Monday, June 1, 2015

The Top 100: Schindler's List

It wasn't all that many years ago that I watched Schindler's List for the first time. Sitting down to rewatch it for this challenge (it originally sat at #93 on my chart), I really didn't remember that much about it other than that I liked it. But I also was skeptical that it would manage to remain in the Top 100. I had the sense that I'd ranked it that high out of respect and assumed obligation rather than because I actually liked it that much. Though there wasn't going to be any way of knowing until I watched it, though, so I got a copy and sat down to watch it.

Schindler's List, for any who do not know, is based on the true story of Oskar Schindler, a German business owner whose factory safely employed over a thousand Jews during World War II, keeping them alive throughout the duration of the war. The 1993 movie was directed by Steven Spielberg and starred Liam Neeson as Schindler, Ben Kingsley as his Jewish accountant Itzhak Stern, and Ralph Fiennes as the sadistic camp commander Amon Goeth. The movie was nominated for 12 Oscars and won seven of them, including Best Picture and Best Director. Neeson and Fiennes were both nominated for their roles but neither won.

I have to admit, I did not watch this under ideal circumstances. The movie is three hours long, which I had forgotten when I sat down to watch it, and I ended up unfortunately having to break it up into a couple chunks, due to unforeseen circumstances like falling asleep in the middle of it. So I didn't get as complete a rewatch as I would have if I had managed to just watch the whole thing straight through, but I'm often able to reimmerse myself in a story very quickly, so I don't think I missed out on too much.

Here were my live-blogged thoughts as I watched.

  • Oh gosh. I forgot Schindler's List was 3+ hours long. Good thing I've carved out a whole afternoon to watch it!
  • I know it's premature to say this, but I just don't anticipate this staying in my top 100. I feel it's there obligatorily.
  • I am kind of fascinated by all the shots of items rather than people.
  • Nicely done on this scene where the rich people move out and Schindler moves in. Very interesting contrast.
  • I'm sad that Liam Neeson just does macho action flicks now. He's so interesting in this.
  • Knowing how it ends, it's really interesting to see Oskar's disregard for people at the beginning.
  • Oh, man. The scene with Goeth and the engineer woman is chilling. I forgot how good Fiennes is in this.
  • "By this evening, those six centuries [of Jewish Krakow] are a rumor." Yikes.
  • The score during the girl in the red dress' appearance is wonderful. Really gives the scene power.
  • Oskar's expression when the woman says, "They say you are good." He doesn't want to be good, he wants to be successful.
  • "Do you know who I am? I'm Schindler."
  • There are moments where the camera looks at Goeth and he just seems so young. So full of hatred and so young.
  • Goeth's brief foray into pardoning people is a fascinating section of the story, as is the moment when he decides he's done.
  • The scene where the little boy tries to find a hiding place - sad and scary.
  • The requiem is...astonishingly sad.
  • "The list is an absolute good."
  • There's something very moving about the scene where Schindler's workers confirm they're on the list.
  • The "one more person" scene totally works for me. That he did so much & wasn't busy congratulating himself is important.

I think one of the things that is interesting about this movie is that while it portrays itself as being some sort of big epic movie about the plight of the Jews during the Holocaust, it really keeps its story arc fairly narrow: on one man who tried to do the right thing. Because of that, the movie has gotten a lot of criticism for making the Jewish people's suffering serve as someone else's plot device -- and understandably so. While there are long scenes of people running through the streets, being herded into cars, and crying in over-crowded barracks, very few of these have identifiable characters in them, much less characters that have any kind of development during the story, and as a result, it does seem a little sensationalized. If Spielberg had trimmed some of those scenes, what remained could have had a stronger impact, and he could truly have focused on fleshing out Schindler's character, which is a little lacking here -- but, oh, how I wanted it to be interesting, because what little is there is very good.

First-half-of-the-movie Schindler is a calculating businessman who hires Jews because they are cheaper than Poles, and is furious when his accountant hires people based on their need rather than their skills. Second-half-of-the-movie Schindler works tirelessly to save as many people as he can from death in the camps. Both these characters are fascinating, enigmatic, and intriguing. What's lacking is the transition.

There is a moment or two where Schindler is faced with the humanity of those being sent to their deaths, but we never really see, either in Neeson's performance or in the script, how or why that change takes place, so when he suddenly begins to fight for his Jewish workers, it's a little abrupt and took me by surprise. Perhaps it takes Schindler himself by surprise too, but that's never addressed. The movie is three hours long, and they couldn't fit in a line or two of transitional dialogue?

I've now spoken mostly of the film's shortcomings, so let me say some of the things I do love about it: The film is shot marvelously. The black-and-white images are haunting -- some hauntingly beautiful, others hauntingly ugly. Ralph Fiennes as Amon Goeth has some of the most interesting moments in the whole movie, as you sense that he's not just a purely evil stereotype, and you're constantly leaning in to his performance to catch the nuances. (He lost the Oscar to Tommy Lee Jones in The Fugitive, which is just silly as far as I'm concerned.)

As I said in my live blogging section, I really like Schindler's ending as well, though it gets a lot of flak as well. I like that as he's receiving the gratitude of so many people, he doesn't feel like a savior. He feels deeply unworthy and far from pleased with himself, because, perhaps for the first time, the magnitude of what they have all just live through. I like that Spielberg resisted the urge to let him give himself a congratulatory pat on the back and say, "Yes, why, that was good of me."

And, frankly, I like Schindler himself by the end. There's something inspiring to me about a prosperous businessman who loses everything he's earned to do the right thing. He leaves broke, wanted by the authorities, and feeling guilty that he couldn't leave with less money. Because sometimes doing the right thing takes everything you have, and you don't get your happy ending (an ending caption informs us that Schindler's marriage failed after the war, as did his future business attempts) but it's still worth doing the right thing.

So is it Top 100 material? No, definitely not. This was a case of me elevating the movie to a higher status than it deserved because it was prestigious and about Important Things, but it's pretty messy in places and certainly isn't the amazing movie I expect all my Top 100s to be. But let's see where it actually lands on my chart if I rerank it.

vs. A Star Is Born (1954) - That's another movie I really need to rewatch, because it's extremely hazy in my memory. In the meantime, Schindler's List wins this matchup. It may not belong in the Top 100, but it certainly belongs in the top half of my chart, probably in the top quarter.

vs. Argo (2012) - Argo is fun and interesting, but despite the flaws in Schindler's List, its best moments are better than Argo's best moments. It wins.

vs. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2011) - A lot of people HATE this movie, but I love it a lot. Unrealistic, unbelievable, and contrived? Absolutely, but that main kid character is a real, wonderful character and he makes the whole movie worth it. I think for now it's going to take the win over Schindler, though that might not stand up if I rewatched ELAIC.

vs. Nativity! (2009) - Oh, man, this is a tougher choice than it probably should be. Nativity! is a silly, but perfect-for-me little British movie about Martin Freeman putting together a ridiculous nativity play for a school, and it's delightful and insane. I think I want to vote for it, but I'm not sure that I should. But you know what? I've spent several years having Schindler's List too high because I felt it "should" be. If I overcompensate and it lands too low for a little while, then that'll just even things out. Nativity! wins.

vs. Billy Elliot the Musical Live (2014) - A good, but not a great, musical based on a great movie. If this was the original film this would be a different question altogether, but Schindler's is going to win here.

vs. The Basketball Diaries (1995) - I remember a single scene from The Basketball Diaries, and it's when Leo is begging his mom for money. That scene alone was enough to catapult the movie up into the top third of my chart, but that one scene can't beat all of Schindler's List.

vs. Hawking (2004) - This film is much too high, and I'm pretty sure it's because when I ranked it I was still hardcore crushing on Benedict Cumberbatch. That is less the case now. Schindler's List takes the win here.

vs. The Goodbye Girl (2004) - I do so like The Goodbye Girl. Both this TV version and the original 1970s version. It's such a great script. However, it's the Neil Simon script itself that is special more than this particular version, so let's give a nod to the more artistically done film: Schindler.

vs. The Bicycle Thief (1948) - This feels almost exactly on par with Schindler for me, actually, so this choice may be made somewhat arbitrarily. I think I'm going to go with Schindler for now because of the cinematography. The Bicycle Thief has an equally moving story (though on a much smaller scale), but Schindler is just stunning to look at sometimes.

vs. Bernie (2011) - My love for Linklater has pushed this a bit further up the charts than I think it deserves as well. It's a good movie, but Schindler's List is the clear winner.

vs. Kiss Me, Stupid! (1964) - I really enjoy this movie, but I find the second half pretty uneven. Plus, I really like the idea of Schindler's List being sandwiched between two ridiculous comedies whose names end in exclamation points. So Schindler's wins here.

After reranking, Schindler's List went from #93 to #443, which is a huge drop -- the furthest a movie's moved on this challenge thus far -- but it feels much more accurate to me. Now I'll just have to remember to evaluate it fairly on future rankings and not just automatically click for it to win over most movies.

Looking ahead, the next movie I will be watching is my #6: Beauty and the Beast (1991), which I will watch and blog about no earlier than June 15th, so you can all go ahead and watch/rewatch it with me!

In the meantime, leave your thoughts about Schindler's List in the comments section below.

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