2001: A Space Odyssey – Wow

NOTE: For those of you who don’t know, this blog was started as an assignment for one of my journalism courses. The semester is winding to a close and this is my last required post. However, I have really enjoyed watching great movies and writing about them here so I am going to do my darndest to keep this going through the summer. I appreciate all of you who have read and interacted with this blog for the past few months. I’d love for you to stick around as I keep making my way through the greatest movies of all time.

How often are you completely, fully and totally focused on one and only one thing? How often do you put all of your energy and capabilities into one pursuit? I would tend to guess that the number is relatively low. I know it is for me. I am a chronic multitasker. If I’m on my computer, I’ve usually got at least a few tabs open that I’m bopping between. If I’m on my computer, there’s a good chance that I’m also watching TV. It wouldn’t be unheard of for me to be doing multiple things on my computer, watching TV and engaging in conversation with other people in the room. And someone is probably playing music too.

And don’t even get me started on smart phones (there are many times in my life when I sound like a middle-aged grump and this is one of them for sure). I love smart phones. They make my life so much easier it’s ridiculous (I would be eternally driving around without Google Maps). But as much as I love them, they are slowly killing our souls. It’s turning us into mindless dweebs who possess the attention span of an earthworm and lack the mental capacity to focus on one thing at one time. The fact that so many of my peers find it necessary and, even worse, acceptable to constantly have their phone out and be using it while engaged in any activity, including a one-on-one conversation, is horrifying. I am certainly part of this problem, but I try my best not to be. I try to keep my phone away if I’m interacting with people face-to-face. I try to avoid the incessant urge to pull my phone out during any and every dull moment. I try to focus on the beauty of nature or let my mind wander for a bit when I can.

Now that I’ve effectively thrown my entire generation under the bus, what reason is there to have this luddite rant in a blog about classic movies? I’ve included this because, at the suggestion of my friend (and far superior movie mind) Matt, I jettisoned Lawrence of Arabia and instead watched 2001: A Space Odyssey this week. And this is not a multitasking movie. No sirree, Bob. This is a singular experience that requires all of your attention for the duration. Here’s what I thought.

22. 2001: A Space Odyssey

Released: 1968
Big names: Stanley Kubrick (director), Keir Dullea, Gary Lockwood, William Sylvester, Daniel Richter and Douglas Rain (voice)
One sentence summary: The evolution of man.
Scene that sticks out: A primitive humanoid (Richter) uses a bone to smash a skeleton into a million pieces to the accompaniment of a gorgeous score. That, or Keir Dullea’s race through a trippy technicolor corridor of space.
Thoughts: There’s a reason I titled this post, “Wow.” Because that’s really the only word that came to mind after I watched it. It was so cool. This movie is epic in every sense of the word. As I mentioned in the intro, this film requires complete attention. The film’s minimalistic dialogue and brilliant visuals (that are so bleeping good that you can be excused for forgetting that the film was made when gas was a whopping 34 cents per gallon) make it imperative to keep your eyes on the screen at all times. And the fantastic score makes it pretty important to keep your ears focused too. But what’s most important is to keep your mind focused on the film. This movie raises a lot more questions than it answers. Kubrick presents you with thought-provoking visuals and denies you the satisfaction of a traditional narrative that explains what you’re seeing. So you’re left to try and work through the film on your own, deciding for yourself what it all means. This is filmmaking at it’s best and Kubrick absolutely nailed it with 2001.
Ranking (out of 10): 9-10 – This film was incredible. Only its significant length might keep me from watching it again. But probably not.

Have you been here before?

This is the second Stanley Kubrick film I’ve watched in the past month which got me thinking about directors who appear more than once on the AFI list. Turns out, directing one of the best 100 films of all time isn’t that easy. Thankfully, there are a few folks who have figured out this whole “directing a classic” thing pretty well. Here are some of the best directors of American cinema (and interestingly, two of them have pretty strong connections to Great Britain).

These four men directed nearly 1/6 of the AFI Top 100 films.

These four men directed nearly 1/6 of the AFI Top 100 films.

NEXT WEEK: We go for the Kubrick hat trick with A Clockwork Orange.

Fargo – No. We Don’t All Talk Like That


5. Do you play hockey?
4. I love Minnesotans! You are all so nice!
3. Isn’t that Canada?
2. Ohhhhhhhh so you’re from Minessoooooohhhhhtaaaaahhh.

And, the number one thing you here when you tell someone you’re from Minnesota:

1. Have you seen Fargo?

It always really confused me why a movie named for a North Dakota city was so many people’s immediate reaction to hearing about Minnesota. I’m really bad at geography, but even I knew that Fargo, Minnesota wasn’t a thing. This is especially hurtful for a state that has a well-documented inferiority complex. We are a proud and successful state with big cities (Minneapolis-St. Paul is the 15th largest metro area in the country, ahead of San Diego, Orlando and St. Louis), great nature, nice towns (that are not Fargo), great culture (Minneapolis-St. Paul are only bested by New York in live theater per capita) and great(?) sports (we’re one of 13 markets with a team in all four major professional leagues). But people rarely remember these things. They think we’re too cold to live in. They think Chicago is the only real midwest city.

And so we are forced to prove our worthiness as a state and metro area. Did you know that Bob Dylan and Prince are from Minnesota? And Judy Garland too! Did you like The Great Gatsby? You’re welcome because F. Scott Fitzgerald is from St. Paul. Are you political? How about Vice Presidents and presidential candidates Hubert Humphrey and Walter Mondale.

Now that you are fully aware of how awesome Minnesota is, here are my thoughts on Fargo.

84. Fargo

Released: 1996
Big names: Frances McDormand, William H. Macy and Steve Buscemi
One sentence summary: A Minnesota car salesman (Macy) tries to get out of a financial bind by having his wife kidnapped and ransomed by her wealthy father.
Scene that sticks out: It’s hard to beat a human body going through a wood chipper.
Thoughts: This is a great movie. I’m not sure how much of it is the fact that I couldn’t stop cracking up over William H. Macy and Frances McDormand talking in their super exaggerated Minnesotan accents or that I miss Embers with a burning passion (get it?!). That was certainly part of it. But this was also just a phenomenally done movie. The juxtaposition of over the top Minnesota-nice with the grisly concepts of kidnapping and murder works brilliantly. Macy and McDormand are fantastic. Steve Buscemi is hilarious as always. It’s a simple movie that just works.
Ranking (out of 10): 8-10 – This is the kind of movie I could watch just about whenever and it would still be funny and brilliant.

Ohhh Doncha Knooooowwwww

As I said, the accents in Fargo cracked me up non-stop. I don’t think I have much a Minnesota accent. In fact, it only comes out when someone is talking to me about my accent and I say the word Minneso(h)ta. As a student at a college with people from around the country and around the world, I have numerous experiences of finding out the weird things that other people say in other parts of the country. (Really, Wisconsin? Bubblers?) While I would normally put together my own graphic for you all, the following maps are too good to pass up. They are put together by Joshua Katz from the Statistics Department at North Carolina State University. Click here to see all the maps that he put together.

Screen Shot 2014-05-03 at 4.17.31 PM Screen Shot 2014-05-03 at 4.18.17 PM Screen Shot 2014-05-03 at 4.18.47 PM


NEXT WEEK: We go big with Lawrence of Arabia.

Rocky – There’s Gonna Be A Lot of Rematches


2002 was a big year for Ryan the sports fan. It was the year that my sports consciousness flipped on and my path to becoming the ESPN-obsessed lunkhead I am today began. Before that, sports weren’t really my thing. And honestly, I was pretty lucky to skip out on Minnesota sports in the late nineties. A decade of Twins futility? No skin off my back. Gary Anderson’s missed kick in the 1998 NFC Championship game? Meant nothing to me. 41-0 butt whooping by the Giants in the 2000 game? Hard pass. While the utterly classic and fantastic 2001 World Series technically marked my entrance into the sports world, it was 2002 and the Get to Know ‘Em Twins like Corey Koskie and Christian Guzman that consecrated me as a true sport-o (if you have a free half hour, google “Minnesota Twins commercials.” Always on point).

So what does all this have to do with Rocky? I honestly don’t remember much about the Twins regular season during 2002. I remember the playoffs vividly (I got sick during one of the games and got to go down into the bowels of the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome). What I do remember from that summer is the heavyweight boxing bout between Lennox Lewis and Mike Tyson. It was all anyone on ESPN could talk about. Mike Tyson was the baddest man on the planet and he was going to get his title back from that pesky Lennox Lewis. I was a peace-loving, docile pacifist who had just started to give a hoot about sports and I can still clearly remember Lewis knocking out Tyson. That’s how big this fight was. That’s how big boxing was.

And now? UFC has all but knocked out boxing’s mass appeal. The heavyweight division has been all but invisible, more or less dominated by the Ukranian Klitschko brothers, Wladimir and Vitali. Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao are the best known fighters on the planet but they’ve spent the last half-decade affirmatively not fighting each other. Maybe once a year, Mayweather or Pacquiao will fight someone and get some attention on ESPN for a day or two. But no fight, outside of Mayweather and Pacquiao finally getting in the ring together, could even come close to the hype of Lewis-Tyson 12 years ago. 

In the Star Trek universe, boxing is still a thing in the 24th century. Maybe it’s because in the future, all that remains of our civilization are films and they looked at all of the boxing movies and thought, “Wow, this boxing thing must be a big deal.” Because while boxing for the masses has retreated into its corner, boxing movies keep coming at us. Million Dollar BabyCinderella ManRocky BalboaThe FighterGrudge Match. Whatever is keeping boxing from staying relevant as a sport, its counterparts in Hollywood know not of.

This week, I watched one of the original great boxing movies. Here’s what I thought of Rocky.

78. Rocky

Released: 1976
Big names: Sylvester Stallone, Burgess Meredith and Carl Weathers
One sentence summary: A slow-talking mafia enforcer slash boxer from Philly (Stallone) gets a chance to win the world heavyweight boxing title against the greatest boxer, and showman, on the planet (Weathers).
Scene that sticks out: A surprisingly young Stallone takes off his sweater to reveal his toned body covered only in a white tank which he thrusts at his date (Talia Shire). Real sly, Sly. Real sly.
Thoughts: This was a tough movie for me to gauge. On one hand, it’s terribly cliched. A not-too-bright local boxer gets a miraculous shot to prove himself against the best in the world. On the other hand, it was the movie that launched the plucky underdog boxing cliche, so it’s hard to knock it too much for that. Like several other films I’ve written about, it seemed really slow to me at the beginning. I don’t know if big-budget modern movies have skewed my movie viewing but it felt like we spent a lot of unnecessary time with Rocky just walking around Philadelphia doing nothing in particular. However, I did like the movie. I thought the love story between Rocky and Adrian was legitimately touching and far less cheesy than most sports movie love stories. While Carl Weathers will always be the one-handed golf pro, Chubbs Petersen from Happy Gilmore, he was excellent as Apollo Creed the boxer and the business man. I can’t remember disliking a character as thoroughly as I disliked Adrian’s brother Paulie (Burt Young). And while the character has been replicated numerous times, I am not surprised at all that Stallone’s portrayal of Balboa launched him into stardom.
Ranking (out of 10): 6-10 – I understand why this is a classic sports movie, but now that I’ve seen it, I don’t see myself rushing to see it again any time soon.

Sports, sports, sports, sports, sports!

As a movie fan and a sports fan, nothing gets my engines revving like a quality sports film. The problem is that there are a lot of sports films that fall flat. The biggest problem? About 90% of sports films are underdog stories. And underdog stories are painfully predictable. SPOILER ALERT: the underdog wins! The challenge is to make a sports movie that doesn’t blend in with all the others. Here are the top 5 sports films from three different great sports minds: the American Film Institute, the now-defunct ESPN Page 2 and yours truly. What’s your favorite sports movie? Share in the comments!

The top five sports films of all time according to AFI, ESPN’s Page 2 and myself.

NEXT WEEK: I return to my roots and watch the Coen brothers’ Fargo.

Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned To Master The Dark Art of Satire

Satire is hard, y’all. Like really hard.

By now, everyone has heard the news that funnyman Stephen Colbert, is moving out of his red, white and blue Colbert Report set and making the leap from Comedy Central to CBS as he takes over for the man, the myth, the legend, David Letterman. In my mind, Colbert’s job just got a whole ton easier. Not because it’s easy to host a talk show but because it’s so darn difficult to pull off satire as seamlessly as Colbert has for the past 10 years. Satire is hard (see above). The skill required to do quality satire that doesn’t come off as arrogant, pompous or, even worse, not funny, is enormous. Satire requires not only a sharp wit but also a mind that can fully comprehend the topic it’s satirizing. Making fun of something you don’t understand is the easiest thing in the world. Satirizing something you don’t understand is damn near impossible. That’s why so much satire crashes and burns and why what Colbert and his Sith Lord Master Jon Stewart have been able to accomplish for more than a decade is incredible. Good satire is funny (this isn’t actually satire per-se but it’s so funny I had to find a way to get it in this post). Great satire points out the craziness happening in our world that we’re do busy to notice. Satire at its best moves people to do something about it.

Stewart, Colbert and The Onion are certainly not the first folks to pull off the satire gambit. Political satire dates back all the way to Ancient Greece and has played important roles throughout western civilization. This week’s AFI film, Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, is a prime example of some darn good satire focusing on the nuclear hysteria during the Cold War. Here’s what I thought:

24. Dr Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

Released: 1964
Big names: Peter Sellers, George C. Scott, James Earl Jones and Stanley Kubrick (director)
One sentence summary: Mutual assured destruction is put to the test as a crazed general puts the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. on a nuclear crash course.
Scene that sticks out: Just after Peter Sellers delivers his classic, “Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here! This is the war room,” the camera holds on the rotund Soviet ambassador casually sitting on the lap of the American general he was just fighting with. It just cracked me up.
Thoughts: I must confess something before I go into my thoughts on this film. I had to watch this movie a second time because I fell asleep the first time. This has absolutely nothing to do with the quality of the film. It simply is further evidence that I can fall asleep at anytime even if it’s 8 p.m. on a Friday. So when I watched it again on Saturday morning, I was committed and focused. And thoroughly entertained. The Cold War is a fascinating period to study and the fact that nuclear weapons seemed to have been a regularly considered option for warfare is a terrifying thought to me. Kubrick’s satirical romp through a nuclear panic points out exactly why. An addled general who thinks that the Soviets are out to depurify his “essential fluids” starts the ball rolling on a nuclear attack on the U.S.S.R. that the president and all of his merry military men can’t seem to get a handle on. Air Force General Buck Turgidson talks of tens of millions of American casualties as a mere hair ruffling and ex-Nazi scientist Dr. Strangelove recommends an underground bunker system which would have a 10:1 female to male ratio for repopulating the Earth after a nuclear holocaust. Add in a Texan’s Texan piloting the B-52 screaming towards the Soviet Union and a young James Earl Jones, and you’ve got a quality flick.
Ranking (out of 10): 7-10 – Kubrick points out and emphasizes the outrageousness of the nuclear arms race without devolving into farce.

The Many Faces of Peter Sellers

I’m not sure if it says more about Peter Sellers’ acting ability or my lack of observational skills that I didn’t realize while watching the film that Sellers actually plays three separate characters throughout the movie: Group Captain Lionel Mandrake, President Merkin Muffley and Dr. Strangelove himself. The three characters are so different (they’re all literally from different countries) that I am in awe that he was able to pull it off so brilliantly. Sellers was initially slated to play four different roles but ended up not playing Major T.J. “King” Kong because of a sprained ankle.

Peter Sellers played three of the four roles originally written for him.

Peter Sellers played three of the four roles originally written for him.

NEXT WEEK: Get your boxing gloves ready because we’re hopping in the ring with Rocky.

Rear Window – Feels Like the First Time

Everyone has a favorite movie. That movie that you need to watch on a regular basis. That movie that you want to share with those who are most important to you. The movie that you create crazy theories about that are only crazy because everyone else doesn’t understand how vital that movie is to understanding the entire world. As you might be able to tell, I’m still mourning the end of How I Met Your Mother.

But we’re talking movies not television. And not just any movies. Your favorite movie. For some great words on favorite films, head over to The Critical Cinephilewho graciously agreed to join me in watching Rear Window this week. For me, it was my first time. For The Critical Cinephile, it was an opportunity to re-watch his favorite film. I asked The Critical Cinephile to collaborate with me on this film because A) he’s a brilliant movie mind and B) I was interested in how reviews would differ between someone who was watching a movie for the first time and someone who not only has seen the movie before, but considers it their favorite movie of all time. Would we notice different things? Would we appreciate different things? Would he be able to see more of the movie because of his familiarity while I was just trying to keep up with what’s going on? Or would he be so focused on what he loves about it that he might miss things that stand out to me?

What’s your favorite movie? How has your watching of that movie changed since the first time? Can you remember your first time when you didn’t know what was going to happen? Share in the comments! Take a look below for my virgin viewing of Alfred Hitchock’s Rear Window and be sure to head over to the The Critical Cinephile to get the view from the other side.

42. Rear Window

Released: 1954
Big names: James Stewart, Grace Kelly, Raymond Burr and Thelma Ritter
One sentence summary: An invalid photographer becomes obsessed with the lives (and deaths?) of the neighbors he watches through the rear window (get it?!) of his apartment.
Scene that sticks out: Hitchcock’s endings always get me and this film was no different.
Thoughts: This was different than the Hitchcock I’d watched before. I was used to suspense built on action and movement in Psycho and Vertigo. In Rear Window, I was stationary, stuck in an apartment with photographer L.B. Jefferies (Stewart) and his broken leg. But that didn’t mean that nothing was happening. Hitchcock kept Jeffries’ (and my own) mind racing with the strange happenings in the lives of his neighbors. The magnificent Miss Torso and her many male visitors. The sad songwriter. The melancholy Miss Lonelyheart. But it was Mr. Thorwald and his invalid wife that really captivate Jeffries and the viewer leading to the brilliant and heart-racing climax. James Stewart was fantastic as usual, Grace Kelly’s Lisa was gorgeous and smart, but my favorite character might’ve been Jeffries’ sassy nurse, Stella (Ritter) who punctuated the suspense with quick wit. Beyond Hitchcock’s masterful suspense or the great performances, what I appreciated most was how this movie made me think. It made me think about how we look at the world. How we are so concerned with what is going on around us and often forget to look at what’s happening in our own lives. How easy it is to jump to conclusions about people based on snippets and flash frames without really knowing what’s going on. How much time we spend watching life go by and how little time we spend actually living.
Ranking (out of 10): 6-10 – I certainly enjoyed this film but of the three Hitchcock films I’ve watched, this comes in a clear third.

Sir Alfred Joseph Hitchcock, KBE

You could dedicate an entire book to dissecting the great Alfred Hitchcock (and several people have). But I don’t have that kind of time. So instead, I will just say this. I have seen three Hitchcock films (plus one biopic about the man). I have liked all three and I count two of them among my favorite films of all time. I’m not a horror guy, but Hitchcock’s suspense and thrills enthrall me every time. He made more than 50 films in a wide array of genres and he worked with some of the greatest actors and actresses to ever grace the silver screen. The graphic below merely scratches the surface of Hitchcock’s illustrious career.

A collection of tidbits on the Master of Suspense.

A collection of tidbits on the Master of Suspense.

NEXT WEEK: We travel back in time to the Cold War for Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.

E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial – A Visitor from Another World

So a guy walks into a video rental store…

That’s the joke. Pretty funny, right? Can you even remember the last time you entered one of those wonders of the ancient world? The last time you bandied about in a Blockbuster, milled around in a Mr. Movie, hunted for your favorite flick in a Hollywood Video or meandered through a Movie Gallery? Just as Professor Trelawney prophesied years ago, as the sun rises on Redbox, so shall it set on video rental stores (after the introduction of streaming content by Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime and others, Professor Trelawney amended her prophecy to read, “Oh yeah. Video rental stores are screwed”). Our favorite divination teacher was not wrong as this millennium has seen the slow fade to black of our beloved video rental stores.

Photo by Caldorwards4 at en.wikipedia

Photo by Caldorwards4 at en.wikipedia

*Note: Corporate Blockbuster closed its doors in 2014. Several franchise owned Blockbusters remain open. Photo by Stu pendousmat at en.wikipedia

And I do mean beloved. I remember fondly the video rental stores of my youth. We had a Mr. Movie across the street and a Hollywood Video just down the road. I can remember being on the way home from some activity or another on the weekend and asking my parents if we could rent a few movies (there seemed to always be some sort of deal that encouraged you to get three movies. Why three? I do not know). It would usually be my mom and me and I would always go straight to the back wall for all of the new releases. You knew these were the good ones because you could only rent them for five days as opposed to seven. The struggle for us was always finding movies that my mom, my dad, my sister and I would all like. There was lots of searching, lots of phone calls home to get opinions, lots of compromising and LOTS of movies to choose from. Eventually, we’d realize that we had spent the better part of an hour in the store and end up getting the three movies we had in our hands at that particular moment. When we went to check out, I would always try and convince my mom to buy the movie theater snack pack. You know the one that had a bag of the most over-buttered microwave popcorn you could imagine and a couple of boxes of overpriced candy all crammed into a popcorn tub that was JUST LIKE THE ONE’S YOU GOT AT THE THEATER! Of course, my mother being the smart woman she is, never relented and I was forced to eat our own microwave popcorn out of kitchen bowl. Can you imagine?

So why am I talking about the death of video rental stores? Because (spoiler)…they’re not all actually dead! Sure the major chains have all closed their doors for the most part, there are still a few independent shops that are keeping the video rental dream alive. In fact, my local video rental store, 9th Street Video, was the only place I could find this week’s selection, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. So you all owe a debt of gratitude to the video rental industry for making this wonderful review you are about to read possible. Enjoy.

A reminder of a different time.

A reminder of a different time. Photo by Ryan Levi.

25. E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial

Released: 1982 (more on this later)
Big names: Henry Thomas and Drew Barrymore
One sentence summary: An alien is left behind on Earth where he meets and forms a special bond with a young boy.
Scene that sticks out: Watching an alien bum around a house getting drunk had me flashing hard on the movie Ted in the best way. Adding in a drunk Elliot (Thomas) at school inciting a free-the-frogs riot and topping it off with a John Wayne kiss was just gravy.
Thoughts: Why did I wait so long to watch this movie? It was fantastic. It was fun. It was funny. It was heartwarming. I am a sucker for movies about friendship and this was right in my wheelhouse. One of my favorite aspects of the movie was how quickly Elliot accepted and adapted to the craziness that was going on. Let’s not forget, he just made first contact with a freaking alien. From outer space. Who’s short and slimy and does this weird thing with his neck. And yet he is totally cool with it. Flying bicycles going over a cliff? Doesn’t bat an eye. And the connection that is built between the two is as powerful for the viewer as it is for the characters. These two beings with no apparent common ground form a bond so tight that they are actually tied together. Elliot refers to them as, “we.” It’s a powerful statement on friendship and disregarding differences, and it comes from a 10-year-old boy and an alien. I would also be remiss if I did not mention how much I loved the acting of Henry Thomas (Elliot) and the wee baby Drew Barrymore. Elliot’s bond with E.T. transcends superficiality because Thomas makes it happen. And Barrymore is hilarious and heartwarming as little Gertie who grows to love E.T. like another brother.
Ranking (out of 10): 8-10 – If I stumble across this movie while channel surfing, I’ve found my entertainment for the next two hours.

A Whole New World

Maybe it’s just me, but when I opened up my E.T. video rental, there were two disks. The first one I saw was the 2002 20th Anniversary Edition. What? If 2002 was the 20th anniversary, then that means that movie came out in…1982? For some reason, that seemed way too early. I always thought of E.T. as a mid-90s film at the latest so seeing that it was actually from the Reagan years threw me a bit. When I combined that with my video rental nostalgia (and a recent list I saw of all the things that have happened since my Chicago Cubs won the World Series…), I started to think about how much movies, film and the entertainment industry have changed since E.T. was released. So without further ado, take a look at my horribly cliched list of how things change over the past 32 years.

A look at how the film industry has changed since 1982.

A look at how the film industry has changed since 1982.

NEXT WEEK: With the help of our friend, The Critical Cinephile, we watch one of Hitchcock’s four AFI 100 films, Rear Window.

“Citizen Kane” – What Makes A Classic?

It seems like a simple enough question. What makes a movie a classic? What makes a movie great? Are the two even the same thing? I started thinking about this after reading a post on a fellow film blog, The Critical Cinephile (which I highly recommend). That post, “Can Oscar Spot a Classic?”, looked at the Best Picture winners from the Oscars throughout the 1980s and placed them along with lists of other films that debuted that year. It would be a waste of time to run through them here (since you can easily hop over to The Critical Cinephile and check them out for yourself), but the overall idea is that what gets considered a classic film, a great film, the best film is A) not always the same thing and B) not always what we would pick to watch on a Saturday night with some friends. Why is that? Why is it that few people argued with 12 Years A Slave winning this year’s Best Picture, but I doubt that many people are going to pick it for a movie night flick or choose to watch it more than once (a common barometer of a classic film)? And yet I know plenty of people (myself included) who would happily watch Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues on loop, a movie that was sufficiently snubbed by the award show circuit this year. Obviously, 12 Years A Slave is a much heavier film (DISCLAIMER: I have not yet seen 12 Years A Slave so take everything I say with that in mind). It’s the type of film we should watch, the type of film we need to watch, but it’s not necessarily the film we want to watch. On the other hand, there is no reason in the world that I need to watch Anchorman 2but you better believe I will, over and over again. They’re both great films in their own ways. Are they both classics? Are either of them? Is there a world where these two movies could be described by the same adjective?

If you’re looking for an answer from me, you’re out of luck I’m afraid because I have no clue. I think there are movies that are important to watch. I think there are movies that are fun to watch. I think there are movies that are important to appreciate for their historical or technical significance. I think once in a long while, there are movies that hit all of these marks, and those are the ones we can safely call classics. But I don’t think a film needs all of these to be a classic. To me, movies are so diverse and watching a movie is such a subjective and personal endeavor that it’s almost foolish to come up with a definition for what a classic is or needs. What makes a movie classic for you? What movies do you consider to be classics? Post in the comments!

Now that I’ve spent three paragraphs rambling about how I don’t know what a classic movie is, let’s talk about a movie that is almost universally considered to be one. When AFI came out with their original list of the 100 greatest movies in 1998, Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane pulled down the top spot. 10 years later when AFI updated its list, Citizen Kane refused to budge from its top perch (FUN FACT: Citizen Kane lost the 1941 Academy Award for Outstanding Motion Picture to How Green Was My Valley). My parents and I had never seen it so we decided to culture up and watch the greatest movie ever made. Here’s what I thought:

1. Citizen Kane

Released: 1941
Big names: Orson Welles, Joseph Cotten, Ray Collins and Agnes Moorehead
One sentence summary: A reporter looks back on the life of a powerful newspaper magnate (Welles) to try and decode his mysterious dying words.
Scene that sticks out: Shots of Kane’s massive private island of Xanadu are impressive especially given the mature vintage of the film.
Thoughts: I was nervous going into this one. I mean it’s Citizen freaking Kane. The greatest movie of all time. What if I didn’t like it? Would I be able to show my face in a movie theater again? Luckily for me, I was spared that foul fate because I thoroughly enjoyed this movie. I loved the story centered around power, vanity and the media. I loved the painfully flawed Charles Foster Kane (played wonderfully by Welles) who showed us the dark underbelly of the American Dream. I loved the storytelling technique of using several narrators to tell the story of Kane’s life entirely in flashback. I loved Welles’ use of space throughout the film to demonstrate Kane’s distance from those around him. And I loved the simple question of Welles’ dying words (“Rosebud”) which carried the film and was finally answered justly at the very end.
Ranking (out of 10): 7-10 – It was a great watch, but I don’t know if I would choose to watch this repeatedly like I would some of the other films on this list.

And the Oscar Goes To…

A spot on the AFI 100 Years…100 Movies list may prove a film’s lasting impact, but the measure of a great film in any given year comes in the form of a small, golden man named Oscar. Since 1927, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (the Academy to its friends and family) has named one film the best of each year. Since 1962, that award has been known as the Best Picture. So you would figure that the 100 greatest films of all time would be locks for such an award. You would be wrong.

A look at how the AFI 100 Years…100 Movies have done in the Best Picture category at the Academy Awards.

NEXT WEEK: As I head back home to school after spring break, we meet up with everyone’s favorite alien in E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. 

“The Silence of the Lambs” – Our Sick Fascination

There’s something wrong with us. Like, seriously. We are obsessed with the worst among us. We are fascinated by the lowest of our society: rapists, kidnappers, mass murders. Whether it’s in Stephen King novels, television shows like Law and Order and Criminal Minds or any of the far too many real world examples (the Sandy Hook massacre and Boston Marathon bombing to name two), we continue to tune in to programs that offer us a window into the minds of the criminals who commit some of the most heinous crimes imaginable.

Why? What in the world possesses us to focus so much of our (free) time and attention on the sick, twisted, demented minds of criminals? NPR’s Talk of Nation did a segment on this back in 2009, and the show brought in crime writer Walter Mosley and Law and Order writer Rene Balcer to give their perspectives. Mosley puts out the idea that we’re interested in crime and criminals because it’ something that we’re worried about. “They want to know: Could that happen to me?” Mosley said. “And they want to know: How can I make it so it doesn’t happen to me?” Balcer throws out a slightly more interesting, and certainly more disturbing, hypothesis. He says that some of the appeal may come from people imagining themselves as the criminal. “They may think, you know, it’s kind of a vicarious way of seeing how it might play out for them if they were that person robbing the bank or killing their spouse,” Balcer said. Chilling, right?

I don’t want anyone to think that I’m not a part of this phenomenon. I’ve been watching Law and Order (and its myriad spin-offs) since grade school, and I love Criminal Minds which is explicitly billed as a show that goes inside the “criminal mind.” And as I watched The Silence of the Lambs this past week, I felt like I was watching Criminal Minds: The Motion Picture. Check out what I thought:

65. The Silence of the Lambs

Released: 1991
Big names: Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins
One sentence summary: An FBI trainee (Foster) looks to a deranged cannibal (Hopkins) for answers on an active serial killer.
Scene that sticks out: Serial killer Buffalo Bill getting ready in his underground bunker is short on dialogue and long on creepy.
Thoughts: I am definitely not a horror movie guy, but this is definitely not your standard horror movie, which is probably why I liked it. I enjoy watching Criminal Minds because you do get to look inside the criminal’s head and try to figure out how in the world someone could do such horrible things. And as disturbing as that is, it’s fascinating. So taking that idea, expanding it to a feature film and throwing in Anthony Hopkins as a terrible yet alluring serial killer and cannibal played right into my wheelhouse. The exchanges between Hopkins’ Dr. Hannibal Lecter and Foster’s Clarice Starling are fantastic. I think one of the most genius aspects of this movie is that the prime villain, Lector, isn’t the active killer in the movie. Instead, he is (almost) entirely docile to the point where you form a connection to him despite the fact that, you know, he eats people.
Ranking (out of 10): 7-10 – I really liked this movie, but I wish there were more scenes with Lecter and Clarice sparring. Those were dynamite.

The Baddest of Them All

Like I said above, one of my favorite parts of The Silence of the Lambs was the fact that even though you were terrified of Hannibal Lecter and knew he would eat your face off in a heart beat, you kind of liked him or at least respected him. It’s a true work of art to take such a terrifying villain and make him almost sympathetic. Take a look at the worst of the worst when it comes to movie villains. What do they have in common? What are their differences? Do you agree? Who was your most terrifying movie villain? Share in the comments (also feel free to share any thoughts on why we are fascinated with the criminal mind).

The top 5 movie villains of all time according to AFI's 100 Years...100 Heroes & Villains.

The top 5 movie villains of all time according to AFI’s 100 Years…100 Heroes & Villains.

NEXT WEEK: It’s spring break so I am catching some baseball in sunny Florida. So I’ll be watching this week’s movie with my parents. Come back next week to see what they pick!

“Pulp Fiction”: The Valley of Darkness

“Did you have a deprived childhood?”
“You NEED to see it!”

The above refrains should sound familiar to anyone who has ever had the audacity to tell someone that they haven’t seen what is apparently a jaw-dropping piece of cinematic greatness. I have a few problems with this practice. First, I don’t appreciate someone telling me what it takes to fulfill my life. I know what you’re going to say: “Ryan, they don’t actually think you’ve been deprived.” And I know that. But it still ticks me off. No matter how innocent, innocuous or in-jest it may be, telling someone that their life isn’t complete for not seeing a movie (or any reason for that matter) is just not cool. Also, if I decide that I actually want to see that movie, my expectations have been built up so much that the odds of me actually liking it decrease significantly.

Which segues us nicely into this week’s film, Pulp Fiction. I arrived on the Quentin Tarantino scene relatively late. I didn’t see my first Tarantino theatrical production until Inglorious Bastards and that was several years after it was released. I liked it, but didn’t love it. It was a fun movie but by the end of it, I’d seen enough blood for a good while. Then two years ago, Tarantino finally got me. And he got me good. With the help of Jamie Foxx, Christoph Walz, Leo DiCaprio and a disturbing yet wonderful Samuel L. Jackson, Tarantino grabbed me hook, line and sinker with Django Unchained. It was funny, thought provoking and, most importantly in my mind, original. When I would talk to people about Django, a lot of them would bring up Pulp Fiction and when I told them I hadn’t seen it, it was like I had kicked their dog. So this week, I blocked out two and a half hours and took the plunge. Check it out:

95. Pulp Fiction

Released: 1994
Big names: 
John Travolta, Samuel L. Jackson, Uma Thurman, Bruce Willis, Tim Roth, Christopher Walken, Harvey Keitel, Ving Rhames, Amanda Plummer, Steve Buscemi and Quentin Tarantino
One sentence summary: Still not really sure.
Scene that sticks out: John Travolta accidentally blowing a kid’s head off in Samuel L. Jackson’s car and acting like he had bumped into a guy in the supermarket. BONUS: All scenes with Jackson, specifically the ones where he quotes Isaiah.
Thoughts: I just didn’t get it. That’s really the long and short of my Pulp Fiction experience. Sure, there were some fun scenes. John Travolta getting his boogy on with Uma Thurman; John Travolta and his drug dealer trying to save an OD-ing Uma Thurman, Bruce Willis looking surprisingly attractive and just about every scene with Samuel L. Jackson. But that certainly didn’t fill two and a half hours. And the rest of the film didn’t feel like it was advancing any real plot line. You had Travolta and Jackson serving as muscle for the gangster Marcellus Wallace, Travolta entertaining Wallace’s wife Mia and Willis going on the run from Wallace after winning a boxing match he was supposed to lose. And yeah, they intertwined and connected eventually, but it all felt very…huh? After two and a half hours, I felt like I had spent a lot of time watching a lot of images and…I wasn’t really sure beyond that. My boyfriend explained to me that was the point, that it was supposed to be raw and unfinished. So maybe I’m just not a mature enough film consumer to appreciate it, but for me, it didn’t do the job.
Ranking (out of 10): 4-10 – Whether I fell prey to too-high expectations or I’m not a smart enough movie watcher, I was very underwhelmed.

What Actually Happened?

My biggest problem with this movie was that I felt that some things happened but I wasn’t really sure why or how or how it connected in a significant way. And that confusion persisted for two and a half hours. So I decided to go back and see what actually did happen (don’t worry, no spoilers). I’m not sure what this actually says or if it proves anything but you should still check it out. This was going to be a very sad attempt to recreate a much more impressive graphic from Fathom Information Design about the Rocky film series that is super cool and you should totally check out. But after 10 minutes, I realized that wasn’t going to happen. What’s below is what I came up with.

What Actually Happened-PS

NEXT WEEK: Grab some fava beans and a nice chianti because we’re watching The Silence of the Lambs.

Short, sweet and straight down the line

So I have an apology to make. I told you all that this week you would to get to find out what I thought about Quentin Tarantino’s classic Pulp Fiction. I was planning on watching it on Wednesday night but due to a conspiracy of the gods (AKA other work I had to do), it got pushed to Friday night. And then due to a continuation of that same conspiracy of the gods (AKA more work) my film watching experience was pushed to 11:00 PM on Friday night. So in this new time slot and with my proclivity for falling asleep as the night progresses, my critique of Tarantino’s 2.5 hour film would not have been up to the standards that I want to bring to you, my loyal readers.

So I started looking for a new film with a new criterium: short. After a bit of hunting, I found that The Maltese Falcon comes in at a cool 100 minutes. Unfortunately, Netflix does not stream The Maltese Falcon. But, fear not. To make up for its inability to provide me with TMF, it suggested that I might like either Double Indemnity or The African Queen. Well, it just so happens that both films are on our list and they run a crisp 107 and 105 minutes, respectively. After consulting my partner-in-crime and boyfriend, Fares Akremi, we selected Double Indemnity (which he then proceeded to sleep through in its entirety).

38. Double Indemnity

Released: 1944
Big names: Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck and Edward G. Robinson
One sentence summary: An insurance salesman gets more than he bargained for when he falls in love with a woman and helps her kill her husband and collect on his insurance.
Scene that sticks out: Stanwyck’s Phyllis Dietrichson staring at me from behind the wheel of the car while MacMurray’s Walter Neff kills her husband. Ice cold.
Thoughts: Why does it seem to take older movies so long to get to the good stuff? The first half of this movie is meh at best. MacMurray’s Neff tells us (through an on-screen narration which I liked) from the start that he killed Mr. Dietrichson, but the movie still spends close to an hour showing us how he does it. And it’s not exciting. He meets Phyllis, falls in love right away (don’t get me started on the love story. Is this a pre-Frozen Disney movie?), and quickly agrees to covertly sell her husband accident insurance, kill him, collect the money and run away with her. That could’ve been 15 minutes. Instead it’s an agonizing hour of lead up until the deed is actually done. And then it gets good. Edward G. Robinson is phenomenal as a claims adjuster who sniffs out phony claims with the help of his “Little Man” inside (its his gut – get your mind out of the gutter). His fast-paced, quick witted dialogue is brilliant and he’s at his best when he tears apart his boss’ attempt to rule Mr. Dietrichson’s death a suicide. From that point on, the movie picks up and we learn things that we haven’t known since the opening scene. The twists are shocking (but not altogether unsurprising), and the last 40 minutes provide all the action and intrigue you were looking for out of the whole movie.

Ranking (out of 10): 6-10 – If I was watching this movie on my own, I wouldn’t have made it all the way though. But I’m quite glad I did.

It’s How You Use It

The time crunch I had backed myself into this week made me curious about how long each of the AFI 100 Years…100 Movies were. Turns out that brevity is not a sin when it comes to great motion pictures. In fact, 14 films on the list have running times of less than 100 minutes and two more, King Kong and the aforementioned The Maltese Falcon, are 100 minutes on the dot. Take a look.

Out of the 100 "best" films of all time, nearly 1/6 have run times of less than 100 minutes.

Out of the 100 “best” films of all time, nearly 1/6 have run times of less than 100 minutes.

NEXT WEEK: We give Pulp Fiction another try.