Friday, June 4, 2010

The Colonel's Countdown: Top 25 Movies (Nos. 11 & 10)

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.

11. SCARFACE (1983)

Director: Brian DePalma

Starring: Al Pacino, Michelle Pfeiffer, Steven Bauer, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, Robert Loggia, F. Murray Abraham

Why it's here: "Scarface," with its Giorgio Moroder disco-synth score and its trashy pastels, is extremely dated, a time capsule straight out of the excess of the cocaine-frosted early 1980s, and yet it's timeless. Everything in this movie is over-the-top, from the acting -- I wonder if this movie is responsible for the hoarse Al Pacino voice we know today -- to the set design, to the violence, to its story, which feels like it was based on not the 1932 Howard Hawks movie of the same name, but a play from Shakespeare's time. In fact, one of my literature professors back in college used to compare "Scarface" to the play "Tamburlaine" by Shakespeare contemporary Christopher Marlowe. "Rise-and-fall" stories are especially durable, even if they're set in another time and context, because we can always draw parallels to our current situation, wherever we are.

It's Miami in 1980. Cocaine is in, on and around everything. It is the lifeblood of the booming South Florida economy, from real estate to banks to the nightlife. Elsewhere in the U.S., capitalism is on the run, but it has found refuge in the sunny environs of Miami. (For more context, I recommend you check out the insanely entertaining documentary "Cocaine Cowboys.") Meanwhile, thousands of Cuban exiles, pushed out by Fidel Castro in the infamous Mariel Harbor boatlift, are also seeking refuge on Florida's shores. Many of them, however, are denizens of the communist country's jails. "They came in search of the American Dream," reads the advertising tag line for "Scarface." "One of them found it on the sun-washed avenues of Miami ... wealth, power and passion beyond his wildest dreams."

The "one of them" is low-level hood Tony Montana (Pacino), who will stop at nothing to seize power in this land of opportunity. He rises through the organized-crime hierarchy with all the bloody efficiency of a Cuban Napoleon, only with none of the subtlety. "All I have in this world," Tony boasts, "is my balls and my word, and I don't break 'em for no one." His ascension is capped off by the montage that launched a thousand hip-hop videos. (YouTube won't let me embed the video, so just click this link.)

But that's only the halfway point of the movie. We need to see Tony's fall, and, boy, does he fall hard, culminating in an explosive and bloody shootout. But it's not the cops or the feds that get him. True to the classical tragic form, it's his own paranoia and hubris, not to mention his deeply ironic fatal flaw of compassion for children. His world closes in on him as he gets higher and higher on his own supply of coke. He pushes his loved ones away as his anger and terror grow by the minute. He alienates and even declares war on his ruthless South American supplier. Tony's a tiger chained to his own power and influence, fighting his self-imposed slavery to the last bloody swipe.

"Scarface" works as a straight-up gangster picture, but what makes it resonate to me, beyond its traditional "rise-and-fall" narrative, is that it's a very sharp satire of the particular notion of the American Dream that was taking root in the early 1980s. Even though the movie's early scenes are set in 1980, when Jimmy Carter was in the final days of his presidency, "Scarface" is very much a critique and even a condemnation of the free-market, laissez-faire economic philosophy of greed and championed by Ronald Reagan and his top economic guru, Milton Friedman. Would anyone deny that Tony Montana works hard to achieve the American Dream? His story is merely one of markets working things out for themselves. He gets too big for his britches, so he's taken out by the competition. Isn't this a picture of capitalism and libertarianism taken to their extreme, logical conclusion? Our protagonist flees from one extreme, the oppression of Cuban communism, to the excess and glory of another, the free market fundamentalism of Friedman and Reagan. Tony Montana is a martyr to the markets, a capitalist King Kong. No, it isn't some badass assassin in sunglasses that kills him, it's the Invisible Hand that kills the beast.

Memorable quote: "In this country, you gotta make the money first. Then when you get the money, you get the power. Then when you get the power, then you get the women."

10. BLADE RUNNER (1982)

Director: Ridley Scott

Starring: Harrison Ford, Rutger Hauer, Sean Young, Edward James Olmos, Daryl Hannah, Joanna Cassidy, M. Emmet Walsh

Why it's here: I didn't always like "Blade Runner." In fact, I was bored and annoyed with it the first time I saw it, even though it was the Director's Cut and not the original release, which was marred by Harrison Ford's tedious voice over. Sure, its famously trend-setting design looked cool, but everything about it was dull to me: the characters, the acting, the story. Just blah.

Still, I couldn't shake it. Something about "Blade Runner" troubled me to the point where I knew I'd have to revisit it, which I did again and again, the movie growing in my esteem with each viewing. I began savoring things about it I had previously ignored, such as the patience director Ridley Scott exercises as he tells the story, which is as much the stuff of detective noir as it is of science fiction. I started to enjoy lingering in the world evoked by magnificently decadent set design and the evocative lighting. I learned to respect and even love the performances, which were a lot more subtle than I had thought. Then I began to understand that what I thought was dullness when I first saw "Blade Runner" was actually despair.

"Blade Runner," I eventually realized, is about overcoming the despair created by the knowledge of one's eventual death. The blade runner, or bounty hunter, of the title, Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), is tasked with hunting down a group of replicants, artificial beings made with organic material, who have escaped bondage in outer space mines. At first it's unclear why exactly the replicants have returned to Earth, specifically a grungy, polluted Los Angeles, to infiltrate the company that produced them, the Tyrell Corporation. We eventually learn, however, that they just want more life ... fucker.

Replicants, particularly the most advanced models, are "more human than human," as the corporation's founder and chief designer Dr. Tyrell describes them, but they're built to live only four years. Otherwise, they'd gain their own life experiences and memories, resulting in unstable emotional responses. It's rare that replicants realize what exactly they are or how long they have to live, especially since they are implanted with memories, but there are exceptions. The leader of the rogue replicants, Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer), is one of these exceptions. He becomes conscious of this limited mortality and sets out on his quest for a reprieve.

Usually a character like Roy Batty is the protagonist of a story, the hero in search of some divine power source like the Fountain of Youth, but one of the things that makes "Blade Runner" so compelling is that it reverses this traditional narrative setup by making him, at least nominally, the villain of the piece. His journey toward atonement with his maker, Dr. Tyrell, is a counterpoint to Deckard's pursuit of Batty and the other replicants, and it provokes Deckard to come to terms with his own mortality. When Batty finally meets Dr. Tyrell, Scott depicts their encounter as if it were man finally confronting God Himself, only to learn that the Creator is powerless to undo what He has done. 

The movie's subversion of the traditional heroic form continues through its climax, when Deckard has his inevitable showdown with Batty. Deckard is clearly overmatched by Batty, who just toys with him until, quite literally, the edge of death. Only the movie doesn't end in a spectacular blowout with the "bad guy" getting his just desserts and the hero riding off into the sunset. Instead, there's an act of unexpected grace and an illuminating meditation on memory, life and death. "Blade Runner" may be steeped in existential despair for much of its running time, but it ends with a hard-earned flourish of hope.

Memorable quote: "I've seen things you people wouldn't believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser gate. All those moments will be lost in time ... like tears in rain. ... Time to die." 


  1. I love Scarface. "I have Nick the Pig as a Friend" Great choice. I also agree with you about Cocaine Cowboys, it is insane. I never saw Blade Runner.

    My # 11 pick is Dark Victory with Bette Davis, George Brent, Humphrey Bogart, and Ronald Reagan.

    My #10 pick is Jaws. Awesome movie to watch anytime, except before you go into the water of course.

  2. I'm catching up on the previous two as well.

    Hard Candy (A 30-something year old photographer meets a 14 year old girl on the internet and they arrange a meeting. Already, I don't like this guy. They go back to the guy's house where he attempts to get the girl drunk and obviously have his way with her - but that's when things go insane. Suspecting him of murdering another minor, the girl takes him hostage and puts him through a series of psychological (and a little physical) torture, extracting truths about him which he felt were quite safe. This film is really intense and one of the best thrillers that I have seen.)

    The Weatherman (Quite possibly the most pessimistic film I've ever seen. And it's funny! Nic Cage is a TV weatherman - not even a meteorologist - who spends his life having people verbally attacking him and hitting him with fast food. His relationship with his wife is in shambles and whenever he tries to bring back some magic it just makes things worse. His son is becoming a victim of his counselor's pedophilic advances. His daughter is overweight and taunted at school over her perpetual camel toe. Oh yeah, and his father is dying. On top of all this, he's given the career opportunity of a lifetime, only he'd have to make a heartbreaking sacrifice to do it.)

    Stuck (Based on a true story. A young woman is driving through the city late one night, and while texting on her cellphone, accidentally hits a newly homeless man leaving him stuck in her windshield. In a panic, she drives home, not telling anyone. The film tells the story of how this poor man is left dying in through the windshield of this stupid bitch's car, while she runs in every now and then to apologize rather than seeking help. Of course, a few others become involved and things escalate to an explosive climax.)

    Black Dynamite (The return of the blaxploitation film. This film is as much a satire as it is a true homage to the urban cinema of the 70s. When Black Dynamite's brother is found killed over a drug deal, he begins shooting and nunchucking his way through the city's underworld looking for the killer. What develops is a plot involving Richard Nixon, malt liquor, and a savage plan to shrink black men's dicks.)

  3. Okay, I have never seen Scarface all the way through. And I'm used to watching it on WPIX 11.

    And I'm not a huge fan of Blade Runner, but have been meaning to give it another shot.

    #11 - The Big Lebowski: Yeah, yeah, oh yeah what condition my condition is in.

    #10 - There Will Be Blood: One of the most anti-religion movies out there. The ending is simply amazing.


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