Friday, May 28, 2010

The Colonel's Countdown: Top 25 Movies (Nos. 15 & 14)

I just want to be clear: These are my 25 favorite films. They're not necessarily the best movies I've seen, although many of them certainly would rank high or near the top of that list. I understand that for some a favorites list is indistinguishable from a best-of list, and that's cool. But it's not my purpose here. I want to celebrate the movies that, for one reason or many, moved me in ways that I can barely describe ... even though I'm going to try here.

15. MULHOLLAND DR. (2001)

Director: David Lynch

Starring: Naomi Watts, Laura Elena Harring, Justin Theroux, Dan Hedaya, Mark Pellegrino, Ann Miller, Robert Forster, Billy Ray Cyrus

Why it's here: Hollywood is often called The Dream Factory.  It's where fantasy is mass-produced, packaged in a glistening cover and sold all over the world. It's literally where dreams come true, at least in the corporate-minded, supply-and-demand sense. And there's no director better suited to probing the depths of both dreams and factories than David Lynch, whose movies are often a surrealistic blend of industrial imagery and dream logic. While he made some great movies before "Mulholland Drive," this is the movie where these two obsessions came together for Lynch in the most complete and heartbreaking way.

The first section of "Mulholland Dr." tells the story of the innocent Betty (Naomi Watts), an aspiring starlet who arrives in Hollywood to realize her dreams only to get caught up in a mystery involving a beautiful amnesiac called "Rita," whom we see fleeing an accident on the titular road in the beginning of the movie. As Betty and Rita get closer and closer to the solution, they fall in love. Sounds simple, doesn't it? But wait, there's more. A subplot involving a young, hip, Lynch-ian movie director ("Iron Man 2" screenwriter Justin Theroux) being manipulated by dark forces -- including the menacingly calm "Cowboy," one of the most memorably bizarre characters in movie history -- may or may not have anything to do with the story. So might a horrifying encounter at a diner's dumpster.

Every factory produces industrial waste, and in a dream factory the harmful byproducts are nightmares. The darker elements of the story eventually take over, as love gives way to jealousy, spite and murderous rage. What appears to be happening in Betty's brightest dreams -- stardom, love, adventure, glamor -- turns into the darkness of her nightmares, where she becomes "Diane." This Diane may actually be the "true" identity of Watts' protagonist. I used to be convinced that the latter part of the movie was set in "reality," meaning all that came before it was a dream. I'm not so sure anymore. The final stretch of the movie feels a lot more "realistic," sure, but its darkness is especially concrete and acute. Everything seems to go wrong, like in the worst and most vivid of our nightmares, and events and people are much crueler to Diane than they are to Betty. Whereas Betty falls in love with a beautiful woman and scores in Hollywood auditions, Diane is publicly humiliated and rejected. It's quite a heartbreaking comedown, particularly in the scenes set to composer Angelo Badalmenti's infinitely painful and yearning love theme. So, in the end, we may not be seeing the "reality" of Betty/Diane's situation, but by having access to what seems to be her dreams or subconscious, we're experiencing the emotional truth beneath it.

"Mulholland Dr." wasn't always supposed to be a movie. It was originally meant to be a television series, but ABC did not like Lynch's pilot. The director then built a movie around the pilot, and it shows. There are several characters and potential plot lines that pop up only to have little or no resolution once the movie ends. In any other director's hands, this result would likely infuriate me, but Lynch, by committing to telling his story with dream logic, makes it work, and memorably so. "The Cowboy" shouldn't really make literal sense, and neither should the insidious dwarf who lurks in a windowless room, apparently controlling Hollywood. And what about the blue box, and the tiny, rabid old couple? Okay, so all this may infuriate you. It's not for everyone, particularly if you want a clear, matter-of-fact narrative, and that's all right. But if you're ever in the mood to get lost in someone's dreams, I recommend you go for a ride on "Mulholland Dr."

Memorable quote: "No, you're not thinkin'. You're too busy being a smart aleck to be thinkin'. Now I want ya to think and stop bein' a smart aleck. Can ya try that for me?" 

14. GOODFELLAS (1990)

Director: Martin Scorsese

Starring: Ray Liotta, Robert DeNiro, Joe Pesci, Lorraine Bracco, Paul Sorvino, Gina Mastrogiacomo, Illeana Douglas, Samuel L. Jackson

Why it's here: I think the first time I saw "Goodfellas" was early Christmas morning either in 1991 or 1992. I was too old to believe in Santa Claus by a good three or four years at that time, but I was still a kid, and presents were still a very, very exciting prospect. I couldn't sleep, at least not much more than a few hours and so I woke up around 4 or 4:30 and went out to my grandparents' living room. I didn't poke at the presents too much, but I had a few hours to kill, and so I popped on the TV, switched over to HBO or Showtime, and there were the opening credits of "Goodfellas." Oh good, I thought, I've wanted to see this. It turned out there was no better way to kill a few hours on Christmas morning.

I'm sure all of you have seen "Goodfellas." (If you haven't, well, what the Hell are you waiting for? GO WATCH IT NOW.) You know the story. It's a familiar one in American movies: the rise and fall of a free-market capitalist, er, criminal. In this case, it's Henry Hill (Ray Liotta), a real guy who grew up in a mob neighborhood, became "connected" at an early age and spent much of his life running with gangsters until he joined the Witness Protection Program. Henry never becomes a boss, never gets the ear of a senator, never has to testify before Congress and never gets to deal with the Vatican. No, Henry and his buddies are, as wife Karen Hill (Lorraine Bracco) puts it, "blue collar guys," or at least they would be if they weren't murderous crooks. This, I think, is central to the movie's perpetual appeal. Regular people can relate to it. It's working class wish-fulfillment: Henry has a nice house in the suburbs, a beautiful wife and two beautiful girls, mistresses kept in nearby apartments, bookies on speed dial, cocaine in the sugar dish. He never pays taxes, never has to work regular hours, and he can go out with the guys to play cards and get drunk just about any night he's not out stealing or beating guys up.

People often compare "Goodfellas" to "The Godfather," but I think the more appropriate comparison is to Brian DePalma's "Scarface," another movie about a working-class criminal's rise through the organized-crime ranks. The characters in "The Godfather" mostly breathe the rarefied air of privilege, while Tony in "Scarface" starts out washing dishes and Henry in "Goodfellas" runs numbers and works at a pizza shop. "Scarface," though, has a much more operatic style than "Goodfellas," which is more like an extended jam session. Considering that director Martin Scorsese was an editor on the documentary "Woodstock" and is an acolyte of improvisation guru John Cassavetes, that shouldn't surprise you. "Goodfellas" flows. It feels so easy, even in scenes that were probably extremely tough to pull off. Like this famous extended shot:

And check out the casual blend of character, dialogue and atmosphere in this scene:

"Medium rare! An aristocrat ... " Damn! Doesn't that make you hungry? Anyway, back go my point. Scorsese makes you feel like you're in that room, like you're about to sit down to some steak and meat sauce and a little red wine. We don't spend much time with the guys in that scene outside of Henry and Paulie (Paul Sorvino), and yet we feel like we know them. Like they're neighborhood guys. "Goodfellas" has been accused of glorifying mobsters, but all it does is humanize them. They're equally funny and scary. They're family guys, but they cheat on their wives. They're incredible cooks, but they're dope smugglers. Since we get to know these characters so well, we may feel a little twinge of regret when Henry rats out all his buddies, but we don't feel sorry for him -- or his cohorts, for that matter. At least I don't. And that's one of the many beautiful things about Scorsese's work here: he immerses us in a world where temptation is easy but overcoming it is both painful and worthwhile.

Memorable quote (It's hard to pick just one!): "Ohhh, that's the flavor!"


  1. My #15 is The Wizard of Oz and my #14 is Godfather 1&2.

    Goodfellas is a good choice.

  2. Yeah, I remember seeing Mulholland Drive in the theater with you. Must have been late summer 2001...

    Ah Goodfellas! I love that movie but did not make top 25. Top 50, sure. My favorite quote is, "The hoof."

    Okay, so now mine.

    #15 - Jackie Brown: Yes, another Tarantino movie and a damn good one at that. A lot of people were down on this movie because it wasn't Pulp Fiction. But I think it's awesome.

    #14 - Being John Malkovich: Malkovich, Malkovich. That's all I really need to say.

  3. I went with you guys to see Mulholland Dr. After the film our brains were so scrambled we went back to my place to cool off with some He-Man.

    Happiness (This film focuses on three sisters - one a housewife, another a best-selling author, and the youngest, a vegan who seems lost in the world - and the people surrounding them in their lives. Simply put, everyone in this movie is seriously fucked up in so many ways. The most disturbing is a husband and father who has a penchant for young boys. His relationship with his own son - though not sexual - is a little to open for comfort. Through all the dark subject matter this film manages to be absolutely hilarious. Certainly one of a kind.)

    Mulholland Dr (I'm with you on this one.)

  4. @Milcz, Nick: That's right, we saw it at the Red Bank theater. He-Man is always the perfect balm for a burning brain.

  5. I have a lot of theories on Mulholland Dr. Part of me thinks I have most of it figured out. The other part of me laughs that idea.

  6. OK, keep everything you already stated and I'll branch off of that.

    The Cowboy to me - at least as of late - represents the conscience of Justin Theroux's character, the director. He's torn between casting the right actress for the role or the one he's being told to. The Cowboy is his own mind telling him to do what he knows he has to do or there will be repercussions.

    I also still believe that much of the end of the film is reality slipping into the dream. Her true life begins to take over in the same way you might hear your alarm clock while dreaming moments before you awake. Actually - the entire film could be Betty/Diane's final thoughts before death. They say your life flashes before your eyes but who says it has to be coherent? Who's to say that the scenes, as they are, are how Betty/Diane simply perceived them. We all remember things differently. Let's go back to Lost Highway where Bill Pullman's character stated how he doesn't like to watch home movies because he wants to remember events as he experienced them - not so much as they "really happened." It's a good theory.

    The blue box still puzzles me very much. That and the blue key are the biggest enigma in the entire film. If I was to try and crack this one, I'd be here all night. I have ideas, but I'll keep them to myself for now.


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