The Searchers (John Ford, 1956). Such an acknowledged classic that you might forget how many lesser moments it includes. The core story of racist Ethan Edwards’ obsessive quest for his “Indianized” niece remains startling and disturbing. To say it is John Wayne’s greatest performance is to ignore a lot of other great work on his part, but along with Red River it’s his “darkest” role, and he makes the most of it. There are some other fine performances, Ward Bond’s in particular, but there are also some duds … Jeffrey Hunter isn’t the best, pretty much every actor playing an ethnic type is all type and no stereo, Hank Worden’s canny loon is too over the top. And the other plotlines are like reverse versions of Kitty Carlisle and Allan Jones in A Night at the Opera … those two stop the comedy dead in its tracks, the “comic relief” scenes in The Searchers do the same thing in the opposite way, stopping the drama for no apparent purpose. John Ford has had better success in other movies at portraying community on the frontier, but this time, his characters are caricatures. These aren’t nitpicks … if you haven’t seen The Searchers for awhile, you’ll be surprised how much screen time is taken up with the crummier stuff. But the iconic scenes overwhelm most concerns. #7 (yes, 7!) on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time.
Waltz With Bashir (Ari Folman, 2008). Perhaps since documentaries purport to offer up the “real,” I tend to find the particular structures of this or that documentary to be of particular interest. There are straightforward documentaries that attempt to disguise their art, in order to seem hyperreal, and there are documentaries that draw attention to their methods in order to push a certain angle. Waltz With Bashir is about a lot of things, but I felt the Rashomon-like “tricks of memory” part the most interesting, and I think the animation worked in that regard. Everything in the movie “really happened,” except maybe not … we get the memories of various participants, and they don’t always agree with each other (director/star Ari Folman claims not to remember his own participation, and the film is the story of his attempt to get at the truth of his own life via the anecdotal evidence of his old friends). Some of the memories are off-center, and others are hallucinatory … thus, the animation is not only appropriate, it may be the only way to tell the story. Waltz With Bashir begins and ends with unforgettable images that couldn’t be more different: the snarling dogs that assault the viewer in the beginning suggest that what will follow might have a psychedelic edge, while the shock cut to actual news footage at the end forces us to accept that underneath faulty memories and artful animation, there are real people suffering. #86 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 250 films of the 21st century.
Laura (Otto Preminger, 1944). At least as gay as Bewitched … Judith Anderson = Agnes Moorehead, Vincent Price = Paul Lynde, or maybe Clifton Webb is Paul Lynde, which makes Price = Dick Sargent. The plot is silly piled on silly, but the movie is concise (only 9 minutes longer than Booty Call), which isn’t to say it moves fast … it barely moves at all. There’s enough subtext going on to fulfill the requirements of a term paper in cultural studies, and the whole thing is unforgettable in its way, although I personally wouldn’t call it a classic. #304 on the TSPDT Top 1000.
L.A. Confidential (Curtis Hanson, 1997). When I noticed that I had long ago given this movie a rating of 9 on a scale of 10, I was a bit surprised … I remembered liking it, but not THAT much. Well, I just watched it again, and it really is that good. Russell Crowe is a very scary force of nature in this one, and it’s easy to forget now that Americans didn't know anything about him at the time. Brutal, never boring, with characters who gradually emerge with more depth, not just to serve the plot but because the movie is interested in character. #486 on the TSPDT Top 1000.
The Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigelow, 2008).