6. Taxi Driver & I Stand Alone
Unarguably one of the top five greatest films of the 70’s – Fact.
Robert De Niro plays Vietnam veteran Travis Bickle, God’s lonely man as he puts it. He’s a taxi driver working night with a mindset so poisioned by negative thoughts that it’ll make any troubled individual re-evaluate their lifes.
“All the animals come out at night – whores, skunk pussies, buggers, queens, fairies, dopers, junkies, sick, venal. Someday a real rain will come and wash all this scum of the streets.”
Travis doesn’t feel right, all this negativity is deteriating his mind. He’ll implode eventually. He tries his luck dating Betsy (played by Cybill Shepherd) a real class act lady. She shines up the place unlike the recently mentioned animals. They go out on a date. They go out to see a Swedish porn film (Travis doesn’t know any better) and needless to say, they won’t be seing eachother anytime soon. She was his last bet on a clean and normal life and now she’s gone.
“I realize now how much she’s just like the others, cold and distant.”
Another female enters his life. A twelve year old prostitute called Iris, played by a 12 year old Jodie Foster. Iris’ pimp named Sport is brilliantly played by Harvey Keitel and the only person standing between Travis and herself. Our hero buys guns of different sorts and shaves his head with only sparing a mohawk, his hatred for street scum is turning himself into one, mentally, visually and effectively.
Travis Bickle is the ultimate iconic anti-hero. Everything about the film is iconic from the endless quotes to the amazing score, courtesy of Bernard Herrmann – starting his career with Citizen Kane and ending it with Taxi Driver. The script is a brutal look on society, being filled with anger and contempt. Paul Shrader wrote it as an autobiography, something that probably added to the grim realism of the piece. It’s written by someone close to the material in real life.
I Stand Alone
Known only as “The butcher”, Philippe Nahon’s character makes a loose cannon like Travis Bickle appear as a reasonably healthy minded individual.
The butcher is a character originally starring in Gaspar Noé’s first picture (a 40 minute short called Carne). This is a sequel and since Carne, The butcher has experienced some jail time. He stabbed a person in the face. He meant to stab his daughter’s supposed rapist and ended up killing an innocent man.
The film is largely focused on the butcher’s filthy narrated thoughts as he strolls “the bowels of France”. The narrative structure is highly original, when certain cuts are being made, the director adds a gunshot sound effect. This gives a feeling of the butchers mind escalating from contained misanthropy to possible murder or worse.
Noé is one of cinema’s most daring and controversial/confrontational filmmakers. He asks us here to relate to a homophobic, misogynistic, racist, fascist, pedophilic, incestic, sadistic masochist of a murdering rapist scumbag- not an easy request.
Before we reach the film’s climax, Noe’ puts forth a tongue-in-cheek warning sign that reads: “You have 30 seconds to leave the cinema”. Rest assured that the warning is warranted.
What They Have in Common
It is quiet clear that I Stand Alone is influenced by Taxi Driver. A man sick of the gutter called society. Being the quote machine that it is, Taxi Driver pretty much sum’s up the ongoing thought process of our heroes.
“Listen, you fuckers, you screwheads. Here is a man who could not take it anymore. A man who stood up against the scum, the cunts, the dogs, the filth, the shit. Here is a man who stood up.”
If Travis is God’s lonely man, The butcher has to be Satan’s. Or no one’s.
7. Zodiac & Memories of Murder
It’s the 70’s in San Francisco and one murderer called the Zodiac killer mocks the cops along with their intelligence, so they turn to one cartoonist to put an end to his vicious debauchery. Sounds silly? It’s not.
The cartoonist, Robert Graysmith, is played by Jake Gyllenhaal and he teams up with alcoholic reporter Paul Avery, played by Robert Downey Jr. The Zodiac leaves after every kill a cryptic cipher. Graysmith is a natural at cracking codes of these kinds so he becomes obsessed and starts neglecting every other thing, including his own family, in the search for The Zodiac.
Other acting brilliance can be found in what is a great cast consisting of Mark Ruffalo, Brian Cox, Chloë Sevigny, Elias Koteas, Philip Baker Hall and John Carroll Lynch.
This film is not about action, gunfights and car chases, but rather about characters, intentions, plot lines and dialogue. Director David Fincher is a cinematic genius with titles like Se7en, Fight Club and The Social Network under his belt, we won’t be expecting anything less then excellence from a director like that. Needless to say: you can rest assured that Fincher/Zodiac delivers on every account.
Memories of Murder
One of Quentin Tarantino’s 20 favorite films since 1992 and you don’t have to squint to see why.
Unarguably the two greatest south Korean films are Chan-Wook Park’s Oldboy and Ki-Duk Kim’s Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring with the third greatest being arguably Joon-Ho Bong’s Memories of Murder.
The story takes place in the province of Gyunggi, South Korea 1986. A serial killer and rapist is making a name for himself, strangling his victims using their own underwear. Brilliant actor Kang-Ho Song plays the lead who takes over the investigation from violent men without proper detective skills.
There is not much more to say than what one could say about Zodiac, they are both masterful pieces of cinema with Memories of murder being slightly more disturbing/fascinating.
What They Have in Common
They are essentially the same film in terms of plot, style and structure. They are both beautifully detailed, carefully crafted and perfectly realised. Fincher is more stylistic but also an equally valued story-teller, and Bong maybe lack Fincher’s style but that is something he makes up for more than enough with patience, humour and intelligence.
8. Saving Private Ryan & The Thin Red Line
Saving Private Ryan
With one of the greatest opening scenes of all time, Steven Spielberg brought the audience of 1998 images of war never before captured through cinema. Chaos and disorientation. Lost limbs and crying soldiers. It is safe to say that we are not in Kansas anymore.
The cast is an amazing one. Tom Hanks, Matt Damon, Tom Sizemore, Adam Goldberg, Vin Diesel, Giovanni Ribisi, Paul Giamatti, Bryan Cranston, Nathan Fillion, Barry Pepper and Jeremy Davies.
With low expectations of success, Captain Miller (Hanks) leads a team of 8 soldiers with the goal of rescuing one Private Ryan (Damon). Ryan’s brothers are all dead so he is to get back home to his grieving mother.
With excellent cinematography, brutally realistic scenes of war, a heart-wrenching story in the center and an Oscar win for best director, Saving Private Ryan will stand the test of time for as long as there are movie screens for us to use.
The Thin Red Line
Terrence Malick is a great director. Badlands, Days of heaven, The tree of life and of course: The Thin Red Line makes fools out of anyone trying to argue otherwise.
Now, if you think the cast of Saving Private Ryan impressed, you should sit down. Nick Nolte, Jim Caviezel, Sean Penn, Elias Koteas, John Cusack, Adrian Brody, John C. Reilly, Woody Harrelson, Miranda Otto, Jared Leto, John Travolta, George Clooney, Thomas Jane, John Savage, Tim Blake Nelson and Mark Boone Junior (with Bill Pulman, Viggo Mortensen, Martin Sheen and Mickey Rourke getting lost on the cutting room floor).
The absence of story is what makes the film great. We have the setting (WWII) and we have the characters. Instead of story we get cinematic poetry, instead of being barren and bleak the film is heartachingly warm, a warmth that fills the characters and in turn gives their expressions of horror an almost transcendent power.
What They Have in Common
While Spielberg gave us a story depicting the raw savagery that is world war II, Malick offers a more poetic output. Malick shows us the emotional horrors of his characters through beautiful photography whilst Spielberg amps everything up with some of the best shaky-cam ever applied.
This is one heavy 1998 double feature, very worth the effort for those who can manage an insane journey of two contrasting depictions of world war II. Seeing them back to back is a must for any serious film goer.
9. Short Cuts & Magnolia
This is the first of all the “Interconnected story movies”. Maybe not the first in terms of content but certainly in terms of style and structure.
Just like The thin red line & Saving private Ryan, the cast is big: Andie MacDowell, Jack Lemmon, Julianne Moore, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Chris Penn, Lili Tomlin, Robert Downey Jr, Tim Robbins, Tom Waits, Frances McDormand and that’s not even all of them.
The IMDB plot summary reads: “The day-to-day lives of a number of suburban Los Angeles residents”. No further description needed.
Robert Altman is a great director and The player (1992) followed a year later by Short cuts marked a return to form for the director of films like: M.A.S.H, McCabe & Mrs Miller, Nashville and 3 Women. Short cuts is one of his absolute greatest films and considering the titles just mentioned, that’s saying a lot.
People who get those idiotic tattoos that read: “Forget the past, live in the present” should experience Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia and learn that “They may be through with the past, but the past ain’t through with them”.
If Altman went big and ambitious, PTA went epic with what is perhaps this list’s greatest cast: Patton Oswalt, Tom Cruise (nominated), Philip Baker Hall, William H. Macy, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jason Robards, Julianne Moore (nominated), John C. Reilly, Luis Guzman, Ricky Jay, Alfred Molina and awesomely enough we even get a glimps of The avengers own Agent Coulson played by Clark Gregg.
The film takes place, like Short cuts, in LA and during the span of what is one rainy stretch of 24 hours (mashed into a running time of three hours), we get to experience life and humanity taking on a fantastic storyline followed by a climax of biblical proportions.
Imagine a mixture of Robert Altman, Martin Scorsese and Sidney Lumet with PTA’s own personal flair and you’ll get an idea of what it is like experiencing what ultimately is: an unimaginably great cinematic mosaic of brutal human emotion, insight, wisdom and understanding.
What They Have in Common
Notice how the plot descriptions went missing, they are both so large that one could base an entire review, reviewing the plot.
They both sport some tremendous poetry with Altman being, in style, more miniscule, and Anderson going for broke with an operatic sense of Scorsese-esque showmanship.
Characters grow like never before in these kind of movies and everything leads up to one thing. Be it the raining of cats and d(fr)ogs or something more subtle. Be it old testament or just nature.
10. Birdman & Russian Ark.
There are few films worthy to be rated 10/10, about only two features a year. 2014 was particularly good as it produced three titles worthy. Linklater’s Boyhood, Kent’s Babadook and Inarritu’s Groundbreaking masterpiece: Birdman: Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance).
With an amazing mega cast of Michael Keaton (nominated) as the lead role Riggan Thomson, Edward Norton (nominated) as Mike, Emma Stone (nominated) as Sam, Naomi Watts as Leslie, Zach Galifianakis as Jake and Amy Ryan as Sylvia, there is no shortage of acting brilliance.
Now here’s the thing: even though the film is made using cuts, they are made so seamless that to the naked eye the film appears to be all in one take. The crafting is astounding with actors having to hit certain marks flawlessly in order for the film to remain its illusion. One mistake and they’ll have to start the scene all over again.
Riggan is a washed up comic-book-hero-actor, having played Birdman 20 so years ago (just like Keaton played Batman in real life). Mike is an actor not easily tamed, fiddling with scripts, arguing abrasively to his director (just like, as reported, Norton in real life).
It’s a satire that is parodizing reality (the voice of Birdman is a parody on the voice of Bale’s Batman just to give a final example). Riggan wants to be known/remembered as an artist so he stages a Broadway debut play of Raymond Carver’s “What we talk about when we talk about love.” Birdman is capable of taking us from laughter to sadness to weirdness to anger and back laughing like crazy, without ever being dull, never being clunky and always with a savage wit.
If you think about it, this should be an impossible film to make. It’s a satire/comedy which delves into the realms of magic reality without ever feeling forced. It’s mad and ferocious yet at the same time sweet and understanding. It criticize everyone and yet it’s firmly on everyone’s side. There is only one word for this type of cinematic control and that is genius.
“2000 Actors. 300 years of Russian History. 33 Rooms at the Hermitage Museum. 3 Live Orchestras. 1 Single Continuous Shot.”
Unlike Birdman who only makes it seem like one unbroken shot, Alexander Sokurov gives ambition new meaning with one -for real- long take making the entire film. I’ll keep this short review far shorter than it deserves as the tagline is almost enough of a review in itself.
We here a voice: “I open my eyes and I see nothing”. A faceless man (it’s a first person shot) with who we are to identify as, spring into being (or simply awakens, depending on your interpretation) and follows and converse with a 19th century French aristocrat – the only person with the ability to see him. They walk through the museum and encounter historical characters from the last three centuries, this is in essence the entire film.
Films such as Kubrick’s 2001, Noé’s Enter The Void and perhaps Jodorowsky’s Holy Mountain are all made to make you feel as though you were high. Russian Ark, after about 30 minutes in, gives you that high – The result of complex camera movements in what feels like a never ending take, no doubt.
96 minutes in, we end up with one of the most awe-inspiring, jaw-droppingly beautiful and spiritually strengthening endings of all time, yet somehow, this film fails to enter people’s best of movie lists over and over again. One’s only reason not to propagate it is not having seen it. Hopefully times will change.
What They Have in Common
Both are made without any visible cuts, Russian Ark has got no cuts invisible or not. Birdman uses the gimmick to put you in the middle, to make you feel closer to the characters. Russian Ark has more of a meditative reason for being. Another film made like Birdman would be Hitchcock’s Rope.
Could this be the future of cinema? Perhaps, in a hundred years, the technical achievements of Birdman will be reduced to common, conventional cinema for the easily impressed. Or it will remain the masterpiece it is today, as for Russian Ark? It can still boast being made without visual cheats. And that’s awesome.
Author bio: John Berntsson is a film aficionado who spends his time watching movies, talking about movies, writing about movies, and making movies. He is also a martial artist with eight years’ worth of judo training under his belt. His films can be seen on his YouTube channel where he goes under the name of John Davidsson/MacaroniCombat. https://www.youtube.com/user/MacaroniCombat/videos.