“And for what? For a little bit of money? There’s more to life than a little money, you know.”
Picture in your head a plot where a man hires two criminals to kidnap his wife so he can keep most of the ransom money paid by her father. There’s murder and a big investigation. Unless you’ve seen Fargo, I highly doubt the picture in your mind is set in small-town Minnesota. Written and directed by Ethan and Joel Coen (True Grit, The Big Lebowski) and starring Frances McDormand, William H. Macy, Steve Buscemi, and Peter Stormare, Fargo turns the normal police-investigating-a-string-of-murders plot on its head by focusing on simple, conservative small-town folks and largely incompetent, unsympathetic characters. These aren’t people in the dark underbelly of some large city, these are people who get excited when new stamp designs come out. Under the hood, this is a black comedy as well as a crime drama, and the writing is top-notch. If you’re looking for something different and clever without being over-the-top, this might be it.
“Here are just a few of the key ingredients: dynamite, pole vaulting, laughing gas, choppers—can you see how incredible this is going to be?—hang gliding, come on!”
In 1996, before Wes Anderson was really making Wes Anderson movies, he made his debut with Bottle Rocket. He involved some of his friends, including Luke and Owen Wilson, neither of whom had acted before. This film is far from perfect and is definitely not Anderson’s best, but it was enough to crown him the new king of indie filmmaking and put Luke and Owen Wilson on the map. Woven into the story, you’ll see the themes that are so prominent in Anderson’s later works: subtle ennui, loneliness, and chronic abnormality, all glazed over with quirky humor and a rebellious streak. For his first feature film, this is actually a very impressive feat. The writing is clever, the story is memorable, and the soundtrack is killer. Overall, this is a pretty impressive indie comedy that’s a great glimpse into the formative years of Wes Anderson’s career in filmmaking.
“After that, my guess is that you will never hear from him again. The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he did not exist. And like that… he is gone.”
A good mystery will leave the viewer clues throughout that point the ultimate revelation, and The Usual Suspects does exactly that. Directed by Bryan Singer (X-Men, Superman Returns) and starring Kevin Spacey, Gabriel Byrne, and Chazz Palminteri, this is an extremely intricate film that rewards multiple viewings and in-depth analysis. Some have criticized it as gimmicky, but I wholeheartedly disagree. The performances are excellent, the details that hint at the ending are subtle but very intentional, and the script is brilliant. This is an independent film, and that’s a great thing—Hollywood studios would have dumbed this down to make it much more obvious for average viewers. I’m glad they didn’t—as it is, this film is a masterpiece.
“It was like a message from God: ‘Honesty doesn’t pay, sucker.’ ”
I’m fortunate to have been born with options: education options, occupation options, food options, and social 0ptions. City of God is a film about people who have very few, if any, options in life. Directed by Brazilian directors Fernando Meirelles (Blindness, The Constant Gardener) and Kátia Lund (News from a Personal War) and starring a whole host of locals with little to no acting experience, this was a fantastic film that was very eye-opening for me as a middle-class American. It’s not all doom and gloom, though—there are some fun scenes and characters, and I really enjoyed this rather than simply thinking it was important. The film is in Portuguese with subtitles, but that didn’t really hurt the experience. I’ll admit, I’m not really an expert on films coming out of South America, but I really loved this one.
“They look the shit, don’t they? And nobody is gonna argue. And I’ve got some extra loud blanks, just in case.”
Imagine, if you will, a film with the wit and bite of Pulp Fiction, the cool factor of Ocean’s Eleven, and a pleasant British disposition, and you’ll be pretty close to Snatch. Written and directed by Guy Ritchie (The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels) and starring Jason Statham, Brad Pitt, and Benicio Del Toro, this is a witty and entertaining British crime film with a lot to offer. With snappy and hilarious dialogue, great actor performances, a clever directorial style, and a tight plot, I can’t really think of anything bad to say about this film.
“Err, bad breath, colorful language, feather duster. What do you think they’re gonna be armed with? GUNS, you tit!”
It’s said that there’s no honor among thieves, and I can’t think of any better example of this in action than British crime film Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels. This is the directorial debut of Guy Ritchie (Snatch, The Man from U.N.C.L.E.) and it stars Jason Flemyng, Dexter Fletcher, and Nick Moran. This is a story from the criminal underground of London, and it’s got lots of British charm and sensibility that makes this stand out from the crowded genre of American crime films. The script is also exceptionally smart, especially for a first feature film from the writer/director. If you like crime films but want something delightfully different, this will probably fit the bill.
“Aristotle was not Belgian. The central message of Buddhism is not ‘Every man for himself.’ And the London Underground is not a political movement. Those are all mistakes, Otto. I looked them up.”
It’s rare that I make any sort of declaration along the lines of greatest of all time, but A Fish Called Wanda might just be the best comedy of all time. Written and directed by Charles Crichton (Dead of Night, The Lavender Hill Mob) and comedy legend John Cleese (The Life of Brian, Monty Python and the Holy Grail) and starring Jamie Lee Curtis, Kevin Kline, and Monty Python veterans John Cleese and Michael Palin, this is a brilliant comedy that artfully blends American and British humor into something that just about everyone will laugh at. The script and performances are brilliantly funny, but there’s a very solid plot here as well. Everything a comedy is supposed to do, this film does extremely well, and I can’t think of any comedy that succeeds as much as this one.
“Nothing exceeds like excess. You should know that.”
The gangster film genre has a lot of great classics, such as The Godfather and Goodfellas, that are filled not only with criminal actions but also human drama and surprisingly relatable characters. Though it’s a good formula, there are a lot of tales of gangsters working to maintain their rather wholesome family lives while also living as professional criminals. We love and respect these characters because, despite their evil deeds, they’re not that different from you and me. But what about gangster movies that don’t have that softer edge? What about gangster movies that show a character so wild and out of control that his fate is basically broadcasted from the very start of the film? That’s what Scarface set out to be. Directed by Brian de Palma (Dressed to Kill, The Untouchables) and starring Al Pacino, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Steven Bauer, this film shows a criminal so over-the-top and power-hungry that you can’t help but feel that he’s going down even as he rises to the top. This isn’t quite as brilliant as The Godfather or entertaining as Goodfellas, but that doesn’t stop this from being highly entertaining and having some extremely well-written and well-acted scenes. This was a gangster movie of a different breed, and that is a very good thing.
“It’s your job, right? The guy who kills me… I hope he does it because he hates my guts, not because it’s his job.”
They say truth is stranger than fiction, but you honestly don’t see that a lot. Most of the time, when I hear someone say truth is stranger than fiction, I just assume they don’t read a lot. Dog Day Afternoon captures that notion brilliantly, though, by telling the real-life story of a bank robbery more absurd than any heist movie I’ve ever seen. Directed by Sidney Lumet (12 Angry Men, Murder on the Orient Express) and starring Al Pacino and John Cazale, this film captures, almost in real time, a bank robbery as entertaining as they come. You’ll see a crime become a media circus. You’ll see a criminal become a folk hero. You’ll see what could be a very cliched and overdone plot made fresh—more so than most heist movies today—by a string of bizarre details about the culprits and situation. It’s smart, funny, and gripping, and it’s definitely the most entertaining heist movie I’ve ever seen.
“When you kill a king, you don’t stab him in the dark. You kill him where the entire court can watch him die.”
New York City in the mid-19th century was a dark and dangerous place. You wouldn’t know that today from reading Transcendentalist essays, Little Women, or Edgar Allen Poe, all works of that time. We have these romanticized notions of what America was like for the waves of immigrants coming to the new world to seek fortune and a new life, but for most, it was a violent hell. No movie portrays this little corner of American history better than Gangs of New York. Directed by the extremely talented Martin Scorsese (Taxi Driver, Goodfellas) and starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Cameron Diaz, and Daniel Day-Lewis, this is a portrait of the volatile culture, the primitive politics, and the shocking violence of this time and place. It’s bloody and raw and almost oppressive in its adversity—but it’s also enthralling and very entertaining.