30. The Babadook
It’s conventional wisdom that great horror burns slowly and builds atmosphere. Australian director Jennifer Kent has a different idea; lure an unsuspecting audience into the theatre, then jump out and start pummelling them from Minute One.
The setup alone for The Babadook is already the most horrifying thing imaginable; your loved one dies in childbirth and you immediately have to carry on raising your newborn. Amelia is the mother to Samuel, and the movies portrayal of how it’s possible to love and care for someone without actually liking them, is a rare and emotionally honest thing to see onscreen. Samuel is kind of a little shit, but he’s not satanic or sociopathic like he would be in a lesser film. He’s just weird and off-putting. And so so needy.
Even if you don’t have kids, the beginning of The Babadook puts you in the shoes of a single mother to a difficult child. There’s no comic relief, no subplots, just an unending series of scenes in which you’re harangued by a whiny six year old. This is a horror movie long before it moves into more conventionally scary territory.
Amelia and Samuel soon find themselves haunted by the Babadook, a creature that will invade every aspect of your life and then drive you to kill yourself and everyone around you. And after an opening half hour of more mundane realistic terror, from the introduction of the creature and on there is not a single fear Jennifer Kent doesn’t pray upon. Fear of madness, fear of isolation, fear of being stalked, fear of your child being in danger, fear of having the sanctuary of your own bedroom invaded in the dead of night.
And like I said there’s no real build to this; the film rapidly moves from scene to scene to scene and all of them are scary as fuck in a brand new way. Which only makes sense, Amelia is being relentlessly plagued by the apparition every minute of every day and night, and it’s not long before you feel the same way.
The Babadook is the most impactful horror film I’ve ever seen. The first time I watched this movie — correction, the only time I’ll watch this movie — I had to shut it off because it was getting way too intense for me (around the point where the Babadook was on the top of Amelia’s car). I’d had no intention of finishing it, but found over the next few hours that I felt worse just trying to go through life with The Babadook still in my system. I’d swallowed some poison, and now I had to pass it.
So I finished out the movie, and found that it’s not punishing without reward. What you don’t find out until later is that the Babadook is a metaphor for grief, and the ending statement, that grief can be managed, is powerful and cathartic in a way that films like this too often aren’t.
There are several horror movies still ahead on the list, none of which are close to being this terrifying. I rank The Babadook down at #30 for one simple reason; it’s thoroughly unpleasant to watch. But it’s also kind of beautiful.
Adrenaline (Excitement): N/A.
Amusement (Humour/Elation): N/A.
Awe (Visual Impact): MODERATE. Has the appearance of a charcoal grey pop-up book, in keeping with the Babadook.
Appreciation (Construction): HIGH. It takes skill to make a movie this thoroughly grating even before the horror begins.
Applicability (Real World Resonance): HIGH. We’ve all got Babadooks that we have to manage, I can only hope mine never gets as much power as the one in the film.
Affection (Emotional Impact): HIGH. It’s really not hard to get upset at what’s happening.
Anxiety (Suspense): EXTRAORDINARY. I keep making myself watch the clip of the Babadook appearing in Amelia’s bedroom, the day I’m no longer scared shitless by that is the day I become all powerful, or something.
”It was our old friend, Director Stan.”
29. A Clockwork Orange
I got nothing.
No I really don’t know why I love A Clockwork Orange. It’s a black comedy about a character who spends his time raping and assaulting people for the fun of it. Scenes of horrific violence are juxtaposed with bouncy classical music. It’s got Kabuki theatre levels of acting.
Here’s a thought experiment, recast the movie with the cast of Monty Python and then revel at how it’s still pretty much the same movie. Eric Idle slides right into Malcolm McDowell’s role, John Cleese could be the prison guard who yell-asks Alex if he’s a homosexual, Terry Jones would be amazing as the old author in the wheelchair, Michael Palin fits as the truant officer who appears in Alex’s bedroom and inexplicably forces him down on his bed while talking through clenched teeth… I feel like a madman just trying to describe A Clockwork Orange.
I wonder if it’s Stanley Kubrick’s reputation that elevates the movie? If anyone else made it, I might assume A Clockwork Orange is a morally repugnant mess. But Kubrick’s recurring use of black comedy, his examinations of some of the more dehumanizing facets of our society (the cold war in Strangelove, boot camp in Full Metal Jacket, etc), and his reputation as a filmmaker of unparalleled skill and attention to detail demands that we not dismiss the movie out of hand. This is the story he chose to preside over, on a technical level everything in A Clockwork Orange feels so deliberate and calculated, so you assume all the crazed performances and gratuitous nudity are deliberate and calculated as well. This is the movie he wanted to make.
Maybe he created a world so maddening and unique that it can’t help but draw us in. Given that the centrepiece sequence of A Clockwork Orange involves a man being shown horrible imagery set to beautiful classical music, maybe Kubrick’s goal was to make an entire movie of contradictions and then witness its effects on the audience.
Maybe. I don’t feel like I’m on solid ground with this. Not only because I can’t articulate what makes the movie so watchable for me, but because it’s not a movie that I can in good conscience defend or even recommend. I don’t think it should be censored, nor do I take Roger Ebert’s position that A Clockwork Orange is a deliberate glorification of the lead character’s violent lifestyle.
But at the end of the day it’s a story full of heavily stylized scenes of rape and murder. There’s artistry, thematic resonance, and even comedy to be found, but absolutely everyone deserves to know what they’re getting into when they watch A Clockwork Orange.
Adrenaline (Excitement): N/A
Affection (Emotional Impact): LOW. You kind of have to shut off your humanity switch to even watch the movie.
Appreciation (Construction): MODERATE. It’s tidy but very satisfying to see the “cured” Alex encounter and fall victim to all the characters he’d previously tormented.
Amusement (Humour/Elation): HIGH. Special notice to Patrick Magee’s “TRY THE WINE!!!!”
Applicability (Real World Resonance): HIGH. Is it ethical, or even practical, to try and mould someone into a productive member of society even if it’s against their nature? Kubrick’s filmography in a nutshell, and this is the purest instance of it.
Anxiety (Suspense): HIGH. Oh these poor, poor, people…
Awe (Visual Impact): EXTRAORDINARY. “Striking” is the word for the cinematography, soundtrack and production design, Kubrick is ahead of his time like always.
28. Blade Runner 2049
I don’t know who the President is, but I hope it’s the person who decided to reunite the cinematographer and production designer from Skyfall and put them to work in the Blade Runner universe. Whoever came up with that stroke of genius is who I think should be making all of our major decisions from now on.
Give all due credit to Denis Villeneuve of course, but like with Skyfall this is another movie in which every sequence seems to be largely build around Dennis Gassner’s sets and Roger Deakins’ camerawork. Only this time they’re working with an even better script.
I mentioned earlier that this is a companion piece to the first Blade Runner. It recreates and updates the Los Angeles we saw 35 years ago, and though we see less of it, the world is vastly expanded (with an irradiated, Mars-like Los Vegas being the highlight). Harrison Ford isn’t in the movie as much, but when he does appear he gives maybe the best performance of his career. The existential pain of Batty isn’t here, but having Ryan Gosling’s replicant as the main character allows the script to find new ways of examining what it means to be human. The complicated morality of the original story isn’t as strong, but there’s a genuinely involving mystery yarn to keep us engaged. 2049 takes care to at least evoke everything we liked about the original, but charts its own path.
I never thought I’d have cause to say “Thank God for Alien Covenant” but, well, that thing I just said. If that movie’s main contribution to the world was keeping Ridley Scott so busy in 2017 that he didn’t have time to direct 2049, then it was all worth it. Unlike Alien, the Blade Runner universe still has some life in it, and it benefited hugely from a fresh new team that had reverence for what came before while not being afraid to do something new.
*FULL REVIEW COMING SOON*
Amusement (Humour/Elation): N/A
Anxiety (Suspense): MODERATE. That’s the nice thing about having two protagonists, you have cause to worry that one of them isn’t making it out of the picture alive.
Adrenaline (Excitement): MODERATE. Action scenes aren’t really the point but when they happen they work pretty well.
Affection (Emotional Impact): MODERATE. Ryan Gosling’s eternally underplayed performance makes the moment in which he encounters the Joi hologram just devastating.
Applicability (Real World Resonance): MODERATE. All the same themes as the original Blade Runner, though not as central.
Appreciation (Construction): EXTRAORDINARY. It’s possible to just get lost in the world but the story itself is really involving.
Awe (Visual Impact): EXTRAORDINARY. One of the most incredibly looking screen universes ever made, reinterpreted by some of today’s greatest visual stylists.
“Mexico is sending us their drugs, their crime, their rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”
27. Touch of Evil
There’s something I love about a master filmmaking working in a genre that some would say is beneath him. This is Orson Welles bringing all of his considerable skill as a filmmaker to a pulpy, sleazy little thriller. It’s a gourmet chef serving you up the best bacon double cheeseburger you’ve ever had in your life.
The famous opening tracking shot involving a bomb being planted launches you into a furiously paced mystery thriller about a… well, it doesn’t really matter. No really, it doesn’t. At the end of the story someone is literally like “Oh by the way we caught the guy who planted the bomb earlier.”
What matters is how the bomb motivates Orson Welles’ Quinlan. A lumbering nightmare man with a weird stubbly face, pouchy eyes and an impossibly slanting torso, thanks to camera angles and make-up that doesn’t hold up in HD, he exists somewhere in the uncanny valley.
The case he’s on almost immediately dredges up all his old demons, his alcoholism, his xenophobia, and as Quinlan spirals he begins to drag the other characters with him. Meanwhile Charlton Heston tries to unravel the whole plot even as he’s being framed for it, and Janet Leigh is going through the second most terrifying ordeal she’ll ever face in a shitty motel.
Touch of Evil does an incredible job establishing the atmosphere of its American/Mexican border town. The sound design is just a cacophony of bands and chattering, but when the music drops out and you’re left with just the desert wind, the mood noticeably shifts into something a lot scarier.
And is there a pre-1960s film that looks this amazing? No seriously, is there? I want to watch it. The celebrated opening aside, Touch of Evil is filled with shadows and smoke and incredible shot compositions. It’s one of those movies where you can’t wait to see what happens next, even if you sometimes lose track of why it’s happening.
Note, this review is for the 1998 version that was recut according to Orson Welles’ specifications. And by the way, on the Wikipedia articles on seemingly all non-Citizen Kane Welles movies, the Production section invariably says something like “The studio recut the film against Welles’ wishes.” Why? Why hire Orson Welles if you’re not going to let him be Orson Welles?
Adrenaline (Excitement): N/A
Affection (Emotional Impact): N/A
Amusement (Humour/Elation): LOW. If you expect me to talk about the humour in Touch of Evil, you got another think coming!
Appreciation (Construction): LOW. Plot far less important than how the characters react to it.
Applicability (Real World Resonance): HIGH. At least for now tensions at the border and xenophobia towards Mexicans is rampant, Quinlan is a more relevant character today than he was then.
Anxiety (Suspense): HIGH. Mostly surrounding Janet Leigh’s situation out in the middle of nowhere, but Quinlan could haunt your dreams as well.
Awe (Visual Impact): EXTRAORDINARY. Passes the mute test, you could enjoy Touch of Evil on style alone.
26. Mission Impossible: Fallout
There are many reasons to love the sixth Mission Impossible, but for me one stands above all others; it made me feel like I wasn’t jaded.
Once you go to the movies past a certain point in your life, whatever you’re watching competes on some level with what’s come before. M:I6 was being measured against about 20 years of voracious action movie consumption on my part. And, I do not say this lightly, I am prepared to call it the best pure action movie of all time. Not the best action movie period, but the action movie that most succeeds based purely on the level of excitement.
And it succeeds without having maybe a single fully original idea. The climax centres on the countdown to a nuclear bomb going off for God’s sake. M:I6 spends the whole movie inviting comparisons to great action scenes that came before. The fight in the bathroom is out of True Lies. The footchase across London rooftops culminating in Ethan Hunt hanging off an elevator mixes and matches about three or four scenes from the Daniel Craig era of James Bond. Even some of the comparatively quiet moments, like the standoff in the catacombs that features about five overly theatrical betrayals in as many minutes, feels like an episode of Sherlock on steroids. It’s all stuff I’ve seen before. I should be inured against it. But writer/director Christopher McQuarrie brings something new to all these well worn tropes.
Speaking of him, it’s either incredible or disillusioning to learn how out of control the production on M:I6 was. Between podcasts, Q&As, and commentary tracks, McQuarrie can be found all over the place talking candidly about the production. And there’s always one consistent thread; Fallout flew by the seat of its pants. They started filming with a thirty three page script, Henry Cavill’s character was rewritten on a day to day basis, and Tom Cruise breaking his ankle actually wound up saving the movie because McQuarrie was given a chance to actually rest a bit and reassess what had already been shot.
And indeed on repeat viewings you start to see that the story is a bit haphazard. I don’t know if there are any actual holes in the story, but characters kind of appear and reappear, and which minions are working for which faction becomes hard to track. The day may come when the rush of M:I6 wears off and those little things start to bug me.
For right now though, I don’t place much importance on the story. It’s there as a means to justify the action scenes, and that’s not a knock on M:I6. Logic and exposition are oftentimes burdens. I’m far more impressed by the level of skill it takes to make a movie that is not boring once. I was waiting for the moment in which it fell off, even a little bit. But a one-take skydiving fight is followed quickly by the aforementioned brutal bathroom fight, which is followed by a Paris chase in which Tom Cruise rides a motorcycle against traffic without a stunt double, and on and on to a helicopter chase finale that manages to top everything that’s come before.
If I have to wait another 20 years for an action movie to top Mission Impossible: Fallout, I won’t have any cause to complain.
*FULL REVIEW COMING SOON*
Applicability (Real World Resonance): N/A
Affection (Emotional Impact): N/A. Not even the one death scene is likely to cause any waterworks.
Appreciation (Construction): MODERATE. The finer details of the storyline get a bit unclear, but the far more important point, “Hey don’t let this bomb go off,” is always there.
Amusement (Humour/Elation): MODERATE. It’s that weird kind of nervous laughter at seeing a stunt (or mask reveal) so over the top you can’t help but feel amused.
Anxiety (Suspense): HIGH. You didn’t really think the entire cast was going to get blown up at the end, did you? Of course not. Neither did I. >_>
Awe (Visual Impact): HIGH. Great locations, unbroken shots that let you take them in, it’s a great looking film.
Adrenaline (Excitement): EXTRAORDINARY. This movie was top to bottom thrilling even before I knew that Tom Cruise is doing pretty much everything for real.