#71 Saving Private Ryan

1998’s war epic, Saving Private Ryan, makes our list at #71. 1998 was not the greatest year for cinema in general, which makes it kind of laughable that Saving Private Ryan lost out in the Oscar race to the deeply mediocre film, Shakespeare in Love. It wasn’t the first or last time that the academy got it wrong, but surely it was one of the worst misses.

The film opens with a scene of a man crying at a graveyard (we later learn that this is an older Private Ryan) then quickly pivots to a graphic depiction of the storming of Normandy as troops land on Omaha Beach, taking heavy casualties before they eventually take out German gunners. The scene is over 20 minutes long and has to be among the longest battle scenes ever made in a war movie. We then learn of the Ryan family, a family of 4 brothers, 3 of whom were killed in the Normandy invasion. General Marshall decides that the 4th brother must be found and brought home so that his mother doesn’t lose all 4 boys. Captain John Miller (Tom Hanks) is asked to assemble a small crew to find Ryan. The rest of the film follows their quest to find him and the many battles that they get in along the way. In the end, Ryan (Matt Damon) is found almost by pure chance on their journey. Before they take him back, they are faced with an attack from German tanks and in the ensuing battle, almost the entire squad is killed, including Captain Miller, whose final words to Ryan are “earn it” – in other words, live a life worthy of the sacrifice that has been made to find him. We flash forward back to the grave scene with Ryan asking his wife if he is a good man.

The film is remarkable for a number of reasons. The depictions of war are the best that I have ever seen – intense, graphic and fully engrossing. Tom Hanks, as expected, turns in a phenomenal performance and develops a rich and interesting character, a small town school teacher turned into tough army Captain. The supporting cast is incredible, Ed Burns is fantastic as the angry and insubordinate Private Reiben and Vin Diesel is well-cast in the one kind of role that he plays well, flippant badass Private Caparzo. There are also great performances by Paul Giamatti and Tom Sizemore and a brief, but emotionally powerful delivery by Damon as Ryan.

The film has some flaws too – some of the technical details of the battle scenes are spot on, but the final battle scene is a bit non-sensical and there are some other minor technical errors in the Omaha Beach scene and some overall historical and geographical inaccuracies.

While the battle scenes are epic, what really makes the film is its subtler and softer moments, such as Miller revealing his home life or Ryan talking about his final time together with his brothers. The characters in the film are deeply human and you see in full view how raw human emotions and errors translate into acts of brutality in war and about the constant moral gray space that exists in human combat. I wish the film had contained a little more reckoning with the acts soldiers committed in the field of combat – the trauma of killing other humans, especially from men plucked out of lives that were so different, is a subject worth a deeper exploration. There were also other issues that the film largely sidesteps, such as the segregation of the military during World War 2 – we never see a black solider, though there certainly were many at Normandy. This is clearly a tribute film to the men who served in the war, but tributes should contain full histories.

All-in-all, this is a hugely influential film that is both riveting and thought-provoking to watch. What else could you really ask for in a movie?

Production Quality 10/10

Screenplay 8/10

Acting 10/10

Rewatch Value 9/10

Total Score: 37/40

#72 The Shawshank Redemption

1994 was a heck of a year for films. It featured three that made it onto the AFI list – Pulp Fiction (previously reviewed), Forrest Gump (previously reviewed) and The Shawshank Redemption. It also was the year that Quiz Show came out, which I feel likely also deserved a spot on the list, although it didn’t make the cut.

The Shawshank Redemption tells the story of the fictional Shawshank prison in Maine in the 1940s through the 1960s through the eyes of Andy Dufrense (played by Tim Robbins), a banker who is wrongly convicted of his wife’s murder and Red Redding (played by the incomparable Morgan Freeman, who also narrates the film) who is serving a life sentence. The film opens with ambiguity – we aren’t sure if Andy did it or not and quickly moves into the brutal realities of prison life – sadistic guards, gangs of rapists, beatings that break a man. Red gets Andy and some of his other buddies work on an outside work detail and a key turning point is when Andy offers to help a guard with a tax issue in exchange for a few beers for the crew. This quickly becomes Andy’s calling cards and he helps all of the guards with their taxes. In exchange, they beat one of his tormentors within an inch of his life and nobody bothers Andy anymore. Andy gets reassigned to an easier job working in the library under Brooks, an older long-time inmate there. Andy writes letters to the State Senate trying to get more funds for the library and ultimately succeeds in getting funding. Brooks gets parol, but can’t take life on the outside and hangs himself. The warden launches a new prison labor program and enlists Andy to help him embezzle and launder money from the program, which Andy does, filtering funds to phony accounts with a fake name. Andy starts mentoring a young petty thief who has joined the prison, Tommy, to pass his GED. Tommy confides in Andy that a former cellmate of his confessed to killing Andy’s wife. Andy asks the warden to help him investigate this, but the warden angrily sends him to the hole and arranges to have Tommy killed, to keep Andy incarcerated. Red talks to Andy who tells him about a spot in a cornfield, under a rock that Red should go look if he is ever paroled and says that if he ever gets out, he is going to head down to a beach town in Mexico. Red thinks Andy is suicidal and worries about him all night. It turns out that Andy has escaped – he had slowly dug a tunnel behind a pin-up picture in his cell and crawled through that tunnel into a sewage pipe to escape. Andy goes around and collects all the money, representing himself as the imaginary account holder. He makes his way down to Mexico and sends that authorities information on the warden’s embezzlement. The warden takes his own life. Red eventually gets parole and makes his way to the cornfield, only to uncover a note from Andy asking him to join him in Mexico, along with some money. The last scene is Andy and Red reuniting on the beach in Mexico.

This is a powerful film – the acting performances are, as you would expect from the two leads, top notch. Morgan Freeman is perhaps the best narrator who ever lived. And the story strikes an impressive balance – it portrays the brutality of prison life without descending into hopelessness, it gives you characters to root for who are deeply imperfect and it builds a highly believable friendship between Andy and Red that doesn’t feel at all forced. It is on the long side at 140 minutes, but honestly zips by. Of all the films on the AFI list, this is the one that I hear most frequently cited by causal movie watchers as their favorite and for good reason – it has something to say and deep, rich characters but is never too heavy-handed or opaque.

Is it flawless? Of course not – the villains in the film are a bit on-dimensional – the warden would be more interesting if he had some redeeming qualities and the brutal pack of rapists are presented without complexity. Some of the plot elements are a bit questionable in their validity – how can Andy possibly know that all the landmarks that he is giving to Red even still exist 20 years in? There also seems to be intentionally almost no effort to age the characters with the passing of time – it is disconnecting to see Andy look the same age 20 years into his prison sentence that he does the day he arrives. But these are minor flaws in a film that has so much going for it. The Shawshank Redemption is an all time great film because it tells a compelling story well and creates a meaningful and lasting emotional connection between the viewer and the characters in the film. And in the end, isn’t that why we watch movies?

Production Quality 8/10

Screenplay 9/10

Acting 10/10

Rewatch Value 8/10

Total Score: 35/40

#73 Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

1969’s Butch Cassidy (Paul Newman) and the Sundance Kid (Robert Redford) is the mostly-true-but-almost-certainly-embellished story of one of the west’s most notorious pair of outlaws. Set in the early 1900s, the film opens with a display of Sundance’s superior gun skills following an argument over a game of blackjack. We then see Butch, Sundance and their gang put down a leadership mutiny and hatch a plan to rob a Union Pacific train twice in a few days, once in each direction. We also meet Etta, who is a school teacher in love with both of them, but romantically involved with Sundance. They succeed in both their heists, but on the return trip, a train pulls up behind it with riders chasing them. Several members of their gang are killed but Butch and Sundance escape. They run to a safe house but are found out and have to quickly flee. They head out to a rock formation to make themselves harder to track, but are still tracked down. They eventually escape to Etta’s house and learn that the head of the UP has put together a gang that includes a sheriff from Wyoming and a Native tracker called Lord Baltimore. Worried they will be hunted down, they flea with Etta to Bolivia. They struggle with the scene in Bolivia and with the language but manage to rob some banks. When the heat gets turned up on them, they decide to get straight jobs for a while and get hired to protect payroll for a mining operation there. While guarding the payroll, they get ambushed and wind up killing that whole heist crew. They ponder what to do next and Etta decides to leave and head back to the US. They decide to start robbing payroll themselves, but get cornered after one of their attempted heists, wounded and trapped in a building. The last scene is them running out and open firing on the Bolivian militia hunting them.

What is interesting about this film is that while it has all of the trappings and scenery of a Western and certainly is a Western story, it is essentially a buddy comedy. The real magic is watching them crack sarcastic jokes and pick on each other. The situation with Etta is also interesting – it is sort of best described as a platonic throple except that two of the members are actually romantically involved. It has some of the usual failings of Westerns – the body count is massive but none of the characters ever morally reckon with any of this in the least – even when their own crew is gunned down. There isn’t even a Wild Bunch-esque honor among thieves here – Butch and Sundance kill and rob and care only about themselves and Etta. The characters are sorely underdeveloped and the action sequences are a bit cartoonish.

But the acting carries this one through – the best thing for the film is when Butch and Sundance are by themselves and talking. The film is an entertaining 111 minutes, the pacing is excellent and the scenery is beautiful. It’s worth a watch. As an enduring all time great film? I guess I’m just still not sold on the genre.

Production Quality 10/10

Screenplay 7/10

Acting 10/10

Rewatch Value 6/10

Total Score: 33/40

#74 The Silence of the Lambs

1991’s psychological thriller The Silence of the Lambs makes our list at #74.

The movie follows FBI trainee Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) who is sent in ostensively to try to get a former psychiatrist and convicted cannibal serial killer Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) but really, unbeknownst to her, to get information from him on a serial killer that the FBI is currently hunting who is nicknamed Buffalo Bill.

Lecter picks apart Starling’s life from information as simple as the shoes that she is wearing and her accent and is initially very unhelpful but when another prisoner, Miggs, commits a lewd act, Lecter gives her a clue to tracking down Buffalo Bill – a name that leads her to a storage locker with one of Bill’s first victims who was also a patient of Lecter’s before his imprisonment.

Meanwhile Buffalo Bill abducts a Senator’s daughter in Tennessee and imprisons her in a makeshift well in his basement.

Starling goes to the scene in West Virginia where a body of one of Bill’s victims is found and discovers a moth cocoon shoved down her throat and patches of skin cut off her back.

Starling is sent in with a fake offer for Lecter to try to get more information but the psychiatrist at the prison, upset that he is being excluded from the process, tells Lecter that the offer is fake and that he has a real offer. Lecter insists on going to Memphis to tell the Senator the name of Buffalo Bill himself, but when he gets there gives a fake name that is an anagram for fool’s gold. Lecter stages a daring escape, killing guards and an ambulance crew to make it out of his makeshift prison in Memphis.

Clarice slowly figures out Buffalo Bill’s plan with Lecter’s help – the moth represents transformation – Bill is a man who thinks he is a transexual but has been rejected for treatment and is kidnapping heavy women to starve them and then cut and sew their skin to make a woman suit for himself. She figures out that his first victim was someone he knew and goes to her hometown. While there, she unknowingly discovers his house while trying to interview another woman. As she is talking to him, she sees a moth and realizes it is Buffalo Bill. A tense chase in the dark ensues that ends with Starling shooting Buffalo Bill when she hears him cock a gun in the dark.

The movie ends with Starling getting a call from Lecter saying that he will not come after her and that he is “having an old friend for dinner”.

This movie contains two of the finest acting performances in the history of the big screen. Anthony Hopkins as Lecter is a deep and complex psychopath – cunning, human, multi-dimensional and terrifying. Jodie Foster is a relatable and noble, but flawed character – through her conversations with Lecter we learn about her parents dying and her attempting to save a lamb from slaughter at her step-Uncle’s farm. We also see up close how she deals with frequent sexism and sexual advances while trying to carry out her work. The chemistry between Foster and Hopkins on screen in the atypical interactions created by the setting of the movie is magical.

The mystery itself is extremely well laid out and compelling. The scenes with Buffalo Bill (played brilliantly by Ted Levine) vividly display a tortured man who simultaneously tries to dehumanize his victims while somehow believe that he is doing something noble.

The production quality is first rate and the interspersed scenes of FBI training along with the visit to examine the victim give a very raw and real feel to crime work – you can almost smell the stink coming off the body and feel the adrenaline of recruits training.

The pacing of the movie is excellent – there is never a dull or boring moment.

In short, this is the most complete movie that I have ever seen and there is not a lot to criticize. Contemporary criticisms of the film fall short for me – that it is too dark (who is to say that movies can’t be dark?), too gruesome (I didn’t find it that way at all – it had a very real feel to it not a blood and guts feel) or that Anthony Hopkins overacts the part of Lecter (I strongly disagree – I thought he painted the character perfectly). I don’t really have anything that I would change or improve on this film, except for possibly that the friendship between Starling and fellow trainee Ardelia Mapp (Kasi Lemmons) is underutilized in the film – they only get a couple of scenes together but their interactions show a whole different side of Starling’s personality.

In short, this is the best movie that I have seen on the list so far and deserves a spot in the conversation for the best movie ever made. If you have not seen it before, it will blow you away some 29 years later. And if you have seen it before, it is an extremely compelling rewatch. This is simply cinema at its finest.

Production Quality 10/10

Screenplay 9/10

Acting 10/10

Rewatch Value 10/10

Total Score: 39/40

#75 In the Heat of the Night

If you have never seen Sidney Poitier act, 1967’s small town southern whodunnit, In the Heat of the Night is the one to see. If you have seen Sidney Poitier act, it is still worth seeing the still-living legend (he is now 93 and retired) execute his craft masterfully.

Set in the small town of Sparta, Mississippi, Poitier plays Virgil Tibbs, a police officer from Philadelphia (Pennsylvania – there is also one in Mississippi) who is visiting his mother in Sparta and then is wrongfully arrested and accused of the murder of Phillip Colbert, a local businessman who is found in the street by officer Sam Wood. While interrogating Tibbs, Chief of Police Gillespie (Rod Steiger) learns that Tibbs is a cop and speaks to his commanding officer, who recommends that Tibbs, being an expert in homicide investigations, might be able to help solve the crime. Throughout the balance of the film, Tibbs is frequently outdoing the local cops, figuring out that the killer is left handed, ruling out the first suspect that is arrested and figuring out the scene of the murder based on soil found on the brake pedal of Colbert’s vehicle. Gillespie repeatedly tries to get Tibbs off the case and out of town, but Colbert’s widow is impressed with his investigation and wants him on the case and the Mayor views using Tibbs as no lose – if he screws is up, it isn’t their fault, if he solves the case, they will get the credit. Tibbs own motivation for sticking around seems to be that he wants to show up the local cops and that he has a genuine interest in them not getting things wrong.

Tibbs initially suspects Endicott (no first name given), a wealthy cotton farm owner and business rival of Colbert’s and his questioning of Endicott leads to a dramatic scene where Endicott slaps Tibbs and Tibbs slaps him back, to the racist dismay of both Endicott and Gillespie.

Gillespie suspects Wood of the crime after it is discovered that he has $600 in cash (approximately the amount believed to be stolen off Colbert’s body) and Wood is accused by Delores, a local 16 year old of getting her pregnant and when he lies to them about the route he took the night of the murder. Tibbs clears Wood, demonstrating that the killing happened on the cotton farm, ruling Wood out, who had been on patrol in town.

Tibbs believes that Dolores pregnancy is somehow linked to the crime and tracks down an illegal abortionist (abortion was still illegal in Mississippi in 1967) and learns that Dolores is about to get an abortion. He follows her and finds out her boyfriend is Ralph, a cook at a local diner. As he is confronting Ralph, Delores’ brother shows up with a gang of rednecks, planning to go after Tibbs. Tibbs shouts for him to check Delores’ purse for money that Ralph has given her for an abortion. Discovering Tibbs is right, he confronts Ralph, who shoots him in the ensuing shuffle. Gillespie shows up and arrests Ralph, who confesses to the murder. The movie closes with Gillespie carrying Tibbs bag to the train station for him, thanking him and shaking his hand, a belated show of respect for what Tibbs did on the case.

The movie is filled throughout with southern racism in brutal detail, epitaphs, attempted assaults and generally disrespect are shown to Tibbs throughout the entire script. Tibbs ability to carry on and solve the crime while he processes the wave of emotions that comes with the insults and risks to his personal safety is one of the most striking aspects of the film.

Poitier is exquisite in this movie, as I mentioned at the outset and the supporting cast present a vivid picture of the small town south. The mystery itself takes twists and turns that you don’t expect and it isn’t until the end that the story really comes together. The production and cinematography are first rate.

The film has some flaws – Tibbs is such a central focus of the story but we learn little about him – is he married? Does he have kids? He was visiting his mother but never speaks to her or sees her throughout the film. This would all make him a bit one-dimensional but for the way Poitier can carry a role with just a wince or a smile.

There is also little balance in the portrayal of the small town south – save for Mrs. Colbert, pretty much everyone in town is a small-minded racist and the police department in Sparta seems incapable of the most basic of investigative techniques.

The movie spawned a long-running television series, but it never lived up to the film – it didn’t have Poitier.

This is a film worth savoring, squirming over and rewatching.

Production Quality 10/10

Screenplay 8/10

Acting 10/10

Rewatch Value 8/10

Total Score: 36/40

#76 Forrest Gump

1994’s Forrest Gump is a film about which I have always had mixed emotions. In that year, I felt the innovative and clever Pulp Fiction was robbed out of the best picture award in favor of a safer, more mainstream film. As I rewatched the 142 Tom Hanks sort-of epic, sort-of love story many years later, I found a different set of mixed emotions.

The movie is a fictional tale of a mentally challenged man from rural Alabama who overcomes a back problem, falls in love, plays college football, joins the Army and goes to Vietnam and saves his lieutenant, plays ping-pong, starts a shrimping business, invests in Apple, runs for 3 years, mows the grass, has a child, gets married, has his wife die of AIDS and along the way meets every President, uncovers Watergate, teaches Elvis Pressley to dance, helps John Lennon write Imagine, invents the Shit Happens bumper sticker and the Have a Nice Day logo and a bunch of other stuff.

It is alternating parts the story of Forrest and a visual effects laden trip through history. Forrest is an easy character to empathize with and there are moments of genuine emotion in viewing the world through his simplistic eyes. The character arc of love interest Jenny is compelling, a sexually abused child who struggles with drug abuse and direction throughout a lot of her early adulthood and contemplates suicide at several points before finding her purpose as a mother, only to discover she is HIV positive. The very thing that makes Jenny compelling make Forrest a less interesting character – for all of her complexity and flaws, Gump has simplicity and always doing the right thing. For all the difficult decisions that Jenny has to make in her life, Gump has wonderful things fall in his lap. He is likable and Tom Hanks, possibly the greatest actor of his generation, does the role justice, but there is ultimately nothing relatable about Forrest Gump – he is a cute puppy, not a complete human. He faces adversity, sure (his friend Bubba dies, his mother dies, Jenny dies), but he never faces MORAL adversity – never makes the wrong choice, does the non-noble thing, gets himself in trouble.

The interweaving of Gump in history goes from cute (aw, he met the President as a ping pong player) to tiring (even his character seems bored with meeting the President by the third time) to downright insulting (the surface treatment of important social movements such as Anti-Vietnam protests or the Black Panthers is kind of insulting to anyone who is an actual activist – sort of a white privileged time machine ride). It’s a gimmick that is way over used and is ultimately reductive. The visual effects are cool, though.

The film also lacks even a basic sense of realism. Okay, if I suspend disbelief that one man of limited intellect can do all the things that he did and be involved in all the history that he was involved in, let’s just take a few basic examples. How exactly does one run for 3 years? In the 250 mile stretch between Phoenix, Arizona and Las Vegas, Nevada, where does one eat? Find water? Sleep? How does the greatest Running Back in the history of Alabama football get recruited to the Army and not the NFL? How does Lt. Dan, a man with no Wall Street connections, get in on Apple pre-IPO?

Forrest Gump is entertaining, mass produced tripe that appeals to our desire for a more innocent time. It produces some great quotes (I personally far prefer “sometimes, there aren’t enough rocks” to “life is like a box of chocolates”) but is ultimately emotionally shallow and manipulative. In turns out I like it less now than I did in 1994.

Production Quality 10/10

Screenplay 3/10

Acting 9/10

Rewatch Value 8/10

Total Score: 30/40

#77 All the President’s Men

1976’s telling of The Washington Post reporting by Woodward and Bernstein that led to Richard Nixon’s resignation, All the President’s Men makes the AFI list at #77.

Robert Redford plays the ambitious young Bob Woodward, a reporter with only 9 months of experience with The Washington Post who gets assigned to a boring story about a burglary at the Watergate hotel that turns out to be the very coordinated raiding of the Democratic National Committee files as part of a larger set of activities funded from an illegal slush fund for opposition research.

Dustin Hoffman plays the cranky, older, chain-smoking Carl Bernstein, who assists Woodward on his quixotic quest to get the bottom of the robbery and its origins.

The complexity and twists and turns of the story are far too much to cover in a short review but the basics are that they quickly discovered a connection between the robbery and E. Howard Hunt, a former CIA operative who worked in the White House which eventually leads them to H.R. Haldeman, the White House Chief of Staff. The movie essentially covers the reporting from the Watergate break-in in June of 1972 up until Nixon’s re-inauguration in January of 1973. And of course, Deep Throat, Woodward’s deep background source that we now know was FBI agent Mark Felt, but at the time of the making of the movie was unknown, helping to steer Woodward to the truth through a series of parking garage conversations.

There are several interesting aspects to the film. It is sort of a whodunit crime story told through the lens of reporters. Woodward and Bernstein use both classic reporting techniques – such as knocking on the doors of every person who works for the Committee to Re-Elect (Nixon’s campaign committee) to gray area things like using a former girlfriend of a campaign worker to obtain the list in the first place. They use a variety of techniques to illicit information from witnesses, such as pretending they already know answers and are just looking for confirmation to allowing witnesses to just give them initials when they aren’t comfortable giving names.

The depth, sophistication and reach of Nixon’s opposition research operation which often appeared to engage in illegal acts was a central point of the film – this wasn’t merely about the cover-up of one unauthorized break-in, it was about a pattern of activity. Also interesting is how Woodward (a rookie) and Bernstein (a lightly regarded veteran) got to keep the story – basically they were able to keep working on the story because nobody thought there was much too it.

The two hours and nineteen minutes of this film race by and leave you wanting more. But the film is not without its flaws – it ends rather abruptly with a series of news headlines describing the lead up to Nixon resigning – basically condensing the last 18 months of the story into about 30 seconds. The film also offers no real examination about the media – it is based on a book by Woodward and Bernstein and portrays both them and Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee as pure noble pursuers of the truth whereas a more nuanced view of the messy world of reporting would have been interesting. There is also surprisingly little revealed about who Woodward and Bernstein are – for instance. in real life Carl Bernstein was going through a divorce during the exact timeframe of the film but nothing is even discussed in the movie.

Still, on balance, this is a gripping, if at times exhausting to follow story and viewed in the context of its release (a mere 2 years after Nixon’s resignation), it is a very important contemporary perspective on one of the most substantive events in American political history. In short, this is a great film with only minor flaws.

Production Quality 9/10

Screenplay 8/10

Acting 9/10

Rewatch Value 9/10

Total Score 35/40

#78 Modern Times

It is sort of odd to watch a film that was made 84 years ago that is a commentary on “Modern Times” but that’s exactly how I spent the morning.

1936’s Charlie Chaplin (mostly) silent film about an economically struggling factory worker is an interesting mix of social commentary, slapstick comedy and outright weirdness.

Chaplin plays a factory worker (like many silent films, none of the characters have names). The opening scenes are the inspiration for a later iconic I Love Lucy episode, with Chaplin struggling to keep up with work on an assembly line at a steel mill. There are multiple not-to-subtle signs of the perils of industrial work – workers seen as a sheep herd going into the factory, closed circuit TV watching their every move, an attempt to use an automatic feeder for workers to eliminate lunch breaks. Chaplin eventually has a nervous breakdown from all the repetitive work and is sent to the hospital.

After being released from the hospital, Chaplin is erroneously arrested as the suspected leader of a communist march.

Meanwhile, the other central character, “The Gamin” is introduced. I had to look up what that meant – it apparently means a poor person who walks the streets. She is played by an absolutely stunning young Paulette Goodard and is trying to care for two orphans while her out of work father struggles.

Chaplin eventually finds his way out of prison in a bizarre sequence where he accidentally salts his food with cocaine, then helps to thwart a prison break and is released by the warden for his good deed. Chaplin sadly asks if he can stay in prison since he is happier there than on the outside.

Once out, he passed The Gamin being arrested for shoplifting a loaf of bread. He tries to take the blame, seeing it as his path back to jail, but the shop owner fingers The Gamin. Chaplin then intentionally walks out on a lunch check and points it out to a cop to get arrested.

On the wagon to the prison, he is reunited with The Gamin and they wind up escaping after she causes a commotion. Chaplin gets a job as a night watchman at a department store and let’s The Gamin run all around the store with him, eating food, playing with roller skates and ultimately curling up in the bedding department. The next morning, Chaplin is discovered asleep in the women’s department and is once again arrested.

10 days later when gets out of jail, The Gamin meets him and tells him she has found a place for them to live – an old run down shack on the water. They attempt a domestic life, in spite of how run down the house is. Chaplin sees in the paper that factories are restarting and heads to town to find work.

He is hired as a mechanic’s assistant at a factory. A whole series of slap-sticky things happen, mostly consisting of him messing up and causing problems for the mechanic. Eventually they learn that the union has decided to strike. On the way out, Chaplin trips and accidentally flings a rock at a police officer and is arrested again.

When he gets out this time, The Gamin lets him know she has found work for him as a singing waiter at a restaurant. He struggles waiting tables but ad libs a song when it is his turn to sing that is well received and he is offered a full-time job. But, just then, the police catch up to The Gamin to arrest her for escaping earlier. She and Chaplin create a commotion and get away.

She is despondent, saying “what’s the use in trying?” – Chaplin assures her they will get by and the last scene is them walking down the road together.

Like a lot of films of that era, the movie is silent but has backing audio sound effects and even occasional backing audio for brief monologues. Also like a lot of silent films, it sort of has an other-worldly quality to it – the factory sets don’t quite look like factories, the city scenes don’t quite loo like a city, but the alternate reality is a lot less beautiful than in Sunrise, which I reviewed earlier.

After watching this film, I immediately Googled “was Charlie Chapin a communist” as this seemed like an obvious piece of Marxist commentary – there is the desolation and monotony of industrial work, there is the system of oppression that keeps the working class from succeeding – basically all of the things Marx wrote about. It turns out that he probably was a communist supporter but never was active in the party. The fact that he was able to get this film made in 1930s Hollywood either speaks to the influence that Chaplin had or to the obliviousness of Hollywood censors to the point Chaplin was making.

The social commentary is very strong for a film of that era – it has a real point of view and makes its case in a very humanizing way. The slapstick scenes are really funny – Chaplin was a master of sight gags. The underpinning love story is less compelling – the characters don’t connect or have chemistry in a way that is believable. And the plot ranges somewhere between disjointed and absurd. This is clearly an important film – and the social commentary about isolation and the pain of the working class seems as relevant now as it was 84 years ago. And it was an enjoyable and accessible film – something that not all pieces of social commentary achieve. And Chaplin is one heck of an actor. But there are also holes that make this a very incomplete film.

Production Quality 7/10

Screenplay 7/10

Acting 10/10

Rewatch Value 7/10

Total Score 31/40

Next up, we move out of the classic era into a series of more modern films, starting with 1976’s All The President’s Men.

#79 The Wild Bunch

1969’s The Wild Bunch is the first Western on the AFI list. If AFI has a bias against comedies, it would appear to have a bias in favor of Westerns, with 4 making the list. Maybe that’s appropriate – the Western genre, although it has receded in the past 25-30 years (despite occasional attempts at revival such as 3:10 to Yuma) was a dominant force in commercial film making for a generation. I just don’t tend to like Westerns that much.

The Wild Bunch sees Pike (nobody gets a last name in this film), his aging sidekick Sykes and his band of outlaws attempting to rob a silver shipment from the railroad. The movie opens with a bang and a bloody shootout in a small town in the middle of a temperance march between Pike’s gang and a group of bounty hunters with dozens of bystanders killed. We learn that the whole situation was a set-up (there is no silver) by the railroad to attempt to capture or kill Pike’s gang and that Thorton, who once rode with Pike, is leading the bounty hunters to capture him.

Pike’s gang ponders what to do next – they debate stealing payroll from the Army along the border and head south to a town in Mexico where Angel, one of their riders is from, Aqua Verde. Angel learns that the Mexican General Mapache had invaded the town and stolen Angel’s former girlfriend, Teresa and his mother.

They hang out in town and Mapache arrives. Angel sees Teresa and shoot and kills her, nearly winging Mapache. Mapache takes Angel into custody but offers the rest of the gang the opportunity to steal guns from an army shipment on the railroad in exchange for gold. Pike negotiations to get Angel back on his crew for the job.

Angel doesn’t want to do the job as it will help Mapache. Pike agrees to let him have one crate of guns for his people in exchange for his share of the gold. Thorton figures out that Pike will likely go after the arms shipment and prepares to intercept him.

They pull off the heist by separating the cargo and the steam engine from the rest of the train, driving it down the track and unloading the guns into a wagon. Thorton’s folks who were in the back of the train unload along with their horses and go after them. The wagon briefly gets stuck on a bridge, but they pull it out and then dynamite the bridge to block Thorton’s crew from chasing them.

Pike is afraid that Mapache will kill them rather than pay them, so he dynamites the cargo. They give Angel his case and then work out a scheme to deliver a few cases at a time, in exchange for a portion of the gold to Mapache. On the very last rotation, Mapache says he knows Angel stole the last case of guns and that his mother ratted him out. He takes Angel as a prisoner.

Thorton is hot on their tail and they decide that the safest course is to bury most of their treasure and then head back to Aqua Verde. When they arrive, Pike offers to pay to free Angel, but Mapache refuses. They have a night with prostitutes and then next morning Pike again asks Mapache to release Angel. Mapache agrees but then slits Angel’s throat. Pike starts a huge gunfight and is killed along with most of his crew.

Thorton and his men arrive to find the aftermath of the carnage. Thorton’s crew rides back with the bodies to attempt to claim the reward from the railroad, but Thorton stays behind. Sykes rides back to town and let’s Thorton know he has killed his crew. He offers to let Thorton ride with them on their next heist.

There is a lot to like in the movie – the opening and closing gunfights are packed with action. The sheer brutality of the film is something to behold for a movie made in 1969. Likable characters doing brutal evil things without a second thought creates an interesting moral quandary for the viewer, much like in later-day productions like Oz, The Wire and Breaking Bad. Pike’s code of being willing to kill innocent bystanders but being fiercely loyal to his crew and true to his word makes for a fascinating character study. Even Angel, who is easily the most upstanding guy in the film, is willing to shoot a former girlfriend without second thought for betraying him to another man.

The movie is not without its flaws – after an initial rush of action at the opening, it moves very slowly in the middle of the film – at 145 minutes it was probably 30 minutes too long. There is very little tenderness or honest emotion to counter the brutality that is portrayed by the film. Angel is the most interesting character in the film and is central to the plot but is given far too little dialogue or character exploration. Mapache is much more a stereotype of a Mexican general than an authentic character. In other words, it basically has all the flaws that most Westerns have. The movie is also a bit overacted throughout, inspire of a fairly all-star cast.

Watching it today in a era with different social standards, it is probably easy to underestimate how impactful the brutality and immorality portrayed in the movie were in 1969. This was a meaningful and controversial film at the time. I just re-learned again that I don’t like Westerns that much. To me, this is a good movie, but not an all-time great film. I know very few film critics would agree with me.

Production Quality 10/10

Screenplay 6/10

Acting 6/10

Rewatch Value 6/10

Total Score 28/40

#80 The Apartment

The OTHER critically acclaimed film of 1960, The Apartment paints a sordid and complex view of life in white collar New York City.

C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemon) is a low-level accounting clerk at fictional Consolidated Life in Manhattan and is a bit of a pushover. He once let a friend use his apartment for the night and now he finds himself continually loaning out his apartment to superiors for use with their love affairs, often leaving him without a place to sit down at all hours of the night. He is fielding complaints from his neighbors about the noise, shuffling calendars to accommodate the various visits to his place and constantly getting sick from lack of sleep dealing with it all. He has a crush on one of the elevator operators in his building, Fran Kueblik (Shirley MacLaine) but hasn’t had the courage to push things past casual flirting.

One day, Baxter gets called up to the office of Jeff Sheldrake, a big wig in the office, who wants to use the apartment for his own affair and offers Baxter 2 tickets to The Music Man that he won’t use in exchange. Baxter, excited to ask Fran out on a date agrees. He asks Fran as she is exiting, she tells him that she can join him but she has to have a drink with a boyfriend with whom she is breaking it off first.

We then learn that Fran IS the affair that Sheldrake wanted the apartment for and she eventually blows off Baxter after failing to break off the affair with him after he tells her the he will divorce his wife to be with her.

Sheldrake promotes Baxter and continues to use his apartment twice a week. At the office Christmas Party, Fran learns from his secretary that Sheldrake has had tons of affairs, and always says he will leave his wife but never does. Baxter also discovers that night that Fran is the one that Sheldrake is having the affair with after he recognizes her mirror, which was previously left behind in his apartment.

Baxter leaves heartbroken and heads to bar where he proceeds to get drunk and pick up a barfly, whose husband is imprisoned in Cuba and takes her back to his apartment.

While he was out, Sheldrake and Fran have a huge fight after he gives her cash rather than a Christmas present and she realizes he isn’t going to leave his wife. He leaves, but she stays behind and empties a bottle of Baxter’s sleeping pills, attempting to commit suicide.

Baxter brings the barfly back to his apartment, but soon discovers Fran unconscious and enlists the help of his doctor neighbor to save her life. He nurses her back to health, cooks for her and plays Gin Rummy with her. Baxter tells Fran that he once tried to commit suicide over a broken heart, but couldn’t figure out where to shoot himself and wound up mishandling the gun and shooting himself in the knee.

Fran’s brother-in-law tracks her down to Baxter’s apartment and Baxter tries to take the blame as the reason she tried to commit suicide. He punches Baxter and they leave.

Baxter makes up his mind that he is going to tell Fran that he is in love with her. He plans to tell Sheldrake of his plan and position it as him taking a problem off his hands. Before he can explain it to him, Sheldrake tells him that his wife kicked him out and that he is going to be with Fran and that he will need the apartment for a bit until he can get settled. Baxter refuses. Sheldrake tells him that it will cost him his job. Baxter quits and gives the lease up on his apartment and starts to pack it up, on New Year’s Eve.

Fran and Sheldrake are at a New Year’s Eve party together and he tells her that Baxter quit and wouldn’t give him the apartment. Fran slips out at midnight and finds Baxter in his apartment. She asks to finish their Gin Rummy game. Baxter tells Fran that he is in love with her. She simply says “shut up and deal”.

This movie is a fascinating hybrid. It isn’t quite a comedy because it isn’t very funny, although Lemon is absolutely adorable in a lot of the scenes. It isn’t quite a romance because it isn’t particularly romantic for long stretches, the end notwithstanding. It at times feels light featuring scenes about straining pasta through a tennis racket, the headaches of keeping an appointment book and rescheduling people and how Fran doesn’t know how to light a gas burner. It at times feels heavy as a ton of bricks, attempted suicides, empty womanizing and ruthless office quid pro quo’s.

It is also a mix of things cinematically – it was shot in black and white, 21 years after the Wizard of Oz was shot in color and the same year that the cinematically beautiful Spartacus was also shot in color. It has some of the romantic comedy structural elements that earlier films such as Bringing Up Baby had but with a much darker, heavier social commentary, a prologue to the more revolutionary films of the later 60s and 70s.

It was thoroughly entertaining and thought provoking. The chemistry between Lemon and MacLaine is positively electric and the themes seem both contemporary to the time and highly relevant. The inner conflict that Baxter experiences wanting everyone to like him but trying to figure out what is right at the same time is compelling. And Fran’s despair and conflict is real. Two highly imperfect people who have both been pushovers finding each other in a roundabout way is engaging – maybe it is a romance after all.

The film flew by at 2 hours and 4 minutes and left me wanting more.

What were the flaws? The premise of Baxter’s apartment becoming a love nest for free rent seems far-fetched. Sheldrake’s character is a bit shallow and Fred MacMurray turns in a bit of a wooden performance as Sheldrake. The production is a bit simple. But make no mistake about it, the positives far outweigh the flaws. This is a great film and worthy of its place on the list. 1960 really was a great year for movies.

Production Quality 8/10

Screenplay 9/10

Acting 10/10

Rewatch Value 9/10

Total Score 36/40

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