Better than BFI’s Top 100: 60-56

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

60) Alien (1979), directed by Ridley Scott

Last year I was in my living room with a cockroach. I thought I saw it duck out from behind my curtains and then run back behind them, and I wasn’t entirely sure that I had seen it. I thought I had seen it, and so I stayed up later than I intended to, playing a video game, waiting for it to show its ugly little face again. Eventually it broke out from cover, and after a brief chase I killed it. I was slightly freaked out the whole time. I do not care much care to share my living space with roaches, and the thought that it would come out and surprise me in the darkness was not at all friendly. The relief I felt killing that thing bordered on unseemly: I felt such peace when it was disposed of. What Alien supposes is not unlike that. There are a few differences, I guess. The roach was not bigger or stronger or deadlier than me; my life was not in danger; it did not kill everyone else in my apartment (or threaten my cat, ha ha). I was not millions of miles away from terra firma. Most of all, no one plotted to insert that cockroach into my place based on some absurdly arrogant plan to profit off of it. The circumstances of Alien are just that for everyone who has ever seen it. But we all know what it’s like to be in the room with something we don’t trust, we don’t like, and we’re scared to confront. This is not a terribly scary movie, which I know is true because I’ve seen it multiple times. This is, on the other hand, one of the purest horror movies ever made because it has a situation and not scenes at its heart. What Ripley successfully faces down is existentially terrifying; what she ends up voiding into space is as brief as a nightmare.

What I always forget about this movie, no matter how often I return to it, is how little time is spent with the alien in its fullest form. The scenes on that hazy, foggy, atmospheric planet take up a lot of time, and they are essential to the movie for their color. There’s a unity in the blue-green planet and the blue-green lighting of the ship, of the total confusion on that planet and the total confusion that results when the crew plays a lethal game of hide-and-seek with the alien. We’re given multiple opportunities to see that the person with the most sense on the Nostromo is Ripley, and that her good sense is not infected with the sort of angry cynicism Parker operates under. We get glimpses of Lambert’s temperamental nature before we watch her melt down under pressure. Time and again Dallas miscalculates, making mistake after mistake, and it’s one last piece of bad judgment that earns him a death just as surely as Lambert and Parker and Kane earn theirs. When Ripley and Jonesy go to sleep hoping they’ll make the frontier, it makes sense. There’s nothing showoffish about how neatly the choices fit the results, but that carefulness in the screenplay is loud and clear in the finished film.

59) Hobson’s Choice (1954), directed by David Lean

Charles Laughton and John Laurie in Hobson's Choice (1954)

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They may not let me finish this list if I let this cat out of the bag, but watching all of these British movies did not make me like John Mills very much; I’ve never watched a movie with him and thought he was the most interesting character, and certainly never thought he was the best actor. In Hobson’s Choice, he gets Charles Laughton, which is an incredible advantage, as well as a forcefully funny actress in Brenda De Banzie to work off of. It’s the best possible scenario for Mills, whose most memorable roles are these weaker, quieter men. Willie Mossop is a cobbler who comes to work each day and immediately heads down the trapdoor into the basement, where he crafts Salford’s finest shoes for Hobson, who is Salford’s finest prize idiot. Willie acts like a fellow who works long hours in a basement, and watching him browbeaten into marriage to the boss’ daughter by the boss’ daughter is really something. Maggie is as sharp a tack and an equivalent pain in the butt, and when her father takes her for granted one time too many, she decides that with the right equipment she can outmaneuver him in business: Willie is that equipment. Thus we get a scene where Willie can do little more than stand by as Maggie breaks up with his girlfriend for him, and a couple more where Maggie kneads him into a rapid marriage. De Banzie really shines in those scenes, and I don’t mean to say that Mills’ meekness is unwelcome. It simply is a much easier job than De Banzie has, who walks that really thin line between hilarious and harridan with aplomb.

The great joy of this movie is in Lean’s underrated ability to force us to read visually, only to have our conceptions of what we’ve read blasted away by dialogue later on. Hobson’s Choice lets us go a little ways believing that there must be something within Hobson that made him a success. Within twenty minutes, that misconception is sanded away: the business is really Maggie’s brainchild, and the production of these fine shoes is all Willie. Hobson has stumbled home drunk in the small hours of the morning, and before we know it he’s up and off to the pub again. In Laughton’s hands, Hobson is a circus clown, a sort of forerunner to David Brent or Basil Fawlty. Everything about Laughton is amplified, as if he’s living with a little exponent over his head. He’s not just a fat drunk, for certainly Lancashire has its fair share; he is an engorged and necrotizing fat drunk. He’s not just some bumbling oaf. Would a bumbling oaf, on a sodden moonlit night, fall through a hole in the sidewalk into the cellar of his greatest personal antagonist? He’s not just an arrogant buffoon, but he is the arrogant buffoon who believes that he is well-known throughout the region, so much so that getting his name in the papers in Salford would mean it would happen in Manchester too, and so on. Watching his daughter and best employee slip away from him is vindicating for us watching; watching them buy him out has come all the way round to funny again.

58) Hot Fuzz (2007), directed by Edgar Wright

I think if as many people had seen The Wicker Man as have seen 28 Days LaterHot Fuzz would be more widely recognized as Edgar Wright’s masterpiece. (Seriously, though, Edward Woodward is in this movie, and he gets immolated! He says “Oh God!” right before it happens and everything! Fie!) Like Shaun of the DeadHot Fuzz is ridiculously rewatchable, but watching it while knowing how the mystery will unfold is every bit as entertaining as watching it for the first time. Nicholas Angel is getting his groove on one morning at his new assignment in rural Sandford, after having been ceremoniously exiled from London for the crime of having an arrest rate 400% higher than anyone else. (That they bring in Martin Freeman, Steve Coogan, and Bill Nighy for the seemingly simple task of transferring Simon Pegg makes it all the funnier.) He’s chasing some teenager in a purple jumpsuit round the town while his partner, Danny Butterman, wheezes his way after them. They come to a series of fences. Angel hurdles the first three beautifully, and then does everything but shout PARKOUR as he does a flip over the last. Danny is inspired. He decides he’s going to give it a go. He lurches into the first fence and breaks through the thing like a cinderblock through a pile of water balloons. It was funny the first time, and it’ll be funny the last time, when I asphyxiate from laughing so hard. Some days later, once it’s terribly clear that someone(s?) is murdering people and framing the murders as accidents, Angel returns to his room. Someone is already there, cloaked and black and packing a wallop. The hood slides off; it’s literal village idiot Michael. Michael responds to everything by saying, “Yarp.” He also happens to be incredibly strong and armed with a sword. Angel wins the fight, but has one more hurdle: he must respond to the person on the other end of the line in Michael’s voice. Is everything okay? “Yarp.” Is Angel dealt with? “Yarp.” Is he going to get up again? And here, we can taste Angel’s panic. He decides to give it a shot. “…Narp?” It turns out that “Narp” was, for the first time in history, the right answer. Hot Fuzz is this funny over and over again because Pegg is this funny, and because Pegg is getting his chance to play a totally serious man. It’s dynamite.

Hot Fuzz is an incredibly neat movie, by which I mean it makes callbacks over and over again throughout the film to things that have happened before. (That makes three things Hot Fuzz has in common with Alien; the other two, of course, is that they’re both British movies and they’re both in this post.) The police station gets blown up by a sea mine that David Bradley, who speaks the most incomprehensible English and who still must have come from Texas given how much weaponry he has, is keeping around. He beats the thing with the butt of a shotgun (and scares the Dutch angles out of Angel and Danny doing it), but then ends up kicking it in tandem with Danny. But the spines never press in when Arthur is fooling with it, and that makes all the difference when the sea mine falls over on top of Tom. A local woman calls Angel a fascist in the guise of working out a crossword; she’ll do it again when she opens fire on him in the town square. Everything is answered for, which would be annoying if it all weren’t timed so beautifully. My one quibble is that the movie references the moment in Point Break where Keanu Reeves can’t fire on Patrick Swayze twice, and then of course uses the same thing when Danny can’t bring himself to open fire on a clearly guilty and clearly beloved target. This guy’s done the work for me, so thank you, YouTube.

It’s the one instance when it feels like the movie loses its way a little. The best spoofs do make us emotional, and I wish that Hot Fuzz had a little more confidence in setting up an emotional moment that didn’t copy Kathryn Bigelow’s work.

57) Local Hero (1983), directed by Bill Forsyth

Fulton Mackay and Peter Riegert in Local Hero (1983)

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The ending of Local Hero is measured, maybe even a little bit sad. Mac returns from a business trip in Whisky Galore! Land that he was reluctant to take in the first place, and returns home to his Houston apartment as dusk fades to night. It was a choice that really surprised me not because it makes sense that Mac has been changed more than he’s willing to admit by his time away. It’s because the movie doesn’t really have any sadness in it until that moment, and when the film ends on that note, it is deeply sobering. The people of Ferness aren’t going to get the crazy payout from eccentric oilman Felix Happer that they’d hoped for, but they seemed to be doing just fine anyway. They will get a dual observatory and oceanographic institute on the beach, so they won’t even lack for future fish out of water in the same mold that Mac belongs to. The oceanographers must be thrilled. Happer, played by Burt Lancaster gloriously leaning all the way into the weirdness, gets to see his beloved stars from a beautiful remote island. But what does Mac take away from all this? He’s learned something. He’s capable of getting along with people he thought he could never get along with. He has it in him to settle down and relax a little bit. He doesn’t necessarily thrive on the tension and bustle of big business the way he believed he did. He’s learned something about the value of the land, the value of being settled in a place that’s in your blood and vice versa. And now: he’s another yuppie in his apartment, and he has no recourse to reach for what he’s discovered he really liked. Happer will never send him on a job like that again; the only reason he even went to Ferness is because his name seemed suitably Scottish. Happer tells a local oil rep (played by the very unexpected Peter Capaldi) that he “could grow to love this place.” We know at least as well as he does that it’s true. This ending becomes more and more sad the more you think about it. People are emotionally maimed by things they never signed up for all the time, but what happens to Mac in Ferness is so benign on the surface that it sort of takes your breath away once the implications are clearer.

This has always been a blog friendly to Burt Lancaster, and it’s nice to see him in a role that gives him a chance to stretch his legs. Lancaster is justly famous for playing tough military men with (From Here to Eternity) and without (Seven Days in May) a conscience, for playing men blessed with the gift of gab both dangerous (Sweet Smell of Success) and incisive (Judgment at Nuremberg). Undoubtedly his best work is in The Leopard, and some of the best acting I’ve ever seen anyone do is that dance at the end of the film, which is a totally sublime moment. So it’s nice that we get to watch him play a vaguely demented oilman who we meet as he’s in the middle of an “abuse therapy” session that runs on and on through his initial interview with Mac. Then he sees his therapist on a neighboring roof with defamatory signs. “There’s a madman on the roof,” he tells his secretary. “You’d better call the police to get some marksmen over here. Shoot him down. Shoot to kill.” He’s playing a man rich enough to do whatever he wants, who has the most absolute security. What that means is that he can tell his secretary in an entirely serious voice that he wants his therapist murdered. It also means that he can bargain with a man who lives on a beach in a shack and, by most standards, come out the loser: he won’t build the refinery on the island itself. Being a universally venerated actor at the end of your career means you can do much the same thing that Happer does, and Lancaster’s ease in the role is a big reason why this movie works so well.

56) Caravaggio (1986), directed by Derek Jarman

I saw this movie at 7:00 a.m. without having slept at all the night before, and I think it helped a little. Caravaggio isn’t exactly big on the whole “plot” thing anyway, and the atmosphere of this film is unique, in some way specific about its events and entirely hazy about how they come about. There are shots where Jarman is quite literally recreating Caravaggio paintings, and then there are long stretches where people beat each other up, and then there’s some casual murder, and the kissing—do yourself a favor and read some contemporary reviews of this movie, because there are some folks clutching their pearls real tight over the men kissing—and perhaps most importantly, Caravaggio semi-conscious on his deathbed. At least, the movie begins there, and returns to the scene with some frequency. If this is meant to be Caravaggio’s life, then what a life it is. Nigel Terry’s performance is restrained, or at least restrained compared to most of his costars (Robbie Coltrane and Michael Gough are, quite happily, playing this thing for the people outside the theater). It makes each of the aspects of the man so much more remarkable, bordering on unbelievable. There are the paintings, which we see modeled by these street people, although every now and then we’ll get a shot which all but remakes several of his greatest hits. I’m partial to Boy with a Basket of Fruit, which is lit to perfection. Caravaggio is one of those movies which is just unbelievably beautiful. Who let him find that stunning faded gold as a backdrop for the scene where Tilda Swinton and Sean Bean lounge about on a hammock? (There are variants on that gold—dim straw yellows are important in the movie, probably the single most common background color in the film.) Sometimes the characters look like they’re on stage, with the sort of black behind them that looks like they’re in danger of sinking into a void. White in this movie is rarely pure; too often it’s been mixed up with something else, making it more like a dingy cream. For all I know I dreamed this movie up.

What plot there is in the movie is surprisingly character driven, in the sense that the people matter in making things happen. One doesn’t get the sense in Jubilee, for example, that as clearly delineated as each of those Individuals are, that one person doing something matters more than another person doing the same thing. Caravaggio has distinct characters and separates them by social class often as not. Caravaggio and Ranuccio compete for Lena’s affection, and in one scene she’ll be with one, and in another she’ll be with the other, and then in the third she comes to them and says that she’s moving in with the fabulously wealthy Borghese. The cardinals in this movie are super horny; Cardinal Del Monte, Caravaggio’s first patron, also appears to be the person who teaches him what sex is. The romantic rivalry that Caravaggio, Ranuccio, and Lena engage in is more the latter than the former. Whatever physical impression they can make on each other, whether it’s kisses or sex or knives, is the most forceful aspect of their tangled relationships. Caravaggio is the last man standing, and he’s the winner. As far as we can tell, he’s also never the same again.

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