This movie is—quite literally—about as far as you can get from my experience of growing up in Dallas, but that only cements my love for what it “gets right” about Texas. That I lived for eighteen years in the same state as the events of this film, but nearly 450 miles away says it all. More than that, the Coen Brothers’ adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s Lonestar Noir is an unforgiving look at everything that makes my home state terrifying and beautiful. The vast, open landscapes are treated with just as much reverence and awe as the creeping rot underneath everything—“the dismal tide,” as one character quips. Characters are at once quiet and strong, yet weak, ruled by greed and malevolence.
We can’t forget the genius of Deakins. No Country came out in 2007—along with two other entries on this list—and it’s widely believed that the DP split his own Oscar vote by being nominated for two movies in one round of voting (the other being The Assassination of Jesse James). Deakins holds the incredible honor of being nominated for best cinematography 9 times in the past 10 years–finally earning a win for the underappreciated Blade Runner 2049— and No Country For Old Men makes it easy to understand why. The magnificent opening shots, believe it or not, are B-roll that Deakins shot by himself in natural light, just to give the Coens an idea of what he had kicking around in his head.
The sublime opening images lay over a monologue by Tommy Lee Jones’ Sheriff Bell, and it’s McCarthy’s writing, shining through in a straight-ahead adaptation by the Coens, that really brings the entire thing together, along with career performances by Jones, Brolin, and Bardem. On the surface this is a relatively straightforward hardboiled flick about a man who takes some money that doesn’t belong to him and the horrible consequences that follow, but it’s also about Sheriff Bell coming to grips with a world that seems to grow more and more brutal with each passing year, and the bleak hopelessness of trying to believe in something that gets you through “all that cold, and all that dark.”
It would be a tougher watch if it didn’t sing on every level possible. An absolute masterpiece.
When I was younger, my mother was fairly strict about the content of what we watched and read (I still bristle when I remember having my brand new copy of The Shining, bought for me by my much more laissez-faire father, taken away when I was 12 or so). That’s probably why I gravitated to films steeped in darkness and horror as I grew older, but back in first grade, I often had to rely on friends to recount the plot of Aliens or Terminator 2. Remember, this was back before every household in America had high-speed Internet.
Speaking of bygone technologies, I also spent a lot of time in the school library, and one book I kept returning to again and again was this volume full of glossy photos that was basically a collection of synopses about various horror films. A lot of them were classics like Dracula or The Wolfman, but some of the more contemporary slashers were in there too (I think both Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the Thirteenth made appearances). Why this was stocked in an elementary school library I have no idea.
Anyway, on the more “classic” side of the book was an entry for a film I had never heard of before: The Night of the Hunter. The story of an evil, itinerant preacher/conman who finds himself stalking two small children in order to gain access to a small fortune hidden by their deceased, bank robber father. I remember being fascinated by the beautiful photograph of Robert Mitchum leaning on the fencepost, his famous tattooed knuckles flashing the words “love” and “hate.”
I wouldn’t actually see The Night of the Hunter until college. Maybe it was all the years of childhood buildup, but I found myself entranced by Mitchum’s performance, as well as the razor-sharp themes the movie put forward that seem controversial in god-fearing, capitalist America now, let alone in 1955 when it was released. Charles Laughton’s only feature as a director is also steeped in beautifully orchestrated shadows and light, clearly influenced by the German Expressionist cinema of the 1920s, creating a sinister fable about evil and imposters that stands in stark visual contrast to more celebrated American films of the era.
The Night of the Hunter went on to influence future generations of filmmakers (see Radio Raheem’s monologue and gold knuckle-rings in the wonderful Do the Right Thing, and famous “street lamp” shot from The Exorcist), but it remains somewhat obscure in 2018. At a recent screening, I was dismayed to hear the audience snidely chuckling through most of the film. The Night of the Hunter is one of those movies that taught me about the importance of history and taking classics on their own terms…the only way to learn anything new at all.
City of God is another benchmark film in terms of my development as a member of the movie-going public. I’d always been into movies, courtesy of my mother (an addict who still goes to the movies weekly at the age of 69) and father (a painter and architect who once eschewed film as an inferior art form), but up to high school, my tastes had run fairly commercial and mainstream, excepting the time my mother brought me to see The Big Lebowski at age 14.
The summer between my freshman and sophomore years, I met Jacob Sloman, who has remained a lifetime friend and collaborator. It pains me to give him the satisfaction, but Jacob was the one who opened my eyes to the rich and untapped world of global cinema, particularly the beautiful films of Brazil. It’s because of him that I even heard of films like Carandiru, Bus 174, and I’m Not Scared. But the one that always sticks out in my memory is City of God.
Vibrant, sensuous photography, a riveting story that spans years and intertwines the lives of several different characters, crackling with energy and originality, City of God was a film that showed me, even earlier than the aforementioned The Assassination of Jesse James, that movies were so much more than Hollywood. It’s a story about poverty, violence, and inequality that avoids becoming too message-laden or despondent, instead painting a richly realized landscape of Rio slums that are populated with characters who make us laugh and cheer as much as they make us cry.
Despite its bombastic presentation, City of God is all about balance. It’s a perfectly-oiled machine that pushes and pulls its audience through a variety of different moods and tones, which perfectly reflects the complex and complicated realities of subject matter that is too-often boiled down to the sum of its parts.
I saw this movie by myself on a dreary autumn afternoon in 2007, at the Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar. The screening was something I had experienced only a few times before or since: one of those trips to the movies where you can tell, minutes in, that you’re watching something important and life-changing.
I believe I went to a party that night, and couldn’t stop talking about the movie. Roger Deakins wasn’t a name that I knew well at the time, but I knew the images he crafted for the screen were sublime. Earth-shatteringly beautiful paintings that were somehow very quietly powerful at the same time. But how the movie looked was only a sliver of what had grabbed me. The way the film advances, leisurely and reflective, like a long walk that you have all to yourself, was electrifying. That a film about one of America’s most infamous outlaws (that’s really about so much more) could be so lyrical and moody, gently insistent in what it was trying to say concerning legends, legacies, the transient, elusive nature of time and glory, was a revelation.
What’s so satisfying about The Assassination of Jesse James is how it manages to succeed in the face of conventional wisdom about what a Western–or any movie for that matter–should be. It’s long, the final runtime a staggering two hours and forty minutes. It’s framed by a voiceover narration that seems like a big no-no, but inexplicably works. You can count the number of gunfights and on-screen deaths on one hand. Perhaps most notably, the drama and action are almost solely contained within the fluctuating relationship between Bob Ford and Jesse James, which is somehow mesmerizing even though the title of the movie leaves no room for doubt as to the story’s conclusion.
It’s essentially a film that proves how impactful and resonant art can be when it is demanding and respectful of its audience, and I’ve spent much of my movie-going life chasing after other films like it.