Wednesday, September 12, 2007

John Cusack's 10 Good Films

"I've made 10 good films. I'm sure you know which ones they are."
--John Cusack

I'm a lifelong fan of the 'Sack. (That's right, I call him the 'Sack.) And yeah, I think I know which ones they are. But they're not quite the same ones the writer of that interview above picks. Or that you would probably pick.

How would you like to have a sexual experience so intense it could conceivably change your political views?
The Sure Thing

Cusack's very first starring role is also his very first classic. It doesn't hurt that it was Rob Reiner's second film, made right at the beginning of Reiner's impressive streak of brilliance, and well before his current horrible run of garbage. (I've reflected on Reiner's sad decline before.) It also marked the first screen pairing of the 'Sack and Tim Robbins, who would go on to team up in several more films, some of which are farther down on this list. One of the sweetest, funniest teen sex (without any sex, really) comedies ever made.

Gee, I'm really sorry your mom blew up, Ricky.WHY ARE YOU SO FAT?!? WHY ARE YOU SO FAT?!?
Better Off Dead...
One Crazy Summer

The Savage Steve Holland double feature! Both these films, released in 1985 and 1986, respectively, were absolute staples of my high school and college life. They epitomize the teen comedies of the '80s, in which our hero must win the day by defeating the dumb, rich, asshole villain in some unlikely race (in the former, downhill skiing; in the latter, a sailboat regatta).

It's almost imperative that the two films be watched together: they feature the same director, the same star, the same co-star (Curtis "Booger" Armstrong as Cusack's best friend), they both have memorable animated sequences, and they share the same absurb sense of humor. They're also both packed with "Hey, I know that guy!" actors, from David Ogden Stiers and Dan Schneider in the former to Mark Metcalf, Joel Murray, Joe Flaherty, and yes, Bobcat Goldthwait and Demi Moore in the latter. Summer also marks the first film collaboration between longtime friends Cusack and Jeremy Piven; they've appeared in ten films together (including a short directed by Ben Stiller called Elvis Stories). Seriously, if the line "I want my two dollars!" doesn't put a smile on your face, you're dead to me.

You look ravishing and I'd like to chew on your thighs.

I imagine I'll lose some of you on this one. But this bizarre, anarchic, experimental, musical Mike Nesmith production is a twisted classic. This first reunion of the 'Sack and Robbins delves into the then-booming world of music videos, and the love of all things music is present in every frame, from the quest to revive the careers of soul legends The Swanky Modes (played by real soul legends Sam Moore and Junior Walker), to acting appearances by Jello Biafra, "Weird Al" Yankovic, and Ted Nugent, to soundtrack performances by Fishbone, The Lords of the New Church, and Devo. They even throw in Roscoe's House of Chicken 'n Waffles for the hell of it. Frankly, it's a bit of a mess, but a beautiful, admirable one.

I'm totally and completely serious, sir.
Say Anything...

This one's kind of a slamdunk. Also: Cusack's second film with an ellipsis in the title.

You talk the lingo. What's your pitch?
The Grifters

I think this may be Cusack's finest film, as well as his deepest, darkest, most nuanced performance. Anjelica Huston is also brilliant here, as is Annette Bening, whose devious sex kitten role was her stepping stone to fame. (Odd sidenote: one of her few prior films was Valmont, an adaptation of Les liaisons dangereuses, which had previously been adapted to film as Dangerous Liaisons by director Stephen Frears, who also directed... The Grifters.) The film is a slick, smart, and vicious neo-noir, with tragedies piling on top of betrayals. I love this film.

Suddenly I'm taking suggestions from some strong-arm man with an IQ of minus 50.
Bullets Over Broadway

I thought Cusack's previous work for director Woody Allen, Shadows and Fog, was a muddled mess, but this second pairing was Allen's best film since Crimes and Misdemeanors, and would continue to be his best until... um... hm. Maybe Match Point? Anyway, the 'Sack is great as the Allen surrogate, the rest of the cast is tremendous from top to bottom (with Dianne Wiest winning her second Oscar for a Woody Allen film), and the writing is the sharpest and funniest of Allen's '90s output.

I killed the president of Paraguay with a fork. How've you been?
Grosse Pointe Blank

It took a few viewings for this to really grow on me, despite my love of Cusack, and my very different kind of love for Minnie Driver, who has rarely been sexier or more appealing. But I was finally won over by Cusack's hitman rediscovering his teen love at his high school reunion, and by the plethora of fine supporting roles, from John's sister Joan, Alan Arkin, Hank Azaria, Jeremy Piven (again), and best of all, Dan Aykroyd as Cusack's rival in the hitman biz. It's a delicate layering of tones, from screwball lightness to deadly darkness, and it somehow works.

Do you know what a metaphysical can of worms this portal is?
Being John Malkovich

The landmark feature film debuts of director Spike Jonze and writer Charlie Kaufman is Cusack's weirdest film to date. It's so packed with wild creativity it makes your head spin. It's a fantasy, a comedy, a romance, a tragedy -- all at once. Not for everyone's taste, and certainly not what you'd generally think of as "a John Cusack role." But I was amazed and delighted -- even though it's such an assault on reality, I simultaneously kind of never want to see it again.

I will now sell four copies of 'The Three EPs' by The Beta Band.
High Fidelity

Cusack's reunion with The Grifters director Stephen Frears results in the best film for both since The Grifters. Practically Cusack's entire acting career informs his High Fidelity role. Fidelity's Rob Gordon plays like the logical progression of The Sure Thing's immaturely sex-obsessed Gib, Say Anything's hopeless romantic Lloyd Dobler, the music fanatic Ivan from Tapeheads.... The 'Sack inhabits this role, and this film, so completely that it's impossible to imagine any other actor in his place; Cusack has spent his film life knowing, and being, this character. Also, for better or for worse, however you may see it (I vote better): it launched Jack Black's career.

And that's ten.

As an addendum, here are the best films with the 'Sack in a minor or cameo role:

Sixteen Candles (Cusack's second film appearance)

Stand By Me (The 'Sack makes an uncredited appearance as Wil Wheaton's dead brother in Rob Reiner's follow-up to The Sure Thing)

Broadcast News (Remember Cusack's appearance as "Angry Messenger"?)

The Player (Another appearance with Tim Robbins)

Pointedly not on either list: The Thin Red Line. There are many, like my good buddy Matty C, who would call this one of the best films of the '90s, another Terrence Malick masterpiece. I thought it was three hours of boring, packed with empty imagery, soporific directing, and uninspired acting.

Cusack made the statement that started this whole entry off in the context of saying his latest film, the Stephen King thriller 1408, is one of his good ones. I haven't seen it. You people who have seen it: is that a ludicrous statement, or is he telling the truth? And you might as well let me know a few of your Cusack favorites that I left off my list.

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