The T&C 100 - #s 2-4
4. Saving Private Ryan (1998)
I first saw Saving Private Ryan a year or so after its release, as one of my first Netflix rentals. At the time, my wife and I were living in a small ranch with the bedroom off of the living room, which is where our TV was. My wife was not interested in the movie, so I put it on late one night after she had gone to sleep. Our TV at the time was a 19-in., and the DVD was widescreen, so the image was very, very small. And so as not to wake my wife, I had the volume down very, very low as well. And still - still - I was stunned, almost physically, by that remarkable opening sequence. Nine years down the road, that sequence still stands as a remarkable achievement, and as a much-imitated milestone in how war battles are filmed. To be frank, if the rest of the film were horrible, it likely would have made this list for that sequence alone. But it's up here at #4 because the rest of the film is just so damn good. Spielberg never flinches for the rest of the way from depicting war as nonsensical, surreal, chaotic, or brutal. And his deliberate echo of the classic WWII film character tropes plays as canny - we feel as if we know these soldiers, and then find out in many ways that we don't. And at the center of all of this is Tom Hanks' indelible performance of a good man changed by circumstances beyond his control into a killer and leader of men. That it's a gorgeously shot film is a given; that that gorgeousness never devolves into mere pretty landscapes is a testament to how well Spielberg is holding the reins here. Just a majestic film.
3. The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King (2003)
Epic storytelling at its absolute best. What Jackson achieved here (and in the first two films) is, I fear, already being minimized. The sheer, gargantuan success of these films make it hard to remember that this was a huge gamble for New Line. These could have easily turned out horrible, or bombed, or just fell flat with the public. That they ended up immaculately produced, written, and acted is miracle-like. And with this last film, Jackson was able to really tie everything up beautifully. The complaints that the end goes on and on miss the point, I think, of this being the last act of a longer film. It is a long ending for a three-hour film; for a nine- or ten-hour film, it's the perfect length. What I think most impresses me is that, with all of the challenges inherent in filming three films at once, with the sheer scale of the thing, Jackson manages to pull off both the epic scale (that climactic battle is just stunning) and intimate moments necessary to make this film work. We believe not only in the scale, and ferocity, and stakes of the battles, but we believe in these characters and in the journeys they've taken. This is filmmaking that takes full advantage of the advances in the field to realize a vision that truly can only be realized in film.
2. Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back
Had no sequels ever been made, Star Wars could stand on its own as a wonderful space fantasy film. The Empire Strikes Back cannot. And that, in the end, is why I love this film more than the original - because, for me, a large part of the appeal of the Star Wars films is the world they create, and the faux-historic scope they embrace. And this sequel nails this aspect that I love completely - from the pulpy surprises, to the dark tone, to the hints of a much larger world (Yoda, the bounty hunters). It also stands as likely the funniest, most romantic installment of the series, with Fisher and Ford showing fine chemistry and the droids cementing their function as Laurel and Hardy-esque commentators. This is the film that "opened up" the Star Wars universe, really, and that enthralled me so as a kid, and that continues to enthrall me to this day.