13. THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (1980)
Director: Irvin Kershner
Starring: Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Frank Oz, Billy Dee Williams, Peter Mayhew, James Earl Jones, Anthony Daniels, Kenny Baker
Why it's here: This is the first "Star Wars" movie I remember seeing. I could well have seen the first "Star Wars" earlier, but I may have been too young to remember, or it just didn't make too much of an impression on me. There's no question, however, about the impression "Empire" left on me as a wee, impressionable lad, and it's not just because of the big reveal from Darth Vader (voice by James Earl Jones, body by David Prowse) at the end, it's also because Han Solo (Harrison Ford) is frozen in carbonite. That just about shattered my naive, five- or six-year-old sensibilities. The good guy? Practically dead? WTF? For my childhood self, movies just didn't get much sadder than that, other than when Frankenstein's monster got sucked into Limbo at the end "Monster Squad" (uh, spoiler alert?).
Really, though if I'm compelled to re-watch any "Star Wars" movie these days it's either "Empire" or the kitchen-sink romp "Return of the Jedi." (Yeah, I like the Ewoks, even the stupid "Yub Nub" song that Lucas wiped out in the special edition.) "Star Wars," or "A New Hope," is still pretty damned entertaining in its own right, too, but it never feels like there's anything more to it other than a good time, not that there's anything wrong with that, of course. And, from George Lucas' perspective, it was obviously the best decision at the time. He really had no idea what kind of paradigm-shifting event his silly space opera would become, so beyond the typical "hero's journey" narrative arc, there wasn't really any need to expand the characters beyond their service to the story at hand. I'm extremely thankful it was the monster success it was, though, because it gave us the thrilling, romantic devastation of "Empire."
"Empire" also dramatically improves on so many things from "Star Wars," which was a one-movie revolution in film-making technique in its own right. The special effects, obviously, are much better thanks to three years of research and development. The effects-driven set pieces are among the most memorable sequences in movie history: the battle on the ice planet Hoth, the asteroid field, the final showdown in the cloud city. The movie just LOOKS better than its predecessor.
Of course, it's more emotionally satisfying than "Star Wars," even if it does leave us with the Galactic Empire on the offensive, Luke without a hand but with the painful revelation about his father, and Han frozen and on his way to Jabba the Hutt's lair. The direction, by Hollywood veteran Irvin Kershner, and the nimble screenplay by Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan, do a much better job than Lucas does in bringing the characters to life, particularly budding lovers Han Solo and Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher). Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), our hero, has clearly matured a bit from the events of the first movie, as he's more mopey than whiney and not irritating at all. Then there's the introduction of the endlessly cool supporting characters the diminutive guru Yoda (voice and puppetry by Frank Oz), who personalizes The Force and Luke's journey, and suave scoundrel Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams), who gets a satisfying arc of his own in a relatively limited amount of screen time.
But perhaps the most important (and awesome) improvement of them all is the expansion of John Williams' "Star Wars" themes to include what remains the coolest piece of music ever written for film:
Really, what more can I write after that?
Memorable quote: "Apology accepted, Captain Needa."
12. APOCALYPSE NOW (1979)
Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Starring: Martin Sheen, Marlon Brando, Robert Duvall, Dennis Hopper, Frederic Forrest, Laurence "Larry" Fishburne, Sam Bottoms, Albert Hall, Scott Glenn, Harrison Ford
Why it's here: "Apocalypse Now" reeks of death. Martin Sheen, who stars as the elite military killer Willard, suffered a heart attack. The notoriously troubled production nearly drove director Francis Ford Coppola insane. And, according to legend, those are actual human cadavers hanging from the trees during the final scenes in Colonel Kurtz's (Marlon Brando, exceptionally overweight and possibly insane himself) compound in the Cambodian heart of darkness. This is a movie about the end of things, about the decadence of empires, of creativity, of rational thought, of civilization itself. It's also the finest American movie ever made about the Vietnam War.
"Apocalypse Now" takes its narrative lead from Joseph Conrad's novella "Heart of Darkness," which is set in Africa and deals with the dark side of colonialism and exploitive capitalism, summed up in the character Kurtz, who has become insane. The movie relocates the setting to Vietnam and Cambodia, and Kurtz is instead a special forces colonel who is driven to fight the war his own way, deep in the jungle with a loose army of mesmerized natives, after he witnesses the brutal indifference of the enemy. The only way to defeat this enemy, he learns, is to become like them.
This, of course, is too much for the American leadership. So they dispatch Willard on a top secret mission up the river to find and kill Kurtz. "Terminate with extreme prejudice," the wraith-like Company Man tells Willard at the beginning of the movie. Willard, of course, understands death. He is a killing machine, and his soul, his sense of humanity has suffered for it. The more he learns about Kurtz through the colonel's dossier, the more he sees himself. "There is no way to tell his story without telling my own," Willard says in a voice over. "And if his story is really a confession, then so is mine."
Willard grabs a ride on a boat populated by some intriguing supporting characters, including a skinny, green teenager played by an extremely young Laurence Fishburne. Our protagonist and the crew deliberately wind their way up the river, encountering one instance of insanity after the other. There's the air cavalry division headed up by the reckless Col. Kilgore (Robert Duvall), who schedules offenses in areas where the surfing is good. ("Charlie don't surf!") Then there's the psychedelic encounter at a bridge that the Americans keep rebuilding even though the Viet Cong keeps destroying it. ("Hey soldier, do you know who's in command here?" "Ain't you?")
It all leads to Kurtz, who's waiting at the end of the river, waiting for death. The encounter with Kurtz is appropriately dark and dingy, with the stench death hanging heavy on the air. When we see him, Brando's Kurtz is mostly obscured by shadows. Coppola does this to hide the actor's excess girth, but it works so well. In fact, it argubly makes the scenes between Kurtz and Willard better than what they could have been. Kurtz is the very picture of colonial decadence: bloated, deranged, drunk on too much power -- a swollen tick dying for release from his bloody gluttony. When Kurtz, whose "soul is mad," reads aloud from T.S. Eliot's haunting poem, "The Hollow Men," he might as well be reading his own biography. The poem, incidentally, begins with a quote from "Heart of Darkness": "Mistah Kurtz -- he dead." This is a real meta mind-blower: The movie Kurtz exists in a world where the Kurtz from Conrad's book is very real in his own right, if only as a fictional character. It's a stark reminder of how, even with the knowledge of previous horrors, humanity can't help journeying back to the heart of darkness.
Bonus quote, in memory of the late Dennis Hopper, who died a few days ago: "This is the way the fucking world ends! Look at this fucking shit we're in, man! Not with a bang, but with a whimper. And with a whimper, I'm fucking splitting, Jack."