Tuesday, 24 April 2018

Top 100 Favourite Films: #30-21

#30: Monty Python’s The Meaning Of Life – Life is absurd, go out with a song

While most people go with the religious satire of Life Of Brian or the absurdist masterpiece of The Holy Grail as far as the best Monty Python has to offer, my heart has always lied with the dark horse in this race. I’ve always been more interested in their sketch work, like the Trade Descriptions Act or the ever-popular Dead Parrot, than their lengthier narratives and this film shows them at the height of that mode.

One part unorthodox musical, one part slapstick comedy, and one part mosaic depiction of British life, this works tremendously well both as a whole and when taken scene-by-scene. On the latter note, this contains some of my favourite Python bits, like the rousing musical number Every Sperm Is Sacred and the most blasé sex-ed class of all time, and it features enough quotables to hold its own against anything else the Pythons have made. As a whole, while tied together through rather basic themes, it still makes a compelling case for the true Python ethos. It sticks to their particular brand of societal commentary, taking aim at the NHS, the British private school system, and any religion within earshot, while also wearing its very surreal humour on its sleeve. It’s a depiction of life that doesn’t make that much sense, which is fitting seeing as how life itself doesn’t make that much sense.

#29: Where The Dead Go To Die – The nightmares of a computer

Like many other entries on this list, I can vividly recall the first time I watched this film. However, in this case, it’s for far less pleasant reasons. I first found out about this film online and, after watching a review that made it out to be the most insane thing ever created, my curiosity got the better of me and I bought it on DVD. I started watching it and…

Okay, this is going to sound like hyperbole, like I’m trying to exaggerate just how grotesque this particular movie is, but I promise you that this is true. In the middle of watching this film for the first time, I actually blacked out and when I came to, I was screaming at my TV. I can get quite spirited when watching films, getting myself caught up in the moment, but I cannot recall a film that got a reaction that severe out of me. Have to admit, I was more than a little scared; it was like the film actually traumatized, as its glitchy hellscape of the mind rammed its way into my subconscious. Hell, when it came time to review this film for the blog, I struggled to remember the specifics of the story. It’s like my brain immediately went to suppressing the memory of ever watching it.

At this point, you may be wondering why I have ranked this film so highly if it gave me such a negative experience. Well, the truth of the matter is that it ranks highly with me because it got that reaction out of me. As someone who views film as a form of emotional therapy, part of that notion involves releasing negative emotions as well, albeit in a relatively safe environment. I try and watch as many movies as I can because I enjoy the unique experience that each singular film can present. And man, nothing quite says ‘unique’ like this one, both in its content and its subsequent reception.
This incredibly twisted horror flick, made up of three separate but equally horrifying segments, is not animated well; this is the kind of CGI quality you’d get from most animation hobbyists on YouTube. However, that roughness merges with the surreal aspects of the story and the utterly nightmarish designs for this film’s version of hell. It covers a lot of ugly territory as far as theme goes, in increasingly tasteless ways, something that aligns perfectly with the equally ugly visuals. I don’t know if androids dream of electric sheep, but I’m pretty sure that they have nightmares that look like this:

#28: The Dark Knight – The labyrinth of higher ideals

No matter how faithful superhero films try to be to their comic book origins, they are always details that don’t translate. Sometimes, these can be minor niggles that can be easily ignored (Jim Gordon only having a son), and with others, they can completely betray the character audiences came to see (whatever the actual hell they did to Bane in Batman & Robin). While this isn’t a complete exception to the rule, this also holds a special place for me because it managed to nail three crucial characters in the story in a way that even the better films have managed.

Mileage may vary on Christian Bale’s very raspy Batman voice, but that’s offset with me by how he actually manages to portray Bruce Wayne, the playboy billionaire, as a separate persona to Batman. The Joker has always been an avatar of manic anarchy, but Heath Ledger genuinely transformed himself to depict the purest version of the character I’ve seen yet. And then there’s Aaron Eckhart as Two-Face, who gives a shining jewel of a performance as the scarred agent of chance. From those three anchors, Christopher Nolan’s approach to crime noir crafts an incredibly compelling morality play about the battle between order and chaos, with the fate of Gotham City hanging in the balance. It transcends the usual trappings of a superhero flick and gave audiences a look at the true potential your standard comic book character contains, in a way that has shaped a lot of what would come after it. While that technically means that this film is partly to blame for the muted monotony of the DCEU, this on its own is still captivating enough to outweigh that.

#27: Kubo And The Two Strings – The importance of storytellers

This serves as the second half to what I was saying with The Neverending Story, as this film serves as a look at how important the storyteller is, both in its function and in its very existence. The act of creating and sharing stories can do tremendous things for the human spirit, as a lot of this list should prove, and as we look at Kubo’s quest to stop the Moon King, we see the effect that recurring stories can have on a culture. A lot of what influences both the individual and the collective comes from what is shared and remembered: A single person’s life story can go on to inspire the stories of millions. By taking human memory and human lore and tying them together, we are shown why stories are worth telling. Both because of their individual importance, and because this film makes them look so damn good.

The fourth production by modern Claymation mavericks Laika, this film shows that illustrious studio at the peak of their power. The character modelling is gorgeous, the scenery is beautiful and the camera work capturing both of them ranges from good to outright impressive. But beyond the larger textures, it’s the smaller things that really catch the eye: Lovingly-rendered leaves and paper scraps result in some stunning sequences to show their use in storytelling. Add to that the ideal voice cast and the tear-jerking musical score, you have a film that not only understands the role of the storyteller, but knows how to make the most of their materials to tell that story.

#26: Sausage Party – Boundaries are made to be broken

Let’s make one thing perfectly clear: Co-director Greg Tiernan is an awful person. The condition he had people working in at Nitrogen Studios was awful and his personal treatment of them even more so. I’ve been skirting this line of art/artist separation on this list already, but with this, it is genuinely unavoidable. So, bear in mind that while I do love this film, I still admit that the conditions under which it was created were far from ideal. Maybe it was a good thing that this didn’t start a new wave of animated features.

Getting outside of the production background, this film might be one of the most tasteless feature films I’ve sat through. And yet, I only consider that to be a positive in the film’s favour more than anything else. Every aspect of this film, from the heavily-stereotypical casting and voice acting to the frequently egregious use of puns in the dialogue to the clichéd-as-fuck soundtrack choices, corresponds to the film’s very direct and unrelenting tone. This isn’t the kind of film that requires hefty decoding to figure out the ultimate point: If anything, it’s a little too easy to make that out.

But again, not holding that against the film. The cultural and sexual stereotypes of the characters come across less like genuine prejudice and more like a means to reveal just how ridiculous those very stereotypes are. The sense of humour here results in far more hits than misses, and even the use of puns comes across like it just had to be said because the opportunity was there. This honestly speaks true to how I approach comedy in a lot of everyday situations: It may be trite and obvious, but I like to take advantage of joke opportunities wherever they present themselves. And as for the soundtrack, the choices are obvious but that doesn’t make them any less fitting. I Would Do Anything For Love sung by a meat loaf played by the Meat Loaf, Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go as the entrance theme for the ‘fruits’, Hungry Eyes as the prelude to what is easily the most graphic sex scene I have ever seen in a mainstream production; all of it fits, and it speaks to the insanely consistent pedigree of Point Grey Pictures when it comes to music comedy.

There’s also how this film’s handling of tone is absolutely mesmerising. Whether the narrative is aiming for romance, drama, comedy, horror, even existential pondering, it always manages to hit the mark. Because of that tonal expertise, the other elements of the production equal up to a film that takes a sledgehammer to every sacred cow in sight to make some very blunt but necessary points about how we shouldn’t let such petty things get between us and our fellow man (or fellow hotdog, as the case may be). Yeah, things like religion and politics may not seem so petty, but just look at how they are used to rationalize people being shitty to each other; sounds pretty petty to me.

#25: National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation – The perfect secular Christmas

While I have a certain fascination with religion and philosophy, that isn’t something that I was taught to have by my family. In fact, I grew up in a rather secular household, one that had more than enough reason to be weary of mainstream religion and even the lesser-recognised cult mentality of certain groups. And yet, even with that in mind, my family has celebrated Christmas for as long as I can remember. The big family gathering, the feasting, the sharing of presents, the awkward comments made when we don’t really want said presents but we have to be grateful anyway; these memories made up a lot of my childhood.

Enter Christmas Vacation, which for me perfectly represents the idea of a secular Christmas. John Hughes’ writing actively seems to be avoiding the religious aspect of the holiday, as shown by the gag of one of the family members giving the Pledge of Allegiance when asked to say grace, but that is offset by how much he understands family dynamics. The moments of cringe at seeing the Griswolds interact with each other, knowing that they are under some kind of cultural obligation to put up with each other for the holidays, feel very real and should speak true for those of us who have felt the discomfort of the forced family gathering.

But what makes this hit as hard as it does for me is the character of Clark Griswold, who embodies a lot of that discomfort but also a lot of the optimism that that time of year can bring out of people. He’s met with various obstacles, from putting up the lights to getting rid of squirrels to disarming a hostage situation, and the pressure definitely gets to him like with his infamous speech about what he’d like to say to his boss, but he still wants to make this a Christmas worth remembering. A Christmas like the ones from his youth, where the joy of the season allowed for a pleasant time in spite of all that has already been mentioned. Chevy Chase’s comedic chops at their peak with this one, allowing for the more prickish parts of his personality to ring through while still being entertaining to watch, and once it gets to the ending, where we see that Clark actually managed to beat the odds… that’s what Christmas is to me. It’s tough, it takes a lot of work, and there’s going to be a few tears shed. But if you truly care about your family, you still put the effort in. Give them some memories to hold onto, before the cynicism of the real world gets to them.

#24: Liar Liar – The power of honesty

In all regards of my personal life, even beyond what I write down here on the blog, I always see being honest as paramount. I’ve spent a sizeable chunk of my life having to explain to others what is going on in my own mind, from psychologists and therapist to teachers and fellow students. Being honest and upfront about things not only tends to be a lot easier to deal with, rather than having to juggle lies and attempting to keep them consistent with what actually happened, I find it a lot easier to get support and assistance when I don’t bullshit. This approach sometimes lands me in trouble, since there are some smaller social lies that need to be made to keep conversations from getting awkward and I just don’t have the capacity for that, but I still find that easier than the alternative.

While I can attribute this mentality to my own psychiatric history, I also have this film in part to thank for me being as willingly open as I am. This relatively simple story about a lawyer who finds himself unable to tell a lie for 24 hours benefits from a lot of its surface details: The acting is great, with Jim Carrey giving his single best comedic performance here in all its manic hyperactivity, the quips are rapid-fire and always land, and when it comes time for pathos, his intent of proving himself to be a good father really appeals to me. I have a great amount of respect for Carrey’s abilities as an actor, both comedic and dramatic, but this marks something wholly unique with him: I have great respect for Carrey, even in spite of some of his real-world attitudes (no, vaccines do not cause autism, you pillock), because his presence in my childhood through this film helped influence one of my most positive traits. As someone who frequently puts himself down, either for comedic effect or because it reflects my genuine lack of self-worth, I tip my hat to the things that genuinely benefitted my development. It’s why this list even exists at all.

#23: Beauty And The Beast (1991) – I am the Beast

This is another exception to my usual “pressured into liking classic cinema” attitude. In fact, being able to recognise this film for the true masterpiece that it is might have been the easiest conclusion to come to out of any expressed on this blog. All the right people were in precisely the right place as far as production goes, from the excellent voice cast to Howard Ashman and Alan Menken’s iconic soundtrack to the animation which shows the Disney Renaissance at its most artistically consistent, resulting in a production where the sheer time and effort that went into putting this together oozes out of every pore of this film’s technical makeup.

But beyond its legendary status, this film also appeals to me because I relate to the titular Beast in ways that I am almost embarrassed to admit. While this prospect makes the “oh, how nice(!) A Stockholm Syndrome romance(!)” backlash this has received feel even more needlessly pointed, that doesn’t change how much the Beast’s social mannerisms tend to mirror my own. I don’t see anything close to psychological or even physical intimidation here. Instead, I see someone who has spent so long being forcibly isolated from everyone else, threatened with the possibility of this existence being the only one he will get to experience for the rest of his life, that he genuinely doesn’t know to communicate with people. My own neurological differences to those around me put me into pretty similar situations growing up, and I certainly empathize with how that kind of isolation can stunt a person’s social development.

What makes that hit harder is that, through the plain but still thought-out characterisation of Bella, the film presents the kind of person that can see through the surface details and appeal to the genuine humanity underneath. It’s not an immediate arrangement, and Bella is more than willing to call the Beast out when he genuinely does something wrong, but through natural progression and friendship, their connection grows. It’s a film all about how initial prejudices can ruin lives, but it’s also about the real strength and kindness that can overlook said prejudices and treat other people like… well, people.

#22: Who Framed Roger Rabbit? – Lighten up, you putz

This is another production where it seemed like all the right pieces were put in all the right places. Robert Zemeckis’ wickedly creative direction combines with Richard Williams’ perfectly-honed animation to create a story that presents two distinctly different styles, but allows them both to complement each other brilliantly. It’s a film noir story full of blackmail, murder and racial undertones, and it’s also a slapstick comedy featuring a collection of literally animated characters who will do anything to get a laugh. The darker material is given the gravitas it deserves, from the genuinely unnerving Judge Doom to the still-horrific execution of the red squeaking shoe, and yet the humour present never feels out of place or out of tone with its surroundings. Oh, and one of the greatest film scores ever composed; much like Zemeckis and Williams, Alan Silvestri and jazz are two great tastes that go great together.

I could get into how brilliantly this works as a family film, truly presenting something for everyone, or how well it reworks real-world history concerning United States ghettos and the racially-charged motive behind them and turns it into something that doesn’t contradict the previous point. But for me, I love this movie most of all is because it helped shape a rather crucial part of my psyche. Much like the citizens of Toontown, I put a lot of worth into the ability to make others laugh. In most social situations, and whenever the inspiration strikes during these posts, I will do whatever I think is necessary just to get a laugh out of someone else. Even if it means I’m the butt of the joke. Because comedy and the act of laughter can be a very powerful thing, one that can bring people together and affect the heart in a uniquely rapturous way. And when the world sees fit to kick you while you’re down, it can be the only weapon you have to fight back with. Like Roger himself says: “If you don’t have a good sense of humour, you’re better off dead.”

#21: The Fountain – Death is beautiful

Well, there’s a segue I didn’t plan for.

Kind of like how I didn’t plan to treat death as on-the-nose as I do… for better and for worse. For the better in that I have come to accept death as part of the natural order of the universe. For the worse in that I have had a few brushes with death myself, all of which by my own hand. It’s a question that I sometimes find myself thinking about in my darkest moments: What would it be like if I just… died? If I left this plane of existence and everyone in it behind? I treat life as something inherently precious and worth protecting, but I also accept that life can be a worse fate for a person than death.

But whatever my ultimate fate turns out to be, and nowadays it is looking less and less likely that I will be my own undoing, films like this helped me to accept that that ultimate fate is awaiting everyone. It’s just as much a part of life as life itself, just as the forces of destruction and creation cycle through each other. Darren Aronofsky as a filmmaker operates in the realms of psycho-spirituality, looking at how ideals can affect the human mind, and with this, he looks at how the prospect of death affects a man whose profession in life is to save others. Well, for one-third of the film anyway. The narrative as a whole is a chronological triptych, tying together the stories of a Spanish conquistador, a brain surgeon and a space monk to further show the recurring nature of life. All of them are seeking the means to prolong life, treating death as a dragon to be slain.

To experience eternal life sounds like an ideal scenario… but to deny death is to deny the other side of the cog that keeps reality ticking. Everything has its time, so we should spend our own while we still have it, not needlessly chasing after more of it.

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