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Empire Magazine (2008) Greatest Movies List - #96: American Beauty

The suburbs can be a fascinating place in America. On the surface it seems idyllic, with its white picket fences, happy parents who love their kids, and perfectly mowed grass. However you don’t have to dig too deep to find kids selling drugs, crumbling marriages, and middle-aged husbands having fantasies about their daughter’s friend in the cheerleading squad. Such is the suburb depicted in Sam Mendes’ American Beauty (1999) featuring Kevin Spacey as one of many men from that world having a mid-life, and potentially existential, crisis. However you have to admire the fact his character seems intent on having not just a regular crisis, but the mother of all mid-life crises.
Mendes’ film went on to win four Oscars including Best Picture and Best Actor, which at the time I found quite surprising because I was really pinning for The Hurricane starring Denzel Washington as Ruben Carter. I was having a hard time understanding how a movie about a dead-beat dad could be better than a story abo…

Empire Magazine (2008) Greatest Movies List - #97: Reservoir Dogs

One of the most surprising things about Quentin Tarantino’s debut film Reservoir Dogs (1992) is the fact that it has never been adapted for the stage. They will make a show out of Beauty and the Beast, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and even Spider-Man, but somehow a movie in which most of the action takes place in a warehouse has never made it to Broadway? In any case, this was the movie that announced the arrival of the insatiable film fan that could regurgitate everything he had learned watching movies at the video store into stories filled with sudden bursts of violence, sharp-dressed characters, awesome soundtracks, and crackling dialogue.
Since this violent piece of American cinema came out at a time when I was still learning basic math in elementary school there was no way I would watch this on the big screen. However as the years went by it became a cult classic, and even a classic of the independent movies genre, and was re-released on special edition DVD for its 10th and l…

Empire Magazine (2008) Greatest Movies List - #98: North by Northwest

With North by Northwest (1959) Alfred Hitchcock finally hit peak Hitchcock. It has many of the tropes from his past movies such as an accidental hero with slight mother issues, a sexy blond female co-star, international villains, and a MacGuffi. However it also goes further than any of Hitchcock’s previous work by having the well-dressed protagonist embark on a crazy adventure that takes him to various set pieces that each become and more and more dangerous. On the surface it may all seem terribly silly, but crucially it is also incredibly fun.
I got the movie on DVD as part of an Alfred Hitchcock essentials collection a few years ago for Christmas, but its action set pieces are so iconic I had already seen them be parodied in pop culture many times before. For instance, the sequence where the hero is attacked by a crop duster is replicated in the spoof Wrongfully Accused, but because it is a Leslie Nielsen comedy the crop duster is a small toy plane. Then there is the final standoff a…

Empire Magazine (2008) Greatest Movies List - #99: Toy Story

One of the joys of the innocence of childhood is not ever being sure where the line is between reality and fiction. A child who watches a puppet show will believe he is watching a living creature and purposefully ignore the strings being pulled from above. At a certain age in children’s lives there is also little difference between a puppy and a teddy bear, which is what the filmmakers at animation studio Pixar were probably counting on with their early masterpiece Toy Story (1995). Who among us has never played with toys and deep down thought maybe they were having lives of their own once we left the room?
I imagine I was not the only kid to be fascinated by the sight of Sheriff Woody (Tom Hanks) getting up after his owner Andy (John Morris) got out the bedroom. The biggest problem with computer animation is that it cannot capture the life in a human being’s eyes, but that problem does not apply to toys since they are of course lifeless to begin with. That doesn’t stop us from believi…

Empire Magazine (2008) Greatest Movies List - #101: Raising Arizona

Whereas Blood Simple demonstrated how the Coen Brothers could handle gritty violence, their sophomore effort Raising Arizona (1987) showed what they could do with cartoonish violence. Even though the movie revolves around the kidnapping of a baby, armed robberies, and a Lone Biker of the Apocalypse, it is madcap fun from beginning to end. Nicolas Cage, nowadays known for throwing everything including the kitchen sink in his performances, makes for a great lead in the pantheon of Coen characters even if this has been their only collaboration so far.
This was another instance of being able to mix work with pleasure, since back when I was at the Universit√© de Sherbrooke I took a Scriptwriting course and part of our homework included doing an analysis of Raising Arizona. It is hard to dispute the educational component of such an assignment, since this is one of the Coen Brothers’ lesser successful films, at least financially, and we certainly all learned a lot watching it for the very firs…

Empire Magazine (2008) Greatest Movies List - #102: The Hustler

Robert Rossen’s The Hustler (1961) is proof that any sport can be used for good cinematic drama even if that sport is pool. Although this is not a game that involves a massive sport arena and bloody boxing gloves, things can get dramatically interesting if the monetary stakes are high, and visually arresting if the filmmakers shoot from the right angle. It also helps a lot if the man putting his money on the table is played by a young Paul Newman in a career-breaking role.
Prior to watching the film I had a vague idea of the meaning of the word “hustling” and a rather passive interest in the game of pool. It’s a fun game to play if you are having a couple of nachos and chicken wings on a Friday evening with friends, but I didn’t see it as a spectator sport. Watching The Hustler in the classics section of Netflix two years ago was a bit of an education since it shows the sport as a way of life for some people, and a huge source of revenue for big time gamblers.
Newman star as “Fast” Eddi…

Empire Magazine (2008) Greatest Movies List - #103: Rear Window

We live in an age where voyeurism is not only accepted, but also sometimes encouraged thanks to social media tools that lets anybody share photos and videos of themselves to, well, anybody. The concept of peaking into someone else’s life is of course not new, as exemplified in Alfred Hitchcock’s thriller Rear Window (1954) in which a wheelchair-bound man kills time by starring at his neighbours through binoculars. A slightly immoral pastime, but it gets him in a world of trouble when he believes he might have witnessed one neighbour disposing of a murder victim.
The concept is so genius and has been repeated so many times over the years that by the time I got the Rear Window DVD as a Christmas present along with a few other Hitchcock classics I already had a pretty good idea of how this story goes. Times have changed since 1954, but the movie’s concept still works and has been copied and/or parodied by everyone from Saturday Night Live to Tiny Toon Adventures. Of course to fully apprec…

Empire Magazine (2008) Greatest Movies List - #105: One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

Nothing drives a good drama like conflict, and with movies I love it when said conflict is someone defying authority. It can be something large scale like a rebel trying to take down a government, but it can work just as well on a smaller scale such as a rebel defying a head nurse in a mental institution. Of course in Milos Forman’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), it helps that the rebel is played by Jack Nicholson at the top of his game facing a head nurse played with icy perfection by Louise Fletcher.
There are many ways in which I first enjoyed this story: by reading the book by Ken Kesey on which it is based, eventually renting the DVD, and also by seeing it performed onstage. No offense to Mr. Nicholson, but that last one is actually my favourite experience since it was a school play in which my older brother played one of the patients, at one point stealing the show I might add. This was in the late 90s when my brother and I were going to an American high school in Lima, …

Empire Magazine (2008) Greatest Movies List - #113: Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy

Adam McKay’s comedy Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004) takes a satirical look at the American news world of the 1970s to laugh at puff pieces, sexism in the workplace, and the mistakes anchors can make on live TV. The sad fact is today the sexism is still there, if only slightly more hidden (FOX News), and the news on TV sometimes looks more and more ridiculous. Part of what makes Anchorman so funny is that unlike today most of its characters have no idea they are being ridiculous since in their world the term “diversity” is to be confused with the name of a sunken ship.
Having worked as a reporter for three years, I can guarantee you that Anchorman is a lot funnier if you have actually worked in the media. When I first saw the movie while it was playing on a movie channel I thought it was one of Will Ferrell’s better comedies, but it took a new meaning when I joined the Journalism – New Media program at Sheridan College in Oakville, Ontario. We had to learn how to use camera…

Empire Magazine (2008) Greatest Movies List - #114: The Conversation

In a world in which cameras and microphones are everywhere, from the street corners to our very own computers, The Conversation (1974) seems like a quaint and outdated thriller. It focuses on a man whose job is to spy on people, but at the same time said man is very protective of his own privacy and lives in constant fear of someone tapping his phone lines. However a major lesson of Francis Ford Coppola’s film, which still applies today, is that having a recording of someone’s private conversations is one thing, but knowing what to do with that information is whole other ball game.
When I first watched The Conversation it was probably about one year after Edward Snowden leaked classified information regarding the United States’ ability to spy on practically anyone not living in a cave. If you have a cell phone, a tablet, a laptop, or just a good old landline, they will find a way to listen to what you are saying. In 1998 Gene Hackman starred in Enemy of the State, a spiritual sequel of…

Empire Magazine (2008) Greatest Movies List - #115: Blazing Saddles

Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles (1974) is the sort of comedy that is simply not made anymore today. It is smart, politically incorrect, well written, and most importantly, an actually funny parody. Whereas nowadays most parodies just take scenes from existing movies and add easy fart jokes, Mel Brooks and co-writer Richard Pryor wrote an original story spoofing the Western genre with jokes that will be funny until the end of time. That being said, they also put in one heck of a fart joke by showing what really happens when cowboys eat beans for supper around a campfire.
Said fart joke was told to my brother and I by our dad who thought it would be great for us to see this comedic gem the first chance we got. Turns out he was right. This is how classics stay alive: parents telling their kids to see movies in which writers get away with things that would make a movie censor’s head explode. By today’s standards Blazing Saddles may be politically incorrect, but I have noticed that sometimes th…

Empire Magazine (2008) Greatest Movies List - #116: Rio Bravo

With his great Western Rio Bravo (1959) Howard Hawks set the template for what could be described as the siege movie genre. It’s a simple enough premise: you have the good guys holed up in a location with a limited amount of weapons and ammunition while outside you have the bad guys trying to get in with a lot more henchmen, guns, and bullets. Hawks himself would make two more variations on this story structure throughout his career, and decades later John Carpenter would use it as an inspiration for Assault on Precinct 13 and Ghosts of Mars. Of course it had to be all-American cowboy John Wayne to be the star of Rio Bravo and start this tradition of holding up against the bad guy no matter what.
In yet another rare instance of homework being fun, I discovered this classic while taking a course on Hollywood Cinema at the University of British Columbia in the summer of 2009, and wrote an essay on it and The Searchers, another John Wayne classic. I think I got a good grade, but if I get …

Empire Magazine (2008) Greatest Movies List - #117: Miller's Crossing

With your average gangster film you can expect criminals in suits, gunfights, and femme fatales. In the Coen Brothers’ Miller’s Crossing (1990) you get all that, but also criminals chasing their hats, a labyrinthine plot, and of course, the inevitable death of Steve Buscemi’s character. It is very difficult to describe the style of Joel and Ethan Coen, which probably explains the creation of the word “Coenesque,” but it is a unique style that works on whatever genre they decide to crack, including the 1930s gangster genre.
My first introduction to the world of the Coen Brothers was with the cult classic The Big Lebowski,so I never know what to expect when I watch one of their more violent projects. It can be pure violence with absurdist scenes, such as with Blood Simple, or there can be brief moments of humour such as with their award-winning Fargo. I knew nothing about Miller’s Crossing when I bought the DVD a few years ago, and to this day I still have a hard time navigating the plot…