June 28, 2007

Top 10 Most Memorable Dinner Table Scenes

Ah, the dinner table. It is a place for a family to sit down together, enjoy a nice meal, and...display superpowers? Eat their own brain? Call their guests Hitler? Learn about homosexuality? No? Okay, then that's probably what makes these dinner-table-centric movies so memorable. For this list, I created very specific criteria. First, the dinner had to be in someone's home - I realized that memorable restaurant scenes are a whole other bag. Second, the meal had to specifically be dinner. And finally, people had to actually sit down and consume food. Okay, in no particular order:

1. American Beauty. This movie served as an end-of-the-century reminder that the suburbs are still really fucked up. In this scene, the all-American motif of the family dinner table becomes a frantic - and hilarious -war zone. Mom Carolyn wants to know what her husband Lester was thinking when he quit his job, daughter Janie just wants to leave, and Lester wants respect - and someone to pass the asparagus.

2. Borat. Which is less appropriate to bring to the dinner table: a prostitute or a bag of feces? Lovably inept and vulgar Borat Sagdiyev brings both during his fancy dinner with Southern socialites. It's a riot to watch Sacha Baron Cohen pretending to be this outrageous figure in order to elicit genuine responses from people stranger than fiction. This clip is only part of it, but you get the idea.

3. The Incredibles. Kinda like the American Beauty scene, this is just your average depiction of a suburban family - oh, except they're superheroes. Bob's super strength causes him to cut the table when trying to cut his son's steak, and then the kids get in a fight using all their powers which ends with their elastic mom holding them under the table. The only clip I could find is dubbed with subtitles, for some reason.

4. I Heart Huckabees. I saw this movie a while back and under regrettable hookup circumstances, so I don't remember much of it. Some Googling brought me back to the great dinner scene though, where Mark Wahlberg and Jason Schwartzmann's characters have dinner with the family of the mysterious man they have been seeing everywhere. The family's hyper-religious views clash badly with the liberal, esoteric ideas that their guests bring to the table, and eventually they get kicked out. I think I just adore Marky Mark and his incredible scene-stealing abilities (see also: The Departed).

5. Annie Hall. I know that this movie is on every Top 5 or 10 list I make, but whatever, it's a fuckin good movie. Alvy spends Easter with Annie's family, and the dinner is tremendously awkward, including one shot from Grammy Hall's point of view where Alvy is decked out like an Orthodox Jew. Then it cuts to a split screen comparing what Alvy and Annie's families do for the holidays (Alvy's: fast and bicker). I couldn't find the clip, but if you haven't seen this movie, get thee to a video store!

6. Little Miss Sunshine. From the second the harried mother plops the takeout fried chicken on the table, we know this is not going to be a peaceful meal. Grandpa doesn't want chicken again, uncle Frank just tried to commit suicide after being jilted by another man, Dad's business is still a failure, and Dwayne is just sullen and silent as usual. Seven-year-old Olive inquires about Frank's problem, leading her to learn about suicide and homosexuality in one sitting. There is a bright side though - Olive learns she's made it to the next round of the titular Little Miss Sunshine pageant. The only clip I could find is Grandpa bitching about the chicken, but Alan Arkin won an Oscar. Respect.

7. Hannibal. Yeah, the movie was kinda lame, and I watched it before my official banning of all horror movies from my cinematic diet. But the final scene had me in a state of horror and mindfuck for quite a while. It's dinnertime with Dr. Lecter, which is never a good thing for nearby humans, and tonight's entree is the brain of one of the guests, played by Ray Liotta. I guess Hannibal removes the part of the part responsible for freaking out if someone removes part of your brain, because Ray is just sitting there, smiling absently. And then, Hannibal feeds him his own brain. I will repeat that. HANNIBAL FEEDS HIM HIS OWN BRAIN OMG. And he likes it. Ew. Fun fact: some of the shots in this scene used an animatronic Ray Liotta puppet, and in the final cut even Liotta has confessed to not knowing the difference. I want that on my resume: Animatronic Ray Liotta Puppet Maker. Be warned: the clip is really gross.

8. Wedding Crashers. Dinner and a handjob? Yeah, it's kind of an unorthodox combo, but Vince Vaughn's character really has no say in the matter as fem-unit Gloria suddenly starts to vigorously massage his crotch during a family dinner. This movie scene is not going to cure cancer, but it's slapstick and awkward comedy in its purest form. Oh, and Grandma calls Eleanor Roosevelt "a real rug muncher."

9. Rope. This film toys with the definition of "dinner table," because in this case, dinner is served on a wooden chest containing the dead body of the man that all the guests have in common. The first scene of the film is Brandon and Philip strangling David to death, because they can. Then, just to be sneaky and pat themselves on the back for being so badass, they host a dinner party inviting all of David's nearest and dearest. Philip starts to crack with anxiety, and Brandon's overconfidence starts to look suspicious. It's hard to isolate just one clip here, because dinner takes up at least a third of this short-ish movie. But yeah, you should watch it, because it's Hitchcock and it's good and it has Jimmy Stewart in it.

10. The Gold Rush. I saved the happiest for last. This scene is unabashedly delightful, and I don't just throw around the word "delightful." It's Chaplin in top form, when he has some lady friends over for dinner and entertains them with dinner rolls. It sounds weird, but it's hilarious and brilliant. This scene was so popular in theaters that some projectionists would rewind it and play it again. There's another notable dinner scene in this film as well, when the Tramp eats his own boot out of hunger (for shooting, the boot was made of licorice).

June 23, 2007

Top 10 Nontraditional Happy Endings to Movies

Sometimes, you just gotta have a big ol Hollywood happy ending - kill the villain, kiss the heroine, say something suave, fade out. But often that's not good enough, and so frequently when watching movies, the endings disappoint me. I was really into The Departed until the last 10 minutes, for example, which left a sour taste in my mouth that I retroactively applied to the whole film. Endings are a big deal, and I worry that directors and screenwriters don't pay as much attention to them sometimes as they do to the beginning and middle. So I started compiling a list of my favorite endings of all time, and realized that I had a bias towards nontraditional happy endings. There are some twist endings I like, some really ambiguous ones I like, but most seem to fall into the previously mentioned category. Sometimes the hero gets the girl, sometimes not, and not everybody wins, but you walk away feeling good - at least content. So here's my list. Oh, and obviously:

**********************************MAJOR SPOILERS ABOUND*************************************

* The star indicates that this ending made me cry. I'm a sucker.

1. Fargo. One of the most heartwarming and understated endings imaginable. Before I saw this movie beginning to end, it was on TV, and a friend of mine declared that Marge and Norm Gunderson have one of the best relationships ever, which is definitely true. After crazy days of bloody murders and wood chippers, pregnant police chief Marge comes home to discover that her stay-at-home husband has won a bird-drawing contest and his mallard is being featured on a 3-cent stamp, and she congratulates him wholeheartedly. Then her husband happily rubs her pregnant stomach. It's effective precisely because it is so different from the rest of the movie.
2. Gone With the Wind. For such a blockbuster, it had a decidedly un-blockbuster-ish ending, probably because it was based on a novel. Rhett Butler famously tells Scarlett O'Hara that he doesn't give a damn what she does, while she tearfully begs him not to leave her after treating him like shit for years. She doesn't know what to do, but then she gets that glint in her eyes again, declares she'll think of a way to get him back, and says a terrific mantra: "After all, tomorrow is another day!" And you'll know she'll get what she wants, because she always does. If GWTW had been made today, they'd probably be hard at work on a sequel, but here's a film that knew when to stop.
3. Annie Hall. Long story short: he doesn't get the girl. But it's okay. Alvy is at first hopelessly depressed after the breakup, but moves on with his life and recounts his final meeting with the titular Annie in a voiceover after the characters have left the screen. He makes peace with their relationship and says that it was great just to know her, and says that, like the man who refused to turn in his brother who thought himself to be a chicken, relationships are totally irrational, but we go through it because we "need the eggs."
4. The 40-Year-Old Virgin. Andy loses his virginity. Then he breaks out into a rousing version of the song "Aquarius," and the whole cast joins him. Illogical, and perfect.
5. *The Apartment. Fran runs away from the man that causes her constant unhappiness, and heads for the apartment of nice guy Baxter, who has given up all hopes of being with her. Eschewing the traditional seal-with-a-kiss, though, that brilliant bastard Billy Wilder has Fran insist, over Baxter's "wtf-are-you-doing-here / omg I love you" exclamations, that they finish a gin rummy game they began weeks ago. The last line of the film is Fran saying "Shut up and deal" (the cards).
6. *Little Miss Sunshine. Over the course of their road trip to Olive's little-girl beauty pageant, every member of her crew has had something horrible happen to them: her parents' relationship gets worse, her brother realizes he can't become a pilot, her uncle is generally miserable, and her grandpa dies of a drug overdose. And when Olive begins her racy dance for the talent portion, her family realizes that something horrible could happen to her too. So they all jump onstage and dance with her, letting go of all their problems and issues with each other. It's hilarious, but touching. The family gets banned from attending any more pageants, but they drive away looking content.
7. Casablanca. Of course. Rick lets Ilsa leave on the plane OMG SACRIFICE. But he gets Claude Rains as a consolation prize, which is pretty cool.
8. *The Squid and the Whale. Some people say this ending is pretentious; I disagree. I absolutely love this movie because it's pretty much the exact story of my life in terms of my parents' divorce, but it's also hilarious and well-written. One of the major themes is the story of older brother Walt's "redemption" - that is, coming to terms with his identity post-divorce and forgiving his mother. The title refers to the exhibit he would visit with his mother at the Museum of Natural History, which he would always be afraid to look at. So the ending consists of Walt running epically to the museum and staring at it, to the beat of the awesome "Street Hassle" by Lou Reed. It's a minimalist way of saying that everything is gonna be alright.
9. *Lost in Translation. Bob and Charlotte form a special connection in Tokyo, despite their significant others. When it comes time for them to leave, they kiss, hug, and part ways forever. Bob also whispers something in Charlotte's ear, which is impossible to hear, but was actually recently revealed to most likely be, "I love you. Don't forget to always tell the truth." Allegedly, the kiss was also improvised in the heat of the moment while filming. Those two bits of trivia, discovered just now on IMDB, make this ending even better.
10. The Great Dictator. A satire of WWII before it even really happened? Charlie Chaplin was always cutting edge. And true to form, this movie provides plenty of laughs. But it gets serious at the end. Having been mistaken for dictator Adenoid Hynkel (also played by Chaplin), the unnamed Jewish barber takes the opportunity in front of a microphone to deliver an eloquent 10-minute speech about how men have to love and respect each other. I can't do it justice - the whole speech can be read here. He ends this address, being broadcast on the radio, with a personal message to his companion Hannah, telling her literally and figuratively to "look up." If it seems like a random ending, know that Chaplin in real life was a big pacifist whose liberal leanings did not sit well with the government. It suits the film, and also has a Big Message.

June 21, 2007

Thoughts on the new AFI Top 100

The American Film Institute's list of the top 100 American movies of all time is a big deal to me, probably a bigger deal than it should be. I periodically count how many on the list I've seen, and taking into account the absolute subjectivity of any type of list, I respect it as one of the more authoritative lists out there. The original list was compiled in 1997/8, and they've just released a revamped edition for the new milennium, which is available here. Reading this new list caused me, at various intervals, to literally scream with joy, anger, or shock. Mostly though, I prefer the old list. Here are my thoughts.

Things that make me happy

- Singin' in the Rain moved up five spots, from 10 to 5. Nice.
- There were some overdue and previously overlooked additions, such as Cabaret, 12 Angry Men, and In the Heat of the Night.
- Crash was not added, as threatened.

Things that make me unhappy

- Prior to this new list, I read the list of the 400 nominees they were considering, available here. In addition to the usual suspects, there were a bunch of old movies deemed worth reconsidering, plus movies released since the first list. Of the newcomers, I knew they would add at least one Lord of the Rings movie, which they did. I was praying for them to add Rushmore, which they didn't. There were several other very respectable candidates, such as A Beautiful Mind, Lost in Translation, Mystic River, and Saving Private Ryan (which was added). But do you know what were the only other newbies to get added? TITANIC and THE FUCKING SIXTH SENSE. I will deal with each of these separately.
- The Sixth Sense. You see dead people. We get it. This movie gave the world some thrills and chills, and Haley Joel Osment. But these are the greatest American movies EVAR. Over half a century after Gone With the Wind, people still quote "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn" - will people really be saying "I see dead people" in 68 years? A good genre piece it may be, a legendary classic it is not. Another thing that made me angry: in the corresponding TV special for this list, Stephen Spielberg said, "Psycho was the original Sixth Sense," which in addition to being blasphemous is just illogical. Just because they're both suspenseful? I don't walk around saying that Some Like It Hot is the original Norbit just because they're both comedies!
- Titanic. This film was significant for three reasons: it was inexplicably nominated for a shitload of Oscars, it won Leonardo DiCaprio a shitload of fans, and it made a shitload of money worldwide. But seriously guys, this movie is SOOOO CHEESY. It was a sensation at the time, but can anyone watch this now without a healthy sense of irony? Who still cries when Jack dies, instead of laughs? There are other cheesy movies on the list too, such as Jaws. But Jaws has two key things to augment its cheesiness: a sense of humor, and the nostalgia factor. Titanic is just a bloated joke that has been deservedly forgotten (until now).
- Some of the films that dropped off the list are absolutely criminal: Rebel Without a Cause is a brilliant piece of cinema that made a star out of James Dean and brought teenage angst to light as a real issue; An American in Paris is beautiful, fun, and revolutionized the American musical; Fantasia changed animation forever; From Here to Eternity is a star-studded and Oscar-laden epic that brought up deep questions about morality and war. But the worst omission this time around is Birth of a Nation. It could be included for historical and social influence alone, but it is also a technically and cinematically amazing masterpiece. Maybe Griffiths' battle scenes don't stand up to modern-day ones, and the acting methods seem overwrought compared to the nuanced methods favored today, but for the time, this stuff was incredible, and still packs a punch.

Things that just completely baffle me

- The AFI's sudden and inexplicable boner for Westerns. Most notable is The Searchers' jump from 96 to 12, but Shane, High Noon and Unforgiven also had big jumps. This is pretty random, considering that there's no apparent Western revival now or anything.
- Why did some things move up or down one or two spots? That's just silly.
- I noticed that a lot of the films that dropped off the list deal with "big issues": Guess Who's Coming To Dinner tackles interracial romance, The Manchurian Candidate deals with government brainwashing, Birth of a Nation is still controversial for its racism, From Here to Eternity and All Quiet on the Western Front paint decidedly unglamorous depictions of war, Rebel Without a Cause legitimizes teen problems, etc. A lot of a new additions can be considered "safe" by comparison.
- Sullivan's Travels added? Weird.

Another impact this new list will have on my life is the necessary reorganization of our AFI Top 100 section at the video store where I work. And they're all numbered - grunt. Wish me luck.