No. 46: “Lars and the Real Girl” (2008)

“Sometimes I get so lonely I forget what day it is and how to spell my name.”
~~Dagmar

Acute loneliness can drive people to extremes. It drives the quiet, mild-mannered Lars Lindstrom (Ryan Gosling) to purchase Bianca, an anatomically correct life-size doll, online and make her his real-life girlfriend. No, this is not the set-up for an elaborate joke. Lars brings Bianca into his small social circle literally: She takes a room in his childhood home, now owned by Lars’ brother Gus (Paul Schneider) and his expecting wife Karin (Emily Mortimer); she attends church regularly; she volunteers at the local hospital. And because Bianca matters to Lars, she matters to the people that love him.

It’s hard to believe that “Lars and the Real Girls,” a film in which one of the main characters is a sex doll, could be anything other than juvenile or perverse. Believe it. With “Lars and the Real Girl,” director Craig Gillespie earns a giant heaping of forgiveness for the trainwreck that was 2007’s “Mr. Woodcock.” Certainly Nancy Oliver’s tender, funny script — an homage of sorts to Frank Capra — has something to do with the change. Oliver has crafted a love story so sweet-natured that resistance is pointless. Gosling, who relishes offbeat and challenging roles, delivers a performance of tremendous subtlety and nuance. He reveals much about the fiercely private Lars through the eyes only. Gosling’s character, in his self-imposed isolation, is a heartbreaking figure: a human being who has become a shell.

Lars, as a result of his isolated and sad childhood, has become a tactophobe and a functional hermit. Although Lars holds down a full-time job and attends church, people frighten him, so he avoids them. He comes up with hundreds of ways not to touch or be touched. He makes up lame excuses to avoid get-togethers with Gus and Karin, then sits alone in his grim, chilly little apartment in their backyard. Around his coworkers — particularly Margo (Kelli Garner), who finds him cute if a bit odd — he’s twitchy and guarded. And Lars seems content with this lonesome existence until he catches his cubiclemate salivating over a website that sells life-size sex dolls. Six weeks later, Lars brings Bianca to dinner with Gus and Karen. (Their stunned reaction is the film’s most hilarious scene.) Lars has prepared a detailed history for his new love that explains her immobility and strange outfit (her wheelchair and suitcase were stolen), her muteness (she’s very shy) and her aversion to staying with Lars (she’s a missionary). Gus declares his brother “totally insane,” but local psychiatrist Dagmar (Patricia Clarkson, warm and wonderful as ever) sees Lars’ behavior as a positive step. “Bianca’s in town for a reason,” she notes, and urges them to play along. Spurred on by the no-nonsense, plainspoken Mrs. Gruner (a frank, funny Nancy Beatty), the townspeople welcome Bianca into their homes.

What’s disarming about “Lars and the Real Girl” is the way that this decision reflects not lunacy, but kindness. There’s not a scene where Oliver paints Lars as a pathetic or creepy figure, or where the script makes a joke at his expense. The film’s gentle comedy emerges from the town’s bumbling but loving attempts to accept Bianca. She’s given a “part-time job” at the mall, gets a hair cut, goes to the doctor, accompanies Lars to an after-hours party with all his coworkers — and through it all, the only chuckles come from the awkward business of pretending that a doll is a real person. The sincerity tempers the laughter somewhat in the movie’s most touching scenes, like Gillespie’s lingering, unbroken and beautiful shot of Lars frozen on the doorstep, unsure whether to join his coworker’s party. The sounds of laughter and clinking glasses make him want to flee; Bianca, however, gives him the courage to push the doorbell. “Lars and the Real Girl” is filled with small moments like this, but they build to a wrenching, strangely hopeful conclusion. Clarkson and Schneider are quietly powerful, while Gosling is nothing shy of a revelation. Even in the darkest moments, Gosling finds hope and determination in a man we believed years dead to this world.

No. 45: “Sideways” (2005)

“Only somebody who really takes the time to understand Pinot’s potential can then coax it into its fullest expression.”
~~Miles Raymond

Alcoholism has many faces in film — Tommy Basilio (“Trees Lounge”), Dixon Steele (“In a Lonely Place”), Joe Clay (“Days of Wine and Roses”), George and Martha “(“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”), to name a few. Alexander Payne’s sharp, touching “Sideways” makes a strong case for adding failed novelist Miles Raymond (Paul Giamatti) to that list. He can stagger along with these boozers; actually, he could put them to shame with his frightful pretentiousness. He’s too busy appraising wines as “quaffable but far from transcendent” to consider that he’s tasting his liver to an early grave.

“Sideways” has a bit of fun at the expense of self-appointed sommeliers like Miles. On paper, he is unappealing: aloof, condescending, persnickety to the nth degree. Miles steals cash from his mother’s underwear drawer. He is that dinner party guest who will march right out the door — hurling insults all the way — if he spies one bottle of merlot in the wine rack. Giamatti has played such men before, so he knows how to suggest the painful vulnerability underneath all the snobbishness. The humanity sneaks out in the little moments, like Miles’ drunk phone call to his ex-wife (Jessica Hecht), or his sadly beautiful speech about Pinot (really a veiled description of his own neuroses and nuances). It becomes more evident, too, the more time he spends with his slick, womanizing old college roommate Jack (Thomas Haden Church). The duo jaunts out to Santa Barbara County wine country for Jack’s bachelor party weekend, which Miles tolerates mostly because there will be wine, and lots of it. Otherwise, these two would have nothing to hold their friendship together but a few years of communal showers and keggers. It’s an Oscar-and-Felix partnership that’s long past its expiration date. But Church and Giamatti are a formidable comedic duo.

Jack’s libido is the cause of many of the hijinks in “Sideways,” most involving slapstick, plenty of enthusiastic sex and nudity. Out to sew his wild oats while the sewing’s good, Jack ends up romancing Stephanie (Sandra Oh), who works at a local winery. That leaves Miles to play the part of the wingman. He doesn’t grumble about that because he’s been quietly in love with Maya (Virginia Madsen), Stephanie’s friend, for years. Giamatti communicates this wonderfully in several scenes, particularly one late night when Maya drives Miles home. As she watches the road, the normally timid Miles gives himself permission to look at her, really look at her. Giamatti’s face and eyes are so revealing that dialogue is superfluous. Rare is the actor who can say everything with a lingering look. Bogart accomplished this feat in “Key Largo”; here, Giamatti matches him. This kind of talent doesn’t come along every day.

“Sideways,” based on Rex Pickett’s novel, might well be a full-blown character study if not for the comedy the Church/Giamatti pairing provides. Their differences are never more obvious, or hilarious, than when Miles tries to teach Jack the art of wine tasting. Jack’s more of a fill-my-glass-to-the-top kind of taster with no nose for subtleties. He’s an actor who’s accustomed to instant gratification, so when he decides he wants to ditch his gorgeous, rich fiancée (Alysia Reiner) and live with Stephanie, he can’t understand why Miles thinks it’s a bonehead move. “Sideways” is jam-packed with those kinds of stupid choices, the funniest being Jack’s dalliance with a waitress that sends him running naked back to the hotel when her husband gets home. Church has a grand ole’ time playing the vapid pretty boy (Church is a good enough actor that he bends our sympathy to Jack) to Giamatti’s oversensitive, smug overthinker. The Giamatti/Madsen pairing fairs even better, with Madsen hitting a career high as the intuitive Maya. Her careful response to Miles’ speech on the merits of Pinot marks one of the film’s most honest moments. For all the comedy, this is what we take away from “Sideways”: that there are people out there willing to coax us to our fullest expression. And when we meet then, we’d better hold on tight.

No. 44: “Mystic River” (2003)

“We bury our sins here, Dave. We wash them clean.”
~~Jimmy Markum 

As an author, Dennis Lehane is a man of few words, but he makes every one count twice. That’s Clint Eastwood the actor up one side and down the other (even in “Space Cowboys” he didn’t say much). But as a director? That characterization rings just as true, because Eastwood prefers a hands-off, less-direction-is-more approach. He trusts in his actors’ talent and their instincts; he lets them navigate their characters as they choose. Eastwood intuits that, more often than not, the things left unsaid carry more weight than heated confrontations. 

So much goes unsaid in “Mystic River,” Eastwood’s bleak and darkly beautiful adaptation of Lehane’s novel, that the film simmers with tension. There’s an atmosphere of unease about “Mystic River” that never dissipates; by the film’s conclusion, in fact, the unease has grown exponentially. All of the tension has to do with a murder in the past that could have ties to a murder in the present. At the center of “Mystic River” are three old friends: Jimmy (Sean Penn), a father and ex-con now running a corner store; Sean (Kevin Bacon), a detective with the Massachusetts State Police; and Dave (Tim Robbins at his most Oscar-worthy), who ekes out a living with blue-collar work. The three have grown apart because they cannot speak of the tragedy in their childhood, of the day when a man, posing as a cop, abducted Dave and locked him a basement for four days, where he was molested repeatedly. Dave survived and he did not survive. Part of him died in that basement. Jimmy and Sean, even as kids, sense this; they know that Dave has been hurt in ways that won’t heal. He is a person who has experienced things they cannot comprehend. He is a stranger.

Twenty-five years later, Jimmy, Sean and Dave know of, but don’t really know, each other anymore. Then a present-day crime forces them together again: Jimmy’s daughter Katie (Emmy Rossum) is murdered. On the night of her murder, Dave came home to his wife Celeste (Marcia Gay Harden) covered in blood with a badly injured hand. He feeds her a story about fighting off a mugger that she doesn’t quiet her suspicions. Because whether she admits it to herself or not, she’s always been a little wary of Dave, who withdraws a little more from his family every day. Sean’s partner, Sgt. Powers (Laurence Fishburne), pegs Dave as a suspect in Katie’s death, and it’s not long before Sean wonders if he’s right. The real trouble starts when Jimmy, unhinged by his grief, hears Dave was the last person to see Katie alive. That’s all Jimmy needs to spur him to action, and his choices lead up to an agonizing conclusion that packs a Stephen King-styled final blow.

“Mystic River” the novel stands apart from usual true-crime fare in its examination of the events that shaped Jimmy, Sean and Dave psychologically. Rarely in these kinds of novels do the authors provide such a complex exploration of how the past informs the present. It’s something of a miracle, then, that Eastwood, working from a script adapted by Brian Helgeland, manages to retain all this psychological depth. More than that, he creates Boston the way Lehane presents the city: inscrutable and forbidding, yet deeply committed to the importance of family, justice — however it is meted — and loyalty. Eastwood crafts his shots to speak as much to the characters’ turmoil as they do to Boston’s beauty, such as a sinister confrontation on a riverbank, or the image of Dave’s face in a dark room, illuminated only by the glow of the television. The acting amplifies the mood, with Penn delivering a towering performance as an ex-con who feels and reacts before thinking. (In one terrific scene, Linney plays purring devil’s advocate to his tortured Macbeth.) Harden is equally powerful as the wife of a man she loves but barely knows. Bacon and Robbins have parts that require a lower key, with Robbins turning in a quietly devastating performance as Dave, a ghost in his own life. He doesn’t say much, but the horror in his eyes is unforgettable.

No. 43: “Boogie Nights” (1997)

“You know, I’m gonna be a great big, bright shining star.” ~~Dirk Diggler

Watch enough Paul Thomas Anderson films — which won’t take a full day, considering he’s only made five major motion pictures — and a trademark starts to emerge. It’s not the long shots (he’s wonderful with those) or the use of the iris in/out technique (that too). What strikes us, and quite forcefully, is Anderson’s repeated focus on warped, unconventional family dynamics. “Punch Drunk Love” had Barry and his seven wretched sisters; “Magnolia,” the twin stories of Jimmy Gator and Earl Partridge, who slowly poisoned their marriages, their children and themselves. “Boogie Nights” may beat them both, though, in terms of questionable family relationships for its emphasis on a clan of pornographers — actors, directors, producers — who cling to each other out of emotional necessity. Their real families won’t have them; no one else will, either, and so they love the ones they’re with.

This unorthodox sense of togetherness smudges the line between parental love and sexual love, especially in the case of porn stars Dirk Diggler (Mark Wahlberg) and Amber Waves (Julianne Moore). Freud could have a field day with the peculiar yet loving relationship these two people have. Unable to see her son, Amber has a hole in her heart she needs to fill with something. Cocaine passes the time, but she needs to be needed. And Dirk, a clueless kid determined to escape his own abusive mother, needs a surrogate.These two are a match made in heaven and also hell — they nurture each other, they fill gaps, but they also have a codependent relationship that’s headed nowhere good. More stable is Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds, displaying actual depth and empathy), the porn director with a conscience who discovers Dirk bussing tables at a nightclub. “I got a feeling that behind those jeans is something wonderful just waiting to get out,” Jack observes, and he’s not being crude. Jack Horner is a man with an eye for untapped potential. He’s also a man who wants to help a struggling, uncertain high school dropout make something of himself. He adopts a fatherly attitude toward Dirk, who finds makeshift siblings in fellow actors Reed Rothchild (John C. Reilly, all childlike innocence) and Rollergirl (Heather Graham).

Remaining characters trickle in and out much like kooky relatives at a family reunion: Maurice Rodriguez (Luis Guzmán), a nightclub owner/Don Juan in his own mind; Colonel James (Robert Ridgely), Jack’s financial backer with a disturbing, illegal secret; and gay boom operator Scotty (Philip Seymour Hoffman, agonizingly awkward), besotted with Dirk. There’s assistant director Little Bill (William H. Macy, brilliant as usual), whose reaction to his porn star wife’s (Nina Hartley) infidelity is a game-changer in “Boogie Nights.” Also intriguing is Buck Swope (Don Cheadle), who wants to give up his unfulfilling life of sex on camera, meet his soulmate and open a discount electronics store. Little details like that are the mark of a gifted filmmaker. And one thing Anderson, for all his skills behind the camera, never skimps on is the depth of his characters. He can draw impressive performances from actors — Graham, Reynolds and pre-“Departed” Wahlberg — not known for giving them. Even the characters we get fleeting glimpses of, like Thomas Jane’s arrogant Todd, Philip Baker Hall’s visionless financier Floyd or Alfred Molina’s whacked-out drug dealer, leave indelible impressions. Anderson writes “Boogie Nights” so that every person is concealing a story, and we get just enough of a taste of those stories to want more. Anderson backlights the characters’ tensions with his single takes (he holds when other directors would cave) and exquisite soundtrack choices, proving himself as good at illustrating eras and emotions with songs as Scorsese.

In the long list of thingsAnderson does well, there’s something else to tick off: merging multiple storylines into a satisfying conclusion. His endings are poetry, and the final minutes of “Boogie Nights” — shocking for MPAA in the ’90s, they prompted Reynolds to fire his agent and punch Anderson on set — is no exception. Anderson feels for his characters, and he gives them the kind of bittersweet adieus that sit with us indefinitely. It’s not what we expect, but it’s exactly what we need.

No. 42: “Magnolia” (1999)

“I’ll tell you everything, and you tell me everything, and maybe we can get through all the piss and shit and lies that kill other people.”
~~Claudia Wilson Gator

Epic in length, ambition and raw acting talent, “Magnolia” is not an easy film to break down. This motion picture defies quick summary, and that’s not because of a convoluted plot or characters with mystifying or unknowable motivations. Stripped of the gut-churning, elegaic soundtrack (including Aimee Mann’s devastating, Oscar-nominated “Save Me”), “Magnolia” is film about the most mundane of things: people interacting with other people. Under Paul Thomas Anderson’s direction, though, something so ordinary becomes extraordinary. Where other directors might see banality, he sees a life-affirming symphony of emotion.

In making “Magnolia,” Anderson had a rare opportunity for creative control. He decided to seize that opportunity — a wise move considering that a motion picture this theatrical about plain people might not have gotten made any other way. Making something like “Magnolia” involves a gigantic leap of faith that places an equally gigantic amount of trust in viewers. Could they see beauty in two lonely ne’er-do-wells (John C. Reilly, Melora Walters) bonding over a terrible cup of coffee? Or be moved to tears by the plight of a loser (William H. Macy) who lives so deep in the past he can’t see what’s ahead of him? It’s a risk few directors would take; that’s not Anderon’s way, however, and thank God for that. Anyone with a touch of patience and a willingness to accept coincidences will find much to love about “Magnolia,” which at its core is a meditation on the emotions we feel every day, many times a day: anger, sadness, pain, hope, lust, love, betrayal, jealousy and so much more. It is one of the best films ever made about the human condition.

One of the elements to love about “Magnolia” — not shocking given Anderson’s ability to assemble winning ensemble casts — is the performances. Anderson does not write any part, down to a dying man’s nurse, as one-dimensional. There are unfathomable depths to every character, and every actor finds those depths. Because “Magnolia” relies on the everyone-is-connected-somehow theme, there are no true main characters and no stories that preside over all others. Dying patriarchs Earl Partridge (Jason Robards) and Jimmy Gator (Philip Baker Hall), however, do stand at the middle. Earl pleads with his caretaker Phil (Hoffman) to find Frank (Tom Cruise, who hits a career high), the son Earl abandoned years ago. Frank, a manipulative slimeball who’s made a career of selling his womanizing strategies to regular guys, wants nothing to do with Earl. He also wants nothing to do with Earl’s trophy wife Linda (a wrenching Julianne Moore), who sublimates her guilt with any sedative she can find. Jimmy’s life is approaching its expiration date, and he cannot reconcile with his daughter Claudia (Melora Walters), a cokehead. An inept, kind-hearted cop named Jim (John C. Reilly, a sweetly floundering Everyman) falls for Claudia when her neighbors file a noise complaint against her. Claudia’s father is on the verge of losing the thing that means most to him in the world: his successful game show “What Do Kids Know?” One of the young stars is Stanley Spector (Jeremy Blackman), whose father is pushing the boy right up to the breaking point. Donnie Smith (Macy in top comic-tragic form), former child star of the show, watches Stanley with jealous, knowing eyes. Donnie understands the dangers of peaking so young, and his anguish is plaintive: “I do have love to give. I just don’t know where to put it.”

Macy touches on one of the more important prevailing themes — and a universal human problem — in “Magnolia” with these two sentences of dialogue. These people, all bumbling and stumbling through life, have emotions too big to stuff down. Mann’s aching, weary voice perfectly underscores this plight, and Anderson’s tracking shot in the quiz show sequence builds the tension to uncomfortable levels. Like the characters in “Magnolia,” we pray for sweet release. When release comes, we are not prepared and we do not understand. Maybe we don’t need to. Maybe this, Stanley would say, is something that happens.

No. 41: “Quills” (2000)

“Are your convictions so fragile they cannot stand in opposition to mine? Is your god so flimsy, so weak? For shame.”
~~Marquis de Sade

In 1987, a photographer named Andres Serrano dropped a plastic crucifix in a jar of his urine and snapped a photo. The result, “Piss Christ,” snared accolades and secured grant funding for Serrano. That photo also ignited a firestorm of dismay, disgust and outright hatred, prompting some detractors to send death threats. Fifteen years later, he fired back a retort aimed at everyone who damned him a heretic: “I like to believe that rather than destroy icons, I make new ones.”

The Marquis de Sade likely had a giggle at that, since nobody exalted artistic hubris quite like he did. Such is the man Geoffrey Rush presents in “Quills,” a literate, sexy and unapologetically twisted adaptation of Doug Wright’s award-winning play. Rush’s devilish Marquis is many things in his own mind: a sexual dynamo, a proponent of free speech, a consummate artist. In the minds of his keepers at Charenton asylum, the Marquis is something else entirely: a head case in need of experimental treatments to right the wickedness of his mind. Rush turns in a dynamic and tricky performance that makes us believe the Marquis is both. The image of the writer huddled in the corner of his empty room, robbed of his clothes and quill pen, is haunting. Is the Marquis a martyr for his cause or a hack with delusions of grandeur? Maybe his true character can’t be painted in black and white.

Most of the people in Charenton, from the patients to the chambermaids and physicians, make their homes in the gray areas; that’s why “Quills” sidesteps preachiness and depravity. Closest to the Marquis is Madeline (an alluring, achingly naïve Kate Winslet), a laundress who hides his work in linens and smuggles the pages to a horseman (Tom Ward) and the printer. Her innocence makes her the perfect muse for the Marquis, who awards her starring roles in his work. His response to her beauty is less than chaste, prompting the priceless line “You’ve already stolen my heart … as well as another more prominent organ south of the Equator.” Madeline also catches the eye of Charenton’s overseer, the Abbé de Coulmier (Joaquin Phoenix, the unchallenged master of Crushing Inner Conflict), who lets the Marquis produce plays but actually thinks little of his prose (he calls him “a malcontent who knows how to spell”). Napoleon (Ron Cook) orders the Marquis’ execution, but an advisor persuades the ruler to send Dr. Royer-Collard (Michael Caine), a man with … questional techniques, to fix this reprobate.

Once Caine and Rush stand eye to eye, “Quills” turns into an exhilarating battle of wills. Though Dr. Royer-Collard poses as a righteous man, he gets a gleam in his eye when he attempts to torture the demons from the Marquis’ mind. The good doctor’s eyes give away the delight that his mouth won’t let slip. And the more the Marquis, equally crude and poignant, taunts him, the more the truth comes out. Dr. Royer-Collard isn’t better than the Marquis; he’s just better at hiding his fetishes. Rush plays up his character’s shrewdness to tremendous effect (it takes a sadomasochist to know one). Caine, in the meantime, does a terrific job of concealing all emotions, which makes him even more monstrous. There’s no villain so scary as the one who wields a Bible like an executioner’s handbook. Winslet and Phoenix’s heart-tugging would-be lovers, barely capable of repressing their desire for each other, discover the doctor’s intentions too late.

The sets, costumes and cinematography of Philip Kaufman’s “Quills” only serve to reinforce the immense power of the performances. Somehow art director Martin Childs and set designer Jill Quertier understand the soul of Wright’s play and the film; they understand the soul of Rush’s character, walled up in this festering madhouse, and they manifest his frustrations in colorless soiled dresses and muted, dank castle walls. Every inch of Charenton resembles a medieval torture chamber, notably the Marquis’ final holding pen. Though it may be dreary, he decorates it in such a way his drive to speak his truth can’t be ignored, and surely you won’t forget it.

No. 40: “GoodFellas” (1990)

“Fuck you, pay me.” ~~Henry Hill

People who rail about the evils of power are people who don’t have any. Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) learned that honest from his father, a working-class schnook made furious by his own powerlessness. The fix for that problem appeared right outside the window of Henry’s Brooklyn bedroom: the Lucchese crime family. These gangsters, with their overstuffed wallets, fine-threaded suits and cowering errand boys, want for nothing because they take everything. That’s as close to omnipotence as a man can get and it’s right in front of Henry. He can’t resist a taste. Who could?

The frightening thing about Martin Scorsese’s “GoodFellas,” the definitive portrait of Mafia life, is how easily Henry slips into this society of free-flowing cash, limitless influence and tricky, uncrossable lines. There’s no pomp or circumstance — just a job opening that Henry pounces on. He doesn’t look like a hardened criminal because he isn’t one; he’s a kid who wants respect and pocket money. Although epic in terms of scope and talent, “GoodFellas” also feels intensely personal and matter-of-fact, thanks in part to Liotta’s narration and Scorsese’s direction. The director takes pains to demystify mafia life; he peels away the layers until we see what’s really there: a business, one with rules and consequences. For all the talk of respect and family, it’s the money and the power that matter most.

Each of the men Henry works for has a different approach to keeping business booming. Paul “Paulie” Cicero (Paul Sorvino, capable of leveling anyone with a stare) acts as a father figure to Henry, but he didn’t earn his status through kindheartedness. Paulie is a man who moves slowly because he “doesn’t have to move for anybody,” and this capo is straightforward in his dealings. Also in Paulie’s inner circle are his associates, the calculating Jimmy “The Gent” Conway (Robert De Niro), who steals for the thrill of it, and armed robber Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci, comical and terrifying), whose explosive temper causes messes that don’t sit well with other wiseguys. Tommy’s anger makes him dangerous, but it’s Jimmy, so calm and mannered, who may be more treacherous. Drawn into this life through her marriage with Henry, Karen (a ferocious Lorraine Bracco) understands the dangers and looks past them. More than that, she gets a charge from them, particularly in the scene — a masterpiece of filmmaking — where Henry leads her into a restaurant through a series of maze-like back entrances and hallways, where the manager produces a primo table as if from thin air. That thrill of having everything at your fingertips is intoxicating.

Scenes like these indicate a director at the height of his creative powers (though he’s an artist who’s his own toughest competitor) and his eye for atypical shots. There’s an eerie close-up of Liotta, his face bathed in the red glow of brakelights, and an even more and artistic) shot of DeVito and De Niro digging up a body shrouded in the same ethereal, otherworldly light. Scorsese also doesn’t shy away from the violence; rather, he lets it blindside us, a precursor of even more shocking scenes to come in “The Departed.” In a particularly unnerving, now-infamous moment, Pesci renders a pen more lethal than a switchblade; in another, he empties his gun into a server who gives him lip. Despite his astonishing ability to underscore feelings with song (“GoodFellas” is aces in that respect), the brutality is usually stark and always unexpected.

Also responsible for netting the film six Oscar nominations is the acting, since the cast of “GoodFellas” remains one of the finest ensembles ever put together. Scorsese continues to bring out the best in De Niro, so quietly lethal as Jimmy, while Pesci rips into Tommy DeVito like a man possessed by the devil himself. Sorvino’s presence is towering enough that he needs little screen time. At the hub of it all is Liotta, who dials down the rage to make Henry the plainspoken storyteller “GoodFellas” needs. It’s his voice that stays with us at the end, when the truth finally blindsides him (and us): The trouble with power is it makes you want more power, and when you get it you’ll do anything to keep it. Consequences be damned.

No. 39: “4 luni, 3 săptămâni şi 2 zile” (2007)

“Here’s what we’re going to do, OK? We’ll never speak of this again.” ~~Otilia

Communist Romania was not a good place to be a woman. Under the decades-long tyrannical rule of Nicolae Ceauşescu, women were valued chiefly for their ability to produce offspring. The more children a woman produced, the more benefits she reaped; women who had no children were subject to a specialty tax. Living conditions for these children barely mattered. Adoption was not a viable choice, and abortions were a dangerous, illegal one. Ceauşescu’s message was unmistakable: Women were birth machines.

It is this reality that college roommates Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) and Găbiţa (Laura Vasiliu) must navigate in Cristian Mungiu’s tense, absorbing and inventively shot “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days.” The film, released a year after “The Lives of Others,” tills similar soil — dictators tend to be cut from the same mold — but Mungiu takes a minimalist approach: realistic dialogue, understated acting and enough haunting shots to merit a frame-by-frame study. The first indication that “4 Months” is something special comes in the way the storyline unfurls. We discover Otilia and Găbiţa are roommates packing for a trip neither seems happy about. Then Otilia knocks on a closed door in her dorm to buy cigarettes — a sure sign of a black market. Otilia also secures a hotel room for the pair and reality starts to sink in: Whatever she’s planning isn’t legal. Marinca’s performance indicates that Otilia, smart and reliable and resourceful, has learned to circumvent the roadblocks Ceauşescu’s mandates have placed in her way. She’s adapted to this world in ways her bumbling, weak-willed roommate has not. When the regime changes, Otilia will not have to. This is quietly compelling acting at its best.

Still later, their full plan comes to light: Otilia is making furtive plans for Găbiţa’s abortion. To be exact, Otilia’s tackling the tasks Găbiţa couldn’t handle, or fixing the instructions she has botched. This includes meeting with the abortionist, known as Mr. Bebe (a blood-freezing Vlad Ivanov), a cold businessman who has no patience for Găbiţa’s lies or her complete ineptitude. (It’s a testament to Vasiliu’s skill that she’s infuriating and still we sympathize with her.) Bebe’s matter-of-fact instructions about the procedure — use a plastic sheet to prevent staining the sheets; don’t dispose of the fetus, whole or “in pieces,” in a dumpster or bury it where dogs can dig it up — are chilling. Ivanov maintains an air of calm that conjures a predator with his prey squarely in range. Later, disgusted with Găbiţa’s stupidity, he threatens to walk away unless both girls pay a much higher price than they anticipated, a sum that has nothing to do with money.

In a less carefully constructed film, Bebe’s intentions might come as a surprise. Cristian Mungiu, however, is a master of mood creation, that delicate, tricky business that has tripped up directors with years more experience than he has. In shot after shot, it’s almost as if Mungiu’s camera is an extension of his brain — he’s that comfortable behind the lens. He has an awe-inspiring way of translating emotions into pictures. And every scene is unique. There’s one shot that cannot be ignored: a seemingly interminable scene where Otilia is stuck at a birthday party the house of her clueless boyfriend Adi (Alexandru Potocean). With his relatives chattering around her, it’s as though Marinca is alone at the table — alone in her worry for Găbiţa, alone in her fear for her own future if the procedure goes wrong. This scene stretches for almost 10 minutes, but it’s not overlong; Mungiu knows what he’s doing. If he pulled back, he’d lose momentum and we’d lose that feeling of slow, excruciating suffocation he knows we have to experience to understand this world.

There are so many other scenes worthy of marvel that they must be left to self-discovery. Except this one: Mungiu presents a brief shot of Marinca, naked from the waist down, sitting in the hotel bathtub. While any other director would zoom in on her face, close in on the drama, this director stays back. Why? It is a moment of private humiliation, a moment we are not allowed to see. But because of Mungiu’s camera, we feel it.

No. 38: “Office Space” (1999)

“Human beings were not meant to sit in little cubicles staring at computer screens all day, filling out useless forms and listening to eight different bosses drone on about about mission statements.” ~~Peter Gibbons

The phrase “going postal” has been around since the 1980s, but it took “Office Space” to show everyone what those words meant. Just 10 minutes spent in the bleak 9-to-5 wasteland of Initech, jammed with babbling bosses and zombies posing as functional humans, is enough to make any loaded gun look mighty friendly. The hopelessness is clear, but it takes an artist like Mike Judge, with his eye for minutiae, to spin despair into a comic yarn about one man’s rage against the machine.

Indeed, in some important ways, worker bee Peter Gibbons (Ron Livingston) has the makings of a quintessential rebel, an emblem of La Résistance. He’s the unwitting Cool Hand Luke of cubicle culture. And much like Luke Jackson, Peter Gibbons doesn’t believe he serves any grand purpose. He wants to be the boss of his life and realize his ultimate dream: doing nothing. But instead of Luke’s prison camp, Peter is trapped in his cube at Initech, a software company. He updates bank software for the Y2K switch — in theory. In reality he would accomplish much more if he wasn’t spacing out as his desk (“but it looks like I’m working”), avoiding his droning, evil boss Bill Lumbergh (Gary Cole, who deserved an Oscar) or getting hassled by other bosses (“It’s just we’re putting new coversheets on all the TPS reports before they go out now”). While Peter rants to his coworkers Samir (Ajay Naidu) and Michael “No, I’m Not Related to That No-Talent Ass-Clown” Bolton (David Herman) and fantasizes about Joanna (Jennifer Aniston), a bored waitress at Chotchkie’s, he never finds the courage to mutiny. Samir, Michael and fellow drone Milton (Stephen Root), fuming about his stolen red Swingline stapler*, don’t either.

Enter deus ex machina in the form of a hypnotherapist (Michael McShane), who puts Peter under and has a heart attack before he can bring him out. Do-Nothing Peter is born, and what a happy soul he is. Judge has quite a bit of fun with New Peter, who starts dating Joanna; guts the catch on those TPS report covers; spends his working hours playing Tetris; and unscrews his cubicle wall so he can get a window seat. Peter’s complete disinterest catches the attention of “efficiency experts” Bob (John C. McGinley) and Bob (Paul Willson). To them, Peter is a “straight shooter with upper middle management written all over him.” It makes perfect sense because it makes no sense.

Peter and The Bobs are just a sampling of the characters that make “Office Space” so incredibly entertaining (the satire sneaks up on you later). “Office Space” is a collective of kooks and corporate fiends. Near the top is Tom (Richard Riehle), a nutter who thinks his Jump to Conclusions mat** will make him rich. There’s Drew (Greg Pitts), able to take the ladies for sweet rides on the bone rollercoaster. Cole, as Bill Lumbergh, is deadpan villainy at its best, starting every line with a lumbering (ha!) “Yeeeeaaaahhhh.” Naidu and Herman play the straight men, but they play them with enough edge — Samir’s misuse of American swear words is side-splitting, while Michael spits fire when people mention “When A Man Loves a Woman” — to make them outstanding. Last is odd little Milton, whose glasses give him big round lemur eyes. He vows to set Initech on fire. Trifle with the quiet ones at your own risk.

In the character interactions Judge buries the humor (much of it dry) that pegs “Office Space” as a fiendishly clever satire. When the Bobs discover Milton was laid off but still receives a paycheck, they “fix the glitch” by taking away the check. Bill subjects the lower-level employees to his every whim, which includes moving Milton’s desk to Storage Room B. Most damning of all is Peter’s assessment of the flair Joanna’s boss forces her to don: “You know, the Nazis had pieces of flair they made the Jews wear.” Mike Judge, he doesn’t miss when he goes for the jugular.

*I own this.
**This too.

No. 37: “Chinatown” (1974)

Private detective Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) would have us believe that he’s unflappable, as arch as the one-liners he slings at his she-done-me-wrong clients and the cops who snub their noses at him. “You’re dumber than you think I think you are,” he cracks to Lt. Escobar (Perry Lopez). Comments like this might peg him as a real hardnose if not for his pesky moral code. He wants to ignore it, but he can’t, and it’s the reason he gets swept up in too many tangled stories that don’t end happily.

Truth be told, it is Gittes’ nagging conscience that makes “Chinatown,” Roman Polanski’s gorgeously shot, densely plotted love letter to film noir, more than just a rigorous exercise in mental gymnastics. The fact that this investigator, with his steely, seen-it-all eyes, can’t pull back emotionally from his cases separates him from the pack. That gets him in trouble often enough, and if not the curiosity shows up to finish the job. Since Gittes can’t leave a hunch unexamined, he’s intrigued when a woman (Diane Ladd) shows up in his office convinced her husband, Hollis Mulwray (Darrell Zwerling), chief engineer of L.A. Water and Power, is having an affair. Gittes decides to tail Mulwray and sees fresh water being dumped into the Pacific. Peculiar, since there’s a serious drought. Gittes snaps some money shots of Mulwray and his mistress, and when they wind up front-page news the second bomb drops. The real Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) barges into his office, and she’s understandably enraged that Gittes took the case under false pretenses. Gittes, in turn, is none too happy that he’s become someone’s puppet, and he’s hell-bent on finding out who’s pulling the strings.

There is more, much, much more, to “Chinatown” than this. Polanski’s twisty plot continues to uncoil itself slowly, almost languidly. From this point, we, like Gittes, sense that Evelyn is hiding something, possibly something sinister or shameful, and that this Mulwray scandal goes far deeper than the ocean the water’s been dumped into. When Mulwray’s body turns up, lungs filled with salt water even though he was pulled from a freshwater reservoir, that much is clear. Now there’s a scandal and a murder, and the cast of POIs expands to include Evelyn’s millionaire father Noah Cross (John Huston), a man who serves Gittes a head-on fish for lunch and reveals himself to be a man as menacing as he is rich. The pieces start to come together toward the end of Gittes’ topsy-turvy investigation. Or do they? Scriptwriter Robert Towne unloads not one but two shockers, both of which force us to double back and scrounge around for clues we missed. And that’s when we realize Gittes wasn’t the only one trapped in an unpredictable cat-and-mouse game.

Not many scripts can draw in viewers the way Towne’s does. This is complex, captivating writing that manages to keep us guessing until the final moments, and even when the answers are provided, they aren’t necessarily easy or satisfying. Every revelation here is hard-won. Somehow Towne also manages to capture the spirit of 1930s film noir, with its femme fatales (Dunaway in this case), terrible misdeeds of the past and how they infect the present, the detective who’s in over his head but won’t back down. It’s all there, and it’s all executed flawlessly.

“Chinatown,” however, isn’t just a masterpiece because of the script — Polanski’s direction, his keen eye for the shadows-and-fog atmosphere, that sense of weariness, is impressive in the way it recreates 1930s-era L.A. and does so in color, not black-and-white. Mastery exists in the performances of Huston, Dunaway and Nicholson. Huston, with his towering presence, exudes the effortless menace of a man unaccustomed to having his whims questioned; he dictates and it becomes so. Dunaway’s Evelyn is equal parts fragility and untapped rage; she is exactly as mysterious as she needs to be, and not a drop more. Nicholson’s Gittes is a character for the books. The actor hits a career best here, demonstrating cracks in the armor. He makes Gittes the moral compass and the heart of “Chinatown,” the kind of man who not only can’t forget what he’s seen but doesn’t want to.

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