Sunday, 15 April 2018

Top 100 Favourite Films: #60-51

#60: The Castle – White guilt as cultural understanding

Part of the Aussie culture is a very ingrained want to stay the hell away from itself. It’s a weird side effect of just how little of a fuck we collectively give, but cultural cringe plays a large part in the national mindset. It also plays a large part into what makes this film so good, as a lot of it banks on lovingly ribbing the white Aussie middle-class, exposing it as being far less sophisticated than it thinks it is. The people who see seasoning on chicken as something exotic, and plastic faux-French housing decorations as the height of class.

That said, I specify “lovingly” ribbing because, while it highlights a lot of cringe-worthy activity in the Kerrigan family, it never comes across as mean-spirited. If anything, it manages to generate sympathy outside of that through their plight of potentially losing their home. Another key aspect of Australian culture is what has been pinned down as “The Australian Dream”: Owning property. I’ve poked fun at the American equivalent many times on this blog before, but bear in mind that at least theirs focuses on prosperity and personal ambition. Here, it focuses on occupying land that, if you know anything about our nation’s dark history with the First Peoples of this country, we shouldn’t be occupying to begin with.

Where this gets interesting is where this film plays into the cultural landscape through its narrative, about a middle-class white family being forcibly removed from their home land. This was a remarkably common thing back in the 80’s and early 90’s, with TV shows like The Henderson Kids and Round The Twist also featuring plots along the same lines. As much as I would like to put this down to privileged whining, this film shows enough awareness of its predecessors to avoid that. By framing the story as a matter of protecting one’s home, even incorporating the ground-breaking Mabo case into the bedrock of the narrative, it reframes a rather prominent piece of Australian white guilt as a means to sympathize with our past. To understand what is woven into our cultural history and how we can learn from it, rather than just ignore that it ever happened like far too many conservatives over here seem to be doing. This highlights what I see as our nation’s greatest cinematic asset: A willingness and aptitude to delve into cultural patchworks, and expose both the sorrow and the mirth contained within.

#59: Ed Wood – Even the worst filmmakers have heart

A decidedly different offering from Tim Burton’s Gothic stylings, this look at the life and works of Mr. Edward D. Wood Jr. shows the kind of sincere admiration for schlock that modern audiences experienced in droves in the wake of The Disaster Artist. It presents the man’s works for what they are, cheaply-made oddities, but never translates that into contempt for the man himself. Instead, through its approach to his work ethic and his genuine drive to create films, it allows sympathy for a man who wanted to make art but didn’t have all of the means to do so. So, he made do with what he had, compiling together some of the most unintentionally strange films in the history of the medium.

This is a fact for pretty much every filmmaker in the world: Even the worst of them still have to put a lot of work into just a single production. In order to truly present something like Plan 9 From Outer Space as something worth taking seriously, the filmmaker himself must have taken it seriously. And as this film shows, Ed Wood had a creative zeal that even the most popular directors of today could scarcely touch. Brought brilliantly to life by Burton Street Regular Johnny Depp, we are shown a man who made undeniably subpar films… but still kept making them because his love for the art form was just that strong. Not even the flimsiest of tombstones could hold him back. Have to admit, as someone who frequently worries about the efficacy of his own works, I get a lot of inspiration out of a story like this. Glen Or Glenda is still very near and dear to my heart, but it’s this film that made me give it a chance in the first place.

#58: Inside Out – Depression from a child’s perspective

I was diagnosed with clinical depression at an early age. It’s something that has affected a lot of my life from then on, and I have had more than a few ugly experiences because of it. Knowing that that kind of depression is rarely if ever portrayed accurately on film, I always feel like it’s a matter of public service to highlight the ones that get it right. And quite frankly, few films I have seen in my lifetime managed to get it across as effectively as this did.

Its connection to depression is admittedly part of its overall connection to emotions at large, with a lot of the film’s humour and pathos coming from how well it understands how raw feels can affect a person, especially at an early age. Through a combination of some of the best casting I’ve ever heard for an animated film (Lewis Black as the literal personification of Anger is about as perfect as you can get) and a neat balance struck between the family-friendly rounding of the real world and the child-like wonder inside Riley’s head, the film both looks and reads like it comes from a place of genuine understanding.

There’s one scene in particular that stuck with me, even more so than this film’s legendary running gag about the jingle for Tripledent Gum. It’s where Riley is in the midst of an emotional breakdown, with the emotions in her head being completely unable to do anything at Headquarters. The eerie quiet as she sits on that bus, just trying to get away from everything through a haze of emotional hollowness… That hit hard. I’ve made a few of those trips myself, and that feeling of utter disconnect from what I know I should be feeling is an experience I know all too well. And all of this courtesy of Disney/Pixar, showing that their capacity of traumatizing children can also be used for utterly therapeutic purposes. If someone ever asks me to explain how what it’s like to have depression, my only response will be “Watch Inside Out”. It’s that effective on all fronts.

#57: True Romance – Best film cast of all time

This is the epitome of an ‘ensemble cast’ film, as not only is the cast stuffed full of amazing actors, they are all set into roles that fit them about as perfectly as you can get. Christian Slater as one of the best depictions of a film geek I’ve seen in Clarence Worley? Check. Val Kilmer as Elvis-in-all-but-name/Clarence’s spiritual mentor? Check. Gary Oldman as the perplexingly captivating gangster Drexl? Check. Dennis Hopper and Christopher Walken in one of the greatest exchanges ever put to film as Clifford and Don Coccotti? Check and CHECK!

Brought together by casting directors Risa Bramon Garcia and Billy Hopkins, under the direction of underrated 90’s legend Tony Scott and with the scripting of the great Quentin Tarantino, this is the kind of bombastic crime flick that benefits greatly from this many great names in the cast list. Even the smaller roles, like Samuel L. Jackson as Drexl’s right-hand man, leave a serious impact by film’s end. This is the kind of intricacy with casting that I honestly wish more ‘ensemble cast’ productions took note of, as everyone here pulls their weight in service of a story that deserves their efforts.

#56: Reefer Madness (2005) – Propaganda gets torn to pieces

The original 1936 scare flick Reefer Madness is one of the most memetic pieces of propaganda in the cultural mindset. In today’s day and age, the idea that people were so dead-set afraid of something as innocuous as marijuana is quite laughable… but that doesn’t change the fact that that mindset was still a very real thing, one that has lingered into the modern day. This satirical musical based on that production succeeds on two different fronts.

Firstly, the music is gold. It has the right combination of tongue-in-cheek lyricism and genuinely catchy music to create the kind of songs that you can sing along with regardless of irony. Whether it’s the overblown ridiculousness of Listen To Jesus, Jimmy, the borked zaniness of The Brownie Song, the genuinely sweet sentiment of Mary Jane/Mary Lane or the demented bombast of the title song, it all checks out.

Secondly, it shows enough of an understanding of its source material to aim its jabs well, taking the expected contemporary hindsight to comment on just how… precious all of this seems. It embodies the naiveté of 1930’s America, while also having the sense to highlight why propaganda like the original film exists. Throughout the film, as quipped by Alan Cumming as the omniscient narrator, we see how a lot of the restrictions of the time were built around scapegoating and painting targets: Silencing the opposition with accusations of being Communist spies, denouncing the “evils” of jazz and romantic love, all in service to preserving the American identity from fabricated enemies. That also has lingered into the modern day, and as funny as this can get, I have a lot of respect for how vicious this can get in exposing the mechanics of propaganda for the heinocity that it represents.

#55: Perfect Blue – Screwing with the mind has never been so simple

The late great Satoshi Kon will always have a place in my heart for the incessantly vicious culture critic that he was. From the pop culture evisceration of Paranoia Agent to the look into tech and Internet culture with Paprika, the man is not only astute about his surroundings but more than willing to voice them.

What makes this particular feature sit so well with me is down to more than just the cultural examinations, though. Sure, it has a lot of clarity about celebrity culture and the fetishization of women, particularly the pop idols that make up a hefty amount of the Japanese landscape. It highlights a lot of ugly attitudes in society towards these aspects, and even managed to predict the role that the Internet would go on to play in that dynamic as far as disgusting behaviour towards women.

However, even more so than that, I love this film because it is a perfect blueprint on how to do psychological horror well. Rather than the incredible intricacies of his work on Paranoia Agent, it’s the simplicity of this feature that wins it points. While dealing in very nuanced and layered ideas, it manages to breeze through them so efficiently that Kon makes the whole genre look dead-easy to pull off. I mean, if this story about a pop idol-turned-actress succumbing to what her surrounding culture expect of her can be boiled down this easily into effective spine-chills, why can’t they all be this good?

#54: The World’s End – The Arthurian pub crawl

This is a martial arts action/sci-fi/comedy about a group of friends going on a pub crawl through their old hometown, all the while dealing with alien robots and wearing a lot of Arthurian influence on their crumpled sleeves. Edgar Wright made his mark on the world through this kind of cinematic alchemy, combining so many seemingly-disparate elements and seamlessly merging them together, and this marks one of the high points in his already-impressive filmography.
As a comedy, it is positively rib-tickling and it benefits from Wright and Simon Pegg’s penchant for impeccably-detailed stories with enough minor details to warrant repeat viewings to let all the jokes ring through.

As a piece of socially-conscious sci-fi, it utilizes familiar notes of adults learning how to be adults from the rest of the Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy with a pointed perspective on how homogenized the modern world has become. It also benefits from an absolutely astounding conclusion, using humanity’s potential for misbehaviour as a defining reason for its existence, with the ending proper presenting the kind of grim but weirdly optimistic near-future that makes for true science-fiction classic status.

As an action flick, Wright’s penchant for energetic action beats combined with the choreography of Aussie stuntman Brad Allan, member of the Jackie Chan Stunt Team, allows for incredibly fun pub brawls.

And as a complete package, all of these elements weave in and out of each other to create a seriously unique experience of a film. One that I still vividly remember watching for the first time and being utterly breathless with glee by the end.

#53: Falling Down – Pulled from tomorrow’s headlines

One of the more popular legends in the Internet age is that of Florida Man. Seemingly every day, at least one news story hits about someone from the Sunshine State doing something so perplexingly criminal that reactors are both aghast and breathless with laughter in response. And these stories can get outright bizarre, to the point of making the classic “Man bites dog” scenario seem like any given Sunday in comparison to what some of these people come up with.

I bring this up because this film, yet another morose effort from Joel Schumacher, feels like it’s in-tune with that same disconnected feeling as the stories attributed to Florida Man. Man walks into a convenience store, sees how expensive a can of soda is, trashes the convenience store, pays for the drink and leaves. And that’s just for starters! This could have so easily been its own humourous news story, except with this film’s framing, it’s not all that funny. Instead, through Michael Douglas’ iconic performance as D-Fens, we are shown a man at the end of his rope, discarded by the country he spent so long serving and wanting nothing more than to see his daughter again.

This film’s narrative presents a lot of odd set pieces, like the legendary “I don’t want lunch, I want breakfast!” shouting match at a fast-food restaurant, but with the character backstory, it highlights the tragedy of what it takes to bring a man to that point. It shows the context that is often missing from the tales of Florida Man, depicting an imperfect man stuck in an imperfect world and only getting further submerged in it by the second. Interesting note here: Despite the increasing access to weaponry D-Fens gets as the story carries on, he doesn’t actually directly kill anyone in the film proper. The closest he gets is the man on the golf course who has a heart attack, and even then, I would argue that the situation doesn’t leave him as the sole person responsible for what happened. I know this is a weird reaction to a story like this, one often written off as White People Problems, but this actually changed my perspective on stories like those of Florida Man.

It gave me an idea of how it feels to be that person’s shoes, how they must have felt and what must have happened to them to lead them to the point of making the news in that fashion. This film taught me to be more sympathetic about what I see reported in the news, a mindset that also translated into a more sympathetic mindset towards life in general. There’s a lot more people like D-Fens out there than you would think.

#52: Snatch – An entire cast of lead characters

Much like True Romance, the brilliance of this crime caper is down to the characters, both in writing and in performance. However, this goes one step further than True Romance in that this also has pitch-perfect casting of captivating characters, but I can easily see any one of these characters being the lead of their own story. And they have all been brought together in service of what still remains the crown jewel of former Brit-crime vanguard Guy Ritchie’s catelog.

From the low-key badass of Jason Statham as boxing promoter Turkish, the high-key bumbling of Robbie Gee’s Vinny and Lennie James’ Sol, the immediate engagement of Benicio Del Toro’s Frnky Four-Fingers, and of course the incomprehensible majesty of Brad Pitt as the Irish boxer Mickey (best performance of his career, don’t @ me), everyone here is just so well-drawn and interesting to watch butt heads with each other that it makes the rather fractured nature of the plot feel warranted. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t bring up Alan Ford as the king of all things intimidating Brick Top, one of the single greatest film gangsters of all time. In a film chock-full of delicious quotables, his monologue about what the word ‘nemesis’ means is the absolute highlight for me. It may fill me with some disappointment that Guy Ritchie has never managed to be this good since, but still, he gave us one hell of a career highlight.

#51: Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas – The straight dope (and booze and mescaline)

Hunter S. Thompson is one of my biggest influences as far as writing goes. His very raw and uncompromisingly personal approach to journalism, one just as intent on soaking itself in the chaos of the world as it is trying to wade through it all, is something that I have definitely taken to heart. Hell, I directly took inspiration from his Gonzo style of journalism in a few of my reviews on here, particularly when it came time to review the 2015 version of Vacation, which still ranks as one of the single worst films I’ve sat through.
This film was my first major exposure to the man, the myth, the legend that is Hunter S. Thompson, and right from the incredibly haunting opening credits, I was hooked. Johnny Depp (man, he’s been turning up a lot on this list, I just realized) brings another incredible performance, depicting the man himself so well than even Hunter himself was amazed by it. Director Terry Gilliam, a creator who is at his best when dealing with unabashed insanity, designed the visuals to depict the reported effects of drugs and hallucinogens, an effect that is very apparent in how stylistically uncomfortable this can get.

But that discomfort serves a greater purpose than simple disorientation, as this marks one of the few exposes on the ‘American Dream’ that actually resonates with me. Watching Raoul Duke and Dr. Gonzo navigate the hedonist’s Disneyland that is Las Vegas, hopped up on enough pharmaceuticals to kill lesser men, gives a very surreal but earnest depiction of a society in turmoil and the crazies who are the only people who could keep their sanity in the face of it. I have always had a thing about embracing my inner weirdness, something that should be apparent in a lot of my picks for this list, but this film made me realize that, in this world, you need that weirdness to stay sane.

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