As Ridley Scott’s “Robin Hood” opens the Cannes Film Festival and in theaters this weekend, let’s look back at the best films from the director’s long and varied career. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you’d like to contribute your own list.
10. Someone to Watch Over Me (1987)
Does anyone remember when Tom Berenger used to star in A-list pictures? He was nominated for an Oscar in “Platoon” the same year this film came out, for crissakes! Anyway, Berenger stars as a working-class detective who falls for a wealthy socialite (Mimi Rogers) who has witnessed a murder. The two fall for each other, but it’s Lorraine Bracco (“GoodFellas,” “The Sopranos”) who generates the most heat, with her feisty portrayal of Berenger’s wife. The movie is a neo-noir with that unmistakable 80s sheen, complete with smoky backgrounds, strobe light flashes, and shadows galore. The mood and the cinematography are the real stars of this thriller and the studio knew that. Witness the visually stimulating trailer, which has no dialogue save for a voice-over at the very end.
9. Matchstick Men (2003)
Based on the novel by Eric Garcia, “Matchstick Men” is of the classic con-man ilk. This means you can never trust the main characters to be on the up and up. This includes Nicolas Cage , his partner Sam Rockwell, and Alison Lohman, who is revealed to be Cage’s 14-year-old daughter just they all embark on a new long con. Cage is in quirky mode, full of tics and phobias (see the lighthearted trailer here), but manages to be fairly grounded emotionally. The twist ending may not work as well as it should, but Scott handles the unlikely bumps in the relationships with aplomb and his actors are all in fine form, working with tricky material.
8. Black Hawk Down (2001)
Working from the true story of the disastrous Battle of Mogadishu where U.S. soldiers tried to capture a Somali warlord and took heavy casualties and suffered barbaric fates, Scott uses over a dozen actors (Ewan McGregor, Eric Bana, Orlando Bloom, and Jeremy Piven, to name a few) in an ensemble piece that’s designed to mirror the frenzy of war. To its credit, there are clear cut lines of action and cause/effect on display in “Black Hawk Down.” The action is intense and suspenseful, and the technical filmmaking on display is quite impressive. If it never reaches the emotional depths that it should, then that’s at least partially because it doesn’t have any true main characters. Still, the battle itself is a harrowing anti-war statement.
7. American Gangster (2007)
Russell Crowe and Denzel Washington are on opposite sides of the law in this true-life tale of the rise and fall of Frank Lucas, a black gangster from New York City. The movie parallels the Vietnam War and is really the story of the differing moral codes of cop and criminal. Sometimes “American Gangster” (video review here) is a little familiar or too obvious (we know from the beginning that the two characters will end up mirroring each other despite being adversaries), but Crowe’s complicated and flawed detective makes for a way more interesting good guy than usual and Washington embodies the inner conflict and irony of a man that used crime and power to tip the scales of racism the other way.
6. The Duellists (1977)
Speaking of moral codes, this one is all about that. Scott’s first full-length movie (trailer here) won him the Best Debut Film award at the 1977 Cannes Film Festival. Featuring Harvey Keitel and Keith Carradine as French soldiers and lifelong enemies during the Napoleanic Wars, “The Duellists” may be seen as a companion piece to Christopher Nolan’s “The Prestige.” Both films are about main characters who are consumed by obsession and both take place during a time period not often covered on celluloid. Once you get used to the idea of Keitel and Carradine as Frenchmen, everything else–the costumes, art direction, etc.–is period perfect. The actors then really begin to inhabit their roles, especially Keitel, whose inner rage becomes sort of sad and pathetic. The movie covers a lot of historic ground, but rather than go for the big epic, this one is firmly grounded in character.
5. Hannibal (2001)
“That smells great,” says Justice Department jerkwad Ray Liotta right before Hannibal the Cannibal (Anthony Hopkins) feeds him a fresh cut of his own brain moments after cutting it out of his head. If you have any doubts as to why I adore this flawed but irresistible black comedy, just reread the preceding sentence. Also on hand for this over-the-top Gothic horror tale is Gary Oldman (pictured right), who plays a rich, sadistic pedophile who is paralyzed and bears the scars of having survived an attack by Lecter. He wants to feed Lecter to his specially bred pack of bloodthirsty pigs. I’ll pause and let you reread that one as well. What’s not to like? That its not remotely similar in tone to “The Silence of the Lambs”? Humbug. Once you get over that hump, there’s nothing to do but sit back and enjoy the extravagance and excess of “Hannibal,”a truly sick joke played on filmgoers everywhere who expected a normal sequel.
4. Thelma & Louise (1991)
Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon are the unforgettable title characters in a movie that caused a pretty big uproar at the time of its release. As victims of a stifling existence looking for a way out, Thelma and Louise hit the road and get in more trouble than they are looking for when they kill a rapist in self-defense. Although it deals with serious issues, the movie is seriously funny and warm, even as it careens from genre to genre. Harvey Keitel also scores as a cop who thinks he understands them and tries to bring the fugitives in peacefully. “Thelma & Louise” won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay (it was written by newcomer-at-the-time Callie Khouri) and was a big departure for Scott.
3. Gladiator (2000)
Knock it all you want (it seems hip to do that right now, especially as “Robin Hood” is about to come out and seems to have the same visual aesthetic, from Crowe’s haircut down to the muddy battle scenes on horseback shot in sepia tones), “Gladiator” is a triumphant sword-and-sandal revenge epic that has real heart and an underlying sadness. It also introduced the world to Russell Crowe as an A-list movie star who could deliver both a macho attitude and surprising soulfulness. How did he do that, you ask? With less dialogue and a strict focus on his family. “Gladiator” is the kind of rousing Hollywood entertainment (see the trailer) that has just enough of a personal story to rise above the ranks. Unfortunately, this Best Picture winner also spawned a whole bunch of period epics with half the heart and a quarter of the brains (“300,”"Alexander,” “Troy,” “King Arthur,” and the director’s own “Kingdom of Heaven.”)
2. Alien (1979)
First, the good news: Scott’s first foray into sci-fi and/or horror is a freaking classic (original trailer here). Now, the (potentially) bad: Scott is working on prequels of “Alien” for release in the next two years. (Well, at least its the same director. Am I an idiot for remaining somewhat hopeful?) That aside, let’s focus on what made “Alien” so scary: H.R. Giger’s slimy, slick alien design and Carlo Rambaldi’s Oscar-winning special effects. Well, that’s part of it. None of it would be scary if it weren’t for the skillful guidance of Scott, who starts things slowly and builds dread throughout the entire film. Without taking time to discover things about their unwanted stowaway, the crew of the spaceship (including Sigourney Weaver, Ian Holm, and John Hurt) would have been nothing more than teenage slasher victims. Instead they are engaged with the beast and you are right there with them until the end.
1. Blade Runner (1982)
Even today, the inspiring art direction of this masterpiece feels completely out of time. Combining the best elements of a noir detective tale with the extrapolated science-fiction world of author Phillip K. Dick, Scott made the mystefying-at-the-time “Blade Runner.” Harrison Ford is anything but heroic, as he hunts down renegade replicants and learns way too much of the truth to keep the status quo. It moves at a sometimes meditative pace, which gives you plenty of time to notice the attention to detail in everything that’s put up on the screen. “Blade Runner” also gives you the opportunity to explore exactly what it is that makes us human and asks how far that can extend. For me, after all the director’s cuts and recuts, and theatrical cuts, the perfect version of this film exists only in my head. I say keep over half of the voice-over (as long as its not ruining the moment, which it sometimes does) and go with the newer, more contemplative endings.