Thursday, October 29, 2015

The Films of Oliver Stone: Conclusion & Updated Ranking

I’ve spent the better part of two months now watching the films of Oliver Stone – which has mostly been a joy. I hadn’t seen many of his older film in more than a decade, and hadn’t seen many of his newer films more than once – in the theaters when they first came out. Watching them all in a short period of time really was a fun time.

What it also did though was really draw a line in the sand – a line I knew was there – between when Stone was a great filmmaker, and the present when he is still a wonderful stylist, but whose films, as entertaining as they are, is lacking that spark that made his earlier work so memorable. Stone is a filmmaker who likes to use his films to say something important about America. In his earlier work, he was able to do that, and wrap it up in a neat, entertaining package. It is amazing just how densely packed works like JFK, Nixon and Natural Born Killers are – and how timely movies like Talk Radio and Wall Street remain, without ever quite giving into the urge to speechify. His Vietnam trilogy are three honest explorations of what that conflict meant to the people involved. Of the films Stone made during his remarkable 10 year between 1986 and 1995, I found only The Doors to be disappointing upon re-watching – his masterpieces remained his masterpieces for me, and films like Wall Street and Salvador were actually better than I remembered them.

Something happened to Stone though after Nixon. Part of it is probably that Hollywood stopped making the types of films Stone always made – and audiences stopped going to them. It’s remarkable to think that Platoon was the third highest grossing film of 1986 – and Born on the Fourth of July was the sixth highest grossing of 1989, of JFK was the 17th highest grossing of 1991 – that wouldn’t happened today. Audiences stopped going to Stone’s films though – Heaven & Earth didn’t crack the top 100 grossing films of 1993, Natural Born Killers did shocking well (25th highest of 1994) considering how violent it was, but then Nixon barely cracked the top 100 the next year (it was #100). Hollywood was already turning away from the mid-budget films that Stone made, in an effort to get bigger and bigger.

But part of it was also Stone, whose instincts don’t quite seem as sharp in the later stage of his career. U-Turn is too long and too surreal for such a simple story, Any Given Sunday is too overstuffed, Alexander was an ill-advised experiment, etc. The movies in Stone’s later career are often quite fun – they are also quite forgettable, which is something Stone’s best films are not.

Does Stone have a truly great film left in him? I don’t know. I think his latest film, Snowden, is a rather great combination of filmmaker and subject (even if I am likely to disagree with Stone’s take on Snowden, I cannot wait to see it). But Stone does remain an intelligent filmmaker, and a great visual stylist. His newest films may not be masterpieces, but they are better than they are often given credit for. I think it’s a shame that Stone’s films are somewhat out of fashion right now. They deserve better. Stone may not be the filmmaker I fell in love with as a teenager any more – but that doesn’t mean his work should be ignored.

Updated Ranking

As always, there are changes from my preliminary rankings that I did at the beginning of this series, based purely on memory. As is inevitable, some films are better than I remembered them being (hello Wall Street), and some are worse (hello, The Doors) – and many remain the same. So, to close, some updated thoughts upon seeing Stone’s films again. Keep in mind, that the top 3 films could be in any order, and I’d be okay with that ranking – they really are that close.

19. Seizure (1974, Not Ranked on previous list) – There is a reason this film was virtually lost for years, and why Stone doesn’t like to talk about it. If a director Stone’s stature had not directed it, the film would have remained lost, and probably should be. Even by the not very lofty standards of 1970s D-grade horror movies, Seizure sucks.

18. Alexander (2004, ranked 17 on previous list) – A grand folly – the type of failure that only a great filmmaker can make, but still every inch a failure. I’m glad I finally gave another cut of the film a chance, if only because it proves to me that this really isn’t a good film.

17. Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (2010, ranked 16 on previous list) – Not the worst, obviously, of Stone’s major films – but probably his most forgettable. A fun little movie that evaporates from your mind almost as soon as it’s over. It’s good to see Gordon Gekko again though.

16. The Hand (1981, Not Ranked on previous list) – I was pleasantly surprised by The Hand, which has the ridiculous premise of a disembodied hand killing people, but that works mainly because Stone, and star Michael Caine, take the premise seriously. Yes, the film would probably be forgotten today had Stone not directed it, and it’s hardly great, but it’s interesting, to say the least – and actually good.

15. World Trade Center (2006, ranked 15 on previous lost) – A perfectly adequate film, very well made by Stone – with expert sound design and art direction, and a fascinating performance by Michael Shannon, as a man who feels “called” to the WTC in the wake of September 11 to save people, which I think is more nuanced than people give it credit for. Watching the film again though, I am still struck that no matter how good it is, it doesn’t really become as interesting as you would think an Oliver Stone film about 9/11 would be. Perfectly fine, but nothing really else.

14. The Doors (1991, ranked 10 on previous list) – Perhaps the film I was most disappointed in upon re-visiting. The teenage me like this film a whole lot more than the adult me – even though Val Kilmer is brilliant in the lead role as Jim Morrison, and it’s probably the best version of his life I can imagine on screen the film is a long, so slog into oblivion – which may well be accurate, but doesn’t exactly make for great viewing.

13. U Turn (1997, ranked 9 on previous list) – Stone over complicates what should have been just a simple, sun drench neo-noir film, yet he still delivers a twisty, turny, sexy, violent little film. It’s Stone at his least ambitious to be sure – but it’s still an entertaining little film.

12. Any Given Sunday (1999, ranked 13 on previous list) – An overstuffed movie to be sure, and one that in retrospect takes it too easy on the NFL, which considering how controversial it was at the time no one could see coming. Still, it is an extremely entertaining movie, about the contradictions inherent in pro-football – that it is a corrupt and greedy corporate enterprise who cares about nothing but money – but damn it, it’s fun.

11. Salvador (1986, ranked 12 on previous list) – I still don’t see the masterpiece that some see – it’s too uneven, especially as it gets more serious in the second half, but Woods is terrific, and overall the movie is better than I remembered it being.

10. W. (2008, ranked 8 on previous list) – An incredibly odd film, that looks even stranger in retrospect, but one I find endlessly fascinating, with a great performance by Josh Brolin at its core. I think it’s going to take a little while longer for this one to get the critical re-evaluation it deserves.

9. Savages (2012, ranked 11 on previous list) – Just pure, straight ahead genre filmmaking at its finest. I wish Stone had one this a few more times during his career – it may not be overly ambitious, but it’s a hell of a lot of fun.

8. Heaven & Earth (1993, ranked 7 on previous list) - A film that has been sadly neglected over the years – an important and necessary corrective for Stone and American movies in general – showing the tragedy of the Vietnam War from the Vietnamese point of view, which has been grossly underrepresented. It may not quite hit the heights of the other two Stone films about the Vietnam War – but it comes closer than most give it credit for.

7. Wall Street (1987, ranked 14 on previous list) – In many ways, Wall Street is pure 1980s movie at its most excessive, but that works for the film, and Michael Douglas’ performance has always been great. It’s also a hell of a lot more fun than I remembered it being, so despite its problems, I liked it a hell of lot more than I remembered liking it.

6. Talk Radio (1988, ranked 6 on previous list) – Still Stone’s least seen, and most underrated film – an anguished howl of outrage, that manages the odd trick of still being relevant, despite the fact that radio has never been less so. If you haven’t seen it – and most haven’t – correct that.

5. Born on the Fourth of July (1989, ranked 5 on previous list) - A great coming home from war film, about a man who went to Vietnam thinking he knew everything, and realizing he didn’t – and having to reconcile that, and the sacrifices he made, for a war he ultimately feels wasn’t worth it, and his deep love of his country. Has a few flaws, but also contains some Tom Cruise’s best work – and Stone.

4. Platoon (1986, ranked 4 on previous list) - The ultimate grunt’s eye view of the Vietnam War – and all the chaos that meant. Great performances throughout, and fine direction, Stone’s film is straight forward in its moral logic, but more complex underneath. A worthy Best Picture winner – and there aren’t that many of those.

3. Natural Born Killers (1994, ranked 2 on previous list) - I have seen this perhaps more than any other film – by Stone or otherwise – and I doubt thatl change, as I do not obsessively re-watch films the way I once did. I know every beat of this film, and I still love it. I was amazed once again by how well the film worked for me on this viewing – it’s still a brilliantly constructed, ultra-violent love story and media satire – that continues to be relevant. A masterpiece.

2. JFK (1991, ranked 1 on previous list) - Stone’s brilliant counter-myth for the JFK assassination is one of the most complex films ever made, with a huge cast, telling a large story, and yet he keeps everything crystal clear, no matter how insane the whole thing gets. This is a film about the sense of loss, the downfall of idealism that started with JFK’s assassination, and continued for a generation. A masterpiece.

1. Nixon (1995, ranked 3 on previous list) - Why did Nixon leapfrog both JFK and Natural Born Killers on this most recent viewing? It wasn’t because either of those films have diminished in my mind. Perhaps it’s because I had not seen Nixon quite as many times as either JFK or Natural Born Killers – so it was slightly fresher. Perhaps it was because Anthony Hopkins’ Nixon is the best performance in any Stone movie, and easily the most complex character in any Stone movie. Perhaps I simply want to be a contrarian. But, like the other two films, it is a masterpiece that towers over everything else Stone has made – and over most films. I have seen Natural Born Killers more times than any other film in history. JFK is the film that got me started down the path to becoming a film buff/movie obsessive. And Nixon just may be better than both of them. That should tell you how much I love Nixon.

And that’s it for my series on the films of Oliver Stone. I’ll have to wait longer than expected for his latest – Snowden – which got pushed to 2016. I still hope it will be a real return to form.

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