For this entry in the Top 6 Words series, I forewent my word-selection script and let my friend Goosey pick a word for me. After about seven seconds of careful consideration, she challenged me with the word “Time.” This is a good word, because I love movies that play with time. But how many of those actually have “time” in the title?
My favorite “time” movies after the jump. Try thinking up some “time” titles yourself first, though, before looking at mine. Talk about your own favorites in the comments section.
Lots of competition for this one, including all 246 of the Land Before Time movies. After much pruning, I came up with the following:
6. Nick of Time (1995)
Johnny Depp and Christopher Walken star in this engrossing thriller. An innocent man is captured and forced to assassinate someone. We identify with Depp well, so that Walken’s usual screen menace is made all the more threatening. The interesting thing about this film is that it takes place in (approximate) real time. Frequent references to the current time are made, and it makes for a nail-biting effect. Unlike a lot of thrillers, this is one where it’s hard to see how the protagonist could possibly pull through. He’s no dummy — he’s clever and quick-thinking, yet it seems not enough.
5. Once Upon a Time In China I, II, and VI (1991, 1992, and 1997)
(Part III of this popular series of martial arts historical adventures starring Jet Li is also worth seeing, but parts IV and V (which do not star Li at all) are just cheap rip-offs.)
This series is all about Wong Fei Hung, which might be described as the Chinese version of Robin Hood. There are action scenes aplenty, showcasing stunning athleticism. Jet Li makes a warm, personable hero (very unlike the stoic robotic characters he plays in most of his English language films). Unlike many martial arts films, which are about vengeful heroes and bloodthirsty villains, these films are essentially about gentle people striving to thwart extremists on all sides that threaten peace. The stories are set against the backdrop of turn-of-the-century China, which was enduring an oppressive government and also experiencing an influx of Western culture that began to change the old traditions.
The final episode of the series, also titled Once Upon a Time In China and America, is a bit of a shift: it moves Wong Fei Hung to the American West, thus giving him a chance to interact with cowboys and Indians and opening the way for elaborate fight scenes that match up martial arts with guns, ropes, and tomahawks. It’s less gimmicky than it sounds — actually, it’s a natural step for the series to take, given that it has always been about culture clashes, how technology changes culture, and the traditions of combat. Setting this episode in the Old West escalates these tensions and flip-flops the prejudices. As with the earlier episodes of the series, there are goodguys and badguys on all sides. No race or culture is purely good or purely bad, and the message of the movie is of moderation and tolerance, not conquest and victory.
4. A Time To Kill (1996)
An extremely powerful courtroom drama whose scope exceeds any John Grisham story that’s hit the silver screen thus far. All the cast shines, particularly Samuel L. Jackson and Matthew McConaughey. It’s regrettable that the film doesn’t leave it up to the audience to ponder the various moral questions instead of trying to force its own conclusions, but aside from this admittedly fundamental flaw, this movie is grand, engrossing filmmaking that ranks with the best in the genre.
3. No Time For Sergeants (1955 and 1958)
In 1955, Andy Griffith starred in a made-for-television comedy about a country bumpkin in the military. It was received so well that it was expanded into a feature film three years later. Both versions are good, each strong for different reasons. Andy Griffith turns in hilarious performances.
2. Once Upon a Time In the West (1968) and Once Upon a Time In America (1984)
Despite the similarity between the titles, there is no relationship between these movies other than that they were both directed by Sergio Leone, who I discussed in my Top 6 “Good” Movies post. As I said there, he is a master of establishing tone and setting. These two are among his most extravagant. Where most movies rush to do, these are content simply to be. Long stretches of restless unease and lingering on details are punctuated by sudden violence.
In Once Upon a Time In the West, Henry Fonda plays against type as a nasty villain, which is a bit of a shock: this is an actor who made a name for himself playing some of the nicest and most honorable characters in the movies. The film is overflowing with great character actors and dirty landscapes in the best traditions of the spaghetti western.
In Once Upon a Time In America is not a western at all but a gangster epic in Brooklyn. Robert De Niro plays a man who was a gangster during Prohibition and returns years later to try to find some closure for his old life. Avoid the 139-minute theatrical cut, which was massacred by the studio, which was more interested in hitting a short running time than preserving the narrative. The 229-minute director’s cut is available on DVD.
1. Swing Time (1936)
Some people consider this the best of the ten musicals Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, one of the most famous dancing teams of all time, made together. I like Top Hat better, but this one comes close. The plot doesn’t matter: suffice it to say it involves society, show business, and love, all tangled up by a script that’s witty and charming and provides the leads with an excuse to engage in verbal banter and fancy footwork.
Rob Marshall, please watch this movie and observe how it is filmed. Dance numbers are filmed with single, continuous takes, always showing the full bodies of the dancers. It doesn’t cut every half second to various close-ups of miscellaneous body parts, to the point where you can’t tell what the dancers are actually doing. In movies like this, the cinematography didn’t need to wow the audience. The performances took care of that. The job of the cinematography was not to get in the way.