Better than AFI’s Top 100: 95-91

The following is part of an overview of the top 100 American narrative fiction feature films, from my perspective. For an introduction to the project and an index of other entries in the series, click here. For a list of more than 800 films which I considered for the top 450 and my eligibility qualifications, click here. And for a way to vote on what you think the top 100 American narrative fiction feature films are, click here. If I’ve written a full-length review of the film on this site, I link to it in the movie’s title. Enjoy!

95) Alien (1979), directed by Ridley Scott.

Alien is like 2001: A Space Odyssey if the entire movie was about H.A.L. gaining a terrifying body and the leeway to kill the crew members inside the ship itself. That’s pretty close to the highest praise I can think of for a space horror movie.

Much of what makes the film run is its cinematography, which is more indelible than most of the plot in my mind. Dark blue-greens abound here, which are better for casting the black alien in shadow than it is for raising our pulses with bright colors or blood everywhere. The scene where the alien bursts out of John Hurt’s torso is famous because it’s bizarre and frightening, but because the film by and large stops including shots with this color scheme after the alien is set loose. Hurt is wearing a white shirt under white light and falls on a white table where people are eating off of white plates. The food they have is reddish and orangey and sandy. Derek Vanlint’s list of jobs is not super long, but Alien is incredibly successful from that perspective.

What makes the movie for me is the arrogance which makes the plot run. It turns out that the ship’s crew has been undermined by Ash (Ian Holm), who has word from the company to bring back the alien alive, in all of its “structural perfection,” at the potential expense of the crew members. It sounds like a totally ridiculous proposition, and of course it is. We’ve seen the alien in all of its killing perfection. In another great American movie, the most chilling line is “Do you still think you can control them?” Somehow, the company in Alien seems to believe that it can use the alien instead of recognizing that it’s too dangerous to live, and they are willing to sacrifice some decent space truckers on that presumption. It’s just any thriller in space without that little bloody tinge; with it, there is a really ugly sense that the crew of the Nostromo is worse than unlucky.

94) The Princess Bride (1987), directed by Rob Reiner.

Fred Savage spends just about all of his scenes in The Princess Bride in bed, which is more or less how everyone feels when they watch the movie. It has the happy ending which we know is coming, even after Westley has been (as it turns out, only mostly) killed. The satisfaction throughout the film is primarily in its words, whether it’s the simple and goofy rhymes Fezzik drops, Vizzini’s nasal bragging, or, of course, Inigo Montoya’s husky accented promises. Even the film’s final showdown between Westley and Prince Humperdinck comes down to Westley’s ability to bluff his way out of a swordfight with the guy who can actually walk. And Westley does it with a long, increasingly detailed monologue which has the brief and brilliant peroration, “To the pain.” Fairy tales are, in my experience, a closed class. Just like we can’t add pronouns to the language no matter how hard we try, we have a hard time adding new fairy tales to the genre. Yet The Princess Bride feels like the exception to that rule. “As you wish” and “My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed me father. Prepare to die,” are in some ways just as holy as “Magic mirror on the wall” or “True love’s kiss.” And people (including me, obviously) adore this movie as they adore the fairy tales with their roots in the 19th Century and before. Westley and Buttercup, with their blonde heads and blue eyes, are the most Nordic, Hans Christian Andersen-esque beauties. Fezzik’s vast size and Miracle Max’s miraculous power have the same kind of quotidian magic that one runs into without question in these stories. The weird old-age makeup on Billy Crystal and the middling special effects only add to charm of the story; they are like the limits of an elementary-schooler’s imagination on a story that could reasonably look any number of different ways.

The warm beating heart of this film, above all else, is Peter Falk as the grandfather. The story of the Princess Bride is a family tradition, one that he told to the boy’s father and now he tells to the boy. It’s a story which is given to the sick, which seems fitting; there’s so much pleasure in the story that you can’t help but feel a special joy which is as sunny and delightful as the farm where the story begins. In Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire, Falk plays one of the angels who has decided upon a human life who just happens to be Peter Falk. (Everyone in Berlin shouts, “Columbo, Columbo!”) His gentleness, his pleasure in something as simple as smoking a cigarette and drinking coffee, his recognition of Damiel the onetime angel and his encouragement of him are all so similar to how he treats the grandson in this movie. One half-expects Falk to call Fred Savage “companero.” There’s the occasional mixture of mock concern about kissing and real concern about fear; Falk is playing himself once again, at least in a way that audiences will recognize him, and when we know him we love him.

93) The Social Network (2010), directed by David Fincher.

When Richard Rich asks Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons who would know if he were a great teacher (which More advises him to become), More’s answer is that he would know, his students would know, and God would know. “Not a bad public, that,” More says. But in the early 2000s, God is long dead, and the students eclipse their teachers without a second thought as to how that might have happened. So it is with Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg), who has all of Rich’s ambition and all of his need for someone to know, to recognize, to fete him.

The Social Network is a movie which exists to defy the auteur theory, not that we need to place much value in that anymore. Fincher is an occasionally great director who has a long run of success detailing how arrogant young men come a cropper. Aaron Sorkin could not write a script about morons, and the only true moron in the story is Larry Summers. Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall deliver a masterclass in editing here, where there always seems to be some new, seemingly random event to fold in (a regatta, Mark coming out of an SUV in his bathrobe) alongside a brick of dialogue which needs help to sound like actual humans say it. Trent Reznor’s music creates an ambience of the technological future while emphasizing the aloneness that this vast cursory connectivity will ultimately cause. And the confluence of relatively new actors – Andrew Garfield, Armie Hammer – with actors we never thought we’d see in this context – Jesse Eisenberg, Brenda Song, Justin Timberlake – is effective in evoking the superwhite, supermale, superrich confines of the Silicon Valley culture that the film manages to dip its toes into. Other movies understand the 21st Century better, but few of them reflect it so well as this one does.

92) Broadcast News (1987), directed by James L. Brooks.

Broadcast News remains one of our most Chekhovian films because it believes firmly that people’s lives will be smashed up and destroyed while they aren’t looking, that during the middle of normal conversations fates will be cemented. The rash of firings at the Washington bureau of Jane’s news station near the end of the movie are similar to the destruction of the cherry orchard; it is the final glory of bureaucrats and pencil-pushers over something which had intangible value. And in the last half-hour of the film, the idea of what it means to trust – to trust an institution like network news, to trust a colleague not to break journalistic standards, to trust a friend to support you when you fall for a guy who isn’t him – is so totally shaken. Somewhere between Albert Brooks’ marvelous quips and Holly Hunter’s frazzled grace everyone needed to take a deep breath and partake of some introspection.

Workplace television programs are commonplace, especially at a place like a law firm or a police precinct or a news station, say, where something is always going to happen. I think to some extent we don’t like to think of our great movies as taking place in workplaces. No one calls Citizen Kane a movie about the newspaper biz, or thinks of Casablanca as a movie about how to run a saloon. But Broadcast News is very much about what it means to do television news, and the more we spend time in those premises, the more important it becomes to us. The cramped little room where Jane and her troops put together a segment comparing a radical soldier’s homecoming to a Norman Rockwell painting is at first a way to recognize Jane’s brilliance in her job, and Joan Cusack’s epic run through the office to get the tape on the air is an almost Chaplinesque display of physical comedy. The more time we spend there, the more it obviously means something to the people who work too many hours in that dangerously ’80s fluorescent incubator. Balancing work and play turns out to be a more or less dangerous affair for some employees – think of poor Jennifer, banished to Alaska by Jane – but most seem not to care very much about what difference there may be.

91) The Age of Innocence (1993), directed by Martin Scorsese.

Until Silence, The Age of Innocence was probably Scorsese’s most underrated movie. For one thing, it is a masterful adaptation of a novel which in its highly specific and understudied setting might have been too difficult to turn into a movie. The real problem for this movie’s evaluation is probably rooted in something else. As long as Goodfellas is mentioned in the same breathless breaths as The Boondock Saints, I think we’ll have a hard time separating Scorsese from hypermasculinity and violence, as if those are the only two elements of his oeuvre which are worth our interest. The Age of Innocence circles around a man, played by Daniel Day-Lewis when he was merely a great actor as opposed to the Messiah of the profession. But Newland Archer’s decisions are not really his own; each of them is in some way powerfully influenced by the women around him. Newland’s not likely to bury someone who insulted off the side of some New Jersey highway; he’s more likely to retreat into his study and read a poem passive-aggressively than he is to force his will. Newland is in many ways the worst of bourgeois people like his viewers, believing that he is more experienced and more artful than he is. He is a man who has lost his self-control (while all around him, his fiancee and his intended lover keep theirs) and while we judge him for his misdemeanors and missteps, we should be humble. Maybe in our number he is the only one who has had such strong provocation to step away from the path laid out for him.

The cinematography for this movie, as it was for many of Scorsese’s movies, was done by the late Michael Ballhaus. As much as any other contributor (with special regards to the Oscar-winning costume designer, Gabriella Pescucci, who adorned Michelle Pfeiffer in rich dresses and Winona Ryder in becoming whites), Ballhause creates a tone for this film. The shadows in this movie are never forbidding, but instead are almost redolent of perfumes through the screen. The sun shines when it ought to shine, and the rest of the time illumination is as far from the characters’ bodies as it is from Newland’s brain.

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