Better than BFI’s Top 100: 25-21

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


25) Black Narcissus (1947), directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger

Leonardo DiCaprio (Howard), Cate Blanchett (Kate), Jude Law (Errol), and Adam Scott (Johnny) are all sitting at a table together. Two of them are a little teed off about it, while the other two are too blasted to realize it. Errol asks Howard if he’s really making a Western. Howard pretends not to hear him. Kate asks Howard if he’s making a Western. Howard responds affirmatively and excitedly. “I’m gonna call it The Outlaw,” he tells the table at large. Johnny knows all about it. “You know what it’s about?” he says to Errol. “S-E-X. It’s all about S-E-X.” I like to imagine that somewhere, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger had a similar conversation about Black Narcissus before they began filming, because boy, is this film all about S-E-X. No one gets any in this movie, and the collective blue balls that they’re all suffering from is something to behold. Sister Clodagh and Mr. Dean want each other. Sister Ruth would probably settle for just about any man by the time she puts on her lipstick at the end of the movie, but Mr. Dean, who is irresponsibly handsome and vocally dismissive of social niceties, is a hot fudge sundae for a woman who is ready to ditch her diet. Kanchi (we’ll talk about it) spends the movie making eyes at the Young General in a way that makes young men sit up in a cold sweat at night. No one says the word. No one does anything; these are nuns, after all, and even Dean isn’t fool enough to go around actively seducing the nuns. But the clues are there. When Sister Clodagh is sent to the Palace of Mopu, unconvincingly named the “House of St. Faith,” the mother superior expresses her concern at how young this new abbess is. The palace’s walls are painted to overflowing with pictures of nude women. Even the primary clients of the House of St. Faith are women and children, the needy ones who are constant reminders to the sisters that they will not do the things that make children, will not have children of their own. Sister Ruth is driven mad by the end of the movie because of day after day of repression, and she is a genuinely scary figure by the end. That shot of Kathleen Byron bursting into the doorway, from a room lit in red to the pale dawn in the Himalayas, her face equally pale but her eyes dark, her face shadowy—it is a skin-crawling moment, one that just feels the whole body with anxiety.

Then there are the hints that the movie really shouldn’t be giving us, and which I’d like to think that if it were made in some later year it would not have done. It’s impossible to talk about this movie without talking about the systemically racist views that infuse it. (Racial infusion…hello, New York Times? Are you sure you don’t want a new columnist?) In my original review I called the experience of watching this movie “icky,” because it looks “like you’ve just gotten a close-up to a very melancholy minstrel show.” Like Lawrence of Arabia fifteen years on, which put Omar Sharif in a starring role alongside Alec Guinness in racist makeup, Black Narcissus puts Sabu in a prominent part and then plays him against…Jean Simmons in racist makeup. Simmons is not even the only white person they got to play an Indian; Esmond Knight and May Halland are there, even though it looks like aside from Sabu there are quite a number of Indian extras. It’s utterly baffling and really disheartening. Then there’s the location itself, which is part of the reason it’s all about S-E-X in the first place. It’s laughable to think that if this movie were set in like, Wales, that these women would be driven mad by the world around them. (You can see too far, Sister Philippa tells SIster Clodagh, which is not something she would have said if they were overlooking a loch.) It’s pure Orientalism that makes them insane like this, and for those reasons this movie has been dropped fairly hard. It’s a shame that the really repulsive elements of the movie hang over a piece which has a brilliant performance from Kerr and absolutely breathtaking cinematography.

24) Trainspotting (1996), directed by Danny Boyle

The number of bad needle drops vastly outnumbers the number of good ones, because there are so many reasons why some popular song shouldn’t work in your movie. It could be too easy, or it could drag you out of the movie’s world, or it could be overused, or it could too obviously be a director’s favorite tune rather than a meaningful choice to improve the picture. None of that applies to Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day” in Trainspotting. It’s a splendid use of extant music for a movie. Boyle has an extreme close-up of Ewan McGregor’s arm, his vein popping out, as loving and complete as any of Tarantino’s pictures of feet. The heroin drops on top of the methadone, and Rent is out. He sinks into the floor, and from there, his limp body is dragged and transported from place to place: down the stairs, into a taxi, onto the entrance of a local ER, onto a gurney. There are some unusual angles tossed around in there, and there are point-of-view shots clogged with that red carpet, leaving only a sliver to see what Rent’s dealer or Rent’s cab driver are up to, but on the whole this is a fairly supine set of actions for this movie. Lou Reed’s voice falls over all of it like snow on a warm pavement. The individual lyrics don’t matter all that much, and they don’t all stick, but it’s the sensation of feeling what’s falling on us that matters. The lyrics do pile up in spots—”you made me forgot myself,” “someone good,” “you’re going to reap just what you sow”—and when they do those are places to reflect on the moment. This is a young man who needs a fix on top of his fix, and he comes dangerously close to dying surrounded by strangers in a hallway. It’s the last shot of the sequence, which puts a clearly spent Rent in the backseat of a car next to his parents, which hammers it all home. How sad this is, maybe a little ironic, but on the whole just really harsh. It’s indicative of the tonal perfection of the entire movie, which never screeches for our attention but which does things that demand it over and over again, which horrify us and make us laugh nervously and make us hope to God that we don’t know anyone suffering like Rent and Sick Boy and Spud are suffering.

Trainspotting is to movies about drug use what Grand Illusion is to movies about war: they are against those topics, which can be terrifically sexy in the wrong hands, but there’s never any doubt where the movie stands. Trainspotting is a movie where just about everyone is shooting up heroin, and it’s a movie which knows that there’s nothing good about it. An infant dies in the crib while the mother was too stoned to take care of it; one man gives in to his basest violent tendencies; a nice guy who likes soccer contracts HIV and dies; a man who has a chance to be decent becomes increasingly paranoid and dangerous; a dumb guy shits the bed and then shits a whole family. All of this seems like it can’t help but be pedantic, and yet Trainspotting is never preachy about the unfathomable lows of drug addiction. The bad things that happen to Rent, or that Sick Boy does, or that Spud gazes blankly at, are as logical and likely as the law of gravity. Our laughter is drawn from us uncomfortably and our pity even more so.

23) Vera Drake (2004), directed by Mike Leigh

There are harder movies to watch out there. There are harder movies to watch by Mike Leigh out there. But where Vera Drake differs from Naked or Peterloo is that it does not have much leavening. What we’re given to lighten our way is the stuff of small working-class hopes, the budding romance between two loners, working on cars, putting on another pot of tea. It’s not much, in other words, and it’s a brilliant choice to make how close this family is the sole element which elevates their simple, maybe even slightly fraught, lives. When Vera turns out to be have been doing something unspeakable by the standards of ’50s Lancashire (to say nothing of how bold that would be now), it rends the family. Her son Sid reacts to her arrest like he’s been punched in the nose. He is the only member of the family who castigates her when her unlawful hobby is revealed, but it’s clear that he’s not angry about what she’s been doing as much as he’s upset that his cozy little home has been demolished. He’s wrong to give up on his mother, but even this unsympathetic character is understandable. It’s a movie which is serious about its characters. Vera’s process to set up an abortion is detailed in the film, from what she needs from the girl’s companion (sometimes a mother) to her bedside manner with the girl to her materials. It is not a light process, and for all her airy manner she is not lighthearted about it. Leigh is wise enough to incorporate a subplot about a wealthy girl who needs an abortion after a date rapes her, and ends up getting one from a doctor who charges an exorbitant fee for it. It’s a statement about social class primarily—as every liberal knows and every conservative denies, banning abortion is a form of class warfare waged by the wealthy against the poor as much as private healthcare or unpaid internships—but it’s also a statement of the movie’s seriousness. No woman is entirely safe from this situation; many women consider how to get an abortion; someone has to do it.

There are Veras in every PTA, every Bible study, every neighborhood. They are not always women, nor are they always middle-aged, but they’re the kind Mr. Rogers was talking about when he said, “Look for the helpers.” Vera is a helper, perpetually kind, cheerful in a way that’s never put-on or grating even though her approach to life is repetitive to the point of cliché. It’s only hackneyed if the person doesn’t mean it, and no matter what the scenario, whether it’s one of her frazzled adult children or one of the young women she’s performing an abortion for, she means her kindnesses every time. (Her friend who helps set needy girls up with her takes money off the top which Vera doesn’t know about; she does them for free and does not attempt to extort desperate women.) It seems like every Mike Leigh has at least one woman giving the performance of a lifetime, and Imelda Staunton in this movie is the best example of that trend. She blends into the drab, darkly colored scenery of Salford like an ermine in the snow. She is not pretty—Sally Hawkins is not weird looking, and everyone else is, which works very well to pound home this idea that Vera lives in an entirely relatable world—and each close-up speaks to a wife and mother and working woman who has married experience with quiet optimism and, in the end, someone who cannot stop weeping. It’s awful, and it peaks in the scene where she is sentenced to a prison term nearly twice as long as the one that her lawyer expected her to get. The judge does not scream at her or try to make her feel worse about what’s happened, but he is a serious man who sees her crime as an especially serious one, and he intends to make an example of her for whichever amateur abortionists might be doing their own secret work. Leigh keeps Jim Broadbent at a distance during this scene, but he gets close to Staunton, who looks like her heart might fall onto the floor and shatter in front of God and everyone. It’s a tremendous synergy of actor and camera to show that this poor woman is pitiful in her sadness over having done what she thought was right.

22) Withnail and I (1987), directed by Bruce Robinson

I find one of the last scenes in this movie truly haunting. And-I, as I’ll always call him, gets a job offer. The vacation that he and Withnail have taken to the countryside must end, and abruptly. After they get back to their miserable apartment, after having heard a weed-riddled dissertation about the greatness of the 1960s, And-I gets a haircut. He is neatly dressed. He leaves Withnail, who has not gotten a job offer, and Withnail recites a monologue from Hamlet in the rain. The entire movie has been proof that these men are drinking an entirely unrealistic amount of alcohol because they are hopeless. It’s incredible what a little hope will do. It doesn’t take a lot to correct the man who is steering directly into a nervous breakdown at the beginning of the movie, a man whose thumbs “have gone weird.” It only takes the promise of work, of something to do and get paid for. That’s when it really sinks in: these two men are hopeless. Call their agents as they might, they don’t believe they’ll ever get the parts they deserve to play. For two men who aver their heterosexuality, there’s not a sign of interested women anywhere. Their apartment is an anxiety nightmare; people seriously have dreams about the kind of piled-up sink that neither one of them is willing to clean. The car they drive out to the country, which has one working windshield wiper, is sent out in the pouring rain and in total darkness: another anxiety nightmare. For heaven’s sake Withnail drinks lighter fluid. The sadness in this movie is almost a solid, and while it may not be much comfort to either one of our alcoholic buddies, it is penetrable with the sheer number of hilarious things they get into. The movie isn’t stupid. Humor is not a salve for hopelessness or a replacement, and we need only look at Withnail in the rain with the Dane to check those hypotheses.

Withnail and I knows that hopeless people do desperate things, and desperation is frequently pretty amusing. Desperate to get out of the city, where it’s cold and awful and there’s no work to be found, the pair head out to a country house owned by Withnail’s uncle. They fail to bring any food with them to the countryside, unfortunately, and there are multiple instances where they have to scrounge for food, do ridiculous things for food, choose alcohol instead. (The chicken as it goes into the oven is legendary; Withnail’s rowdy encounter with a poacher is legendary; Withnail taking a shotgun into a stream in an attempt to shoot innocent fish is more than legendary.) This sad, hilarious desperation is capped off late in the film. Withnail has a plan, he tells And-I. He wants to collect the urine of a child so that he can pass a sobriety test. This is the kind of thing that the edgelords in their college dorms bandy about to get a laugh from their fellow edgelords. But Withnail is a desperate man. He gets pulled over for driving recklessly (and drunk). At the police station, it turns out that he has a contraption which squirts presumably clean urine into the jar. It’s a silent sight gag, and an utterly brilliant one that raises so many questions. How did he make this thing? Does he wear it all the time? Does he just have extra pee on his person, just casually? Why doesn’t he just have a jar or something instead of a hose? Where did he get this urine? Did he get it from an actual child? This is the ploy of a desperate man who must have done at least one heinous thing to set it into action, and watching Richard E. Grant make this sort of defiantly set face at the officer who is trying not to get soaked with squirting urine makes me giggle uncontrollably.

21) A Fish Called Wanda (1988), directed by Charles Crichton

Great acting can make what’s utterly ridiculous on the page into something joyfully ridiculous onscreen. Appropriately enough for A Fish Called Wanda, which among many other things is a study into what getting laid does to a person’s psyche, those scenes are decidedly unsexy sex scenes. Take Kevin Kline, who picked up an Oscar for his bonkers performance as Otto, Nietzsche’s dumbest disciple, whose three-act structure for intercourse is totally original. He gets Wanda in the mood by rattling off Italian gibberish, gets himself there by sucking the bejeezus out of her boot and then flailing himself with it, and then finally, literally and figuratively cross-eyed, ceases. Somehow this is less odd than the scene where John Cleese bounces around another man’s flat in varying stages of undress speaking fluent Russian, and then chooses, when some interlopers wander in, to cover his privates with a picture of the woman standing in front of him. A good horror movie makes us more and more frightened simply by compressing our fear from minute 20 into minute 80; a good comedy can do something similar, which may explain why the first time I saw A Fish Called Wanda I laughed harder at Michael Palin singing out the first syllable of “Cathcart” than I did at anything else. This movie is an avalanche of laughter, so elegantly funny that it’s dangerous. Otto’s jealousy of Archie is not ill-founded, no matter how much Wanda tells her presumptive boyfriend that this new man is a mark and not a lover, and so Wanda convinces Otto that he ought to apologize to the man he’s dangled from several stories up. It’s not as easy as that: as much as Otto tries to apologize, which would be distasteful to someone with a tenth of his bloated ego, he does so in ways that are actively unhelpful to Archie and, naturally, fairly violent. (It gets friendlier. The first time he beats the crap out of Archie while he catches him pretending to burgle his own home, but the second time Otto just chases him around and tackles him, which is a real improvement from their first meeting!) The people are dumb but the dialogue cracks like a whip all the same, and everyone, quite democratically, gets lashed at one point or another.

The Brits are as good as anyone at compiling extraordinary comedic casts, whether it’s The Ladykillers or The World’s End, and A Fish Called Wanda is no exception. Anchored by two of the more sedate Pythons, a relative term if ever there was one, and a pair of wacky Yanks, A Fish Called Wanda could not have marshaled a better foursome. Michael Palin is in his own movie for the majority of the picture, the animal rights activist trying to murder a little old lady and knocking off her dogs instead, which isn’t funny at all but which gives Palin ways to be operatically stricken and increasingly banged up all by his lonesome. John Cleese plays the version of Cary Grant that stays in England instead of coming to Hollywood, and this version has swapped the sweet hairdo for a bellyful of neuroticism, which he expresses in a series of hiccups moral (as when he tells Wanda she can’t talk to him about George’s case), earnest (as when he tells her that they can see each other about non-legal matters), absent-minded (as when he calls Wanda by her name while she’s on the witness stand), and regional (“THEY WHUPPED YER HIDE REEEEEAL GUUUD”). There’s a line from The Hours where Ed Harris’ character reveals that he’s had a fabulous idea: “I took the Xanax and the Ritalin together!” This is the sum of Kevin Kline’s performance, whose Otto veers wildly between surprising competence and his more representative alter ego, Harvey Manfredjinsinjin. Jamie Lee Curtis is very much the binding of the movie, but where that phrase typically means “Doesn’t have much to do,” Curtis is at least as funny as everyone else in the movie. Wanda’s monologue listing the grievous flaws in Otto’s worldview is justly famous—my favorite is that the central tenet of Buddhism is not “Every man for himself”—but the best part is the absolute deadpan way she says, “I looked it up.”

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