Movie Project #45 and #46: It’s a Wonderful Life [1946] and The Prestige [2006]

The 50 Movies Project is a personal “marathon” of mine. In June, I compiled a list of 50 movies that I felt I needed to see by the end of the year. Old, new, foreign, English — it doesn’t matter. These are all movies that I have heard a lot about and have been wanting to see for some time. This project gives me a way to stay focused on the goal.

It's a Wonderful Life [1946, Frank Capra]
It’s a Wonderful Life [1946, Frank Capra]
Starring James Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore.

It blows my mind that somehow this slipped past me despite being played repeatedly during every Christmas season. It’s easy to see why this is a holiday favorite — it really is the quintessential Christmas film. Equal parts heartwarming and inspirational, It’s a Wonderful Life takes us into the life of George Bailey (Stewart), a man on the brink of suicide. Lucky for him, his guardian angel (Henry Travers) is sent from the heavens to intervene and show him all of the lives he has changed for the better over the years. It turns out that his life isn’t so bad at all.

Admittedly, I was a little worried when the guardian angel appeared. I was concerned that the movie would become overly preachy and attempt to shove religious beliefs down our throats. Thankfully, that never happened. This is just an all-around good-hearted film that is anchored by timeless performances by James Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore and the rest of the cast. I will give this a slight edge over the other Capra film from this project, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and I could easily see it becoming a yearly Christmas tradition in my household. I still don’t know what took me so long to see it. 10/10

The Prestige [2006, Christopher Nolan]
The Prestige [2006, Christopher Nolan]
Starring Christian Bale, Hugh Jackman, Michael Caine.

When it comes to Christopher Nolan, I am generally a fan of his work, though I do not hold him in as high of regard as most. The Prestige, however, damn near succeeded in making me a fanboy. This intricately detailed portrayal of two magicians (Bale and Jackman) who continually try to upstage each other really impressed me. The movie starts off fairly tame, with both men sabotaging each other’s magic shows, but it quickly grows lethal to the point of multiple fatalities. This culminates in a twist ending that I did not see coming at all, and it is one that warrants extra viewings of the film in order catch on to hints and tricks.

I wasn’t sure what to make of the film’s sudden dip into science fiction (aided by a terrific performance by David freakin’ Bowie as Nikola Tesla), but I quickly grew into the idea and embraced it all the same. The fantasy aspects may turn off some viewers, but I really enjoyed the ride. Bale, Jackman and Caine are all wonderful, and the smaller roles from the likes of Scarlett Johansson, Rebecca Hall and Andy Serkis are all great additions as well. The Prestige is a thoroughly fascinating movie, and may be my new favorite from Nolan. 9/10

Movie Project #29 and #30: Sunset Boulevard [1950] and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington [1939]

The 50 Movies Project is a personal “marathon” of mine. In June, I compiled a list of 50 movies that I felt I needed to see by the end of the year. Old, new, foreign, English — it doesn’t matter. These are all movies that I have heard a lot about and have been wanting to see for some time. This project gives me a way to stay focused on the goal.

Sunset Boulevard [1950]
Sunset Boulevard [1950, Billy Wilder]
Starring William Holden, Gloria Swanson, Erich von Stroheim.

Holy hell, what a film! The fact that such a biting satire about the film industry was made in 1950 blows my mind. The movie opens up mysteriously with a dead man floating in the pool. This man, Joe Gillis (played by the brilliant Holden), proceeds to narrate the film from beyond the grave, and the movie follows the events that led up to his demise. While on the run from repo men, Gillis pulls into the garage of what he thinks is an abandoned Hollywood mansion. Well, it turns out that the long-retired silent film star Norma Desmond (the scary-good Swanson, a former silent film star herself) is living there, and she sparks up an interest in the failing writer of Gillis. What transpires is truly bizarre, as Gillis becomes involved in a love triangle with Desmond and a young writer (Nancy Olson).

The world that Norma Desmond lives in is beyond fascinating, as she has clearly lost her mind and is stuck living in the past. She believes she will make a great comeback someday, and her reassuring butler (von Stroheim) refuses to tell her otherwise, fearing she will commit suicide. Her descent into madness culminates with one of the most memorable closing lines ever uttered on film: “There’s nothing else. Just us, and the cameras, and those wonderful people out there in the dark. All right, Mr. De Mille, I’m ready for my closeup.”

Sunset Boulevard also has some terrific moments of dark humor, and I particularly loved the brief cameos from silent film stars such as Buster Keaton and H.B. Warner. This was the first time I had heard Keaton speak! There really is a lot to love about this movie, and I cannot recommend it highly enough. 10/10

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington [1939]
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington [1939, Frank Capra]
Starring James Stewart, Jean Arthur, Claude Rains.

It says something about a movie’s power when a statement made 70+ years ago still holds relevance today. The always awesome James Stewart stars as Jefferson Smith, a naive Boy Scout leader who is oddly selected to take over as a US Senator after an incumbent passes away. When he gets there, he is enamored with the sights and sounds of Washington D.C., even getting himself lost in the process. He quickly finds out that he doesn’t belong there, as he has no interest in the political bullshit that goes on every day. Still, he perserveres, especially after he finds out about a scandal that would build a dam over his proposed Boy Scout campsite.

As a story of one man fighting for what’s right, it’s hard not to admire the movie. Smith, aided by his chief of staff Clarissa Saunders (Arthur), is a likable guy, and his big moment — a very, very long fillibuster — is quite brilliant. Superbly acted with a great screenplay to boot, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington still holds up today. 9/10