Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Five Affecting Films

By Steve Evans

Friends shake their heads in bemusement when they discover I have devoted more than 25,000 hours (a conservative estimate) to watching films during my 40-year fascination with the cinema. For context, that works out to nearly three solid years, 24 hours a day, sitting in a darkened theater enjoying film. (I do go hiking and mountain biking once in a while. Fishing, too.)
After some reflection I realized that in all that time, absorbed in all those movies, there are really only five core films that have had a profound and lingering impact on my appreciation for the filmmaker’s art. Curiously, these are by no means my top favorite films, though they are exceptionally polished with at least one key scene that is positively breathtaking in its brilliance. Each has knocked me down with the scope of the director's vision, the mastery of technique on display in every frame. Two of the five are Best Picture winners. All of them represent a broad range of overlapping genres that run the gamut of human experience – love, death, family and marriage, hope and despair, jubilation and terror, hilarity and horror.

Cinematic Cteve sez check ‘em out:

City Lights (1931) By turns hilarious and poignant, this may be Chaplin's masterpiece in terms of the full development of the themes he explored in virtually all of his films: perseverance, pluck and determination, the transformative power of love. I cannot help but shed a tear at that closing shot...every...damn..time. A gentle masterpiece.

It's a Wonderful Life (1946) Call it sentimental Capra-corn, but this movie is actually much darker than most people remember. Small town corruption, gossip, alcoholism (Uncle Billy, Mr. Gower), financial ruination, thoughts of suicide -- heavy stuff that demands an upbeat ending to counterbalance all the preceding gloom. Donna Reed radiates love and sensuality. Jimmy Stewart begins to display the post-war maturity and a hint of the brooding obsessiveness that he would later present con gusto for Hitchcock in classics like Rear Window and Vertigo.

Jaws (1975) Unless you saw it during the summer of '75 on its original theatrical run, it can be hard to understand the flat-out terror this movie invoked in an audience. Steven Spielberg played us like a fiddle and we didn't mind the manipulation one whit. This movie works because the mechancial shark didn't: First time they put the prop in the water, it sank to the ocean floor. Second time, the hydraulic mechanism in the head exploded, the shark went belly-up, yep, and sank to the ocean floor (thus providing the inspiration for the crowd-pleasing climax). While the special effects department repaired the vulcanized villain, Spielberg made a sage decision borne on equal parts inspiration and necessity: he kept the clunky beast off screen for most of the film. He saved time and money, but more importantly he put our imagination to work in service of the plot. Hitchcock intuitively understood this and Spielberg learned from the master. It's all psychological, really. What we think we see is far more frightening than anything a director can actually show us. Verna Fields' Oscar-winning editing helped tremendously with fast cuts that presented tantalizing glimpses of the monster. And so, halfway through the picture, when the rubber fish successfully rears its head and scares the begeezus out of Roy Scheider (above), we are already sweating with fear. Need a bigger boat? Damn straight. But the biggest scare -- the scene that made me leap out of my seat -- comes much earlier in the film:

I will always remember Hooper's discovery of Ben Gardner's badly damaged boat and the surprise waiting just below the waterline. When the big boo came, three guys in the front row of the long gone University Theater in Charlottesville, VA, stood up and screamed: a bloodcurdling cry. The audience positively freaked. Summer movies – and Hollywood – would never be the same.

The Deer Hunter (1978) Forget the historical inaccuracies. Forget the fact that the wedding sequence runs damn near 45 minutes. Forget, for a moment, that the movie is set in Vietnam (this picture is less a war movie than it is a study in character). The scene that can still elicit a cold sweat and make me quake, of course, is the prison-camp horror. When Robert De Niro and Christopher Walken sit down to play Russian roulette as their tormentors gamble and laugh, we are witness to nothing less than a small masterpiece of live-wire tension, positively electrifying. I know of no one who has made it through that sequence and not been left shaken, pale and jolted by adrenaline pumping through the heart.

"Mau!" screams the Vietcong guard, his face twisted in a horrible rictus of hatred and evil. He slaps his captive hard across the face, forcing the prisoner to make an untenable choice. He does. De Niro's response explodes into 20 classic seconds of savage revenge and machismo, a cinematic catharsis still unmatched more than 30 years later. On the short list of De Niro's finest moments. Unforgettable.

The English Patient (1996) An illicit affair turns tragic in this remarkably mature, complex look at love, relationships and, above all, consequences. Only a jaded fool would not want to experience the intensity of emotion shared between Almásy and Katharine. Exquisitely photographed, acted and expertly directed, this may be the most intense, yet delicately layered love story the cinema has offered. Ralph Fiennes' primal scream of anguish haunts me to this day. Oh, and Juliet Binoche can prop her feet on my coffee table any time she pleases.

Copyright © 2009 by Steve Evans // dba Cinema Uprising. All rights reserved.

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