By the Numbers

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A Top Ten List

What better way to count down a list of movies than by looking at films that use the numbers they're counting down? Or something… Numbers in titles have long been a Hollywood staple, and not just because the whole system is now wrapped up in an orgy of sequeldom.

But with no copyright or life rights on digits there have been dozens of numerical films, some that play tricksy gimmicks with the grammar (Thir13en Ghosts) and some that say something about the number of elements involved, like the following.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975)

It showed the brutality of mental health care in America as audiences had never seen before – of nurses like Ratched (Louise Fletcher) that were really soft-spoken monsters on sadistic power trips, third world conditions and patients kept catatonic and easy to control.

But it only took – as the title suggests – one rebellious soul to come in and declare war on the dictatorial regime, and when petty conman McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) rallies his fellow inmates to his cause, they find the wings they never knew they had and take flight.

Two Lovers (2008)

When manic-depressive-on-the-mend Leonard (Joaquin Phoenix in his last great role before a series of public WTF moments) finds himself falling for two girls at once it becomes symbolic of the choices he faces in life. Pretty, stable Sandra's (Vinessa Shaw) family is negotiating to buy Leonard's parents' dry cleaning business. In stark contrast, anchorless party girl Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow) is fun, crazy and might be a little bit dangerous.

As a man at a crossroads, Pheonix imbues every word and scene with honesty and emotion, making his erstwhile retirement to be a heavily-bearded, incoherent rapper all the more tragic.

Three (2005)

If you watched this movie just to see as much of Brit glamour model Kelly Brook's body as possible, you'll see far more of it in Alexandre Aja's riotous Piranha 3D. But like the film above, it's a parable for the kind of relationship a woman wants as Jennifer (Brook) is stranded on a desert island with her bikini and the hired help from the shipwreck she escaped from.

But as the pair draw closer, Jennifer's slightly crazy and now-jealous husband jack (Billy Zane) shows up to claims what's his with extreme prejudice.

Four Rooms (1995)

So soon after Pulp Fiction, who'd have thought anything involving Quentin Tarantino could possibly fail? It didn't stop a so-so box office return on this movie of seesawing moods.

Four rooms in a hotel provide the setting with only Buster Keaton-like bellboy Tim Roth the common thread connecting them as he witnesses the funny, the mundane, the sexy and the supernatural. The result was so all over the place it was like four different directors made it. Hang on…

The Fifth Element (1997)

Given scope, big enough stars and enough money, Luc Besson's imagination was finally given the elbow room it needed to really shine in one of the coolest, most accessible visions of the future in 90s cinema.

The plot was no less audience-friendly. An ancient race of robotic beings protect a fifth universal element along with fire, water, air and earth, and it's up to motley cab driver Korben (Bruce Willis), squealing TV star Ruby (Tucker) and fumbling but well-intentioned priest Vito (Iam Holm) to protect the cloned being Leeloo (Milla Jovovich) and return her to humanity's salvation.

The Sixth Sense (1999)

He's been subject to the law of diminishing returns in the decade since, and setting yourself up as 'the twist guy' could never end well, but there was a reason the Australian poster art for M Night Shyamalan's auspicious debut showed only a ghostly figure surrounded by a glowing yellow '6' and the huge word 'Wow' from some early critical comment.

Creepy, moody and with a great story, it did indeed look like Spielberg's successor had arrived, as Night himself is often misattributed as saying. What the hell 'happened' (get it?)

Se7en (1995)

An obvious common choice might have been The Seventh Seal , and a lot of black turtleneck and latte cineastes might think us Philistines for not going with it. But even if you ask fans of the movie what the other six seals were odds on you'd only get a vague Book of Revelations reference.

For our money David Fincher's blistering, nihilistic recasting of the police procedural genre does the number seven just as proud. Cops Mills (Brad Pitt) and Somerset (Morgan Freeman) live in a filthy world of dingy, dank rooms and barely human scumbags. Mills' pretty wife Tracy (Gwyneth Paltrow) offers respite for them both, but even she can't escape criminal mastermind Joe Doe's (Kevin Spacey) orbit as he counts down the eponymous deadly sins using grisly murders to satisfy his own misguided idea of purity.

Eight Legged Freaks (2002)

As above, an honourable mention must got to 8 1/2, a self-reflective movie about the life of making movies that frequently tops the list among smugly smirking film devotees that wouldn't be caught dead at a multiplex.

But if you find Fellini's masterwork impenetrable with allegory and subtext, it's more likely you responded to Ellory Elkayem's riotous throwback to B movies of the atomic age, only with CGI instead of dodgy superimposed insect footage.

After a barrel of radioactive waste falls off the back of an army truck near a small desert town, it of course doesn't kill the surrounding wildlife, it causes spiders to grow to gigantic proportions and go on the attack. Holed up survivors and groan-worthy one liners ensue, and it was the first time we realised how sexy Scarlett Johansson was.

Nine Queens (2000)

The Jane Fonda/Dolly Parton/Lily Tomlin office revenge comedy Nine to Five would have been the higher (and more efficient choice), but Fabian Bielinsky's South American con thriller starts with a simple sheet of valuable stamps that give the film its name.

They're the Macguffin in a sting that gets ever more complicated, the players revealing deeper layers of deception until the head slappingly audacious climax that reveals the true extent of the ruse on the characters and the rest of us.

10 (1979)

There was a generation of kids for whom erotica was a hard-won prize, happened upon by nefarious means and hidden in the garden shed or the bushes down the side of the fish and chip shop instead of being at the end of a mouse click any time you want it. If you were among them, Bo Derek's slo-mo jog along the beach with her hair in the iconic beaded corn rows was probably one of the sexiest things you'd ever seen.

The box office agreed, and the story of a hapless songwriter (Dudley Moore) who saves the life of a young woman (Derek) and then proceeds to have an affair with her changed the way we listen to Ravel's Bolero forever.

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