It’s an annual tradition. I look at all the movies I’ve seen from the just-ended year and select those I bestowed my highest rating of “A+.” Last year, I had fourteen films to praise. This year, I have a fewer eleven. Fret not, I’ll try not to sound like a salesman because I’m not making you buy these “masterpieces.” Don’t put me on trial either because I’m aware I’m already biased. But keep in my mind that I’ll probably sound like a man who has found happiness. So, without a moment of delay, here are eleven brilliant movies I’d like to dangle before your very eyes.
12 Monkeys (1995)
Terry Gilliam’s “12 Monkeys” tells of a grim future where most of the human race is wiped out by a deadly virus. A man (Bruce Willis) is sent back in time to investigate the cause. He ends up in a Baltimore mental institution in 1990 and meets a loony (Brad Pitt) and a psychiatrist (Madeleine Stowe). Both will play integral parts in piecing out the puzzle.
Very few movies are able to rise above their material the way “12 Monkeys” does. I love the way the plot strangely develops as it generates theme after theme, idea after idea. The screenplay’s chronological treatment is impressively complex without the side-effect of confusion. Its psychological discussion of what’s real and what’s not is profound and palpable. As for the acting, Bruce Willis and Brad Pitt gamely shed their stereotypical roles and stretch their range of talent further. But what ultimately makes “12 Monkeys” impressive is not only being influenced by older films, but also being influential to newer films. The movie is proving to be contagious. Here’s hoping you’ll catch it someday.
All The King’s Men (1949)
My admiration towards this movie is even bigger now after having seen the recent version. (What a waste of an all-star cast that was!) “All the King’s Men,” based on a Pulitzer winning novel by Robert Penn Warren, chronicles the rise and fall of politician Willie Stark (Broderick Crawford, in an Oscar winning role). From his humble beginnings as a backwoods hick to his formidable status as governor, Stark plays out like a tragic Shakespearean character. Similarly intriguing are “all the king’s men.” These are the shady political aides, including the narrator Jack Burden (John Ireland), who aren’t exactly innocent bystanders.
“All the King’s Men” is an audacious and perceptive motion picture, with a third act that spins in a gripping manner. I think it’s a classic, in the sense that its themes are still relevant today. It made me think hard about the nature of politics. What kind of people succeed in this arena? How can politics turn honest men like Willie Stark into someone corrupt? Come election time, you’ll hear of politicians tooting their humble beginnings. We have to keep in mind that people change all the time. Even strong-minded men have weakness, you know. They’ll bend over backwards for power. They’ll even delude themselves for it.
The Best of Youth (2005)
“The Best of Youth” takes about six hours long to watch. And since it is an Italian film, it is also six hours of reading English subtitles. I didn’t recognize any of the actors. I don’t even remember if it came out in the theaters. I’m unhappy to report that it’s neither a sequel nor a sequel of a sequel. It’s neither based on some TV show nor some comic book nor some video game. It does unfold like a thick novel, spanning four decades of epic storytelling immersed in Italian history. And oh yeah, did I mention it’s six hours long?
Yeah, you’re probably not going to watch this, but I’m so glad I did. I took a big risk and I was rewarded big time. “The Best of Youth,” which follows two close brothers of differing personalities, is, there’s no other way to put it, a stunning experience. The movie’s scope in time and place is remarkable, but its scale in human drama is its crowning achievement. I know the film looks daunting at six hours long or you can view it as three great movies put together, but with greater cumulative impact.
Bringing Up Baby (1938)
Among the list, this is the only one I didn’t manage to write a full review for. I caught it last July and on PBS of all places. “Bringing Up Baby” is an energetic 1938 comedy that moves at verbal breakneck speed. Scene after scene, I was rapidly dragged through the plot fascinated and charmed. What really makes the movie so much fun is the unlikely chemistry between the two lead characters. Katherine Hepburn plays a scheming, deranged, and aggressive heiress, while Gary Grant portrays a bumbling, nerdy, and stuffy paleontologist.
This might be my favorite Hepburn role of all time. Her talent for screwball comedy goes to extremes and I was totally engrossed by her yapping mouth. If she dominates in yammering, Mr. Grant is hilarious in silent mannerisms, wanting to interrupt Ms. Hepburn but unable to. The plot is absurd but it’s admirable how the writers have fun topping themselves. I was particularly invigorated how they pulled off a climatic scene where confusion causes such hilarity in jail. One of the best comedies of all time? Certainly. “Bringing Up Baby” is a jackpot. Bet your million dollar, baby.
A Christmas Story (1983)
“I want an official Red Ryder, carbine action, two-hundred shot range model air rifle!”
“No, you’ll shoot your eye out.”
“A Christmas Story” is not only a great Christmas movie; it’s also an insightful film about being a kid. I can’t help but relate to that beguiling boy hero, Ralphie Parker (Peter Billingsley). He might be in an extraordianry movie, but his luck seems ordinary. His frustrations and delights during the Holidays and beyond are all too recognizable. His relationships with his parents, younger brother, friends, enemies, and teacher are not only written well; they touch upon the realities of life with sneaky humor. It is really what makes the film so fantastic. I also love the scenes where Ralph envisions what-ifs scenarios, when nothing is going right. They’re not only hilarious but also affecting. Here’s a movie that shows imagination as a source of joy, comfort, and strength. For some, “A Christmas Story” has become something to unwrap year after year after year. I think I’ll take part in that tradition, as well. This movie is certainly a gift worth shooting for.
Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989)
On first impression, Woody Allen’s “Crimes and Misdemeanors” is about two married men committing infidelity. But the end result is an exceptional film that ignites intellectual discussions about life: How come life seems unfair? Is there really a God watching over us? If He is, is He a participatory viewer or an aloof voyeur? How can you account for wicked men getting away with things? Does guilt eventually catch up with them? But ah, what if they have no guilt, have they succeeded in breaking away from the eyes of God?
By posing questions, the movie succeeds in the daunting trick of mimicking reality (in cinema, anyway). Regular movies tend to shift focus on whether its story will “twist” towards a good or bad ending. This film seems to walk in the same pace as the viewers, unaware of the future and questioning the outcome. To me, that’s life – a calculated walk in the moment while thoughts run with doubt.
It’s really incredible how Woody Allen develops this movie. As usual, he peppers the film with witty remarks, but the core drama surprised me with its aching depth. I’m fascinated by movies that deal with morality. Situations of moral dilemmas are powerful enough to alter anything from one’s sense of identity to perception of God. “Crimes and Misdemeanors” is about two altered men and their stories can possibly alter you.
The Departed (2006)
Here’s the only 2006 film from the list. And what a film this is! Legendary director Martin Scorcese has arrived in glorious form in “The Departed,” a film about two opposing men (Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon) who hide their true allegiance while working for the opposing side. It’s a brilliant concept that brings a new meaning to the term “good cop, bad cop.” Not only do these men have to outsmart their (rival) colleagues, they also must try not to blow their cover in the process. On that concept alone, the movie is guaranteed to generate thrills and suspense.
The cast is phenomenal all-around. From Jack Nicholson’s charismatic and menacing mob boss to Mark Wahlberg’s hilarious turn as a bad-ass sergeant, the all-star power doesn’t go to waste. It’s no brainer though that what makes “The Departed” superior is Scorcese’s direction. Sometimes I even forgot he was directing because I was engrossed by what’s happening on screen. You can get lost in the violence, tough-guy talk, and gritty drama he orchestrates. Whether it’ll get him the Oscar or not is entirely irrelevant. Screw the Academy Awards. Scorcese’s legend lies in his films and not in the accolades he receives.
Match Point (2005)
The movie stars Jonathan Rhys-Meyers as Chris Wilton, a tennis instructor of modest background, who slowly ascends into elite world by dating rich girl Emily Hewett (Emily Mortimer). He gets into trouble, however, when he gets the hots for an American actress (Scarlett Johansson). Ah, let the steamy passion and the immoral infidelity ensue.
By recalling smart thrillers and topping it with his own brand of tricks, Woody Allen makes “Match Point” one of his best films. It knows how to utilize tension, stir a passionate concoction, and string together a series of shocking scenes. And it’s so freaking smart and agile – it makes other screenplays look lazy. The film also showcases rising star Rhys-Meyers, who, despite his character’s actions, is uncommonly good in drawing us to the story. This is one of the best movies of 2005 (#3 on my top 10) and the only DVD I bought in 2006.
Planet of the Apes (1968)
Compared to Tim Burton’s “re-imagined” 2001 version, the 1968 film has more “Twilight Zone” vibe to it and more eagerness to be thought-provoking. Basically, the movie is about a marooned astronaut (Charlton Heston), who ends up in a world where humans are inferior to apes. I think the concept is genius in skewering our perspective. Our sympathies automatically lie with the human protagonist and go against the apes. But the man is in the “animal” role and the apes represent humans. So, in a sly way, the movie makes us side with animals and make us examine the cruelty of men. Granted, the lessons imparted are platitudinous by now, but they are still alarmingly relevant.
Despite its brainy concept and significant message, the movie looks laughable and campy. The actors are obviously in ape costumes and on top of that, they don’t even act like apes. This isn’t necessarily a flaw, but adds a dimension of oddity to the whole experience. I also love that the protagonist is in full-on hero mode, just because he’s Charlton Heston. The guy always thinks he’s right and smarter than anybody, which is oddly the superiority complex the film tries to discourage. I love the out-of-this-world absurdity of it all. But hey, cheesy or not, “Planet of the Apes” remains one of the most fascinating social satires I’ve seen.
Sunset Boulevard (1950)
A film noir of first rate, Billy Wilder’s “Sunset Boulevard” is about a struggling screenwriter (William Holden) who posthumously narrates his accidental connection to the deranged and aging movie actress Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson). It’s an odd and grisly relationship that would concede to tragic and disastrous events. Of the two hundred movies I’ve watched in 2006, this is probably the best and the most impressive.
It’s just astounding that the movie gets so many things right. From the first scene to the finale’s blurry close-up, the movie is memorably shot. Its black and white look hauntingly evokes the Hollywood past and the use of shadows hints at the shady and dark turns of the story. Unlike complicated screenplays these days, the movie is hardly complex in structure. But few movies can ever match the thematic layers it invokes. The central relationship alone is so weird on many levels. Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond is superbly eerie in one of the best performances ever captured on screen. She’s overdramatic, in a rare spine-tingling fashion. William Holden as the wry writer is wonderful too. He plays his role as a man who’s physically wholesome, but slowly rotting in the head. It’s amazing how his cynicism seems so cool at first, but results into something self-destructive at the end. Yes, “Sunset Boulevard” is indeed a freaky venue to venture, but you won’t find an absorbing story like this elsewhere.
This is Spinal Tap (1984)
Perhaps the best mockumentary ever, “This is Spinal Tap” tags along the members of a British heavy metal band (Michael McKean, Harry Shearer, and Christopher Guest) about to embark on an American tour. The film has an abundance of hilarious scenes. An abundance! I can’t help but smile as I ponder about the band’s early beginnings, their sophomoric songs, ghastly album concepts, their concert mishaps, and its drummer’s curse. The movie sustains a level of amusement from start to finish. The reason for this is simple. The rock and rollers are naturally fun to observe. Mostly improvised, actors McKean, Shearer, and Guest fully embody their roles. There’s not a hint of “performance” to solicit laughter. A lot of hilarity comes from the musicians’ ignorance of being the butt of the jokes.
To the movie’s credit, the musicians are far from caricatures. The band might be a self-absorbed bunch, but the film grasps that they live in a rock star fantasy bubble. There’s reality in their being out of touch with reality. Nevertheless, they’re still people; they have their own pitfalls, glories, and (soap opera) dramas to face. Perhaps, humanizing the characters is where the movie achieves perfection, because I really bought the whole thing. While I’m told “This is Spinal Tap” is a faux documentary, I deem it an original. In other words, it’s the real thing.
Other outstanding and noteworthy films I saw in 2006: Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974), Blue (1993), Brick (2006), Downfall (2005), The Edukators (2005), The Five Senses (1999), Hustle & Flow (2005), Junebug (2005), Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005), Lady Vengeance (2006), Lantana (2001), Little Manhattan (2005), Lord of War (2005), Magnifico (2003), Moonstruck (1987), Munich (2005), Owning Mahoney (2003), Proof (2005), Ripley’s Game (2002), A Room With a View (1985), The Seven Samurais (1954), Superman (1978), Trouble in Paradise (1932), United 93 (2006), The Weather Man (2005), Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)