Words: J. Wood
The Max Landis scripted American Ultra hits British cinemas on Friday and, despite having received at best lukewarm reviews in the states the presence of the ever interesting Jesse Eisenberg is at least a temptation to go and see it. It has however gotten me thinking, what with the release of this and American Sniper already this year there does always seem to be a prevalence of films titled ‘American’. I decided to look at which ones I liked the most for this week’s top 5 and, despite the higher entries being the easiest choices I have yet had to make, the competition for places lower down the list was as tough as it has been so far.
Check out last week’s Friday High-5 which took a look at the career of actor Zac Efron >>>
5: American Splendor (2003)
Harvey Pekar may not be the first thing anyone thinks of when ideas for biopics come up, and the way American Splendor tells his story is utterly unexpected, but boy is it a joy to watch. For the uninitiated (like myself) Harvey was a lowly file clerk coming off the back of a series of failed marriages when he began to document his mundane existence in an increasingly popular comic book, leading to unlikely love and an even more unlikely brush with fame. The film tells his story while interviewing him, prompting him to voice over the drama. This is a device that works really well and also the integration of the real people from this odd life demonstrates just how spot on all the acting is. The great Paul Giamatti originated his slightly creepy, neurotic everyman routine here and knocks it out of the park, making you fall for this prickly, difficult character. Also look out for Judah Friedlander, whose portrayal of Pekar’s friend Toby is so note perfect it defies belief. The film cleverly flits over Pekar’s comic documented battle with cancer, which could well be a movie in itself, but only with these actors.
4: American History X (1998)
All sorts of things have been said about the controversial making of this film, mostly from director Tony Kaye, and mostly about the influence of star Edward Norton, but whatever went on behind the scenes undeniably created a brutish tour-de-force of a movie. The film stylistically splits itself on two timelines, showing their differences by changing between colour and monochrome, not dissimilar to Christopher Nolan’s Memento. Norton’s breath taking performance dominates the film from start to finish as the neo-Nazi skinhead descending to ever greater depths of hatred in one timeline while seeking redemption as the saviour of his brother in the other. The earlier set, monochrome scenes are by far the most engaging, as the film seems to be egging itself on to show its characters being ever more morally repugnant. Some have called out the infamous ‘kerbing’ scene as being a step too far, but for me it defines the message of the film, and takes it above its Aussie equivalent Romper Stomper. The performance of Edward Furlong does not quite have the magnetism of Norton and does not quite draw the viewer as much, but films with as great a conviction and as powerful an ending as this one should make you sit up and take real notice.
3: American Mary (2012)
In an age where underground cult horror cinema seems to be vanishing at an ever more rapid rate The Soska Sisters’ effort here really is a shot in the heart of a dying genre. I caught this on a whim while researching for this article and was totally knocked out by it. Taking its cues from the very best of Cronenbergian body horror the film sees the stunning Katharine Isabelle as a struggling medical student who finds that the body-modification sub-culture offers an easier source of income and an easier way of life. The film is a woozy, trippy experience at times, deliberately skipping scenes to disorientate the viewer in a truly effective way. Without being overly graphic it managed to scare me a lot more than both the cheap slasher knock-offs and the prevalent haunted house movies ever do today, while at the same time paying loving homage to a whole bunch of movies I adore, from the Pink Flamingos like Beatrice, through Cronenberg’s work with a whole lot more in between. This may not have the polished film making so many cinema-goers of today are far too accustomed to, but I would strongly urge anyone even slightly interested in expanding their cinematic horizons beyond the mainstream, and who has a strong stomach, to give this a go.
2: American Psycho (2000)
Bret Easton Ellis’ novel is truly one of my favourites, yet reading it makes only one thing abundantly clear, that it is unfilmable. Mary Harron’s film then is a work of true genius, taking what is a really gruesomely narcissistic horror novel with undertones of timely satire and turning it into a mockery of the ‘Greed Is Good’ banking community in the late 1980s, just with mass murder thrown in for good measure. Could anyone other than Christian Bale have played Patrick Bateman? I think not! From that now iconic opening monologue, introducing the audience to the character via his vainglorious workout and moisturising regime, Bale captures the dead behind the eyes disconnectedness of his character, while at the same time his committing monstrous acts of violence while dissecting naff 1980s pop music makes this truly his finest hour. In one scene his character becomes agitated at the lack of attention his new business card is getting compared to his rivals’, and in that one scene he manages to be comedically petulant yet scarily murderous all at once. The film’s supporting characters are all filled by interesting actors yet none are particularly given a lot to do, but with Bale as great as he is, they simply are not needed.
1: American Beauty (1999)
At number one on this list is a film that has held a very important place in my heart since my interest in films first ignited. Like David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, Sam Mendes’ stunning drama takes a look behind the idealised façade of the American Dream to find the unhappiness and horror that really exists. Kevin Spacey has made a career of being the best thing in every movie in which he appears, but this is his finest hour. As Lester Burnham he physically grows from the sad sack advertising worker who is emasculated at home, using his natural wit and charm to bring his character to life, and utilising the uptightness of the rest of the cast to bring a very dark comedy from this. The film explores some very dark subject matter, like adultery, a Lolita-esque obsession, drugs and repressed homosexuality, yet it never feels heavy or dark. From the moment the camera swoops over some non-descript identikit American suburb to the strains of Thomas Newman’s unique score, the film washes over you. The supporting cast give a series of increasingly fine performances but this is Spacey’s film, and he truly deserved his Oscar. Sam Mendes has never quite attained these levels of greatness since, and I am doubtful that he ever will, but anyone who can claim to have constructed those rose petal filled fantasy shots has enough to be proud of from a few brief moments to last an entire career.