Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)


“Liberty’s too precious a thing to be buried in books… Men should hold it up in front of them every single day of their lives and say: I’m free to think and to speak.”

I’ve always been fascinated with how conventional styles of acting have changed over the last century. Some might argue that acting has only progressed as an art form, perhaps that it has gotten more realistic, but I think this would be a mistake. It certainly feels like there are more diverse actors nowadays than there were in 1939, when just a handful of leading figures dominated the silver screen. However, there is something undeniably charming about conventional acting back in the early and mid 20th century. The far more rigid guidelines for character types (leading man and woman, villains, clowns) feel almost Shakespearean, and it’s fascinating to see how actors of this era invested their careers into these character types. If you asked me my favorite single actor from the mid 20th century, I’d have to say Jimmy Stewart. I’m endlessly fascinated by his charming presentation and soothing, humble voice, and I find his filmography to be one of the single strongest to come out of any actor’s career, which is why I was more than delighted to finally sit down and enjoy the American classic Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Coincidentally, it’s election season. How fitting.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington tells the tale of Jefferson Smith, a boy scout leader and patriotic enthusiast about all things American. When a Senator from his state falls deceased, Smith is chosen to represent the United States Senate for the remainder of the term, chosen with hopes that Smith will keep his mouth shut and follow orders. However, when vested with his position, Smith takes it into his own hands to better his country and initiate legislation for a national boys camp. He navigates the vicious Washington political landscape, attempting to keep himself above the corruption that has become commonplace in the Senate, while pursuing what he believes to be true American values. It’s an inspiring, heartwarming tale of dedication and optimism that glides its way to success through the charming leading portrayal by Jimmy Stewart and a fun, focused direction by director Frank Capra.

For a late 30s film, the cinematography is truly stunning if you look out for it. Capra’s directorial vision is sharp and effective, coupled with focus-driven camerawork by Joseph Walker that guides the viewer’s attention perfectly in every scene without being too flashy or self-indulgent about it. The film is also able to capture significant Washington monuments at pivotal moments to the story, such as The Lincoln Memorial pushing Smith to carry on even in the toughest moments. Just as the American history pervading throughout Washington inspires the film’s protagonist to take action to better his country, it also inspires the film’s American audience to feel a sort of love for country as well. The idea that a single American can break through the corruption of politics and make real change is an inspiring message on which the film has built its legacy over the years (however hopeless this message may seem today). While I do enjoy the film, I’m certain that its colossal reputation rests at least partly in its appeal to American patriotism and not entirely on the film’s merits alone.

While Stewart leads the pack as the centerpiece and driving force of the film, other standout performances help shape the Washington landscape into a cold, cruel machine. Edward Arnold brings the most showy, slimy portrayal of Jim Taylor, the wealthy businessman who pulls the strings behind the scenes. His deplorable, aggressive attitude helps create a nice personal clash between good and evil, American values vs. greed and corruption. The more interesting character, however, comes in the form of Senator Joe Paine, played by Claude Rains. We get to see a more complex portrayal from Rains as his character balances an attempt to help Smith feel welcome in Washington while also facing off against him on the Senate floor. It’s these establishment characters who mirror Smith and show what Washington has primarily become as opposed to the wide-eyed optimism that Washington should (ideally) be today. We also get a beautiful character arc through Jean Arthur’s character Clarissa Saunders, a toned down love interest who is inspired and transformed by Smith’s ambition and patriotism, ultimately aiding him in his battle against corruption.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is a  very American classic, primarily for these strong leading performances and its smooth, simple, but innovative story. You can see the rise of American political dramas these days following in the trail of House of Cards, but Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is a film that provides hope to its audiences where these stories today stick to a more cynical approach. While I’m not nearly convinced about the importance of strong patriotism or the good will of our elected politicians, this is a film that makes a strong case to believe in these things, and that’s pretty impressive. It’s one of the most finely crafted films of its time, and while I’d still argue that the patriotic angle gives it a bit too much hype for American audiences, it’s an undeniably fun film nonetheless.

Films Left to Watch: 918

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No Country for Old Men (2007)


“This country’s hard on people. You can’t stop what’s coming; it ain’t all waiting on you. That’s vanity.”

While it has actually been omitted from the 1001 List, I figured I could start talking about some of my favorite films that no longer make the cut in the current edition of 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die. One of the most beloved films to be cut from the list is the 2008 Best Picture winner, often considered the masterpiece of the Coen brothers, No Country for Old Men. A fascinating cat and mouse Western with some powerful thematic elements, this is undoubtedly one of the most important pieces of mainstream cinema from the previous decade. While I wouldn’t call it my favorite film from Ethan and Joel Coen, it’s a breathtaking piece of cinema that I would still consider among their highest quality of work. Every scene is distinct and memorable, and every component holds up so highly that the film never seems to falter, living up to its noteworthy reputation.

Josh Brolin plays Llewelyn Moss,  a Texan hunter who stumbles upon the bloody remnants of a drug deal turned sour. He comes away with a briefcase filled with two million dollars. He sends his wife away to safety in Del Rio and makes plans for an escape, when he is soon pursued by Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), a ruthless killer in pursuit of the money. The bulk of the film follows this chase as Chigurh seeks the money and Moss seeks a fortunate ending for himself and his family. However, we’re also given glimpses into the lives of associated characters, including Moss’s wife Carla Jean (Kelly Macdonald) and Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), a near-retirement county sheriff following the trail of the chase. Through these characters, we’ve given more details into the implications of the main pursuit and also a thematic context through which to view the story.

Javier Bardem’s performance is of obligatory note. His face has become synonymous with the film for his dark, terrifying portrayal of Anton Chigurh. While I think this is certainly an example of the actor providing the primary force behind the character, one shouldn’t discount how well written Chigurh actually is. His function as an antagonist is complex, and his ties to the greater theme of the film are nuanced and fascinating enough to elevate his amoral acts to a greater sense of cinematic artistry. As heartless as Bardem’s portrayal can seem, his final scene provides a strangely powerful humanization (and horror). One can’t help but compare his coin-flip mentality of the world to the fading heroic vision embodied in Tommy Lee Jones’s character. These thematic questions, embodied in distinct, well-written characters are what bring this film to greatness (along with Javier Bardem, of course).

 While on the subject of Tommy Lee Jones, his function in the film seems roundabout at times, but I feel that his character is roundly fleshed out by the final scene, delivering a somber punch of intrigue to an already complex film. His opening and closing monologues remain in my mind more so than just about any of the violence or twisting turns of plot that the film managed to offer. I do feel that his scene towards the end, in which he visits his uncle Ellis, feels a bit hamfisted for thematic reasons, but the dialogue is sharp enough and the cinematography so stunning that even a slower, out of place scene from the Coen brothers feels like a work of great art. It’s also admirable that the Coens attack such a grand, difficult theme as aging and generational disconnect in a violent Western cat and mouse film. They’ve certainly come a long way from Raising Arizona (which strangely has a lot of similarities, thematically and most notably the recounting of the dream sequence in the closing monologue).

Did the Coens reach the peak of their talent with No Country for Old Men? In a way, I think so. The cinematography is some of the sharpest we’ve seen from their work, and the film has a lot more to say than most anything else they’ve made. As a piece of cinematic art, it may well be their greatest, but there are others I would still prefer. (Perhaps if No Country had some fun bowling scenes and a Jeff Bridges protagonist, we’d really be talking.) Of course, these distinctions really don’t need to be made, as the film is still a powerful work and one of the strongest of its year of release. I’d probably have given Best Picture to There Will Be Blood, but I have no qualms with the Coens finally snagging it. It’s a wild, delightful two hours of cinema, and one that will leave you thinking long after the credits have rolled, and what more could you ask for?

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Birdman (2014)


“It’s important to me! Alright? Maybe not to you, or your cynical friends whose only ambition is to go viral. But to me… To me… this is – God. This is my career, this is my chance to do some work that actually means something.”

As excited as I am to see Michael Keaton playing The Vulture in the new Spiderman next year, I doubt we’ll see as fascinating a portrayal as the washed up bird star he puts forward in Birdman. As last year’s Best Picture winner, this is certainly one of the most important movies to make its way into the mainstream over the last several years. Cinematically, it’s a concept piece that challenges conventional visual presentation. As a story, it’s a rich, gut-wrenching piece of cinema which tackles a subject that has never been conquered with such successful results. As much as I love Whiplash or Grand Budapest, I think the finest film truly did take home the prize last year. It’s powerful, heartbreaking, and it hits me in a nuanced sort of way that few other films have managed to accomplish.

Michael Keaton, star of the 1989 Batman, plays a strikingly similar version of himself in the form of Riggan Thompson, an aging blockbuster actor who has hung up the cape (previously known for his work on “Birdman”) and is moving into more serious work in professional theatre. Inspired by the words of Raymond Carver, Riggan produces and stars in a stage production of “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” Due to technical issues, he is forced to bring in Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), a young actor on the top of his game who ends up clashing personally and artistically with Riggan over the production. In an attempt to finally create something great and shed his paper-thin blockbuster reputation, Riggan struggles through the opening days of his production while trying to keep himself together in a desperate plea for fulfillment.

The obvious cinematic twist to the film’s presentation is the famous long shot in which nearly the entire movie is presented as one continuous shot of film. In reality, of course, cinematic tricks are used to connect many shots together into a visual illusion of a long shot. For those familiar with Hitchcock’s Rope, this isn’t anything new, but it’s the most successful use of such a technique in any film to date. If you allow yourself immersion in the story, just about every cut feels seamless. Really, though, I don’t feel it should matter how many cuts this movie actually used for our appreciation of the film, as the result is more about a visual style, and the film should be digested for how it appears, not how it was crafted. It’s also a much needed relief to see such a bold choice from a mainstream filmmaker. With a respectable, if a bit tedious, followup this year with The Revenant, Alejandro Iñárritu is proving himself to be among the greatest working directors, and I predict his legacy will endure throughout cinematic history. His focused, striking approach to narrative filmmaking and innovative decision-making is desperately needed in today’s cinematic landscape.

I find that Birdman also excels in large part due to its performances, which heighten reality just enough to where the characters feel like works of theatre themselves. The first time I saw the film, I nearly felt more impressed with Edward Norton’s sharp approach to Mike Shiner than with Keaton himself. Upon further viewings, I think Keaton gives the most complex, sympathetic performance as a desperate artist, but Norton shouldn’t be discounted for the charm he brings to an often deplorable character. His constant verbal assault on Keaton’s work really stings deep, and the contrast between these two characters appeals to anyone who has ever put forward an artistic project of their own.

This contrast between Norton and Keaton leads into what makes the film stand out more than any other element for me: its enlightening, often terrifying, occasionally inspiring approach to its subject matter. Birdman is at its peak when it poses questions for its audience, questions that it often seems unable to answer for itself. What does it mean to be a critic? Are they really failed artists, cowardly hiding behind their criticism, or should a work of art be able to stand fairly against any criticism? After the suffering that Keaton endures to finally get a “good review,” Birdman seems to suggest that it might not be worth the trouble. Or maybe it suggests that we should seek validation and fulfillment from the ones we love as opposed to critical reception. It’s these questions that are rarely explored in great film, and it puts Birdman over the top for me. The thematic approach is so focused, so complex, that the story glides its way into a worthy Best Picture win in my opinion. (The only other film which comes to mind that tackles similar themes successfully is Clouds of Sils Maria, a wonderful French-language film if you can manage to track it down.)

Birdman isn’t an epic sort of film. It’s a painfully intrusive, messy piece of cinema that leaves us with a lot to think about, but these sort of films prove to be the most fulfilling for me as a viewer. The one-shot approach brings a fun, unique visual spin to the story, but it’s the characters themselves that drive home important thematic questions. I’m relieved that Birdman won Best Picture. I enjoy sitting down with a film like Whiplash or Grand Budapest more, but this is one of those too-often cases where Birdman is still the more deserving film, if only to show that artistry has its place in cinema, and a great film should make people think about the world around them. It’s a treasure of cinema that I have marveled over numerous times, and for all that it accomplishes, I would unflinchingly call it a high point of contemporary cinema.

Films Left to Watch: 919

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North by Northwest (1959)

North by Northwest.png

“Now you listen to me. I’m an advertising man, not a red herring. I’ve got a job, a secretary, a mother, two ex-wives and several bartenders that depend upon me, and I don’t intend to disappoint them all by getting myself ‘slightly’ killed.”

For the sake of obtaining some formal film education, I picked up an Intro to Cinema course this semester. I’m already inspired and humbled to be among the presence of some truly talented budding filmmakers and some vastly perceptive cinephiles, and we’ve had some great discussions about evaluating film as an art. One of the greatest perks of said course is a weekly communal film screening, typically a “classic” film meant to enhance our appreciation for film as an art. We kicked off the semester with a film which I have already enjoyed in the past but have recently come to respect even more so as a wonderful piece of cinema. I hinted at a Birdman review a few days ago, but it seems far more convenient to keep up the Hitchcock streak, so today I’ll spill my thoughts on one of the most delightful adventures committed to cinema: North by Northwest. 

Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) is a fast-talking, snarky advertising executive who finds himself on the wrong end of a case of mistaken identity. After being kidnapped, escaping, and then framed for murder, he is chased across the country by foreign spies as he aims to clear his name and uncover the truth behind his situation. It’s an exciting plot that only continues to escalate as constant misfortune and ridiculous circumstance plague Thornhill on his journey. He also meets the beautiful Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint), a mysterious, charming woman who soon proves pivotal to confronting his situation. As far as story goes, it’s not the most realistic of films, but it never claims to be. The dramatic music and the vibrant dialogue make this a fun, epic adventure that keeps its audience enthralled and invested without ever taking itself too seriously.

The most successful element to this film is undoubtedly its story. While Cary Grant gives his signature alluring performance, the wonderful frenzy that is North by Northwest shows its strength in its dedication to movement. Just as Thornhill moves across the country to escape his enemies and clear his name, the film flows in such a vibrant way that it appears to carry an energy of its own. Every scene takes place somewhere new and exciting, escalating the conflict to new heights both visually and in terms of the narrative until we reach a powerfully climactic conclusion. You also get a wonderful look at nearly every mode of transportation one could take in 1959 including the automobile, the train, and the airplane. Every scene in the film, such as the famous crop duster scene, fill the screen with an energy that signifies we’re literally and cinematically racing towards a conclusion where this whole ordeal will hopefully find its peace.

While the movie is a bit of a foray into a more digestible subject matter for Hitchcock, he undoubtedly brings his artistic prowess to every scene. Even for a movie that I would consider an adventure film, elements of both surprise and suspense permeate the action of the story in true Hitchcock fashion. Moments such as the knife in the back at the United Nations or Cary Grant famously dodging the crop duster are filmed with such intensity, such passion, that we only become more deeply invested in the story. And what a zany story it is. For all the information that is dropped in the film, and the constant shifts and turns of plot, Hitchcock is able to tell a perfectly clear story without missing a beat. His textbook approach to visual focus and engaging detail helps this potentially confusing story to feel like one of the smoothest movies of its kind. This is an ambitious script, and few but Hitchcock could bring out such a captivating film in 1959.

While we’re on the subject of Hitchcock, The 1001 List certainly has an affinity for him. By my crude calculations, he appears to be the most represented filmmaker on the list with a whopping 16 films. Of the three films I’ve touched on so far (Rope and Blackmail being the others), North by Northwest is probably his most refined work. It’s one of his polished epics, often hailed along with Psycho and Vertigo as some of his strongest work, and for good reason. It’s suspenseful, surprising, sharply written, endlessly dramatic, charmingly performed, and it boasts a playful story with a smile on its face. However, and maybe I’m just more inclined to the offbeat, but I’d still rather watch Rope if given the two choices. It’s a tighter, more interesting film, and it’s more of a darker, delicious joy to digest. By no means do I think North by Northwest isn’t a tremendous film, and for the fun adventure that it is, it accomplishes far more than a lot of Hitchcock’s other work is able to manage. However, for a director that’s known for far darker subject matter and a far more suspenseful approach to storytelling, this might just be a film that feels out of place given the context, no matter how well executed it is.

Let it be known that North by Northwest is unquestionably a fun movie. In its simplest form, the story is extravagant, well-paced, and led by one of the most likable actors of the time: a recipe for a great piece of film. Coupled with one of the greatest directors of the time (and perhaps of all time), it’s become an iconic piece of cinema. I’d say this is primarily due to the excitement that the story and visuals elicit, and also due to the epic scale of the project itself. It may not be the most interesting film Hitchcock has made, and I wouldn’t say it’s my favorite, but it very well could be the funnest.

Films Left to Watch: 920

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Rope (1948)


“I’ve always wished for more artistic talent. Well, murder can be an art, too. The power to kill can be just as satisfying as the power to create.”

I recently watched Birdman for the fourth time, again inspired and perplexed by its themes and cinematic approach, so I figured it was time to dive into what a discussion of what is easily one of the best films of 2014. Before doing so, however, it’s important to examine where this whole one-shot technique really finds its roots. The long shot is an exciting piece of cinematography, and every film guru has their favorites (mine being the restaurant scene from Goodfellas.) There’s a wonderful Every Frame a Painting video about what Tony Zhou calls the “Spielberg oner,” meant to be invisible to the audience. For a film such as Birdman, however, the entire film is meant to appear as one deliberate long shot. This is quite an innovative concept; at least it would be, if Hitchcock hadn’t taken a crack at the concept nearly 70 years ago with the dinner party thriller Rope. Not only is the cinematic concept amusing, but I actually think Rope is one of Hitchcock’s most well-executed thrillers, and I feel that it ranks among the upper end of the Hitchcock canon.

Brandon Shaw (John Dall) and Philip Morgan (Farley Granger) are two bright young university students who take Nietzsche’s superman theory to its extreme: murdering their fellow classmate David. In order to assert their superiority and culminate the evening into a perfect intellectual display, they hide his body in a chest, decorate it with candlesticks, and host a dinner party over his remains. The evening is brimming with close calls and escalating tension as the party guests wonder just what happened to David, who is known to always show up on time to such events. The biggest threat to their little experiment comes in the form of Rupert Cadell (James Stewart), the men’s former prep school housemaster and an intellectual himself who catches on that something just isn’t right with this party.

The first time you watch Rope, the long shot is the most apparent element of the film. If you know beforehand that the film could only be shot at about ten minutes at a time, you start to watch for cuts. Just as Iñárritu does with Birdman, Hitchcock will tease the camera to a position of darkness, typically behind an actor’s back, and then pan it back out with a new bit of film to continue shooting. As the technique and cinematic potential was far less adequate in 1948, these shots can be clunky at times. Birdman is able to manage a practically seamless transition of shots from location to location, but the confined setting of Rope makes for some awkward and obvious cuts. Despite these setbacks, the long shot approach works fairly well for the story. Like one long thread of rope, the film makes its way linearly from start to finish. It’s a nice, confined piece of cinema that strongly reflects a stage production. Actors come in and out of the action as they move between rooms, but the meat of the story takes place right in the living room where the murder itself occurred. I’ve always been fascinated with the confined setting approach to a film’s plot, along the lines of 12 Angry Men, and Rope is one of the most successful movies to adopt this style. It keeps the action sharp and dramatic without dragging the pace. Just as in a work of theatre, everything you need to see unfolds in real time before you, and there’s something satisfying about that.

The film’s subject matter is endlessly captivating as well. Rope feels strikingly similar to Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, with familiar themes of Nietzsche and his extraordinary man theory. Just as Raskolnikov in the novel feels torn between superiority, the desire to be among the greatest of men, and guilt for what he has done, Rope actually embodies this split with its two lead characters. Brandon only feels lust and pride for his heinous deed as the night progresses, and it reaches a point by the film’s conclusion where he seemingly almost wants to be caught. He lives dangerously with the concealed hope that someone will appreciate his genius. Brandon represents the philosophy of Nietzsche, that some extraordinary men should be allowed to overstep the constraints of society as a consequence of their greatness. Philip, meanwhile, shows immediate remorse for the murder. His character seems to be a comment against Nietzsche, that there is an element of humanity that binds us all on an equal playing field. Ultimately, Rupert Cadall (and his enthralling portrayal by Jimmy Stewart) seems to be the voice of reason, siding with Philip’s philosophy over Brandon’s (and Nietzsche’s), condemning the two leads as villains and not heroes.

In the end, the film is another chunk of brilliance from Alfred Hitchcock. Before the 50s and 60s would yield his most acclaimed works, Hitchcock proved himself to be the master of suspense with works such as Rope (among many other early works which I hope to explore soon). The long shot approach to the film seems to plant it into history as a milestone of cinematography, a work of innovation that continues to inspire filmmakers today. Beyond this cinematic importance, however, Rope is a tightly woven thriller with important moral questions driving the action. I’d go as far to say that this is the tightest, most smoothly paced film that Hitchcock has made. Every line of dialogue is oozing with character revelation and dramatic fuel for the story. It’s a film that yearns and deserves to be watched multiple times, and at only 80 minutes, it would be well worthy to do so.

Films Left to Watch: 921

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Star Wars (1977)

Star Wars

“Hokey religions and ancient weapons are no match for a good blaster at your side, kid.”

Revisiting the original Star Wars has been a terribly significant experience for my film journey, more so than I would have expected. I opted out of rewatching the old trilogy as many did before seeing The Force Awakens last year, so it’s been quite a few years since I’ve seen the original films. After enhancing my understanding of film and immersing myself in a wide variety of titles in recent years, I expected to simply be entertained by Star Wars. However, I was truly blown away by this viewing. I can say with confidence that Star Wars is a groundbreaking piece of cinema and one of the greatest sci-fi adventures ever committed to the screen. It’s an epic, ambitious film that ceases to hit the brakes, making it one of the most enjoyable, immersive films I’ve seen of late.

I need not touch on the plot details with this one, but it’s clear that one of the most impressive things about Star Wars is how well it builds its world. We immediately jump into the action: a big scary overlord is fighting against a rebellion, and he’s taken the princess. We see massive spaceships racing through the darkness of the universe. We get quirky characters of different races, vibrant atmospheres and a whole slew of different planets. George Lucas has one of the strongest visions for the complex world (or worlds) of his film, more so than just about anything we’d seen in a movie up to this point. Every second of footage is a carefully crafted piece of immersion that pulls you into the Star Wars universe and dispels criticism that these films are simply sensational cash grabs. The story, while simple at times, never ceases to be unique and captivating. The original trilogy is a pretty standard rundown of Joseph Campbell’s “hero myth,” but it is carried out with such passion and grandiose that Star Wars may very well be the most exciting execution of the hero myth to ever hit theaters.

It’s often easy to forget that this movie came out in the 1970s. The production value is through the roof, and the environments are impressively detailed. While we often catch a glimpse of more dated special effects, the movie is so overwhelmingly successful that these moments feel more charming than disruptive. The spaceships are just as thrilling as they were upon release, as is just about every other piece of tech in the Star Wars universe. The Death Star continues to feel like one of the most epic objects presented in a film, and its ultimate destruction feels as satisfying as ever. Of course, John Williams shouldn’t ever be left out of a discussion of these films. One of the most iconic, powerful scores to any film, the music behind Star Wars carries a wondrous sense of sci-fi adventure that drives the movie from start to finish, bringing a spot on sense of ambiance to every scene.

Anyone who has seen The Force Awakens was likely ecstatic to see our classic heroes back in the action. While I think the new movie drew a bit too heavily from the well of nostalgia, it’s understandable for them to do so. Han Solo, Luke, Leia, Chewy, and many other characters have become staples of American culture. There are the charming, humorous sidekicks that keep a smile on our faces throughout the story (C3PO and R2D2), but this is mainly an adventure about heroes. Luke Skywalker fits the mold of the conventional protagonist, a young Jedi learning the ways of the Force in order to combat the evils of the Empire. Then there’s the more daring, unconventional hero Han Solo, played to perfection by Harrison Ford. George Lucas has created a tremendous universe, but it takes a talented set of actors to really bring it to life. The acting can feel silly at times, but the portrayal of these characters is lifted to galactic heights due to a collective sense of energy and adventure that runs through the Star Wars trilogy. It seems every actor is on board with the epic scale of what Lucas is attempting to create, and the payoff is one thrill ride of a story.

To speak about the first movie specifically, (or A New Hope, as it has come to be called) it’s important to note that Lucas refuses to get bogged down in exposition. Setting up an entire universe and laying out its rules is a difficult task for the first film of any saga, but Star Wars always manages to keep its audience entertained while explaining key information at the same time (while the prequel trilogy seriously fell short in this area). A New Hope feels like a standalone adventure, even though it was only the first of a larger story arc. Any Star Wars ripoff that came after it failed to nail down the pacing the George Lucas carefully planted into the story. I came away from this viewing with a sense of amazement that I had actually just watched a 2 hour movie. The film uses each scene to accomplish a pivotal plot point, and nothing is wasted or added for its own sake. It’s not often discussed, but I think this is one of the most important things about the success of this movie. Every scene is exciting, but every scene is important. If other deep space epics could get this formula down, I think we would see a far stronger set of films where it’s a lot easier to get invested in the story.

Some have fallen back on the notion that Star Wars is simply big budget entertainment without much cinematic merit. While this movie is undoubtedly a summer blockbuster with a lot of money dumped into its production, you can’t deny the cinematic greatness Star Wars accomplishes. For a snazzy blockbuster film, each scene carries a surprising amount of weight and accomplishes a great deal towards creating an epic story. George Lucas brings a powerful vision to the screen with a powerful movie. Star Wars establishes one of the most exciting trilogies ever made, a trilogy that I look forward to diving further into very soon.

Films Left to Watch: 922

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One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

“But I tried, didn’t I? Goddamnit, at least I did that.”

The Academy Awards aren’t always an indicator of a great film, but very often they are. Particularly if a film sweeps all five major categories (Best Picture, Actor, Actress, Director, and Screenplay) as only three films have done, you know you’re dealing with a piece of quality cinema. Of course, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is one such film, and it is undoubtedly a terrific piece of film. Based on the 1962 novel of the same name by Ken Kesey (one of my personal favorites), One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is an adaptation that holds the message of the source material as sacred to the story of the film. The performances couldn’t be better, and all the pieces align in such a way that this is a movie set for long-term greatness. It’s one of the greatest movies of the 1970s and likely the greatest film which has ever touched on its complex subject matter.

Randle McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) is a wisecracking criminal convicted of statutory rape, sent to a mental institution after showing signs of mental illness. In order to avoid the hard labor and rough atmosphere of the prison system, McMurphy feigns signs of “crazy” in order to get himself admitted. He comes to meet a slew of over patients, each facing their own mental obstacles, and he becomes an inspirational leader among them. He teaches them games, plans a getaway fishing trip, and helps them stand up to the towering, authoritarian nurse of the ward, the infamous Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher). As McMurphy faces off against Ratched for the control of the ward, he comes to realize the cruelty and inhumanity in place at the mental institution itself and the effect this has on the patients. It’s a humorous, inspiring, terrifying, unsettling, wonderful story which never ceases to entertain.

I find that the success of the film can be attributed to the innovation and passion of the source material. The story itself, which follows closely with Kesey’s novel, is a masterfully-crafted piece of fiction that translates beautifully to the screen. Every character is fully realized, and we come to root for every patient in the ward. It’s fun to see Danny DeVito play Martini, a delusional man who can’t quite fit in with reality like everyone else but keeps a smile on his face regardless. Then there’s the “Chief” (Will Bromden), a mute man of Native American descent who becomes one of McMurphy’s closest companions and brings the film its most powerful scene. As an audience, perhaps the most dismal shift comes when we realize that Nurse Ratched doesn’t want these people to get better. All these characters that we’ve come to love, whose obstacles we want to see overcome – Ratched just wants power over them. It brings the film from a silly Jack Nicholson feature to a heartbreaking piece of cinema. The film implores its audience to wonder if there’s a clear distinction between sane and insane, or is it just that the people in power get to draw the line themselves? Thematically, the movie pulls no punches, and it conveys Kesey’s original message wholeheartedly to the audience.

On a cinematic level, the film is wildly entertaining if only for the battle of wits between Jack Nicholson and Louise Fletcher. While Nicholson brings such an uncensored, human approach to his character, who just wants to be happy and make others happy, Fletcher plays the opposite. Her cold, reserved approach to Nurse Ratched feels sinister for how safe it is. Her power comes from her reservedness. As an audience, you just keep waiting for her to lose her cool, and there’s power in this restraint. While Nicholson’s character has his flaws, you want to see him succeed against such a cruel force as Nurse Ratched. Not only on a personal level between the two characters, but his little victories over her feel massive because they seem to work against an entire system. Ratched represents the institution itself, which holds power over the weak through rules and regulation, while Nicholson seems to symbolize freedom from all of it. He encourages his fellow patients to try and free themselves, whether in ways big or small. In the way that it’s always fun to root for the underdog, Nicholson is really up against the odds as he attempts to challenge a colossal institution of oppression using only his wit and charm.

When you talk about movies that have achieve greatness, and this is a film that surely has, one key ingredient is heart. When adapting source material, this is particularly important. Good filmmakers achieve thematic excellence when they treat their adaptations with care and respect. This is a film about beloved characters and their struggle for strength and freedom, but it’s also a film that implores its audience to change their way of thinking. Mental illness is a tough subject to explore through any medium, but this is a movie that actually does so with a lot of laughs. Very few films can invest their audience in such a way that this one does, and it makes for an entertaining, thought-provoking piece of cinema. It’s a powerful film that put countless smiles on my face, so I’ll even call it a masterpiece.

Films Left to Watch: 923

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