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9. Apocalypse Now

7 Jul

Apocalypse Now

dir. Francis Ford Coppola

Francis Ford Coppola’s film is Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” melted into Picasso’s “Guernica”. The ultimate war movie that defined how to do Vietnam for all time. The opening shots of predatory helicopters, coiling napalm clouds, and exploding jungles, framed by Jim Morrison’s guttural need for “a stranger’s hand in a desperate land,” is at once a deeply visceral revelation of the innate, troubling beauty of war violence, a condemnation of the wanton destruction of the primitive, and, by the movie’s end, the seeds of the demise of one nation’s innocence in the dark jungles of another land. This mythology is borne on the back of Martin Sheen’s Captain Willard, who sails up the Nung in a PBR, headed for his Army-sanctioned target, the mad Colonel Kurtz – Marlon Brando as corpulent jungle Buddha, all sweaty philosophy and petty narcissism. The movie remains, nearly 40 years later, the epitome of uber-bravura filmmaking, 16 months of it, with Sheen, Brando, Robert Duvall, and Dennis Hopper (as a kind of drugged-out John the Baptist with a Nikon F) all adding to the pastiche of ambivalent duty, rock and roll, and the darkest corner of the American psyche.

10. The Tree of Life

7 Jul

The Tree of Life

dir. Terrence Malick

Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life is almost more of a thought than a story. Whispered narration weaves in and out of glimpses of one man’s childhood. All of these disparate moments swirl around a central theme – the contrast between grace and law, symbolized in the main character’s memory by his mother and father, respectively. The film dares to ask life’s biggest questions, all through the simple lens of a young boy. The film is ever moving, ever searching, and consistently humbled by any answers it seems to find. Malick’s fluid direction and Emmanuel Lubezki’s entrancing cinematography make this one of the first masterpieces of the new millennium.

Episode 166: The MTOL Top 50 Movies of All Time

7 Jul


In this episode, the co-hosts assemble to discuss the listener-generated Top 50 Movies of All Time list.

11. The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring

6 Jul

LOTR Fellowship of the Ring 204

dir. Peter Jackson

While it can be difficult to separate the three films that make up the Lord of the Rings trilogy, it is the first that bears the biggest burden. In The Fellowship of the Ring, director Peter Jackson must set the stage, introducing us not merely to the characters and the story, but to the world of Middle Earth itself. Combining every element of filmmaking, both new and old, Jackson creates a very real and tangible world; one that can be both beautiful and unforgiving. It is fantastical, yet often feels like it could be in our own backyard. This place of imagination brings out the child in us, eager to go on an adventure and explore new places and meet new people. And as our heroes encounter Elves, Dwarves, Wizards, Goblins, and many others, the audience is drawn deeper and deeper into a magical reality that somehow manages to feel like home.

12. Seven Samurai

6 Jul


dir. Akira Kurosawa

A farming village is threatened by a group of bandits who will take their crops when harvest comes. They respond by bringing together and hiring a group of samurai to defend them. Does that sound familiar? Even if you haven’t seen Seven Samurai you know its story. It’s a simple, yet compelling story that lends itself to a multitude of genres; from a western, to a comedy of errors, or a superhero film. Seven Samurai was among the first to tackle the premise, and it remains the best. Toshiro Mifune, while having a long collaborative relationship with Kurosawa, stands out in what may be the most iconic and entertaining role of his career.

13. The Night of the Hunter

6 Jul

The Night of the Hunter

dir. Charles Laughton

Charles Laughton made nearly 60 films as an actor. As a director, he made only one. And it may very well be the crowning achievement of his illustrious career.

The Night of the Hunter is, on the surface, a classic suspense tale. But nearly every frame could potentially be studied to uncover new observations about the evils and virtues of the human condition. The fickle affections of the masses, the frailty of paranoia and guilt, the desperate loyalty of family, and the strength of humble faith each have their moment of focus in Laughton’s film, which is ultimately a fable about innocence and experience.

In the story, a preacher with homicidal and greedy vices sets his scope on a widow and her two children whose father was executed for murder and armed robbery, leaving a vast sum of money unaccounted for. The preacher charms his way into the hearts of the widow and the town, who are too blinded by his profession to discern his intentions. Once the real threat at hand becomes apparent to the two children, John and Pearl, they flee and eventually land in the home of a strong, older woman with a penchant for taking in new “mouths to feed”.

It is the inevitable confrontation between this faithful heroine, Rachel Cooper (played with determined grace by Lilian Gish) and the monstrous villain Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum in one of his most charismatic and deliciously nasty performances) which anchors the themes of this dark fable. In their confrontation, the meek of the earth battles the wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing and the film supposes that it is not the strength of mind or body which matters, but the strength of heart and spirit. The two of them even join in a duet of “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms”, which becomes an extended embodiment of Harry Powell’s trademark “Love vs Hate” sermon.

While many characters in the film profess certain degrees of faith, it is apparent which characters are rooted in substantial understanding and which ones are hypnotized by their environment or by the charisma of those who say what they want to hear. The wolves are indeed among the sheep and it takes a good shepherd to strike down the threat and call out the deception. What strikes me as so profound is the form that shepherd takes in this story – not a knight in shining armor, but a “strong tree with many branches.”

Although initially disregarded by both critics and audiences, The Night of the Hunter has risen from the ashes of the past as a rightly praised and admired tale about good and evil, light and darkness, love and hate. But it’s also about the abiding of innocence amidst a dark and treacherous world, and that perhaps the greatest irony of wicked and predatory men like Harry Powell is that the story he tells is really true. “It’s love that won, and old left hand hate is down for the count.” Amen to that.

14. The Godfather Part II

5 Jul

The Godfather Part II

dir. Francis Ford Coppola

After the commercial and critical success of The Godfather, Francis Ford Coppola had his work cut out for him in crafting the sequel. Clearly uninterested in simply telling the same story again, Coppola chooses instead to explore the cyclical nature of the Corleone family, showing us the early endeavors of a young Vito and the modern criminal empire of Michael. In doing so, we see two men who engage in horrifying acts of violence, but are driven primarily by their desire to take care of their families. And while Michael slowly but surely descends further into a cold, soulless loneliness, we are treated to Vito’s swift ascent to the top of the criminal food chain. Things are hopeful and exciting for Vito and his family. And yet, by seeing the eventual fate of Michael and Fredo (and remembering poor Sonny in the first movie), the film reminds us that, despite his good intentions, Vito has set his family on a path to Hell. With this ambitious sequel, Coppola’s exploration of the corrosive nature of the criminal enterprise is fully realized and we finally see that, in the world of The Godfather, there are no happy endings

15. Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

5 Jul

Dr. Strangelove

dir. Stanley Kubrick

Stanley Kubrick siphoned comedy up from the depths of a serious source book (Peter George’s Red Alert), then restrained the comedy by filming, then scrapping, an over-the-top pie fight in the War Room. In between these two major tonal adjustments, resting perfectly on the pinpoint nexus of dark and funny, is where the movie lives. We know it’s serious because of what the characters are saying; we know it’s funny because of how they’re saying it: the most internationally destabilizing act possible, instigated by a gone-mad Air Force general, alongside all of the commentary on that act, by the men whose job it is to keep it from happening at all costs and then clean it up if it does, must be believed because of the dry authority behind it, but cannot be believed because the implications mean the destruction of all life on earth. There isn’t a flawed performance in the movie, and one actor in particular had three chances to fail. While Peter Sellers completely manifests three different energies within the movie, the highest-wire achievements belong to Sterling Hayden, who must somehow believe every word of his own outrageous, fluid-based self-justification, and George C. Scott, who must somehow believe every one of his pouty, hyper, arm-flapping, tumbling physical expressions. Together, the verbal and the physical are absorbed into the dark and the funny, a cook so pure that it distracts us until the very end from the ultimate dark realization: there’s little chance that scrawny humanity, with its twin passions for technology and war, will ever avoid getting its hair permanently mussed.

16. The Wizard of Oz

5 Jul


dir. Victor Fleming

When my wife and I showed our son The Wizard of Oz, he was barely 3 years old. He absolutely loved it. We both commented on how we could remember being nearly that young when we first saw it and had responded with just as much delight. What was even more astonishing was that when we mentioned this to our parents, they all said the exact same thing.

I don’t know if there is a precise measurement for the timelessness of a film. But if such a thing can be uncovered, it might just be buried in a yellow brick road somewhere right outside the gates of the Emerald City. For Victor Fleming’s 1939 film to still hold the same wonder, the same charm, and the same enchanted ability to bring joy to young and old alike after nearly 80 years in nothing short of a cinematic miracle.

The characters are so clearly defined and so colorfully realized that they almost transcend the confines of their story to become metaphors for longing, companionship, and the quests each of us find ourselves on for what’s missing in our lives. The troop of actors, from the American sweetheart Judy Garland to the versatile Frank Morgan (pulling at least quadruple-duty as different characters including the Wizard himself), each bring such specific creative talents to their roles that imagining anyone else in those parts automatically feels inferior.

The production design is a unique marvel as well. The colors leap from the screen in as vibrant and wondrous a collage as the rainbow of the film’s iconic theme song. Rarely, if ever, has there been a stronger narrative case for the shift from sepia to technicolor than in the journey from Kansas to Oz, which is fascinating considering certain critics at the time considered that shift to be gimmicky. The film is a visual feast of color and there’s almost never an uninteresting frame, let alone a dull moment or scene.

Then, we have the songs. The catchy and lovely little ditties that are as hummable as jingles, but strikingly rich in theme when you ponder their lyrics: from the comical “If I Only Had a Brain” and the celebratory “Ding! Dong! The Witch is Dead!” to the universally recognized anthem for dreams, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” But what strikes me as so wondrous is how their simple little reflections could be extended to touch the deeper places of our heart where we long for freedom, for fulfillment, and for home.

And lastly, I must say a few words about the ending — perhaps the only “it was all a dream (or was it)?” ending I’ve ever felt fully satisfied by. Because to me, the film is really about the pursuit of our dreams. We dream of being smarter, being braver, being more fulfilled, being validated, being in control, or being in a place where we finally belong. Perhaps this why the film resonates with such a broad age range.

It brings a tremendous amount of hope and comfort to hear a story where we discover that sometimes the dreams we’ve so longed for have been with us all the while, just waiting for us to click our heels and wake up after the cyclones of life has hurled us far, far away to discover that there really is no place like home.

17. Magnolia

4 Jul


dir. Paul Thomas Anderson

Of all of Paul Thomas Anderson’s films, Magnolia is the one that beckons to be watched over and over. It’s so rich with themes and characters that it asks you can’t help but reevaluate what its pointing to every time you see it. Is it about loneliness, or the way we treat our children, or forgiveness? It’s about all of these things and more.

One of the things that all of Anderson’s best films excel at is their editing. Magnolia cuts from one scene to another, one character to the next, so organically and it refuses to let go of our attention. The way each scene is stitched together so that they cannot be separated from the ones that precede them or the ones that follow are like the inseparable and interconnected lives of the characters. Anderson draws us in, and we’re there with them every step of the way.