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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