Tag: Best Picture

Everything Everywhere All At Once (2022)

Everything Everywhere All At Once (2022)

The multi-verse is at risk of ending – and only a disenchanted woman running a laundromat can save the day in this inventive science-fiction

Director: Dan Kwan, Daniel Scheinert

Cast: Michelle Yeoh (Evelyn Quan Wang), Stephanie Hsu (Joy Wang), Ke Huy Quan (Waymond Wang), James Hong (Gong Gong), Jamie Lee Curtis (Dierdre Beaubeirdre), Tallie Medel (Becky Sregor), Jenny Slate (Debbie), Harry Shum Jnr (Chad), Biff Wiff (Rick)

Evelyn Wang (Michelle Yeoh) has lots on her plate: running her laundromat, completing tax returns for a demanding IRS agent (Jamie Lee Curtis), her waning marriage to goofy husband Waymond (Ke Huy Quan) and drifting relationship with lesbian daughter Joy (Stephanie Hsu), not to mention her fear of the disapproval of her demanding father (James Hong) – its Everything Everywhere All at Once as it is: no wonder she struggles to cope when discovering from an alternate version of her husband that she, and she alone, is the key to saving the entire multi-verse from destruction.

Everything Everywhere All at Once is an endlessly inventive, imaginative and unique spin on everything from science fiction to philosophy, via the struggles of an immigrant family, familial dynamics and love, death and the universe itself. Did I mention it’s got jokes as well? There isn’t anything quite like EEAAO out there, and if the film does lose energy at an inflated runtime of 145 minutes, at least that’s because it must have been a struggle knowing what to cut.

In the mythology of EEAAO, Evelyn lives in just one of a myriad different realities. Every time a decision is taken, a new reality branches off, spawning innumerable different realities. If Evelyn can imagine it, then somewhere in another universe it happened. She should be a film star, a martial artiste, a chef, a blind singer, a pizza sign spinner…there are realities where mankind never evolved or where they evolved with hot dogs for fingers (a joke the film is a way too pleased with and seriously outstays its welcome).

With some technology from the “Alpha” universe – the first universe to discover alternate realities, where Evelyn and Waymond were pioneering scientists – Evelyn can access the memories and skills of her alternates. All she – and others with the right training and equipment – need to do to become experts at anything in seconds is to build a mental link to that reality by performing a highly improbable act. Whether that’s getting four consecutive papercuts, eating a lipstick, swallowing a model frog or – in a comic highlight – Evelyn fighting to stop an opponent shoving an “Employee of the month” award shaped like a dildo up their bottom in public (you’re not going to see that in many movies) – it’s a brilliant comic device that raises belly laughs a plenty.

EEAAO knocks spots off the recent Doctor Strange sequel (that made almost nothing of its parallel universe concept) by not only presenting radically different worlds (in this universe Evelyn is a pinata! Here she’s a rock!), but also exploring how the path-not-taken can have a mesmerising and inspiring/depressing impact. Evelyn – a woman who (justifiably?) believes she has achieved nothing, is both fascinated or heart-broken to see realities where her accomplishments are titanic. EEAO is superbly thought-provoking when it explores the emotional impact of questioning your choices, when you see turning right rather than left could have been the first step on a path of astonishing glory and success and, even, a completely different personality.

This leads into the film’s second half which, after the comic energy of the first, dives into a philosophical debate about the nature of choice. The villain attempting to destroy reality is motivated not by rage or power-lust – but simply by the fact that jumping to a billion realities has persuaded them it all means nothing. Everything is basically a combination of atoms that, with a few pushes and pulls, can turn from one thing to anything else. This nihilistic view of the world – what does it matter killing one person when there are billions of other versions of them, many of them ‘better’ – and balancing it with a more humanitarian view, becomes the film’s key debate.

It’s also rooted in the film’s opening, which is does a marvellous job of exploring universal family questions, while still grounded in the experience of an immigrant family. Evelyn and Waymond, having moved to America in search of their dreams as youngsters – and wound up running a laundromat – struggle to balance their relationship (her growing irritation at his perpetual optimism, his alienation from her cynicism) and, particularly in Evelyn’s case, understanding her more Westernised daughter. Two generations with very different experiences, struggling to understand each other.

On top of which, many of these problems are universal. Generational conflicts: the grandpa who can’t be told his granddaughter is gay, because her mother isn’t sure how he will react. The mother and daughter who have lost the ability to communicate and reduced to saying increasingly cruel things to each other (there is a shocking moment when Evelyn tries to tell her daughter she loves her but instead chastises her for getting fat). Waymond tries to hold things together but is too gentle and ineffective to do anything.

All of this is bundled together in a film stuffed with inventive and hilarious sequences. There are kick-ass fights (one involving Alpha-Waymond and a fanny-pack – bum-bag to us Brits – which has to be seen to be believed), hilarious segues, brilliant parodies of other films (2001, Ratatouille and In the Mood for Love for starters): and then the film will hit you for six with a genuinely heart-breaking moment. I will say there is almost too much good stuff here – ten minutes trimmed from the film would work wonders, and the continued trips back to Hot Dog Hands reality is a joke stretched to absolute breaking point – but better too much than too little.

At the heart of this fabulous work from The Daniels are superb performances, none more so than a career best turn from Michelle Yeoh. Channelling everything Yeoh has ever done in her career into a single film, she of course can handle the astonishing action but also displays an emotional depth and complexity that will break your heart. She’s bitter and trapped, then will shift on a sixpence to agonised guilt and longing. She’s astonishingly good. There is brilliant support from Hsu as her trapped and troubled daughter and Ke Huy Quan (last seen in The Goonies) is heart-breakingly endearing, funny and wonderfully sweet as her good-natured husband (like Yeoh he also plays multiple variants – from confident to cold and distant). James Hong is wonderful as her austere father and Jamie Lee Curtis is having a ball as a bullying IRS agent turned villain’s heavy.

When the major flaw in the film is that it is too damn long, you know you are onto a good thing. There are more ideas in a few minutes here than in the entire runtime of such things as the Doctor Strange sequel. Superbly directed with wit, energy and compassion by the Daniels and with a career-defining role for Michelle Yeoh, Everything Everywhere All At Once is destined to take its place as a year defining cult hit.

Kramer vs Kramer (1979)

Kramer vs Kramer (1979)

Father and son post divorce are explored in this Best Picture winning look at the state of marriage in the 1970s
Director: Robert BentonCast: Dustin Hoffman (Ted Kramer), Meryl Streep (Joanna Kramer), Justin Henry (Billy Kramer), Jane Alexander (Margaret Phelps), Howard Duff (John Shaunessy), George Coe (Jim O’Connor), JoBeth Williams (Phyllis Bernard), Howland Chamberlain (Judge Chamberlain)

Kramer vs Kramer is a near perfect example of how time changes the perception of a film. On its release, it was the smash-hit of the year, scooping five Oscars. It took a sympathetic look at divorce and explored the then unthinkable idea that a single father could find fulfilment in taking on the woman’s role of caring for a child. Today, it’s more likely to be seen as a thinly veiled attack on feminism and a promotional video for Fathers4Justice. But a film can be a warm celebration of a father building a relationship with his child and an implicit criticism of women who want it all.

The film opens with Joanna Kramer (Meryl Streep) tucking her 7-year-old son Billy (Justin Henry) into bed, telling him she loves him, and then walking out of her New York apartment for good. She tells husband Ted (Dustin Hoffman) – a workaholic advertising executive – she is deeply depressed and has to find what she wants from her life. Ted, a loving but distracted father, has no idea either how to raise his son or run a household. At first, he resents Billy for distracting him from his career, just as Billy resents him for being unable to care for him as Joanna could. Eventually though, Ted and Billy build a loving relationship, with Ted placing Billy’s needs first. At which point Joanna returns and demands custody, a clash that will lead to the courts.

Benton’s film, adapted from a successful novel, is shot with a chamber-piece richness by Nestor Almendros and signposts its art-house credentials with a Vivaldi string score. It’s superbly acted. Hoffman (winning for Best Actor) is hugely committed, running a gamut of emotions from anger and despair to a joyful devotion for his son. Streep won Best Supporting Actress as the deeply-torn and conflicted Joanna. Hoffman and Benton draw superbly natural work from Justin Henry as Billy, an unaffected, completely unmannered performance. Benton marshals these three actors through a series of simply shot but often surprisingly affecting scenes, alternating between raw hurt, anger and tender forgiveness.

But this is a film that needs a sister film. Specifically, one that shows events from Joanna’s perspective. Although the film – at Streep’s insistence – tries to avoid demonising her feminist desire for more in her life than cooking and cleaning, it still gives short shrift to her departure. With the film’s focus on the heart-warming relationship between father and son, it’s very hard not to implicitly see Joanna as first a selfish abandoner and then a hypocritical antagonist trying to steal Billy. There is little attempt to not stigmatise Joanna as, on some level, a bad parent.

For all the film opens with a long hard look at Joanna’s face, struggling with the conflict between her depression and leaving her beloved son, there is no real effort to explain or understand what motivates Joanna to do the things she does. There are some half-hearted justifications very late in the film, during its courtroom sequences – but these only dip lightly into any turmoil Joanna must have been feeling. Worst of all, it’s all presented as something Ted has to learn to “forgive” rather than understanding it was a crisis he played a role in causing.

The film’s main focus is on Ted learning to become a father. Ted is a classic workaholic dad of the 1970s. He stays late at the office boozing with his boss, has literally no idea about Billy’s everyday schedule and is so inept at home that cooking French toast is completely beyond him. He has no idea about how to enforce rules with Billy, alternating between showering him with ice cream to keep him quiet and then vainly trying to re-enforce rules. (In a great scene, Billy slowly and deliberately sees how far he can push these rules as he first refuses dinner, fetches ice cream from the freezer and then starts eating it, all while Ted lamely states “Don’t you dare do that” – it ends of course with mutual screams of “I hate you”.)

What Ted does is learn to become a parent. Or rather, learn how to become a 1970s mother – since it’s a joke made time again that he is the only man dropping his son off at school, taking him to the park or attending his school play. Benton’s film takes some decent pot shots at the poisonous masculine world of work, as Ted eventually loses his job for letting his single-minded focus shift towards his son – his boss offers no sympathy at all for a man whose mistakes are due to his distraction by “woman’s work”. And the Ted at the start of the film would have agreed.

The relationship between Hoffman and Henry is beautifully played, a gently paced but very naturally flourishing of love and acceptance between two people who have had their lives shattered in different ways. The Ted we met at the start could never have run several blocks to the emergency ward, carrying an injured Billy (shot with a one-take urgency by Benton) – and then point-blank refused the doctor’s suggestion he needn’t bother staying with his son while the wound is stitched up. That Ted wouldn’t have taught Billy to ride a bike or helped him learn his lines for the Halloween play. For all its dated attitudes at times, the film deserves praise for the way it stressed that men could – and should – be this involved in the lives of their children.

It should be noted that Hoffman, at the height of his method dickishness, smashed a glass in this scene without warning Streep he was going to do it – her shock was real. Hoffman also made Henry cry for camera at one point by telling him, when filming was done, he would never see any of his new ‘friends’ on the set again. You see now why he was perfect for Tootsie?

But it’s not perfect. The final act, with the return of Joanna, sees both parents gearing up for a paternity battle– and having watched Ted and Billy spend nearly an hour and 20 minutes build a heart-warming relationship, we know where our sympathies lie. Even at the time, lawyers denounced the viciousness and one-sided result of this court case, which seems inexplicable given these two parents live only a short-distance apart with similar salaries. Not that it matters as the film ends with a puff-piece Hollywood fiction moment, as Joanna bravely sacrifices her custody because she recognises she can’t take Billy from his home.

Of course, what the film doesn’t do is acknowledge that Joanna spent essentially seven years doing the sort of all-consuming parenting Ted has only just discovered in the last 18 months. Neither does it do much to avoid suggesting Ted taking these tasks on is an astonishing act of character, just as Joanna abandoning them is an act of calculated selfishness. That’s not to attack the obvious love Ted discovers for his son. He even – eventually – confesses to his son that Joanna’s leaving was his fault for taking her for granted. But the film is so taken-up with the (admittedly beautifully done) relationship between father and son, that it neglects any exploration of the wife and mother beyond her (twice) being a cataclysmic event in their lives.

But it’s a film of its time. And in trying to at least show a divorce where no one was too much at fault and stressing a father could be as much of a parent as a mother, it was trying to do a good thing – even if it sometimes looks like an elderly relative who clumsily says something offensive while trying hard to be open-minded. The three leads are superb and the film has some genuinely heart-warming moments. It looks more and more flawed at times today, but this was trying to do something very daring. And nothing dates worse than daring.

Grand Hotel (1932)

Grand Hotel (1932)

A hotel has an all-star check-in desk in this Best Picture winning drama

Director: Edmund Goulding

Cast: Greta Garbo (Grusinskaya), John Barrymore (Baron Felix von Gaigern), Joan Crawford (Flaemmchen), Wallace Beery (General Director Preysing), Lionel Barrymore (Otto Kringelein), Lewis Stone (Dr Otternschlag), Jean Hersholt (Head Porter Senf), Morgan Wallace (Chauffeur)

Grand Hotel: “People coming, going. Nothing ever happens”. Of course, despite those opening remarks by war-scarred veteran and permanent resident Dr Otternschlag (Lewis Stone), nothing could be further from the truth. In this, one of the first “All-Star-Extravaganzas” (every MGM mega-star in one movie!) the eponymous Berlin hotel is the host to an ocean of drama over the course of one twenty-four hour period. Scooping an Oscar for Best Picture (setting a surely-never-to-be-equalled record of being the only Best Picture winner to only be nominated in that category), Grand Hotel was a huge hit, and great-big-old-fashioned soapy fun.

Confidently directed by Edmund Goulding, the film threads together its plots very effectively, moving smoothly from star-to-star. The five stars take up nearly 90% of the dialogue just by themselves (with all those egos there wasn’t time for anyone else to have so much as a line) but what stars: three then-and-future Oscar winners and two legends in John Barrymore and Garbo.

Each of them has more than enough to sink their teeth into. Garbo is a maudlin ballerina, teetering on the edge of depression, who falls in love with Raffles-like jewellery thief Baron von Gaigern (John Barrymore). The penniless Baron – who steals to live – befriends Otto Kringelein (Lionel Barrymore), a deceptively spry old-man, suffering from a terminal disease and using his savings to see how the other half lives. Kringelein’s former employer Preysing (Wallace Beery) is desperately trying to negotiate a merger to save his job. His stenographer is would-be-actress-part-time-glamour-model Flaemmchen (Joan Crawford), who is flirting with the Baron and also befriends Kringelein. Inevitalby there are life-changing consequences.

If you are a sucker for grand, soapy, old-fashioned drama like this, you’ll find much to enjoy in Grand Hotel. The plots it peddles were pretty cliched and predictable even then, but they are delivered by a series of stars at the top of the game who invest the film with every inch of their glamour. They make the hodge-podge of stories work rather well, and the film even manages to pull out a late shock death that’s genuinely a surprise, both in its suddenness and brutality.

But then Grand Hotel is a pre-code film, so it’s not afraid to acknowledge sex exists and violence has nasty consequences. Crawford’s Flaemmchen is a confirmed flirt, not ashamed to accept an invitation to an ‘adjoining’ room with Preysing to secure her job. Neither is the supremely sexy Crawford (light, winning and possibly the best thing in the film) afraid to all but proposition the Baron. Not surprisingly Crawford was worried more censorious States would cut large parts of her role (she was right). But sex still runs through Grand Hotel: the Baron creeps into Grusinskaya’s room to rob her, and ends up sharing the night (and certainly not in separate beds).

As Grusinskaya, Greta Garbo gets possibly her most iconic line (“I want to be alone”) though her matinee idol pose-striking at times more than a little artificial today. However, what does come across is the power of her personality as a performer (like Marlene Dietrich at this time, there is something utterly fascinating about her). In other hands, the role (with its pity-me dialogue giving way to flashes of youthful, passionate abandon) would look a bit silly, but Garbo makes the whole thing work though force of personality alone.

She’s well matched with John Barrymore at the height of his powers as America’s greatest actor. Barrymore has a matinee idol swishness here, a relaxed romanticism that always makes us sympathise with him, even though he’s a self-confessed liar, cheat and thief. This gentlemen thief may be penniless, but he’s far from ruthless: he treats Kringelein with respect, is genuine in his feelings for Grusinskaya (although his repeated assurances that he will definitely make it the train station to meet her tomorrow is enough of a flag that something is bound to go wrong) and despises the bullying Preysing.

As Preysing, Wallace Beery plays the only unsympathetic character (naturally, despite the film’s German setting, he’s the only one with a Teutonic accent) with a bravado that dances just-this-side of OTT. By contrast, Lionel Barrymore (brother to John – and its very nice seeing these two play so many scenes together) is the film’s heart as a sweet, gentle and endearing old man who is just delighted to be living the dream, even if only for a few days.

It’s all shot in a revolutionary 360° set. The hotel foyer, where the film opens, was one of the first completely constructed sets (many films before constructed their sets like traditional proscenium theatre sets) and Goulding’s camera takes advantage of this in the opening sequence by moving fluidly in a series of long takes that introduces each character and sees them first interacting with each other. There are some other striking images, including a Jason Bourneish wall climb John Barrymore’s Baron carries out to bridge the gap between one balcony and another – although many of the scenes in hotel rooms go for traditional straight-on set-ups.

The film is focused on being a grand entertainment – and, to be honest, little more. Perhaps that’s why, despite being set in Berlin in 1932, there is no mention of any events in the country at that time. Even more surprisingly, there is no mention of the depression – despite it surely being a major factor in Preysing’s desperation, the Baron’s loss of his wealth and Flaemmchen’s need for a job. But that would add weight to a film that wants a light, fun tone. Grand Hotel has inspired a legion of Mills and Boon style stories. It might look an odd Best Picture, but it’s had plenty of influence.

The French Connection (1971)

The French Connection (1971)

A ruthless, obsessed (of course!) cop chases down a drug kingpin in this Best Picture winning crime drama

Director: William Friedkin

Cast: Gene Hackman (Detective Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle), Fernando Rey (Alain Charnier – “Frog One”), Roy Scheider (Detective Buddy “Cloudy” Russo), Tony Lo Bianco (Salvatore Boca), Marcel Bozzuffi (Pierre Nicoli – “Frog Two”), Frédéric de Pasquale (Henri Devereaux), Bill Hickman (FBI Agent Bill Mulderig), Ann Rebbot (Marie Charnier), Harold Gray (Joel Weinstock), Arlene Faber (Angie Boca), Eddie Egan (Captain Walt Simonson), Sonny Grosso (FBI Agent Clyde Klein)

Cops and criminals: do they have more in common than we’d like to think? In Friedkin’s Oscar-winning The French Connection, the lead cop and criminal are both obsessive, single-mindedly ruthless and locked into a cycle of actions that isn’t going to be change with one big bust. Look at them in isolation and its hard to tell at times which is which: the French drug dealer is a suave cosmopolitan type, unfailingly cultured and polite, but remorseless; the cop is a border-line racist and narcissist who doesn’t give two hoots about collateral damage, kills without remorse and whose life is one of tunnel-visioned obsession.

Based on a true-story – the model for Doyle, Eddie Egan, has a cameo playing his own boss – the film covers the arrival in New York of French heroin dealers, led by Alan Charnier (Fernando Rey) looking to make a killing with their prime product. Opposite them is narcotics officer Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle (Gene Hackman), who’s practically the dictionary definition of anti-hero. Doyle and Charnier engage in a battle of wits and force across New York during one blisteringly cold few days in Winter, and never mind who gets in the way.

The French Connection is about masculinity, and that no matter what many men don’t like to lose. Getting beat is certainly the main concern for Doyle, who I’m not sure has ever really thought twice about the impact of drugs (he’d be just as passionate chasing down coca-cola or stamps if you banned those). Neither has Charnier, with his reassured cool of old Colonial Europe, which just knows better than the nouveau Americans. (there is an underlying subversive fear of America being undermined by this suspiciously metropolitan Frenchman, the country’s best defence being a loud-mouthed, son of the streets).

Played superbly by Gene Hackman, Doyle is presented as a man we are invited to make up our own mind about. He’s obviously an effective detective and he doesn’t just go the extra mile: the job is a night-and-day obsession. He’ll spend hours pounding the streets, staking out a hotel on a rainy street, walk miles tailing a subject and barely spend a minute off-duty. He’ll also drive cars wildly though crowded streets, shoot a man in the back, rough-up suspects and treat others with an abrupt anger, xenophobia or both. As a model for the society he’s sworn to protect, he’s a disgrace – but is he the effective agent of crime-fighting we need?

Friedkin’s film largely aims to present Doyle as he is, within its documentary realism – although I’d argue the film repeatedly looks at his commitment and never-say-quit-energy with barely veiled admiration. The film is assembled with an on-the-streets immediacy reminiscent of The Battle of Algiers – added to by the casting of many non-actors in key roles. It’s shot with a drained-out series of muted colours (even more drained-out in Friedkin’s egotistical blu-ray remastering). All shot on location, it captures the slummy flavour of the rougher ends of New York. Right from the off, we see Doyle and Russo roughing up an informer in something between a slum and building site (including the famous “do you pick your toes in Poughkeepsie” exchange, a classic bit of psychological messing with criminals – incidentally check out Scheider trying not to corpse as Hackman roars through this.)

The investigation proceeds with a muted sense of grounded realism. There is a lot of time-consuming following, watching and taking notes. Word is picked up by informers. Careful surveillance work fills out the gang and its members. Doyle is constantly frustrated by bureaucratic demands, not to mention turf-war squabbles with the FBI (who, in addition, think he might be next door to a dirty cop which is pretty fair). Similarly, the criminals go through careful negotiations around timing, testing the purity of the goods and working out the best way of dodging the cops.

Friedkin’s film is so wrapped up in a perfect “slice of life” documentary realism shell, that it gets away with much of the second half being a piece of pure filmic flair. First and foremost is its famous car-chase. Narrowly surviving an assassination attempt from “Frog Two”, Doyle requisitions a car and hares through New York at 100mph trying to beat the elevated train “Frog Two” is escaping on, to the next station. In this superbly cut sequence, Friedkin pioneers the sort of low-angled front bumper shots that would be a staple of car chases for years to come. It’s pounding, gripping and brilliantly assembled, a raw slice of action that uses the film’s documentary style to trick you into thinking it’s something akin to the realism elsewhere.

But it’s a bit of filmic fantasy – and wouldn’t be out of place in Dirty Harry, the other 1971 film about a morally-complex cop. Doyle is certainly a less attractive person than Callahan – with no real moral feelings just a love of winning. Winning is what motivates him in this car chase: he has little interest in questioning the shooter (who has, to be fair, taken out several civilians, including a mother of a young baby) or preserving public safety and way more about getting revenge. He tears through the streets, sending civilians flying, scares Frog Two into killing two more people and finally caps it by shooting his unarmed would-be-killer in the back after a cursory warning. (Not the first time he’ll pull the trigger after only the most slender of warnings).

Winning is all that matters though. Charnier is just as bad. He ruthlessly exploits a patsy and has no concerns about bodies piling up. Fernando Rey’s impish smile and campily cool little wave to Doyle through the subway doors, after he has managed to shake him off in a marvellous sequence in a subway station, is all about enjoying a smug triumph. No wonder Doyle repeats the same gesture to him late in the film when the tables are turned.

It’s the way Friedkin’s film mostly doesn’t ask us to blindly root for Doyle that really makes it stand out. In many ways the film is less exciting – or even less intriguing a character study – than Dirty Harry. It uses its documentary realism heavily at times, to justify showing the sort of shocking, exploitative material (at one point, the camera lingers on the incidental victims at a car crash scene at distasteful length) that you would expect to find in Dirty Harry or Shaft. What Friedkin’s euro-inspired style – and Hackman’s committed playing – managed to do was make itself feel like it was making a higher artistic statement than those films, which played a much more conventional hand.

That and the sense that nothing has really changed. Early in the film Doyle and Russo charge into a bar – a bar by the way with an entirely black clientele, who Doyle delights in abusing – to seize whatever drugs people seem to have on them. It’s a basic clean-up and shakedown – but hours later you can be sure it will be look nothing happened there. Similarly, the film’s end credits reveal all involved basically dodged charges (except for the patsy for the smuggling of course), while the cops got transferred. We’ve got one small win at the cost of at least five lives.

I seem to change my mind on The French Connection every time I see it. Sometimes I think it’s not that different from a host of other police actioners released at the same time (add Bullit to that list). At others, I get gripped by its edgy mise-en-scene and Friedkin’s challenges to conventional morality. And I guess, a film that can make you switch your mind constantly, should be seen as some sort of classic.

Rocky (1976)

Rocky (1976)

Doubters and some very steep steps are conquered in the Best Picture winning Granddaddy of Sports movies

Director: John G. Avildsen

Cast: Sylvester Stallone (Rocky Balboa), Talia Shire (Adrian Pennino), Burt Young (Paulie Pennino), Carl Weathers (Apollo Creed), Burgess Meredith (Mickey Goodmill), Thayer David (Miles Jergens), Joe Spinell (Tony Gazzo), Tony Burton (Tony “Duke” Evers), Pedro Lovell (Spider Rico)

How many people have run up those steps to the Philadelphia Museum of Art? So many, they’ve renamed them “the Rocky Steps” – and placed a statue of Stallone (from Rocky III) there. You can be sure everyone hummed Gonna Fly Now while they did it. It’s all a tribute to the impact of Rocky, the iconic smash hit that led to no less than seven sequels (and counting!) and, arguably, kickstarted the 80s in Hollywood (a decade Stallone would stand tall across with both Rocky and Rambo). The original Rocky mixes genre-defining delights and a feel-good, crowd-pleasing story with a surprisingly low-key setting that deals in a bit of Loachesque reality and social commentary.

Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) is a journeyman southpaw boxer, fallen on hard times. He’s making ends meet with a bit of loan shark enforcement (although of course he’s far too nice to actually break any bones) and getting seven bells knocked out of him at low-key fights. His trainer Mickey (Burgess Meredith) thinks he’s wasting his talent, and Rocky spends the day casting puppy dog eyes at Adrian (Talia Shire) sister of Rocky’s chancer best friend Paulie (Burt Young). But Rocky’s life changes overnight when Heavyweight Champion of the World Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) picks him at random as the nobody he will fight in a title bout (to get Apollo some free publicity). Can Rocky dedicate himself to training so he can “go the distance”?

Surely everyone knows by now, don’t they? The big fight only takes up the last ten minutes of the film. What we’ve spent our time doing beforehand is watching possibly the one of the best ever packaged feel-good stories, full of lovable characters and punch-the-air moments, directed with a smooth, professional (but personality free) charm by Avildsen. Rocky genuinely looked and felt like a little slice of Capra, a fairy tale triumph for the little guy struggling less against the world and more against his own doubts.

And it overcame some real heavyweights to win Best Picture: it knocked aside All the President’s Men, Taxi Driver and Network in a shock win. Is Rocky better than those films? No. But is it more fun to watch? Yes, it probably is – and I would be willing to bet many more people have come back to it time and time again. It was also a triumph for Stallone, a jobbing actor, who produced a first draft of the script in three days and fought tooth and nail to make sure he played the lead.

And Stallone’s performance is absolutely central to its success (can you imagine what it would have been like with, say, James Caan in the role?). Stallone gives Rocky exactly the sort of humble, shy, sweetness that makes him easy to root for. Rocky is no genius, but he’s loyal, polite, well-meaning and Stallone taps into his little-used qualities of softness and naivety. Rocky is lovable because, for all the punching, he’s very gentle – just look at him make a mess of money collecting or the way he talks like a little kid with his pets. Stallone has a De Niroish – yes seriously! – quality here: he absent-mindedly shadow boxes throughout and gives a semi-articulate passion to his outburst at Mickey. His romance with Adrian is intimate and gentle. The whole performance feels lived in and real.

Real is actually what the whole film feels like – despite the fact it’s a ridiculous fairy tale of a boy who becomes a prince for a day. It helps that its shot deep in the streets of Philadelphia, on the cheap and on the fly in neighbourhoods and locations that feel supremely unstaged (Avildsen avoided the cost of extras by frequently shooting at night or very early morning). Even that run up the stairs was a semi-improvised moment. Rocky’s world is a recognisable working-class one that for all its roughness, also feels like a community in a way Ken Loach might be proud of (even the loan sharks are easy-going). Day-to-day the film manages to capture some of the feel of a socio-realist film with a touch of working-class charm.

It also makes a lovely backdrop to the genuinely sweet romance that grounds the film: and a recognition of the film’s smarts that a great crowd-pleaser needs a big dollop of romance alongside a big slice of action. Very adorably played with Talia Shire (original choices Carrie Snodgrass and Susan Sarandon were considered too movie-star striking), Adrian feels like a slightly mousy figure (and she is as sweet as Rocky) but also has a strength to her. She’s led a tough life as sister to the demanding Paulie (and Burt Young does a great job of making a complete shitbag strangely lovable and even a bit vulnerable), but it’s not stopped her feeling love. She and Rocky complement each other perfectly – gentle, shy people, who have something to prove to themselves and the world.

Is there a sweeter first date in movies than that solo trip to the ice rink? Cost cutting saved the day here (it was intended to be packed), that stolen few minutes skating while Rocky hurriedly tries to find out a much about Adrian as he can (an attendant counting down the time they have as they go), Adrian both charmed and bashful. It’s a lovely scene and goes a long way to us giving these characters the sort of emotional devotion that would keep audiences coming back for decades.

That and those boxing fights of course. Rocky’s final fight sets a template most of the rest of the films would pretty much follow beat for beat. But it’s still fun watching Rocky go toe-to-toe against all odds. Particularly as we know what is important to Rocky is not victory but proving something to himself. It helps as well that Stallone still looks like an underdog of sorts (over the next ten years he would turn himself into a slab of muscular stone).

Opposite him is Apollo Creed, with Carl Weathers channelling his very best Mohammad Ali. The underdog story makes for fine drama, and Rocky is superably packaged: there is a reason why so many other films essentially copied it. From montage, to an “against all odds” fight to Burgess Meredith’s grizzled trainer (a part you’d see time-and-again in the future from different respected character actors) there is a superb formula Rocky takes and repackages from classic films of the 40s and 50s and re-presents to huge and successful effect.

And it works because it’s so entertaining. Stallone is hugely winning in the lead role – more sweet and sensitive than he would be in later Rocky films (traits he would allow himself to rediscover in the more recent films) and it’s a perfectly packaged feel-good entertainment. But it’s also got a grounded sense of realism and reality, with an affecting love story. It’s one of the first – and best – films of the 80s, where formula and crowd-pleasing would be king.

The Sound of Music (1965)

The Sound of Music (1965)

It’s the classic, feel-good film that seems to divide people than few others

Director: Robert Wise

Cast: Julie Andrews (Maria von Trapp), Christopher Plummer (Captain van Trapp), Eleanor Parker (Baroness Elsa von Schraeder), Richard Haydn (Max Detweiler), Peggy Wood (Mother Abbess), Charmian Carr (Liesl), Nicholas Hammond (Friedrich), Heather Menzies (Louisa), Duane Chase (Kurt), Angela Cartwright (Brigitta), Debbie Turner (Marta), Kym Karath (Gretl), Daniel Truhitte (Rolfe)

Has there been any film in history that has aroused feelings as strong as this one? Busloads of tourists conduct pilgrimages to Salzburg to follow in its footsteps – it’s a bigger draw than Mozart. Sing-along performances are attended by people in costume who know every nuance of Do-Re-Mi. On the other side, those who loath this musical, do so with the burning heat of a thousand suns, practically cheering the Nazis on or choking back vomit at the opening note of Edelweiss. It was ever thus: The Sound of Music was slaughtered by critics – Pauline Kael called it “the sugar-coated lie people seem to want to eat” – but became a box-office phenomenon, one of the most popular films ever and gilded with Oscars aplenty.

It’s loosely based on the real-life experiences of the von Trapp family. Maria (Julie Andrews), a young novice, arrives at the home of the widowed Captain von Trapp (Christopher Plummer) to serve as nurse for his seven (count em!) children. Von Trapp runs his house (literally) with military precision, but Maria introduces some fun into the children’s life. And, to his surprise, the Captain’s life as he finds himself drawn towards the wholesome and sweet Maria instead of his initial intended, the Baroness von Schraeder (Eleanor Parker). Marriage is inevitable – but then the family finds itself in a terrible position as the Anschluss weds Austria to Germany and the Captain is ordered to take up office in the Nazi navy. Will he do so – or will the family escape over those hills?

You would probably be fair to call The Sound of Music one of the most manipulative films of all time. But then aren’t films supposed to be about manipulating our emotions for effect? On that score you could possibly call it the greatest film ever made. I won’t, but there is a sentimental, feel-good charm to The Sound of Music that – in small doses (and some people watch this multiple times a year – once every few years is surely enough!) – can really hit the spot in the way few other films can. Sure, it tugs on your heart strings with never a trace of subtlety, but basically it’s heart is very much in the right place. It’s a kind, gentle music that, for all its treacle, is a tribute to warmth, love and family. Perhaps that’s why it’s been so embraced by so many.

Even the cast were aware it could all tip over the edge into outright sentimentality. Julie Andrews was worried it might be a little too similar to Mary Poppins (she was right in a way – Poppins is a darker film, but the success of this cemented Andrews in people’s mind as the World’s nanny). Most famously Christopher Plummer overcame huge uncertainty to star, partly to practise his singing for a Broadway musical (as it happened he got dubbed), partly on the promise he could add a tougher edge (no sign that happened). Plummer’s hate-tolerate relationship with the film is famous (he called it The Sound of Mucus) and at several points in it he is all too obviously only just avoiding sinking his head into his hands, but he even he eventually acknowledged any film that moved people as much as this, must have done something very right indeed.

It’s that emotional investment people make in this film that lifts it eventually above criticism. It’s a long film, with a slender plot. But it mines this plot for every single touch of emotional investment. It’s the ultimate triumph of one of Hollywood’s most reliable middle-brow directors, Robert Wise. Taking over from William Wyler (who just couldn’t get interested and left to make the almost diametrically opposite The Collector), Wise successfully keeps the momentum flowing and shoots the film in an economical way that lets the songs do their work. He still finds room for classic shots: that helicopter shot sweeping into Julie Andrews running up the hills is just about perfect (Andrews was literally blown over every time by the helicopter, explaining the sudden jump cut edit for her famous twirl and burst into song). Wise’s editing skills really come into play with Do-Re-Mi that cuts the song across several locations and he makes excellent use of a number of Salzburg locations (for which the tourist board thanks him).

A major part of the film’s success though must surely be directly connected to Julie Andrews. This is a career – perhaps even a life – defining performance. And even the most cynical watcher can’t help but admit Andrews is a superb, gifted performer. Her singing is beautiful, and very, very few performers could have managed to make Maria charming, sweet and someone who want to hug, rather than twee or slappable. Andrews makes you really invest in every single event in the film: she’s hugely endearing (from singing in those hills, to her little stumble of excitement as she runs from the Abbey to take up a job at the von Trapps), she’s completely unaffected and when she’s hurt (by her seemingly hopeless love for the Captain) you just want to give her a hug.

No wonder the children love her. Who wouldn’t? Sure, the film’s weakest beat might well be its romance between Andrews and Plummer (for which Plummer is mostly to blame), but it captures a wonderful sense of family loyalty and protection. Everyone, at some point, is a sucker for stories where sad and lonely children are introduced to a life where they can mess around and have fun – and get that emotional investment the Captain has (accidentally) denied them. After spending the first two hours of the film getting to know this family and seeing it come together, we feel even more intently their fear and panic at being forced into goose-stepping line with Hitler’s war machine.

The film’s final sequence around the Abbey is also surprisingly tense: the family sheltering behind tombs and trusting in the half-truths of the Nuns and the wavering loyalties of wannabe SA officer Rolfe to make their escape. Wise’s films successfully communicates the stakes. It also mixes in some comedy even here: the final lines going to the Nuns confessing their sins of sabotaging those Nazi cars. All this before we go back to where we started – Maria walking the hills, full of music, this time accompanied by a beloved new family.

It’s that desire to be part of a loving family that perhaps explains why The Sound of Music has been so popular – and why so many people turn to it for comfort time and again. With its heart-warming songs and themes, it’s a warm comfort blanket that makes people feel part of its loving family. You can’t argue against it being manipulative – but that’s the nature of films, and manipulation as effective and good-natured as this is a sort-of triumph of film-making art.

Oliver! (1968)

Oliver! header
Mark Lester asks for More. You may not share his sentiments in the Oscar winning Oliver!

Director: Carol Reed

Cast: Ron Moody (Fagin), Mark Lester (Oliver Twist), Jack Wild (The Artful Dodger), Oliver Reed (Bill Sikes), Shani Wallis (Nancy), Harry Secombe (Mr Bumble), Joseph O’Conor (Mr Brownlow), Hugh Griffith (Magistrate), Peggy Mount (Mrs Bumble), Leonard Rossiter (Mr Sowerberry), Hylda Baker (Mrs Sowerberry), Kenneth Cranham (Noah Claypool), Megs Jenkins (Mrs Bedwin)

1968. The Vietnam War gets worse. The My Lai Massacre is a low-point in America’s global reputation. MLK is assassinated. Student protests rip through campuses, culminating in Chicago riots at the Democratic convention. RFK is assassinated. In the UK, Enoch Powell talks about “Rivers of Blood”. A flu pandemic sweeps the world. The USSR ends the “Prague Spring” with tanks. It was a year of horrific global turmoil. Perhaps it’s not a surprise the Oscars chose as Best Picture something as blandly comfortable and utterly disconnected from all this mayhem as Oliver! A personality-free re-tread of a successful stage musical, with a few good tunes bolstering a lobotomised adaptation of Dickens’ novel, Oliver! is so coated with sugar it must have helped the medicine of 1968 go down.

Young Oliver (Mark Lester with his singing voice dubbed) is an angelic orphan, thrown out of the workhouse for asking for “more” (Never before has such an event occurred), eventually escaping to London (Where is Love eh?). There he finds the Big Smoke to be nothing less than a wretched hive of scum and villainy. Invited by pickpocket The Artful Dodger (Jack Wild) to consider himself part of the family, he’s soon learning how to pick a pocket or two from Fagin (Ron Moody). It’s not all fun and games though: violent criminal Bill Sikes (Oliver Reed) is a wildcard, although his devoted girlfriend Nancy (Shani Wallis), the sort of girl the boys will do anything for, remains loyal to Bill for as long as he needs her. But there’s a secret in Oliver’s past – who are his parents?

Carol Reed could once make a claim for being the greatest director in the world. You couldn’t make a case for that based on this cosily chocolate-box, unimaginative trudge through a musical that has little other than a couple of catchy tunes to really recommend it in the first place. The real MVP here is Onna White, whose choreography is very impressive. White takes everyday acts and, with a little bit of jazz and a dollop of musicality, turns them into dance movements. It gives the dance numbers a heightened reality that kind of works and provides nearly everything worth looking at it in the film. Reed certainly leaves her to it, carefully setting the camera up with simple wide and medium shots to capture as much of it as possible.

And you could argue that’s his job. But he brings nothing to the other parts of the production. Of course, Lionel Bart’s musical is a much lighter affair than Dickens’ original (although, in actual fact, this is much more of a musical remake of Lean’s Oliver Twist, making many identical cuts and sharing nearly all the same dialogue), but you’d think the director who gave us Odd Man Out and The Third Man could give some drama and character to London’s underbelly. Not a jot. They have the same muted technicolour cleanliness of everything else, and any hint of ruthlessness, criminality or moral conundrums are well and truly left at the door. What we get is a world where everyone – apart from Bill – is fundamentally nice and decent, and rapacious old men using children as criminals is basically not a lot different from running an after-school club.

It isn’t helped that Oliver!, like Bart’s stage original, has a weak book that offers little light or shade for its characters other than to typecast them into simplified “goodies and baddies”. Reed and the film either can’t or won’t stretch this much further – although the film does rearrange some events of the original production to give a bit more motivational heft to actions and introduce Bill earlier to at least add a bit more tension. The film is as quickly bored with the angelic Oliver as the original is – fair enough since he’s a tediously saintly chap – with Mark Lester alternating between looking winsome and shocked at the company he finds himself amongst.

Nothing can interrupt the overflowing “niceness” of what we are seeing. Ron Moody’s Fagin had been honed from performing it on stage so often (and he is very good). But his Fagin is a cuddly uncle, the sort of grown-up scamp you would invite over for a drink, only keeping an eye on the silverware when you did. This is, let’s not forget, a bloke who colludes in murder (though the film reduces his responsibility), kidnapping, grooms kids for a life of crime and willingly lets them die for him. Not a whiff of this is allowed onto the screen. The Artful Dodger (played with a cheeky but tellingly amoral charm by Jack Wild, who tragically never hit these heights again) is given more light and shade than Fagin.

Like the musical, the film downplays the abusive relationship at its heart. Nancy is little more than a walking embodiment of the cliched “tart with a heart” trope, and the film adaptation chooses to praise her for not just sticking with her abuser, but slavishly devoting herself to him. In fact, beyond being casually kind to a child once in a while, this devotion is pretty much Nancy’s entire personality – and the film approves of it. This isn’t a dark picture of a violent man victimising a young woman, folks, it’s love! See, there’s a ballad about it and everything!

It’s a family drama so her murder takes place off screen (just her death spasm legs are seen), but you’d like to think the film could have taken a few moments to put a bit of light and shade on just why this character feels the way she does and does the things she does. In fact, the film is quite dependent on Oliver Reed, the only actor in it who dares to touch some sort of psychological depth – it’s quite telling that, even though he was a famed drunk, he’s the only member of the cast to have had any success after the film was released.

Instead, this is a great big, colourful, empty pantomime of a musical, devoid of character and (outside of its choreography) inspiration. It’s a great big explosion of tasteful sets, mugging actors, pretty colours, prancing and the odd catchy tune. It’s got no idea what the original novel was about at all, and no interest in even touching some of the themes of poverty and criminality Dickens was aiming at. Reed directs the entire thing with the indifference of a gun-for-hire.

Its syrupy sweetness and hammering tweeness leaves you punch-drunk rather than sugar-rushed. Oliver is such an insipid fella you’ll be delighted when he shuts up and sits in the background for most of the second half. It clumsily unveils a mystery and then drifts towards a conclusion that lacks any real drama. It studiously avoids anything that could remotely stretch the viewer. It’s trying so hard to charm you and hug you, it comes across like a lecherous stranger offering you sweets. Oliver! wasn’t even the best musical of 1968, let alone the best film. But in a year when the world was going to hell in a handcart, perhaps a kid-friendly fable bending over backwards to charm and reassure you was what the world needed. Doesn’t mean I need to stomach it now.

Wings (1927)

Charles Rogers, Clara Bow and Richard Arlen are in a wartime love triangle of sorts in the first ever Best Picture winner Wings

Director: William A Wellman

Cast: Clara Bow (Mary Preston), Charles Rogers (Jack Powell), Richard Arlen (David Armstrong), Jobyna Ralston (Sylvia Lewis), El Brendel (Herman Schwipf), Richard Tucker (Air Commander), Gary Cooper (Cadet White), Gunboat Smith (Sergeant), Henry B Walthall (Mr Armstrong), Roscoe Karns (Lt Cameron)

As the first ever Best Picture winner – and the only silent winner (until The Artist almost 85 years later) – Wings will always have a place in history. Is it the greatest silent film ever made? Of course not. In fact, it’s odd looking at Wings as a ‘Best Picture’ winner: with its rollicking action sequences, odd slap-stick comedy and slightly sentimental romance, it’s far more of a crowd-pleaser than the sort of film we think of as an Oscar winner. But it’s also filmed with an invention and verve that looks light years ahead of many other early winners – and a very enjoyable piece of story-telling.

It’s the First World War and Jack Powell (Charles Rogers) and David Armstrong (Richard Arlen) are both rivals for the affections of the beautiful Sylvia Lewis (Jobyna Ralston). Sylvia actually prefers David – but both she and David are too noble to let disappoint Jack when both men enlist as pilots. Jack has also failed to notice that his delightful neighbour (literally the “girl next door”) Mary Preston (Clara Bow) is in love with him, and that she is perfect for him. Jack and David train as pilots – a dangerous profession – and head for the front and become best friends and comrades in arms. Mary follows them to serve as a nurse – but Jack is still convinced he is in love with Sylvia, completely ignorant of the fact she is engaged to David. Will these romantic problems solve themselves, while the two men fly into dog fights in the skies?

Wings is a fabulous reminder of how dynamite and dynamic Hollywood could be before the Talkies and those years of reduced camera movement to capture live sound, with more stately editing and composition that continued to hold influence over film-making for much of the next fifteen years. I loved the visual invention of this film. Wellman pushes the camera into unusual positions and uses some truly unique shots. In an early scene Wellman straps the camera to a swing David and Sylvia are sitting in. We swing and sway with the swing, in an advance feel for what it’s going to be like in the dogfights to come. When Jack runs into frame, he actually looks wild rather than the characters on the swing (fitting considering his personality).

Wings is full of invention like this. It has a hugely influential tracking shot, which zooms across a number of tables and couples in a Parisian restaurant, getting closer and closer towards and intoxicated Jack and finally zooming in on his champagne glass. This is the sort of stuff you wouldn’t see in a Hollywood movie again for decades to come.

It all carries across into the dog-fighting scenes that will come. Wellman shot the film among the skies, with cameras following the action, others strapped to the planes to capture the actors faces (who are really up there!). Clouds are frequently used to communicate the speed the planes were moving at. Hundreds of stunt and military pilots took part in these re-staged battles which are still, despite the advances since, hugely impressive. Wellman, a former WW1 pilot, even took to the skies himself briefly when a pilot fell ill. Planes swoop, dive into clouds and plummet to the ground trailing smoke. It’s all shot with a boy’s own adventure and makes for gripping action.

The film is also a realistic look at the horrors of war, something Wellman was extremely aware of. When the action gets down into the trenches it doesn’t shirk in showing the costs of warfare, close-ups and tracking shots capturing the violence and human cost. Bodies slump in death. A tank looms over the camera. There are moments of realism: a sergeant, marching along the road, nudges a resting private only to discover (as his body slumps forward) that the man is dead. At first the sergeant marches on then he turns back, salutes and gently puts out the man’s cigarette. It’s a thoughtful little moment of human reaction in a film full of them.

It sits alongside an almost Pearl Harbor-esque plotline of romantic entanglements and confusion. Charles Rogers’ Jack is an enthusiastic, passionate but almost wilfully blind, bowled along with passion for anything that takes his interest from Sylvia to flying to his friendship with David. There is something quite sweetly old-fashioned – almost a fairy tale – about David and Sylvia keeping quiet about their love, so as to give Jack something to survive for. Richard Arlen is more restrained, but gives a decent performance. There is more than a hint of the homoerotic between Jack and David, the more exhibitionist acting style of the silent movies lending itself to an idea that the real love affair here is between these two rugged pilots (who wrestle, cuddle and even kiss), but that’s probably wishful thinking. Saying that though, the film is surprisingly daring: that French restaurant clearly has gay couples among its clientele (not to mention later a brief pre-code nude scene for Clara Bow).

But it’s still a straight-laced action film, where men are men with a key sub-plot of Mary’s unrequited love for Jack. Clara Bow, one of the biggest stars in Hollywood, landed top billing as Mary and you can almost feel her physical pain at her obvious devotion going unnoticed time and time again. Mary is basically a saint – and the film misses a chance to really explore her experiences as a Nurse on the Western Front – and to be honest her plot line is rather shoe-horned in to give a bit of feminine interest to an otherwise male-heavy plot.

It’s part of what makes Wings at times overlong. There is a slimmer two hour or so film about wartime flyers waiting in here, but Wellman’s film tries to do so much (war is hell, love, romance and rivals turned friends) that the run time balloons up to fit it all in. That stunning restaurant shot is part of an otherwise rather pointless extended “comic” sequence, involving Jack getting pissed and gleefully watching champagne bubbles (that fill the screen) before being saved from a French floozy by Mary, that outstays its welcome. The sequence largely exists to give Clara Bow something to do, but is neither particularly funny or memorable.

Certainly not compared to the action, or the moments of sadness and melancholia from the war. Gary Cooper, in one of his first roles, supplies a one-scene turn as an ace pilot who immediately dies in a training accident: we are never allowed to forget the dangers and loss of war. When our two heroes leave their lucky charms behind before flying out on one more mission, you know that things won’t go well. Wings ends with a tragic mistake and a sad homeward return coda where we really feel the cost of loss. It’s a film that maybe wrapped up in flag-waving heroics and daring-do, but has lots of genuine heart beneath the action. Sure, it’s overlong with a rather obvious romance, but it’s got more than a little brain among the thrills.

No Country for Old Men (2007)

Javier Bardem is terrifying in the Coen’s Oscar-winning No Country for Old Men

Director: Joel & Ethan Coen

Cast: Tommy Lee Jones (Sheriff Ed Tom Bell), Javier Bardem (Anton Chigurh), Josh Brolin (Llewelyn Moss), Woody Harrelson (Carson Wells), Kelly Macdonald (Carla Jean Moss), Garret Dillahunt (Deputy Wendell), Tess Harper (Loretta Bell), Barry Corbin (Ellis), Stephen Root (Wells’ Hirer)

The borderlands of America. A vast panoramic countryside, where times may change but the underlying violence and savagery continues to lurk just under those dusty plains. It’s ground the Coens have explored before, but perhaps never with such mastery as in No Country For Old Men, a film that mixes the style of a classic Western with the nihilism and bleakness of their most challenging work, all capped with just a hint of their incomparable quirky black humour. A pitch-perfect adaptation of Cormac McCarthy, No Country For Old Men scooped four Oscars, including Best Picture.

In the border Terrell County in Texas in 1980, a Vietnam-vet and welder Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) stumbles across a drug deal gone wrong in the desert: several dead men, a truck full of drugs and a suitcase containing $2 million. Taking the case, Moss sends his wife Carla Jean (Kelly MacDonald) to her mother’s for safety and flees first to Del Rio then Mexico to try and keep the money. Unfortunately, he’s being followed by relentless, psychotic hitman Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) who will stop at nothing to fulfil his contract – and heaven help anyone who gets in the way. Trailing in their wake is worn-out Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), who feels increasingly adrift in a violent world he no longer understands.

The Coen’s film is a bleak, pessimistic and doom-laden look at man’s inhumanity to man – all of it watched with a weary sadness by Jones’ tired Sheriff, in a hauntingly gentle performance. The vision the Coens present is a world that may have moved on in decades from the Wild West, but still has that era’s cavalier regard for life. Life is very cheap in No Country For Old Men and even the slightest mistake, hesitation or act of kindness can have horrific consequences. It’s a film where death is a constant, terrible surprise – so much so it claims the life of one significant character entirely off-screen and can be handed out on the basis of a coin toss.

That coin toss will come at the prompting of Chigurh. Played with an Oscar-winning calm voidness, by an unworldly Javier Bardem, Chigurh is relentless, merciless and completely detached from humanity. Emotion is a complete stranger to him, other than a pride in his work and a capability for being irritated by a non-co-operative target. Chigurh sees himself as an instrument as fate, a nihilistic view where individual choice is removed from the equation. In one chillingly memorable scene, he relentlessly but with a terrifying calm gets a gas station attendant to call a coin toss: the attendant struggles to understand what he’s wagering, but it’s all too clear to us – and in case we miss the point, Chigurh urges him to keep the coin afterwards as it’s a momentously lucky object.

There’s a possibility that this is how Chigurh rationalises the world to himself. He is absolved of all moral consequences for his actions, as everything is pre-ordained, objects and people travelling to predetermined outcomes. It’s a viewpoint another character invited to toss a coin late in the film will firmly reject, saying all Chigurh’s actions are a choice. They’re probably also right. Chigurh kills throughout the film partly because it’s the most expedient way to get what he needs – from a car, to escaping a police station – but also because of the pride he takes in his work being the best, and anything obstructing that should be punished. He has no regard or interest in the money or even for his employers, all of them disposable in the pursuit of doing his job well. It’s perhaps not a surprise that a survey by psychologists named him the purest psychopath caught on film.

Pity those who cross his path. Compared to him, Woody Harrelson’s professional hitman is just that: a guy doing a job rather than an elemental, unstoppable force of nature (Harrelson is superb as a charming, slightly cocky pro, who accidentally gets in over his head). In many ways, it makes it even easier to root for Josh Brolin’s Llewelyn Moss as he tries to stay one step ahead of him with his ill-gotten gains. In a breakout role, Brolin makes Moss the quintessential everyman, with just enough touches of grace and decency to make us overlook the fact that he’s an opportunist putting himself and his family at risk to steal drug money. Moss is such an underdog – but also so ingenious and determined – he becomes the perfect person to root for.

The film largely chronicles the battle of wits between Llewelyn and Chigurh across Texas and Mexico, the two of them carrying out a hunter-tracker dance that has echoes of similar duels from directors like Leone. In one set-piece moment after another, we see their coolness under fire, as well as their focused determination to get what they want, regardless of cost. Brolin’s performance is a superb slice of taciturn Texan-ness, with just enough decency to get him in trouble: from protecting his wife, to taking water back for an injured man, to rejecting the advances of a poolside floozy. It’s interesting that he invariably ends up in more trouble when he tries to do something good – but such behaviour sets him aside from Chigurh and lets us know he’s one of us.

All this bleakness is followed with sad-sack sorrow by Tommy Lee Jones’ sheriff, whose eyes speak of endless, uncountable horrors that fresh ones don’t even seem to shock him anymore. Jones bookends the film with two superb monologues, that reflect on what seems like the increasing brutality of the modern world. But the Coens are smart enough to know that this sentimentality is misleading – Bell’s uncle Ellis (a fine cameo by Barry Corbin) tells him frankly that the world was ever thus and its naïve to think otherwise. This is also one of Jones’ finest performances, a tragic Homer, totally ineffective, reduced to following around and picking up the pieces.

All of this plays out without hardly any trace of a music score – Carter Burwell’s scant score makes use of everyday sound and hints of music at a few dry moments – hammering home the coldness and bleakness of it all. Excellently shot by Roger Deakins, whose classic, restrained, pictorially beautiful presentation of the West brings back a truckload of cinematic memories, the Coen’s film still finds room for dashes of dry humour. Sure, it ends with a nihilistic comment on the horrors of the world and our hopelessness in them, but there are small shoots of hope growing in there if you look closely. They are well hidden, but they are there.

No Country for Old Men is perhaps the Coens’ most fully rounded, morally complex, intriguing and dynamic film, a wonderful mix of the style of their earlier work with the bleakness of Fargo and just some touches of the wit they displayed elsewhere. Cormac McCarthy is the perfect match for two masters, whose direction is as faultless as their script. It’s a film that rewords constant viewing and is constantly shrewd and terrifying in its analysis of the human condition. Essential watching.

All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)

Lew Ayres finds war is hell in All Quiet on the Western Front

Director: Lewis Milestone

Cast: Lew Ayres (Paul Baumer), Louis Wolheim (Stanislaud Katczinsky), John Wray (Himmelstoss), Slim Summerville (Tjaden), Arnold Lucy (Professor Kantorek), Ben Alexander (Franz Kemmerich), Scott Kolk (Leer), Owen Davis Jnr (Peter), William Bakewell (Albert Kropp), Russell Gleason (Muller)

Franklin Roosevelt once said “War is young men dying and old men talking”. Perhaps no film shows that more truly than All Quiet on the Western Front. The first truly great film to win Best Picture at the Oscars, it’s a profoundly influential and unflinching look at the horrific cost of war. Specifically, it looks at how a younger generation buys into dreams of glory and destiny, only to arrive at the front lines and discover they’ve been sold a pup. A sense of glorious purpose collapses into death, mud and misery. War, it turns out, is hell.

All Quiet on the Western Front follows a company of German soldiers during the First World War, plucked from their college to lay down life and limb for the Kaiser. Their unofficial leader is Paul Baumer (Lew Ayres), an intelligent and thoughtful young man. They soon find the frontline is a world away from what they expected, and death moves through the boys like a flu. Over time Paul, with the mentorship of experienced soldier Stanislaud Katczinsky (Louis Wolheim), finds his naïve view of the world torn away with each bullet and failed attack.

In many ways it was brave to make such a large-scale Hollywood epic that placed the side America had actually fought against in the sympathetic role (on the other hand, much easier to look at the losing side and say “you’re fighting for a hopeless cause”). But that makes the film’s message even stronger: it doesn’t matter about sides, war claims young men regardless. The deaths come thick and fast on the Western front – and the gains are negligent. While the boys’ Professor (a pompous Arnold Lacy) sings a familiar hymn of glory and success by Christmas, life on the front line is actually continual terror. Mud, rats, debris and the constant chance the next step you take could be your last. Shelling is non-stop and every inch of the rickety, ramshackle trenches shakes with each explosion. Never mind going over the top, just being there shreds the nerves.

When the attacks come, the film is striking in its modernism and visual invention. Milestone frequently uses intriguing angles and long tracking shots to present an uninterrupted vision of hellish conflict. The film is full of crane shots, urgent camera movements and judicious cutting. The horrors are shown clearly – at one point a soldier literally explodes while cutting through barbed wire, his hands left clinging to the wire, the rest of his body gone. Milestone intercut shots of machine guns firing an arc with the camera moving in a smooth tracking shot as men run towards it and collapse in death. The film is literally shredding its soldiers.

The debris filled, fox-hole spotted no-man’s land the film presents is hellish. It’s a literal minefield of death, with bodies charging backwards and forwards depending on the tide of battle, the camera moving alongside them. For hand-to-hand fighting in the trenches, Milestone shoots the action with a tracking crane shot above the trenches, which stretch like a jagged flesh wound in nature, overflowing with people trying desperately to kill each other. During one charge, Paul lands in a fox hole with a French soldier, who he mercilessly wounds with his bayonet – then spends a dreadful night watching him slowly die. There isn’t any glory here and attack and retreat are both equally pointless. All that really happens is the body count ticking slowly up.

Most of the company are dead well before the film hits the half-way point. After the first big attack, the company goes behind the lines for a meal. Their meal is almost denied them as it was made for a company twice the size of the one that actually reports. It’s a sign of the suffering and hardening to death, that the reaction of the survivors is joy at the unexpected double rations. Later Milestone follows the fate of a single pair of boots, in a beautifully edited sequence that constantly visually focuses on a pair of good boots, while their successive owners meet their deaths.

It’s all so different from how we started, with an Eisenstein-inspired series of cuts to cheering faces as the students sign up. The horseplay at the training camp – where they deal with an officious postman turned corporal Himmelstoss (a puffed up and preening John Wray), overly aware of his own rank and determined to rub the boys faces in it – in no way prepares them for what is to come. This is all too clear from their confused faces at the staging post, a chaos of mud, soldiers and shelling. No wonder no one at home understands what’s happening here – as Paul discovers on leave, when he is repeatedly shocked and disgusted by the casual triumphalism of old-armchair-Generals utterly ignorant of the realities at the front.

All Quiet on the Western Front is so beautifully shot and edited – you can see its influence on so many war films to come – that it’s a shame some of its dialogue and ‘acting’ scenes are now either a little too on-the-nose or overstay their welcome. There are some big themes handled in the dialogue: why are we fighting, what is the point of war, how do we live our lives when they could end at any time – but the dialogue is sometimes a little stilted. It’s also where the film reverts to something more stagey and theatrical and less cinematic and visual. It’s also a slightly overlong film – already a sign that Hollywood had a tendency to equate “important” with “long”. Most of the films’ points are well made by the first hour, and the second hour or so often repeats them.

However, those concerns are outweighed by how much there is admire. Lew Ayres is very good as the noble Paul – the film had such a profound effect on him he became a life-long pacifist, a conscientious objector in WW2 who served as a front-line medic. Louis Wolheim is superb as the rough-edged but decent and kind Kat, a senior soldier taking the new company members under his wing and teaching them nothing is more important than the next meal and no unnecessary risks.

All Quiet on the Western Front takes place in a naturalistic quiet, with no hint of music to interrupt the mood. It is an overwhelmingly powerful movie about the pointlessness and cruelty of war – and the lies that young men are told to fight it. When Paul returns to the homefront – and sees another class of boys being inspired to die for their country by his Professor – he denounces the whole thing (and is promptly branded a coward). War is a cycle that eats everyone it comes into contact with and has no logic behind it. Directed with verve and imaginative modernism by Milestone, this is a brilliant picture, one of the first sound masterpieces – and still one of the greatest war films ever made.