Better than BFI’s Top 100: 95-91

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


95) Pygmalion (1938), directed by Anthony Asquith and Leslie Howard

In sports, people obsess over “bad contracts,” which belong to players who don’t produce very much but who are paid well above the market value of that production. What this means is that people are taking the side of the management rather than the labor; it’s the same problem that Pygmalion the movie has, just as it is in My Fair Lady: Eliza returns to Henry for the purposes of a “happy ending,” even if it’s nothing of the sort. The movie costs itself a good ten spots on this list with that miscalculation, which is exactly what I’m sure they were concerned about when they made it. To some extent I understand how this movie’s production team (which included Shaw, for whatever that’s worth) may have felt that it was already pushing the outside of the envelope. Wendy Hiller gets to do some reasonably scandalous stuff by 1938 standards, dropping the first “bloody” (as in “NOT BLOODY LIKELY!”) in the history of British movies, and appears in the bath without the benefit of, y’know, clothes. It’s not quite her movie, although she is absolutely right for Eliza in a way that no one else filmed for this role has been. She has a toughness to her, a kind of husk, that makes Eliza’s transformation that much more unlikely. It helps, of course, that Hiller is actually funny. Certainly the terrible clothes they give her at the beginning do some work on that front, but mostly she is delightful on her own merits, entirely likely as either the flower girl or the duchess.

Pygmalion is a movie that represents the flower of the pre-WWII British movie business. It has the talent—Anthony Asquith and David Lean and Harry Stradling behind the camera, Hiller and Leslie Howard and Wilfrid Lawton in front of it—as well as Gabriel Pascal’s skill in production. Lawton deserves an awful lot of credit for being deeply hilarious; Lean deserves his own parcel for some of the more ambitious montages that the movie engages in to show us how hopeless Higgins’ bet to tame Eliza’s tongue appears to be. But the engine of this movie is Leslie Howard, who packages the wicked sardonic arrogance that Henry Higgins uses to live instead of oxygen. He isn’t just that, though. There are scenes where he has so much energy that he seems to prance around the set, deviling Hiller (or Lawton or Scott Sunderland or Marie Lohr, you get the idea) with the fact that his superiority to everyone else has basis, and that he has managed to turn it into a hilarious non-stop show. Sometimes that works best when he is on top of the heap, as he is when he tells Eliza that if she doesn’t work hard enough the king will have her executed and leave her head on a pike to warn other “presumptuous flower girls.” And sometimes, Howard finds the smallness in the man which stems from more than disappointment or denial. He lets us know by the end of the movie that Henry Higgins is a full-stop douchebag, for lack of a better term, and there is no ironic quip or dismissive wave of the hand that will prove otherwise.

94) In the Name of the Father (1993), directed by Jim Sheridan

Given how dull My Left Foot and The Boxer are, I’m a little amazed Jim Sheridan and Daniel Day-Lewis managed to make this movie good. (Seriously: Steven Hiller thinks My Left Foot is a drag.) What I think of first in In the Name of the Father is the relationship between Gerry and Giuseppe, a father and son who seem always to be at cross-purposes. Day-Lewis’ Gerry is a little bit stupid and entirely careless, always on the search for cheap pleasure at the expense of responsibility or safety. It’s a bad combination in ’70s Belfast, and the movie leads with a scene where Gerry somehow manages to get into hot water with everyone, English and IRA, all at once. Giuseppe, whose clothes are equally as bad as Gerry’s but more respectable, is if anything too permissive and too kind with his wayward son, and his best efforts to keep Gerry out of trouble extend him too far when his son is arrested for bombing a pub. (The movie is quietly good at making the idea that Gerry, who has no cause but his own cut-rate hedonism, would blow up anyone an entirely ridiculous thought.) The tragedy of In the Name of the Father is in its proposition. For the two men to come to know one another again, they must both be sentenced for crimes that neither one of them committed, and they must both lose much of their lives—and in Giuseppe’s case, the rest of his—to a high-security prison. It’s only in prison that Gerry begins to mature and work for the first time in his life, and that Giuseppe is forced to witness it is profoundly cruel. Day-Lewis is very good, as per the usual, but this is really Pete Postlethwaite’s movie. That face, that nose, those eyes all leak bewildered sadness; almost literally, he woke up one morning and found himself imprisoned for the rest of his life. His work in this movie is exquisite, and although the movie’s plot continues after his character’s death, it doesn’t always feel right without him. I felt I had lost the real protagonist.

In the Name of the Father does well at depicting cruelty, although Sheridan’s vision of cruelty is a much safer one than, I dunno, Steve McQueen’s. The scenes which show us how Gerry and his equally moronic buddy, Paul, are broken by the cops. They have only seven days to get these innocent men to give themselves up, and so they use every trick conceivable to do so. They lie to each man separately that the other has caved. They deprive them of sleep. They beat them. It seems for a while that Gerry, whose hope of an alibi from a homeless drunk might come through, could hang on. But in the end both of them sign their confessions, and it comes after a sequence which is brutal and neverending. It may not take up any more than ten minutes of screentime, but it is so harrowing and dismaying that it seems to last three times that. In those sequences, Corin Redgrave is particularly good at that icy, hateful demeanor which has so much more strength than Gerry’s weeping and gnashing, and in the face of that steadfastness it is perhaps unsurprising that Gerry gives up.

93) A Night to Remember (1958), directed by Roy Ward Baker

The British gift for understatement is well-established, and in this list there isn’t a title that soft-pedals its story more than A Night to Remember. What makes the movie remarkable is its ability to engage in the melodrama which one would expect from the story of the Titanic going down, but at the same time it manages to move from person to person, station to station, and even ship to ship with ease. The Californian, captained by a very sleepy Stanley Lord, is dark and shadowy. Lord is primarily concerned with getting his sleep, and with just enough light on his face to betray his vexation, he is one of the great punchable figures in British movie history. A Night to Remember is a movie with potent villains, but even with the presence of the cowardly Bruce Ismay, Lord comes off as the real baddie, shutting down his ship just when it would have been of the most use. Meanwhile, Titanic is everything. It looks fabulous on the outside as it twinkles dying in the night. The interiors give us what we need to know of the ship’s opulence, but it’s much more concerned with its engine room, its control centers, the bridge, and of course what it looks like when a swarm of people, of whom seventy percent are doomed, come outside to see where they’ll die. In terms of special effects and art direction, A Night to Remember is truly outstanding, and is head and shoulders above its contemporaneous American Technicolor cousins (i.e., the rush of swords and sandals epics including Ben-Hur and The Ten Commandments). This one just looks real (even if it does steal some clips from the Nazi Titanic, made fifteen years earlier), and in looking real it achieves a tragedy that accentuates the deep sadness of the movie.

And it is really a sad movie. As much as this movie’s scope and effects wow us, the sheer number of people we’re supposed to keep track of is its own task. To its credit, the officers on the ship are largely recreated, led by Kenneth More’s portrayal of the second officer, Lightoller. He anchors as much of the ship’s crew as anyone else; the closest we get among the passengers is Thomas Andrews, who designed the ship. Like Victor Garber in Titanic, Michael Goodliffe’s character is one of the rare figures responsible for Titanic who basically comes off blameless, and much of that is built out from the fact that he tries his best to save people once the disaster is clear and that he never tries to save himself. A Night to Remember finds fault in Captain Smith, who is a little shellshocked by the events; it finds spirit in Molly Brown two years before her life was turned into a musical and six before it was turned into a star vehicle for Debbie Reynolds. And most of all it finds that phlegmatic horror in a figure like the fictional Robbie Lucas, who must have had a dozen parallels on the night itself. He wakes his children, ensures that they find a lifeboat with their mother, and then puts off his own death as long as he possibly can.

92) Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994), directed by Mike Newell

Listen, I also sort of hate myself for including this movie, but I would also sort of hate myself for not including it. (Love Actually will not be here, so feel free to exhale.) Too often I’m guilty of saying that When Harry Met Sally… was the last good romantic comedy, but that’s not true. We have Four Weddings and a Funeral, a movie which is so awfully corny and occasionally quite earnest and strangely irresistible, and look at me I’m describing Hugh Grant. Grant is somehow in more of this movie than I remembered, which is fine. He really is charming in this movie, stammer and all. Four Weddings gives him a chance to unveil a number of great faces, as when he gets stuck in the same room as Bernard and Lydia “celebrating” their nuptials. The total despair, the complete embarrassment, the grim fatigue, the sheepish sarcasm: all of it comes out in about forty-five seconds of can’t-look-away awkwardness that he really is the right person to bring out for us. What’s wonderful is that these are the same emotions he has when he’s out to wedding dress shopping and lunch with Andie MacDowell. Tradition has emphatically disqualified him from being her groom now that he’s seen the dress; hearing the list of all the men she’s slept with just flattens him for multiple reasons. I’ll go to my grave believing that MacDowell was the wrong choice to play opposite him, but I dunno, maybe Jeanne Tripplehorn wasn’t the answer either. MacDowell is at least effective in the part, and if she doesn’t always sound right, the Portman Test vindicates her at least a little. (The Portman Test, which I’m coining here and now even if we’ve all been saying it since 2002: Natalie Portman is a good actress, but even she can’t make the Star Wars prequels sound like they were written competently.) She’s at her best when she gets to be a little bit funny, as she is when she hides from her slightly loaded and entirely exasperating date in all of the nooks and crannies of a hotel lobby.

Happily, everyone else is cast perfectly, which means we give a rare shoutout to the casting director (Michelle Guish) for rounding these people up. Kristin Scott Thomas is as classy as James Fleet is clumsy. Simon Callow and John Hannah are lethally charismatic together but only paralyzingly so on their own. And, alas, we must give Richard Curtis some credit, because this is a truly funny screenplay brought to life by some truly funny people. One begins with Rowan Atkinson as the deliriously nervous priest who nukes a wedding with a little help from the Holy Spigot (or is it the Holy Goat?), but the malapropisms are only half of it. After having screwed up Bernard Geoffrey St. John Delaney’s name multiple times, the entire church is waiting for him to say it again. Bernard is waiting for him to say it again, and the look on his face suggests that if he cannot be johnned in matrimony correctly he might explode. Father Gerald knows he must say it again, and then all of a sudden it hits him: “Bernard…Delaney,” he says, and although the actual punchline is not long after, that’s the one that has slayed me for years. Kristin Scott Thomas inflects the word “Duckface” the way some people inflect voodoo dolls with needles. Grant and MacDowell get to deadpan a little. But few supporting roles are as joyful as Gareth, who pantomimes and screeches and leers and cackles so thunderously that it’s hard not to cackle sympathetically whenever Simon Callow appears on screen. Four Weddings rather took the world by storm when it appeared, snagging a Best Picture nomination and all, but if it does endure—and I hope it does—it will be because of zany moments like the one where Gareth bursts into a Scottish reception and cries, “It’s Brigadoon!”

91) American Honey (2016), directed by Andrea Arnold

It’s a little cheeky to include the American road movie in Arnold’s oeuvre to the exception of everything else (sorry), but American Honey just absolutely lands its jump in a way that movies about poverty almost never do; there’s a little of Les Miserables the novel in it and a New York Times article aiding its genesis. The people in American Honey live exploitation minute to minute; even if Krystal is in charge of the crew, it’s impossible to believe that she isn’t paying up to someone who’s getting grifted in return. People like Star are the guiltless and guileless detritus, and sometimes when they’re desperate enough to leave an inch of security for a centimeter of it, they push off. Star is amazed by Jake, who is obviously weird and creepy (just look at that rattail the length of many rats) but all the more charismatic for it. Pile a bunch of kids—because even those who are old enough to be “adults” don’t have the experience or wherewithal for the title—into a van, ship them to affluent neighborhoods, herd them back into the van, board them in cheap motels, douse them in all the sugar and drugs and sex and violence it takes to keep them pacified. All of those steps are detailed in American Honey, and it’s such a dull process it’s no wonder Star decides to break the rules as often as she does. Moms and preteens are Jake’s bread and butter, but big spenders who want Star’s company more than her magazines are how she gets sales: three men who get her drunk on mezcal, a construction worker who pays her outright for sex. That Star stays is incredible—although the fact she stayed in Oklahoma as long as she did is also incredible—and that she doesn’t have the judgment or analysis to see what’s happening emphasizes the fact of her childishness. She is overwhelmingly jealous of Jake in the way that middle schoolers are of their weeklong boyfriends, and the root of most of her bad decisions is her obsession with someone who is biding time until he can recruit some newer, prettier waif to the crew.

Sasha Lane and Shia LaBeouf are absolutely outstanding, she in her first role and he in his best, and Arnold’s movie rides this odd pair to its greatest heights. LaBeouf’s character is the opposite of Lane’s. Star is comfortable in any group but never gets to be in charge; Jake could only ever exist in a group where he looks cooler than the rest, but the bar for it sixth-round-of-the-limbo-low in the one where he’s found himself. Jake is afraid of anyone who can hurt him, and LaBeouf exudes that fear on sales and with Krystal, too. Aside from her ability to play someone with a mind ten years younger than her own, pouting all the way, Lane is physically right for the role. Her tall, lean frame fits badly in the crammed van that ships the mag crew from place to place, but seems entirely at home in the open-top cars that she rides around in Texas, hair in the breeze, or when she pops through the sunroof of a car in the gloaming. She runs across lawns and liquefies in open fields. And above Lane is trustworthy in making Star kind. For as much as she has suffered, it has not made her mean. She is completely able to feel pity for children, and goes out of her way to take care of some little kids she runs across; with adults who show her some measure of friendship she is friendly in return, and there’s one scene in particular with a truck driver which is maybe the most affecting and gentle of the entire movie.

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