Friday, May 14, 2010

The Colonel's Countdown: Top 25 Movies (Nos. 23 & 22)

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.

23. JFK (1991)

Director: Oliver Stone

Starring: Kevin Costner, Tommy Lee Jones, Joe Pesci, Gary Oldman, Sissy Spacek, Jack Lemmon, Ed Asner, Kevin Bacon, John Candy, Walter Matthau, Donald Sutherland, Brian Doyle Murray, Michael Rooker, Jay O. Sanders, Wayne Knight, Laurie Metcalf

Why it's here: You'd think three-plus hours of people talking about the most insane conspiracy theories this side of Alex Jones' fat ass would make for some pretty boring cinema. WRONG. "JFK" is a first-rate thriller, only the suspense comes from the formulation of theories and the compilation of "evidence." Information is the killer here.

"JFK" keeps you on the edge of your seat because it's so damned well made. Oliver Stone and his production team crafted an intricate cinematic mosaic to tell the fragmented, jittery tale of former New Orleans D.A. Jim Garrison's (Costner) quixotic quest to "prove" a far-reaching conspiracy in the death of President John F. Kennedy. The editing, by Oscar winners Joe Hutsching and Pietro Scalia, weaves together images from all sorts of film stock, from saturated color to grainy black and white to the actual Zapruder film of JFK's murder. Meanwhile, cinematographer Robert Richardson, another Oscar winner, uses harsh, ghostly pools of light (seen in the photo above) to isolate the characters, conspirators and investigators alike. "JFK" is as close as you can come to replicating paranoia in cinematic form.

It doesn't hurt, either, that Stone populates his frame with such a charismatic acting ensemble. Scenery chewing may not have been required on set, but it certainly was encouraged. Joe Pesci spits profanity-accented fire as alleged conspirator David Ferrie, while Tommy Lee Jones is all faux New Orleans gentility as one of Ferrie's alleged partners in the crime of the century. The late, great John Candy and Kevin Bacon stop by for only a couple scenes, but they deliver some of the movie's most memorable lines. Gary Oldman, of course, disappears into his role; he IS Lee Harvey Oswald, the tragic patsy in this postmodern Shakespearean history.

Now, do I believe Stone's and Garrison's case for conspiracy? I used to. The arguments in "JFK" are so compellingly and convincingly made that it's bound to warp curious and impressionable young minds into believing that President Kennedy was killed by a sprawling conspiracy comprising the Gulf Coast mafia, the Office of Naval Intelligence, Lyndon B. Johnson, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Pentagon, the anti-Castro Cuban exile community, the Central Intelligence Agency, the FBI and key figures in New Orleans' "homosexual underworld." Yeah, think about it for a minute. Take a step back and think about it. That's what "JFK" would like you to believe. Of course it's bullshit, but I dare you not to get sucked down the movie's numerous rabbit holes.

Memorable quote: "You don't know shit 'cause you never been fucked in the ass!"


Director: Paul Verhoeven

Starring: Casper Van Dien, Dina Meyer, Denise Richards, Neil Patrick Harris, Jake Busey, Patrick Muldoon, Clancy Brown, Michael FUCKING Ironside

Why it's here: Some of you are scratching your heads. Others are likely outraged. "'Starship Troopers'?" you ask. "Why should I take this guy's opinion seriously? Isn't this movie supposed to be TERRIBLE? How can anything starring Casper Van Dien -- Casper Van Dien, fercrissakes! -- make anybody's Top 25? Isn't it just a cheesy sci-fi crapfest with giant bugs?"

Yes, "Starship Troopers" is indeed very cheesy, intentionally so. From the "90210"-worthy casting to the ludicrously soapy love quadrangle to the square-jawed cliches of the military training scenes, it's all so very dead-on as a send-up of Hollywood action films. Even the violence is so over the top you can't really recoil from it, no matter how graphic it is -- still, gore fans will not be disappointed. It's the kind of movie Michael Bay could make if he had a sense of humor, read a little philosophy and stopped doing all that coke. But "Starship Troopers" has its bloody, no-guts-no-glory cake and eats it, too. Regardless of the context, the action still kicks ass, and the lead characters, even if most of them look like they should be posing for Seventeen, are mostly likable.

Director Paul Verhoeven is up to something deeper here, too. He weaves in some hilarious faux newsreel clips between the Tiger Beat flirting and the exploding bugs, adding a pungent political critique to his send-up of Hollywood romance and action movies. Verhoeven is saying that if indeed Earth were ruled by a solitary government that prizes military service above everything else, this is the kind of movie that government would produce as propaganda. That the end product is in so many ways similar to the typical Hollywood output in the 1980s and 1990s, as well as reminiscent of U.S. propaganda films from World War II, has to sting a bit, too.

"Starship Troopers" is also sort of the anti-"Star Wars." The heavily mechanized galactic empire represents the "good" guys here; the "bad" guys aren't even humanoid, they're giant bugs whose highly ordered "society" actually reflects the ideal of the militaristic earthlings in this movie. The heroes aren't scruffy underdog rebels, they're Aryan underwear models. Individualism is viewed as selfish and detrimental to the state. Primary hero Johnny Rico's (Van Dien) arc, his personal growth, is measured by how much of himself he gives up in order to fit in as a cog in the wheel. Contrast this with "Star Wars," in which Luke Skywalker's personal growth is as important from an individualist point of view as it is from a collective one. "Star Wars" earnestly celebrates balance of the self and the collective; "Starship Troopers" slyly satirizes assimilation.

Oh yeah, and there are exploding bugs. Awesome.

Memorable quote: "Rico! You know what to do!"

Link to Nos. 25 & 24


  1. My #23 is Beerfest, and my #22 is Animal House.

    Starship Troopers is on my list too, but further down.

    Good choices.

  2. I liked JFK. One of my favorite quotes of all time. "You don't know shit 'cause you've never been fucked in the ass!" It's in my top 100, I'm sure.

    As for Starship Troopers, I'm eh. I saw it a few times, I dig it, I get that it's a lot deeper than the surface of it shows, it's got some badass effects, and NPH. But I'm a Total Recall man myself when it comes down to Paul V. flicks.

    #23 - Apocalypse Now
    What really made this a favorite was seeing Redux on the big screen.

    #22 - The Godfather
    It does not insist upon itself. Final shot is simply amazing.

  3. Starship fucking Troopers. Glad to see this misunderstood masterpiece made the list!

    #23 Tales of Ordinary Madness
    (OK, so Marco Ferreri is one of my all-time favorite directors. This is also the guy who made La Grande Bouffe. With Tales of Ordinary Madness, Ferreri tackles Charles Bukowski and it's completely awesome. Ben Gazzara plays Charles Serking, an alter-ego of Bukowski similar to his literary Henry Chinaski, in this adventure of alcohol and strange sexual encounters all taken from the Bukowski short-story collection, Erections, Ejaculation, Exhibitions, and General Tales of Ordinary Madness.)

    #22 Lord of the Rings
    (It's just awesome.)

  4. Instead of corresponding with your choices numerically, I'm coordinating with them thematically.
    Thus, I present my favorite "Lengthy Unpacking of a Famous Crime" movie and my favorite "You Might Have Heard it Sucked, But I Kind of Dug It" movie.
    On the first score, I choose "Zodiac," perhaps the best true crime movie of the past 10 years, and the best movie about journalism in recent memory.
    Great work from every single actor, with special props to John Carroll Lynch for his super-creepy performance as key suspect Arthur Leigh Allen.
    And, as for movies with a bad rep that I sort of loved...this is hard to admit, but I've always kind of liked the cheese-tastic hit-woman-with-amnesia bomb "The Long Kiss Goodnight." Mainly it's because Samuel L. Jackson is hilarious as a low-rent P.I. who says things like "I've always been frank and earnest with women. In New York, I'm Frank and, in Chicago, I'm Ernest."
    I know. I have problems.

  5. @TV Writer, re: "Zodiac"

    In another few years it will probably be on this list. I love that movie, and I can watch it anywhere, any time. In fact, if I didn't have work in a couple hours, I'd pop it in right now.

    @Nick: I feel Ben Gazzara always got short shrift from Hollywood. What a great character actor. Even in his small role as Jackie Treehorn his performance hints at untold depths.

    @Milcz: We're at the bottom of our Top 25s, and you've already listed "LOTR," "Empire," "The Godfather" and "Apocalypse Now." Where the heck do you possibly go from here????? LOL

  6. @Ruby: "Beerfest" and "Animal House"! What a perfect pairing!

  7. Col., Ben Gazzara is incredible. About a year ago I found a hardcover copy of his autobiography at McKay's for 75 cents!

  8. @The Colonel - The rest of my list consists of Friday the 13th movies. SPOILER ALERT: Jason X is my #1.

  9. Starship Troopers? it's not even the best movie with the word Troopers (see Super Troopers). Once again, I wash my hands of this weirdness...

  10. 23. American Beauty (see also: Up in the Air). What it represents: the male midlife crisis flick. Oscar loves it some male midlife angst, and frankly, my 30-year-old ass does, too. And frankly it's just fun watching Lester Burnham go from schlub to garage gymrat to corpse in 90 minutes or so. Who didn't at least once raise their fist in the air and announce "I rule" at some point in 1999 or 2000 because of him?

    22. High Fidelity (see also Better Off Dead, Hot Tub Time Machine): What it represents: The Cusacks. You can argue that Say Anything was Cusack's apex, and I can dismiss you with a hearty meh. Besides the not-being-British thing, Cusack perfectly embodies Nick Hornby's sadsack record store owner and somehow manages to keep Jack Black from completely eating the scenery.

  11. 25. Charlie & the Chocolate Factory
    24. Six String Samurai
    23. Life of Brian
    22. Broken Flowers

  12. @Rich: Do you mean the Gene Wilder one, or the Tim Burton one?

  13. Gene Wilder of course, I screwed up and put Charlie instead of Willie Wonka. I found the Tim Burton version to be rubbish.


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