Better than BFI’s Top 100: 45-41

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


45) Hamlet (1996), directed by Kenneth Branagh

The only Shakespeare adaptation I’ve put on this list is almost certainly the longest. I’ve expressed my admiration for Olivier’s Hamlet before, which is exciting and well acted on top of having really fascinating production design and strong choices from Olivier the director. But Branagh’s Hamlet, which doesn’t cut a thing from the play’s text and which chooses a very different kind of setting, is spectacular. In its own way, it’s a task as ambitious as any of Lean’s epics. Hamlet is synonymous with theatrical greatness, and the Prince of Denmark is the gold standard for any actor in English. Everyone knows the story already, and most people are turned off by the language and the fact they ran into this sucker in high school English class. Instead of giving us a modern-day version (like Almereyda’s with Ethan Hawke) or on that is unintentionally comedic (like Zeffirelli’s with Mel Gibson), Branagh decides novelty is the whole enchilada, a four-hour interpretation which gets to revel in all the language and present all the great moments. But it is certainly an interpretation. The movie is set during the 19th Century in one of the great halls of central or eastern Europe—I’ve always thought Austria, though maybe you lean Russia or even one of the German states—and placing it in marble halls with tiled floors obliterates one of the great stereotypes of the play. Hamlet is so often dark, as if the whole world reflects the sleazy seizure of power by Claudius or the tortured mind of its protagonist. The primary color of the movie is white. So much of it takes place in these great wide hallways leading to great white rooms, augmented by gold or red or black, to say nothing of the scenes which take place outside in the snow. It’s dark at night on the walls of Elsinore, but it’s darker still when the Player King takes the stage and speaks those lines which strike fear in Claudius’ heart. Hamlet is thus not some moody, heavy picture, but extremely willing to be nimble and, of course, very funny; most interpretations of the play get that Hamlet is witty, but there are very few that seem to recognize that he can be laugh-out-loud funny.

Very few still alive can say definitively whether Olivier or Branagh is the greater stage actor, but Branagh’s minute command of language and a total willingness to blend inside the movie make him, at least in my opinion, the better actor on screen. It’s augmented by his facility as a director, too. Branagh must have known that so many directors aiming to recreate stage plays fail by essentially making the camera an audience member, pointing and shooting at actors with better sets and hoping that the audience will be wrapped up in the performances like they might be in person. It’s folly to try, and so Branagh does just the opposite, roving his camera around, making us feel like we are on the spot with him and his actors, and thus we feel that action and that excitement as we might only feel it in the theater otherwise. The casting in this movie is impeccable as well, as much surprising as anything else. Derek Jacobi, Richard Briers, and Nicholas Farrell are famous but not too famous in roles where the character (Claudius, Polonius, Horatio) ought to be more interesting than the man playing him. But then, in smaller parts we find huge names. Billy Crystal is in a grave with Simon Russell Beale; Robin Williams is the world’s most unexpected Osric. The movie packs half a dozen stars of the ’50s and ’60s into really miniscule parts, and it’s a wise choice. He’s not just the Player King, another guy we have to keep track of, but Charlton Heston. He’s not just some guard on the watch, but Jack Lemmon. Most importantly: where generation on generation has emphasized “To be or not to be” as the great emotional push of the story, it’s clear that Branagh has a different spot in mind: Act IV, Scene 4, where he gazes upon the great army of Fortinbras out from Norway to attack Poland. It turns out that the battle to be fought is over practically nothing, and yet Fortinbras is willing to pack the soil with coffins for an insult. Hamlet is amazed at first and then, to his amazement, feels chastened. If he does this over straw, Hamlet wonders aloud, what on earth have I, who has suffered insults to self and family, been waiting for? Branagh the actor fills our ears to the brim with Hamlet’s reasoning; Branagh the director, meanwhile, is slowly pulling back from a close-up to create an immense wide shot, and in the end we get an exclamation point which we know is strangely hollow. On one hand, it’s almost impossible not to be swept up in the soliloquy and the rousing music and the sense that the whole world is in front of us; on the other, we all know how this ends.

44) Pool of London (1951), directed by Basil Dearden

Pool of London has a premise so crowded it sounds like a season of prestige TV, and it somehow manages to squeeze all of itself into less than ninety minutes. It’s the right length, one of those stories which needs to either fill ninety minutes or nine episodes. A merchant ship populated with a bunch of characters comes into London. On one hand: a suave operator cracking with energy runs into an opportunity so good that it snatches him up before he can get a grip on it. On the other: a Jamaican sailor falls for an English ticket-taker who, surprisingly, returns the feeling. Running through both strands are pictures of postwar London, still not entirely rebuilt, still aiming for a gaiety and energy it doesn’t quite have the capacity for. The greed of the wartime grift, of getting ahead in an austere world, cutting corners in black markets and crime, is essential to the first story. Dan MacDonald, an American, is the crook who has a girl with a nosy sister in London, as surely he must have a girl with a nosy sister in every major port around the world. (“Dovunque al mondo/lo Yankee vagabondo/si gode e traffica/sprezzando rischi./Affonda l’àncora/alla ventura…”) Not long after being caught trying to smuggle nylons off the Dunbar, he gets ashore and has a job offer. Carry this package to Rotterdam, they tell him, and we’ll give you £100 for your trouble. He’s no fool. He knows that the package must be worth some exponent of that number, and after peeking at the diamonds, all hell breaks loose. Dan has little of the magic of Harry Lime, partly because Bonar Colleano is no Orson Welles but also because Dan has a conscience which rouses when it comes to loyalty, but as the ugly American on the make he fills a similar role down to a final run-in with the law.

If this were simply an American biting off more than he could chew, Pool of London wouldn’t be here. It’s Johnny who counts, and Earl Cameron makes him a deeply sympathetic person beyond what he might have been anyway. Dan uses himself as a decoy—Johnny takes the special package and is meant to bring it aboard ship as a favor to his buddy—but does not predict that those jewels will incur suspicion of accessory to murder. On the boat, it’s clear that no one thinks any differently of Johnny because of the color of his skin, and even in London, even when he’s not treated particularly well, no one wants to blame race for that either. Johnny and Pat hit it off, and at one point Johnny wonders aloud with this one with whom he is already quite comfortable why it is that it seems to matter if one is black or white. Pat, who is sweet and well-meaning and really hasn’t thought twice about going out with a black man even though it’s the early ’50s, says to Johnny that it’s immaterial. I took a deep breath when I saw that for the first time, but then the movie throws us a changeup that prime Johan Santana would have been proud of. Johnny tells Pat that she’s wrong. He knows it matters, even if no one in his life seems to judge him because of his skin. It’s an enormous moment, and Cameron plays it so well. It sets up two moments later on that seem to fit in the same way. Pat leaves Johnny almost abruptly, catching a tram, one that won’t be on the streets much longer. They talk about writing to each other with the cheerfulness of two people who know they’ll never see each other again. The second is done to protect Johnny, although Dan’s plan to hurt his friend bad enough to make him leave before the cops can catch up to him is awful to watch. “Is that skin of yours so thick you don’t know where you’re not wanted?” he asks, and it’s impossible not to hear the double meaning in those words; Johnny’s face screws up with the shock and pang of being rejected twice by people he thought knew him better. The ending is a smidge happier than all that, but the movie isn’t blind to the sadness that someone like Johnny will face over and over again whenever he leaves the confines of that little ship.

43) Children of Men (2006), directed by Alfonso Cuaron

Children of Men is a showy movie. It’s got a number of long takes that are used to dizzying effect, luring us despite our better judgment into that sense of security, or perhaps building up our anxiety and fear as organically as possible. The production design is gray, gray, gray, in tones more than tints and even in happier places. There’s nothing that the color doesn’t permeate, and seeing it in the hopeless city makes it all the more potent in a place that should be more cheerful, like Jasper’s little house or the farmhouse where the Fishes hide away. When Jasper’s house is overrun, or when we think about the fate of his wife or Theo’s child, the gray makes sense just as much as the ruthlessness of the Fishes is clear in the gray of their base. The concept itself is a little shouty: worldwide infertility, collapsed governments, bold statements about the restriction of immigration, disease run amok, tanks on the beaches. It doesn’t take much time to explain the concepts, though, and it takes even less time to buy in. (In 2006 I remember this movie making a splash, although it certainly wasn’t a big hit with mainstream audiences. If they released this movie in 2019 it would get the kind of coverage that hasn’t been afforded to a movie since Get Out.) Even the plot, which gets off to a bang with a kidnapping and ends with the silence of a wartorn street wondering at a baby, is pure adventure. That scene where a baby can stop a battle is unbearably beautiful, symbolic to the gills, realistic in its look but utter fantasy all the same. Hands reach out and people step aside as if they’ve seen an angel of the Lord. War kills children pitilessly: how bad does it have to be before a battle will stop because there is a baby just hours old in the vicinity? It’s maybe the most unsettling question of the hundreds that this movie asks and expects us to ponder. To date it’s the most profound scene in any of Cuaron’s movies.

The primary reason that all of this feels disturbingly real, from shots which turn 360 degrees inside a car to that unbelievable scene where the world stops to let a baby pass, is Clive Owen. The tired, defeated, world-weary man, whatever adjective you like for him, is itself a pretty threadbare trope. Theo Faron is hardly the first man who has given up after the death of a child cuts him off at the knees, and he is hardly the first hero to reject the responsibility as far as possible until necessity shakes him into action. Owen is the precise shape that fits into this 5,000 piece jigsaw puzzle. He projects solidity so easily with his voice, although the fact that he is unfairly handsome helps too. It’s the sort of voice that can command obedience from a frightened pregnant woman who has no other guide or friend in the world. When he wants to make it empty and despondent in a way that’s much more matter-of-fact than melancholic, he can do it; when there’s a running gag about his disbelief at the terrible names that Kee is thinking up for her child, he can summon up wryness that’s not far off from the sadness. Kee suggests “Froley” in one scene. “It’s the first baby in eighteen years,” he says. “You can’t call it Froley.” When she throws “Bazouka” out there in a later scene, he says he was getting used to Froley. It’s also the voice that can say “They got me” at the end. Kee had been afraid that she’d been shot, and she’s panicking in their little rowboat. “They got me” are some of his final words, and they are words of comfort, words that he needs for himself as much as she needs them.

42) if…. (1968), directed by Lindsey Anderson

I think about how much this movie mocks Rudyard Kipling and I wonder if I haven’t got it too low after all. The first place to start is with the title, an active rejection of Rudyard Kipling’s poem “If—”. It ends, after a seemingly interminable number of hypotheticals, with the statement “Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it/And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!” Certainly this is the thrust of the English public school, which historically promises two things to its graduates. First, that going here will entitle you to rule the world once you’ve left. Historically there’s a good case to be made that this is literally so; figuratively, there’s a reason that the made-up quote “Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton” has lasted as long as it has. Second, all the myriad forms of child abuse and suffering that one hears about in virtually every memoir or recollection of public school life is supposed to make the denizens into men. Thus the wonderful image of Malcolm McDowell dropping another classic Kipling quote, one dripping with the irony of speaking. “What stands, if freedom fall?” he cries. “Who dies if England live?” These people and their image of adulthood are the same ones who, as Kipling did in “For All We Have and Are,” advertised the First World War as a great patriotic duty. It’s not that Mick and his friends don’t get the crap beaten out of them or aren’t forced to do humiliating things, which happens, too, to the little kids at school. It’s that they find, in the best of times, a way to deal with it ironically or distantly. (This doesn’t always work; Mick can’t point and laugh at all the ugly things that happen to him, and it’s worth noting that as the beatings and assaults during the showers get worse, he becomes more radical in his approach to fighting authority.) In the beginning of the movie, he returns to school wearing a bowler and covering most of his face with a scarf. He’s grown a mustache over the summer, one that he might reasonably be proud of. He looks proud of it. He knows he has to shave it, and so he does. A friend asks him why he grew it. “To cover my sins,” he replies in that offhand way he’ll have, and he continues to shave it off. When he and two buddies are called in front of the prefect in charge of the house, it turns out they’ve been summoned because they are a “nuisance,” a fault in their “general attitude.” “You know what I mean,” he says to them, and to some extent we also know what he means. It means an unwillingness to be molded, something more than nonconformity for its sake. If one were to ask Mick Travis if he were a nonconformist I imagine he would answer in the negative, because he does not sit around choosing to be different for some principle. He just is. He calls Rowntree the prefect “frigid” in that scene, and it’s exactly the opposite of what Mick is. He is hot to the touch, imaginative, libidinous, temperamental. There are many perfectly adequate men who fit that description; they just aren’t supposed to come out of the public schools that way.

If one believes Anderson’s explanation for why much of the movie is in black-and-white, it started with a technical issue. The color stock simply was not functional in the natural light of the chapel, and so they shot in black-and-white instead. Deciding he liked how it looked, Anderson layered in other sequences, and just like that if…. became a textbook study in surreal happenings. There’s no code in this movie, at least not as far as the use of color goes. (One may argue that the chapters could be broken up into “actually happened” and “didn’t actually happen,” though that seems pedantic to me too.) The scenes with an unnamed girl occur in color and otherwise, and surely she is a hetero male fantasy. The camera knows it, sliding down her tight sweater to her little pleated skirt. When we first see her she’s behind the counter at a little tea shop; she and Mick take to each other after she gives him a thwomping good slap after he makes a pass at her that’s too invasive. She’s a tiger. The two of them growl and roar at each other and have sex on the floor, after which, thanks to the magic of editing, they appear fully clothed again and join Johnny as he coolly sips his tea at the table. Somehow this seems even less likely than the scene where Mick just out-and-out steals a motorcycle just before, or, of course, where we see our crusaders, with the girl, opening fire on every vestige of authority in sight at the end of the movie. There are plenty of good reasons why we shouldn’t think it’s likely that these guerrilla students got up on the roof with enough firepower to besiege Ludlow, but it’s always seemed just as likely to me that all of this happens in the world of the movie. If, after all.

41) In the Loop (2009), directed by Armando Iannucci

In America, movies about the War in Iraq topped out with The Hurt Locker. This is a shame. In Britain, they topped out with In the Loop, which is totally understandable and, of course, much more bleak than its American cousin. In the Loop supposes that all it would take to start a war with generational consequences is the pettiness and rank idiocy of some nobodies in a couple governments. Ideas are the enemy in In the Loop. When people begin to have ideas of their own, bad things happen; Simon Foster, a minister with a minor portfolio, likes getting a little more press attention and starts making public comments about “climbing the mountain of conflict.” The trouble is that the people in charge of wrangling these people also have terrible ideas, but they have the right level of forcefulness in seeing that they get done. Enter Malcolm Tucker, a communications director who comes in to clean up Foster’s messes but somehow never wipes up all of the spill. Perhaps he’s too busy telling people like Foster that his “climbing the mountain of conflict” line makes him sound like “Nazi Julie Andrews.” There’s barely a plot in In the Loop, and the details of what people like Foster and Tucker and Karen Clark and Linton Barwick and General Miller and a dozen other random people are talking about don’t make sense. They aren’t making history so much as they’re angling for a spot on CNN, or trying to be important enough so someone will want to have sex with them, or making sure their boss doesn’t yell at them. How many sins are committed, the movie knows, all for the sake of not being yelled at by one’s boss.

But their bosses do yell at them, and while not all of the dialogue lands perfectly, there is such volume that it has to crush somebody eventually. The true vocal pugilist is Tucker, who uses “fuck” the way most of use commas and who is not shy about attacking innocent nimrods who happen to breathing his air. The young folks who people the State Department the way their peers people Black Eyed Peas concerts catch the heat. Some American who makes the mistake of scolding Tucker for swearing gets it: “Kiss my sweaty balls, you fat fuck!” Peter Capaldi, Steve Coogan, James Gandolfini: each has moments giving someone else the business about increasingly inane mishaps, but there is no line that makes me scream quite like the mini-monologue that Paul Higgins drops once the movie has gone absolutely off the rails. While an entirely fake war is becoming much closer to a real one, the Nazi Julie Andrews of the story has been sent home to deal with his constituents. Builders are involved (and so is Coogan, who plays a googly-eyed man angry that Foster’s office wall is about to collapse into his mom’s yard), and true to form they were late. Builders never show up in the nick of time, raves Jamie. “That’s why you never see a superhero with a hod!” In the Loop makes more and more time for this sort of silliness at the end even as the likelihood that war grows ever higher, and honestly, why not? In the Loop knows that anyone in such weighty positions as these are temperamentally and intellectually incapable of anything but.

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