Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The Colonel's Countdown: Top 25 Movies (No. 1)

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.

1. JAWS (1975)

Director: Steven Spielberg

Starring: Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw, Richard Dreyfuss, Lorraine Gary, Murray Hamilton

Why it's No. 1: It all comes back to "Jaws." It's the first movie I fell in love with, and it's the movie I've identified with summer since I can remember. For those of you who know me this is not exactly a surprising choice. In fact, it may seem a little too predictable. But there's no denying it, "Jaws" is the reason I love movies to begin with. If I were allowed to watch only one movie for the rest of my life, this would be it.

"Jaws" is one of the few movies I've watched over and over again only to like it more and more, mainly because I've grown to appreciate the characters and their relationships. It's credited with ushering in the era of the summer mega hit, but "Jaws" is a strikingly human blockbuster.

It is very much a movie of the 1970s, and I'm not talking about the hair or the dated spectacle of people smoking in hospitals. It's the emphasis on characters and ideas that are very much the stuff of the realistic, character- and idea-driven Hollywood movies of that decade, when the old-fashioned studio system was on the decline and young, audacious directors with heads full of cinematic history and personal visions were given an unprecedented amount of creative freedom. Method-trained actors, who relied on emotions and "sense memory" more than matinee-idol looks, became movie stars. It was a bizarre, interesting and exciting time in Hollywood, when styles and philosophies clashed and combined to create many of America's greatest films. "Jaws," which was director Steven Spielberg's second feature film following the underrated "The Sugarland Express," was no exception. It combines Hitchcockian techniques with the French New Wave-style humanism and emotion prevalent in the big, important movies of that decade.

"Jaws," while clearly proud of its B-movie roots, isn't merely a movie about a giant killer shark, it's about people struggling against this beast and what it does to their lives. It's about people struggling against the motivations of each other. It's about greed. It's about class. It's about family. It's about friendship. It's about revenge. It manages to be about all of these things in the most natural, realistic manner. The characters feel like people and not just types. The plot is important, and it makes sense within the movie's B-movie concept, but it's not the only thing driving the movie. Devin Faraci at Chud.com is right when he says that "Jaws" as we know and love it simply could not be made today. That's a bitter truth for movie lovers, especially when you consider that "Jaws" in many ways is responsible for the earnings-driven, mega blockbuster factory that Hollywood is today.

Another reason that "Jaws" as it is couldn't be made today is its reliance on character-centric exposition scenes that actually sound like natural conversations. Consider the dinner table scene between Amity Island's New York City transplant police chief, Martin Brody (Roy Scheider), his wife, Ellen (Lorraine Gary), and marine biologist Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss). The chief is depressed and drinking after a very, very bad day at the job, and Hooper, who senses that Brody is at least sympathetic to his view that the shark caught earlier in the day is not the shark that has "staked a claim" off the island, shows up with a couple bottles of wine. Hooper doesn't appear to have been invited, but Ellen welcomes him into their home. She's a little curious about what he actually does ("You're in sharks?"), but she also wants to pull her husband out of his funk, and this young, idealistic man who takes pride in his job might just do the trick. Hooper, of course, charms Ellen and endears himself to the audience, even while the chief broods. There's even an understated comic moment when the chief interrupts Ellen and Hooper's conversation by pouring wine into their smaller glasses and his into a big one. Brody doesn't say anything, but his intent is clear: "Hey, remember me? Let's get down to brass tacks." The scene is pulled off so naturally, like you're just watching three adults talk at the dinner table, but it also serves to move the plot along as Brody agrees to go down to the docks and cut open that "wrong" shark to prove it isn't the predator killing Amity bathers.

There's another dynamic at work at the dinner table scene, too: the extremely Spielbergian theme of a family straining to stick together in the face of extraordinary circumstances. Remember that the dinner table conversation immediately follows one of the movie's more famous scenes, in which the chief's younger son, Sean, imitates his father's depressed mannerisms. The chief realizes what his son is up to and starts to play along by making increasingly sillier faces. There isn't any dialogue until the very end of the scene, when Brody asks for a kiss before sending his boy off to bed.

The scene, besides providing a great emotional payoff, also serves as a template for the relationship between Brody and Hooper, who shows up immediately after Sean goes to bed. Brody and Hooper are both nebbishy, nerdy guys in their own ways. One's a "college boy" who's been "countin' money" all his life, according to the super macho shark hunter Quint (Robert Shaw); and the other is a cop who lives on an island but is absolutely terrified of the water. At least Brody, who's the police chief, has some power to influence things, which is why Hooper appeals to him as a kid would go to his father for help. The two bespectacled protagonists are kindred spirits, a father-and-son-type duo who team up not only to kill the great white, but to contend with the greedy, provincial town fathers and with Quint, who clearly regards the two as less-than-worthy of the mission at hand. 

Ah, Quint. Easily the most memorable character in the movie. He's all bluster, bravado and masculine pride, a cocky Ahab who has turned a tragedy in his younger life into his lifelong mission to kill not one shark, but all of them. He's bigger than anyone or anything on the screen, at least until the shark gets him. He gets the best lines, too. Behold perhaps the most-loved scene in the movie, when Quint, Brody and Hooper are out on the Orca hunting the shark:

Don't you just love the look on Hooper's face when Quint finishes his tale? It's as if he's realized they're stuck on a boat with a madman on a suicide mission. When the brusque captain finally gets his in the end, it seems like the most appropriately violent way for him to go, as he's literally cut down to size by the relentless, indifferent force of nature he tries in vain to imitate even as he seeks to destroy it. "The high point of the film's humor is in our seeing Shaw get it; this nut Ahab, with his hypermasculine basso-profundo speeches, stands in for all the men who have to show they're tougher than anybody," the late, great film critic Pauline Kael wrote in her review. "The shark's cavernous jaws demonstrate how little his toughness finally adds up to." Hooper and Brody make it out alive, of course, and once again, in true 1970s tradition, the brainy, neurotic guys save the day.

"Jaws" is often categorized as a horror movie. I suppose you could see it that way, with all the jump scares and the images of a very fake but no less scary-looking shark. But like "Psycho" or "The Birds," it's only really scary when you find yourself swimming in the ocean or in a shower or walking among some pigeons. I was never really scared of "Jaws" until I went to the beach after seeing it, and I still have images of Alex Kitner and Chrissie Watkins being ripped apart lurking in the fear regions of my mind whenever I go near the water.

But to me, "Jaws" is much more than a mere horror movie or a man-against-nature sea adventure. When I see those grassy, orange-yellow-ish East Coast beaches in Amity, I see the sand dunes I lived three blocks away from growing up. The waters in "Jaws" aren't the crystal clear waters of paradise, they're the dark, steely bay waters at Keansburg Beach, Ideal Beach or Sandy Hook. Amity Island isn't some high-class resort, it's a simple seaside town with greedy, petty, provincial and, yes, even decent residents and an economy that depends solely on "summer dollars." It might as well be the town I grew up in.

"Jaws" is all those summer afternoons I spent watching it on Channel 11 or TBS, back when it was the SuperStation, before I headed down to the Keansburg "boardwalk" near the beach. It's all that time I spent with my grandparents, back when I was too young to get a job and I could sleep till noon if I wanted to but never did. "Jaws" is about when the days were the longest but never long enough.

"Jaws" also means more to me than the past. It's how I'd love to see my future turn out. Well, other than that business with the killer shark. The movie depicts the Brody family as the ideal family I've always wanted. Kids on a swing set or in the rowboat they got for their birthdays. Sitting and relaxing on the porch in the evening, with my easygoing, understanding and beautiful wife who asks if I "wanna get drunk and fool around?" To which I'd reply, of course: "Ohh yeah."

To me, "Jaws" is home.

Memorable quote:
 "Smile, you son of a bitch!"

NOTE FROM THE COLONEL: I hope you enjoyed The Countdown, and I hope at least one or two of you have read all the entries. Regardless, this has been a lot of fun for me, and it's got me back into the habit of writing. Thanks for sticking around. There is plenty more where this came from.

Link to "controversial" omissions
Link to 25 that missed the cut


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Farewell and adieu to you fair Spanish ladies...

    I've watched this movie three times in the past week alone. Fine choices, Mike, and so appropriately timed.

  3. Really good, thought-provoking list, Mike.
    It's funny but my no. 1 movie is, as I think you know, "Die Hard" -- for a lot of the same reasons that you chose "Jaws" as your favorite.
    It's very much of its time; a movie about the triumph of rugged, American individualism over sophisticated, somewhat effete foreigners. Yes, some of the villains are Americans, but few casual fans of the movie remember them. The villain everyone remembers in Alan Rickman's Hans Gruber, who represents everything that ignites the inner xenophobe in Americans of my parents' generation. He's cold, calculating, well-dress, meticulously groomed and holds his cigarettes like a girl.
    Bruce Willis's John McClane, on the other hand, is everything that Americans like to think they are. He's brave, resourceful and impossible to keep down.
    But this is more than a macho thriller. It's also one of the most unique buddy movies of all time. How many buddy movies can you think of in which the buddies don't actually meet until the end? But that separation makes the budding buddyhood between McClane and Reginald VelJohnson's Al Powell all the more sweet and appealing.
    Like Jaws, this movie was a trailblazer that spawned a host of imitators (sorry, but I've never shared my husband's affection for "Under Siege"). It's easy to forget how refreshing these movie were at the time.

  4. @Charli: I'd like to say I had it planned that way. Okay, I will. I planned for "Jaws" to coincide with the very start of summer.

    Bah, you know I forgot to even mention the score. How could I not even bring it up? I'm not necessarily talking about the two-note shark theme, but the music during the hunt scenes in the third act, when Williams really lets loose. Particularly the barrel scene. There's some real swashbuckling, Korngold-style stuff going on there. It's strangely playful and, uh, buoyant.

    @IScreen: My absolute favorite thing about "Die Hard" is that no matter how ridiculous it is, the movie doesn't require McClane to be a superman. He feels pain. He bleeds. He limps. And he even acknowledges how ridiculous it all is. "Oh, John, what the fuck are you doing? How the fuck did you get into this shit?"

  5. I like Jaws a lot. When it's on and I'm watching it I'm like, "Yeah, this movie rocks." But I'm never in the mood to watch it or seek it out on my own.

    @IScreen - Die Hard is awesome. Bout 12 years ago it would be in my top 10. I've kind of grown apart from Die Hard but it still is a great flick.

    My #1 is Dr. Strangelove. I could go on and on about why but I'll leave it at this: Gentlemen you can't fight in here, this is the war room.

  6. @Milcz: You're gonna have to answer to the Coca-Cola Company.

  7. ok I've got some catching up to do so here are my final 5.

    The Royal Tenenbaums (Need I explain? This is one of those films I never grow tired of. I love every last and minute detail of this movie. The cast (even Ben Stiller who I normally can't stomach), characters, acting, music, cinematography, use of colors, sets, the twisted humor, heartbreaking story, and a hundred other things. Just perfect.)

    Happiness of the Katakuris (Anyone who considers themselves a lover of film and hasn't seen this is doing themselves a great injustice. I say that with all seriousness. There has never been a more unique, original, entertaining, and simply enthralling film. The story is about a family who opens up a bed & breakfast on the side of a new freeway which seems to be a failure right off the go. But when they get their first guest and he turns up mysteriously dead in the morning, things just go from bad to worse from that point on. The family does all they can to keep things hush on all the odd deaths and strange occurences. Now seems fairly simple, eh? Well toss in some pitch black humor, claymation sequences, large-scale Broadway style musical numbers, and a sub-plot involving a secret agent and you've got a movie that's nothing you have ever seen before. This one is top notch.)

    The Big Lebowski (That is all.)

    Chopper (Oh man this is it! The first time I saw this it blew my fucking mind. Chopper is the story of Mark "Chopper" Read, the real-life Australian convict-turned best-selling author. Mark Read was a true media whore. He spent the first half of his life in and out of prison. As he got to be a young man he started killing others in the criminal underworld seeing it as a positive. He often told elaborate stories of the murders to the press and whoever else would listen, filling them mostly with lies. What the director does here is use color to blur the lines between what's real and what is the B.S. story that ol' Chopper will be telling. Often you think you're seeing what's actually happening only to later find out you had witnessed what's going on in Mark's head. Hilariously funny, brutally violent, and all-around fun, this is real-life horror and the blackest of humor. I can't get enough of it.)

    Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (Russ Meyer was never given the credit he deserved as a director. Sure, he was known for making a bunch of raunchy "nudies" in the 60's and 70's, but his direction was always impressive and the editing, superb. Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is his foray into the mainstream (well at least as far as he could take it) and it tells the story of a female rock trio and their struggle with fame and all the sex, drugs, and drama that comes with it. As I mentioned there's plenty of sex and drugs as well as some good music, gorgeous women with large breasts, she-males, soap-opera love triangles, murder, a party scene which plays like an R-rated episode of Laugh-In, and the perfect horror movie twist ending. Pure entertainment.)

  8. @Nick: I'm afraid I've missed out on both "The Happiness of the Katakuris" and "Chopper" despite your insistence I see them. For this, I am ashamed.

    Also, you left out perhaps the coolest detail about "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls." That Roger Ebert of all people co-wrote it! By the way, have you read any of Ebert's reflections on his time working with Meyer on the ill-fated Sex Pistols film, "Who Killed Bambi?"

    And here's the screenplay:

  9. I love Jaws, it was my #10. Whenever I can't wait to leave work, I always sing "Show Me The Way To Go Home", in my head of course. I enjoyed your entire list.

    My #1 choice is Gone With The Wind.

  10. @my dear Ruby: One day we shall see Gone With the Wind on the big screen together.

  11. i actually intended to mention Ebert but was in a bit of a rush when i did it due to Samantha's crying. he wrote 3 other Meyer films as well, all of which are fantastic.


Go ahead, say something.