The DVD Forums Top 100 Films 2007 Part 10: 10-01
Here it is! The final list of films that the good people of The DVD Forums voted as the ten greatest movies of all time. I’m sure by now most of you following the countdown will have guessed most of the titles listed here, it’s certainly the most predictable of all the batches posted so far! But there are some titles that are notable in their complete absence in the Top100: Silence of the Lambs, The Wizard of Oz, The Night of the Hunter, Some Like it Hot, The Maltese Falcon - in fact there wasn’t a single film from Billy Wilder and John Huston in there! Nor did the films of world masters like Ozu, Mizoguchi, Bergman, Fellini or Godard put in an appearance!
The results have been a little surprising at times when it came to the inclusion of certain contemporary titles, but mostly the Top100 has been reasonably predictable and not much different to the IMDB’s own Top100, or the readers polls that frequent the high street magazines. I think most of us can be happy with the vast majority of titles that made it, and we will be running the poll again later in 2008, so start swotting up folks!
Aliens (1986, James Cameron)
Aliens is the perfect showcase of how to make a proper sequel; a shining example of being able to take a well established formula - as expertly crafted by Ridley Scott in 1979‘s Alien - and transplanting it into a rollicking action sci-fi of epic proportions. A departure from Scott’s claustrophobic horror in which a single alien being strikes fear into an unsuspecting crew, Aliens builds upon the first film’s tense atmosphere, but this time considerably ups the ante as Ridley and a crew of hardened soldiers find themselves outnumbered and outmatched by a multiple supply of acid-blooded creatures hungering to lay their offspring in a not-so-willing host.
21 years later and Aliens still remains a phenomenal feat in movie making. James Cameron saw a perfect opportunity to expand Scott’s vision, and with the help of surrealist artist H.R. Giger executed a nerve shattering display of intensive imagery. It’s quite amazing in that Aliens feels just as confined as its predecessor, despite an obviously grander budget and a branching out of locations. It may lack the intimacy of Scott‘s film, then, but it makes up for that by acknowledging its ideals and working from its basic foundation which challenged our notions of what fear truly is. Regardless of party size, our people are essentially left alone, all but expendable as hope slowly begins to fade, with the claustrophobia heightening when the alien threat multiplies to ridiculous numbers. Cameron plays with human emotion all too well; his characters are an assortment of stock archetypes, but their flaws and determination to survive shine through with flying colours, with regular bantering and comradery keeping spirits relatively alive. Much of this works brilliantly thanks to his reliable and diverse ensemble, who imbue their respective roles with the required levels of humanity we may not have otherwise required, much less expected. While first and foremost the film is perhaps not considered as a wholly humanistic tale its parallels toward actual wartime events saw it become closely scrutinised as being an allegory on the Vietnam conflict; soldiers who fought for something they never should have, stirring immediate echoes and in hindsight leaving the film with far greater dramatic weight and poignancy. However, this is still pretty much subjective, and as such the film is still best watched as an unstoppable juggernaut of violence and terror.
James Cameron later issued a director’s cut, which ran for a further seventeen minutes. It’s still one of the few Directors Cuts which works considerably well. While it may slow down proceedings, particularly during the first act, it goes on to later spice up the action. That places the film in excess of 137 minutes, but it’s thanks to Cinematographer Adrian Biddle that each frame is never a chore, making Cameron‘s later cut, in my personal opinion, a marked improvement over the theatrical release. It’s impossible to be bored by Aliens, especially when Giger’s set and creature designs are so fearsomely realised; the imagery throughout is strikingly vivid, the atmosphere is as shit-scary and disorienting, particularly with the cunning use of the squad’s communication gear as the walls literally begin to close in around them. And in a time when CG was just a baby its special effects really are out of this world. To this day I still can‘t believe how magnificent some of the visual shots look, not only the wonderful model work, but so too the alien beasts. There‘s a shot bathed in red, as Burke finds himself cornered: we see several of the nasties crawl toward the screen through an above vent system and it‘s jaw dropping; a scene - alongside the living walls reveal -that has stayed in my mind since the first time I saw it oh so many years ago. Aliens is also a feature that really does improve upon itself the longer it moves on; it continually tops the previous set piece, just when you think it’s possibly exhausted itself. Cameron never lets his hand slip, there’s no air of predictability as to where things will take us - aside from the obvious character roles - and by the end, when we think everyone is safe, the director unleashes his trump card and creates one of the greatest climactic events ever committed to celluloid. To see Ripley take on the alien queen one on one is staggering; it’s scope is unprecedented, whilst Ripley herself continues to be the model heroine, a rare breed of action hero for what was back in the day a largely male dominated genre. See how times have changed. – Kevin Gilvear
R2 SE DVD Review (James Timothy) | R2 Alien Quadrilogy DVD Review (Daniel Stephens) | R4 SE DVD Review (Daniel Stephens)
Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (1977, George Lucas)
One of the most frequently replicated images of movie-going in the eighties was of the little boy in Cinema Paradiso gazing at the magic on the screen. Cut to a holiday resort on the north-west coast of Ireland in 1978 - Star Wars arrived there a year later than the rest of the world - and I was that boy, seven years old and sitting on the balcony and watching Star Wars unfold on the cinema screen. From the moment that Princess Leia's ship passed overhead pursued by a Star Destroyer to the Death Star exploding, Star Wars was the greatest thing I had seen at that point in my life, which it would remain until, some years later, a girl agreed to get naked with me.
If one is willing to celebrate The Empire Strikes Back for portraying the universe of Star Wars as being a place where nothing, not even one's parentage, is guaranteed and where even the heroes can be frozen in carbonite, Star Wars can also be praised for being its flipside, a place where space combat, blasters and laser swords are fun and where disputes are settled Wild West-style. No matter that the Jedi would take centre-stage in the other five films, this is Han Solo's movie. With a shoot-first-throw-the-barman-a-coin-for-the-mess attitude, Solo is the star of this film, making space out to be a blast in which a smuggler can thrive and get away with wearing a waistcoat. Even the good-time sheen that he drapes over the film disguises the fact that it features genocide, the lopping off of limbs and an old man being chopped in half.
Behind the scenes, though, it's a different story. Star Wars is a tour-de-force by ILM, one in which they revolutionised what was possible with special effects. Granted it all looks somewhat sparse now in comparison to its prequels and although the Special Editions, tried to fix that, they actually left Star Wars looking cluttered but it's those iconic shots that still matter, the Star Destroyer taking forever to pass overhead from behind the audience, the Millenium Falcon blasting out of Mos Eisley, Luke Skywalker's X-Wing flying down the tunnel on his final approach to the Death Star and the Millenium Falcon appearing in silhouette. It might not be perfect - Lucas' imagination does rather come up short when naming a character Porkins for no other reason, it would seem, than that he's a bit fat - but it's very close. – Eamonn McCusker
R2 Star Wars Trilogy DVD Review (Matt Day)
Die Hard (1988, John McTiernan)
If I had to choose one action film that epitomises the qualities that made action films in the 1980s so memorable, it would surely have to be Die Hard. On paper Die Hard did not seem that special; you have a New York city cop with a boatload of clichéd family issues who ends up fighting against the odds against a team of middle class German terrorists who gatecrash his wife’s works Christmas bash intent on holding everyone hostage while they break into the company’s high tech vault. This very simple premise did not scream out: “classic!”, and to top it off John McTiernan had cast Bruce Willis in the lead role; who that time was mostly known as a leading man in romantic comedies. And yet somehow, out of these bizarre first impressions rose what I consider to be the greatest action film ever made.
Willis in particular proved to be a remarkably canny bit of casting, he looked like a man who could stand up to a lot of punishment, and his laid back acting style imbued John Mclane with a strong everyman quality and world weariness that instantly draws you onto the character’s side. His comic timing is also impeccable, naturally bringing out Mclane’s dry, and sometimes sadistic, sense of humour. Alan Rickman as Mclane’s arch nemesis Hans Gruber is also a revelation; his grounded, un-theatrical performance ensures the evil villain remains very memorable and believably callous. He too also had an excellent grasp of the character’s sarcastic humour and inherent frustration with having to deal with the seemingly indestructible Mclane.
The ultimate star of Die Hard though was John McTiernan, who crafted a perfect jewel of action, comedy and suspense. The hostage-captor–hero dynamic is so well established and developed that you remain right on the edge of your seat throughout, and the inventive plotting is a joy to watch as Gruber’s meticulously planned operation repeatedly raises a smile at the expense of the police and FBI’s best laid plans. Of course there is also the action, which too brilliantly develops by pushing Mclane through a series of brutal tussles and gunfire exchanges that pick off the terrorists one-by-one, mostly down to the heroes guts and hard headedness rather than superhuman fighting abilities. Later on, when the police and FBI arrive McTiernan lets loose with a series of explosive sequences, but he always maintains a high level of playfulness and fun, in particular when he’s tearing into the pomposity and simple-mindedness of the American military. Indeed, the finely plotted scripts seems to revel in championing working class American heroes like Mclane, and lampooning top brass officials, it also includes some very satisfying nods to the Western classics that have provided major inspiration for this film.
In its barest essence, Die Hard is a battle between cultured, cynical, superior Europeans against good old fashioned American grit, all played out inside a skyscraper: the ultimate symbol of capitalism. Few films can put a smile on your face like Die Hard, it’s totally captivating and immensely entertaining throughout and many of its scenes have become standard-bearers for how to juggle action, suspense and comedy. In many ways this film became the new archetype for the contemporary action thriller – but it has yet to be bettered. I doubt it ever will! – Matt Shingleton
R1 Five Star Collection DVD Review (Alexander Larman) | R2 DVD Review (Colin Polonowski)
The Shawshank Redemption (1994, Frank Darabont)
I’m sure pretty much everyone reading this article will have seen The Shawshank Redemption and heard about how it was released in 1994 to the complete indifference of mainstream audiences, only to find a new lease of life on home video thanks to strong word of mouth, but nevertheless I might as well give the synopsis for the 5 people out there who haven’t seen it. Tim Robbins plays Andy Dufresne, a mild mannered bank executive sentenced to serve two consecutive life sentences for the murder of his wife and her lover. He is sent to Shawshank Prison, an oppressive spirit-sapping hellhole where violence against prisoners is an almost daily occurrence. There he forms a close bond with prison trader Ellis “Red” Redding (Morgan Freeman), one of the most cynical and broken down inmates in the prison, but Dufresne’s indomitable nature and fearless determination to improve the facilities of the prison begins to inspire both Red and many of the other inmates.
It’s not hard to see the appeal of The Shawshank Redemption, after all its themes of one man being broken down by a suppressive system but refusing to bend or give up hope are about as universal as they get, but why it seems to resonate so deeply with so many viewers is something less tangible. I mean, Shawshank is a terribly clichéd prison film; its story is very generic and it features pretty much all the archetypal characters: the corrupt warden, the ruthless “screw”, the vicious male rapists, the uneducated youth, the man who can get stuff from the outside, the old inmate who has become irreparably institutionalised. It’s also, on occasion, terribly mawkish. There are certain scenes where you can almost hear the director screaming out “I WANT YOU TO BE MOVED NOW”, but there is clearly, undeniably something about this film that just captivates so many people on a level like no other prison drama.
I don’t think this is down to poor taste of mainstream film lovers, but perhaps mostly down to the fact that Shawshank is a great “state of mind” film; in that it can put you into a certain state of mind where you overlook the weaknesses and just get swept up with the central characters and be surprisingly inspired by specific moments, from little gestures to sweeping set-pieces. I think the reason for this is down to one man: Morgan Freeman, who puts in one of the great narrations in modern film. The narration is a cinematic device that is often overlooked by the audience, a great narration can take an average film and make it special, and a bad narration can take a great film and make it seem average (Bladerunner anyone?). In Shawshank, Freeman’s gravitas and innate talent for expressing world-weariness gives the film a soothing, retrospective feel that anchors the drama, imbuing it with a high level of dignity even more effectively than Darabont’s old fashioned direction, and his gentle, Southern drawl suits Shawshank’s setting far more appropriately than the red-headed Irishman who narrates King’s original novella. Freeman’s performance also perfectly counterpoints Robbins’ quiet, assured turn as Andy Dufresne, an enigmatic man whose moral fortitude gives us an extremely warm, associable central character. Darabont understands this well, and deliberately lingers on their scenes together, which ultimately for me turns Shawshank from a rather simple and overly melodramatic prison melodrama into a great, uplifting drama about the friendship between two extremely likeable characters. A good buddy film can be just as moving as an epic romance, and The Shawshank Redemption is a great buddy film. – Matt Shingleton
R1 DVD Review (Chris Lynch) | R2 DVD Review (Paul Cutting) | R2 10th Anniversary SE DVD Review (James Gray)
Jaws (1975, Steven Spielberg)
Jaws has become synonymous with the ‘dumbing down’ of American cinema; its huge success at the box office symbolising the death of director’s cinema and the ascendancy of the blockbuster movie as the supposed pinnacle of Hollywood achievement. It’s certainly true that the popularity of Jaws on first release gave the studios a new audience to target during the holiday months. But take even a cursory look at Jaws and you see a film which is only superficially a family entertainment spectacular. Scratch beneath the surface and you find a quirky 1970s movie with genuine wit and style, as distinctive and personal a movie as more orthodox 70s classic such as The Long Goodbye and Chinatown.
I may as well begin with the storyline, which may seem classically simple but is actually a conflation of three basic plots. Firstly we have The Creature from the Black Lagoon monster movie structure in which swimmers are threatened by an unexpected menace from the deep. Secondly, there is An Enemy of the People in which one good man (in this case Chief Brody played by Roy Scheider) tries to convince the townspeople that there is danger but cannot make them listen. Finally, we have Moby Dick and the obsessive hunter of a seemingly unstoppable force of nature – embodied here by Quint (Shaw), the maverick fisherman.
The three plots mesh very well, largely because they are so skilfully interwoven and there’s a consistent effort made to establish a social context to hang the storyline upon. Amity Island is a completely convincing creation, largely thanks to the use of Martha’s Vineyard as a location, and its peopled with entirely believable characters. In particular, Murray Hamilton’s Mayor – who in the sequel became a strawman for the interests of the business community – is not unsympathetic in his concerns and it’s easy to understand the pressures that he’s under. There are scenes in which members of the community simply talk to each other in such a natural way that we become part of the town and realise what a shark in the waters could mean for their livelihoods. This isn’t something we would expect in a blockbuster nowadays, when the role of the supporting cast tends to be to react to the stars and act as ballast. Nor would we expect the teasingly slow build-up. Spielberg begins with a fantastic shock – after we’ve already had John Williams’ legendary score to get us in the mood – but then slows the pace down to introduce us to the setting and the characters. It’s over an hour before we get even a glimpse of the shark and 82 minutes before we see the eponymous teeth.
The second hour is largely taken up with the search for the shark undertaken by Brody, Hooper and Quint, and it’s fascinating for what it isn’t rather than what it is. Far from being a fast-moving procession of action set-pieces, it’s a faithful evocation of life at sea; languorous stretches of boredom followed by brief intervals of intense excitement. Not that the audience is bored, far from it. The scenes on the Orca are fascinating as a detailed study of masculinity in extremis. Each of the three men is an outsider; Brody because he’s from New York and hates the water; Hooper because he’s a rich academic; and Quint because he’s a misanthropic loner. Thrown together, they demonstrate different male behaviours and responses. Quint is a man’s man, so macho that he wants to prove that death means nothing to him. Hooper is a textbook ‘nerd’ whose ability to use his head – and keep it in times of stress - is what ultimately saves his life, along with his redeeming sense of the ridiculous. Brody is torn between the two behaviours, wanting to prove his manhood to Quint while being instinctively drawn to the intellectual life of Hooper. The three of them begin by squabbling with each other, Quint deliberately goading Hooper – the differences between them are perfectly summed up by Quint’s crushing of a beer can being mirrored by Hooper’s crumpling of a plastic cup.
It’s in these scenes aboard ship that the actors get a chance to refine their characterisations. Richard Dreyfuss is delightfully funny as Hooper, a character who was a cipher in the book and could have been unbearably know-it-all. He gets some great lines and the audience is delighted when he survives at the end. Roy Scheider, not one of the more interesting actors in 1970s cinema, is perfectly cast as the confused and frightened Brody and it’s very satisfying when he turns out to be the real hero of the film. Robert Shaw apparently plays himself, making Quint an intimidating and not entirely sympathetic ogre. To some extent, the shark represents elements of all three men but in the end, it becomes a symbol of Brody’s ability to find his own courage which is distinct from that of his companions. Scheider plays the final scenes to perfection and his shout of joy when the shark is killed is a genuinely cathartic moment. But the shark is also given a dignity which is surprising. Underwater, thanks to the second-unit filming of Rod and Valerie Taylor, he is elegant and lethal and, although the rubber shark used for most of the action shots is sadly lacking in some departments, John Williams’ score keeps this aspect going and when the shark is killed, there’s awestruck music, suggesting that something truly impressive has died. Despite some lapses in the special effects the shark is convincing enough for the film to get by.
It’s a hugely exciting monster movie but it’s so much more than that and I get really irritated when it’s lumped with Star Wars - an inferior movie on every level in my view – as the begetter of the ‘dumb’ blockbuster. It’s certainly a blockbuster in financial terms but it’s far from dumb. Very few ‘big’ movies either before or since have such an acute sense of character, such uproarious wit in the dialogue or such a delicate balance between shock and suspense. In terms of popular filmmaking, it’s up there with the best of Hitchcock and that’s not a comparison I make lightly. Everyone who loves 1970s cinema and the era of the director should love Jaws as a high watermark of both – a personal, intelligent film which had the good fortune to make millions at the box office. The lessons of this may not have been learned by directors who followed – notably those who foisted the Jaws sequels upon us – but you can hardly lay the blame at the feet of Jaws. – Mike Sutton
R1 Anniversary CE DVD Review (Michael Brooke) | R1 30th Anniversary Edition DVD Review (Mike Sutton)
Pulp Fiction (1994, Quentin Tarantino)
If you had to sum up Pulp Fiction in one word then it would be: iconic - the iconicity of Uma Thurman in a black wig doing all that tricksy, finger-fluttering dancing with a John Travolta reborn into 90s cool, and the iconicity of Samuel L. Jackson in a curly wig, acting everybody off the screen as a smiley-faced philosopher-hitman. Quentin Tarantino's second film was a surprise in that it made a quantum leap beyond the gritty, crime-oriented parameters of his debut, Reservoir Dogs, and tilted, no doubt more through intuition than design, towards the territory of arrrrt. Although Tarantino has said he has no time for the 'highbrow', Pulp Fiction is nevertheless in total accord with the ideals of postmodernism in film - the elevation of low culture to high seriousness, the deconstructionist approach to narrative and chronology, the mannered disregard for naturalism and the employment of self-referentiality and pastiche. The structure of the plot and the way the various storylines interlock and impinge on one another is a genuine tour de force of screenwriting innovation by Tarantino and Roger Avary, richly deserving of its Oscar win. And the quality of the ensemble cast, with Willis, Walken, Keitel, Roth and Rhames providing peerless backup to the leads ensures that the screen dynamism never lets up.
Tarantino's predilection for the mystique and exoticism of comic-book violence - which is nonetheless very graphically rendered - lends the work a loose moral centre, where fantasy and reality overlap and the zeitgeist of the 90s and beyond, in that regard, is very accurately pinpointed. Like the work of Raymond Chandler, Pulp Fiction takes place in its own self-contained universe where the colours are brighter and more saturated, and the rules bend to accommodate the thrills and spills. No one with any knowledge of drugs would mistake heroin for cocaine, and the idea that you could instantly 'cure' an OD by stabbing someone in the heart with an adrenaline-filled syringe is pure pulp but great cinema. But this is precisely the level on which Pulp Fiction works - that of hyperbole and caricature. A plotline that involves a boxer having to leave town in a hurry, but will risk his life to collect a watch that his father stored up his back passage throughout the Vietnam War is too priceless for words. And a gangster held at gunpoint giving a lecture on the metaphysics of crime is just soooo arty it screams! Yet for all of these dangerously outré quirks, Pulp Fiction never falls into pretentiousness, and for all of its messing with linearity, it still satisfies as a piece of film narrative, masterful in the integrity of its internal logic and adding up to much more than the sum of it parts. Like it or loathe it, it remains the most significant American film of the past twenty years. – Roger Keen
R2 CE DVD Review (Richard Booth) | R4 DVD Review (Gary Couzens)
Blade Runner (1982, Ridley Scott)
In the early 21st Century, the genetic scientists at the Tyrell Corporation have created android artificial beings called Replicants, androids specifically designed to withstand the conditions of working on off-world colonies where most of the earth’s population have emigrated to escape the dire conditions of an almost uninhabitable earth. The ultimate model of these highly advanced humanoid robots is the Nexus 6, which is virtually indistinguishable from humans except in two key areas – they only have a four-year life span and they lack the empathic and emotional complexity of a human being. Highly dangerous on account of this personality flaw, they are thus prohibited from earth, but in 2019 six Replicants have escaped from one off-world colony and are loose on the streets of Los Angeles. They are all Nexus 6 models. Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) is a former police detective in the LA Police force, part of the Blade Runner bounty hunter unit, whose task it is to track down and “retire” these rogue Replicants.
Blade Runner works in the best manner of book adaptations, jettisoning the sprawling and twisting narrative threads and ineffectual losers of Philip K. Dick’s original novel ‘Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?’, but remaining utterly faithful to the thematic essence of the original novel’s fascinating ideas and concerns. In Dick’s case, those themes are the familiar ones of paranoia, entropy and mental illness on the one hand and considerations of divine purpose and what it means to be human on the other. In his books he continually explores the essential characteristics that define a human being - the ability to think, to rationalise, to have memories, appreciate art, but most particularly the ability to empathise, feel and love. In a modern world where such characteristics are less evident, does their absence make us any less human?
Script-wise, Blade Runner hits all the right notes for drawing out these themes, but more than this, what makes the film even greater is how the astonishing production design by Lawrence G. Paull based on Syd Mead's concepts are combined with Ridley Scott’s extraordinary visual sense and direction. Unlike most futuristic science-fiction films, and even subsequent Philip K. Dick adaptations like Minority Report, the filmmakers here realise that the future is not created from scratch in shining chrome, glass and neon, it’s built upon the past. Blade Runner achieves this to perfection and the sets look as if they were created by grafting neon and plastic onto an old film noir set – as indeed they more or less were – capturing its rundown, retro, seedy glamour. Every other element supports this dystopian vision, from the ubiquitous presence of intrusive advertising blimps, the vacant buildings, the permanent darkness and constant rain of a world whose ecosystem has been destroyed by some unspecified disaster, and the incomprehensible street-speak that has evolved out of a mixture of European and Asian languages. The film doesn’t need to make explicit what has happened to create this future - it’s a believable possible extrapolation of our own world.
Most brilliantly, Ridley Scott and his writers identify the inherent sense of film noir in the setting’s post-war desolation, and use it as the perfect ground for the film’s Cartesian ruminations. Right from the very first scene of the film – originally with a world-weary voice-over narration - the noir tone is established and Vangelis’s seductively rippling and pulsating soundtrack draws the viewer entirely into this compelling yet appalling world. The coldness of humanity eking out its miserable existence on the damp, dark, littered streets is counterbalanced by the the vast sparkling edifices of multinational conglomerates made rich by off-world technological developments. The inhuman and unfeeling product of this corporate domination is personified in the six android Replicants who stalk earth in search of a creator to answer the questions that will give their lives meaning. Despite the danger they represent towards humanity – as much in existential terms as in posing a physical threat – Rick Deckard, despite his self-doubts and reservations, must defend those little qualities that distinguish and define what it is to be human. – Noel Megahey
R1 DC DVD Review (Reko Nokkanen) | R1 DC DVD Review (Noel Megahey) | R2 DVD Review (Simon Wyndham) | R2 Final Cut DVD Review (Eamonn McCusker) | UK Final Cut HD-DVD Review (Chris Lynch)
Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980, Irvin Kershner)
"No...I am your father!" I left the cinema confused and unsure, not knowing if it was merely a ploy by Darth Vader to turn the tide of the war between the Empire and the Rebellion or he was telling the truth. That The Empire Strikes Back was the fifth episode in what then promised to be a series of nine films suggested that the backstory would reveal this to be the case but given his liking for killing his own admirals with a Force choke-hold, one couldn't be so very sure. The journey home in the car was quiet as we mulled this revelation over in our immature minds. "Was that really the back of Darth Vader's head? That was cool!" Oh yes, there is nothing like Star Wars.
The Empire Strikes Back had a long and troubled production but never once is this suggested in the film that made it into theatres in 1980. The film opens with the rebels on the run, hiding out on the ice planet of Hoth and barely surviving amidst the snow and ice. They do not remain hidden for long as the Star Wars saga comes up with yet another iconic moment, that of the AT-ATs marching across the ice to confront the rebels. But more than that, The Empire Strikes Back and director Irvin Kershner darkens the right-and-wrong of Lucas' world, which was broadened to see Luke Skywalker pursue his Jedi training and Han Solo, Chewbacca and Princess Leia try to outrun Vader in the middle of an asteroid field. The simple taking of sides of Star Wars was made more complex as Lando Calrissian, once the owner of the Millenium Falcon, betrayed his friend Han Solo under threat of the closing down of trade routes, something of a precursor of the taxation crisis of The Phantom Menace.
As Kershner takes a bleak view of the world of Star Wars, so he directs his picture into the dark and deserted vents in Cloud City, to Luke Skywalker learning of the lies and betrayal in his family's past and of how hopeless his task is, Vader effortlessly cutting off his hand before Skywalker chooses death over turning to the Dark Side. It ends in a crisis with the frozen body of Han Solo in the hands of Jabba The Hutt, but for that very willingness to show the world of Star Wars being a bleak and frightening place, The Empire Strikes Back can take its place in this list with pride. – Eamonn McCusker
R2 Star Wars Trilogy DVD Review (D.J. Nock)
Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981, Steven Spielberg)
It's not the last time that I've seen a man's face melt but it was the first and together with the ghosts that crept out of the Ark of the Covenant, the grisly skeletons of the Temple of the Souls and wrestler Pat Roach being filleted by the propellor of a Nazi Flying Wing, it was certainly the first time that horror, fascism and the wrath of the God of the Old Testament had been packaged so completely for children. From the jungles of South America to America, Tibet, Egypt and a small Pacific island where the Nazis plan on opening the Ark of the Covenant, this Boy's Own adventure begins in grand fashion with the outline of the Paramount logo and offers so many great movie moments that it's no surprise you've voted it the second best film ever.
Two sequels may have followed, Temple of Doom and The Last Crusade, and another, Kingdom of the Crystal Skull may be in production but this one remains the best, a genuinely scary adventure movie that can even terrify kids today. But more than that, it's a stirring ride into the kind of escapade that was written about in boys' comics, when British Tommies and American GIs fought it out with the Nazis. What Raiders of the Lost Ark offered us was a bookish professor trading punches with the Gestapo, shot through with a heady dose of fire and brimstone. The Nazis cry of, "It's beautiful!" turns to horror as a vengeful God bears down on the Third Reich by unleashing hell upon them. It's as great a film today as it was on its release, that theme tune raising one's spirits high for the adventure to come. – Eamonn McCusker
R2 Adventures of Indiana Jones Complete Movie Collection DVD Review (Chris Kaye)
The Godfather (1972, Francis Ford Coppola)
The Godfather has been so exhaustively discussed that it's a familiar title even to those who have never seen it. Taken with its first sequel it's possibly the most ambitious mainstream American film of the seventies and probably one of the most insidiously subtle. What it appears to be and what it actually is are poles apart but you could be forgiven for thinking, reading some critical pieces, that the film is a relatively simple homage to the happy family life of your average everyday Gangster. That point of view is not only mistaken, it's positively perverse - as a careful viewing of the film illustrates.
The movie is, broadly speaking, a family saga about the Corleone clan. Led by Don Vito Corleone (Brando), the Corleones are the most powerful of the Five Families who control illegal and unsavoury activities in post-war New York. We're talking Mafia of course, although that's one word you won't hear in the film. Initially, all seems well. Corleone's daughter Connie (Shire) is getting married, his elder son Sonny (Caan) is being groomed to take over and his youngest, Michael (Pacino), has returned from Europe as a war hero. But things are not as good as they appear; the other families are becoming restless as they see Vito's power fading and an ambitious pretender to the throne, Solozzo (Al Lettieri), is keen to get in on the action. The process by which Corleone is unseated and then avenged by his sons is the basic narrative of the film but that's much too simplistic an assessment. The sub-plots are just as important; Sonny's impetuousness which leads to disaster, Michael's hopeless attempt to move away from the family business and start a new life with his girlfriend Kay (Keaton) and the attempts of the middle son Fredo (Cazale) to establish his own identity. With the inevitability of night following day, the darkness at the heart of the family creeps into Michael's soul until he can no longer resist and the film ends, as it begins, in darkness.
The first line of the film is the key to its power - "I believe in America. America has been good to me". Coppola is asking us two things here; firstly, what is "America" and, more importantly, what exactly is there to believe in? The undertaker who speaks these words, Bonassera, is paying homage to Don Vito and requesting his assistance in punishing the men who ruined his daughter who have been dealt with lightly by the courts. In other words, he doesn't believe in America, he believes in Corleone. It's easy to forget, surrounded by the trappings of a happy, rich family life, that the business of the Corleones is corruption, murder and mayhem, but we forget this at the peril of misunderstanding the film. Coppola seems to be saying that in twentieth century America, the corruption of the mobsters and the principles of the country are the same thing. The whole decaying underbelly of twentieth century American history is brought to the fore here with a directness that is unusual in mainstream cinema. The Corleone's pay lip-service to freedom and liberty, but their whole reason for existing is to spit on that and make profit out of the misery of others. Sometimes they might appear to be merely helping their friends, dispensing "natural justice" or merely grease the palms of a few crooked judges and senators but make no mistake - cross them at your peril. Beginning with hints and stories - the way that teen idol Johnny Fontaine got out of his record contract with the help of Vito, the casual favours offered by Vito to the faithful on his daughter's wedding day - we begin to see exactly how the power of the Corleones operates.
What's fascinating about this film is the way that Coppola refuses to judge his central characters. The audience is asked to draw its own conclusions, so it's not surprising that some of them left cinemas with the happy glow of how nice it was to see such a close-knit family. After all, they didn't do anything all that bad... did they? Admittedly, most of the people killed are either gangsters or otherwise corrupt people; film producers, cops. But that's an alarmingly superficial reading of the film, albeit one which I've heard. The evil represented by the Corleones is all pervasive, spreading its influence into every part of American life, like some cancerous tumour beginning to invade the healthy parts of the body. Even within this supposedly happy family, everything is built on lies and deceit with the violence cloaked in respectability and the laughable idea that such a malevolent force in society is governed by some kind of "code". By the end of the film, when Michael's own destruction has begun, forged in a simple but profound lie to Kay, surely no-one can doubt the hypocrisy of the public face of respectability. It's all about text and subtext - you could ignore the subtext and enjoy this as a drama about a family, but that's a bit like watching "King Lear" as a drama about a silly old man who spoils his daughters.
Coppola's achievement is to make these foul human beings totally recognisable and paradoxically sympathetic. Don Vito is an entirely corrupt man but his age and tired recognition of his failing powers is genuinely affecting. It helps that Brando is among the greatest of all American screen actors. He uses his body language and his eyes just as much as the oft-mocked cotton wool in his mouth. This 49 year old powerhouse of an actor becomes a saddened old man with absolute conviction. Watch how carefully he weighs his words and how he watches all the time - when he shouts for the only time in the film, it's a startling moment. He is shot and injured about forty five minutes into the film, but the memory of his early scenes is enough for his presence to dominate later events. When he returns, he is bowed and diminished in stature, but the voice and the eyes remain powerful - Vito's frustration at being unable to stop the events which have begun with his shooting is strangely poignant, especially when he sees how his beloved youngest son has been implicated. Brando's presence transforms the film from an engrossing saga into something with Shakespearean grandeur - this same quality would later be provided by Al Pacino in parts two and three.
However, all of the cast distinguish themselves - there are, rarely in this sort of piece, no weak links. James Caan is riveting as the volatile Sonny, clearly trying too hard to step into shoes he can't hope to fill, and his rages are some of the most exciting moments of the film. In comparison, Al Pacino underplays to compelling effect. He has the difficult task of conveying Michael's transition from spectator to eager participant. Luckily, he has the advantage of the best scene in the film, the riveting dinner with the cop and Solozzo when Michael tastes his first blood for the family. When Michael gains the ascendancy towards the end of the film, you can virtually hear his words putting on weight. When he says to Fredo, "Don't ever side with anybody against the family again", it's a chilling, defining moment. This is a great performance as it stands in this film; take it with parts two and three and it's an extraordinary achievement. I must also point out Robert Duvall who, in an early role, makes Tom Hayden into a fascinatingly controlled figure who never reveals what he's thinking. The other actors are more than satisfactory. Given small roles, character types such as Abe Vigoda and Alex Rocco create something memorable out of a few scenes and there are supporting performances from John Cazale, Sterling Hayden and Al Lettieri which any actor could be proud of. The only slight disappointment is Diane Keaton. She's fine with what she has to work with, but Coppola and Mario Puzo haven't thought out this character as well as they have the men and she's left without enough motivation. This is a worse problem in part two than it is here but it does leave some doubt over the writers' ability to create female characters to match the males. Mama Corleone, played by the great jazz singer Morgana King, is a somewhat allusive figure with even less to do than Kay. This problem in the writing is at its most severe in part three, but but a lot more about that another time.
The elegance of the filmmaking makes it hard to criticise on a technical level. Francis Coppola's earlier career doesn't really show anything much to suggest he could direct a film as perfect as this. I mean, there are nice bits in The Rain People and You're A Big Boy Now but nothing to suggest that the man had this much talent. Everything slots into place with the sort of comfortable reassurance you feel when watching a Warner Brothers classic from the forties or one of the great MGM musicals. Coppola's grasp of suspense and pacing is just right - the lengthy scenes of talking and preparation building to moments of shocking, but far from gratuitous, violence. His mastery in revealing the true nature of the family is also important. The opening wedding celebration is seductive in its nostalgic sense of the post-war years and its picture of a family united in happiness but it also has the much more prosaic significance of introducing the characters and allowing the audience time to get their bearings. He then gradually undermines it, beginning with the legendary horse's head scene and culminating with the beautifully edited climax which pitches religious ritual against murderous revenge. His collaboration with the DP Gordon Willis is justly legendary. Willis, nicknamed "The Prince of Darkness" would use so few lights that Paramount executives were convinced no-one would be able to see what was going on, but he succeeds in capturing a visual tone that is exactly right for the film. It's a simple concept - the darkness of the family business compared to the light of their public face at the wedding - but it works superbly because it's achieved so uncompromisingly. The other artists who worked with Coppola on the film come up with their best efforts too. The period feel is nicely captured by the costume designer and the Production Designer Dean Tavoularis creates New York of the late forties out of virtually no resources (the film was shot for $6 million and on a schedule of 62 days).
Overall, the film is the sort of blending of art and commerce which Hollywood has always been capable of but about which it tends to keep pretty quiet. It's exciting, moving, funny and shocking without being superficial or self-consciously arty. When taken along with its sequel, it's a great work of popular art. What more could you ask? – Mike Sutton
R1 DVD Review (Alexander Larman) | R2 DVD Review (Mike Sutton)