The final part to our Top 40 countdown of the best Man Movies since Taxi Driver…
10. Rocky (1976)
This story of Italian-American bruiser Rocky Balboa becoming a boxing champ by beating Apollo Creed is as rousing today as when it was released 40 years ago. But behind-the-scenes the film was also an against-the-odds triumph. Sylvester Stallone, small-time supporting actor, wrote the script in three days after watching a Muhammad Ali prize fight. Producers wanted his Rocky script, just with a big star in the leading role. Stallone fought to play the character and the movie was made for just over $US1m. It went on to gross $US225m, win the Best Picture Oscar and see Stallone nominated for Best Actor and Best Original Screenplay—making him the third person to achieve this after Charlie Chaplin and Orson Welles. Last year’s cracking Creed showed the character’s still relevant—and it netted Sly another Oscar nod. “Gonna Fly Now”—aka the Rocky theme—remains one of the most inspiring bits of music ever. Rocky III’s “Eye Of The Tiger” is pretty damned good, too.
9. Mad Max II (1981)
As great as the original film is and as entertaining as last year’s reboot/sequel proved, George Miller’s masterpiece will always be this high-octane post-apocalyptic action spectacular. Shorn of Max’s origin-story family drama, Mel Gibson is the perfect cinematic man of action—he speaks a total of 11 lines in the entire film and lets his sawn-off and driving skills do the talking. The plot is bare-bones—our Road Warrior reluctantly helps desert dwellers encircled by insane barbarians—and lifted from any number of westerns. But it’s all the skeleton needed for some of the most muscular and visceral action scenes every staged, all of it done, most gloriously, without even a pixel of CGI. The supporting cast is brilliant, too, from Vernon Wells’ maniacal Mohawk-sporting Wez and Emily Minty’s steel-boomerang-wielding Feral Kid to Bruce Spence’s snake-loving Gyro Captain and Virginia Hey’s fiercely sexy Warrior Woman.
8. Apocalypse Now (1979)
The madness of its disastrous production—typhoons wrecking the Philippines sets, star Martin Sheen having a heart attack mid-production, co-star Marlon Brando rocking up to set bloated beyond belief, director Francis Ford Coppola pretty much losing his mind — infuse this Vietnam War epic with an atmosphere unlike any other modern movie. The crazy seeps out of the screen wonderfully: Sheen’s hotel room freakout; the LSD-drenched river night firefight; the chopper attack on the Vietnamese village to the strains of Wagner’s “Ride Of The Valkyries” as Robert Duvall’s Lieutenant Colonel exhorts his men to surf. While it’s visually incredible, Apocalypse Now is also one of the most cleverly quotable dramas ever made, with lines like “I wanted a mission and for my sins they gave me one”, “I love the smell of napalm in the morning” and “I watched a snail crawl along the edge of a straight razor” capturing the insanity of its characters—and actors and filmmakers playing them.
7. The Deer Hunter (1978)
While Apocalypse Now assaults the senses, The Deer Hunter haunts the soul. Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken and John Savage are hard-drinking, deer-hunting Russian-American steelworkers who join the army in 1967. After a lullingly extended first act, Michael Cimino’s film slams us into the horrors of the Vietnam War as the boys are taken prisoner by the Viet Cong and forced to play Russian Roulette for the amusement of their captors. After an unbearably tense escape, we’re then shown the long-term fall-out of their experience. While the movie takes many factual liberties—POWs weren’t made to play Russian roulette, for instance—it works as a powerful anti-war film that was ahead of its time in portraying post-traumatic stress disorder. The film won five Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Supporting Actor for Walken.
6. Saving Private Ryan (1998)
Steven Spielberg’s WWII epic copped criticism for its sentimental bookends, showing Matt Damon’s title character as an old veteran in a war cemetery surrounded by his loving children and grandkids. But those detractors miss the point: the movie needs to show us the lives and future generations won by the soldiers who sacrificed their lives purging Europe of Nazism. Spielberg’s 30-minute D-Day sequence is simply one of the most astounding scenes ever put on film and won praise from veterans for its realism. While there are moments of heroism in the American beach assault, there’s absolutely no glamourisation of violence here: it’s butchery and barbarism as we’d never seen on screen before. Tom Hanks anchors this fictional story as the quiet soldier reluctantly leading a bunch of GI roughnecks on the titular rescue mission. It’s one of his finest performances and among Spielberg’s best movies, earning the director an Oscar though his masterpiece lost out Best Picture to… Shakespeare In Love .
5. The Big Lebowski (1998)
It’s number five on the list but it’s definitely the number-one dude movie of all time. The Coen brothers deliver a stoner classic in this shaggy-dog kinda-detective story about The Dude—Lebowski, played by Jeff Bridges—on a mission to get recompense after a crime mix-up see goons piss on his prized rug. That leads him into working for the real target, The Big Lebowski, as he tries to retrieve his kidnapped trophy wife. And then… well, you have to see this beautifully shambolic black comedy to appreciate the tangled web it weaves. Bridges is so good as the laidback lead that he’s inspired conventions and an overall philosophy of Dudeness. But he has a hilarious counterpart in John Goodman’s insanely angry Vietnam vet Walter Sobchak. A massive flop on release, it has since become a cult classic.
4. The Thing (1982)
“Man in the warmest place to hide”—so went the tagline to this terrifying horror adaptation of the 1938 sci-fi short story “Who Goes There?”, originally made into the great but polite 1951 flick The Thing From Another World. Director John Carpenter employs incredible make-up effects to tell the story of a shape-shifting alien taking over the all-male crew of an Antarctic base. Kurt Russell leads as the gruff helicopter pilot trying to work out who’s human and who’s become a thing. Carpenter builds an incredible atmosphere of paranoia that’s relieved only by shocking transformation scenes that are unmatched even by today’s CGI. Fun fact: The Hateful Eight is a tribute to The Thing, right down to Kurt Russell playing the hero of snowbound paranoid thriller and Ennio Morricone’s unused original score being incorporated into the soundtrack.
3. Goodfellas (1990)
“As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster,” so says Ray Liotta’s Henry Hill in what is, next to Taxi Driver, Martin Scorsese’s ultimate man movie. This sprawling rise-and-fall tale stretches from the 1950s to 1980 as Hill becomes a made man under Robert De Niro’s crime mentor James Conway and is then unmade by his drug dealing and habit of getting high on his own supply. De Niro and Liotta are astounding but the film is all but stolen by Joe Pesci as psychotic Tommy De Vito, whose rages repeatedly land his criminal colleagues in very deep shit. After reading Nicholas Peliggi’s true-crime book Wiseguy, Scorsese knew he had to make the movie. His stated intention? “To begin Goodfellas like a gunshot and have it get faster from there, almost like a two-and-a-half-hour trailer. I think it’s the only way you can really sense the exhilaration of the lifestyle, and to get a sense of why a lot of people are attracted to it.” Mission accomplished, Marty.
2. Reservoir Dogs (1992)
While Quentin Tarantino has done female-centric films in Jackie Brown and Death Proof, his main interest is how men relate to each other, particularly gents of the criminal and/or psychotic persuasion. And never has this vision been purer than in Reservoir Dogs, his debut film. Made on a small budget, it smartly made the most of its limitations by not showing the diamond heist that would’ve been central to any other filmmaker’s crime movie. Instead, in long and brilliantly funny tough-guy dialogue scenes, we see the gang—played by Harvey Keitel, Steve Buscemi, Tim Roth, Chris Penn, Michael Madsen, Lawrence Tierney and QT himself—plan their robbery and then deal with the bloody fallout of betrayal as they hole up in a warehouse. Right out the blocks all of Tarantino’s trademarks—non-linear storytelling, comic pop culture references, abrupt violence and obscure music choices—were on proud display in Reservoir Dogs to make it the second-best man-movie ever…
1. Fight Club (1999)
David Fincher’s jet-black comedy was that rare film that was actually better than the book on which it was based. While Chuck Palahniuk’s 1996 novel of the same name was a searing satire of a modern masculinity that’s simultaneously obsessed with materialism and primalism, Fincher brought his brash visual style and smarter story sense to the table and even rewrote the ending. The movie has Edward Norton as the unnamed resentful modern professional who’s seduced by Brad Pitt’s funky anarchist Tyler Durden into participating in underground brawling society Fight Club. Where the film goes from there takes it to the very brink of apocalypse and feels even more relevant in light of where the world has gone since in terms of 9/11, the GFC, Occupy and Donald Trump. Pitt and Norton have never been better in what is a bleak and brilliant satire on just about everything. Cranking soundtrack from The Dust Brothers, too.