jack nicholson

Is Chinatown the Best Movie of All Time?

This is Best Movie of All Time, an eternal search for the greatest film ever. Read the full archives here.

The premise of this series is tongue-in-cheek. There is no “best” movie, not really, and even assuming there was, there’s not enough time in one lifetime to find it. I’ve been reading Roger Ebert’s Great Movies books this year and the personal details there serve as a reminder that you cannot expect to cover this kind of ground. We’re a good chunk of the way through 2021 and I’ve only seen 45 movies this year that I hadn’t seen before.

All that said, part of the reason I started this was to give me an excuse to watch new things. There’s rarely a good time to sit down and watch a three-hour Russian drama, even if you’re the sort of person who wants to do that. I’m the kind of person that struggles with rewatching things, as well, as it feels like a waste of time that could be spent in experiencing new things. That’s obviously not the right way to think about it, but when I queued up Chinatown for at least the third time recently, part of me wondered if I needed to see it again.

You don’t need me to tell you to watch Chinatown. It’s one of the most acclaimed films in American history and even if you’re not really into classic film, you know the final line. This is not obscure or in need of being rethought. I decided early on I wasn’t going to start with my favorite movies (like The Third Man and Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb) or the obvious ones (like Citizen Kane and Casablanca). I include Chinatown here despite violating that second rule because I think it is an interesting movie to consider in this context.

The “Legal History” section of director Roman Polanski’s Wikipedia page is extensive and you cannot discuss Chinatown without confronting the man behind the camera. There’s a much larger discussion to have around art and artist and I think it’s a difficult one to have. As of this writing, comedian Louis C.K. recently performed in front of an enormous sarcastic “sorry” sign. It’s really something I’ve thought a lot about, because his show Louie is one of my favorite TV shows of the last twenty years. It was astounding television and I’ve written a lot, years ago, on this site about how much I love it. I don’t know what to do with the reality that he seems to be a true monster and seems to be leaning into it, which is even worse, I think, but I still loved that show. The list of evil men who make good art is long, but the whole premise here is that there’s an infinite amount of things to consume. Why bother with anything made by someone that requires you to split the art and the artist? It’s one thing for someone to be “complicated” but Polanski isn’t complicated.

It’s been clear over the last few years that people will bend over backwards to defend what they consider touchstones of culture. I’m going to try to talk about Chinatown because it’s on all the great lists and, yes, is a great movie, but you have every right to ignore it and condemn it given who Polanski seems to be. I think that’s probably even a more defensible position than this one, but let’s talk about the movie.

Chinatown came out the same year as The Godfather Part II, so it lost most of the Oscars it was nominated for, but it did win for Best Original Screenplay. When you watch it through a modern lens, the script is what you notice. It unfolds so perfectly, with the first half unclear on what the mystery even is and the second half feinting towards one thing only to explode with detail in the final fifteen minutes. Jack Nicholson was at the height of his power in 1974 and his performance as Jake Gittes is unforgettable. Roger Ebert wrote about Chinatown several times, but the detail from his criticism that stands out to me is calling out that Gittes is confused alongside the audience. He’s not a mastermind detective the way so many heroes in stories like these are, but he’s resourceful and inventive. We never know what he’ll do next and we never assume he’ll figure it all out and save the day. It ends up feeling like an unpredictable story as a result, but not a confusing one. We get all the details he gets, as he gets them.

Gittes is a private investigator who is hired to investigate a local businessman is cheating on his wife, but then it becomes unclear who really hired him. Then, shockingly, the guy ends up dead, which changes the entire story. Gittes seems like a decent guy, though he’s comfortable in the muck. He knows the cops but also has some other allies. The storytelling is superb, as advertised, but you only really notice it in retrospect. It doesn’t flow from A to B. It weaves along, sometimes making you wonder what this scene means or why this person’s motivations seem unclear. It all pays off with Noah Cross, the powerful man behind the entire conspiracy, maybe, played by John Huston. His daughter, played by Faye Dunaway, seems in control of some scenes and like she’s piecing it all together alongside Gittes in others. It’s clear from the beginning that she has something to hide, but what? And what does Noah Cross, who seems to be infinitely rich and powerful, want? Gittes even asks him at one point, what more can you buy that you don’t already have?

You probably know a little bit about Chinatown or maybe a lot about it, but on the off chance you don’t know the twist, I won’t spoil it for you. The three central performances are obviously notable, but I keep coming back to Huston. He’s one of the greatest directors of all time, but his acting is almost equally fascinating. He plays Noah Cross with an effortlessness that is on display again in Orson Welles’ famously unfinished The Other Side of the Wind. In both films, Huston embodies the idea that no one in any room he’s in can challenge him at all. This is true power, not just political control or money, but the confidence that you will get what you came for in every situation. The final line of Chinatown is iconic for a reason, but Huston’s performance as he delivers the ethos of his character and of the world as he sees it is always what will stick with me. He addresses the private investigator and either deliberately (as disrespect) or absent-mindedly (as a sign that he is not worth remembering) calls him “Gits” instead of “Gittes,” and says “most people never have to face the fact that at the right time and the right place, they’re capable of anything.” You may think you know the evil you’re up against, but the deeper you go, the worse it all gets.

Is it better than the last movie we looked at? The last movie in this series was Millennium Actress. Realistically I have to go with Chinatown as the better film, but it’s interesting how stark the contrast is in morals. Neither film shows a necessarily good or just world and both are consumed by evil that’s motivated by greed, but Millennium Actress shows a different way to exist within that in opposition.

Is it the best movie of all time? No, it’s still Persona. I haven’t revisited Persona since watching it and I think I might do so soon. Chinatown is even better after you’ve seen it a few times as you notice what everyone knows and when they know it. The first time through it’s a story that gets bigger and bigger, but on repeat viewings you notice that the big story actually shrinks to give way to the personal conflict. It’s a neat trick and part of what makes this a movie that’s stood the test of time.

You can watch Chinatown on Amazon Prime or Netflix. You can recommend a movie to me for this series through email at readingatrecess @ gmail.com or on Twitter @alexbad and I will watch it, no matter what. Try to pick something good.

Worst Best Picture: Is One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest Better or Worse Than Crash?

one flew over the cuckoo's nest

Alex Russell

In “Worst Best Picture” we search every single Best Picture Oscar winner of all time from 1927 to present to uncover the worst of them all. Conventional wisdom says that 2005’s winner Crash is the worst winner in history. We won’t stop until we’ve tested every last one. Read the the first, our review of Crash, here. Posts will be relatively spoiler free, but there may be some details revealed. Today’s installment is the 1975 winner One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Is it better than Crash?

The five major Oscars (Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Screenplay, Best Director, and Best Picture) combined are called the “Big Five.” Only three movies have ever won all five: It Happened One NightThe Silence of the Lambs, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Those three, if we’re still working from a thesis where the Academy knows everything, are in rarefied air. Gone with the Wind only got 4/5, because Clark Gable lost. Annie Hall managed the same 4/5, since Woody Allen is a lot of things, but Best Actor is not one of them.

That’s all some basic-level Oscar trivia, but I mention it because I want to point out how special this one is in film history. The Silence of the Lambs should make every top 20 list of Best Picture winners, regardless of era. It Happened One Night is certainly the best of the first few, and probably deserves inclusion in that same top 20. Cuckoo’s Nest is certainly a classic in its own right, but do we remember it the same way?

The tricky part about movies like this is that they’ve been redone to death. There’s no remake of Cuckoo’s Nest (insert “get-off-my-lawn” style rant about remakes in 2014) but the style and the tropes have been emulated so much that the movie will feel familiar even the first time you watch it. You need to come at Cuckoo’s Nest with as fresh a perspective as you can. Disregard everything you know about mental health. Throw out every mental hospital in a movie you’ve ever seen and forget who Jack Nicholson is today.

Jack plays Randle McMurphy, a mental patient who doesn’t actually have anything wrong with him. He realizes too late that his gamble of an insanity plea after being arrested is not the easy way out he expected. McMurphy intends to make the best of a bad situation, then, by either ruining the process for the staff in the hospital or being such of a pain in the ass that they decide to release him. These initially seem like good plans, as McMurphy is built as the kind of guy who can grease any wheel needed, be it with charm or with stubbornness.

He meets his match with Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher), the archetype that’s been lifted most often for other things. She’s cold and terrifying, but her real power isn’t in how she controls the easily controllable, but in how she breaks the will of those who aren’t used to having their will broken. She effectively can control anyone they put in the hospital, and she represents a stronger antagonist than any gun-toting psychopath in a handful of the rest of these. Nurse Ratched is one of the iconic characters in film for a reason. Fletcher is icy, but not ridiculous. You’ll often see a character like this played so over the top that she’s less scary and more “menacing,” but that’s not what they’re going for here. She’s supposed to be a terrifying figure, sure, but the real fear is that she controls your freedom and she controls whether you even have the right to ask for it. AFI ranked her the #5 villain of all time — right behind Darth Vader and The Wicked Witch of the West — but she’s so much more than just a villain.

Both of them fight to control the hearts and minds of the rest of the ward, since majority rule at least appears to be important within their tiny world. McMurphy has to escalate his antics to get under her skin, while she has to exert more control to stamp out what he’s capable of. The beauty of the whole situation is that she doesn’t lock everyone down and rule by fear, she’s found a way to make the patients generate their own fear on their end. It’s troubling, and it’s a scary look into a process that is always a disaster, but was surely even more of one in the 70s.

The Best Part: McMurphy vs. Ratched is one of the all-time great psychological battles in film, and the best part is that they’re essentially working the same angles. Both of them have each other figured out, and they go to work on the other patients with the same tools of manipulation. It’s when Ratched really amps up that the movie starts to hum.

The Worst Part: I’ve never liked the scene where they steal a boat. Early on in his tenure, McMurphy engineers a temporary escape for the entire ward, and they all steal a boat for the day to go fishing. There’s an importance to this scene, because the patients have all told McMurphy that they don’t even want to return to the outside world, and the trip is his attempt to show them that they actually do. It’s funny as well, but it’s just too much for me. The tone of everything else seems much more “believable” than ten mental patients stealing a boat.

Is It Better or Worse than Crash? Crash won two of the “Big Five” Oscars, but did not win for directing or either acting award. Cuckoo’s Nest would probably still be a memorable adaptation of Ken Kesey’s novel without Nicholson and Fletcher’s all-time performances, but with them it occupies a space very few other movies in history can. Even if you assume you know what it is, you should check it out. The specifics are impossible to explain, but I will say that there’s more in a blank stare from Louise Fletcher than there is in Crash.

Worst Best Picture Archives: Crash | Terms of Endearment | Forrest Gump | All About Eve | The Apartment | No Country for Old Men | Gentleman’s Agreement | 12 Years a SlaveThe Last Emperor | The Silence of the Lambs | The Artist | A Man for All Seasons | Platoon | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King | The King’s Speech | Rain Man | The Departed | The Bridge on the River Kwai | Marty | Gigi | It Happened One Night | Driving Miss Daisy | Shakespeare in Love | Wings | Midnight Cowboy | Rocky | Gone with the Wind | Chicago | Gladiator | Cavalcade | The Greatest Show on Earth | You Can’t Take It With You | The Best Years of Our Lives | The GodfatherCasablancaGrand Hotel | Kramer vs. Kramer | The French Connection | In the Heat of the Night | An American in Paris | Patton | Mrs. Miniver | Amadeus | Crash, Revisited | How Green Was My Valley | American Beauty | West Side Story | The Sting | Tom Jones | Dances with Wolves | Going My Way | The Hurt Locker | The Life of Emile Zola | Slumdog Millionaire | The Deer Hunter | Around the World in 80 Days  | Chariots of Fire | Mutiny on the Bounty | Argo | From Here to Eternity | Ordinary People | The Lost Weekend | All the King’s Men | Rebecca | A Beautiful Mind | Titanic | The Broadway  Melody | The Sound of Music | On the Waterfront | Unforgiven | Million Dollar Baby | My Fair Lady | HamletBraveheart | Oliver! | The English Patient | Lawrence of Arabia | Cimarron | One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

Alex Russell lives in Chicago and is set in his ways. Disagree with him about anything at readingatrecess@gmail.com or on Twitter at @alexbad.

Worst Best Picture: Is The Departed Better or Worse Than Crash?


Alex Russell

In “Worst Best Picture” we search every single Best Picture Oscar winner of all time from 1927 to present to uncover the worst of them all. Conventional wisdom says that 2005’s winner Crash is the worst winner in history. We won’t stop until we’ve tested every last one. Read the the first, our review of Crash, here. All posts should be considered to have a blanket “spoiler alert” on them. Today’s installment is the 2006 winner The Departed. Is it better than Crash?

What is there to say about Martin Scorsese that hasn’t already been said?

He’s arguably the most-acclaimed living director in America. He made Taxi Driver. His reputation speaks for itself, so it’s surprising that The Departed was his first Best Picture Oscar win.

The Departed is the story of two moles: One is a real cop embedded into a fake life of crime and the other is a fake cop raised to infiltrate the police to protect organized crime. It provides the necessary interesting twists and it plays with the idea of loyalty and reality. Even though we know Matt Damon is the fake cop and Leonardo DiCaprio is the fake mobster, it’s repeatedly tough to tell who is in too deep. Kurt Vonnegut said it best: “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”

There’s also Alec Baldwin, Martin Sheen, and Mark Wahlberg as real cops and a series of standard “tough guys” as Jack Nicholson’s crew of bad dudes from Boston. It’s well-acted and immersive, which is tough to do for a movie about mobsters from Boston. It’s a great movie for a reason, but beyond a different take on personal identity and loyalty, there’s not really a whole lot of message.

The Best Part: There are lots and lots of movies like this. The director of Goodfellas and Taxi Driver should be expected to make a sound mob movie in Boston, but it’s still amazing that a good one came out of the late 2000s. It’s only been a few years, but it already seems like 20 versions of this movie came out in about 10 years. Much like how every TV show about a dark hero is going to have a tough time establishing itself as original for awhile, the mob genre is done for a few decades now.

The Worst Part: It feels a little silly to fill this section in on some movies. The Departed isn’t one of my favorite movies, but it’s an outstanding cinematic achievement. It feels slight to even say this, but it’s the last shot of the entire movie. It doesn’t give anything away to say this: Do you really need to have a literal rat scurry across the screen in a movie about two competing informants? The entire plot of the movie is about mixed identity and the duality of “rats.” We get it. After nearly three hours, we get it.

Is It Better or Worse than CrashLike Crash, The Departed has an ensemble cast. There’s a million people in both movies — well, a million men. Crash paints women as evil and petty while The Departed prefers them to be absent. Only two women in The Departed have more than two minutes of screen time, and only one of them does anything more than have sex with Jack Nicholson. Neither movie is a strong contender to pass the Bechdel test. Is absent better than terrible? I guess so. The Departed makes lots of strange choices. Characters turn on and off racism and homophobia to paint the “authenticity” of Boston, but it’s never consistent or dealt with completely. The movie is mostly lots of bar fights and yelling, but it still comes off less cynical than Crash. Even if you leave out all the good parts and take The Departed as just a mean-spirited view of Boston, it’s better.

Worst Best Picture Archives: Crash | Terms of Endearment | Forrest Gump | All About Eve | The Apartment | No Country for Old Men | Gentleman’s Agreement |12 Years a SlaveThe Last Emperor | The Silence of the Lambs | The Artist | A Man for All Seasons | Platoon | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King | The King’s Speech | Rain Man |

Alex Russell lives in Chicago and is set in his ways. Disagree with him about anything at readingatrecess@gmail.com or on Twitter at @alexbad.

 Image source: Oscars.org