Better than BFI’s Top 100: 90-86

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

 

90) The Long Good Friday (1980), directed by John Mackenzie

Bob Hoskins has too many teeth in his mouth. Where he found them all I don’t know, but they are perfect for Harold Shand, who attacks his problems with his teeth in the vanguard and his brain a little too far in the rear. The movie makes it clear that his criminal empire is rousingly successful from the first time we see him grandstanding on the deck of his yacht, promising investors great returns on the rehabilitation of the docks, a project he intends to finance with the help of America’s mob. By the end of the movie, even the Mafia is too worried about Harold and what appears to be complete impotence in the face of a problem he cannot defeat with bulldog tenacity alone. A bomb destroys his car; a bomb blows up a bar he owns. The violence which, presumably, he used to wend his way to the top is not absent. Men are suspended from meathooks. A totally naked man gets his butt sliced open. Harold is there for all of it, leading interrogations and sneering at his victims, although he’s wise enough in most cases not to do any of the actual injury himself. (In one case, his self-control leaves him entirely and he leaves a corpse behind with it.) It’s not ineffective, but it is inefficient. Harold is like one of those boxers of old who take blow after blow and prepare themselves for the counterpunch which will lay his opponent low. He is strong enough to take the punishment, but unfortunately he is not immune to little cuts above the eye and reduce him to purposeless lashing out. His fault is that he is naturally reactive, and it only takes one slow dodge to knock him out.

Everyone talks about the last scene of The Long Good Friday, and for good reason, because it is the most daring scene of the movie. Harold is certain that he has defeated the people behind his explosive weekend (the IRA) using the same techniques he has applied to the hoods and gangsters and baddies he’s been torturing all weekend. His business deal is in shambles—Harold lets the Americans have it as they walk away from him and the country that is apparently too violently unpredictable for their taste—but he has, he’s sure, fixed the problem, and can go about reasserting himself the usual way. He gets into the backseat of his car, and it’s clear immediately that he’s made a bad choice. The rearview mirror is filled with hostile eyes. A car going the other direction seems to move in slow-motion past him; it’s carrying his girlfriend, Victoria, who is being pulled away from the window. And as he looks at the front seat, a gun held by one of the Irishmen we saw at the beginning of the movie (helpfully played by a very young Pierce Brosnan) is pointed directly at his head. For most movies, this would work well enough on its own. But Mackenzie sees it differently. For a full forty-five seconds, he leaves the camera just in front of Hoskins’ chin, and Hoskins’ face goes to work in concert with Francis Monkman’s score. He bounces off emotion after emotion. He has nothing to say, no way to get out, no escape to conjure, no counterpunch to throw. We can watch the relentlessness fade from his face the same way that the light leaves a deer’s eyes when the wolves finally come in for the kill.

89) The History Boys (2006), directed by Nicholas Hytner

The school movie is as essential and endemic to British cinematic culture as Shakespeare adaptations. American school movies all carry the DNA of The Blackboard Jungle in some way or another, and there’s always the sense that someone will fix something or die trying. British school movies tend to see school as a giant crockpot for everyone’s insecurities. And although The History Boys is the lowest-rated movie of the [redacted] I’ve placed on this list, it’s easily my favorite because of how genuine those insecurities are. Alan Bennett was seventy when The History Boys premiered at the West End, which makes his accomplishment in understanding the minds of teenagers something of a miracle. The eponymous boys are rudely ambitious, deliciously smart, and thunderously naive, which anyone could have guessed at. It’s the way that he understands Posner’s hopeless crush on Dakin, Dakin’s worship of the young and vaguely edgy new teacher Irwin, Lockwood’s idiosyncratic worldview, Rudge’s blunt wisdom. He sniffs out the irony in why all of these young men, who fancy themselves individuals on the cusp of something, want to go to Oxford and Cambridge. It’s not that they are “tried and tested,” but, as Hector declaims, “It’s because other boys want to go there! It’s the hot ticket.” Why are we bothering? one of them asks Irwin. “You want it. Your parents want it. The headmaster, he certainly wants it,” he replies. The History Boys has a haunting line about how difficult it is for us to read “the recent past,” and in that context the fact that these kids struggle to read this last year before college for themselves is equally haunting.

The History Boys is beautifully written, not simply because it sounds good when spoken but because it is structurally pristine. Irwin’s arrival at school splits the boys into two camps, Hector’s humanists, led by Posner, and Irwin’s “journalists,” led by Dakin. Posner ultimately becomes a teacher, like Hector; Dakin becomes a lawyer, which matches Irwin’s ultimate untrustworthy fate as a television personality. When the class has a debate about the suitability of the Holocaust as a topic to write about on their entrance exams, Posner’s personal feelings echo Hector’s yearning for decorum; Dakin’s gobbets echo Irwin’s learned glibness on just about any subject. Two scenes anchor those relationships and give this story the deepest expression of feeling. After a bad meeting with the headmaster, Hector returns to his classroom for a regular tutoring session with Posner that he’d forgotten about; presumably, the boys learn a poem and discuss it with him in a one-on-one session. The scene, aside from being a fairly interesting exegesis of “Drummer Hodge,” also stands to characterize Hector. The word “uncoffined” leads to a rumination of Hector’s part about other “un-” words, and how they carry a connotation of being outside a larger community or group; it could not be clearer from Griffiths’ performance, which is subtle and lovely, that he is talking about himself, and Samuel Barnett’s wide eyes make it clear that Posner understands that Hector’s best moments in reading, when he senses a connection between himself and the original text, is a deep confession not often given to students by their teachers. In a later scene, Dakin worms a confession out of Irwin, a confession that he is as taken by his presumptuous student as his student is taken by his renegade teacher. It’s not a confession that comes easily, and it’s Dakin who has the wonderful line, the challenge for his superior: “Why are you so bold in argument and talking, but when it comes to the point—when it’s something that’s actually happening—I mean, you’re so fucking careful.” It turns out there are good reasons for being that way, and if youth will be served, perhaps there’s a reason why it shouldn’t have been.

88) The League of Gentlemen (1960), directed by Basil Dearden

The principal cast members of The League of Gentlemen—Jack Hawkins, Roger Livesey, Nigel Patrick, Bryan Forbes, and Richard Attenborough—aren’t exactly a “good hang.” This group, including Terence Alexander, Kieron Moore, and Norman Bird, comes together, in Hyde’s words, as a book of a month club. What they have in common is a history of getting on the wrong side of the army, and Hyde sees in their corporate shame a chance to do something special. As he tells the assembled group at lunch, he sees the corruption in these men at the same time as he sees their basic competence and their training to complete difficult tasks. It’s almost natural that Hyde connects his league of gentlemen to Robin Hood’s Merry Men. Surely he can envision the paramilitary flair that these six other men have, the way they will walk boldly into a military base to steal supplies, and later on, under a haze of smoke, into a bank to lift a million pounds. The League of Gentlemen needs the threat of their competence more than the appeal of how charming they can be, but the fact that it scrapes some of that charm up by itself is an added bonus. Livesey and Patrick are so smooth in their parts, the former as practically an elder statesmen and the latter as a debonair homosexual who has a habit of referring to other people as “darling.” Along with Bryan Forbes, whose screenplay provides us with a wry smile a minute, they personify a deeply engaging form of ironic panache. Meanwhile, the rest of the group is impatient, a little troubled. As in the best movies of the time, there’s a little nod at social pretenders, of whom Attenborough’s Lexy is one, and who frequently chafes at any sort of order coming from his military and social superior, Hyde.

The stakes of the heist in The League of Gentlemen aren’t so high, really: a million pounds divided between seven men is a remarkable take, but it boils down to little more than a stylish bank robbery in the end. The real thrill in the movie isn’t at the bank, but in the movie’s first and more necessary heist. The team fakes a military inspection mixed with an IRA raid to pick up the materiel they’ll need on their mission, essentially splitting themselves between the charismatic group to take the risk of being seen and the tough group to get the guns and jammers. The fact that they appear to be much more at risk is what makes it fun, and the fact that the Padre seems to laugh in the face of danger by laughing at his co-conspirators is all part of the movie’s beautifully struck mood. At any moment, he and the rest could be exposed and thrown into jail in an instant, but…while they’re out, he may as well force Hyde and Race to hork down some truly awful military rations. The League of Gentlemen is breezy and serious all at once, heavy enough with the eminence of star power without ever being weighed down by it.

87) The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1981), directed by Karel Reisz

The demeaning sobriquet given to Sarah that gives the movie its title is misleading. This is not a movie about a woman belonging to a French lieutenant, nor is there a French lieutenant, nor is it really even about the plot she belongs to. It’s about Mike, an actor, who has more or less consumed his part in the drama (“Charles”) as a piece of himself. First and foremost this is a very dry comedy about how people come to fool themselves, although Mike’s case is particularly interesting because he is cosplaying as his own template. In Charles’ sideburns and Victorian outfits and his pipe (which he uses to smoke noblesse oblige), Mike can figure out what it’s like to fall in love with the wrong woman who, conveniently, bears a tremendous resemblance to the wrong woman he’s already falling in love with. Sarah seems to be actively leading Charles to his own destruction, an idea that Charles’ scientist friend Grogan says outright. The difference is that Anna is not guiding Mike anywhere. She simply does things, wants things, doesn’t want things, doesn’t do things, and in truth Streep is letting her hair color act as much as she acts herself in that part. There’s more of a person in Sarah, just as there is more of a fault in Charles. They live in times where these fallen women and these rapacious bourgeois can receive ridicule, and that means the stakes are much higher for that unhappy pair than they are for two actors in the tail end of the 20th Century. The most tragic character is Sonia, Mike’s wife, who is unable to speak to Mike or Anna about his affair, who seems not even to know how to start; she can summon a little sharpness with Anna, but it certainly doesn’t come out with her husband. Ernestina, Charles’ fiancee, at least has a father who could out Charles as a libertine and a blackguard unworthy to marry his daughter; the 20th Century has stripped Sonia’s protection from her, and the movie lingers long enough on her for us to wonder just how badly the inevitable divorce will go.

This is a beautifully shot movie, one that makes its relationship between color and mood clear from the get-go. Sarah walks along the pier in a periwinkle which is consuming and faded and lovely, a color which connotes storms and sea and sadness all at once; it is said that she waits for her French lieutenant there. The movie never gets that close to the color again. The nights are too dark and sometimes too stormy, and dawn is a much more yellow-gray color. I come back to greens fairly often, a color which is strong throughout the movie, especially in the natural settings where Charles and Sarah can fall for each other without the influence of town. (It’s also the color where the actors, still in costume, eat lunch, and the movie laughs at that old-fashioned idea that nature is the only place where these sinners can come together.) But towards the end of the movie, there’s something like periwinkle that shows up again. It’s a light blue, a bright blue, one that says neon moonlight, and instead of belonging to Sarah it belongs to Mike. In a room that is identical to a room where Charles and Anna reconciled, Mike is surrounded by splotches of this bright blue as he searches for the woman he is obsessed with, and the callback is absolutely superb.

86) Shallow Grave (1994), directed by Danny Boyle

Shallow Grave is a very teal movie, and that’s hardly the only thing that marks it as a child of the 1990s. David, Juliet, and Alex are, in that order, successful Gen X products. All of them have careers that make them tidy sums of money, but it doesn’t seem to matter very much to any of them. They can afford to be blasé about their money, their security, their big shared apartment in Edinburgh, because nothing threatens them. The enormous suitcase of money that they come across when their brief fourth roommate pops his clogs is the first threat that any of these three have faced, and only David, the dweebiest among them (specs, accountant), makes himself ready. I doubt very much if Shallow Grave is meant as some kind of generational indictment so much as it is an indictment of the carelessness of a particular social class, but in either case it works at a high level. The protagonists deserve each other; again, only David recognizes the danger that this suitcase full of banknotes portends, but even he cannot bring himself to turn it in to the authorities. The result is a movie which is as great an advertisement for the utility of a local hardware store as any I’ve ever seen. There’s nothing that Alex can’t force David into—or, ultimately, that David can’t figure out how to do himself—that wasn’t originally bought at the hardware store. Saws and drills and shovels are the tools that lend the movie just enough realism to leave marks.

Although Alex is probably the least important of the three roommates to the story, McGregor’s performance is probably the most essential. He is incredibly young, just twenty-three when the movie was released, and he looks even younger. Already he channels the manic energy that he’d use for Boyle two years later in Trainspotting, and he does so to ensure that these people use this money as rashly as possible. He is buoyed up by the windfall; it’s not enough to buy ridiculous things, but his Drano cocktail of a personality becomes more like itself, more viscous and willing to spill out in public. He’s in charge of dumping a sedan into a lake, an event he celebrates like Rocky atop his steps. He pours champagne liberally, screams at MCs, and won’t leave off making fun of a guy he’s seen in the corners of his life. (This last gets him an unexpected beating, which I thought was cathartic, although it’s not quite as thorough as what comes to him later on.) It’s a performance which is a strong counter to what Christopher Eccleston is doing. The further Alex goes into a fantasy world, one that Juliet aids and abets, the more David recedes into the literal attic, hiding the money in a hidden tank he built himself, drilling holes in the ceiling so he can spy on what goes on below. Fate chose him to be the one to do the filthy work of mutilating the brief roommate’s body so that he couldn’t be identified, but he turns himself into a cold-blooded killer with remarkable efficiency. The space between McGregor and Eccleston is the best part of the movie.

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