23. Lincoln

Lincoln’s Lincoln is a model built by historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, screenwriter Tony Kushner, and actor Daniel Day Lewis, placed into Steven Spielberg’s cinematic Civil War diorama. Lincoln is sad when he’s quiet, constantly mourning. Then he speaks and beams humor and wisdom. His angry moments are calls for action. “We’ve stepped out upon the world stage now! NOW!”

The second scene in Lincoln ends with a black Union soldier reciting the end of the Gettysburg Address (to its author): “…that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

For the counterpoint, here’s a famous 2001 quote from Republican Grover Norquist: “I don’t want to reduce the size of government, I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.” An ethos unveiled.

This movie came out in 2012, around Obama’s reelection, and I needed it.

I’m a cynic. Politicians lied directly to my pen and notebook when I was a newspaper reporter. Now I watch them the way I watch movies like Elmer Gantry and A Face in the Crowd – admiring villainy. Except the real Republicans killing government aren’t charming like Gantry or Lonesome Rhodes; they’re ugly and humorless. It shouldn’t work but it does and it’s fascinating. I’m totally pessimistic.

Lincoln is not biography; it’s about a few months in 1865 when the war ended and Congress passed the 13th Amendment, outlawing slavery. He keeps being told that they cannot do both; he keeps insisting that they can. No better argument could be made for government as a force for good.

The biggest scene at the end of Lincoln is not the president’s assassination, which we don’t even see. (How un-Spielbergian.) The biggest moment is the passage of the amendment. It’s men voting. Spielberg even puts away his manipulative music swells as congressmen weep on the house floor, and sing with joy.

It sounds sentimental because it is. Against the backdrop of our darkest days, despite the furious objections of half its citizens, honor in government prevailed. There is hope.



22. Idiocracy

Two nights before I re-watched Idiocracy, Donald Trump gave a speech accepting the Republican nomination for president, and said this: “The crime and violence that afflicts our nation will soon, and I mean very soon, come to an end. Beginning on January 20, 2017, SAFETY WILL BE RESTORED.” That’s the day he’d be sworn in if he wins.

This is what President Camacho says in a speech in Idiocracy: “I understand everyone’s shit’s real emotional right now, but I got a three-point plan that’s gonna fix EVERYTHING. Number one: We’ve got this guy Not Sure. Number two: He’s got a higher IQ than ANY MAN ALIVE. Number three: He’s gonna fix EVERYTHING.”

It’s a straight (albeit long) line from the first quote to the second, but Idiocracy takes place 500 years in the future. Dumb people have bred so much that instead of growing into the kind of civilization most science fiction imagined, everything’s actually a mess, and everyone’s an idiot. A perfectly average soldier from 2006 unfreezes (due to a garbage avalanche) after 500 years, and tests as the smartest man on Earth. An adventure in presidential politics ensues, ending with an arena battle against a mulleted flame-thrower-wielding celebrity named Beef Supreme.

It’s a funny movie, crammed with gags. The horrible Fuddruckers burger chain slowly evolves over centuries into “Buttfuckers.” It’s a funny movie.

But is it important? Does it matter? Politics in 2016 is so epically God-damn stupid that a movie like Idiocracy might be horrifyingly prescient. President Camacho is also a popular fighting champion and porno star. This is of course hyperbolic, but it’s also a logical extrapolation from what we’re seeing presently.

There are no crops growing, because a powerful company bought the government and waters farms with green sports drink. Again: hyperbolic, but the precedent is being set now for the future this film envisions. Corporations water our crops, and not with water.

We can enjoy Idiocracy as a short, hilarious movie, but let us also heed its message. If stupid begets stupider over hundreds of year, we’re doomed. The solution is to not do dumb things, like vote Trump.


21. The Ides of March

The transformation of Stephen Meyers from idealist to evil bastard is tragic, but it feels right. At one of many whispery secret meetings in The Ides of March, a rival campaign manager tells Stephen that Republicans are “meaner, they’re tougher, they’re more disciplined than we are… I’ve seen way too many Democrats bite the dust because they wouldn’t get down in the mud with the fuckin’ elephants.” You have to be an animal, fighting dirty, or you lose.

The Ides of March (2011) juggles two story lines: behind-the-scenes dealing to win the Democratic presidential primary; and a sex scandal. Stephen works for the campaign of Mike Morris, an atheist Democratic governor who speaks wisely about global warming, ending Middle East quagmires, and addressing income inequality. He’s a liberal’s dream, and Stephen, at the beginning, truly believes that Morris must win for the good of America. A New York Times reporter teases him for “buying into all this crap; all this ‘Take back the country’ nonsense.” The reporter covers the election, it’s her job, yet she insists it won’t matter. “Not one bit.”

The Ides of March is based on the play Farragut North, and the story is small despite its power and presidential backdrop. Mostly, characters meet in rooms to talk about each other. The literal stakes are Ohio’s delegates, but what really dangles here is a man’s soul. Stephen is young, bright, charming, loved by everyone he works with – and he means what he says. He is principled. But deals and bad compromises are struck by day, and even worse happens by night in hotel rooms. Several lives have been destroyed by the end of this movie, and Stephen is profoundly changed. His eyes are different. The light’s gone. He’s Darth Vader.

George Clooney wrote, directed, and stars as Morris. In real life, Clooney is an outspoken celebrity activist who hosts lavish fundraisers for Democrats. He understands specifics about how campaigns are won and lost, and he clearly hates it. Morris wins a primary, but something terrible happens, something basic. Another good man breaks bad.

In politics, evil prevails.


20. Witness

Conflict is an (the!) essential element of storytelling. Opposing forces collide. A character wants something unattainable.

Basic concept there, but art is in the execution and Witness is a masterpiece. Peace meets murder at the onset, when an Amish boy sees a dirty cop slit another man’s throat. Any normal witness would be disturbed, and none of us would want gunplay in our garages, but the conflicts are better with the Amish. They do not fight, whether it’s war or a jerk on the street who smears ice cream on an Amish man’s face.

The conflicts are so well managed, juggled so deftly by this Oscar-winning script (from 1985; it beat Back to the Future), that Witness transcends genre. It’s both gritty cop movie and tender love story, gory one scene and steamy the next.

“If we’d made love last night I’d have to stay,” hard-bitten detective John Book tells lovely Amish widow Rachel. “Or you’d have to leave.” No matter how sexy Harrison Ford and Kelly McGillis are together, and the screen practically ignites, they cannot give in. Forbidden love is conflict! Or check the earlier moment when Rachel finally smiles, tittering shyly because Book looks goofy in her late husband’s clothes. The scene is a relief, until Book kills it. “My gun,” he says. “I need my gun.”

It keeps happening. Book doesn’t just beat up the jerk who smears ice cream on his Amish friend’s face, he pounds him until blood gushes. Everyone’s horrified. Book is being hunted by the dirty cops, so he assimilates into Amish culture – wearing a funny hat to milk cows at 4:30 a.m., or lending very helpful hands to build a barn – but the climax is a brutal duel. Evil men with guns invade a place that only knows peace.

The telling is tight. A bird house breaks when Book arrives; it’s fixed when he needs to go. Rachel’s change from repulsed to amorous is totally credible, because it’s built by storytellers who understand the essential elements. Witness feels more like a great, short novel than a film.

Maybe that’s why his name’s Book.


19. Death Race 2000 (1975) / Death Race (2008)

Gratuitous boobs or gratuitous explosions?

More than nudity was lost when Death Race 2000 was remade as Death Race in 2008. The latter is nudity-free but waaay more violent. It also has a plot, which changes the viewing experience dramatically.

Death Race 2000 begins at the start of the race. Here are the cars… go. From then on almost nothing makes sense, but we at least get the rules: Contestants speed across the country running over civilians for points. The elderly and toddlers are worth the most.

Why does anyone go outside during the Death Race? This is one of many questions there’s no point asking. We get lots of breasts (racers team with navigators of the opposite sex) but zero coherent answers. The hero, Frankenstein, says he lost both his eyes, and his jaw, and his nose and his cranium. “I’m held together with patches of plastic and steel plates. It’s not a pretty site.” So… why does he look normal without his mask? When Sylvester Stallone, as Machine-Gun Joe, is having dinner, and yelling, why is creamy clam sauce all over his face and hands for the entire long scene? Ever heard of a napkin? Why is…? Why does…? You just stop asking. It’s an hour and 20 minutes of pure camp.

The remake is an hour and 40 minutes, and that extra time buys us plot, camp’s nemesis. In this flick, Frankenstein is framed for his wife’s murder, so he’ll be thrown in jail and forced to death race other inmates. Prickly A-grade tough guy Jason Statham plays Frankenstein, and he beats the absolute crap out of several prison Nazis. His car is a Mustang GT with rotary machine guns, smoke and oil, napalm, 6-inch shielding, and basically more killing power than anything in Mad Max. The production values are over the moon, with a budget of $45 million compared with Death Race 2000’s $300,000.

Money changed the whole point. The Death Race used to be about nudity and ridiculousness. Laughs, basically. Now it’s about rooting for a hero. Fuck that. If I wanted to root for a hero, I’d watch something good.


18. Fast Five

Fast Five is the best Fast & Furious flick because having fun is fun.

The series hit its stride with Five, stepping out of the street-race underworld into full-blown blockbuster land. The action got grander over subsequent installments, but death’s dark shadow reared also. In Furious 6, my favorite character gets killed, and whither Gisele’s requiem? It got genuinely sad with Furious 7, when Paul Walker – the handsome natural athlete who so perfectly portrayed ex-cop Brian O’Conner – died during filming.

Five is The Bright. It’s a straight-up heist, cooked with essential ingredients: a team of outlaws, each filling a role; a ruthless gangster who deserves what’s coming; a dedicated, enormous cop on their tales, mucking everything up. The pot of cash is a cool hundred million, and it doesn’t come easy.

This isn’t necessarily a complaint, but Furious 6 takes the action past far. The tank battle in the middle of that movie feels like a resounding finale, and then the actual finale – a plane battle – is absolutely fucking bonkers. Fast Five, on the other hand, builds smoothly. It begins with a high-speed train robbery, then finds a nice groove. A shootout leads to a foot race through the favelas of Rio de Janeiro. Quick and deadly action, but nothing too nuts. As the team crafts its plan, a military police station is cleverly infiltrated, and cars must be stolen so of course there’s a street race.

The fist fight between Vin Diesel and (superstar professional wrestler) Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson is an epic symphony of grunting and suplexes and wall smashes and the bassy whomps of lunchbox-sized fists punching through giant bald heads. It’s classic, but merely the appetizer to the heist itself, a chase through the streets of Rio that’s so ballsy – two speeding muscle cars tow a massive vault – that O’Conner can’t stop smiling and exclaiming “Holy shit” as palm trees and police cars explode all around him.

The musical cue at the end, when everything resolves, hits exactly right. It’s a dance number by one of Fast Five’s stars, Don Omar, with a fast, fun beat just like the movie’s.


17. Furious 6

Family… my… ass. I mourned Gisele more deeply at the end of Furious 6 than any of her so-called teammates but Han, who takes his grief to the streets and dies in flames. The rest of them barely care.

Sorry. Let’s start over.

Super-villain Owen Shaw is knocking off military convoys, and, as hulking super-cop Hobbes tells his partner, “if you want to catch wolves, you need wolves.” They recruit Dom Toretto, Brian O’Conner, and their multiracial team of good-hearted stunt-diving heisters. We’ve followed this crew of wolves through movie after movie. They call themselves “family,” and their chemistry clicks so finely that you can’t help but buy it.

Furious 6 (2013) is the family in its prime, fighting a ferocious foe. They’re given bad-ass guns and cars in the first 10 minutes, and briefed on their mission: Bring down Shaw, who smokes the streets in a racer that can throw cars back at pursuers. It’s sick! He drives a speeding tank on the freeway, and fires its cannon into traffic. Ba-DOOOOM! He’s the dark opposite of our heroes. “A team is nothing but pieces you switch out until you get the job done,” Shaw growls silkily at Torreto. “It’s efficient. It works. You’re loyal to a fault. Your code is about family. And that’s great in the holidays, but it makes you predictable.”

He might be right, but in the PG-13-action-movie world, karma counts. Good guys win.

But they don’t get to pick my favorite. Toretto and O’Conner get top billing, but Roman and Tej are funnier, and Gisele (subtly embodied by the great Israeli actress Gal Gadot) is the ice-cool warrior. She’s quiet, smart, deadly. Her looks are a weapon, but so are her guns. She’s Steve McQueen.

And she dies! Sacrifices herself, leaping from a speeding plane to shoot the goon about to kill her love Han, who just goes on to die anyway! The team subsequently celebrates Dom getting amnesia-stricken Letty back, but Gisele was way better than Letty! She was my favorite, and they all barely cared.

This flick is awesome, but damn. It’s cold at the end.


16. Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

We built weapons of mass destruction because men are horny morons. This feels to me like the lesson of Dr. Strangelove, which feels to me like the spiritual older sibling (1964) of Network. In the latter film, an insane newsman is kept on the air for ratings, then assassinated on live TV when those ratings dip. In Strangelove, the world is destroyed by idiots. These movies are essence of satire – important ideas rendered audaciously farcical.

The metaphor in Dr. Strangelove is not subtle. (It’s right there in the title.) We open on bombers refueling in midair, and they look like they’re fucking. The only woman in the film wears a bikini, and wants the top general to ignore an existential threat because “I’m not tired.” (She’s in bed rubbing her calves together as she says this.) Among the contents of the bomber pilots’ survival kits are lipstick, nylons, and condoms. And the insane man who orders the irreversible strike against Russia, General Jack D. Ripper, is obsessed with “precious bodily fluids.” The truth about the Commie plot to sap our fluids, he says, came to him “during the physical act of love.”

It is beyond silly. The actors ham it up for maximum comedy, especially George C. Scott as General Turgidson and Peter Sellers as Dr. Strangelove. Sellers plays three roles, including President Merkin (please click here) Muffley, and he’s hilarious in each. Strangelove can’t control his hand – it keeps trying to choke him, and giving the Nazi salute.

Lore holds that legendary director Stanley Kubrick planned a dead-serious film about nuclear warfare, but realized as he wrote that it was plainly ridiculous. There are serious moments in Strangelove, when men die fighting at Ripper’s base, but this is a freak show. President Muffley is briefed on measures and countermeasures and countermeasures to countermeasures, all in place in case a government decides tens of thousands of people should be killed instantaneously. Why the fuck would we even consider that?

Perhaps because post-war survival requires living underground with a 10-to-1 female-to-male ratio. President Muffley hears this, stops worrying, and loves the bomb.