33. Children of Men

Of course illegal immigration is issue No. 1 in the hopeless near-future envisioned by Children of Men. The film begins with news stories about mass roundups and deportations. Sieges. A heartless and heavily armed system of buses and camps backdrops the entire adventure. It’s Trump’s dream.

The year is 2027. No babies have been born for two decades. Despair is set. Chaos reigns. (New York City was possibly nuked.) The movie takes place in a hyper-militarized UK, where “fugees” from decimated countries literally fight the government that wants them out.

The film is a hero’s journey, through the fight, for Theo (Clive Owen), a jaded former activist who agrees to help his ex-wife smuggle the first pregnant woman in 18 years out of the country. It all goes so terribly.

The sumptuous and action-packed long takes are director Alfonso Cuarón’s trademark (see Gravity), and Owen is a gutsy lead, but the backdrop is what matters. Great science fiction has something to say – watching Children of Men is like reading 1984, with its nightmare vision of where surveillance and perpetual war might take us. If wars spread, refugees will need homes. Trump voters, and their ilk, won’t like that.

Hunched and firing a rifle at army soldiers, Luke (Chiwetel Ejiofor!) yells to Theo: “How can it be peaceful, when they try and take your dignity?!”

What? You’re about to get blown up by a tank for your dignity. That could only be a man’s attitude.

Is it offensive to say women are nice? That mothers might be less inclined to shoot someone? The women glow in Children of Men. They braid each other’s hair and snuggle with the precious baby. They are kindness, surrounded by murderous stupidity.

Trump is more mannish – in the worst way, grabbing pussies and acting all tough-guy – than Cheney, Assad, or Putin. He’s exactly the leader Children of Men warned us about in 2006. Stoking fear over immigrants is how he started.

I hope through the soles of my feet and out into the earth that Hillary wins today. Let’s let a woman drive. Maybe the world can still stop getting worse.


32. Weiner

Emotional brutality when Anthony Weiner takes his 1-year-old to the voting booth. It should be sweet – he’s running for mayor, voting for himself, wants his little boy there. But his wife Huma isn’t going; he whines about having always dreamed of running for mayor, but she stays behind watching with numb disapproval as they set off. He shouldn’t be doing this. His baby, upset by the flashing cameras, shrieks. Why is he doing this?

The title is funny. It’s funny that he pronounces it like “wiener,” and that he keeps posting cell-phone photos of his wiener on the internet. It’s funny that gay men line the streets for Weiner and chant his name joyously as he strolls past with a huge banner that says “WEINER!”

But the humor is dark. The theme might be hopelessness.

Weiner hits at a moment in American history when corrupt hack celebrities have taken over politics. It’s impossible to overstate the problem. Nineteen Republicans just ran for the presidential nomination; not one was honest. Congresspeople spend an average of six hours per day raising money. They practice dodging reporters’ questions. It’s madness. It’s farce.

Don’t their consciences itch? Do they care about other people’s kids?

The answer is some politicians can’t help it. Compulsion. Weiner has connections, charisma, and ambition. All he had to do was not take pictures of his wiener. That he couldn’t stop says everything. It is an answer.

When he’s off to vote, pushing his son in a stroller, Weiner gets on his phone and says “Hey I’ve got a brilliant idea,” and spitballs lies for the press on why his wife is not with him. Always lying, he thinks his bullshit is brilliant.

“Why did you let me film this?” the documentarian finally asks. Weiner shrugs. Huma eats pizza behind him, eyes down. Earlier he called her “someone who’s graceful, someone who’s interesting, someone who’s got ideas, who’s got experience, someone who’s glamorous and an amazing mom. Someone who’s just amazing.”

Yet he turned his back on her to snap and send dick pics. They do sick shit because they must.


31. Psycho

Psycho starts with sex, or as close to sex as a mainstream movie could skirt in 1960. Marion Crane is in a hotel room, in her underwear, with her boyfriend, and their dialogue indicates they aren’t married and it’s lunchtime.

If you have sex in a horror movie, you die. It’s the first rule. And Psycho is raw, pure horror. It cultivates karmic culpability – a pious sense that the main character deserves to be punished, like so many of us, and then cranks it further when she steals $40,000 from her boss. Double sin!

A haunted-as-hell-seeming house looms above Bates Motel’s empty cabins, where the cruel gods of horror see fit to strand our doomed sinner. Norman Bates bounds, childlike, out of that horrible house and into our lives. From here the movie spins unique, his fractured psyche so strong it twists the plot schizophrenic. What other film kills the character we’ve followed since the beginning, halfway through? Then another shocking murder and we jump to our third protagonist. The first time you watch Pyscho there’s no knowing what happens next, because while it embraces genre tropes it doesn’t conform to a formula. (Ab)Norman murders main characters. No one is safe.

And this monster taps real fear. Psycho killers exist; if you get lost, one might stab you. Bates is tame, in fact, compared to his inspiration – the true story of Ed Gein, a necrophiliac grave robber who kept body parts as trophies.

Psycho was the legend Alfred Hitchcock’s biggest hit, and he clearly relishes spinning some of the trademarks he became known for. He liked to put blondes in danger… well, here he stabs one with a huge knife 100 times and displays her corpse. He liked subversive McGuffins (objects driving plot)… well, here a stack of money is not only not the motivation for the titular psycho, he doesn’t even know it exists.

What better genre for a timeless artist to toy with? Taboos like sex and gore have gone vastly further on film since 1960, yet Psycho remains thrilling, a meticulous splatter as cold and damp as the grave.


30. A Face in the Crowd

Angry TV newsman Keith Olbermann often spoke on his old show of Glenn Beck, the McCarthyite extremist talk show host who compared Obama to Hitler. Olberman didn’t call him “Glenn Beck,” though. He called him “Glenn ‘Lonesome Rhodes’ Beck.” Every time.

Andy Griffith plays Lonesome Rhodes in A Face in the Crowd, and though the movie came out in 1957, this is a timeless character, important to remember at wacky political moments. Rhodes is a drifter when we meet him, jailed and mean as a beat dog. He loves to talk, though, and has a huge laugh. He sings for a radio host and gets sprung early. The radio station hires him for an hour every morning. He sings songs, tells stories, and everyone loves him.

His brand explodes. Bigger cities. Then TV. Advertisers – especially a pharmaceutical giant hocking placebos – hire him as their pitch man. Politics comes calling next. Lonesome, see, quite simply connects with the common man, which is useful on TV, the greatest tool to communicate ever invented. A stuffed suit helpfully explains that “the mass,” meaning us, “has to be guided by the strong hand of a responsible elite.” It’s like mind control.

How does Lonesome do it? “He’s got the courage of his ignorance,” a writer (Walter Matthau!) says. Lonesome lies constantly, without a scintilla of remorse. “On a stack of Bibles,” he likes to say. He doesn’t understand cruelty, and seems to believe what he’s saying in the moment but then forgets it forever. A liar that skilled can conquer media if politics is involved.

Also, importantly, he hates his audience. Pointing to an everyman, Lonesome tells an image-challenged senator, “He’s stupid. He’s got no mentality. He thinks with his feet. But I trust those feet.”

Trust those feet. Give the slobbering masses what they think they want and watch the dough, or the votes, roll in. Glenn Beck isn’t the only bloviating political opportunist. There are loads, like Ann Coulter and Sean Hannity and maybe one-fifth of Congress. They give their audience garbage. They hate them. But they trust those feet, and power is sweet.


29. Any Given Sunday

Any Given Sunday attacks, attacks, attacks. The monstrous linebackers who knock out two Miami Sharks quarterbacks feel real. When third-stringer Willie Beamen gets his turn, we line up too. The quaking camera goes tight on threatening details, and the sound won’t settle. It’s like an NFL game filmed from inside the QB’s head. Crowd, coaches, teammates, bloodthirsty opponents vowing pain… The intensity makes Beamen puke.

Director Oliver Stone is not subtle. He cuts to a random lightning storm, or a shot of Earth from deep space, and incorporates into game action the ghosts of 100-year-old players. Stone slows a shot of Al Pacino, as the coach, screaming, and dubs in a lion’s roar. Scenes run in split screen, or are spliced with showy music videos and, during a key confrontation, the Ben-Hur chariot race.

Frenetic styling does not belie a love of football. This flick loooooooves football. Dick Butkus and Johnny Unitas play coaches. Lawrence Taylor plays a sad version of his quarterback-crushing self, and Jim Brown has a drunken bar chat about how the game has slipped since players took second jobs and were grateful just to play. (“The first time they cut away to some fucking commercial, that was the end of it.”)

And years after its 1999 release, AGS remains a stunning simulation of ostentatious NFL games, from the line of scrimmage to the TV announcers’ booth. Sports movies are rarely this big.

The arc is Beamen’s sudden rise from third-stringer to superstar, his hubris-addled fall, and ultimate redemption. This is not, however, a tight story. Perhaps a dozen characters have major roles. They’re walking tropes (Cliches? Except that sounds pejorative) who add vital context. The dirty doctor, meddling owner, showboat running back who won’t block, douchey shock jock. There’s gold-digger wives and a cocky agent and a dramatic speech at the end.

But what a speech. Pacino tells his men “We can climb out of hell one inch at a time.” We buy it because the alternate universe where this team exists feels real. Pro football is egos, violence, and fleeting glory. It’s insane and so entertaining.


28. Star Trek Beyond

This is about me: I loved Star Trek Beyond because I was a nerdy kid; because Idris Elba is in it; and because snowboarding to certain fast, loud songs is more fun than anything else.

Star Trek: The Next Generation was my favorite thing for about three childhood years. I’ve seen lots of the original series, all of Deep Space Nine, and about a third of Voyager. (None of Enterprise, where Scott Bakula plays the captain. My parents liked it.)

If you ever loved a Star Trek show, you see the movies. I saw Beyond in the theater 50 years to the day after the original series premiered on CBS. Many websites made a hullabaloo over the anniversary, spurring my nostalgia.

Elba! Again, personal bias, but his Stringer Bell on The Wire was the best. I’ll name a dog Stringer one day. Stringer was big and mean and smart. Krall is slow and hunched over, so Elba doesn’t quite wear the crazy alien makeup in Beyond like I’d hoped – like Russell Crowe wears his armor in Gladiator – but he is compelling – angry and powerful, changing slowly in appearance from a monster to a man.

And then there’s the Beastie Boys. The scenario is this: Captain Kirk’s ship (not the Enterprise, which was destroyed) must blast analog music while flying into a fleet of zipping bad-guy ships to scramble their signal. They choose Sabotage. Spock calls it “classical.” I snowboard to that song, carving turns like the ship to the same booming cues. It’s so much fun.

The whole movie is so much fun. The Enterprise blows apart and the crew is marooned in unexpected pairs. Uhura and Sulu team up. Kirk and Chekov. Bones and Spock’s personality clash makes for great chemistry. The duos have wildly different adventures until coming back together in a clever action scene full of fighting, shooting, and old-school motorcycle stunts.

My response to this movie is emotional; it hits the right notes for me personally. Would I love it if I weren’t biased? I don’t even care. LISTEN ALL OF Y’ALL IT’S A SABOTAAAAAAAGE!!!!!


27. No Country For Old Men

Acts of kindness are wasted in Cormac McCarthy World. Llewelyn Moss mighta got away with $2 million cash if his conscience hadnt dragged him back to the desert with water for a dying man.

Instead of helping the doomed stranger Moss becomes known by Mexican drug dealers as the man with their satchel. They chase and shoot him and sick a devil dog on his trail. Moss kills the dog but theres worse behind it. Anton Chigurh. Merciless hunter and deaths indifference personified.

The shock of reading Cormac McCarthys novel is how few words he needs. His minimalism. Whole scenes are mostly dialogue with very brief description. No commas. He gifts visceral specificity. Gun mechanics. Bits of fabric Moss and Chigurh dig from buckshot skin holes after shotgun dueling. Pain of recovery. Wire hangers stretched and clipped to stash the money satchel in one scene and blow up a car in another.

“If the rule you followed brought you to this, of what use was the rule?” Cormac McCarthy World also demands contemplation of death. Chigurh flips a coin. Says Call it. Every choice was a step here and the coin took a path here too and its heads or tails. You stand to win everything.

Sheriff Ed Tom Bell in the book asks a prosecutor if he knows what Mammon is. The prosecutor doesnt. I looked it up. Mammon is wealth regarded as an evil influence or false object of worship and devotion. Money as the devil. Moss finds money and keeps it and death follows. McCarthys screenplay for The Counselor tells a similar story where the decision to chase dollars brings death. The Coen Brothers masterpiece Fargo is about money bringing death.

The novel arrived in 2005. The movie in 2007. It was obvious how well it would translate to screen. Probably just as obvious who should direct. The Coens spun Oscar gold. Every actor is perfect.

A predator hunts deluded prey across siltstone and through border towns. Fear the killer who understands fate. His inevitable deadish eyes. These storytellers understand the dramatic potential in a bag of cash.


26. From Here to Eternity

The soldiers drink, fuck, fight, and kill in From Here to Eternity. Entertaining as hell, even fun at times, the movie is not gung-ho about the Army – the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, at the end, is the least interesting conflict. The women are betrayed, the men die dishonorably, and starring in this menagerie of damaged humans is maybe the best cast in film history.

I mean it. All five principals were nominated for an Oscar. Frank Sinatra and Donna Reed won, and Montgomery Clift was robbed for Best Actor.

Yes, Montgomery Clift, the sad, brilliant artist whose face conveyed our capacity to suffer. It is awesome to watch Clift and Burt Lancaster share scenes. They’re polar opposites. Clift is angst-ridden, complicated soldier Robert E. Lee Prewitt, who takes brutal abuse because he won’t box for the company (he was so good in the ring he once blinded a man). Lancaster is badass sergeant Milton Warden, bossing the men with confident relish. When Warden stands up to someone, someone backs off: “OK, Fatso. If it’s killin’ ya want, come on!” These diametric characters (and actors) find themselves sitting on a road, plastered, passing a bottle and bonding. (IMDB says Clift was actually drunk for this scene, and Lancaster was not. This seems sad in hindsight.)

Thanks to The Godfather, a rumor prevails that Sinatra was cast as Angelo Maggio because mobsters put a severed horse head in the producer’s bed. That’s apocryphal; Sinatra is simply perfect for the part. Maggio is cocky, and cool when he’s drunk, but there’s bitterness behind his eyes. He takes the worst abuse of anyone, and spits in his abuser’s eye.

And Donna Reed, classic TV mom, plays a hooker! But she’s the wisest of everyone, saving for a “proper” future she can’t embrace (she sneers as she describes it), but knows she must meet.

We must remember these old movies. A Hollywood blockbuster in 1953 was nothing like the giant flicks we get today. From Here to Eternity is a dirty, mean movie about complicated men and women. Compared to now, it’s quaint. And better.


25. A Place in the Sun

Montgomery Clift’s face was pure anguish, even before his tragic life took a dark and disfiguring turn. That sad face was, in 1956, smashed horribly in a car crash after a party. He’d been filming Raintree County with Elizabeth Taylor, his friend and fellow icon, and Taylor arrived at the accident and, the story goes, cradled Clift in her arms and pulled his teeth from his throat. Life as a closeted homosexual and tortured method actor was difficult before his face was reconstructed; after, it was essentially over. Clift died ten years later, succumbing to years of alcohol abuse. His acting teacher called it “the longest suicide in Hollywood history.”

This context matters when watching a Clift movie. A Place in the Sun came out in 1951, and it wrenches the guts to watch Clift’s character, George Eastman, be pulled apart by his conscience.

The plot’s not complicated. A guy with no money goes to work for his rich uncle, boxing swimsuits on an assembly line. He meets a nice girl and gets her pregnant. Then – complication of complications – he meets Elizabeth Taylor. She’s rich and beyond beautiful. He falls in love… and she loves him back!

What’s he to do with the pregnant girlfriend?

The class dynamics are fascinating. (Charlie Chaplin called it “The greatest movie ever made about America.”) George is torn between two lives that can’t mix; and there’s a heartbreaking scene where his poor paramour practically begs for an abortion. Of course the doctor says no. When she demands George marry her, he agrees. But he wants Liz.

Clift’s performance is the soul of this movie. George is decent but having bad thoughts, and on that intense face he wears the agony of his predicament like the most sensitive person imaginable.

Ambiguity can be powerful. A Place in the Sun ends with a trial. Is George a murderer? He doesn’t know, and neither do we. All we know is we’re watching a wrecked man, and a great movie. There may be no better emblem of our capacity for neuroses, depression, and confliction than Montgomery Clift’s doomed face.

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24. River’s Edge

Teenagers are no good. Millennials? They spend so much time online they don’t even bother having sex any more. Generation X was “The Whiny Generation.” This theme is so timeless that journalists have been labeling teenagers as entitled little shits since the 1900s.

I like how River’s Edge does it. The movie’s from 1986, when hippies who protested Vietnam are old enough to be teachers. Here’s what Mr. Burkwaite tells his bored students: “We stopped a war, man. We took to the streets and we made a difference. We turned public sentiment around and we made people see the truth… As crazy as it all seemed, there was meaning in the madness. There was a clear and a real purpose.”

The kids absolutely do not understand. One responds “Wasting pigs is radical, man.”

This is a bizarre, unique movie that begins with a classic thriller device: a dead girl’s body. But there’s no mystery. The killer, Samson, sits beside his victim, smoking. He goes to school, where his friends are debating how to get beer, and confesses. He takes them to the body. They all knew her, but no one really cares.

The cast includes three iconic ’80s teenagers: Ione Skye (Say Anything), Crispin Glover (Back to the Future), and Keanu Reeves (Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure). Diane Court, George McFly, and Bill were sweethearts; there are no sweethearts in River’s Edge. Their characters never answer when asked how they feel, because they don’t. They get drunk, high, have sex, even kill. But they don’t feel.

The ex-hippie teacher flips out toward the end. He asks Clarissa (Skye), “Are you upset, Clarissa? Are you? If you are, get it off your chest.” She stays silent, and he gets mad at the world: “You don’t give a damn! I don’t give a damn!” (“Are we gonna be tested on this shit?” someone asks before the bell rings.)

But Feck cares. Played by Dennis Hopper, Feck is troubled by these kids, and takes action. He’s the sort who understands them: a crippled, loner drug dealer, who murdered his girlfriend and replaced her with a sex doll.