100 Movie Challenge: #91 Sophie’s Choice

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Sophie's Choice 1982
Sophie’s Choice 1982

Our  journey through film’s finest has brought us to one of the all-time tearjerkers.  Based on the novel by William Styron, the 1982 drama, Sophie’s Choicefeatures a dazzling performance by a young Meryl Streep and comes in at number 91 on our list. And while the story may not make a perfect transition from page to screen, the high-intensity drama and Streep’s masterful work are something to behold.

The plot follows Stingo, a small-town novelist who has just moved into an apartment complex in Brooklyn; played by Peter MacNicol. Once there, he is befriended by the charming but unstable Nathan (played by Kevin Kline) and his girlfriend, Holocaust survivor Sophie.

On paper, it’s by no means a perfect film. The action is slow at times, the plot is extremely vague, and the character development is certainly limited at best. Most of this can probably be blamed on the film’s novelistic background. Even if you’ve never read the book, you can get a pretty good sense of how it reads from watching the film. There’s an amazing attention to detail and characterization that is certainly unique on screen, but lacks some of the cinematic qualities we’ve come to expect.

However, that wealth of character background is perhaps what made these characters so lively on film. Every one has a seemingly endless breadth of past experiences to draw upon. And as those past experiences are revealed, the film picks up an intense amount of dramatic steam.

A young Meryl Streep as "Sophie" alongside MacNicol as "Stingo"
A young Meryl Streep as “Sophie” alongside MacNicol as “Stingo”

If you want to talk about a film that is at risk of spoilers, this is it. The film culminates in an emotional  scene that literally left me with my mouth open. If it hasn’t already been spoiled for you, I will say no more in order to preserve your innocence, other than it is quite possibly one of the most tense, emotional, dramatic, and well-acted scenes I’ve ever seen. The film is worth it for this scene alone.

But that’s not all that’s there! Which is why Sophie’s Choice earns an A, and for the constant debate over socialist themes and theories, earns a 6.5 on the Liberty Scale. It is truly a lesson in acting from one of film’s all-time greats, and surely would compete for the title of Streep’s greatest role. Fans of Streep, fans of acting, and fans of drama alike should all have Sophie’s Choice in their cinematic vocabulary.

We’re shifting gears next time with the lovably upbeat Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in #90 Swing Time.

Were you floored by Streeps performance? Or were you unable to get past the novelistic style of Sophie’s Choice? Let us know!

To see the rest of the list click here.

100 Movie Challenge: #94 Pulp Fiction

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Pulp Fiction 1994
Pulp Fiction 1994

It’s just a great movie. Anyone who’s been within earshot of a film school student knows it. Quentin Tarantino‘s 1994 crime drama, Pulp Fiction, has emerged as the quintessential example of what is now referred to as a “cult classic.” Although, by now Pulp Fiction has grown so popular that it is less of a cult and more of a major religion. It simply has everything: great performances, auteur directing style, an innovative temporal structure, and some of the greatest dialogue ever put on screen. Though Pulp Fiction is frequently viewed a somewhat progressive / experimental film, by classical critical standards it still holds up.

Prototypically postmodern, Pulp Fiction follows the stories of several Los Angeles mobsters and the people they encounter. The film’s nonlinear structure spends time focusing on several different characters, eventually revealing how all of their storylines intertwine in the end. The structure was uniquely inventive, especially for the time, and has since inspired hundreds of other filmmakers to tell their stories in an anti-linear fashion.

Don't Worry, John Travolta Dances
Don’t Worry, Travolta Dances

The performances are equally compelling. Uma Thurman, Samuel L. Jackson, and John Travolta (20 years before Adele Dazeem) each received Oscar bids; not to mention a slew of equally engaging supporting performances from Bruce Willis, Harvey Keitel, and Christopher Walken, among others. The actors are aided by Tarantino’s phenomenally nonchalant dialogue and his mastery of character chemistry. Throw in a gimp and a Royale with Cheese and you’ve got a recipe for neo-noir glory.

Samuel L. Jackson as Jules Winnfield and John Travolta as Vincent Vega
Samuel L. Jackson as Jules Winnfield and John Travolta as Vincent Vega

If you search hard enough, you’ll find some uppity film snob who thinks Pulp Fiction is wildly overrated, or they’ll insist it is not even close to Tarantino’s best work. They’re out there. But from this critic, Pulp Fiction is a well earned A. Like some of the others we’ve watched up to now, it’s one of those that the modern film-goer simply has to know in order to engage in an intelligent conversation about film. So if you haven’t seen it, go watch it!

Take a bit to unwind, then get ready to watch #93 The French Connection.

What about you? What do you cherish most about Pulp Fiction? Or are you one of those who scoffs at its critical success? Let us know!

To see the rest of the list click here.

100 Movie Challenge: #96 Do the Right Thing

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Our progression through AFI’s list has brought us to back-to-back films that were

Do the Right Thing 1989
Do the Right Thing 1989

underappreciated in their time.  Last week was #97 Blade Runner and this week we have Spike Lee’s 1989 dramedy Do the Right Thing.  Both were nominated for just two Academy Awards, and both left the ceremony empty-handed. And while the retrospective outrage over Blade Runner’s Oscar snubbage is deserved, it should be even more so when considering Lee’s 1989 masterpiece. The film follows a day in the life of Mookie (played by Lee), a slacker pizza-delivery man living in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn. The seemingly lighthearted story turns dark when racial tensions between Mookie’s white co-workers (John Turturro and Danny Aiello in an Oscar nominated performance) and his African-American neighbors grow uncontrollably large. The film is jaw-droppingly poignant and eloquently interweaves formal film styling with a moving message on the dangers of prejudice and intolerance.

Do the Right Thing is the first film we’ve encountered so far whose directing style is intentionally experimental.  Unflattering close-ups, a purposefully disorienting sound-design, and the occasional breaking of the “fourth wall” all point to Lee’s innovative methods of communication.  And while some choices may be polarizing amongst viewers,

Do the Right Thing's famous "Love and Hate" sequence
Do the Right Thing’s famous “Love and Hate” sequence

they all seem deliberate and purposeful, rather than original just for the sake of being original.  Lee shows a propensity for everything, from the creation of dozens of brilliantly compelling characters (Samuel L. Jackson’s performance of Mister Señor Love Daddy is one of the most memorable), to the attention to the smallest details: like the Jackie Robinson jersey that Mookie wears throughout the film.

Spike Lee’s magnum opus is simply a great example of what film has the potential to do. A film can make us laugh, make us gasp, make us cry, but all of that is ultimately fleeting if a film doesn’t make us think; doesn’t have us re-examining our lives outside of the theater.  Do the Right Thing masterfully combines these elements of raw emotional reaction with thought-provoking content, and for that it receives a giant A.  The film also gets an 8.5 on the Liberty Scale for calling into question the “innocence” of small prejudices.  I had not seen Do the Right Thing before I started the 100 Movie Challenge, and it affirmed my faith that this is going to be one incredible ride through film.

We’re 5 films in!  Next is #95 The Last Picture Show.

What did you think of Do the Right Thing?  Were you struck by the social commentary?  Or were you less inclined to buy into Spike Lee’s directing style?  Let us know!

To see the rest of the list click here.

100 Movie Challenge: #99 Toy Story

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Okay, I may be a little biased on this one.  Of any film ever made, none has affected me more than the 1995 Pixar masterpiece, Toy Story.  I was Woody for countless Halloweens, I collected dozens upon dozens of the authentic toys, and, to this day, have

Toy Story 1995
Toy Story 1995

a set of Toy Story bed sheets on my bed at my parents’ house.  I even went through a phase where I was convinced my toys were alive.  I’ve seen it 50 times, I can quote it effortlessly, and I still get choked up at the end.

But that’s because it’s simply a magnificent movie.  Like #100 Ben-Hur, which we talked about last week, Toy Story had an ENORMOUS impact on the future of film;  only, in my opinion, Toy Story‘s innovation is almost unmatchable. The bold choice to do an entire film exclusively with computer animation has led to an absolute revolution not only in the world of animation, but in the world of film at large.

The amazing part is, that may not even be the most noteworthy aspect of Toy Story.  It was the first animated movie ever to be nominated in the category of Best Original Screenplay, which is a no-brainer when you consider the magnificently original concept, the superbly witty comedy style, and the highly compelling character development, something we had not seen much of in “children’s films.”

Tim Allen as Buzz Lightyear and Tom Hanks as Woody
Tim Allen as Buzz Lightyear and Tom Hanks as Woody

Toy Story also set the standard for a series of terrific Pixar scores.  Composer and songwriter, Randy Newman was nominated twice for Toy Story, and began a trend of these beautiful images being accompanied by beautiful music. (The first time I cried in a movie was in Finding Nemo; not because of the initial tragedy, not when the family is finally reunited, but in the opening title sequence.  The music combined with the images of the coral reef overwhelmed me to the point of tears).

Toy Story is an A movie, also earning a 6 on the Liberty Scale with a plot that revolves around competition.  If, for whatever reason, you have yet to see the story of what happens when Woody, Andy’s favorite toy, has his status challenged by the new-coming, hi-tech space figure, Buzz, I could not more highly recommend it.  For both young and old, it is a brilliant story of friendship and fantasy.

That’s two movies in the books.  Next for us is the 1942 Cagney musical Yankee Doodle Dandy.

How about you?  Do you love Toy Story as much as I do, or is the Pixar film debut highly overrated?  Let us know!