3/19/2010

Top 6 Words: Seven

Posted in Top 6 Words at 5:00 am by Sam

The word for this entry in the Top 6 Words series is “seven.” My favorite “seven” movies follow the jump, but try thinking up some “seven” titles on your own before peeking. Chime in with your own list in the comments section.

This was by far the easiest and toughest Top 6 Words list to date. Easy, because there are so many titles. Hard, because it was tough to prune them down. Most of my list consists of masterpieces, and all of them are better movies than some of my #1 picks for other words.

Even my list of runners-up forms a stronger list than several others in this series: 12. The Seven Little Foys (1955). 11. Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas (2003). 10. Robin and the Seven Hoods (1964). 9. Seven Days In May (1964). 8. The House of the Seven Gables (1940). 7. The Magnificent Seven (1960).

Not making the cut, however, is the obvious: Seven (1995), a movie I thought was vile.

6. Seven Pounds (2008)

Will Smith turns in a wonderfully layered, conflicted performance in Seven Pounds. The character is an enigma: his behavior is unusually nice in some contexts, and heartlessly cruel in others. Even his profession seems vague. What’s he up to? Remarkably, even though we can’t account for all his actions, can’t fully relate to him, and don’t really know what makes him tick until the end, Smith captures the humanity of the character and elicits our sympathy and empathy.

The less you know about Seven Pounds going in, the better. Read as little about it as possible before seeing it. Suffice it to say that this is an amazing, moving, and powerful story. It’s an original one, too: I’m fond of drawing comparisons between different movies that play with similar ideas, but I’m at a loss here. It’s refreshing to see such an effective movie that isn’t just a thinly disguised retread of proven ground.

5. The Seven Year Itch (1955)

Tom Ewell is perfectly cast in this highly amusing comedy about a happily married man who gets an “itch” to taste, once again, the wilder life of bachelorhood. Marilyn Monroe ignites the itch as a neighbor who visits while his wife is away.

The stroke of genius was to have Ewell narrate his own thought processes and daydreams and longings, which are brought to life visually as well. The human brain is a complicated thing. Every moment of our lives, we filter rogue thoughts and renegade urges before they manifest themselves as speech and action. But the film’s narration allows us to peek behind the curtains, and the film’s crackling script shows us just how funny a thing the mind is.

4. Seven Chances (1925)

Imagine Buster Keaton playing a character who is told he will inherit a large sum of money as long as he is married by a certain time scant hours away. Imagine Buster Keaton trying absolutely everything in his power to marry absolutely anyone and everyone of the appropriate species and gender (and sometimes making mistakes about eligibility). Then imagine Buster Keaton deluged with every woman on earth, chasing him down city streets and over mountains. As if the first half weren’t hysterical enough, the second has to be one of the best — certainly one of the craziest — comic chase scenes of all time. It’s movies like this that make Keaton arguably the greatest writer-director-performer of all time. The perfect timing and sheer outrageousness of his comedy is unequaled.

3. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)

As with many innovations, Walt Disney was laughed at when he announced work on a full length animated feature. At the time, cartoons were gag-filled comedy shorts. No one could imagine how an full-length animated film could hold up. To produce Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Walt Disney and his company sunk so much money in to the project that, had it not been a wild success, they’d have been horribly in debt — and, more likely than not, the Disney corporation we know today that produces animated classics at an astonishing rate, would have never existed. With Snow White, animation was taken in a new direction, tackling a serious story devoid of the loony gags that cartoons were noted for. It was a humongous step, especially considering that decades later, the film holds up as well as it ever did. In addition, Snow White is rich with detail, which is noticeably absent from even the best animated features the studio would produce a mere ten years later. Effective, admirable animation, cute yet clever humor, and fun songs all contribute toward an all-round great film.

2. Seven Brides For Seven Brothers (1954)

In 1954, director Stanley Donen and producer Jack Cummings teamed up to make one of the most celebrated musicals of all time. The barn dance is the most famous scene — one of the most impressive, energetic, spirited, and funny dances ever put to film. In it, the seven brothers of the title compete in a game of one-upmanship with the other men of the town. The scene is featured time and again in montages of highlights from the “golden age” of movie musicals.

The central love story between the main characters (Jane Powell and Howard Keel) is what holds the film together. Their performances are sincere and heartfelt. The fundamental flaw in all too many musicals is shallow characterization, but that’s not a problem here.

The film is also about Powell making civil gentlemen of Keel and his six brothers and what that does to her relationship with her new husband. The delightful conventions of musicals are all present here: in the course of a single song, the brothers all learn to dance like Gene Kelly. Yet miraculously this doesn’t compromise the humanity or sincerity of the characters. Seven Brides For Seven Brothers has an endearing way of turning its fluff “musical” plot into the plight of real people striving to fulfill their basic yet treasured dreams in a world that doesn’t know what to do with them.

With its characters so easy to relate to, we thus enjoy the film’s excellent musical score and sense of humor all the more. Don’t miss this great American classic.

1. The Seven Samurai (1954)

Even if you’ve never seen The Seven Samurai, you’re probably familiar with the broad outlines of the story, so often does it show up in the movies it has influenced. The great The Magnificent Seven (1960) transposed the story to the western genre. A Bug’s Life (1998) introduced it to kids. In a nutshell: seven mercenary warriors, each with a different skill in combat, are hired by a poor village to defend it from raiders.

The nutshell synopsis is as far as the lesser copycat films go. But in The Seven Samurai, the showdown with the villains is incidental. The real story is of how the villagers treat the warriors. At first, they regard them with hope and gratitude — but then with suspicion, fear, and resentment, for they are outsiders and not to be trusted.

But still, I am only describing the broad outlines. The film captures the complexities of human nature in a way few others ever have. It touches upon the hierarchy of human needs, and how our anxieties are always caught up in the need, and only that need, at the top of the heap. If we are lonely, for example, we worry about our loneliness — until such time as we go hungry, at which point the concern of loneliness is shelved and concern for nourishment bubbles to the forefront of our minds. Only when our hunger is satiated will we go back to worrying about our loneliness. If we’re lonely, hungry, and in pain, we’ll worry about that pain and deal with the loneliness and hunger later. We’ll postpone dealing with the pain, too, if our lives are threatened. The point is, we’re always anxious about something.

For the villagers in The Seven Samurai, their anxieties are focused on a threat to their lives and livelihoods. They’ll do anything, make any sacrifice, to address that need. They’ll persuade these seven warriors to work for them, even though the warriors are reluctant to do so. But once the threat is neutralized, the villagers’ concern reverts to their financial well-being. The warriors, who demand to be paid as promised, become the enemy.

That the villagers are at all sympathetic is a testament to the film’s greatness. Their role in the story is naturally antagonistic. But it’s important to realize that this is how people work. Qualities such as honor and personal integrity are not natural to human nature but grafted over the top of it to try to correct its inherent selfishness.

Have I made the film sound heavily intellectual and philosophical? It is not. I’m merely trying to pinpoint why it is as compelling as it is. On the surface, it is a rousing action adventure film, which, besides building to an explosive final conflict, also tells the seven stories of the individual warriors. Each has a different reason for being there. The battle to come will mean something different to each one. Every one of those individual stories could make a compelling film in its own right.

The great director Akira Kurosawa was famous for his samurai films, like The Hidden Fortress (1958) and Yojimbo (1961). They were arguably more popular with western audiences than in Japan. The Seven Samurai is not just the best of these but one of the greatest films of all time.

0. Sinbad and the Seven Seas (1989)

A special zeroth place goes to Sinbad of the Seven Seas, which is simply too great to rank with other films. Lou Ferrigno and John Steiner give the two best performances in the history of the performing arts as arch-enemies, whose epic battle symbolizes the eternal conflict between brute strength and intellectual prowess. While the narrative superficially resembles the prototypical escapist fantasy adventure, the film’s purpose is ultimately deeper than that, namely, nothing short of a representation of life itself. The nightmarish creatures, like the rock monster and the skull monster and the slime monster, which are brought to terrifying life by state-of-the-art special effects, are personifications of the ugly yet inescapable parts of every day life. Try as we might to avoid conflict, sooner or later we shall all have to face and conquer our own “slime monsters.” In sharp contrast, the lovely Alina — and to no less an extent the courageous Poochie — are physical manifestations of life’s rare rewards of love and laughter, which empower us to face the darker times.

Through subtle allegory, the film illustrates how distracted we can become by the trivialities of life. How much time have we all wasted chasing our own “sacred gems”? But whether we are victorious or not, sooner or later we must return from whence we came and face our worst enemy: ourselves.

7 Comments »

  1. wintermute (157) said,

    March 19, 2010 at 9:17 am

    Am I right in thinking that only Sinbad and Citizen Kane have gotten a zeroth-place ranking?

  2. Nyperold (116) said,

    March 19, 2010 at 1:51 pm

    I think I recall Sam telling Stephen he could make The General his number 0 on the train movies list.

  3. ThePhan (128) said,

    March 19, 2010 at 2:12 pm

    Heh. One of the ones on my list you absolutely hated and one of the ones on yours I absolutely hated. :-) I liked Seven a lot, but was disgusted by Seven Pounds.

    Other than that, though, it’s the first word where I’ve had enough for a top 6! They were all mentioned in the blog, though: The Seven Year Itch, Seven Brides For Seven Brothers, Seven, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Sinbad of the Seven Seas, and Robin and the Seven Hoods. And now the word “seven” doesn’t even look like a word to me anymore.

  4. Sam (405) said,

    March 19, 2010 at 4:27 pm

    How someone can be disgusted by Seven Pounds and not by Seven is a mystery I hope I am never able to fathom.

  5. joem18b (231) said,

    March 19, 2010 at 9:02 pm

    back in college in the ’60s, a bunch of us showed up for a campus screening expecting to see the seventh seal, only to find that robin and the seven hoods was on the menu.

    from the list above, it turns out that we were presented with the better movie!

  6. joem18b (231) said,

    March 19, 2010 at 9:04 pm

    but no, i guess “seventh” doesn’t count…

  7. joem18b (231) said,

    March 22, 2010 at 1:52 am

    1. Seven Sinners (1940) - Marlene Dietrich and John Wayne..The director, Tay Garnett, brought Wayne to the Universal commissary for Dietrich to check out before casting him. Dietrich famously whispered, “Daddy, buy me that.” Includes one of the great barroom brawls (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-MzZkY4B76M).

    2. Tintin et le temple du soleil (”Seven Crystal Balls and the Prisoners of the Sun” in the U.S.) (1969) - If you love Tintin, this one has to be in your top six.

    3. The Seven-Ups (1973) - Welcomed by those who loved The French Connection in ‘71 and wanted more gritty N.Y. cops. Like TFC contains a classic car chase. I just always liked Roy Scheider, R.I.P.

    4. Return of the Secaucus Seven (1980) - John Sayles. The real Big Chill.

    5. The Seven Faces of Dr. Lao (1964) - George Pal and Tony Randall at their best. Honorary Oscar to William Tuttle for his makeup work.

    6. Seven Beauties (Pasqualino Settebellezze) (1975) - The Lina Wertmüller film. I might have left it off with just five or six beauties, but seven…

    Pantheon: Seven Up! (1964) - Technically not a movie, as it began life as a BBC documentary in 1964, but since it’s one of the greatest creations on film and has become a movie-like presence in its box on the shelf, I give it the place of honor.

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