Top 100 Movies: #50 – #46

Raiders of the Lost Ark, A Fish Called Wanda, Pulp Fiction, Singin’ in the Rain, All About Eve

50. Raiders of the Lost Ark

50. Raiders of the Lost ArkIf we’re talking about George Lucas produced action-adventure trilogies from the 80s starring Harrison Ford, Star Wars was never my thing. Indiana Jones was my thing. (I say this to prepare you for something that’s going to happen pretty soon.) I loved these three movies when I was a kid, kind of wound up putting them away for a while, then as an adult discovered to my delight that they’re actually better than I remember.

Steven Spielberg sometimes gets labeled a populist filmmaker, which has a bit of a nasty sounding connotation. Like he’s putting out the McDonald’s of movies or something. But it takes a craftsman to make a good action film, and Spielberg is a craftsman. Nowhere is that more obvious than in Indiana Jones. His action scenes are constructed like Rube Goldberg machines, he gets exposition out in playful ways, and his light touch to comedy perfectly suits the series. Raiders of the Lost Ark in particular stands out as the perfect adventure film.

Or at least the perfect first 90 minutes of an adventure film. For a movie that’s held up high as a watermark for adventure, it’s got a shockingly sparse third act. It’s not as though Raiders severely falls off or anything, but the lead up to finding the lost ark is all booby traps, bar shootouts, mummy’s tombs, and truck chases.

Then for the rest of the story Indy and the Nazis play keep-away with the ark, culminating in a climactic special effects sequence that no longer really holds up. I’d argue that for all of Raiders of the Lost Ark’s strengths it’s got the least good final half hour of the three Indiana Jones movies. But that’s not what really matters.

Sometimes I think about how we almost lived in a world without Indiana Jones. It got pitched to every studio in Hollywood, and Paramount was the only one that didn’t turn them down. Can you imagine? You’re a Hollywood executive, Steven Spielberg fresh off of Jaws and George Lucas fresh off of Star Wars walk into your office, and the first words out of your mouth aren’t “Here’s my chequebook.” Keep that in mind the next time you’re feeling dejected. Even the most successful of us run into problems.


Applicability (Real World Resonance): N/A
Affection (Emotional Impact): N/A
Awe (Visual Impact): MODERATE. The most outdoorsy and real looking of the three movies.
Amusement (Humour/Elation): MODERATE. You can’t quite call it a comedy but it’s a still quite the romp.
Anxiety (Suspense): HIGH. Some of the stunts, especially in the truck chase, are pretty scary.
Appreciation (Construction): HIGH. For the most part the movie sustains its momentum brilliantly, the danger level is high even in non-action scenes.
Adrenaline (Excitement): EXTRAORDINARY. Some of the screen’s most inventive, entertaining chases and fights.

sniiiiiiiiiff ~Otto

49. A Fish Called Wanda

49. A Fish Called WandaIf John Cleese has been coasting since A Fish Called Wanda, he’s earned it. Wanda, Monty Python, Fawlty Towers, he could have dined for life on just one of those, having written and appeared in all three makes him one of the comedy legends of our time.

Although, as he’d probably be the first to admit, he’s not someone who was ever going to be cast as a lead in a romantic comedy. So he writes himself a movie where Jamie Lee Curtis falls for him and he can show off that he looks surprisingly good naked. And he gives himself a character that’s got more dignity and pathos than Basil Fawlty or any of his Python characters were ever allowed. But this is no vanity project, it’s a dark, twisted rom-con that only John Cleese could conceive of.

Actually as much as I’ve been calling it a rom-com, that aspect only came about accidentally. The story involves a criminal called Wanda seducing Cleese’s lawyer character for information, and as scripted she was using him and discarding him like she does everyone else in the movie. But test audiences hated that, because there was some real feeling and chemistry between the two actors, so a few key reshoots were done to make Wanda’s affections more sincere. The newly added romance gives the A Fish Called Wanda a real heart, and that heart is orbited by the darker comedy involving murder, torture, dead dogs, adultery, and steamrollers. It’s all balanced beautifully.

And I didn’t even mention Kevin Kline’s performance as Otto, one of the most gloriously irritating and entertaining characters in any comedy. There’s never been anyone else like Otto. Except maybe Kline’s character in Sophie’s Choice, who’s kind of Otto played for drama. I can’t take that movie seriously, which I suppose I should feel bad about.

Added bonus, this lecture on creativity by Cleese gives me a kick start any time I run into writer’s block. It’s really worth watching. It’s from the guy who wrote A Fish Called Wanda.

Awe (Visual Impact): N/A
Applicability (Real World Resonance): N/A
Adrenaline (Excitement): N/A
Affection (Emotional Impact): LOW. All located in the semi-autobiographical scene in which Cleese as Archie laments his lot in life to Wanda.
Anxiety (Suspense): LOW. The scene where Otto torments Ken actually gets pretty dark .
Appreciation (Construction): HIGH. Bit of an over complicated set-up, but once everything is in place the laughs come fast and furious.
Amusement (Humour/Elation): EXTRAORDINARY. “You’re a very attractive man, Ken. You’re, smart, you’ve got wonderful bones, great eyes, and you dress really interesting.”

A soft, moist, shapeless mass of matter.

48. Pulp Fiction

48. Pulp FictionI was six when Pulp Fiction came out, and I didn’t get to see it until I was about fifteen or sixteen. Pity me, for I am part of the generation that grew up in a world of shitty Tarantino knock-off films. It would be unkind of me to start naming names like Reindeer Games and Boondock Saints, but those are just the ones that actually got made. Spare a thought for all those script readers who worked at studios between 1995 and 2000, that first line of defense against a wave of typo riddled, ketchup stained spec screenplays about hitmen who discuss oral sex as they get ready to non-chronologically murder people. It’s a true testament to the quality of Pulp Fiction that it still felt fresh by the time I got around to it.

So many wannabe Tarantinos ripped off the wrong thing. They thought they’d capture Pulp Fiction’s success if only they made movies that had well dressed criminals in sunglasses, anachronistic soundtracks, and tangential conversations set in diners. There’s only one lesson people should take from Tarantino’s sophomore feature; copy his passion, not his plots. Lean into what YOU love, because there’s nothing in this movie, nor in Save the Cat or any other screenwriting manual that can teach you to write the next Pulp Fiction. Everything in this movie, for better or for worse, is 100% borne of Tarantino’s interests.

That’s what makes Pulp Fiction such a fun watch right to this day, it’s so clearly the product of a writer/director who’s having an absolute ball putting their vision of the world onscreen. It’s a cavalcade of characters and situations tumbling out of a storyteller’s head, swept up and neatly organized into a series of interlinking short films. Every sequence plays almost completely on its own merits, and if you lose interest in, say, Bruce Willis liberating Ving Rhames from a sex dungeon, never fear. Harvey Keitel as the world’s most assured fixer is right around the corner.

If I watch Pulp Fiction nowadays, it makes me want two things. First, it’ll make me want a Tasty Burger, so I make sure to stop at the drive-thru before I put in the DVD. Second, it really makes me want to go write a screenplay. But much as I might love scenes like Christopher Walken’s monologue about the creatively hidden gold watch, I can’t just rip that off and feel proud of myself. I’ve got to pull something out my ass that I can call my own.

Adrenaline (Excitement): N/A
Affection (Emotional Impact): N/A
Awe (Visual Impact): N/A
Applicability (Real World Resonance): N/A
Anxiety (Suspense): HIGH. The threat of death is like another character in the overdose scene and the diner finale, to name just a couple.
Amusement (Humour/Elation): HIGH. This kind of dark comedy was a shock to the system in its day and still holds up now.
Appreciation (Construction): EXTRAORDINARY. In its own way, an all time classic screenplay.

47. Singin’ in the Rain

47. Singin' in the RainEvery generation you get a Jackie Chan, or a Buster Keaton. Or a Gene Kelly. One of these almost supernaturally talented artists with an elusive mix of physicality, charisma, and a death wish. And in talking about Buster and Jackie, I agonized a bit. I wound up highlighting what I believe is their best overall film, but they’ve got so many classic scenes scattered across their respective bodies of work that I wanted to talk about. With Gene Kelly, I’m not as fussed; Singin’ in the Rain is his masterpiece.

This’ll be brief, because what is there to say? This is a story without much conflict or drama. The closest thing to a villain is a diva actress who’s got unwanted designs on Gene Kelly. There’s never any real worry that he’ll lose his career, or that he and Debbie Reynolds won’t get together in the end. It’s just a story about friends being friends and putting on a series of endorphin fuelled musical numbers that romanticize show business, falling in love, or both.

The real drama and nastiness took place behind the scenes, as detailed in an episode of Amy Nicholson and Paul Scheer’s terrific movie podcast Unspooled. The stories are there if you want them, but I’m not going to talk about them here. This movie is a happy place for too many people.

Appreciation (Construction): N/A
Applicability (Real World Resonance): N/A
Anxiety (Suspense): N/A
Affection (Emotional Impact): N/A.
Awe (Visual Impact): HIGH. “Hey, you like movies with color?” “Sure, I guess-“ “THEN HERE’S ALL THE COLOR IN ONE MOVIE!”
Adrenaline (Excitement): HIGH. The energy of “Make ‘em Laugh” alone could fuel a small nation.
Amusement (Humour/Elation): EXTRAORDINARY. An all time feel good picture.

46. All About Eve

All_About_Eve_1950_10.jpgThere’s no wrong way to make a great movie. Much as I usually expect something cinematic when I go to, well, the cinema, All About Eve is as enjoyable a watch as you’ll ever find, and it could have been a filmed stage play. It’s all bright studio lighting, characters standing in static two-shots, and three walled sets. But who needs visual pizzazz when you have one of the best scripts in Hollywood, and at least one of the all time great performances?

We’ve seen the story where a young protege eventually supplants her mentor, and I’d bet every single one of them in the past 70 years is at least somewhat rooted in All About Eve. Even if the plot is familiar, the battle of wits between Margot Channing and Eve Harrington is one for the ages. Eve, deferential and grateful, yet passive aggressive, an early adopter of the Humblebrag long before the term was coined. Margot, initially charmed, then acid tongued as she sees through the act.

Margot is a once in a generation character, an amazing actress given a part that plays perfectly to her strengths. Bette Davis is deservedly the most well remembered part of the movie, but Anne Baxter is worth paying attention to as well. The real Eve is buried beneath layers of personas and she pulls it off well. George Sanders is here too, operating at peak George Sanders. Most of his lines are scene stealers and the moments where he’s opposite Margot are worth savouring.

Besides the acting and dialogue, All Above Eve has a lot of pointed criticism of show business and what may be some forever relevant commentary on how even the greatest of actresses may find themselves doomed to irrelevance once they hit a certain age. Actually, I’d never realized, Bette Davis all but disappears from the last stretch of the story, which is given over entirely to Anne Baxter. But when we last see Margot, it’s apparent that no matter how abrasive she sometimes is, she’s true to herself, and has people who love her for herself. If she never works again, she’ll still be ok. On the other hand, the superficially charming Eve has no one, and when her career fades, so will she.

Does it matter that I gave away the ending? Not at all. This is one of those movies where it’d be far more spoiler-y to transcript exchanges of dialogue than talk about plot points. Steer clear of the Memorable Quotes page on IMDB, and just go watch the darn thing.

Anxiety (Suspense): N/A.
Awe (Visual Impact): N/A.
Adrenaline (Excitement): N/A.
Affection (Emotional Impact): LOW. Margot runs into a couple of difficulties but things seem to work out.
Amusement (Humour/Elation): HIGH. Especially any time George Sanders comes ‘round.
Applicability (Real World Resonance): HIGH. Commentary on being a woman in show business that is still bizarrely timely.
Appreciation (Construction): EXTRAORDINARY. Powerhouse script and performances.

#55 – #51 | THE LIST | #45 – #41

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