Top 100 Blockbusters of the Multiplex Era: The 60-Foot Face

You can find the full list of the top 100 blockbusters since 1972 here, as well as an index for other posts in this series.

Every director you’ve ever heard of is begging you to see their movie on the biggest screen you can. Now that I’m getting old, my reaction to those Fathom Events screenings that AMC and TCM team up for is less “Why would I pay to watch this movie I already own?” and more “Should I see every movie like this?” As someone who genuinely loves watching movies—who genuinely loves the history of cinema far more than its present—seeing things in rep feels like it ought to be a major piece of my future so I can see things with some of the makers’ intentionality attached. You’ve still seen the movie if you’ve only seen it in a home video format, or on streaming, but even I’ll grant that it would be different to see it in the theater. It has nothing to do with the other people in the theater; I don’t need to see other heads bowed to make me believe my prayer is valid. It has everything to do with more: more sight, more sound. Take Martin Scorsese’s comment about “theme parks” or Paul Thomas Anderson’s comment about how the new Spider-Man will put butts in seats, because both of them essentially boil down to the same thing: the thrills as big as possible are what people want to see, and those sensory thrills are the future of film. This is a shame, because an explosion is an explosion is an explosion, no matter what screen you watch it on. But a face is different when it’s big; it can be studied, and when it’s so big that noses and lips and lashes can almost touch our own through the sheer size they possess, they can dictate awe so great that studying feels like a waste of time. Here’s to the face in the blockbuster which is staggeringly huge, to the way that those faces make our hearts pound and our stomachs drop and our eyes water. The faces in the blockbuster of the past five decades may not compare to the face of Falconetti—no one’s been brave enough to screen that near me, as far as I can tell—but if we can’t have aching majesty all the time, we have some meaner substitutions which allow us to bide our time.

The Empire Strikes Back was easily my least favorite movie of the original Star Wars trilogy growing up. I loved the space battles, with all of the starfighters flying around and shooting at stuff; this one has some limited snowspeeder action in the early going, as well as the Millennium Falcon in the asteroid field, but nothing nearly as fun as a Death Star. Dagobah was so gloomy, and I cannot remember a time I didn’t know that Darth Vader was Luke’s father. (The greatest twist in movie history…totally lost on me.) And as a little person, I really did not like the idea that our heroes could lose. I did not like Luke losing his hand, or our other friends being betrayed and captured, and I did not like Han Solo frozen in carbonite. I’ve been seeing those teeth for so long…something about his teeth jutting out just did not sit well with me when I was four or five. And then there’s the rest of his face, his eyes closed but his eyebrows raised, the look of defeat which has crossed his mind and gone into his brow just as he was hardened into this carbonite prison. We’re given to understand that since Han has survived this process, he’ll be kept in a state of hibernation for some unknown quantity of time; only someone in some agony would sleep with such a face. This is the look of someone in a personal hell. Han Solo, the freewheeling smuggler who lives by his own rules, who might blunder his way into a situation but will then wriggle his way out, is all the way trapped now. In Star Wars, Han makes a comment about how he never expected he’d need to smuggle himself under the floor of his freighter. He’s met an exponentially worse fate here.

What’s Up, Doc?, like most of the other great screwball comedies, is best understood as a horror movie for the characters who are stuck living this anxious hallucination. By that measure, the scene where an already totally defeated Howard wanders up to the top of the hotel, pulls a sheet off the piano, and finds Judy lying there is truly a “HEEEERE’S JOHNNY!” moment. At this point in the film, Judy hasn’t done all that much: she’s merely bewitched Howard in a shop and posed as his wife at a dinner for musicologists. I mean…it’s a lot, but compared to freewheeling mess that she and Howard splatter across San Francisco, that comes off as fairly harmless. I mean, look at Babs. She wants you to know that she’s fairly harmless. The smile, the twinkling eyes which are shockingly made up for a woman who’s been lying on top of a piano, the hair cascading down her arms and shoulders. No one’s ever watched Keanu Reeves or Charles Bronson punch someone while they were on their side like this; this is a vulnerable position, the human equivalent of a cat leaving their tummy out. The secret is hidden in plain sight, though. Her eyes may twinkle, but they do not tighten at the edges. There’s no crinkle; this is a stage smile, an actress smile, a headshot smile. I don’t mean to suggest that Judy doesn’t actually want Howard, but I think she absolutely knows what she’s doing here. Judy cannot actually have everything planned out the way she does; the Heath Ledger Joker couldn’t have quietly put together such a charade that she would have needed to. But she knows what she’s doing, and she must know that Howard is not going to have a plan for this prone woman with the big smile on the piano.

The moment where that clown doll actually reaches out and grabs Robbie takes less than a second. The buildup to it takes, genuinely, a couple minutes. But the actual reaching out and grabbing of Robbie’s face and then dragging him down by his throat takes less than a second of sheer, slightly unfocused film to hit. They did a number on that clown. He is a scary son of a gun years before Stephen King published It. They’ve nailed the burned out visage, the eyes that are too bright and the lips that are too dark, the nose that has retained its cheerful redness and the hands that are simply too huge for him proportionally. Even the bright blue and silver of his pajamas manages to make him more sinister; they shine where everything else, excepting that one glowing eye, is basically a dark matte. A sixty-foot face like the clown’s, which has not been under the bed as we expected but was waiting like the world’s most made up cockroach to wriggle its limbs on top of this kid, is the one moment of true awe that we get in Poltergeist that matches Hooper’s earlier classic The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. This is a jump scare—don’t listen to people who decry them, for they rarely love horror movies anyway—a jump scare written in lightning. In a movie where the most famous image turns a girl’s face away from the camera and puts her in shadow in front of a shimmering television, the scariest moment purposefully gives us a face to key in on.

The year before Kelly McGillis played a nothing role in perhaps the most lunatic male fantasy of the 1980s, she plays the mother of a small boy, a wife who is only now a widow. The filmmakers found the simplicity in McGillis’s face in much the same way that they found the simplicity in the farmlands of Pennsylvania, and the results are similarly beautiful. This frame is from the end of Witness, around the time that Harrison Ford’s John Book is about to return to his precinct in Philadelphia. There is no character in Witness who has been on a greater emotional roller coaster than Rachel. Not Book, who has been disillusioned rapidly and completely about the ethics of his profession; not her son Samuel, who witnessed a man murdered in graphic detail in an Amtrak station bathroom and who has been hunted since. Rachel has had to worry for Samuel’s safety in the present and his wellbeing in the future, and almost as shuddering, she has had to face the person in herself who wants to commit some heavenly sins with John Book. Here, as she watches this man walk away, a man who is attracted to her too but could no more stay in Amish country than he could stay on one of the moons of Jupiter, and head toward the car she has sworn off as an Amish woman. There are other looks between the two, or involving the two, which probably stand out more to most people. After all, there is that one topless scene where she brazenly dares John Book to look up at her in her window. But this is something different, something chaste in its resignation. Her eyes are rimmed with red, her eyebrows are down, her mouth is firm. John Book in Philadelphia is the same as Jacob Lapp underground.

Predator was released a few years before I was born, and in the interim there have been (counts on fingers) five new installments with a six supposed to come out next year. In other words, even for someone who was basically indifferent to ’80s and ’90s action and generally avoided horror for the first twenty-five years of his life, I couldn’t not know what the Predator looks like. That doesn’t mean that the scene late in this film where the alien takes off his helmet, lets it drop into the water, and shows Arnold Schwarzenegger what’s underneath doesn’t hit like a blow to the spine. Dutch is, on one hand, not impressed. “You’re one ugly motherfucker,” he says to this creature, which seems to have evolved for eating prey in a way I can’t quite understand myself. He’s not wrong about this. The skin of this creature is made of contrasting deep reds and snot greens, like the Play-Doh versions of Freddie Krueger’s sweater. The eyes are set too deep, the muzzle is too wide, the teeth long and yellow. But looking back at this scene I wanted to focus especially on Schwarzenegger’s face as well. When we get those reaction shots, it’s not fear that we see in Arnold’s eyes, but a look that suggests that this guy who has seen it all, who has even fought with this monster from another world, has absolutely no idea what to do with his opponent.

After a while it’s almost hard to keep track of all the totally crazy stuff that Alex Forrest does in Fatal Attraction. Everyone remembers the bunny, and that initial suicide attempt is so graphic that it’s fused in my brain pretty tight, but until my latest viewing of this movie I’d sort of glossed over the series of calls at Dan’s firm in my head. There are more interesting shots of Glenn Close’s face in this film, clearly, but this one is so strange to me because here, at the moment where we can believe that Alex has either been strangled or drowned, you can see something pensive in this scheming woman’s affect. You can almost hear her thoughts after she’s gone through the fifth quarter with Dan in his house: Is it worth it? The answer was always a pretty clear Nope!—to bastardize A Man for All Seasons, “but for Michael Douglas?”—but it’s as if this is the first time it’s occurred to Alex that maybe she isn’t obligated to chase Dan down, to hunt him with a knife, to kill him if he doesn’t choose her instead of his family. We all know what happens next after this brief moment of contemplation, but it’s this one moment of introspection, of something like interiority, that we get to see of Alex. It makes her violent rise from the bathwater even more frightening, in a way. She’s not entirely crazy after all. She chooses to be the way she is, a bitter cocktail of harpy and valkyrie.

Speaking of misplaced sexual urges, here’s Bob Hoskins starring at a cartoon woman. Frankly this is kind of the point of Who Framed Roger Rabbit, a genuinely postmodern film made when Robert Zemeckis could still access his sense of humor. I saw a critic I really like refer to Ready Player One as a postmodern film on Twitter the other day and I about pooped my Lyotards; I suppose that there’s a case to be made that recklessly referencing other texts is postmodern in some sense, but whether or not it’s good or well-made seems like it ought to be part of the calculus here. Who Framed Roger Rabbit is living in a world where the fantasy of Bugs Bunny and Mickey Mouse and Betty Boop is a real one, one that’s palpable for regular people, and, well, isn’t it truly? Eddie Valiant is inured to toons, sick to death of them, and when Jessica Rabbit appears on stage, something a couple feet below his brain changes his mind for him. It is endlessly funny that “Jessica Rabbit” is a person, a married woman whose surname is “Rabbit,” because it so brilliantly confuses us after lifetimes of knowing that he’s Bugs Bunny and she’s Daisy Duck and so on. And so in that face that Eddie’s making, this look which says “Yowza!” in no uncertain terms, we’re having a very different reaction than the character on screen. Jessica is an unexpected cartoon, a figure we were not prepared for, bustier and slinkier than anyone who ever showed up on our TVs. But for Eddie, who has lived among the toons, this is a straight “Yowza!” It’s got nothing to do with her animated form, but it has everything to do, as Jessica puts it later, with how she’s drawn.

You know that line in “The Ladies Who Lunch” where Joanne sardonically muses, “Does anyone still wear a hat?” That’s basically how I feel about this joke, which I emphatically did not understand the first time I saw this movie and which I emphatically cannot relate to now. I’ve never used aftershave. Does anyone still use aftershave? Home Alone fits uneasily in that space between movies for adults and movies for children, and while it’s been a standard of the ABC Family/Freeform-style holiday playlist for going on three decades now, my most recent rewatch of the film makes me feel like it’s playing for adults more than it’s playing for children, making it a sort of upside-down Pixar movie. This scene where Kevin throws on the aftershave, unaware that it will burn when he does so, has become the iconic face from this movie, more so than Daniel Stern with the tarantula crawling on him, more so than Joe Pesci doing Joe Pesci things, more so than Catherine O’Hara being just shockingly normal down to her aversion to polka. The pull of Home Alone essentially boils down to “This is a cute kid, even if he’s actually sort of ugly,” and this is a cute kid moment for the adults who know better than this boy trying to accede to adulthood via grooming, grocery trips, and laundry.

The last great movie to glory in bureaucracy is probably Shin Godzilla; the one before that is Apollo 13, a movie where they stick three genuine movie stars in a box for a couple hours and then let the character actors, real or glorified, run around like maniacs on the ground and do the work. Loren Dean is in focus in this shot, but you can still see Ed Harris, a little blurry, behind him; the concern in his face is evident, but it’s a concern which comes from listening, from processing information. In this moment, everyone in the room has heard the same thing. They heard “Houston, we have a problem.” They heard Kranz translate “wicked shimmies” as a problem with the craft and not a problem with instrumentation. They heard that gas was venting. In short, most of these men in the room believe that Lovell, Swigert, and Haise are dead men who just happen to be breathing for a little while longer, and that’s the reason they’re acting the way they are. They’re deflecting blame already, in the case of the guys from Grumman who built the lunar module. They’re acting like they should just shoot the astronauts back with a burn from a heavily damaged command module. And most of all they’re acting like it’s business as usual except the mission is over. It’s in this moment when John Aaron commandeers the room, and Kranz, who understands that what Aaron has to say is exceedingly valuable, yields the floor to a subordinate who can “work the problem” better than himself. The heroes are anonymous to anyone who’s not a total nerd, but Apollo 13 gives them a spotlight.

I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that Heather Donahue is the most anonymous star of any of the 150 movies from the 1990s which I considered for this list; I think it’s distinctly possible that she is the least remembered of the most important actors from the one hundred films that made this list. But everyone knows this face, this shot. The gradient from white light pouring over her face on her left, growing to pale skin on the right side of her face, the blue eye dimmed by the darkness, the shadow, the gray knit cap, and then to her right…utter blackness, a blackness darker than the space Tom Hanks floated through in the movie above. The Blair Witch Project is more interesting as a historical text than an actual movie at this point, and that shows in the way we remember this moment. On the Internet, I think this particular moment has been remembered as a kind of ultimate in fear, in part because this sequence is the one that made the movie poster and other promotional materials. In the film, this is part of a tearful apology, a moment of soul-searching practically unique in horror movies. Heather looks in the camera and confesses to whoever finds this thing, to her parents, to her team’s parents—to us, naturally—that she’s so sorry for having been arrogant enough to believe she could just waltz into the woods and make a documentary. Hubris is punished in horror movies all the time; it’s so rare to see humility and apology take the fore for a couple minutes and then see our heroine punished anyway. Heather is praying, but she prays to those who could not intercede, and wouldn’t want to even if they could.

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