Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Colonel's Countdown: Top 25 Movies (Nos. 21 & 20)

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.

21. DEAD RINGERS (1988)

Director: David Cronenberg

Starring: Jeremy Irons, Jeremy Irons, Genevieve Bujold, Stephen Lack

Why it's here: "Dead Ringers" tells the tale of brilliant twin gynecologists, both played by the immortal Jeremy Irons, whose dependency on each other leads to madness and death. But don't let the schlocky-sounding title (it was "Twins" at one point, but another movie from 1988, a certain comedy starring the Governator and Danny DeVito, ended up with that title) or the pulpy premise fool you: this is no cheap exploitation flick. (Not that there's anything wrong with cheap exploitation flicks!) It's a meticulously crafted and poetic exploration of identity, addiction, sexuality and, uh, abnormally formed female genitals. (Trust me, it's not exploitation!)

It's also a showcase for Irons, who gives not one, but two performances for the ages. He plays Drs. Elliot and Beverly Mantle, for whom one more love triangle (with actress Claire Niveau, portrayed by Genevieve Bujold) is one love triangle too many. The good doctors may look exactly alike, but their personalities couldn't be more divergent. Elliot is the alpha male of the duo, outgoing, bold and extremely commanding in social situations. Beverly, who resents his feminine first name, is the shyer and more sensitive of the two, even though he willingly participates in sexual deceptions with his brother. Irons develops layers upon layers of depth for each brother's personality, which eventually converge at the most tragically infantile levels.

We're so entranced by Irons' performance that we can barely tell there's any camera trickery afoot when the twins appear together onscreen. In fact, we barely notice that the movie is so stylishly but elegantly made. Director David Cronenberg (who, by the way, started his career as a purveyor of brainy yet cheap exploitation flicks ... ) and cinematographer Peter Suschitzky compose chilly, minimalistic shots that accentuate the subtle facial and bodily differences between the Mantle brothers. They also create a cool and shadowy, yet intimate, color palette that transfigures Irons' body into something of a Renaissance sculpture, making the movie's devastating, impossibly sad final shot so haunting.

"Dead Ringers" is a hard movie to shake. Recently I've spent hours reflecting on it and savoring my memories of its images, its mood, its shattering and operatic Howard Shore score. That's not enough. I'm going to have to watch it again, and soon.

Memorable quote: "And tomorrow, we'll take some Percodan ... just because it's Saturday." 


Director: Jonathan Demme

Starring: Jodie Foster, Anthony Hopkins, Scott Glenn, Ted Levine, Brooke Smith, Anthony Heald

Why it's here: "The Silence of the Lambs" was my absolute favorite movie for several years. Once I was able to recite the entire movie line for line. I could even anticipate the musical cues. I probably still can, come to think of it. But, you're asking, why is this movie so far down the list if I adore it so much? I don't know. I still love it, obviously, but maybe I just watched it far too many times over the years. In most cases that kind of viewing diminishes the impact of a movie, no matter how great. "Silence" and I still get together time to time, but the magic of our early days together just isn't there anymore.

My long love affair with "Silence" started when I was a preteen with a burgeoning interest in serial killers (don't ask) and acting. This movie has healthy portions of both, and while the grisly subject matter may make the most intense impression, it's the acting that stands the test of time.  Understandably, Anthony Hopkins' superstar turn as Dr. Hannibal "The Cannibal" Lecter is the biggest reason the movie has infected our pop culture. The actor savors each delectably poisonous bon mot that drips from his mouth as much as the character would. Hopkins' Lecter is a debonair and diabolical genius, and he does it all with a twinkle in his eye. Except when he's gnawing a chunk out of a police officer's face, that is. Still, Lecter remains an extremely attractive villain. He's the James Bond of the serial killer genre, a murderous rogue of taste and elegance -- the ideal role model for an intellectually snobby, pretentious teenage boy.

But Hopkins, who won a Best Actor Oscar for the role despite only about 30 minutes of screen time, is hardly the only star here. Fellow Oscar-winner Jodie Foster, who has delivered emotionally raw work since she was a kid, comes through with arguably her most psychologically complex performance as FBI trainee Clarice Starling. I fell in love with Foster's Starling through Lecter's eyes and the camera's lens. Director Jonathan Demme and his cinematographer, Tak Fujimoto, surround the actors in their scenes together in grey and black shadows, or they frame them in extremely tight closeups. When they're on screen together, it feels like nothing else is happening in the world. 

Oddly enough, though, the movie's most well-known scene doesn't feature Foster and Hopkins, but Ted Levine as the movie's villain-at-large, Buffalo Bill. Here's a taste of that moment. You can thank me for sparing the "tuck":

Levine and Demme go all out with this character, a gender-confused psychopath who is stitching himself a suit of female skin. The performance attracted some pretty harsh criticism from the gay protestors, who claimed the character cast homosexuals in a harsh light. I don't think so, though. The filmmakers and Levine are hardly making a blanket statement about all homosexuals or would-be transsexuals; it's just a highly specific depiction of a unique and original character. Within the context of the movie, Levine delivers a properly disturbing performance that accentuates what kind of intensely personal horror Starling and the audience are witnessing.

But then, "Silence" is an intensely personal horror movie. It has its share of gore, true, and its ominous atmosphere is relentless from the opening credits on, but any fear and trembling you experience watching it comes from inhabiting the characters' minds. 

Memorable quote: "Amputate a man's leg and he can still feel it tickling. Tell me, mum, when your little girl's on the slab, where will it tickle you?"

Link to Nos. 23 & 22
Link to Nos. 25 & 24


  1. Never saw Dead Ringers, but it seems pretty cool.

    Surprised that Silence is so low on the list. I guess if this was like 1992 it may be your #1.

    #21 - Godfather 2: I love, love, love the jump through time and parallel story telling. Kind of like a TV show that is my favorite.

    #20 - Citizen Kane: Call me pretentious for having the "Greatest movie of all time" on my list but the thing that made me love this movie even more was going to Hearst Castle in California and seeing the madness that was the real Charles Foster Kane.

  2. My # 21 is Steel Magnolias, and #20 is Seven.

    Good choice with Silence of the Lambs.

  3. @Milcz: I thought I was being pretentious by leaving "the greatest movie of all time" off my list. Two very good calls, although I have to ask again: Where could you go from here??? I'm more intrigued about the rest of your list than I am excited about spinning out mine.

    @My dear little Ruby: Serial killer match at #20!

  4. I have to get caught up on this, I am going to try and make my top 25 todat. WARNING: I LIKE SHIT MOIVES.

    @The Colonel- I havent seen Dead Ringers, but am definitely going to check it out on netflix, sounds good.

    @Milcz = so far your movies have all been great. I agree with the colonel, I am very interested to see where your list goes.

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  6. #21 Mister Lonely
    (A Michael Jackson impersonator meets a Marilyn Monroe impersonator and she takes him to a castle inhabited by many other celebrity impersonators who are building a theater in order to put on the greatest show of all time. These people aren't just impersonators, but actually live as these people. Meanwhile, a group of nuns have discovered that their faith in God allows them to survive jumping out of airplanes without a parachute. This is a very funny and emotional film which I really can't get enough of.)

    20. Female Trouble
    (Divine plays Dawn Davenport, a teenage rebel in the 60's who goes apeshit when she doesn't get her "cha-cha heels" for Christmas. She runs off only to be raped and impregnated. Years later, Dawn meets a married couple of beauticians who then turn her to a life of crime so that they can photograph her in the act. As they say, "Crime is beauty." The ending is insane and this film is hilarious from beginning to end.)


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