music friday: pacific gas & electric, yusef lateef, robin trower
simon of the desert (luis buñuel, 1965)

revisiting the 9s: l.a. confidential (curtis hanson, 1997)

With this post, I begin a new series that will probably be VERY intermittent, if I remember to post at all. I've long known that while I have given my share of 10-out-of-10 ratings for movies over the years, in almost every case, those movies are fairly old. By rough count, I have only given the top rating to 16 non-documentaries from the 21st century. (For some reason, I don't have a problem giving tens to new documentaries.) So I got this idea to go back and revisit movies of relatively recent vintage that I gave a rating of 9, to see if time and perspective convinced me to bump that rating up to 10. Of course, it's always possible I'll drop the rating, but time will tell. The first movie in this series will be L.A. Confidential, which I last saw (and rated "9") in 2009. At that time, I wrote:

When I noticed that I had long ago give 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.

(I notice that back in 2009, L.A. Confidential was #486 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time. It is currently at #726, which shows how our impressions change over time.)

L.A. Confidential turns out to be the perfect film for me to examine my "9-not-10" tendencies. Because, as I said 12 years ago, "it really is that good". Looking back, I see that I actually have given a 10 rating to one movie from 1997: Princess Mononoke, my favorite movie from one of my favorite film makers. That sets a pretty high standard, and while the two films are of completely different genres, one question I can try to answer is simple: do I think L.A. Confidential is as good as Princess Mononoke, or is it more on the level of other 9-of-10 films from 1997 (Jackie Brown, the documentary Waco: The Rules of Engagement)? I suspect that it's more to the point of this project to ask if I think L.A. Confidential is as good as, say, The Big Sleep, another noirish film set in Los Angeles that was released in 1946, is one of my very favorite movies, and one that I gave a rating of 10 out of 10. In other words, is the only reason I give a 10 to The Big Sleep and a 9 to L.A. Confidential that one came out before I was born and one came out 24 years ago?

I appreciate how trivial this is. I'm convinced more than ever that ratings systems are more flawed than perfect. But without over-stating the importance of 9 vs. 10, the reason I want to try this project is precisely to answer that question about when I am willing to say, "this movie is as good as it gets". It's not about being "fair" to movies like L.A. Confidential or Jackie Brown if I give them a 9. But I do want to examine the process whereby I mostly call a movie "as good as it gets" if it's an older picture. When I was a grad student, I detested the notion that age defined greatness, but it seems to have worn off on me nonetheless.

So ... after seeing it (at least) three times, am I ready to state that L.A. Confidential is as good as it gets?

I think so. It presents an image of toxic masculinity that emphasizes the toxic ... eventually we root for Bud White (Russell Crowe) and Ed Exley (Guy Pearce), but they are very unlikeable. (Kevin Spacey, who rounds out the three main male characters, is sleazy in a different way.) Crowe gives a performance for the ages; it's no surprise he got Best Actor Oscar nominations three years in a row starting in 2000 (winning once). He looks like Bud White: a blockheaded muscleman. And everyone treats him like one, not to mention he thinks of himself in that way. But there is always something in Crowe's eyes that lets you know there's something beneath the surface, and when Kim Basinger's Lynn Bracken falls for him, you believe her when she says she sees beneath the bravado. Pearce was arguably better known than Crowe in the States at the time for The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. He plays the intellectual, prissy cop ... he wears glasses and is regularly reminded by his colleagues to "lose the glasses", because they emphasize his lack of toxicity. Of course, Ed Exley turns out to be just as toxic as everyone else. What's funny is, Pearce was once a bodybuilder (winning Junior Mr. Victoria), and he likely could crush any of the other actors, but he keeps his shirt (and glasses) on and presents as the opposite of a bodybuilding stereotype.

The film does a good job of showing the men's gradual realization that things are not what they seem. It doesn't critique the toxicity ... you could argue toxicity wins in the end. But like Crowe's Bud White, L.A. Confidential is more than just a blockheaded muscleman. Meanwhile, it's Basinger who won the Oscar (no other actors were nominated). She's deserving enough, although I might have gone with Julianne Moore in Boogie Nights.

I haven't even talked about the recreation of Los Angeles in the 1950s (it's tremendous), and there is plenty of subtext besides the questioning of masculinity if you're so inclined. Yes, this movie is a 10.


Charlie Bertsch

I need to rewatch this. I liked it a lot when it came out. But that was a time when I was seeing LOTS of movies in theaters and had a hard time sorting through all that content to find out what I considered "best".

The book is really good, too. I can't remember if we ever discussed Ross McDonald's work, but Ellroy is a worthy successor.

Steven Rubio

We recorded our latest video chat for YouTube last night, and talked about this movie. I mentioned Ellroy was the impetus for my watching it back when it came out. I think the movie does him right, although it's not as viciously brutal as Ellroy can be. I regret that I didn't make Macdonald the third chapter in my diss ... all that time I spent reading Mickey Spillane is lost to me forever :-).

Jeff Vaca

I'm pretty sure I've seen this more than a dozen times - it's one of my all-time favorites. Steven, your comment about the film doing Ellroy right was borne out by the author himself at a book signing I attended about a year after the movie came out. Even though the entire "Disney" subplot was left out of the movie, Ellroy made a comment along the lines of the film getting "the heart of the book" exactly right. I'd been at a book signing in the late 80s where he roundly criticized the film made of his book "Blood on the Moon," so I took his comment about L.A. Confidential as high praise.

Steven Rubio

Interesting to hear that. Heart of the book indeed ... nowadays, it would be a six-part miniseries and they'd add stuff in.

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