Better than BFI’s Top 100: 30-26

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


30) This Sporting Life (1963), directed by Lindsay Anderson

The British New Wave, for all of its depictions of angry young men, was not always good at finding actors to credibly play them. It is a line that Laurence Harvey did not walk exceptionally. Albert Finney was good but not superlative. Richard Burton was probably a better actor than both but a poor fit in Look Back in Anger. No one is better in these movies than Richard Harris, whose Frank Machin is pure id without the irony that Finney brought to Saturday Night and Sunday Morning or the louche condescension that Harvey puts out for Room at the Top. He’s working from a different script, one that prizes his tremendous physicality and his roaring, occasionally incomprehensible words. There could be no De Niro in Raging Bull without Harris in This Sporting Life. The scenes of rugby in the film don’t shy away from the profound exertion of the sport, the way that the best players can wield their bodies like torpedoes. The film begins with a match which gives a sense only of the violence in the game; there are no great runs up the sideline in that opening sequence. Always someone tackling someone else, the thud of meat slamming together, the pounding of spiked feet. Above all: one man triumphs by bringing down another, by laying him low. Frank is the only one we see score. He’s also the one who gets his front teeth broken and a bloody nose for his troubles when an opponent (emphatically not a competitor)) all but punches him in the face. We’ll see more of Frank’s triumphs later, which Harris portrays with a jaw set and eyes focused. He is a direct man, frighteningly transparent in his desires and opinions, which are loudly expressed. Even when those opinions are intended to be friendly, they seem threatening, and Frank cannot account why his forthrightness is not becoming. Harris juts out that lower lip and his bushy eyebrows, like pinball flippers in mid-strike, give us the face of a man who cannot be gentle but for the most part doesn’t really mean anyone else harm. (The fact that he spends a fair amount of the movie slurring his speech after a dental operation takes the remainders of his two front teeth helps signify the brute barely blessed with language.) Anderson accentuates his imperiousness, frequently shooting Harris from below to give us the sense of greater size and authority, and often filling the frame with his body or his big ugly mug. He’s like Frankenstein’s monster: he doesn’t quite understand why he puts everyone else in a state, and he hasn’t the capacity to either.

This Sporting Life gets at a truth that not enough of the other Angry Young Man films get it, namely, that powerful men are a serious and unromantic danger to women. Margaret, in a fabulous performance by Rachel Roberts, has to be canny at every turn with her boarder. Frequently she is frosty with him, and although it incenses Frank it is the best way to make it clear that the widow does not need someone else to fill her bed. Frank is taken with Margaret, who is dignified and well-spoken and thorough, and every time she refuses him it wounds him. When she is kind to him, it inevitably leads to sex in a time when it was universally understood that consent once meant consent for all time. When it leads to sex it leads to an uncomfortable date in which Frank, a man’s man who hasn’t got much in the way of comportment, makes a scene at a nice restaurant. It underscores the differences between them. It’s not class which separates them—at this point Frank is getting paid like the star he is, which puts his income well up on Margaret’s puny takings—but breeding. For Frank, it will always be a question of money, in other words, a question of direct transactions without vagueness or innuendo. For Margaret, who tells him that he’s acting like a pig, there are subtleties to the world which must at least be obeyed if not understood. For every time Frank shows her some kindness or gives her kids a good time, there is the relentless proof that he is a little less than fully human, unable to read her hints and feelings, and it makes the interactions between them awfully frightening in their verisimilitude..

29) A Clockwork Orange (1971), directed by Stanley Kubrick

The camera is a vector, o my brothers, and what works most in A Clockwork Orange, a movie where Kubrick indulges in that electric train set as much as he ever did after 2001, is when that camera pulls away. The first two minutes of Clockwork Orange is lethally good, as simple as it gets: a camera at first homed in on Alex’s face falls back, receding from him and showing us more and more: his droogs, the ambience of the Korova Milk Bar, the unlikely collaboration of futuristic kitsch. All that we need to know about this near-future that Alex lives in, which, outside the world of himself and his teen friends is not so different from the 1970s anyway, is in that first shot which reveals more and more, every inch more unbelievable than the last one. In a career of great shots, surely that opener ranks towards the very top. Later on, in surprisingly effective slow-motion, the camera recedes from Alex and his droogs again as he walks with them and plans to chastise them for their attempts at usurpation. It takes more than thirty seconds of moving towards us in which it seems they’ve barely moved at all for Alex to lash out, although when he does it seems incredibly swift even in that slow-motion. The full extent of this group’s acrobatics are on display. McDowell’s lateral motion, the swing of his arm and the great right-angled lift of his leg into another’s body, are marvelous. Warren Clarke uses every bit of momentum he can to launch himself backwards twice: first, when Dim misses Alex with his chain and lands in the water, and second, when he watches Alex cut his wrist open with a knife and then pushes himself back into the water again. James Marcus has the great pantomime of being hit in the stomach with Alex’s cane, as well as a spreadeagled headfirst dive into the water. There’s nothing complex about any of these shots, but it’s the framing of them, the patience to pull away or hold still, and the knowledge that motion within the frame is so often more powerful than motion of the camera itself.

To hear the teens and admirers of proper kino talk, you wouldn’t know anything happened in this movie after Alex kills a woman with the world’s biggest replica of the male genitals. (“Come and get one in the yarbles,” don’tcha know.) It’s at that point that much of the aggressive moviemaking takes a backseat to the movie’s ideas, which are a little garbled but on the whole boil down to this idea that goodness is not something that can be knocked into someone. This future England is a dim one indeed, still segregated by harsh distinctions between the classes and ruled by hooliganism on the streets by night. The more we see of the politicians, the more grimy and dishonest they show themselves to be. Family life has decayed: Alex is dismissive of a family that has no handle on him until he goes to prison, and then he returns to find they’ve basically adopted a new son. In a sick society sick individuals crop up. Alex, among the most ill of the entire population, is a reflection of the wickedness in the world, and the Ludovico technique is an attempt not to cut out a treatable tumor but to blast the civic body with radiation. It’s what makes the last third of the movie, after Alex has undergone this experimental treatment and become incapable of experiencing lust or violence without becoming physically ill, so dark. Both sides of the political spectrum are after Alex now. One side wants to use him as a pawn to show the government’s rapacious turpitude; the other wants to use him as a get out of jail free card for their bad polling. He has done the first side grievous wrong, has been grievously wronged by the other, and ultimately chooses to get the goods from the government instead. When he was good in the eyes of the law, it was only an absence of badness, which is hardly the same thing, and when he turns bad again at the end of the movie, it’s as if he’s finally been given carte blanche to indulge in his true nature: “I was cured, all right.”

28) Atonement (2007), directed by Joe Wright

Dearest Cecilia, the story can resume. The one I had been planning on that evening walk. I can become again the man who once crossed the Surrey park at dusk, in my best suit, swaggering on the promise of life. The man who, with the clarity of passion, made love to you in the library. The story can resume. I will return. Find you, love you, marry you, and live without shame.

There’s an old story about a man who had everything and who lost it all in a series of tragic events: raids, a tornado, literal fire from heaven. In the end, he is made whole again, given new holdings and livestock and even a new family he lived to see multiple generations of. Job was lucky: God was the one screwing with him, and he did it to make a point to Satan. Robbie Turner was unlucky: a child was the one screwing with him, and she did it out of…a sense of the dramatic moment? “The story can resume,” the letter says in voiceover as Robbie and some other unlucky soldiers traipse through the French countryside. It’s the only real hint we get until those last few moments that we’re watching a fantasy, the deluded belief of an author that she can attempt to mend what she’s done wrong by writing a happier future for two of the wartime dead. “The story can resume,” Briony writes Robbie saying, for Briony has always known where the dramatic high points are, and she writes Robbie as if he’s had a bookmark placed in his life instead of a mortal wound in his abdomen. Yet for as much anger as we must feel towards Briony, as much anger as we watch McAvoy fire at Romola Garai (more on that in a second), those next two sentences are so romantic and moving that it makes me want to die. The parallel structure crests and then ultimately breaks on the cliff of those last three words, which punctuate a lovely but commonplace sentiment. Many of us have found, loved, married. But to live without shame is its own fantasy as grand as reversing septicemia or saving a woman from drowning in a subway tunnel. McAvoy’s reading is part of what must be his high point as an actor. I suppose that’s a little depressing, but it’s hard to imagine him squeezing out a better performance than this one. It’s all here. The focused horror in his eyes as he pulls his head out of the bath. The quiet chuckle as he reads over a note that would be lewd in a 2019 DM, let alone a pre-World War II card. The tremendous anger knotted in his hands and neck as he dresses down Garai. The resigned, awful face he makes as he swirls through the beach at Dunkirk. The way his face tries to hold and then melts, shuddering and heartbroken, when Cecilia touches him in a crowded cafeteria. There are other wonderful actors acting well in this movie, but for as much as we talk about a tiny Saoirse Ronan’s star turn or Keira Knightley’s slim toughness or Benedict Cumberbatch’s creepy performance, McAvoy is the most important.

For unbridled passion, for total painful affect, for the tangible heat between them, Robbie and Cecilia are British cinema’s greatest romance since Alec and Laura. (Apologies to the Baxters and the entire cast of Women in Love.) It’s the same thing that makes us pull for them as much as we pulled for the doctor and the housewife six decades prior: it’s the fact that they cannot consummate the relationship. Alec and Laura are interrupted before they can make love in one of his friend’s apartments. It’s somehow even worse for Robbie and Cee, who are making love only to be caught by her sister, who will later use this as evidence to suggest that he is a serial rapist. When the movie gives us reason to believe that Robbie and Cecilia might have shared a bed at one point, or taken a little cottage on the water and dashed into and out of the oncoming waves, or held each other again, it obliterates that hope entirely at the end. It takes a bold movie indeed to leave us so confidently with ashes, and Atonement, which put Knightley in an iconic dress and told the story of Dunkirk with an artfully intense tracking shot, is that bold movie through and through.

27) Barry Lyndon (1975), directed by Stanley Kubrick

I think I owe Ryan O’Neal an apology, having been a little cruel to him in my original review: he is essential to this film. Obviously the Three Stooges are the reason to watch the movie (that’d be Kubrick, Alcott, and Zeiss), but it’s too easy to give all the credit to them. Say what you will about Thomas Gainsborough, but it’s much easier to be awed by the technique or impressed by the historical relevance than it is to be moved by his work, as political and cutting as it had the power to be. Kubrick’s movie, influenced as it is by Gainsborough and some of his other contemporaries, is those things, too. It’s a funny movie, more in the “HA HA” sense than the “haha” sense, and it requires O’Neal’s devotion to this obsequious and totally uncharismatic figure to bring that to light. Without his expressions, which never do seem to be quite as emotional as they ought to be, we would have to content ourselves with gazing at hazily lit rooms and wide vistas and powdered wigs. We might well be contented, but O’Neal is the essential human element. How human he is, too. Redmond Barry, later to become Barry Lyndon, is a simple man. He likes the finer things. He likes it when people defer to him and praise him. He likes to have. For someone who rises to such an exalted position in society, he turns out to be a surprisingly easy man to fool, and bless O’Neal if he doesn’t manage to look just dumbfounded every time that he’s been outwitted. Highwaymen relieve him of what money he has when he’s a lad. He talks a big game and gets himself shanghaid into the Prussian army. He ends up losing a leg because he fails to fully appreciate his stepson’s enormous resentment of him, even though the dishonorable thing that Bullingdon does is exactly the kind of thing that Redmond would have done many years ago. Leon Vitali, while we’re here, is so good in that gloriously terrible role. Bullingdon is such a drip that I found myself rooting for Barry to shoot him during the duel, even though Barry is himself an awful guy! (Bullingdon is like Prince Herbert from the next movie on this list with a mean streak and no desire to sing.) Through it all, O’Neal wades deeper and deeper into increasingly elaborate period costumes and elevated language, and the movie needs that rock to surround with its gorgeous vistas and rococo settings.

If O’Neal is essential, and strong performances by people like Vitali and Patrick Magee and Marisa Berenson are largely effective, Michael Hordern is the glue. It’s not often that a narrator improves the movie, especially a disembodied one like the voice that floats over Barry Lyndon, but Hordern is undeniably great and Kubrick uses him well. Early in the film, the narrator gives a hypothetical. No doubt Redmond Barry would have been a good lawyer, the narrator, says, except for the fact that he was killed in a duel; Kubrick lets us watch Barry’s father get shot. That same omniscience is significantly less funny later on in the movie, when Barry is himself a father with a son he adores. “Fate had determined,” the narrator tells us, “that he should leave none of his race behind him, and that he should finish his life poor, lonely, and childless.” It is not long after that we see in excruciating detail Barry’s son thrown from a horse and a scene where his parents plead with him to live while he’s on his deathbed. Barry Lyndon uses that narrator to build a feeling that we don’t often find in our comedies: dread.

26) Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975), directed by Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones

I was introduced to this movie in a friend’s basement during middle school, which is the way I imagine most people were introduced to this movie after its theatrical run ended. I had a slim conception of what Monty Python was at that point, and so I was not prepared at all for the opening credits of this movie, which were unlike anything else I’d ever seen and every bit as adventurous as the Star Wars crawl. I was hooked at “Wi nøt trei…,” rolling by the time we got to “A Møøse once bit my sister,” and absolutely blown away by the bit with the llamas. And this is just the opening credits! There’s an entire movie left over which either transformed you as a middle schooler or it didn’t, and it is undoubtedly the greatest movie ever made about the Matter of Britain. Holy Grail manages to sink its teeth into the time period as well as the romance. After that opening scene which talks more about sparrows than any performance this side of Hamlet, there’s that magnificent peek in at a man shouting “Bring out your dead!” Whatever hamlet this is is a squalid one, muddy and unrelentingly awful. A conversation is carried out between three men. Two of them are discussing whether or not the third is dead; the third is generally ignored and says things like, “I feel happy!” The fellow picking up the dead conks him on the head, and then Arthur “rides” by. The man asks the collector who he is, to which the collector replies that he must be a king. How do you know? the man asks. “He hasn’t got shit all over ‘im,” the collector replies, and, well, it’s not a terrible piece of logic. The very next scene is the one with Dennis, who is thirty-seven years old and is keenly aware of when he’s being repressed. Arthur tries to explain to Dennis and his comrades, who are part of an anarcho-syndicalist collective, how he became king. Dennis is not impressed with the Lady of the Lake, who he dismisses as a “watery tart” and a “moistened bint,” nor would he have been impressed if Arthur had spouted off about the Divine Right of Kings. Over and over again, especially in the first half, Holy Grail is frank about the time when Arthur was supposedly “riding” around England with his knights. For everyone but the king, it must have been just ghastly; superstition reigns, and when logic is applied it’s just superstition with structure (“Build a bridge out of her!”). The idea of this quest for the Holy Grail is, given the ugliness of the time, quite silly, and when silliness is required there were no better purveyors than the Pythons.

There are fifteen scenes you could point to in this movie which best express the magnificent lunacy that Holy Grail showcases, but for me it’s the Killer Rabbit of Caerbannog and its dispatch via the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch.

For five minutes there’s no type of joke that they won’t throw at the wall, and all of it sticks. John Cleese, wearing a beard and horns on his head, speaks to the assembled company about the tremendously dangerous creature that lives in the cave. “Behind the rabbit?” Arthur asks. “It is the rabbit,” Tim (there are some who call him that) replies. The rabbit, of course, turns out to be capable of flight? And likes to bite people right in the ol’ jugular? (“I werned you,” Tim says.) In one shot, at about 2:18 in the clip, it’s perfectly clear that this is a hand puppet with silly little hands, and of course there’s no attempt to hide that because it makes the horrified faces of the knights before and after all the funnier. Arthur, after calling for a retreat with his by now classic command (“Run awaaaay!”), has one of the great one-liners in the film. Hearing about the casualties, he makes a decision: “We better not risk another frontal assault on that thing. That rabbit’s dynamite!” The second half of the scene, in which Brother Maynard and his extremely enthusiastic assistant do the instructions for the hand grenade, is a brilliant little mishmash. The verbiage of these fake Bible verses owe a lot to the duller books of the Old Testament, which is a smart joke; the pin on the Holy Hand Grande is a cross, which is a dumb joke. Arthur spends most of this scene confusing the numbers “three” and “five” for no particular reason, which is a wonderfully conceived joke about someone being wonderfully dumb. Cast your vote for the Trojan Rabbit or the Black Knight or the Knights Who (Until Recently) Say “Ni,” but mine lands here. If a comedy can be judged on how rewatchable it is after you already know all the jokes, then this one must rank high.

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