Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The Colonel's Countdown: Top 25 Movies (Nos. 17 & 16)

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.

17. NASHVILLE (1975)

Director: Robert Altman

Starring: Keith Carradine, Henry Gibson, David Arkin, Barbara Baxley, Ronee Blakley, Ned Beatty, Geraldine Chaplin, Lily Tomlin, Shelley Duvall, Robert DoQui, Barbara Harris, Karen Black, Scott Glenn, Jeff Goldblum, Michael Murphy, Gwen Welles, Timothy Brown, etc.

Why it's here: "Nashville" isn't a place in this movie, it's a state of mind.  Director Robert Altman presents the city as a twangy-voiced Hollywood, as much a cultural capital as a self-sustaining cult of personality.  No matter which character is in momentary focus in the movie, they're all striving toward or against this concept of "Nashville," whether it's a misguided quest for fame or coming to terms with the racial realities of the place. The characters -- brought to life by a cast of dozens as living, breathing people and not caricatures -- are dreamers, saints, hustlers, punks, mothers, cuckolds, fathers, politicians, and ... oh yeah, musicians.

It's important to say that "Nashville" is a musical. Don't get me wrong. There's no impromptu tap dancing, no Ethel Merman-esque bursts into song, no Busby Berkeley choreography. It's all organic; the music comes from the characters, whether they've receded to the background for the moment or they've taken center stage. In fact, Altman pushed the several of the actors to write their own songs for their characters. The result is alternately hilarious (Henry Gibson as the diminutive yet egotistical superstar, Haven Hamilton, singing jingoistic fluff) and heartbreaking (Ronee Blakley, as the delicate and tragic Barbara Jean, singing "Dues"). And it's all country music, with a little singer-songwriter folk tossed in. Maybe you don't have a taste for country music, but that's all right. Much of the music in the movie isn't meant to be liked, per se, but the stuff that's good is really good, even for folks like me who don't usually like country. A great song is a great song, period. Let me prove my point. Here's a sampling of Blakley's work in the movie ("Dues" starts about 2:10 in):

And it is with a song that the movie ends. "Nashville" takes its time getting to its final destination, weaving all of its characters' stories into each other's. Sometimes the movie doesn't feel like it's going somewhere with all these threads, but it is. It's about a city and culture in upheaval, set in the aftermath of Vietnam and Watergate, so these people deserve your patience. Let them say what they have to say. It's worth your time and the concentration. I like to think of "Nashville" as a predecessor to complexly plotted ensemble TV series like "The Wire" or, perhaps in an even greater degree, to that show's New Orleans-set cousin, "Treme," which also radiates music and the tragicomic stuff of everyday life in an idiosyncratic American cultural epicenter. When you finally get to the violent and troubling climax of "Nashville," you'll feel like you've lived, laughed and wept with these characters. And when they break into song, in a desperate attempt to stand united in spite of their differences and petty grievances, you'll be singing along with them.

Memorable quote: "This isn't Dallas, it's Nashville! They can't do this to us here in Nashville! Let's show them what we're made of. Come on everybody, sing! Somebody, sing!"


Director: Sam Peckinpah

Starring: Warren Oates, Isela Vega, Gig Young, Robert Webber, Kris Kristofferson, Emilio Fernandez

Why it's here: There's no coming together in "Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia." It's about a desperate man in a desperate situation, largely the result of a pathetic mix of his own poor choices and circumstances beyond his control. He senses an opportunity to break out of his rut and his adopted home in the corrupt and corroded heart of Mexico, but it only leads to more misery and, finally, a string of defiant and violent acts. "Holy ground will be desecrated," the trailer boasts. "Twenty-five people will die":

Bennie (Warren Oates) is the desperate man, the man "who will become an animal." He's a two-bit piano player in a seedy bar in Mexico who's subcontracted to kill a man, Alfredo Garcia, who has knocked up the daughter of a rich and powerful Mexican man known only as El Jefe. Bennie, ever the chump, says he'll do it for $10,000, even though El Jefe is offering $1 million to Bennie's de facto bosses. Bennie has an advantage, though. His on-again, off-again lover, a working girl named Elita (Isela Vega), used to have fun with Alfredo, so she's sure to know where he is. It turns out, however, that Alfredo's dead and buried in his family's hometown. It doesn't matter to Bennie, though. He'll dig up and decapitate the corpse as proof of Alfredo's death, as long as it means he can score the ten grand and start a new life with Elita. Because, really, how much lower can he go?

Much lower, it turns out. He and Elita embark on a road trip to recover Alfredo's head. She goes along willingly, if only to talk Bennie out of this ghoulish act and to find love and freedom far away from their lives. It's clear they love each other, it's just that they don't know how to. A tragedy befalls the couple, forcing Bennie realize that he's been depriving himself of love, the one thing he really needed. He goes on a murderous rampage of revenge up the food chain all the way to El Jefe. At his side are some firearms, a really badass machete and the head of Alfredo Garcia, which becomes a demented saint's relic to Bennie, an emblem of his own depravity, insanity, sin, and, perversely, his redemption.

Even though the plot is straight out of westerns and pulp revenge melodramas, the sentiments in "Alfredo Garcia" are the stuff of bitter, world-weary poetry. It's a dreadfully, even painfully, honest movie. That's probably because it's director Sam Peckinpah's ("The Wild Bunch," "Straw Dogs") most personal work. Roger Ebert, in his Great Movies essay on the "Alfredo Garcia," says Bennie's actions and mindset are reflections of Peckinpah's at the time he made the movie:
I believe its hero, Bennie, completes his task with the same dogged courage as Peckinpah used to complete the movie, and that Bennie's exhaustion, disgust and despair at the end might mirror Peckinpah's own. I sense that the emotional weather on the set seeped onto the screen, haunting it with a buried level of passion. If there is anything to the auteur theory, then ''Alfredo Garcia'' is the most autobiographical film Peckinpah ever made.
Bennie rarely sheds his sunglasses during the movie, a trait Oates likely picked up from Peckinpah, according to Ebert and the commentary track on the DVD. The light, both in the physical and metaphorical sense, is too much for him. Also, remember that the eyes are often referred to as windows to the soul. If Bennie and Peckinpah believe their souls are wastelands, why would they want anyone to look in?

Yeah, I know, this doesn't sound like the most pleasant movie-going experience. It isn't a popcorn picture, and, depending on how you view the world, it doesn't have a happy ending. But it's still a hell of a shoot 'em up, and there's plenty to love if you value great acting and writing. If you seek a little more fulfillment from your entertainment, you can also see "Alfredo Garcia" as a movie that's ultimately about defiance, about standing against the tidal wave of shit that life sometimes throws at you. If you've ever felt like you've needed to take a stand against indifferent or evil constraints on your life, then this is a movie you can relate to. If not, though, at the very least you can come out on the other side of this dirty journey to the dark heart of humanity feeling a little better about yourself.

Memorable quote: "There ain't nothing sacred about a hole in the ground or the man that's in it. Or you. Or me."

Link to 25 and 24
Link to 23 and 22
Link to 21 and 20
Link to 19 and 18


  1. Only saw parts of Nashville. Liked what I saw.

    Man, I've had your copy of Alfredo Garcia for almost two years... I promise to return it, watched, finally, by the next time we hang out.

    #17 - Reservoir Dogs: Second Quentin movie to appear. Something tells me it won't be the last.

    #16 - The Dark Knight: It's my favorite comic movie. I enjoy Christopher Nolan's work and this is my second favorite of his movies.

  2. My # 17 is UP. My #16 is Sleeping Beauty. What can I say I'm a slave to the Disney Corp.

  3. @Milcz: That trailer makes it pretty hard to pass up, doesn't it?

    @My dear Ruby: You're no slave to Disney. You're merely an indentured servant. ; )

  4. Taxidermia (This Hungarian film follows three generations of men, starting back during World War II. The first man is a sexually frustrated soldier who shoots fire from his penis and is executed after sodomizing a dead pig. The second is the soldier's son, a morbidly obese fellow who is a competitive eater during the cold war. The third is the previous man's son, a taxidermist from our present who cares for his tremendously overweight father and his GIANT, mastiff-sized cats. I can't really go any further here as I'll type the night away. This film is too wonderful to put into words. Its a mishmash of comedy/horror/fantasy/drama - but the primary focus here is on the horrors of the human body and our desires.)

    Touch Of Evil (From what I can tell, most people seem to have forgotten about this - the other Orson Welles masterpiece. Personally, I liked it much better than Citizen Kane. Excellent noir and mystery about a murdered Mexican dude in a border town, and great fun watching Welles' character, police captain Quinlan, on a downward spiral to insanity.)

  5. Touch of Evil is great. I have just seen Kane so many more times. If I saw Touch of Evil more, I am sure it would be a fave.

  6. @Nick: "Touch of Evil" is one of poor unfortunates that fell victim to the relative brevity of my Top 50. Had I listed 75 overall, it would have made it in. "Citizen Kane" goes above it, though, because, even after the great remastering/reconstruction a few years back, it's still a little choppy. Welles' great vision was still not completely realized. Speaking of which, have you ever seen "The Magnificent Ambersons"? I resisted seeing it for years because RKO mangled it so much, even going so far to burn negatives of Welles' original work. It really is a tragic movie. Big parts of it, particularly the early going, work so damned well, and it looks like Welles is about to land another ahead-of-its-time masterpiece ... but then, BLAM! -- a super saccharine end section is clearly slapped on. Most distressing.


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