Monday 9 April 2018

Top 100 Favourite Films: #80-71

#80: Trainspotting – The use of drugs and people

There are a lot of users out there. People whose only real drive is to get that next fix, that hit that can help them escape their surroundings, if only for a little while.

Oh, did you think we were talking about drugs? Understandable; this film is one of the single greatest drug films ever made, with Danny Boyle’s hyperrealism, John Hodge’s characteristically misanthropic scripting and Brian Tufano’s Francis Bacon-inspired visuals meshing together to create one hell of a trip.

No, when I say “users”, I mean users of people. The drug of choice is just a means to an end; the main characters here are more fundamentally sociopathic, manipulating everyone from their families to their friends to complete strangers, just to meet those ends. And if they aren’t actively pushing other people to do their bidding, they themselves are getting pushed around by the people they consider “friends”. Some of it is more reserved, like how Renton’s action and inactions eventually lead to the deaths of people around him, while some of it is more bombastic, like Begbie’s willingness to pick a fight with literally anyone who looks at him the wrong way. Combine this with how grimy their Edinburgh surroundings are framed, and you have what starts as an anarchic bucking of the cultural system around them but quickly turns into an all-encompassing hunger for self-destruction, knowing that neither their circumstances nor their surroundings are going to change. This is why I rate the sequel T2: Trainspotting as highly as I do: Because it managed to generate sympathy for people that are this broken inside.

#79: Phone Booth – Kiefer Sutherland shatters the fourth wall

I have a certain fascination with the morally-ambiguous serial killer. Something about characters that somehow find a way to justify ending the lives of others, making it out as some kind of moral crusade, genuinely interests me in a rather perverse way. This film in particular feels like a sly wink to that very archetype, as Kiefer Sutherland’s mysterious caller spends the majority of the film playing with the various tropes of that archetype. The scorned soldier wanting revenge for a system that failed him, the tortured soul unable to deal with his traumatic upbringing, the failed actor who wants fame at any cost… yeah, that’s all bullshit.

What makes this film so damn good in my eyes, aside from the solid acting, incredibly lean pacing and the way it makes the idea of an entire film based on a rather antiquated piece of technology actually viable, is Sutherland’s performance as the mysterious voice who forces a hot shot talent agent to come to terms with his actions. Through just his voice, he manages to electrify the story around him, acting as both the antagonist and the riffer in the audience mocking the contents. Rarely does this idea work well, that of a film that seems to mock even itself, but credit to Joel Schumacher for getting it done.

#78: Silver Linings Playbook – Play mental health at its own game

As someone with a vivid interest in human psychology and what makes people tick, I have a very intense adoration for the filmography of David O. Russell, whose entire body of work can be traced to specific areas of psychological examination. Naturally, it’s the film of his that deals with this the most explicitly that elicits the most adoration from me, both as someone with a series of co-morbidities (among them being bipolar depression) and as someone with a great love for cinema. This film covers a lot of psych ground in its runtime, from bipolar disorder to obsessive compulsive disorder to clinical depression, all of which is covered with what I see as real respect and knowledge.
But beyond its outlining of mental health, providing solid humour and pathos in equal measure, it’s the approach to overcoming those mental health concerns that really earns my respect.

This attitude is perfectly encapsulated in this one scene, a moment that would normally lead to the tried-and-true third-act-breakup of this love story… but instead, through the brilliant clarity of Tiffany (played to utter perfection by Jennifer Lawrence), the film basically says “Fuck you!” to that irritating trope and resolves the issue by playing mental health at its own game. Not by directly opposing it, but by using its own trappings to make everyone realise that maybe her relationship with Bradley Cooper’s Pat is actually doing them both some good. One of the bigger things that annoys me in the real world is how blasé people can be about something as serious as mental health, and watching this film for the first time in the cinema, I felt a sense of strength that honestly changed me for the better when it got to this moment. Pure, uncut badass!

#77: Edward Scissorhands – The reclusive genius and the attempts to exploit him

For as long as I can remember, I’ve had very conflicting expectations come my way. People have taken my autism as an indicator that I can be difficult to deal with (which, admittedly, can be the case on some days) but also as an indicator that I have a larger potential for success in academics and other areas (which, again, can be the case on some days). Of course, with those expectations comes a certain fear from my end: What if these people are more interested in my capabilities than my status as a person? What if one overrides the other so much for a person that they think that exploiting me for their own ends is a reasonable idea? This film, one of the most Burtony films Tim Burton ever brought to the screen, shows that fear manifest.
A disaffected, pale-faced loner, played with disarming efficacy by Johnny Depp, is brought down from his isolated existence into the gossipy technicolour of suburbia, and the events that await him range from the uplifting (discovering his flair for hairdressing) to the heartbreaking (his interactions with Winona Ryder’s Kim) to the patronizing (a recurring line directed at Edward is that he should consider cosmetic surgery, likely to make him appear more “normal”) to the outright disgusting (nearly being raped by housewife Joyce, played with irritating accuracy by Kathy Baker). I don’t usually pay much mind to “coded” autistic characters, but I can’t help but see a lot of my own behaviours and thought patterns in this incomplete experiment of a person. Being able to relate to a fictional character on this level is what helped me through a lot of my questions about my own real-world existence, and Edward here is one of the most resonant of that grouping.

#76: The Wicker Man (1973) – What happens in church, stays in church

I consider myself to be a very philosophical person, someone who gets enjoyment out of pondering the theological makeup of our universe, but I’ve never considered myself to be a religious person in the strictest sense. I was raised in a secular household and, for reasons I won’t get into here (not my story to tell, after all), our family has more than enough reason to be wary of organized religion and pseudo-religious cults in equal measure. So when looking at this film, an increasingly bizarre Pagan-horror musical, I see not a depiction of an occasionally-murderous theology but the dangers of interfering with the religious beliefs of others.
As much as I want to sympathize with Sgt. Neil Howie’s mission to find a missing girl on a remote island town, his insistence on pushing his Catholic beliefs onto others only makes me think that he brought what happened to him on himself. Had he listened to the advice of the locals and not gotten involved with their Mayday celebrations, he would have prevented his own fate at the hands of the titular Wicker Man, shown in this film’s harrowing conclusion. I may not like what a lot of people practice in accordance to their own religious beliefs, but I also know to not poke at a hornet’s nest if it’s not presenting an immediate threat.

#75: Strumpet – The combustion of artistic expression

This will likely be one of the more hipster-ish opinions that will show up in this list, as my favourite Danny Boyle film isn’t any of the usual suspects. Instead, it’s this little-seen TV film about a hermetic poet, played with incendiary passion by Christopher Eccleston, his mentoring of a budding young musical talent and his coming-to-terms with how the mainstream would warp his ‘vision’. It’s something of a recurring joke when it comes to the idea of the disregarded genius, but with the way this film seems to truly understand the internal flame of poetic inspiration, this feels like it’s speaking from a very direct stance of clarity. The opening scene with Eccleston’s Strayman reciting Evidently Chickentown is incredibly invigorating to watch, and his subsequent scenes of poetry and music with Jenny G’s title character fill me with the urge to create art for myself. Because that is what this story and these characters represent: The inherent thrills of creating art, of pouring one’s emotions and attitudes into a piece of work that they can call their own. In a mass media world, I take a lot of pride in what I have to contribute towards it, even if it is just putting down my thoughts onto the page about a particular film I happened to watch that day.

#74: Wes Craven’s New Nightmare – Storytelling as a prison for demons

The Nightmare On Elm Street series has a very special place in my heart, one largely driven by nostalgia of marathoning the series with my mother many nights in my childhood but also one driven by my innate liking for the mixing of cerebral horror and visceral black comedy. This entry in the series, however, represents something different for me. It represents how much the creative process can hold a person hostage with its power, shown here by writer/director Wes Craven as himself acting like he’s under the thumb of his own creative drive, unable to stop the emergence of one of his greatest creations into the real world. The film appeals to my interest in metatextuality, bending the line between the dream world (or in this case, the fictional world) and the real world in glorious fashion, but it also highlights how much creative art tends to bend that line through its sheer existence. Dreams and reality often influence each other to varying effect, and with this story, we see how the act of storytelling is used to hold back one’s inner demons. Taken to a rather literal extreme, granted, but since storytelling and artistic expression in general is often used to process one’s own anguish and sorrow, it rings true for a person like me. I mean, I’ve often used these very reviews as a means to contain and re-assess certain uncomfortable parts of my existence, so you can see why I would take comfort out of a work like this.

#73: Reservoir Dogs – Scriptsploitation 101

On the surface, this reads like the worst kind of action caper: One that seems to actively draw attention to everything except the action, as this is ostensibly a heist flick where we are never shown the heist itself. But that is the true excellence of this film: It made me aware of just how much we aren’t shown in this visual medium, relying on the dialogue and the actors to fill in the blanks. Indeed, the majority of this story focuses on misdirection and being able to explain events through words, not images. In the past, I’ve used the term “scriptsploitation” to refer to films that are more interested in conversation than visuals, and Tarantino’s debut feature is one of the crowning examples of how to do that style justice. It also serves as a prime example of how pop culture references in dialogue can help a story, as situations like the heist presented here where everyone uses code names and are strictly told not to divulge personal details, how else can two people connect with each other at a time where human contact is a vital requirement? The ultimate showing of this is through Mr. Orange rehearsing and telling his story of a botched drug deal, which gives the most visually-intensive moment of the film, dedicated to an event that didn’t even happen in-universe. That is the power of screenwriting right there: Making the audience invested in something that not only we aren’t shown, but that never even happened in the first place.

#72: Clue – Wit untouchable

Given the myriad of reasons I’ve already mentioned as to why I love certain films, my reasoning for this particular feature is relatively sparse: I just think this film is fucking hilarious. Between the incredible quick-wit of the dialogue courtesy of Jonathan Lynn and John Landis and the outstanding acting, this ranks very high with me in terms of sheer quotables.
“You lure men to their death like a spider with flies!”
“Flies are where men are most vulnerable.”
“Right! …”

Easily one of my favourite exchanges in all of cinema, and the delivery from Martin Mull as Col. Mustard and Madeline Kahn as Mrs. White is perfect.

Aside from its unabashedly talented wit, there’s also something to be said about how this is a film based on a board game of all things, and yet there is no question of its efficacy or even intent. This is a comedic murder-mystery that manages to nail all three of those signifiers, and it is one of those films that I can sit down and watch regardless of whatever else is happening at the time.

#71: The Blair Witch Project – Psycho-horror in its purest form

The godmother of the found footage horror sub-genre, this certainly makes a strong case for that mode of filmmaking in how sparse it is, showing a relatively simple story of three documentarians getting lost in the woods and growing increasingly insane from the isolation. But this also highlights a lot of what makes psychological horror so damn effective, namely in how simple it is. The production history of this thing only further highlights that, as the directors legit did abandon the three main actors in the woods and actively tried to screw with them to get the performances seen here. While I would rail against the mistreatment of actors and how this kind of mismanagement of talent can have disastrous effects… I can’t lie, I really like the result of all that. I feel a lot of sympathy for the main characters here, as their growing realisation that they are trapped in this nightmare world of dense foliage and suspicious ritual markings causes them to slowly lose their grip on reality. That loss of grip is shown with such startling smoothness in its pacing, and grounded emotionality in the performances, that this is the kind of film I would point to as to why I love psycho-horror as much as I do. Because with just a couple cameras, three actors, a rough outline and the dread of the natural world, you can create sheer terror.

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