Sunday, January 19, 2020

My Favorite Films of the 2010s

I love list-making almost as much as I love movies, and as the 2010s come to a close, it's time for my list of the decade's best films (or, more accurately, the one-hundred movies I loved the most).

Since I've written about most of these films in their respective year's top ten lists, I originally thought I'd just present the list without commentary. However, because the top two films were released in the last six months and I haven't posted my Top 10 of 2019 yet, it seemed appropriate to give those movies their proper due here. The decade truly went out on a high note - in fact, these two films were both major events in my life.

I'm sure this list will change slightly in the coming years (my Top 100 of the 2000s list has shifted considerably since I posted it on this blog ten years ago), but I certainly don't see the Top 10 changing. This list is also significant because it marks ten years of filmgoing in New York, as I moved here (and started this blog) in the fall of 2009. Here are the highlights of what I've seen in that time.

1. The Irishman (2019, Martin Scorsese)

Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman is cinema. What can I possibly say about this film? Does it feel like someone asked, “What combination of people could come together for a film that would make Jack Kyser the happiest person on Earth?” Yes, absolutely. It is, unquestionably, the film I’ve been waiting for my entire life, with my lifelong heroes and artists I admire most - Scorsese, Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, Harvey Keitel and Thelma Schoonmaker - banding together for a career-defining masterpiece. And when I say lifelong heroes, that’s no joke - the film review website I started when I was twelve years old was dedicated to Scorsese, De Niro and Pacino. If you had told me that these artists would one day team up for a gangster film of this scale, I would have gone nuts.

And yet the fact that The Irishman is so unexpected - certainly not the film my twelve year-old self would have imagined - is precisely what makes it so satisfying. My favorite film of all time is Scorsese’s Goodfellas (1990), and The Irishman is certainly not Goodfellas. In fact, it’s in many ways a deepening and expansion of the thematic ideas expressed in that film and Casino (1995).

Upon experiencing the picture for the first time at the New York Film Festival in Alice Tully Hall, I came out of the cinema feeling it was the shortest three-and-a-half hours of my life. And yet somehow, the movie feels even shorter every time I revisit it - every quiet moment and subtle glance more necessary than ever. This is one of the most perfectly paced films I have ever seen, and I’m truly hoping Schoonmaker wins her fourth Oscar for her work here.

Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran (De Niro) is loyal to a fault. As his friend Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino) says late in the film, he is a union man to his bones. Coming home from World War II somewhat desensitised to violence (“From now on, whatever happens, happens”), he works as a truck driver for Teamster Local 107 in Philadelphia. Before long, he’s doing favors for local mobster Skinny Razor (Bobby Cannavale) and, more importantly, Russell Bufalino (Pesci). His loyalty to these men begins early, and his jobs escalate from murders to serving as muscle for Hoffa, the President of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.

What’s striking here is that, unlike the pride of the gangsters in Casino, or the greed and excess of the stockbrokers in The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), Frank’s world is all about maintaining stability. As my girlfriend Sophia eloquently put it, he doesn’t constantly want more and more - he’s just a working class guy looking to please his bosses. “It was like the Army - you followed orders, you did the right thing, you got rewarded,” he says. He doesn’t want trouble, either - not between Hoffa and mob bosses, Bufalino and Crazy Joe Gallo (Sebastian Maniscalco), or even his kids and his second wife, Irene (Stephanie Kurtzuba). But there’s no questions asked when Bufalino orders him to kill someone. Pesci is somehow both gentle and terrifying (by virtue of him just being Joe Pesci, he’s already threatening enough), so the actor is brilliantly able to emphasize Bufalino’s relative restraint.

As a result, our protagonist often fades into the background as a silent witness to history. When Frank starts working directly for Hoffa, there’s a wonderful scene in which he stands quietly in the back of an office, as Hoffa berates a group of his colleagues. Insulted, Frank storms out, only to be followed by a concerned Hoffa - who didn’t even notice he was in the room.

The scenes between De Niro and Pacino are absolutely beautiful. There is such a tenderness between these two men, right from their first moment onscreen together. As Hoffa goes to sleep in a hotel bedroom and Frank sleeps on a pull-out couch, Hoffa leaves his bedroom door just a little bit open. It’s a small detail that will resonate deeply by the film’s end. There are multiple scenes in which the two actors discuss union politics in their pajamas; compare this to their iconic scene in Michael Mann’s Heat (1995), in which they face off in a coffee shop, both dressed in steely attire. Their relationship in The Irishman is so sweet. Watch Frank’s nervousness as he asks Hoffa to speak at his appreciation dinner late in the film, or Hoffa’s kindness toward Frank’s family - particularly his young daughter, Peggy (Lucy Gallina). De Niro and Pacino, my favorite actors in cinema history, play off of each other wonderfully in these scenes.

Their relationship changes as Hoffa ruffles feathers amongst organized crime figures. Frank spots this recklessness early on - watch his expression when Hoffa blurts out, “I think Bobby Kennedy is just another lawyer now” when asked by reporters what he thinks of President Kennedy’s assassination. Frank sees his friend going wild - and yet he agrees with him on certain matters. In response to District Attorney Robert Kennedy (Jack Huston) going after the people who helped get his brother elected to the White House, Frank offers a hilarious, “What’s that about?!” Later, once Hoffa is released from prison, Frank agrees with his friend about whacking his rival Anthony ‘Tony Pro’ Provenzano (Stephen Graham) - while also knowing Hoffa was completely reckless in their preceding meeting, in which he was ostensibly seeking Pro’s help. But Frank doesn’t act on these impulses - instead, he watches helplessly as his friend comes undone. And when it comes down to eliminating Hoffa, Frank has no choice but to listen to Bufalino. Hoffa may be his figurative brother, but Bufalino is his father.

Despite all of the warnings, Hoffa’s threats to go after the mob (if elected as President of the Teamsters again, after a four-year stint in prison) seals his fate. There’s a terrifying moment at Frank’s appreciation dinner, where Hoffa is dancing with a now-grown Peggy (Anna Paquin), and the camera whip-pans to Bufalino and a few other gangsters watching him ominously. Frank is riddled with the uncertainty of not knowing what will happen to his friend - and what he’s going to be asked to do by Bufalino.

In a film full of brilliant nonverbal acting, this appreciation dinner sequence offers some of the best moments. For instance, watch the way Keitel (as Philadelphia mob boss Angelo Bruno) doesn’t extend his right hand to Pacino when he visits his table for a handshake. Instead, he offers his other, more unnatural hand, which is swung around his chair, and sticks a cigar in his mouth. The storytelling comes through in glances and body language (and, when these men speak, it’s always in a coded manner).

Everything about The Irishman feels different than Scorsese’s aforementioned gangster films. As has already been noted by some critics, the film almost has more in common with Silence (2016) than any of his films about organized crime. Yes, there are moments of pure exhilaration, stylization and experiential urgency that made me fall in love with Scorsese in the first place - the introductory shot of Skinny Razor cutting the head off a chicken and blood splattering on his face as Smiley Lewis’s I Hear You Knocking roars on the soundtrack; the whip-pans back and forth as Frank mediates between Hoffa and Fat Tony Salerno (Domenick Lombardozzi), with William Doggett’s Honky Tonk Pt. 1 providing the sequence’s rhythm; even the unnerving slow-motion shots of Joseph Colombo being shot in Columbus Circle and the ensuing public panic, as serenaded by Santo & Johnny’s Sleepwalk.

But for the most part, everything is more muted in The Irishman, both visually and tonally. Most of the violence occurs in wide shots - the first of which occurs when Frank viciously beats a storeowner who touched Peggy. The close-up in this scene isn’t on Frank stomping on this man’s broken hand, but on Peggy, as she watches her father commit a scarring act of violence in front of the entire neighborhood.

Other sequences don’t even show the violence at all, and they’re all the more disturbing for it. I’m thinking specifically of the murder of Albert Anastasia, where Scorsese’s camera tracks out of a barber shop in the Park Sheraton Hotel, moves down a hallway toward two approaching gunmen, and as they rush into the barbershop and start firing at Anastasia, the camera lands on a close-up of a flower bouquet in the shop window next door. We hear screams and loud gunshots, but we’re engulfed by the image of beautiful flowers.

One of the many reasons Goodfellas is my favorite movie is because I find myself enjoying the gangster lifestyle so much that I become complicit in their horrendous crimes - and, as a viewer, once you’re participating in these things with them, there’s no going back, no matter how increasingly awful their “glamourous” lifestyle becomes. But whereas there was a certain exhilaration to De Niro and Pesci stomping Billy Batts (Frank Vincent) to death in Goodfellas (Scorsese asks you to experience what something is like, no matter how brutal), the characters in The Irishman are weary men doing dirty jobs in the freezing cold, and it looks about as fun as loading a meat truck.

By the way, the idea that Scorsese’s films have ever romanticized the criminal lifestyle is absolutely ludicrous (if you want to become Henry Hill or Jordan Belfort, that’s your problem). But in The Irishman particularly, you’d be hard-pressed to find any trace of glee or romance to this lifestyle.

In addition to Hollywood’s reluctance to take risks (one of many resonant ideas in Scorsese’s recent New York Times op-ed on the future of cinema), the primary reason the director had difficulty financing The Irishman was because of the visual effects involved in de-aging the actors (De Niro, in particular), as this story spans from the 1940s until the early 2000s. The effects work on display in the final film is brilliant - you forget about the technique a few seconds into the picture (as with good editing, visual effects are at their strongest when you don’t notice them).

In one sense, the fact that De Niro, Pacino and Pesci are now older men in real life makes the film even more powerful - even as they’re playing younger men, they already seem like they’re at the end of the road. At the same time, though, these actors very believably embody the different ages of these characters - in their posture, body language and manner of speaking. Take the early parts of the picture, in which Frank shows a kind of haplessness as he performs small tasks for Bufalino and Bruno. De Niro is amazing at conveying Frank’s excitement to provide muscle for these guys he so admires - it’s almost sweet how eager he is to kill people as a way of making his mentors proud. This is his particular skill he can offer, a way to be helpful and needed - and it’s a skill that leads him to doing the worst thing he could ever do.

Compare this sweetness to Frank’s demeanor later in the film. I’m thinking of a small moment during the road trip that provides The Irishman’s structure, in which Frank, Bufalino and their wives stop inside a jewelry store to collect money. De Niro rarely looks as threatening as he does when staring at the shop owner in the first shot of this scene - but that’s not at all in his eyes in the beginning of the film. And yet his eyes are also capable of showing immense heartbreak and sorrow, such as when he stares at Hoffa and Peggy dancing from afar at his appreciation dinner. I’ve had some people ask me about the effect on De Niro’s eyes, and to me, whatever Scorsese and the ILM team did works brilliantly, because it helps Frank seem appropriately emotive given his current age in the scene (of course, this is also due to De Niro’s astounding performance).

The Irishman really gets at something primal and scary. As an examination of the black heart of organized crime, it’s unparalleled. I think of the mid-film sequence in which Bufalino orders Frank to kill Crazy Joe Gallo in Little Italy. As Sleep Walk by Santo & Johnny cues for the second time in the film (the first is in the aforementioned Joseph Columbo shooting), there’s an eerie shot of the 1970s New York City skyline, the World Trade Center towers still standing in all of their glory (bringing to mind the closing shot of Scorsese’s Gangs of New York, in which the rubble of warring gangs rises and forms the foundation of a city an entire century later). As Frank stares steelily ahead in a car heading toward his destination, Scorsese’s camera moves through a half-empty Umberto’s Clam House, laying out the scene for the assassination. Most films would present the murder of Crazy Joe as something exciting, but in The Irishman, it’s utterly joyless. Frank is an executioner, and what makes this particular execution so haunting is the beleaguered way in which De Niro describes the mundane details of the job.

The sequence ends with Frank tossing his murder weapons into the river. It’s not the only time in The Irishman he disposes of guns in a body of water - while performing hits for Bufalino in Philadelphia, there’s a river the mob enforcers use to discard weapons. The shot of one such handgun floating to the bottom of the river and clanking against a massive stockpile of submerged weapons is at first hilarious (Frank remarks you could arm a small country with the underwater contraband) and then, after a second, utterly bleak - you realize this isn’t an exaggerated image at all.

I can’t write about The Irishman without discussing the third act. Once the plan to eliminate Hoffa is set in motion, the film becomes quieter and slower, as a certain kind of dread sets in for Frank. He lies awake in the middle of the night in his motel room, staring at the telephone. Should he call Jimmy? At breakfast the next morning, Bufalino finally tells Frank he has to involve him on the killing, because if he doesn’t, Frank will never let it happen. There’s a veiled threat here. “You’ll be okay - because you’re with me,” Bufalino says - the implication being that, if Frank doesn’t kill Hoffa, he won’t be okay.

The film allows us to feel sick to our stomachs right alongside Frank for this betrayal. When he gets into a small private plane heading to Detroit, we can see it all in De Niro’s horrified stare during take-off. Bufalino won’t even let him bring his sunglasses to hide behind.

The Hoffa assassination scene in Detroit is one of the best sequences in Scorsese’s entire filmography - the physical geography alone is seared into my memory. There’s no music and no frills - just an eerie quiet, as De Niro withholds a well of dread and anxiety. When he walks morosely into the house where Hoffa is to be killed, he sees Sally Bugs (Louis Cancelmi) casually preparing for the killing. To the rest of these guys, it’s just a job - it doesn’t mean as much to them as it does to Frank.

So how does he justify it? Perhaps Frank can accept the role of putting his friend at ease - if this has to happen, he’ll make it painless for Hoffa, and allow him to go out with a friend by his side. But, of course, the actual killing is horrible. Every time I’ve seen The Irishman in a cinema, it elicits a guttural response from the audience. We all know it’s coming, but we don’t expect it to happen so quickly and without fanfare. Scorsese frames the killing in a wide shot - no close-ups of blood splattering on the wall. Just two gunshots, and it’s done.

The film could have ended with the slaying of Hoffa, but it’s in the aftermath of the murder that Scorsese and De Niro truly articulate the film’s greater thematic concerns. In the final third of The Irishman, there is the feeling of Frank reaching for something, anything, at the end of his life. You can feel his reckoning in the strains of Robbie Robertson’s haunting score - as Frank’s prized Lincoln (which ends up landing him in prison) slowly moves through a car wash, the low-pitched cello in Robertson’s score feels like it’s plumbing the darkest depths of Frank’s soul, attempting to cleanse something that can never be cleansed. Water makes no difference - not here, nor in the river in which the guns are disposed.

His actions estrange him from his entire family and leave him with nobody. His relationship with Peggy, in particular, is forever tarnished. In a nightmarish world of gangsters and teamsters, Frank killed the only person who was ever kind to his daughter, and she knows it. After Hoffa’s disappearance, he gives a heartbreakingly awful phone call to Hoffa’s wife, Jo (Welker White), in which he’s more consoling himself than her. Of all of De Niro’s brilliant choices in The Irishman, this mumbling, lump-in-your-throat phone call is the moment that destroys me upon every viewing.

Frank finally confessed to killing Hoffa near the end of his life, which formed the basis for Charles Brandt’s book I Heard You Paint Houses. But this moment isn’t shown in The Irishman - instead, the film is his confessional. When a pair of FBI agents question him at his retirement home about Hoffa’s disappearance, he continues to keep his mouth shut - even though everyone involved is buried and gone. There’s nobody left to protect.

When he speaks to us, though, he’s more candid, and by the film’s finale, he’s ruminating on larger questions. This is where it ends. Your life flashes before your eyes. Maybe you tried to do the right thing, or at least tried to please others. But were you ever really making choices? Frank expects to grow older and find some moral clarity on the past half-century, but as one of the film’s taglines proclaims, time changes nothing.

He has a conversation with a priest (Jonathan Morris) in which he’s asked if he feels anything for the families of his victims. Frank replies by saying he didn’t know the families. He visits one of his other daughters, Dolores (Marin Ireland), and asks for forgiveness - he doesn’t know what to apologize for, but he recognizes that an apology of some sort is needed. What do you do at the end of your life if you’re not sorry for what you’ve done, but you know it’s led to your misery?

But, of course, one family... one family he knew. And you can see he does feel remorse for killing Hoffa, but he can’t reveal it to the priest, because that would mean breaking his code of loyalty. So he has to suffer alone, and mourn in the only way he knows how - by keeping the door slightly open at night, as Hoffa did. With The Irishman, Scorsese doesn’t ask us to pity Frank Sheeran - but he does ask us to be his witness.

2. Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood (2019, Quentin Tarantino)

Movies are life and death to me. I feel fiercely protective of some of them, and Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is one. After five viewings, I’m convinced it’s not only Tarantino’s best film, but also, for me personally, one of the most thrilling cinema experiences since Martin Scorsese’s The Departed (2006) thirteen years ago. And frankly, I can’t wait to see the film again – it’s truly a movie for people who love movies.

On my first viewing, I was immediately struck by the film’s leisurely and reflective nature, and the way Tarantino gives us breathing room to hang out in this world and spend time with these vivid characters. But there was so much to absorb in one sitting (Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt’s brilliant leading performances, the atmospheric driving sequences, Tarantino’s masterful use of tension and release) that I returned the next day for a second round. The film was even more touching, surprising and thrilling on a second viewing, this time in 35mm. By the time I saw the picture a third time – on my birthday, no less – I was in love. Honestly, I could play this film on repeat, like a favorite record, and never grow tired of it.

More than anything, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood has heart. Even as I’ve loved many of Tarantino’s last few films, I’d be hard-pressed to say I felt fully connected to the emotional journey of his characters. The Hateful Eight (2015) is a prime example – a masterfully crafted, darkly funny chamber piece that’s nevertheless a rather mean and cutthroat picture. I enjoyed the hell out of it, but I’d be hard-pressed to want to spend time with those bastards ever again. During Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, however, I found myself feeling things I’ve never felt in one of his films – not even Pulp Fiction (1994), which has long remained my favorite of Tarantino’s work (Inglourious Basterds, Django Unchained, Reservoir Dogs and Jackie Brown are also, in my mind, indisputable masterpieces). This is a film that stays with you – it’s deceptively powerful, and I’ve talked to a number of people who similarly found so much more with multiple viewings.

But enough with the adoration – let me get specific about why this film resonates with me so much. The movie opens with newsreel footage, as we meet two of Tarantino’s most memorable characters, fading television star Rick Dalton (DiCaprio) and his stunt double Cliff Booth (Pitt). They’re sitting together for an interview on the set of Rick’s NBC show Bounty Law, and their easy camaraderie gives us an immediate understanding of their relationship. Rick explains to the interviewer that actors are often asked to do dangerous things, and Cliff wryly remarks that it’s his job to carry Rick’s load - which may prove more telling than we initially realize.

Flash forward - it’s early 1969 in Hollywood, and Rick, now pursuing a movie career, is meeting with Hollywood super-agent Marvin Schwarz (a delightful Al Pacino) at Musso & Frank Grill. Cliff comes along for the ride (well, really just to drive Rick, who has lost his license after too many drunk-driving accidents) in a sequence cut to the rat-a-tat-tat rhythm of Treat Her Right by Roy Head and the Traits. As Rick and Marvin go through the highs and lows of Rick’s career, Tarantino has a blast recreating the look and feel of ‘50s and ‘60s television shows and B-movies for Rick’s fictional filmography. It’s not just Bounty Law (or, as Mad Magazine parodies it, Lousy Law) - he’s also starred in such notable films as The 14 Fists of McCluskey and Tanner. But these days, his movie career isn’t really going anywhere, and as Marvin notes, Rick is stuck playing the “heavy” on television shows as varied as F.B.I. and Lancer. Marvin’s suggestion? Rick should go to Italy and star in Spaghetti Westerns, where he’ll get the heroic roles Hollywood isn’t offering him.

This suggestion destroys Rick - as soon as he leaves the meeting, he breaks down crying on Cliff’s shoulder in the Musso & Frank parking lot (and unlike Joe Pesci in The Irishman, Pitt gives his friend some sunglasses to hide behind). But by the time they arrive back at Rick’s house, his spirits have lifted - because he just spotted his neighbors, Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha) and Sharon Tate (an extraordinary Margot Robbie), driving into their house next door. The way Rick sees it, he’s just a pool party away from potentially starring in the next Polanski film. Cliff laughs at this quick change in Rick’s temperament. “So you’re feelin’ better now?” (Tarantino and DiCaprio have noted in interviews that Rick is bipolar, and it’s never more apparent than in this scene).

Once we’ve gotten to know Rick, the film turns its attention to Cliff. We follow him (in one of Tarantino’s many overhead shots in this movie) as he walks away from Rick’s house on Cielo Drive, hops into his Volkswagen Karmann Ghia, and zooms off into the evening. The sequence that follows - in which Cliff speeds along Hollywood Boulevard, Joe Cocker’s live rendition of The Letter blasting on the radio - is one of the great wordless character introductions in cinema. We’re just observing Cliff and listening to the radio with him, as he heads toward a humble existence he’s long since accepted, living in a trailer on the outskirts of town.

As the camera moves in toward the projector at the Van Nuys Drive-In near Cliff’s trailer (listen for the old school ‘Feature Presentation’ music so often heard at the Alamo Drafthouse), the light of the projector hits the camera lens, and there’s an audible hush as we’re suddenly brought into the solitary world of Cliff’s homestead. Well, I say solitary, but Cliff shares his trailer with a lovable pitbull named Brandy. All in all, Cliff seems content with his lot in life.

Because it’s the late ‘60s in Hollywood, there’s also a more sinister presence in town. After Rick and Cliff’s meeting with Marvin, Tarantino brings things down to an eerie quiet, as we’re introduced to the Manson Family girls. They skip along the back alleys of Los Angeles scourging trash bins and, in a breathtaking tracking shot, slowly pass by a mural of James Dean’s outstretched body in Giant (1956) - the iconography of old Hollywood serving as a backdrop to their madness.

The following day’s events make up the majority of the film. Rick is dropped off onto the set of Lancer, where he’s playing the villain. Meanwhile, Cliff fixes a broken antenna on top of Rick’s house, and we’re treated to a long flashback in which we learn so much about him (specifically, why he doesn’t get very much stunt work anymore). In terms of filmmaking prowess, there’s nothing more impressive than Tarantino and cinematographer Robert Richardson’s extraordinary long take of an exchange between Cliff and Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) on the set of The Green Hornet, which ends in hilarity. There’s even a flashback within this flashback, in which we learn Cliff may have murdered his wife on a boat. Nobody said these guys were heroes.

Tarantino has described Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood as a story about Hollywood from the perspective of three people at different statuses within the industry, and Sharon Tate, the only non-fictional character of our three leads, is currently near the top of her stardom. There’s a look of pure innocence and joy on her face as she drives along the freeway, Buffy Sainte-Marie’s The Circle Game playing on the radio. She’s ostensibly driving into town to pick up a book for Polanski, but she stops at the Bruin Theatre in Westwood Village when she sees they’re playing her new film, The Wrecking Crew (1969). Profoundly excited, Sharon tells the Bruin box office attendant she’s actually in the movie, and asks if she can go inside the cinema.

Yet even Sharon is not immune to the insecurities of movie stardom. When the box office attendant asks to take a picture of her, she tells Sharon to stand next to The Wrecking Crew poster so people will know who she is. It’s a small, slightly hurtful moment, but an important one - Sharon realizes she hasn’t quite reached the apex of fame. Afterward, she goes into the cinema, and, in a heartwarming scene unlike anything in Tarantino’s filmography, she proudly watches herself onscreen in The Wrecking Crew, surrounded by an audience enjoying her performance. Onscreen, Tarantino shows us footage of the real-life Tate, who was tragically murdered on August 9th, 1969 in her home on Cielo Drive by the Manson Family - but we’ll get to that a little later.

As Sharon is actually seeing herself in a big Hollywood movie, Rick is on the set of Lancer imagining himself in one. When talking to Lancer series lead Jim Stacy (Timothy Olyphant) about almost getting the Steve McQueen role in The Great Escape (1963), Tarantino shows us a key scene from The Great Escape, except with Rick in the role instead of McQueen. It’s a fascinating visualization of how we imagine ourselves onscreen, and a depressing reminder to Rick about what could have been.

Then comes Tarantino’s presentation of the Lancer episode, where all of Rick’s insecurities as an actor - his memorization of lines, his alcohol abuse, his discomfort with his “hippie” costume - are laid bare. Interestingly, the only television episode in Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood not recreated in its original format is this Lancer pilot, which, in a way, is the centerpiece of the film. The sequence is instead shot rather cinematically - certainly not in the style of television shows at the time. It’s a striking choice, and the more I see the film, the more I suspect Tarantino is presenting this episode as Rick experiences it in his mind. It’s a richly textured scene, full of the kind of character and immersive detail an actor desires. But that illusion is shattered when Rick starts forgetting his lines.

If we watched this sequence in the black-and-white format and aspect ratio in which it would likely have been filmed, there would be a distance from and irony to the proceedings. Instead, Tarantino shoots the sequence as an uninterrupted mini-western within the larger movie, and it’s every bit as compelling and entertaining as the reality-based scenes. When the artifice is broken by Rick’s memory lapses, our immersion grinds to a halt - and we’re every bit as frustrated as he is.

This scene features some of the finest acting of DiCaprio’s career. He lets us see both Rick’s talent and shortcomings as an actor. We learn so much about him just through watching him perform, and we feel every single bit of his frustration and uselessness (I even found myself caught up in the rhythms of his stuttering). With this wonderfully drawn-out sequence, Tarantino smartly allows us to study the acting habits of our lead character, all while paying homage to a bygone television genre.

After he blows his scene, Rick stampedes back into his trailer and descends into self-beratement, throwing things across the trailer and furiously calling himself an alcoholic (DiCaprio reportedly improvised this hilarious scene). But all is not lost - there’s a young actress on set, Trudi Fraser (Julia Butters, in a star-making performance), who is like a nine year-old Daniel Day-Lewis in her dedication to her craft. If Rick can earn her respect in their next scene together, perhaps there’s redemption on the horizon.

Sure enough, Rick is on fire in this next scene. After performing his heart out, we’re treated to perhaps the most moving moment of the film. After the director, Sam Wanamaker (Nicholas Hammond), compliments Rick’s performance (taking special note of his three-word alliterative improvisation), Trudi whispers to Rick, “That was the best acting I’ve ever seen in my whole life.” The look of unbridled joy on Rick’s face says it all. The build-up to this moment pays off beautifully, and Rick’s mid-movie redemption feels so earned. Rick fuckin’ Dalton, indeed.

Meanwhile, Cliff is cruising around town in Rick’s car, blasting everything from Los Bravos to Neil Diamond. He picks up Pussycat (Margaret Qualley, in another star-making performance), a wayward hippie who needs a ride home… to Spahn Ranch, where the Manson Family is lying in wait. Thus begins an unnerving sequence, in which Cliff - who used to shoot Bounty Law with Rick out at Spahn Ranch - drives Pussycat to the ranch, curious as to why a bunch of hippies are living out there with the elderly George Spahn (Bruce Dern, collaborating with Tarantino for the third time). Cliff is such a swinging dick in this sequence - once he arrives at Spahn Ranch, there is so much tension generated from knowing he’s going to plow forward and see Spahn with own two eyes, no matter how many hippies attempt to stop him. Pitt, who better damn well win an Oscar for his performance, has never been better in any movie than Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood, and it’s this Spahn Ranch set piece that truly makes Cliff Booth one of the great movie characters in recent memory.

After he sees Spahn, Cliff speeds away from the eerie ranch, and picks up Rick from the set of Lancer. The sad serenade of California Dreamin’ by José Feliciano brings the day to a close, as our cast of characters all head home. In Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, even those characters who appear briefly feel like part of a larger community outside the film.

Before they part, Rick and Cliff sit back and enjoy Rick’s appearance on that night’s episode of F.B.I. on television. I could watch an entire movie that’s just DiCaprio and Pitt giving commentary on one of Rick’s TV shows (we watch the F.B.I. episode with our boys doing moment-by-moment narration, and it’s absolutely hilarious).

And then, suddenly, we cut to black. It’s now six months later - August 9th, 1969, to be exact - the fateful day Tate and others were murdered by the Manson Family. Rick and Cliff are returning from Italy, where Rick followed Marvin’s advice and starred in an Italian western (and, along the way, married Italian starlet Francesca Capucci, played by Lorenza Izzo). More importantly, he and Cliff have somewhat amicably split ways, as Rick can’t afford to keep paying Cliff. The future is uncertain for both men.

Particularly as the film enters its final third, Once Upon A Time... in Hollywood evokes an elegiac feeling unlike any film I’ve ever seen, as Rick, Cliff - and, of course, Sharon - hurtle toward what we assume will be tragedy on Cielo Drive. And even as the events transpire differently than they did in real life, what occurs is still strangely melancholic in its own way.

I can’t explain how emotional and choked up the third-act sequence in which Rick and Cliff return from Italy makes me. Once their plane hits the ground, Out of Time by The Rolling Stones cranks up, and one of my favorite montages in all of cinema begins. Rick and Cliff go about their daily activities, preparing for one final hang-out in the evening, as a heavily-pregnant Sharon welcomes guests into her home. This sequence ends as neon signs - of Hollywood restaurants, cinemas and hang-out spots of Tarantino’s youth - light up with powerful sizzles. There is such a mournful quality in the air, such finality. Both of our lead characters are moving on and adapting – Rick has a new wife (and a rather silly new haircut, which the film admirably never once demeans), while Cliff faces an uncertain future in which he no longer has guaranteed work. They are out of touch and out of time against a changing culture - it’s the end of an era for two middle-aged men who are struggling to be useful in their respective careers. But, at least for one more night, they have each other. And this night is their one last chance to prove everything – to themselves, to their neighbors, to Hollywood.

Ultimately, Tarantino gives Rick, Cliff and Sharon the dreamlike ending they deserve. The Manson Family doesn’t get to destroy the lives of others in Tarantino’s version of events - in fact, their attempted mayhem actually brings Rick and Cliff closer together on the precipice of their break-up.

The violence in the ending of this movie feels different from the violence in any other Tarantino film - perhaps because it’s in service of these two guys finally feeling useful (Cliff, a stuntman who can’t get work, uses his physical powers against evil, while Rick’s middle-aged frustration with hippie culture leads to his meeting a circle of friends he always desired). There’s such relatively little violence in Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (at least compared to most Tarantino films) that when it does finally occur, it is particularly effective. But the ending here is so much more complicated than good guys enacting revenge on the Manson family (in the way that Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained offer us a revenge fantasy where Nazis and slave owners get their due). No, this ending is something else entirely - still cathartic, but for a personal reason. If Rick and Cliff can't be heroes in the movies, perhaps they can be in real life.

What I also love about the ending is that Tarantino could have made Rick and Cliff brazenly heroic in their takedown of the Mansons, as the Basterds and Django were in their retribution. But these guys are aimless screw-ups until the end - Cliff smokes a cigarette laced with LSD and goes for a midnight stroll with Brandy, while Rick angrily shouts at hippies outside his house and drinks margaritas alone in his swimming pool. And yet somehow in their middle-aged despair, these guys manage to destroy the Mansons.

With regard to Cliff carrying Rick’s load, it is worth mentioning that our stuntman does most of the dirty work in disposing of the Manson Family. Rick contributes far less in the final showdown, but he does get the most “actor-y” form of vengeance by using his flame-thrower from The 14 Fists of McClusky to kill an already mostly-dead Manson follower. This is the moment that earns applause from the audience (and it’s certainly earned), but it’s Cliff who carries the load. It calls to mind an earlier moment in which Pussycat slyly remarks that actors just stand around and look pretty, while the stuntmen do the real work. Perhaps she’s right.

It’s also worth acknowledging that Tarantino’s history-revising ending doesn’t reshape the fact that the world around Rick and Cliff is changing. But for them, it’s not about sweeping societal change - it’s the little victories. After all of the ruckus with the Manson Family is over, Rick gets the invitation to Sharon’s house he was so desperately hoping to receive early in the film. Watch the look on his face when Jay Sebring (Emile Hirsch), Sharon’s ex-boyfriend, reveals his love for The 14 Fists of McClusky. Rick positively lights up with joy, and for the first time in a long time, he feels appreciated and seen. In the end, it’s about this small change in his life that really means something to him. Tarantino gives us a better world where these characters - including Sharon - live on and adapt.

So why does Once Upon A Time… in Hollywood leave me feeling so sad, so mournful? Perhaps because Tarantino has said everything possible with this film, and just as Rick and Cliff are relics of the past, so is this type of complex, rich cinema experience. Unless studios start giving younger filmmakers more opportunities to make bold and original work (you know, taking risks), I have a feeling everything we see will be a $200 million VFX extravaganza or a micro-budget indie that adheres strictly to the conventions of acceptable modern-day storytelling. It’s so refreshing to see an idiosyncratic film made with total control by a master filmmaker that hasn’t been vetted by the thought police - one that allows these characters to be who they are, free of any judgment, and worthy of redemption on their own terms. How many more films like this will we get?

I don't know if everyone will experience what I experienced with Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood. But it feels special to me. I want to hang onto it dearly. They won’t make ‘em like this anymore.

Baby, baby, baby… you’re out of time.

3. The Wolf of Wall Street (2013, Martin Scorsese)

4. Nebraska (2013, Alexander Payne)

5. Silver Linings Playbook (2012, David O. Russell)

6. Hugo (2011, Martin Scorsese)

7. The Tree of Life (2011, Terrence Malick)

8. Silence (2016, Martin Scorsese)

9. Manchester by the Sea (2016, Kenneth Lonergan)

10. The Master (2012, Paul Thomas Anderson)

11. Boyhood (2014, Richard Linklater)

12. The Social Network (2010, David Fincher)

13. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017, Martin McDonagh)

14. Margaret (2011, Kenneth Lonergan)

15. Shutter Island (2010, Martin Scorsese)

16. Inherent Vice (2014, Paul Thomas Anderson)

17. Spotlight (2015, Tom McCarthy)

18. Marriage Story (2019, Noah Baumbach)

19. Birdman, or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance (2014, Alejandro González Inárritu)

20. First Reformed (2018, Paul Schrader)

21. Blue Valentine (2010, Derek Cianfrance)

22. The Fighter (2010, David O. Russell)

23. A Star is Born (2018, Bradley Cooper)

24. American Hustle (2013, David O. Russell)

25. The Immigrant (2014, James Gray)

26. The Revenant (2015, Alejandro González Inárritu)

27. The Descendants (2011, Alexander Payne)

28. Inside Llewyn Davis (2013, Joel and Ethan Coen)

29. Django Unchained (2012, Quentin Tarantino)

30. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018, Joel and Ethan Coen)

31. Love & Mercy (2015, Bill Pohlad)

32. Phantom Thread (2017, Paul Thomas Anderson)

33. Frances Ha (2013, Noah Baumbach)

34. Lincoln (2012, Steven Spielberg)

35. Mud (2013, Jeff Nichols)

36. Inception (2010, Christopher Nolan)

37. The Lost City of Z (2017, James Gray)

38. Moonrise Kingdom (2012, Wes Anderson)

39. True Grit (2010, Joel and Ethan Coen)

40. Youth (2015, Paolo Sorrentino)

41. Everybody Wants Some!! (2016, Richard Linklater)

42. Gone Girl (2014, David Fincher)

43. Life Itself (2014, Steve James)

44. Flight (2012, Robert Zemeckis)

45. The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) (2017, Noah Baumbach)

46. Zero Dark Thirty (2012, Kathryn Bigelow)

47. Biutiful (2010, Alejandro González Inárritu)

48. Her (2013, Spike Jonze)

49. Foxcatcher (2014, Bennett Miller)

50. Interstellar (2014, Christopher Nolan)

51. Take Shelter (2011, Jeff Nichols)

52. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011, Tomas Alfredson)

53. George Harrison: Living in the Material World (2011, Martin Scorsese)

54. Downsizing (2017, Alexander Payne)

55. Widows (2018, Steve McQueen)

56. Ad Astra (2019, James Gray)

57. You Were Never Really Here (2018, Lynne Ramsay)

58. Blue Jasmine (2013, Woody Allen)

59. Bernie (2012, Richard Linklater)

60. La La Land (2016, Damien Chazelle)

61. The Ghost Writer (2010, Roman Polanski)

62. Jojo Rabbit (2019, Taika Waititi)

63. Whiplash (2014, Damien Chazelle)

64. We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011, Lynne Ramsay)

65. Blade Runner 2049 (2017, Denis Villeneuve)

66. Captain Phillips (2013, Paul Greengrass)

67. BlacKkKlansman (2018, Spike Lee)

68. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011, David Fincher)

69. The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014, Wes Anderson)

70. Mistress America (2015, Noah Baumbach)

71. Joy (2015, David O. Russell)

72. Logan Lucky (2017, Steven Soderbergh)

73. While We’re Young (2015, Noah Baumbach)

74. Black Swan (2010, Darren Aronofsky)

75. Steve Jobs (2015, Danny Boyle)

76. 127 Hours (2010, Danny Boyle)

77. Hell or High Water (2016, David Mackenzie)

78. Vice (2018, Adam McKay)

79. The Hateful Eight (2015, Quentin Tarantino)

80. Young Adult (2011, Jason Reitman)

81. Bridge of Spies (2015, Steven Spielberg)

82. Fences (2016, Denzel Washington)

83. Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese (2019, Martin Scorsese)

84. Moneyball (2011, Bennett Miller)

85. Under the Silver Lake (2019, David Robert Mitchell)

86. Roma (2018, Alfonso Cuarón)

87. First Man (2018, Damien Chazelle)

88. Richard Jewell (2019, Clint Eastwood)

89. Beginners (2011, Mike Mills)

90. The Post (2017, Steven Spielberg)

91. Les Miserables (2012, Tom Hooper)

92. Ford v Ferrari (2019, James Mangold)

93. The Big Short (2015, Adam McKay)

94. Life of Pi (2012, Ang Lee)

95. 20th Century Women (2016, Mike Mills)

96. Uncut Gems (Josh and Benny Safdie)

97. Hostiles (2017, Scott Cooper)

98. J. Edgar (2011, Clint Eastwood)

99. Midnight in Paris (2011, Woody Allen)

100. Knight of Cups (2016, Terrence Malick)