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Leonardo (the actor, not the Turtle)

Leo - Hero Shot

In honor of the new Horror/Thriller Shutter Island coming out today I thought I would do a Top Ten List of Martin Scorsese pictures.  Then I realized that three years ago I already made one. So, I decided to make a the list of best Leonardo DiCaprio movies instead.(Judging the movie, not the performance, which would be a different list.)

Leo's had an interesting career.1  After some early TV work as a kid (including the infamous Growing Pains role), DiCaprio came to prominence with an unexpected Oscar nomination as a retarded boy in What's Eating Gilbert Grape? Then it was teen angst films, until a little something I like to call Titanic came around, and Leo-Mania ensued.

The Leo backlash was predictable and intense, fueled mostly - I believe - by the fact that so many (myself included) were DEEPLY uncomfortable holding any allegiance or admiration to someone worshiped by white girls everywhere.  Leo kept plugging away, and upon finding Scorsese for their first (of 4 so far with #5 in the works) collaboration Gangs of New York.

From that point Leo's star started to rise steadily again. More Award nominations, Box-Office Muscle, and respect of peers and the general public until you got to 2006, when it became clear - even if still painful to admit - that any serious discussion of Best Actors Under 40 simply HAD to include Leo in the Top 5, if not at the apex. (I've done this list before, informally, but it's out of date; someone remind me - we WILL do it again.2)

Leo had arrived, and it was cool to like him again.3

1 Leo's career path reminds me of Justin Timberlake. Initially N*SYNC was the best of the "boy bands," and you'd even bob your head in the car to "Bye Bye Bye" (or if no one was looking, do that puppet-dance thing). But actually LIKE N*SYNC? Not if you were a guy, or a girl over 22. When Timberlake hooked up with Britney it seemed all over. But then they broke up, he wrote the scathing "Cry Me a River," unabashedly emulated MJ's sound, produced some pretty decent pop songs, and started banging every smoking hot chick he could find. He even killed as a SNL Host. Suddenly it was far more acceptable to be a Timberlake fan. Uh, not that I am. No, not at all....

2 Both Matt Damon and Jon Hamm will fall from the Under-40 ranks in a few months, so the impetus is on. Thank the Light, we've still got some time for Freddie Prinze Jr.

3 ...Although maybe not by everyone. A couple weeks ago I was talking to a friend of mine about her upcoming baby. She named him Leonardo DaVinci ____, to help inspire the child to greatness.  The middle name was necessary, she claimed, "so the world will never be confused who he was really named after."  I was too scared to ask whether her fear was that people would think her son was named after DiCaprio, or the Ninja Turtle. Personally I would be fine with the Teenage Terrapin being the namesake. After all, Leonardo did lead. You'd want to avoid Raphael, who was cool, but, if my sources can be believed, quite crude.

Below is the list of Leo's Top Ten Films. Here is his IMDB Page, in case you want to grouse over what I missed. True, I haven't seen a few of them (covered below4), but I did the best I could. If Shutter Island or any of the other  30 projects he's got in development end up any good, we can update the list later on.


Leo - Marvin's Room
#10  Marvin's Room -  I saw this movie 14 years ago and my main memory is thinking (then) that young Leo could handle himself on screen with the likes of Meryl Streep and Diane Keaton. Sign of great things to come.

Leo - Man in the Iron Mask
#9  The Man in the Iron Mask  -  Iron Mask came out in March of '98, when Titanic was still ruling the Box-Office, had plundered the Oscars, and Leo Mania was in full-bloom. I took my sisters to see it, me wanting to introduce them to a famous literary work, them for....well, they were young. Anyway, at one point a naked male butt appeared on screen and my youngest sister - already at the breaking point with her love for all things Leo - let out a scream like a banshee at a Def Leppard concert. To this day I don't know what embarrasses her more: that she screamed out in a theater like that, or that she did so at the sight of Gerard Depardieu's bulbous pock-marked ass. (I'd link to visual proof, but some things simply cannot be unseen.)

Leo - Blood Diamond
 #8  Blood Diamond -  Intellectually I was kinda annoyed at how one-dimensional they made a very complex issue, though I enjoyed the movie for all that.  Then again, it's probably the only way to get most people to even pay attention, so hard to complain. I will say that DiCaprio NAILS the Rhodesia accent, which is much tougher than you might expect. (And not for nothing, but Djimon Hounsou absolutely goes in my "Top Ten List of Actors who would be considered Crowe or Penn-level Good if only they were White." Someone remind me, and I'll do the actual Top Ten next week.)

Leo - Celebrity
#7  Celebrity -   An overlooked Woody Allen gem, DiCaprio riffed on his then-image by playing the bad-boy actor known for banging models and trashing hotel rooms. The site of Kenneth Branagh (basically channeling the Woody persona) in bed in an accidental foursome with Leo was priceless. (Re-watching this movie with what we know now, it's amazing we didn't see Charlize Theron's potential greatness sooner. She is Ta-Dow!)

Leo - Catch Me If You Can
#6  Catch Me If You Can -  Spielberg doesn't get enough credit for how wonderfully he captured the jet-set glamor of Flight in the 1960s. Even I remember when pilots were seen as heroes. DiCaprio is wonderful here, never a false moment of a genius kid pretending to be an adult - but painfully aware he's clomping around in his dad's shoes. Christopher Walken earned a deserved Oscar nomination, Tom Hanks was quietly brilliant, and Amy Adams foreshadowed her ascension.

Leo - The Aviator
#5  The Aviator - This film is so perfectly made I should be over the moon with it. I do enjoy it, but maybe Hughes is a hard subject to warm up to. Cate Blanchett won an Oscar and Kate Beckinsale (and even Gwen Stefani!) are pitch-perfect, but Leo holds every scene together. The 2002 double-bill of great performances (along with Catch Me) put Leo back in firm A-List Icon status, but it was this performance, full of Hughes's charm and bravado but also his crippling OCD, that made me realize we were looking at someone who aspired to - and may hit - the Pantheon.

Leo - Departed Gangs
#3 (tie) Gangs of New York  and  The Departed - I could rank these two films five different times and switch position every one of them. I noticed in my Scorsese ranking that I had Departed ahead, but I'd just seen it.  Gangs has more flaws, but is also more epic in scope, and while Jack's performance in Departed diminishes a bit with repeated viewings, Daniel Day-Lewis's Bill the Butcher only gets better.  (Damon was great, too, but DiCaprio shown. I know some will disagree, but for my money, Departed definitively showed that Leo is the better actor, or at least has the higher ceiling, and greater range.)

Leo - Romeo + Juliet
#2  William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet  -   I went back and forth on my top two more than a few times wanting to make this #1. Ultimately I realized I was A) picking my favorite of Leo's films over what is the best and B) unconsciously afraid of the backlash. Afraid? Me? Bring it on. But we'll get to that. In its own right, R+J is one of the most underrated movies of the '90s, a film that at the time was crushed by critics. They were just scared, seeing true Visionary Art as avant garde pretentiousness. They were wrong. I cannot tell you how great this movie is. The film is by Baz Luhrmann, who went on to make Moulin Rouge! next. (I suppose I either just made my case in one sentence, or turned you off from R+J forever. I'll live with that.) Luhrmann uses Shakespeare's dialogue from the play, which had been done before (some time check out Ian McKellan's terrific Richard III), but never quite like this. It sounds so hokey, but the key decision (in my opinion) was to change the gun names from Beretta and Colt to Dagger and Long-Sword. (And don't even get me started on the Fishtank/Des'ree scene.  MAGIC.) Exquisitely matching soundtrack to film in a way that put Luhrmann on the Mount Rushmore5 of Directors who know how to use Source Music,6 Romeo + Juliet is a kaleidoscope of wonder, heart-thumping romance, and simmering lust. One of the most romantic movies of all time.7  There. I said it. Deal.

And the #1 Leonardo DiCaprio movie ever (so far) is......

Leo - Titanic

Leo - TitanicSteamy
#1  Titanic -   I can already feel the hate-mail brewing, and all I have to say is, it's time to come out of the closet, people. Look, I get it. The teenage girl/Leo thing was ridiculous, and it made even the most heterosexual man feel very uncomfortable. And the movie was such a Cultural Flag, you couldn't not talk about it in the spring of '98. Our society being what it is, it was only natural that wave after wave of protest would lap at the hull of Titanic's popularity. (I just realized that with a little moxie I could make 10 more groaningly bad boat puns before I'm done, and since the next end-note already subjects you to my oddball sense of humor, I promise to stop now. You owe me.) 

Titanic was everywhere. James Cameron was everywhere. Jack and Rose were everywhere. Leo Mania was everywhere. THAT DAMNED SONG was everywhere, and along with it, Celine Dion became a permanent fixture in our lives for the next decade. It was all too much. I get it. I really do. But that does not change the fact that Titanic was one helluva great movie. Disaster movies are tough to pull off.  They usually fail. Ship movies are tough to pull off.  Cheesy Romances are tough as nails to pull off. You put all three together? James Cameron had to make us simultaneously believe the boat was actually sinking, that 2000 people were in danger of dying, care about them, freeze right along with them, all while caring about the fate of two random people who really didn't know much about anything. AND HE DID IT! We've come to recognize Kate Winslet as one of the best actresses alive. Avatar forced us to acknowledge Cameron is worth the hype: he really is the King of this world, and possibly others. We've even forgiven and come around on Leo; hence this list. But many people haven't forgiven Titanic. You know why? Besides all the reasons I mentioned, you loved Titanic initially. You did. You were swept up, maybe you even cried a little. Then you felt like part of the maddening crowd when you realized every other person on the planet had a similar experience. So you rebelled. You pretended you never liked it. You trashed the actors, the director, the dialogue - anything you could. But you know and I know that deep down inside you - your heart will go on.  And that's okay. Put your arms out and soar, baby: I won't let you fall.

February 19, 2010

4 Leo Movies I have not seen - Haven't yet traveled with Kate and Leo in Revolutionary Road, but no one has been falling all over themselves with praise. This writer's eyes haven't seen Leo's first real movie, This Boy's Life, and can't find anyone who has, though by all accounts it is good.  For some reason I have not digested What's Eating Gilbert Grape?, for which Leo got an Oscar nomination back in the day before becoming a household name. The Wikipedia plot account sounds absolutely ghastly, but I'm assured by Koz and Kaida that it's quite good - Kaida said it was the "feel good gigantic woman retarded boy house burning pool drowning face slapping movie of the year." Well then. I'd have to check my journal, but I'm pretty sure I have not seen The Basketball Diaries - though I did watch a lot of the Columbine coverage several years later, so I think I'm okay. Finally, I have not yet had a day with Leo at The Beach. For what it's worth, when I called Carlos to see if he had any insight on the movies I'd missed (or Leo in general), I found the Wolf-Cat in surprisingly eloquent form. Besides explaining the evolution of late '90s Boy-Bands to a "Doctoral Thesis-Defense" degree, Carlos had this to say: "Leo's best movie was Romeo + Juliet. His best character was the guy in Basketball Diaries. But his best performance, in my opinion, was in The Beach." All right, Wolf-Cat; now you got me curious.

6 Source Music is previously-recorded music you put into a film - usually pop songs or classical pieces. They can be "in" the movie - like on the radio or TV, or part of the soundtrack.  This is opposed to Score, which is composed directly for the film. (Think Star Wars.) Yes, I realize I put 6 before 5, but that's because 5 references Source Music so heavily that if you didn't already know what it was you'd have to go back and read the next footnote again.  Who loves you?  Who loves you?  That's right: Uncle Hypey.

5 The Mount Rushmore concept is pretty simple - four people (or fast food restaurants or TV shows or whatever the case may be) that define the very best of your subject. I would want to take some time to hash it out, but off the top of my head, my Mount Rushmore for Directors using Source Music would be Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Baz Luhrmann and I was going to say John Hughes, but I just looked at his IMDB page, and though he had some all-time greats as far as Source Music goes, he only directed a few films, so we'll leave the fourth spot open, for now.

7 I am absolutely going to have to write a review for Romeo + Juliet, as it deserves to take its rightful place among the movie gods. Maybe a running diary, with time-stamp cues so you can watch and read my comments at the appropriate time? I'm tempted.

Reviews for several of these films can be found at Movie Hype.

Leo - B&W

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