We have another list today from the 10rant’s own resident advisor, Kelton, who suggested that a ranking be established honoring those films which dared to wrap things up on a down-note. It takes a lot of balls to tell a story with a difficult, bad-guy-wins ending, especially here in the States, where we Americans prefer tidy and favorable conclusions. But life is rarely so conveniently just, and sometimes a filmmaker with enough allies at a studio can sneak a picture into the cinemas with conclusions as surprisingly unfair as what’s to be found in the world outside those walls. There aren’t a lot of films out there with gumption enough to give their antagonist the final victory, but here and there, you’ll find them. This list excluded films where the protagonist or lead was an agent of evil, for in many cases, they ended up “winning out,” as it were. Some examples of this included American Psycho, The Godfather, Pulp Fiction, The Usual Suspects, Fight Club, The Silence of the Lambs, The Player, Swimming with Sharks, Inside Man, and Sexy Beast. Even with this distinction, there were a hell of a lot of choices, and more than a few tough decisions that needed to be made.
Slots in today’s ranking were based on a combination of factors that included (1) the level of shock involved in the antagonists’ victory, (2) the depth of that triumph as it concerned both tangible and moral factors, and (3) how evil that ultimate victor truly was. So, for example, The Empire Strikes Back nearly made it onto the list, but was excluded at the last minute because (1) the ending, while shocking, was not that surprising since it was the second installment in a trilogy; (2) though Luke lost his hand and Han was in hawk, the team was still alive and poised for a comeback; and (3), because in Lando’s reversal, the franchise demonstrated (and foreshadowed) that evil elements of the Empire could be turned to good. With all this, it was still a close call, but at least now you can see how the scoring/ranking broke down. As an admittedly unfair technicality, your humble author eliminated all Shakespeare adaptations from consideration, for while many of them (especially Othello) were more than deserving of a spot below, if we let them in, they’d have taken up half the list. Some other VERY close calls included Scarface, Saw, Matchstick Men, Brazil, Swordfish, and Memento. So, now that one of the longest introductions in 10rant history is behind us, let’s start with…
A horror staple that has risen to the elite ranks of such genre standards as Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Wolfman, the zombies presented in George Romero’s original Night of the Living Dead caused an immediate sensation when first set upon the world. Seemingly tame and predictable by your normal horror standards, the relentless inevitability of the zombie horde triggered a number of basic human phobias, and demanded that the brain-hungry bastards stick around. Whether it was the horror born out of one’s natural aversion to being eaten alive, or the dangers presented by an unruly mob, zombies touched on a number of different fears, and were a surprisingly successful spook resource. In the film, the level-headed Ben (Duane Jones) tried to organize a viable defense strategy using a remote farm and the scanty resources at his disposal. Though he was able to get his hands on a rifle and some ammunition, and did a fairly decent job patching the house up so as to make it zombie-proof, Ben was fighting a losing battle. Though audiences at the time could not really have known it, seasoned zombie veterans who have sat through these ordeals in the intervening 40+ years now understand the motley assortment of mistakes the survivors made in this film.
First and foremost was the choice of location for their last stand, for as Ben hinted at a number of times, there wasn’t a spot on the planet safe enough if it didn’t also come with a viable escape route. Another fairly serious problem was the zombie-girl in the basement, for Cooper’s daughter had been bitten, and was therefore one hell of a liability for the group. All this aside, as I said, Ben did an admirable job, and though he couldn’t save everybody, he seemed poised to make it through the whole ordeal. That is until the hillbilly posse came rolling through the area at dawn. Peering out the window at a new disturbance, Ben got shot for his curiosity: the zombie-killing militia having mistaken him for one of the ravenous undead. A brutal ending to an already difficult film, Ben’s sudden reversal of fortune was a stunning and thorough blow that took the heart out of audiences everywhere, yet kept them coming back for more.
A surprisingly watchable film chaired by a group of actors most people would pay money NOT to see, Mr. Brooks shocked a lot of critics, and did pretty well for itself. Yes, despite its threat to give its audiences a movie starring Kevin Costner, with Dane Cook in at second fiddle, Mr. Brooks did alright. It followed Costner’s title character (Brooks) as he tried to shake off a nasty case of the crazies. You see, Brooks’ personality had split in two, the bloodthirsty Id side of the outwardly successful businessman demanding victims like they were a nutritional resource (which is why this one made the list, since the Id side of Brooks was technically the “bad” guy). Though he’d been careful about his illicit actions in the past, the film opened up with the murder of a couple in an apartment where the normally thorough Brooks had forgotten to close the blinds. As a result, some twisted son of a bitch (Dane Cook’s Smith character) blackmailed Brooks into doing a sort of murder-ride-along, which the killer eventually agreed to.
Side plots involving Brooks’ daughter and the feisty detective looking to collar the serial killer were interesting, if sometimes unnecessary, yet the film kept things going at a fairly brisk pace, and led to a finale where Brooks and Smith went in on a killing together. Though the audience and Smith had been led to believe that Brooks was going to sacrifice himself so that his family wouldn’t have to deal with the shame of realizing that their patriarch was a notorious psychopath, ol’ Brooks pulled a fast one at the end. Smith had put himself in a position where Brooks could use the young moron as a full-proof patsy for all the murders, and Costner’s character did just that. Smith’s throat cut and with D.N.A. enough to connect the dummy to Brooks’ crimes, the killer got away in the end, free to watch his daughter and granddaughter grow up while he robbed others of the same convenience. Speaking of killers who got away with their crimes at the end of the day, we should spend a little time talking about…
The breakout performance for an actor most people had never seen before, Primal Fear largely introduced Edward Norton to the world. In the film he played the dim-witted, stuttering alter boy Aaron Stampler, who was on trial for the murder of an Archbishop. Aaron’s attorney was the fast-talking, media-savvy Martin Vail, (Richard Gere) who immediately recognized what the pending trial could do for his career. Though the Stampler kid initially looked like the kind of slam-dunk client that brings juries to their knees, Vail dug deeper into the case and discovered that the Archbishop had been molesting children in his parish, and even video-taped some of the interactions. One of the victims was Aaron, who suddenly had one hell of a motive for killing the padre, something that created a considerable pickle for his attorney.
When Vail questioned Aaron about the abuse, the kid cracked. Wait, let’s back up. Aaron didn’t just crack, a second personality emerged during the questioning that admitted to the murder, and threw a monkey wrench the size of New Jersey into the defense’s strategy. Unable to change his plea from “not guilty” to “pants-crapping-insane” in the middle of a trial, Vail lit the fuse on a bomb he knew would blow, then sat back and waited for the fireworks. Eventually, Stampler lost his shit on the stand, beat the murder rap, and was waiting in his cell for his ride to the loony bin when Vail paid him a final visit. With maybe three minutes left in the film, Aaron revealed that he’d been orchestrating a ruse all along, and that there was no split personality: just a clever psychopath who knew how to play everybody involved in his little drama. The murderer got away, and with a smile. Boo-ya.
This film just barely missed out on a spot in the Top 10 Remakes Better Than the Original list, for the 1978 version of Don Siegel’s horror classic was pretty damn good. The ’78 incarnation dispensed with the unnecessary voice-over narration, and presented a world with a more genuine, lived-in feel than the original. Donald Sutherland starred as Matthew Bennell, a San Francisco health inspector who became suspicious of the increasingly odd behavior of a few associates. Before long, Matthew had stumbled upon a few alien life-pods at his friend’s mud bath resort, and put the pieces together to assemble a picture that was becoming increasingly clear: an alien invasion was underway. The extraterrestrial invaders were a race of replicants that assumed a person’s identity upon contact, essentially dooming their host to a quick, dusty death once the person fell asleep. As Matthew struggled to get a warning out to the rest of the city and country, it started to appear as if the good-intentioned health inspector was too late, and that the invasion was too far in the works to be halted.
Although Matthew and his lady-friend from the lab, “Elizabeth,” made some tracks, and even put in a little work to see some of the pods destroyed, the fight was an uphill one. The aliens were replicating humans faster than Matthew could get the word out to warn people, and even Elizabeth eventually succumbed to the temptation of sleep, and passed away. Though Matthew was able to hook up with his buddy’s wife at the end of the picture (Veronica Cartwright’s “Nancy”), the film’s hero was no closer to stopping the invasion plague at that point than any other. And while the original version ended with a somewhat optimistic flutter and implication that everything was going to be okay, the 1978 version scared the paint out of audiences by making one final reveal: that of Matthew emitting the ear-piercing scream as he pointed toward Nancy, identifying her as an un-replicated human. Indeed, in the remake, nobody seemed to get out alive, a sentiment heartily endorsed by this next picture…
Cormac McCarthy knows how to write a book that takes the optimistic light out of a reader, and the cinematic interpretations of his work usually reflects this hardcore literary intensity. No Country for Old Men was a devastating journey that allowed its audience to follow a main character, Moss (Josh Brolin), through a series of entirely relatable decisions that nonetheless plunged the man deeper and deeper into the shit. An innocent hunter who just happened to come across an enormous bundle of cash left stranded in the middle of a heroin deal gone wrong, Moss did what most people would do in a similar situation: he took the free money. Yet just because all the people in the vicinity of the cash were dead, it didn’t mean the loot would just be forgotten. An unholy agent of terror came after Moss with a singular purpose practically unrivaled in the history of cinema. Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) was less a man, and more an allegorical force of nature, and he had a job to do.
A hitman with a very basic set of criteria for the way he operated, he didn’t seem to possess the normal spate of emotions associated with human beings. Anton did not “want” or “feel,” he simply reacted and kept moving forward toward his chosen end. Whether a person died or lived, and whether that individual deserved their fate mattered as much to Anton as it would to a tornado. Things happened as they did, and whoever got killed along the way died because their fate was as random and unorganized as who gets wet during a storm. Moss died at the end because he got involved in some pretty serious drug-running shit, and encountered a force of nature even more persistent than Moss was resilient. The film and book upon which it was based stayed true to the overall theme of the story and the region in which it was set, for when it comes to violence and mayhem along the southern boarder of the U.S., very little makes sense, and plenty of people die who probably don’t deserve to.
I’m both happy and proud that the films on today’s list represent a wide and diverse range of cinematic genres and eras. This film, released in 1967, perfectly encapsulated the rebellious “us v. them” mentality of the period, and gave the emerging counter-culture a heroic figure that would represent their struggle more astutely than they could ever have imagined. Lucas Jackson (Paul Newman) was the perfect victim for his time. He’d been busted for a petty crime and incarcerated in a hellish Florida labor prison that specialized in breaking the spirits of its inmates. Set in the late 1940’s, Luke’s brand of defiant resistance and psychological warfare against the seemingly impenetrable machine and the “Captain” (Strother Martin) at its head resonated loudly with American teenagers and young adults that felt increasingly disenfranchised.
Luke’s repeated escape attempts were both active and psychological acts of defiance against a prison establishment that endeavored to squash the spirits of those confined there. Luke’s fellow prisoners began to rally around this symbol of hope in a way that clearly demonstrated their need to retain some scrap of their free humanity. Whether Luke ate fifty eggs, boxed “Dragline” to a draw, or made yet another audacious break for freedom, he was reclaiming not only his own autonomy, but that of his fellow inmates. In the end, however, it was a prison, and Luke, along with his prisoner friends, were the ones in stripes and chains. While it would have been uplifting to see Luke make one final escape to ultimate freedom as an inspirational gesture to his imprisoned comrades, the film wasn’t structured that way. Luke was the rebellious child inside the hearts of most men: that voice that would rather knowingly suffer than submit to a paper god. A tragic hero, Luke had to die, for in this world, there are few happy endings, and even fewer prisoners who escape from jail and live happily ever after.
A classic American noir picture shot by a European director with unconventional tastes, Chinatown was all the more shocking and profound in its conclusion because it trod upon familiar ground yet ended in unfamiliar territory. In the 30’s and 40’s, audiences had not really developed sophisticated palates for challenging films (at least not in the U.S.), so the pictures that came out of that era and formed the crime-noir genre tended to offer up morally just films that towed a safe, Christian line. In those movies, crime didn’t pay, the bad guy got his in the end, and a valuable lesson was learned by all those with an honest heart. That Chinatown appropriated the feel of this cinematic genre via the clothes, cars, and plot elements made the sudden reversal of expectations at the conclusion all the more shocking, and captivated audiences. By the end of the film, Jake Gittes (Nicholson) had untangled a complex web of deceit and murder in the name of water rights and agricultural property futures, and had even pried the lid off an incestuous scandal that was tied into the whole affair!
Though Gittes seemed poised to blow the whole conspiracy wide open whilst whisking the female victims off to Mexico and safety, the architect of the water conspiracy had a long list of friends and some deep pockets. In that kind of world, a brave and clever P.I. has little currency outside of his or her ability to get their ribs broken and nose cut to shit in the search for truth. The victimized mother/sister, Evelyn (Faye Dunaway), was shot by her rapist father, while the daughter/sister fell into the clutches of the old man, all with the police looking on with approval. Though Gittes had evidence enough to at least implicate (if not convict) Evelyn’s murderous father, the man’s connections into the network of power and influence in 1930’s L.A. put him so far above the law that Gittes would have needed a fire truck ladder to get anywhere near the guy. Brushed off and assuaged right before the credits began to role, Gittes had to content himself with the knowledge that at least HE knew what had all actually gone down, even if it had come to a close in Chinatown, the place where justice knew no foothold.
Goddamn, this movie’s dark! Seriously, if you didn’t walk away from this one depressed about life, you’ve got some serious fucking problems. It was about a recently widowed father and terrorism expert, Michael Faraday (Jeff Bridges), that started to suspect his new neighbors of some shady shit. The couple in question, Oliver and Cheryl Lang (Tim Robbins and Joan Cusack), were an evasive and plastic pair, and seemed about as genuine as a three dollar bill. Faraday found some suspicious architectural plans in the Lang house, and after a little digging, discovered that old Oliver wasn’t who he claimed to be. Long story short, the Langs kept Faraday off their trial long enough to get their bomb into Washington D.C., where the heroic terrorism expert cornered Oliver and seemed to get a drop on the whole scheme in time to keep another Oklahoma City-style event from popping off in the nation’s capitol. Unfortunately for the country and the 180+ people in the federal building Faraday rushed in to, Oliver Lang had pulled the old double-switch and had used Faraday as the unwitting agent of destruction.
Faraday rushed into the building thinking he was going to stop some shit, when really, he was the one bringing the thunder. Because he’d been so insistent about driving his car into the basement of a federal building, Faraday ended up taking the blame for the bomb while the Langs got away clean. Not only did the terrorists end up with one hell of a victory against the U.S. government, but the movie turned the blade a little sharper to really punish the protagonist (oh yeah, earlier in the film, the Langs killed his girlfriend, too). Talk about a shitty outcome for a well-meaning guy! The U.S. not only suffered an unspeakably terrible tragedy in the film, but the guy battling against this fate died, and did so in such a way that he got pegged for the whole mess! The only thing that would have moved this one any higher than #3 is if the victorious antagonists had been a shade more evil. To have accomplished this, however, they’d have had to be fucking demons…
Released in January 1998, in the winter dumping grounds frequented by studios looking to unload pictures too mainstream for award consideration, yet too risky for the summer lineup, Fallen snuck by a lot of people. It followed an honest cop, Detective Hobbes (Denzel Washington), and his efforts to put a stop to a murderous demon running amok on earth. This demon, Azazel, could jump from host to host by a simple touch, even if the person he happened to inhabit died (the next person to touch the corpse would fall under Azazel’s control). This made it very difficult for Hobbes, who could not seem to get rid of the little hell-spawn, no matter how many times he put a pill in the human beings the bastard possessed.
Hobbes thought he had Azazel good and trapped at the end, for the Detective retreated to a secluded cabin, waited until the demon tracked him down, then shot the host in the head, which left only Hobbes. Denzel’s character poisoned himself in the hopes that the demon would die with him, alone in the woods, yet Azazel got the last laugh. A cat came by after Hobbes’ departure, and allowed Azazel his chance to pass into a new host, and escape into the woods to find a more suitable vessel for mayhem. Just like that, a good man was dead, and a demon went loose. In terms of our grading criteria, this one was a slam dunk. The ending was unexpected, the victory over the forces of good was complete and undeniable, and the antagonist was pretty much the pinnacle of evil. Hell yeah.
An unerring masterpiece from start to finish, Se7en was like a poke in the throat, for it caused no permanent damage, yet it left a painful reminder of its impact for days. The film opened with the young Detective Mills (Brad Pitt) stumbling into the opening notes of an orgiastic symphony of murder on his very first assignment in a new city. His reluctant partner, Det. Somerset (Morgan Freeman), wisely surmised the true nature of the Gluttony murder, and was vindicated in his theory when more bodies, obviously killed in the same key as the first, began to surface. The film teetered back and forth between the shock of the crimes themselves, and the horror born out of the realization that a person was killing with such deliberate focus. Though the picture moved its characters forward in a somewhat predictable fashion, what with the bonding of the once-antagonistic leads, and the eventual uncoiling of clues leading to the bad guy’s capture, the tone of the film never let the audience off the hook. Indeed, though Se7en seemed to be winding down as John Doe (Kevin Spacey) surrendered himself into custody, the musical score, along with the color schemes and overall atmosphere of the picture, indicated that something foul was afoot.
As Detectives Mills and Somerset drove John Doe into the wilderness, and listened as the murderer explained the insanely brutal logic behind his actions, the audience slowly began to realize that one final chapter had yet to be written, and that only five of the seven deadly sins had been covered thus far. Like the God who provides free will, John Doe gave Mills the choice to see the murderous symphony through to its last bars, or to shut it down before the masterpiece could be concluded. His wife decapitated and likely screaming in frozen terror for all time in some fucking box, Mills had a chance to ruin the bad guy’s plan and take the moral victory, or shoot the dick-bag half a dozen times in the face. Pitt’s character took the latter route, and left the audience with an astonished, almost dizzy feeling. Not only did they have to process the full scope of what John Doe had actually accomplished, they had to wrap their heads around what had become of Mills, the final victim. One of the few targets that lived through the ordeal, what is most depressing, perhaps, is that the young Detective probably wished he hadn’t.
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