21st Century Top Tens: 2002

2002 was definitely a robust year for serious adult films, and the result is a catalogue of terrific movies that no longer exist, at least in the theater. This was the strongest year so far, of the three years, and it may very well be the peak for a while…

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10. Panic Room – David Fincher’s claustrophobia-fueled thriller was met with a nod, maybe a shrug, when it opened in the spring of 2002. The box office was fine, and it sort of drifted off into the ether. It may be “minor Fincher,” whatever that ridiculous phrase means, but this is a propulsive little gem in the auteur’s career, an energetic and increasingly exciting thriller that’s aged surprisingly well.

The CGI setups – the camera moving through keyholes and coffee pot handles, etc. – feel a little silly and a lot indulgent now, but all the swooping, sweeping camera movements ratchet up the early moments of the film and lay out the complicated geography of the biggest, most opulent Manhattan brownstone ever. Jodie Foster and Kristen Stewart are a perfect pair of diabetic daughter and scorned mother/wife, and the trio of burglars cover a wide range of villainy, from sympathetic (Forrest Whitaker), to dangerously stupid (Jared Leto), to monstrously psychopathic (Dwight Yoakam, the MVP of every film in which he stars).

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9. One Hour Photo – Robin Williams’ dark performative shift in the early 21st century kicked off with easily the strangest, most idiosyncratic entry into a trio of villainous roles. One Hour Photo, Death to Smoochy, and Insomnia showed Williams diving into mental illness and vengeance-fuled anger in wildly different ways, to varying degrees of success; his turn as Sy Parrish, Sy the Photo Guy, is a daring stretch to the outer limits of characterization, and easily his best of the three.

Prolific music video director Mark Romanek creates a staid, sterile environment where Sy’s obsession with the seemingly idyllic Sorkin family – whom Sy sees only through happy photos of birthdays and vacations – can reach a fevered pitch and work to rend the intentionally mannered art direction. Despite the antiquated idea of developing film at a big box store, the notion that the photos we share don’t tell the whole truth are even more pronounced today, and can easily fit into Romanek’s unnerving thriller.

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8. The Bourne Identity – It’s easy to forget that, in 2002, Matt Damon was not a movie star, or a bankable star of any kind, really. From the success of Good Will Hunting Damon took a swing at stardom with the titular role in Saving Private Ryan, a fun gambling thriller Rounders co-starring Edward Norton, and he even earned his second Best Actor nomination with The Talented Mr. Ripley in 1999. But after a handful of calamitous flops –  namely the high-profile flops The Legend of Bagger Vance and All the Pretty Horses – it was beginning to feel as if Damon didn’t have that leading man swagger.

The Bourne Identity changed perception. Nobody would have predicted this white bread All-American Boy Scout could be an action star. But Damon, and director Doug Liman, squash any fear of that almost immediately. The Bourney Identity belongs more to Damon, whereas the Greengrass sequels were taken over by a director’s intrusive style; they’ve aged worse than this original. Here, Jason Bourne is given a chance to talk, and fall in love in one of the more underrated spy/thriller romances of the modern era.

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7. Adaptation. – Charlie Kaufman’s own fractured psyche, spun together by director Spike Jonze, spills out on the screen in the form of two Nic Cage’s in what might be considered The Cage’s last great “mainstream” performance – make no mistake, he’s done great movies since this one, just not in the same arena.

Charlie Kaufman is now Charlie and Donald, two sides of the same neurotic coin. What boils down to a story about the very structure of storytelling has a delightfully off-center roadmap from beginning to end. Charlie wants to write something special, Donald is neck deep in silly genre tropes, and all the while Meryl Streep and Chris Cooper begin a most unusual romance and serve as the topic of Charlie’s story. It’s all put together with such an attention to detail and raw humanity, it’s hard not to fall in love with every clever little nuance.

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6. Minority Report – Steven Spielberg’s first post 9/11 thriller, dealing with the nature of surveillance and how much is too much, is the filmmakers only real foray into heavy noir filmmaking. This mixture of Hitchcock’s wrongly-accused hero and the Blade Runner adjacent science fiction elements captured its own identity thanks to a vulnerable performance from Tom Cruise, who hadn’t yet turned into exclusively a human pinball.

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5. Unfaithful – The idea of an extremely hard-charging adult drama like this – the story of a suburban wife and mother who has a torrid and often stunning sexual affair with a young French book dealer in Manhattan – opening in wide release to kick off the summer movie season is quite bizarre. The fact that they don’t make movies like this anymore is, sadly, a reality, because amid all the melodrama and sexcapades of Adrian Lyne’s brilliant thriller are performances that feel like they breathe smoke.

Richard Gere is having the tables turned on his typical character here, from debonaire ladie’s man to sweater-vested cuckold, and Olivier Martinez is, of course, the polar opposite, an unusually handsome free spirit who seduces Gere’s wife, Connie, played by Diane Lane in one of the best female performances of the 21st century; it probably deserves even higher praise, if we’re being honest, for everything she’s doing in this incredible train scene alone.

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4. Punch-Drunk Love – The first attempt to steer Adam Sandler away from his doofy manchild comedic persona came from a surprising place. Paul Thomas Anderson, the man who’d just directed a San Fernando Valley porn opus and a wildly ambitious three-hour family epic, took Sandler under his wing and released something completely different: an unconventional 95-minute romantic drama with a wonderful, meditative heart.

Adam Sandler isn’t entirely goof free, just goof lite. He is restrained here, until moments of fury overtake him. Punch-Drunk Love is funny, sweet, exciting, and it has such a strange, dreamlike quality that keeps our feet off the ground the entire time. Emily Watson is perfect, porcelain, calming, and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman absolute shines as a nefarious mattress salesman.

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3. Catch Me if You Can – Steven Spielberg’s second major release of 2002 was even better than his summer film, Minority Report. The story of Frank Abignale, legendary conman, is tailor made for the cinematic treatment, and there was arguably no better director to helm such a charming adventure story.

Spielberg’s first and only pairing with Leonardo DiCaprio is fragmented, told in segments and stories that would fit into a miniseries these days. The entire look and feel of the picture hearkens back to the lighthearted caper films of the 60s, a free-wheeling splash of style and color, and Tom Hanks playing against type in one of the most underrated roes in his storied career.

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2. Road to Perdition – 2002 was clearly a strong year for Tom Hanks who, before appearing in Catch Me if You Can, starred in a somber, dead-serious gangster picture in the middle of the summer. Different times.

Hanks is Michael Sullivan, right-hand man for the gangster John Rooney, played by Paul Newman in an incredible, muted performance. When Michael’s son witnesses a murder, their world is upended and they find themselves on the road, robbing banks and avoiding the devilish assassin (Jude Law) sent to take care of them. Sam Mendes’ American Beauty follow up has aged much better than his debut film, for obvious reasons; this is a stunningly beautiful, emotionally devastating picture with truly focused performances.

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1. 25th Hour – Spike Lee’s story of a condemned drug dealer (Edward Norton, never better) spending the last day of his freedom with friends and family before serving a prison sentence, works on multiple levels. It’s a story of friendship, and honesty among friends, and it’s a solemn ode to Lee’s broken city.

25th Hour is the first post 9/11 movie to deal with the tragedy face first. Barry Pepper’s office overlooks ground zero, and discussions of immigrants, terrorism, and fear permeate even the most mundane conversations. The whole package fits together to create a propulsive, vibrant, often angry story about our place on this planet, and the fleeting moments we take for granted. And this final scene, where Brian Cox tries to talk his son into skipping town, is brilliant, heartbreaking, and one of the greatest sequences in Lee’s career.

 

 

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21st Century Top Tens: 2001

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10. Serendipity – Right about the time it seemed John Cusack’s star was fading, he teamed up with Kate Beckinsale for one more run at an absolute charmer of a romantic comedy. The structure of Serendipity, about a very Cusack-ian ESPN producer who chases his love-at-first-sight across the country, only to miss her time and time again, is creative and it makes for a good time. The sticky part of the story involves Cusack’s current girlfriend/fiancé, Halley (Bridget Moynahan), who is a kindhearted person who really doesn’t deserve all this nonsense; but, hey, not scything can be perfect.

What feels like a relic of a different world now has always been light, breezy fun, with some solid supporting performances by Jeremy Piven, Eugene Levy, Molly Shannon, and John Corbett as Lars, a new age, jazzed up version of Kenny G. He’s the real all star.

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9. Heist – Somehow, David Mamet’s lean caper thriller starring Gene Hackman didn’t steal audience attention back in 2001. To be fair, there had been a glut of similar movies in the wake of Michael Mann’s Heat (which, amazingly enough, didn’t make big bucks itself in 1995), and the generic title didn’t do it any favors. The story of the aging thief who gets pulled back into one last job will forever be cliche, but this was never a film about plot creativity; it’s al about watching great actors act great.

Heist is a blast, thanks in no small part to Mamet’s rapid-fire, clipped dialogue, and a supporting cast of Danny De Vito, a baby Sam Rockwell, the underrated femme fatale Rebecca Pidgeon, and the rock-solid Delroy Lindo. It’s worth seeking out for any fans of smart, slick crime cinema.

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8. A. I. Artificial Intelligence – The idea that Steven Spielberg was going to adapt recently-deceased Stanley Kubrick’s science-fiction Pinocchio fable was one of the strangest and most compelling bits of movie news in 2001. Two wildly different auteurs teaming up, one from beyond the grave, to tell an esoteric, moody sci-fi drama about love and empathy, and what makes us human; it generated great curiosity, anticipation and, ultimately, trepidation.

When the film came out in the summer of ’01, like so many Stanley Kubrick movies, it was met with a side-eyed shrug, or confusion, or disdain. It didn’t work for most people at the time, myself included, but just as every Kubrick story does, it has since evolved into a spellbinding, haunted tale. Haley Joel Osment is incredible as David, the young android boy who is abandoned by his adoptive parents, and must traverse a broken world in search of love, is truly heartbreaking, and Spielberg’s involvement likely rescued the film, preventing it from being too cold and distant to ever get a second chance.

Probably the most impressive thing about the cold reception in 2001 was that Spielberg directed the movie. His films, accessible and crowd-pleasing, were almost always loved right away. The fact that A.I. has taken time to becomes something better than first thought is a testament to Spielberg’s ability to channel the enigmatic Kubrick.

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7. Vanilla Sky – After Tom Cruise became the biggest box-office superstar on the planet in the mid ’90s, he spent the end of the decade and the early years of the 21st century trying to shed that matinee idol stardom and break down his lingering aura of The Perfect Human with heavy, vulnerable turns in Eyes Wide Shut and Magnolia and, perhaps the strangest attempt at self deconstruction, Cameron Crowe’s Vanilla Sky.

Easily the strangest, most idiosyncratic major studio release in 2001, Crowe’s remake of Alejandro Amenábar’s 1997 thriller isn’t necessarily a great film by traditional metrics. But it’s fascinating and infinitely entertaining, a story of a man who had everything until his ego got the better of him and upended his life. Only it’s much weirder than that, and should be celebrated for its willingness to eschew conventional storytelling.

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6. Ocean’s Eleven – Steven Soderbergh’s effervescent caper remake features, above all else, a remarkable collection of actors hitting cool, comedic notes with a breezy likability that’s since become nonexistent (outside of maybe the Avengers movies). This is Clooney, Pitt, and (on a lesser note) Matt Damon at the height of their powers; it’s the early days of Casey Affleck and Scott Caan; it has legends like Elliot Gould and Carl Reiner; every supporting member of the eleven brings something unique to their role.

The heist itself – cleaning out three casinos belonging to Andy Garcia’s Terry Benedict – is a blast to watch unfold, but the hangout nature of the story is also delightful thanks to the cast. Special shout out to Julia Roberts, who brings a much-needed feminine toughness to this boy’s club, and who turns what could have been a rather thankless role into a crucial counterweight to all that machismo.

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5. Sexy Beast – Jonathan Glazer, a music-video director first and foremost, has directed only three films: Under the Skin, Birth, and his first film, Sexy Beast. Each one is brilliant in their own way, and it’s a minor miracle that Glazer not only got Ben Kingsley to appear in his debut feature, but he managed to cultivate the greatest performance of the legendary actor’s career.

Kingsley is Don Logan, a towering psychopath, a man who send chills up the spine of our hero, Gal, a happily retired and sunbaked thief played by Ray Winstone. Don Logan is on his way to talk Gal into one last job, and his presence t the Spanish villa upsets everything and everyone. Sexy Beast is a ferocious thriller, hard charging and buzzing with an electronic, pulsating score, and a performance from Ben Kingsley that is unlike anything you’ve ever seen.

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4. Training Day – Despite the fact Denzel Washington won Best Actor for playing wicked street cop Alonzo Harris, and Ethan Hawke was nominated for playing Jake, his parter (and, ultimately, the scapegoat for a heist), Training Day still felt like a well-made but thin genre exercise. Like so many of the films on this list, however, time and multiple revisits have only enriched Antoine Fuqua’s picture; it’s kind of a masterpiece.

The machinations of the plot are overshadowed by Washington’s volcanic performance the first time you see the film. Once you are familiar with the rhythms of performance, however, the elaborate ruse of the story begins to shine. This film is put together like a Swiss watch, with plenty of genre flourishes and bombastic dialogue to excite an action fans. It’s easy to lose sight of what makes the film so brilliant from top to bottom when seen only through memory flashes of big Washington speeches, King Kong, etc… but there is so much more at play here.

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3. Mulholland Drive – My love/hate relationship with David Lynch is one of the most frustrating mental blocks in my personal cinematic sentience. I try and try again to engage with his more esoteric works, like Lost Highway, Wild at Heart, and with Mulholland Drive. Despite the fact I can’t quite sync up with the auteurs hyper specific style and dream logic in his later films (nobody will ever be able to convince me Inland Empire was made with the intention of ever actually being seen by humans), it’s easy to recognize the brilliance of Mulholland Drive.

It’s the peak of Lynch’s detached, nightmare logic cinema. It makes sense for a while, until it doesn’t, but set against the backdrop of Hollywood, there’s more truth in the disorienting nature of the story than there would be against any other setting. It can be frustrating for anyone who needs resolution, but if you can learn to stop worrying and love the nightmare, Mulholland Drive manages to curate all the beautiful madness of Lynch’s brain into one hypnotic masterpiece.

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2. The Royal Tenenbaums – Much like Lynch, Wes Anderson is someone with whom I cannot engage like it seems everyone else can. Unlike Lynch, however, there is very little guilt associated with this feeling; if you ask me, Wes Anderson has become a slave to his own style, an annoying twee filmmaker whose stories are lost amid the cutesy nature of his productions. But, in 2001, that very twee-ness manages to hit all the right notes at the right time, with the right cast.

Gene Hackman is exceptional as the despicable – but somehow still lovable – patriarch of a family of geniuses who never reached their respective potentials. All of the elements that make Anderson’s film insufferable today are perfectly placed, from the manicured sets, the hyper-specific wardrobes, the soundtrack, and the comedic timing. Hackman deserved an Oscar nomination for his performance, and Anderson should stop trying to recreate the magic he found with this, his best film.

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1. In the Bedroom – Sometimes, great films can also be horribly depressing, so much so that they’re often labeled by many as “a great movie I’ll never watch again.” That’s fair sometimes, but to deny yourself repeat viewings of In the Bedroom is to deny yourself the opportunity to see great actors doing the best work of their careers.

Todd Field’s story of tragedy, grief, and revenge, is a tale of two parents dealing with the murder of their son in different ways. So different, in fact, that it almost tears them apart. Sissy Spacek is simmering rage, Tom Wilkinson is desperate suppression, and when their emotions finally explode in the presence of one another, it is one of the most powerful and honest scenes you will ever see. Marisa Tomei, as the woman caught in the middle of this family tragedy, shows exactly why she is one of the most underrated, compelling actresses of her generation.

It may be a hard watch, too hard for some, but occasionally we might need to see the darkness to find our own light.

21st Century Top Tens: 2000

Somehow, some way, we are nearing the end of the twentieth year of the 21st century. Two decades, and time marches on. 

Beginning with 2000, a year that seems more culturally distant by the day, I curated my ten favorite movies from each year. Some years were shockingly easy, others almost impossible, and so much of it (especially the earlier years) was a fun, sometimes eye-opening trip down memory lane. 

Here goes nothing…

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10. The Contender – Director Rod Lurie’s compelling political thriller has all but disappeared from public discourse over the last two decades. It deserves a reappraisal, especially in today’s politically-charged cultural war zone, where accusations can damn a person forever and every minuscule misstep is dragged through the court of public opinion. This is an acting showcase and it’s the film that solidified Joan Allen’s status as a powerful screen presence.

Allen is remarkable as Laine Hanson, a candidate for Vice President whose personal life and sexual escapades in college are brought to the surface in congressional hearings by Republican senator Shelly Runyon, played by a perfectly slimy Gary Oldman. If the tension between these two isn’t enough to draw you in, there’s Jeff Bridges, who grabbed a Supporting Actor nomination for his avuncular turn as President Jackson Evans, a man who loves nothing more than to challenge the White House kitchen with off-the-wall food requests.

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9. The Cell – If I were to say “they don’t make them like this anymore” every time it applied, the phrase would get old before the end of this first list. But, honestly, they don’t make anything like Tarsem Singh’s mind-fuck of a serial killer thriller anymore, where Jennifer Lopez uses newfangled technology to travel into the nightmarish mind of a psychopath (Vincent D’Onofrio, who else), to try and find his latest victim before time runs out.

The visuals on display here still feel unlike anything that’s existed before or after Tarsem’s picture, rich and hypnotic and often terrifying. It helps that the story, and Howard Shore’s relentless score, effectively build nerve-jangling momentum behind the trippy imagery.

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8. Gladiator – This year’s Best Picture winner hasn’t aged particularly well, especially in the CGI renditions of ancient Rome. But docking a picture because of aged effects is foolish. Beyond this, though, there’s something antiquated about the rhythms of the film, and it’s something that’s difficult to pinpoint. Just go with me. The emotional impact that resonated in 2000 just isn’t there anymore, not in the same way. It feels more like a series of memorable moments strung together by a thin, retreaded Spartacus storyline.

And yet, there are powerful moments and strong performances, and despite it’s creakiness, Gladiator is still a thrilling revenge tale. Russell Crowe and Joaquin Phoenix are fantastic in their roles of hero and villain, and Ridley Scott handles the scope of the film and its major action set pieces with the expertise he’s often shown in these sweeping period epics. Gladiator reaches for the stars, and his reach lands more often than not.

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7. Meet the Parents – There’s something invigorating about a comedy taking over the cultural conversation. It’s a rarer feat, more difficult to do, and it’s often something that unifies us all in laughter. Ben Stiller has done that more than once, with Something About Mary in 1997, and again with Meet the Parents, which holds up so well it has reached the “timeless” stage of its maturity in recent years.

Stiller is, of course, not the main draw here. It’s Robert De Niro, in arguably his final role where he seems to be awake and aware of what’s happening around him – at least for a dozen more years, before he made an effort in Silver Lining’s Playbook. The mystery behind De Niro’s character and his bone-dry straight man humor pairs perfectly with Stiller’s natural bewilderment and desperation. It’s a shame they felt the need to keep making increasingly terrible sequels; nevertheless, nothing can take away the impact of Jay Roach’s original.

Special shout out to the late, great James Rebhorn, who steals every scene in which he’s involved.

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6. Unbreakable – M. Night Shyamalan’s follow up to The Sixth Sense definitely confused a lot of people in 2000. There’s a twist, sure, but not in the same way, not with the same groundbreaking impact. There also wasn’t much horror or suspense, really, just a mood piece following Bruce Willis’s David Dunn as he tries to deny his destiny as a superhero, and ignore the persistence of Samuel L. Jackson’s brittle, purple-clad Elijah Price.

Looking back on Unbreakable without the context of Split or Glass, this was an era where superhero movies were still a mystery to Hollywood. Bryan Singer’s X-Men had just come out and set a new template for the serious superhero film, but the studio rush to produce these existing IPs hadn’t kicked off just yet. Shyamalan’s film existed, for a long time, in a void where nothing could touch it as far as superhero films were concerned. Now, in the afterglow of Avengers: Endgame, it holds up in an all new way, as a wholly unique experience in a genre that’s taken over the zeitgeist.

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5. Memento – I remember reading about Memento in the newspaper back in 2000. Yeah, the newspaper, crazy huh? The idea that a film somehow played backwards and managed to make sense, and have a twist, consumed me; and clearly I wasn’t alone. So after work, I drove some 20 miles to the nearest independent theater and witnessed Christopher Nolan’s mind-bending neo noir for myself.

Seeing Memento for the first time is something you cannot, ironically, forget and experience over again. At the same time, every revisit still contains a bit of that early mystery, of an unraveling plot that comes to you bit by bit, thanks to some clever structural tricks Nolan employs, and the skittish nature of the story itself. The small scale of this film, which could have been entirely shot in no more than a single city block, is amusing to think about when you consider Nolan’s films today. Guy Pearce is terrific, and Carrie-Anne Moss should have been a bigger star.

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4. Almost Famous – Cameron Crowe’s semi autobiographical journey across the landscape of America rock music in the 1970s is equal parts charming, saccharine, propulsive, emotional, and altogether rewarding as a pure cinematic experience. It’s a film that grows on you from its opening moments, that pulls you into its melodrama, and leaves you emotionally changed, much like our hero, William Miller (Patrick Fugit).

The marketing and the buzz surrounding the film in 2000 revolved around Kate Hudson, who’s never been as good again as she was here, playing Penny Lane, pioneer of the “band aids” for the Bad Company/Allman Brothers-type fictional band, Stillwater. It’s a shame she was upset for Best Supporting Actress the following spring (although Marcia Gay Harden is great in Pollack).

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3. Requiem for A Dream – Much like Memento, I read about this new director named Darren Aronofsky, and his stylistically groundbreaking new addiction film, in something called a newspaper. And, like I did with Nolan’s film, I went after work to see the film at that same independent theater. Then, I brought my friend to see it; then, I brought another friend to see it.

Nowadays, the subject matter and the intensity of Aronofsky’s film is much more difficult to stomach than it was as a 19-year old, when family and age and empathy hadn’t yet softened my edges. It’s too intense, and it’s probably too showy or too “film student cliche” for some, but despite the fact I may never watch this movie again, it was important, undeniable in my development as a cinephile. It was a stepping stone in my personal relationship with cinema, and it will forever live as an important flashpoint in my life. And, besides, there’s no denying the power of the performances. Ellen Burstyn’s physically-demanding, remarkable turn as the lonely widow Sara Goldfarb is heartbreaking. Her longing for a human connection is something I understand more as age creeps up on me, and it’s her stunning, physical work here that will forever endure.

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2. American Psycho – This was the only film on this list I didn’t see theatrically. Not many did. Mary Harron’s adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’s aggressively ’80s satire is a special type of film, one that evolves rapidly from the first time you see it to the third or fourth time. At first, the subject and the execution (no pun intended) can be repulsive, because it’s easy to go into a film like this blind and take everything at face value. Once you sync up to the story’s satirical bite, however, the film opens up as a brilliant black comedy.

Christian Bale is a perfect Patrick Bateman, a plastic, dead-eyed yuppie in a land of lookalikes and a sea of poseurs. Except his internal dialogue is that of a nasty, murderous villain, and the external outpouring of his hatred and disgust for humanity is shown in some hilariously off-putting and gruesome bursts of sex and violence. Sometimes, I buy into the idea that all of Bateman’s murders are in his head, and there is evidence to support this; other times, I believe he did commit these crimes, but in this vapid Manhattan universe, nobody really cares or believes him anyway.

That’s one reason why this movie rules.

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Cast Away (2000) Directed by Robert Zemeckis Shown: Tom Hanks (as Chuck Noland)

1. Cast Away – It seemed like the marketing for Cast Away kicked off shortly after Hanks appeared in Saving Private Ryan, because he began losing an extreme amount of weight and growing out a crazy beard to play Chuck Nolan, a FedEx workaholic who crash lands on a deserted island, where he lives for four years. Sometimes, these extreme physical transformations are for nought, but in this case, Hanks and Robert Zemeckis took that publicity and crafted a masterpiece.

For some reason, “masterpiece” is a word rarely uttered with this film, which feels like an absurd oversight. This is an astounding and iconic performance by Hanks, who pulls us into the film with roughly 45 minutes of wordless physicality. It’s a film that makes us cry over a volleyball, it’s a film that makes us think about how we might handle such a horrific turn of events, and it’s a story about how people have to eventually move on or die. Cast Away will never not be a captivating, timeless classic.

The RAMBO Revisit: FIRST BLOOD (1982)

Sylvester Stallone, upon seeing the rough cut of his new action picture First Blood, wanted to buy the rights to the film from producers Mario Kassar and Andrew G. Vajna, because he wanted to destroy all evidence of its existence.

The first cut was a long-winded, unwieldy behemoth running over three hours, which is almost impossible to comprehend given the propulsive perfection of the final product. It practically sickened Stallone and his agent, but of course Kassar and Vajna were never going to sell the rights. Cooler heads prevailed, and after editor Joan Chapman and director Ted Kotcheff began trimming away the fat, they managed to cut the film in half, more or less. What remained after the heavy edits is, dare I say, a masterpiece. It’s at least a masterwork of action cinema, pure and lean, thrilling early and often.

Stallone was already three films into his Rocky franchise, having just wrapped on Rocky III two months before tackling the story of John Rambo, a Vietnam vet who is forced to square off against a hateful small town sheriff, Teasle, played by Brian Dennehy. It didn’t begin with these two squaring off, however; at one point Kris Kristofferson was up for the Rambo part, with Gene Hackman as Teasle and Lee Marvin as Rambo’s Army mentor, Colonel Trautman, which ultimately went to Richard Crenna. Typically, these early casting choices don’t feel right, but I would be lying if I didn’t say that version could have been killer.

The film had bounced around Hollywood for a decade, ever since David Morrell’s novel was published in 1972. Sydney Pollack was attached early on, then Mike Nichols wanted Dustin Hoffman to play Rambo. After dodging that bullet, prolific journeyman director Bruce Beresford was offered and passed; eventually, the early screenplay made its way to Ted Kotcheff, who’d been directing TV since the 50s and tried his hand, on occasion, with features. His 1979 football drama North Dallas Forty had been a hit, and he agreed to direct the picture for Kassar and Vajna. But he needed some re-writes.

Some twenty-six rewrites later, it was Stallone who eventually finished the final draft (he shares credit with Michael Kozoll and William Sackheim. Shot in British Columbia, First Blood is a film that sinks its teeth in you immediatelyWe side with John Rambo right off the bat, allowing the audience to empathize with the troubled vet as he takes out these unsuspecting, unprepared small-town cops. Our empathy towards Rambo is aided not only by Dennehy, but by his closest deputy, Galt, a monstrously sadistic police officer who meets a most satisfying end, played by Jack Starrett. The cruelty of these men set the plot in motion, and they help build the myth of John Rambo, our pacifist hero who isn’t looking for conflict, just as much as these small-town wannabe tough guys are.

From the outset, Ted Kotcheff had intended Rambo’s revenge on Teasle and the town itself to be a suicide mission. In the film’s original ending, Colonel Trautman kills Rambo, a mercy killing as Rambo is surrounded by hundreds of police and military officers ready to gun him down. Once they finished the scene, Stallone approached Kotcheff:

Sylvester got up and said, “Ted, can I talk to you for a second?” He said, “You know, Ted, we put this character through so much. The police abuse him. He’s pursued endlessly. Dogs are sent after him. He jumps off cliffs. He runs through freezing water. He’s shot in the arm and he has to sew it up himself. All this, and now we’re gonna kill him?”

Kotcheff found himself in lock step with Stallone’s thoughts on the character. He didn’t necessarily want Rambo to die either, so they set up an alternate ending on the spot. Kotcheff and Joan Chapman would cut right before Trautman pulls out his pistol and shoots Rambo, and instead he would surrender and be led out of the police station. A quick insert showed Teasle being loaded into an ambulance, shot but not killed. It was a shrewd move, one that further solidified the sympathetic foundation the audience had built under Rambo throughout the picture.

On its own, First Blood is a brilliant, lean thriller anchored by a tough, physical performance from Stallone; he’s often considered the strong silent type, but it’s easy to forget how meanderingly chatty Rocky Balboa is, because most of it is marble-mouthed and low energy. Here, however, Stallone’s performance is almost entirely silent, save for a few lines at the beginning and an emotionally-charged tirade during the finale that is some of his best work as an actor. His breathy expressions and sad eyes add dimension to a character where exposition wouldn’t fit. Without Stallone’s basset hound gaze and physicality, the film would fall apart.

Since Rocky won Best Picture in the spring of 1977 and spawned a franchise, Sylvester Stallone’s other films – outside of the Norman Jewison 1978 union thriller F.I.S.T., which doubled it’s budget at the box office – had all been flops. His other passion project, a wrestling drama which he also wrote and directed, 1978’s Paradise Alley, failed miserably. Nighthawks, the 1981 police thriller where he and Billy Dee Williams chase the terrorist Rutger Hauer through the streets of New York, had also been a flop (thankfully, this terrific film has found its second life and a devoted following nowadays). Stallone also starred in Victory, a John Huston movie about a World War II P.O.W. soccer team who plan their escape around a soccer match against the Germans in Nazi-occupied Paris. Surprisingly, that rock-solid premise didn’t generate big bucks.

First Blood bucked the trend in Stallone’s career. Against a budget of $15 million, First Blood opened number one at the box office in October of 1982 with $6.4 million; it held the top spot for three weeks before ending its run with nearly $50 million domestically and $125 million worldwide. Adjusted for inflation, the domestic number is over $144 million.

It was a legitimate success, standing on its own outside of the Rocky franchise and opening the door to a new possible franchise, thanks to Stallone and Kotcheff’s smart last-second decision to redo the fatalistic ending. Watching the film now, with the baggage of a franchise on its tail, it’s amazing to consider that a film so naturalistic, so small, and so focused, could spawn such an unwieldy collection of sequels.