Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The 10 Second-Best Films Ever Made

There are some movies I've enjoyed so much that I would never hesitate to recommend them. I've blogged about films in the past that meant at least something to me, something I wanted to express to an audience in the hopes that they would seek those films out. Many of those films I would happily number amongst the best of the best.

Then again, you don't need me to tell you that Alfred Hitchcock made a heap of cinematic masterpieces, do you?

And then, you have the second-bests. Movies I don't blog about or even think about that often. Movies that I've never seen on anyone's "best of" list. And yet, films that fascinate me; they aren't perfect, but they are unique. These then, are my top 10 second-best movies of all time (chronological order):

#1: Tales of Manhattan (1942)

Director: Julien Duvivier. Stars: Charles Boyer, Rita Hayworth, Ginger Rogers, Henry Fonda, Charles Laughton, Edward G. Robinson, Paul Robeson.

Tales of Manhattan was considered a minor triumph when it was first released, but it's seldom seen or remebered today; I'm not certain if it's even available on DVD. As you can see above, it boasted an all-star cast. The gimmick behind Tales of Manhattan was that it was an anthology comprising of five separated stories, connected together by a suit of clothes which pass from one owner to another. From the tense romantic drama of Boyer in a deadly lover's triangle it moves to the comedic antics of Rogers and Fonda as a best man tries to play cover up for his groom, then the bittersweet story of Laughton attempting to impress his audience to the bleak tale of Robinson posing as a man beyond his means and finally the joyous ending as Robeson sees a stolen bankroll given to the needy. Whether you're in the mood for comedy or drama, Tales of Manhattan satisfies; but you'll have to hunt hard for a copy.

#2: Journey Into Fear (1943)

Director: Norman Foster. Stars: Joseph Cotten, Orson Welles.

when you put Cotten and Welles together in a film, you expect something wonderful. I'm not quite certain that "wonderful" is the word for Journey into Fear, however. Welles' role is relatively minor, but possibly the most memorable in the picture; he plays a Turkish police officer (with a mustache Stalin would've envied) who tries to protect Cotten when he's marked for death by the Nazis. Cotten always seems out-of-place when he's cast as an action hero and that's the case here - he's an excellent fish-out-of-water and the story sidesteps a few cliches, along the way toying with a number of memorable background characters. I would never call Journey into Fear a great film, but it's memorable.

#3: The Fallen Idol (1948)

Director: Carol Reed. Star: Ralph Richardson.

Carol Reed was the master at adapating Graham Greene's stories to film, best of all with the Third Man. Fallen Idol concerns the son of a French diplomat who befriends the embassy's butler. However, he's on icy terms with the butler's wife and housekeeper. The film takes a sharp turn when the butler's wife turns out dead; the diplomat's son plays a key role in the aftermath, but it's anyone's guess whether he'll clear his friend of murder or unintentionally send him to the gas chamber. It all hangs together because the child is so believable and his inability to understand why and when people lie is so dangerous.

#4: Time After Time (1979)

Director: Nicholas Meyer. Stars: Malcolm McDowell, David Warner, Mary Steenburgen.

The plot: H.G. Wells journeys through time to 1970s San Francisco to save the world of the future from Jack the Ripper. If you aren't already sold on this story, I don't know what else to tell about that it's primarily a romantic comedy? Or that McDowell is the good guy?

#5: The Long Riders (1980)

Director: Walter Hill. Stars: James and Stacy Keach, David, Robert and Keith Carradine, Dennis and Randy Quaid, Christopher and Nicholas Guest.

From what I've been able to gather, this is the most authentic screen depiction of the James-Younger gang ever committed to celluloid. The James brothers are played by the Keach brothers; the Youngers by the Carradines; the Millers by the Quaids; and the Fords by the Guests. This gimmick on its own makes the film interesting; Stacy Keach helped produce it and his enthusiasm for the material is felt in his portrayl of Frank James. As a man who doesn't particularly like the western film genre I'm here to tell you: this is one of the good ones.

#6: A Soldier's Story (1984)

Director: Norman Jewison. Stars: Howard E. Rollins, Jr., Adolph Caesar, David Alan Grier, Denzel Washington.

A somber tale of World War II told in the deep south; after a black sergeant is murdered outside of an army base, a black officer from the north is sent to investigate. The film is something of a murder mystery, something of a courtroom drama; despite originating as a stage play, it translates well to film, in no small part due to the actors. The harshest moments of the film involve flashbacks depicting the murdered man as he grouses about the black men stationed under him; his contempt for his own identity as a black man is far more tragic than his death.

#7: Mean Machine (2001)

Director: Barry Skolnick. Stars: Vinnie Jones, Jason Statham.

This remake of the Longest Yard uses British football rather than US football. Vinnie Jones plays...well, Vinnie Jones, essentially. Sent to a rough prison, Jones is coerced into training the prisoners to play football against the guards. The genius of the movie is the casting of Statham (this was the first place I saw Statham) as the terrifying inmate Monk; Monk's ability to intimidate the prisoners and guards alike leads to the funniest moments of the film, especially when the game begins...and Monk keeps leaving goal to attack the guards! This film will not cure cancer, but it can cure depression.

#8: Shaolin Soccer (2001)

Director: Stephen Chow. Star: Stephen Chow.

Speaking of football and anti-depressants, take on Shaolin Soccer, my favorite of Stephen Chow's films. Although this is reasonably well-known among foreign film fans, I think it's still obscure enough (and fun enough) to bear listing. Chow is a master of shaolin kung fu who thinks all people should use kung fu in their daily lives; he gets an opportunity to make his point by enlisting his equally-adept brothers as a soccer team, unleashing their kung fu prowess on the field. This is flat-out slapstick and fun. You can live without seeing it...if you call that living.

#9: District B13 (2004)

Director: Pierre Morel. Stars: David Belle, Cyril Raffaelli.

Produced by Luc Besson, which is a good earmark out of the gate. Belle and Raffaelli are only the stars in a nominal sense; the real star of the film is le parkour, photographed beautifully in a series of frentic action scenes where Belle leaps and bounds from rooftops, through open windows and down balconies. Oh, it has a plot, dealing with nuclear weapons being used to wipe out an embarrasing barrio, but the plot is an excuse to set up stunts; Besson's films make the action movie formula look easier than it is.

#10: Star Wreck: In the Pirkinning (2005)

Director: Timo Vuorensola. Star: Samuli Torssonen.

I believe this is still available as a download on the internet, which is probably the only way to see it. This is a fan-produced parody film in which parody versions of Star Trek characters go to war with parody versions of Babylon 5 characters. Oh, and it's in Finnish. If you can make it through the first half hour, you will be rewarded, especially if you're fond of Trek or B5 (maybe especially if you like one but not the other). The special effects are very impressive for a home-made film and it's surprising how many of the jokes hit the target, given that it's, well, from Finland. My favorite line: "The day I joined the military, my father told me - 'Son,you're none too bright, and won't be marrying into money either, but you're human, Earth to Earth and all that. So show some spine and come out and stop being a shame on your old man."

There you have it; what are your favorite second-best movies?

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