Thursday, February 2, 2012
Top 100 movies of the 1980s: #1
1. Once Upon a Time in America, 1984
Director: Sergio Leone
Once Upon a Time in America is number 1 on this list because it's a masterpiece and among the greatest films ever made, in my humble opinion. My opinion isn't all that humble though, I feel pretty strongly about this and I don't think you could possibly disagree after one viewing. Everything about this film is art. The combination of music and imagery is a masterstroke. You want to talk about a filmmaker going out with a bang, Sergio Leone should've had the loudest bang. The 229 minute version of the film, the only version that should be seen (unless a longer version ever gets released) was not what initially came out in theaters in 1984. The studio completely butchered it, put it all in chronologically order, and left out some key plot elements in a way-too-short 139 minutes. Even the Godfather films are at least 3 hours long or more, what the fuck were they thinking? This was Sergio Leone's version of an epic crime film and, dammit, he may just have outdone Coppola himself. Why? Because the 229 minute version, the version that would eventually be released on home video and would come to be the version most people know today, does what Godfather parts I and II do... but it does it in one movie.
Once Upon a Time in America has very lengthy scenes of these Jewish mobsters when they were kids and they are among the most beautiful scenes ever caught on film. It moves so gracefully topped with Ennio Morricone's score. Watching young Noodles fawn over young Deborah (young: Jennifer Connelly, old: Elizabeth McGovern). Watching the four mobsters: Noodles (Deniro), Max (James Woods), Patsy, and Cockeye run around together as kids and petty thieves is just a marvel. The scenes make the brutal violence that these boys commit as adults feel even more brutal and terrible than it otherwise would feel. None of these characters are forgivable people, they are ultimately very unlikable characters. They have colorful personalities, but Sergio Leone never allows them to get away with what they've done. While some are allowed to grow old, like Noodles, he's ultimately a fraction of a man and you'll never look at him the same ever again after what he does to Deborah, the love of his life.
If it looked like before that I was disparaging The Godfather movies, do not get me wrong. When I do my '70s list, they will get their proper due, believe me. Besides, you can't go against a filmmaker like Sergio Leone who is a legend in his own right having made Clint Eastwood a star in the '60s with his Dollars trilogy. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is among the best of its genre. He's as legendary of a director as they get and he's no better represented as an artist and filmmaker than with this film. Once Upon a Time in America is a much different story than The Godfather saga. The Godfather Saga is also ultimately about an unforgivable man in Michael Corleone, but Noodles never had a transformation. At least Michael was trying to do what was in the best interest of his family, at least initially. There's no honor in the things that Noodles does, he's a killer, best exemplified when he went to prison at a young age for stabbing a police officer. He had a propensity for violence ever since he was a pre-teen, much more than his friends ever did, especially Max who often talked a big game. But Noodles did the dirty work because, deep inside, he is a violent man. What I feel Leone was trying to say is that this is the type of person you have to be in order to succeed in this business. People like Vito Corleone are a dime a dozen. Most mobsters are cold-blooded criminals like Noodles.
Despite its four hour plus running time, this is a film that moves with ease. It's very easy to get caught up in this movie because it's such a big story. It literally goes into everything, how the gang came to be, the time period they were living, the scores they were trying to settle, the women they were seeing. It's all there. Being able to characterize them as kids is crucial because when they are the men they eventually come to be, you can still see the kid that they used to be. That innocence they once might have had is completely stripped away by the time you see them as grown men. Every single scene has added weight and significance when they're adults. You feel like you've known them for years.
Beside all this, Once Upon a Time in America has some really well-done action sequences. There is plenty of violence and chaos in this film and when it happens, it's as vicious as any other mafia movie. This film does not hold back for a second, but what it does do is allow time to build and for suspense to grow. It's a movie that takes its time but it's always worth it. Everything about this movie is beautiful even at its ugliest. The sequence where adult Noodles takes Deborah out to an elegant dinner could rival any romance movie and the subsequent scene will send shivers down your spine and will constantly make you question yourself and the whole movie. I couldn't handle that scene the first time I saw it. I loved the rest of that movie, but that scene I despised. Well of course I despised it, I was supposed to. I don't want to spoil it because I feel so few have seen this film and I wouldn't ruin it for a second, but it will shock and disgust you too. It's not even what the film shows, there's nothing completely graphic about it. It's just shocking because of everything that happens in the movie before that moment.
Like Raging Bull, Once Upon a Time in America is at the top of the list because of how timeless it is and how it differs from anything the rest of the '80s had to offer. It's a true anomaly: an epic art crime film that is a truly and solely dictated by its director, Sergio Leone. It's a film that for so long has deserved its placing next to all other films that are typically placed among the best films of all-time. It's about time more people acknowledged this. With his final film, Sergio Leone left us a gift of a film that will forever be cherished and adored to the lucky people who discover this film. I know I have been touched by it because I feel it's the one gangster film that truly gets its characters right. They aren't antiheroes, they don't deserve our affection or admiration. They're cold, detestable people. That Sergio Leone was still able to make such a beautiful film despite this fact is a testament to his brilliance.