Thursday, May 15, 2008

Dust Forms Words 100 Must-See Movies: 21 to 30

21: Aliens (1986)
Some people may prefer the original Alien, but personally I'd pick James Cameron's action-horror sequel over Ridley Scott's frustratingly slow original. While the soldiers-versus-aliens premise has been imitated many times since, Aliens still stands above its clones due to the aggressive individuality of its characters, the non-stop memorable dialogue, and an impressive performance by Sigourney Weaver in the role of Ellen Ripley.

Aliens picks up the themes of infection, intrusion and pregnancy that ran through the first movie and deftly expands them outwards, while exploring concepts of strength, fear and motherhood. Excellent visual design and an attention to military detail effectively sell the audience on the marines as genuine soldiers. Also, Lance Henriksen and Paul Reiser deliver memorable supporting roles.

22: The Shining (1980)
Over the course of his career Stanley Kubrick took a shot at most every genre in existence, and when it came to horror he created one of the greatest haunted house movies ever made. Based on Stephen King's novel but featuing an inexplicably altered ending, The Shining tells the tale of writer Jack Torrance, who brings his wife Wendy and psychically-sensitive son Danny to the isolated Overlook Hotel when he gets a job as winter caretaker. The blood-drenched history of the Overlook slowly takes control of Jack, leading to a violent and terrifying finale.

Jack Nicholson gives an unforgettably creepy performance as Jack Torrance, with Shelly Duvall ably supporting as Wendy. The framing and cinematography portray Jack's disconnection and descent into madness more effectively than anything in the script. Kubrick frequently uses the horror staples of sudden cuts and unconventional angles, but employs them at unexpected times to create malaise out of seemingly innocent scenes. Absolutely brilliant sound design underscores the narrative throughout.

23: Perfect Blue (1997)
Satoshi Kon's gripping psychological thriller Perfect Blue is not only one of the greatest animated films of all time but is also just plain one of history's greatest films. The film follows J-Pop idol Mima Kirigoe, who discovers a fan site which promotes intimate diary entries claiming to be written by Mima herself. When Mima subsequently becomes the prime suspect in a string of murders she begins to question how much of her own life is real and how much is an elaborate fake.

In Perfect Blue, Satoshi Kon creates a multi-layered yet well-resolved mystery, keeping a firm grasp on the humanity of the characters even while regularly turning the story and its internal logic on its head. Here, as in all his work, Kon centres the film in a savvy understanding of modern digital culture, managing to effectively and understandably deliver a plot based largely on websites and emails without dumbing down the technology or introducing miracle-software.

24: Dark City (1998)
The late 90s were something of a renaissance for science-fiction cinema, with titles like Cube, The Matrix and City of Lost Children wowing genre fans. In amongst these was Dark City, a film-noir tale of individuality and predestination. Rufus Sewell plays a man who wakes in a hotel room with no memory of who he is or why he is there. As he explores his decidedly odd surroundings and searches for a path to the mysterious Shell Beach he realises that there is something wrong with himself, the people he meets, and the city they inhabit.

Every set and prop in Dark City looks amazing, creating a quirkily angular visual style that draws the viewer into each scene. The environment regularly ventures into surrealism; oddly dressed characters appear in strange contexts and locations morph together with a disregard for natural geographic continuity. A weak and poorly-paced ending is the only sour note in this otherwise perfect and highly original film.

25: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)
Actually, all the Harry Potter films are surprisingly entertaining, except for Chamber of Secrets, which is rubbish. But to me Prisoner of Azkaban stands out as a far more polished product than its peers, thanks largely to the inspired directing of filmmaker Alfonso Cuaron. For this third installment in the series the normally Hollywood-esque environments of Hogwarts are draped in introspective mists, and Harry and company forsake their irritating school uniforms in favour of tunics and casualwear as the overstory behind the series develops for the first time.

Cuaron creates entertainment here almost without trying, and then goes on to spend the remainder of his energy on generating art. He lets the real beauty of the Scottish countryside shine throughout the film, and for the length of the movie the characters become almost real people. The sequels that came afterwards are perfectly good theatre, but it's still a little sad that they couldn't all have been like this.

26: Rebel Without A Cause (1955)
Rebel Without A Cause is one of the earliest real teen movies. It stars James Dean as a young man who can't relate to his parents or his place in the world. The film deftly taps into the cultural subconscious through a number of powerfully symbolic sequences, including cars racing towards a cliff, an escape to an abandoned villa, and the final shootout at the Griffin Observatory.

Dean died less than a month after the release of Rebel, although it was not to be his last movie - that honor goes to Giant, still in post-production at the time of Dean's death.

27: Mulholland Drive (2001)
David Lynch during his career has made a number of deeply eclectic and frequently disturbing films, but in my opinion his magnum opus is definitely Mulholland Drive. At first glance the movie appears to be a noir-esque mystery, with Naomi Watts playing Betty, an ingenue actress who meets "Rita", an amesiac woman with a dangerous secret. However, the film unfolds over multiple viewings to reveal levels upon levels, with new angles and hidden connections becoming apparent on each re-watching.

Naomi Watts is amazing in the lead role. Long-time Lynch collaborater Angelo Badalamenti delivers a characteristically creepy soundtrack. Mulholland Drive represents the culmination of the themes and motifs Lynch had been exploring in his previous work and is the definitive creation of a very unconventional filmmaker.

28: Dog Day Afternoon (1975)
In Dog Day Afternoon director Sydney Lumet and actor Al Pacino come together to tell the striking true story of a bank heist gone wrong. Pacino plays Sonny, who together with friend Sal robs a Brooklyn bank for initially unknown reasons. What starts as a heist turns into a siege when police and media surround the building, trapping Sonny and Sal inside with the bank workers.

A captivating performance from Pacino really makes the film shine. High points include Sonny playing to the crowd surrounding the bank, Penelope Allen in a comic-relief role as the head teller, and the film's powerful finale.

29: Toy Story (1995)
Today Western-made traditionally animated feature films are all but dead, and Toy Story is the movie responsible. Toy Story's computer-animated buddy comedy reminded audiences that good children's movies could be fun for adults too, and at the same time established CGI as a viable animation medium.

Great character designs, a fast-paced plot packed with pop-culture references, and competent voice acting from Tom Hanks and Tim Allen make Toy Story enormously entertaining for all audiences. The witty and well-structured script earned an Oscar nomination for its large screenwriting team (which included Joss Whedon) - they lost in the final event to Christopher McQuarrie for The Usual Suspects.

30: Cabaret (1972)
Cabaret is a fascinating film on many levels. Firstly, it's a great musical, packed with strong deliveries of memorable songs. But there's so much going on here that it can be easy to forget about the music entirely.

Against a background of 1930s Berlin, Liza Minelli plays a cabaret singer who falls in friendship with a displaced Englishman played by Michael York. The film is remarkable for its time for featuring a plot based around homosexuality and bisexuality, but even more significant is the way it weaves the events of pre-war Germany into the film's backstory. While Minelli and York are never directly affected, the rise of Nazism and its effects on German minorities forms a constant thematic underpinning. A meeting of Hitler Youth singing Tomorrow Belongs To Us and the violent beating of a club owner are just two of the powerful scenes that make Cabaret so totally unique in cinema.

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