Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Mutt's Top Ten Film Conclusions

For a bookend piece, see my June 20, 2008 post, "Mutt's Top Ten Film Openings".

In discussing films as we often do, Duke and I sometimes talk about those rare movies that have a striking conclusion, the kind that makes you shake your head in wonder, cementing the fact in your mind that you have just seen a superior film. For me, as in great books, there is nothing quite as exhilirating as an excellent ending to a film or novel, especially when the whole rest of the story preceding it has been executed just as well. One gets the feeling that the director, in the case of films, has successfully carried their vision through all the way to the end, and completed their work in the most convincing and satisfying manner. There aren’t very many films that have given me this sensation, the thrill of having seen a genuine work of art, but the ones that do have always stayed with me. And so, in this season of lists, I present the selections for my own Top Ten Film Conclusions. Feel free to join the debate or add your own choices for consideration….

Pan’s Labyrinth, director Guillermo del Toro
Guillermo del Toro, one of the most interesting and imaginative creative minds working in film today, begins the conclusion to his triumphant 2006 film with the murder of an innocent child. This dreadful event is followed soon thereafter by an absolutely gorgeous, color-infused scene unlike any other in the film, in which the young female protagonist, clad in a stunning red satin gown, appears in a cathedral-like hall in front of a trinity of huge thrones and the figure of the immortal ‘faun’ from the film walking among them – a kind of visual passage into the afterlife, and an incredible sensory flourish worthy of the rest of this great film. Then, in the final shots, a stirring voice-over informs the viewer that the story has come to a conclusion, but that one can still find traces of the young girl’s incredible journey in our world ‘if you know where to look’, spoken over a succession of lovely shots of certain backdrops from the film, and concluding finally with a small scrap of a girl’s dress caught on a branch, fluttering in the breeze, deep in a thick forest.

Dreams, director Akira Kurosawa
The legendary Japanese film director’s utterly unique Dreams is unlike almost any other film you can imagine – a kind of visual short-story collection, consisting of ten small films based on dream fragments from the director’s own subconscious. The dreams all vary in style and substance, but each one is almost more visually stunning than the previous; also, they grow more and more ominous and apocalyptic as they progress. That is, until the beautiful and moving final ‘dream’, which is totally opposite in tone and setting. Titled “Village of the Watermills”, the final sequence depicts small, quiet moments that contrast sharply with the harrowing images from the dreams before it. The dream as well as the film ends with a long, silent shot of thin, slender blades of grass billowing just under the glimmering surface of a gently rolling stream awash in blazing sunlight. All one can hear is rolling water. There are no words, no other sounds. One of my favorite things about this lovely and moving final shot is how it holds for an unusually long time before the end credits roll, deliberately lingering over the beautiful simplicity of natural life. (Incidentally, Dreams is the only film to make BOTH my Film Openings and Film Conclusions list.)

O Brother, Where Art Thou?, director Joel Coen
In my opinion the Coen brothers, Joel and Ethan, are unmatched among filmmakers working today. (That is why they appear more than once on this list.) They are outstanding writers, editors, and directors, and they never do the same thing twice, nor do they pay much heed to the audience’s expectations. This brilliant and hilarious re-telling of Homer’s The Odyssey in the Depression-era South is one of their crown jewels, and I enjoyed it from beginning to end. For me, the final shot of this film is best appreciated in context, as a lovely capper to all that has come before it. In the scene, Holly Hunter and George Clooney, in character, are discussing their recently renewed plans to get married as they walk along towards a set of railroad tracks while Clooney’s co-horts in all the madcap action from the preceding story lag behind. The camera follows the group from the side as they approach the tracks, then begins to ascend slowly into the sky as they cross over the tracks. On the railroad tracks, an old black man can be seen inching forward towards the horizon on a hand-pumped rail car; the same man appears at the very beginning of the film as a kind of soothsayer. He heads off towards a brilliant gold-colored horizon as the camera lofts ever higher and the screen fades. The combination of the extraordinary photographer Roger Deakins’ beautiful, valedictory shot and the beautiful colors and various small-town sounds makes this final image a stunning conclusion to a great film.

Millions, director Danny Boyle
This excellent film about a young child in Ireland who comes upon a misplaced stash of criminal money, and his adventures with his brother to prevent people from finding out about it, is a funny, endearing and sometimes sad story that earns a genuine emotional response. The key to the movie is that it is told from a child’s point of view, and contains many imaginative scenes where we see things that children might see in their own imaginations, but that adults often miss. Nowhere is this more effective than the final sequence, in which the young boy narrating the film says that while others might end the story sooner, it’s his story, and what we assume is the end of the film is not the way he wants it to end. From there, the action transports, quite magically, to a village in Africa, where the boy and his family assist a group of poverty-stricken children in setting up a pump for clean water, which begins to spring forth. The installation of this life-giving spring represents a salvific, cleansing miracle for the villagers, and makes for a very touching and beautiful conclusion to a lovely, family-friendly, inspiring film. Note the gorgeous, celebratory African music that accompanies the scene.

8 Mile, director Curtis Hanson
This may seem like an odd choice, because the rest of the film is nowhere near the other films on this list in terms of overall quality, but for me the conclusion expresses the timeworn theme of striking out for oneself against all imaginable odds in a stirring and fresh manner. The proverbial tale about the kid from the rough part of town that rises above his origins, as depicted endlessly in other films such as Rocky, etc., is here given a beat-saturated urban spin. The film stars the famed white rapper Eminem as “B Rabbit”, in a role that has many autobiographical similarities to his own life, and although it’s not clear that Eminem will ever be a great actor, here he channels his well-known verbal energy and pent-up angst to enormous effect, pounding against any instinct the viewer may have to dislike him. The last twenty minutes of the film present B Rabbit’s triumphant victory in three successive freestyle rap contests against successive black male rappers, all of whom have been ‘dissing’ him and his friends in increasingly hostile ways throughout the narrative. Physically beaten, financially destitute, and having been betrayed by his girlfriend, B Rabbit stands up for himself in a fury of funny and stunningly inventive verbal bursts, positively bristling with angst and rage, and emerges victorious. He then walks quietly through the Detroit urban landscape to complete his overnight shift at a metal factory. No matter what you think of rap music, Eminem’s fierce performance here is inspiring. Notably, he also won an Academy Award for the song “Lose Yourself” from the film’s soundtrack.

Fargo, director Joel Coen
The Coen’s darkly hilarious film about a desperate man’s ill-considered plot to have his wife kidnapped so he can collect the ransom money is well-known and often quoted. Most people know about the climactic scene that involves Frances McDormand (in an Oscar-winning performance), a criminal, and a wood-chipper – one of the most memorable sequences in modern film history. This is followed by a wonderful monologue in a police cruiser, in which the simple, good-hearted, and very pregnant police chief, played by McDormand, lectures a hardened murderer on his seemingly random acts of violence and wonders aloud why anyone would behave this way. Both of these sequences are beautifully acted and memorable, and most filmmakers, having inserted those lines into their characters’ mouth in the police car, would end the picture there. But the Coens, as I alluded to previously, like debunking expectations, so their film ends with the police chief in bed with her husband at night, praising him for his accomplishment of having one of his watercolor paintings accepted for use on a 3-cent stamp. And in a lovely reflective moment, the woman says, “You know, we’re doing pretty good”, and they switch off the light and go to sleep, awaiting the moment when they become a family.

Blood Simple, director Joel Coen
The third Coen film to make this list has probably one of my favorite concluding lines of any film script I’ve come across. Blood Simple, the Coen brothers’ first feature, was a noir-ish tale set in rural Texas in which a honky-tonk owner named Marty, realizing his wife is having an affair, hires a hitman to kill them both. The film is filled with wonderful performances and skilfully crafted moments of tension, as well as a deep vein of black humor running throughout. All of these things come together in the highly memorable final sequence in which the wife, played again by Frances McDormand (a.k.a. Mrs. Joel Coen), defends herself against the hitman – while separated from him by walls. As the hitman draws closer, McDormand’s character, who is convinced it’s Marty stalking her, and doesn’t know there is any hitman involved, fatally shoots him through a doorway. She then says, “I’m not afraid of you, Marty” and the hitman, bleeding on the floor, manages a laugh and says, “Well, ma’am, if I see him, I’ll sure give him the message.” End of film.

The Blair Witch Project, directors Daniel Myrick & Eduardo Sanchez
Perhaps this film didn’t age entirely gracefully, but many will remember that at the time it came out in 1999, it was a phenomenon, and scared many viewers silly, including yours truly. The film was shot over 8 days for $22,000 and ended up making over $250 million worldwide. Blair Witch was an entertaining and inventive horror story about a group of college kids, two guys and a girl, who go into the woods together to hunt out the truth about a local legend about people being murdered in the Maryland forest by a “witch”. They go to the woods with hand-held cameras and a brazen attitude and are never seen again – the only thing that is recovered are their cameras with documentary-style footage, and this makes up the film itself. During the film, a legend is related about how when the “witch” takes its victims, it makes them stand in the corner with their back turned before it kills them. As the film progresses, the kids are spooked in increasingly portentuous ways by unexplained sounds, voices, and strange stick figures in the woods. When one of their group disappears without a trace overnight, the other two set out to find him. Eventually they follow his screams to an abandoned ruin of a house. Once inside, they become confused and disoriented. One of them screams and drops his camera, and when the other runs into the room with her camera, she finds him standing in the corner, and screams herself. Then her camera is knocked down, and everything goes black. When I saw this in the movie theater in 1999, knowing nothing about the story, it scared the living daylights out of me.

Casino Royale, director Martin Campbell
At the time when this film was released in 2006, I and possibly many other people could have cared less about the James Bond film franchise. These films had been around forever and had become increasingly tired, and in the age of Jason Bourne and other action movies of this millennium, they seemed outdated and trivial. But this tremendously entertaining film completely defied expectations, and is probably the best Bond film of all of them. It began with the gutsy casting of the little-known Daniel Craig in the lead role, replacing a suave but rather blasé Pierce Brosnan. Craig brought a whole new element of pathos and physicality to the role, and his fierce, explosive performance carried the film. Since the film’s conceit was to go back to the beginning and tell the story of Bond’s first mission as a “007” agent in the British Secret Service, in keeping with the fact that Casino Royale was the first Bond novel Sir Ian Fleming ever wrote, Craig was able to bring a youthful recklessness to the role, something he does in brilliant fashion. The entire film is fast-paced, well-acted, and thrilling, but the ingeniuous idea of concluding the film with Bond’s most famous line was the kicker. At the very end, Bond arranges to meet a man who represents his enemies, and when the man shows up aside a coastal hotel in Europe, he steps out of his car into brilliant sunlight – and is immediately shot in the leg. As he gropes towards cover, Bond’s foot is seen stepping up beside him. ‘Who….are…you?’ the man asks. The camera shows Bond as seen from the man’s point of view below, and Craig says, ‘Bond. James Bond.’ The movie ends.

The Grapes of Wrath, director John Ford
John Steinbeck’s classic novel is famously brought to the screen in director John Ford’s Oscar-winning 1940 film. This film is famous for many reasons, including the legendary Ford’s direction, Henry Fonda’s brilliant performance as Tom Joad, and the famous speech in which Tom Joad, leaving his family forever, tells his mother in response to her asking how she will know if he’s all right, “I'll be everywhere. Wherever you can look - wherever there's a fight, so hungry people can eat, I'll be there. Wherever there's a cop beatin' up a guy, I'll be there.” But the singular moment from the film as opposed to the book may be the concluding speech, delivered by the actress Jane Darwell, who portrayed Ma Joad, at the very end of the film. This speech, which wasn’t even in the novel, earned Darwell a Supporting Actress Oscar. As the Joad family drives away at the end of the film, without their eldest son, to find work and simply survive, Ma Joad says, “Rich fellas come up an' they die, an' their kids ain't no good an' they die out. But we keep a'comin'. We're the people that live. They can't wipe us out; they can't lick us. We'll go on forever, Pa, 'cause we're the people.”

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