For this entry in the Top 6 Words series, the word is a good one. Literally. It’s “good.” That means I’m going to be listing my Top 6 “good” movies, which would mean something very different without the quotation marks.
The list follows the jump, but you might want to come up with your own list before peeking at mine. What are YOUR favorite “good” movies?
Ironically, there are quite a few “good” movies that are not good movies: The Good Son, The Good German, The Good Thief, and Good Burger, for example. But for the first time in this series of posts, I had to make some tough choices about what to list. Quite a few good “good” movies missed the cut, like As Good As It Gets (1997), In Good Company (2004), and Good Morning Vietnam (1987).
I also left off The Good Night Kiss, just because I used it so recently in the “kiss” list. But the “The Long Kiss Goodnight,” also in the “kiss” list, was ineligible here, as “Goodnight” is given as a single word. Actually, neither movie would have made the cut this time anyway. Not with this caliber of competition.
6. A Few Good Men (1992)
What could be more intimidating than facing off with Jack Nicholson in a court of law? The simplistic politics in this one annoy me, but there’s no denying the power of the performances and tense direction.
5. Good Night, and Good Luck (2005)
I’m all proud of myself for getting this double “good” title. David Strathairn earned an Oscar nomination for his performance of Edward R. Murrow, who took a stand against Senator Joseph McCarthy in the early 1950s. Ingenious use of stock footage allows McCarthy to play himself. George Clooney directed and co-wrote the film, but Straithairn gets the spotlight.
4. The Long Good Friday (1980)
The ultimate British gangster film. Bob Hoskins is terrific as a gangster whose authority is challenged from an unknown quarter. What makes the movie so powerful is how confident it is about its story. It never tries to punch up the action or heighten suspense through cinematic artifice. For all the tens of thousands of explosions on film, this movie might have the most memorable — precisely because it’s not the product of slow motion, multiple precisely placed cameras, and a perfectly-timed cue. It simply happens. Chilling.
3. The Good Shepherd (2006)
One of my favorite movies of 2006 was The Good Shepherd, directed by Robert De Niro. (De Niro’s other directorial effort, A Bronx Tale, is also great.) It chronicles the birth of the CIA from the perspective of a guy named Edward Wilson (Matt Damon), who must track down the source of a leak within the government. It sounds like an espionage thriller, which it is, but it’s also a great character study. Edward Wilson is a fascinating person, valuing moral integrity above all but increasingly finding that he cannot trust anyone around him. Unusually for matters of state, the story is shaped as much by his particular compulsions and troubled personal life as any external forces.
2. Good Will Hunting (1997)
Matt Damon again. So much has happened with Matt Damon and Ben Affleck since their breakout 1997 collaboration that it’s hard to imagine now that they started in the same place. And what an introduction to the world. Their acting and writing for this film are both excellent; the latter justly earned them an Oscar. Robin Williams took one home too for a serious turn as washed-up psychiatrist Sean McGuire. Look for his great monologue on a riverside bench.
This is one of those rare movies that stars characters rather than caricatures. Damon plays a maladjusted genius — he can solve complex combinatorial problems that stump the best minds in the field in minutes, but he’s a kid on the streets, getting into fights, into jail, and engages in antagonistic games of oneupmanship with the people he meets. Predictably, this story is about his learning to trust other people and find his place in life, but unlike so many simple-minded films that tackle this formula, Good Will Hunting offers genuine insight into Damon’s Will Hunting character and, in a broader sense, human nature. There are a lot of Will Huntings out there, genuises or not, and precious few Sean McGuires to reach them.
A refreshing surprise is just how much humor there is. While a dramatic film at its heart, Good Will Hunting is often quite funny. It’s more like life than a humorless drama, I decided after seeing the film. Even in the worst of times, there’s usually some sort of humor to be found — maybe it’s cheap, maybe it’s morbid, maybe not, but usually it’s there, even if we don’t always see it — or feel like laughing. Good Will Hunting finds humor in all the right places, at all the right times.
1. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966)
If “Good Night, and Good Luck” is doubly qualified for this list, perhaps the qualification of “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” is negated with the word “bad” also in the title. I’m picking it anyway, and how could I not? Sergio Leone’s most infamous western, often considered his best (I’m unable to pick a favorite, myself), is the daddy of all bad boy movies. Without Leone, for example, Tarantino would not be Tarantino.
This is actually the third in a trilogy, and although the stories don’t particularly connect, you’re still better off watching them in order, to better appreciate the gradual progression from the closed, isolated world of A Fistful of Dollars to the grand, sprawling, but equally dying world of this film. Technically, though, this is a prequel and shows how Clint Eastwood’s starmaking Man With No Name character came to be who he was in A Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More.
Eastwood is The Good, though his claim to the title is dubious. In the earlier films, he was never an angel so much as a pragmatic opportunist whose conscience occasionally got the better of him. But in this one his pragmatic opportunism extends to blatant swindling and doublecrossing. But he’s still The Good, perhaps because he’s a darn sight better guy than The Bad (Lee Van Cleef, playing a different character than he did in For a Few Dollars More) or The Ugly (Eli Wallach).
Throughout the first twenty minutes of the film, much of which is wordless, we are introduced to the three characters. Via different means, they all learn of a fortune buried in a cemetery, and from then on it’s not just a race but a mind game to find it first and make away with it all. In one of the more intriguing twists, The Good and The Ugly each allegedly learn a different vital piece of information about where it is: each needs what the other knows to be able to find it, and this leads to an uneasy truce between the two. I say “allegedly” quite deliberately, because it may be that one of them is bluffing.
The race takes place in the midst of the Civil War. None of the three care much about the war except for the opportunities it affords them. The drama of the characters, juxtaposed with the backdrop of the war, provides a stark portrait of a compelling vision. This is not the glamorous wild west of old serials, nor the bittersweet pursuit of ideals portrayed in the films of John Ford. This is the dirty, brutal, unforgiving real world. It’ll kill all but the strongest and reward the survivors handsomely.
Leone was a great storyteller, though he seemingly doesn’t seem as interested in telling stories as in establishing a time and a place and a feeling. Nowhere is this more exemplified than in the opening to Once Upon a Time In the West (1968), where he burns 10 or 15 minutes of screen time on the tics and quirks of a posse of gunmen that will not appear again in the film. This progression, too, is evident when you watch his films in order. A Fistful of Dollars told a fairly tight story, though still firmly grounded in a wholly realized setting, and each successive film spent more time lingering on the breadth, the details, and the feeling of that world. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly may have been made right in the sweet spot of that progression, when the story and the world were balanced just right.