Like everyone else these days, I have a lot of leisure time. And like everyone else, I spend a lot of time thinking.
Also like a lot of people, particularly those in my age group, my mind inevitably wanders to mistakes and regrets. My worst errors and transgressions are not properly a subject for this column. But these are: after fourteen years as a film critic for Scene4, what great movies did I neglect to review, and which films did I overrate or underrate?
As a monthly reviewer, I have let a lot of films slip between the cracks—far too many to mention. Because I only see first-run movies as money and schedule permit, there are many worthy films I miss on first release. This includes the latest movie I saw on Netflix DVD: The Lighthouse, Robert Eggers' phantasmagorical tale of two 19th-century lighthouse keepers (Willem Dafoe, Robert Pattinson) slowly growing mad together on an island off the coast of Maine. At a time of quarantine, the cramped and fetid circumstances of the lighthouse keepers' existence take on special urgency.
I also did not see Josh and Benny Safdie's Uncut Gems until after it moved to Netflix streaming. Uncut Gems is just as claustrophobic and hallucinatory as The Lighthouse, but vastly more frenetic. Adam Sandler burns through the screen as Howard Ratner, a New York jeweler and high-stakes sports gambler who bets he can wipe out his debts through the sale of a rare, uncut black opal. The world of Howard Ratner, laced with cocaine and hit men, makes GoodFellas look sedate.
I also failed to review Armando Iannucci's The Death of Stalin on its first release, largely because it stayed in theaters for about two minutes. A very different film from Uncut Gems, but just as dire in its own way, The Death of Stalin concerns the jockeying for power among Stalin's henchmen after the dictator's passing. Besides the beguiling casting of such actors as Steve Buscemi (as Khrushchev) and Michael Palin (as Molotov), The Death of Stalin allows Iannucci to use his disillusioned wit to comment on one of the worst tyrannies in world history. The Death of Stalin is what Veep would have been if Selina Meyer had been a murderous sociopath instead of a mere narcissist.
Often I didn't review movies because they didn't fit the theme I chose for that month's column. So I don't remember why I did not review, in tandem, two brilliant 2013 films on the subject of being stranded in deadly peril. These were J.C. Chandor's All is Lost, featuring a remarkable performance by Robert Redford as a sailor attempting to sail solo around the world, and Gravity, Alfonso Cuaron's multiple Oscar winner starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney as astronauts marooned in space. I also can't tell you why I neglected to review Django Unchained, Quentin Tarantino's delightfully incendiary act of revenge on antebellum slaveowners, while I reviewed the two Tarantino films that bookended it, Inglourious Basterds and The Hateful Eight.
Sometimes I didn't review movies because they sternly resisted my efforts to write anything about them. Thus it was with two films by the always-challenging Coen Brothers. Their 2009 film A Serious Man concerns Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), a Minnesota physics professor who is a modern-day Job, afflicted in every aspect of his life; Inside Llewyn Davis, released in 2013, is a week in the circular and karma-filled life of the title character (Oscar Isaac), a folksinger of moderate talent and infinite self-regard. I admire both films, but I can't really say I like them. They are impregnable cinematic fortresses, as perfect and frigid as ice sculptures.
Of the movies I did review, which ones did I get wrong? Considering my index of reviews, I find a movie or two I like a little better than I did at first (Fracture) and one or two I don't like quite as well (La La Land, Hope Springs), Despite my slight change of feelings, I think my reviews of them stand as written. However, there are two films that, although I reviewed them favorably, I criticized in ways I now regret.
My October 2016 review of Matt Ross' Captain Fantastic was generally enthusiastic, especially toward the performances of Viggo Mortensen, Frank Langella, and George MacKay. However, I condemned the film's last twenty minutes as "the Partridge Family on acid." That judgment was based on a couple of plot twists I disliked. Reconsidering the story, I realize my objections were based on my own prejudices, and the story's end makes perfect sense for this set of characters. In any case, I retract the judgment.
In my February 2018 column, I said the following of Martin McDonagh's Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri: "The film makes you jittery in ways that aren't entirely enjoyable, and which the coda doesn't entirely assuage…Three Billboards can only be recommended to fans of the very darkest black comedy." Translation: "I wasn't in the mood to see a Martin McDonagh movie that day." I don't know why I wasn't prepared; I had already seen McDonagh's movie In Bruges and his play The Cripple of Inishmaan, so I already knew his trademark blend of bloody mayhem and tender sympathy toward his characters. In a way McDonagh resembles Quentin Tarantino, but characters such as Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) and Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell) have a psychological depth that is closer to (though generally funnier than) the characters in Ingmar Bergman. When I saw Three Billboards again recently, it appeared to me
as what it always was: a masterpiece. I included Three Billboards on my list of the best films of the 2010s, so I hope that makes amends.
Speaking of that best films list, which I published in February 2020, it originally included thirty films. The next month I reviewed Sam Mendes' 1917 and Peter Jackson's They Shall Not Grow Old, and said they too would have been on my list had I seen them before making it. Still later I added a film I had originally overlooked: Debra Granik's Winter's Bone. Going through my index, I was chastened once again by seeing two more films that deserve to be on the list, standing next to each other alphabetically: Incendies, Denis Villeneuve's Middle Eastern tragedy, and Christopher Nolan's mind-bending thriller Inception. There are perhaps a dozen more movies clamoring to make the list, but I must draw the line somewhere. Anyway, instead of thirty best movies of the past decade, I now have thirty-five.
After I published my column on the cinema's great insane characters, I received several notes from readers about the outstanding movie lunatics I neglected to mention. Of them, there are seven I feel especially embarrassed at forgetting.
Having mentioned the Coen Brothers' mad characters several times, I cannot understand how I could have forgotten Charlie Meadows (John Goodman), the affable insurance salesman who really is the evil decapitator Karl "Madman" Mundt, in Barton Fink. And, having mentioned both Hitchcock and cinematic madwomen, I am mortified at having not listed the obsessive Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson) whose fealty to the memory of the dead Rebecca leads her to attempted murder, arson, and suicide.
Another great obsessive character was Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb) in Otto Preminger's Laura,although to say more about him is to reveal too much about the character and the story, even three-quarters of a century after the film's release. And another great madwoman—indeed, the great madwoman of the movies—is Baby Jane Hudson, played all out by Bette Davis in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? Whether feeding rats to her disabled sister Blanche (Joan Crawford) or singing "I've Written a Letter to Daddy," Davis is—well—madly entertaining.
I am especially embarrassed that I forgot two great actors playing three great roles. Max Cady, the amiably vicious villain of Cape Fear, seeks vengeance against honorable district attorney Sam Bowden, played by Gregory Peck, in J. Lee Thompson's 1962 version, and against deeply flawed district attorney Sam Bowden, played by Nick Nolte, in Martin Scorsese's 1991 remake.
It's a matter of personal taste whether you prefer the sleepy-eyed menace of Robert Mitchum in Thompson's movie or the buzzsaw intensity of Robert De Niro in Scorsese's. But both actors rank among the greatest cinematic berserkers of all time, and each has a signature role beyond Cape Fear to prove it.
De Niro had one of the towering roles of the 1970s as Travis Bickle in Scorsese's 1976 film, Taxi Driver. The ultimate estranged loner, Bickle walks the thin line between assassin and hero, protector and creep. His "You talkin' to me?" monologue has become an iconic representation of urban alienation.
An even greater role, in my opinion, was Mitchum's as Rev. Harry Powell in The Night of the Hunter, Charles Laughton's only film as a director. The 1955 film, written for the screen by Laughton and James Agee from a novel by Davis Grubb, takes place during the Great Depression on the West Virginia side of the Ohio River. Powell, an ex-convict and self-proclaimed minister, searches obsessively for the $10,000 stolen in a bank robbery. Finding Willa Harper (Shelley Winters), widow of the robber Ben Harper (Peter Graves), he marries her and—discovering she has no idea where the money is—kills her.
That leaves Willa's small children John (Billy Chapin) and Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce), who do know where the money is. John and Pearl escape in a rowboat; Powell hunts them, committing a few random murders along the way. This leads to Powell's final confrontation with the children's eventual protector, farm widow Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish).
This is too paltry a description of The Night of the Hunter, a film that mingles beauty and terror in a way rarely seen in the cinema. A flop on its first release, The Night of the Hunter was voted the second-greatest film of all time, behind only Citizen Kane, in a 2008 poll conducted by Cahiers du Cinema. (Personally, I prefer The Night of the Hunter.) The film's glories are manifold, but Mitchum's performance—a marvel of barely concealed, volcanic danger—is high among them. His singing of the revival hymn, "Leaning on the Everlasting Arm," is the film's musical motif; the hymn is supremely ironic, given the threat Powell represents, and becomes ever more unnerving as the story progresses.
The final faceoff between Powell and Rachel Cooper is unforgettable. Gish is Mitchum's equal, rivaling The Passion of Joan of Arc's Maria Falconetti for the portrayal of moral splendor on screen. Together she and Mitchum come across as the absolute representations of Good and Evil.
Yet despite the glories of Powell, Bickle, and Cady, my choice for the greatest cinematic madman of all time remains intact. Come up and receive your award, Elwood P. Dowd. Perhaps Harvey wants to say a few words, too.