Better than BFI’s Top 100: 100-96

For a brief introduction and a running list of movies covered in this project, click here

100) Ex Machina (2015), directed by Alex Garland

I have such hopes for Garland, who appears to be groping his way towards an autopsy of alienation. Sunshine, which he wrote, is most interesting when it is concerned about human failure and our inability to cope with the things that prove how terribly small we are. Never Let Me Go, which he adapted, looks at the certitude of mortality from the perspective of people who know they will not last long. Annihilation, which he directed, is at its best when people try to blink themselves back into focus. The trouble with Alex Garland is that he seems to really love body horror, or, if one takes the uncharitable view, he has no way of unraveling his ideas without resorting to slasher tropes. Even though its ending is a far cry from the occasional brilliance hanging around its earlier scenes, Ex Machina still works more than it doesn’t. When it becomes clear that Ava has only ever been looking for a way out of her prison, that she has successfully been made with a mind of her own (even if Nathan is the one who programmed her that way), the bloodletting makes sense. From all births there is blood and pain and violence, and Ava, mature and deft enough to plan her own birth, simply does the whole thing herself. It’s also aided by an earlier scene where Caleb begins to doubt his own humanity after just a few days with Nathan, a doubt which seems entirely plausible from the point of view of a spectator. He knows there’s one way to decide if he’s truly human or not, and that’s to see if he bleeds. He does. It’s one of the great eerie scenes of the last five years.

All of us have seen Silicon Valley techbros in the movies by now, whether it’s the First Disruptor in The Social Network or that smarmy car Nathan Filion voices in Cars 3. The greatest of them so far, the one who best represents their ethos and their egos, is Nathan Bateman. Oscar Isaac is marvelous in this role, and predictably he received no serious credit for it from the major awards bodies for it. He thinks differently from other people from the first time we see him, doing a tough boxing workout and freely admitting to his new houseguest that he’s fighting a hangover. Everything he does in those critical first few minutes is designed to make Caleb feel uncomfortable (down to his plea that Caleb treat him like any other guy), and what’s more, it’s obvious that he means to do it. These people zig where the rest of us zag, and Nathan has zigged far beyond the dreams of anyone else on earth. There’s no doubting his ability, his brainpower, or his vision, which is obnoxious, but with his ability comes arrogance, with brainpower bombast, and with vision venality. Garland imagines that the Zuckerbergs and Thiels and Dorseys are conflicted, charging hard to change the world and only wondering whether it ought to be changed once they know they’ve made a terrible mistake. Isaac plays a man who is many people, and he is all of them convincingly.

99) Room at the Top (1959), directed by Jack Clayton

Consider this a compromise candidate between two other very strong British movies from 1959, Look Back in Anger and I’m All Right Jack. Room at the Top is less self-serious than the former and, I can’t believe I’m saying this, mercifully not as silly as the latter. The workplace is important in Room at the Top in a way that recalls how serious a matter it is to stay on one’s side in I’m All Right Jack. Joe Lampton’s friends come from work, and they are as certain of their place in the world as Fred Kite was sure of the great class struggle. In one scene, Charlie tells Joe that he’s going to marry the sweetheart he’s had the whole movie; it’s a sign that he will accede to the fate of a lower-middle-class chap in Warnley, who will eke out a clean life with a friendly woman while caring for his invalid mother-in-law. His smile during this confession, for that is what it amounts to, is cheerful and resigned. Joe craves wealth, craves excitement, and, as is frequently the case with men of twenty-five, has no sense of why wanting those things can be dangerous. Arrogantly he presumes that he can carry on an affair with a married woman and further his suit with an heiress at the same time; he scoffs at the idea of courting a June or a Mavis when there are “Grade 1” women out there for the taking. It’s a good role for Laurence Harvey, whose accent is really very bad in this movie but whose face and manner scream condescension. Part of the thrill of this movie is watching him take licks at the hands of people with stronger fists or with fuller bank accounts. Donald Wolfit and Allan Cuthbertson, playing the father of his girlfriend and the husband of his lover, respectively, both exude superiority towards the end of the film. Wolfit gets the meatier scene, playing the defeated gentleman shooting his Parthian shot: for getting my daughter pregnant, you marry her and you get a job under me, or you get a kick in the teeth. Cuthbertson, whose face is even more exquisitely punchable than Harvey’s, goes straight to teeth-kicking when he demands that Joe leave his neglected wife alone unless he wants to be sued repeatedly.

The ending of the movie is a little childish—what happens to Alice Aisgill is a rung above suicide, which is virtually never interesting when it’s done for love—and it’s not an ending that particularly views Alice as a woman who lives without a man in the room. Simone Signoret has, to borrow from Jo Rowling’s descriptions of Fleur Delacour, a “magnificent head,” and her star image at the time was one of a woman who was magnificently meretricious to boot. It’s in Room at the Top that we see the pain she could bring forth from herself, the loneliness of a woman whose husband ignores her for other women; I expected to be annoyed by the presence of this Frenchwoman in Yorkshire, but it really works because it isolates her even further from these emphatically industrial people devoid of the inherent Gallic romance she bears. All the same the character is a deposit for Joe to put his plot in in much the same way Susan is. Joe’s personal hopes create a woman named Alice Aisgill as much as Joe’s professional ones create Susan Brown. To the credit of Room at the Top, I don’t get the sense that the movie wants us to sympathize with Joe. This is not a heroic figure even now, when we care less about babies created out of wedlock or extramarital affairs than we did sixty years ago; it’s Joe’s selfishness that makes the movie run, and it’s his selfishness that infects his wedding day. He’s gotten what he wanted, and he’s discovered in the getting that no one rides for free.

98) The Last of England (1987), directed by Derek Jarman

The Last of England is the greatest challenge to my self-imposed rule that this list concerns narrative fiction, because it stands on the razor’s edge of experimental film. There are no characters who last the movie, no real story to speak of. But what the movie is beating its chest over is agonizingly apparent from its title to its indelible imagery to its strange juxtapositions, in its own way even more piercing and direct than what had been satirized in Jubilee a decade earlier. There are people in that movie and recognizable ones at that who are chipping away at the desultory romance of law and order. The Last of England has no people, only bodies, and those bodies are more manifestation of a geist than anything else. Jarman is pointing a finger when a nude demon pirouettes around a fire, when a woman slashes her wedding dress with her hands, when a painting is an object of sexual desire and the Union Jack is reduced to bedsheets. It’s trite to say that the center cannot hold, and Jarman doesn’t attempt to do so. The right must not hold, he opines, and if it can it spells utter disaster for a green and pleasant land in a movie which is much more notable for its blacks, whites, and reds.

As much attention as the Tilda Swinton sequence gets, perhaps because it’s got Tilda Swinton in it, for me this movie reaches its apogee with a performance of “The Skye Boat Song.” A group of people of different races huddles together in the twilight around a small bonfire. They are dressed in a way that recalls an earlier age, but they are the faces of modern people in a story which feels slightly futuristic. Two men in black leather and skimasks walk around them, brandishing their assault rifles. Sometimes one even forgets that they are there, but then their punitive power leeches into the frame again. For the most part, Jarman leaves us with the faces of these prisoners, refugees, undesirables. They are mournful indeed, and in the grainy 8mm footage they seem entirely natural, as if he had walked onto a pier and delivered these people to the evening news. It’s proof that an experimental movie need not be distant or heartless or surgical; with the plaintive song behind them and the fire in front of them, this is the sort of scene that mainstream cinema aims to recreate and cannot. It is honest and heartbreaking all at once.

97) Carrington V.C. (1954), directed by Anthony Asquith

A woman discovers that her husband has been unfaithful. While he’s standing in front of a tribunal, fighting for his freedom, he calls on her to deliver the evidence that will vindicate him. She fails to do so. It’s not The Crucible but Carrington V.C., whose title character is neither as guilty nor as heroic as John Proctor, but whose wife, Val, is far more dangerous than Elizabeth. Elizabeth perjures herself because she thinks she is saving her husband. Val perjures herself because she knows it will obliterate Copper’s case, the ultimate revenge for her husband straying when she was weakest. This is a great movie moment, theatrical and convoluted and relatable and straightforward all at once, which is to say it’s enormously affecting. Copper is an artillery officer who is owed significant back pay and whose personal finances are in shambles due to a hectic military career and impenetrable red tape. At the beginning of the movie, Copper is hesitant to put his wife on the stand even though she can verify his story with her words and with a letter due to her fragile mental health; when his commanding officer, a desk officer during the Second World War who openly envies Carrington’s Victoria Cross, denies that Copper told him that he would take money from the regimental pay box unless he got his back pay, he is forced to include her. What he doesn’t predict is that Val would get the truth out of his lover and fellow officer Alison, and thus when Val takes the stand she takes the stand hot. David Niven, who had such a way playing basically decent people making bad choices, is the right man for Carrington. He makes his own defense, which is stupid and proves to be stupid when he can’t quite hold back his outbursts. It proves he’s a decent man, which makes a strong impression on half of the five men who will make the decision, but it doesn’t win him the case either; in fact, his decency, his chivalry, all but condemns him. There’s quality in Niven’s opposite numbers as well. Noelle Middleton is every inch the proper British lady officer; Margaret Leighton, whose eyes are not quite right and whose figure is something bordering on gaunt, looks like she could be scythed by a sudden gust of wind even without her wavering voice and her nervous hands.

Few dismissals of a movie resonate quite so specifically as “stagey,” and although Carrington V.C. is based on a stage play and has the typical beats of one, it doesn’t feel stilted. Part of it is an advantage that courtroom dramas have when they’re put into a movie studio, since the setting is so familiar and so pompous. But Asquith has a gift for making the courtroom that the tribunal uses, and “courtroom” is a grand term for what looks like any room anywhere, feel huge. There is space between the stage where the judges sit and where the case is tried, and then even more space between the trial and the audience, and then space between the audience and the walls. Asquith finds ways to accentuate the dry humor in the screenplay with sound. The British military is stuffy, and the salutes and sharp turns of the bailiff earn rolled eyes and ultimately censure from the career officers on the stage. Every time he stamps his foot on the hardwood floor, it reverberates around the room, and ultimately the president of the court commands him outright to stop making so much noise. It’s funny, and at the same time it’s a reminder of what’s at stake. Nothing short than the preservation of the rule of law in a body for which inflexibility is oxygen; what the bailiff does to keep from making too much noise is clever, and it’s the very limit of what he is allowed to continue doing. Copper, the judges decide, might have been able to take the money and then return it without significant penalty if he had told his commanding officer what he was doing ahead of time: it would be a rash message instead of bald thievery. But outside of this single possibility he has done wrong. Asquith finds a way to tell this story, to bring his actors forward, and to smooth over some of the more histrionic tendencies of plays-become-movies in order to make Carrington V.C. moving.

96) Four Lions (2010), directed by Chris Morris

I still can’t believe this movie exists—it was released just five years after the 7/7 bombings—although after I saw it I couldn’t believe I hadn’t seen it twice already. For a comedy about incompetent terrorists to work, literally everything has to go right. Only two of these guys seem particularly hyped up about the actual business of terrorism. Omar, played by Riz Ahmed, is probably the most intelligent and competent member of this terrorist cell; unfortunately, he also tries to shoot down a drone while holding his RPG launcher backwards. (It results in predictable faceplant which is totally demented and totally unlike anything I’ve seen in a movie before.) The other is Barry, played by Nigel Lindsay, who is a very angry, very white convert. His most memorable line is probably the one where he calls spark plugs a Jewish invention “to control global traffic,” unless it’s the totally Trumpian “You can’t win an argument just by being right!” The other three members of this group are rather less vocal, unless you count Hassan, who raps. My favorite is Faisal, who spends an incredible amount of time learning how animals explode, and whose final accidental experiment in this field ends with Omar scolding his crew as “psycho Baloo and piss jet Bagheera.” And it would be a shame not to mention Omar’s cousin Waj, who is so unsure about the morality of blowing people up for God that during the mission Omar decides to change course.

The fact that our two protagonists, such as they are, have some edge taken off of them is a sign of the movie’s intelligence. Barry’s whiteness speaks for itself, but Omar’s family, who are a totally normal group of people, also get screen time opposite his insanity. Four Lions actively rejects the premise that people who look like Omar or believe like Omar are suspicious. In short, these morons can be funny because they are basically non-threatening to an utterly absurd extent. In the intervening years, we’ve learned about how harmless morons can too easily turn into anything but, and that’s a fact that the movie does not shy away from. Ultimately they end up doing some damage around London, but considering that some of it happens when an innocent man decides to administer the Heimlich maneuver to a man in a Muppet costume, the tragedy of it is largely alleviated. Our laughter does quite the opposite.

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