Thursday, 12 April 2018

Top 100 Favourite Films: #70-61

#70: A Nightmare On Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors – No one knows an illness better than the patients

A string of teen suicides has struck the town of Springwood. Professionals claim they want to stop it, but they also think that the victims are cowards unable to deal with their own guilt and vices. It’s only with the interference of people who have personal experience with the creature they share to give the others a moment of clarity; a chance to fight back.

As someone with a history of suicidal ideation, this sounds pretty damn familiar and the sentiment rings true for me because of it. It feels accurate to that sense of comradery that can come out of that shared knowledge of one’s inner demons. Hell, I’ve made quite a few friends in the real world through that very connection. Never mind how the acting is top-notch, the characters are fun, the effects are brilliant and Freddy finds a good middle ground between being menacing and being funny; I love this because I can relate to this film’s view of the mental health system from the inside-out. I can see way too much reality in how the patients of Westin Hospital are exploited, misled and largely ignored by people who know far less about their problem than they think.

But beyond connecting over the same problem, this film also shows an understanding of coping mechanisms and rituals meant to help against that problem, taking as much from Catholicism and mysticism as it does clinical psychology. I mean, I use cinema as my own personal therapy; not only do I understand the use of more unconventional remedies, I’ve actively benefitted from them myself. It’s just a matter of knowing what works, and as far as cinema goes, this works extremely well.

#69: The Big Lebowski – A religious experience

I’m not that big on the Coen brothers. While I find no real fault in their style of storytelling, most of their work doesn’t really resonate with me on any deep level. This film is an absolute exception to that, to the point where this one film had an effect on me that no other film could hope to achieve: It led me to faith. This film has a fanbase so strong, so intense, so enraptured by the demeanour and mindset of Jeff Bridges’ The Dude, that there’s actually a religion built around him. It’s called Dudeism, and I am actually ordained as a Dudeist priest.

The Dude is basically the person that I wish I was. Someone who is able to approach the world with a largely-laidback attitude and let the bad juju slide off of his back. Someone who is at peace with his own existence, so long as everyone leaves his rug alone. Someone who can maintain his pacifism in the face of the universe’s chaotic nature. The whole film is populated by deeply ideological characters, from the absolute certainty of Walter the Shabbos goy to the radical feminism of Maude the artist to the nihilism of the German musicians, and the Dude serves as the Taoist hermit that connects them all together by random chance. Both as the epitome of all things chill and as a philosophical personality, the Dude is one of the few people, fictional or otherwise, that I consider to be a personal hero. I want to be more like this guy.

If trying to live up to a higher ideal isn’t what you’d call religion, than I don’t know what is.

#68: Sleepy Hollow – The original forensic fairy tale

My appreciation for this particular film is two-fold: Its visuals and its script. On the visual side of things, we have Tim Burton being as unabashedly idiosyncratic as ever, rounding up his Burton Street Regulars to craft a loving tribute to the garishly Gothic aesthetic of old-school Hammer horror. A lot of the performances are amazingly over-the-top like Johnny Depp as the sceptical police constable Ichabod Crane, Miranda Richardson as the darkly sadistic Lady Van Tassel, and of course Christopher Walken as the bestial Headless Horseman. However, because the film’s intent remains clear throughout, these performances are rather fitting and engage quite well because of it.

As for the writing, courtesy of my favourite screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker, he uses the juxtaposition of forensic science and age-old superstition to make some very relevant statements about where the realms of fact and fantasy collide. The film’s setting, that being the cusp of the 19th century, is rather telling, considering when this film was first released. The Western world was also on the cusp of a new century, one that most were dreading because of their superstitions surrounding technology and Y2K. It’s a great murder-mystery, it’s a fun slice of Gothic horror, but for me, it’s at its best as a look at how what we believe and what we know are often in conflict but can also work together to achieve the greater good.

#67: A Clockwork Orange – Sympathy for a monster

How do you make a bad person likeable? How do you take someone like Alex, a rampant hedonist with a penchant for violence, rape and vandalism, and turn him into someone worthy of sympathy? Well, Stanley Kubrick managed to do just that, in a way that genuinely changed my perception of human morality from then on. The dialogue is utter gold, capturing a truly unique society just out of how they communicate with each other, and the acting is brilliant with Malcolm McDowell creating a very stark and confined presence as the king of all things ultraviolent. But it’s the way this film presented me with a literal rapist, someone who should deserve whatever happens to him in prison, and through taking away his free will and forcing him to be ill at the very thought of what he did, made me care about him.

This made me want to see justice for what was done to him by the government that sees God-given freedom as a formality. Kubrick’s visual detailing of fascist ideology helps with this, depicting this near-future Britain as a totalitarian regime that is far more about control than change. I will admit that there are a great many things in this world that I hate, a hefty amount of them embodied by Alex himself… but I would never dream of taking away a person’s ability to choose just to stop that. The ends do not justify the means, especially when they reduce a person to a lab experiment in a way that shows the government’s ideas of conformity and justice are even more warped than the ideas of those why wish to restrain.

#66: Unbreakable – The Superman we deserve

This is one of the most grounded superhero flicks out there, to the point of basically showing up every single grim-dark vigilante caper that would come after it. M. Night Shyamalan has a bit of history of not treating his own stories with the reverence they deserve (look at the consistent laughing stock of The Happening or the utter disregard for lore in The Last Airbender), but here, he shows an adherence to aesthetic that is staggering to watch. The perfectly-honed establishment of superheroes and villains in contemporary America, aided by the fantastic performances of Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson as well as the fantastic use of colour-coding for their respective scenes, lends great service to the story about a man who has been hiding his fantastical powers from everyone, even himself.

The writing hits decidedly dark areas when it needs to, while still allowing for a bit of organic humour to ring through. For the former, we have scenes like Willis’ David Dunn and his wife having to talk their son out of trying to shoot David, because the kid believes that bullets won’t hurt him. For the latter, we have David and his son weightlifting with the son discovering that his father can lift all the weights they have at once. This is Shyamalan at his best as far as balancing humour and drama, a skill that would eventually dull as time went on.

As for the overall look at the more traditional superhero story, the way this film depicts the good guys and bad guys in the narrative is remarkably nuanced, even today. Everyone has their part to play, even the villains. And while the actions required to discover that part can be horrific, it also speaks the truth about how necessary it is for people to find their individual place in this world. Even as someone with a real appreciation for superhero and comic book-inspired outings, this still stands as one of the best of the entire genre. And to make things even better, watching this film today in our oversoaked Marvel-influenced climate, this feels like a successful subversion of a trend that didn’t even exist when it first came out (at least, not to this extent).

#65: Men In Black – It’s not the size, it’s how you use it

On a minor note, this set a weird precedent in comic book movies that sometimes, you get better results when you intentionally distance yourself from the finer details (look at any of the adaptations of Mark Millar’s comics for an example of this in action). On a far-less-minor note, this film boils down to what humanity prioritises as important, mostly due to either literal or figurative “size”. A tiny jewel holds a galaxy inside, a giant cockroach wants to get its hands on it, the titular Men In Black focus on the larger threats as opposed to minor things like migrant workers trying to make it across the U.S./Mexico border, and one of their agents is equipped with a tiny gun that does a colossal amount of damage. Every time I rewatch this film, I keep noticing little touches that add onto that theme; with a film that is this tightly-constructed in every regard, from the performances to the world-building to the amazing effects work that gets great use out of both practical and computer-generated visuals, this is the effect I want out of revisiting films.

So, yes, this means that Men In Black is basically a feature-length dick joke. But man, is it an effective dick joke.

#64: American Psycho – Conformity at the cost of one’s soul

Any interaction with society at large, on any level, involves some form of compromise in order to meet their expectations. But how far can a person go before they lose everything that makes them a person? That is what comes to my mind when watching this film, a look at vaguely-employed Patrick Bateman and his murderous moonlighting. Every aspect of his life involves some form of masking, from his monologues about the popular music of the time that are completely devoid of any genuine feeling to his insistence that everything and everyone around him conform to the majority. He even uses that same anonymity he possesses because how alike everyone is to get away with his killing sprees.

But then, it all comes crashing down. He starts to realise the utter depravity he has been engaged in, but he’s in so deep that he can’t get out. The same system he used to get away with his crimes, how much he and everyone else conforms to one another, is used to keep him in his place. It’s only when his conscience catches up to him that it becomes clear that he has lost everything. He is no longer a true individual; even the one thing that made him unique to his surroundings, his lust for flesh and blood, has been taken from him. It’s a black-as-pitch satire of the 80’s corporate scene in the U.S., and it absolutely nails the soul-crushing effects that conformity-requiring capitalism can have. Even beyond the economic commentary, I relate pretty heavily to this as someone who struggles with the line between staying true to myself and playing ball with my surroundings.

#63: 8MM – Evil exists for its own sake

This is a film about the snuff film market, the darkest corner of the pornographic world. It succeeds because both its director, Joel Schumacher, and its writer, Andrew Kevin Walker, are at their most comfortable when things are good and murky. Schumacher doesn’t try and give this disturbing topic any artificial sheen to make it palatable; this is coated in enough grime to last ten Wiley albums. Walker, employing his bankable brilliance with scripting, depicts the world of pornography as a near-literal world unto itself, showing the kind of detail and real-world understanding of how everything runs to make the events shown feel eerily real. The end result is a fantastic mystery flick, bolstered by great central performances from Nicolas Cage, Joaquin Phoenix and a genuinely unnerving James Gandolfini, that talks eternally depressing truths about the world.

This is encapsulated by the moments when Cage’s Tom Welles confronts those involved in the snuff film racket, where he is met with the reasons why they did the things they did: There are none. Evil, the raw, uncut shit, doesn’t need a reason. It may present justifications for itself, but at the end of the day, it only exists to maintain its own existence. These are monsters, not in visuals but in mentality, who commit evil because they can.

But at the same time, good, equally raw and equally uncut, exists for the same reason. Welles so very easily could have abandoned this case, and it seems that only he and the victim’s mother even remember who the victim was. But he stuck with it, proceeding further and further into the dark core of the business that claimed her. Because it is the right thing to do, done for the sake of being good. This is an incredibly dour film, but at the same time, one of the more uplifting I can recall once it gets to the ending.

#62: Helldriver – Creatively dumb in the best way possible

Some films aren’t designed to be watched for heady thematic analysis. Some films serve escapism more directly, presenting a fun experience that is meant to be disconnected from the real world and our understanding of it. Sure, I could bring up this film’s rather lowkey political commentary on the Japanese government… but I can’t lie: I love this for how completely stupid it is.

Oh, make no mistake: I mean that as a compliment. There is barely a plot to speak of here, aside from a loose thread connecting set pieces together, and if you’re looking for narrative resolution, I sure hope a decapitated zombie head crashing into an alien planet is satisfying enough for you. But that’s not where this film’s strengths lie. Instead, it is with filmmaker Yoshihiro Nishimura’s astonishing creativity. An action-heavy zombie movie, this is the kind of film where just describing what is happening on-screen is enough to make you sound like a crazy person. Like how the zombies in question have a T-shaped growth on their heads which, when cut off, can be sold at a premium. Of course, it’s mainly sold as a drug that gets ground up and sniffed… and then makes the users’ heads explode. Or how one scene involves a larger zombie knocking off the heads off of other zombies with a golf club, which then fly towards our heroes and explode on impact. See what I mean about the description thing?

As much as a lot of this list may argue, I don’t look into every film with an expectation of intellectually-layered messaging or themes. Sometimes, I just want to kick back and watch hilariously-awesome anarchy take place. This film scratches that itch for me far more than any “so bad it’s good” feature I’ve come across. It’s fun, it’s consistently engaging, the practical effects are quite impressive, and… dammit, I want that chainsaw katana for my very own. That thing is just made of badass.

#61: Chasing Amy – A roadmap of sexual identity

This romantic dramedy between a straight man and a lesbian woman taught me a lot about how to approach sexuality in the real world. Rather than using non-straight sexuality as an easy joke, like a lot of comedies to this day seem to revel in, it instead makes the main joke about how much straight people (particularly straight men) fail to even grasp the idea of non-straight sexuality. Ben Affleck is an underrated actor in my humble opinion, and this is one of his best performances: A doofus who just can’t help himself when it comes to unearthing his partner’s sexual history. This is another example of how needless meddling when it comes to sex can ruin things, much like with A Dirty Shame, but this is a more personal perspective on that, showing how someone can sabotage their own good thing through blind curiosity.

Speaking of that personal perspective, this film has a special place with me for a couple reasons. One of them is the aforementioned influence it had on my understanding of sexuality, and the other being that, no joke, this film actually happened to me. To make a long story short, I also wound up professing my love for a woman who I didn’t realize was a lesbian. It was a rough situation at first when I found out, one that could have ended a great friendship if I was too careless, but then I just thought back to Holden’s unhealthy curiosity and Banky’s callousness and realized “Wait… I know how to handle this. Or, at least, I know how not to handle this.” I learn a lot from films, but more importantly, I learnt how to put them into practice, and thankfully, myself and this woman are still friends today. I have this film, in part, to thank for that.

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