Thursday, December 13, 2012

A fondness for inept criminals

Each week on the Filmspotting podcast, the hosts (Adam Kempenaar and Josh Larsen) end the show with a top five in some category -- top five movies about redemption, top five movies set in Los Angeles, even top five movie scenes involving bicycles. The top five is usually a tie-in to the new movie they're reviewing that week.

I'm always excited for the top five, but rarely satisfied once I've listened to it. The movies I would choose rarely seem to show up on their lists. Which I don't think is any reflection of my taste in movies vs. theirs. It's just an indication of how many movies there are out there to choose from.

This past week was an exception.

I first heard about it from my friend Don, who texted me on Saturday "Listening to this week's Filmspotting as I tend to laundry, and now I know that you like movies with well-done inept criminals."

The tie-in this week was Killing Them Softly, which I was a mere half hour away from seeing at the time I received the text. As soon as I saw the movie, I'd be free to listen to the podcast, which would reveal to me Adam and Josh's top five inept movie criminals.

And Don sure was right.

For starters, they called this alternately the "H.I. McDunnough Memorial List" and the "I'll Be Taking Those Huggies and Whatever Cash You've Got Memorial List." The purpose of "naming" the list is to acknowledge the one choice they consider most obvious, which they would theoretically both pick as their #1 if they didn't exclude it from consideration. Past examples include "The Overlook Hotel Memorial List" for the top five movies about hotels.

Right off the bat I knew they had "gotten" me, since Raising Arizona is currently listed as my #3 movie on Flickchart. Even though I secretly think it may be my favorite movie of all time.

And then:

Josh's top 5:

5. Jasper and Horace, 101 Dalmatians
4. Jacob, A Simple Plan
3. Professor Marcus, The Ladykillers
2. Jerry Lundegaard, Fargo
1. Dignan, Bottle Rocket

Adam's top 5:

5. Sam and Eddie, Safe Men
4. Holland and Pendlebury, The Lavender Hill Mob
3. Virgil Starkwell, Take the Money and Run
2. Ken Pile, A Fish Called Wanda
1. Jerry Lundegaard, Fargo

Of the nine different movies mentioned here (Fargo was mentioned by both), I've seen six. Of those six, four are among my top 300 movies of all time (A Fish Called Wanda, Fargo, A Simple Plan and Bottle Rocket), three in my top 100 (Plan, Fargo and Wanda) and two (Fargo and Wanda) in my top ten.

So yeah, I'd say I was pretty satisfied by this week's top five.

But as these things do, it also got me thinking: Am I drawn to movies about inept criminals?

If you had asked me that question without providing any of the evidence why you were asking, I'd have said "No, I don't think so. No more than anyone else, that's for sure."

But I wonder. Because those aren't the only favorites of mine that feature hapless hoods.

(And watch out for spoilers. If you see a name of a movie you haven't seen in bold, skip on to the next -- I may be spoiling something about it.)

Looking only at my current Flickchart top 20, you could make arguments for the following:

Pulp Fiction (#4). The guys eating their Big Kahuna burgers are pretty inept, considering that they got caught with their pants down, gunned down while eating burgers for breakfast. But then there's also the ineptitude of Vincent Vega blowing off Marvin's head because of a pothole -- this after he and his friend Jules forgot to check the back room for a gunman who should have killed them. And never mind the singular bone-headedness of Butch, whose unusual plan to screw over and subsequently escape the mob involves returning to his house when they're looking for him.

Glengarry Glen Ross (#11). When their priggish boss denies them the new Glengarry leads, Dave and Shelly decide to knock over their own office to steal them, planning to sell them to the competition. That plan is destined to fail in numerous ways, even if you remove the last part about selling the spoils of your theft in the same small industry where you already work -- where the police are most likely to look for it. 

Goodfellas (#12). Although you can't be inept and last in the mafia very long, in the end, everyone has a slip-up that results in their eventual whacking. Particular to this movie, however, most of the crew that pulled off the Lufthansa robbery gets whacked because they can't follow the simple instruction not to spend their newfound wealthy in showy ways that will attract attention.

Run Lola Run (#16). Mani blows an otherwise smooth and simple job to transport a bag of money when he leaves it on the subway, obeying an instinctive reaction to elude a pair of cops who aren't even looking for him. Later he walks into a grocery store to rob it without wearing anything that would conceal his identity. Meanwhile, Lola tries to rob a bank by holding her own father at gunpoint.

Unforgiven (#20). An old gunslinger goes on a mission to claim a bounty on a pair of thugs who beat and cut up a couple of prostitutes, but nearly dies from the flu because he got wet in the rain (and then beaten by the sheriff, but you kind of feel like the rain is what did him in). One of the two thugs is then shot to death on the toilet, a pathetic way to go even if it might not have been helped.

You could even argue that #19 The Shawshank Redemption contains a hapless criminal, because the actual killer of Andy Dufresne's wife boastfully confesses to the crime while in prison.

I guess you could say that almost any movie that has an element of crime in it has someone who isn't that good at it. So I don't want to stretch this too far.

But I can't help but notice all the titles of movies featuring hapless criminals as you continue down my list. Time Bandits (#21) might qualify. The Bicycle Thief (#26) definitely does. Though it does drop off after that. Maybe that's because #27 is Bound, and Bound contains a group of the smartest criminal types you've ever seen in a movie.

What to make of this concentration near the top of my list of movies about backfired criminal exploits?

I don't really know. Though it could mean I have a fascination with the best laid plans gone awry. Or maybe I just like watching people who have truly made a mess, comical or otherwise, of their lives, to remind myself that I needn't get too down on myself just because I don't know where I want to be in my career in ten years.

I'll have to think on it some more.

But this realization does partly explain why I'm so in love with Killing Them Softly, a film I seem to like more than anyone else on the planet other than Entertainment Weekly's Owen Gleiberman (who also rhapsodized over it). More than the criminal ineptitude that inspired this week's top five, though, Softly really demonstrates how all crime is destined to have consequences, even if the criminals carry it off with a decent amount of panache.

That and a bunch of stuff about Obama and the financial crisis, but we won't get into that right now.


Nick Prigge said...

Oddly enough, I just happened to listen to that podcast today. Highly enjoyed it, even if I was disappointed they left Otto of "A Fish Called Wanda" out of the Top 5. He'd be my #1.

I often think about my own taste in film and how so many of my all-time favorites share a particular something in common. "Last of the Mohicans." "Million Dollar Baby." "Atonement." "From Here To Eternity." "Bonnie & Clyde." "Titanic." "Black Swan." I think you see where I'm going. And so I wonder, am I obsessed with death? But I just think that tragedy - especially romantic tragedy - makes for emotionally resonant film.

Much how if you take criminals and then throw ineptness in there with them, how can it not be entertaining?

Vancetastic said...

Glad you're enjoying Filmspotting, Nick. That's two people I've introduced to it in the last couple months. And while I've been helping them in that respect, I have yet to donate. :-(

Don't know if you've heard enough to get this yet, but Adam is absolutely in love with Atonement. He also ranked Never Let Me Go as his favorite of that year, and given that this has Knightley as well as the themes that attract you, I'm sure I'd find a passionate and eloquent piece about that film on your blog if I looked for it.

Vancetastic said...

And speaking of searching for old things on your blog, how IS someone supposed to do that? While I agree that my list of tags is getting very long and cumbersome, I feel like it's the best way to direct people to old material.