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Montreal, Quebec, Canada
I am a Montreal-based actor, writer and comedian. When U.S. President John F. Kennedy was shot, I was three days old. I cried all day. My favourite books of all time are Moby Dick by Herman Melville, The Last Temptation by Nikos Kazantzakis and The Ewoks Fun Time Activity Book by Chirpa and Pamploo. I am a member of The Vestibules, On The Spot Improv and The Best Buy Battery Club. Except for the Battery Club, I've been at all this stuff for over 20 years. Enjoy my blog.

Friday, April 1, 2011

The Best Movies of All Time by Genre

One question that I have always had a hard time answering is "What's the best movie of all time?".  Picking just one out of all the great cinematic achievements in the history of film is a task too daunting to even consider.

I loved it when The American Film Institute came out with a list of The Greatest Films of All Time ranked by Genre. Great idea. Once you break films down by genres it really takes the task of making the selections of the Best Movies of All Time right down to size.

In that spirit, here is my humble list of the The Best Movies of All Time by genre...

Best Western
Young Guns 
(1988, d: Christopher Cain)

There are a number of directors who are considered to be the cornerstone film makers of the Western genre. Their names are synonymous with the spirit of the genre itself. They have defined, explored, redefined and made the genre great. Among those auteurs are John Ford, Sam Peckinpah, Howard Hawkes, Sergio Leone, John Sturges, Anthony Mann, Clint Eastwood and, of course, the one name that no such list could be complete without, Christopher Cain, director of the Western that stood the genre on its head, Young Guns.

Young Guns is, without a doubt, a milestone. It was a film that was made at a time when Hollywood considered the Western a dead genre. The only other Westerns produced in the 1980's were Lawrence Kasdan's Silverado and Clint Eastwood's Pale Rider. They are two abysmal films that mark the Western at its absolute lowest level of complete creative and artistic bankruptcy.

Young Guns saved the genre and paved the way for the only two Oscar winning Western movies (the vastly inferior Dance With Wolves and Clint Eastwood's much overrated Unforgiven).

Cain's 1988 Western is about a group of characters rather than the traditional single lone hero previously quintessential to the genre. It improves upon a vision first put on the screen by John Sturges in The Magnificent Seven. That, in turn, was a film which was itself based on Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai. There is direct link between Kurosawa and Young Guns. The often made favorable comparisons to Kurosawa is something that director Cain earns beautifully.

Cain shows great knowledge and insight into the genre, single-handedly creating a vision of the Western as one of heroes vs villains. Young Guns is a Western film that takes place in the unique setting of vast empty deserts, open plains and small frontier towns.

Cain certainly knows good solid actors when he sees them. Midway through Young Guns, the brilliant Lou Diamond Phillips performs one of the finest film monologues I have ever seen. Cain's innovative direction raises the performances of Emilio Estevez, Charlie Sheen and Kiefer Sutherland to the level of performances made by John Wayne, Roy Rogers and Gary Cooper.

Young Guns is a Western that will be remembered and cherished for generations to come.

Best Chick Flick
(2007, dir: Zack Synder)

300 does not make it to the top of Chick Flick genre (as it has unfortunately become known) just on the strength of Gerard Butler and his 299 companions' incredible abs. The abs may help but that visual treat is not what is at the heart of 300's appeal to its target female audience.

Like many of the classic so-called "Chick Flicks", 300 is a period piece. 300 is also filled with many scenes of great emotional warmth and humour. As sensitive as Gerald Butler's delicate portrayal of the tender yet powerful King Leonidas is, let's face it, this is a movie that is really about the incredible woman in Leonidas's life, Queen Gorgo of Sparta.

Lena Headey (previously seen on the thankfully short lived TV series Terminator:The Sarah Connor Chronicles) is perfectly cast as Gorgo.  The relatively unknown English actress turned heads in Hollywood when she beat out Julianne Moore, Rene Zellewegar and Sandra Bullock for the coveted role. Once landing the part, Headley wisely lobbied to expand the role of Queen Gorgo from her one scene in the original (graphic) novel on which the movie is based to making her the centerpiece of the film version of 300.

300 follows the story of Gorgo as she must contend with taking over Leonidas' role as leader of Sparta while her husband is away dealing with foreign difficulties. The film follows the trial and tribulations of Gorgo's challenge to live and work as an essentially single mother in a world that was very much -at the time- almost completely male dominated. Gorgo has one particularly clever solution to the problem of one her husband's former rivals when he becomes a little too overly amorous. I'm not going to give anything away but let's just say it involves the very clever use of a seemingly innocent looking dagger.

The secondary story of 300 follows Leonidas as he deals with a competing group of Persians while visiting the nearby resort town of Thermopylae. The King employs a unique approach to conflict resolution management that marks one of the weaker and less significant parts of this otherwise great Chick Flick.

Best Historical Epic
More American Graffiti
(1979 dir: Bill L. Norton)

Many readers out there may be shocked that movies like Ben Hur, Lawrence of Arabia and Gandhi did not make into the number one spot in this category.

Let's make no mistake about it: William Wyler, David Lean and Sir Richard Attenborough are all fine filmmakers. There is one truth, however, about their work that few film critics or film academics ever point out : all of their movies are really long and dull.

In More American Graffiti, writer and director Bill L. Norton takes a mere 110 minutes to cover the tumultuous events that marked the social and political changes of the 1960's. The film depicts the Haight Ashbury drug scene, political campus activism , the birth of the woman's movement, psychedelia and the war in Vietnam.

C'mon, really, David Lean, do you actually need three and a half hours to tell the sweepingly epic story of an Arab revolt during World War I ? Is it necessary to devote roughly the same amount of  screen time to the story of guy who wins a chariot race, there, Willam Wyler? Here's an idea for your, Sir Richard: Indian Independence in 90 minutes or less.

Look, I'm just cutting out the niceties and saying what everyone is thinking.

More American Grafiti is, sadly, the lesser known sequel to George Lucas' first hit film, American Graffiti. It is a sequel that follows, among other things, the story of the Vietnam War. The beloved character of Toad from the original film has a far more interesting story and character development in this film as we follow his exploits during a war that defined an era.

More American Graffiti has scenes of Vietnam (some of which were shot by Lucas himself) that are amongst those of the very best films about the war: Apocalypse Now, The Deer Hunter, First Blood and Platoon.

Best Action Movie
On Deadly Ground
(1994, dir: Steven Seagal)

Long before being unfairly harassed by the FBI, Steven Seagal was one of the biggest box office action movie stars in the entire world. Unfortunately, thanks to the US government's baseless and unfair investigations, Seagal has now been force to retreat to making a modest living in the field of direct-to-DVD home entertainment.

In the heyday of Seagal's massive commercial success, he made one little film called On Deadly Ground. It was a time when Seagal's career was following the arc that a younger Clint Eastwood's career followed two decades earlier. Indeed, Seagal followed the inevitable evolution of his career from major motion picture star to major motion picture director. This great 1994 film marked the man's directorial debut.

On Deadly Ground is not your typical action movie fare. Not by a long shot. To be sure, though, the film does have some absolutely stunning and impeccably directed action scenes. Seagal proves himself to be not unlike James Cameron and Hal Needham in his mastery of both film technique and emotional substance. 

With extremely subtle and almost subversive direction, Seagal is able to work an environmentalist sub-text into the film. On the surface, On Deadly Ground may seem like a standard action film about a greedy oil company CEO (Michael Caine in his most overlooked yet arguably best performance) attempting to drill for oil on land owned by the Inuit. On another level, though, the film has almost undetectable undertones of messages about corporate greed, aboriginal rights and (though it took me multiple viewings to catch it) pro-environmental protection statements. When it comes to On Deadly Ground, I am grateful for the three years I spent studying film theory and criticism at Concordia University.

On Deadly Ground ends with Seagal making that one elusive thing in film that all fine actors seek: a career-defining speech. Take a look at Seagal's closing monologue and see if you can pick up on some of its more nuanced meanings....

Best Science Fiction Film
Master and Commander: The Far Side of The World
(2003, dir: Peter Weir)

Master and Commander is the best science fiction adventure flick to ever hit the big screen.  Director Peter Weir creates an exciting sense of adventure, exploration, and character development in a film that follows the captain and crew of a legendary ship of an organization known as the British Navy. In the film, the ship and its crew plunge headlong towards the vast deep reaches of the far side of the world.

It must be pointed out, though, that some elements of Master and Commander: The Far Side of The World are derivative of other films in the SF genre. Most notable among said films is, of course, the Star Trek movies.  Captain Jack Aubrey is clearly Captain James T. Kirk in different dress. Aubrey's ship, The HMS Surprise is a vessel not unlike The USS Enterprise. The character of Dr. Stephen Maturin is a wry combination of the friendship and loyalty displayed in both the characters of Mr. Spock and Dr. "Bones" McCoy. Even Russell Crowe’s wonderful interpretation of the character of Aubrey owes much to the ground breaking performances of William Shatner.

Such similarities are not necessarily bad, however. If you are creating surrealist art, is it wrong to be influenced by Rene Magritte? If you’re studying early childhood development, is it wrong to owe a debt of gratitude to Jean Piaget?  Is there anything wrong with a vaccine researcher building on the work of Jonas E. Salk?

Greatness stands on the shoulders of giants.

Master and Commander: The Far Side of The World is loosely based on Patrick O’Brian’s landmark series of books. O’Brian is often mentioned in the same breath as Arthur C. Clarke, Edgar Rice Burroughs and Orson Scott Card as the master and commander of the literary SF genre in his own right.

Master and Commander: The Far Side of The World has some amazing battle scenes. They are scenes that are reminiscent of the classic battles in Starship Troopers and the original Buck Rogers motion picture, which are generally considered the greatest science fiction battles scenes ever. 

The sequences that deal with the turbulent weather the HMS Surprise encounters on its voyages are, according to meteorological experts, the most accurate on-screen depictions of what great storms in the middle of vast bodies of water would most likely look like.

The evil nemeses of the film are The French. The French are a wonderful creation.  The concept of an alien race that speaks a different language, has a different culture and even different cuisine is just plain brilliant. Weir definitely gets a lot of mileage out the villainous French. 

Master and Commander also achieves at least one moment of true science fiction. It happens during a part of the story when the ship, somewhere in the South Pacific quadrant of the system, discovers a largely uncharted world known as the Galapagos Islands.  The lizards, birds, bugs and other fantastical creatures encountered during the scenes that take place in this strange Galapagos land contain the film's finest special effects. Using a combination of stop motion animation, CGI, and animatronic prosthesis, the visual FX team manages to bring to life creatures that look, act and move like real animals.

Many bloggers, internet commentators and critics have complained that much of the writing in Master and Commander: The Far Side of The World relies too heavily on pseudo scientific techno-babble.  Jargon like “mainsail”, “topsail”, “flying gib” and “masthead” are thrown around a great deal in the film. Such terminology is indeed hard to follow at times, if, in fact, that dialogue means anything at all. Nonehtheless, the so-called techno-babble jargon does invent a sense of verisimilitude towards an imagined reality that is central to the success of the movie.

Other critics, bloggers and internet commentators  have challenged the scientific accuracy of Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World as well.  One of the main bones of contention is the questionable notion that ships of the size, mass and weight of those depicted on screen would be at all able to achieve buoyancy on water. Another source of skepticism involves the far fetched manner in which the ships seem to be propelled by wind through the use of a technology know as "sails".

Oh c'mon, guys, that kinda nitpicking is beside the point. When dealing with a movie as entertaining as Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World,  why get bogged down on stuff like that? Does anyone question the scientific accuracy of the Flux Capacitor or the Death Star?

It’s just a movie. Chill.

Some other honourable mentions for the Best Movies Ever by genre include...

Best Horror Movie
Monster's Ball
(2001, dir: Marc Foresteter)

Best Romantic Comedy 
The Love God?
(1969, dir: Nat Hiken)

Best Musical
Sister Act 2
(1992, dir: Emile Ardolino) 

Best Superhero Movie 
Fearless Frank
(1967, dir: Philip Kaufman)

Best Sequel 
Godfather III
(1990, dir: Francis Ford Coppola)

Best Movie Based on a TV Show
(1970, dir: Robert Altman)

Best Documentary
(1983, dir: Woody Allen)

Best War Movie
The Green Berets
(1968, dir: Ray Kellogg, John Wayne, Mervyn LeRoy)

Best Christmas Movie
Beneath The Planet of the Apes
(1970, dir: Ted Post)

The movie is even more exciting than the cover of the Blu-ray disc would have you believe

So there you have it folks. I'd be very surprised if any readers of this blog had any disagreements or issues with my choices. It's certainly a pretty hard list to argue with, that's for sure.

Until next time, gang, have a great first day of April!

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