Max Renn (played by venerable character actor James Woods) is sitting on a couch watching TV, scratching his stomach with the barrel of a handgun. A vagina-like opening appears and he is compelled to insert the weapon. Moments later, the gun is gone and his torso has returned to normal. Did that just happen? Or was it a hallucination?
Distortion of reality has rarely been done with greater finesse than in David Cronenberg’s Videodrome. The classic “art through hardship,” Cronenberg wrote the film as he shot, and was under a lot of pressure to have it completed quickly under the banner of Canadian tax-break funding. The one benefit of that situation was that Cronenberg was given almost complete artistic freedom, and he is one weird dude. The viewer is put directly into the mind of Max Renn, and we are never sure what is real and what is hallucination. An absolute trip, I consider Videodrome to be Cronenberg’s greatest vision come to fruition, from one of the most original filmmakers of all time.
Scarface is probably the most quotable gangster movie courtesy of a hugely over-the-top performance from Al Pacino as Cuban mob boss Tony Montana. Highly controversial at the time of its release, it was slammed for its use of language and violence as Montana left a trail of bodies and blow in his wake. He also left a trail of “fucks”: 207 utterances in total, or an FPM (fucks-per-minute) rating of 1.21. While this wouldn’t raise an eyebrow today, it was pioneering at the time insofar as allowing realistic portrayals of characters’ speech on film. De Palma actually brought in narcotics officers, familiar with real life characters such as these, to convince the ratings board of the dialogue’s authenticity.
It might be not the greatest gangster movie ever, but the pairing of writer Oliver Stone with director Brian de Palma provides enough awesomeness to guarantee a spot in the list.
This is Spinal Tap (1984)
The eponymous English rock band Spinal Tap used to be big news, but have since dropped off the radar into the “where-are-they-now” file. Despite this, they have a brand new record and are going on tour in the United States. The minutiae of their backstage antics are hilariously hammed up but never corny, while the intra-band politics make for amusing but interestingly heartfelt drama.
For many the definitive mockumentary, This is Spinal Tap is a must-see for any music fan. The detail is astounding, and the line between fact and fiction is definitely blurred – the actors who play fictional band Spinal Tap often appear in character for public appearances and have completed world tours.
Only a modest success on release, This is Spinal Tap was one of the earliest films to gain a huge cult following on home video. It has since gone on to develop further in complexity with the Special Edition DVD release that included a full-length audio commentary from the band themselves, and another feature’s worth of extra scenes. It’s one of the few films that you really can watch over and over again and discover something new each time. From the perspective of the musician and/or fan, and all those who appreciate the mockumentary format, I can’t recommend this film highly enough.
Back to the Future (1985)
The ultimate popcorn movie, Back to the Future’s perfectly constructed plot and inspired casting has to be the most fun experience in cinema. In a science experiment gone awry, teenager Marty McFly is sent back to 1955, then unwittingly attracts the attention of his then 17-year-old mother. To ensure he doesn’t alter history, he must reconnect his mother with his future father, and then find a way to return back to his time of 1985.
Michael J Fox was the first choice to play the lead role, but due to scheduling conflicts with his TV series Family Ties, the producers had to default to Eric Stoltz. Four weeks into filming, director Robert Zemeckis realised the only way to make the film work was to get Fox back in the role of Marty McFly, so he delayed production at substantial cost to the studio. When production restarted, many of Fox’s scenes had to be shot at night after he came straight from the Family Ties set, making it an exhausting period in his life. Thankfully that exhaustion did not translate to film, as his energetic performance leaps off the screen, along with that of mad scientist Doc Brown (a once-in-a-lifetime role for Christopher Lloyd).
The Fly (1986)
“Be afraid. Be very afraid.”
Director David Cronenberg’s fresh take on what could have easily been an unremarkable remake* became his breakthrough film. Mel Brooks, famous as a comedy producer, gave Cronenberg free reign to create a new version of the story from the ground up. Given that the director is known as The King of Venereal Horror (horror of the body), simply whacking a rubber fly mask on the lead actor’s head was never an option.
Physicist Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) is experimenting with teleportation between two pods, but during his first human trial a fly enters the first pod, mutating Brundle’s DNA structure with that of fly. When he initially exits the destination pod, it seems as though he has experienced beneficial side effects, but it soon becomes apparent that Brundle is losing his humanity and undergoing a complete transformation. It’s a tour de force from Goldblum, who somehow manages to emote through some pretty full-on prosthetics, and nothing short of genius direction from Cronenberg.
* original film The Fly (1958, Dir. Kurt Neumann)
Withnail & I (1987)
Thank you, George Harrison. He’s one of only two cool Beatles, and he started Handmade Films, the production company responsible for giving us this outstanding piece of cult cinema. Set in London during the late sixties, two unemployed actors (the “elegantly wasted” Withnail and the unnamed “I”) are just hanging around in squalor, getting drunk and high while they fail at life. A frightening story in the newspaper prompts the pair to take a holiday to the countryside, which is not as rejuvenating as they had hoped. Difficult to adequately summarise how good this film really is in words, it’s the fantastic and hilarious dialogue combined with its gritty texture that make Withnail & I an absolute classic of British cinema.
Richard E Grant (Withnail) had never actually been intoxicated in his life due to not possessing the enzyme that processes alcohol, yet somehow managed to play a convincing alcoholic for the duration of the film. This surely had more to do with Grant’s quality as an actor rather than director Bruce Robinson forcing him to drink a bottle of champagne on the last day of rehearsals. Grant said it took him an entire night to force the bottle down, as he threw up after every drink prior to passing out for 24 hours. Upon waking he described the experience as “deeply unpleasant.”
Full Metal Jacket (1987)
The world has become morally bankrupt, and has no qualms with brainwashing its inhabitants into merciless killers. That is the war in Vietnam through Stanley Kubrick’s lens, and it is not easy to watch. We start at bootcamp, following a small group of grunts as they are tormented by a believably terrifying drill sergeant (former real-life marine Ronald Lee Ermey). Half way through the film we are dropped into Vietnam, where death is just a part of the day, and the reaction to it is minimal. The point is that war is pointless, and Kubrick’s technical mastery delivers this message with manipulative excellence. Full Metal Jacket is intense, horrific, and expertly crafted, and its haunting realism will draw you in and never let you forget it.
Die Hard (1988)
Arguably the best Christmas movie ever, Die Hard succeeds on so many levels where most contemporary action blockbusters fail. Starring Bruce Willis as everyman NYPD detective John McClane, his wife’s office Christmas party is taken hostage by a group of German terrorists, and McClane is the only hope to save them. A drum tight script that presents realistic challenges along the way, the character relationships develop and we genuinely care about what happens to them. With the perfect combination of tension and humour courtesy of a superb performance from Willis, forget the belated sequels and go back to see the original Die Hard. And do it at Christmas time so you can get some of the warm and fuzzies.
Tracking the rise and fall of real-life mobster Henry Hill, included in the budget for Goodfellas was a payment of $480,000 prior to production for the use of his name and story. Based on the book Wiseguy by Nicholas Pileggi, director Martin Scorcese said he was attracted to the source material due to its honest portrayal of mob lifestyle. Working with Pileggi on the screenplay, Scorcese convinced him that they didn’t need to follow a traditional narrative structure, instead cutting around time periods for maximum impact.
The casting has been praised, right down to its lesser parts, as the actors thoroughly researched their roles in the lead up to production. Starring Robert De Niro, Ray Liotta and Joe Pesci, they are supported by impressively stylised direction from Scorcese, who employed everything in the cinematographer’s arsenal to produce a completely engaging look for the film. Goodfellas is a brutal insight into the mob lifestyle, but an unmissable one.
FPM rating: 2.06
Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse (1991)
See earlier (The Godfather, 1972) for Francis Ford Coppola’s unbending drive to maintain his artistic vision. This film, shot with unprecedented access by his wife, is the story behind the making of Apocalypse Now (1979)
Apocalypse Now is one of the most famous “troubled-shoots” in history. Shot on location in the Phillipines, Coppola had to pour vast sums of his own money into the production while hurricanes ravaged the sets, military interfered with supplies, and the lead actor nearly died. We get insight into the mind of one of the greatest filmmakers ever as he fights with his own demons and those over which he has no control. If you have your doubts about the importance and relevance of the auteur theory, this is the documentary that you need to see.