The word for this entry in the Top 6 Words series is “game.” Are you game for “game” movies? Yuk, yuk, yuk.
My Top 6 list after the jump, but try to come up with your own favorite “game” movies before you peek at mine. Share your thoughts in the comments section.
I kept thinking of movie titles with the plural form “games” in them. I’m all set if that word comes up for a future week.
Some of the movies that weren’t good enough to make the cut are nevertheless interesting: Game of Death (1978), for example, was a movie built around a few (great) fight scenes Bruce Lee had filmed before his death. A stand-in for Lee enabled his character to appear in the new footage. It’s hilarious how conspicuously the camera avoids showing his face.
There is also The Skin Game (1931), an early Hitchcock film; Thursday’s Game (1974), a pretty good made-for-TV comedy with Gene Wilder and Bob Newhart; and Fair Game (1995), a terribly wooden and generic cop thriller with a hilarious tagline: “He’s a cop on the edge. She’s a woman with a dangerous secret. And now they’re both…FAIR GAME.”
6. Take Me Out To the Ball Game (1949)
Can you even read that title and not think of it in the cadence of the famous song? No, it did not originate with this musical but decades earlier. But the film captures every bit of the song’s joyful exuberance over America’s favorite pastime. Frank Sinatra, Esther Williams, and Gene Kelly, those stalwarts of MGM musicals, headlined the cast. Sinatra and Kelly have all the chemistry that had together in Anchors Aweigh and On the Town (as they should, given that they play practically the same characters). This film isn’t as good as either of those, but Williams and the baseball stuff adds to its charm.
5. The Pajama Game (1957)
The Pajama Game is the first of two stage musicals with songs by the short-lived writing team of Richard Adler and Jerry Ross, the other being Damn Yankees. Unlike many movie adaptations of Broadway musicals, this one preserves much of the original cast. And unlike many movie adaptations of Broadway musicals, there isn’t much of an attempt to disguise the show’s origins. The camera keeps its distance, absorbing spectacle in long shots, deigns to do medium shots, but rarely moves in for a close-up. The effect is that we never quite forget we are watching a show and become absorbed in the lives of fictional characters. Paradoxically, this is precisely what is called for. The play was written to be a staged musical comedy and was designed to work with that kind of presentation.
The film is featherweight but fun. The plot, concerning a romance across corporate and union lines, is but a rack upon which to hang musical numbers, which range from cute and funny to funny and cute, save for the best and most famous song from the play, the beautiful soul-searching Hey There…You With the Stars In Your Eyes. The choreography, featuring rows and columns of workers in the factory scenes and a literal pile of chaos in the off-time scenes, is effective and fitting.
So far, I suppose this review sounds like hesitant praise, but maybe that’s because I can’t quite figure out why it works as well as it does. Few of the individual elements of the film are ingenious, though most are inspired. But everything comes together just right to make a remarkably entertaining show. It’s joyful, funny, and has character to spare.
4. The Dinner Game (1998)
Once this movie got going, I couldn’t stop laughing. This is a stupendous comedy with fast-paced dialogue that reminded me of the classic screwball comedies. Although it’s in French and much of the humor comes from wordplay, the English subtitles do a great job conveying the nuances.
The French title would more accurately translated “Dinner For Idiots” or, as the current sure-to-miss-the-point American remake is titled, “Dinner For Schmucks.” The idea is that a group of friends compete to see who can invite the biggest idiot to dinner. It’s a mean-spirited premise, yes, and yet the movie is surprisingly warmhearted. Its success hinges on the great performance by the wonderful comedian Jacques Villeret, who plays one man’s chosen idiot. His performance is a tricky balancing act: we must love his character and laugh at him at the same time. I did. This is one of the great comic movie characters, showcased in a very, very funny movie.
3. The Most Dangerous Game (1932)
Is this the first “modern” action movie? Even though The Most Dangerous Game was made way back in 1932 and looks like an adventure film from the era, it feels like a more recent nonstop action movie. It’s lean and mean, running just 63 minutes and racing through them at a full tilt. In the first eight minutes, there’s a shipwreck and a shark attack. Then, after a brief lull to get to know the characters, the game is on. I don’t know of any other movie from the period with this much adrenaline and momentum. Even King Kong, which was shot at the same time and with mostly the same cast and crew, stopped to breathe once in a while. Admittedly, King Kong was a better film, but there is something admirable and self-assured about the compactness of this one. It knows exactly what it is and wastes no time delivering what it’s got. This movie has not a single spare part.
The movie is visually arresting, too. It provides a wonderful space for the characters to run around in: the action takes place on a jungle island, densely packed with cliffs, crevasses, waterfalls, and huge, ancient trees. One memorable shot shows the point of view of a character running blindly through the overgrowth.
Note: A colorized version of this film is inexplicably common, even showing up on the Criterion Collection DVD (which also has the black and white version). Avoid it. The colorization is gaudy. The black and white look, which is what the director intended, enhances the film’s nightmarish effect.
2. The Game (1997)
David Fincher’s The Game, starring Michael Douglas, is a weirdly entertaining, unpredictable thriller reminiscent of David Mamet. It’s not easy to pull a story like this off — too often audiences are too smart to be taken by surprise. The Game does an admirable job and creates an exciting, dark world we yearn for and fear at the same time.
1. The Rules of the Game (1939)
How can I even begin to review this movie? Surely it is impossible to do it justice. This is the sort of film you can see a dozen times and still notice new things with each viewing. I’m not even talking about little details or finishing touches that escaped you before but whole themes. There is just so much going on in this movie that the tenth viewing can be as fresh and rewarding as the first.
The best analogy to a modern film I can come up with is Robert Altman’s Gosford Park, in which a large cast of characters from different tiers of a rigid class structure, converge on a manor (here, a French chateau) and go about their lives and little intrigues in ways that intersect in complicated and unexpected ways. One of the pleasures of The Rules of the Game, as in many of Altman’s pictures, is how the large cast of characters have lives that extend beyond the camera’s view. We feel like we’re only another guest in the chateau, and although we may have a privileged view of the key events, we are aware that the characters are living their lives even when we’re not looking at them. Much has been written about the deep focus cinematography of the film, which allows separate stories to unfold simultaneously in the foreground and background of the frame.
This is the film’s style, but much more can be said about its voice. This is a film that regards the course of human life with a eye somewhere between amusement and cynicism. So controversial and subversive was it at the time of its release that the French tried to bury the film long before the Nazis occupied France and sought to destroy it themselves. The film was simply too effective at puncturing the standards of decency men establish for their public images. It wasn’t just the aristocracy that the film eviscerates, either, but anyone with noble pretensions. To put it another way, The Rules of the Game breaks the primary rule of the game: don’t get caught breaking the rules.
Savage as it is, though, the film is gentle with its method. You will not get beat over the head with its imprecations, as you might expect with a social satire. Its subtlety makes the film that much more intriguing: does it restrain itself from overtly heavy blows because it has compassion for its characters, or because the quiet blows sting so much more? My guess is both, somehow.