T. Kearny Vertner, III
My Top 5: Movies
Something on the lighter side for a change.
After a week of heavy topics, I thought it was worth looking at something more fun: my top five favorite movies of all time. Before you judge, keep in mind that these aren't necessarily the best movies, and they don't mean that I can't enjoy completely unrelated films. What makes these my top five is that they are movies that I can always watch and enjoy, no matter what. Without further ado, let's get into it!
#5. Clerks. A quintessentially 90s film about a day in the life of Dante Hicks and his endless stream of wickedly-written banter with his best friend Randal Graves, while they toil away at their hopelessly dead-end clerk jobs and ponder their similarly dead-end lives. Clerks marks the 1994 debut of Kevin Smith as a writer, director, actor, and co-producer as part of what would later be known as the View Askewniverse, named for the Smith's production company, View Askew. Arguably Smith's best work, this black-and-white modern classic is overflowing with quotable lines, compelling narratives, and relatable characters. At one point in my life, it was spectacularly on the nose: I clerked at a convenience store while my best friend clerked at the next door video rental store. While we never shut down for a hockey game on the roof, and our dialogue was never quite as witty, I still felt a certain kinship with Dante. "I'm not even supposed to be here today!"
#4. John Wick. This initial entry into the increasingly drawn-out action franchise is astounding. Starring Keanu Reeves, John Wick (2014) begins with a reasonably simple vengeance story but slowly draws you into an increasingly bizarre hidden world while keeping you on the edge of your seat with a pounding soundtrack, wild visuals, and action scenes that are nothing short of performance art. What sets it so far apart from other action films is the lack of exposition regarding the world and characters director Chad Stahelski introduces; because all of the characters already understand and accept the rules of this apparently vast criminal underworld, there's no time spent on walking you through it. The audience is left figuring out the rules as they go. That element of discovery made this one special and was, unfortunately (though predictably) lacking in the sequels. Another novel aspect was its realism. Stahelski's background as a stuntman and Reeve's extensive marksmanship training showed through as the movie shed standard action movie tropes of main character plot armor (as we watch the titular character show increasing damage throughout) and endless ammo (where the process of constant reloading added small moments of tension to a fight). The plot is simple, but the complexity found in learning about Wick's underworld in between some of the best fight choreography in a decade makes this one an easy pick.
#3. The Professional. Thank goodness for Clerks kicking this list off or you'd probably be wondering why there are so many assassins (with a heart of gold) on this list. Released in 1994, French director Luc Besson smashed The Professional out of the park. Besson reportedly wanted to further explore Jean Reno's cleaner (hitman) character from their previous film, La Femme Nikita, and Reno delivers. Joining him is a young Natalie Portman (in her debut role), Danny Aiello, and Gary Oldman as a delightfully psychotic rogue DEA agent. This movie has a fantastic atmosphere with a robust paternalistic message and a coming-of-age story for a young girl; both were unusual for films of its time. It flirts with - but ultimately rejects - a Lolita-esque conflation of paternal and romantic love, which drew some ire from folks when it was released and resulted in some minor edits. I love how it bravely tackles some challenging human relationship struggles while throwing some creative and emotionally-compelling action scenes at you. Reno's performance is easily one of his best, and the rest of the cast is just completely stellar.
#2. Ronin. To quote comedian Dane Cook, "What does every man want more than sex? That's right... to be part of a heist." Ronin (1998) gives us exactly that kind of thrill. Directed by the legendary John Frankenheimer and starring actors from around the globe (Robert DeNiro, Jean Reno, Natascha McElhone, Stellan Skarsgård, Sean Bean, and Jonathan Pryce), the plot starts simply: get the MacGuffin - a briefcase - from some unnamed criminal (or governmental) group. As any good heist should, it quickly devolves into double-crossing, gunfights, car chases, international intrigue, and the inexorable question of, "what's in the case?" Speaking of car chases, these are easily some of the best in cinema, with incredible exterior camera work, realistic vehicle operation when focused inside of the car (watch closely as DeNiro correctly executes a J-turn!), and playful foreshadowing throughout. This is the movie that arguably should have put the sleeper Audi S8 sedan on the map, yet sales never picked up. The euro atmosphere in this movie is thick and matches the cast perfectly, with DeNiro as a thoroughly American cultural foil throughout. On a personal note, I saw it shortly after spending a summer touring Western Europe, so a lot of the film's feel was intensely nostalgic for me. Beyond all of the great action, the Frankenheimer fills the plot with a calm political complexity that moves it beyond the gunfights and car chases; it is definitely worth your time.
#1. The Big Lebowski. What more needs to be said? One of the best movies of all time. Written, produced, and directed by the now-infamous Coen brothers, The Big Lebowski (1998) is a cinematic masterpiece. Starting with an amazing cast in some of their best roles, this bizarre story doesn't stop getting wilder, yet never strays from the humble, simple roots of a dude on a quest to be reimbursed for the damage to his rug. This is one of those movies whose quotes, memes, and memories are larger than the film itself. While I have not attended a Lebowski-fest or joined the "slowest-growing religion in the world," Dudeism, I still count myself as a stalwart fan. I can't explain why I love this movie. I won't explain it. Stop reading this blog right now and watch it. I don't care if you've already seen it, watch it again. I'll wait.
BONUS: Hackers. I know this is a "Top 5" post, but I couldn't possibly leave this one off. Hackers (1995) is a spectacularly awful film starring Johnny Lee Miller and Angelina Jolie (in the role that arguably put her on the map) with Fisher Stevens (not wearing brownface) as The Plague. What I can't help but love about this film are its hilariously-compelling characters and how disastrous the writing is. It was to computers in the 90s what The Fast and The Furious (2001) was to cars: complete nonsense to anyone who understands anything remotely technical about the source material. Despite how awful this film is, it took an entire hidden sub-culture and brought it close enough to the mainstream that it inspired hundreds of thousands more to explore the idea of hacking and what it meant to be a hacker, yours truly included. While everything about this movie is utterly preposterous, there's a good reason it's shown every year at DEF CON. Unlike my #1, don't watch this. It's absolute trash. And I love it.