By Jack Paganelli
Spoiler Alert: This piece contains spoilers for various films. Don’t say we didn’t warn you.
Director: Michael Curtiz
Casablanca is one of the three or four movies on this list that I would grant the special qualification of being a Movie with a capital ‘M’. It is anything anyone could want out of a movie. It was made seventy-four years ago, and it has not aged one day. It won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1943; and if there hadn’t been a Casablanca then, and it were created in 2016, it would win Best Picture again. It is that good, and better.
There are so many levels on which this movie works. It is the culmination of some of the finest acting, screenwriting, and directing talent ever assembled on a single movie. There isn’t a single beat in the story, or an imperfection in its look and feel, or an error in the casting or performances. It is funny, it is sad, it is smart, and it is gripping. It’s perfect.
There is an American bar owner, called Rick. He sticks his neck out for no one. An old flame of Rick’s, Ilsa Lund, stumbles upon his bar almost by accident with her husband, Victor Laszlo, a leader of the Free French movement and a wanted enemy of the Nazis, who occupy the French Morocco. Of course, they can’t arrest him on sight; they have nothing to charge him with, though he has valuable information about other Underground leaders. Anyhow, Rick still loves Ilsa after all these years, and her disappearance has made him bitter and cynical. Now he is supposed to help the two escape with visas he obtained from a murderer.
Of course, normally, the choice would be simple. Rick finds a new girl, wishes Ilsa and Victor bon voyage, and feels good about his contribution to democracy. But Rick sticks his head out for no one, see; and besides, they are under Nazi surveillance. Victor might not survive without the visa, but that does not solve the problem of Ilsa. Does she stay? Will Rick allow her to go?
There is also Rick’s friend Louie, a Vichy Frenchman who works for the Nazis (though his allegiances, in his own words, “blow with the wind”), and Rick’s pianist, Sam. Sam has been loyal to Rick since their Paris days, when he, Ilsa, and Rick were good friends. Louie is loyal to no one, and neither is Rick; of course, the two are fast friends, and their dialogue is hilarious, fast-paced, witty, and insightful.
Of course, everyone in Casablanca is smart, and understands everyone else’s motivations; everyone except, ironically enough, Victor, who cannot understand Rick. “I stick my neck out for no one” does not jive with a freedom fighter, but the two have a mutual respect anyway.
A majority of the play takes place inside of Rick’s Cafe Américain, a lively, up-scale, yet seedy bar shot in beautiful high-contrast black-and-white. Did I mention that the film is completely gorgeous? Well, it is. The camera is trained on its subjects, but pans, scales, and zooms as it pleases, knowing what angles to give its subjects and how to cast them in a light that properly reflects their typically-less-than-sunny disposition. Casablanca is a cinematographic achievement.
Well, Rick eventually becomes a good person. The build-up is very, very gradual, though, which makes it all the more rewarding to see Rick help rig the spin of a roulette wheel in a young man’s favor. His wife thanks Rick; doesn’t claim responsibility. Well, Rick does do the right thing; several times, in fact. The most fulfilling scene in the film is when he stops denying it.
Casablanca is often slandered as a romance movie. Well, there is a romance, but it’s a husk. Ilsa has a husband, a very good man, and Rick knows it, respects it, hates it. But Ilsa did not disappear of her own volition; she still loves Rick, and she too must choose between a greater good and closure, comfort. Rick and Ilsa are no longer in love with each other, as they were in Paris. But they love each other, and the difference, as it is shown near the end of the movie, is heartbreaking and powerful.
So what’s it about? Well, there isn’t an underlying psychology or philosophy behind Casablanca, except for “do the right thing,” I suppose. But they do the right thing, and we feel so proud. These characters’ end-products, their morality, is the culmination of really hard choices and personal sacrifices.
I don’t want to give anything more away about the movie. It is, however, endlessly rewatchable, endlessly lovable. I have seen it four times, and every time my appreciation grows deeper. My only advice is that you don’t watch it alone. It is best experienced on the big screen, but at home with a few friends is fine. The IMA shows it twice a year, under optimal conditions. Watch it at least once before you turn eighteen, and then once a year afterwards. It is a powerful, emotional landmark in the history of movies.
Movies with a capital M are made maybe once a decade. This is the most enduring, the most loved by critics and consumers alike. It is an unbelievable amount of good. It will be the best 100 minutes of your day, unless you win the lottery or something. That’d be pretty great too.
Director: Martin Scorsese
For its first thirty minutes, Casino is a fascinating insight into the mentality and operation of Las Vegas casinos, seen through the eyes of a genius mob pawn who runs one. He’s very good at describing (with a certain amount of tact pride) how, no matter how well you perform, the casinos win 99.5% of the time. This fascinating thread of the dark inner world of the casino is continued throughout the remainder of the film, but it dwindles, surrendering to the force of what becomes one of the most brutal gangster movies ever released. It is bloody, violent, brilliant stuff.
Its opening segments describe a more general atmosphere of corporate manipulation through the casinos, but the film is definitely centered around a single casino and its inner workings; the Tangiers, a loose interpretation of the real-life Stardust casino. The film also centers around people that actually existed—indeed, Casino is more or less a work of nonfiction with the names changed. Sam Rothstein was Frank Rosenthal, Nicky Santoro was Anthony Spilotro, Ginger McKenna was Geraldine McGee, etc. It is a savage, in-depth look at the crime and corruption that plagued Las Vegas in the mid-to-late 20th century, artfully directed by Martin Scorsese, one of the only directors able to make violence and brutality consistently visually appealing.
Director: Roman Polanski
One man and one woman occupy the stark, dry, corrupt landscape that Polanski allows to haunt Chinatown. Their names are Jake and Evelyn. They are both quite damaged, and deal with it in their own toxic ways; both of them, however, elect to ignore their pasts. Jake is a cynical private detective; Evelyn is unhappily married to a prominent city official. A powerful mystery draws them both in, threatening… what?
Chinatown is not the best noir movie I’ve ever seen, but it’s definitely the most interesting, the most involving. The central, enveloping mystery, the scheming villain, the selfish private detective protagonist, and the femme fatale archetypes are duly represented, and properly reflect the standards that the black-and-white noirs of the forties and fifties set. But Chinatown takes all four of these archetypes and reinvents them in a wholly original, entirely fascinating way. I won’t spoil even an iota of the plot, because it works best as the culmination of an hour’s worth of waiting, investigating, and thought. When everything is revealed, and the villain rears their ugly head, it is a horrifying, satisfying moment. Chinatown is one of those movies that takes its genre and reinvents it, and not only remains faithful to its foundations, but improves them.
There is also a lot to be said of the sheer tone of the movie. It is dark, cynical, and brooding; a majority of the scenes are shot at night. They are not, however, the black, blank nights of The Big Sleep or In a Lonely Place, but purple, blue. Chinatown was more or less the first neo-noir film, a genre that sprung up about two and a half decades after the reign of the standard, black-and-white film noir had ended. Neo-noirs, instead of being shot in gloomy values, were bright and vibrant, colorful. Blood was finally red, not gray. The neo-noir, being a film genre perpetuated after the demise of the Hays Code, was allowed to be violent, sexual, and richly corrupt; and, while film noirs were given the liberty to heavily imply their vices, they were not allowed to be portrayed on screen. Chinatown brought a genre back from the dead and applied it to a relatively censorship-free era, allowing it to be reinvented for the better.
Citizen Kane (1941)
Director: Orson Welles
Citizen Kane has an incredibly formidable reputation in the film world. Most film critics dare not utter the phrase “Greatest Films of All Time” without at least paying homage to Orson Welles’s debut powerhouse, a film as influential in tone, scope, and scale as it was in the art of cinematography. The American Film Institute, They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They? Magazine, and the British Film Institute’s decennial Sight and Sound critics’ poll, three of the most comprehensive analyses of the greatest films of all time, have all declared that Citizen Kane is the greatest film ever released. So, the question stands: Is it really that good?
The answer is a definitive “almost.” Any film that takes the title of the greatest is bound to be disappointing to anyone who does not come away a completely changed person after having seen it. Will Citizen Kane change you? Probably not. It’s not my favorite film, and, if you were to ask me what I thought the five best films of all time were, I would not strongly consider it. But it’s really good. I mean, wow. It’s really good.
It’s about a man named Charles Foster Kane. Kane is filthy rich. When he dies, he says one word; “Rosebud.” What does it mean? Everybody, including a team of journalists, jumps to the assumption that this word, “Rosebud,” somehow encapsulates the whole of this man’s existence, that he would not have bothered to utter it if it did not mean something. Does it? Welles would have us believe so. Well, we, and we alone, find out what Rosebud is at the end of the film, and everything makes sense, and it reveals a tragic portrait of a very important, very successful man who was never really happy because he lost something that no amount of money could recoup.
Welles was a director hot off the success of an enormously influnential radio broadcast of H.G. Wells’s “War of the Worlds.” He led a theatre troupe called the Mercury Theatre, nationally renowned for their talent and expertise. So, RKO Radio Pictures gave the boy wonder $800,000 to make a movie. His past successes gave him an unprecedented amount of artistic freedom, and he used this freedom to revolutionize the pursuit of visual beauty in film. When Welles had a vision of a shot, he would go to great lengths to achieve it. For one scene, one of the sharpest in the film, Welles cut holes in the floor to get the angle he wanted. For another, he panned a camera through a rooftop neon sign and then down through a rain-covered sunroof window. This was made in 1941, by the way.
Does Citizen Kane live up to the hype? No film could. But it is, without a doubt, one of the greatest films ever made, even if it isn’t the best.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
Director: Steven Spielberg
There are many tropes associated with alien encounters. In nearly every film in this sci-fi subgenre, one of two entities is hostile; either the aliens, or the federal government. Close Encounters is a wonderful subversion of this rule, using its subject matter as a backdrop for nothing less pure than the true wonder that we face when presented with the bold unknown.
There is suspense in Close Encounters, and it’s good suspense; but it’s never lethal suspense. Nobody dies in this movie. Some are abducted, and it is terrifying, but at the end, the aliens are revealed to be benevolent. Lesser movies would not have done this. There would have been a tangible threat. And, to an extent, there is a threat—the protagonist’s wife threatens to leave him if his obsession continues, and she does. But this is just a sub-plot, used for character development. The aliens do not come bearing weapons of mass destruction, nor does the government eliminate any witnesses of the alien vessels. They, like the average-Joe protagonist, are bumbling, unable to contain themselves at the prospect of making contact with another race, excitedly adventuring from sighting to sighting, in awe. The final scene unites the two, and for a moment, all conflict between the protagonist and the government is forgotten; they are united in their wonder, fascination, and fulfilled curiosity.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind has and continues to inspire awe in children and adults alike. The way the alien presence is gradually built up from an ocean liner deposited in the middle of the Sonoran to a mothership touching down at a Utah base fills the audience with a beautiful sense of wonder and mystery, and the pacing of the protagonist’s journey to uncover the truth behind the sightings makes us a willing accomplice in his quest. It is, more than anything, a fun movie, filled with artistry and allure and curiosity.
The Color of Money (1986)
Director: Martin Scorsese
The Color of Money is fast, smart, and striking. Were pool considered a sport, it would be one of the best and most stylish sports movies ever made.
There is an old man and a young man, and they’re both pretty good at pool. Experts, as a matter of fact They are played, respectively, by Paul Newman and Tom Cruise, in two fantastic performances. Cruise is spunky, driven, hungry, proud. Newman is smart, blunt, laconic, and more-or-less content. Newman begins the film as a liquor salesman; a successful one, at that. One night, he sees Cruise playing pool, and it brings old memories back. He takes him under his wing, stakes him, enters him in a tournament. Their egos are constantly clashing, and it’s wonderful to see two people who are both some of the best at what they do fight over nothing more than pure personality.
The Color of Money is a breakneck exercise in condensed style. Pool, which is honestly kind of a boring “sport,” is made into a fast-paced exercise. During the matches, shots of balls bouncing off cushions last about a third of a second. The camera hovers over the combatants from a bird’s-eye-view, giving off a gladiatorial impression, giving breathtaking suspense to a simple game.
Scorsese is one of the most energetic filmmakers to document people’s lives. Most of his movies pulsate with speed, intensity, and focus, while not losing their sense of dramatic identity. The Color of Money, a movie about a subject rarely covered in movies, is no exception.
Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989)
Director: Woody Allen
There are two central storylines in Crimes and Misdemeanors, and both hold their own dramatic merit. The film is the story of a down-on-his-luck director, played by Allen, and a rich, happy ophthalmologist, played by Martin Landau. Allen’s forced to work with a douchey producer, his wife doesn’t love him, and the subject of his latest documentary commits suicide before filming has wrapped up. Landau, on the other hand, is doing quite well for himself. A new hospital wing has just been named after him, he’s got a rich, rewarding marriage, and a passionate mistress—one who threatens to ruin his undeserved happiness by confessing everything to his wife. Landau, after extensive philosophical thought, elects to have her killed.
Crimes and Misdemeanors is not about why bad things happen to good people—the Allen character is given to infidelity as well—but why good things can happen to evil people, and why justice often escapes us mere mortals. Allen, as the writer-director of perhaps his bleakest and most thoughtful movie, has a simple, hard answer—there is no God. The Landau character has a strict Jewish background, and is plagued by hallucinations in the days following his crime. He remembers his father telling him, “The eyes of God are on us always,” as well as rigid sermons on the nature of justice. But, as he more-or-less confesses to the Allen character at a cocktail party at the end of the movie, he eventually found that he could live with himself, that turning himself in would accomplish nothing, that the guilt has left him. Meanwhile, the Allen character’s mistress has left him for the producer, and they are set to be married—Allen remains divorced. A rabbi that Landau tried to treat goes blind. There is no comeuppance, no karma, no justice.
The genius of Crimes and Misdemeanors is that the two storylines, one comic and one tragic, are intercut. The Allen storyline is funny, though somewhat pathetic—Allen’s wit is on full display. The atmosphere is light. The Landau storyline, with very few connections to the Allen storyline, is heavy throughout, weighed down by religious guilt and philosophical angst. When the two characters finally meet and talk at the end of the film, it is a karmic juxtaposition of the woes of the person who committed the titular misdemeanors and the eponymous criminal’s lack of sorrow, or even guilt. Both of them interact with the blind rabbi, who committed neither crimes nor misdemeanors, and at the party he is smiling. He has been wronged, but he believes that there is a purpose. Is that all it takes in life to accept injustice?
Die Hard (1989)
Director: John McTiernan
I refuse to write a full-length review of Die Hard without being allowed to use certain “choice words.” Suffice it to say that Die Hard kicks ass, and that I’ve seen it about nine times, and that if you haven’t by this point in your life, then what’s wrong with you? Go see Die Hard.
Do the Right Thing (1989)
Director: Spike Lee
Do the Right Thing is poignant, empathetic, and omnipresently observant. It is also boisterous, energetic, colorful, and fun—right up until the bitter, heartbreaking climax. It is also one of the most thoughtful works centering around American race relations made in the last five decades.
The film takes place on a single day in New York with three-digit heat, and it drives the occupants of a single Brooklyn street to heightened emotions and tensions. The people in the neighborhood are almost entirely black, though some of the important focal characters are not. The pizza place, the center of two or three of the primary racial conflicts of the film, is tended by three white people and one black person. There is Sal, the operator of the pizzeria and a well-loved figure in the community, Pino, his egregiously racist son, Vito, Pino’s brother who wishes to stay out of trouble and avoids conflicts, and Mookie, the protagonist of the film and the nexus of its major conflicts. Mookie is a 25-year old black pizza-deliveryman with a son and a loving Hispanic girlfriend. He is sympathetic towards Buggin’ Out, his friend who’s angered that there are no black people on Sal’s wall of fame (there are only Italians), as well as Sal. He harbors few personal prejudices and is a good person, and makes the focal decision of the film at the outset of a riot over the death of a black member of their community at the hands of a white police officer. Does Mookie do the right thing? Spike Lee would probably say so, but the film is too nuanced to explicitly take sides. It is empathetic towards Sal, Mookie, Buggin’ Out, nearly everyone, understanding their ideas, lamenting the fact that the extreme heat has risen all of their tensions to madness.
Very noticeable, seemingly little things undermine the gradually-building racial tensions in Do the Right Thing. An easily-angered white businessman’s car is sprayed with a fire hydrant. Three old black men and two white cops stare each other down as the cops’ car passes their chairs. A white bicyclist scuffs Buggin’ Out’s Jordans with a dirty tire. Sal more-or-less flirts with Mookie’s sister, to both his and Pino’s dislike. These individually little things build up to bottled emotions, and a fight between Sal and Radio Raheem, which leads to Radio’s subsequent death, takes the lid off.
If I’ve made the film out to be nothing more than a thoughtful, poignant commentary on race, which it by all means is, then forgive me. It is also one of the most electrically energetic films ever made. The characters, at least in the first hour and a half (before the riot and its aftermath), almost literally dance on screen, moving with electricity, matched by the camera’s liberal use of close-ups, zooms, fast pans, long shots, and fast cuts. The colors, especially the reds and the blues, are rich and vibrant. The characters all speak with a frenetic energy that underlines their dialogue well. The film’s energy is palpable and ingenious, and works surprisingly well with its overall serious tone.
To call Do the Right Thing “relevant” or “topical” in today’s atmosphere is superfluous. It’s been relevant for thirty years, but now that we’ve seen tensions like those portrayed in the film re-emerge, it has found its way back in the limelight. If you don’t understand why people have been protesting or rioting in cities like Baltimore or St. Louis, this film is probably worth a watch, at least for empathy’s sake. Don’t think of it as an obligation, though—it’s legitimately enjoyable.
Images: http://www.foryourinebriation.com/games/game-29-casablanca; http://bonus.minnim.org/casino-movie-1995-in-regina.html; http://www.moviehousememories.com/chinatown-1974; http://movieboozer.com/movie-review/citizen-kane-1941; http://fctn.tv/blog/close-encounters/; http://mentalfloss.com/article/69929/17-bankable-facts-about-color-money; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b_xtXVptTI4; http://www.foxmovies.com/movies/die-hard/gallery/531/gallery-diehard-1; http://www.theworldwetravel.com/film-review-do-the-right-thing-by-spike-lee-1989;