I did not start out to be a film critic, though I have been obsessed with film from a very young age. No, I longed to be an actor at the beginning but discovered, very quickly I lacked the talents to do so. Yet I did possess the gifts to guide other actors to great heights, thus I became a director, but never full time, as film criticism pulled me in its own direction.
Movies were my great obsession. While my professors and teachers taught about the Theatre, of Broadway, Miller, and Williams, I was quietly seeing every film I could see, as many as five a day sometimes. From the moment I could drive, I was at the movies, the cinema became my church, film my religion.
I knew I would never be an actor after seeing for the first time Apocalypse Now (1979) opening day in Toronto. Stumbling in awe out of the Theatre, I found a bench and wept at the beauty of the film I had just seen, and for the knowledge, I would never be able to give a performance close to what I had just witnessed. Lining up, I went straight back in to see this masterpiece again.
As a critic it is said we risk very little in writing about the work of another, a film hundreds, perhaps thousands of people have worked on. There is a belief we sit in the dark, writing, enjoying a bad film because we are free to unleash our full arsenal of words in bringing the film down. Not true!
Consider first that a critic such as myself sees in excess of three hundred films a year. Do you have any idea how much one must love the film to see so many over the course of a year? Consider further an event like TIFF where I might see four or five a day? Why would I want them, any of them to be bad movies? It is time I will never get back, but comes with the knowledge that because the studio invested millions in this film, several better stories were not made! You see, out there right now is an original script that could redefine cinema, and maybe it gets made, maybe not. That is the risk of being in the film business. So much is a chance. Maybe it is a good film, maybe not, but just maybe, it is a film for the ages that will remind me of everything I love about film.
I pride myself on being fifty-eight, a young fifty-eight, having been a critic for thirty years professionally, and to this day I am not jaded. Each film I walk into, reasonably, might be the greatest film ever made, thus I walk in with an open mind. To not do so cheats me of what could be an astonishing piece of cinema, to do so opens my mind to what could be extraordinary. I still get excited when I see a film that breaks through with its artistry, that defies the conventions and dares to challenge the audience. Sitting in the dark, in a crowded screening room last September, tears slipped down my face watching The Shape of Water, a film you could just feel was unique in every way. I love that film still impacts me that way, I love watching a film such as that impact those around me. People who do not know one another might never be in the same vicinity again, share a collective experience and for a short time are the only people on the planet as the film is unspooling. Wherever we are in our lives, we will forever be bonded by that experience and nothing can ever change that.
I love movies more than I can possibly explain. To be a film critic you must first love film, you must appreciate that film is both an entertainment and art form at the same time, and never be so arrogant to think the popular film cannot be a work of art. You must know and understand the history of the cinema to be a strong critic, understanding from where directors have been influenced, why they pay homage to films and other directors, and how what came before shapes what is happening today.
Every film you have not seen is a new film…my motto and words to live by. A film from 1931 is as valuable an experience as something brand new in cinemas, often more so!
I first realized the transportive power of film when I was twelve while watching a re-release in the days before the video of The Ten Commandments (1956). My father loved movies, loved sharing films he loved with his family, so when this epic came back to theatres in 1971, he loaded up the family and we headed to the movies. Understand, the film began at six thirty and would end just over four hours later, so taking kids twelve, eleven, ten and eight was a risk. Dad had built the film up quite a lot, so as I sat down in my seat I was feeling cynical, and when the lights dimmed, the curtains opened and I silently whispered to myself, “Ok…show me!”
And the film did just that. It was huge, filling the screen with vibrant colors and larger than life characters and moments. At the center of it all was Charlton Heston as Moses, a magnificent performance never once dwarfed by the size and overall scope of the film. The time seemed to race past, until finally the Hebrew slaves were trapped against the sea, the Egyptians bearing down on them. The people turn to Moses for help, some having already turned against him. The skies are growing black, the clouds swirl madly, the water is now raging, whipped by an angry wind. Standing above the people on a rock above the raging sea, Moses roars “Behold his mighty hand” and the waters open, the sea parts into two massive swirling walls of churning water on either side. I was stunned. Stunned. I could feel this moment searing itself into the landscape of my mind, I just knew then it was a moment I would never forget. For days the film was all I could talk about or think about, and one day while in the library with my grandmother, I discovered the film book section.
Books about movies, thousands of them. I needed a wheelbarrow to get the number I wanted at a timeout, but I settled on what I could carry. Thus began my education in film at the age of twelve, consuming anything and everything in movies.
I still do. Any book of interest on film is quickly requested and read, any new documentary on movies I consume.
My study of the craft of acting has proven invaluable to me as a critic because I always connect first to the actors, to the flesh and blood on the screen. I love discovering a great performance, one for the ages that while watching it you know, you feel it etching its memory into your mind. When interviewing actors I speak their language which always impresses them, and it is a trust that remains. Following are the twenty-five most galvanizing moments I have had in my life in a cinema, those which seared themselves into my brain. In reverse order, counting down to the Greatest.
25. “I’m Not So Proud”…says Rhett Butler as he watches the southern men bravely walking into battle knowing they have no chance of winning, but fighting their cause. Butler, who has avoided the war in favor of making money is ashamed as he sits with Scarlett O’Hara on a lonely road near Tara, her beloved plantation. Jumping off the wagon, he joins the men, leaving Scarlett to fend for herself, knowing she is more than capable. The case of a man realizing he was wrong about something, and trying to find it within himself to make it right. The film, GOne with the Wind (1939), belongs to Vivien Leigh as Scarlett, but that moment has stayed with me all these years.
24. The Bear Attack…In The Revenant (2015), scout and trapper Hugh Glass go off by himself into the dense forest to hunt, in hopes of getting some meat before the group of men must move on. Suddenly without warning, he is attacked and gored by a mother grizzly bear with two cubs close by. She tears into his flesh, biting through his clothes deep into his skin, tears the flesh off his body with a swipe of her claws, tosses him about like a rag doll. The visceral power of the attack is startling, so swift and impactful, is it? Leonardo Di Caprio is tossed about by the animal like he was a toy, his body torn to pieces by the animal, yet somehow he prevails with his knife and gun. He then must survive, then recover, crawling back to life, back to the men who betrayed him.
23. HAL Dying…Betrayed by the HAL 9000, a state of the art futuristic computer which has had a glitch and murdered all but one of the crew of a Jupiter bound spacecraft, the astronaut, Dave moves towards the brain of the computer his mind made up. Knowing HAL read the lips of he and his friend Bowman, he realizes the computer cannot be trusted and that his own life is at stake. He begins to disconnect the computer, while HAL begs him not to do it. “I can feel it,” he tells David, finally singing sadly “Daisy” as his mind ceases to be. Incredible that a machine could be so humanized by actions and a voice. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) stunned audiences and critics when it came out, and still has that effect today.
22. Descent into Madness…Looking in a mirror, armed with an arsenal of weaponry Travis asks over and over “Are you talking to me”? We have watched his mounting horror of what New York City has become, we have listened to him rant about the filth and how someone needs to come and just clean it up. When he decides to do just that, his methods are horrifying. Armed with weapons, he walks into a whorehouse and begins shooting, murdering all in the house except a twelve-year-old hooker who he believes he is rescuing. That he becomes a hero for his actions, returning the young girl to her family is ironic, because we know, his intentions were nothing of the kind. He was a time bomb ticking down to detonation and finally exploded. At the end of the film, Taxi Driver, we catch his eyes in the rearview mirror of his cab and just know he is ticking again.
21. Ethan and Debbie…For years Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) has searched for his niece Debbie, taken when she was nine, now a grown young woman, having been raised by the Natives Americans who took her from her home while on a murder raid, slaughtering her family. Simmering with rage, the anger growing as the years have passed, it has become apparent that when he finds Debbie he no longer has any interest in bringing her home, but to kill her. But when he finds her, face to face, he cannot kill her. He looks down at her, helpless on the ground and scoops her into his massive arms, lifting her high over his head as he did when she was a child. Sweeping her into an embrace he quietly whispers to his niece, his kin, his blood, “Let us go home, Debbie”. In an instant, the racist reviled Ethan becomes a much-loved character. Wayne was never better, and the mighty a good many times before and after, but here he found the role of a lifetime, and deliver a performance for the ages. The Searchers (1956) is an intimate work, yet an epic story and breathtaking work of art.
20. Lincoln…in the opening moments of the film, we meet Abraham Lincoln, speaking in a high reedy voice, as portrayed by Daniel Day-Lewis. Though Lincoln died over one hundred years ago, I encountered him in this superb film. The actor researched over a year before going before cameras and delivers his record-setting third Oscar-winning performance for Best Actor. Spielberg perfectly captured Lincoln, with reverential appreciation, and yet a humanist eye. He makes the icon very human, with the same flaws as we have, but caught up in a crucible of change sweeping the United States at the time. Day-Lewis is nothing less than astonishing, surrounded by a who’s who of Hollywood character actors.
19. I am Your Father…the light sabers crackle with energy as they clash off one another in the climactic battle between Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker in the extraordinary The Empire Strikes Back. And then Vader drops the line that took our breath away, stopping our heartbeats, giving the adventure greater depth, more meaning and a dark center. The film was a greater film than Star Wars (1977) and remains the greatest of the Star Wars films, a bold masterpiece. I saw the film opening day in 1980 and remember the collective gasp in the full cinema, and the stunned silence which followed.
18. Sollozo and the Police Chief…Michael Corleone fidgets before asking to use the washroom. Sollozo, the drug lord who has made an attempt on the life of Michaels father does not like it. So great is his instinct, he just is bothered, but he allows it. Michael returns, sits, they begin speaking and without warning Michael stands and fires a shot into Sollozo’s head, killing him at once. Without panicking, the air bright with blood, he turns and kills the police chief. As instructed he walks out of the restaurant, drops the gun, and alters the course of his life in The Godfather (1972).
17. The Choice…Sophie moves with her two children in line at Auschwitz. A Nazi guard comes to her and tells her she may keep one of her children, the other will be taken to be put to death at once. Flustered, frightened, overwhelmed, the array of horrified emotions crossing her face are too numerous to count. Hurried by the guard she hands over her little girl, two, perhaps three and watches, mouth agape in a silent scream, the scream of her daughter becomes her own in the astonishing Sophie’s Choice (1982). To this day I have yet to see an actress give a greater performance than that of Meryl Streep as Sophie.
16. The Parting of the Red Sea…12 years old, still discovering film, knocked out by the colors, scope, the sheer size of the film, The Ten Commandments (1956) had a profound impact on me. The Exodus and sheer movement of people on film, and the parting of the Red Sea, all combined with a magnificent Charlton Heston as Moses. I am not sure I have ever recovered from the awe and majesty of that classic film. Yes, the dialogue is creaky, sometimes awful, but the screen is filled with such wonders.
15. Believing a Man Could Fly…1978: for months the ads for a Superman (1978) had screamed, “You’ll believe a man can fly”. Special effects had come a long, long way since the fifties, but still, this was no small task, making a man fly s that audiences believed he could. sat down in the cinema daring them to show me, daring them to get it right, daring them to make me believe a man can fly. And they did. About an hour in, he swoops up, like a rocket launched from the ground, catches a falling Lois Lane, to her surprise, and then in full frame, a chopper falling directly at them, with one arm. Believe indeed.
14. E.T…for me it is the goodbye sequence between Elliott and E.T. that breaks my heart. A child and an ancient alien from across the universe have bonded because the child chose to protect the creature, to be his friend and now they must Part. So often it is easy to forget the alien is a visual effect and not a living entity. And Henry Thomas as Elliott? Genius. Only a soaring work of art. The film has many great moments, the stunning sequence where E.T. makes the bike fly high into the sky, over the forest across the moon, the healing of a nasty cut from a saw, and that heartbreaking death only to be brought back to life, Christ-like.
13. Oz and the Hour Glass…I first saw The Wizard of Oz (1939) on TV when I was three, and during this scene ran from the room to hide in my bedroom from the witch. Locked in a tower, alone, told she has as long to live as there is sand in the hourglass, Dorothy calls for Aunt Em, whose image appears in the hourglass, only to turn into the horrible, green-faced witch, mocking the girl. Did anyone manifest pure evil as did Margaret Hamilton as the Wicked Witch of the West? She was the stuff of nightmares.
12. The Girl in the Red Coat…In the midst of utter chaos, of madness, walks with purpose a little girl in a red coat. In Schindler’s List (1993) she appears like a drop of blood in the black and white film, looking for a place to hide, as SS guards evacuate the Ghetto, killing Jews at will. We see her again, dead, pulled from a mass grave, her red coat giving her away, her tiny body tossed into a fire like garbage. One of the darkest images in film history. The casual manner human life was treated by the Nazis was superbly portrayed in the film for the horror it was. A gun to the head, the pulling of the trigger and the body collapsed to the ground. Goeth rises at dawn, walks onto his balcony overlooking the camp and begins shooting the Jews with his rifle, just because he can. It was as though God turned away.
11. Kong (again)…Yes, I adore the original, but there was something astonishing in Peter Jackson’s remake of King Kong (2005). The recreation of a bustling New York City, giving way to Skull Island and its prehistoric creatures that time had forgotten was remarkable. Kong, a magnificent old warrior, the last of his kind sitting high above the island overseeing all. The fight against three T. rex, but the scenes high atop New York at dawn, as Kong goes to war with buzzing bi-planes was breathtaking in its beauty. The camera swoops in and around Kong, watching him actually jump into the air to hit a plane! A masterful remake of a masterpiece that arguably surpasses it.
10. Two Brothers, Brando and Steiger…they sit in the back of a taxi, two brothers, one slowly realizing his older brother has betrayed him. Brando, the more gifted of the two actors, carries the scene, the heartache in his eyes and voice not masked. But Steiger is present, reacting to that pain, seeing the other man perhaps as the little boy he swore to protect. What divides them is their place in a criminal empire, what forges them is love, and the fact prevented the other from being a contender, a somebody, instead of a bum.
9. Tomorrow Belongs to Me…in a beer garden in Berlin, 1931, a beautiful blonde boy, perhaps fourteen stands to sing a song. His voice is clear and perfect, and those in the pub will join in the anthem, which becomes more fierce with each stanza. The camera lingers on the boy’s face but then begins to travel down his body, showing he is dressed in the regalia of the Hitler youth, a swastika on his arm. Thus it began. At that moment I became aware of the staggering power of a musical through the genius that was Bob Fosse and Cabaret (1972).
8. Internationale and Revolution…In a beautifully shot montage, Warren Beatty explores how Jack Reed and Louise Bryant, two American journalists in Russia covering the rise of the Bolsheviks literally witnessed the rise of the Lenin movement. From a speech he gives to a group of works, to the streets of Moscow teeming with activists marching towards the Palace, which they have taken for their own, to Lenin rising to the lectern to speak as a leader for the first time. Jack Reed brilliantly captured this in his book Ten Days That Shook the World, one of the greatest pieces of journalism ever written. Beatty tells his story, a man forever chasing history, never realizing how he would eventually become part of it. As the Bolsheviks overthrow a Czar, the strains of The Internationale play on the track, making it a deeply moving sequence. Reds (1981) is a forgotten masterpiece.
7. Setting McMurphy Free…the charismatic leader of the men on the mental ward has been returned, lobotomized, forever peaceful, silent. His friend the Chief gathers him in a fierce embrace before setting him free, suffocating his friend with a pillow. The giant then walks into the tub room, lifts a spray bath out of the ground, with great difficulty carries it to the window and throws it through, escaping into the night, metaphorically bonded with McMurphy forever. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest remains a galvanizing work. Jack Nicholson was nothing short of breathtaking in the lead, just astonishing.
6. D-Day…The combat scenes in Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1998) were simply the most intense, visceral and powerful images of combat ever put on film. Veterans of the war wept at the images, the rest of us sat transfixed, never truly aware such mind dumbing horror could exist. Beyond great filmmaking, it was a startling portrait of a slaughter of humanity. We see the men on the way to the beach, some vomiting in fear, others quietly preparing for whatever might there once that back door drops. The German machine gun stitches the men with bullets but waves and waves come forward until they take the beach but at a horrible cost. Bodies litter the beach, the tide is red with blood, dead fish gently bump against the bodies of the dead soldiers. Never before had war been so portrayed with such savage realism.
5. For Frodo…In the final chapter of the magnificent The Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Return of the King we experience one of the most courageous moments in the franchise. Facing certain death at the foot of Mount Doom, not knowing if Frodo and Sam are even alive, Aragorn, the rightful King steps forward and shows everyone the sort of king he will be. Looking back at Gandalf with a wry smile, he says, “For Frodo”, and rushes, the sword is drawn into battle, surrounded, surely to be killed. What valor. What majesty. After the battle, crowned King, he moves through the crowd accepting the congratulations of those who fought with him and who love him. Coming up the little hobbits, who bow to him, he stops them, “My friends, you bow to no one” and drops to a knee in honor of them. I get chills thinking about it.
4. Manchester Side Street Encounter…On a lonely side street, a formerly married couple encounter one another and lay bare their wounded souls to one another, each trying to forgive the other for unspeakable things that were said in anger, in grief. Casey Affleck and Michelle Williams are astounding in this film, Manchester By the Sea (2016), and in this scene, their pain seeps off the screen into our souls. Watch the agony of Affleck telling his one time love that his heart is gone, there is nothing left, and no one knows better than he and no one will understand it more than she. Their lives have been laid waste by the deaths of their children in a fire that should never have happened, and it has devastated him. Shattering.
3. Michael Becoming Dorothy…an out of work, bitchy, difficult actor can no longer find work because he argues with everyone. So he dresses as a woman, auditions for a network soap opera, lands the job and becomes a sensation. But the moment we fully believe Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie (1982) is when Jessica Lange hands him her baby to hold and he…er, she is nurturing. The actor has become the character in every way, the man has become a woman. One of the most remarkable performances I have experienced.
2. The Godfather Part II…betrayed by his brother, however unwillingly, Michael searches the New Years celebrations and finds Frodo. Without warning, he grabs his brother and violently, passionately kisses him full on the mouth telling him he knows it was he who has betrayed him. Frodo, knowing he is a dead man, breaks free and runs into the warm Cuban night, fearing the wrath of his brother. Michael stares after him with cold, dead eyes, the eyes of a king cobra sizing up its prey. Stunning. The film is filled with profound moments such as this, from the arrival of the immigrants at Ellis Island, gliding past the Statue of Liberty, staring in awe, to young Vito (De Niro) gunning down the local crime lord and taking his place, returning to Sicily to kill the man who massacred his family, Michael before the crime investigation committee, and finally, Michael, alone but all powerful.
1. Apocalypse Now…Where to start? The jungle exploding into an inferno as Jim Morrison croons mournfully The End? Is Willard becoming unhinged in his hotel? Kilgore fearlessly roaming the beach, loving the smell of napalm in the morning, ignoring the bullets whizzing past and grenades going off around him? An encounter with a tiger deep in the jungle? Kurtz, finally Willard comes face to face with Kurtz, huge like a Buddha and understanding Willard more than Willard does himself. Willard rises out of the swamp, bayonet at the ready and kills Kurtz because he knows that is what Kurtz wants, or needs. Kurtz, bloodied, dying chokes out “the horror, the horror” before his death. The film haunts the landscape of my mind, possibly the greatest directorial achievement of all time.