Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The Colonel's Countdown: Top 25 Movies (Nos. 5 & 4)

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: Steven Spielberg

Starring: Harrison Ford, Karen Allen, John Rhys-Davies, Paul Freeman, Alfred Molina, Denholm Elliott, Ronald Lacey, Wolf Kahler

Why it's here: Steven Spielberg and George Lucas were at the height of their powers when they teamed to create Indiana Jones, the gruff, fedora-sporting archaeologist armed with a bullwhip. Lucas was in the midst of rolling out the original "Star Wars" trilogy, and Spielberg, while coming off the dud "1941," had rewritten the record book with "Jaws" in 1975, made the beloved "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" in 1977, and still had the immortal "E.T. The Extraterrestrial" in the hopper. Together, Lucas and Spielberg would blend much of what formed their tastes when they were young -- boys adventure stories, Saturday afternoon serials, James Bond movies -- into "Raiders of the Lost Ark," the movie that introduced Jones to audiences and helped influence pop culture in its own right.

Think of all the iconic images and moments in this movie. First, you have the shot shown above, with Indy crouching down in an attempt to retrieve the idol he pursues in the movie's prologue. Not long after that you have the perhaps the most famous action sequence of all time as Indy (Harrison Ford) is pursued by an improbably round boulder. Then, later in the movie, there's that shot of Indy's large and looming shadow on the wall of Marion's (Karen Allen) bar in Nepal. And, of course, you have, at the end of the movie, the melting faces, in all their cheesy, practical effects glory.

By the way, words can't really convey how happy I am that Lucas and Spielberg resisted giving "Raiders" too much of the CGI "special edition" treatment, other than a few touch-ups here and there. Blatantly obvious computer effects would seem so out of place in an Indiana Jones movie, particularly one released way back in 1981, no matter how much you digitally "remastered" it. One of the biggest complaints moviegoers and critics had about the most recent Indiana Jones movie, 2008's "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull," was its reliance on CGI to create so many of the effects. Indy has to come in retro wrapping, and it's because of the precedent set by "Raiders," which takes pride in its clunky, B-movie roots.

That's not to say "Raiders," which follows Indy's race against the Nazis to find the biblical Ark of the Covenant, isn't slickly made. Its pace is relentless, but Spielberg is a patient filmmaker who understands the value of space, perspective and blocking when he's plotting shot sequences in action scenes. Not once do you feel unnecessarily disoriented by the action; the frames are allowed to breathe. Consider one of the major set pieces, the desert truck chase. The camera setups are mostly stationary, but thanks to nimble, well-timed editing and Spielberg's relentless storyboarding, you feel like you might as well be on one of those trucks. In fact, according to Wikipedia (don't worry, there's a citation), "Raiders" was Spielberg's most storyboarded film to date, due to budget and schedule constraints. The result is a tight, relentless adventure film, perhaps the greatest of all. It's proof that a lot of planning goes a long way.

So does a lot of charm. "Raiders" is more than just a fun, crackerjack ride at the movies, it's almost like hanging out with one of your more fun old friends. Much of that is due to Spielberg and Lucas' nostalgic rendering of old-fashioned adventure tropes, but all that would be nothing without the actors bringing the characters to life. It's almost like they're real people, with real emotional motivation, trapped inside bigger-than-life characters and absurd situations. We know Indy and Marion's relationship is complicated thanks not just because of some vague, elliptical lines (extra points for not bogging the scene down with ham-fisted expository dialogue!), but because of the bitterness in Marion's voice and the resignation in Indy's. As they reconcile, you can see Marion never really fell out of love with the insensitive lug just by looking at her eyes. Meanwhile, Indy tries to be stoic, but when he's faced with the possibility that Marion is dead, he sinks into despair and a liquor bottle. In today's Hollywood, this would take up a good, 15- or 20-minute chunk of the movie. But here, we only get one or two scenes of drunk and depressed Indy. He's a man on a mission. He's got to move on.

But we believe Indy's despair because Ford pulls it off so well. Ford, who's elaborating on his other celebrated romantic rogue character, Han Solo, never really got much credit for his acting work, probably because he never had to be too showy in the blockbusters he carried. It's a shame because without him, Indiana Jones might not have become such an important figure in pop culture. Okay, so he's not playing Hamlet or Brutus, but this role demanded a superstar, a willing, confident superstar who needed to be equal to the high-concept, absurd premise of the story and the creative prowess behind the movie. Harrison Ford casts a long shadow as Indiana Jones. Without him, even with all that filmmaking wizardry on display and the timeless John Williams score, I believe that "Raiders of the Lost Ark" likely would not be the classic it is today, and it certainly wouldn't be this high on my list.

Memorable quote: "I don't know, I'm making this up as I go."


Directors: Joel and Ethan Coen

Starring: Jeff Bridges, John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Julianne Moore, John Turturro, Sam Elliott, Peter Stormare, Jon Polito, David Huddleston, Ben Gazzara, David Thewlis, Tara Reid, Aimee Mann, Flea, Mark Pellegrino

Why it's here: What's that old saying? Writing about music is like tap dancing about architecture? Is that it? Either way, that sentiment applies to writing about movies, too, as I hint at in my disclaimer up at the top of all the Countdown posts. On this list, though, it applies the most to "The Big Lebowski." Nothing speaks for the movie better than itself. It really is its own unique thing; you need to experience it to "get it." Still, I'll do my best in explaining why it's so great. I warn you, though: I'm going to use a few superlatives. If you haven't seen it and you've just heard bizarre references and effusive praise from its ever-growing base of acolytes, I'm sorry. You're about to get more of the same.

I've never seen a movie with better, more consistently hilarious dialogue than "The Big Lebowski." Obviously, much of that is due to the Coen brothers, who wrote just about every word you hear in the movie, even every utterance of "like" and "man" by The Dude (Jeff Bridges). The script relies heavily on comic repetition of phrases such as: "[blank] is not the issue here!" or "in the parlance of our times" or "this will not stand," etc. Without a uniformly incredible cast, from the top-billed Bridges and John Goodman (as Walter, The Dude's violently unstable friend who can't let go of either Vietnam or his failed marriage) down to, yes, Tara Reid ("I'll suck your cock for a thousand dollars"), delivering these lines, though, I'm not sure the dialogue could have resonated to the point it has. There's a T-shirt for just about every line in "Lebowski." (I actually own one depicting Walter's face and these immortal lines: "You want a toe? I can get you a toe.") It comes down to delivery. Take Walter's oft-repeated admonishment to his and The Dude's gentle and slightly slow bowling partner: "Shut the fuck up, Donny." Goodman delivers the line in a plaintive, matter-of-fact voice in one moment ("Shut the fuck up, Donny") and then in the most exasperated, impatient manner the next, exploding into a yell at "fuck" before trying to choke off the rest in a stage whisper. ("Shut the FUCK up, Donny!") It's a symphony of misunderstanding, miscommunication, imitation and dunderheaded exclaimation composed by masters and performed by virtuosos.

Okay, so what the Hell is it about? Good question. It took me several viewings and a one-time co-worker's criticism of "Lebowski" to even care about the plot. The dialogue and the characterizations are that vivid and memorable. All right, so the plot. It's essentially a private eye movie, with The Dude, who's just an unemployed ex-hippie burnout who spends his spare time bowling and having "the occasional acid flashback," as the Philip Marlowe detective character. The Dude, whose real name is Jeff Lebowski, is mistaken for another Jeffrey Lebowski, the "Big Lebowski" of the title, a rich, Cheney-esque asshole whose young trophy wife (Reid) -- "in the parlance of our times" -- owes a shit-ton of money to pornographer Jackie Treehorn (Ben Gazzara). Treehorn's idiotic goons (look for Mark Pellegrino, better known to "Lost" fans as Jacob) bust into The Dude's apartment one night demanding the money, not realizing at first that this flabby, scruffy guy who goes out food shopping in his bathrobe is not exactly a millionaire.  One of the goons, Wu, even micturates upon The Dude's rug, an act our hero sets out to correct, only to get sucked into an even more convoluted plot that involves motley cast of bizarre characters native to rambling, episodic detective stories. He has to contend with nihilists who threaten to cut off his johnson, the Big Lebowski's militant feminist stepdaughter (Julianne Moore), who wants his help and his sperm, and an inept social studies student named Larry Sellers. "All the Dude ever wanted was his rug back," our hero pleads. It's a MacGuffin that really ties the movie together.

Yeah, it's a bit much, and I can understand how it could befuddle casual movie watchers who just want to get lost in a story. This is why, I believe, the movie had to build its audience over the years. It's not an easy movie to reduce to a simple tagline or pitch, and you really can't demonstrate how funny the movie actually is without showing it to someone. "Burnout bowler gets caught up in kidnapping plots because someone peed on his rug after mistaking him for a millionaire. Oh, and Sam Elliott narrates it." I know I'd want to see that movie, and many of my friends would, too, but I can't imagine that story, on its face, would appeal to most folks. My hope is that most of you reading this have seen "Lebowski" already, so you can at least appreciate what I'm trying to get across here. If you haven't seen it, well, I don't know what to tell you other than that no matter how many times I've seen "The Big Lebowski" I still laugh like an idiot whenever I watch it. And I'll keep watching it. There's no funnier movie, in my opinion.

And, hey, if you watch it and don't end up liking it, at least you'll get why this clip is funny in its own right:

Memorable quote (How can I pick just one? Ugh!): "Eight-year-olds, dude."


  1. You know, I was never "in" to the Indiana Jones movies. I like them. I think they're fun. But they were never those movies that I'd seek out to watch (but would enjoy if they were on). I think Last Crusade was the first one I saw, so when I finally saw Raiders, it was lost on me because I had already pretty much seen it.

    Yeah, Lebowski may someday be a top tenner of mine, I'm sure. I haven't seen it as many times as I really should have.

    Okay, so my list:

    #5 - Pulp Fiction: Great movie overall and very fun to watch over and over. My favorite parts are the small gestures, like Harvey Keitel going "Mmm" as he drinks the much discussed good coffee.

    #4 - Ed Wood: The best Tim Burton film and probably his last good one. The film is hilarious, yet has this extreme sadness that resonates underneath the humor. Johhny Depp was great, yes, but the film belongs to Martin Landau, whose Bela Legosi was tragic and comedic. Also a great supporting cast made this movie a classic.

  2. The Dude: Well, they finally did it. They killed my fucking car.
    Nihilist: Ve vant ze money, Lebowski.
    Nihilist #2: Ja, uzzervize ve kill ze girl.
    Nihilist #3: Ja, it seems you have forgotten our little deal, Lebowski.
    The Dude: You don't HAVE the fucking girl, dipshits! We know you never did!
    [the Nihilists, stunned, confer amongst themselves in German]
    Donny: Are these the Nazis, Walter?
    Walter Sobchak: No, Donny, these men are nihilists, there's nothing to be afraid of.
    Nihilist: Ve don't care. Ve still vant ze money, Lebowski, or ve fuck you up.
    Walter Sobchak: Fuck you. Fuck the three of you.
    The Dude: Hey, cool it Walter.
    Walter Sobchak: No, without a hostage, there is no ransom. That's what ransom is. Those are the fucking rules.
    Nihilist #2: His girlfriend gave up her toe!
    Nihilist #3: She though we'd be getting million dollars!
    Nihilist #2: Iss not fair!
    The Dude: Hey, cool it Walter. Look, pal, there never was any money. The big Lebowski gave me an empty briefcase, so take it up with him, man.
    Walter Sobchak: And, I would like my undies back.
    [Stunned, the Germans confer amongst themselves again]
    Donny: Are they gonna hurt us, Walter?
    Walter Sobchak: No, Donny. These men are cowards.
    Nihilist: Okay. So we take ze money you haf on you, und ve calls it eefen.
    Walter Sobchak: Fuck you.

  3. @Milcz: Wow, two excellent choices. "Ed Wood" is far and away my favorite Tim Burton movie. And "Pulp Fiction" never, ever gets old.

    @that dude: That might be the best comment in the short history of this blog.

  4. and dont forget
    The Dude: And, you know, he's got emotional problems, man.
    Walter Sobchak: You mean... beyond pacifism?
    and of course
    Walter Sobchak: Fucking dipshit with a nine toed woman.

  5. I like both your choices.

    My # 5 pick is 12 Angry Men. I like either version, but I have to say I like the one with Jack Lemmon and George C. Scott better.

    My # 4 pick is The Uninvited with Ray Milland and Ruth Hussey. Creepy, black and white horror movie.


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