Thursday, April 23, 2009

72. Fist of Legend

Fist of Legend (1994)
Directed by Gordon Chan

Fist of Legend is Jet Li’s greatest film (I've seen over 26 of his films). While featuring several of his best fight sequences of all-time, Fist of Legend also features a serviceable plot (which is all a good martial arts film needs) and an excellent theme (which counts as bonus points). I saw this film for the first time less than a year ago and I wrote a review for it then. CLICK HERE for that review.

So how did this film so quickly make its way into my Top 100? With repeated viewings of Fist of Legend, my fondness for the film has grown. The last year I have been watching martial arts films of all stripes (I’ve watched around 60 or so by now), and Fist of Legend is easily one of the best entries into the martial arts genre, by Jet Li or by anyone.

In creating this list, I ranked each film by asking myself not only how much do I enjoy it, but would I want to live without it. Since I have a special love for action and martial arts films (Hong Kong action flms at that), this film easily made it into the top 100. Put me on a deserted island with just 100 DVDs and I guarantee you that this one will find itself into the DVD player very often.

Here is the trailer for the film

73. Jaws

Jaws (1975)
Directed by Steven Spielberg

Its odd to say I view Jaws in the same way that I view Emperor’s New Groove and Wallace and Gromit, but like those films, Jaws is a simple story populated with well rounded and interesting characters, and its just pure fun to watch it. It’s just that instead of being animated, Jaws is a thriller…and features a gigantic shark that savagely eats people.

I recently re-watched Jaws and was surprised by just how enjoyable the film is. The characters that inhabit this film are all memorable and delightful, including a surly Quint played by Robert Shaw and an avid scientist played by Richard Dreyfuss. The setting is perfectly captured and the story is a classic mix of thriller and horror.

A special mention has to go to all the shark sequences, especially the opening one. Every scene makes great use of the camera (who can forget those underwater perspective shots?) and great use of the musical score. Honestly, the sea sequences are so well shot and staged that I could swear I feel the sun on my face, salt on my lips, and the palpable terror of an animal that is stalking me. Who would want to live in a world without that?

Enjoy the original 1975 Trailer

74. Crash

Crash (2005)
Directed by Paul Haggis

Sitting at #74 is the controversial 2005 Best Picture winner, Crash. Ironically, this film about racism and hatred really has engendered quite a bit of hatred. In fact, the negativity and vitriol of Crash’s critics led me to give this film another viewing before I ranked it in this list, and that re-watch resulted in re-confirming my initial reaction; that Crash is an intense ensemble drama about race relations that may sometimes be over the top, but is a powerful argument for better understanding racism and ultimately our own humanity.

What Crash does best is to turn upside down many of the viewer’s expectations and presuppositions. By doing so, we are able to empathize and understand the underlying subtext for every character. Several characters that we initially identify as racists or just jerks are later given sequences of humanity and redemption. On the flip side, characters that we initially identify as nice and even-tempered are later given sequences that lead us to question our initial impressions.

This technique produces some truly well rounded characters and in doing so makes its first insight into race relations – racial problems don’t stem from the “Race” of the person. In painting all our characters with gray brushes we quickly understand that not one race is the “nice” one and the other is the “angry” one. So where then does the film claim racial problems come from?

The second insight into racial relations that I gleaned from Crash would be that most racial problems most often come from misunderstandings that lead to frustrations. It’s then easy and simple to blame those frustrations on race. However, more often than not, those misunderstandings arise due to language barriers, pride, quick tempers, bureaucratic roundabouts, legitimate fears for personal safety, and desires to please our loved ones.

In other words, the roots of racism are the roots of every problem that plagues mankind. We can be selfish, prideful, impatient, fearful, quick to anger, uncaring beings and instead of tackling these root issues we take the simple route and blame it on the race of others (which is another root issue). This message resonates so deeply with me because it is deeply confirming of my Christian convictions. I understand that we are all prone to selfish natures and it’s gonna require all of us to be people of forgiveness, patience, peace, love, faith, confidence, and unselfishness if we are to ever cure the problems of racism.

It’s a fantastic message that plays itself out in an intense fashion with a handful of incredibly powerful scenes. My absolute favorite sequence is when Matt Dillon’s police officer comes upon a crash scene (no pun intended). Without thought toward the race of the victims, he naturally attempts to rescue the injured. Of course, the injured woman inside is a black woman whom he took advantage of and molested in an earlier scene. It’s a scene of pure emotion, irony, and ultimately humanity.

The scene implies that in the end, not only is it possible that we can move beyond our self-issues, but that it’s imperative, for our own sake that we do. These aren’t subtle messages and the film definitely deserves its share of criticism for being a little heavy-handed. However, I think that the human drama and underlying messages more than make up for any of its faults. This is a film that not only gives us an engaging human drama, but also calls for its audience to better racial issues by first bettering ourselves.

Here is the trailer for the film

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

75. Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit

Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (2005)
Directed by Nick Park & Steve Box

I categorize Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit as a companion film to The Emperor's New Groove. It doesn't have the epic storytelling of The Lion King, or the crazy antics of Aladdin, but it does feature a simple story with great characters and some really big laughs. Like Emperor's New Groove, I go to this film for an quick joy fix.

I rank this film higher than Groove because the laughs are a bit bigger for me and more often come from a comical gag than they do from a more self-conscious place that Groove does. There is one particular gag with "Pansy Spray" that leaves me in stitches every time.

If you've never seen the film, than I envy you being able to see this for the first time. I guarantee that you'll love the clay-mation and the pun and site gag filled humor. In fact, this is probably the closest you'll get to the Marx Brothers comedy in animated form (outside of Chuck Jones). Stick with this film until the amazing third act which is jam-packed with action and gags that come every second. Give this simple film a chance, I hope it becomes a small little gem for you as it has for me.

Here is the underwhelming trailer

76. The Bourne Identity

The Bourne Identity (2002)
Directed by Doug Liman

I liked it on first watch, but over time I have come to see The Bourne Identity as an action classic, redefining the spy genre and putting to shame 2002's other spy entry, the cartoonish James Bond film Die Another Day. In fact, Bourne's influence is confirmed in the fact that the next time Bond emerged on the big screen in Casino Royale, it was a spitting image of Bourne himself. Along with The Matrix and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, these three films have influenced nearly all the action the 2000s saw on the big screen.

Three elements stand out to me in this film; the story, the settings, and the action. The Bourne Identity features and incredibly smart and intelligent plot, filled with great lines, and a few genuine moments between the characters. Enhancing the great story is some great location work. There are no Caribbean beaches, but I love the great photography that Liman gets in these European cities. Its superbly memorable to me, and its something that I always look forward to when watching it.

Filling out this film are several incredible action sequences including one of the greatest car chases in all of cinema. It gets the big stunts, the small stunts, the local flavor, and the camera all right. While the fight scenes are not kung fu masterpieces, Liman expertly stages them to make them clearly choreographed but more brutal and practical than your typical kung fu fight.

It would be easy to overlook this film and to think of it as a mere action film, but I think that would be discounting how well made this film is. Its able to pull off one of the hardest tasks in all of cinema; pulse pounding cinematic action sequences and adult level espionage and drama. Its rare to find a film that accomplishes this, and we should cherish the ones that do.

Here is the trailer

Monday, April 20, 2009

77. Rear Window

Rear Window (1954)
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

The second Hitchcock film on the list and its one of the few Hitchcock films that's able to makeme not only make gasp in suspense, but also shed a few tears (The Man Who Knew Too Much only brings tears). Although its a slow moving film (which Hitchcock films isn't?), this films has lots of payoffs along the way.

Several aspects of this film immediately jump to mind; the incredible voyeuristic curiosity, the grand art direction and cinematography, the increasing paranoia about your neighbors, and the great performances from Thelma Ritter and Jimmy Stewart. There are three other things that stand out even greater in this film however.

There is an incredible moment of suspense when Grace Kelly enters a neighbor's apartment and we, like Stewart, are forced to watch the scene completely from the window. It's an incredibly suspenseful and frustrating sequence, one of Hitchcock's best. Second is the moment of humanity (maybe even sentimentality) with the Miss Lonely Hearts storyline. It feels a bit odd in a Hitchcock film, in a suspense film nonetheless, but it never fails to tug on my heartstrings.

Lastly, is the incredibly sexy and lovely performance from Grace Kelly. I'm not sure if anyone feels the same, but I feel that Grace Kelly gives one of the most attractive and appealing bombshell performances in all of cinema in this film. For Grace Kelly alone I wouldn't want to live without this film.

Here is taste of what I am talking about

78. My Fair Lady

My Fair Lady (1964)
Directed by George Cukor

With Easter week behind me as well as a slew of other things, I am turning my attention to finishing this '100' list. I'm gonna try and spit these out much faster than in the past, but that means that they will be a bit shorter and to the point, unless I get a little more inspiration on a particular film.

With My Fair Lady there really isn't much for me to say. It's one of only two live action musicals to make my list, and it's a joy for me to watch. I enjoy the overall story of Eliza Doolittle transforming from a cockney "guttersnipe" to a civilized woman under the tutelage of Rex Harrison's iconic Professor Higgins. Despite the story, it's really the small things that make this film essential for me.

I love all the major characters in this film from Eliza and Higgins, to Eliza's father and that greasy and sneaky translator at the ball. The songs are all delightful and there really isn't a miss in the bunch. Lastly, I applaud the restraint of the film when it comes to the Higgins and Eliza love story. Rather than a sweepingly romantic ending, the ending of the film is per is absolutely natural and pitch-perfect.

Favorite Song: "The Hymn to Him"

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

79. The Apartment

The Apartment (1960)
Directed by Billy Wilder

I have to confess, I love most everything that writer/director Billy Wilder does. There isn’t a single film of his I’ve seen that I didn’t like, and this is my favorite of them all. For those who have never seen this film, I give a hearty recommendation to it. If you liked Jerry Maguire, then this is a film that I think you’ll find yourself loving as well.

It is one of those films that falls into the odd place between romance, comedy and drama. Most films can barely get one of those genres right, but this one is able to get all three right. Like Jerry Maguire, The Apartment tiptoes from great comedic set pieces to great moments of dramatic insight. It might not be as poppy or in your face as Jerry Maguire, but it got that film beat when it comes to heart. There is a moment late in the film where the movie implies that Shirley MacLaine does something insane (for those who’ve seen it, it’s the champagne moment), and it absolutely stopped me heart short. Thankfully, it leads into a wonderfully redemptive scene that steals the film.

It might be in black and white but this film still plays well to a modern audience thanks in large part to the witty writing and great performances. I promise you that you will laugh alongside with Jack Lemmon (“You should see my backhand”) and fall in love with Shirley MacLaine (“Shut up and deal”). Maybe your not sure about the closet space or the old furniture, but trust me, take a chance on The Apartment.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

80. Raiders of the Lost Ark

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
Directed by Steven Spielberg

The first of several Spielberg films on the list and it is one that most anyone reading this has seen. You all know why this one is to be cherished; the awesome wisecracking lead character, the superb action set pieces, the iconic shadow cinematography, the instantly recognizable score and of course watching Nazi’s get beat up.

If it wasn’t for what I think is a little bit of an anti-climactic ending then this film would be much higher on the list. Sure, it’s popular and memorable, but the whole “close your eyes” while the ark is opened bit is too passive and ‘dues ex machina’ for it to be the action climax of this action standard bearer. Taking that aside, this is an indispensable film for me. Like most, I rank this one first, The Last Crusade second, The Temple of Doom third, and that unfortunate one that came out last year last. How would you rank them?
Enjoy a scene of pure fun

Friday, April 3, 2009

Monsters vs. Aliens Review

Overall Grade: C

Unless you’re really aching to see something animated or animated in 3-D, then I suggest you skip Monsters vs. Aliens. It’s not that there is anything wrong or bad about the film, it’s just that it doesn’t get anything really right either. The film is built to be a mediocre crowd pleaser with silly characters (all lacking any back story outside of their personalities), mild action, and a plot so thin that the film title aptly sums it up. Monsters vs. Aliens is one of those theme park 3-D films, except they took away the moving car and stretched the film to 80 minutes.

When it comes to the 3-D in this film. I really think it’s an overall distraction. There are a couple moments where I enjoyed it, but by and large I forgot the film was even in 3-D and just remembered that I was wearing a pair of uncomfortable glasses that darkens the film unnecessarily. I’ve seen several films in the 3-D format now and I think this whole “step forward” is really over hyped.

I’m not going to give up on the format yet though, not until James Cameron’s Avatar comes out. That will be THE make or break film for 3-D. If it doesn’t work there, I’ll never pay another up charge at the theatre for 3-D again. For Monsters vs. Aliens, don’t wait for the 3-D, if your going to watch it then the regular screen is probably just fine.

Overall, this film isn’t much to get worked up about. It’s a semi-entertaining distraction, but doesn’t really achieve anything beyond a few chuckles and some decent action. I’d go see Coraline again or just hold out for Up next month.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

81. Police Story

Police Story (1985)
Directed by Jackie Chan

One of two Jackie Chan films to make my list, Police Story is the fullest expression of everything that Jackie Chan brings to the medium of film. As it is with the Marx Brothers, Jackie Chan films (and martial arts films in general) exist with completely different expectations and standards than other films. If you’re looking for the film that best represents Jackie Chan’s unique cinematic vision, then you should look no further than 1985’s Police Story.

Doing its part to usher in a new golden age of Hong Kong cinema, Jackie Chan’s Police Story is the prototype and model for contemporary martial arts police films. While the plot is conventional and filled with holes, it’s the revolution in tone and action that sets this film apart.
The film opens with an incredible shootout and car chase that destroys an entire slum built on a hillside (that has been copied in Michael Bay’s Bad Boys II), which showcases Chan’s willingness to obliterate the scale and intensity of other action films. To follow it up Chan chases the bad guys while hanging onto the sides of a moving bus (with an umbrella) the bus turns corners and oncoming cars fly by! What makes the action so fresh is the obvious risk in the stunts. When Chan is hanging off the back of a bus with an umbrella, there are no wires, no pads, and no stunt doubles; this is hardcore commitment.

That tone is throughout the entire film. In the first martial arts sequence, Chan doesn’t just merely fight around cars, he and his stunt team absolutely demolish them as their bodies smash through windows and bust off doors. If that wasn’t enough, Chan creates a ten minute finale in a shopping mall that literally dropped my jaw the first time I saw it. It was then and still is now, one of the most incredible action sequences ever filmed.

Chan and his team fight throughout the mall falling down escalators, falling off several stories to the floor, demolishing every glass case in sight, and finally sliding down an electrified pole from the ceiling to the floor. While the martial arts in this sequence isn’t as technical as his other films, there is a brutality and quickness to it all that outranks nearly everything you’ve ever seen.

Of course, action alone doesn’t make a Jackie Chan film. No Jackie Chan film would be complete without his particular touches, and Police Story has them all. Cases of mistaken identities, practical pranks, and hitting on women are all played for laughs. Jackie also gets the chance for his special brand of urban climbing (the man is one of the best at parkour before anyone recognized it), and for his own personality quirks (he gets to do the moonwalk in funny touch). Also found here are all the pratfalls and comedy setups that have come to epitomize Jackie Chan films (there is a hilarious multiple phone gag in this one)

There are Jackie Chan films with better plots (New Police Story), better action sequences (Legend of Drunken Master), better prop fights (First Strike), but this film literally has it all. Most Americans only know Chan from his Rush Hour series or his Shanghai series and those contains some good Chan stuff within a Hollywood context. However, if you want to see the action film as Jackie Chan sees it (without Hollywood strings), then this is the film to watch.

Enjoy the entire Mall Fight sequence below. Let me know what you think.

Here is the bus sequence I described above. Enjoy!

82. The Descent

The Descent (2006)
Directed by Neil Marshall

It was an unlikely event that I even saw the film, but for it to climb its way into this list in front of other horror films like Psycho and Scream is a surprise for me. The Descent looks like a typical horror gore fest on the surface, but to me it’s one of the best cautionary tales about forgiveness, the effects of tragic deaths, and moving on that I’ve ever seen.

A year after the tragic death of her husband and child, Beth heads out to the Appalachian Mountains to spend some time and return to normal with her fellow daredevil girlfriends. They decide to spend their time spelunking in some of the Appalachian caves when one of the caves collapses and traps them underneath.

It’s true that there are scary creatures that kill their team off one by one (providing the standard genre fare), but it is done so well that there is some truly great moments of shock and gore. There are some perfect homages to other horror films as well, ranging from Apocalypse Now to The Blair Witch Project. This film gets the scares right, the logic of the scares, and it even gets the fighting back right.

Even better though is the social dynamic between all the women. Each woman is given a personality that adds something essential to the group dynamic creating a group of people as interesting as the jurors in 12 Angry Men. I appreciate that Neil Marshall is able to tell the personality and psychology of each of the women through the action and not through long takes of dialogue. It really is a superbly directed film.

I wouldn’t want to spoil the details of how the whole group unravels (that’s one of the true pleasures of the film), so I’ll just share with you my favorite aspect of the story. Beth’s inability to move pass the death of her child as well as forgive her friends (for reasons I won’t spoil here) are vital in how the story progresses. If you watch the film, I suggest you watch the unrated cut as it contains the original ending and not the American ending (its s British film).

This original ending is a powerful confirmation that unforgiveness and vengeance are caves of darkness with their own demons. The ending moments are just plain devastating for me. Its not an ending that satisfies genre convention, but it's one that truly transcends the genre. For those not into horror films, especially ones with gore, this may not be a film for you. However, if your just a little bit adventurous and willing to take a risk, I heartily recommend this film to you. This is my favorite pure horror film and the only one that I wouldn't want to live without.

83. Psycho

Psycho (1960)
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

The first of three Hitchcock films to make my list and its one I had to think about for quite some time. There’s no doubt there is much to like in Psycho, but as far as horror films go, I’d always felt like it was severely dated. What may have been scary in 1960, just doesn’t seem as visceral or horrific today. Ultimately, it was the film’s other elements that cemented it in place on my list.

Although the film’s scary moments are few, there are three legitimate moments of great tension. There is the iconic shower sequence, Arbogast’s murder, and the shocking ending. Despite those few moments, there is a wealth of other material to like. I think what sells me the most is the procedural nature of the film.

This is not a film in hurry. It takes its time to set up its story, then changes the story midstream, and then takes its time to find a conclusion. It lingers in conversations (giving us great moments between Leigh and Perkins), pauses while investigations take place (allowing Martin Balsam some great lines), and slowly makes its revelations (creating some iconic sequences). It’s this meticulous pace that always makes me return to this film. I really love that Hitchcock takes his time to do things like this. Of course, I haven’t even mentioned the famous score and the great cinematography (how the snooping cop is shot blows me away), all of which add up to a great and essential film.