Five Perfect Films

There’s a thing going around on Film Twitter right now where directors are listing five films that they consider perfect. It’s been interesting to see what people are choosing, so I figured I’d give it a shot too.

These are some of my favorite movies. If you haven’t seen some of them, well… a national quarantine is a decent time to catch up on some movies, right?

Brick

Of the five films I’m going to list, Brick is probably the one folks are most likely to have missed. That’s a real shame, too, because Rian Johnson’s directorial debut is a cinematic masterpiece. I’m a sucker for noir, and Brick is a fascinating twist on that formula. Set in a modern (at the time) high school, the movie maps classic detective tropes to high school drama. The loose cannon detective is the school delinquent; the short-tempered police chief is the principal; the femme fatale is the drama club queen. It might sound goofy, but it works.

It’s really not goofy, either; in fact, it’s one of the bleakest films I’ve seen. It centers around our hero Brendan, played to perfection by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, investigating the mysterious death of his ex-girlfriend Emily (Emilie de Ravin). From there, the viewer is drawn into Brendan’s complex relationships with Emily and others, as well as an escalating drug war between two local dealers. It’s a wild ride, and yet–despite some strange anachronisms and a completely unique dialogue style that is unlike anything an actual high school student would say–it manages to feel grounded and real for the full runtime.

I wasn’t kidding when I said this movie was bleak, though–don’t watch it if you’re looking for a good time. The final scene delivers one of the most elegant, and painful, gut-punches I’ve ever experienced.

The Thing

John Carpenter’s The Thing is, hands down, my favorite horror movie. It’s not even a contest (sorry, Scream, but hey, second place is still good). This flick has it all! Body horror! Practical effects! Kurt Russell! What more could you want?

In all seriousness, though, The Thing is a perfect demonstration of how to make an effective psychological thriller. An isolated arctic research base becomes ground zero for a shapeshifting alien invasion. No one can trust each other; once the titular Thing is loose, who knows who is human and who has been replaced by the alien? It makes every interaction tense, with characters turning on each other, growing more and more suspicious, and being eaten alive by the monster any time it gets discovered.

That’s what’s great about this film, too–every scene drips with tension, and the payoff for that tension is always huge. You think something seems weird about that dog? Well, now it’s splitting open and eating all the other dogs in the base! Suspect this guy of being the Thing? You were right, and now his head is detaching from his body and crawling up the walls on spider-legs! The movie always goes just a bit further than you were expecting it to; you never get a moment to relax. As a result, it’s one of the most effective horror films I’ve ever watched.

Also, the first scene we get of Kurt Russell’s character, MacReady, shows him destroying a computer and calling it a “cheating bitch” because it beat him at chess, and I’ve always thought it was one of the best character intros in cinema. It’s a perfect summation of Mac.

Fargo

I love the Coen brothers. It was a real struggle for me to pick which of their films to put on this list; I almost went with Barton Fink on the strength of John Goodman’s performance (“I will show you the life of the mind!”), but at the end of the day, you just can’t beat Fargo.

The Coens tend to enjoy a very particular story structure: someone comes up with a zany scheme, and it gradually goes horribly wrong. In Fargo, the scheme involves a fake kidnapping, and it starts to go wrong almost immediately thanks to the bumbling kidnappers (played by the excellent comedic duo of Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare). All of it is set against the backdrop of an average small town in Minnesota, which just amplifies the absurdity of the situation as things escalate.

I love pretty much everything about this movie. The performances (especially that of star Frances McDormand), the dialogue, the direction; everything. It’s an excellent crime thriller while still being darkly hilarious–there are scenes that still crack me up just to think about. But hey, I’m probably not telling you anything you don’t already know, right? Fargo is a classic. If you haven’t seen it yet, you need to remedy that immediately.

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

There are few directors as dynamic and visually interesting as Edgar Wright. He’s also incredible at weaving music into his films (just look at Baby Driver). That made him the perfect choice to direct Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, the big-screen, pseudo-musical adaptation of Bryan Lee O’Malley’s excellent graphic novel series. Back that up with one of the most superb casting jobs imaginable (Michael Cera and Mary Elizabeth Winstead are Scott and Ramona, and don’t even get me started on the rest–Alison Pill as Kim? Aubrey Plaza as Julie? Brie Larson as Envy? There’s not a miscast role to be found) and you’ve got a recipe for a perfect film.

Scott Pilgrim is kind of a loser. He’s a twentysomething slacker musician who’s dating a high schooler (the delightful Knives Chau, played by equally delightful Ellen Wong). Then he meets Ramona Flowers–a deconstruction of the ‘Manic Pixie Dream Girl’ trope who, by the way, has seven evil exes that Scott will have to defeat if he wants to date her. It’s a ludicrous, video-game-inspired concept that I adore completely.

The great thing about Scott Pilgrim is that it doesn’t stop at being just a fun, quirky romantic comedy/action flick. There’s a real heart and soul here. Scott is a bit of a dick, and the movie knows it–meeting the eccentric Ramona isn’t a license for him to keep being a lovable goofball, it’s a wake-up call that he needs to grow up, and the seven evil exes (each memorable and hilarious in their own way) offer a preview of how Scott will turn out if he doesn’t shape up. That’s not to say that Scott is the only problem and Ramona is perfect–she’s not. Both of them feel like real people with actual flaws, and as a result their relationship feels real, too–even when Scott is punching demon hipsters so hard they turn into pocket change.

Plus, Kieran Culkin’s turn as Wallace Wells is one of the funniest, most quotable performances of all time. Oh, and the soundtrack is great!

The Last Jedi

That’s right, it’s another Rian Johnson film! And if I had a sixth slot, I’d give it to his most recent outing, Knives Out! The dude is a genius!

This has got to be the most controversial pick on my list. I know this movie is pretty polarizing in the Star Wars community, but you know what? I love it. It’s my favorite film in the franchise. Sure, it might be a stretch to call it perfect–there are a few minor details I might have altered, and maybe one or two lines of dialogue that are a bit clunky–but it’s the best Star Wars we’ve got, and boy do I love Star Wars.

Picking up right after The Force Awakens, the film puts the Resistance on its back foot for the entire narrative, and by the end our heroes are facing their darkest hour… and yet there is this incredible feeling of hope in those closing scenes. There’s just so much this film does right: Luke explaining the corruption of the Jedi and the true nature of the Force; Rey’s scene in the Dark Side cave; the hard lessons Poe learns; Finn’s journey to become part of something bigger than himself. The Canto Bight stuff is often decried as unnecessary, but it does such a wonderful job developing Rose and Finn–can a plotline really be considered ‘unnecessary’ if it adds character growth to half your main cast? At the very least it gave Finn something to do, which I find infinitely preferable to the load of nothing he was handed in The Rise of Skywalker.

On top of that, there’s the phenomenal throne room fight sequence, the attack on Crait, Poe’s daring X-Wing run on a Star Destroyer, and the jaw-dropping majesty of the Holdo Maneuver. Rey and Kylo are more compelling here than any other point in the trilogy. It’s just… it’s just so good. I honestly can’t even fathom how it became so controversial.

So, there you have it! Those are my five perfect films. This was fun! I’ll have to do more lists like this in the future. In the meantime, feel free to comment with your own five perfect films!

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