JFK

Director: Oliver Stone

1991

I’ve been known to be a little bit of a conspiracy theory believer – sometimes just to wind up my mum who still staunchly believes that man landed on the moon – but there are a couple that I really believe and fascinate me (Kurt Cobain never committed suicide but don’t get me started on that!) and one of those is the assassination of the 35th President of America, John F. Kennedy. I’ve also been on a bit of a JFK fix at the moment, reading the Stephen King book 11.22.63, in preparation for watching the recent television programme of the same name. “Never a stranger to controversy, Oliver Stone followed up his powerful post-Vietnam movie, Born on the Fourth of July (1989) with a film that angered and amazed people in equal measure – his questioning, overwhelming, urgent conspiracy movie JFK.” (791, Joanna Berry, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

jfk-1991-picture-mov_202d5c37_b“Although many people have debated whether more than one person pulled the trigger that day, Stone went one further and committed some of the many theories to celluloid, and in doing so delivers a fascinating film that raises more questions than it answers.” (791) To say JFK had an impact on the american public is a bit on an understatement. The film and the questions it raised partly resulted in the creation of the President John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act of 1992. Those papers should be due for release next year – but whether they will be is anyone’s guess. JFK is a mammoth film with a 3 hour run time – and a run time that actually feels as long as it is – but every single moment is compelling. And it asks some very uncomfortable questions. There’s something about the Kennedy assassination that has never sat well with me – it just does not seem plausible that one man could have caused as much damage as he did, and I guess the subsequent assassination of Bobby Kennedy only added weight to the conspiracy theory in my opinion – I mean really why did both Kennedy’s need to be removed? What was it about them that was so threatening?

“Using documentary footage – including the infamous home movie shot by Abraham Zapruder – as well as flashbacks, reconstructions, quick editing, and a skillful use of words and music, Stone weaves many ideas and theories together using the huge mountain of evidence and witness testimony without ever confusing or hoodwinking his audience. We don’t get a result by the time the end credits roll three breathtaking hours later, but we do know – as if there was any doubt in our minds previously – that it was impossible for Lee Harvey Oswald to have acted alone.” (791) I went into JFK already questioning the official version of the truth. And the film that Stone pulled together just reinforced all of the questions I had about that supposed truth. He pulls together an extremely compelling and convincing film that while never providing a conclusive answer gives you more than enough evidence to begin forming your own opinions of that historic event. The more I watched the more it reinforced the absurdity of the theory of a single shooter.

“He would not succeed in getting us to care so completely about this search for the truth without a strong central performance from Costner, who holds your attention throughout the film despite the numerous heavyweight actors who stroll in and out playing small roles – from Tommy Lee Jones as suspect Clay Shaw to Joe Pesci, Gary Oldman (as Oswald), Donald Sutherland, Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau, Kevin Bacon, and Sissy Spacek, all of whom are superb.” (791) The cast is immense – it’s a veritable who’s who of Hollywood and as Joanna Berry says the majority of them appear in small supporting roles. Costner is magnetic as Jim Garrison, a man who has become somewhat lost to history. Sure everyone knows Kennedy was assassinated but I wouldn’t have been able to tell you that there was someone who looked into the official report of the version of events and publically questioned it, at great personal cost to himself. Now I’m not naive – I studied film and television studies – so I know that every director controls exactly what story they want the viewer to see through their choices in editing and therefore every single thing you watch has its own agenda behind it. Even if you think that the single bullet theory is the truth, JFK is a compelling watch and who knows you may even come out of it with a different view on such an iconic event that shocked the world to its core. I cannot recommend JFK strongly enough.

Toy Story Trilogy

Director: John Lasseter, Ash Brannon, Lee Unkrich

1995, 1999, 2010

“A Hollywood film franchise that heralded a new era in animation, the Toy Story trilogy irrevocably changed the cinematic landscape when the series’ first instalment arrived in the mid-1990s.” (844, Jo Taylor, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die) I do remember Toy Story coming out and being immediately taken with the idea that my toys had an entire life of their own when I wasn’t playing with them – it was magical in a way that only Disney Pixar could be. And I did indeed grow up with the trilogy – I’m not entirely sure how I feel about there being a fourth instalment imminent, as I really felt that the whole story arc was finished perfectly in Toy Story 3. 

Toy StoryWoody and Buzz are brilliant characters, well they all are really – I love Rex being a complete scaredy cat and that Mr Potato Head would not be out-of-place in the Bronx. Buzz is wonderfully naive in the first film, entirely convinced that he really is a space ranger which is counterbalanced by the cynicism of Woody. Tom Hanks is awesome as the self-confessed hero of the trilogy. Supposedly he provided so much improvised material during the recording of the first film that the animators are still using that material in the upcoming fourth instalment.

“And if the first two films detailed the wondrous adventures and occasional travails of infancy and youth, the third instalment tackled the bittersweet reality of growing up.” (844) Toy Story deftly set up the franchise and introduced the core group of characters and while I would have been happy to continue watching their adventures the addition of new characters in Toy Story 2 only added to the fun of watching these films. Joan Cusack as the rowdy cowgirl Jessie was a brilliant addition to the little family that Pixar had created. And Bullseye, a horse who acts like a loyal dog, is adorable. And then we get to Toy Story 3, with even more new characters, although unlike before these adorable cuddly additions are not always as good as they first appear. Mr Pricklepants is brilliant with his delusions of grandeur, ably voiced by Timothy Dalton.Toy Story 3

I think part of the joy of watching Toy Story is that there are toys in the films, even if only in the background action, that I remember playing with during my childhood, especially the chatty phone and the etch-a-sketch. The humor of Toy Story is very much two-fold which allows the franchise to grow and expand beyond being simply a children’s film. On the one hand there is the obvious humor that appeals to children and then there is the more subtle humor that will ensure the adults are equally as interested. It’s this second level of humor that allows me to continue returning to the films as I grow up and still find something new or funny each time. There are also numerous pop-culture references littering the trilogy with the most obvious one being the relationship between Buzz and Zod that echoes the iconic relationship of Luke and Darth Vader in Star Wars (1977, George Lucas)

“Two scenes heighten Toy Story 3‘s gravitas and emotional heft: the near-oblivion encounter faced by the toys when they are almost pulled into a furnace, and Andy’s realisation that he must let go of his youth and pass on his toys to a more appreciative and understanding child. It is these moments, interspersed among the usual banter and knockabout scenes, which saw the film resonate strongly among an adult audience.” (844) I remember the hype surrounding the release of the third instalment of the wonderful Toy Story series and how I thought that the reactions couldn’t possibly be as strong as they were suggesting – grown men crying in the cinema over the fate of some fictional animated toys, surely not? And then I watched it and I was beyond choked up at the two scenes mentioned by Jo Taylor above. There was a very palpable sense of peril for the toys that we had come to know and love over the length of this series that really did cause some real emotion.

“The Toy Story series realized the emotional depth that could be invested in animation, recalling earlier Disney successes, such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) and Bambi (1942), and highlighted how much had been lost among the less adventurous traditional animated features of recent decades.” (844) I’m not sure I totally agree with this as the Disney films of the early 90s, Beauty and the Beast (1991, Gary Trousdale), Aladdin (1992, Ron Clements), and The Lion King (1994, Roger Allers) were very much the films of my childhood and I will always count them as my favourite Disney films, although I can recognise just how much Toy Story shaped the studio as well as the face of animated films to come. If there are any people out there who have yet to see any of the Toy Story films (and if there are then what have they been doing with themselves?!) I cannot recommend this trilogy strongly enough – you’ll laugh, and you’ll cry and you will feel incredibly attached to some wonderful toys and you’ll feel happier for it. Toy Story reinvigorated Disney and launched its sister company, Pixar resulting in some brilliant films.

And see how easily Tom Hanks can still slip into the persona of Woody in the clip below. 

The Sixth Sense

Director: M. Night Shyamalan

1999

“A ghost story of the highest order, The Sixth Sense works on many levels.” (876, Joanna Berry, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

The Sixth SenseThere are some films that if you don’t see them when they come out you are bound to inadvertently learn the twist about them and The Sixth Sense (along with most of M. Night Shyamalan’s back catalogue) is most definitely one of these films, Shutter Island (2010, Martin Scorsese) is another film like this – whether you read the book first or see the film first the twist is spoiled. Sadly I was only 11 when The Sixth Sense came out and since then have become not only obsessed with film but did a film degree so I went into this knowing what the twist was, which somewhat spoiled the film. Not that The Sixth Sense is a bad film because it really isn’t, just that the tension was diffused by already having knowledge of what the twist was.

It’s so nice to see Bruce Willis in a more dramatic, straight acting role rather than as an action hero. Indeed there is little, to no ‘action’ in The Sixth Sense, so you get to see a completely different side to Willis. His Dr Malcolm Crowe is professional and yet at the same time comes to actually care about Cole. They both have a profound affect on each other at a crucial stage in their lives.Bruce Willis Haley Joel Osment The Sixth Sense

Surprisingly I was impressed rather than irrationally annoyed with the young Cole, which I’m grateful for because he is very much the driving force of the film. Haley Joel Osment is brilliant as Cole – he has just enough vulnerability that you want to protect him rather than being a cloying cry-baby. Even a young Mischa Barton was actually pretty good.

“The spooks are there as Cole is visited by tormented apparitions, but this is more emotional drama than scary suspense film.” (876) Berry is right – this is more of a drama than a scary movie. That’s not to say there aren’t some jumpy moments. Those involving Barton’s unhappy ghost stand out in my mind but then they are linked to arguably one of the most well known ‘catchphrases’ (for lack of a better word) to come out of recent cinema.

“His clever use of muted colors and subtle hints of what is to come – the temperature dropping when a ghost is present, the use of the color red – and the twist in the tale are so neat that you want to reappraise the film rather than be annoyed that you have been led down a completely different path than the one you thought you were on. A modern, emotionally complex classic that is as achingly poignant as it is chillingly tense.” (876)

I found The Sixth Sense engaging even with knowledge of the twist – I can only imagine what it was like to watch it that first time with no inkling of what was coming. It’s a film worth watching and I hope I haven’t given anything away to those yet to watch it.

Scream

Director: Wes Craven

1996

ScreamScream, featuring a bevy of talented young actors (including Drew Barrymore, Neve Campbell, Skeet Ulrich, David Arquette, Rose McGowan, and Jamie Kennedy), took the United States by storm, bringing in over $130 million at the box office and kicking off a new wave of hip and reflexive slasher movies.” (854, Steven Jay Schneider, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

Urban Legend (1998), I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997), and of course Scream 2 (1997), Scream 3 (2000), and the stalker parody Scary Movie (2000) all owe much of their success to Craven’s original.” (854)

Scream and the other films Schneider mentions were the horror movies of my generation. They were the films my friends and I cut our horror teeth on before going back and discovering the classics of the 1980s. I really remember watching Scream for the first time and not knowing who Ghost Face was and it was terrifying. And while it is still scary, i think it has lost something both from my multiple viewings and from the parody that is Scary Movie (the only decent film in a slew of parody movies to emerge during the 2000s but that’s beside the point)

I seem to be watching a lot of meta films recently because Scream is another film that is sharply aware of not only itself but its place within the horror genre. There’s numerous references to the classics that defined the genre and established the rules of a horror flick. And then there’s the overt reference to the film’s own director and his contributions to the genre when Tatum says Sidney is “sounding like a Wes Carpenter flick” combining the names of Wes Craven and John Carpenter, two of the most prolific and instrumental directors to come out of the horror genre.

The characters are always going on about the ‘horror genre rules” and then blatantly ignoring them resulting in their demise. Scream is a blood-fest and has some imaginatively gruesome ways of dispatching Ghost Face’s victims. I particularly love Tatum’s end at the hands of the garage door. 

“Among the reasons for Scream‘s outstanding success is an often hilarious script (written by Kevin Williamson, who would go on to create the hit teen TV show Dawson’s Creek), the numerous jokey references to earlier horror movies, and Craven’s expert direction, which manages to frighten audiences even while they’re laughing.” (854)

There’s some dark comedy in Scream too. Craven as a talent for turning the audiences’ laughter into screams in the blink of an eye. Scream very much re-established the horror genre and subjected a new generation to a slew of deliciously scary serial killers with Ghost Face leading the way. And there’s no denying that Ghost Face has become one of the genre’s icons – come Halloween it’s not unusual to see more than one roaming the streets thanks to his easily recognizable (and more importantly, easily replicated) costume.

Sidney can be annoying at times but that’s mainly due to her compliance to the genre stereotype of the female lead. There are times when you’re screaming at her to do the exact opposite of what she’s about to do and trust her instincts but than that’s part of what makes horror films so enjoyable to watch, at least for me any way.

Scream‘s intense ten-minute prologue is among the most talked-about horror scenes in recent memory.” (854)

The entire cast is brilliant, all playing their parts perfectly. I particularly like Matthew Lillard’s slightly maniacal best friend and you can’t help but love David Arquette’s poor put upon and under-respected Deputy Dewey. Courteney Cox is suitably cold hearted as the determined reporter out for the best story she can find. Having said that, the shared journey she and Sidney go on does thaw her a bit, and sets up the relationships for the sequels (which don’t actually suck like most sequels do!)

Like I said earlier Scream was one of the first horror films I watched and its pretty much responsible for introducing me to the classics of the horror genre like Halloween (1978, John Carpenter), Friday the 13th (1980, Sean S. Cunningham), and of course A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984, Wes Craven). I will always enjoy watching Scream. It’s an excellent film to introduce someone to the genre thanks to its self-awareness and well placed comedy.

Fargo

Director: Joel Coen

1996

“One speciality of sibling partners Joel and Ethan Coen is twisting time-honored Hollywood genres into flamboyant, contemporary delights. The foremost filmmakers to emerge from America in the 1980s, their best films still look great, and their devilishly clever Fargo is among their very best. It’s a wicked tale that provokes gasps of admiration and shock along with belly laughs. Embezzlement, abduction, deceit, misunderstanding, and murder are all in the frame, as is another regular feature of the Coenesque experience – a crime that gets totally out of control.” (850, Angela Errigo, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

Fargo Joel CoenThere are very few Coen Brothers movies that I would actually consider myself a fan of, only really True Grit (2010) and The Big Lebowski (1998), both of which have Jeff Bridges in. Having said that not only do I very much want to see Inside Llewyn Davis (2013) but have also seen a surprising amount of their films. Fargo however is not one of their films that I would say I enjoyed. It was one of the films that had been on my list to watch (and not just because it was in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die) but I had been dragging my feet when it came to actually sitting down and watching it. The push for me was the announcement that there is to be a television series of Fargo with Martin Freeman in the role that saw “[…] William H. Macy in the anxious performance that lifted him from ever-useful character actor to eagerly sought character actor.” (850)

As much as I find myself drifting when I watch Coen Brothers films I find myself  equally as disengaged with William H. Macy which does cause somewhat of a problem when watching Fargo because not only am I watching a Coen Brothers film but it also had Macy as the lead.  One of the most distracting elements of the film for me was the regional accent employed by the majority of the cast. “But most of the film, impishly introduced as a true story in the first of its macabre deceptions, is set in the austere, snowy landscapes of the Coen’s native Minnesota (where the exaggerated regional dialect amusingly employed in hilariously banal chitchat is a flat, singsong relic of the area’s Scandinavian immigrant pioneers, and at absurd odds with the heinous goings-on.)” (850) It was an accent that just did not sit well aurally. And ultimately it just pulled me out of the film unfortunately.

“Enter Frances McDormand (Mrs Joel Coen) absolutely fantastic as the very pregnant, comically ordinary but sharp small-town police chief, Marge Gunderson. Resolutely conducting her first triple homicide investigation with unhurried waddle and droll aplomb, Marge is easily the most engaging character every conceived by the Coens.” (850) Frances McDormand is as Angela Errigo says, the most engaging character in Fargo. She is the heart of the film and really so much more than she appears at first glance. Marge is probably the one element of the film that I actually found myself engaging with.

At least now I can say that I have seen Fargo, even if I didn’t really enjoy it all that much. I am however intrigued to see how this new show will play with a very different cast. I’m hoping that I find myself more engaged with it as Martin Freeman is one of those actors that grows on me with every project that I watch.

Ring

Director: Hideo Nakata

1998

Ring Hideo Nakata“It’s a deceptively simple premise for a ghost story. A cursed videotape is being circulated. Anyone who watches it will die seven days afterwards.” (870, Adisakdi Tantimedh, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

Ring singlehandedly revived the horror genre for the end of the twentieth century, spawning two sequels, a prequel, a Korean remake, and an overlooked but hugely successful Hollywood remake (directed by Gore Verbinski), not to mention influencing dozens of horror films from all over the world.” (870) I admit that while I am a bit of a chicken I absolutely love scaring myself so horror films are right up my alley. I vividly remember going to see Gore Verbinski’s Hollywood remake when it came out in 2002 when I was a teenager with a group of friends. We scared ourselves so much that we ended up having a bit of an impromptu sleepover – safety in numbers and all that! Watching it late it’s still jumpy but not nearly as terrifying as we initially found it to be. That cannot be said for Nakata’s original however which still manages to reduce me to a gibbering wreak.

Japanese horror just takes everything to a whole other level. They tell stories in such a different way and can be much more graphic in their visual media. They’re not lying when they put something in the Asian Extreme category. And there is just something so innately creepy about the way they use children in their horror films – Ring is certainly not an exception with the image of the little girl crawling out of the television remaining with me long after watching the film.

Ring is very dark and atmospheric – full of layers o shadows, perfect for creating an environment where any number of things could be lurking waiting to pounce. Music and sound are so important within the horror genre, more so than any other genre with the exception of musicals. As Tantimedh says “there are no cheap shock effects here. Instead, Nakata relies on sound and atmosphere to suggest the presence of the unquiet dead hovering over the living, poised to strike.” (870) and that’s certainly the case. The music is so intrinsically linked to the images that it loses some of its power or intensity when watched on mute. The choice of music and sounds used is chilling and really directs your emotions and expectations. A child laughing became inordinately terrifying within the context of Ring.

The film deals with a relatively short time frame – just over a week as it’s central to the entire plot. I think part of what makes the film so creepy is the low quality of the infamous video. Not the film itself, because despite being made almost 15 years ago it still holds up well, but the cursed video. I’m not sure if it would have the same impact if it were a DVD just due to the difference in quality and lack of degradation. And seriously who knew static could be such an object of fear? I still don’t understand the compulsion to watch the video. Everyone seems quite blasé about watching it, most likely refusing to believe it has any power but I would be steering well clear of it myself.

“Director Hideo Nakata achieves a steady sense of mounting disquiet throughout the film.” (870) For all Ring has moments that leap out at you it doesn’t become truly scary until the appearance of Sada. It’s a slow building menace that becomes more tangible the closer they get to solving the mystery behind the murderous video. And then just when you think it’s all over that’s when it jumps out and gets you, right in the last minutes of the film. Way to make an impression Nakata! Sada’s movements are disjointed and jarring and there is added terror in only ever seeing one of her eyes through the impenetrable curtain of her hair. After all the greatest tool in any horror director’s kit is the imagination of the audience itself.

 

Pi

Director: Darren Aronofsky

1998

“Strikingly shot in high-contrast black and white with various novel and visceral camera techniques, Pi evokes the paranoia of Poe and Kafka within the fuzzy framework of science fiction.” (874, Joshua Klein, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

Pi Darren AronofskyFuzzy framework of science fiction is right – it’s not a film that screams sci-fi to me. There’s a few elements that don’t really it in real world films which I guess pushes it towards the sci-fi category. Pi is a weird film but one that is exquisitely shot just as Klein says it is. Somehow the use of black and white creates a period feel despite the fact that the film remains situated in the 1990s.

Aronofsky’s debut film has most definitely set the tone for his body of work. He’s developed into a director who combines surprisingly dark narratives, a strong visual style and unusual framing – all elements that are very mush present in his debut film.  “Aronofsky lets most of the questions hang until the film’s conclusion, and keeping the audience in the dark is just another way to heighten the chaotic, exhilarating, frequently imposing mood of the picture.” (874)

The maths kind of passed me by – well completely flew over my head in all honesty – but then I have never been mathematically minded. Both factions vying for the knowledge contained in Max Cohen‘s troubled mind, Wall Street and a group of Kabbalah Jews, are both quite disturbing. Aronofsky has made both money and religion objects of mistrust here.

Sean Gullette is captivating as the savant Max Cohen, someone plagued by debilitating headaches. The headaches, or rather the immense discomfort caused by their occurrence, translates across to the viewer through the use of sound and imagery. Like Max I come to dread his headaches as the incessant high-pitched white noise made for uncomfortable viewing.

The chaotic nature of the film suits Max’s character. This is somewhat of a juxtaposition as Max’s mind works in quite a linear and obviously numerical way. Because you see the narrative from Max’s perspective your mistrust of the world increases as his does. In some ways I mistrust the overly friendly Lenny more than the professionals from Wall Street yet I can’t put my finger on why.

“His ability to capture the rush and confusion of racing down a time line toward infinity, only to suddenly slam into a dead-end, makes for impressive and occasionally disturbing stuff.” (874) Max’s solution to the ever-increasing burden of his headaches is extreme to say the least and I did think it was the end of the film. And I suppose in a way it was because by destroying the information contained within is brain he removed his appeal to those competing factions. I found the actual ending sentimental but ultimately fitting. Max gains some sense of peace although it costs him his maths – seems a worthy trade-off in my opinion.