List: Greatest Female Acting Performances

Last week, I published a post about the films of Meryl Streep. This week, I thought through the best acting performances I have seen, wondering how many times Meryl would show up. She shows up once in the top 25 performances I will list here but I will consider making a longer list in the future, which will include, I’m sure, much more of her work. For now, here the 25 best female acting performances that I have seen on film.

25. Greta Garbo, Ninotchka (1939)

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24. Audrey Hepburn, Roman Holiday (1953)

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23. Katharine Hepburn, On Golden Pond (1981)

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22. Bjork, Dancer in the Dark (2000)

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21. Diane Keaton, The Godfather Part II (1974)

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20. Irene Dunn, I Remember Mama (1948)

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19. Nancy Kelly, The Bad Seed (1956) 

 

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18. Elizabeth Taylor, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)

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17. Ingrid Bergman, Gaslight (1944)

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16. Bette Davis, All about Eve (1950)

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15. Judy Garland, A Star Is Born (1954)

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14. Janet Gaynor, Sunrise (1927)

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13. Anne Baxter, All about Eve (1950)

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12. Olivia De Havilland, The Snake Pit (1948)

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11. Rita Hayworth, Gilda (1946)

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10. Angela Lansbury, The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

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9. Marion Cotillard, La vie en rose (2007)

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8. Maria Falconetti, The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)

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7. Meryl Streep, Sophie’s Choice (1982)

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6. Shirley MacLaine, The Children’s Hour (1961)

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5. Whoopie Goldberg, The Color Purple (1985)

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4. Bette Davis, Now, Voyager (1942)

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3. Vivian Leigh, A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)

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2. Gloria Swanson, Sunset Blvd. (1950)

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1. Vivian Leigh, Gone with the Wind (1939)

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Ben-Hur (1959)

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With the new version Lew Wallace’s novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ set to hit theaters this weekend, I revisited William Wyler’s classic version (the second of three versions of the novel; I have yet to see the first from 1925) last weekend. While best known for its long, exhilarating chariot scene pictured above, undoubtedly one of the greatest scenes in film history, and its many historical problems (extremely white cast with modern American language and cultural values infused), Wyler’s version is a masterpiece from beginning to end. It may be far from a perfect reconstruction of the history of ancient Palestine, but it it does accomplish at least one of its goals with perfection.

This version of Ben-Hur takes its audience into an immersive journey not into the history or culture of another time but into a conflict. The fictional character Judah Ben-Hur is representative of the many Jews in poverty and oppression at the hands of Rome during the time of Christ. Judah hears about the ministry of a man who some think may be the Messiah their nation has hoped for; he briefly encounters Jesus in an early scene in the film but does not realize who it is. His life is one of slavery and marginalization. His attitude is a paradoxical mix of determination and hopelessness. He is determined to do whatever it takes to set set his family free from the grasp of Roman cruelty, but he is hopeless because all the evidence of his experience seems to point him toward concession that the divine promises to Israel his people held so dear would not be fulfilled.

Judah’s fight is centered on his relationship with the childhood friend Messala, a Roman who became tribune. Judah believed that as tribune, Messala would stand for the rights of the Jewish people because of the perceived strong bond shared by the two. Within the first few minutes of the movie, we find this to be completely false. Judah is faced with a new, more personal enemy who represents the enemy he was already familiar with (the Roman government). Centered on this relationship, Wyler creates a film epic that is both majestic in the visual experience it gives and intimate in its character development.

The intimacy is necessary since Judah represents a large section of the Jewish population of the Roman Empire at the time and Messala represents the entirety of the oppressive government for the sake of the story and because the novel’s subtitle is “A Tale of the Christ.” This is a huge story, a huge conflict that the film brings its audience into. By scaling this down to two characters as representatives of a much more complex and very real conflict, we can feel both Judah’s determination and hopelessness. Only in the last twenty minutes of the film does Judah have his second encounter with Jesus. He witnesses the crucifixion, and through this scene and what follows, we are able to see how the ministry of Jesus is concurrent with Judah’s conflict and has impacted and transformed his very existence and given victory within that conflict (both for Judah and for all of his people), even prior to Judah’s knowledge of it.

My hope is that the film released next week will have learned from some of the problems found in this version, as mentioned above. With a cast of actors who all look like they’re from the same parts of the world as their characters and with over fifty years of scholarly advancements in understanding the culture of the time, the filmmakers had everything necessary available to make this possible. Also, it seems that the writers followed the novel in its emphasis on forgiveness over the 1959 version’s emphasis on battle and vindication. However, no matter how well they have done any of this and no matter how great a film the forthcoming adaptation may be, it will never be a replacement for William Wyler’s great achievement. The balancing act of epic and intimacy keeps the film constantly entertaining for its entire 3 and 1/2 hour running time regardless of any of its flaws. And then, of course, there is the chariot race.

Stumble AlertBen-Hur maintains a G-rating from the MPAA which is ridiculous considering the amount of violence in it. It is 1959 American-movie violence, so there is nothing graphic or too disturbing, but it is certainly not appropriate for children as the G-rating implies.

Watch Ben-Hur: Both 1925 and 1959 versions are available from all major online rental and streaming sources, each for $2.99.

List: The Films of Meryl Streep

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Excited over the release of Florence Foster Jenkins this weekend, here is a list of the Meryl Streep films I have seen so far. The “mighty Meryl” is indeed an actress like no other, with characters so disparate many of them seem to have nothing in common with another (from the tortured Holocaust victim in Sophie’s Choice to the giddy, simple-minded singer in A Prairie Home Companion). But this does not mean she is consistent. In addition to the work that legitimates her high status in the film industry, she has produced her share of lackluster performances. For each film represented on this list, I will give a grade for Meryl’s acting, not for the film as a whole.

The Deer Hunter (1978) C

Meryl inexplicably received her first Oscar nomination for this Vietnam film. She has an exceptionally small role, appearing only in the first few scenes before the main characters go to war. To give a grade to this performance is probably inappropriate since she doesn’t have room to show any talent or lack thereof through this performance. I give it the grade I do, only because of the ridiculous acclaim generally given to such a small, incidental performance.

Manhattan (1979) A-

Meryl first showed her ability for comedic greatness as Woody Allen’s first girlfriend seen in the course of the film. Her scenes with Woody continue the tradition he started two years earlier in Annie Hall. The conversations between these two, however, are even more intelligent, funnier, and began to establish Meryl’s potential for greatness in comedy.

Kramer vs. Kramer (1979) A+

The earliest movie to demonstrate a little of what we have come to know as the great talent that is Meryl Streep, Kramer vs. Kramer allowed her the opportunity to balance compassion with deep flaws. Her character Joanna makes decisions that immediately make her appear to be an unfit mother, what her ex-husband’s lawyer tries to prove. Because the movie never really offers an opinion regarding whether or not she should gain custody of her son, she walks a tightrope. She plays a character who believes she’s a fit mother but many of the people around her do not; she shows us both why other people believe she’s not and why she believes she is. She supports the purpose of the writers and the directors as she allows the audience to make up their own minds regarding the question at hand.

The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1981) A+

A very unique film, director Karel Reisz offers two stories in one: it is both an adaptation of the groundbreaking John Fowles novel with multiple endings and a story about a fictionalized attempt to create a film adaptation of the novel. Meryl plays plays two characters—both the Fowler character Sarah Woodruff and the actress playing Sarah. She is required to juggle these two roles in a way that allows the two to become enmeshed as one, showing the creative process actors often take to place themselves in their characters.

Sophie’s Choice (1982) A+

In her greatest performance to date, Meryl plays a Holocaust survivor attempting to write of her experiences. We see the titular “choice” she is forced to make in Auschwitz between the lives of her two children in flashback, revealed slowly. As an actress, Meryl beautifully shows two very different stages in the character’s life, both the events unspeakable trauma and a much later reflection on the trauma.

Silkwood (1983) B+

Meryl does an excellent job of showing physical and emotional strength as the real-life activist for fellow workers in a plutonium plant subject to workplace corruption that has caused contamination and cancer on many employees and the ultimate weakness caused from her own sickness. However, the movie’s meandering prevents her from being as great as she have been in this role.

Out of Africa (1985) B+

A beautiful looking epic with great romantic chemistry between Meryl Streep and Robert Redford, Meryl is solid as usual at this point in her career but is just not as risky a role as the previous ones mentioned. Both Streep and Redford, though the films lead, play second fiddle to the film’s gloriously shot cinematography and the supporting performance of Klaus Maria Brandaur.

Postcards from the Edge (1990) A

Like in The French Lieutenant’s Woman, here Meryl plays an actress. Her character is a fictionalized version of Carrie Fisher and deals with her relationship with her also-famous mother, her addiction, and her loveless affairs. Meryl’s transformation into another well-known actress is also a descent from fame, wealth, and the perception of success into addiction and despair.

Defending Your Life (1991) D

In Albert Brooks’ unfunny comedy about an afterlife courtroom, Meryl does exactly what the title suggests. Unfortunately, there is never a moment when her defense for why she should go to heaven is remotely enjoyable. This is mostly a fault of Brooks’ writing (which is usually wonderful, but not here). There is really nothing to say about Meryl’s acting except that she is as boring as the rest of the film.

Dancing at Lughnasa (1998) C

As a stern schoolteacher who lives with her sisters in 1930s Ireland, Meryl is given an opportunity to shine in two different worlds (one domineering and one being dominated). However, she never offers any conviction that anything is really at stake for her character in either aspect of her life.

One True Thing (1998) C-

While she is believable as a cancer patient, many actors have been. They have also played a character, which Meryl did not really do here. She showed how horrible cancer is, but she did nothing more than that.

Music of the Heart (1999) F

If real-life music teacher Roberta Guaspari were really as irritable, as mean, and as careless as Meryl portrays her, she could not have had any positive impact on her students as the film claims. Meryl acts more like a representative of the Gestapo than a caring yet stern teacher. She gives us no compelling reason to accept Roberta as a good teacher as the movie tries to communicate. In addition to some terrible acting on Meryl’s part, the overall film is very possibly the worst movie I have ever seen.

Adaptation (2002) A-

Meryl got back on track at the turn of the century with a performance detailing obsession. Playing an author who studies the obsessive actions of an orchid thief, she herself becomes obsessed with the thief and with the prospect of her book being adapted into a movie. Her descent from relative normalcy into absolute obsession is fascinating, dark, and awe-inspiring. The only problem (and it’s not really a problem at all but the justification for my grade of her performance) is how far she’s out-shined by the acting of Chris Cooper and Nicholas Cage.

The Manchurian Candidate (2004) F

While not nearly as bad of a movie as Music of the Heart, the worst performance I have seen Meryl give is in Jonathan Demme’s remake of the 1962 classic. Granted, she had a lot to live up to given Angela Lansbury’s terrifying performance in the original. Meryl, however, came off more like a successful  politician than a villain. In the scene, where the story’s incestuous subplot is revealed, she makes her character appear more like a jealous lover than the abusive mother the character really is. Meryl’s acting confuses the story and prevents her fellow actors (especially Denzel Washington and Live Schreiver) from being their best (and they’re both very good in this film).

The Devil Wears Prada (2006) C-

Like in the previous film, her character here is supposed to be quite nefarious as the title suggests, but she plays her character more like a moody and spoiled teenager. Her attitudes against other people are just annoying; it’s difficult to see how any real harm can come from this character. Sure, she thinks she can ruin other peoples’ careers, but she never shows that she cares enough about her own career or is threatened enough by others to actually want to. She provides no motivation for her characters’ actions and does not add any depth to this thin-pointless story.

A Prairie Home Companion (2006) A+

Here Meryl gives her funniest performance to date, and also her most underrated. Singing with her sisters on a radio show (a fictionalized version of the real Garrison Keillor radio show that the movie is named after) and trying to reignite a relationship with the show’s host (known only as GK) that had been over for about forty years, every movement Meryl makes is delightful. She plays with her hair in ways that tell us what her character is thinking and feeling. Her perfect Minnesota accent, her constant delivery of stories that have no endings, and her singing are so perfectly time that if this were her only film, it would be a wonder she was never a regular cast member of SNL.

Doubt (2008) A+

A strict nun and teacher, Meryl’s character likes to show her rough exterior, making wild and dangerous accusations against others, even to the point of accusing her priest of sexually assaulting children that she taught. The story uses every appearance of this rough exterior to show us how she uses it to try to escape from her own doubt. Meryl shows the inner turmoil of her character marvelously in every second of this remarkable film written and directed by John Patrick Shanley.

Mama Mia (2008) F

After showing how wonderful her singing can be through scenes in SilkwoodPostcards from the Edge, and A Prairie Home Companion, she made her first musical in 2008. Both her singing and acting are better than Pierce Brosnin’s but that’s about all that can be said for her. Like her performance in The Devil Wears Prada, she makes her character nothing more than annoying.

Julie and Julia (2009) A+

Meryl never approached her role as Julia Child as mere imitation. She embodies the larger-than-life persona, so that Julia’s eccentricities are always seen as flowing out of the intricacies of her personality and her life experience, not just something to be laughed at. Nevertheless, Julia and Julia is a hilarious movie because of the deep compassion Meryl uses in bringing to life such a quirky and enjoyable person.

The Iron Lady (2011) B

Contrary to what she did in Julia and Julia, Meryl approached her portrayal of Margaret Thatcher as an imitation of exactly what we have come to expect from Margaret Thatcher. She does the imitation so well that I can’t fault her for it, but because of her lack of nuance, it puzzles me that she won her third Oscar for this film (Michelle Williams should have won for My Week with Marylin) when her nominated performances in both Doubt and Julia and Julia towered above her competitors (with Kate Winslet in The Reader and Sandra Bullock in The Blind Side as the winners in the respective years).

Hope Springs (2012) A-

As a woman who feels completely alone in her marriage, Meryl gave one of her most heart-felt performance. She constantly brings the audience into her character’s deep urgency for her husband’s attention and intimacy. She approaches every one of her character’s desperate moves with caution and empathy. This is probably the most relatable character she has played.

August: Osage County (2013) A+

Following a character and film with so much heart, Meryl went to the polar opposite side with August: Osage County, playing her most unlikable character to date. She screams constantly, threatens and demeans everyone in her presence (imagine a female, cancer-stricken Donald Trump and you’ve got this character). What’s so remarkable about Meryl’s performance is that in spite of this, she approaches the character in a way that demonstrates sympathy for her. She doesn’t allow her to be caricatured as I did with my Donald Trump comparison. She helps us see (even better than the story’s progression does) why her character is the way she is and how depressing her deprived existence is.

Into the Woods (2014) A+

Meryl’s witch in this Rob Marshall musical is a mix of good and evil, the center of this fractured fairy tale that attempts to show what life is like for fairy tale characters after the “happily ever after.” Actually, there’s not much happy about their lives at all but there is a lot about life to learn (the original purpose of Grimm’s fairy tales which were astoundingly dark and terrifying; this film reaches much closer to those roots than the tamed versions of  fairy tales recent generations have been exposed to). Meryl approaches the witch more as a teacher than as what most of us think of when we hear the word “witch.” That doesn’t mean she’s good though, but there is good to be learned through her. Meryl walks a very fine tightrope to pull that off as splendidly as she does.

 

E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)

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Steven Spielberg has famously said that E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial is his most personal movie because it is a movie about divorce. I assume in saying this, he means that making E.T. helped him process aspects of own childhood and find new levels of healing as a victim of divorce in his childhood. To refer to E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial as a movie about divorce as Spielberg does, however, is to make it sound like a depressing, hopeless experience of the trauma that divorce is for children. To the contrary, it is about the possibility of having needs met that have been neglected as a result of divorce. It is about the reality that healing and hope are possible and available, often from the most unlikely of sources. It is about the relationship between childhood fantasy and that healing.

Elliot and his siblings are always portrayed as normal children. They don’t seem to be defined by their parents’ divorce. They have a great mother who does her best for them in every circumstance. They appear to be healthy and generally happy. Nevertheless, they have a huge void left by their father who abandoned the family to be with another woman. Parent-figures trying to heroically fill the gaps left by absent parents are common fixtures in film history going back to the silent era (Charles Chaplin’s The Kid is an especially great example). What makes E.T. so special is that E.T. never tries to be a parent-figure; he never tries to fill Elliot’s father’s space, but he does help to meet Elliot’s needs.

Instead of being a father-figure for Elliot, E.T. is his friend. E.T. feels just as lost and confused being away from his family as Elliot does without his father. The two share those feelings and begin to navigate the world together. They provide an example of the healing power inherent in friendship. Elliot and E.T. teach each other to love; they sacrifice for each other; they show themselves willing to even give up their lives for each other. When they are capable of knowing what is best for the other, they make room for that regardless of any painful feelings involved. They offer each other hope to be able to grow up and live in an uncertain world, moving beyond the traumatic experiences that marred their early years. We finish the movie knowing that they have equipped each other to live long, productive, joyous lives because of what they shared in the few short weeks in which the movie takes place.

E.T. and Elliot have a friendship like none other portrayed in film. I say this not because it is between a human and an alien but because it is so real, so human, so rare. Busyness, distractions, and various kinds of hurts and fears too often hinder us from giving ourselves to other people in truest friendship and from receiving that same kind of friendship. E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial is one of the most inspiring films ever made because it so beautifully shows what the love between friends can look like. It shows the reality that true friendship can help bring emotional healing, can meet needs that others have neglected, and being sacrificial in nature can even portray a picture of the divine friendship intended between God and humanity.

“Stumble” Alert: You may want to take caution before watching this movie with your child, especially if he/she is prone to repeat things heard. There is a scene of sibling rivalry at its most hilarious, where Elliot calls his brother a vulgarity (“penis breath” to be exact) that is timed so perfectly, it’s one of the funniest lines in film history but may not be appropriate for more impressionable ears. There are also several scenes that the youngest of viewers may find quite frightening, but in most situations it serves as great family viewing with some profound life lessons.

Related Reviews:

Steven Spielberg’s The Color Purple (1985)

List: DGA Best Directed Movie of Each Year

In celebration of the Directors Guild of America’s 80th anniversary, I am posting the winner of their annual award honoring the best directed film of the year. Along with each winning film, I will provide my grade for that film’s direction along with my choice for the best directed film of the year if different from the DGA’s.

The DGA Awards began in 1948, but because this is a celebration of their 80th anniversary, I will begin with my picks in 1936 to cover the full 80 years, making up for the first 13 years of the organization prior to the inception of their award.

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1936: Charles Chaplin, Modern Times

1937: Victor Fleming, Captains Courageous

1938: Jean Renoir, Grand Illusion

1939: Victor Fleming, The Wizard of Oz

1940: Alfred Hitchcock, Rebecca

1941: Orson Welles, Citizen Kane

1942: Michael Curtiz, Casablanca

1943: Alfred Hitchcock, Shadow of a Doubt

1944: Alfred Hitchcock, Lifeboat

1945: Billy Wilder, The Lost Weekend

1946: William Wyler, The Best Years of Our Lives

1947: William Powell & Emeric Pressburger, Black Narcissus

The beginning of the DGA Awards

1948: Joseph L. Mankiewicz, A Letter to Three Wives (A); My choice: John Huston, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

1949: Robert Rossen, All the King’s Men (A+); My choice: Stanley Donen,  On the Town

1950: Joseph L. Mankiewicz, All about Eve (A+); My choice: Billy Wilder, Sunset Blvd.

1951: George Stevens, A Place in the Sun (A+); My choice: Akira Kurosawa, Rashomon

1952: John Ford, The Quiet Man (A); My choice: Stanley Donen, Singin’ in the Rain

1953: Fred Zinnemann, From Here to Eternity (D); My choice: Billy Wilder, Stalag 17 

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1954: Elia Kazan, On the Waterfront (A+); I agree.

1955: Delbert Mann, Marty (A-); My choice: Nicholas Ray, Rebel without a Cause

1956: George Stevens, Giant (F); My choice: Stanley Kubrick, The Killing

1957: David Lean, The Bridge on the Rive Kwai (C+); My choice: Sidney Lumet, 12 Angry Men

1958: Vincente Minnelli, Gigi (B-); My choice: Alfred Hitchcock, Vertigo

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1959: William Wyler, Ben-Hur (A+); I agree

1960: Billy Wilder, The Apartment (A+); My choice: Alfred Hitchcock, Psycho

1961: Robert Wise, West Side Story (F); My choice: Stanley Kramer, Judgment at Nuremberg

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1962: David Lean, Lawrence of Arabia (A+); I agree

1963: Tony Richardson, Tom Jones (C+); My choice: Federico Fellini, 8 1/2

1964: George Cukor, My Fair Lady (B); My choice: Robert Stevenson, Mary Poppins

1965: Robert Wise, The Sound of Music (B-); My choice: Jacque Demy, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg

1966: Fred Zinnemann, A Man for All Seasons (C-); My choice: Mike Nichols, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

1967: Mike Nichols, The Graduate (A+); My choice: Sergio Leone, The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly

1968: Anthony Harvey, The Lion in Winter (Unseen); My choice: Stanley Kubrick, 2001: A Space Odyssey

1969: John Schlessinger, Midnight Cowboy (A); My choice: Dennis Hopper, Easy Rider

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1970: Franklin J. Schaffner, Patton (A+); I agree

1971: William Friedkin, The French Connection (B+); My choice: Franklin J. Schaffner, Nicholas and Alexandra

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1972: Francis Ford Coppola, The Godfather (A+); I agree

"The Sting" Robert Redford, Paul Newman 1973 Universal **I.V.

1973: George Roy Hill, The Sting (A+); I agree

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1974: Francis Ford Coppola, The Godfather Part II (A+); I agree

1975: Milos Forman, One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest (A-); My choice: Sidney Lumet, Dog Day Afternoon

1976: John G. Avildsen, Rocky (A-); My choice: Sidney Lumet, Network

1977: Woody Allen, Annie Hall (A+); My choice: George Lucas, Star Wars

1978: Michael Cimino, The Deer Hunter (C+); My choice: Hal Ashby, Coming Home

1979: Robert Benton, Kramer vs. Kramer (A); My choice: Francis Ford Coppola, Apocalypse Now

1980: Robert Redford, Ordinary People (A+); I agree

1981: Warren Beatty, Reds (A+); My choice: Mark Rydell, On Golden Pond

1982: Richard Attenborough, Gandhi (A-); My choice: Steven Spielberg, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial

1983: James L. Brooks, Terms of Endearment (C-); My choice: Woody Allen, Zelig

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1984: Milos Forman, Amadeus (A+); I agree

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1985: Steven Spielberg, The Color Purple (A+); I agree

1986: Oliver Stone, Platoon (C); My choice: Woody Allen, Hannah and Her Sisters

1987: Bernardo Bertolucci, The Last Emperor (A-); My choice: Barry Levinson, Good Morning, Vietnam

1988: Barry Levinson, Rain Man (A+); My choice: Robert Zemeckis, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?

1989: Oliver Stone, Born on the Fourth of July (B-); My choice: Spike Lee, Do the Right Thing

1990: Kevin Costner, Dances with Wolves (D); My choice: Francis Ford Coppola, The Godfather Part III

1991: Jonathan Demme, The Silence of the Lambs (A-); My choice: Joel Coen, Barton Fink

1992: Clint Eastwood, Unforgiven (A+); I agree

1993: Steven Spielberg, Schindler’s List (A+); I agree

1994: Robert Zemeckis, Forrest Gump (A+); I agree

1995: Mel Gibson, Braveheart (C-); My choice: Chris Noonan, Babe

1996: Anthony Minghella, The English Patient (C+); My choice: Mike Leigh, Secrets and Lies

1997: James Cameron, Titanic (C); My choice: Peter Cattaneo, The Full Monty

1998: Steven Spielberg, Saving Private Ryan (C+); My choice: Sam Raimi, A Simple Plan

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1999: Sam Mendes, American Beauty (A+); I agree

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2000: Ang Lee, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (A+); I agree

2001: Ron Howard, A Beautiful Mind (B); My choice: Baz Luhrmann, Moulin Rouge

2002: Rob Marshall, Chicago (A-); My choice: Spike Jonze, Adaptation

2003: Peter Jackson, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (C-); My choice: Sophia Coppola, Lost in Translation

2004: Clint Eastwood, Million Dollar Baby (B+); My choice: Robert Zemeckis, The Polar Express

2005: Ang Lee, Brokeback Mountain (Unseen); My choice: Bennett Miller, Capote

-

2006: Martin Scorsese, The Departed (A+); I agree

2007: Joel & Ethan Coen, No Country for Old Men (C+); My choice: Julie Taymor, Across the Universe

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2008: Danny Boyle, Slumdog Millionaire (A+); I agree

2009: Kathryn Bigelow, The Hurt Locker (B-); My choice: Quentin Tarantino, Inglourious Basterds

2010: Tom Hooper, The King’s Speech (A-); My choice: David Fincher, The Social Network

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2011: Michel Hazanavicus, The Artist (A+); I agree

2012: Ben Affleck, Argo (A+); My choice: Tom Hooper, Les Misérables

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2013: Alfonso Cuarón, Gravity (A+); I agree

2014: Alejandro G. Iñáritu, Birdman: Or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance (A); My choice: Damien Chazelle, Whiplash

2015: Alejandro G. Iñáritu, The Revenant (C+); My choice: Spike Lee, Chi-Raq

 

Fargo (1996)

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“For what? For a little money? There’s more to life than a little money, you know. Don’tcha know that?”

Police officer Margie Gunderson (Frances McDormand) asks that question to a criminal in the last five minutes of the Coen Brothers’ 1996 film Fargo. As the story concludes, this question explains everything that we have just seen. The first time watching Fargo can be perplexing. It’s entertaining, weird, funny, and exciting, but we never really know what the movie is about until Margie asks this question. That means that Fargo takes at least two viewings (I just watched it for the eighth time) in order to understand its purpose. It also means that if you haven’t seen it, I haven’t given anything away regarding the story by telling you about this question at the end, but I am sparing you some of the perplexity of wondering what the movie is about.

The movie opens at a bar in Fargo, ND where we see three men (played by William H. Macy, Steve Buscemi, and Peter Stormare) planning a very bizarre heist that is not sensible if money is the truest motive. Jerry Lunegaard (Macy) demands to have his wife kidnapped so that he can collect the ransom money from his wealthy father-in-law. The gangsters he consorts with know it’s a stupid idea and that its risks highly outweigh their possible monetary gain, yet they agree. Why? Because they don’t know that there’s more to life than a little money.

Throughout the course of the film, we see Jerry wandering through the details of life, trying to go about his everyday business while at the same time trying to make sure everything goes as planned with the plot, and fighting with his fellow criminals when it doesn’t. Through these scenes, we see that his family and his job are not important to him. While Carl Showalter (Buscemi) and Gaear Grimsrud (Stormare) carry out the plan, they do so with no regard for Jerry’s demands, for the lives of others involved their heist, for each other, or even for their own lives. Although they are trying to attain a great deal of money, they don’t even seem to care about the money itself. They’re motivated by ignorance, purposelessness, and hopelessness. The money might be nice, but they do what they do because they don’t know that there is more to life than a little money.

Greed is not the primary characteristic of the evil characters in Fargo despite the fact that their conversations all center around money. Each of these characters is marked mostly by apathy. The results of this apathy are grisly, monstrous crimes against innocent people and against each other. The story’s hero, Marge Gunderson, is not heroic in any of the usual senses of the word. Yes, she’s a police officer who cracks the case, but much more than that, she is the polar opposite of everything represented by the three co-conspirators. She is the story’s hero because she enjoys life, because she is a loving wife and soon-to-be mother, because she’s the smartest cop on the force, and because she does her work passionately. She’s the hero because she is one of the funniest people you could ever meet, because she loves life, and because she genuinely cares about people. Because of this, she recognizes what nobody else does (including most first-time viewers), regarding the motive for the crimes. She discerns that they don’t know that there is more to life than a little money.

The dichotomy that the Coen Brothers create between the love of life and the disregard of life makes Fargo profound. Its message (that the people on the first side, like Marge, can make the world a wonderful place to live in, but people on the second side can make it very frightening) is sent through a very twisted version of the classic good vs. evil tradition. Its creative style and delightful (though often very dark) sense of humor and its reminiscence of 1940s film noir make it highly entertaining.

As harrowing as it is, watching what happens when people don’t believe that there is more to life than a little money is a challenging and rewarding experience. It reminds us, who believe that there is great purpose and meaning in life, that by being people that love life, we can share that love with others. When we share it with those marred by apathy, we share with them that there is a lot more to life than a little money, and in sharing that we are empowered to give them what may prevent much future evil that they previously had been capable of.

Stumble AlertFargo is filled with material that many Christians will find offensive (graphic violence, two scenes involving prostitution, and a great deal of profanity). Fortunately, this is a rare film that isn’t hurt by being edited for television. So if you haven’t seen it or were uncomfortable with what you saw the first time, seek out the film on an edited TV channel and discover the greatness of this film.

Watch FargoThe film can be rented unedited through any source of download or streaming rentals. I am unaware of any edited TV channel that will be airing Fargo in the near future.

List: The Best Directors

Two weeks ago, I started publishing posts related to the 80th anniversary of the Directors Guild of America. First, I posted a copy of their list of the 80 best directed films of the last 80 years, giving my feedback regarding the list and my rating for the direction of each film on it. Last week, I posted my own choices for the 80 best directed films of the last 80 years. This week is a list of the best directors of all time, and I will conclude next week with a year-by-year look at the DGA’s picks for the best directed movie of each year and my own choice for that year.

Now, here are the best directors of all time based on the movies I have seen. Obviously, that involves limitations, so the list will surely change as I see more films by those generally thought of as the greats: especially Federico Fellini, Ingmar Bergman, Jean-Luc Godard, Sergei Eisenstein, and Jean Renoir among many others.

10. Joel Coen (1954-)

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Best movies: Blood Simple (1984); Barton Fink (1991); Fargo (1996); True Grit (2010); Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)

9. Steven Spielberg (1946-)

The 79th Annual Academy Awards - Arrivals

Best movies: E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)The Color Purple (1985); Schindler’s List (1993); Minority Report (2002); Bridge of Spies (2015)

8. Stanley Donen (1924-)

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Best movies: On the Town (1949); Singin’ in the Rain (1952); Indiscreet (1958); The Grass Is Greener (1960); Charade (1963)

7. George Cukor (1899-1993)

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Best movies: Holiday (1938); The Women (1939); Gaslight (1944); Adam’s Rib (1949); A Star Is Born (1954)

6. Woody Allen (1935-)

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Best movies: Annie Hall (1977); Zelig (1983); Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989); Everyone Says I Love You (1996); Midnight in Paris (2011)

5. Stanley Kubrick (1928-1999)

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Best movies: The Killing (1956); Paths of Glory (1957); Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964); 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968); Barry Lyndon(1975)

4. Joseph L. Mankiewicz (1909-1993)

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Best movies: The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947); A Letter to Three Wives (1949); All about Eve (1950)No Way Out (1950); Guys and Dolls (1955)

3. William Wyler (1902-1981)

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Best movies: Withering Heights (1939); Mrs. Miniver (1942); The Best Years of Our Lives (1946); Ben-Hur (1959); The Children’s Hour (1961)

2. Billy Wilder (1906-2002)

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Best movies: Double Indemnity (1944); The Lost Weekend (1945); Sunset Blvd. (1950)Stalag 17 (1953); Some Like It Hot (1959)

1. Alfred Hitchcock (1899-1980)

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Best movies: Rebecca (1940); Saboteur (1942) Shadow of a Doubt (1943); Lifeboat (1944); Notorious (1946); Rope (1948); Strangers on a Train (1951); Vertigo (1958); North by Northwest (1959);  Psycho (1960)