee. Switchblade out, growling, Powell pursues.

This isn’t a criminal’s caper, it’s a child’s nightmare. Realism isn’t the goal. The Night of the Hunter is not gritty; it’s almost fantasy. Sets and even Willa’s dead body have a hyper-artistic quality, synthetic yet poetic, and one character speaks directly into the camera.

At first I didn’t like the happy ending, but it fits. Powell is a woman-hating religious-fanatic murderer, so while I loved watching him – he’s just so goofy – I wasn’t rooting for him. He’s an all-time-classic movie villain, but I don’t root for a wolf to eat children.

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12. Seven

The distinctly dirty, bloody darkness of Seven permeates everything except an innocent blond played by Gwyneth Paltrow… until it oozes over her for an ending that hurts no matter how many times I see it.

As a mixture of police procedural, noir, and horror, this movie might be perfect. A telling scene cuts back and forth between Somerset, researching in a library, and his young partner Mills, reviewing crime-scene photos. Mills’s photos juxtapose with Somerset’s findings in books by Dante and Chaucer, ancient drawings of hell and demonic torture.

Their awful city goes unnamed. Somerset hates it and can’t wait to flee, but Mills actually asked to transfer in, because “I thought I could do some good.” Somerset knows what Mills will learn, that this is hell on Earth. They can’t do good.

Nothing in Seven could be described as “nice” except Tracy, Mills’s wife, a sweet beauty tragically brought to this dark place.

Jonathan Doe, whose murders elaborately interpret the seven deadly sins, is a righteously motivated man of shocking brutality, certainly one of modern cinema’s most memorable killers. (Kevin Spacey!) Yet he only arrives at the end; we never actually see him hurt anyone. Everything in Seven is aftermath. Cadavers. Stale blood. A bucket we’re told is full of puke. Dingy polaroids of slow starvation, or of the bladed sex non-toy that kills a hooker for the Lust murder.

And that box…

Seven has classic cop-flick formula stuff: the calm elder a week from retiring, partnered with a young, brash newbie with no patience. The magic comes from chemistry between the actors, Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt, and the script’s extreme twists on their archetypes. Somerset talks and acts like he’s DESPERATE to retire; at home alone, he listens to a ticking metronome as though counting down the minutes. And it is precisely because of Mills’s headstrong brashness that Doe turns him at the end into wrath.

Gods, that box. We don’t see inside, but Somerset does. He reacts, then Doe says what he’s done and all the pitch-black hopelessness of hell swallows Mills.

Somerset was right.

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11. X-Men: Apocalypse

This is not a review of X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014), but let’s discuss that movie’s robots. In the tradition of Terminator, and I know that sounds nuts, the sentinels in X-Men: Days of Future Past are top-echelon movie robots – fast, relentless, awesome-looking, so dangerous that they repeatedly, and viciously, kill all the X-Men, except Kitty Pryde and whomever she sends back in time. A worthy enemy like the sentinels adds weight to Wolverine’s mission in that movie, to prevent them from ever being built, and makes the action scenes at the beginning and end truly thrilling.

That’s where X-Men: Apocalypse (2016) falls on its face. The bad guy, Apocalypse, has a scary name but is totally beatable, an unworthy opponent for a giant team of super-powered mutants. Expository dialogue tells us Apocalypse is all-powerful, able to destroy the world if he wants, yet he comes across as slow and often helpless, needing constant protection from brainwashed mutant bodyguards.

Worst is how stupid he looks. Apocalypse’s cakey blue face looks like he covered up an allergic reaction. He looks like a hard-ass old woman. When his eyes roll back and he languidly conjures his confusing mutant powers, the effect isn’t scary so much as cheesy. Imagine a goofy witch in a low-budget horror bomb.

It’s too bad a good actor, Oscar Isaac, is lost beneath under all that cheesy makeup. Lots of great stuff is buried under the cheese of X-Men: Apocalypse. Wolverine, the greatest X-Man, has a violent and perfect cameo, and master thespian Michael Fassbender brings his Brando-esque emotional intensity to the villain Magneto. Forced out of hiding by tragedy, Magneto kills 12 men with a locket, then screams up at God, “IS THIS WHAT YOU WANT FROM ME?!” A holocaust survivor, he teleports to Auschwitz and destroys what’s left.

As meaty as those and other scenes are, they can’t transcend the pall of a crappy, overblown arch-nemesis. The X-Men don’t fight Apocalypse the way they fought the sentinels, as though their lives were at stake. They fight like bored actors surrounded by special effects. They fight like it’s cheese.

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10. Hard Eight

The fatherly figure Sydney is in a diner, discussing life with Clementine, a waitress and hooker. Sydney asks about Clementine’s goals, whether she’s saving money. She asks him about his grown kids.

Great writing, by Paul Thomas Anderson, and great acting, by Philip Baker Hall and Gwyneth Paltrow, make this scene credible, but its truth gets amplified 10,000 percent when, for no reason related to the plot of Hard Eight, a customer sitting a few booths behind Clementine pounds his table and says, loudly, “Fuck this. I’m out of here.” The guy gets up and storms away, leaving a woman behind crying. We don’t see them again.

Anderson’s movies are different. Hard Eight is his first feature film, from 1996, and it’s a small-scale version of the fucked-up-family theme he expands so hugely in, maybe especially, Boogie Nights, Magnolia, and The Master. In Hard Eight, Sydney lovingly takes a broke young man named John under his wing and teaches him to build a nice life small-time gambling. Events, as they will, spiral out of control, but Sydney does not. He stays calm and wise. When John screws up, Sydney helps him.

A bad influence on John, foul-mouthed Jimmy (Samuel L. Jackson!), tells Sydney “you used to be a hard-ass.” He’s heard stories. That doesn’t sound like Sydney. When a vulgar lout (Phillip Seymour Hoffman!) talks trash at him over a craps table, Sydney simply looks back and bets $2,000 on hard eight. The bet loses, but the point gets made and the lout actually apologizes.

It’s part of Sydney’s slow reveal as a true hard-ass. Everything is slowly revealed in Hard Eight, including the mystery of why he helps John in the first place. Anderson lets the story and his characters’ motivations unspool organically. He is a master visual artist – his camera is an athlete; his sets breathe and have style – but we can say the same of other great directors. Anderson’s unique gift is truth. Truth serves his stories, painting the characters’ world. The lout apologizes. A guy bangs his table and storms away, because that’s the kind of thing that happens.

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9. Gladiator

Gladiator is the greatest sports movie.

Coach Proximo tells Maximus “Win the crowd, and you will win your freedom.” Maximus already knew he had to win, because losing a gladiator fight means death. But after vowing to win the crowd, to “give them something they’ve never seen before,” Maximus plays differently. He wins with pizzazz, to blow fans’ minds.

For sheer stakes, the consequences of winning and losing, nothing comes close to Gladiator. The “games” are for freedom, love, honor, friendship, righteous revenge… and all of glorious Rome. That’s not an exaggeration. Hanging in the balance of the last match is how Romans will be ruled. Commodus fights Maximus, and if Commodus wins, the monarchy continues; if Maximus wins, the government becomes a republic, ruled by the senate. A lot is on the line.

Fifty thousand spectators turn out to watch Maximus compete in the Coliseum, just about the same number who attend a Big 10 football game. Before battle, he scoops up dirt or sand, to rub between his hands. This is something athletes do, and gladiators simply must be great athletes if they’re to survive, able to run, cut laterally, jump, and swing giant shields, swords, or morning stars. The combatants in Gladiator have the hulking builds of NFL football players, but the NFL’s awesome violence and injuries are nothing like this. No NFL coach tells his team to “Go, and die with honor.”

Maximus excels on his own, going hand-to-hand against “the only undefeated champion in Roman history: the legendary Tigris… OF GAUL!” (And tigers.) But he also understand the value of team. “If we stay together, we survive,” he tells his fellow gladiators in the reenactment of Hannibal’s defeat at Carthage. Like a great player/coach, he gives directions loud and clear. He makes the biggest plays himself, of course – stunning feats of killing that splash gore and elicit mad cheers from the mob.

Now consider that final fight as a sporting event. The fans turn out to see Maximus, and unexpectedly find themselves watching him fairly kill the emperor of Rome. That’s a ticket stub worth saving.

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