Top 5 Tuesday: Martin Scorsese

I thought it was high time that The Lantern finally give one of America’s greatest filmmakers his due. In all honesty, I am somewhat embarrassed that it has taken me this long to post a list honoring the legendary Martin Scorsese. But to make up for my negligence, I thought it would be a good idea to get two separate Top 5’s composed by two huge Marty fans…Phil Carbo (who writes the ‘Ludovico Files‘ page) was gracious enough to share his personal favorites…and I have my own 5 faves here as well. And we are both in agreement…with so many classic films to choose from (including his many documentaries & shorts) since the late 1960’s, this was one challenging task. Five slots go way too quickly, and many great films are unfortunately left off both lists. Not only is he a master director constantly pushing the boundaries of filmmaking, but he has done so much for the preservation of film – and that, my friends, is pretty awesome. I mean really, is there anyone you would rather learn about the history of film than this guy? The man is a walking encyclopedia of movie knowledge. I can hear him speak about movies for hours and still want more. And to think that before becoming one of our most cherished directors, he was seriously considering a life as a priest. Instead, he became one of the most influential directors of the modern era — and at age 68, is still hard at work and entertaining us all. Here are our lists…they are surprisingly similar (so much for diversity…sorry guys), which surprised me just a bit. ENJOY!

Phil Carbo’s Top 5:

5. Bringing Out the Dead (1999)

I’m sure many will think this is an odd choice and question whether this is truly one of the top-5 films of Scorsese’s storied career but to me, while not bringing the best plot or pacing to the table, Bringing out the Dead is a film that is quintessential Scorsese.  First, it reunites him with screenwriter Paul Schrader and the two have an undeniable chemistry.  Schrader’s scripts typically reveal the darker side of New York and this film is, despite its slow pace, a perfect vehicle for Marty’s trademark, hyper kinetic style: close-ups, dolly shots, lightning edits, fast motion and all enhanced with a classic rock soundtrack that is prototypical Scorsese.  Sure Nicolas Cage is over the top — but when is he not?  Marty’s vision here actually lends itself to the hyped-up, manic performances.  Filmed almost entirely at the darkest hours of the night, it progressively exhibits a surrealness and frantic absurdity that feels born out of a nightmare.

4. After Hours (1985)

Speaking of nightmares, the kinetic pace and off-the-wall oddness of this black comedy plays out like a bad dream for both Griffin Dunne’s character and the viewer. Little known fact: Tim Burton was originally attached to the project, which would have been interesting because After Hours seems like more of a Burton film…but Scorsese, of course, makes the material his own.  One of his few comedies, he once again exposes the darker side of New York as the city becomes a central character.  As mentioned, the film taps into many of the motifs we all find in our dreams (the reoccurrence of locations, the feeling that one is running and running but can’t seem to get away, and a seeming randomness to everything going on).  The film ends strangely (apparently a point of contention during filming), seeming to imply that the “normalcy” of a 9-5 office existence is not necessarily a bad thing.  Whatever you take from it, one thing is certain – this is one of Scorsese’s more visually arresting films.

3. Taxi Driver (1976)

This film and my next are pretty much no-brainers.  When one thinks of Scorsese, it’s impossible for Taxi Driver to NOT come to mind.  It is a dark and deliberately paced film and contains one of DeNiro’s top 5 best performances.  Story aside, it is impossible not to marvel at the craft of filmmaking Scorsese brings to this film.  From the opening shot of the taxi driving slowly through puffs of city steam to the shocking and graphic shootout (that ironically turns Travis from psychopath to hero – at least in the public eye) the entire film has an uneasy edge.  Marty developed his trademark themes of alienation and Christian guilt in early films such as Mean Streets, but with Taxi Driver he was at the top of his game, and in the process helped to define the gritty, maverick style that 70’s film is known for (and sadly missed).

2. Raging Bull (1980)

From opening frame to end, Raging Bull showcases the artistic genius of Scorsese like no other. Filmed in black and white (with one amazingly inventive color sequence), Raging Bull lays bare the tragic despair of Jake LaMotta, a man so full of self-loathing, that he abuses and alienates everyone around him, including his wife and brother with unspeakable brutality. Robert DeNiro once again proves his incredible ability to morph into character like no other actor of his time.  The violence both in and out of the ring is graphic, with close-ups of blood spurting from open wounds, and dialogue that makes some scenes downright uncomfortable to watch; all ultimately help us understand this unrepentant character.  This film was made during a difficult time in Scorsese’s life.  He was battling addiction and saw a bit of himself in LaMotta’s fall from grace. In this sense, it’s one of Scorsese’s most personal and autobiographic films (the theme of redemption comes up in many of his more accomplished works).  As a side note: It’s also the first time Joe Pesci would give an ass-kicking to Frank Vincent (a recurring cycle in several subsequent films until Vincent gets his ultimate revenge in Casino).

1. Goodfellas (1990)

I could easily write a Masters’ thesis on Goodfellas.  In my opinion, it’s not only Scorsese’s best, but it also happens to be my favorite film of all-time. It’s the first film that made me understand the medium as an art form. Goodfellas takes all the elements of great cinema to create the feeling that you are experiencing all of the joys, anger, paranoia, and desperation of each character.  And truth be told, I wasn’t even that interested in seeing it when released in 1990.  My friends had to convince me into going.  This probably had something to do with the fact that I had recently watched Sergio Leone’s ganster epic, Once Upon a Time in America, and while a good film, is just too slow for my taste.  At nearly 2 ½ hours, I suppose I expected the same from Goodfellas, but boy… was I wrong.  From the very moment the title zooms across the screen to a revving engine to Sid Vicious’ cover of “My Way” over the end credits, the movie never fails to electrify in its brilliance.  Scorsese has since made other phenomenal films in the genre (Casino, Gangs of New York and The Departed come to mind), but Goodfellas sets the gold standard for a plethora of the modern crime dramas that followed and remains the high-water mark of Marty’s career.

Peter’s Top 5:

5. Gangs of New York (2002)

I had about three different films in this slot before finally deciding on this ambitious work. More than any other Scorsese film in recent years, this one for me most resembles his stellar films of the 70’s & 80’s. I love the historical context of Lower New York’s “Five Points” district (1846 – 1862) and how Scorsese creates this past world. Daniel Day-Lewis gives another towering performance here as “Bill the Butcher,” the leader of the natives looking to oust all of the immigrants making their way to shore. John C. Reilly, Liam Neeson, and Jim Broadbent give fine supporting performances. I’m not a Leo-hater by any means and his performance here is adequate, but his irregular Irish accent does bother me. The production design and period costumes are stunning – and the camerawork is gripping. A majestic American tale – and my favorite Scorsese movie of the past 10+ years.

4. After Hours (1985)

I know many would put his other black comedy King of Comedy (1982) on the list instead, and I would have no problem with that. But for me, this cult classic is one of my all-time favorite comedies. Joseph Minion’s script is an absolute trip, the camera never stops moving, and the all-star cast turn in some great performances. This is a wonderfully quirky and imaginative “New York movie” following the many misadventures and dangers that sheepish Paul Hackett (Griffin Dunne) encounters one evening as he simply tries to make his way home. As Phil cites above, Tim Burton was slated to direct this first – but seeing it now, I can’t imagine anyone else doing it. This is a genuine Scorsese flick and a must-see for any fan of his work.

3. Taxi Driver (1976)

A classic, gritty New York motion picture. Seeing it years later gives you such an authentic sense of how Manhattan (especially the seedier parts of it) was in the 1970’s. This is early Robert DeNiro, which means he gave it his Method-best (wish he were still here with us, btw). As the lonely, dejected ex-Marine Travis Bickle, DeNiro gives us one of the silver screen’s most terrifying characters – a ticking time bomb that can go off at any time as he drives through the streets of New York late at night, disgusted at what he sees. Scorsese assembled a great supporting cast – led by a young Jodie Foster, Harvey Keitel, Albert Brooks, and Cybill Shepherd. Paul Schrader’s script is authentic and inspiring and Bernard Herrmann’s music captures Bickle’s state of mind perfectly. A graphically violent movie, it’s surely not for the faint-of-heart. But it remains a mesmerizing character picture with a fantastic denouement that resonates long after.

2. Goodfellas (1990)

A beautiful & explosive piece of filmmaking – and one of the very best mobster movies of all-time. I was always fascinated by how beautifully Scorsese and his creative team captured the many decades that this epic film spans…from the 1950’s through the 1980’s, Goodfellas encapsulates each period so well. The costumes, art direction, and music featured…all marvelously executed as we watch the rise and fall of the Lucchese crime family. Joe Pesci as the psychopathic Tommy DeVito is scary as hell, Lorraine Bracco was robbed of what should have been an Oscar-winning performance, DeNiro gives another well-crafted performance – and Ray Liotta does a terrific job of holding the entire film together. In fact, he has never been better. As impressive as the film is from a moviemaking standpoint, Scorsese managed to make this one hell of an entertaining flick – its 2 ½ hours breezing right by and you want another hour of it all. Love the “Layla” sequence and that impressive long tracking shot through the Copacabana is always a wonder to watch.

1. Raging Bull (1980)

In my opinion, this is Scorsese’s masterpiece. It is in no way one of those films I can turn on and watch at any time. I need to emotionally brace myself for this one because it is hard to stomach at times. Let’s face it…the guy is a fucking animal. Robert DeNiro is at the top of his game here as the brutish middleweight boxer Jake LaMotta,  giving arguably the best performance of his career and one of the greatest performances in film history. Joe Pesci is terrific as his brother. Calling Michael Chapman’s black-and-white photography breathtaking and stunning is still not doing justice to his work here. Thelma Schoonmaker’s editing is crisp and fierce. One of the greatest bio pictures ever made and an instant classic to be sure. This is a haunting, powerful film that is a mesmerizing piece of filmmaking. Marty’s best work to date.

Peter’s Honorable Mentions:

My Voyage to Italy (1999)
Casino (1995)

Top 5 Tuesday: Rotten Remakes

I think most film buffs approach remakes with glaring skepticism. And why wouldn’t we? Most remakes turn out to be pure crap – trying to rebuild/rehash a movie that was perfectly fine to begin with. Successful ones (True Grit, Let Me In, Scarface, The Ten Commandments) are few and far between. This year, we have two that are nothing short of sacrilegious (we already had Arthur, which falls into that very same category). As a product of growing up in the 1980’s (which I am not at all proud of), there is absolutely no reason why we need another Footloose. Yes, the 1984 film is completely dated, campy and oh-so 80’s – but that is part of its charm. This remake, which is based on the stage musical, looks to be a train wreck. And shame on you, Mr. Dennis Quaid for being a part of this…you’re better than that. We also have the American remake of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo to look forward to – and thank God because it has been over a full year since the original! David Fincher is an accomplished director with loads of talent – so it is shocking to see that he would rather regurgitate someone else’s work rather than bringing us something new and exciting this holiday season. Chances are I will not see either one. I usually stay far away from these remakes, mainly out of loyalty to the original. I can’t give Fincher’s film my $10. Sorry, there’s no way. I’d feel too dirty.

So in the spirit of remakes that should never be made – I thought I’d dedicate this week’s Top 5 Tuesday to five truly shitty remakes. Now, mind you, I haven’t seen all that many. On principle alone, I will look the other way more often than not. I could never cash in any dignity I might have to see remakes like Arthur (2011), The Stepford Wives (2004), Death at A Funeral (2010), or The Women (2008).  I have heard how horrendous they are and I don’t need to waste my time. But here are 5 that I was unfortunate enough to have seen. Please feel free to share your own!

5. Planet of the Apes (2001)

I have to say – I didn’t mind Tim Burton’s remake of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I enjoyed his Alice in Wonderland too. But this? This was uncalled for. All of the impressive make-up and special effects could not hide the fact that this was a total wash. And the terrible ending? Burton himself said that it wasn’t supposed to make any sense, and to me, that is inexcusable. It strikes me as very odd that most of these abysmal remakes tend to be of classic films that do not need another treatment. That is surely the case here, as the 1968 original starring Charlton Heston is a sci-fi classic. A fine cast assembled here – but the film is too self-involved with its heavy make-up and the story goes every which way. A terrible screenplay in fact – with none of the insight, irony and impact of its predecessor.

4. The Pink Panther (2006)

I will say that I admire Steve Martin – as a comedian, a writer, and as an actor, I have great respect for him. He seems like one very smart guy. But even smart guys make dumb mistakes. This is one of them. I am not a huge fan of the original films starring the enormously talented Peter Sellers, but I have always had a fond appreciation for them. Sellers brought a subtlety to the infamous role of Inspector Clouseau that was quite charming to viewers – we rooted for him, we were always on his side, and yes, many feel in love with this character. This was due obviously to Sellers’ approach, but also Blake Edwards. In this tragic remake, the only thing “funny” about it seems to be Steve Martin doing the French accent without any of the charm or wit of the original films. Everything is so grossly over-the-top and extremely childish in its comedic approach. Yes, the film made money and because of that, garnered an unworthy sequel – a sad statement in itself about what Americans are willing to go and see in the theaters. This may not be the travesty that was Son of the Pink Panther (1993), but it remains unoriginal, unimaginative, and worse yet, unfunny.

3. The Wicker Man (2006)

The original 1973 thriller is a cult classic and is still held in pretty high esteem. With good reason – it was friggin’ creepy! This Neil LaBute remake was just friggin’ funny – and not in a good way at all! Very reminiscent of Wiseau’s The Room. LaBute has potential as a filmmaker, but he hit all the wrong buttons on this one. And Nicolas Cage? Yeah, that guy who once took home an Oscar…he is nothing short of laughable in this. Cage can be really really good (Matchstick Men, Adaptation) or he can be really really bad (insert any of his action flicks here) – but in The Wicker Man, he is simply embarrassing. Every time he yells or begins to lose it here, it is funny to watch, especially when he points a gun at Rose and proclaims, “Step away from the bike!” This is bad stuff, people. It makes for a funny “comedy,” but that surely was not LaBute’s intention – and for that, this goes down as a futile faux pas.

2. Psycho (1998) 

Isn’t the point of attempting to direct a remake to bring one’s own unique vision to the work? To enhance the original somehow? To add one’s own artistic sensibilities? Not for hit-or-miss director Gus Van Sant who decided to re-create an American classic by simply doing a shot-for-shot version of the original. In English class this is called plagiarism. In movieland, it should be called lazy and insipid. First, why even attempt to remake a staple in cinematic history directed by the man known by many as “the master of suspense.” This was an embarrassment and nothing short of pointless. Van Sant was able to assemble a fine cast for his needless experiment, but that didn’t help at all. Critic Leonard Maltin hit it dead-on when he called the movie, “an insult, rather than a tribute to a landmark film.”

1. Swept Away (2002)

I’ve walked out of a movie theater only a handful of times in my life. This was one of them. In my defense, I was “forced” to go and I went unwillingly, knowing of the atrocity which waited for me. And I took my seat — and watched. But I simply couldn’t take it anymore – the pretentiousness, the silliness, the arrogance, the boredom. I had to get up and get out. And really – should I have expected anything more from director Guy Ritchie? What made the original 1974 film (directed by Lina Wertmueller) so amazingly effective was that it managed to make a significant statement as to social classes in society in a very controversial way. It was also sexy and romantic with two remarkably talented lead stars (Giancarlo Giannini and Mariangela Melato). Viewed by many as being somewhat misogynistic (which I totally disagree with), I always found it fascinating that it was directed by a woman. This remake was a vanity project from start to finish and never should have been attempted, especially with Madonna in the lead role. She was a disaster. And I don’t give her most of the blame – this is all Ritchie’s inadequacies, as writer and director of this miscarriage.

And 4 More for Good Measure — Because These Stunk Too!

Poseidon (2006)
The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008)
Sabrina (1995)
Gloria (1999)

Top 5 Tuesday: Spooky Stephen King

According to IMDb, Stephen King’s wonderful novel Bag of Bones is currently in production for a TV series. This made me very happy as I am a very big fan of that book and, of the writer himself. Mr. King and his writing talents get short-changed by many critics, mostly because he is so insanely popular. I have always believed that the enormity of his success has hindered his standing as one of our country’s finest modern-day writers. But anyone who has had the opportunity to read his insightful book, On Writing will truly be able to have a deeper appreciation for the author as he speaks to the art and craft of the writing process.

So Stephen King has written a bazillion short stories and novels – and a bazillion films have been adapted from these works. Some brilliantly executed, while others – eh, not so much (there are actually 7 Children of the Corn films). I thought to devote this weeks Top 5 Tuesday to the scary films based on his stories. Now before you start screaming, “Where the hell is The Shawshank Redemption?! Stand By Me? How can you forget The Green Mile?” I will state up front that I chose to stick with the horror/thriller genre, which constitutes about 90% of the movies. For the record, both “Shawshank” and “Green Mile” would positively make my Top 5, as I think they are both marvelous films directed by the very talented Frank Darabont. But since Stephen King is mostly associated with “the spooky,” I stayed in that direction.

I’m not a connoisseur on horror films by any means. But I do enjoy a good scary movie every now and then, and I especially admire the few smart horror films released (last year’s Let Me In, for example, was terrific, based on the even better Swedish film). And I have enjoyed many films based on the works of Mr. King through the years. Here is what I consider the 5 best:

5. Firestarter (1984)

I know this may not be included on everyone’s list, but I appreciate and enjoy this science fiction thriller an awful lot. Based on one of King’s earlier works, Mark L. Lester does a very good job at bringing his vision to the screen. One standout here is that King adapted the screenplay himself, which has rarely been the case since. The story is a good one too. Little Charlie McGee (Drew Barrymore) has a powerful and dangerous gift for a young girl…pyrokinesis. The United States government is threatened by this and wants to take her away from her father (David Keith) for their own use. The father, Andrew McGee, had previously participated in a medical experiment that gave him telekinetic ability. The father-daughter relationship here is played very nicely. And a strong supporting cast (which includes Art Carney, Martin Sheen, and Louise Fletcher) gets to shine here too, especially George C. Scott as the enigmatic John Rainbird. It may look a bit dated at this point, but the story and Lester’s execution still holds up mighty well. Like Carrie and Cujo, Firestarter ranks among the best early movie adaptations of Sir King.

4. Misery (1990)

I’m not a big fan of Rob Reiner at all, but I can’t deny the fact that he did a terrific job at bringing this tremendous 1987 novel to the screen. Unlike most of King’s stories, this one doesn’t have a supernatural element to it – but it is, at times, horrifying – and in many areas (mainly due to the splendid editing), very suspenseful. James Caan plays Paul Sheldon, the famed novelist who gets into a terrible car accident on his way west with his brand new novel. He is “rescued” by Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates), a nurse, and brought to her remote home. Sheldon’s #1 fan promises to take good care of him. Caan and Bates have a wonderful dynamic together – and Ms. Bates gives one of cinema’s most horrifying performances – so well-deserving of the Oscar she won for her work here. The character is already enmeshed in film lore (“You dirty bird!”) and though most of the movie takes place in her home, Reiner keeps the film from feeling claustrophobic. It’s a marvelous story woven by Mr. King – with a terrific screen adaptation by William Goldman, one of our best screenwriters. And Mr. Caan, known mainly for playing “the tough guy” or “hothead,” is also so good. It is refreshing to see him play such a composed character – and one who is so utterly helpless. Misery is a beautifully shot film that always has me putting my hands to my face.

3. The Dead Zone (1983)

David Cronenberg directed this wonderfully creepy, suspenseful and thought-provoking flick. Christopher Walken plays a mild-mannered schoolteacher who gets in a terrible car wreck and awakens from a coma five years later, only to find his former life all but gone. He has however developed the fantastical ability to tell a person’s secrets simply by touching them. When he shakes hands with the Senatorial candidate Greg Stillson (Martin Sheen), he foresees him becoming president of the United States and the man behind instigating a nuclear war with Russia. The film raises some provocative questions – but it is clear this all stems from the mind of Stephen King. The hunt for a local serial killer is eerie indeed and Walken’s telekinetic visions are gripping. Walken is terrific, as he’s given a great character to sink his teeth into. The film deserves mention on this list solely for the way he screams to a young boy’s obstinate father, “THE ICE IS GONNA BREAK!” It’s perfect Walken!

2. The Mist (2007)

I love this film! Love it, love it, love it!!! And how awesome is Frank Darabont at bringing King’s work to the screen?! This is a sensational and courageous piece of filmmaking – horrifying, profound, enthralling – and has one of the very best endings in recent years. The ensemble cast is stellar – all recognizable faces, but I am so glad they decided not to go “the star route” with this one. Andre Braugher, Marcia Gay Harden, William Sadler, Frances Sternhagen, Toby Jones, and Jeffrey DeMunn are all given such rich characters to play with and they are all wonderful here. The film though, revolves around family man David Drayton (played by Thomas Jane, who I had not heard of before, and hold the film together quite nicely). After a terrible storm, David takes his young boy to the local grocery store. The store loses power and the patrons are then alerted to a mysterious, oncoming mist. Most of the action from here on out takes place in the store as the shoppers are literally trapped. And what is outside (not to mention what attacks the store) is spine-chilling and great fun to watch! Some amazing elements take place between the locals as they remain trapped and form their own sects within. Fascinating religious themes come into play and again, King illustrates how well he knows how the human mind works in dire situations. A must-see horror movie – a must-see movie period!

1. The Shining (1980)

Is this really a surprise to anyone? I know Mr. King wasn’t exactly thrilled with what director Stanley Kubrick did with his superb 1977 novel, but this is a horror classic, and surely one of the very best ever made. The TV mini-series was nothing compared to this absolutely sinister film. As caretaker for the stately Overlook Hotel, Jack Nicholson gives a sensational, multi-layered and horrifying performance. Of course, he is perfectly cast here. Shelley Duvall, a seemingly unusual choice to play his wife, counters Nicholson perfectly. We are treated to gorgeous cinematography, impeccable production design and a sense of terror from the very opening of the film. Those freaky twins, the woman in Room 237, Grady telling Jack what must be done with his wife and child, the elevator, REDRUM – it all makes for a beautifully woven creepfest helmed by one of film’s greatest directors. The ambiguous ending (with the black-and-white photograph) always fascinates me – with the song “Midnight, the Stars, and You” eerily playing in the background. Even if “Shawshank” were in the mix for this list, I’m not entirely sure if this masterful film still wouldn’t be at the very top – it’s that freakin’ good!

Top 5 Tuesday: David Mamet

As a devoted fan of the theater, I have long been a fan of the works of the prolific playwright David Mamet dating back to his edgy early works from the 1970’s. I always look forward to his new plays and books – and seeing productions penned by him whenever I can. Of course, it didn’t take very long for Hollywood to recognize his brilliant writing talents and he has been writing feature films since the 1981 remake of The Postman Always Rings Twice. He has since written over 20 screenplays and has proved himself to be a notable filmmaker as well, having written/directed ten movies, debuting with House of Games (which Roger Ebert called the best film of the year – this, when the venerable reviewer was still critical and on top of his game). While re-watching Sidney Lumet’s wonderful 1982 film The Verdict last week (which was written for the screen by Mr. Mamet), I was inspired to devote this week’s Top 5 Tuesday to the works of one of today’s greatest writers. Narrowing it down to only five proved to be very challenging, but here are the chosen ones that Mr. Mamet wrote or directed or both.

5. Wag the Dog (1997)

A truly witty, marvelous and affecting political satire. Directed by Oscar-winner Barry Levinson, the script here just bleeds one Mamet line after another (“We’re not gonna have a war, we’re gonna have the appearance of a war”) which is a delight to take in. It is nearing election time and the president of the United States is facing a career-destroying sex scandal. Conrad Brean (Robert DeNiro), one of his top advisors, hires a seasoned Hollywood producer (Dustin Hoffman) to create a war through the media so that the president can come out the hero. The producer asks, “I’m in show business, why come to me?” to which Conrad responds, “War is show business, that’s why we’re here.” Great stuff. The chosen country? Poor Albania. And what the two are able to stage in our fight against this little country is laugh-out-loud funny. DeNiro and Hoffman shine here — and they have a terrific supporting cast to work with. Though incredibly funny (especially Hoffman chewing up the scenery), there is a lot to frighten the viewer — and the film’s end is powerful and tragic. Mamet co-wrote the script with Hilary Henken — very intriguing to see him work with another.

4. Homicide (1991)

Perhaps this one may not rank among the favorites for fans of David Mamet, but it grows on me each time I see it. I think it is one of his strongest, most intelligent works — and for those familiar with Mamet’s script and prose, you can easily tell that the subject matter is a very close and personal one to him. Jewish homicide detective Bob Gold (Joe Mantegna) is trying to capture a murderer — until he is suddenly re-assigned to another case…one for him, that he wants no part of. Like a lot of Mamet’s works, a primary theme to this engaging, insightful and powerful film is the search for the self. Gold is a lost man, though he may not be aware of this at the onset of the film. But this new “minor” murder case takes him on a journey that opens his eyes to the world around him and to his very own roots. Mamet has always handled the issue of race head-on, but with tremendous authenticity — and he does the same here. Mantegna is incredible here and again, as in other works, the film goes in directions that you surely do not expect. This was Mamet’s third effort as a film director, and his growth and maturity in style are evident. His style is not at all flashy — he works only to tell his story. But this remains a great work — and it gets better with each viewing.

3. The Verdict (1982)

A remarkable film and one of the very best courtroom dramas of all-time. This was Mamet’s 2nd screenplay and his early style and rhythms are easily detectable here. Frank Galvin (a magnificent Paul Newman) is an ambulance chasing, alcoholic lawyer with a questionable past. He is given the opportunity to spiritually redeem himself and salvage a tarnished career when he takes on a medical malpractice case. Though his case is very strong, the forces working against him (and there are many, including a judge who acts way out of line) push him to the brink. Galvin is repeatedly offered to settle, but the case proves to be about much more than just dollars for him. Newman turns in one of his greatest performances here (which in itself is saying a hell of a lot), and Mamet’s dialogue rings genuine, gritty, and smart. The characters are beautifully woven and the arc he creates for his protagonist is the stuff of great screenwriting. There were many scripts being considered for this film adaptation — and it is easy to see why Lumet went with this one. And though Mamet initially kept the actual verdict out of his script, Lumet convinced him otherwise, which makes for a ending that keeps you on the edge of your seat. A triumph in every way.

2. House of Games (1986)

There are those who would argue that The Sting is the greatest con film ever made. I would make one strong case for this dark, twisting, brilliant film that marked Mamet’s directorial debut from his very own ingenious script. A famous psychiatrist (Lindsay Crouse) decides to help one of her patients who is in grave danger for incurring gambling debts with the wrong people. By doing so, she is introduced to a shadowy and seedy underworld inhabited by con men. She is befriended by Mike (a perfectly cast Joe Mantegna) who shows her the ins and outs of getting other people’s money. The film is dark and makes for a wonderful modern film noir. You never know what the next move will be and the numerous twist-and-turns keep you forever guessing. Mamet has also brilliantly captured the nuances of speech of these diabolical people (“It’s called a confidence game. Why? Because you give me your confidence? No. Because I give you mine”). What’s fascinating to note is that he makes Mike and his merry men very likable people and in a way, we kind of root for them. Their small bits and witty banter show their strong comraderie and their affection for one another. Ricky Jay and the late J.T. Walsh are standouts here. But the story revolves around Crouse’s doctor — she is finding out about herself throughout the course of the movie. And what she ends up discovering might be more frightening than getting conned out of all your life savings. This is a superb achievement in filmmaking — and Mamet truly made a remarkable splash as a director here. If you haven’t seen it and you are into dark, stylized noirs — this is a must-see.

1. Glengarry Glen Ross (1992)

The play was monumental and to make a successful transition to film can be very challenging. Some make the transition seamlessly (like this one), while others (like Mamet’s American Buffalo) aren’t nearly as successful. It is also an oddity that the film’s classic scene where Blake (an impressive Alec Baldwin) comes in to berate all of the salesmen present wasn’t even in the actual play. The all-star cast here are all on the top of their respective games, making this one of the greatest ensemble turns in film history. The mostly interior settings take place in the real estate office and the chinese restaurant across the street. The salesmen are all experiencing tough times and are given great incentive by Blake to produce — or else. Remember? A-I-D-A. Blake proclaims, “A-I-D-A. Attention, Interest, Decision, Action. Attention – Do I have you attention? Interest – Are you interested? I know you are, because it’s fuck or walk. You close or you hit the bricks. Decision – Have you made your decision for Christ? And Action.” The golden “glengarry leads” are stolen in the middle of the night and the 2nd act of the film is devoted to discovering who in fact could have swiped them. The dialogue is rapid-fire, obscene and pure Mamet.  Al Pacino, Ed Harris, Alan Arkin, and Kevin Spacey do a tremendous job at nailing down the cadence and rhythm of the dialogue — and Jack Lemmon gives (in my estimation) his finest performance. These are not likable men — and this is surely not a film for everyone. But those who do appreciate it can recite lines verbatim like they would any other cult classic. James Foley directed this film, which Mamet adapted for the screen — and as much as I admire House of Games, this had to be number one.  For those who have seen it, you know why. And always remember — coffee is for closers only.

Honorable Mentions

I know this is cheating, but any fan of the above-mentioned films or David Mamet himself, should do themselves a favor and watch a few of his other great works such as: the very funny State and Main (2000), the wonderfully woven The Spanish Prisoner (1997), his terrific Chicago-based dialogue in The Untouchables (1987), and the thought-provoking/controversial Oleanna (1994).

Top 5 Tuesday: Colin Farrell

In addition to the new ‘Friday Flashback’ segment, I thought to also include a ‘Top 5 Tuesday’ as well. Not too wordy – just a quick Top 5 list of various filmmakers, actors, movies, and such. And in watching Peter Weir’s inspiring (and beautifully shot) 2010 film The Way Back last week, I was reminded of how impressive and diverse the resumé of Colin Farrell is becoming. I know that he has a reputation for not being the most well-liked of celebrities, but every time I see him speak, he comes off as self-effacing, witty, intelligent, and genuine. I must admit, I like the guy – and more importantly, I like watching him work on screen. His idol Al Pacino (so he has awesome taste to boot) went so far as to call the Dublin-born star “the best actor of his generation” – and that might not be so absurd a thought. How many times have we heard that Johnny Depp or Edward Norton (both great talents) are so great at selecting the projects they work on…that they have such terrific range? This is, for the most part, quite true. But since bursting onto the scene, Farrell should start to be recognized as being in that very same boat. Courageous, smart choices (let us pardon him for Alexander and Miami Vice, shall we) in big-budget and indie films – showing remarkable range. Here are what I think Colin Farrell’s Top 5 Performances are to date:

5. Tigerland (2000)

Farrell really started to open some eyes with his Texan twang in this gritty Joel Schumacher film. The movie follows a small band of recruits inFort Polk, LA during their training before they are shipped off to war. Here, he played Private Roland Bozz, a draftee who opposes the Vietnam War and has a knack for getting into trouble and helping others get discharges. Farrell shows great range here and, though he appeared in The War Zone just a year prior, this was the role that launched his career of working with some of the world’s finest directors.

4. The Way Back (2010)

A great turn in a strong supporting role here. Farrell plays Valka, a Russian criminal who will stab you if you don’t give him your sweater when he demands it. But Farrell also makes sure to give his tough thug a soft side too, which he does gracefully (as he shows when he speaks of his beloved homeland). The film follows a group of prisoners who escape a Russian gulag during World War II only to walk 4,000+ miles to freedom inIndia. The movie is grand in scope with gorgeous art direction and cinematography. Farrell, as part of a terrific ensemble of international actors, stands out in his very complex role. I know he was not nominated for an Oscar, but I do hope he was given the serious consideration he rightfully deserved.

 

3. interMission (2003)

This Irish black comedy (directed by John Crowley) was one of the year’s very best, in my opinion. Again, Farrrell co-stars as a significant piece to a much larger puzzle playing Lehiff, a petty and dysfunctional criminal. The intersecting stories weave seamlessly throughout and, as usual, you can’t take your eyes away from what Farrell is doing on screen – especially in the scenes that involve Detective Jerry Lynch (Colm Meany), a man who has dedicated himself to ridding the streets of Dublin from scum like Lehiff. This movie went under the radar here in the States – and I would highly recommend it for anyone who missed it.  Yes, he has played the “tough guy” a few times, but he always manages to create many layers underneath that give us characters more depth and help us empathize with his plight.

 

2. At Home at the End of the World (2004)

Another huge box-office flop and another film that landed on my Top Ten Films of 2004. Why did no one see this heartwarming, funny, original, and beautifully crafted film (with a great score by Duncan Sheik)? Farrell gives a riveting, uninhibited performance here as Bobby Morrow, a young man who grew up only knowing tragedy – and becomes best friends with the awkward and openly gay Jonathan (Dallas Roberts) in high school. The two couldn’t be more opposite – but that is what makes them inseparable. The film follows their very close friendship through the years – as well as the 3rd party of the trio, Clare (Robin Wright Penn). Farrell creates a tender and “real” character in this moving Michael Mayer film. From the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Hours, this film covers a 12-year span – from the suburbs of Cleveland to the Big Apple. A great piece of storytelling – and again, Farrell brings to it, a great sense of warmth and humanity. 

1. In Bruges (2008)

Can you believe Farrell tried to talk writer/director Martin McDonagh out of casting him for this superb film??? Thank God, McDonagh didn’t listen. Not only is this a brilliant film (McDonagh’s first feature length), but Farrell once again gives a tremendous performance, this time playing Ray, a novice hitman who has been racked with guilt since botching his first assignment. He is sent by his boss Harry Waters (a wonderfully over-the-top Ralph Fiennes) to stay in Bruges with his elder accomplice Ken (Brendan Gleeson) until they receive further instructions. Really, Harry has ordered Ken to rub out Ray for the blown assignment. This is without a doubt a must-see film — and one of the best comedies to come out in recent years. Farrell’s chemistry with Gleeson throughout the film is terrific, which is absolutely key to making this original black comedy work. Farrell garnered a Golden Globe award for his stellar performance here — whatever that’s worth, as those awards are beyond ridiculous, but he creates a character we can completely empathize with…he makes us laugh throughout, but also adds such pathos to the confused hitman that we can’t help but feel sorry for him. I can’t say enough about this fantastic movie — and Farrell clearly shines, as he usually does. Now it’s time he starts getting noticed for doing so with each film he appears in.

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