Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Dust Forms Words 100 Must-See Movies: 11 to 20

11: Beauty and the Beast (1991)
The decade from 1989 to 1999 was a fertile period for the Disney animation studios. After a long sojourn in the wastelands, Disney features were once again topping the box office and generating real profits. A number of factors were responsible for this high point, including clever scripts, developments in animation technology, and great musical scores from the likes of Alan Menken and Howard Ashman.

In Beauty and the Beast all these elements came together to produce what is arguably Disney's finest work of traditional animation. A strong and tightly paced story that appealed to all ages was complemented by an Academy Award-winning soundtrack, dramatic cinematography, and pitch-perfect supporting performances by actors such as Angela Lansbury and David Ogden Stiers. Beauty and the Beast is a pinnacle of achievement that Disney has sadly never reached since.

12: Trainspotting (1996)
Crude, edgy, hauntingly real and aggressively Scottish, Trainspotting is a film that many directors would have written off as unfilmable, but for Danny Boyle it was the first big hit in a career that would go on to include 28 Days Later, Sunshine, and the underappreciated The Beach.

Based on Irvine Welsh's dialect-driven tale of Edinburgh drug culture, Trainspotting is the depressing black comedy that introduced worldwide audiences to Ewan Macgregor, who here plays heroin addict Mark Renton. The film follows Renton's experiences with drugs and withdrawal, using a variety of cinematic techniques effectively to offer the viewer Renton's unique perspective on life.

13: Amelie (2001)
French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet won early professional fame for his films Delicatessen and City of Lost Children (which I've honestly never really enjoyed) and then went on to take a critical shanking for his unsucessful venture into Hollywood, Alien Resurrection (which I actually quite like).

Falling somewhere between his disturbing indie dystopias and his mainstream Hollywood work comes Amelie, a story of love at first sight that seems magically able to bring a smile to the face of any audience. Witty writing, first-class cinematography and a deeply charming performance by Audrey Tatou create one of the most uplifting and heartwarming movies of all time.

14: Blade Runner (1982)
Were it not for Blade Runner, Ridley Scott might have directed Dune, and while Dune would probably have been a better movie, David Lynch would then have never gotten his big break into Hollywood. What that all goes to show, I have no idea, but it's certainly an interesting alternate history.

Regardless, Ridley Scott did direct Blade Runner, a loose adaptation of Phillip K Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Harrison Ford plays a "Blade Runner" on the hunt for a group of outlaw androids known as "replicants". The film alternates explosive violence with clever symbolism and iconography, exploring the nature of life, death and humanity. Blade Runner makes good use of CGI to develop the film's towering urban cyberpunk sprawl. Two strikingly different versions exist: an original and a subsequent "director's cut". Neither is clearly the definitive version. The original features a spoken narrator which helps frame the film and improves its pacing; however the director's cut has by far the better ending. Frankly, Blade Runner is good enough to see twice so feel free to watch both.

15: Heathers (1989)
The 80s in cinema saw the ascent of teenagers as a potent and discrete theatrical demographic. One result of this change was an explosion in the horror genre with low-budget franchises like A Nightmare On Elm Street and Friday the 13th raking in the profits. The other side of the coin was the high-school drama/comedy, driven initially by the films of John Hughes but soon developing a momentum of its own.

Heathers straddles the line between the two. Winona Ryder plays Veronica Sawyer, a teenager who feels her life is being corrupted by her three "popular-girl" friends, all coincidentally named Heather. Falling for charming drifter Jason Dean (Christian Slater), she is enlisted in a plan to improve her high-school hierachy through a series of murders disguised as suicides. The result is an outrageous, addictive and deeply surreal black comedy.

16: Dawn of the Dead (1978)
George A Romero's Dead series to date comprises four films of varying quality, with a fifth (Diary of the Dead) on its way. The second in the set, Dawn of the Dead, is easily the best. Loosely following on from Night of the Living Dead, the sequel is set in an America totally overrun by hordes of zombies, and focuses on a group of survivors who take refuge in a large shopping mall.

This is B-grade cinema, with no apologies, but nevertheless the powerful images it contains comment sharply on consumerism and a possession-focused society. Dawn of the Dead was probably the best zombie movie made until the release of 28 Days Later and contains everything you need to understand why this subgenre has had such a lasting grip on the Western psyche. Don't bother with the recent remake, though - head straight for the source material.

17: To Kill A Mockingbird (1962)
To Kill A Mockingbird is the performance of Gregory Peck's career, and one of the few book adaptations to match or even exceed the quality of its source. It tells the story of Atticus Finch, a small-town defence lawyer who takes the unpopular job of defending a black man charged with raping a white woman. The narrative unfolds from the perspective of Atticus' daughter Scout, and interweaves Atticus' legal struggle with Scout's experiences growing up.

Gregory Peck playing Atticus Finch is one of the most powerful and memorable roles ever to grace screens. Few films before or since have more perfectly captured their intended result, and that the movie is suitable for viewing by the whole family merely makes it all the more remarkable.

18: Scream (1996)
Too often dismissed by those who haven't seen it as "merely a comedy", Scream is the film that relaunched teen horror for the late 90s, delivering both a hilarious genre satire and a suspenseful slasher-horror mystery. The Kevin Williamson script approaches genius, simultaneously educating a teen audience on the history of the genre while rewriting its conventions for a new generation.

Unlike the campy Scary Movie franchise, Scream is always clever and frequently subtle. The casting is intelligent; Neve Campbell in the lead role is good but the show is regularly stolen by co-stars Rose McGowan, Skeet Ulrich, David Arquette and Courteney Cox. Director Wes Craven is unusually restrained and as a result almost accidentally creates the best film of his career. Scream is a classic for horror fans and a fantastic starting point for genre newcomers.

19: Duck Soup (1933)
Really, all the Marx Brothers movies are classics, but if I have to pick just one (which I do) then it's definitely Duck Soup. Groucho Marx plays Rufus T Firefly, who finds himself appointed dictator of the embattled land of Freedonia. The film rattles swiftly from scene to scene, with Groucho delivering his trademark one-liners with machine-gun rapidity while Harpo, Chico and Zeppo aid him in producing a wealth of classic slapstick.

In amongst all the fun there's some real political satire here, with a plot arising naturally out of the nationalism and unrest of the 30s. Benito Mussolini apparently took the movie as a personal insult and had it banned in Italy. When it comes to the Marx Brothers, though, everyone has a different favourite, and if Duck Soup isn't your thing then keep watching until you find the film that is.

20: Vertigo (1958)
Overall I'm not a fan of Alfred Hitchcock, but the man directed so many films that it's hard to not find something to like. Rear Window may be one of the dullest films ever made but Vertigo is solid cinema. Jimmy Stewart plays an ex-cop turned private eye afflicted with a chronic fear of heights. He's set to tracking a friend's wife (Kim Novak) whose life is developing eerie parallels with a woman who has been dead for a hundred years.

Hitchcock was king of the psychological murder mystery and it shows here. Vertigo offers a better-paced story than Psycho with a more visually dynamic setting than Rear Window. The directing masterfully translates the protagonist's phobia into a cinematic vision, creating a perfect example of the tense and often claustrophobic theatre that Hithcock was known for.

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