Sunday, January 3, 2010

Top Ten Films Of The Decade: Number 1: Gangs Of New York

I always feel funny telling people that Gangs Of New York is my favorite film. Not just of the decade but of all time. I’m not usually self conscience about my tastes (Anyone who wants to write about film and is, is in for a short sad career) but when I’m talking to real hardened cinephiles as opposed to their happy cousin the movie buff or geek and mention that Gangs Of New York is my favorite film, there’s always that one second beat of “Is he fucking with me.” And then that realization that I’m not followed by a nod and forced smile. Suddenly I’m not in the game anymore.

Its as though I’ve mentioned that my favorite novel is by Tom Clancy, or my all time favorite album is “Dookie”. A kind of cautious, “You do know there is other stuff out there…” attitude coupled with a faint whiff of disdain.

But in the end this is all somewhat beside the point of why I love this film so dearly and deeply. It’s the last tactile epic. The last time that all the sets need to be built, the last time all the costumes need be sewn and the extras actually be there. The last time that the streets that the characters walk on stretch out not merely in your minds eye but in actuality covering entire city blocks. That era, the grand tradition of Hollywood that caused Griffith to raise Babylon over Sunset Blvd, to have DeMille rebuild Egypt no more then ten miles from where I type this, that made Lean march out into the desert, and Peckipah blow up Mexico, and Herzog drag that steamship over the mountain. That era of filmmaking of not just impersonating wonders but actually creating them is over now. As Lucas informed the befuddled Scorsese when he visited his old friend on set, “They can do this all on computers now."

In the face of so many ones and zeros its perhaps not hard to find an echo between Bill’s final lines and what will almost surely be Scorsese’s. Scorsese whose films I love above all others. To the point where even though it’s deeply Pupkin to say so, I consider him to be more of a favorite uncle I happen to have never met, rather then just a favorite filmmaker. To the point that I actually avoid talking about them with people because I take it all so personally. Insult one of Ford’s or Keatons, or Kurosawa’s films and we’ll disagree and discuss. Insult one of Scorsese’s and you may as well be insulting a member of my family. And though he remains a deeply active and relevant filmmaker its probable that he has more films behind him then infront of him. Almost Thirty. I don’t care it’ll never be enough. But when he goes he can go saying, “At least I die a true filmmaker.” One who never compromised a whit.

I’m not saying cinema is dead, or even that the epic is (The fact that Fox has officially ranked up more money then God thanks to Avatar would seem to dissuade this). I’m merely pointing out that it has been changed irrevocably. That’s OK the history of cinema is the history of Irrevocable change. The decade that begun with Gangs Of New York though, is now in the land of Avatar. Where the characters and land on which they walk has never even come remotely close to existing. It’s a landscape completely of the mind and the imagination, and I’m sure it will show us wonderful things and terrible things, just as the old style has shown us wonderful things and terrible things.

But ask yourself in twenty years will anyone even know how to make a film like Gangs Of New York? Will anyone even understand why you would want to? When I say I love Gangs Of New York best, it’s because to me it is synonymous with me saying I love the cinema best.

How fitting then that a film about the ending of eras should be in and of itself the grand ending of an era. As I said, my faith in the future of cinema is strong, but oh how I love to go back and look at its past, and how beautiful it all was.


electricloseyland said...

THANK YOU. I have loved this movie ever since I saw it in the theater. It's got its warts, I'll admit -- Cameron Diaz is out of her element, and Di Caprio isn't bad, just OK, and his best work with Scorsese was still to come. But it's got a wild, unhinged energy to it, and Scorsese's Five Points neighborhood feels like a real, and dangerous, place.

It really got slagged by a lot of people when it came out, and I don't quite know why. One criticism I read was that the final Amsterdam/Butcher fight was almost superfluous with the riots and shelling going on. But that's precisely the point of the film. As you said, it's about the end of an era -- the era where street battles could decide the future of a city. Bill flirted with the political game, but couldn't abide losing that way, and couldn't face that an organized minority group meant the time of his Nativist dominance was over.

It's a movie that's got a lot to say about the world we live in, and how we got to where we are. Just look at the voting sequence ("How many times have you voted?" "Twice." "Twice? You call that doing your civic duty? Get back out there!"), and remember it came out barely two years after the Florida 2000 election. Or the great Boss Tweed and Tammany Hall scenes. Or the bits where Lincoln -- who is today essentially a secular saint -- is mocked at the Uncle Tom's Cabin performance and called a n****r lover, not by Confederates, but by Northern New Yorkers. The Lincoln hatred is jarring to modern viewers, but it shows just how much turmoil bubbled (and still bubbles) under the surface in America.

Another thing: Amsterdam is a guy who knows how to work all the angles -- both in the legal and illegal worlds. Remember how he figured out that by taking the boxing match to the docks, they could continue it outside police jurisdiction. And as a community gets more and more civilized, people who can game the system survive. Those who can't and try to rely solely on muscle -- like Bill -- get left behind and turn bitter.

Salman Rushdie wrote a great essay on GONY and The Two Towers, in context of the war on terror and the upcoming Iraq war, in early 2003. I think you'd like it:

And I don't know if you're hip to the whole Blu Ray thing, EDJ, but I see that a remastered copy of GONY is coming out next month:

Avoid the current Blu Ray. They apparently botched the video transfer, and the new one is supposed to fix the mistakes.

Evil Dead Junkie said...

No thank you for your excellent and thorough analysis and link to the great Rushie piece.

Evil Dead Junkie said...

Also thanks for the tip on the Blu Ray. I havn't picked up a player yet but I have started buying films on Disc. And while I'm making a strict policy against rebuying films, I have to admit GONY will probably be an exception to that rule.

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

Power to you for loving a Scorsese epic. I'll admit, it's not my favourite of his this decade, but the movie is awesome and despite some it's faults it just all meshes together so well. You're right about people hating it though, and looking at you weird when you say you do. Almost as weird as they behave when I tell them The Aviator is one of my 25 favourite films.

Evil Dead Junkie said...

I'm right with you on The Aviator. In a weird way I feel like that's one of his most personal films.

The Mad Hatter said...

Very Interesting...

I'm a fan of this film, have been ever since the first time I saw it, but I couldn't call it the best of the decade...don't even think I could call it Scorsese's best this decade.

While I am deeply drawn to this film, I can't help but wonder if there's a better film buried in it somewhere that a script doctor and a better editor couldn't fix.

While this has nothing to do with the film, I'm also left with a bad taste in my mouth from how much involvement The Weinsteins had in the film and in trying to use it to get Marty his Oscar. To a great extent, they tried the same thing all over again with THE part of me has to wonder if it isn't completely apropos that when he decided to just "make a movie" with THE DEPARTED, that it finally won him his much deserved Oscar.

This isn't a bad film to say is an all-time fave...far from it actually. It has vision, provides some great cinematic moments (the opening scrap is one I particularly love), and reminds us that the question of who and who isn't American enough is hardly a new discussion.

I felt a tad unimpressed with the climax of the film - especially after what we'd already seen - and thus in the years that have passed since its release, GANGS has lost a bit of its lustre.

A daring choice - and no, not a crazy one...but not one that I could agree with. I've loved reading these...pity we'll have to wait ten years to write posts like these again!

Evil Dead Junkie said...

Yeah, I'm also glad that he won for The Departed. People said that it was just more of the same, ignoring that same was excellent.

Have to disagree with you on the ending though. Its such a tremendous cock block. With that music swelling, the epic crane shots, the tensions at a huge high and just as the two armies come in sight of one another, the cannon balls fly and ruin the whole thing. I almost screamed with frustration the first time I've saw it.

But it makes perfect thematic sense. These characters have been ignoring history caught up in their own petty drama, and History decides its sick of such bullshit and bowls them over.

And of course the actual last shot brings me to tears every God damn time I see it.

The Mad Hatter said...

@ EDJ... Fair play. I suppose that given where we'd already gone, I wanted them to finally have at it once and for all.

Then again, I've always wondered what the film would be like if the fact that xxx was Priest's son wasn't revealed until the later, and that entire rumble was moved towards the middle of the film. Might make for a more mysterious tale, and leave people like me wanting that extra fight a bit more off-balance.

Of course, truth be told, my favorite Scorsese flick this decade was the concert film he did for The Stones, SHINE A LIGHT.

Evil Dead Junkie said...

Huh that's an interesting point. It would certainly be a different film.

I like Shine A Light alot myself. Alot of people where upset that it wasn't The Last Waltz, but what is?

Emily said...

I have pretty big problems with Gangs of New York, but I do enjoy it and stop to watch it whenever I catch it on TV. My biggest issue is that the film just feels like a huge mess once it hits its third act. The draft riots come out of nowhere and crash into the main story, and I'm left having no idea who I'm even supposed to be following or caring about. I think DiCaprio and Diaz are miscast and can't hold their own (who can) against Daniel Day Lewis. I love that opening scene but to me, the film never really knows where it's going.

Then again, I'm also not crazy about The Aviator and don't get the huge deal that made people salivate over The Departed, so maybe I'm just drifting away from Scorcesse. Still, Goodfellas is easily in my top five and I find Cape Fear a truly underrated film.

Before you throw words of great ire my way, please accept this blog award thing I've give to you over at my site:

Evil Dead Junkie said...

Aw shucks I could never throw words of ire your way, Em.

Thanks so much for the award, its such a nice gesture I can hardly believe it.

I agree that Di Caprio and Diaz are a bit over their head, but I think Di Caprio makes it work for his character, and Diaz has a few moments of really strong work (I'm thinking of her shooting the looters on the dock).

I think the riots come out of nowhere because they hit the characters out of nowhere, but on a rewatch you can see how Scorsese really wove in the anti Lincoln sentiment all the way through.

I wouldn't worry too much about drifting away from Scorsese though. Something tells me that Shutter Island will be horror fan cat nip.

Thanks again. I'm touched : )

Emily said...

I hope to agree about Shutter Island, although it has one strike against it since I've seen the trailer playing before no less than 6 movies this year. I do a rather mean impression of DiCaprio sweating "Pull yahself togethah, Teddy", but I'm hoping for the best.

And yeah, there's certainly anti-Lincolnness going on throughout the film, but I guess my problem is that we lose the whole Leo vs. Day-Lewis conflict in the midst of so much other chaos. I normally don't mind my films ending with terrifying riots, but I can't really get behind a film that's narrated and told through the eyes of one character, only to then open up across the whole city for the last twenty minutes.

Bokonon said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bokonon said...

Rewatching it now. This was a 3 hour film that left me wanting more when it was over. That's tough to do. I'm not sure I'd even call it my favorite SCORCESE, film, let alone all-time favorite, but it's definitely in my top twenty and maybe higher. It is really a film that calls for full attention in a darkened theater, because it's so much larger than life. I've never understood the disdain some have for it.

P.S. the best DD Lewis performance until he became (and I mean BECAME) Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood.