THE SMOKE's 50 FAVORITE FILMS OF THE 90's
Yep - lists. The internet's overflowing with them. "8 Best Pie Flavors from Central America"...you get the idea. But a discussion of notable films from the 90's came up years ago among future 'smoke writers (back in what is now being referred to as "the myspace days"), and we wanted to bring that discussion back. All five participants - John Cribbs, Christopher Funderburg, Ian Loffill, Marcus Pinn and Stu Steimer - were asked to come up with their 75 favorite movies from that long-ago decade: the results were then calculated into one master list of 50. Each film will be written about over the next five weeks as we draw out this self-indulgent entry into the endless abyss of movie lists, classed up thanks to contributions from some of our favorite film writers.
<<<CLICK HERE FOR #'s 41 - 50>>>
<<<CLICK HERE FOR #'S 36 - 40>>>
<<<CLICK HERE FOR #'S 31 - 35>>>
<<<CLICK HERE FOR #'S 26 - 30>>>
25. THE GRIFTERS (1990, Stephen Frears)
The Grifters opens with a threeway split screen tracking shot of its lead characters, each looking fancy and confident, sexy and self-assured as they fill the frame, unable to resist throwing a little smirk in the direction of the camera as they head toward their respective targets. One thinks immediately of slick shifters from The Sting or Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, even (since the opening voiceover is provided by producer Martin Scorsese) the jazzy, carefree mobsters of Goodfellas: people who have not only figured out how to make living outside the system an art form but have fun doing it. This mystique is quickly shattered as we discover where each of the three are in their lives. John Cusack's Roy is a small-time hustler scamming tens off bartenders until one belts him in the solar plexus with the blunt end of a baseball bat. Annette Bening's Myra, once part of a successful ring of corporate con artists, is now reduced to pawning fake jewelry and trading sexual favors to pay the rent (neither of which she handles very skillfully.) And Anjelica Huston's Lilly, seemingly successful in her job manipulating playback at horse races for bookie Bobo Justus, lives in mortal terror of her vengeful boss whom she's been secretly ripping off for years. Suddenly the three of them don't seem to be filling the split screen so much as the shot is confining them, leaving little room for breath or movement even though all three are geographically placed in wide open exteriors - there's nowhere to go, and nothing to do but share the shot with two other forsaken losers who are taking up two-thirds of the valuable space you've got left. That these boxed-in would-be crooks turn out to be desperate people at the end of their tether is pure Jim Thompson; the fact that it's so much fun to watch them melt down and turn on each other is 100% Donald E. Westlake.
How the hell did Donald E. Westlake end up banging out a pitch perfect script from a Jim Thompson book? Sure the Parker novels are damn near nihilistic, but you never feel like taking a shower after finishing one. The grime of a Thompson read is something that never comes off, and his characters often suffer in ways that seems outright sadistic on the author's part, but the two writers aren't entirely dissimilar. Thompson lets a little humor* slip in here and there (the criminal impotence of The Nothing Man's emasculated narrator for example, or the vague slapstick and self-parody of Pop. 1280) and Westlake isn't above slinking into bleak territory with black comedies like The Ax. And although they get off lighter than they would in a Thompson novel, Westlake also loves running his characters through the meat grinder in his own fiendish way. Westlake's specialty, in light romps with Dortmunder and hard heists with Parker, is in setting up elaborate crimes for his characters to execute and then sit back and see what happens when it all goes wrong. The intricate plans are plotted to run like well-oiled machines so that the eternal plight of Westlake's professional safecrackers and getaway drivers is their tendency to act like human beings. They doom themselves by instinctively rebelling against the cold nature of crime (hence the author's most successful heistman, the subhuman Parker whose mind is only ever on the job - he's forced to adapt to unexpected scenarios when everyone else around him starts getting all emotional or greedy) which in works of crime fiction and cinema is so often played absolutely straight.** Preoccupied with man's prediliction for fallibility, Westlake literally wants to find out, as one of the Dortmunder titles posits, "what's the worst that could happen?"
Thompson, as an expert in the worst possible type of things that could happen to a person, supplies furtile ground for Westlake to plow with his playful sensibility. The Grifters suggests you can't be a shady part-time criminal and expect to reap the benefits of a Bobo Justus. Cusack's Roy, who suffers worse than anyone in the movie, has essentially committed himself to the 9-to-5 desk job of a criminal career in which he's techically scamming and stealing but going about it as business-like as possible, content to go in and get out with the minor takes he can squeeze off easy marks. He works alone and doesn't expect help from anyone, even after being near-fatally injured. Huston's Lilly is an even less passionate crook, working for an organized racket that may very well offer dental coverage (she'd better hope so with the kind of threats her boss makes) and skimming off the top like she's stealing change from the cash register at a fast food job. These characters have no plans, and Westlake punishes them for it. There's no scene in the history of movies as awkward-laugh tense as Lily waiting to see what Bobo intends to do with that bag of oranges, and nothing I can think of like the transition from horrible torture scene to pleasant chat on the terrace ("So, how's your son doing?") The menace of Pat Hingle's ruthless marshmallow of a mob boss harks back to classic crime films while feeling like something that's never been done; at the same time it's just the kind of thing that Westlake can pull off effortlessly. Bobo is a pro - if someone's scamming you, you mesh a cigar into the soft of their hand, then you give 'em a raincoat and send them off - and that's how he survives in Westlake and Thompson's joint world of warped work ethics. Bening's Myra, floundering on the brink of total ruin after a taste of what real, even creative criminal life is like, becomes so disgusted by the mother-son's willingness to play it safe in a business that demands devotion and personal risk that she becomes the one to set things in motion for the downfall of all three. The course for these bottom feeders has been set: crooks without the dedication or skill to manipulate other people inevitably turn on each other, the metaphorical coffin of the opening split screen ultimately leading to two very real ones (and another metaphorical one in the shape of a descending elevator.) Thompson's tough fatalism is in good hands with Westlake, who wrote in The Hook: "Characters are not born in stories - they come with their own body bags."
Of course Thompson himself had died before Barry Gifford's Black Lizard imprint revived his work in this country in the 80's, leading to a slew of Hollywood adaptations of both high caliber (After Dark My Sweet) and low (the Getaway remake.) One of those converted to the Thompson brand was Stephen Frears, looking to make his first big splash across the pond following critical darlings The Hit, My Beautiful Laundrette, Prick Up Your Ears, Rosie and Sammy Get Laid and his breakthrough Dangerous Liasions. The Hit suggested he was a promising crime film auteur (not to mention early crime fiction comedy Gumshoe and gritty street movie Bloody Kids), but couldn't have predicted how many right moves he'd make directing The Grifters, from its unintrusive retro/timeless design to the hiring of Westlake to its gathering of the most amazing supporting cast of character actors (Hingle, Charles Napier,*** Eddie Jones and the great J.T. Walsh - also, great use of Ernest Goes to Camp's Gailard Sartain.) In a way it's somewhat tragic that he hit a peak this early in his American movie career, since The Grifters is so disproportionately great compared to any other movie he's made since**** in terms of writing, acting, execution and beautifully composed shots like this one:
Although Thompson had his Hollywood day job working on Stanley Kubrick scripts he'd end up cheated out of credit for and seeing a happy ending tacked onto his adaptation of The Getaway at the insistence of Steve McQueen, his period-specific books still make for tricky adaptation. Westlake's modernizing of the material goes beyond ditching the backstory of the Holocaust victim nurse: he makes the lives of these colorful characters relevant to modern life. Since cons, like capers, exploit our most human aspects (trust, ambition, other titles of Hal Hartley movies) they reveal that we're all really just grifters by nature. We all put on fronts, we lie to our boss, we sell ourselves a little at a time. We convince ourselves that these fronts we put up aren't who we are, that the duplicity and hidden desires (I somehow ended up with all the con artist and mother-son incest movies on this list) don't define our nature. Yet we all have moments like when Bening turns around and startles herself in the mirror of the hotel room right before her attempt at murder: caught in the act, revealed to ourselves, seeing ourselves as our daily victims, with life itself the ultimate long con.
* For years I thought The Grifters' "broiled hothouse tomato" line from the movie had to be Westlake's but nope, it's in the book (Myra just doesn't say it out loud.)
** Clear influences on Westlake were crime-themed comedies like Arsenic and Old Lace and The Lavendar Hill Mob.
*** Charles Napier rules this list by the way: Grifters, Miami Blues, Silence of the Lambs...his appearances in these films probably don't equal five minutes total, but his presence in each has an undeniable impact on how great they all are and it's just awesome seeing so much of his work pop up on the list - I almost wish somebody else had voted for Jury Duty or 3 Ninjas Knuckle Up.
**** The "split screen" format of the poster for his latest Lay the Favorite, a movie about a group of guys trying to play the sportsbook system in Las Vegas to their advantage, suggests that he's trying to capture the same magic in a bottle.
24. THE WONDERFUL ICE CREAM SUIT (1998, Stuart Gordon)
While I was writing this piece, the great writer Ray Bradbury passed away at the age of 91. The silver screen wasn't particularly kind to Bradbury in his lifetime and, as a guy who loved movies from an early age, he was frequently left disappointed by what interpretations the film and television industries offered of his work. In his autobiography, John Huston said he thought Bradbury would be ideal to adapt Moby Dick for the screen because he recognised something of Herman Melville's "elusive quality" in his writing. Bradbury's own elusive qualities also present an enormous challenge to filmmakers and script writers. The great author and screenwriter Richard Matheson adapted Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles for a TV miniseries in 1980 and later admitted that there was something in his use of language and poetic phrases that was hard to translate to the screen. Even legendary tv show The Twilight Zone, which owes its existence partly to Bradbury's indelible influence, missed the mark with the episode "I Sing the Body Electric!" despite being adapted by Bradbury himself from his own story. Show creator Rod Serling arguably came a great deal closer to capturing the essence of Bradbury in episodes he penned himself like "Walking Distance," "People Are Alike All Over" and "On Thursday We Leave For Home."
There are several fascinating 'what ifs?' with directors who were interested in Bradbury adaptations and for various reasons never got the chance. Gene Kelly, Federico Fellini, Chuck Jones and Sam Peckinpah all considered the possibility at some point. More recently, Frank Darabont wrote a version of Fahrenheit 451 that he tried to get made but it was apparently rejected by the studios. He certainly couldn't fail any more miserably than Francois Truffaut did in his woeful attempt. It's interesting to try and think of others who could have made his material work in movie form or should still try and have a go. With The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit, Stuart Gordon became one of a great minority that has to date been able to capture Bradbury's peculiar magic onscreen. Known for his unorthodox adaptations of American literary giants H.P. Lovecraft (Re-Animator, From Beyond, Castle Freak, Dagon, Dreams in the Witch-House) and Edgar Allan Poe (The Pit and the Pendulum, The Black Cat), he had previously directed The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit for the stage. I've always felt Gordon's background in theatre played a major part in forming his economical and resourceful style of filmmaking. It really impressed me comparing how much more creative and imaginative his Masters of Horror episodes were to those of his fellow contributors, who mostly turned in flat, low budget one-hour tv movies of little distinction. Gordon allows his actors plenty of room to flourish and create individual characters and he certainly knows how to move the audience. He can also conjure miracles on measly budgets, creating a real tangible atmosphere. This film largely takes place in East L.A. on "a fine Saturday night in a summer month" where "through the calm warm darkness the women drift like flowers on a quiet stream."
Ray Bradbury had a very personal stake in this movie, being involved in getting a screen version off the ground and having done the screenplay himself from his own short story and play. It was his favourite of all the films made of his work and it's not hard to see why. The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit has a real sense of joy, hope, charm, innocence, wonder, humour and heart without ever being cloying, manipulative or schmaltzy. Indeed it plays greatly to his strengths as a writer and I can't imagine a finer tribute to his talent. Reading Bradbury today as a grown-up, he can still appeal to a childlike sense of wonder and the feeling that life is full of surprises and never dull. A quote of Bradbury's captures the rousing appeal of the story and the film better than I ever could:
"Stuff your eyes with wonder, live as if you'd drop dead in ten seconds. See the world. It's more fantastic than any dream made or paid for in factories."
This particular factory-made dream is the kind of entertainment that the movies in general and Hollywood in particular largely seems to have forgotten about. Although it could be described as an escapist fantasy, it is informed by the very real struggles that people face and that Bradbury had observed in his own childhood: lack of confidence, poverty, unemployment, unrequited love, unfulfilled dreams and the desire to overcome such things. It is by far the most cherished dvd I own in my collection. This is partly due to it being such a rare film* but also because of all the films that I own it's the one that probably resonates with me most of all.
Unfortunately I'm one of those people who look terrible in a suit: they make me look like I'm attending my own funeral. It's therefore somewhat surprising that the story of a magical suit that transforms the lives of five people holds such great appeal for me, but there are all kinds of reasons. The film's vitality and sincerity is genuinely life affirming, a term I usually don't like to use but is all too apt here. It's a moral picture that values selfless gestures, friendship and a sense of community. What the suit represents and holds is what the five men dream of and aspire towards. Rather than about being noticed, it's about trying to be a better person. Gomez for instance seems like something of a con artist at first, but slowly has his conscience awakened. The men may be jobless, homeless or underachievers at the start but they find a new sense of purpose and self worth over the course of the evening and I find the film inspiring every time I watch it. The titular garment certainly doesn't disappoint either. Its first appearance has quite a build up and it has to be said that when the audience finally gets to see the ice cream suit it really does look fabulous.
Finally, for anyone interested in this film that may be unaware, I really should refer you to what is surely the definitive article and final word on the movie by John Cribbs on this very website. Like Ray Bradbury, it's a very hard act to follow.
* I could be wrong but I think my Region 1 copy was one of Disney's blink-and-you’ll-miss-it DVD releases from several years back. It cost me a small fortune on eBay but it was worth every penny.
23. OUT OF SIGHT (1998, Steven Soderbergh)
When praising a work from an oft-adapted author, it's customary to insist that the praised adaptation in question is the best take on said author's material and explain how this film is one that "gets it" - gets the style, the tone, the distinct voice of said author. Well, hell if I know whether Out of Sight is the truest version of relentessly adapted author/screenwrite Elmore Leonard. I've never read any of his novels and the cinematic takes on his books sure don't make me want to; they range from the inoffensive (Get Shorty) to the awful (Jackie Brown, Be Cool, both versions of The Big Bounce) to tv shows (Justified, Karen Cisco.) Sure, his short stories provided the basis for two sturdy, unspectacular semi-classics in The Tall T and 3:10 to Yuma and his screenplay for the awesome melon-farmer pushed too far masterpiece Mr. Majestyk ranks among the best material Charles Bronson's ever had to work with, but there's nothing in his filmography to suggest he's some covert genius who just writes un-adaptable plots and characters. For several decades (Leonard's work first appeared onscreen in the late 50's), an above average (but fairly by the numers) thriller in 52 Pick-Up represented the best that cinematic Leonard had to offer. Films written by or based on his work are mainly just bad or bland. With concepts like Get Shorty, Maximum Bob and The Big Bounce, he profiles more a Carl Hiassan amusing, entertainingly violent beach-read type than an off-kilter, frequently disturbing Jim Thompson/Charles Willeford genre writer.
It seems to be Get Shorty's financial success and his loose connections to Quentin Tarantino* that turned Leonard into a cottage industry - no on was begging for more Leonard on the strength of the Desperado tv movie franchise. What makes Out of Sight so special and brilliant doesn't come courtesy of Leonard's somewhat predictable storyline or his thinly conceived characters. What makes Out of Sight so special comes directly from Steven Soderbergh and the fulisade of genius performances he engineers. Certainly, the work he coaxes from Jennifer Lopez constitutes a miraculous achievement, if only because it constantly veers on being undermined by the shticky "bad-ass chick cop" character Leonard has written. If you haven't seen the film, there would be no reason to believe that Lopez blows not only co-star George Clooney off the screen, but actors ranging in style and charisma from Don Cheadle to Isiah Washington to Steve Zahn to Luis Guzman to Catherine Keener. It isn't an insult to the rest of the cast to say she's seriously better in the film than not only those aforementioned but Albert Brooks, Nancy Allen and Samuel L. Jackson. I've heard it said that Lopez perfectly realizes Karen Cisco as Leonard wrote her, but I find that hard to believe as I've heard it said just as much (or more) that Carla Gugino nailed the character in the eponymous tv show and the two actresses give performances that don't even slightly resemble each other. One of them has to be off-model and given how different Soderbergh's take on Leonard was (and is) from any other film or tv in existence, I have a feeling that he had a heavy hand in Lopez's characterization of Cisco. Even putting Lopez aside, though, Soderbergh's directorial work on Out of Sight constitutes not only a singular achievement in terms of Leonard, but steered the director's career away from the oblivion towards which it was somewhat willfully careening.
Soderbergh's career got off to a weird start in light of where it ended up: his debut film sex lies and videotape kicked off the mini-major business model where studio boutique divisions decided to get into the business of independent cinema. A familial interlooper film a'la Teorema or See the Sea, sex lies and videotape - especially in retrospect - didn't seem to be exactly a great bet as far as mainstream crossover success was concerned: I think most industry types would admit that the bet was made on the title, not on the philosophical, unpolished, basically un-sexy film to which it was attached. I guess it's possible that some people really would like to see a naked Peter Gallagher with a houseplant covering his junk or that someone on this planet finds Andie McDowell as a frigid, dowdy housewife arousing. It's possible. After sex lies' expectation-crushing semi-success, Soderbergh cycled through a variety of interesting subject to make several flawed films: Kafka (with future Limey and Haywire screenwriter Lem Dobbs - his name is mispelled on the video box though!), King of the Hill, The Underneath, Gray's Anatomy (a filmed Spalding Gray monologue) and then finally the doggedly strange, highly personally, relentlessly uncommercial, deeply lovable Schizopolis. Schizopolis showed that Soderbergh had grown exhausted by his failure to live up to expectations of both the industry insiders and critical community, but also his own dissatisfaction at where he found himself as an artist and his output up to that point. The film was basically him throwing his hands up in the air and saying "I give up, I'm just going to do something that I think is funny, something that means something to me and if it finally kills off my struggling career, fuck it." Clearly an homage to his beloved Richard Lester, Schizopolis takes the form of a series of skits that eventually take the shape of a plot: a tangled mess of nonsense speak, silly wigs, witty banter, crass comedy and goofball antics as a form of both introspection and an exploration of the medium. Schizopolis gained traction on the festival circuit where its vitality and total unexpectedness charmed audiences, but Soderbergh encouraged Harvey Weinstein not to buy it (Weinstein offered him a check, sight unseen) and hesitated to push it as a commercial product. As a result of the film's general insanity and Soderbergh's possessiveness of it as a purely personnal expression, the film had almost no theatrical life. However, it did it's job and freed him as an artist, helped him define his goals and gave him the self-confidence to make risky artistic moves. The film gave him the identity he had struggled to clarify.
For those not paying close attention to his seeming collapse from Next Big Thing to washed-up nobody, Out of Sight came as a shock to the system. It kicked off a string of critical and commercial successes in 1998-2001 that saw him establish himself as one of the most commericailly successful directors of the time, a critical darling, a buddy to Hollywood superstars Matt Damon, Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts and a gerne-hopping mad scientist who employed a stylistic alchemy to improbable results. He won an Oscar for Best Director after becoming the only filmmaker ever nominated for two in that category in the same year and turned George Clooney into a bona fide movie star. He went from the artist who could do no right, to the one who could pull off seemingly anything. His connection to Clooney is fitting because they found themselves at essentially at the same point in their careers when they teamed up for Out of Sight: Clooney was coming off a string under-performing and outright despised films after having left the most successful show on t.v. for the big screen. His biggest hit came in cheesy vampire flick that avoided a critical savaging by being written by Quentin Tarantino. His other starring roles? One Fine Day (the film that signaled the end of MIchelle Pfieffer's career in leading roles in mainstream films), Batman & Robin (the film that ended Chris O'Donnell, Alicia Silverstone and Joel Schumacher being ever taken seriously again, caused a massively franchise comic book franchise to go back to the drawing board) and The Peacemaker (the film that ensured Nicole Kidman would be left off of the cast-list for big budget spectaculars and rarely again be cast as anything but cold, snobby types.) Soderbergh and Clooney found each other in a similar position and their energy feeds off the other in Out of Sight, a film that gives Clooney ample room to be charming, crafty, funny, emotionally perceptive, romantic, sexy and even a little bit tough. Out of Sight built Clooney's lasting star persona as the thinking woman's sex bomb, a guy's guy provided the guy in question isn't a rube. If they didn't want their careers to finally tank, both the filmmaker and his star needed this to be the best picture they had delivered to that point in their careers. It was.
Now, up here in 2012, it would be easy to watch Out of Sight and have it innovations slip right by you, so consistently has it been aped by Hollywood since. Soderbergh brought his affection for the aesthetically adventurous work of the 60's and 70's to the film, using techniques unpopular in mainstream filmmaking at the time to give his film a loose, playful feel. In interviews, he has related his lighting director's horror at his use of lens flares - but they're so minor in the film you might not notice them, especially considering how over-played they currently are in Hollywood cinema. The sudio worried his jumps in time might confuse audiences, so he developed to idea of color-coding his images to help establish the time-line and Out of Sight also brought desaturated plattes and evocative tinting to the screen a month before Saving Private Ryan's landmark take on the technique. Other hallmarks of the 60's like unexpected freeze-frames and anti-temporal editing with an individual sequence made memorable appears - Soderbergh used the sense of freedom he discovered while making Schizopolis to bring a sense of artistic freedom and adventure to his big budget genre-paperback edition. It's likely his studio, Universal Pictures, felt a twinge of disappointment that he hadn't delivered another broadly comic, crowd-pleaser like Get Shorty - and, to be clear, Out of Sight did not set the box office on fire - but they must have realized what they had on their hands because Univerisal (and their boutique division USA) took on the distribution of his next two big projects, Erin Brockovich and Traffic. Everything about Out of Sight worked - the aesthetic techniques, the amazing cast, the thiriller aspects, the unlikely romance, the innovative editing, the sure-handed direction - except for the box office. In the past, Soderbergh might have lost confidence or second-guessed himself, but it didn't matter to him anymore. He knew what he had accomplised with Out of Sight. He finally knew who he was as an artist and, success or failure, he hasn't looked back.
* John Travolta starring in both Pulp Fiction and Get Shorty, Rum Punch getting adapated as Jackie Brown by Tarantino, icon of Tarantino-dom Samuel L. Jackson appearing in Jackie Brown and Out of Sight. It's unrelated to my current point, I would also like to point out Leonard's shameless hackiness extends to writing the tv movie High Noon II: The Return of Sutter Kane. I will point out two things 1) I didn't get the subtitle precisely correct 2) It obviously should've been called High Midnight.
22. ONE FALSE MOVE (1992, Carl Franklin)
What is the one false move in One False Move? The film's gorgeous one-sheet suggests a pivotal moment in the middle of the film, a fateful choice made on the side of a Texas road late at night. But while that scene's importance as a turning point that will alter the course of the entire movie can't be overstated, I couldn't vouch for it being necessarily the worst decision made by any of the characters. Each of them make at least two or three colossal misjudgments over the course of Carl Franklin's blistering debut,* every one causing them to sink deeper into personal culpability and impending self destruction. Whether it's saying the wrong thing, trusting the wrong person, drinking (or snorting) too much, letting their guard down, getting too stupid or sentimental or being one second too slow on the draw, sensible behavior is simply not practiced by anyone who appears onscreen. These "false moves" are almost remittable, considering Franklin's unrelenting grip on his characters: he keeps scenes so taut it's actually impossible to imagine how a level-headed choice could be made such is the film's sense of urgency and hair-trigger counteraction. Those who walk across Franklin's mine field can't afford a single slip, yet out of impatience or frustration through poor prudence or in drug-addled hazes they travel with the precise trajectory of a well-aimed bullet to their collective fate, on a path made up of more missteps from any collection of cops and crooks outside William Friedkin's To Live and Die in L.A.
Which is only appropriate, since the film opens with people who live in L.A. dying in L.A., in a brutal drug robbery that degenerates into senseless violence and multiple murder as abruptly as you'd imagine any real life crime going down on a clear night in Boyle Heights. The perpetrators are two former cell mates, one an easily provoked, trigger-happy redneck (co-writer Billy Bob Thornton), the other a well-groomed psychopath (scary Michael Beach), and the redneck's black junkie girlfriend who goes by the name Fantasia (tragically pretty Cynda Williams) although she used to be Lila Walker of Star City, Arkansas. The fact that she hides a crying child from her boyfriend's indiscriminate killing spree makes you wonder how she got tied up with these guys in the first place and what (besides a mountain of cocaine) she hopes to get out of the relationship. Betraying her friends to her homicidal partners is the first of several bad decisions that lead to the aforementioned moment off the late night Texas road where Lila becomes an active member of the murderous trio, but her "false move" during the opening crime is actually one of compassion. Lila isn't a committed criminal, using the two ex-cons as a means to get back to her hometown so she can put money towards the care of the son she left behind - it's thinking of him that compels her choice to spare the life of the little boy in the dealer's house, thereby leaving behind a living witness. She also leaves her voice on a video recording stating her intention to return to Star City, tipping off the LAPD as to the group's destination. Her personal reasons for being involved in any of this betray her own actions; her false move here is showing mercy in a situation that can afford none.
Leaving behind a pile of bodies, the fugitives hit the road to try and unload some of their ill-gotten goods but against all sense and despite reasonable arguments that it's the worst possible plan they head in the direction of Star City, where two L.A. detectives lie in wait along with Bill Paxton's local sheriff Dale "Hurricane" Dixon. Dixon longs for the same ticket out of Star City and into L.A.'s exciting lifestyle as Lila when she set off years before, but in the meantime falls back on his aw shucks cowboy-cop charm. His persona is so strong it takes a room full of city cops aback just hearing his voice on a speaker phone. But his infectious bluster and endearing small town naïveté masks a dark seclusion built on frustration and regret that leaves him vulnerable to the same kind of mistakes as the fugitive girl he shares a past with. His reaction to the two cops making fun of him, the despondent expression of a man suddenly faced with a future as unfulfilling as his past, is only the entire goddamn movie in one wordless image. It's a moment as exposed and revealing as Lila leaving the child alive, one which indicates that the most condemning false move is also the most truthful: one that inadvertently reveals a character's true self. Lila embodies the word "false" - she's changed her name, declares her innocence at every turn, plays Hollywood rock star in front of her brother and unwilling accomplice when she finally comes face to face with Dixon - so it makes sense that her false move is her most genuine: to return to Star City and see her son. Dixon has his own tenuous guise that absolves him from any personal responsibility until the thing he's hiding turns up at his doorstep, suggesting that the real false move occured years ago, that what's happening now are late consequences of that mistake.
"You can't assume anything about anyone" is the advice one of the detectives gives Hurricane, for all intents and purposes referring to the three criminals but speaking pretty generally about every character in the movie. That's what makes One False Move especially insightful: its understanding that there's more to people that can ever be captured in a high school yearbook photo or a mug shot. On the fugitives' end, the movie astutely acknowledges that people don't commit evil deeds intrisically, they just do what makes the most sense to them in terms of personal survival at any given time - the very definition of criminality. The film's initial slip up, that inciting act of violence, is a grotesque crossing of a line that gets more obscured the farther the killers travel away from it. From that irredeemable point on, Beach's soulless killer and panicky partner Thornton are just poison - they destroy nearly everyone they come into contact with (Lila actually thanks Thornton when they don't murder a car salesman after stopping to trade in vehicles. "What kind of a guy do you think I am?" chides the mass murderer indignantly.) Here in America we grow up with notions of good and bad, the romantic perception of bad dreams for a white girl living in a stable household which Franklin counters with the reality of murder at the door of an innercity black child. These realities, in all their gritty objectiveness, can't be reduced to simple statistics derived from character sketches or racial profiling - even in the climax, Hurricane comes off as heroic to the others, who aren't aware of his own involvement in things developing the way they have. Assumptions, in Franklin's film, are the most rampant and mundane of false moves.
For his part, Franklin makes no false move whatsoever: the maverick filmmaking on display here is incomparable to anything else from the 90's or any other decade. His excellent attention to detail and smart narrative connectors are best embodied by a birthday cake at the original crime scene for someone who will never see another birthday, then another at the sight of the final shoot-out (for Lila's son, albeit several months/years late) where more people will die - the past repeated in a brilliant bookend visual motif. Even minor characters like Dale's wife and the traffic cop in Texas, who makes his own false move by not following precedure before jumping the gun and pulling the suspects over, are alloted moments that bring something more to their own backgrounds and motivations. The stakes are perpetually raised for these people until everything explodes in a quietly clamorous showdown that leaves people dead or dying but still manages to end on a hopeful hint that maybe the same mistakes won't be made again.
* One False Move wasn't technically his first feature: he made three movies previously, but he's the first to dismiss them as paychecks leading up to the first film he could put his signature on. (Not sure what he considers everything post-Devil in a Blue Dress...I can't imagine Eye of the Eage 2: Inside the Enemy is that much worse than One True Thing.)
21. BREAKING THE WAVES (1996, Lars von Trier)
***I GIVE AWAY MOST OF THE IMPORTANT PLOT POINTS IN THIS WRITE-UP. IN OTHER WORDS, SPOILERS. IN OTHER WORDS, PROCEED READING AT YOUR OWN RISK IF YOU HAVEN'T WATCHED THE FILM***
There was once a time, some years ago, when I really tried to make myself, wanted myself, to hate Lars von Trier. I don't know why really, and it was probably long before I had actually watched of any of his films (if you exclude The Kingdom, which I loved at the time, and the first five minutes of Europa, which I happened to catch scrambled on Cinemax in the early 90's when I was probably not even ten years old, but still maintained enough interest in the opening sequence to spend the next ten years wondering if it was from a real movie or just a strange fever dream.) My theory, looking back in hindsight, is probably because I heard someone refer to him as pretentious, a word which in itself is overused and has become the go-to term to use in lieu of any meaningful dialogue (I'm guilty of using it and overusing it too, but since I started using the phrase "buncha gay artfag shit" in replace of it, I no longer have to face that hurdle of cinematic critique) and I guess I just decided that I would try to not like him. But by the time I watched Dogville and the slightly inferior Dancer in the Dark, those reservations started to dissolve. For all the blank canvas, the shrieking, the tap-dancing, the whaling, the America/Freedom-bashing, I had never had so much fun being hopelessly depressed. And then years later after announcing myself as an established fan I watched Antichrist, Epidemic, The Idiots and Manderlay and walked away from all of them far from feeling disdain but still with varying levels of disappointment for all of them (though the sing-a-long at the end of The Idiots goes right up there with the children's song in Samuel Fuller's The Naked Kiss in my registry of favorite cathartically surreal musical numbers in film.) Although he's probably made just as many films that I am largely indifferent to he's also responsible for a good number of stuff I love, including at least one film from every decade he's been active that I would place in my top 50 list of that particular ten year set - Breaking the Waves is in my top ten of the 90's.
It has been called everything from misogynistic to an all-out assault of nihilism with von Trier balling his cinematic fist down the audience's throats. These arguments I feel miss the point, making their authors seem as naive and misguided as the character of Bess. There is no denying the meanness here - the film is two and a half hours long and Bess takes a real emotional-physical-psychological assault all throughout the last two thirds. She's raped, beaten, tossed around, willfully violated and shunned by all those that she felt were close to her before finally being yanked out of the harbor like a cage full of listless tuna fish. It's rough, and the portrayal of the citizens in the quaint religious Scottish community is about as statically cold as the weather, but is the film itself one that endorses these facets of human cruelty? No more than the Vacation films serve as promoters of agoraphobia and self-imposed isolation.
But Breaking the Waves isn't even about the evils that humans do. Religious hypocrisy is certainly an element of it, but it does not set out to "expose" anything.
In a recent interview with Frances Ford Coppola, von Trier gave a bit of advice to young writers and filmmakers, stating that each film needs to be defined with a single word. "Devotion" seems to be the one that best serves Breaking the Waves ("sacrifice" seems to work too, but let's not split heirs here - let's not make this more difficult for me than it already is.) Bess never needed to enter this world, and as naive as she might be she did not plunge into it knowing that she would come out smelling like a boquet of roses; her promiscuity doesn't come from any inner desire for sexual exploration and discovery. Bess is far from being a sexual person - while engaging in sex with anonymous men the look of grave discomfort never leaves her face, radiating like a jar of plutonium-enriched fireflies. She does this not for herself, but to benefit Jan, her recent husband who after being made almost completely paralyzed from an accident while working on an oil rig requests that she go out and have sex with men, whoever she can find, and tell him about it.
On paper it sounds like prime fodder for feminist ridicule: a domineering man and an obedient wife willing to fulfill his sexual fantasies all for his sake. The doctors and nurses declare Jan as "sick" to explain his behavior, which is entirely possible as sexual disorders are not an entirely uncommon result from neurological injury, but it becomes quickly apparent that Jan receives almost as much sexual gratification from hearing about Bess' sexual encounters as she does experiencing them. His brain is not warped, and the display of "sexually deviant behavior" was probably not something that manifested itself in his psyche to begin with - why go through all the trouble of involving yourself with a virgin, courting her for months, only to take her virginity on her wedding night? Yes, it is a very isolated and religious community that Bess and Jan reside in but I still don't accept that as the "norm" even if doctrine promotes it as such, even if no one ever dares talk about sexuality openly and especially if they declare themselves to be of sanctimonious purity. Bess is strikingly naive, and she would still be so even if placed in the context of the most religiously puritanical and sexually repressed place and era. I suppose the argument could be made that Jan goes through the process of marrying a virgin in order to have complete command and control over her - but I don't buy that either. The sex between Jan and Bess is quick and nearly passionless; Jan knows what he's doing, but sex is still approached in a near pedestrian kind of way - probably not of the makeup of a hypersexual mind. Jan's orders for Bess come from him, I believe, in an attempt to push her away from him and not as a means of obtaining sexual power. Jan loves Bess, but he is crippled in more ways than one, in his mind he is practically dead; telling her to go out and experience these men, he thinks, will eventually free her from him. It doesn't. In her mind she does it because she thinks that by doing so she is actually making him better. It doesn't. The naivety of both parties, routed in love, results in a destructive point of terminus. It's one of the most unsettling and warped love stories I can think of, but also one that illustrates a true and eternal devotion of at least one of its characters, as painfully misguided as it is.
Breaking the Waves is easily my favorite film of Lars von Trier's catalog. It is everything you have come to expect from von Trier, but there is something about it that makes me place it higher than any film he's ever done. Maybe it's Emily Watson's performance, the pre-Dogma style, maybe it's Udo Kier being genuinely creepy as always, maybe it's the scenic chapter cards accompanied by 70's rock, or maybe it's all of these things combined. Either way it's a 145 minute long movie that I have watched twice and didn't fall asleep a single time. That's good enough for me.
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