Ten Great Science Fiction Films

With the release of Blade Runner 2049, it’s time for a sci-fic pick list. Here are my ten favorites. There are no Star Wars or James Cameron films here, just to get that out of the way.

Image result for sunshine 2007
1. Sunshine. Danny Boyle, 2007. When I saw Sunshine I bought another ticket and saw it again right away, which is something I’ve never done with any other film. The visuals and punishing sound blew me right back in my seat. And the scoring is genius, with earworms as compulsive as the themes of True Romance. It’s set in the year 2057 when the sun is dying, and a space crew embarks on a mission to drop a nuclear bomb into the sun’s core, which will hopefully reignite it. Right from the start the mission is one calamity after another, and the crew members have to sacrifice themselves, even to the point of contemplating murdering the one of them “least fit” in order to save oxygen. One crew member is roasted by the sun’s rays when he goes EVA to repair ship damages. They respond to a distress call from another ship, which leads to more disaster, and to being stalked by a disfigured religious fanatic who believes God wants humanity to die. There are homages to Alien and outer space claustrophobia, but for my money, Sunshine is even better than Alien, and I adore that masterpiece to begin with (which is my #2 pick, below). Captain Kaneda’s death scene captures the visuals, scoring and dramatic intensity of the film, and a good illustration why it’s my favorite sci-fic film.

Image result for alien 1979
2. Alien. Ridley Scott, 1979. Even after decades and so many viewings I’m still terrorized by Alien. It’s a horror film with science-fiction dressing, and a ’70s product in every way, nothing like the quickfire plotting of the inferior sequels (making some allowances for the underrated Alien 3). Cameron’s sequel was an ’80s film in every way, an action blockbuster that made the mistake of altering the most terrifying aspect of the alien: its ability to cocoon a victim and cause it to morph into an egg/facehugger. In Aliens the eggs come from a queen, but Scott had envisioned a horrifying process by which any alien “laid eggs” by transforming captives. Cameron’s film also involved military personnel going after the alien threat, and while it’s not pleasant that they all die, that’s their job. In Alien we feel the raw terror of six civilians stranded alone in space, hunted and devoured one by one. It’s a film crafted with the care and discipline that’s rare these days, and it delivers genuine terror. Kane’s chestbursting remains the most pulverizing scene in the history of sci-fic cinema.

Related image
3. Blade Runner 2049. Denis Villeneuve, 2017. I was worried this would be another Mad Max: Fury Road, but not only does Blade Runner 2049 live up to its predecessor, it supersedes it. It’s a stunning visual aesthetic. It has the ambitious concepts of the original, and it takes them at the slow pace they deserve, so patiently that it feels like a ’70s film. I’m not surprised it bombed at the box office. Few people these days have the wherewithal — and by that I mean the intellectual wherewithal from above, and the physical fortitude from below — to sit still on their sweet asses for 2-3 hours and enjoy good artistry. The only criticism you can make are the plot holes which leave glaring coincidences unexplained. For example, from the start K is investigating the farmer replicant whose home supplies the clues for Rachael, while K already has memories implanted in him that relate to those very clues. But even here the plot holes seem more part of the overarching Blade Runner mystique. The best character is the hologram Joi, and she serves an oblique existential function: if software can fall in love and fear death, then the objection to replicants having these soul-like traits becomes even more strained. Her merging with the woman for K’s sexual pleasure is an incredible piece of choreography — as is virtually every other scene in this masterpiece.

Related image
4. 2001: A Space Odyssey. Stanley Kubrick, 1968. Objectively I would call this the best sci-fic film of all time. I doubt there will ever be another as culturally significant. It’s a visual piece; in its two hours and 19 minutes, there are less than 40 minutes of dialogue. Kubrick said he wanted to reach a wide spectrum of people and make them think about humanity’s destiny, its role in the cosmos and its relationship to higher forms of life. I continue to marvel at the interplay between the start and finish. The Monolith appears among the primitive apes radiating its terrifying noise; they surround it, worship it, and learn to kill with intelligent purpose. At the end Bowman is transfigured into the Starchild, suggesting another evolutionary step. In between we are subjected to a visionary epic plumbing the vastness of space through some of the most ecstatic imagery ever put on celluloid. There are shots of pure genius — like the falling bone from the primitive chimpanzee age “becoming” the space shuttle in the 21st century — the sort of inspirations that come once a decade in film making. I can think of one film only — Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life — that has come close to doing what Kubrick did here, in showing humanity humbled by celestial mysteries.

Related image
5. Gattaca. Andrew Niccol, 1997. This film flew under the radar when it was released and it deserves more recognition. It’s not set in space at all, for space is the wishful fantasy of its lead character. He is barred from pursuing that dream on account of bad genes. In the world of 2022 (scary to think that’s only five years away now), it’s not white heterosexual men who are the superior elite, but rather the bioformed. Men and women of all ethnicities are born in test tubes to be engineered for ideal health, high IQs and a long life-spans. People who are born naturally are called “In-Valids” and consigned to a life of menial labor. Vince is one such In-Valid who refuses to accept his lot on life, and manages to work out a deal with a crippled elite. He uses Eugene’s genetic samples to get past Gattaca’s daily security checks, and undergoes training for a mission in space. Gattaca explores privilege by genetic purity in the context of Vince’s personal family baggage, and it’s a very moving drama.

Related image
6. Snowpiercer. Bong Joon-ho, 2013. The film is many things: post-apocalyptic sci-fic, a social class war, a claustrophobic horror piece, and bat-shit insanity that would make David Lynch envious. (To get an idea as to how insane, just watch this scene.) It’s set in 2031, long after an attempt to counteract global warming backfired and brought down an ice age. The only survivors boarded a train called the Rattling Ark, and after 17 years it keeps people alive in an extremely perverse state of affairs. The train is powered by a perpetual motion engine that travels a circumnavigational track (around the globe). The wealthy elite live in the front cars and the “low-lives” live in the back cars, in hideous conditions, under watch by guards, and given only protein bars to eat. Each carriage forward presents a deadly challenge for the protagonist who aims to get to the front and put things to right. Snowpiercer is a sci-fi thriller with plenty of rapid-fire action, but also intelligent artistry and off-the-scales craziness.

Related image
7. Event Horizon. Paul Anderson, 1997. This was panned by critics who had the wrong expectations for a sci-fic film. Today it has a major cult following. It’s basically The Shining in outer space, set on a ship that’s equipped with a gravity drive that sends you to hell. As the crew explores the ship, an evil presence begins to exploit their darkest personal secrets and torture them with hallucinations. The scientist who created the Event Horizon soon realizes that it’s penetrated beyond the boundaries of the universe and in to hell itself. The crew members stumble on incredibly frightening footage of the ship’s previous crew, which shows them killing and cannibalizing each other in some kind of demonic fury. I would call this the most terrifying sci-fic film I’ve seen (even more than Alien), and a bold depiction of inter-dimensional evil. I watch it almost every year.

Image result for blade runner
8. Blade Runner. Ridley Scott, 1982. It’s hard for me to rank Blade Runner, because the question is which version. The theatrical cut was cobbled together by studio executives who wanted a happy ending to please moviegoers; it also contained voiceovers from Deckard to explain his backstory, which in my view condescends to the audience. In the director’s cut, Deckard’s voiceovers disappear (a plus), as does the happy ending (a plus), and restores the intended ambiguous ending about Deckard and Rachael’s fates (a big plus). But now there are scenes which call into question whether Deckard is human; he may actually be a replicant. I continue to have mixed feelings about this. Deckard’s humanity was never in question in Philip Dick’s novel, and the only reason Scott ran with the idea is because of a fluke — one of his film crew suggested the idea off-the-cuff. The Final Cut is the one that most closely matches Scott’s original vision, and also happens to align with the tone and style of the sequel Blade Runner 2049; it includes some more violent scenes that were left out. That’s the best version, but weighing all them together, I put Blade Runner at #8. It’s a great film in any case.

Image result for europa report
9. Europa Report. Sebastián Cordero, 2013. This came out the same year Gravity did. It was a good year for outer-space dramas, but Europa Report went unheard of, while Gravity got all the praise. It should have been the other way around. It takes a quasi-documentary approach, but don’t fear the “found footage” format. The film is neither stingy nor confusing in its visuals, and it exudes the wonder and terror as a piece like this should. A mission to Europa inevitably falls in Kubrick’s shadow, but Cordero’s approach is his own, more gritty and less visionary than 2001: A Space Odyssey. Even though all six astronauts end up dying, it’s uplifting by what they witness, recorded for posterity. Their mission was to look for organisms, and the luminous octopus-creature revealed in the last frame (see above image) will forever change the context of how scientists view life in the galaxy. This film really made me want to walk on the ice moon. It’s that powerful in transporting you.

Related image
10. The Matrix. The Wachowski brothers, 1999. Few people know that The Matrix didn’t start with Keanu Reeves. It started with Tom Baker in Doctor Who. That story is The Deadly Assassin, which first aired in 1976, and the Matrix is even called that in the story, functioning exactly like the model we know — an electronic neural network that turns thought patterns into virtual reality. The Doctor subjects himself to the Matrix and enters a horrifying virtual reality to learn the identity of a political assassin. The Wachowski brothers took the idea and made a blockbuster franchise from it, but if you ignore the trashy sequels, the first Matrix still holds up well. The idea that we’re nothing more than batteries powering machines who rule over us (see above image), and that our lives are just dreams, is something I’ve found eerily plausible.

Advertisements

Retrospective: Crossroads

I went to bed last night pondering the idea of music as a weapon, and paid for it. In my dreams I was assaulted by guitar-wielding psychopaths whose riffs crushed my will and forced me to sink neck deep into the earth. That’s not what happens in Crossroads (1986) but it’s what happens when you watch it with an overheated imagination like mine. The film is almost unheard of these days, which is too bad. It mixes The Devil and Daniel Webster with Huckleberry Finn, throws in homages from underdog dramas, and finishes on a blistering guitar showdown inspired by the “The Devil Went Down to Georgia”. And yet for all the pastiche it still feels original after 30 years; it’s certainly aged better than most films I saw in high school. Watching it last night was rewarding, the subsequent nightmare notwithstanding.

The plot involves a guitar student named Eugene, who attends Juilliard on a scholarship. He’s a prodigy of classical music but wants to play southern blues instead, and so tracks down the legendary harmonica player Willie Brown in a nearby nursing home. The two strike up a curious relationship. Eugene is star-struck, and Brown is a bit of an asshole with a mean temper. He’s openly contemptuous of this New York kid who has the balls to call himself a bluesman, since real bluesmen, as he sees it, come from the Mississippi Delta. But he’s also amused by Eugene’s passion and makes a promise to teach him a lost song written by Robert Johnson, in return for breaking him out of the home. Eugene agrees and they hobo all the way down to Mississippi, having some interesting road encounters. They hook up with a girl who is on the run from abusive parents. They go into segregated bars and get fistfuls of southern racism. It’s an introspective film that seems more ’70s than ’80s, and unassuming in what it tries to accomplish. It has a natural charm that draws you in to the southern blues subculture, even if you don’t like blues music (as I don’t).

Eugene’s tutelage under Brown is one of musical instruction and insulting put-downs in about equal measure; at one point Brown even belts him in the face for giving him lip. On top of that, it turns out that the “lost song” is a lie, and that Brown has just been using Eugene to get back to his old stomping grounds. This shatters the kid, but a friendship grows between them despite all this, which they will need for the final act.

Brown’s reason for getting back to Mississippi has nothing to do with settling down and teaching a protégé how to be a new Robert Johnson, far less nostalgia for his own roots. Just the opposite: he needs to re-find a crossroads where he made a deal with the Devil, cancel that deal, and then leave the south forever. As a young man he sold his soul to become famous, and while he got the fame, he’s been in torment for it. Eugene makes light of this crossroads “folklore” whenever Willie brings it up (which is why he gets slapped in the face), but it’s a good thing he thinks it’s bullshit. It will allow him the confidence he needs in the final showdown.

The crossroads is located somewhere between Yazoo City and Vicksburg, and when they arrive the Devil appears as a wide smiling African American in a suit and tie (see left), speaking the local accent. This modest incarnation of Satan somehow manages to be more diabolical than some of the devils seen in horror films. He needs no supernatural supplements to exude menace; everything is conveyed in a predatory smile and lean sarcasm. Brown begs him to tear up their contract and set him free, to which the Devil replies, “Now why on earth would I do that?”

This is where things get interesting. Eugene doesn’t believe this man is supernatural, let alone the Devil, but he can see the tormenting effect he has on Brown and so steps into the conversation to help. The Devil turns on him and offers a challenge: If Eugene will attend a special concert and win a guitar battle, then Brown will get his soul back. If Eugene loses, then Eugene’s soul is forfeit to the devil just like Brown’s. Brown strenuously objects to the proposal, but Eugene tells him not to worry, because he’s just calling the guy’s bluff as he sees it, not realizing the hell he’s just thrown himself into. He and Brown suddenly find themselves in a music hall, awaited on stage by a heavy metal-blues guitarist named Jack Butler, (played by, yes, Steve Vai).

What commences is an extraordinary performance that resembles less a contest and more a lethal duel. The guitars of Eugene and Butler seem weaponized as they alternate their riffs, then play at the same time, get in each other’s faces (though this is more Butler than Eugene), and desperately try to one-up the other’s notes. They get assistance from the floor: a woman leaps and dances and shakes her ass around Butler, cheering him on; Willie whips out his harmonica and plays to Eugene’s music. Finally, Butler lets loose a furious solo that seems impossible to top, but Eugene is able to do so in a stroke of genius, by falling back on his classical training and blending classic and blues in a way that Butler tries to outmatch but utterly fails. It’s worth nothing that while Butler’s performance is real (he’s played by Steve Vai after all), Eugene’s is staged, but his finger work on the guitar looks so goddamn real that I once thought Ralph Macchio was a professional guitarist. (You can watch most of the duel here.)

With the challenges of portraying music as a dangerous force, the Devil as a southern black, and an unbalanced friendship that ends with appropriate payoff, Crossroads does a remarkable job — far better than its reputation suggests. It bombed at the box office, but then I was never surprised by that. It was a mainstream effort that dealt in issues outside the mainstream. Eugene’s odyssey is one of hard lessons and heartbreak; Willie’s torment owes to a myth no one believes. The triumph of the former and liberation of the latter are well earned.

Rating: 4 stars out of 5.

The Massive Failure that is It

I admit I was seduced by the hype, but It was a major disappointment. Saying that it improves on the TV version from the ’90s gives new meaning to damning with faint praise. The mini-series was an abomination. Muschietti’s film is an abject failure. Trying to elevate the latter by comparing it to the former is like eating mud to chase down feces.

There are two problems with the film. First is that it’s not scary at all; it fails its own genre. The critic at Pop Matters nails it:

“There are no scares in It. None. Think about how hard it is to make a clown not scary. Pennywise might be the most ineffective murderer in the history of murderers. He jumps, he chases, he concocts elaborate puzzles for the kids to navigate, but he struggles to deliver the coup de grâce. That’s pretty amazing, considering he can do anything. He can change shapes, he can impersonate anyone, he can possess people, he can stretch his mouth wider than a freaking python, AND YET… he has a tough time actually murdering people. It’s hard to feel genuine fear when a horror movie sounds more false alarms than a low-battery smoke detector.”

Georgie dies at the start of course, and in the end we see plenty of corpses floating around in Pennywise’s lair. But for some strange reason, the characters we are invested in are impervious to the clown’s murderous designs, despite the fact that he can invade them in the most private areas of their homes, pounce and grab them, and get up in their faces and show a mouthful of obscene teeth. On the other hand, he kills Patrick Hocksetter with complete ease; but then Patrick is a bully, and thus an easy throw-away character.

Even the favorable reviews (88%) at Rotten Tomatoes come with caveats, acknowledging that it’s not the most effective horror piece but works as a coming of age story. But even that’s not true, and here the second problem: The kids are just single-note ciphers. They are defined by virtually nothing beyond their loser-traits. Eddie is a hypochondriac, Mike a black outsider, Richie an (admittedly amusing) vulgar insult machine, Stan a sensitive Jew, Ben a heavyweight (called “Tits” by one of the bullies), Beverly an outcast tomboy, and Bill a speech freak. Unlike the kids in Stranger Things, the Losers aren’t fleshed out so that we can engage with them. Eddie whinges, Richie drops F-bombs and wise-ass remarks (with lame humor coming even in places that should be terrifying but aren’t), Bill stutters, etc., but that’s all they do. Beverly gets some added depth in the scenes with her abusive father, but that issue is handled so ridiculously (she, an 11-year old, easily dispatches him when he makes advances on her) that it would have been better to omit it altogether.

It’s not that these kids do a poor acting job; just the opposite. They are talented for their age — especially Finn Wolfhard, Sophia Lillis, and Jaeden Lieberher — and do fine enough with what they are given. They’re certainly a vast improvement on the kids used in the unspeakable mini-series from the ’90s. But they’re not given much to care about.

I admit that I’m jaded and hard to scare, but seriously, anyone who is frightened by Muschietti’s film shouldn’t be watching real horror films at all. Shame on the studio for not supporting Cary Fukunaga. He directed Jane Eyre and the brilliant first season of True Detective, and judging from his original It script leaked online, the film could have been great. Instead, the studio played it safe — with loud bangs, cheap thrills, and underdeveloped Losers who don’t matter to us.

(Actually, what we really need is a director and studio willing to shoot the sewer orgy scene — but that’s a whole other story.)

Rating: 1 ½ stars out of 5.

The Sewer Orgy Revisited

It would appear that the sewer orgy scene from Stephen King’s It has been on everyone’s mind. For the past few weeks, my blogpost on the sewer orgy (posted in April) has been getting loads of hits. Today, for example:

Read the post here if you missed it before. And remember, the sewer orgy won’t be in the film released tomorrow. Which is a shame, because it’s the novel’s most important scene, though admittedly understandable. In the 21st century, no studio would dare take on the subject of an 11-year old gang bang.

Stranger Things “’80s Posters”

What a neat idea. The official Stranger Things Twitter account is promoting #StrangerThursdays, which involves a rewatch of each episode of the first season on every Thursday, live tweets with commentary, and behind the scenes details. The best part is that they start each episode by revealing a new Stranger Things poster inspired by an ’80s film that influenced the show. I’ll update this post as the posters roll out each Thursday.

“Stand by Us” (August 3)

Modeled on Stand by Me.

“A Nightmare on Mirkwood” (August 10)

Derived from Nightmare on Elm Street.

“Don’t walk. Run.” (August 17)

From The Running Man.

“No One Can Hear You Scream.” (August 24)

From of course Alien.

“Normal in every way but one.” (August 31)

From Firestarter.

“The Ultimate Experience in Grueling Curiosity.” (September 7)

From the smashing Evil Dead.

“Don’t Go In the Void” (September 14)

From Jaws. (“Don’t go in the water”)

“Join the Adventure.” (September 21)

From The Goonies.

The Best of Martin Scorsese

This is a long-delayed installment in the favorite director’s blogathon. It was a given that Scorsese would be covered, but I needed to do a marathon of his films. Some are better than suggested by earlier viewings (notably Shutter Island) while others don’t quite live up to their reputation (get ready for a couple of blasphemies). Of his 24 feature films to date, here are what I consider the top 10.

Related image
1. Silence. 2017. 5 stars. This is the film I thought Scorsese was aiming for all his life but never had a hope of pulling off. His other forays into religion — The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) and Kundun (1997) — were so bad that I said he should avoid the subject. He finally hit a home run. Silence is not only one of the best religious films of all time, it’s Scorsese’s very best film. I had to ponder this hard for the past two months and be sure I really believe it supplants Taxi Driver. The film is a special treat for someone like myself who loves the novel Shogun, set in the middle of Japan’s “Christian century” (1543-1635) and portraying the complex history of the Portuguese Jesuit missionaries. Scorsese’s film draws us into the “post-Christian” period of the late 1630s and he is just as shrewd as James Clavell in resisting sides. The film is no more a liberal critique of western colonial power than a glorification of Christian martyrdom. The priests are decent and have treated the peasants with dignity in a feudal state that was hostile to the poor; yet their work for God incited massacre. Like Clavell, Scorsese shows courageous people going under the sword of honor and shame, and essentially reaped what they sowed. It’s a deep story with a lot of thought behind it, one that I’ll be returning to many times.

Related image
2. Taxi Driver. 1976. 5 stars. What can be said about Taxi Driver that hasn’t been chewed over by the Scorsese cognoscenti? Nothing probably, but I’ll offer this: that there is some of Travis Bickle in all of us. The misanthrope who thinks, with no conscious malice, that society is degenerate and beneath contempt. The sociopath driven to loneliness after failing to connect with people. The frustrated citizen who thinks his country needs an enema, and will assist in this regard by using violence. It struck me as I watched Taxi Driver for the umpteenth time that this ugly potential has more relevance than ever in today’s world — of increased income inequality, alternate facts, social media bubbles, and the ascendance of Donald Trump. Trump won the election on the platform that America is in shitty decay, thanks to regressive liberals and foreigners. (There’s plenty of truth to the former, unfortunately.) There’s a Travis in everyone, yes, but especially in disaffected white men who think it’s time for Travis to take action. I know it cheapens a masterpiece like Taxi Driver to reduce it to a political metaphor, but no one needs me to say the obvious, that it was the first Hollywood film for cinephiles and so brilliantly avant-garde. The metaphor in this case does it justice.

Image result for casino movie tables
3. Casino. 1995. 5 stars. The first heresy on my list is that Casino is superior to Goodfellas. Sue me, but it’s true. As Natasha Vargas-Cooper puts it, it’s more epic in the characters’ rise and fall: “In GoodFellas, the hoods, even with all their cheerful sociopathy, get progressively smaller and pettier as the movie progresses. It is, after all, about the grind of small timers. Casino, on the other hand, elevates Scorsese’s favorite themes — greed, hubris, the primal lure of violence — above the street corner and into the inner working’s of America’s Sodom.” Whenever I watch Casino I’m completely swept up in this dark vision of Las Vegas and people driving themselves to disaster. I’ve always said that Sharon Stone’s performance — raging alcoholic tantrums and all — is way underrated, and Joe Pesci’s psychotic mob enforcer, though a repeat from Goodfellas, is less comical and more terrifying for it. Robert De Niro offers a more sympathetic character than he did before, and doesn’t hold us at a distance. Casino uses the mob world to speak to our fallen state and makes me feel like a true insider to that world — that I share more in common with these thugs and pathetic people than I care to admit. I always feel like I’m watching it for the first time, and that’s true magic.

Related image
4. Goodfellas. 1990. 5 stars. Which isn’t to deny Goodfellas‘ excellence. It was an instant classic for every good reason. And this may be another heresy: it’s superior to The Godfather. Everyone talks about the opposite approaches of Coppola and Scorsese as if they’re equivalently great in their own ways. The Corleones were tragic figures who held our sympathy; gangsters like Jimmy and Tommy are brutes who kill people just because their piles are itching. But the latter is less an alternative than a corrective to the romanticized myth. The life of a gangster is empty and devoid of attraction, pure and simple. Critical to Scorsese’s success therefore is Henry’s character and the way we experience this repulsive mob world through his gradual disillusionment. The character of Tommy provides the jaw-dropping shock value and trigger-happy mania, and is also sickeningly funny in the way only Scorsese can write. Could any other director have come up with the scene where Tommy taunts the barroom kid, shoots him in the foot, and then later shoots him dead when the kid gets fed up and swears back at him? Or the scene (above image) where everyone in the restaurant (and certainly every audience member) is convinced he’s about to beat the living shit out of Henry for laughing at him?

Related image
5. Shutter Island. 2010. 4 ½ stars. This one keeps getting better. On first viewing I was enraged by the elaborate role-playing reveal. I thought it was a cop-out, and a variant of the “it’s all in his mind” trope used by the laziest script writers. But I was wrong, and Shutter Island’s whole point is appreciated more on subsequent viewings. (As with The Sixth Sense, those later viewings show how obvious everything is.) It’s one of the best psychological horror films ever made, enhanced by the expressionistic style, ominous score, and constant sense of creeping unease. Ultimately it’s about the human drive to reinvent ourselves, which we all do, but most of us in small enough degrees so that we can function and know ourselves reasonably as we should. Andrew Laeddis has completely revised his identity, unable to cope with having killed his wife because she murdered their three little kids. Shutter Island becomes an experimental playground for him to tame his trauma, while we think all the time that he’s actually uncovering a hideous plot of doctors performing Nazi-like experiments on the psychologically disturbed. It’s a brilliant film, and a lot like David Lynch’s Fire Walk With Me — easy to misjudge and be angered by for the wrong reasons when you first see it.

Related image
6. The Departed. 2006. 4 ½ stars. It may not have the artistic merit of Casino and Goodfellas, but every single moment in The Departed — every line of dialogue, act of treachery, and shocking death — is a genuine thrill. Scorsese went all in and produced a gangster film of pure entertainment, and one that keeps you guessing. The mob boss (Jack Nicholson) has planted a mole in the Massachusetts State Police (Matt Damon), but there is another mole (Leo DiCaprio) working undercover for those same police to nab the boss. And then in a twist, it turns out the crime boss is a “mole” himself, an informant for the FBI. The supporting Mark Wahlberg and Alec Baldwin characters steal the show, which is saying a lot considering how good Damon and DiCaprio are as the leads. It’s very refreshing to see Irish American gangsters instead of the usual Italians. That said, it was a serious blunder on Scorsese’s part to have all the actors put on Boston accents. It’s a difficult accent to master and everyone sounds absolutely horrible, especially Jack Nicholson, but also Baldwin (whose heavy New York interferes) and Sheen and Farmiga. Only Damon and Wahlberg sound right, naturally, since they’re from Boston. The accents are so embarrassing that I wonder if Scorsese intended it for comedic effect.

Related image
7. Bringing Out the Dead. 1999. 4 ½ stars. This is Taxi Driver with the nihilism dialed down, or as one critic has said, “Travis Bickle wants to cleanse the world and Frank Pierce wants to clean it”. Frank can’t obviously — aside from a few saving moments here and there — and is fated to work the streets of Hell’s Kitchen in a chronic state of depression. The aesthetic is even stronger than Taxi Driver‘s, as we see Frank drive his ambulance through the streets at night, as steam rises from hellish-looking manholes. It’s a great locale metaphor of sin (Scorsese only did better by Casino‘s Vegas = Sodom). The three supporting actors who play Frank’s ambulance partners blow away Nicholas Cage, who I’ve never been a fan of anyway. The first-night partner is John Goodman’s character, who avoids grief and depression by eating all the time. The second night is Ving Rhames, who plays a gospel Christian thriving on bloody emergencies to “demonstrate” Jesus’ healing power. The last-night partner is even more dramatic, Tom Sizemore, who finds his own releases through, yes, beating the shit out of helpless patients he can’t stand. Bringing Out the Dead is no masterpiece, but it’s powerful surrealism that deserves more praise than it gets.

Image result for mean streets
8. Mean Streets. 1973. 4 ½ stars. It’s amazing how good Mean Streets still is after all these years. When watched alongside Goodfellas and Casino it seems quaint, but this film made the later masterpieces possible. And I love the look of ’70s films (aside from the hideous dress and hair styles); it was the golden age of cinema when directors dreamed big and explored style without pretension. On the surface Mean Streets is about guys hanging out and getting into trouble, and a fond look at the gangs and troublemakers of Scorsese’s formative years in New York. It’s the first movie he had complete control over, his personal examination of Catholic guilt, and his attempt to reconcile that guilt with the world of crime. It was released during the transgressive peak of the early ’70s, the year 1973, during the streak of Malick’s Badlands, Lumet’s Serpico, and Friedkin’s Exorcist (what a feast!). I often say if there was a single year in the 20th century I could go back and live through, it would be 1973. That was the moment of the greatest cinematic breakthroughs, the best of progressive rock (Selling England by the Pound), and bubbling dark energies that would be released as the Dungeons & Dragons game in January the following year. A film like Mean Streets captures the essence of this awesome point in American culture.

Related image
9. The Wolf of Wall Street. 2013. 4 stars. This is Goodfellas for corporate business, showing the mayhem of unrestrained greed, and some critics put it on the same plane of excellence as Goodfellas. They’re wrong, but I should be clear what I’m not faulting the film for. It doesn’t glamorize the lifestyle it portrays, any more than Goodfellas does; there isn’t a fiber of my being that is remotely seduced by stock broker lifestyle when I watch it. The better objection is the opposite problem — that Wolf of Wall Street doesn’t give us any sympathetic entry at all into the characters. Goodfellas did this through Henry Hill, who was scum, yes, but a scum with enough moral compass to be outraged over the senseless murder of a kid, to be sick and vomit over the sight of corpses, and he began as a low-level wannabe (and beaten by his father) unlike the thoroughly savage people who initiated him into the gangster world. There is no Henry Hill analog to anchor us in Wall Street’s insanely repugnant world, and that, I think, is what prevents the film from achieving the heights Scorsese was aiming for. But on whole Wolf is still very good, and there are individual scenes showing Scorsese having fun at his best, not least that in which the Jonah Hill character infamously suggests that someone take the suitcase of money and shove it up his wife’s Slatvian cunt.

Image result for cape fear juliette
10. Cape Fear. 1991. 4 stars. My tenth slot was a toss up between this one and After Hours. I really wanted to include After Hours since it’s a comedy — a genre I seldom enjoy — and the obscure gem in Scorsese’s bad run of the ’80s. Alas, I simply can’t exclude Cape Fear. I got endless rewatch out of it, and in my opinion De Niro’s Max Cady is a more terrifying psychopath than Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal Lecter (a subject deserving its own blogpost). It’s Scorsese’s most commercial effort, but a very good one and vast improvement on the ’60s original. Not only is the acting leagues ahead, the creative innovations up the ante. The most obvious is the pivotal scene between De Niro and Juliette Lewis (above photo) in which he corners her in the high school theater and seduces her, which is far more insidious and frightening than the original scene involving a chase through the school halls. My father was a lawyer, but thankfully not a criminal lawyer. I’d hate to think about the copycats Max Cady has inspired to go after their lawyers and families.

So… what about Raging Bull?

Thus my second heresy: Raging Bull (1980) is obscenely overrated; it’s not the masterpiece it’s made to be. The aesthetic is impressive (shot in black-and-white) and the acting performances are beyond criticism, but what’s left after that? A “profound examination of masculinity”? I’m sorry, I don’t see it, and I certainly don’t get Raging Bull’s place in the American Film Institute’s hall of fame, the 4th best film of all time after Citizen Kane, The Godfather and Casablanca, or Entertainment Weekly’s ranking it the 5th best film of all time, after the same three others plus Chinatown. I may personally not care for Casablanca, but I can at least understand why it’s deemed precious. Raging Bull may as well be Any Given Sunday. And I’m in good enough company. When the film was released, the film’s cinematographer Michael Chapman and scriptwriter Paul Schrader were thoroughly unimpressed with the result: “Wow,” said Chapman, coming out of the theater. “Marty really fucked that one up, didn’t he?” Schrader: “Yeah, he did. I don’t know what went wrong there.” But next year it won the Oscars, and the film would go down a legend. I have seen Raging Bull four times now, and I have paid lip service to its greatness in the past. No more. This list is an honest exercise, and I must honestly confess that the film is okay (3 stars) but not great, and one that I will probably never see again.

Great Performances from Kids

It’s hard for kids to act naturally, but some are truly born for it. These are my ten acting picks from young actors, by which “young” means the actor was no older than 14 when playing the role. So for example, one performance that didn’t qualify is Ellen Page as the 14-year old Hayley Stark in Hard Candy, since Ellen was actually 17 (believe it or not) and thus had more resources to draw on than a younger actor. (Ellen does make the cut for another role.) Natalie Portman takes the top slot in a slam dunk.

Mathilda (Click for video)

1. Natalie Portman (12), as Mathilda in Leon the Professional (1994). If Natalie Portman killed her image in the Star Wars prequels, she made up for it a thousand times before in Leon. I’m glad I missed the film when it first came out, because the American version wrecked it by removing 25 minutes that are the whole point of the love story. Alas, Americans aren’t equipped to handle that sort of thing between a 12-year old girl and a man in his 40s. The international version of the film is an uncensored masterpiece. Portman plays a girl whose parents, older sister, and 4-year old brother get gunned down by corrupt DEA agents, and so she hooks up with a hitman in her distress. She gets an instant crush on him and he doesn’t quite know how to handle it, but before long, he’s training her how to kill and taking her along on his hit jobs, while she takes every blatant opportunity to hit on him. Mathilda is Portman’s best performance (which is saying something, given Black Swan) and I’m in awe of the emotional range she summons here. She’s vulnerable and tender, sensuous, moved by inner furies, and none of it ever goes over the top. You believe her in every frame.

The kids of Stranger Things (Click for video)

2. Finn Wolfhard (12), Caleb McLaughlin (14), Gaten Matarazzo (13), and Millie Bobby Brown (12), as Mike, Lucas, Dustin, and Eleven in Stranger Things (2016). All four of these kids come in at a close #2. They’re incredibly natural actors and the boys represent my ’80s childhood — the hours-long D&D campaigns being the obvious point of contact. It’s almost impossible to say whose performance is the best as they complement each other with personas just as striking. Mike is the group leader, the most sensitive, and the soul of Stranger Things; Lucas the pragmatic skeptic; Dustin a non-stop riot ruled by his appetites. The chemistry between them is extraordinary to watch. Their most iconic scene is probably their prepubescent horror at Eleven when she starts to take off her clothes in front of them. Mike handles himself with the decorum fitting his leadership role, but the reactions of Lucas and Dustin are gut-busting hilarious. (Lucas: “She tried to get naked!” Dustin: indignantly mimics her taking off her dress.) Eleven herself is no less brilliant, and she conveys far more in her silences than most gifted actors do speaking. Simply put, there has never been a group of kids who set the screen on fire like the quartet of Stranger Things.

Mattie (Click for video)

3. Hailee Steinfeld (13), as Mattie in True Grit (2010). The role of Mattie Ross, like Mathilda in Leon, depends on just the right casting that makes or breaks a film. Which is ironic considering the two characters are so opposite. Mattie is completely unsexualized and humorless, living by a stern Presbyterian ethic which allows her to hold her ground in the face of adults who are otherwise inclined to dismiss her. Young characters who bark orders at adults are usually a fail in cinema, and scenes like Mattie running roughshod over a colonel in a horse-trading transaction by rights shouldn’t work. And yet they astonishingly do; at no point is Mattie anything less than 100% believable. When she and Rooster go off into Indian territory to hunt down the bad guy, the result is one of the best sidekick-adult relationships in movie history. Think how awful Short Round was in Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom. He gave youthful side-kicks a silly reputation. Steinfeld proved that kids can hold their own as the right-hands of heroes on missions of dirty work.

Danny (Click for video)

4. Danny Lloyd (6), as Danny in The Shining (1980). The youngest entry on my list places high. Lloyd was perfect in this horror classic, able to focus beyond what most six-year olds are capable of. Jack Nicholson may be the star of The Shining, and obviously very good, but he did go over the top; I always thought Danny Lloyd and Shelley Duvall were the true stars for the way they acted (reacted) to their maniacal father/husband, but especially Lloyd. Duvall gave an emotional performance that wiped her out; Lloyd portrayed the inner terror of a child so convincingly and under Kubrick’s careful guidance didn’t for a moment overact as kids this young inevitably do. It’s interesting that Lloyd was apparently not aware he was acting in a horror film — told by Kubrick that this was a “family drama” — which I find rather hard to believe given some of his lines and action sequences. Like when he’s being chased by the ax-wielding Jack, or when he conveys how terrified he is to his imaginary friend Tony, or when he’s shaken by his crying mother who wonders why he’s battered and bruised.

Jake and Tony (Click for video)

5. Theo Taplitz (13) and Michael Barbieri (13), as Jake and Tony in Little Men (2016). I have strong attachment to these boys, because I watched Little Men the day after the election (Nov 9), when I was feeling suicidal over Donald Trump’s victory. This was just the movie I needed to see — a film that celebrates difference despite the avalanche of parental roadblocks. Taplitz plays the shy Jake, Barbieri the uninhibited Tony; Jake is Caucasian and middle-class, Tony is Chilean and poor. The boys are allowed to play their roles with simple and understated tones that makes you feel you’re watching the everyday lives of real people. Their friendship grows the more their parents become enemies — they go so far as to boycott their parents by refusing to speak to them — but in the end, Tony and his mother are evicted for not being able to keep up with rising rents. I cried with Jake at the end; after election day this film was a serious trigger for me in light of Trump’s screeds against Hispanic people.

Iris (Click for video)

6. Jodie Foster (12), as Iris in Taxi Driver (1976). It’s funny how Foster has played against the very best and been terrified for her efforts. In Silence of the Lambs she never spoke to Anthony Hopkins off-camera (until the last day of shooting) because he scared her so badly in his Hannibal Lecter role. And that was when she was an adult. As a kid in Taxi Driver she was intimidated by Robert DeNiro — as she tells it today, he was “even quieter and more strange” back then — but I suspect it’s precisely this sort of thing that has always summoned the best out of Jodie Foster. After all, her roles as Iris and Clarice Starling are her best, and she deserves extra accolades for Iris given that she was only twelve. Both her real and in-character attempts to act and appear older as befitting a prostitute underscore all the more that she’s a child.

Maggie (Click for video)

7. Ellen Page (11), as Maggie in Pit Pony (1999). Here’s a family-friendly entry, just to prove I have a soft spot: Ellen Page’s first role on Canadian TV. I wish I’d grown up on Pit Pony instead of Little House on the Prairie, which was made insufferable by the self-righteous figure of Michael Landon’s Pa. The parental figures in Pit Pony are fallible and likeable. The locale is better too, set in Glace Bay, Nova Scotia, in the time before unions (1901) when men and boys — and ponies — had a rather nasty time working in the coal mines. Ellen Page is the hidden gem, playing the younger sister of the boy who does more than his share in the mines. It’s amazing to watch her before she became famous as the castrating psychopath of Hard Candy and the pregnant teen of Juno. In this series she’s positively endearing — and even more tiny, as if possible — and I chose a clip from the episode where she runs away from her aunt and comes home to find that things have changed, which she doesn’t handle well.

Jack (Click for video)

8. Jacob Tremblay (7), as Jack in Room (2015). Like Danny Lloyd (#4), Tremblay played a five-year old confined in a horrible place, though I think I’d take the 400-plus room haunted hotel over a one-room tool shed. Tremblay had a tall order in Room. He had to convey a belief that the entire universe consisted of a single room that he never left, and then, in the second half, a child’s reaction to the real world never seen before and zillions of people living in it besides his mother. He nailed it; when Jack sees the sky for the first time, Tremblay looks genuinely poleaxed. Even more convincing and disturbing is the deeper sense he conveys at having been deprived of life’s necessities for the first five years of his life, he doesn’t want them when they finally come. They’re just too overwhelming for him — living in a big house with toys and a backyard — and it’s heartbreaking when he asks his mother if they can go back to live in “Room”.

Regan (Click for video)

9. Linda Blair (13), as Regan in The Exorcist (1973). It’s easy to overlook this one, but Linda Blair did a lot of Regan’s scenes. Her stunt double (Eileen Deitz) only stepped in at a few points. Even the crucifixion masturbation scene was done mostly by Blair. And she did, after all, win a Golden Globe, a People’s Choice Award, and an Oscar nomination. So even if most of her performance comes filtered through the mask of demonic makeup in the latter half, she deserves high praise. And some of her early scenes are frankly as disturbing without the demon involved, as notably when she is strapped down in the hospital getting an arteriogram. Friedkin used real doctors to get the arteriogram procedure exactly right, and it’s just as painful for real-life patients as it looks for Linda Blair. It requires the patient to be conscious. And doctors have actually used that footage to train radiologists who will perform arteriograms, because the procedure — and Linda Blair’s tormented reaction — are so accurately depicted.

Alexander (Click for video)

10. Bertil Guve (10), as Alexander in Fanny and Alexander (1982). I have difficulty assessing performances in foreign films, because when I don’t know the language I’m often clueless as to whether or not the actor is using poor inflection or overacting. But I’ll say this about Bertil Guve: he was obviously a natural. Bergman chose him because he “acted with his eyes”, and I never needed to understand Swedish to see that. And any boy who can act the Ishmael scene is top notch. It’s the pivotal scene where the androgynous figure physically caresses Alexander, encloses the boy in his arms, and together they will the death of Alexander’s abusive stepfather. Speaking of which, the scene in which Alexander defies him and gets beaten for it is also a stand-out, for his non-verbal cues as much as verbal. Because the film is ultimately about what Alexander perceives is happening, it depends on Guve being able to make us believe in the magic — that ghosts and such really exist. That’s what he does, and it’s a first-rate performance.