7. THE LORD OF THE RINGS (2001 to 2003)
Director: Peter Jackson
Starring: Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, Viggo Mortensen, Sean Astin, Andy Serkis, Christopher Lee, Orlando Bloom, John Rhys-Davies, Cate Blanchett, Sean Bean, Dominic Monaghan, Billy Boyd, Hugo Weaving, Liv Tyler, Ian Holm, Bernard Hill, David Wenham, Miranda Otto, Brad Dourif, Karl Urban, John Noble
Why it's here: Yes, I'm counting all three installments of Frodo's (Elijah Wood) quest to destroy the evil Sauron's Ring of Power as one, big movie. They were all largely filmed concurrently as part of a larger whole, and they all tell parts of one, giant story that was already plotted out from the beginning, thanks to J.R.R. Tolkien. Still, for simplicity's sake, I'll break "The Lord of the Rings" down into its three parts.
The Fellowship of the Ring: This is still my favorite installment of the series. It's where we learn the stakes and meet the Fellowship. I fell in love with it the first time I saw it, on opening night, of course, and I went back another six or seven times. Yeah, I know I'm a nerd, and I don't need you to tell me that, thank you.
Still, you ask: "Why, why would someone sit through a three-hour movie seven or eight times in a movie theater?" Well, I just couldn't get enough of it. The DVD wouldn't come out for what seemed like an eternity. I just had to get my fix of seeing that incredibly badass money shot of the Fellowship striding over that hill one by one as Howard Shore's majestic theme swelled. I needed to see Gandalf the Grey's (Ian McKellen) showdown with the Balrog at the Bridge of Khazad-Dum over and over again. I wanted to keep experiencing Boromir's (Sean Bean) bloody redemption as he protects the Hobbits from evil wizard Saruman's (Christopher Lee) legion of monstrous uruk hai. This is a movie for many moods, and if I had to I could watch it weekly, without complaint.
The Two Towers: My least favorite part, mainly because I couldn't really get into the Treebeard scenes, but it's still incredibly awesome. We finally encounter Gollum beyond a few shadowy shots here and there, and he's a marvel to behold. Even though the actions and voice work of Andy Serkis provided the baseline for the character, the Gollum we see on screen is fully CGI, but he is no Jar-Jar Binks. While it's evident that he's the creation of computers, he's still a living, breathing character with deep and complicated emotional motivations. He's pathetic, lovable and frightening, often all at once. Your heart breaks for him, but sometimes you're with Sam and you just want to kill him.
The coolest thing about "The Two Towers," though, is that it culminates with the series' most riveting set piece, the siege of Helm's Deep, a supposedly impregnable fortress. The odds are stacked against our heroes -- would-be king of men Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), elf warrior Legolas (Orlando Bloom), dwarf fighter Gimli (John Rhys-Davies) and Theoden, King of Rohan (Bernard Hill) -- as they seek to defend the deep from tens of thousands of fierce uruk hai with just a ragtag force of hundreds of soldiers, old men and boys. The sequence and the opening of "Saving Private Ryan" are the greatest large-scale battle scenes I've seen in movies.
The Return of the King: This the longest, most powerful and epically epic segment of the whole 10-hour-plus (even more if you watch the extended editions, which I prefer) epic of epicity. The extended edition of "The Return of the King" runs four hours and 15 minutes itself, for Pete's sake. But every minute, even the notoriously long denouement, is worth it.
There are lots of huge emotional payoffs. King Theoden leading his cavalry to break the lines of Mordor's orc army at the Battle of Pellenor fields may be the most chill-inducing moment in the whole series. Well, then there's also Eowyn (Miranda Otto) declaring that she is "no man" as she battles the evil Witch King of Angmar to the death. Or maybe it's when the Hobbits and Aragorn lead the final assault on the forces of Mordor as Frodo and Sam complete their death march to destroy the ring in the fires of Mount Doom and Shore's score finally reaches the operatic crescendo it's been building toward the whole series.
It's all so earth-shaking and spectacular, made all the more powerful by the intimate character moments sprinkled throughout the series. No fantasy adventure film has come close to the biblical splendor of "The Lord of the Rings," and I doubt any will.
Memorable quote: "It's true you don't see many dwarf women."
6. THE THIRD MAN (1949)
Director: Carol Reed
Starring: Orson Welles, Joseph Cotten, Alida Valli, Trevor Howard, Bernard Lee
Why it's here: This is my favorite Orson Welles movie. He didn't direct it, and he didn't write it. Its largely sprung from the mind of novelist Graham Greene, and its stark, shadowy visual style, while owing a lot to Welles' groundbreaking work on "Citizen Kane," is the work of British director Carol Reed ("The Fallen Idol" and "Oliver!"). Welles isn't even in the movie all that much, but when he is, there's no ignoring him. He dominates the screen, much like his character's actions and legacy dominate the lives of the characters in the movie.
Welles plays Harry Lime, an American expatriate in post-World War II Berlin who is believed to be dead in the movie's early going. His old buddy from America, dime novelist Holly Martens (Joseph Cotten), shows up to work with Harry only to learn that his friend died in an accident. Holly finds out that Harry's supposed dying words were instructions for Holly to take care of Harry's girlfriend, Anna (Alida Valli), who doesn't seem all that interested in Holly's advances. Soon, Holly becomes suspicious of the circumstances around Harry's death. The British military authorities are also suspicious, too, but for other reasons. They believe Harry was a criminal, and they don't necessarily believe he's dead. Holly, whose American naivety is playfully underscored by the movie's famous zither score, refuses to believe them, though, at least at first. When he finally learns the sick truth about Harry, and not just that he faked his death, Holly has no choice but to betray his friend and cooperate with the Brits.
The Berlin we see in "The Third Man" is symbol of Europe's fractured psyche after the war. The city, bearing the scars of bombs and heavy fighting, is divided among four occupying powers, with France, Britain and the United States on the west side and the Soviets on the east. To move about the city means having the proper documents and clearance, unless you're "dead" and traveling in the shadows, which is where Harry spends much of his time. He uses the sewers as a means to get around the city to avoid the authorities, making him, essentially, a denizen of the underworld. Harry is the personification the dark spirit of greed that lurked beneath the surface of World War II and its aftermath. There's no denying that WWII was generally a just war, as it crushed the Nazis and ended the horror of the Holocaust, but it would be naive to ignore the other forces at work in a global war of that magnitude -- market forces. This quote, from Thomas Pynchon's "Gravity's Rainbow," which, like "The Third Man," is largely set amid the still-smoldering ruins of postwar Europe, explains it better than I can:
Don't forget the real business of the War is buying and selling. The murdering and the violence are self-policing, and can be entrusted to non-professionals. The mass nature of wartime death is useful in many ways. It serves as spectacle, as diversion from the real movements of the War. It provides raw material to be recorded into History, so that children may be taught History as sequences of violence, battle after battle, and be more prepared for the adult world. Best of all, mass death's a stimulus to just ordinary folks, little fellows, to try 'n' grab a piece of that Pie while they're still here to gobble it up. The true war is a celebration of markets.Harry Lime, like Tony Montana, is merely an outgrowth of this idea. He represents the "organic markets, carefully styled 'black' by the professionals" that Pynchon goes on to describe. Harry's a capitalist, by any means necessary, and even though he meets a bitter end in "The Third Man," the world is still left with millions of slick, amoral operators just like him and millions of naive enablers like Holly.
Memorable quote: I'll let Mr. Welles do the talking:
Transcript: "You know what the fellow said -- in Italy, for 30 years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo Da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had 500 years of democracy and peace -- and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock."