From 21 Grams to 47 Ronin. 99 Homes to 127 Hours. 2001: A Space Odyssey to One Million Years B.C. Yes, numbers in movie titles have been a thing. Not a meaningful thing, but then again “ten lords a leaping” isn’t the most meaningful of gifts either. Yet legend has it that if you give them to your true love, things will go for well for you in the romance department. So consider this a countdown, or a count-up actually, of the greatest movies whose titles begin with a number. I’m just going from one to twelve here, but feel free to fill in the blanks all the way up to 20 Million Miles to Earth.
This seems so obvious but it took my friend Jack to remind me of it. Because I was having real trouble coming up with a “One.” I didn’t want to cop out and choose something like Once. And there were surprisingly few movies I could think of that began with ‘One.” Plenty of songs – from the standards (One for My Baby and One More for the Road), to the showtunes (One (Singular Sensation)), to the pop (One, the U2 version). But no movies. At least no really good movies, the kind you’d want to put on this august list. Of course, Milos Forman’s movie is probably good enough, what with becoming only the second movie ever to win the four major Academy Awards. (Louise Fletcher, anyone?) It remains one of Jack Nicholson’s most memorable performances and ranks as one the best portraits of messy rebellion against clinically efficient oppressors. And it has Juicy Fruit. Ah, Juicy Fruit.
Unlike with “One,” there were a wealth of “Twos” to choose from. I wonder if that says something about us. Sorry – I promised you no meaning, and I will stick to it. The ‘60s seemed really fond of “Twos” – like Two for the Road and Two Lane Blacktop and Two Mules for Sister Sara. I briefly considered Vincente Minnelli’s searing Two Weeks in Another Town. But in the end, I’m going with Dardenne Brothers. It’s always smart to go with the Dardenne Brothers. And with Marion Cotillard, who is brilliant as the harried worker desperately trying to save her job. Compare how the Dardennes tell this story with Stephane Brize’s effective verite-style The Measure of a Man from last year. They deal with very similar themes, but the Dardennes find a way to make the story much more compelling and urgent.
The first decade of the 21st century saw the growth of traditional Bollywood fare. Another essay on Curnblog, by Hrishikesh Bawa, does a lovely job of highlighting this movement. The level of maturity and sophistication in the standard feel-good song and dance stories increased. It wasn’t so much that Bollywood never delved into the darker aspects of human existence. There was always tragedy and inhumanity. It just never felt very real or very painful. That changed some in the last few decades. When Rajkumar Hirani made Three Idiots, the world had changed some too. Hirani offers up a very typical masala, blending silly comedy with exaggerated melodrama. There is song and there is romance. There is suicide, and there is a guy peeing on an exposed wire and frying his … well, you can guess what. It wasn’t that Three Idiots reinvented anything. It just did it all so darn well, and with a newfound maturity. The things on screen were still silly. But the movie never felt silly. And it became the most successful Bollywood movie of all time.
Oh, how I wanted to choose Mike Newell’s almost perfect Four Weddings and a Funeral, with its entirely perfect Richard Curtis screenplay and the still underrated performance of Hugh Grant. But alas, it is hard to resist Chris Morris and terrorists dressed as animals. This is the darkest of dark comedies, profiling five bumbling jihadists as they try to strike a blow for the Prophet. They argue about whether to blow up a mosque or a convenience store, before settling on attacking the London marathon. This movie came out three years before the Boston Marathon bombing, which led some speculation as to whether the movie influenced the Tsarnaev brothers. If it did, it was an odd choice. The would-be terrorists, with Riz Ahmed as the slightly smarter leader and Nigel Lindsay as the most malicious hatemonger, are spectacularly stupid. One dies when he trips over a sheep while carrying an explosive. Yet, Lindsay does not let us laugh off these characters. They take innocent life even though they all eventually realize how pointless their efforts are. Nor does he let off the authorities charged with enforcing the rule of law. One police sniper guns down someone whom he mistakes for a terrorist because he has been told to look out for a man in a bear costume. His partner has to explain to him that he just shot an innocent man dressed as a Wookie instead.
Ever hear anyone tell you that Cuckoo’s Nest is one of Jack Nicholson’s most memorable performances? Well, here’s another one. As Bobby Dupea, he pulls off the perfect blend of upper crust elite and common working man. He has cheap sex with Sally Struthers and longs for something more elevated with Susan Anspach. Director Bob Rafelson captured a particular brand of restlessness as America came to the end of the 1960s, which would be expanded in the first half of the 1970s, before the blockbuster era made us all forget our cares and woes. But we still can see Bobby Dupea trying to order the meal he wants from an intransigent diner waitress. Bobby Dupea jumping into the back of a flatbed on a crowded highway so he could play the piano in the back. Bobby Dupea abandoning his pregnant girlfriend in yet another diner and walking into an uncertain future. The movie’s title is a riddle that speaks to a thirst that can never be satisfied. It is an American classic.
Decades before Paris, Je T’aime and its successors, a young producer named Barbet Schroeder had an idea. Gather the best of the New Wave directors and let them each make a short film about a different section of Paris. The result is this marvelous collection, featuring works by Douchet, Rouch, Pollet, Rohmer, Goddard, and Chabrol. They make extensive use of location and non-professional actors (except for Chabrol, who always was the most American of New Wavers), and tell a wide range of stories – slight and whimsical love stories to dark and cynical tales of deception and dysfunction. All of the stories are interesting, but Rouch’s, from Gare du Nord, an extraordinary single take mystery about love and longing, is the best.
You have no idea how much I wanted to choose David Fincher’s exercise in sadism, Se7ev, in this slot. Or Stanley Donen’s exercise in heterosexual exuberance Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. The fact is, I’m one of the minority who thinks that Kurosawa’s masterpiece (released the same year as Seven Brides…) is somewhat overrated. However, I learned long ago that just because you think something is overrated, that doesn’t preclude it from being exceptional. And this tale of roving warriors coming to the aid of a peasant village is exceptional in many ways. It led to a very good John Sturges American western, The Magnificent Seven (1960) and a very flaccid Antoine Fuqua version in 2016, which only serves to reinforce how great Kurosawa’s original was.
While Ronald Reagan was making America feel good about itself throughout the ‘80s, Hollywood was making us remember baseball. There was The Natural in 1984 which dealt in myth, and Major League in 1989 which dealt in raunch. Those were passable efforts. Then there were the giants, Field of Dreams (1988) and Bull Durham (1989) which felt like authentic pieces of the American fabric. But the one that cut to the heart of baseball itself – not baseball as a symbol of some larger theme, but baseball as a perfect barometer of greed and nobility – was John Sayles’ adaptation of Eliot Asinof’s book about the Blacksox scandal of 1919. The final scene, in which John Cusack’s Buck Weaver watches D. B. Sweeney’s Joe Jackson playing semi-pro baseball, just for the love of the game, is among the most wistful and poignant scenes in American film of the 1980s.
Fabian Bielinsky’s death in 2006 was an enormous loss to the international film community. At age 47, he had just two features to his credit (Aura is the other) and both gobbled up awards throughout South America and beyond. Bielinsky played in the sandbox of crime in the same way that Tod Browning embodied horror and Jacques Demy lived through dance and music. Nine Queens was at once familiar and at the same time something new. Its portrait of grifters was both deeply personal and idiosyncratic, and somehow universal and broad. In the limited glimpse we got, it was easy to see that in Bielinksy’s world, crime and its attendant behaviors were simply part of the human condition. In 2008, Stuart Klawans wrote a lovely tribute to Bielinsky for Parnassus in which he compares the Argentinian to Billy Wilder and Preston Sturges. The fact that he evokes two of the greatest American comic writer/directors says something in and of itself. But Bielinsky was more than that, and it’s a shame the world never got to see more of his stories.
The American Film Institute’s Silver Theater, about a mile away from me, will be screening Ten as part of an Abbas Kiarostami retrospective this weekend and I will see it for the first time on the big screen. That says something about how one of the greatest, most influential directors of the end of the twentieth century is still little known outside of very small film circles. He was there at the birth of the Iranian New Wave and decade after decade, he experimented with his unique blend of documentary and fiction, verite and poetry, all under the oppressive regime of Iran, which continues to impose restrictions on its artists today. The fact that he got this movie made at all is a remarkable achievement. The fact that he created such a rich exploration of modern Iran and such a detailed portrait of one woman’s search for identity almost defies belief. Until Ten, the common wisdom was that as great as Kiarostami was, he didn’t have much interest in women. Then he put out this cinematic spiritual sister to “Mrs. Dalloway,” consisting of ten conversations all filmed from inside a moving car, and another barrier was washed away.
Is there a meaning to Greg Marcks’ elaborate puzzle box of suspense and mystery? Maybe not, but does it matter? Five separate storylines, involving eleven characters (and one mischievous dog), intersect around particular events that occur at 11:14 p.m. There will be car crashes and severed limbs and gunshots. There will be a couple of corpses. As each chapter unfolds, filling in blanks and adding more questions, it is very hard not to get caught up in the intrigue. Most of the characters are unlikeable, yet with a stellar cast of mostly young actors on the verge of acclaim, they are always watchable. Ben Foster, Colin Hanks, Henry Thomas, Shawn Hatosy, and Hillary Swank (who co-produced) are just some of the names. Barbara Hershey and Patrick Sawyze are on hand to play the adults. It is a cleverly edited, brilliantly conceived rush and it all ends with the rousing Angry Johnny and the Killbillies song “All American Girl.” Not a bad way to spend a slow Thursday night if you ask me.
If some numbers (like One and Eleven) offered limited choices, Twelve presented the opposite problem. What to choose among the Oscar-winner 12 Years a Slave, the mind-tripping Twelve Monkeys, and the war epic Twelve O’Clock High? Well, for me, it was a no brainer. Sidney Lumet, in his directorial debut, took what could have easily been a stage-bound talkfest and turned it into gripping melodrama. He was aided by a stellar cast centered around Henry Fonda’s iconic pillar of liberal benevolence. A very young Jack Klugman, a very old Joseph Sweeney, an implacable E.G. Marshall and a volcanic Lee J. Cobb create indelible characters and moments. As Lumet’s camera slowly creeps in on its subjects, and as the lights grow dim, we feel the pressure of ordinary men in life and death situations without a single shot being fired or punch being thrown. This is emotional violence – something American film is generally not very good at. But this time, they did it great.
And aren’t numbers great? As I was writing this, Brian Helgeland’s 42 popped up on one of my 200 movie channels, which got me thinking about Sam Fuller’s Forty Guns, which led to Glen Triggs’ 41. A sports biopic, a distaff Western, an obscure time-travel flick. And all brought to you by the magic of numbers.