As I’ve delicately curated my list, I’ve come to the realization that I love some deeply sad and tragic films, which is odd when one considers my optimistic and jokey demeanor. There is one film on the upcoming portion of my list that I’ve only seen twice but its affect on me was so monumental that it didn’t take me long to decide it’s one of my fifty favorite films of all-time. Years ago I just thought rewatchability underscored a favorite film but now its purely emotional. Here are films 40-31:
40. Pride of the Yankees:
The first time I saw Pride of the Yankees was in the summer of 2001. At the time, my father was a year removed from his ALS diagnosis and I was emotionally fragile. Nonetheless, I caught it one late night on ESPNClassic, and I immediately attached myself to Gary Cooper’s stoic performance of the great Lou Gehrig. Years later my affection for the film has waned as its schmaltz is a bit overbearing but the love story at its core is phenomenally constructed. The chemistry between Cooper and Theresa Wright, who plays Lou’s wife, is soulfully rendered. The bond they possess only grows deeper as disease lays claim to Lou’s body. As the film would have it, the heart and mind rage on in spite of the odds.
39. Zero Dark Thirty:
Kathryn Bigelow’s masterpiece isn’t concerned with political leanings, nor unapologetic flag waving. Her concern is examining the cost of the war on terrorism. Starring the mercurial Jessica Chastain, Zero Dark Thirty is an extensive dive into America’s desperately concerted search for Osama Bin Laden in the wake of 9/11. Through extensive research, Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal put us actively in the hunt for Bin Laden. From horrific interrogation scenes to the corroboration of questionable intel, Zero Dark Thirty shows us how close we came to exacting our revenge. With the film opening with the painful screams from that fateful day in September, Bigelow has us deeply invested in the detainment of Bin Laden by any means necessary. But as the film ends a decade later, with Bin Laden’s lifeless body becoming the precious token we yearned for, we begin to wonder what we really lost.
David Fincher’s methodical approach behind the camera is seen as overbearing by some. The precision and exactness he brings to each scene is almost reminiscent of Kubrick. Which is why it’s almost appropriate his best film is Zodiac, a detailed reconstruction of the frightening murders committed by an unknown assailant in 1970’s San Francisco. Led by an astute and phenomenal cast featuring Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, and Robert Downey Jr., Zodiac is a dark and dreadful picture anchored by a crippling undercurrent of paranoia. Fincher isn’t concerned with identifying the Zodiac Killer any more than he’s interested in exploring how the unknown fuels manic behavior. As the film moves forward our characters become more and more unhinged as answers elude them; we’re right there with them as each passing scene reminds us the killer is still at large.
The musical genre is often reserved for toe tapping, visually orgasmic, and densely choreographed films. Think Chicago or Singin in the Rain, but like any other genre, the musical genre has received a genetic overhaul over time. Writer/director John Carney adds to the genre with his achingly beautiful film Once. Told over the course of a few days, Once follows two lonely musicians seeking a reprieve from their dismantled romantic relationships. Starring real musicians Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, the musical numbers are raw, authentic, and searing. What’s even more impressive is Carney’s ability to create a love story that is, at least in my mind, sincerely platonic. There is no sex but it’s hopelessly intimate, as these two individuals cross paths at exactly the right moment; helping each other find their note.
When one looks back at the history of cinema, it’s clear to see that Fritz Lang’s M was an abnormality in the landscape, at least when compared to the film’s Hollywood churned out year after year. You see, M is a film about a child killer – played in a perversely human manner by the bug-eyed Peter Lorre- and the impact he has beyond the family he emotionally fillets. Although we never see the destruction of youth directly, Lang’s use of noir, disarming whistling and intimation spread disgust in the viewer. Through the use of haunting silhouettes and symbols of innocence decaying, we develop a ferocious desire to see the child killer brought to justice. So, we gamely follow along with the lynch mob looking to expedite justice. But then Lang does something so brutal and heartbreaking: he turns his monster inside out and explores our own penchant for uncontrollable destruction.
35. The Tree of Life:
Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life is a beguiling picture, one that I can’t entirely describe. Like most of Malick’s films, The Tree of Life is an impressionistic creation that is only defined by the viewer’s connection to the images within the frame. I saw it in the theaters twice with two different sets of individuals. I walked away touched in a profound way, feeling as if fragments of my life were duplicated on celluloid, while my fellow filmgoers left vacant and distant. The performances within the film, led by the highly capable Jessica Chastain and Brad Pitt, give us an emotional bearing amidst Malick’s philosophical and religious musings. Adding more weight to the proceedings is Emmanuel Lubezki’s haunting and gorgeous cinematography, where life and death wash over us like a warm wave.
34. Before Sunrise:
Yesterday I detailed my admiration for the Before series with little to no restraint, so it only makes sense another piece of the trilogy lands on this list. Before Sunrise is the magical beginning to a love story that’s so authentic, it generated two sequels 9 years apart from one another. It’s in this film that Linklater spawned the masterful relationship between Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy). The romance begins adorably but quickly evolves into a soulful engagement between two individuals with itineraries determined to pull them apart. As the characters wistfully talk throughout the night, each passing minute feels like we’re inching closer to death. We don’t want to see these two individuals leave, making their conversations and connections all the more urgent. But once they’re faced with the sun’s early glow, we’ve come to appreciate their everlasting one night stand.
33. In Bruges:
Written and directed by the dark and hilarious Martin McDonagh, In Bruges is a foul-mouthed, violent trip that’s part black comedy and part surreal crime thriller. McDonagh’s screenplay boasts some serious philosophical weight, but it is also an unpredictable piece of writing such that each scene has an inescapable kinetic energy. Ferocious acts of violence and deeply bizarre interactions keep us guessing how a provincial city like Bruges can become even more debased by the film’s dastardly characters. Did I mention it’s also funny? Colin Ferrell in the lead role is a revelation, as his increasingly unhinged hitman character provides the film with much of its dark and sinful humor, while Brendan Gleason’s character provides a well measured counter point. From beginning to end, In Bruges is a morbid and delirious reinvention of the crime thriller genre.
32. 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days:
The problem I have with horror films is that their ghastly monsters lack any subtext, rendering the possibility of their existence in reality as hollow. Obviously, monsters don’t exist but their potential symbolism helps us see them living beyond the frame. This is why I view films like 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days as a true horror film because its depiction of oppression in Romania circa the 80’s is beyond tangible; it’s horrifically real. Telling the tale of two young female friends arranging and fulfilling an illegal abortion, 4 Months is a harrowing and intense experience amplified by the existence of a brutal regime keeping a watchful eye. Directed tautly by the underrated Cristian Mungiu, 4 Months is an uncomfortable thriller as its two leads are placed in excruciating circumstances where their morality and mortality are put in extreme danger. The film’s bleak ending is the cherry on top to a film that will churn your stomach.
31. Pan’s Labyrinth:
Escapism is a signature piece of childhood. We imagine worlds unfolding before us that no one can see. We manifest invisible individuals into the flesh believing they’re a considerate part of our plane of existence. Children slip into these worlds and interactions in part because their imaginations are boundless, but they also concoct these virtual realities because the real world can be insufferable. This is the driving force behind Guillermo del Toro’s phenomenal Pan’s Labyrinth. The film follows the young Ofelia as she grapples with her disintegrating family life and the violent remnants of Spain’s civil war. Ofelia eventually stumbles across a decrepit, magical fantasy land that allows her to evade life’s tumultuous behavior. Frightening, imaginative, and wholly original, Pan’s Labyrinth is the perfect example of the power cinema possesses.