Friday, June 18, 2010

The Colonel's Countdown: Top 25 Movies (Nos. 3 & 2)

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.

Director: Francis Ford Coppola

Starring: Al Pacino, Robert DeNiro, Diane Keaton, Robert Duvall, John Cazale, Michael V. Gazzo, Lee Strasberg, Talia Shire, Bruno Kirby, Dominic Chianese, G.D. Spradlin

Why it's here: It can't be said enough. It's rare that a sequel outshines its predecessor, but when it happens it usually results in a classic movie. We've had two examples of superior sequels already on the Countdown, with "The Empire Strikes Back" at No. 13 and "The Silence of the Lambs" at No. 20. (Yeah, it's more of a de facto sequel. It follows Michael Mann's 1986 thriller "Manhunter," which is based on "Red Dragon," Thomas Harris' first novel to feature Hannibal the Cannibal.) I'd also argue that "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban" not only blows away the first and second Potter movies but is by far the best of the series. These movies, though, are so-called genre movies, the kind that are made with franchise or sequel potential in mind. "The Godfather, Part II" is more like a sequel as conceived by Shakespeare.

(NOTE: Let me know in the comments if there are any specific sequels you prefer to their predecessor[s].)

Obviously, "The Godfather, Part II" is the best sequel I've seen, unless, of course, my No. 1 turns out to be a sequel (hint: it won't). It does what any second installment should aspire to: it broadens the scope of the story while resonating at deeper levels. The key to this is the movie's dual-narrative structure, which contrasts the rise of Vito Corleone (Robert DeNiro playing a younger version of the patriarch played by Marlon Brando in the first movie; both actors won Oscars for the role) with the fall of his successor, son Michael (Al Pacino, who should have won an Oscar for this performance). These two intensely personal narratives are reinforced by their respective settings. Vito's rise corresponds with the immigration and urban booms of the early 20th century, while Michael's fall corresponds to the post-World War II era that climaxes with Castro's overthrow of the U.S.-backed government and concludes in the early 1960s, on the eve of President Kennedy's assassination and the political and cultural upheaval that would follow. This is an epic that relies on intimate moments to illustrate grand themes including, but not limited to "The American Dream" and "The Sins of the Father."

Vito's story begins when he's a quiet young boy in Sicily who witnesses the murders of his immediate family members one by one, ending with his mother. With the help of some folks in his village, he flees to New York City and eventually grows up to systematically work his way up the underworld ladder to a position of power, influence and respect. On paper, it sounds like he'd have to be one ruthless, cold-hearted sonofabitch to seize the American Dream by the balls like this, and he is. But Vito is no Tony Montana. He's quiet, calm, respectful of his elders and subtle. Very, very subtle. We only see his brutality when he gets up close and personal with neighborhood crime boss Don Fanucci and, eventually, the Sicilian don who killed his mother, only to kill them with his own hands. The inheritance he will leave for Michael encompasses not only his criminal empire but his cunning and thirst for vengeance.

We pick up Michael's story a few years after the first "Godfather" ended. This narrative is a bit more plot-heavy than the Vito stuff, but it's no less satisfying. Michael and his family are now living high on Lake Tahoe high up in the Sierra Nevada mountains, where Michael oversees his expanding, "legitimate" casino empire. Still, he must contend with problems back in New York as what remains of the Corleone family, now run by Frank "Five Angels" Pentangeli, who's in the midst of a power struggle against some new punks who happen to be backed by Michael's apparent partner in the expansion of his gambling business, the elderly yet ever-insidious Hyman Roth (acclaimed acting teacher Lee Strasberg). Michael is playing a dangerous game, and he's so caught up in the subtleties of power that he's blind to treachery within his own organization, which results in a botched attempt on his and his wife Kay's (Diane Keaton) lives. Michael sets out to find out who's behind the betrayal, and he ends up destroying his enemies, but at the expense of whatever was left of his family.

Everything looks colder and darker in Michael's sections of the film, even when he's in sunny Cuba just before Castro's forces seize power. Meanwhile, Vito's sections look brighter and more inviting, a stylistic choice meant to evoke both Vito's relative warmth compared with Michael and nostalgia for supposedly "better times." This is deeply ironic because even as Vito grows his family and his enterprise, he's also sowing the seeds for its destruction since the ground is poisoned by corruption, vengeance and murder. Michael is not only obscured by his father's shadow, he's consumed by it. By the end of "The Godfather, Part II," Michael is once again "victorious," as he was at the end of the first movie. But he is no longer the young, emboldened don he once was. The final shot shows him as an aging, bitter emperor, sitting alone watching the dead leaves of his empire rustle in the gray autumn.

It's the perfect way to end the story of the Corleone family. We don't need to see its violent dissolution, as depicted in "The Godfather, Part III," an unessential, sloppy, stilted cash grab that never should have happened. Michael's complete and utter spiritual devastation is enough, and the final shot, while not as aesthetically ambitious as the one in the first, is no less chilling for the finality it suggests. It's too late for Michael to change his ways. Sure, he may ultimately repent and seek the grace he so ruthlessly denies his hapless brother Fredo (John Cazale) and Kay, but the ruins he's created through his actions are irreparable. And, really, do we need to see Michael's eventual death as we do at the end of "Part III"? Isn't his spiritual death enough? For me, "The Godfather" saga ends with that final shot in "Part II." If you're thinking of finally watching these movies, I'd recommend you stop there, too.

Memorable quote: "If anything in this life is certain -- if history has taught us anything -- it's that you can kill anybody."

2. 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968)

Director: Stanley Kubrick

Starring: Keir Dullea, Gary Lockwood, Douglas Rain

Why it's here: Like "Blade Runner," "2001" is a beautifully designed, yet seemingly cold and distant work of speculative science fiction. Like "Blade Runner," I did not like "2001" the first time I saw it. It bored the shit out of me. It was too slow. There was "no point." And what is up with that opening scene full of barely humanoid apes? I was 11.

I consumed movie books in those preteen days like I did pizza. This is how I learned about the titans of film making: the Kurosawas, the Hitchcocks, the Leans, the Woods (haha). One figure towered above them all, though, at least according to the consensus opinion of the writers: Stanley Kubrick, and his greatest achievement was a science fiction epic called "2001." One day I saw that the "2001" would be on TNT, so I claimed the TV at my grandfather's for myself and set to watching it. Boy, was that a letdown. I didn't last half the movie. Its majesty, its bold vision, its daring attempt to rewrite the myths of humanity were all lost on me. Yes, I was watching a lot of pro wrestling those days. Intensely.

As it is for most folks, my tastes evolved as I journeyed toward the harrowing heart of puberty and beyond. My angst increased with my hormones and I sought out darker, more "adult" movies, and not just porn. This is the period of my life when I first saw movies like "Taxi Driver," "Natural Born Killers" and "A Clockwork Orange." Ah yes, "A Clockwork Orange." Like that, Stanley Kubrick was back in my cinematic life, and he was about to change everything with his pessimistic vision of a future run by bloodthirsty youths and inept statist bureaucrats. It set rapes and beatings to playful classical music. It was like Bugs Bunny with a head full of bad acid and set in "1984." Only, of course, I didn't really see it that way back then, or at least I wasn't able to see it that way. It was just awesome. This Kubrick guy was all right, after all. I started to get my hands on all of his movies, and I realized that I had to give "2001" another chance.

This time I stuck it out because it had me from the beginning. I was a little more patient, a little more appreciative of Kubrick's style, particularly his penchant for symmetry of space and color in shots and his fussy attention to even the most miniscule detail. I found out that one watches "2001" for the experience and not its rather simple, mythically influenced three-act story, which lacks a clearly defined protagonist other than "mankind." You have to a lot of work to get anything out of it, and that seems to be part of Kubrick's point. He once said "2001" represented his most optimistic vision of what humanity can achieve, or something to that effect. If you're up for the task, it's a rewarding experience. "2001," as I mentioned above, is often regarded as a cold, unemotional film. On the contrary, I find it emotionally exhilarating. It's one of the movies I've relied on to lift my spirits during some despairing moments as it illustrates, in highly symbolic cinematic language, hope for humanity's next evolution.

People who dismiss "2001" as chilly have somewhat of a point, especially since the bulk of the film takes place in space stations and vehicles, which, according to Kubrick's accurate depiction of space travel, all move so slowly and look so antiseptic. The humans match their surroundings. They're mostly cold, efficient, professional, well-scrubbed and highly analytical. It's almost like they're machines themselves, clockwork oranges, if you will. They're also woefully unprepared for any deviation from the norm of their technologically enhanced lives, particularly when they encounter a perfectly formed black monolith that's been buried on the moon for millions of years and sends out a communication to an undetermined, intelligent force deeper in the galaxy. This monolith, which we see in the movie's beginning scenes inspiring our primate ancestors' to learn how to use tools, sparks the "odyssey" of the title. We cut to several months later, as a spaceship heads toward the destination of the monolith's signal, somewhere in the vicinity of Jupiter.

The ship, which resembles a spermatozoa, carries a crew that's mostly in cryogenic sleep. Dave and Frank (Keir Dullea and Gary Lockwood, respectively), the two men who stay awake to tend to daily functions, are kept company by HAL 9000 (voiced with memorably villainous calm by Douglas Rain), the disembodied artificial intelligence that runs the ship. He's everywhere, although we do get to see him like so, in one of the most elegant, menacing images in all of cinema history:

HAL begins to malfunction a bit and actually becomes a bit too defensive about it, worrying Dave and Frank. The A.I. learns that the men have decided on shutting his non-essential functions down, so he lashes out and murders Frank and the hibernating crew. He tells Dave that he's doing it because the mission must not be compromised, but since he's killed all of the humans and plans to leave Dave in a repair pod in space, it's clear that HAL wants to complete the mission for himself. HAL, much like the ape men in the beginning of the movie, has become conscious of his free will to use brutal means to an end. He's the most human character in the movie up until that point, when Dave, relying on resourcefulness and determination, acts to shut down HAL and complete the mission. HAL's final stand, as he pleads with Dave to stop disconnecting him, is the most chilling death scene I've seen:

The third act of the movie takes us into metaphysical space as Dave completes the mission and communes with the intelligent force, represented by yet another monolith, in the vicinity of Jupiter. It is the "ultimate trip" promised by the movie's ad campaign. It needs to be seen to be believed. Sadly, though, I've only seen it on television screens, from my small bedroom TV to bigger sets to high-def flatscreens. I can only imagine its big-screen majesty, though, the sensory immersion it's sure to provide. Well, here's hoping I can catch a revival before I die. It's an experience I need to have.

Memorable quote: "Just what do you think you're doing, Dave?"

NOTE FROM THE COLONEL: Folks, we've made it to the brink of No. 1 in The Colonel's Countdown. Thanks for sticking this out with me. I'm glad you kept coming by to read my inane ramblings, and I've loved your comments.

I'll have the post for No. 1 up Wednesday, but stop by Monday for a super extra special post about some controversial omissions from the countdown. Well, "controversial" in the sense that I've had some (mostly) good-natured arguments with friends about some notable omissions, and one movie in particular. 


  1. Michael,
    I enjoyed your post. Alot of the movies I was thinking what is he nuts and then I read your post. I found them intersting.

  2. really thought you were laying the ground work to name Transformer 2 your #1 with all that sequel talk... damn.
    and I would have preferred something from Fredo in the memorable quote section.

  3. @that dude: Well, what are your favorite Fredo quotes? I have a feeling, by the way, they involve the words "smart" and "I can do things!"

  4. actually would have said one of the quotes from the underground cuban club where him the senator and johnny (uncle junior) are watching the guy with the huge dong. lol
    or you could have went bilingual and used a frankie quote:
    "chich, abuerto!"

  5. Godfather 2 - Remember seeing that on the big screen at the AMC Empire in NYC? Awesome.

    2001 - First time I saw this was when I was suspended from school for pouring chocolate syrup on Ms. Healy's car. Ah memories.

    #3 - The Shawshank Redemption: I can watch this movie any time and still love it. It really is a fantastic movie.

    #2 - Fight Club: Again, another movie that I can watch numerous times. Favorite scene though is Brad Pitt dancing in the hallway after he gets Helena Bonham Carter. Okay, not favorite scene, but close to it. The ending (much better than the book, BTW) made me love that Pixies song.

  6. I never saw 2001. But the Godfather II was already on on my list so good choice.

    My number 3 choice is Raiders of the Lost Ark.

    My number 2 choice is Clue. I have love this movie since I was little. My cousins and I rented this movie almost every other day one summer.

  7. @Milcz: Yes, I remember that. Great experience. And that "Fight Club" scene you mention is actually mine.

    @My little Ruby: I can't argue with "Raiders" at three. And who doesn't love "Clue"?

  8. OK, so, I've missed a huge chunk of your list, but here is a close approximation of my top 5, minus No.
    5. Max Dugan Returns: An odd, surprisingly sentimental comedy about parental abandonment, theft, and terminal illness -- with Jason Robards, Donald Sutherland and a teenaged Matthew Broderick. What can say? It was my favorite movie as a kid, and has stuck with me since.
    4. Dumbo: My favorite Disney movie, and the only movie I can think of where it is literally possible to cry from beginning to end. Bonus: it's only an hour long. Double bonus: that trippy pink elephant sequence.
    3. Jackie Brown: Tarantino's most underrated movie. Also, in my opinion, his best.
    2 Trading Places: You can have Animal House. I'll take this Landis movie instead. At least once I week, I quote a line from that sequence on the train. And Billy Ray Valentine is simply one of the best movie characters ever.

  9. @TV Writer: I'll gladly take "Trading Places," too. It's still the best thing Jim Belushi has ever done.


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