Top Five – Clint Eastwood Films

Eastwood is something of a cinematic oddity.  An iconic performer who remains the only individual in Hollywood who can actively remember working within the studio system.  He is liberal (to a degree) in his social views, and will often cast non-‘conventional’ performers alongside him, but personally, often portrays highly authoritarian individuals.  He is an accomplished melodic composer, often providing the main themes to his movies.  He unfussily produces movies (not always a benefit – J. Edgar (2011) in particular would have benefitted from a few extra takes), and over nearly fifty years, directed a body of meticulously enjoyable films.  He also remains one those actors who I love as much as my dad, and that bond is something quite special.

So here we go, my top five Clint Eastwood films that he either directed or starred in.

 

  1. Play Misty for Me (1971 – Clint Eastwood)

 

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Eastwood’s directorial debut prefigures every unsettling friend request, every unwanted text we have ever received in our lives.  It’s a profoundly disturbing film as it explores the unintended consequences of a single rash decision.  It’s a warning note to impulsiveness.  I have a huge amount of affection for Eastwood’s hair in this film, but even that is second to the magnificently disturbing portrayal of irrationality and obsessiveness by Jessica Walter.  Always seek out the more unhinged U.S. cut if possible.

 

  1. Pale Rider (1985 – Clint Eastwood)

 

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The only decent Western of the eighties, Pale Rider is Eastwood’s second attempt at playing an avatar of death after his sophomoric directorial effort High Plains Drifter (1972).  Eastwood’s symbolic portrayal within the genre in Leone’s Dollars trilogy is venerated, but in his own directorial efforts, he sought to show how hollow many of the assumptions of the genre were.  The landscape was decayed and individuals were without honour.  By playing Death, Eastwood was underlining how the genre only really operated on the casual cruelties individual selfishness wrought upon burgeoning societies.  There is a bittersweetness to this film, one that transcends Unforgiven (1992), in the decision to have a young girl (Sydney Penny) fall in love with Death, a piercing demonstration of the hopelessness of our attractions.

 

 

  1. The Beguiled (1970 – Don Siegel)

 

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I’ve written about this film before (https://asidesteps.com/2016/04/01/the-beguiled-1971-don-seigel/) but feel I fouled up in my condemnation of the sexual politics of the film (and placed far too much anticipatory faith in Sofia Coppola to redeem it in her own version).  Whilst it can be distasteful at times in its portrayal of women, they are all presented with agency and intelligence, two characteristics that cannot substantially be attributed to Eastwood’s creepy Union soldier.  His initial flattering of Mae Mercer’s Hallie turns quickly to sexual intimidation and bigotry once he loses his position of power.  It reveals the shaky foundations (and lack of real conviction) that fuel many ‘progressive’ campaigns.  In itself, this a relationship of real complexity and interest, however superficially frustrating it may appear, and the film deserved better than my ‘woke’ original condemnation.

 

  1. The Eiger Sanction (1975 – Clint Eastwood)

 

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Eastwood’s seventies spy thriller rises above the grungy aesthetics and dodgy sexual politics of its decade on the strength of its final third.  There is something about rock climbing that is utterly terrifying on the big screen – think of the opening to M:I-2 (2000 – John Woo) or the closing sequence of For Your Eyes Only (1981 – John Glen).  Perhaps it is the knowledge that genuine risk is involved in the production.  Perhaps it is that cinema has always had a powerful depth-of-field and that this is only enhanced with heights.  Nail-bitingly terrifying, Eastwood’s ascent is a sequence you cannot tear yourself away from.

 

 

  1. The Bridges of Madison County (1993 – Clint Eastwood)

 

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Often overshadowed by the admittedly towering achievement of Unforgiven, The Bridges of Madison County stands testament to complete mastery Eastwood has over the form.  Where the former film relies on Eastwood’s iconicity as a movie star, Bridges brings together his plaintive simplicity of melody, his mastery of tension within drama, and his quiet everyday control of restraint performance.  The moment where he sits in his car, the rain battering the windshield, desperately deciding whether to throw away his life or live with regret is burned into my memory.  I can recall his hand clutching the door handle as vividly as I recall many of my birthdays.  It is a moment so understated that most directors would mess it up.  But Eastwood has an understanding of how tiny gestures of movement and expression are explosive on the big screen.

(A Perfect World (1992) – relies on a similar control on performance, this time from Kevin Costner, and is just as affecting.)

Top Five – James Cameron Films

It’s a little bit perverse to write a Top Five for someone with such a small filmography, but I’ve been thinking about him a lot recently, and James Cameron 1984 – 1994 is one of those great classic, flawless runs of cinema that a few directors have (I’m thinking of Walter Hill 1978 – 1984, John Carpenter 1976 – 1988 etc.)  So something like The Abyss (1989) is only left off this list because of my arbitrary numbering system, and not because of any concerns about its quality.

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  1. Avatar (2009)

The closest precedent we have to Cameron in cinema is the career of Stanley Kubrick.  They’re both detail-obsessed, technically proficient directors who began their careers producing a number of big-budget films before slowing down their output rate.  In the twenty years since Titanic (1997) Cameron has only produced one film.  It is likely that his career will be capped by the now almost mythical Avatar sequels – sequels who have been close to filming for a decade now.  There are mutterings on the internet that these are sequels that nobody wants, and that the cinematic landscape has moved on since Cameron released what was, once again, the most successful film ever made.  But memories are short; these mutterings were happening before True Lies, Titanic and Avatar, and were proved to be incorrect then.  Also, are we really not wanting to see a sequel from the man who made both Aliens and T2?

Which is not to say that the frustrations of Avatar are irrelevant.  It was not a film I liked when I first saw it.  But the achievements of the film have only grown in my mind in the intervening years.  It is an ecologically progressive action adventure story.  It is the pinnacle of one of the main reasons we go to the cinema – for the opportunity to visit other places and peoples and worlds and see things we would not otherwise get to see.  And it is an obsessive masterpiece from a visionary director; the lessons of Avatar (give a director free reign to create something special) were not learnt, and cinema became bogged down in easy, creatively bankrupt, retrospectively 3D’d superhero films.  Their action sequences are incomprehensible and their CGI is lazy.  Avatar’s sequels will become our last stand if we want to have a still vital, interesting populist cinema scene.

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  1. True Lies (1994)

In For Your Eyes Only (1981 – John Glen), Ernst Stavros Blofeld is dropped down a chimney shaft from a helicopter.  In Spectre (2015 – Sam Mendes), he is James Bond’s adoptive brother who has been plotting for years to bring about his downfall.  There is a perception in contemporary cinema that the latter is better; that convoluted cod-psychological origin stories are somehow more interesting than spectacle.  But funny, family-friendly big budget action cinema is essential (of which the Roger Moore Bond films are canonical), and it is increasingly neglected in the cinematic landscape.  Part of the appeal of James Cameron is that he stands in opposition to these prevailing winds.  True Lies has some extremely shabby racial and sexual politics, but is a gloriously entertaining synthesis of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s action and comedy careers.

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  1. The Terminator (1984)

When we talk about the great car chases in cinema, we forget to ever talk about the one in The Terminator, largely because it is only one small accomplishment in an exquisitely designed love story that made a ridiculous Austrian bodybuilder the biggest star on the planet.  And it is a love story, regardless of the thrill of the gunfights and apocalyptic futures – one where a man risks his life to travel back in time to meet a woman he fell in love with when he saw her in a photograph.  It is a Vertigo (1958 – Alfred Hitchcock) level of obsession, and one that grounds the film amidst the horror movie thrill of watching innocents flee from an unstoppable killing machine.

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  1. Aliens (1986)

I consider Alien (1979 – Ridley Scott) to be an almost perfect film.  It certainly is one of my favourites.  I have a library of books on the making of the film, posters of it on my wall.  I have bought and rebought the film many times over.  It is quite extraordinary in the way that very few films are.  And every now and then I think of Aliens, and remember a film that is so different and one that satisfies a whole different part of my brain.  How can Alien be so good, when there is a sequel that is just as good, yet in such a different way?

To take on Ridley Scott in his prime and in some ways surpass him is an extraordinary feat, and yet it is just another achievement we can add to a man who has done almost everything.  Here he takes the creeping psychological horror of Alien and transforms it into thrilling spectacle.  Cameron knew that sequels had to have a purpose; for him, they were a chance for his protagonists to return to a site of trauma.  For Ripley, the film is a tunnelling exploration of motherhood; the loss of her own child, destruction of the malevolent mirror image Alien Queen, and eventual adoption of Newt.  Within this journey, she will reject the patriarchal frameworks of industry and military power, and come to peace with the perpetual walking nightmare that seeks to impregnate all.  She will operate alongside a memorably diverse supporting cast, who provide some relief from what would otherwise be an emotionally testing film.  If only all sequels were all like this.

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  1. Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991)

 

After making one of the most astonishing sequels ever made… he went and did it again!  T2 is a wonderful film, that takes the love story of the first film and shifts it into a more mature exploration of a constructed family.  This transfiguration was reflected in the physique of Linda Hamilton.  Cameron has quietly created a body of work where women are strong and capable as many of the men they share the screen with (if not more so!)  And yet, the muscle and attitude protects a woman struggling deeply with trauma – the moment where she sees the T-800 for the first time in 11 years is a moment of almost transcendental horror captured on celluloid.  It is here that we see Schwarzenegger as an icon; an awkward behemoth capable of pummelling through anything in front of him.  For the first time, Cameron was free to revel in spectacle; without boundaries, he crafted a picture of almost relentless drive, where the only possible hope of survival was to keep moving.

Top Five – Michael Mann films

Walking out of The Counselor (2013 – Ridley Scott), I had to bite my tongue.  I had just seen an oppressive thriller, where every note of dialogue indicated a heavy sense of the inevitability of death.  The film was living, breathing dread, and it had captured my heart in a way few films do.  Those strangers around me, more fascinated with updating their facebook status during the viewing, muttered about whether they could ask for their money back.  Moaning about a film is the least interesting thing you can do (even when the film is genuinely terrible).  Discovering lost masterpieces, passionately advocating for personal favourites, speaking up for the underdog are some of the most delightful aspects of cinephilia.

This is not the most appropriate introduction to a list of favourite Michael Mann films, given the absolute adoration in which he is held by many (mainly male) cinephiles, but when I saw Miami Vice it grabbed my heart and I could not for one second understand why it had been so critically neglected upon release (a critical consensus that I shamefully heeded at the time).  The film has become a call to arms, one of the clearest indicators of the way ahead for cinema in the 21st Century.  I’m not spoiling things by saying it is one of my favourite films of all time.

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  1. Collateral (2004)

 

Mann has long explored the dedication to which some men hand over to their professions.  Here, that dedication overwhelms even the most benign of daydreams.  Jamie Foxx is a fantasist; in Mann’s world if he was meant to own a limousine, he would do so already.  His words are not reflected in actions (a key defining characteristic of Mann’s protagonists, often identified by their refusal to use contractions in speech).  That honour is given to Tom Cruise’s contract killer – defined as atagonistic to Foxx.  In Collateral, Mann takes the dual leads of Heat and places them in opposition.  Instead of equals, the killer holds the position of power, not only through the threat of violence, but through his wealth and the oppressiveness that this brings him as he occupies the role of consumer.  He manipulates the idle dreams of the working man, using his financial dominance to move Foxx into compromising his integrity.  He dies, defeated not through any implicit physical superiority, but by running out of bullets.  His wealth is spent.  The digital filmmaking is sometimes overstated on this film, but does allow for some extraordinary moments when nature disrupts the frame.  Some things cannot be bought.

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  1. Heat (1995)

There’s a whole film within this film about the desperate, miserable relationship between Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino) and his wife Justine (Hanna).  It contains some of my favourite writing by Mann, as he explores the collateral damage wrought by the dedication Pacino has to his career.  “You live among the remains of dead people,” she tells him trying to communicate with him how he looks at her like she’s a ghost, and later, “This isn’t life.  This is leftovers.”  It is a brutal exploration of how living with murder robs a person of their essence, their ability to connect with others.  In the end, all they see are cadavers.  The fact that this is not the heart of the film, and just one of many small elements, shows how complex the construct of this film is (perhaps due to the fact that this is one of those few occasions where a filmmaker was giving the material a second shot, here a few years after the TV movie L.A. Takedown).  It goes without saying that the downtown shooting is as extraordinary as action cinema ever got.

 

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  1. Thief (1981)

 

Mann’s superb examination of how the individual can struggle to survive in the face of a corporation has an obliqueness of image and sound that belies the genre trappings in which it operates.  There is an emotional honesty, a directness, to the work that is quite charming.  Ultimately, the individual can survive, but only through a level of self-delusion.  They have been bought, their values destroyed by simply operating within a capitalist marketplace.  We all know this – I write this typing on a computer, wearing clothes that are accessible only through slave labour.  Mann tried to show the universality of James Caan’s predicament by applying a fantastical Tangerine Dream soundtrack; the fact that the film, packaged and commercialised as the movie industry does so often, was simplified into a neon-lit, rain-drenched neo-noir speaks to how pervading corporations are.  They even bought this film’s truth.

 

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  1. Manhunter (1986)

 

‘It’s you and me now sport.’ mutters Will Graham (William Petersen) as he looks through a reflection that he no longer recognises.  In Mann’s greatest exploration of the fragility of mental health, Graham’s complete empathy for the sick and murderous becomes a virus, one that consumes his very notion of who he is and what and why he loves.  Mann never shies from displaying horror; he does not protect us and deny us the full extent of man’s capacity for destruction.  Death is everywhere.  He knows how the deliberate constructs we create to help us find peace, those of family and responsibility, can be disrupted by the sadistic impulses of the deranged.  It is a violence we cannot escape, and one we relentlessly vicariously explore through the movies.  Manhunter is the greatest exploration of this impulse committed to celluloid.

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  1. Miami Vice (2006)

And here, Mann’s opposes that view, by exploring how family and responsibility can be disrupted by complete, uncontrollable love.  It is a film of moments; of glances and touch and micro-gestures that betray the true emotions we seek to bury.  Filmed with an immediacy, a kaleidoscopic montage of alien colour and stolen looks, Mann shows how little we are able to control the world around us.  For a man who is so dedicated, so knowledgeable, so prepared for the films he makes, he has tirelessly delved into the brutality of existence, and the fact that we cannot keep these little castles we build in life forever.  The film shone the way forward; it showed us that we were capable of extracting narrative from flashes of images and meaning from half-formed words.  He created a panoramic world, one where culture and geographical location was simultaneously the most and least important thing.  And no one listened.  The lessons were never learned.  We couldn’t let go.

It’s important to note that at one point every Michael Mann fan has watched The Keep (1983) hoping to find a neglected masterpiece.  It’s not.

Top Five – Bond Films

Bond films – more than just entertainments, they are a way of life.  What follows are my top five choices.  This is one of those supposedly controversial lists where every film has been listed as great elsewhere even when the perception previously was that these films are misfires.  I am as clichéd as any other person.  Just be glad I didn’t go into any detail about my love for a-ha’s theme to The Living Daylights (1987).

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