Raging Bull features one of the greatest performances that the screen has ever contained. It also happens to be a definitive American masterpiece, the sort of film that is unimpeachable in terms of overall quality and its standing in the pantheon of great cinema. This is a pulverizing film – emotionally, aesthetically, and narratively – and it leaves bruises, intentionally, while frequently stirring the soul. Martin Scorsese’s showy, studied, and totally commanding direction is a text book example of cinematic showmanship. Paul Schrader and Mardik Martin’s intimate screenplay allowed for any number of moments – both big and small – to become immediate cinematic touchstones. Robert De Niro’s work as Jake La Motta will be rightfully revered until the final days of this planet; it’s a force of nature piece of acting in a film that makes the ground under your feet feel as if it’s moving. The stellar ensemble cast all gracefully dance around the edges of this tremendous motion picture, with Joe Pesci and Cathy Moriarty providing blistering support, with a stacked roster of faces and character actors coming and going, providing the film with a terrific sense of place and atmosphere. The combination of Michael Chapman’s electrifying black and white cinematography, which was stylistically heightened to suggest the intense speed and ferocity of the bouts in the ring, and Thelma Schoonmaker’s dynamic and propulsive editing, went a long way in providing the movie with such an urgent sense of violence, both during the numerous bloody bouts and the verbally explosive fights between La Motta and all of the people within his personal orbit. What more, at this point, can be said about Raging Bull that hasn’t been said? It’s one of those timeless classics that ages like a fine wine, and a true reminder of the galvanic force that De Niro possessed during his remarkable run in the vintage years.
Prophetic. Speculative. Provocative. Chilling. Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men is one of the best films of my lifetime, a totally immersive experience where ideas and action coexist in an effort to tell a deeply human and thoroughly harrowing story of mankind’s last hope for survival. Clive Owen was fantastic in the leading role of a lifetime, while the supporting cast including a stony Michael Caine, a mysterious Julianne Moore, the shifty Chiwetel Ejiofor, the slimy Danny Huston, and the scene-stealing Peter Mullan all get a chance to shine. The blunt, forceful, incredibly streamlined screenplay (by four credited writers) is all forward narrative momentum, while Cuarón and cinematographer of the century Emmanuel Lubezki plunge the viewer into the middle of any number of violent spectacles, including large scale military battled, close-quarters combat, and vehicular mayhem, all shot with a constantly roving camera that’s prone to some very, very long and elaborate sequences without any noticeable edits. The film is a technical knock-out, a marvel on a story level, and it’s a total embarrassment that one of the most ambitious and challenging action pictures ever made wasn’t given any Academy recognition. Cuarón would later get his trophy for his spectacular thrill-ride direction on Gravity, and while that film is certainly accomplished in ways that very few other movies have ever been, Children of Men is an absolute all-timer, and a reminder that big, bold ideas can still intermingle with overwhelmingly visceral action.
While his 1995 crime epic Heat will likely always be my “favorite” film by master filmmaker Michael Mann, his 1999 journalism thriller The Insider is likely his “best” overall theatrical effort. Simply by virtue of avoiding any sense of melodrama (no matter how rarefied as in Heat or Miami Vice) and making a film as good, or nearly as good, as Alan J. Pakula’s immortal classic All The President’s Men, The Insider stands as one of the most underrated movies ever to have been bestowed with nine Academy Award nominations (it won nothing). Mann’s usual brilliant sense of place and atmosphere is on firm display here, with Dante Spinotti’s elegantly stylish 2.35:1 cinematography maximizing space within the frame, with certain camera moves meant to dive deep into the consciousness of the characters within any given scene. The emotional and informational depth to the screenplay, co-written by Mann and the estimable Eric Roth (Forrest Gump, The Good Shepherd), is staggering to behold, as it’s the rare drama where everything is motivated by intelligent, dramatic discourse and plausible actions and situations rather than the cheap demands of plot or genre conventions. Al Pacino was terrific here, subverting expectations to a certain degree, reteaming with Mann a few years after their iconic work on Heat. But it’s the Russell Crowe show all the way, and in The Insider, this tremendous actor delivered the best performance of his impressive career, painting a portrait of a morally and spiritually conflicted man who had to face some serious personal challenges in order to get his life back on track. The dynamite supporting cast includes one of my personal favorite scene stealers Bruce McGill (show-stopping moments during the deposition sequence!), Colm Feore, Diane Venora, Christopher Plummer, Michael Gambon, Philip Baker Hall, Debi Mazar, Stephen Tobolowsky, Lindsay Crouse, Gina Gershon, Rip Torn, Michael Paul Chan, Wings Hauser, and Nester Serrano. The haunting and introspective score from Lisa Gerard and Pieter Bourke is classic Mann, perfectly complimenting Spinotti’s lucid and mobile images, which feel as if they’re always searching for thematic truth, while the various key characters consistently stare down their own existentialism in hopes of finding catharsis.