Friday, May 21, 2010

The Colonel's Countdown: Top 25 Movies (Nos. 19 & 18)

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.


Director: Martin Scorsese

Starring: Willem Dafoe, Harvey Keitel, Barbara Hershey, Harry Dean Stanton, Verna Bloom, David Bowie

Why it's here: Nikos Kazantzakis, the author of the novel "The Last Temptation of Christ," once wrote:
The yearning, so human, so superhuman, of man to attain to God, or more exactly, to return to God and identify himself with him -- has always been a deep inscrutable mystery to me. ... My principal anguish, and the wellspring of all my joys and sorrows from my youth onward has been the incessant, merciless battle between the spirit and the flesh.
This quotation, which is also the epigraph at the beginning of Martin Scorsese's film adaptation, tells you all you need to know going into the movie. Put the Bible aside, the movie implores, and begin to reflect on what it takes to balance your spiritual or metaphysical needs with those of your physical existence. Now imagine that you are not you, but the offspring of all-powerful deity. Better yet, that you're the deity itself, made flesh, and you have the literal weight of the world upon your shoulders in addition to all the usual hang-ups associated with being human ... and you know you're going to suffer and die an agonizing death in the service of your highest ideals, love and forgiveness.

This idea of a being who's both human and god, whose power and suffering are equally great, always draws me back to the Christ myth, even if I no longer believe in it. It's overwhelming to imagine having an infinite capacity for empathy and pain. Scorsese understands this feeling, or at least he tries to, and he's made an overwhelming movie to capture it.

"The Last Temptation of Christ," which uses a structure similar to the Ambrose Bierce short story "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," stoked a lot of controversy when it was released in 1988 mostly because of a long sequence toward the end that depicts Jesus (Willem Dafoe) getting married (gasp!), having sex (double gasp!) and having kids (somebody call a doctor!). The passage in question depicts the consequences if Jesus (Willem Defoe) chose to give up the cross and live out his days as any other man would.  Of course, what is lost on the movie's opponents is that the sequence is not meant to be "real" in the context of the movie. It's merely illustrating the "last temptation" of the title. Showing Jesus, who is God himself, choosing for a relative moment to live an anonymous life as a family man illustrates the kind of empathy and compassion Kazantzakis and Scorsese see in their savior. That he ultimately rejects the temptation actually validates the faith.

The opponents of "Last Temptation" also take issue with the movie's portrayal of Judas (Harvey Keitel), which is far kinder than history and lore have been. The movie has a point, though. It's all God's plan, anyway, so it's not like Judas actually had a choice in betraying Jesus. It had to be done, or Jesus never would have died on the cross or risen from the grave. It was a necessary betrayal, so it stands to reason that Judas was just a pawn in God's game and is just as deserving of redemption and forgiveness as anybody, at least according to the faith.

But forget all that. "Last Temptation" is not merely a relic of past cultural controversies, it's a timeless example of movie art. Scorsese understands that the story, at its heart, is one of personal growth and revelation, so he lets us experience the action from Jesus' perspective through  subjective sound design and camera work. The score, by no less than Peter Gabriel, vacillates gracefully between driving, purposeful rhythms and reflective, droning ambience. It's a score for missionaries and monks. This Jesus is a complicated character, and he deserves a rich, layered movie.

He also deserves a great performance, and Dafoe is more than up to the task. He's bold and full of fury when Jesus expels the money changers from the temple and when he returns from the desert, heart literally in hand. He's also appropriately pathetic when Jesus is building crosses for the Romans in the beginning of the movie, and meek and tender in Jesus' moments of doubt and pain. It's an immortal performance by one of the greatest and most under-appreciated actors of our time.

Memorable quote: "God loves me. I know he loves me. I want him to stop."

18. KING KONG (1933)

Directors: Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack

Starring: Fay Wray, Robert Armstrong, Bruce Cabot

Why it's here: I remember anticipating the release of "Jurassic Park" back in 1993. (I can't believe I just wrote "back in 1993" ... ) As May trudged along, the movie's release date, June 11, was shaping up as an early Christmas. I must have read the Michael Crichton novel twice in the weeks leading up to the big day. Finally, when the movie was released, I was there on opening day at the now-extinct "Town" theater in Middletown, N.J. To my 12-year-old eyes and ears it was nothing less than amazing. I became a "Jurassic Park" evangelist, proclaiming its glory to anyone who would listen and even those who wouldn't. Not that it needed my help, but still. I even managed to convince my Grandpa John and Grandma Eleanor to take a rare trip to the movies to see it. 

I sat home watching TV that sticky summer night in Keansburg, having already seen "Jurassic Park" twice, eagerly awaiting their return from the theater so I could see what they thought. I was particularly eager to hear my grandfather's opinion. Once I heard the door open I sprang to my feet and greeted them as they entered the living room: "So, what did you think?" My grandfather smirked that quiet, skeptical Irish smirk of his. "It was pretty good," he said, clearly humoring me. "But it was no 'King Kong.'"

I scoffed, but even then I knew in my heart that he was right. "King Kong" was the reason I anticipated "Jurassic Park" to begin with. "King Kong" was the reason I loved monster movies. Hell, you could say "King Kong" was the reason I loved movies at all at that age, and I had my grandfather to thank for that. When I was younger, say around five or six or seven, I didn't have any brothers or sisters to play with, and my cousins were babies or toddlers, so I hung around old people. A lot. Thankfully, though, Grandpa John, despite his notorious grouchiness and Catholic stoicism, had a teenage boy's taste in movies. His favorites were James Bond, Indiana Jones, "Gunga Din," the Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff movies, and, of course, "King Kong." He shared all of these with me, and more: "The Wolf Man," "The Creature from the Black Lagoon," Spencer Tracy's "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde," even the Godzilla pictures. ("Of course King Kong should win," he told me. "He's American.") To me, "King Kong" always towered over all the other monster movies and movie monsters.

You know the story: 50-foot gorilla meets girl, 50-foot gorilla loses girl, 50-foot gorilla steals girl back, 50-foot gorilla gets shot up and tumbles to his death from a skyscraper, girl blamed for 50-gorilla's death. Yep, I'll admit it. Much of what's in the world of "King Kong" is, uh, outmoded, to put it politely. Women, particularly our heroine, Ann Darrow (Fay Wray), are delicate and need to be protected. Indigenous peoples in strange lands are especially dark, savage and bloodthirsty. And Chinese people are silly ship cooks. These issues are hard to dismiss, but in spite of all that, "King Kong" remains a magical experience. 

The movie's social values aren't the only extremely outdated things about it. Still, its special effects are remain marvelous, even if the dinosaurs and Kong himself are clearly rubber clumps come to life. The artificiality of the creatures (created by Willis O'Brien) was probably pretty obvious even to the audiences of 1933, a time when CGI wasn't even a fantasy, but that didn't stop "King Kong" from being the "game-changer" of its day. There's a tangibility, a scruffiness to practical effects like the ones in "King Kong" and the later Ray Harryhausen sagas that stokes the imagination more than any CGI does, no matter how amazingly realistic. And, as much as I adore Peter Jackson's 2005 remake/love letter (I take a lot of shit for this, by the way. I teared up during the ice skating scene. Fucking sue me.), I'll take O'Brien's Kong smacking around one chewy-looking T. Rex over the Andy Serkis/CGI Kong tangling with three V. Rexes any day. In fact, with few exceptions, I'd take the 1933 "King Kong" over just about any modern blockbuster. 

Memorable quote: "Oh no, it wasn't the airplanes. It was beauty killed the beast."


  1. My # 19 is Starship Troopers, and # 18 is Goodfellas.

    I always loved the original King Kong, especially when he kills the t-rex, and then plays with the broken jaw.

  2. I've never seen Last Temptation, despite how you've praised it for year. And I may have seen King Kong when I was a kid. Can't remember.

    #19 - Inglourious Basterds
    I've seen it a few times now and yeah, it gets better each time. It's the first Tarantino movie to appear on my list. It won't be the last.

    #18 - A Clockwork Orange
    I have such great memories of this movie. At one point it was probably top 5 in my life. But alas, it's been at least 5 years since I last watched it in its entirety (its not the type of movie to be on TBS to be able to catch by accident). I remember the first time I saw it, freshman year of high school, me and the Colonel crammed into my small bedroom in Middletown. And of course, then Nick got Mrs. Brinster to play it during the final days of history class sophomore year.

  3. OK, I didn't comment Wednesday, so I'm putting in four picks today (two thematically, two not so much).
    21. Misery -- Yeah, Kathy Bates won the Oscar, but James Caan is great too. You might call this a horror movie, but, to me, it's one of the best dark comedies of all time.
    20. Silence of the Lambs -- Yes, same as you. I grew up watching this, too.
    19. Out of Sight -- The movie that proved George Clooney can act. The movie that still gives me hope for J. Lo. And the movie in which Ving Rhames pulls off the slickest car theft ever.
    18. To Kill a Mockingbird -- in the category of "Movies relatives got us to watch, but which we ended up loving." My mom's favorite movie. One of mine, too.

  4. @Milcz: We saw "King Kong" at the old Loews in Jersey City. I guess it didn't leave much of an impression on you!

    And you should try to see "Last Temptation." It's the kind of Jesus movie a non-believer can dig.

    @My dear Ruby: Can't go wrong with either of those two picks.

    That bit with the jaw, despite the circumstances of the scene, is adorable.

    @TV Writer: I, too, love "To Kill a Mockingbird." Just thinking of the revelation of Boo makes my eyes water and my neck hairs tingle a bit.

  5. I have never seen The Last Temptation. And King Kong... I don't think I seen that one either.

    I'm slow with making a list =( I will definitely do that today.

    I love reading the movies you picked. I now know some movies to check out...

  6. @Dee: I can't wait to see your list. And it's my pleasure to write about these movies and perhaps provoke you into seeing them.

  7. A Dirty Shame
    (Victims of head injuries become sex addicts in a quiet suburban neighborhood. Ray-Ray is the "sex saint" who is gathering up his 13 "apostles" to create the ultimate sex act, something that has never been done before. Absolutely hilarious and probably the most quotable film that I can think of.)

    Buffalo '66
    (Billy Brown just gets released from a 5 year prison sentence, kidnaps a dancer, and makes her pretend to be his wife for when he goes back to visit his parents who really don't even love him at all. Then old Billy hatches a plan to murder the place kicker for the Buffalo Bills who lost the Super Bowl for them in '91, leading to the events which landed Billy in jail. VERY funny movie with a lot of heart and a perfect cast.)

  8. @Nick: I was warned by several friends with reliable opinions to stay away from "Buffalo '66." I'm glad I didn't. I actually ended up liking it a lot.


Go ahead, say something.