Tag Archives: woody allen

Entropy. Futility. Oil. Coogan. Updike.

23 Feb

Being stalked by that coal-black noonday demon. The blade of melancholy around every corner. Every conversation reminiscent, derivative, redundant. Every book, every movie, every song seems to slip out of some cultural echo chamber that is muted, tired, and sad. The world is running out of resources. We are running out of Helium, Phosphates. Everything seems so futile. The stars themselves bent light from the expanding universe, red shifted dots that are the past, more cinder than light.

I blame John Updike.

I’m reading Rabbit is Rich, Updike’s third Rabbit novel, and it is superb. It’s also depressing, challenging, hateful, wordy, ragged and invasive. I feel diminished reading it. Updike can be an incredible writer, but he’s too prolific; a number of his novels are terrible, and plenty of his short stories are precious, overwritten and pretentious. (Sometimes reading his work, I wish Hemingway or Carver would barge in and say, “Enough! ‘He drank his beer and watched television.’ It doesn’t require ten paragraphs to say that.”) But the Rabbit novels are unique. By tethering his immense prose skills to a misanthropic stand-in for the average American male, he’s created a series of novels that are unsentimental, terrifying, sexy and funny as hell. Rabbit, Run has the former high school sports star Rabbit leaving his wife in his first sexual crisis, in his mid-twenties. He shacks up with a new woman across town, causing havoc in everyone’s life around him. Rabbit, Redux has his wife leave him in his mid-thirties, and his sexual congress with a teenager with disastrous results. Both end in tragedy.

Rabbit is Rich has Rabbit contented and chubby, entering the mid-forties with a whine and a whisper. He hates his son, tolerates his mother in law and sort of slides through his days. The resulting novel deals with Japanese manufacturing supremacy, the deflating U.S. dollar, the sense that the world in all of its complex machinations is winding down, and that there’s nothing anyone can do about it. (Replace Japanese with Chinese and you have a perfect description of the U.S. in 2012.) The novel is laced with a deflation; all the characters, all the buildings and devices, the world itself is all losing steam. It’s pages and pages of beautiful flab. It isn’t doing much for my own ambitions.

It isn’t just Updike, though. I blame Steve Coogan, too.

Coogan is a talented British comic actor who’s lost track of his career and he knows it. After cutting his teeth on some BBC TV, Coogan starred in one of the great films of the 2000s, Tristram Shandy—he plays himself in a failed adaptation of the idiosyncratic Lawrence Sterne novel—and then disappeared into some very mediocre movies. He’s wasted and icky in Tropic Thunder. Ditto for Night at the Museum. Hamlet 2 is funny, but sort of one-note and thin. And he’s the weak link in In the Loop, a vicious and great political satire. Drug addiction, some bad luck, and strange choices have cost him ten years of work, and as he enters middle age—the same age as Rabbit—he’s faced with the dark clouds of discontent.

He recently starred in The Trip, a loose sequel of sorts to Tristram Shandy, and a return to his talents. The movie follows Coogan and friend Rob Bryden on a food tour through northern England. I watched it last night. I won’t get into the details, this isn’t a review, but it’s hilarious. But under the surface is a seething fury against aging, against being forgotten. Beneath the banal banter between Bryden and Coogan, there’s a lurking King Lear. Coogan’s face betrays every absurd decision he’s made. His character is floundering about, looking for the role of a lifetime. For Coogan, the role of a lifetime is playing himself.

And back to me. I feel so alone, sometimes, striving in the labyrinths of my own words, thoughts, heart. What is the point? Giving up writing, taking up a different, lesser passion—say needlepoint or ping pong, running marathons or pickling seasonal veggies, hell even the guitar—what difference would it make in the greater energy of the universe? To breathe or not, does it impact the movement of the stars?

It is an excuse to do nothing. I have no pithy rejoinder, no humorous anecdote, nothing in response. I do have Woody Allen who gets it right in Play it Again, Sam.

Perhaps it isn’t the world that’s running out of energy but the human race.

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Best films by decade: The 1990s (part 2)

24 Oct

The enigmatic, paralyzing, terrifying, mystical weirdness of David Lynch.

6. Boogie Nights/Magnolia/Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me—Paul Thomas Anderson’s second feature is a rollicking romp through the feature film pornography industry in the 1970s and ’80s, based on the life of John Holmes. This is a fantastic film, with well-drawn characters and a superb combination of humor, paranoia, satire and sex. Anderson uses the sex industry as a metaphor for the evolution from the free love/easy sex early 1970s to the STDs and AIDS ravaged 1980s. The movie begins with a tone of sleazy and breezy warmth and fun; it’s a long rock n roll video with jokes. But as the story moves on, and the characters fall into drug abuse and petty crime, the film becomes darker, culminating in a robbery scene that is unparalleled in its intensity. It’s a period piece, a comedy, a tragedy, a metaphor for the perils of fame, and an insightful demystification of the sex industry, breaking down our most intimate acts into blocked moves under glaring klieg lights. Magnolia: Paul Thomas Anderson’s third film is an enormous re-imagining of Robert Altman’s Short Cuts, with dozens of characters at various epiphanic moments in their lives, colliding with each other against the immense backdrop of L.A. It’s a big, long emotional blast of a film, with very fine acting that skirts with the histrionic but holds it together. Each story contains suspense and anxiety, each character faces a moral and emotional crisis through a 24-hour period. It’s an astonishing achievement, both technically and otherwise. The only drawback is the singing number; I think Anderson, if he could, would go back and edit this out. Still, a dynamite movie. Twin Peaks: A disturbing, sullying, destabilizing movie. Twin Peaks was a flash of subversive genius, that flickered for a few brief moments and was then snuffed out. Lynch and co-writer Frost used the familiar small town setting to explore all manner of endless weirdness, circling the basic question: who killed Laura Palmer? Here, he answers the question, sort of, in a prequel that follows the days and weeks leading up to Palmer’s murder. The movie is terrifying, and Lynch exacts an awe-inspiring performance from Sheryl Lee as the coked up, miserably confused teenage girl. This tormented piece of celluloid was panned upon release—it’s a deranged journey through a sordid unraveling of tawdry world—but as the years pass it has grown in its magnetic power. Fair warning: the film will leave you frightened and changed.

 

The innocents abroad: two cousins wander Spain's most beautiful city.

7. Barcelona/Last Days of Disco—In the 1990s, Whit Stillman was the king of the droll comedy, a master of deadpan delivery, interesting characters, and funny as hell lines. A salesman located in Barcelona has his life upended when his cousin from the states comes to live with him. Taylor Nichols plays the lead, Chris Eigeman his cousin. Barcelona has some intangible quality of  pleasantness; it’s a fun movie to watch over and over again. The only drawback is the American actresses playing Spaniards; the accents are terrible and it’s a shame, because the rest of the film is a hands down masterpiece. Go local with the women and this would be my number one. Last Days of Disco: Stillman’s third film is his most ambitious and best. A group of underemployed twenty-somethings navigate the Disco scene in its final hours. People fall into relationships, there’s a subplot of embezzlement, but the film’s strength lies in its indelible characters and the razor sharp script. He’s been called the Jane Austin of generation X, an apt comparison. Stillman gets wonders out of Kate Beckinsdale and Chris Eigeman in this movie stuffed with toss away one-liners and a strange, hulking melancholia about the creeping end of an era.

Fear and Loathing in New York, a David Mamet mantra.

 

8. Homicide/The Matrix/Unforgiven—David Mamet’s one great film, where his dialogue, cast and story all combine to create an intriguing, enigmatic film. His often amateurish direction here looks lean, professional and tough. The story follows a Jewish detective (played by Joe Mantegna) working on a heinous case, where a Jewish storeowner appears to have been bludgeoned to death because of her ethnicity. His investigation leads him into a labyrinth of wealthy Jewish zealots and an anti-Semitic conspiracy. It’s a spellbinder, and following this rugged homicide detective as he loses his sense of direction; his sense of self; the honor of his profession; and the goodness of his own country is an excoriating judgment on humankind’s inability to eradicate something as absurd as racism. The Matrix: If Star Wars is a mashup of space opera and the western, The Matrix is a mashup of cyberpunk and kung fu. Keanu Reeves resurrects his career as Neo, a dissatisfied hacker making his way through a drab existence. He’s wandering through life as if in a dream, which in a sense he is. Morpheus, a leather-clad badass, offers Neo a glimpse at ultimate reality. The reality, Neo discovers, is ghastly; the bulk of mankind is asleep in tiny containers, their consciousness living in a virtual world, while their bodies are harvested by thinking machines as fuel. It’s a marvelous movie, despite the spinning visuals, and a bold mashup of movie genres. A big budget science fiction bonanza, combining chop sockey, nerd hacker goth and gee whiz Philip K. Dick ideas. The bad guys are white dudes in fancy suits, the good guys are freaks, nerds and people of color.  Unforgiven: The end of the western, and it’s not with a whimper, but a bang. Clint Eastwood’s last ride is a brutal reimagining of the frontier western. Aging gunmen clank around a tormented landscape, where bullets don’t kill instantly but rather drag a man screaming to his death. There is no honor, beauty or ideals, justa sordid might makes right paradigm where the wretched of the earth commit murder for no real reason at all. Gene Hackman stands out as a sadistic sheriff. Unforgiven is not pleasant, but it feels like a distillation of Eastwood’s entire career, and the sand blasted end of the most American of genres.

Anderson's first film is in some ways his best.

9. Bottle Rocket/Rushmore/Army of Darkness—A laconic, funny, and wry look at small-town complacency. Luke Wilson plays a depressed average joe just out of a facility, and his real-life brother Owen Wilson plays Digden, his best friend who’s biggest ambition is to be a bank robber. The bright colors, meandering storyline, offbeat humor and killer soundtrack lay down the signature Wes Anderson components that would compose, in various combinations, his entire oeuvre to date. But he hides within this quirky little movie a hard sucker punch of reality, tucked away right at the end, a summation of the devastating consequences of foolish living.  Anderson is one of the wundkerkinds of 90s cinema, a dashing, debonair talent with an eye for fashion, music and design. His vast talents in these areas come to harm some of his later films. He has, over the years, shifted into a stylish director who can’t seem to tell a straight story. He suffers because of his talents; 60 years ago he would have been a set designer for Douglas Sirk or Vincent Minnelli and been happy with the work. Rushmore: Wes Anderson’s second film and it’s superb. Max Fischer is an industrious, hard-working, overachieving student at Rushmore, a private school; he’s also failing every class. Through a story that is touching, silly, honest, and offbeat, Fischer develops a crush on one of the teachers. Applying his same, low-rent ingenuity to win her, Fischer comes to loggerheads with a depressed middle-aged businessman (played by Bill Murray). Murray is a revelation, his first serious acting in years. The plot doesn’t convey the pleasures this rambling little movie holds. Bold colors, lavish design, and incredible attention to detail make for a wonderful film. Army of Darkness: The great cult non-hit of the 90s, this low budget, time traveling horror comedy is the last collaboration of Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell before Raimi went big time. The plot is silly, the action non-stop, the special effects at times laughable, but the movie is infectious, rambunctious and anarchic, like a live action Bug Bunny cartoon. Hundreds of movies try to replicate this zany tone, but only a handful capture it. Here’s one that does. (Kung Fu Hustle is the other.)

 

John Singleton: one great movie and then a downhill slide.

10. Boyz in the Hood/ Deconstructing Harry/Fargo—John Singleton’s first film—he was in his early twenties when he wrote and directed this—is also his best. He has a great cast: Lawrence Fishburne, Angela Bassett, Cuba Gooding, Jr. and Morris Chestnut, among others. He has a simple story, following half a dozen characters through the random hard knocks of South Central L.A.  Singleton’s other films all suffer from pedantry, silliness, and visual clunkiness, but here he delivers a lean story about the creeping bad luck that stalks the good, the evil, and the innocent in the hard-scrabble neighborhoods plagued by gangs, drug violence and rampant unemployment. Everything about the film feels right and important, and the watching of it is elegant in its simplicity. Singleton went wrong fast, but here he gets everything just right. Deconstructing Harry: The misconception about Woody Allen is that he stopped making good movies around 1988. This is false. I would argue that he never stopped making good movies, with a few weak exceptions. But, Celebrity—despite its viciousness and misanthropy—is very good, Shadows and Fog is very good, Bullets Over Broadway is very good, and Deconstructing Harry is excellent. Harry is a profane, dark and very funny story of a writer who has written all of his own life episodes into his fiction, and the hatred his family and friends have for him because of it. The film is a big departure. Allen curses like a sailor, visits prostitutes, and drinks constantly. The visuals utilize a quick cut technique, and much of the underlying kindness in Allen’s other films is scrubbed away to an abrasive stone. Fargo: The Coen Brothers had a great run in the 1990s, floundering only with The Hudsucker Proxy. (They love the screwball films of the 1930s, but they can’t seem to replicate the tone. In fact, they struggle with every genre except the violent black comedy.) Barton Fink is small, insulated and superb; Miller’s Crossing is a high water mark; and Fargo is a very fine crime caper. They pull out of William Macy some essential performance, of a skeevy coward so morally bankrupt that he’ll have his own wife kidnapped to avoid an unnamed financial scandal. Steve Buscemi is great, funny but menacing. Melding black humor, regional satire, and a harrowing kidnapping story against the bleakness of a Minnesota winter, Fargo is a disturbing dark comedy that works.

 

The culmination of Kubrick's career: casual misanthropy and weird sex.

11. White/Eyes Wide Shut/The Truman ShowBlue is too precious and moody, and Red is a pretentious bore, but White manages to tell a great story, while holding onto philosophical inquiry and biting commentary on the human condition. Impotent in the bedroom, a Polish immigrant in France must rebuild his life on the margins of things, searching for meaning after being sartorially destroyed by his ex-wife, whom he still loves. His reinvention involves shady business deals upon his return to Poland, and a stint as a homeless beggar on the streets of Warsaw. Sexy and spectacular. Eyes Wide Shut: A very beautiful film full of ideas, a creepy jaunt through the sexual lives of New York rich, and a peeping tom mess. Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise play an upper class couple tearing each other apart with their cold materialism and their savage intellects. When Kidman tells Cruise (her real-life husband at the time) of a time she wanted to cheat on him but couldn’t, Cruise flees to a night in the street, where he wanders from bar to bar, scene to scene, ultimately sneaking his way into a cult-like orgy. The next day he must deal with the night’s mistakes, and a creeping sense of danger stalks his every step. Then, the movie deflates into a disappointing, but realistic, ending.  Kubrick’s eye for detail never wavers; it seems fitting that his final film is a misanthropic ode to the potential saving grace of raunchy sex. Truman Show: Jim Carrey remakes himself as a dramatic actor, playing an orphaned child living in an artificial universe for the delight of the masses. Here his jittery manic style seems the exact fit for a damaged man-child living in a world designed to keep him unhappy. Perhaps the most interesting part of the movie is the narrative switch, halfway through, from Truman, to the show’s creator, played with real brio by Ed Harris, as a twisted artist who finds no solace in the pleasures of creating fiction; he wants to shape reality itself. This tiny little movie recasts the voyeuristic obsessions of the Internet age as tragic, and our attempts to control our environment, and therefore the environment of others, as absurd. A great movie that revels in its self-contained smallness, held together in part by a terrific performance by Laura Linney.

 

Almodovar's big leap forward as an artist, and a great film.

12. Seven/The Sixth Sense/All About My Mother—Still a hard film to watch. Morgan Freeman departs from his usual wise old man role to play a hardened, cerebral detective, so sick of the job that he cannot sleep, nor sustain any relationship at all. Brad Pitt plays his new partner, and they are confronted with an immense series of crimes, that appear to be connected by a demented obsession with the seven deadly sins. In another director’s hands this would all be corny torture porn, but David Fincher, using dour lenses, rain machines and on-location shooting creates a haunting atmosphere of urban decay. When the killer appears, played to the nines by Kevin Spacey, the movie moves into an ultra-disturbing climax of Biblical proportions. What holds the cruel, pulpy mess together is Fincher’s immense storytelling talents, and the very fine performances. Take a look at the casting to see what everyone is up to: Richard Roundtree and R. Lee Ermey skulk around as hard-worn cops. This is a genre movie, through and through. The Sixth Sense: A horror story put together with talent and craft, focusing on a single mother and her tiny son, and an emotionally distant psychologist who can’t seem to make any physical connection with his wife. Shyamalan is a hit or miss director, and all of his films suffer from a characteristic glacial pacing. But here he caught the movie-going public by surprise with a twist ending that was logical, predictable, but a total surprise. A great cast doesn’t hurt: Bruce Willis, Haley Joel Osmont, Toni Collette, and Olivia Williams.  It’s easy to dismiss Shyamalan now, but with his first release he appeared to be a major American auteur. What happened? Fame, self-involvement, and solipsism. All About My Mother: Spanish superstar Pedro Almodovar has had a hell of a career, combining slapstick humor, bold interiors, clever dialogue and a breakneck pace. He would, in the 2000s, evolve his skill into miraculous films, including Talk To Her and Volver, two of my favorite films of the era. All About My Mother is the hinge, where he moved past the slapstick sex comedies of his youth into a mature artist. The story follows a young writer who wants to learn about his father, whose identity his mother has concealed from him. His journey brings him not to greater appreciation of his absent father, but rather into greater understanding of his mother’s sacrificial love.

The best movies by decade, part 5: The 1970s (1-11)

27 Jul

You could call it the New York decade. No other city has been explored, exhumed, ravaged, and praised on celluloid as much as the Big Apple, and the 1970s were its best years. The greatest American city enthralled and horrified audiences, from the B-movie bonanzas set mostly in Harlem and Brooklyn, to the vigilante revenge sagas that seem to encapsulate the untidy crumble of the seventies so well.

You could also call it the New American cinema, for the 1970s was also an explosion of American filmmakers, young and old. The counterculture of the 1960s resulted in a Hollywood out of step with America’s youth. The success of Easy Rider, The Graduate (hardly a countercultural movie, in retrospect) and Bonnie and Clyde sent the movie producers scrounging around at the edges of things. The result was an enormous influx of new talent. It could be summed up as revenge of the nerds. The first generation of film students unleashed their knowledge, vision, and solipsism on the world.

Someone loosed artists in the banker’s retreat. The snake was free in the garden.

This was a good thing. The films as a whole are spectacular, moving and socially relevant. They are pungent, unpredictable, diverse. A number of personalities pushed their way into American cinema, vying for influence and control. Robert Altman, Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese, Sidney Lumet, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola, Jack Nicholson and Al Pacino all produced their best work in this decade. Lesser figures snuck in with the greats: Brian De Palma, Hal Ashby, Alan Pakula and Bob Rafaelson among others. It was a blazing comet of talent, a cascade of writers, directors, actors and artists in a mad rush to immortalize their work. Many of these directors continue to work. Others flamed out in fantastic self-destruction.

A question emerged: what would American cinema look like, crowd-pleasing blockbusters or uncompromising works of art?

Heavy lies the crown

1. The Godfather 1 and 2—The greatest crime epic of all time and it’s really a film about the inner workings of a typical American family. The cast is superb, a combination of future stars, great character actors, and an aging Marlon Brando. The movie works because, as many critics have noted, outside or external morality is replaced with an insular code. The murder, dismemberment, and blackmail are only palatable inside the Corleone family. It’s what makes Michael a hero in the first film, and a villain in the second; he works for his family—basically revenging his father—in the first film, but in the second he turns on his family for himself. Together, it’s the best film ever made, and a scathing study of moral decay.

It's the news that's making us mad.

2. Network/Chinatown—Sidney Lumet had a great run in the ’70s. Working with screenwriter Paddy Chayevsky, he created the best film about media, manipulation, politics, money and madness utilizing an all-star cast: William Holden, Faye Dunaway, Peter Finch and Robert Duvall. The screenplay is intricate, forceful, grim, cynical, and still humane. The story follows a low-rated news network that decides to keep Howard Beale, one of its anchors, on the air even after he has clearly lost his mind. The executives allow his derangement to develop on air, and soon he has a large following. It’s harrowing stuff, and often misunderstood. Beale is not some hero for the masses; he’s a sad, brow-beaten stooge, so pathologically disturbed that he can’t understand who’s pulling the strings. It’s a terrifying metaphor for the average citizen, and still a dark plunge into the abyss kind of movie. Chinatown: Jack Nicholson plays Jake Gittes, a private eye who wants to be liked and get along. Hired into an absurd missing persons case, he slowly descends into a horrid world of money and violence, where visionary land barons with terrifying power fight each other with the elements of the earth: land and water. John Huston delivers a great performance, as does Nicholson. Robert Towne wrote a great script, sticking to the hard-boiled conventions but elevating the concerns into political, social, and philosophical terrain. But it’s director Roman Polanski’s movie, a scathing indictment of the basest human desires to control, conform, and ruin any and everything that is wild or beautiful.

An immersion into the deranged, damaged mind of Travis Bickle.

3. Taxi Driver/Mean Streets—A total immersion into subjective experience and the purest exploration of the relentless savagery of urban disaffection. Robert De Niro plays Travis Bickle, a taxi-driving Vietnam vet who, damaged from his war experiences and fragile to the hardness of the world, is sculpted by the vile late night excesses of the amoral denizens of a run amok city. Paul Shrader’s insane weirdness—his obsession with guns, his intense understanding of disaffection, his racism—combined with Scorsese’s talent with the camera result in a great film that is uncompromising, unyielding and vicious. The scaffolding of the film, and the source of its eerie, hypnotic power, is its potent, unspoken racism. The best scenes follow Bickle as he stares down the ethnic peoples who have taken over his city. A mind-bending journey into the dark. Mean Streets: Scorsese’s most personal film is also his richest. Lacking the hip distance or formalized aesthetic of Goodfellas and Casino, Mean Streets is a paean to young criminally minded misfits on the mean streets of New York. Harvey Keitel plays Charlie, a well-intentioned Catholic involved with up and coming gangsters. His best friends are reckless Johnny boy (played by De Niro) and self-serious Tony (played by David Proval). The best pieces involve petty crime; the film’s need to be serious (and strangely moralizing) tears at the movie’s best feature: Scorsese’s longing to return to the amoral rough housing of his youth.

Woody Allen moves away from slapstick and its wonderful.

4. Annie Hall/Manhattan/Interiors—As years pass, the 1970s were Woody Allen’s decade. He’s never really stopped making interesting movies, but these taken together these three comprise a high water mark for American filmmaking. Annie Hall is his most famous, and it’s easy to see why. The film is sneaky; the entire contents take place within the memory of Alvy Singer. This conceit allows Allen to shoot back and forth in time, push the conventional boundaries of a romantic comedy and even step outside the plot on comedic whims. Yet, the film has an insouciant grace, an ease of viewing that makes the watching of it pleasant and even restful. Manhattan is a different kind of movie, a beautiful and probing look at an active but self-destructive mind at work. Here Allen plays Isaac, a television writer and much more confident take on his nebbish persona. Startling and beautiful. Interiors is his first riff on his idol, Ingmar Bergman, and it’s a humorless foray into the nasty conflicts within a family. It’s a superb film, well paced and without an inch of fat. Made by any other filmmaker, this would be a flagship movie.

A great movie with great songs.

5. Nashville/ McCabe and Mrs. Miller —Robert Altman’s finest hour. A large cast of characters occlude, destruct, seduce, elide and collide over the course of a few days in the country music capital of the world. The musical numbers are great, and this despite my intolerance of country music. The movie is long and patient, but it contains multitudes, with commentary on politics, relationships, philosophy, psychology, popular culture, and is—and this is a kooky comparison—a southern La Dolce Vita. McCabe and Mrs. Miller is a Robert Altman western with a Leonard Cohen soundtrack, and if that doesn’t whet your appetite you don’t like movies. Warren Beatty plays McCabe, a down on his luck gambler who grabs a vision of building a whorehouse in a mining town. He meets Mrs. Miller, a madame from back east who guides his vision with her knowledgeable hand. The town builds up around them as their professional relationship deepens.  But when hard men come to town, the whole thing is endangered, leading to a nail-biting climax. When tethered to a story, Altman could work miracles. MASH is a good film, and so is Thieves Like Us, but these two are for the ages.

The 1960s in a nutshell: authority versus the individual in a psychic ward.

6. One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest/The Conversation—Nicholson had a run in the ’70s unparalleled by any other actor. He made too many good films (Chinatown, The Last Detail, The King of Marvin Gardens, Five Easy Pieces, Carnal Knowledge, and if you include the first two years of the 80s, you also get The Shining and Reds). Here he plays Randall McMurphy, perhaps his best role, a heedless whirlwind of a character who refuses to bow to any external authority. He falls under the control of Nurse Ratchett, a tight-fisted nurse who manipulates her wards chemically, physically and psychologically. McMurphy is uncontrollable, and brings to Ratchett’s tranquil Eden sex, drugs, and defiance. She’s America, he’s the 1960s. The movie works beyond its metaphor, however. It’s a harrowing drama with plenty of comedy and a great supporting cast. The Conversation: Gene Hackman plays Harry Caul, an intensely private sound engineer who gathers information from the private lives of others for his profession. One conversation in particular—between the daughter of a wealthy businessman and her male friend—plays out throughout the film, as he listens to the nuances and particulars. The conversation at first sounds nonsensical, but as Caul listens to it over and over, alongside the audience, it becomes clear that something diabolical is taking place, and potentially murderous. A hypnotizing little movie, and an unforgettable exploration of our eroding privacy.

Robert Duvall as Kilgore, the insane commander obsessed with surfing and the smell of napalm.

7. Apocalypse Now/ The Passenger—The darkest, strangest, most disturbing vision of warfare ever made. Adapting Conrad’s Heart of Darkness to the Vietnam war, Coppola utilizes his vast filmmaking gifts. Martin Sheen plays a trained military killer sent upriver to remove a rogue C.I.A. colonel who has seduced a tribe of locals into thinking he’s a god. The movie works because it is non-literal; in the hands of another filmmaker, it would watch like Rambo II. During the filmmaking, actors died, Sheen had a heart attack and Coppola lost his mind. All of the background madness shows, reverberating on the screen with hypnotic power. The Passenger: Antonioni’s second best movie, and yes, Jack Nicholson stars. Nicholson plays a reporter in Africa who decides to impersonate the life of a man who dies in the hotel where he’s staying. Why he does this is unclear, but he soon becomes involved in international arms deals and a life of danger and intrigue. Antonioni’s skills with the camera, his patience and fortitude, work wonders in thrall to what is essentially a mystery-thriller. Like Blow-up, his slow pacing and scrutinizing visuals produce a different type of thriller. You sense a great but plodding mind at work. The final five minutes, a single take shot, tracking killers pursuing Nicholson through the dusty streets of Gibraltar is so calm, reassuring and beautiful you forget your watching a man being murdered.

A blazing hot day in the city and a bank robbery gone wrong.

8. Dog Day Afternoon/The Hospital—The best bank robbery movie ever made. The filmmaking is superb, immediate, gritty, a heightened realism. It is a study of a decent man, with decent values, making horrible mistakes. The two bank robbers aren’t villains, or even criminals. Why they’re doing what they’re doing is the key to the movie’s appeal, and why the fallout of their failures is so heartbreaking. Pacino’s performance is controlled, and watching him unfurl his character’s anxieties is a highlight in a decade of great American acting. The Hospital: George C. Scott plays a beleaguered doctor in the middle of a midlife crisis. When his doctors take a perfectly healthy man and through honest mistakes, bureaucratic complexity, and malpractice, put him into a coma, Scott faces a crisis of confidence in his profession, outlook, and way of life. Paddy Chayevsky wrote the script, and Scott falls into the character with heedless abandon. It’s a performance for the ages, in a movie that is funny and sad, a metaphor for the convoluted exigencies of American life.

Don't answer the phone!

9. Black Christmas/The Exorcist—A horror movie gem, and unparalleled in its ratcheting up of isolation and horror. A group of sorority sisters, staying in the house over Christmas break, receive a series of obscene phone calls that escalate in their violence. Meanwhile, a faceless killer moves through the sorority house, killing the coeds who wander into his (or her?) path. Bob Clark, who would later make A Christmas Story, creates unbearable suspense in what is, I would argue, the first modern horror movie. You won’t easily shake this one off.  The Exorcist: The gold standard of horror films, and an honest (if admittedly biased and strange) examination of faith in the face of evil. A young girl begins suffering from strange poltergeist phenomenon. Her mother, played by Ellen Bursteyn, investigates, as her daughter becomes a howling, scary maniac. Father Karras, struggling with a loss of faith, is brought in to exorcise the demon. It’s a tense, nail-biting affair, a disturbing portrayal of adolescent female sexuality, and a terse, pared down horror film.

The creepiest series of non-sequiturs you'll ever endure.

10. Eraserhead/Star Wars—David Lynch’s first feature is strange, haunting, scary as hell and sort of funny, too. The visuals follow a rigorous black and white gestalt, an exploration of the inner demons of a man facing fatherhood and it has these bizarre set pieces involving a woman in the radiator singing with a pancake face. It’s a telegram from the other side of the mirror, trafficking in dream logic, but Lynch’s devotion to his vision is so total, and strangely warm, that it works. Re-watch his movies and they begin to make a bit of sense. Take in his entire career and he seems a holistic visionary, with a wide enough philosophy to include the underrated Dune. Star Wars: You can’t get away from it and you shouldn’t even try. This original foray into science fiction mythology is also a pastiche of half a dozen different genres. Gunslinging cowboys, noble samurai, bomber pilots, damsels in distress and faceless grunts collide in this breathless adventure that is the natural culmination of merging the 1930s serials with advanced visual technology. The movie has a pop gravitas all its own, earned by Alec Guiness’s haunted performance and the movie’s zen-style philosophy.

Man versus man and nature in Deliverance. "The machines are going to fail."

11. The Last Detail/Deliverance—Robert Towne’s script is funny, vibrant, youthful and searing. Hal Ashby’s direction is calm, direct and elegant. (He misfired as often as he hit, but anyone who included Harold and Maude in his CV is a great director.) Two shore patrol sailors, played by Jack Nicholson and Otis Young, are instructed to carry a third young sailor (played by a young randy Quaid) to a naval prison in several days. The young sailor, convicted of petty theft, is going away for eight years, and his two guardians decide to give him a worthy sendoff, including booze, women, and good times. Their journey will take them across a number of big cities, including Philadelphia and New York. A fantastic little movie. Deliverance: A great film that is misunderstood, pigeonholed by a scene that is terrifying and, considering the subject matter, handled with subtlety. Four city men go out to the country to canoe down a river soon to be dammed. They encounter a strange, hostile cluster of freakish outsiders, as well as an untamable wilderness indifferent to the miseries of man. Burt Reynolds and John Voight were never better, and Ronny Cox and Ned Beatty make for strong supporting players. A great, if dark and disturbing, film.