What to See at This Year's Tribeca Film Festival
Whether you're visiting New York for a few days or a Manhattan local used to asking people next to you in film screenings to put their fucking cell phones away, you probably have some inclination to see what all the hubbubs about over the film festival that got its start at the hand of Robert De Niro after the 9/11attacks to attract people back downtown. With 85 features screening at this year's festival it can be a tough decision about which one or two films most deserve your $16.
Ignore Time Out New York's predictable picks like "Joan Rivers - a Piece of Work" (bleck!) and go straight to Mat Whitecross's punk icon Ian Dury biopic "sex & drugs & rock & roll." Chameleon character actor Andy Serkis is on fire as the polio-afflicted singer who led his band The Blockheads through London's '70s and '80s pub rock circuit with a vengeance of catchy rhymed couplets. You will not be disappointed.
(Public screenings: Sat. 4/24 9pm--Village East Cinema 181 2nd ave @12th street, Mon. 4/26 3pm--School of Visual Arts 333 West 23rd st., Wed. 4/28 11pm---School of Visual Arts 333 West 23rd st., Thurs. 4/29 11:30pm--Village East Cinema 181 2nd ave @12th street).
If you're more in the mood for an unconventional drama, Robert Duvall can do no wrong as Felix Bush, a '30s Tennessee hermit who decides to stage his own living "funeral party" where people can gather to tell infamous stories of his life. Bill Murray gives an understated performance as funeral director Frank Quinn. There's clever humor and muted pathos in this deceptively sophisticated drama from debut director Aaron Schneider.
(Public screenings: Tues. 4/27 6pm--BMCC Tribeca Pac 189 Chambers st. (btwn.Greenwich & West st.), Thurs. 4/29--Chelsea Clearview Cinema 260 West 23rd st. (betn. 7th and 8th st.), Fri. 4/30 4pm--Chelsea Clearview Cinema 260 West 23rd st. (betn. 7th and 8th st.)
Suspense tightens in J. Blakeson's UK thriller "The Disappearance of Alice Creed." Eddie Marsan ("Happy-Go-Lucky") and Martin Compston ("Sweet Sixteen") play a couple of hoods who kidnap a young woman (Gemma Arterton - "Quantum of Solace") with 2 million euros worth of ransom plans. There's nothing like a good British crime thriller, and this one is packed to the gills with talent.
(Public screenings: Sat. 4/24 7pm----School of Visual Arts 333 West 23rd st., Sun. 4/25----Village East Cinema 181 2nd ave @12th street, Mon. 4/26 7:30pm--Village East Cinema 181 2nd ave. @12th street).
Want get into a gritty New York mood? Then check out Jay Anania's drama "William Vincent" in which the always impressive James Franco plays a Manhattan loner who drifts toward crime as he wanders in and out of places and situations. Julianne Nicholson plays Anne, the woman who will draw William out of his shell.
(Public screenings: Sun. 4/25 6pm--Chelsea Clearview Cinema 260 West 23rd street, Tues. 4/27 6pm--Chelsea Clearview Cinema 260 West 23rd street, Thurs. 4/29 7:30pm--Village East Cinema 181 2nd ave. @12th street, Fri. 4/30 9:15pm--Village East Cinema 181 2nd ave. @12th street).
You could go farther into the mind of a sociopath with Michael Winterbottom's modern noir "The Killer Inside Me." Casey Affleck plays Lou Ford, a small-town Texas deputy sheriff who makes a pact with the devil, or in this case Jessica Alba as prostitute with bad ideas. Escalating violence attends.
(Public screenings: Tues. 4/17 7pm SVA Theater 333 West 23rd street, 4/29 9:45pm--Village East Cinema 181 2nd ave @12th street, 4/30 10:30pm--Village East Cinema 181 2nd ave @12th street).
2010 Summer Movie Preview
By Cole Smithey
The Summer Movie Season begins when Hollywood releases its first big blockbuster in May. This year, Iron Man 2 enjoys the opening day ceremony on May 7th. With a script written by Justin Theroux, and packed with A-List stars like Don Cheadle, Robert Downey Jr. and Scarlett Johansson, there's considerable reason to believe the sequel will improve on the upstart franchise's underwhelming first installment.
Because we're not yet at the overdue point were all films are available on-demand in your living room the same day they open in theaters--I expect this to change within the next year or two--you probably won't be able to see Alex Gibney's scathing documentary Casino Jack and the United States of Money, about lobbyist thief Jack Abramoff, on May 7th. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't seek out this informative and entertaining doc from the same director who made Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room.
May 14th heats up with Robin Hood, the opener at this year's Cannes Film Festival. It marks the reunion of director Ridley Scott with Russell Crowe since their 2008 flop Body of Lies. Cate Blanchett and the ageless Max von Sydow star. You'll have to do your due diligence to catch the concurrently opening Looking for Eric, the latest film from the great Ken Loach (The Wind that Shakes the Barley), but it's definitely worth your effort to seek it out.
Children get their first warm weather heyday on May 21st, when Shrek Forever After reunites Mike Myers, Cameron Diaz, Eddie Murphy, and Antonio Banderas in the final episode of DreamWorks' franchise about the big green ogre with an equally big heart.
The following weekend (May 28th) brings Toy Story 3, in 2D, 3D, and IMAX 3D for your kids' big screen pleasure. In the "unnecessary sequel" category, find Sex in the City 2 already filed in the circular bin. May 28th finds the ever-reliable Jake Gyllenhaal testing his leading man status as Prince Dastan in the video-game-based Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time from Disney. The Jerry Bruckheimer-produced blockbuster comes with the caveat that, to date, no movie based on a video game has been worth a damn.
Not until June 4th does nasty comedy take center stage with Get Him to the Greek. Johan Hill and the infamous Russell Brand star in this hijinks-filled romp from director Nicholas Stoller (Forgetting Sarah Marshall). Hill plays a record company intern entrusted with escorting an egomaniacal rock god from London to L.A.'s Greek Theatre in time for a big performance. You know what you're getting, and you're sure to get plenty of it with this over-the-top comedy.
The first weekend of June also delivers the season's first big sci-fi fiesta with the Guillermo Del Toro-produced
Splice, starring Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley, about a couple of genetic engineers who get in over their heads when they create an animal/human hybrid played by Delphine Chaneac. Creepy.
Hollywood's endless stream of comic book inspiration adds another would-be franchise on June 18th when Jonah Hex casts Hollywood's latest A-list addition Josh Brolin in the title role of a gunslinger straddling his earthly existence and Hell.
Middle-aged comic bonding blossoms on June 25th with the Adam Sandler, Kevin James, and Chris Rock comedy Grown Ups.
I'd be remiss not to mention the June 30th release of the latest Twilight installment The Twilight Saga: Eclipse, but I do so against my better Nosferatu nature. Adults can bypass the pubescent vampires that weekend with Taylor Hackford's intriguing drama Love Ranch, starring Helen Mirren and Joe Pesci, about a married couple who start a brothel in Nevada only to have their family business blow up in their faces when a heavy weight boxer from South America introduces a love triangle equation to the sex-charged atmosphere.
M. Night Shyamalan threatens to stink up screens with his latest piece of cinematic flatulence The Last Airbender on July 2nd. Don't say I didn't warn you. Instead, keep your feelers out for Angela Ismailos's labor-of-love documentary Great Directors in which the filmmaker interviews the likes of Bernardo Bertolucci, David Lynch, Stephen Frears, Richard Linklater, Agnes Varda, and John Sales. It's pure cinematic ice cream.
Adrien Brody makes his second summer appearance in the chonky sci-fi flick Predators on July 7th. Predators carries the distinction of being produced at Robert Rodriguez's much-talked-about Troublemaker Studios in Austin, Texas under director Nimrod Antal (Vacancy).
Leonardo DiCaprio fans get their just rewards on July 16 when the Christopher Nolan sci-fi movie Inception puts DiCaprio in the company of Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Marion Cotillard, Ellen Page, Cillian Murphy, and Michael Caine in a world where ideas are the new currency. Look for Inception to be a lock for the best blockbuster of the season.
Steve Carell and Paul Rudd team up on July 23rd for Dinner for Schmucks a promising slapstick comedy from Jay Roach (Meet the Fockers). IFC films encourages you to go off the Hollywood reservation in late July with Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn's "mental science fiction movie" Valhalla Rising. Mads Mikkelsen plays a one-eyed mute warrior of supernatural strength who escapes his captors with the help of a young boy to discover a new land.
July 30th lands Matt Damon and Emily Blunt in the espionage thriller of The Adjustment Bureau. Think Bourne Identity. If teen comedy is more your cup of bananas that weekend, Beastly (starring Neil Patrick Harris) just might do the trick.
Multi-culti crime super action strikes on August 20th when the crime gang heist flick Takers brings together Idris, Elba, Paul Walker, Chris Brown, Hayden Christensen, and Matt Dillon. Stereotypes and bullets promise to be in plentiful supply.
If your kids still haven't had enough of sequels, Nanny McPhee 2 (August 20) brings back Emma Thompson for the next chapter about the ugly nanny with a knack for handling unruly kids.
It wouldn't be summer without a 3D B-movie horror gore fest. This year, the same director that gave you High Tension in 2005 (Alexandre Aja) comes up with Piranha 3D. With Richard Dreyfuss, Elisabeth Shue and Ving Rhames lending their best efforts, the vast quantities of spurting blood should at least have reliable faces upon which to splash. There's nothing like a nice air-conditioned cinema to escape from the summer heat. Enjoy.
Marjane Satrapi Revolutionizes Animated Cinema Executed in a striking style of bold black and white animation with restrained splashes of color, "Persepolis" is Marjane Satrapi’s highly-original autobiographical coming-of-age story that takes place during and after Iran’s 1978 Islamic Revolution that resulted in a war with Iraq. The artistic delivery and raw intellectual sharpness is most akin to the work of political cartoonist and graphic novelist Ted Rall. In Tehran, free-spoken nine-year-old Marjane (voiced by Chiara Mastroianni) dreams of saving the world, but her irreverent sense of liberty is at direct odds with Iran’s fundamentalist constraints that plague her daily life. This is a girl that not only questions authority but also talks back to it with educated passion. Marjane entertains fantasies of chatting with God and Karl Marx and it’s during these witty nocturnal conversations that we comprehend the young girl’s precocious intellect and earnest desire to connect with the world on a personal level. For a moment she’s like a character from a Peanuts cartoon, and the connection to Charles Schultz’s iconic personalities is helped along by American pop culture references like Abba or the theme from "Rocky." When she makes a black market purchase of an Iron Maiden cassette, you can’t help but empathize with the defiant act as it mocks Marjane’s poor taste in rebel rock that could more appropriately have discovered the Clash instead. At 14, Marjane’s worried parents send her to Vienna to escape the Ayatollah Khomeini‘s revolutionary regime responsible for murdering her politically active uncle, and to attend high school in a more peaceful environment. But sex, drugs, romance, and anti-Iranian prejudice bring Marjane’s four years abroad to an inauspicious end living homeless on the streets. Nevertheless, it’s this significant growth period that gives Marjane a touchstone of free-willed experience when she returns to Iran to go to college. Once back home, Marjane marries and attempts to live under Iran’s inhospitable conditions before the young humanist is forced to consider permanent exile away from her home country. "Persepolis" has a vibrant punk rock take-no-prisoners tone that is as refreshing as it is elucidating. The animated autobiography aspect has a liberating effect of allowing the viewer to make more random associations with the characters by virtue of its uncluttered visual space. The title comes from an ancient Persian city in southwest Iran, and suggests a connection to a futuristic past. Marjane’s grandmother (voiced by Danielle Darrieux) tells the troubled youth, "There’s nothing worse in the world than bitterness and revenge. Always keep your integrity and stay true to yourself." Against the gloriously stylized backdrop of the movie, those words resonate with an inspiration that is undeniable. Marjane Satrapi’s and Vincent Paronnaud’s animated film adaptation of Satrapi’s four-volume graphic novel shared the 2007 Cannes Film Festival Jury Prize with Carlos Reygadas’ "Secret Light." Marjane Satrapi, an illustrator and author of children’s books now living in Paris, was born into a progressive (read liberal) Iranian family in 1969. Her grandmother told her that the saddest life is to be born a cow and die a donkey—meaning that dying dumber than you were at birth, because fear got the best of you in life, is a disgrace. It’s this kind of pithy logic that pulses through the simplistically stylized yet complex story of her rebellious journey. And it’s also this type of cross-generational dialogue that has gone missing between the idealism of the ’60s and the fallout of Watergate that backhandedly led America to its current condition. Exile is the theme that Satrapi tugs at in every imaginable direction with an informed innocence striking for its clarity. For any American that has ever sworn to leave the country if the Republicans steal yet another election, Satrapi’s story is a lesson in objectivity. In interview, Satrapi has pointed out that while the Bush administration seems obsessed with attacking Iran on a basis of lacking human rights, the U.S. government is only too happy to sell out to China, which has a notoriously low regard for human welfare. As she puts it, "The real war is not between the West and the East, but rather between intelligent and stupid people." It’s telling that the Iranian government has called for a boycott on "Persepolis" when the filmmakers are busy testing a groundbreaking distribution model that promises to open up new distribution channels for other animated films. The original French language version will open in the states on Christmas day, before giving way to an English-voiced version to be released soon thereafter. For the English version, Sean Penn will voice Marjane’s father, Iggy Pop will play her politically invested uncle, and Gena Rowlands will portray Marjane’s influential grandmother. At the end of the day, "Persepolis" is an immensely meaningful film because of the cultural gaps that it bridges toward a new kind of adult cinematic dialogue. Here is that rare profoundly original film that will open floodgates. It also announces the brazen identity of a fiercely independent female voice in international cinema. Marjane Satrapi is a real-life heroine.
By Cole Smithey
Marjane Satrapi Revolutionizes Animated Cinema
Executed in a striking style of bold black and white animation with restrained splashes of color, "Persepolis" is Marjane Satrapi’s highly-original autobiographical coming-of-age story that takes place during and after Iran’s 1978 Islamic Revolution that resulted in a war with Iraq. The artistic delivery and raw intellectual sharpness is most akin to the work of political cartoonist and graphic novelist Ted Rall. In Tehran, free-spoken nine-year-old Marjane (voiced by Chiara Mastroianni) dreams of saving the world, but her irreverent sense of liberty is at direct odds with Iran’s fundamentalist constraints that plague her daily life. This is a girl that not only questions authority but also talks back to it with educated passion.
Marjane entertains fantasies of chatting with God and Karl Marx and it’s during these witty nocturnal conversations that we comprehend the young girl’s precocious intellect and earnest desire to connect with the world on a personal level. For a moment she’s like a character from a Peanuts cartoon, and the connection to Charles Schultz’s iconic personalities is helped along by American pop culture references like Abba or the theme from "Rocky." When she makes a black market purchase of an Iron Maiden cassette, you can’t help but empathize with the defiant act as it mocks Marjane’s poor taste in rebel rock that could more appropriately have discovered the Clash instead.
At 14, Marjane’s worried parents send her to Vienna to escape the Ayatollah Khomeini‘s revolutionary regime responsible for murdering her politically active uncle, and to attend high school in a more peaceful environment. But sex, drugs, romance, and anti-Iranian prejudice bring Marjane’s four years abroad to an inauspicious end living homeless on the streets. Nevertheless, it’s this significant growth period that gives Marjane a touchstone of free-willed experience when she returns to Iran to go to college. Once back home, Marjane marries and attempts to live under Iran’s inhospitable conditions before the young humanist is forced to consider permanent exile away from her home country.
"Persepolis" has a vibrant punk rock take-no-prisoners tone that is as refreshing as it is elucidating. The animated autobiography aspect has a liberating effect of allowing the viewer to make more random associations with the characters by virtue of its uncluttered visual space. The title comes from an ancient Persian city in southwest Iran, and suggests a connection to a futuristic past. Marjane’s grandmother (voiced by Danielle Darrieux) tells the troubled youth, "There’s nothing worse in the world than bitterness and revenge. Always keep your integrity and stay true to yourself." Against the gloriously stylized backdrop of the movie, those words resonate with an inspiration that is undeniable. Marjane Satrapi’s and Vincent Paronnaud’s animated film adaptation of Satrapi’s four-volume graphic novel shared the 2007 Cannes Film Festival Jury Prize with Carlos Reygadas’ "Secret Light."
Marjane Satrapi, an illustrator and author of children’s books now living in Paris, was born into a progressive (read liberal) Iranian family in 1969. Her grandmother told her that the saddest life is to be born a cow and die a donkey—meaning that dying dumber than you were at birth, because fear got the best of you in life, is a disgrace. It’s this kind of pithy logic that pulses through the simplistically stylized yet complex story of her rebellious journey. And it’s also this type of cross-generational dialogue that has gone missing between the idealism of the ’60s and the fallout of Watergate that backhandedly led America to its current condition.
Exile is the theme that Satrapi tugs at in every imaginable direction with an informed innocence striking for its clarity. For any American that has ever sworn to leave the country if the Republicans steal yet another election, Satrapi’s story is a lesson in objectivity. In interview, Satrapi has pointed out that while the Bush administration seems obsessed with attacking Iran on a basis of lacking human rights, the U.S. government is only too happy to sell out to China, which has a notoriously low regard for human welfare. As she puts it, "The real war is not between the West and the East, but rather between intelligent and stupid people."
It’s telling that the Iranian government has called for a boycott on "Persepolis" when the filmmakers are busy testing a groundbreaking distribution model that promises to open up new distribution channels for other animated films. The original French language version will open in the states on Christmas day, before giving way to an English-voiced version to be released soon thereafter. For the English version, Sean Penn will voice Marjane’s father, Iggy Pop will play her politically invested uncle, and Gena Rowlands will portray Marjane’s influential grandmother. At the end of the day, "Persepolis" is an immensely meaningful film because of the cultural gaps that it bridges toward a new kind of adult cinematic dialogue. Here is that rare profoundly original film that will open floodgates. It also announces the brazen identity of a fiercely independent female voice in international cinema. Marjane Satrapi is a real-life heroine.
The 2010 Sephardic Jewish Film Festival: A Sampling of Cinematic Flavors
By Cole Smithey
Three of the highlighted films at the 14th Sephardic Jewish Film Festival, which took place in Manhattan from February 4 through the 11th, provide a cross-sectional look at the diversity of films at this year's festival.
Director/actor Gad Elmaleh does his best Roberto Benigni impression in "Coco," a slapstick message comedy about Coco, an outlandish self-made millionaire intent on giving his son Samuel the best bar mitzvah ever. Coco's diagnosis with a terminal condition pushes him to create a spectacle filled event that will signify the enormous amount of love he feels for his family. The comedy is too on-the-nose to induce the laughs that Elmaleh strives for, but the film brims with good intention and heart. As with Benigni, Elmaleh isn't a taste suited to everyone's cup of bananas.
"A Matter of Size," from the directing team of Sharon Maymon, Erez Tadmor, represents a co-production from France, Germany, Israel, American and the UK. Ramle, Israel is home to Herzl, a 340-pound chef whose romantic future is hampered by living with his overbearing mother. Mom doesn't approve of Herzl's new girlfriend because of her weight--she's on the heavy side too. But when Herzl takes on a job washing dishes at a Japanese restaurant, he's exposed to sumo wrestling and gets inspired to put together a sumo team with his overweight pals. With the coaching help of his boss Kitano (Togo Igawa) Herzl discovers a discipline that celebrates and utilizes his massive body mass. The self-respect he earns enables romance to blossom in relation to his girth in this unconventional and refreshing romantic comedy.
"Salvador: The Ship of Shattered Hopes" is Nissim Mossek's touching and devastating documentary about the fate of 352 escaping Bulgarian Jews who boarded a rickety wooden coal freighter named the "Salvador" on December 3, 1949 in Varna, Bulgaria with a course set for Palestine. Nine days, and 200 miles later, the Salvador was torn apart during a fierce storm that washed up the bodies of survivors and the dead alike on a Turkish shore near Istanbul. Mossek examines conflicting views of Baruch Confino, a Bulgarian Jewish eye doctor who organized the series of escape operations for Jews, and which ended with the crash of the Salvador. The film's biggest drawback lies in its incomplete depiction of Confino, as a well-meaning opportunist.
The 2010 Oscar Race - Updated 3/7/10
Whose Turn is It Now?
By Cole Smithey
You can practically already hear Academy Award producers shouting, after the fact, "Whose idea was this?" about changes in the ceremony that are doomed to be criticized for months after the last statue is handed out. Following Hugh Jackman's stellar performance hosting last year's Oscars, Alec Baldwin and Steve Martin have been chosen to dispel the adage that "less is more." The most glaring change in the program is the addition of five additional Best Picture Nominees, for a total of ten, in an attempt to broaden the show's mainstream appeal.
For a notoriously overlong awards show, you might imagine that a little sacrifice would be in order. Deleting the widely reviled song-and-dance numbers seems like a no-brainer. But no such trade-off is in store. Prepare yourself for a very, very long program.
Academy president Sid Ganis defends the switch as a "return to the past"--by which he means back to the depression era, when Americans camped out in movie theaters for a warm place to sleep. Maybe it's not such a bad idea in that light, but the real impetus seems to come from last year's exclusion of "The Dark Knight." Such obvious pandering to the film's fanboy supporters might get a pass if the adjustment weren't a 100% increase. Why not add one new slot, and see how that goes before turning the category into a marathon?
"Avatar," "The Blind Side," "District 9," "An Education," "The Hurt Locker," "Inglourious Basterds," "Precious," "A Serious Man," "Up," and "Up in the Air" are the ten films nominated for Best Picture. I would argue that, because it's better than "Avatar"--though no one in Hollywood will admit it--"District 9" gains the most advantage from the modification.
The Oscars are all about politics that frequently come down to whose turn it is to finally be handed the heavy little statue and precious seconds of limelight that have the potential to put some gas in the career tank. Seven years of war has finally put a past-due stamp on the Academy to shine a light in that direction. For that reason, coupled with the fact that no woman has ever received a Best Director Oscar, means that Kathryn Bigelow's "The Hurt Locker" is a heavy shoe-in for both a Best Picture and a Best Director Oscar. Personally I think "Inglourious Basterds" is a better movie.
Best Picture Prediction: "The Hurt Locker"
Best Director: Kathryn Bigelow - "The Hurt Locker"
Jeff Bridges is long behind schedule for an Oscar win. His mesmerizing performance in "Crazy Heart" means that he's crowning for an "it's his turn" Best Actor win.
Best Actor Prediction: Jeff Bridges - "Crazy Heart"
Of the five women in the Best Actress category (Sandra Bullock - "The Blind Side," Helen Mirren - "The Last Station," Carey Mulligan "An Education," Gabourey Sidibe, "Precious," and Meryl Streep - Julia & Julia") the deck is heavily stacked in Carey Mulligan's favor in the Academy's "kid with a future" way of thinking. With a record 15 nominations, and two Oscars under her belt, Meryl Streep has already won plenty. Sandra Bullock's performance in "The Blind Side" is strong, but she takes a hit for two crappy films that preceded it ("The Proposal" and "All About Steve"). "The Last Station" wasn't a solid enough movie to lock Helen Mirren in, and Gabourey Sidibe's muted character in "Precious" didn't allow her to express enough range.
Best Actress Prediction: Sandra Bullock
Christoph Waltz blew the roof off cinemas with his gleefully diabolical performance in "Inglourious Basterds." That kind of virtuosity is money in the bank for a Best Supporting Actor win.
Best Supporting Actor: Christoph Waltz
The Best Supporting Actress category is tough, but I'd put my money on Maggie Gyllenhaal for her terrific work in "Crazy Heart." Over the course of her nearly 20-year career, she's proven that she consistently creates complex characters and makes very smart choices about the roles she chooses. However, Mo'Nique could take the prize for her fearless performance in "Precious."
Supporting Actress Prediction: Mo'Nique - "Precious"
Animated Feature Prediction: "Up"
Animated Short: "A Matter of Loaf and Death"
Live Action Short: "Miracle Fish"
Film Editing: "Avatar"
Foreign Film Prediction: "The White Ribbon"
Original Score: "Up"
Original Song Prediction: "The Weary Kind" - Crazy Heart
Original Screenplay Prediction: "Inglourious Basterds"
Adapted Screenplay: Jason Reitman - "Up In the Air"
Art Direction: "Avatar"
Costume Design: "The Young Victoria"
Documentary Feature: "The Cove"
Documentary Short: "The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant"
Make-Up: "Star Trek"
Sound Editing: "Avatar"
Sound Mixing: "Avatar"
Visual Effects: "Avatar"
The Best and Worst Movies of 2009
Tipping the Decade
The Best and Worst Movies of 2009
By Cole Smithey
Hollywood's bland year of mediocre movies perennially aimed at 14-year-olds set into relief an abundance of important foreign and independent films that helped fill a vacuum for "adventurous" American audiences.
Films from the UK (see "Bright Star," "The Damned United," "Fifty Dead Men Walking," "Fish Tank," and "In the Loop") played a big part in giving audiences a wealth of intensely satisfying choices.
In spite of the usual barrage of torture porn, horror movies enjoyed a good year with films like "The House of the Devil," "Drag Me to Hell," and "Antichrist" building shocks and suspense.
Italian cinema underwent a rebirth with films like "Il Divo" and "Gomorrah" attracting well-deserved spectators. While the late season of Hollywood's latest Oscar-bait movies presented a pleasingly glacial facade with "Up in the Air," it was a little film with Jeff Bridges that stole the year's punch and lightening.
10. Bright Star
"Bright Star" is an unassuming telling of the simmering romance that developed between the poet John Keats (Ben Whishaw) and a comely clothing designer named Fanny Brawne (well played by the talented Abbie Cornish). Director Jane Campion ("The Piano" - 1993), presents a rare pleasure of unrequited love that never dips the poet's ink into the syrup of sentimentality, but rather allows its characters to invest passion from their gently articulated imaginations.
9. The Damned United
In his portrayal of famed British soccer team manager Brian Clough, Michael Sheen solidifies his status as this generation's Laurence Olivier in Tom Hooper's enthralling adaptation of Peter Morgan's 2006 book "The Damned Utd." "The Damned United" is one damned entertaining movie.
8. Drag Me to Hell
Sam Raimi uses everything in his bag of cinematic tricks to create a fast paced "Night Gallery"/"Twilight Zone"-styled horror movie that continuously goes much further than any expectations might prepare you for. "Drag Me to Hell" is the most fun I've had at the movies in years. It's destined to be a cult classic for all eternity.
"Tulpan" is a neorealist film of exquisite beauty and eloquence from director Sergey Dvortsevoy. The filmmaker captures the life-and-death demands of a seemingly alien landscape within the context of a generational paradigm shift in Central Asia.
Documentary filmmaker Joe Berlinger travels to various locations in Ecuador in order to show the extensive damage wreaked by Texaco/Chevron, a company whose negligence and greed led to the raping of a 1,700 square-mile area of the Amazon rain forest--now called the "cancer death zone"--and dumped 18 billion gallons of oil and toxic waste. "Crude" is a knock-your-socks-off documentary that will leave you speechless. It's the best documentary of the year.
"Departures" is a brilliantly written and performed story that transcends its themes of ritualized catharsis to bring the audience to a fresh understanding of man's need to make peace with the deceased.
In writer/director Martin Provost's patiently restrained biopic about the self-trained French painter Seraphine Louis, the audience is brought increasingly closer into the heart and mind of a genius whose turbulent inner life eventually envelops her conscious being. Yolande Moreau gives an earthy and compelling performance, measured by her character's direct connection to the natural world around her.
3. Inglorious Basterds
Quentin Tarantino has matured as an auteur even if he's as prone as ever to creating funny-ha-ha sequences of joyous cinematic revelry just for the sport of it. The film builds toward a new kind of World War II fantasy climax that is as invigorating as it is bittersweet for its inevitable collateral damage.
With "Antichrist," Lars von Trier creates a tense and provocative horror film bound up in terms of death, brutal violence, psycho-therapy, sexual desire, and the fury of Mother Nature. As with Alfred Hitchcock, Lars von Trier works with a direct cinematic language that allows the audience to trust in his mastery of filmic art and ability to gross them out but not break them. Indeed, Lars von Trier is a master filmmaker. His exploration into the genre of horror is a film far scarier than any Hollywood movie. As with all of von Triers' films, there's some Dogme for the audience to chew on.
1. Crazy Heart
The long course of Jeff Bridges' dazzling acting career has led him to a truly virtuosic tour de force performance as an old-fashioned cowboy singer. Bridges is a natural--singing and playing country songs with the sweat of authenticity and the spit of a drunk factory worker. Based on Thomas Cobb's novel, "Crazy Heart" is a kissing-cousin to Robert Duvall's great 1983 cowboy-singer movie "Tender Mercies." Duvall's presence as Wayne, a bartender friend, is a hat-tip to that film's inspiration. "Crazy Heart" is the best American film of the year. Jeff Bridges smokes--big time.
Honorable mention for 2009 goes to: Anvil: The Story of Anvil, The Beaches of Agnes, Black Dynamite, An Education, Everlasting Moments, Fifty Dead Men Walking, Fish Tank, Funny People, Gomorrah, The Hurt Locker, Il Divo, In the Loop, Loren Cass, Lorna's Silence, The Maid, Moon, Not Quite Hollywood, Observe and Report, Precious, Sin Nombre, Three Monkeys, Up, The White Ribbon.
Best DVD: The Exiles
Director Brent MacKenzie’s black-and-white documentary/narrative genre blender about urbanized Native Americans in 1961 Los Angeles is a cold glass of cinematic water drawn from the same well as Joseph Strick’s "The Savage Eye" (1960). Bold in its visionary attempt to capture an essence of American Indian reality that is evermore significant today for its strangled condemnation of America’s betrayal of a people it murdered and displaced before such war crimes became articulated in our common vernacular, "The Exiles" is a one-of-a-kind film.
10. Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen
Michael Bay's soul-sucking extravaganza of metal machine warfare is remarkable for the lethargy with which the clunky story drags from one silly sequence to another. The spectacle on display isn't even all that impressive. You might make it out of the movie with your soul barely intact, but the actors in the film don't fare so well.
9. Battle for Terra
"Battle for Terra" is an off-putting animated sci-fi flick for no one. 3-D computer generated graphics are the only thing to recommend this thematically tone-deaf sci-fi disaster.
8. Away We Go
Co-writer Dave Eggers' holier-than-thou, slacker road story of negative wish fulfillment proves toxic source material to director Sam Mendes. The movie could win a prize for worst poster of the decade.
7. Tickling Leo
Ostensibly about Holocaust guilt, writer/director Jeremy Davidson's poorly scripted, filmed, and executed drama plays out like an unfinished low budget soap opera. This film should never have gotten a theatrical release.
6. Severed Ways: The Norse Discovery of America
Minimalist independent cinema doesn't get much more low fidelity than debut writer/director Tony Stone's garish vision of 11th century Vikings discovering North America. Clearly inspired by Gus Van Sant's trilogy of time-in-the-desert films, Stone produces a similar cinematic dung heap.
5. Confessionsofa Ex-Doofus-Itchy Footed Mutha
Melvin Van Peebles unwatchable video collage version of his 1982 Broadway disaster "Waltz of the Stork" might work in an art instillation with plastic trash bags lining the walls, but the film fails miserably to live up to Van Peebles's reputation as the man who made the groundbreaking Blaxploitation film "Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song" (1971). It isn't just bad, it's gawdawful.
From the looks of her latest cinematic abomination, it seems Jennifer Lynch is doomed to forever be regarded as David Lynch’s untalented daughter. Her first film in 15 years, after the unwatchable “Boxing Helena,” is the kind of slapdash gore-fest you’d expect from Rob Zombie, although even he might take offense at the comparison.
3. H2: Halloween II
Writer/director Rob Zombie's one-note blood bath is a juvenile experiment in gore for gore's sake. It remains a mystery how such an incompetent writer could ever sell the kind of monotonous drivel that "Halloween II" represents, much less get a budget to direct it. Shame, Rob Zombie, shame.
2. The Collector
"The Collector" (no relation to the great John Fowles novel) is director/co-writer Marcus Dunstan's gratuitous attempt at torture porn after writing the scripts for the fourth and fifth installments of the "Saw" horror franchise. It's an open-handed insult to fans of the horror genre.
1. The Stoning of Soraya M.
Cyrus Nowrasteh crafts a prosaic telling of the brutal 1986 murder of an Iranian family woman, as orchestrated by her own husband in the interest of avoiding divorce payments and running off with a teenaged girl. Based on Freidoune Sahebjam's best-selling book, here is an example of on-the-nose exploitation filmmaking at its most unsophisticated level. It's one thing to illustrate social injustice, and quite a different thing to reward it.
The Best War Film Ever Made: "Come And See"
Elem Klimov's Masterpiece
By Cole Smithey
Stalingrad-born Elem Klimov's "Come and See" is an undiluted expression of cinematic poetry in the service of an unspeakably turbulent, fact-based, anti-war narrative about the 628 Belarusian villages burnt to the ground along with their inhabitants by the Nazis. The film is a disorienting vision of a genocide hell on Earth that would pale Hieronymus Bosch's most gruesome compositions. An electricity-buzzing stench of death and social decay hangs over the picture's constant volley between neo-realistic, formal, and documentary styles that Klimov uses to convert as wide a range of specific wartime experience as possible. The director takes the viewer on a quicksilver descent into an existential madness of war through the eyes of his 14-year-old peasant protagonist Florya. Alexei Kravchenko's extraordinary performance as the film's subjective guide encompasses a lifetime of suffering over a period of a few brutal days of the Nazi invasion.
Born into a communist family on July 9, 1933, Elem Klimov's parents constructed his first name as an acronym of Engels, Lenin, and Marx. In his 70 years, Elem Klimov made only five films: "Welcome, or No Trespassing" (1964), "The Adventures of a Dentist" (1965), "Agony" (1975) and "Farewell" (1981). "Come and See" was his astounding final picture that would establish Klimov as a storyteller of untold narrative depth and intuitive sensitivity. For the film, Klimov fashioned a detailed visual vernacular of dialectic form. The surreal narrative format expresses the overwhelming heartbreak of war. By the end, we witness a young boy's soul so ravaged by the war's horrors that he resembles an old man with only one mission in life.
When Klimov sat down to write the script with his collaborator Ales Adamovich, the ardently intellectual director crafted an acutely personal story about a boy who goes to fight against Nazi troops occupying his native Belarus in 1943, after joining up with a ragtag army of partisan soldiers taking shelter in the middle of a rugged wooded area. Objectively, "Come and See" is Elem Klimov's attempt to cinematically compartmentalize and contextualize his own wartime experiences as a child escaping the battle of Stalingrad, in the company of his mother and younger brother, by raft across the Volga while the city and river burned to the ground behind them.
Klimov said of the indelible event in relation to "Come and See," "Had I included everything I knew and shown the whole truth, even I could not have watched it."
The director asserts the story's peculiar social parameters at the start with an old man holding a horse whip while calling for two boys guilty of incessantly "digging."
"Playing a game? Digging? Well, go on digging you little bastards," the old man shouts at the boys.
From the distance arrives what seems to be a short, stout military officer carrying a stick and frothing at the mouth with recriminations for the old man that he approaches with measured steps. However, we soon realize that the apparent military officer is in fact one of the boys, speaking in a raspy adult voice and playing the part of a menacing armed forces commander. Exasperated, the old man gets on his horse and cart, telling his defiant son that if he won't listen to his father then he'll "listen to the cane." Klimov uses the vision of a young boy appearing as an old man to bookend the story as a symptom of the war's aging effect on its survivors. In the end, it will be the once fresh-faced Florya who has switched places with his friend whose fate falls to Nazi soldiers. The impersonating child deliberately chooses to comport himself as a veteran soldier, while Florya will have his youth stolen from him.
Florya's smaller companion walks along the beach to find Florya laughing manically at nothing in particular while crouched down in bushes. We are introduced to Florya as a child not in control of his behavior. There's already some madness present in his maniacal laughter. Florya is subordinate to his friend, who orders Florya to get back to work "digging." We know already that everything is not right.
Klimov employs a dynamic metaphor of the boys attempting to gain escape from the outside world by digging deeper into the earth. The oddly naturalistic scene exerts a primal human motivation at odds with noisy war planes that pass overhead.
Buried in the sand up to his shoulders, Florya struggles with both arms to pull something from under the sand as if he's being swallowed by an unseen monster attempting to drag him to the depths of hell. After much struggle, Florya excitedly extracts a prized rifle that he believes will give him entree into joining a partisan troop so that he can help battle Hitler's rampaging soldiers.
A German recon war plane flies overhead to the sound of German radio-broadcast propaganda. Klimov will reuse the same archive footage of the bomber plane many times over during the course of the film to achieve a droning visual effect of an authentic historical reference that contributes to an unrelenting rhythm of sudden violence, and brutal spatial dilemmas. Already Florya's journey is a person that we can relate to only with total involuntary commitment.
The endemic breakdown of family and society is confirmed in the next scene where Florya's frantic mother pleas directly to Klimov's empathetic camera for her son to take the axe, that she places in his hands, to kill her along with her two twin girls rather than abandon the family to go fight in the war. The woman is disconsolate as she beats Florya with a bundle of rope, refusing to allow her son to leave. But Florya is immune to his mother's panic, and winks at his little sisters while he holds the axe, playing a secret game with his innocent sisters. Two protestant soldiers peer through the family's window before entering the home to take Florya to join a nearby regiment of soldiers camped in the middle of a rugged forest. It is the last time that we will feel any sense of home or normal life in the film. The soldiers' politeness turns abruptly to that of menacing authority figures taking Florya with them as a kind of willing prisoner.
In the military camp, Florya meets a lovely but deranged teenaged girl named Glasha (disconcertingly played by Olga Mironova) whose wild-eyed stare of steel-gray eyes makes her as much of a monster as a would-be love interest for Florya to gravitate toward. That Glasha, dressed in a pretty green party dress, is carrying on some kind of affair with the troop's military chief only momentarily distracts from the extent of her mental instability inasmuch as we subjectively bestow sanity to the Partisan group's stern military leader. There's contagious insanity in the air that seems to have infllitrated every character that Klimov introduces.
The film's first act closes with a group photograph of the troop that provides a formal tableau of thick narrative subtext--witness a wounded soldier bandaged like a mummy and a black female cow with "Eat me before the Germans do," written in white on its side.
Upon their departure, the ragtag troop abandons the young boy that the military chief has quietly deemed unsuitable for the demands of battle. Florya's inconsolable anguish at being deserted by his surrogate family boils to a breaking point when he accidentally steps on a nest of eggs, killing the tiny birds in a glimpse of nature made horribly grotesque by his unavoidable human brutality. It's this violent and immediate style of detailed poetic storytelling that grips you and pulls at your senses with an inescapable urgency of survival. Klimov's precise use of graphic symbolism will steadily increase to a fever pitch in the film's stunning post modern climax where a backward moving collage attempts to collapse the Pandora's box of Hitler and the war that determines Florya's survival.
Glasha is also abandoned by the soldiers, and the two adolescent refugees cry into each others' eyes in a heartbreaking expression of raw emotion that Klimov captures with extended fourth-wall-breaking close-ups that intuitively editorialize on their fragile mental states. Florya recognizes Glasha's strange psychosis, but is unable to evade her spell. The pity that the soldiers took on the pair by leaving them behind backfires when a rash of falling German artillery shells permanently rob Florya of his hearing. The bombings are especially shocking for their violent realism that arrives suddenly with large swaths of forest ripped apart by earth-quaking explosions accompanied by a high-pitched ringing that destroys Florya's hearing and wrecks his conscious mind.
Klimov utilizes Florya's sensory deprivation with a twisted soundscape that indoctrinates us into Florya's pain and panic via a claustrophobic sonic space that increases our sense of being badly wounded. The next morning, Florya and Glasha frolic in the rain in a brief reverie where they forget the impending danger that awaits them. Under the muted sounds of sped up radio music, Glasha does a Charleston-styled flapper dance atop Florya's rain-soaked suitcase. There's a dreamlike quality to the couple's short lived musical respite before an outlandish pelican-type bird conveys an unnerving omen of unexplained incidents to follow. Wild animal life will play an important part of the image system filigree that Klimov uses to regularly connect the story to its ecological foundation in the landscape of Belarusia.
Klimov is commanding in his willingness to create abstract visual motifs, as when Florya returns to his mother's house with Glasha and peers down into a well while looking for his family. We view Florya through the back end of an organic cinematic telescope through which he sees himself. What Florya doesn't see are the mangled bloody bodies of his family and neighbors piled high against the backside of what was once his family's home. Glasha looks back and sees the carnage as they walk away from the area, but worriedly refrains from alerting Florya to the horror just behind them.
Florya runs into a thick muddy swamp that he is compelled to cross, believing that his family are hiding on a small island that he must trudge through quicksand-like mud to get to. Glasha follows Florya into the mud and holds onto the back of his coat as they painfully make their way through the thick brown sludge. Klimov layers on subdued layers of musical textures and ambient sound to weave a theme of self-flagellation, as assisted by Belarusia's uncontrolled topography that threatens to swallow up our protagonist and his female companion.
Glasha betrays Florya the first chance she gets when a Belarusian peasant helps her escape the mud. The traumatized Glasha loudly explains that Florya's family was killed, and that now he is deaf and out of his mind. Through his muted hearing, Florya hears her cruel words that Glasha speaks and reacts with a pained cry that powerfully expresses a depth of agony that imprints the film with an indelible image of victimization. Moments later Florya will be led by peasants to the badly burned body of his friend's father, who speaks his last words about how he begged the Germans that set him on fire to kill him. A crowd of desperate peasants chant under Klimov's soundscape of blowing wind. Florya sees a trench coat-dressed effigy of Hitler with a human skull head that the peasants put clay on to make more lifelike. A group cut off Florya's hair and bury it as part of a cleansing ritual that reinvents the traumatized Florya as a walking ghost.
In the third act Florya becomes a roaming independent soldier with a knack for barely escaping Nazi attacks. Florya's participation in expediting the extermination of a cornered group of Nazis by handing a gasoline filled can to a Nazi collaborator, is as suggestive an act as it is a literal one, for the Belarusian peasants will open fire on the Nazis before the fuel is ignited. Florya gains an historic perspective of Hitler that knows only annihilation. His hatred and fury seeks to eradicate the world of Adolph Hitler and his armies with tremendous prejudice. With his brain and body irreversibly changed, Florya has become the only thing that he will ever be capable of being for the rest of his life, a soldier against Hitler.
"Come and See" won the Moscow Film Festival's Grand Prize in 1985. Afterward, Klimov was elected as first secretary of the Soviet Filmmakers' Union and, during his two years on the post, oversaw the release of more than a hundred previously banned Soviet films. Elem Klimov went on to struggle with the idea of creating a film version of Bulgakov's "The Master and Margarita," and with making a film adaptation of Dostoevsky's "The Devils." However, in 2000, he gave up filmmaking because he felt that he had done "everything that was possible." The visionary filmmaker died on October 26, 2003, and left behind a war film that accomplishes everything possible in cinema, and reinvents it.
Tribeca 2009: It's a Wrap
In its eighth year, the Tribeca Film Festival finally found its identity as a medium-scaled arena for an eclectic collection of documentaries, independent films, horror movies, dramas, comedies, science fiction, and foreign fare to vie for audience attention. From a press standpoint, the festival has become a friendlier place for journalists to ply their trade. The inclusion of a screening library, while not comprehensive in its scope, provided some much needed freedom to screen films, and is a system that should be adopted by every other film festival in the world. Attracting its share of celebrities--Eric Bana, Spike Lee, and Steven Soderbergh were easy to spot--this year's festival maintained the right amount of movie biz glitz without cramping the style of Manhattan's been-there-done-that attitude.
Bette Gordon's 1984 independent psychological thriller "Variety," written by Kathy Acker, was shown in a special retrospective screening. A stunning proto-feminist noir experiment set in the sex shops of 1983 Times Square during Manhattan's economic downturn, Christine (Sandy McLeod), a Midwest transplant, takes a job as a ticket booth clerk at a Times Square porn theatre called the "Variety." Surprisingly, the sleazy urban atmosphere fires her erotic desires, and curiosities about the power of her own sexuality. Christine goes on a baseball game date at Yankee Stadium with Louie (Richard Davidson), a wealthy regular patron at the Variety with underworld connections, and secretly follows him after he's called away from their date. When she isn't stalking Louie, Christine tests the influence of her dirty imagination by speaking erotic fantasy monologues to her non-pulsed journalist boyfriend Mark (Will Patton). Daring, raw, and in tune with the social crosscurrents of the period, "Variety" achieves a cumulative effect of short-circuiting preconceived notions of taboo sexual stereotypes via Christine's journey of discovery. It's a thriller that takes poetic liberties equal to the harmonic leaps of John Lurie's evocative musical score.
With "Outrage," documentarian Kirby Dick brought the same methodical approach he applied to "This Film is Not Yet Rated," about Hollywood's shadowy ratings board, to examine the practice of closeted gay, largely Republican, politicians to systematically vote against gay rights issues as a way of deflecting attention from their own sexuality. Former closeted politicians, such as ex-New Jersey governor James McGreevey and current U.S. Representative Barney Frank candidly expound on their personal experiences of living double lives. Gay blogger Michael Rogers provides fervent discourse about the necessity of outing closeted politicians as a public service in a media environment that savors heterosexual scandals--see John Edwards--yet avoids exposing the hypocrisies of people like Ken Mehlman or Florida Governor Charlie Crist. From the film, it seems clear that Washington is full of closeted gays, some self-hating and some merely desperately frightened for their livelihoods. Either way, the winds of generational change are upon us.
In "Rudo y Cursi," writer/director Carlos Cuaron (screenwriter on "Y tu mama") told the story of rival Mexican step-brothers Beto (Luna) and Tato (Bernal) who get a golden opportunity to leave behind their impoverished lives as fruit-pickers when Batuta (Guillermo Francella), a soccer agent, discovers their skills and brings them into the fast paced world of pro soccer. Tato dreams only of achieving fame as a singer in spite of his lack of ability--he earns the undesirable nickname Cursi (Corny), while the more serious Beto, nicknamed Rudo ("rough"), falls prey to gambling leaches out to steal his soccer fortune. Bernal and Luna cherish their roles with palpable delight and play off one another with an authentic chemistry that is infectious. Both actors bring their A-game to the film, and the result is a pure delight. As prosaic as the story seems on the surface, there's plenty of heartfelt subtext in every frame.
Scott Sanders' Blaxploitation homage "Black Dynamite" had me rolling on the floor kicking and laughing with its perfectly timed jokes and sight gags. "Black Dynamite" could just be the big break that Michael Jai White deserves for his unforgettable performance as a super soul brother cut from the same cloth as Shaft and Dolomite. It's easy to get a contact high watching "Black Dynamite" as if you were sitting in a Times Square movie house circa 1976 watching the man get his comeuppance.
Mandy Stein's "Burning Down the House: The Story of CBGB" was a welcome reminder of the famous East Village haunt where The Ramones, Talking Heads, Richard Hell, Wayne County, The Dead Boys, Patti Smith, and every other punk group that mattered performed back in the good old/bad old days of New York. Although Stein's film left out a lot of significant information about its martyred subject, CBGB founder Hilly Kristal, it adds yet another essential chapter to the story of New York's Punk Rock movement.
Stephan Eliott's Noel Coward adaptation "Easy Virtue" hit a lilting gallop of '20s era England with Jessica Biel playing a racecar-driving American interloper to Kristen Scott Thomas' snooty matriarch.
Steven Soderbergh's "The Girlfriend Experience" succeeded on the efforts of its extreme-porn-queen-cum-legit-thespian Sasha Grey as a $2,000-an-hour-call girl living in NYC with her fitness-trainer boyfriend. Former Premiere magazine Editor Glenn Kenny is hilarious in his role as a very sleazy know-it-all opportunist.
Ti West's "The House of the Devil" sent chills as an old-school horror film homage to an '80s that should have been. Even with some rumored butcher-edit job by the film's producers, it's a dark treat that ramps up suspense from three or four angles at once. Former Warhol Superstar Mary Woronov ("Rock 'n' Roll High School") is perfectly creepy.
Anders Banke's "Newsmakers" proved to be a super slick remake of Johnie To's "Breaking News," about a Russian Public Relations effort to glamorize for television a tense stand-off between some heavily-armed bad guys holed up with hostages in a post communist block apartment complex. Super action eclipses the upside of sexy.
Duncan Jones' "Moon" is the best Sci-Fi movie to come along in a generation or two. Sam Rockwell gives a pure tour de force performance as a lonely astronaut worker on the moon in this must see sci-fi thriller. I'll give you a clue--there's a clone involved. "Moon" was my favorite new film of the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival.
"In the Loop" could be the most hilarious British political satire of the past 20 years. Based on the BBC TV show "The Thick of It," about the wonky inner workings of US and British politics during an unintended build-up to war, the movie was a crowd favorite.
2009 Tribeca Film Festival Awards:
Heineken Audience Award: City Island
Raymond De Felitta's "City Island," a comedy about a family of misfits staring Andy Garcia, Julianna Margulies, Alan Arkin, and Emily Mortimer, won the Heineken Audience Award of $25,000 at this year's festival.
Best Narrative Feature: About Elly
Asghar Farhadi's Iranian mystery on the Caspian Sea captured the hearts of World Narrative Feature Jurors Bradley Cooper, Uma Thurman, Todd Haynes, Meg Ryan and Richard Fischoff: "The universality of the characters and themes and the director's riveting grasp of this story make About Elly a film that collapses barriers and deepens our understanding of the world we share.”
Best Actor in a Narrative Feature Film: Ciaran Hinds
Magnolia Pictures picked up world rights to writer/director Conor McPherson's psychological drama "The Eclipse," staring Ciaran Hinds as a recently widowed husband and father who sees ghosts in the Irish seaside town where he lives.
Best New Narrative Filmmaker: Rune Denstad Langlo for North
Rune Denstad Langlo's first narrative feature, after working in the documentary format, is a wry road comedy about a ski lift operator making his way to the north of Norway, to meet a son he never knew he had. The jurors have noted that Denstad's "consummate vision, strong grasp of story and command of the language of cinema make him a standout amidst a strong pool of candidates."
Best Actress in a Narrative Feature Film: Zoe Kazan in The Exploding Girl
After a smattering of small roles here and there, Zoe Kazan has truly broken out with her performance in Bradley Rust Gray's The Exploding Girl, a film about a young woman during a summer home from college. "Zoe shines in this understated role," the jurors comment. "Every component of this brilliantly restrained performance displays a command of her craft that stunned and moved this jury.”
Best Documentary Feature: Racing Dreams
Marshall Curry's documentary is a gripping tale about young go-karters who one day dream of driving in the big leagues of NASCAR. "We reacted with unanimous, unquestioned affection for Racing Dreams," the jurors state, "and found it a completely compelling, entertaining film of incredible quality.”
Special Jury Mention: Defamation
Yoav Shamir's documentary analysis of anti-Semitism existing today has earned him a Special Jury Mention in this year's Festival. Examining the issue from a wide variety of angles, the accolade for this open-minded film is not surprising. The jurors state that the award is for "lifting the veil on a subject so openly discussed."
Best New Documentary Filmmaker:
Ian Olds for Fixer: The Taking of Ajmal Naqshbandi
Olds' film about the murder of a kidnapped Afghani hired by news organizations to work in Afghanistan is a mesmerizing tale, as horrifying as it is fascinating. According to the jurors, the work is “a film about an unsavory world, and its unsavory characters, which through its superb direction, shines a light on a world unfamiliar to many Americans."
Best New York Narrative: Here and There
Darko Lungulov's debut narrative feature about a New Yorker who travels to Belgrade is as geographically diverse and sensitive as the city of New York itself. The jurors were pleased by the fact that "it gave us not only New York, it gave us great characters, a great story, it gave us the world.”
Honorable Mention: Entre nos
Paola Mendoza and Gloria LaMorte's beautiful film is based on Mendoza's real-life experiences as a child, when her family moved from Colombia to New York City. Their sensitive depiction of issues ranging from immigration to poverty to single motherhood earned them an Honorable Mention in this year's Festival.
Best New York Documentary: Partly Private
Documentarian Danae Elon's look at the practice of circumcision in the modern-day world, especially modern-day New York, is a gripping look at the ancient practice, as well as so much more. "There were moments in this film that brought the whole world back to New York," the jurors said. "They were uniquely New York moments."
Best Narrative Short: The North Road
Actor Carlos Chahine steps into the role of director for the first time to make a touching short about a man driving his father's remains back to his hometown. The jurors feel that "The director, Carlos Chahine, portrays the absurdities and contradictions of how we deal with grief through humor, freshness and subtlety.”
Best Documentary Short: home
A touching work that deals with how Hurricane Katrina affected the house he grew up in, Matthew Faust's home seems a natural pick to win the Best Documentary Short award. "It tells a post-Hurricane Katrina story in a new, inventive and poignant way.”
Special Jury Mention: The Last Mermaids
The runner-up for Best Short Doc is this fantastic short, a film about female deep-sea divers off of the Jeju Island. The film's glimpse into a lost world is particularly eye-opening, and the jurors said that "the filmmaker provides a glimpse into a closed sisterhood—proud of their traditions, yet accepting the disappearance of their way of life.”
Student Visionary Award: Small Change
A film about a six year old girl hoping for the Tooth Fairy to arrive, Australian filmmaker Anna McGrath's student film Small Change is deceptively simple. The jurors state that "The filmmaker uses minimal storytelling to achieve maximum emotional impact and we commend the terrific performances of the young actors.”
Special Jury Mention: Oda a la Piña
This homage to a famous Cuban poem deals with a struggling cabaret dancer. Helmed by student filmmaker Laimir Fano, the film "captures the cultural rhythms and unmistakable sounds of the city to artistically portray a sense of poverty in what remains of old Havana and its beauty.”
Fighter Pilot By Cole Smithey
I'm one of the Navy fighter pilots that rocked the great state of New York on 9/11. At 6:59 AM my crew was scrambled to fly our six Boeing F/A-18E Super Hornets, along with ten other squads, to perform some aerial escorting for eleven hijacked commercial aircraft. Good thing the coffee was hot. In six minutes flat we were in Outrigger formation around our target. At the controls was a young Asian kid--must've been about ten-years-old. No matter. My squad was flying his plane now. Those boats are slow as molasses. Nothing I love better than pulling tight formation. I was on the left of the American Airlines plane--36 inches from the tip of my wing to his windshield. Kip was right-side. Tom and Jon had the wings--Berl on top--Ringo stuck at the bottom. As usual.
By the time we escorted the plane down safely at Langly, the other ten squads were waiting for us. "Damn it," I thought--my guys would have to buy beer for sixty other guys that night. At least the coffee was still hot.
Classic Film Picks
Ace in the Hole
After a string of successes which included "Double Indemnity" (1944) and "Sunset Boulevard" (1950) Billy Wilder defied Hollywood expectations with a scathing indictment of the American media that still stings today. Wilder based his story on a 1925 media circus. The nation followed the trials of spelunker Floyd Collins, trapped in a cave in Kentucky. Collins died, but unorthodox reporter William Burke Miller won the Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the story. In “Ace” washed-up bad-apple New York newspaper man Charles Tatum (played ferociously by Kurt Douglas) has been reduced to working for a small paper in Albuquerque. Then he stumbles upon the plight of Leo Minosa (Richard Benedict), who has gotten himself stuck at the bottom of an ancient Indian burial cave.
Originally released as "The Big Carnival," Wilder's film-noir vision flaunted cinema conventions with American cinema’s ultimate anti-hero. Douglas delivers desperation and a cynical rejection of humanity that is repulsive as it is mesmerizing. Tatum plays his "ace in the hole" when he cooks up a vile scheme with an election-hungry sheriff (Ray Teal) to milk Minosa's story for "seven days" by having a rescue team drill into the mountain from the top instead of going in as quickly as possible. At turns hilarious and vile, femme fatale Jan Sterling plays the trapped miner's feckless wife; she happily goes along with Tatum's scheme. Although not a traditional noir, "Ace in the Hole" (1951) stakes its claim in the genre by building a gathering storm of crass opportunism via a capitalist wormhole. The noir shadows here come from the claustrophobic interiors of Leo Minosa’s cramped mountain coffin. Meanwhile, the world outside celebrates his plight. As thousands gather, the cold insensitivity masses’ belies their commercially charged sense of community.
The African Queen
Elsa Lanchester and Charles Laughton were originally slated to play the roles of Rose, an uptight English missionary, and Charlie Allnut, the grizzled riverboat captain who rescues her from certain death at the hand of German soldiers in WWI Africa. Their personalities cut from divergent hardwoods of hickory and oak, Bogart and Hepburn are magnetic. In spite of their horrible conditions attempting to escape down the treacherous Ulanga River--leeches, rapids, and a boat that barely works--the characters never complain, but boy do they battle it out as an improbable romantic attraction brews like an inescapable hurricane. Rose wants Mr. Allnut to help her sink a German gunboat called the Empress Louisa, and by hook or crook she convinces him to play along with her dubious plan. John Huston directed this Technicolor masterpiece away from the Hollywood studio system. When viewed as an article of independent filmmaking, "The African Queen" is all the more alluring for its treacherous atmosphere and brilliant performances. Bogart and Hepburn are truly amazing together.
Aguirre, The Wrath of God
Werner Herzog's landmark 1972 film, based on conquistador Gonzalo Pizarro's doomed expedition in search of El Dorado, opens with a five-minute snaking descent of troops and slaves down an enormous fog-shrouded mountain in the Andes. It is 1560 and a haunting musical score (by the German band Popol Vuh) connects the viewer to the group's ant-like movements through a dwarfing terrain that is at once familiar and alien. At the mountain's base runs the treacherous Amazon River. Klaus Kinski, as soldier Lope de Aguirre, tells Pizarro (Alejandro Repulles) that "No one can get down that river alive!" It's with these first foreshadowing words that we are swept into gravitational narrative spin of man against nature. Herzog's camera lingers uncomfortably on the river's raging brown and white rapids, that ooze like hot lava. Chained slaves struggle to pull a heavy cannon through the knee-deep watery jungle. At a clearing in the forest the desperate Pizarro announces a change of plan that will send a smaller expedition of forty men to travel up river to obtain food and information about hostile Indians, as well as the location of the elusive El Dorado.
Don Pedro de Ursura (Ruy Guerra) leads the expedition with the contemptuous Aguirre as his second-in-command. It is only a matter of time before Aguirre, who travels with his 15-year-old daughter (played by a blonde Peruvian actress who uncannily resembles his own daughter Nastassja at that age), usurps power through a series of carefully placed suggestions, orders, and violent acts. As Aguirre takes control, he descends into a madness that is reflected in Kinski's crazed eyes and impatient lips. The film marked the first of five collaborations between Herzog and his muse Kinski. Nowhere else in cinema will you find such a methodically dangerous performance as the one Kinski gives here. Francis Ford Coppola drew on "Aguirre" for inspiration for "Apocalypse Now" as a surreal vision of jungle-fuelled insanity. But Herzog's film approaches the natural world in a more literal way, making it all the more disorienting, immediate, and poetic. There is a lingering voodoo in the movie that never lets you forget the folly of man's puny sins against a dark universal order of which insanity, sickness, and death are the inevitable symptoms.
"Star Wars" may have lit up bubblegum audiences to the appeal of science fiction fantasy, but Ridley Scott's 1979 Sci-Fi horror picture introduced real heart palpitating fear into the equation. Scott's groundbreaking use of sound, lighting, and complex design elements make the film a artistic journey that coincides with a great story. The look of the film was contributed heavily to by H.R Giger, whose 1976 painting "Necronom" served as a stepping off point for the actual alien of the film's title. The story, by Dan O'Bannon and Ronald Shusett, follows a group of commercial astronauts aboard the cargo spaceship "Nostromo" on their way back to Earth with a full payload when they get an unknown transmission from a "planetiod" that they are obligated by their employers to investigate. The five men and two women team suffer damage to their ship upon landing, and promptly discover that the distress signal is coming from an abandoned spacecraft that houses the eggs of an alien beast for which there is no comparison in the history of cinema. Tom Skerritt, John Hurt, Veronica Cartwright, Iam Holm, Harry Dean Stanton, Yaphet Kotto, and Sigourney Weaver each give exceptional performances as a group of crew members whose number diminishes before the fury of alien intelligence. The level of suspense and fear that Ridley Scott ratchets up is excruciating, as cleverly devised plot points and character revelations keep the audience off balance right up to the final frame. The creative mechanical special effects in "Alien" have withstood the test of time even as CGI as taken over as the industry standard. Science fiction horror doesn't get any better than this.
Along with films such as Luis Bunuel's "Los Olvidados" and Billy Wilder's "Sunset Boulevard," Joseph Mankiewic's "All About Eve" made 1950 one of the most influential years in cinema history. A New York theater awards dinner ceremony provides cynical theater critic Addison DeWitt (George Saunders) with the opportunity to narrate the film's exposition to his audience about the night's big winner, a poised ingenue named Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter). Flashback a mere year earlier, and we are swept up in how this lonely girl from the Midwest came to New York to sit before the Broadway footlights of the great Margo Channing for every performance of her latest play--directed by her adoring fiance (Gary Merrill). Dressed in a man's trench coat and hat, Eve meekly makes friends at the stage door with the playwright's wife Karen (Celeste Holm), who invites her into Margo Channing's dressing room to meet her favorite leading lady. Eve wastes no time casting a spell over Margo and everyone else in the room, except for Margo's surly wardrobe assistant Birdy (Thelma Ritter). Eve intones her sad tale with methodical acting skill.
Ingratiating herself into Margo's daily life as her hired personal assistant, Eve tunnels behind the scenes to score a gig as understudy for Margo's role. Bette Davis's famous line, "Fasten your seatbelts; it's going to be a bumpy night," occurs during a party where Marilyn Monroe steals the scene as Addison DeWitt's date Miss Casswell. The film is full of such loaded lines, marking the territory of a carefully conniving opportunist on a mission to supplant an aging theater queen from her throne. Beautifully photographed by Milton Krasner, "All About Eve" is one long seduction. The story's mechanics of theatrical artifice are embodied by each of the archetypal characters who allow us to bask in the cigarette glow of impossibly glamorous people locked in limited views of themselves and of one another. Bette Davis's bedroom eyes were never more inviting. This vision of the seduction of fame is so delicious it's intoxicating.
"Pather Panchali," "Aparajito (The Unvanquished), and "Apur Sansar (The World of Apu) make up Satyajit Ray's trilogy of films about a young man growing up in '20 era India. Although not originally intended as a trilogy, the films, which took eight years to complete, were a cultural breakthrough that showed the rest of the world a different side of world-class Indian cinema. Ray's ability to transfer a poetic justice to the life trajectory of Apu from a good-hearted child to a responsible adult, and father to his son, comes through in the director's patient and all-encompassing embrace of the mysteries of life. Set in Bengal, the engrossing trilogy transports the viewer into another world that we come to know and accept as our own. Ravi Shankar created the music for this unforgettable masterpiece of humanist cinema filmed by the incomparable cinematographer Subrata Mitra.
Ashes and Diamonds
Based on the 1948 novel by Jerzy Andrzejewski, the story takes place on May 8, 1945, the last day of WWII in Europe when two members of Poland's nationalistic underground Home Army aim to overthrow the New Communist District Secretary. Actor Zbigniew Cybulski came to be known as the James Dean of Poland for the character of Maciek assigned to assassinate the insurgent Communist leader. "Ashes and Diamonds" finished Wadja's war film trilogy with a flourish. Beautifully filmed and percolating with the futility of violence "Ashes and Diamonds" is a treasure of Polish cinema from a master filmmaker.
Alongside "Reservoir Dogs" Able Ferrara's 1992 tour-de-force crime drama provides an epic showcase for Harvey Keitel's impressive acting abilities. Similar in tone to Scorsese's "Taxi Driver," this tragic story of suicidal redemption follows anti-hero Keitel as a nameless police lieutenant addicted to all forms of vice--which as an officer of the law, he is supposed to be combating. He spends his days doubling down on bad baseball bets, extorting sex from random women, stealing cash from crime scenes, and numbing himself in the company of prostitutes with copious amounts of cocaine and heroin. Ferrara's brilliant direction captures a raw and gritty '80s-era Manhattan in which crime is king on the economically-distressed streets.
Episodic in form, the movie lurches from one hazy scene of reckless debauchery to the next, each examining Keitel's inner monologue of social and religious dysfunction. Steeped in old-school Catholicism, the tragically flawed lieutenant endures something akin to a nervous breakdown inside a church where a Catholic nun has been raped. After seeing a vision of Jesus, he furiously begs for forgiveness of his countless sins. Soaring to a Marlon Brando level of commitment to his role, Keitel's performance is nothing short of earth-shattering. Co-written by Paul Calderon and Ferrara regular Zoe Lund ("Ms. 45"), "Bad Lieutenant" arrives at an inspired double climax that aspires to--and achieves--a Shakespearian quality of catharsis. "Bad Lieutenant" is a time capsule of a certain moment in New York existence and a unique view of masculine self-destructiveness. It marks a high point for Abel Ferrara's career. Despite its place in time, it resonates with a daring urgency as genuine today as when the film was made.
The Battle of Algiers
Gillo Pontecorvo’s groundbreaking 1965 documentary styled black-and-white thriller about the Algerian resistance effort to overthrow the French Colonial Government occupation of 1957 is a suspenseful and sophisticated political allegory that speaks eloquently to the current American military occupation of Iraq. “The Battle of Algiers” traces the potent terrorist efforts of a small group of revolutionaries as they battle against the French military, led by a former French Resistance fighter (Jean Martin). Pontecorvo cast non-professional actors and used the real leader of the Algerian revolutionaries (Yacef Saadi) to play himself. “The Battle Of Algiers,” which was banned in France for some time, is a one of a kind masterpiece of pure cinema that you will never forget. It is further proof that those who refuse to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.
Belle de Jour
Luis Bunuel’s 1967 film stars Catherine Deneuve as Séverine Serizy the housewife of a wealthy doctor (Jean Sorel), who begins secretly spending her afternoons working in a high-class French brothel specializing in the fetishized kinks of its mercurial clientele. The masochistic Séverine adopts the pseudonym Belle de jour for her erotic identity at the brothel that allows her to express the sexual side of her nature that she is too inhibited to express with the husband that she nevertheless loves. Outrageous and yet anchored in female desire and erotic fantasy, “Belle de Jour” is a fascinating cinematic achievement that dares to connect Deneuve’s porcelain beauty to a world of subjugated bourgeois rebellion and the tragic price that she must ultimately pay for her transgressions. "Belle de Jour" is an ethically coded picture filled with fantasy, lust, satire, and nuance.
The Big Heat
Based on William P. McGivern's novel, Glenn Ford plays a by-the-book police sergeant named Dave Bannion, so busy grappling with the crime that rages around him that he isn't able to see his own negative influence as an active component in its anarchy. The women Bannion comes in contact with don't fare so well. Suicide, a nasty face scalding, and vengeful murder collide in Fritz Lang's explosive 1953 noir about police procedure as exemplified through Sergeant Bannion's tunnel-vision perspective. Lee Marvin makes an impressive turn as a brutal gangster in this perfect representation of the noir genre that opens with one of the most iconic opening sequences in cinema where a hand reaches into the frame to pick up a police issue .38 caliber pistol before firing it offscreen. Everything about "The Big Heat" is "hard boiled."
Howard Hawks's 1946 adaptation of Raymond Chandler's noir novel is about one thing and one thing only, the insanely dynamic chemistry between Bogart and Bacall. Coming off their first film together (Hawks's "To Have and Have Not") the actors carried on a quiet affair with the much older Bogart mentoring Bacall as an actor as well. Bogart plays private detective Philip Marlowe, a man whose sexual appeal to women knows no boundaries. Hawks was careful to pack every available scene with as much sexual innuendo as possible.
A convoluted story involving the murder of a gambling debt collector sets the stage for Bogart to hold court as the coolest card in the deck regardless of who's holding the gun. Naturally many pistols are drawn as Marlowe follows up on an apparently blackmail-related murder. Steamy photos of a client's hot-to-trot nubile daughter named Carmen (Martha Vickers) are at the heart of the blackmail. Her bedroom eyes weighed down with erotic desire, Bacall's Vivian is the only thing more composed than Bogart's quick-talking man's man. For all the women who throw themselves at Marlowe throughout the film, only one has a chance of sealing the deal. When the kiss between them finally arrives, Marlowe aptly treats it as business to be done away with until opportunity allows an encore of such pleasant luxury. As dead bodies pile up, so too does the romantic connection between the actors who would wed before "The Big Sleep" even opened in theaters.
"The Big Sleep" is a triumph of style over substance. So much of its joy comes from the way Bogart and Bacall deliver Raymond Chandler's witty language that there's no point in trying to put the pieces of the elaborate crime plot together. Here, the entire story is merely a MacGuffin for the actors to riff on. And oh, what riffing they do!
Alfred Hitchcock's 1963 follow-up to "Psycho" (1961) is an ambitious adaptation of a Daphne du Maurier story wherein the famed British filmmaker finds a full dramatic voice to connect his own fetishized sexual concerns to a socially sensitive satire of modern mores, as contrasted against a mysterious natural catastrophe. Groundbreaking on several levels of cinematic technique and dramatic form, "The Birds" combines forward-thinking special effects with an unconventional soundscape to instill a palpable lurking fear in the audience. Although not as horrifically shocking as "Psycho," "The Birds" is a more sophisticated film, and represents a high watermark in the prolific career of a true maestro of cinema.
Tippi Hedren's performance as Melanie, a social butterfly that becomes caged by external conditions, is remarkable for the actress's ability to remain true to the stylized nature of the material's demands, while circumventing that limitation to render a pure vision of '60s era womanhood trapped by the affection of a man (Mitch-played by Rod Taylor) whose relationship to his mother darkly informs his troubled emotional make-up. Endlessly watchable, "The Birds" is a masterpiece that can be read on many levels, providing insight into every aspect of modern filmmaking and dramaturgy.
"Black Book" is Paul Verhoeven's first film created in his native born Netherlands since 1985, and he brings to it valuable lessons he learned working for 20-years in Hollywood (see "Robocop," "Starship Troopers") to forge an unprecedented World War II-era masterpiece. The film’s iconic title comes from a secret list of Dutch collaborators. Much of its success emanates from the nimble performance of its leading lady Carice van Houten. In the role of a once wealthy Jewish singer, who joins a Dutch resistance group after barely escaping a massacre that claims the lives of her family, van Houten plays Rachel Stein with a naive blitheness that registers as a tour de force. Stein represents a quietly contained moral code wherein romantic loyalty is as much a part of her physiology as her determination to exact retribution from those responsible for her family’s death. At once the most expensive and successful Dutch film ever made, Verhoeven created the fast-paced script with his well-acquainted screenwriter Gerard Soeteman (co-writer on "Soldier of Orange") based on historical events researched in the Dutch War Museum and in scholarly publications over a period of more than 20 years.
Marcel Camus’ reinterpretation of the Greek legend of Orpheus and Eurydice reaches epic dramatic heights and dark emotional depths in this winner of the 1959 Palme d’Or at Cannes and of the 1960 Oscar for Best Foreign Film. Attributed as the cultural milestone that introduced Bossa Nova music to the Western world (via Antonio Carlos Jobim and Luis Bonfa’s musical score) "Black Orpheus" sets its mythic tale against Rio do Janeiro’s Carnival where popular streetcar driver Orpheus (Breno Mello) falls madly in love with a lovely country girl named Eurydice (played exquisitely by Marpessa Dawn). A ‘snake bite’ from an electrical wire robs Orpheus of his dream lover and his is driven to explore the mysterious land of the dead to reunite with her. Infectious Samba and Bossa Nova rhythms permeate the beautifully filmed earthy Brazilian atmosphere of Carnival. "Black Orpheus" is an unforgettable classic of cinematic poetry, music, and myth.
The Blue Angel
Josef von Sternberg’s 1930 masterpiece is the modern morality tale that launched the sultry chanteuse Marlene Dietrich to international fame with her saucy role as Lola Lola, a dance-hall singer and dancer who destroys the life of Emmanuel Rath, an aging high school professor played by Emil Jannings who becomes obsessed with her. The result of the public humiliation and emotional degradation that Janning's character suffers, after being turned into a clown performing as part of Lola's stage act even though they are married, is one of saddest grace notes in cinema. One of the first films to usher in sound in cinema, “The Blue Angel” was simultaneously filmed in two versions--in English and in German--and remains an outstanding cinematic accomplishment that has influenced untold numbers of artists in all avenues of performance and exhibition.
In 1986 David Lynch broke the language of cinema wide open in the same way that Jackson Pollock did with the art world in the early '40s. Using a minimalist palate set in small town America, Lynch blended surrealist elements into a story of adult sexual awakening juxtaposed against violence, mystery, and mental illness. Using character names drawn from '50s Americana iconography, and a moody musical score to match, Lynch presents returning hometown boy Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan) who promptly unearths a severed ear in a field that he crossed thousands of times in his youth. Jeffrey finds a willing ally for his private investigation into the mystery of the ear's owner in the local police detective's romantically inclined daughter Sandy (Laura Dern). However, Jeffrey is unprepared for the psychological and emotional upheaval that will devour him when he stalks the fetishized life of Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini), a sultry nightclub singer used to playing rough with a very debauched criminal named Frank (Dennis Hopper).
"Blue Velvet" is David Lynch's greatest achievement. His balance of symbols and montage is at its most poetic and powerful. Every role is perfectly cast, and the story carries an indescribable undertow that kicks like a spastic mule in heat. It is the closest that any filmmaker other than Bunuel has ever come to such daring perfection of simultaneously primal and sophisticated cinema.
German-born director Wolfgang Perersen might just as well have made only one film in his career because his co-written adaptation of Lothar Buchheim's novel, about the real experiences of a WWII German U-boat crew, is a perfect masterpiece of wartime suspense. Inside the thick hull of their creaking U-96 submarine, the Captain (Jürgen Prochnow) fearlessly leads his ship through the Battle of the Atlantic. The underwater ship dodges depth charges, braves a fierce storm, narrowly escapes a collision with another sub, and is forced to sit at the bottom of the ocean after being attacked by enemy bombers. And there's more. This is a war film in which the brutal conditions of the characters' circumstance blurs the lines between allied or enemy forces. We are with the men inside their giant iron casket. "Das Boot" (1981) is absolutely a big screen film that plays better in the German version with English subtitles rather than the dubbed version. It is unlike any other war film in that it confines the audience in a confined submarine where we digest the fear and panic of the human beings on screen. In short, "Das Boot" is a religious experience.
If anyone ever doubts the visionary significance of Terry Gilliam's once bright genius as a filmmaker of enormous depth and cynical humor, you need only to visit upon his career-topping 1985 masterpiece of surreal satire, "Brazil." Co-written by Gilliam with Charles McKeown and Tom Stoppard, the story is an ingenious blend of sci-fi, political satire, and dystopic comedy. Jonathan Pryce gives his own career high performance as Sam Lowry, a kind of Peter Sellers surrogate searching for the woman of his sleeping dreams and working as a government bureaucrat drone at a soul-crushing job that resembles something out of George Orwell's 1984. There are plenty of other thematic and visual associations made to Orwell's all-too-accurate vision of a totalitarian society where a government error dooms an innocent man and an equally guiltless woman named Jill Layton (Kim Greist) who, although she's deemed a terrorist by a complicit government, is the woman of Sam Lowry's dreams. Sam's desperate attempts to liberate Jill from the government's labyrinthine clutches marks him also as a "terrorist."
Gilliam called the film, "the Nineteen Eighty-Four for 1984," and it's telling that other working titles included "The Ministry" and "1984 ½." Gilliam sparks a fierce anti-consumerist flame with prescient pokes at things like plastic surgery and credit cards. However, the film's most incendiary theme is that the media-hyped concept of "terrorism," which went on to become an all-encompassing excuse for every form of war crime imaginable after 9/11, is merely a thought-control fear mechanism for governments to enact carte blanche policies via an invisible (read non-existent) enemy. By the standards of America's unwritten moral code circa 2009, "Brazil" is a dangerous film. Watch it.
Bruce Beresford's exceptional turn-of-the-century wartime drama is a thought-provoking examination of British-led military events that occurred during the Boer War (1899-1902) in South Africa. The story follows the fate of three court-martialed Australian soldiers fighting for the British Empire against a Dutch community of South Africans known as Boers. British forces occupy most of the Boer territory. In order to defeat the Boers' efficient guerrilla tactics, the British form an elite brigade known as Busveldt Carbineers. The troop is made up largely of Australian soldiers like lieutenants Harry "Breaker" Morant (Edward Woodward), Peter Handcock (Bryan Brown), and George Wilton (Lewis Fitz-Garfield), the three men standing trial.
Nicknamed "Breaker" for his horse-breaking skills, lieutenant Morant is an experienced soldier and a keen poet. The murder and mutilation of his troop's beloved Captain Hunt by Boer fighters sends Morant into a fitful rage. Under orders from Britain's Lord Kitchener, that Boer soldiers be killed rather than taken prisoner, Morant orders the firing-squad killing of a Boer guerrilla caught wearing the khaki uniform of his deceased captain. The order makes up the court's primary accusation, along with an allegation concerning the murder of a German priest.
Beresford's elegant use of long-shot compositions provide scale for the untamed landscape of the region. A quaint stone fort prison and courthouse serves as an arid stage for the mangled legal proceedings that give way to haunting flashback sequences. Major J.F. Thomas (Jack Thompson) is the inexperienced attorney assigned on short notice to defend the three accused men. Their position as scapegoats for the British Army becomes increasingly clear. British military chiefs use the trial as a public relations ploy toward ending their military occupation. Pressure from German forces threatening to aid the Boer community is a concern. "This is what comes of empire-building." "Breaker Morant" is an anti-war film that takes no prisoners.
Breaking the Waves
When you are watching a moving film like Lars von Trier's 1995 film "Breaking the Waves," it's difficult to imagine that you are witnessing the high watermark of a filmmaker's career. Made shortly after Lars von Trier--he added the "von" himself--co-authored with Thomas Vinterberg the strident "Dogma 95 Manifesto" for low-budget filmmaking, "Breaking the Waves" came with a clarity of vision and social urgency that was an assault on the senses and the intellect. Emily Watson plays Bess McNeill, a simple-minded Scottish Calvinist churchgoer who marries Jan Nyman (terrifically played by Stellan Skarsgard), and oil rig worker who suffers a terrible accident that leaves him paralyzed. When Jan asks Bess to go out and have sex with other men and report back to him her experiences, Bess takes his wishes beyond the realm of common sense, due to her skewed interpretation of doing God's work through carnal activities.
Fiercely criticized for its shaky hand-held camerawork, which gives the film an ungrounded feel of floating on roiling waves, the story is separated by colorful postcard chapter headings. Von Trier launches a clever attack on organized religion that resonates with Buñuel's famous line "I'm an atheist, thank God." Emily Watson gives an angelic, earth-shattering performance that is transformative, cathartic, and brutally painful. Here is a film that makes you feel like you've read the novel, seen the movie, and lived the life of a more empathetic protagonist than any you've ever encountered. You might need a stiff drink afterward, though.
Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia
Fermented in a tragic romanticism placed firmly in a no-man's land between liberation and capitalism, Sam Peckinpah's 1974 thriller is a film that sticks in your mind's eye like a lingering sun spot. Independently made outside the dulling influence of Hollywood, Warren Oates renders Peckinpah's alter ego as Bennie, an ex-pat piano player working for tips in a Mexican dive bar. The operatic-scaled drama is set in motion when El Jefe (Emilio Fernandez), a ruthless Mexican rancher, discovers that his teenage daughter Theresa is pregnant, and offers a million dollars for the actual head of the man--El Jefe's would-be successor--that impregnated his daughter. Bennie gets wind of the bounty from a couple of slimy hit-men (played by Robert Webber and Gig Young), and plots with his prostitute girlfriend Elita (played with gusto by Isela Vega) to take the head of the man who coincidentally loved Elita before dying in an accident. Although Bennie is unable to confess his love to Elita, their passion is evident in the mutual dream they share for living together once they recover the reward.
Bennie spends the film's second half lugging around Alfredo's head in a fly-swarmed canvas bag that can be read as a metaphor for a film canister that Peckinpah would carry to deliver his latest finished product to greedy cigar chomping producers. The scenes of Warren Oates defending against the pursuing hit men trying to kill him, are substantial for his character's all-or-nothing approach to an increasingly virulent condition of corruption closing in from all sides. "Alfredo Garcia" is an unapologetically cynical film that captures the essence of a dying breed of an American male identity, of which Sam Peckinpah was a card-carrying member. Peckinpah and Oates were men made of hand carved hickory. You know it when you see it.
At 9pm on Saturday, May 27th of 2006, in the Salle Bunuel screening room of the Cannes Palais des Festivals, I saw Giovanni Pastrone's 1914 historical epic masterpiece "Cabiria," as presented by Martin Scorsese, in all its fully restored glory. It was an experience I'll never forget. Onstage, a pianist dressed in a black tuxedo played classical musical accompaniment to the 180-minute story, set during the Punic Wars of the third century B.C. when a young girl named Cabiria is kidnapped with her nurse while Mount Etna erupts in the background. Sold off to be sacrificed at the temple of Moloch, Cabiria's only hope for rescue lies in the hands of Fulvio Axilla (Umberto Mozzato), a Roman spy, and his muscle-bound slave Maciste (Bartolomeo Pagano).
To watch Pastrone's seminal film is to understand how the Italian violinist-turned-filmmaker invented grand spectacle cinema with the use of enormous scale and a long running time--it was the first film to be over three-hours long. For "Cabiria," Pastrone pioneered the use of deep-focus filming and the since-ubiquitous "tracking-shot"--two years before D.W. Griffith's "Birth of a Nation" would employ similar techniques. There isn't much in a modern director like James Cameron's bag of hi-tech tricks that can take your breath away the way "Cabiria" does. The exotic drama, suspense, and daring stunts on display in Pastrone's film of "12,000 shots" is every bit, if not more effective, than that of modern filmmakers whose use green-screen CGI is frequently used more as a crutch than a meaningful storytelling technique. "Cabiria" sits comfortably alongside such grand scale silent films as Sergei Eisenstein's "The Battleship Potemkin" (1925), Fritz Lang's "Metropolis" (1927), and Abel Gance's "Napoleon" (1925). If you ever have an opportunity to view any of these great films in their restored state, don't hesitate to witness the creation of cinema's rich vernacular at its source.
Carnival of Souls
A spontaneous stoplight drag race between three young women and a couple of daredevil boys ends in the watery death of the girls. Inexplicably the film's ghostly protagonist Mary Henry (Candace Hillgoss) later emerges from the river and takes on a job as a church organist (this in spite of her lack of religious affiliation). Director Herk Harvey utilized his experience making hundreds of documentary, educational, industrial films to create this low budget 1962 achievement in gothic surrealism, which draws on elements of Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho" (1960).
Inspired by Ambrose Bierce's "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," the eerie story (written by screenwriter John Clifford) follows Mary through a daily life of social alienation and dread. Mary's grip on reality slips over a period of days as she is drawn away from the boarding house where she lives to an abandoned amusement park (Salt Lake City's "Saltair") where she meets the promised "carnival of souls" with whom she rightly belongs. It's easy to see how "Carnival of Souls" influenced George A. Romero's seminal "Night of the Living Dead" (made six years later). Mary represents a deeply troubled waking corpse whose induction to death must occur through a danse macabre amid a carnival setting with a party of ghastly human figures. The film's subdued black and white photography contributes considerably to its poetic palate of physical and emotional coldness.
Although it was made in 1942, "Casablanca" is still the greatest romantic drama ever made. The obsessive longing and regret that Humphrey Bogart's Rick and Ingrid Bergman's Ilsa feel for one another is magnified by the relentless social conditions that they find themselves in when fate brings them together after many years apart. WWII Casablanca is a dangerous place for an ex-patriate American and even more so for the girl of a French Resistance Freedom Fighter.
Casablanca is an exotic location where a separated couple of dyed-in-the-wool lovers can reinvent their overpowering mutual love should they so choose unless the man, an apparent apolitical cynic, opts to sacrifice their once-in-a-lifetime chance in the name of a greater human cause. Such is the nature of director Michael Curtiz's film that features remarkable performances from Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet, and Claude Rains. Broken into three clearly defined acts--the script was based on a stage play--and beautifully filmed with noir-inflected shadows by the great cinematographer Arthur Edeson ("The Maltese Falcon"), "Casablanca" has a way of refreshing itself the more times you view it. Between the heavily layered visual image systems at work and the crisscrossing elements of social unrest and suppressed emotion, lies a movie that captures romantic lightening in a bottle. It doesn't hurt that Bogart and Bergman come together like flash paper to flame. The bitter sweetness of love never looked, or sounded, so good.
"Cemetery Man" (1994) is a quirky blend of romance, lust, surrealism, horror, and black comedy which transcends the work of better-known Italian horror maestros like Dario Argento thanks to its grotesquely humorous bent. Based on a novel and comic book by Tiziano Sclavi , director Michele Soavi's avant-garde Gothic film relies upon romantic theme of macabre sexual desire. Central to the film's postmodern tone is Rupert Everett's inspired performance as Francesco Dellamorte ("St. Francis of Death"), a cemetery caretaker in Buffalora, Italy whose daily duties include dealing with killing "returners" (zombies) that perpetually rise from their graves.
The charismatic Everett is at the height of his powers playing a reputed "impotent" man who hasn't got "time for the living." Francesco is aided in his graveyard work by constant sidekick Gnaghi (Francios Hadji-Lazaro), a socially inept character dedicated to his emotionally confused master. The voluptuous Anna Falchi plays a recent widow who appears to Francesco to be the most beautiful living woman he's ever seen--a fact that Ms. Falchi's scenes bear out. A bite from a zombie transforms her into a magnificent corpse able to seduce Francesco in a most painful manner. Falchi returns later as a platonically obsessed girl whose romantic mixed messages eventually send Francesco on a quest to forever eradicate "love" from his vocabulary. Marked by a clever series of escalating reversals including murder, "Cemetery Man" is a dark and thought-provoking allegory about friendship and romantic deception. The outside world beyond the cemetery is nothing.
Un Chien Andalou
Before their volatile relationship between Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali soured, the two surrealists created cinema's purest example of surrealism . It is a combination of dream and nightmare from an actively surreal perspective. The 17-minute film started riots when it premiered in Paris in 1929. Bunuel carried rocks in his pockets to throw at his attackers. Famous for a scene of the slitting of a woman's eye with a straight-razor, the film remains in heavy rotation in America's college classes where it's shown in a variety of academic contexts. There is a certain circus sideshow quality in the way Bunuel and Dali gloat over their strange images, like a swarm of ants erupting from a hole in the middle of a man's hand. With irreverent abandon the maverick artists provoke the audience with a movie that celebrates film's adaptive ability to expose the sub-conscious mind. "Un Chien Andalou" is 17-minutes of sheer genius.
Like "Casablanca," "Chinatown" represents a perfect storm of enormous cinema talent coming together under an intoxicating noir setting. Robert Towne's screenplay is the stuff of legend--a perfectly sculpted script without a scrap of fat on it. The setting is '30s era Los Angeles where political wrangling over water rights for the area is cause for more than a little criminal activity on every level of social strata. In a career-topping performance, Jack Nicholson plays private detective J.J. "Jake" Gittes, hired by a squirrelly dame named Ida (Diane Ladd), posing as Evelyn Mulwray, to follow her water commissioner husband Hollis Mulwray (Darrell Zwerling) on suspicion of cheating. The web of deceit that Jake enters into costs him dearly on the way toward a downbeat ending that still shocks audiences. Conspiracy, incest, and murder triangulate in a real historical context of Los Angeles' scandalous past. For her part, as the real Evelyn Mulwray, Faye Dunaway plays a tragic figure of iconic proportions--a tainted heroine doomed to be violently misunderstood. "Chinatown" would be Roman Polanski's last American film, and as such carries a particular aura of the unavoidable hand of fate. The film was nominated in eleven Oscar categories in 1974, and won for Best Screenplay.
This cinematic treatment of Richard Jessup’s novel, about an up-and-coming ’30s poker champ, benefited from screenwriting contributions by Ring Lardner Jr. (M*A*S*H) and Terry Southern (Easy Rider). However, it’s the film’s stellar cast, along with a gritty narrative and stylized direction, that makes "The Cincinnati Kid" (1965) the best poker movie ever. Hotshot poker player Eric Stoner, a.k.a. “The Kid” (Steve McQueen), goes up against old-guard poker master Lancey Howard, a.k.a. “The Man” (Edward G. Robinson), in a marathon game of five-card stud that will decide if The Man will be replaced. Roguish Rip Torn plays Slade, a spiteful local tycoon with a vested interest in seeing Howard beaten after being “gutted” in a poker game by The Man.
The film’s characters are clearly defined by their actions leading up to the final poker scene so that we comprehend Stoner and Howard as serious poker competitors who view money as a tool to poker as “language is to thought.” When the final hand is played, Stoner has cleverly quelled Slade’s attempt to fix the game in his favor with a cheating dealer (Karl Malden), and has worn Howard down in spite of The Man’s various attempts to psyche him out. McQueen and Robinson exhibit perfect poker-faced control in the scene as they each go “all in” with the makings of a full house against a straight flush. The big poker lesson here is that “sometimes the cards fuck you.” Neither Hollywood nor poker gets any truer than that.
"Citizen Kane" occupies the first place slot in more lists of the best films ever made than any other. At the young age of 26, Orson Welles built on his already unbelievably prodigious career to make a movie loosely based on newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst's rise to dictatorial power in the media world.
Originally entitled "American," the script was written by Herman J. Mankiewicz, before being doctored by Welles. Although Welles' film was far from a biography of Hearst, a rough cut was screened by gossip columnist Louella Parsons who reported back to Hearst that it was indeed an unauthorized biography of him, and he set about attempting to purchase its original negative. The film is book-ended by the mysterious use of the word "rosebud" that the elderly Kane utters in the opening scene as the last thing he says before dying. The movie goes on to reveal in flashback the story of media maverick Charles Foster Kane who, after being separated from his parents as a teenager, goes on to wield enormous political and financial power. Joseph Cotton occupies a central role as Kane's best friend Jedediah Leland, who provides reporter Jerry Thompson (William Alland) with key elements of Kane's rise. As Thompson queries more of Kane's friends and associates, flashbacks build to reveal the significance of "rosebud" for the audience if not the reporter.
Welles's pioneering techniques of dialogue, editing, sound, and dramatic form are unmistakable for the 1940 film that would go on to win only one Oscar--for screenwriting. While "Citizen Kane's" famous reputation over-leverages its ability to satisfy modern audiences for the expectations they might bring to "the best film ever made," it is nonetheless an impressive dramatic epic that articulates some of the myths of capitalist America in a personal and human way. For that reason alone, "Citizen Kane" is essential viewing for any lover of cinema, history, or of both.
A Clockwork Orange
There's Stanley Kubrick's "A Clockwork Orange," and then there's everything else. Kubrick's 1971 adaptation of Anthony Burgess's complex literary satire of crime and punishment is an earth-shattering cinematic experience that elicits an unprecedented visceral response from its audience. Malcolm McDowell plays British thug and sociopath Alex De Large, who wanders around a futuristic, economically ravished Britain where trash fills the streets. Alex lends friendly narration to the audience that he calls "brothers" as he incites violence with a band of delinquent misfits (called "droogs") at his command.
McDowell's complex characterization is simultaneously replusive and alluring. His daringly over-the-top performance gives the film its unique thematic hook. Alex gets imprisoned after viciously raping and murdering an upper-class woman in her home with a large plastic phallus. Rather than go to prison our unfortunate anti-hero opts to undergo a torturous rehabilitation therapy (the "Ludovico technique") involving forced viewings of Nazi war films accompanied by Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. The proven effects of the treatment lead to Alex's release into a society where he is repeatedly punished for his past transgressions.
"A Clockwork Orange" proved a crucial touchstone for significant cultural shifts in music and film. '70s era filmmakers like Coppola and Scorsese were liberated by Kubrick's visionary approach to style, form, and subject matter. Many aspects of the punk rock movement are directly attributable to it. The film is intoxicating in its use of atmosphere, music, and irony to excite the viewer's imagination at a palpitating tempo. Everything comes as surprise for the voyeuristic viewer who is implicated in every criminal act of citizen and state. We are all victim, killer, police, and legislator. Sleep on that, if you can.
Come and See
Stalingrad-born Elem Klimov's brilliant Soviet-era "Come and See" is an undiluted expression of cinematic poetry in the service of an unspeakably turbulent, fact-based, antiwar narrative about the 628 Belarusian villages burnt to the ground along with their inhabitants by German forces during World War II. The film is a harrowing vision of a genocide hell on Earth that makes Hieronymus Bosch's most gruesome compositions pale by comparison. The electricity-buzzing stench of death and social decay hangs over the picture's repeating volley between neo-realistic, formal, and documentary styles that Klimov uses to depict as wide a range of wartime experience as possible. Klimov takes the viewer on a quicksilver descent into the existential madness of war as seen through the eyes of its 14-year-old peasant protagonist Florya. Alexei Kravchenko's extraordinary performance as the film's narrative guide encompasses a lifetime of suffering over a period of a few brutal days of the Nazi invasion.
In 2000, Elem Klimov gave up filmmaking because he felt that he had done "everything that was possible." The visionary filmmaker died on October 26, 2003, and he was right. "Come and See" is a war film that accomplishes everything possible in cinema, then reinvents it. Clear your schedule and see it.
Made between "The Spider's Stratagem" (1969) and "Last Tango in Paris," (1972), "The Conformist" (1970) is Bernardo Bertolucci's immaculate work of cinematic art about the conflicted mindset of a man who carries out Mussolini's fascist ideology. Bertolucci's self-penned script is based on the same-titled novel by Alberto Moravia, and tells of Marcello Clerici (exquisitely played by Jean-Louis Trintignant) who, when he was a boy, murdered a chauffeur that attempted to sexually molest him. As an adult, Marcello takes a job as an assassin working for Mussolini's secret police. In order to conceal the murder he committed as a child, Marcello desperately wants to become an ultimate social conformist within the "normal reality" of fascism. While on honeymoon in Paris with his wife Giulia (Stefania Sandrelli), Marcello takes an assignment to assassinate Professor Quadri (Enzo Tarascio), a former teacher who espouses anti-fascist ideals. A romantic affair with Quadri's bi-sexual wife Anna (Dominique Sanda) weighs heavily on Marcello's act of violence that reveals the extent of his cowardice.
Cinematographer Vittorio Storaro works with a painterly eye for transmitting Bertolucci's thematic image system wherein light and dark represent Marcello's caged psychology of a fractured unconscious and conscious mind. Storaro's formal compositions and elegant camera movements are breathtaking in their dynamic precision. The film's use of expressive Italian and French locations, and fascinating architectural designs, provide it with an enormity of fascist influence that is enthralling as it is intimidating. Conformity is a specter Marcello can only chase.
The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover
Peter Greenaway's reputation as Britain's most ferocious intellectual filmmaker reached its apex in 1989 with his sixth feature film. Although everything about this black comedy including its tongue-twisting title challenges audiences, "The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover" remains Greenaway's most successful effort. Methodically constructed in the Jacobean form of Elizabethan revenge tragedies, the movie is an unrestrained attack on Margaret Thatcher's version of Ronald Reagan-style capitalism that infected the globe.
Greenaway conceived his film as a play, "a performance," with which the audience is meant to engage. His strict adherence to formal laws of theatrical dramaturgy, including proscenium staging, is attenuated by a non-stop assault of physical and verbal violence from the film's loathsome antagonist Albert Spica. In the role of Albert, Michael Gambon embodies his boorish character with a virulent toxicity of epic scale.
Greenaway lets the audience know what it's in for during a tense opening sequence. Albert dislodges the owner of a haute cuisine restaurant named Le Hollandaise. The restaurant's proprietor "Roy"--note the allusion to a "king"--hasn't been keeping up on his protection payments to Albert, a mean-spirited mob boss with a taste for fine dishes he can barely pronounce. Peter Greenaway predicted a future he hoped wouldn't arrive. It did. The vicious way Albert tortures Roy and smears his nude body with feces reflects the same cruel brand of devastating psychological humiliation later committed by guards at Guantánamo prison.
Against Albert's orders his elegant wife Georgina (Helen Mirren) smokes cigarettes as a singular act of insubordination. Knowing her turn will come, she nevertheless tolerates Albert's brutish behavior toward others. Inside the grand restaurant Albert confers with his "employee," a veteran French chef named Richard (Richard Bohringer), about the menu. The dining room's red color scheme is watched over by Dutch painter Frans Hals's "Banquet of the Officers of the St. George Civic Guard Company"--another thematic poke by the filmmaker. Albert spews his cockney variety of verbal bile at a large rectangular table that allows for Greenaway's formal tableaux compositions to blossom. Challenging thematic ideas come in spades.
Striking costumes by Jean-Paul Gautier and a haunting musical score by Michael Nyman augment the film's purposefully artificial execution. Georgina strikes up an affair with Michael (Alan Howard), a solitary man who reads as he dines across from Albert's table of savages. Over the course of the next few nights the lovers retreat to the restaurant's bathroom and kitchen to make love between courses. Their trysts represent a desperate escape of independent thinkers from an oppressive outside world that would just as soon eat them alive, or dead."The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover" is a masterpiece of British cinema built on several hundred years of literary tradition. The film must be viewed more than once to begin to digest its pungent and subtle layers of rope-thick satire.
So much controversy swirled around William Friedkin’s gay-themed cop thriller when it came out in 1980 that audiences avoided it like the plague. But a lot of upcoming filmmakers saw "Cruising" and took notes. "Cruising" soon became the prototype for every serial killer movie to follow (see "Se7en," "Basic Instinct" etc.). Friedkin’s trademark interest in the minutiae of brutality gets a perfect setting in Manhattan’s pre-AIDS-era leather bars, where a serial killer is stalking his victims. Al Pacino is transfixing as Steve Burns, an undercover cop sent to investigate the case from the inside. Friedkin pulls no punches in representing semi-public displays of homosexuality that play out within dark cavernous sex clubs. This shocking and suspenseful environment provides the film with an image system that seeps into the increasingly erratic behavior of Pacino’s stoic character.
There was always some question about whether the ambiguous ending was the one Friedkin wanted, since the studio exerted editing powers over the film. Not only were the graphic scenes replaced in the film's updated version, but also the misunderstood ending has been left exactly as it was. The question isn’t whether or not Steve Burns is a killer, but rather how his on-the-job sexual experiences changed him personally. Like all great controversial films, this one leaves its psychological hook for audiences to hash out over kitchen counter conversations.
The first of Luchino Visconti's "German Trilogy" of films that included "Death in Venice" and "Ludwig" is set in high society Germany during the early '30s where the Essenbecks, an industrialist family--modeled after the Krupp family's steel production company--are brought down and taken over by the Nazis after the infamous Reichstag fire. The Essenbecks' anti-Nazi patriarch Baron Joachim (Albrecht Schoenhals) is murdered by the SS, and his company's like-minded vice president Herbert Thallmann (Umberto Orsini) is indicted for the crime before escaping the from Gestapo that soon incarcerates his wife (Charlotte Rampling) and children at Dachau. Visconti stylishly captures the frenzied debauchery and violence that the Nazis employed throughout the era, including the Night of the Long Knives wherein Hitler's execution squads massacred his political enemies--the paramilitary Brownshirts known as the SA.
Written by Visonti, with Enrico Medioli and Nicola Badalucco, "The Damned" (1969) is an incendiary precursor to Nazi era films like Liliana Cavani's "The Night Porter" (1974), Tinto Brass's "Salon Kitty" (1976), and even the musical play and film "Cabaret." By boldly confronting the psycho-sexual depravity of the Nazi mindset, all the way through to is inevitable incestuous nature, Visconti creates a specific cinematic vernacular for viewing and discussing Hitler's manic ideology. That Visconti's iconic vision became a cinematic touchstone for other influential filmmakers is a testament to the Italian director's power as a storyteller and conduit of historical information.
Death in the Garden
Luis Buñuel's rarely seen "Death in the Garden" is a survivalist suspense film with a subtle dose of political and religious commentary. Arriving two years on the heels of Henri-Georges Clouzot's similarly themed "Wages of Fear," Bunuel even recasts Charles Vanel in a role not far removed from the doomed character he played in Clouzot's masterpiece. The story announces its leftist stance from the start, when a consortium of diamond miners in an unnamed South American country get their operation shut down by the local military, which is acting in concert with corporate and religious honchos. Vanel plays Castin, an aging miner whose presence during a bloody battle with soldiers leads to a $5000 price being placed on his head. Castin's situation is all the more dire because he needs to care for his mute daughter Maria (Michele Girardon). With the help of Father Lizardi (Michel Piccoli) and Djin (Simone Signoret), an opportunist prostitute, Castin and Maria escape by boat in the middle of the night, only to be joined by dastardly roustabout Shark (Georges Marchal), also a wanted man. With their would-be captors in hot pursuit, the group heads ashore into a thick jungle where their personal agendas run smack into Mother Nature.
It's clear that a rushed shooting schedule cost the film some crucial scenes that would have spelled out a key character's collapse into insanity. Still, Buñuel manages to squeeze in an especially apt surreal metaphor involving a snake, and goes one better with the broken phallic symbol of a crashed airplane as a symbol of capitalism's corrupt value system.
Luis Bunuel's most financially successful film is an absurdist satire that puts the strictures of upper class society under a pulverizing gaze to examine its many hipocrisies. The role of organized religion, the military, politicians, and the ruling classes are lambasted for thier ambivalent attitudes, shallow values, and ritualized conventions of avoidance. Where the characters of Bunuel's 1962 film "The Exterminating Angel" were unable to leave the room of their dinner party, the well-dressed dinner guests of "The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie" are unable to dine regardless of where they go.
A wealthy couple, Alice and Henri Senechal (Stephane Audran and Jean-Pierre Cassel), are surprised by the arrival of their four dinner guests on the wrong night. The six friends set off together in search of a civilized meal but are thwarted at every turn. A visit to a familiar restaurant turns into a wake for the former owner, whose corpse occupies an adjacent room. At another would-be feast, a curtain goes up to reveal an audience watching the hungry diners who sit at a table onstage for an unannounced theatrical presentation. Bunuel blends reveries with nightmares to expose chilling realities that simmer beneath the surface of polite society. Time-flipping segues, flashbacks, and bizarre events break up the narrative with an offf-kilter sense of gallows humor. A priest taking confession from a dying man learns that the man was responsible for killing the priest's parents many years ago. Terrorist attacks are commonplace. Bunuel doesn't just take the piss out of his muted representatives of societal repression; he makes them victims of their own devices.
The director's signature surrealistic approach comes across in his asymmetrical justaposition of props, such as rubber chickens or a Napoleon-styled hat. Bunuel doesn't just ridicule, he pokes and prods at his dubious subjects with a gleeful delight. Such priceless cynical joy you won't find anywhere else.
Do the Right Thing
Spike Lee's 1989 breakout movie was a cinematic bellwether of the racial tensions in America that exploded during the Los Angeles riots of 1992. Filmed in a deliberately theatrical style, the New York-centric story is set up with an energetic credit sequence featuring Public Enemy's defining song "Fight the Power." Rosie Perez hip-hop dances in front of red-hot tinted Brooklyn backgrounds with a confrontational rage that redoubles the song's furious content about America's history of racism.
Lee was inspired to write the film after an incident that happened in the Howard Beach section of Queens. Three black motorists were stranded with a flat tire. While calling for roadside assistance, the men were chased out of a pizzeria by a gang of baseball bat-wielding Italian thugs. One of the black men was struck and killed by a car while attempting to escape across a highway.
Set in the racially diverse Brooklyn neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant (a.k.a. Bed-Stuy) Spike Lee plays Mookie, a fair-minded young black man who lives with his sister Jade (Joie Lee). It's the hottest day of summer, when the homicide rate increases exponentially with the mercury. Mookie delivers pizza for the Italian-owned Sal's Famous Pizzeria, much to the chagrin of Sal's racist son Pino (John Turturro). Tensions start to simmer when Mookie's pal Buggin' Out (Giancarlo Esposito) takes umbrage at Sal's (Danny Aiello) "Wall of Fame" that features an exclusive collection of photos of American-Italians. Buggin' Out demands a boycott of Sal's. Down the street at a Korean-owned bodega, the neighborhood philosopher--a lush named Da Mayor (Ossie Davis)--can't buy his favorite brand of beer. As a slice-of-life time capsule of '80s New York social existence, "Do the Right Thing" effortlessly spins like a rhythmically timed roulette wheel between a community of characters who are archetypal rather than walking clichés. Lee's inspired dialectic approach harkens back to the Group Theater's social critique plays of the '30s. "Do the Right Thing" is a film whose ability to entertain, provoke, and question has not diminished.
La Dolce Vita
Before Federico Fellini's highly stylized "La Dolce Vita" won the Golden Palm at Cannes in 1960 and introduced the world to modern Rome's decadent realm of paparazzi, pseudo-intellectuals and working class individuals against an urban wasteland of rootless existence. The film marked Fellini's break from neo-realism and conventional narrative structure, and stood as a defining and incalculably influential moment in cinema. Told over a period of seven nights and seven days, the story follows suave journalist Marcello (Marcello Mastroianni) as he flits between nightclubs, cafes, press conferences, churches and beds on an impotent quest for unattainable women. 'The sweet life' is shown as a hollow goal beyond the grasp even of those at its euphoric center. The satire on display is so simultaneously subtle yet blatant that the movie itself is intoxicating.
Billy Wilder's 1944 film noir "Double Indemnity" stars Fred MacMurray as Walter Neff, a sharp Los Angeles insurance salesman convinced by Barbara Stanwyck's sultry character Phyllis into murdering her husband in order to collect double the amount of her insurance policy. "Double Indemnity" received Seven Academy Award nominations and remains one of the best loved film noir movies for good reason. Edward G. Robinson stars as MacMurray's by-the-book claims adjuster associate, but it's Barbara Stanwyck that rules the roost as one of cinema's most diabolically cunning femme fatals. Cinematographer John F. Seitz ("Sullivan's Travels" - 1941) contributes notably to the film's claustrophobic black-and-white atmosphere with ingenious camera angles and sharp use of exactly-lit compositions to create a fascinating image system. "Double Indemnity" received seven Oscar nominations, including Best Actress, Best Director, and Best Picture.
Ladies fainted when Bela Lugosi rose from his coffin as a vampire in the 1927 Broadway production of "Dracula" that preceded Tod Browning's brilliant 1931 film version that had an equally chilling effect on movie audiences. Playwright Hamilton Deane based his lean script on Bram Stoker's famous novel, and introduced horror to the era of sound film. Dwight Frye's eerie performance as Renfield, the hapless British accountant who dares set foot inside Dracula's foreboding castle, sets a tone of ghoulish insanity that the vampire instills in men. For his well-established part, Lugosi is positively blood-curdling as he stalks every scene with his thick native Hungarian accent and dapper tuxedo and cape. "Dracula" is more than a milestone of cinematic horror, it represents a marriage of nightmare and reality that establishes an American gothic sensibility for other dramatic genres that followed. Stark, cold, and deeply sensual, "Dracula's" atmosphere and intention is rooted in a fear of unknown lust and desire from which there can be no escape. To view "Dracula" is to be bitten by the vampire's desperate attack.
Produced during the heyday of famed British film production company Hammer, "Dracula Has Risen From the Grave" (1968) is a high watermark for the franchise. Directed by Oscar-winning cinematographer and director Freddie Francis (cinematographer of Scorsese's version of "Cape Fear"), "Dracula Has Risen" departs from Hammer's signature campy style. Building on the Transylvanian Count role he first portrayed in the 1958 "Horror of Dracula," Christopher Lee is a vampire of few words. Lee uses his transfixing stare and perfect hair to hypnotize his subjects, whose numbers inevitably grow after he is revived from death by the blood of a priest which melts through the ice where Dracula is buried.
Said unlucky priest proves his fealty as Dracula's first loyal subject when he digs up a recently filled grave to supply a coffin for his new master. The evicted corpse provides a shock of gruesome surprise. In a local village Maria (Veronica Carlson), the niece of the visiting Monsignor (Rupert Davies), is carrying on a promising affair with the baker's virile young assistant Paul (Barry Andrews). Scriptwriter Anthony Hinds's spatially compact narrative contains the action in and around the bakery; the business also serves as a tavern and rooming house. Maria likes to climb out her bedroom window to inch around the rooftops--think London--that lead to Paul's own nearby bedroom.
Most impressive is the film's establishing scene. A local altar boy arrives at church in order to perform his bell-ringing duties. Blood from the bell tower drips down the rope. The source is a recently murdered girl, who hangs upside down within the bell. This traumatic event has an immediate effect on the poor altar boy; he goes mute. The sequence establishes a dark sense of human tragedy that extends across the film's less suspenseful moments.
"Dracula Has Risen From the Grave" contains many iconic elements. Dracula's red-lined cape disguises his superhuman abilities to perform superhuman feats. It wouldn't be a vampire movie without one stake through the heart, though it's never explained Dracula survives the assassination attempt. Christopher Lee's death-by-crucifix ending stands as one of the most iconic gothic images ever recorded in cinematic vampire lore.
Leo Macarey's 1933 Marx Brothers movie was overlooked by audiences during its depression-era release but received a much-deserved re-release in the '60s that found a welcoming young audience. The tiny republic of Freedonia is in economic collapse and turns rich widow Mrs. Gloria Teasdale (Margaret Dumont) who promptly replaces the its President with one insanely irreverent Rufus T. Firefly (hilariously played by Groucho Marx). Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and Zeppo (in his last appearance) deliver their anarchic slapstick satire with a vengeance. Groucho's famously sung line, "If you think this country's bad off now, just wait 'till I get through with it" promises a kind of comic uproar that Hollywood can only dream of. Watch for the famous "mirror scene" in which Harpo--dressed as Groucho--matches Groucho's every movement in a non-existent mirror--pure comic genius.
Federico Fellini's "8 1/2" (made in 1963) is an act of artistic desperation. The film insured the great italian filmmaker's permanent departure from the neo-realist style that made up his previous films, including his most recent departure from traditional narrative structure "La Dolce Vita" (1960). Fellini had mastered narrative drama and needed to challenge himself as an artist. But he went to his modernist destiny confused, kicking and dancing the whole way, just as his simplified alter-ego Marcelo Mastroianni does in "8 1/2" as Guido Anselmi.
Guido is a hugely popular filmmaker who everyone wants to be associated with. Producers, mistresses, crew members, actors, family members, and friends all want to possess Guido or at least to take a piece of his talent with them. The best way for them to do this is to be associated with the film he is currently making. Indeed, the movie is as much about them as it is about his own obsessions. Fellini's thematic goal is to mirror on a grand scale every aspect of his own soul that he can touch or project. Guido engages in a journey of self that necessarily includes his splintered fantasy visions of female archetypes that he will use and discard as his whims dictate.
Filmed almost entirely on artificial sets, "8 1/2" is a pure exploration inside the mind of a director's cinematic imagination during a midlife crisis. Its title expresses the film's position as an in-between movie made on the way to Fellini's ninth feature "Juliet of the Spirits." The original title was "La Bella Confusione" ("The Beautiful Confusion"). However, Fellini strikes at a hotter brand of bewilderment with a title that led some would-be audiences to think it represented pornography. It is rather a dynamic celebration of Fellini's miraculous methods of creating cinematic magic from the fabric of his personal dreams, desires, experiences, and relationship to Italian culture. This is a film you can return to again and again, and still discover new meanings and messages.
With the prodigious assistance of author Terry Southern, Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda created what would become the first water of an artistic independent cinema by and for young-minded people. Wyatt (AKA Captain America - Fonda) and Billy (Hopper) are modern-day cowboys testing the boundaries of American freedom circa 1969 on a cocaine financed cross-country motorcycle road trip toward their dream of an early retirement escape to Florida. The trouble is that everything they want to escape is all that's inside them, and all that waits for them. Jack Nicholson's Faulkner-inspired doomed attorney character George Hanson is a masterstroke of literary inspiration paired with equal parts optimism and cynicism. “Easy Rider” is a scrupulously authentic and yet surreal cinematic experiment about the impotent ‘60s counter-culture movement that naively attempted to alter American prejudice and greed, something that the movement itself was just as guilty of perpetrating. "Easy Rider" stands up as a profound period piece that continues to reverberate with the despondent hostilities woven deeply inside modern American existence. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise, "Easy Rider" is a masterpiece.
David Lynch's immersion in the surreal world of his protagonist Henry Spencer (Jack Nance) comes through in a creepy black-and-white horror movie of sorts. "Eraserhead" provided an offset balm to the crush of 1977 Hollywood blockbusters like "Star Wars" when it was released. Hugely popular among the Midnight Movie crowd, the story follows fright-wig Harry through painfully slow and strange events centered around romantic relations with his none-too-forthcoming girlfriend Mary. It seems Harry has become a father--but how, and to what kind of freaky creature baby? Time drips like old paint in Lynch's surreal experiment, that revels in all things upsetting, disorienting, dark, and mysterious.
Director Brent MacKenzie’s black-and-white documentary/narrative genre blender about urbanized Native Americans in 1961 Los Angeles is a cold glass of cinematic water drawn from the same well as Joseph Strick’s "The Savage Eye" (1960). MacKenzie uses editorial voice-over narration to elaborate on his reckless characters’ existential lifestyle during a night of carousing amid LA’s impoverished Bunker Hill neighborhood where the steeply inclined "Angel’s Flight" trolley car delivered passengers into the thick of its immigrant community. Bold in its visionary attempt to capture an essence of American Indian reality that is evermore significant today for its strangled condemnation of America’s betrayal of a people it murdered and displaced before such war crimes became articulated in our common vernacular, "The Exiles" is a one-of-a-kind film.
On the day after Christmas in 1973, Oscar-winning director William Friedkin followed up the tremendous success he enjoyed with "The French Connection" (1971), with the most daring horror film ever made; an adaptation of William Peter Blatty’s novel "The Exorcist." Blatty, a devout Catholic, had been inspired by a 1949 Washington Post article entitled "Priest Frees Mt. Rainier Boy Reported Held In Devil’s Grip," and carefully crafted his novel around the area in Georgetown where he attended Jesuitical Georgetown University. It was a classically compelling American Gothic legend that set up an earth-shattering physical and religious battle between good and evil over the possessed body of a young girl named Regan MacNeil (unforgettably played by Linda Blair). Regan’s possessed entity was, and is, the closest vision of sheer evil to ever appear in fictive film. It was only fitting that the two exorcists attempting to save Regan’s life, by expelling the demon within her, offered up and ultimately sacrificed their lives. The supernatural incidents are resolved in the closing scenes of the movie, but the potential for evil to grip mortal humans is a ghost that lurks in the memories of every audience that sees "The Exorcist."
The 400 Blows
Francois Truffaut's debut film not only galvanized the Nouvelle Vague (New Wave) movement of French cinema, but also generated a personal language of cinema that Truffaut would elaborate on for the rest of his career. Based on Truffaut’s troubled childhood "Les quatre cent coups" represents a chapter of narrative history seemingly ripped from his personal diary. Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Leaud) is the precocious yet well meaning child of ambivalent parents. Circumstances at school and at home conspire against Antoine when his every minor indiscretion is perceived as a sign of irredeemable delinquency. It isn’t long before Antoine is conforming to the color that his character has been painted, and finds himself in a reform school where he clearly doesn’t belong.
Truffaut gives the audience a bold example of how youthful rebellion is fomented by myopic societal and parental authority figures. Jean-Pierre Leaud’s guileless performance is one of the most affecting and memorable renderings of character in all of world cinema. Antoine’s dire circumstances delineate a specific period of suppressive ideology that existed in Europe and America during the ‘50s and ‘60s. However, the cathartic power of "The 400 Blows" on its audience is timeless and all consuming. I would argue that Truffaut never again achieved the narrative clarity of his first film, because he infused so much individual passion and pain into it. "The 400 Blows" is a profoundly heartrending film that has inspired legions of audience members and would-be directors.
In 1996 the Coen Brothers took black comedy mainstream with the idea that "Fargo" was "a true story." With the buzz of Tarantino's cinema of blood-guns-and-irony penetrating every nostril of filmmakers and audiences alike, the timing couldn't have been better for an unconventional crime story set in the unknowable snow-covered landscapes of Minnesota and North Dakota. William H. Macy gives the understated comic performance of his career as Jerry Lundegaard, a weaselly car salesman (executive sales manager) with big money troubles. Jerry sets tragedy in motion when he hires two hit men (wonderfully played by Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare) to kidnap his wife Jean (Kristin Rudrurd) in order to get a huge ransom from her wealthy dad (Harve Presnell).
The Coens embellish their pressure-cooker plot with the area's regional accent and speech patterns to tweak the comic tone lurking beneath the drama. Frances McDormand is the film's secret weapon. As the Brainerd, Minnesota chief of police, Marge Olmstead-Gunderson, McDormand is one cool detective whose provincial and humane charm disguises a keen nose for details. From its meticulous use of contextualizing camera angles and suspense-building sequences, "Fargo" is the kind of Shakespearian black comedy you can rediscover over and over again. The laughs and shocks never fade. "There's more to life than a little money you know. Don't you know that?"
Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!
Russ Meyer's fetishistic vision of powerful bisexual amazons of mixed ethnic backgrounds engaged in criminal super action exists in a cartoonish world of black and white humor where anything is possible. Light on plot but heavy on attitude, bawdy innuendo, and S&M style "Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! is the kind of exploitation movie that you can barely believe exists even when you're watching it. A gang of three outlaw go-go dancers (played by Lori Williams, Haji, and the unforgettable Tura Satana) go drag racing in the desert and meet up with a young couple. Satana's muscle-flexing Varla kills the pugnacious guy with her bare hands before kidnapping his girlfriend Linda (Susan Bernard) and going on robbery mission. It isn't long before the gang have poor little Linda gagged and bound because, well, she looks great that way. Meyer's audacious sense of eroticism, comic timing, and social satire is impressive, to say the least. "Faster Pussycat" lives up to its outrageous title for as much fun as any audience could have, with their clothes on.
Add David Cronenberg's 1986 version of "The Fly" to the short list of successful remakes in the history of the movies. Cronenberg hit the height of his Hollywood success with a bold update of director Kurt Neumann's 1958 original that starred the great Vincent Price, who famously became spider bait in the film's celebrated final scene. From its ingenious pre-CGI special effects and spellbinding production design, to Jeff Goldblum’s sensational performance, “The Fly” is a masterpiece of cinematic horror that escalates to a degree of white heat. Scientist Seth Brundle (Goldblum) works on a teleportation device when he isn’t courting Geena Davis. Calamity strikes when a common house fly accidentally gets trapped in the teleporter with Seth during an experiment and he becomes fused with the insect. Cronenberg weaves surprise and suspense into a taught tapestry of overpowering emotion and shocking nightmare reality. Gory, gooey, and great, right through to the last frame, this is one horror movie you'll never forget.
The Fog of War
Errol Morris’s seventh film "The Fog of War” initially included “The Eleven Lessons of Robert S. McNamara" in its title to prepare audiences for its highly controversial subject, former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara. Every voice you hear in this must-see documentary is that of McNamara who, from 1961 to 1968 presided over U.S. military actions at the Bay of Pigs, the Cuban Missile Crisis and in Viet Nam. The multiple voices of McNamara that you hear occur from one-on-one interviews with Morris, a mass of press interviews and newly available recorded conversations with Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, that reveal McNamara's well-defined duty to the Presidents he served, and impart an intelligent and heartfelt historical monologue of mammoth proportion. This is the most culturally significant documentary imaginable and should be mandatory for repeated viewing by all public officials the world over.
Rene Clement's 1944 adaptation of Francois Boyer's novel is an exquisitely unsentimental movie about the corruptive effect of war on children. After her parents are killed beside her in an air raid, five-year-old Paulette (played by Brigitte Fossey) carries her dead dog with her as she attempts to reenact of the deaths that have traumatized her. Michel (Georges Poujouly), a young peasant boy, discovers Paulette wandering in the countryside and convinces his family to take her in. Soon, Paulette has Michel stealing crucifies and killing animals for her private animal cemetery, for which she wishes to include human corpses. "Forbidden Games" caused a scandal when it was released in 1952 because it co-opted a fictional story and embellished it with the recent tragedy of war. The film is every bit as controversial today for its transparently passionate view of the permanent damage that war inflicts on its youngest survivors.
Mary Shelley wrote her legendary gothic novel "Frankenstein: The Modern Prometheus" to make good on a wager she made with the poet Lord Byron, while spending the summer of 1816 at his Swiss villa with her husband. Informed by the industrial revolution and scientific experiments of her day, Shelley drew upon the myth of Prometheus and various literary sources to create a shocking horror story that later became the template for the "mad scientist" genre. In 1931 director James Whale made his universally admired film version, which differed considerably from Shelley's novel in that it dealt specifically with the life-infusing process that his considerably more deranged Dr. Frankenstein (brilliantly played by Colin Clive) implemented to bring the monster to life. Whale set a heavy dramatic tone of stark menace with an iconic laboratory set design filled with alluring mechanical devices. Colin Clive's blood curdling reading of the line, "It's alive, it's alive," set against a musically bare soundtrack, instilled in audiences a new type of cinematic fear.
Boris Karloff was a 44-year-old stage and film actor who had successfully made the transition from silent movies to the talkies when he was chosen to play the assemblage of corpses made human. "Frankenstein" afforded Karloff a breakout performance, thanks to the humane sensitivity he brought to the oversized character despite Jack Pierce's gruesome make-up design. The film also incorporated an open-ended tableau to allow for one of the first horror franchises in history. Absolutely essential.
Full Metal Jacket
Stanley Kubrick's complex adaptation of Gustav Hasford's novel "The Short-Timers" is more than an anti-war movie. It is a scathing indictment of a publicly funded military organization that systematically brainwashes American men with religious iconography into machines that "kill everything they see." The film is split into two halves--a before and after format that employs a subliminal mirroring element to underpin the action. The first story follows a group of Marine Corp recruits during their boot training at Parris Island, South Carolina where "Marines are made." Subjected to a constant barrage of ritualized verbal and physical abuse by their cruel drill instructor, Gunnery Sergeant Hartman (R. Lee Ermey), the spectacle-wearing Pvt. Joker (Matthew Modine) provides the film's cloaked propaganda narration from a hypocritical viewpoint that challenges the viewer's sense of empathy with the ersatz protagonist. Next to Modine's metaphorical and tangible "Joker" is Pvt. "Cowboy" (Arliss Howard), and Leonard Lawrence--a.k.a. "Gomer Pyle" (Vincent D'Onofrio). Lawrence is an overweight and childlike recruit who Sergeant Hartman abuses with an escalating ferocity that turns Lawrence into the unit's bête noir. After getting beaten in his sleep by his fellow grunts, Lawrence is "reborn" into the kind of Marine that Sergeant Hartman references when instructively praising the skill of University of Texas sniper Charles Whitman and alleged John F. Kennedy assassin Lee Harvey Oswald, both former Marines.
The film's second half shifts to Vietnam, where D'Onofrio's troubled character is transmogrified into a polar opposite, but facially similar, Adam Baldwin as the able-bodied Sergeant "Animal Mother." Kubrick works precisely with subconscious image systems and symbols to comment on everything from American imperialism to the hidden influence of oil companies to Mickey Mouse, as the "Lusthog Squad" carries out the senseless murders of women and children before fighting a losing battle against a lone sniper. Vietnam war correspondent Michael Herr (author of "Dispatches") co-wrote the script with Kubrick; Herr's personal experiences are evident in the myriad details of the brutal realities portrayed. Where a film like "Apocalypse Now" played fast and loose with conjuring a drug-infected vision of American soldiers in Vietnam, "Full Metal Jacket" (the title refers to a variety of bullet) uses a full range of cinematic language to comment on an institution that "eats its own guts" as it destroys foreign cultures. Exquisite.
Buster Keaton considered "The General" his best film although if flopped at the box office and effectively ruined his career. Made in 1927, the big budget silent film follows Keaton's expressionless train conductor Johnnie Gray. Johnnie keeps a framed photo of his fiancee Annabelle Lee (Marion Mack) by his side as he operates the enormous Southern steam locomotive (the General) toward Annabelle's home in Marietta, Georgia. It is the spring of 1861. During his brief visit with Annabelle the Civil War breaks out. Annabelle makes clear she will have nothing to do with Johnnie unless he enlists in the Confederate army. In spite of Johnnie's best efforts to be the first man to enlist, he's turned away at the recruiting office because he's more valuable to the South in his occupation as a Western & Atlantic Railroad engineer. Unfortunately, on one tells Johnnie the reason they won't allow him to enlist.
The film's centerpiece, a 140-mile locomotive chase-sequence between Marietta and Chattanooga, starts off when a band of Union spies steal the General with Annabelle coincidentally on-board. Oblivious to Annabelle's entrapment, Johnnie chases his prized train on foot before reverting to a handcar, a bicycle, and finally taking over a cannon-equipped locomotive dubbed the Texas. During the ensuing train-on-train chase Keaton performs mind-boggling stunts of balanced precision as he walks and crawls over every inch of the speeding train to do things like fire its cannon or clear railroad ties thrown by the enemy on the tracks in front of him. Keaton's graceful physical poise operates in harmony with the calm facial expressionhe keeps throughout every episode of brawny spectacle. The gifted actor displays an intimate working knowledge of trains in the masterful way he effortlessly manipulates the heavy machinery.
The outline for the story was based on William Pettenger's memoir "The Great Locomotive Chase." A wildly spectacular climax involving a bridge collapse is still impressive by modern standards. Still, the joy of watching "The General" lies in Buster Keaton's carefuly planned stunts that seem instantly improvised in their execution. The contrast betwen the emotional restraint of Keaton's character and his constant exertion of fluid energy is a marvel to behold. "The General," with its updated soundtrack, is a cinematic masterpiece that holds its own agains anything Hollywood has created since. There was only one Buster Keaton. "The General" is his swansong.
The great Hollywood producer Robert Evans is said to have been responsible for bringing the hammer down on Francis Coppola to shape "The Godfather" into the 1972 film that won Oscars for Best Picture, Best Actor, and Best Adapted Screenplay. How much of Evans' genius went into the final cut is a moot mystery, because "The Godfather" stands as a masterpiece of American cinema that reflects the distinctive efforts of a particularly gifted ensemble of a cast, crew, and filmmaker. Mario Puzo's 1969 novel provided the ten-year narrative about the fictional Italian-American Corleone crime family overseen by its patriarch Don Vito Corleone (magnificently played by Marlon Brando in the last truly great performance of his career). Luchino Visconti's influence, vis a vis his 1963 film "The Leopard," is apparent in Coppola's staging of social scenes like the wedding that serves to introduce the audience to the insular world of the Corleone family. Vito's son Michael (Al Pacino) respects his family's values and rules of conduct but suffers from an inner conflict about his participation in the family's crime syndicate until an attack on his father's life brings his sense of responsibility into perspective. Ideals of tradition and familial loyalty ring through Nino Rota's score to ensconce the audience in an atmosphere of unconditional involvement. Like a favored method of Mafia influence, "The Godfather" is an offer no audience can refuse.
Stephen Frears's 1990 masterpiece of neo-noir declares its shadowy intentions during a gorgeous opening credit sequence that features black-and-white photo stills of Los Angeles as a hotbed of lurking danger. A nighttime skyline switches to a stark picture of the famous concrete bed of the LA River. Elmer Bernstein's striking yet pensive musical score acclimatizes the viewer to the kind of sustained apprension they will savor in a delightful way.
Based on the novel by Jim Thompson, "The Grifters" is about three types of con artists working a cross-purposes.
Producer Martin Scorsese's brief voiceover intruduction informs us: "Around the country bookies pay off winners at track odds. It's dangerous when a long shot comes in, unless you have someone at the tracks to lower those odds."
Anjelica Houston's Lilly Dillon is that person. Inside the track Lilly is alol business in her oversized sunglasses, white wig, and tastefully matching skirt and jacket. Lilly places a couple of big bets in order to lower the odds on a horse for her bookmaker boss Bobo Justus (Pat Hingle). In addition to her betting duties, Lilly has perfected the art of pocketing small amounts of money from Bobo over a long period of time. She feeds a false-bottom safe in the trunk of her two-tone Cadillac with cash. Lilly is a professional thief, one who has an eye aimed at a "long con" involving her son Roy (John Cusack).
Roy is a master of the short con. He hustles three or four hundred bucks a week with tricks that cheat bar tenders, unsuspecting suckers, and dice-playing soldier boys. Roy has amassed a sizeable nest egg, but it's not the safest way to make a living. A baseball bat to Roy's gut, courtesy of one very pissed-off bartender, nearly costs Roy his life. Lilly comes to her son's rescue despite a threat from her boss. Bobo has a knoack for violence, whether with a sack of oranges or a lit cigar. The visuals burn a spot in your memory.
While visiting Roy in the hospital Lilly meet's Roy's prostitute girlfriend Myra (Annette Bening). Cat claws come out. It's plain that Lilly and Roy share and unseemly relationship. Lilly is so jealous of Myra she can taste it. She instinctively senses Myra is trying to run a con on Roy. The problem is, so is Lilly.
Anjelica Houston, Annette Bening, and John Cusack share a shining hour in Stephen Frears's impressive career. Frears periodically splits the screen to provide a stylized vantage point for his audience. There's plenty of savor. Hitchcock-inspired compositions complement the film's unwavering tone of modern noir. Although the movie recalls films by the Coen Brothers and the Dahl Brothers, "The Grifters" retains its source material's voice in a thoroughly original way. Here's a neo-noir you can never see too many times.
The Harder They Come
Perry Henzell's 1972 rugged reggae crime story--loosely based on a '40s-era Jamaican folk hero/criminal--plays like a musically-inspired docudrama of the raw social reality of the impoverished island nation in the '70s. Henzell's exclusive use of non-professional actors adds to the film's undiluted commitment to cultural identity under a unique set of military, political, and capitalist circumstances. Co-written by Henzell and Trevor Rhone, this independent masterpiece was released in the States via Roger Corman in 1973. It soon became a midnight-movie cult favorite. Henzell's intuitive use of expressive roots reggae songs makes the perfect impact; songs blend together from recording studios, dance halls, and transistor radios.
Jimmy Cliff plays Ivan Martin, a country boy who moves to Kingston to begin a career as a reggae singer. Ivan's mother sets him up with a local preacher (Basil Kane), whose female charge Elsa (Janey Bartley) attracts Ivan's romantic attention. A bicycle Ivan builds in order to court Elsa incites Ivan to violence when another man tries to keep it. A hard brush with the Jamaican justice system has a lasting effect on Ivan's sense of ambition. After his release, Ivan also discovers cold truths about the Kingston music monopoly presided over by local record producer Hilton (Bob Charlton) when he records an infectious song he's written. "The Harder They Come" correctly helped make Jimmy Cliff an international star--he contributed four songs to the film ("The Harder they Come," "Many Rivers to Cross," "You Can Get it if You Really Want it," and "Sitting in Limbo"). Cliff's charisma comes across with every bead of sweat that drips from his face despite his character's dead-end actions. "The Harder They Come" can also be viewed as a Blaxploitation film inasmuch as it gives clear expression and rebellious action to its ghetto-trapped subjects. The inextricable link between the film's music and its plotline leaves an indelible imprint on your ears and central nervous system. If you want to begin to understand reggae, watch "The Harder They Come."
Harlan County, U.S.A.
One of the finest documentaries ever made, Barbara Kopple’s "Harlan County, U.S.A." is a brilliant exposé about the embattled history of coal miners in America as seen through the very personal prism of striking coal miners in Harlan County, Kentucky in 1972. With elegant use of archival footage, Appalachian coal mining songs, and intimate footage from the picket lines and union meeting rooms Kopple gives voice to the impoverished but steadfast miners and their wives who stood up for their family’s rights against the greedy coal mine owners and violent scabs. The film takes on an incidental feminist tone as union rabble-rouser Lois Scott galvanizes the women around her to picket against the gun toting "company thugs" that threaten their lives on a daily basis. The film is even more poignant today, considering how much exponentially worse conditions have gotten for today’s coal miners.
Harold and Maude
Hal Ashby's 1971 black comedy "Harold and Maude." Bud Court and Ruth Gordon play the coolest oddballs on the planet. Death-obsessed 20-year-old Harold (exquisitely played by Court) has a proclivity for staging fake suicides to get a rise from his maternally inept but filthy rich mother (Vivian Pickles), when he isn't attending funerals for the fun of it. Maude is an 80-year-old freethinker who coincidentally shares Harold's fancy for the pomp and circumstance of memorial services. The unlikely pair fall into a romantic relationship that shouts in the face of societal mores as Cat Stevens's uplifting score does for the movie what Simon and Garfunkel did for "The Graduate." The genuine chemistry between Court and Ruth Gordon ("Rosemary's Baby") pulls you into their characters' passion regardless of whatever prejudices you might have about the coupling. If there's one comedy to fully represent the woof and warp of the early '70s, "Harold and Maude" is it.
He Ran All the Way
By the time he finished directing this notable addition to the film noir cannon in 1951, John Berry had become the eleventh member of the Senator Joe McCarthy's "Hollywood Ten" blacklist. Berry had directed a 15-minute documentary about the screenwriters and directors singled out by the House Un-American Activities Committee's communist witch hunt in which the "ten" stated their ethical positions on their dilemma. When FBI agents appeared at the door of his Los Angeles home to serve him with a subpoena, Berry climbed out the bathroom window and headed straight to the airport, where he bought a ticket to Paris. Berry spent 12 years in where he continued to work as a filmmaker. He returned to the States in 1963 to piece together what was left of his American career. Infamous blacklister Dalton Trumbo wrote the film's script, based on a novel by Sam Ross about Nick Robey (John Garfield), the cynical product of a broken home who shoots a cop while trying to escape (after offing a guy over ten grand in cash). In an attempt to blend in with the crowd, Nick goes to a public swimming pool, where he meets Peg Dobbs (Shelley Winters), a bakery worker living at home with her parents and little brother. Nick escorts Peg home, then loosely holds her working-class family hostage while initiating a troubled relationship with the emotionally needy Peg.
"He Ran All the Way" also marked the end of John Garfield's once promising acting career, one that influenced Marlon Brando's style of method acting. Garfield's refusal to name names left him without work; a heart attack finished him off a year later. Cinematographer James Wong Howe's brilliant use of deep focus shots contributes to the film's saturated black and white photography, effectively conveying Nick's imminent doom. Shelly Winters and James Garfield play their characters' charged emotions and wavering degrees of trust with an urgency that is amazing to witness. The tragedies behind the heartbreak on the screen are real.
The Honeymoon Killers
The naturalistic black-and-white noir compositions that writer/director Leonard Kastle captures in the only film of his career are augmented by a stark soundtrack punctuated with music by Gustav Mahler. Based on the real-life exploits of a pair of money-hungry serial killer lovers, the suspense follows Alabama-born nurse Martha (played with brooding hostility by Shirley Stoler) and her Elvis-haired Latin gigolo boyfriend Ray (Tony LoBianco). The couple pose as brother and sister while Ray conducts marriage proposals with unsuspecting widows that the couple eventually kill to take their life savings and life insurance. Made in 1969, "The Honeymoon Killers" presaged elements of David Lynch's filmic approach, and clearly informed John McNaughton's similarly-themed stomach-churner film "Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer." Romantic dysfunction never looked so banal, brutal, and ugly. The real Martha Beck and Ray Fernandez were executed by electrocution on March 8, 1951.
Before Federico Fellini began deconstructing narrative structure with "8 ½" he made nine traditional narrative films of which "I Vitelloni" (1953) was the third. Fellini draws on the days of his youth by returning to his hometown of Rimini to play a kind of trick on the friends he left behind by making a movie about their rudderless ways of passing time. A group of four Italian men in their late '20s, and still living at home, dream of escaping their provincial '50s era Italian seacoast town. As the indolent men drink, carouse and lay about in a daze of postwar ennui we see the war's stark effects on the men's moral barometers. "I Vitelloni" is a visually and emotionally eloquent example of neo-realist filmmaking that captures a timeless quality of male experience in a very specific and pure way. Vitelloni means "young large calves."
Invasion of the Body Snatchers
In the barrage of low budget B-movie monster flicks coming out in the '50s, Don Siegel's 1956 filmic adaptation of Jack Finney's science fiction novel introduced a new kind of double-edged social satire to movie audiences. Filled with textbook chase sequences, and creepy character development, the story follows Dr. Miles Bennell (perfectly played by Kevin McCarthy) whose small California town's citizens are being duplicated by aliens. Hitchcock couldn't have done a better job of ramping up the suspense in a horror film that is as much fun today as when it shocked audiences in the '50s. "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" is an outstanding blend of sci-fi, horror, and cynical social satire.
Spielberg's opening sequence in "Jaws" pushes the second-act shocker from Hitchcock's "Psycho" up to the start of a terrifying horror movie that also borrows from Hitchcock's other masterpiece "The Birds." A sexy nude woman goes for a midnight swim in the pitch-black ocean off Amity Island, where the most phallic of creatures lurks below. John Williams' pulsing musical score sends shockwaves of fear deep into the central nervous system of the audience. Suddenly all teetering apprehension erupts into sheer panic as the vulnerable girl is thrashed about in the open sea like a rag doll by an unseen monster of enormous strength and fury. The ferocity of nature must return to attack children before local police chief Brody (Roy Scheider) calls upon the salty-dog shark-hunter Quint (Robert Shaw) and a geeky oceanographer named Matt (Richard Dreyfus) to go after the fish that threatens the livelihood of the resort town.
In 1975 "Jaws" made Steven Spielberg a household name by delivering on an unpredictable primal threat and fear of the unknown. For as many women who refused to take showers after seeing "Psycho," just as many stayed away from the ocean after seeing "Jaws." Peter Benchley's characters are exquisitely fulfilled by Scheider, Shaw, and Dreyfus, who carry out the literary portent of their archetypes to the letter. In the end, the shark is a MacGuffin necessary for the men to bond and test themselves against what they fear most--their own mortality.
Based on schoolteacher Barry Hines's 1968 novel "A Kestrel for a Knave," Ken Loach's 1969 verité film, marked the filmmaker's departure from the BBC television system where he learned his craft. With producer Tony Garnett, Loach had won kudos for his social realist films about such sensitive issues as abortion ("Up the Junction" - 1965) and homelessness ("Cathy Come Home" - 1966). For "Kes," Loach and Garnett created their own production company and cast a young amateur actor named David Bradley to play the story's oppressed 13-year-old protagonist Billy Casper.
In the working class town of Barnsley Billy has been in trouble with the law and is still paying off his fines--a predicament that limits his options after secondary school. Billy lives in a tiny ramshackle house with his emotionally remote mother and physically abusive half-brother Jud, with whom Billy shares a small bed. At school Billy is mistreated by his teachers. His marginal behavior does little to dispel their opinion of him as a "hopeless case" whose future lies in the area's coal mines. But Billy's personal outlook brightens when he discovers a kestrel nest and teaches himself, with a book he steals from a secondhand bookstore, to care for and train the bird that he steals from its fragile home. With the help of gifted cinematographer Chris Menges, Ken Loach creates an incredibly powerful film that purposefully examines the dire social conditions of a system that threatens to squeeze out all the individuality of its youth. "Kes" is an essential document of '60s British culture that comes from a deeply personal place yet resonates across all cultures.
Kind Hearts and Coronets
Robert Hamer's 1949 film is an impeccable premiere example of Black Comedy. "Kind hearts are more than coronets/And simple faith than Norman blood." The title is a couplet from the Tennyson poem "Lady Clara Vere di Vere that announces the state of Noblesse Oblige carried by the film's main character, a wily familial assassin of royal ancestry. Dennis Price gives a composed performance as Louis Mazzini, an exquisitely mannered mother's boy who carries out her demurely expressed wish that eight members of her royal lineage perish for refusing to admit Louis as a member of the D'Ascoyne family. Louis is ninth in line to be the Duke of Chalfont. The current Duke's refusal to grant Louis's mother's dying wish, to be buried at Chalfont in the D'Ascoyne family crypt, is the final insult that sends Louis on an efficient mission of murdering his royal rivals.
Screenwriters Robert Hamer and John Dighton adapt Roy Horniman's 1907 novel "Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal," with an ear for Edwardian tactical use of speech that operates on a virtuosic level of sophistication. A love triangle develops between Louis and the relationships he carries on with Edith D'Ascoyne, the widow of his second victim, and Sibella (played with shrewish authority by Joan Greenwood) a childhood soul-mate who is every bit as cunning as Louis. Alec Guinness's irreproachable performance as each of Louis's victims adds an additional masterstroke to a ruthlessly pitched satire about British imperialism backfiring on itself. It's not just a saucy comedy of language and manners, it's take-no-prisoners comedy of death.
Bernardo Bertolucci's 1972 masterpiece of post-modern existential angst is an irrefutable art film that attempts to reconcile a depth of social existence through its sexually liberated characters. Born of one of Bertolucci's fantasies about carrying on a purely sexual affair with a complete stranger, Marlon Brando's Paul and Maria Schneider's Jeanne meet regularly in an empty Parisian apartment for unbridled sexual trysts. Paul insists that neither one reveal their names or express any elements of their lives outside their insular world. Theirs is a relationship built only on carnal intention and experimentation. Jeanne doesn't know that Paul is coping with his wife's recent suicide. Paul knows nothing of Jeanne's obsessive filmmaker boyfriend Tom (Jean-Pierre Leaud) who is on the brink of proposing to Jeanne. Written with assistance from Franco Arcalli and Anges Varda, Bertolucci plays liberally with dualities to address deep-seeded emotions that can only be expressed indirectly. For the first time, Paul drinks with his wife's neighbor and former lover, who wears the same robe as Paul. The over-enthusiastic Tom represents an outwardly preoccupied inversion of Paul who tests Jeanne's temperamental boundaries in similar but different ways.
For all of the critical and public controversy at the time of its release as a pornographic film, "Last Tango in Paris" is a painstakingly theatrical mood piece that relies heavily on carefully coded musical cues from Gato Barbieri's repeated motifs. Significant is Philippe Turlure's bold art direction that draws on the work of the artist Francis Bacon. Two of Bacon's paintings introduce the film during its opening credit sequence. They influence its color scheme for the interior of the apartment where much of the story takes place. A two-foot high rust colored waterline surrounds the interior walls as if to suggest that the apartment had been submerged in a mixture of blood and water for an extended period during its storied past. The ravages of wars fought have left their mark here. After revealing his identity and troubled situation, Paul tells Jeanne, "When something's finished, it begins again." Paul's sudden turn from cynic to optimist must be punished. His refusal to adhere to his own rules is unacceptable. Not everything is permitted.
Last Year at Marienbad
Alain Resnais sumptuous 1961 film is a minimalist study in the ability of mise en scene to tell an inscrutable story of a love triangle. Resnais famously said that the film is “not a fixed work of art.” Indeed, “Last Year At Marienbad” is a cinematic puzzled filled with architectural compositions that dare the audience to penetrate their austere logic. The influences of Dadaism and surrealism play strongly in a hyper-visual context of porcelain beauty. Seeing the film is like being drugged with a pill that is the antithesis of the high audiences took away from Busby Berekely movies. It's a filmic parlor game that the filmmaker plays very close to the vest. Ah, what sublime confusion.
Leave Her To Heaven
Martin Scorsese famously called director John M. Stahl's 1945 post war Technicolor masterpiece "a film noir in color." Gene Tierney uses her pale blue eyes to stark unemotional effect as Ellen Berent, a femme fatale seductress who lays a marriage trap for successful author Richard Harland (played by Cornel Wilde). Ellen is an obsessive compulsive whose insular idea of wedded life excludes everyone except the man she holds onto with a death grip. Vincent Price plays Ellen's jilted former fiance in this lucious thriller filled with chewy dialogue, great costume designs, and lakeside locations to die for. Mental illness never looked so seductive or bit with such a ferocious over-bite as from Gene Tierney's demented character.
Alfred Hitchcock’s 1944 realization of a script started by John Steinbeck, and completed by Hitchcock, is an often overlooked cinematic treasure. Set in the claustrophobic confines of a lifeboat in the Pacific ocean, a group of eight survivors from a torpedoed freighter share their tiny vessel with the German commander responsible for their predicament. Hitchcock’s inventive use of cinema language to expand on the drama occurring within the limited confines of the boat is something to behold. Tallulah Bankhead steals the movie as a fur-wearing selfish journalist whose hair is barely ever out of place. Conceived as a wartime social satire, “Lifeboat” carries a boatload of conflicting ideologies that are still at issue today. Hitchcock's answer to the perpetual film school dilemma of making a movie on a boat as one of a filmmaker's biggest challenges, is a textbook example of how it's done right.
The Maltese Falcon
Although Dashiell Hammett’s “stuff-that-dreams-are-made-of” novel already had two film versions, both under the title “Satan Met a Lady,” screenwriter John Huston chose the story for his 1941 directorial debut. Huston emphasized the story's suspense elements to create a noir that didn’t rely on spectacle, but rather on the intrigue of its fascinating amoral characters. Hitchcockian right down to its statuette MacGuffin of a black bird, “The Maltese Falcon” is considered the first “film noir” and launched Humphrey Bogart’s career. Every scene has something to savor thanks to great performances from Mary Astor, Peter Lorre, and Sydney Greenstreet as “the fat man.”
John Sayles' suburb period drama is set in the '20s era West Virginia coal mining community of Matewan where union organizer Joe Kenehan (Chris Cooper) arrives with a group of black miners being brought in by the Stone Mountain Coal Company to break striking Italian miners. Sayles' meticulous script manifests the stark social influences of government, corporation, religion, race, and personal struggles pervading the Appalachian region at the time. James Earl Jones gives a powerful performance as a Black miner called "Few Clothes," and David Strathairn creates a distinctly un-stereotypical sheriff in the guise of Sid Hatfield. Layered with a beautiful musical score by Mason Daring, it's Chris Cooper's union leader that captures the imagination in an unforgettable picture of essential American history. Cinematographer Haskell Wexler contributes greatly to the look and feel of a truly special cinematic achievement.
John Cassavetes told Martin Scorsese, after Scorsese made his first feature film "Boxcar Bertha," that the young filmmaker had just "spent a year of his life making a piece of shit." It was the right kind of criticism to send Scorsese on a mission to write and direct a hyper personalized movie about the streets of Little Italy where he grew up. Scorsese rode around the small Manhattan district at night with his co-writer (Iraqi immigrant Mardik Martin) so the two men could write the script inside their parked car while watching the street life around them. Connecting aspects of gangster films from the '30s to noir and autobiographical elements, Scorsese went a daring step further by using pop music in a previously unimagined way. When "Be My Baby" plays during the opening credit sequence over home movie footage of Harvey Keitel's character Charlie, it announces a message of romanticized hopefulness set against a harsh reality that refuses to comply with dreams of glory. During a bar brawl later in the film, the Marvelettes' song "Mr. Postman" lends poignant counterpoint to the scene's spontaneous violence.
"You don't make up for your sins in the church. You do it in the streets. You do it at home. The rest is bullshit, and you know it." These are the words of Charlie's subconscious inner voice that introduces us to his simmering crisis of self identity. That it's Scorsese's actual voice periodically speaking Charlie's inner monologue, smuggles into the film a loaded layer of thematic import directly from the filmmaker's heart. Scorsese's fluid camera drinks in the red-punctuated bar interiors and grimy streets to follow his characters' movements with a lively physicality organic to their shared histories. As Charlie bides his time to becoming a made man with the local Mafia boss, he tries to reconcile his hidden love affair with Teresa (Amy Robinson), the epileptic cousin to Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro), a misfit whose unpaid debts to loan sharks are quickly catching up with him. "Mean Streets" (1973) is more than a rambunctious time capsule of Italian American experience, it is groundbreaking film that announces the career of a truly original voice in world cinema.
Jesus, I love to shoot film." That character line from Robert Forster's television cameraman John Cassellis, succinctly states writer/director/cameraman Haskel Wexler's overriding impulse behind his 1969 textbook example of verite filmmaking. "Medium Cool" opens with Cassellis and his soundman partner pulling over on the side of the road to film the aftermath of a deadly car crash. Cut to a cocktail party where a group of journalists actively discuss social issues and bemoan their daily plight of being beaten up by both cops and civilians when they do their job. It's in these kinds loosely strung together moments of compulsive social activity and intimate interaction that Wexler captures a zeitgeist of authoritarian abuse, warmongering, racism, sexism, poverty, and class conflicts that permeate the film like a thunderstorm on a sunny day. Cassellis and his partner travel to Chicago in the summer of 1968 to cover the Democratic National Convention that famously exploded in police-induced violence. Using a combination of documentary footage of military training exercises and indiscriminate police abuse of protestors, Wexler puts his cynical protagonist in the middle of a media-propagated tempest, of which Cassellis has been an unwitting accomplice.
Thoroughly of its time, and yet decades ahead of the curve, "Medium Cool" goes beyond neo-realism and social realist genres by putting the filmmaker and his medium directly in the context of the film. Straight-to-camera monologues by ghetto-dwelling black characters cut through the movie with an editorial vengeance. Wexler may have been going after something "cool," but what he came up with is smoking hot cinema that puts Jean-Luc Goddard to shame.
Despite the negative hullabaloo "Midnight Express" provoked for its brutal characterization of Turkish prison officials, director Alan Parker's rendering of Oliver Stone's exploitation screenplay is a stick of pure cinematic dynamite. The 1978 film is loosely based on the true story of American traveler Billy Hayes, caught in 1970 at the Istanbul airport for trying to smuggle a couple kilos of hashish taped under his arms. Giorgio Moroder provides a pulsing musical score to underpin the heartbreaks that Brad Davis's Billy experiences in Turkey's harsh prison system. Davis's devastatingly honest portrayal is worth the price of admission alone. John Hurt and Randy Quaid are equally on par as fellow prisoners with just as much desire to escape their abysmal conditions. Oliver Stone subsequently expressed his apologies to the Turkish people for writing a film that did serious damage to their country’s tourism, but "Midnight Express" is probably just as responsible for dissuading hundreds of young people from attempting to smuggle drugs in exotic vacation lands.
The real Billy Hayes was never raped by his guards, never killed anyone, and escaped by way of a tiny boat from an island prison. And the real “Midnight Express” was a train used by the government to deport inconvenient foreigners. However you feel about stereotyped characters, "Midnight Express" is the most badass prison escape movie you could ever hope to spend two hours watching. There's something to be said for taking dramatic liberties; here's your proof.
Abel Ferrara's 1981 cult über thriller is a feminist take on the good-old-bad-old days of '70s-'80s Manhattan that gave rise to films like "Death Wish" and "Taxi Driver." Screenwriter Nicholas St. John teaches his own school of dramatic form with an unprecedented double inciting incident. Mute garment-district seamstress Thana (played by the lovely Zoe Tamerlis) is raped twice after a long day at work. The second violation occurs in Thana's Hell's Kitchen apartment. There she gets the better of her attacker with an iron. After some piecemeal corpse removal, Thana makes use of the rapist's gun to go on a revenge killing spree that proves even more cathartic, if as stylish, as "Death Wish."
It's a shame that when this film was finally released on DVD, nearly a minute of footage was cut from the original version. Ferrara's creativity is refreshing in its indictment of verbal, physical, and psychological abuse against women and serves as a significant time capsule of a particular era in American culture. "Ms. 45" is filled with tons of droll humor, a great soundtrack, and a determinedly unsanitized of New York in the early '80s. James Lemmo's camera work is contagious and the cool tone of the movie is exceptional. I went through a period when I kept my VHS copy of "Ms. 45" in the player for about six months and watched it repeatedly. There's a depth of symbolic magic in this movie, and more than a little sex appeal from its traumatized protagonist.
"My Beautiful Laundrette" is a milestone of British cinema. Stephen Frears's stylish and confident handling of Hanif Kureishi's London-set gay love story between a first-generation Pakistani and a British neo-fascist punk is an achievement. Volatile social issues of Margaret Thatcher's early '80s England are ripe opportunities for imaginative examination in a fantasy atmosphere of unfettered homosexual romance. Here is an anti-plot narrative that woks in spite of its unpredictable nature.
In his breakout role, Daniel Day Lewis plays Johnny, a homeless dyed-hair thug who squats in whatever empty house he can access. Second-story windows are not a problem. Johnny's friend since childhood Omar (Gordon Warnecke) lives with his ailing Marxist father Hussein (Roshan Seth), who wallows in alcoholic depression over his wife's recent suicide. The offending train runs just outside their apartment window. Omar's unconstrained love for Johnny sets the film's tempo. It also explains away any questions that might pop up in Johnny's mind about why he's with Omar. Stephen Frears's tender gay sex scenes inspired a new generation of young filmmakers to be more daring in their films.
Omar's caring dad wants his son to go to college to get a well-rounded education. As a former respected leftist journalist, he values knowledge over wealth. Still, Omar gets other ideas about his capitalist future after his rich uncle Nasser (Saeed Jaffrey) gives him a parking garage job. Uncle Nasser wants Omar to marry his daughter. However, he is too busy with hsi English mistress to notice Omar's obvious relationship with Johnny.
Omar quickly moves up to take over a rundown launderette in a dicey South London neighborhood. He's not above doing some drug running for Nasser's crime-connected brother. Omar gives Johnny a job renovating and helping run the laundrette. The joint's washing machines whir and hum with a musical gurgling sound which Frears uses to send auditory romantic messages to the audience in an abstract Morse code. In reinventing the laundrette as a glamorous social gathering spot, Omar establishes a micro utopia to support his economically sensible yet sensuously exotic ambitions.
Frears's ever-moving camera lens cranes and dollies to show the abysmal state of Tatcher's England. There is both fantasy and hope in the relationship between Johnny and Omar. The pair exist beyond the rampant racism and economic desperation that surrounds them. They represent England's future. Our future.
"1900" is Bernardo Bertolucci's crowning achievement of collectivist socio-political cinema. It is a grand scale, formally composed, Italian drama about a society of peasant farmers over a period of nearly 50 years, as seen through the eyes of two socially opposite boys. That the internationally-cast epic was made possible as a result of the vast success of Bertolucci's controversial "Last Tango In Paris" (1972) contributes to the mystique of "1900." The 35-year-old director's newfound status allowed his unhindered imagination, at the height of his powers, to finish his trilogy of fascist-themed films with an original script co-written with his brother Giuseppe and Franco Arcalli (both were co-screenwriters with Bertolucci on "Last Tango"). Where the first two films in the trilogy ("The Spider's Stratagem"--1970 and "The Conformist"-- 1971) live in a stylish bourgeoisie noir world of cloaked deceit, "1900" explores the familial identity existing between a group of socialist farmers, the landowners they work for, and fascist factions penetrating rural Parma, Italy. Its half-century scope provides a raw macro/micro slant on psychological, generational, political, and cultural changes in the Italian region of Bernardo Bertolucci's birth.
David Cronenberg brings William S. Burroughs' notoriously "unpublishable" and "unfilmable" novel of heroin-induced hallucination fantasy to zesty cinematic life with an outrageous film that very nearly accomplishes the book's goal of "extinguishing all rational thought." With clinical precision Peter Weller plays Burroughs's alter ego Bill Lee, who works as an exterminator--read as undercover-typewriter-wielding-junkie-satirist--who finds that his wife Joan (Judy Davis) is copping his "insecticide" powder to get high. Bill answers to a corporate "controller" for the CIA-styled "Interzone" that sends him on a mission to kill his wife--something that Burroughs accomplished and got away with in real life during a deadly game of William Tell. As usual, Cronenberg pulls out all the stops. Here he gives us alien-head talking typewriters that issue orders to Bill (as played by Weller) with more sardonic irony than two Hunter S. Thompsons put together. Easily the trippiest film to come out of the '90s, "Naked Lunch" is a flawless balm to all the Tarantino-inspired gun fests unleashed after "Naked Lunch" made cinema screens drip with a surreal syrup that sticks to you eyeballs and intestines like literary goop. "Lunch is always naked," and so is Cronenberg's fantastic interpretation of Burroughs' twisted genius.
Night of the Living Dead
In the context of a social revolution boiling around the ongoing war in Viet Nam, George A. Romero made an independent horror film that shocked audiences to their core in 1968. Filmed on budget of $114,000, Romero used black-and-white film stock to create a verite masterpiece of revolutionary filmmaking. "Night of the Living Dead" introduced zombies as a literal metaphor for blood-hungry soldiers of every stripe. Romero's "zombie" device would become a narrative touchstone of universal appeal. Siblings Johnny (Russell Streiner) and Barbara (Judith O'Dea) visit their father's grave in Pennsylvania where they are attacked by a zombie in a textbook chase scene that bristles with fear and suspense. Barbara escapes to a farmhouse where she teams up with Ben (Duane Jones). A small group of refugees hiding in the home's cellar afford the film with its inner motor of conflict that must be turned against the zombies. Romero handles the violence with a Gothic sense of dread. Before it's over, family members will have to kill their one of their own who's been bitten by a zombie.
Romero was inspired by Richard Matheson's 1954 sci-fi novel "I Am Legend," but expanded on the doomsday logic to combine commentary with satire in concrete terms of ideological conflict. George Romero went onto to expand on his original concept with a biting attack on consumerist culture ("Dawn of the Dead" - 1978) that once again flipped the horror genre on its head. Romero saw the enemy, and they are the zombie masses among us. There is nowhere safe to hide.
Werner Herzog's brilliant 1979 homage to F.W. Murnau's 1922 silent film is an appropriately chilling telling of the gothic tale derived from Bram Stoker's Dracula. Klaus Kinski delivers a spot-on performance that may be finest of his career as the bloodthirsty vampire Count Dracula who takes advantage of a real estate broker (played by Bruno Ganz). Isabelle Adjani brings her immutable beauty to bear as the broker's fearful wife fated to suffer Dracula’s bite. The movie is filled with delightfully scary touches and recreated camera angles from Murnau's original.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
I n 1975, Czech filmmaker Milos Forman ("Loves of a Blonde" - 1965) became an overnight cause celebre in America thanks to his brilliant film adaptation of Ken Kesey's best-selling 1962 novel of the same name. The film is a diabolically anti-authoritarian satire that sits comfortably alongside Phillippe de Broca's 1966 WWII asylum themed "King of Hearts." When Jack Nicholson was chosen to play roustabout mental patient R.P. McMurphy, the actor was already firmly etched in the public mind as a real-life icon of free-thinking, anti-establishment, rebellion thanks to his unforgettable performances in such topical films as "Easy Rider" (1969), "Five Easy Pieces" (1970), "Carnal Knowledge" (1971), "The Last Detail" (1973), and "Chinatown" (1974). But it's in "Cuckoo's Nest" where Nicholson exhibited a virtuosic ability to juggle infinite layers of social subtext and personal motivation while dancing on a razor's edge of representational acting. Incarcerated for relations with an underage girl, Nicholson's balding McMurphy is a testosterone driven man of the people, who takes his place as a liberator in the florescent lit rooms of a state mental facility overseen by Nurse Ratched (played by Louise Fletcher in an Oscar winning performance), a tightly wound bureaucrat and borderline sadist. McMurphy is attempting to work the system by allowing himself to be transferred from a prison work farm to the softer confines of a mental institution to finish his relatively short sentence.
The film is an editorial commentary on the '60s mental institution system, as well as a skewering of American politics and ideologies of social repression. The genius of the film is that you never feel you're being preached at, but rather being allowed a fly-on-the-wall view of a systematic crushing of humanity. That a filmmaker who escaped from communist Czechoslovakia in search of America's promised freedoms made one of the sharpest antiestablishment satires in the history comes as no surprise. What is surprising is that "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" was recognized at the time of its release, and won five Academy Awards.
That Obscure Object of Desire
This swan song of Luis Buñuel's 50-year career as surrealism's preeminent filmmaker expanded on the corollary between romantic dysfunction and societal collapse. Bunuel co-wrote "That Obscure Object of Desire" with longtime collaborator Jean-Claude Carriere, and based his work on Pierre Loyuy’s 1898 novella "La Femme et le Pantin." Buñuel cast French beauty Carole Bouquet and Spanish actress Angela Molina in the same role: Conchita, the virginal romantic object of Mathieu (Fernando Rey), an older wealthy French businessman. Terrorist attacks and public address announcements about violence from leftist and rightist extremists underlie Mathieu's self-defeating attempts to make love to Conchita, whose hot and cold personality drags out their romantic entanglement beyond the brink of frustration.
Much has been made of Buñuel's decision to fire Maria Schneider before replacing her with Bouquet and Molina, but Buñuel and Carriere had originally discussed interchanging two actresses for the role when they co-wrote the script. Buñuel's use of yet a third actress to voice Conchita's dialogue to bring a subconscious unity to an ostensibly bipolar character. "That Obscure Object of Desire" (1977) makes its playful attitude apparent during its opening, when Fernando douses a bandaged Conchita with a bucket of water on a train platform., Mathieu shares his story with a woman and her young daughter and a curious Freudian psychologist (who happens to be a dwarf) on the Seville-to-Paris train. Mathieu explains his hostile actions by proclaiming the woman he dumped water upon to be "the worst of all women." Told in flashbacks, the story of his love-at-first-sight affair with his former maid plays out as a comedy of confused social mores among people who should know better. Mathieu and Conchita each display equal amounts of sadomasochistic behavior. Neither is able to transfer their remote inner passions into carnal action. Aside from its psychopoliticosexual theme, the film is an endearing love letter to the cities of Seville and Paris; their sunny locales carry an amusing sense of longing and personal history. Buñuel finesses the unrequited love between his characters with such a command of cinematic spontaneity and humanity that you could watch it a hundred times. Genius.
D-Day--June 6, 1944--is as much a part of "Overlord's" enigmatic title as the Allied invasion code name to which it refers. Filmmaker Stuart Cooper drew from over three thousand hours worth of archival WWII footage from the Imperial War Museum to blend with his own, separately constructed narrative to create a one-of-a-kind story structure about the journey of an everyman British soldier named Tom (Brian Stirner). Cooper's canny use of historic war clips, filmed during the story's exact time period leading up to the D-Day climax of the film, lends an editorial newsreel context to Tom's personal story. With close attention to every detail of costume, atmosphere, and behavior, the filmmaker creates a hybrid cinematic artifact that is captivating. "Overlord" is a live action essay of the raw physical reality of one of the most significant moments in world history, as told from the recesses of a soldier's mind, and from a manifold vantage point that the character himself cannot begin to comprehend.
The Passion of Joan of Arc
Danish filmmaker Carl Theodor Dreyer was enjoying the success of his 1925 film "Thou Shalt Honor Thy Wife" when he was approached by French producers to create an art film for the international market. The teenaged Maid of Orleans who, dressed as a man, led the French to victory against the occupying English forces in the early 15th century had been canonized by the Pope in 1920, and was celebrated in a popular stage play by George Bernard Shaw when Dreyer chose the martyr as his subject for the production. With only one other film to her credit, Renée Jeanne Falconetti was the expressive French stage comedienne Dreyer chose to build his particularly transcendental style for the film around. Focusing his passion play on the 1431 trial, as drawn from historical transcripts, enabled Dreyer to concern himself less with external elements of location, scenery, and costume. He conceived the film as "a hymn to the triumph of the soul over life," with the human face as its mirror. Using panchromatic film stock to capture his actors' faces, without the addition of make-up, Dreyer made brilliant use of extreme close-ups to weigh Joan's spiritual gravity against the sadistic intentionality of her religion-cloaked oppressors. The enormous amount of emotional empathy that Dreyer extracts from his audience is heightened by our involuntary association with Joan's tormented psychological state. Falconetti's shockingly modern performance as the 19-year-old Joan is a thing of irreproachable honesty and ethereal suffering.
Banned after its release in Britain for its depiction of inhumane British soldiers, the film's two original prints were destroyed by fire. It wasn't until 1981 that a copy of the primary 1928 print was discovered in a "janitor's closet of an Oslo mental institution." It was restored with a new musical score entitled "Voices of Light" composer written by Richard Einhorn.
Released just three months before Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho," Michael Powell's similarly themed 1960 horror film was trashed by critics. It was also about a psychologically damaged young man with a proclivity for murdering women. But for Powell, who was admired for family films like "The Thief of Baghdad (1940), that he co-directed with Emeric Pressburger, "Peeping Tom" seemed to cross a line of inexcusably prurient exploitation. The effect negated Michael Powell's considerable accomplishments as a filmmaker that began in 1926. Powell had worked with Hitchcock on several of his films. He worked as an uncredited writer on Hitchcock's "Blackmail" (1929), and the two British directors remained friends throughout their lives.
Although "Peeping Tom" barely lasted a week in theaters, Powell's directing career was irreparably damaged. It wasn't until Martin Scorsese championed the film in 1978, when he financed a re-release for "Peeping Tom" out of his own pocket, that the film was appreciated by a mass audience. The primary conceit of "Peeping Tom" is to engage the audience as a voyeuristic accomplice to its serial-killer protagonist. Austrian actor Carl Boehm plays Mark Lewis, a well-dressed blond filmmaker who is never without his trusty camera. By day Mark works as a focus-puller at a London film studio. By night he works as a pornographic photographer with an eye for the fetishistic. Later at night, Mark indulges in his prized hobby of killing women. He uses a knife-pointed-camera-tripod while filming his victim, who witnesses her own terror at the moment of her death thanks to a mirror that surrounds the camera lens.
Part of what makes "Peeping Tom" so unforgettable is the same Technicolor Process that Powell famously used on "The Red Shoes" (1948). A gloriously saturated-color opening sequence begins with a close-up of a victim's eye in the throes of abject terror as discordant music plays underneath. The killer whistles as he approaches his prey. He holds his camera hidden inside his overcoat so that the peeking lens substitutes as an introduction for his unseen face. Postmodern filmmaking is disguised behind an unmistakable formalist approach. The effect is further camouflaged behind a glossy style typically reserved for big budget spectacle films, rather than naughty psychological thrillers. Screenwriter Leo Marks includes satirical grace notes about things like psychological trauma from parental abuse to enable the audience to empathize more that we might want to with the killer. The camera's fascination with fear reflects our own desire to keep watching.
"Persona" is Ingmar Bergman's 1966 postmodern lesbian romantic psychological mystery. It's a black and white experimental film that draws on formal theatrical conventions and minimal set designs to observe a complex relationship between an actress named Elisabeth (Liv Ullman) and her full-time nurse Alma (Bibi Anderson). Esisabeth was performing in a stage production of Electra when she suddenly lost her voice, or desire to speak.
Alma's unprofessional conversational strategy for getting Elisabeth backfires when Alma drukenly reveals a deeply intmate story from her past that provokes the women's lust for one another. Bergman's beautifully evocative tableau captures the sex act with Anderson and Ullman staring directly into the camera while Elisabeth caresses Alma. What we experience is a pure distillation of character and action. By reducing the women's shared sensual experience to a dark mirror gaze of the way they view one another Bergman allows their expression of desire to transcend the scene's dramatic state.
As in life, sex changes everything. The women immediately come at odds after mutually pretending that their night of erotic gratification didn't happen or at least they can't remember if it did. The magnetic attraction between the uncannily expressive Ullman and the terrifically physical Anderson provides a constant pulse of organic momentum to propel bergman's daring artistic liberties. Bergman's objective is to show a duality of nature through which Alma and Elisabeth switch places; psychologically, metaphorically, and physically. Alma's dsicovery of a betraying letter from Elisabeth to her doctor sets the anti-plot narrative on the temporary trajectory of a suspense thriller. Alma's revenge on Elisabeth reveals Alma's latent S&M desires and pushes the drama into a telling act of phychosexual demonstration.
"Persona' is at once one of the most complex and most simple films ever made. Bergman's clear-eyed artistic study of the rules of interplay between oppositely ill-acquited dominant and submissive characters, carries universal ideas about human compatibility.
Roman Polanski’s “The Pianist” is the director’s finest achievement, and elevates Adrien Brody (Oscar win for Best Actor 2002) to eminence in his representation of Wladyslaw Szpilman, a Polish Jew who survived the Nazi occupation of Warsaw. Polanski himself was orphaned as a 7 year-old boy during the bombing of Warsaw; he escaped through a hole in a barbed wire fence. Polanski uses his familiarity with the horrific subject matter in an unsentimental way to depict an occupation that diminished 10,000 Polish Jews living in Warsaw to 20 over a period of four years. Based on Szpilman’s memoir, which was suppressed by Poland’s Communist government for 53-years, “The Pianist” follows Szpilman from his job as a pianist for Polish radio, to separation with his family, and into a long period of desperate hiding. The muted heroism of Szpilman’s survival flashes as a fragile and determined pulse in Adrien Brody’s magnificently understated performance.
Long before Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund made "City of God" in 2002, about Rio de Janeiro's youth-centric atmosphere of organized crime, director Hector Babenco set the bar for such explosive cinema with his brilliant 1981 film "Pixote." The film's full title , "Pixote: a Lei do Mais Fraco" translates as "Pixote: The Law of the Weakest," and was based on José Louzeiro's book "A infância dos mortos" ("The Childhood of the Dead Ones") in a screenplay adaptation by Babenco and his script collaborator Jorge Duran, about a young boy named Pixote (pronounced Pee-jo-che). Fernando Ramos Da Silva was the expressive young non-actor chosen to play his life as a ghetto child for Babenco's evocative subjective camera. The boy is sent to a cruel juvenile reformatory where he sniffs glue and learns the ways of prison survival that inform his life after he and two of his friends escape the jail. Pixote desperately seeks the attention a mother figure even as he falls deeper into an inevitable vortex of crime and violence.
"Pixote" is Hector Babenco's masterwork. The film is a distressed and powerful cry for social change in a Brazilian society that feeds on its on children. It is a deeply affecting and haunting film that penetrates the skin of its viewer through the personal commitment to its subject that comes through in every frame.
That Fernandos Ramos Da Silva was eventually murdered at 19 by police in Sao Paulo only emphasizes the sad fate of so many more Brazilian children just like him. "Pixote" is an amazing cinematic social document made with fury and passion by an uncompromising director. There has never been another film that approaches its depiction of Brazil's condemned youth, not even "City of God."
Alfred Hitchcock should be credited with making the first slasher film for the ground-breaking narrative template he created for "Psycho." Regardless of how many times you've seen it, "Psycho" is a compulsively watchable horror thriller that builds layers of exponential suspense with every scene. Famously made on a shoestring budget, with a television production crew, "Psycho" is a horror movie that gains claustrophobic momentum from its desolate "Bates" motel location where Janet Leigh's Marion Crane makes her last stop. Anthony Perkins gives a career-topping performance as the motel owner with a nasty mommy complex, based on real-life psychotic Ed Gein. The 1960 film found Alfred Hitchcock working at the height of his powers. The famous shower scene is still studied by film students for Hitchcock's brilliant use of montage. "Psycho" is everything a horror movie should be, creepy, sexy, dark, and terribly shocking.
After reinventing American cinema with his thrilling first film "Reservoir Dogs," Quentin Tarantino delivered an even better one, "Pulp Fiction." It firmly establishes Tarantino's voice as a virtuoso auteur of scenario, structure, style, and dialogue, not to mention casting. With its time-flipping interconnecting stories "Pulp Fiction" showcases Tarantino's gift for planting seeds of budding exposition that spontaneously flower into lush noir gardens of spectacular narrative colors.
Most people come away from "Pulp Fiction" with a favorite scene. Christopher Walken's course monologue about the gold watch that gets passed down from the young Butch's great grandfather is one such example of pure theatrical expression. The musical muscularity of the language is palpable. The monologue explains the older Butch's obsessive drive to retrieve the watch in spite of the danger in which it puts him. Bruce Willis's Butch bites his tongue when his silly French girlfriend Gabienne tells him she left his watch behind. Butch holds his temper until he can let it out in the privacy of his car. Regardless of how offhand it seems on face value, everything connects to something else in the story.
"Pulp Fiction" has a refreshing modern quality in the way it incorporates the realities of such underground activities as drug use and BDSM. No explanation is given. The audience is simply thrown into the deep end and expected to grapple with the most outlandish situations for what's at stake for the characters involved. There's none of Hollywood's audience spoon-feeding going on. Like Cassavetes before him, Tarantino trusts the sophistication of his audience. He doesn't hold back; he edits. The characters reveal their identities in pressurized situations that demand action, or at least some very fast talking, and talk they do. The vulgarity that turns some audiences off to "Pulp Fiction" is the same quality that allows the catharsis that Samuel L. Jackson's character experiences during an attempted robbery in a diner. Every character in the story is transformed.
The 1979 coming-of-age film that launched 40,000 Mods was based on the second rock opera from the Who behind their hugely successful album and film "Tommy." Its title is an abstraction of the terms "quadraphonic" and "schizophrenia" in reference to the conflicting facets of its lead character, a young Mod named Jimmy Cooper (wonderfully played by Phil Daniels). Growing up in working class London, circa 1965, the nattily dressed Jimmy works in the mail room of an advertising agency when he isn't making the Mod scene on his mirror-covered Lambretta scooter. Fueled by a steady doses of speed, Jimmy romantically pursues Steph (Leslie Ash), a fickle Mod girl who attends the same parties where R&B music is widely appreciated. Jimmy's encounters with Kevin (Ray Winstone), his childhood-friend-turned-rocker-rival, expose the hypocrisy in Jimmy's ineffective attempts at setting himself apart as an individual with a mind of his own. A weekend trip to Brighton Beach with his Mod pals ends in ruin after a riotous public brawl with leather-jacketed Rockers costs Jimmy an expensive court date alongside his Mod idol Ace Face (played by Sting).
"Quadrophenia" is a glorious representational story of male teen angst that transcends its British locations and great music with a sense of the confused romantic notions that young men the world over carry with them. There are sublime moments of teenage victory, as when Jimmy makes love to Steph in an alleyway while police chase his friends and rivals, or when Jimmy tells off his boss before quitting his job. It's a vibrant musically-driven story about the harsh realities of breaking out of personal mental traps that compound the social pit falls that surround us all.
Robert De Niro's metamorphosis into boxing legend Jake La Motta (AKA the Bronx Bull) is one of the most impressive acting transformations on celluloid. Martin Scorsese's bold decision to film "Raging Bull" in black and white pays off enormously in capturing the internal and physical struggle of a distinctive anti-hero set on a course of self destruction in the boxing world of the '40s and '50s. The glorious boxing scenes in "Raging Bull" are standard fare for university filmmaking classes due to Scorsese's facile use of cinema language to convey La Motta's character traits. "Raging Bull" is one of the best films of the '80s, but it is not without its flaws. Scorsese's heavily stylized approach keeps the audience at an arms distance that practically dares the viewer to see beyond it. Nonetheless, the experiment is pure cinema, and pure Scorsese.
As his second feature film (after "Knife in the Water"), Roman Polanski's1965 psychological thriller uncoils like a primordial poisonous snake disguised by unfathomable beauty that conceals its deadly feminine bite. Catherine Deneuve was not yet a star when Polanski cast her in the role of Carol Ledoux, a lovely but emotionally disturbed 18-year-old Belgian girl living in London with her sister Helen (Yvonne Furneaux) while working as a beautician. When Helen goes away on vacation, the virginal Carol becomes a shut-in after murdering her suitor and lapses into a homicidal madness that takes the life of another who misjudges Carol's grip on sanity. Co-written by Polanski and Gerard Brach, "Repulsion" follows an escalating dove-tailing story form that Polanski explored in his later "apartment" films "Rosemary's Baby" and "The Tenant." Several surreal nightmare sequences disclose Carol's troubled subconscious mind in suggestive and shocking ways. Its visually striking black-and-white atmosphere is accented with an intensely modulated jazz score by Chico Hamilton, as orchestrated by Gabor Szabo, and articulated with canny camera work to further reveal the warped psychological state of its anti-heroine. A study in a descent into insanity, "Repulsion" is a horror film steeped in a palpable dread of sexual repression that takes hold and never lets go.
In 1992 Quentin Tarantino did something that hadn't been done since 1986 with David Lynch's "Blue Velvet;" he reinvented cinema. A deft application of an originally voiced time-flipping narrative, Tarantino's "action" script is a filmic illusion that Hitchcock or Welles would applaud. The main conceit of Tarantino's bank heist story is that the film's "action" occurs after the heist, with well-constructed flashback sequences and monologues to impose an emotional undercurrent of back-story. Each of the six black-suited robbers is known to the others only by his color coded pseudonym. Eddie Bunker plays Mr. Blue, Tarantino is the chatty Mr. Brown, Harvey Keitel is Mr. White, and Steve Buscemi is Mr. Pink. Suffering from a belly gunshot wound sustained during the heist, Mr. Orange (perfectly played by Tim Roth) is an undercover cop sincerely befriended by Keitel's character. Left bleeding in the gang's where house, Mr. Orange witnesses the psychotic Mr. Blonde (manically played by Michael Madsen) torturing a young cop named Marvin Nash (Kirk Baltz) to the funky lyrical strains of "Stuck in the Middle With You (Stealers Wheel).
Tarantino doesn't just sucker punch his unsuspecting audience in the solar plexus; he goes for the heart and groin as well. "Reservoir Dogs" is a flawlessly conceived concept film that's theatrical in nature, with a bit of Grand Guignol thrown in for dramatic effect. The film created a sub-genre of crime suspense copycats, of which Troy Duffy's "The Boondock Saints" (1999) is one of the most embarrassing examples. Over his career, Tarantino's films have proven everything that "Reservoir Dogs" seemed to promise and still achieves. Freshness.
Richard Pryor: Live on the Sunset Strip
This filmed performance of Richard Pryor’s first comic routine after the immensely talented comedian set himself on fire while free-basing cocaine is an example of the most raw and funny comic material you will ever witness. Pryor hits the comedy running and doesn’t let up until he’s exhausted the audience with so much gut-wrenching laughter that you won't know whether to stand up or lie down. His honest, and therefore brutally funny observations, about racism and his own drug abuse become moral touchstones that explode with brilliant humor as he thoughtfully explores avenues of thought and universal human experience as a satirist of the highest degree. There will always only ever be one Richard Pryor, and his profoundly inspired performance shows exactly why.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show
Like the hugely successful B-Movie that inspired it, Harry Novak's 1965 sexploitation classic "Kiss Me Quick!" "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" is an exploitation film that draws on a grab-bag of social identifiers to expand on conventional hypocrisies with more than just a nudge and a wink. Writer/composer/actor Richard O'Brien's 1973 British stage play became a hit and the play's director Jim Sharman wisely insisted on using the original cast, with the exception of American newcomers Susan Sarandon and Barry Bostwick, when time came to direct the film version in 1975. Famous as more of a social phenomenon than as a great piece of cinema, I would argue that The Rocky Horror Picture Show is both thanks to an inspired musical score, and unforgettable camp performances. As part of the '70s midnight movie craze that coincided with the advent of punk music, the film attracted a playful young audience more than prepared to interact with it's innuendo-riddled dialogue around a fetish-based story about an alien transvestite from the galaxy of Transylvania called Dr. Frank N. Furter (played with Mick Jagger charm by Tim Curry) who seduces two stranded newlywed visitors to his castle where he creates life in the form of a chiseled male named Rocky Horror. This is a movie you have to see with an audience.
From its haunting musical motif to its actual Gothic setting in and around Manhattan’s West Side neighborhood Dakota building, “Rosemary’s Baby” is one of the most effective horror films ever made. Mia Farrow gives the performance of her career as a young newlywed bride to an ambitious actor (played by none other than John Cassavetes). The young couple moves into an apartment inside the Dakota where a group of Satanists have set up shop, and Cassavetes’ Guy Woodhouse character takes the bait behind his wife's back. The palpable sense of dread, suspicion, and conspiracy that Polanski creates puts a taste in the viewer's mouth that remains for days after seeing the film. As the second installment in Polanski's "trilogy of apartment films," ("Repulsion" was the first), "Rosemary's Baby" pulsates and seethes with the primal fear of an unknown birth. If ever there was a pro birth control horror movie, this is it.
The Rules of the Game
Adapted from Musset's Les Caprices de Marianne, Renoir 1939 masterpiece used the music of Mozart to bookend the story about a country on the brink of war. The action is set in a large country mansion where guests gather for a party and observe the rules of society's game to varying degrees of success. Although on the surface the film plays out like an Oscar Wilde farce, albeit with a twist of an Agatha Christi-styled murder, it is one of the most scathing of political and cultural satires. Banned by the Nazis, and destroyed before being discovered and restored, "The Rules of the Game" influenced iconic directors like Orson Welles, Bernardo Bertolucci, and Robert Altman. It is one of best films ever made.
Pier Palo Pasolini's last film was the most ambitious of his career, and the most misunderstood. Still banned in several countries, "Salo" (1975) is a haunting journey into the depths of hell on earth, loosely stewarded by the literary underpinnings of the Marquis de Sade's "120 Days of Sodom." Pasolini also incorporates the three descending levels of Dante Alighieri's "Inferno." Shockingly graphic, and yet formally composed, it is a fascinating film that employs the full arsenal of Pasolini's polemic and satiric tools used toward a poetic commentary on fascism disguised as consumerist capitalism as enforced by a complicit group of bourgeoisie dignitaries. It is a film that expands in meaning in the years since its creation to encompass every degree of political and military corruption that history has acutely fulfilled--most recently, at the time of this writing, in the atrocious abuses at Abu Ghraib prison.
Pasolini set the story in his Italian hometown of Salo, where his brother was killed during WWII, and where Pasolini himself was one arrested by Nazi soldiers. Four wealthy Mussolini fascist libertines prepare for their certain demise before the end of the war by kidnapping nine boys and nine girls, for the purpose of living out their most outlandish sexual fantasies within the confines of a private villa. The men employ the assistance of four experienced courtesans to fire their debauched imaginations with ribald parlor stories that inform the humiliating and brutal sex acts that they will execute upon their naked nubile prisoners. Dramatically feral and artistically fertile, "Salo" is a rigorous movie that dares to use the metaphor of torture as a device of utter physical and psychological annihilation for both the victim and the torturer. It is significant that such an intellectual filmmaker could so dynamically condense thick layers of social commentary into an artistically skeletal form that is so perfectly transparent upon reflection. There is nothing exploitative about "Salo." It is a film that demands to be studied with the same degree of scrutiny that corporate, religious, and governmental industries should be subjected to for their enslaving the planet and humanity. This is work, and not play.
Naples-born Francesco Rosi built on the filmmaking experiences he shared working as assistant director to such great Italian filmmakers such as Luchino Visconti and Michelangelo Antonioni. With "Salvatore Giuliano" Rosi deconstructs neorealist methodologies toward an authentic form of epic historic "psychodrama." Made in 1961, it was Rosi's fourth film. To tell the story of the 27-year-old Sicilian folk-hero-bandit, whose bullet-riddled cadaver mysteriously appeared in a Castelvetrano courtyard on July 5, 1950, Rosi convinced natives of Giuliano's home village of Montelepre to recreate incidents they'd lived through when Giuliano was alive. Filming in the exact houses, streets, and surrounding hills where Giuliano commanded his ragtag army of guerilla soldiers fighting for post-war Sicilian independence, Rosi attains a "proof of reality" that is unimaginable until you experience it firsthand. Told out of chronological order, the film is didactic without giving way to political propaganda. Past events and forward-moving narrative events weave randomly in vividly choreographed sequences that frame the region's macro/micro reality of Sicilian experience.
The most unexpected aspect is Rosi's refusal to glorify his title character. He chooses rather to expose all sides of a deeply traditional society pulled between military, criminal, and disparate political factions. We only see Giuliano's face in death. During scenes where the bandit leads his gang against Italy's carabinieri and separatist socialist groups, Giuliano wears a long white lightweight overcoat that blends with Sicily's arid landscape. Rosi's virtuosic compositions include lengthy static and deep-space shots that capture a breadth of social communication from a shrewdly subjective viewpoint. The director's frequent use of bird's-eye imagery surreptitiously puts the viewer into the mindset of Giuliano who hides in the hills overlooking Montelepre.
"Salvatore Giuliano" influenced directors like Gillo Pontecorvo, Glauber Rocha, Francis Ford Coppola, and Martin Scorsese. It is truly a seminal film whose innovative cinematic inventions breed insight into a complicated cultural reality. There are no actors acting in "Salvatore Giuliano," only people living and dying for what they believe.
"Scarface" was the pinnacle of Brian De Palma's career. Al Pacino's unforgettable performance as a fictional drug lord named Tony Montana is the stuff of legend. That De Palma's ultra-violent depiction of Miami's early '80s cocaine trade barely scratches the surface of the era's bewildering brutality and killing that built the city we know today, only adds to its notoriety as a scathing cinematic document. Tony Montana is a Cuban ex-con refugee whose criminal aspirations know no limits. When Pacino delivers the film's famous opening dialogue, in a Florida detention center, several generations worth of social oppression are wrapped up in Montana's thick accent. He's a super-anti-hero. Tony talks about his familiarity with American via his U.S.-born father. He confronts his captors with a quick sarcasm born of such furious desperation that the audience is involuntarily seduced.
"I am Tony Montana, a political prisoner from Cuba and I want my fucking human rights now."
"There's nothing you can do to me that Castro has not already done."
Here is a master of his own destiny. Written by Oliver Stone, "Scarface" can be viewed as an extension of "Midnight Express," the 1978 prison-escape film Stone wrote for director Alan Parker. Drugs represent a kind of free-market capitalism fought over with an all-consuming obsession by authorities and criminals alike. "The World is Yours" flashes across the sky on a Goodyear blimp. It's an American propaganda message destined to be twisted in the minds of such conspicuously jealous and greedy individuals as Tony Montana. His outrageous rise to wealth presages an even more dramatic decline that mirrors the economic arc of a country more invested in corporate profits than culture. "Scarface" is a parable about he self-destruction of criminal success. It's a cinema of pure compulsion.
James Spader and Maggie Gyllenhaal are exquisitely cast in director Steven Shainberg’s quirky and provocative exploration of a profoundly romantic relationship built on erotic domination and submission between a sharp-minded attorney and his masochistic secretary. Based on Mary Gaitskill's short story "Bad Behavior," the film became a cultural touchstone for audiences to identify with its dignified view of BDSM as practiced in a context of normal daily life. Clever, kinky, and packed with sexual tension, the film deals with modern sexuality in a refreshingly colorful yet serious way--not that there isn't a good deal of humor at play.
After being hospitalized for harming herself--she's a "cutter," Lee Holloway (Gyllenhaal) starts dating Peter (Jeremy Davies), an unconventional boy she knew in high school. She also takes on a full-time job as an old-fashioned typist secretary at a one-man boutique law firm run by Mr. E. Edward Grey (Spader). As polar opposites from compatible worlds, Edward and Lee slip into a sexual relationship based on their work dynamic where he sternly judges and corrects every aspect of her clothing, posture, behavior, and work performance after seeing her in public with Peter. Angelo Badalamenti's seamless musical score works hand-in-glove with the film's meticulous production design to imbue the story's path of personal discovery and sexual fantasy. Steven Shainberg maintains a level of erotic suspense and anticipation that his terribly empathetic characters fulfill with pleasantly surprising acts of physical expression.
Secrets & Lies
After years of working in British television, and making four impressive features that included "Bleak Moments" (1971) and "Naked" (1993), Mike Leigh firmly established himself internationally as Britain's version of John Cassavetes with a candid film of untold emotional depth and narrative complexity. Marianne Jean-Baptiste plays Hortense Cumberbatch, a twenty-something black optometrist living in London, who traces her family tree after the death of her adoptive mother only to discover that her biological mother is a working class white woman named Cynthia Purley (Brenda Blethyn). Leigh spent many months of preparation with his actors doing improvisation workshops in order to create a script that carries a super-natural sense of realism and elemental truth. Its centerpiece is an unbroken 8-minute shot of Hortense and Cynthia meeting in an empty restaurant for tea where walls of defenses gradually come crumbling down as the truth of their relationship is revealed.
Every performance from Leigh's brilliant ensemble of actors, that include Timothy Spall and Phyllis Logan, is a thing of rare dramatic authenticity. Blethyn and Jean-Baptiste are extraordinary in their restraint, humor, and spontaneity. The film's also unbroken climatic social scene elevates its primordial familial fabric into an ethereal tapestry where every ancient thread of untruth is pulled out along with other lies that have attached themselves over the years. Much more than just a touching story of the ties that bind humanity and the way we reveal ourselves, "Secrets & Lies" (1996) is a staggering work of cinematic genius. It is truly a perfect film.
The great Sidney Lumet was a New York City director through and through. By the time he made "Serpico" in 1973 (his 20th film) he had performed on the Broadway stage as a child actor, directed Off-Broadway plays and won enormous acclaim for his debut film "12 Angry Men" (1957). Justice as an ongoing theme for Lumet. Films such as "Dog Day Afternoon," "Network," and "The Verdict" are significant touchstones. Famously an actor's director, Lumet was also one of the most prolific filmmakers of the 20th century, making more than 50 film during his career.
"Serpico" features Al Pacino's impeccable portrayal of honest New York City undercover cop Frank Serpico, a real-life hero whose crusade against widespread police department corruption eventually got him shot in the face by fellow officers. Pacino employs to the fullest every detail of period costume, prop, and make-up design in developing his character's morphing psychology. His rich portrayal as a tireless idealist is as close to perfect as you will ever see. Screenwriter Waldo Salt's contributions to the film's naturalistic dialogue is constantly on display.
Part intensive character study and part corrective social medicine, the story obsessively follows Serpico as he anxiously attempts to bring about a full-scale investigation into the corruption that baits him at every police precinct he tranfers to. He receives impotent assistance from "good guy" police detictive Bob Blair (played by Tony Roberts). Blair's escalating efforts to help only put Serpico under the bright florescent light of his many enemies. "Serpico" is a candid and gritty police expose that juxtaposes systemic police graft with the personal toll it takes on the man who attempts to blow the lid on the crooked activities that surround him.
Between 1973 and 1975 Lina Wertmuller issued a string of art-house hits that made her a household name. Trading on her success with "Love and Anarchy" and "Swept Away," the maverick woman filmmaker turned her picaresque story about an Italian man's misadventures during World War II into a carefully juxtaposed black comedy. The gifted Giancarl Giannini plays Pasqualino, a smalltime Naples gangster with seven ugly sisters. Hence Pasqualino's ironic nickname "Seven Beauties." Dressed in fine Italian suits Pasqualino is a dandy who enjoys life to the fullest. When one of his sisters starts dating a pimp, however, Pasqualino accidentally kills the man with a pistol. For a gangster, Pasqualino is terrible with guns. On a friend's advice he chops up the corpse and attempts to discard it by train. Nabbed by the cops, Pasqualino is indicted and shipped off to a psychiatric ward ill-suited to his oversexed personality. Naturally, he soon winds up in even deeper trouble.
The Italian Army allows Pasqualino to serve out his jail sentence fighting the Germans. In tune with George Roy Hill's recent adaptation of "Slaughterhouse Five" (1972), "Seven Beauties" twists through a maze of bizarre and horrific wartime experiences. When Pasqualino and another Italian soldier attempt to go AWOL in Germany, Nazi soldiers capture them. Thrown into a concentration camp overseen by none other than the "Bitch of Buchenwald" herself, Ilse Koch (unforgettably played by Shirley Stoler), Pasqualino hatches a ridiculous plan to charm his sadistic warden into helping him survive. Wertmuller makes their scene of humiliating sexual submission the film's thematic centerpiece. The filmmaker's imaginative antiwar narrative outlines war's subjugation of the flesh with dramatic genius. Nominated for five Oscars, "Seven Beauties" remains a singular example of women't cinema grappling with the tattered shreds of war to get at otherwise unspoke truths. Lina Wertmuller was the first female director to evrer receive an Oscar nomination.
Akira Kurosawa introduced Samurai to the Western world in 1954 with his epic Japanese 16th century period film about a group of Samurai hired by farmers to defend a peasant village overrun by bandits. “Seven Samurai” served as a template for such popular American westerns as “The Magnificent Seven,” “The Wild Bunch,” and “The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly.” Toshiro Mifune is in top form as a peasant who poses as a Samurai exhibitionist to join a group of Samurai (AKA "Ronin") hired by a village of peasants to defend them against a gang of bandits coming to steal their crops and level their humble village.
The original, and ultimate, "assemble-the-team” movie (think “Reservoir Dogs”) operates on several social and historical levels that give it a timeless quality. Kurosawa's intention of making his first period film "entertaining enough to eat" is brought to that palpable fruition through Mifune's endlessly watchable warrior whose sense of humor proves a valuable asset to the genuine Ronin that he joins. Notable too is Takashi Shimura's enigmatic performance as the group's calm strategic leader Kambei Shimada. Kurosawa's majestic use of black-and-white film captures an integrity of emotion and social purpose in ancient Japan.
Stanley Kubrick's 1980 adaptation of Stephen King's novel is a post-modern waking nightmare interspersed with surrealistic touches, ambiguous subtexts, and jabs of dark humor. As with all of Kubrick's work, the film is so visually hyper composed that it burns its formally stylized imagery into your memory banks forever. Billed as a psychological horror film, the story follows author Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) who takes on a wintertime caretaker position at a remote and empty Colorado hotel called the Overlook to work on his next book. His boring wife Wendy (Shelly Duvall) and telepathically receptive eight-year-old son Danny (Danny Lloyd) entertain themselves by his side.
Built on an Indian burial ground, the Overlook has its share of ghosts--the previous caretaker killed his family and himself. Strange paranormal influences appear and speak directly to Jack and his young son. For much of the story it remains unclear whether the father or boy will be the instrument of evil that the story threatens to unleash. Complete with a giant outdoor hedge maze and vast empty interior spaces, the hotel comes to queasy life in places like its Gold Room bar where chatty Jack talks about problems with his wife to an all too empathetic bartender of abstract origin. Moments of sheer comic expression, like Jack's axe-wielding rendition of "Heeeere's Johnny" when he attacks his wife, buttress against disturbing revelations, like the insanely repetitive text of Jack's manuscript. These illogical events work to layer the film with strangely effective brushstrokes of dread and horror. Although widely panned by critics who didn't get the film's complex play with tone and thematic import upon its release, "The Shining" has come to be rightly regarded as a tour de force of contemporary cinema.
William Friedkin leveraged the enormous amount of influence he accrued with success of "The French Connection" and "The Exorcist" to live out a fantasy of remaking Henri-Georges Clouzot's 1955 thriller "Le Salaire de la Peur" ("Wages of Fear"). Infamous battles with Friedkin's production companies (Paramount and Universal) over casting and budgetary concerns were exacerbated by costly set disasters involving a rope suspension bridge used in one of the film's most suspenseful sequences. The director's decision to use an electronic music score by Tangerine Dream adds considerably creating to a volatile vibe that compliments screenwriter Walon Green's prescient adaptation of Geroges Arnaud's novel.
During its finely crafted first act, Friedkin masterfully sets up the back-stories of four criminals from around the globe who end up in the same backwater town in Venezuela where an oil fire 200 miles away, gives the men an opportunity to make a sizable sum of money if they can successfully deliver several cases of nitro-sweating dynamite. In spite of Friedkin's public grousing about Roy Scheider being the wrong actor for the leading man role of Jackie Scanlon--the director originally wanted to cast Steve McQueen--Scheider delivers with a gutsy performance that is every bit as solid as his work on "Jaws." "Sorcerer" had the misfortune of being released at the same time as "Star Wars," and as such flopped at the box office in the blink of an eye. It's rare that a remake lives up to the original upon which it was based, but "Sorcerer" is that exceptional movie.
Paul Verhoeven's cynical satire of American politics is loosely based on Robert A. Heinlein's 1959 science fiction novel which went on to win the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 1960. Verhoeven's outrageous sci-fi epic piles on layers of commentary about the nature of militarization in a story about young and lovely high school graduates going off to war against invading giant arachnid bugs from the planet of Kelndathu. In the film's near future, American society has fully integrated political indoctrination through a constant barrage of propaganda to effect its fascist motives. In a world where "Service guarantees citizenship," even if the rich don't have to be citizens, every kid wants to do a great job for the Fatherland--and die! "Starship Troopers" is a canny war satire that outshines even Kubrick's great film Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb."
F. W. Murnau's first American film is a tour de force of silent filmmaking. The celebrated German director of "Nosferatu" emigrated to Hollywood in 1926 to make a movie about a universal married couple. "Sunrise" is subtitled "A Song of Two Humans" as a way of reinforcing the story's theme: the universality of threatened love. George O'Brien and Janet Gaynor brilliantly play an unnamed peasant couple who live in a small lakeside village with their young child. Deadly temptation tugs at the heart and mind of O'Brien's patriarchal character, here in the form of an opportunistic vacationing city woman who convinces the farmer to kill his wife so they can be together.
Cinematographers Charles Rosher and Karl Struss create fascinating split-screen and double-exposure camera effects that are stunning even by modern standards. Murnau's exquisite use of juxtaposed Expressionist set designs with subjective camera angles, pans, and zooms take the audience on an emotional rollercoaster. Using very few intertitles, "Sunrise" is a visual cornucopia. The film would work perfectly without them. Indeed, Murnau used no such text narration on his previous film "The Last Laugh" (1924). Natural light sources play an important role in evoking the shadows of mood which hang over every scene. Incorporating melodrama, comedy, romance, and fantasy, Murnau freely plays with genre, all the while remaining true to the story's humanist focus.
It's pointless to discuss the story beyond its initial parameters. To do so would be to give away secrets that any audience coming to the film for the first time will want to discover for themselves. There is a timeless poetry at play in "Sunrise" that takes your breath away. The performances are not purely representational, but they are polished with layers of nuance that Murnau's patient camera captures unmistakably. The film's dreamlike quality allows it to stay with you. You can't help but fall under its spell.
Dario Argento's sixth film is a textbook example of the horror sub-genre known as "Giallo." The term is derived from the trademark "yellow" background color used for a series of pulp paperback books printed in Italy beginning in 1929. Giallo is characterized by themes of macabre horror and fetishized murder mixed with erotic overtones. Fantasy is a key element. Argento's heavily stylized visual palette includes a strong use of garish colors and intentionally artificial lighting designed to affect the central nervous system of the audience. There is no pretense at naturalism. Filmed almost entirely on a soundstage, "Suspiria" has an artistically calculated atmosphere. Giuseppe Bassan's art deco production design is embellished with Erte-inspired floral finishes that figure prominently in the background of nearly every shot. The filmmaker uses a color wheel of gaudy reds to send visual cues for grotesque death sequences which arrive as carefully orchestrated of dramatic narrative. An electronic musical score pulses with satisfying discordance.
Jessica Harper's conspicuously amateur performance as Suzy Bannion, an American ballet student studying dance at an elite German dance academy, adds to the film's bizarre ambiance. Suzy arrives at the private school on a rainy night only to be turned away at the mansion door. We see another female student escape from the building into the area's desolate forest. She will become the film's first victim of an outrageously violent death by an unseen hand. The next morning, Suzy is welcomed into the school by headmistresses Madame Blanc (Joan Bennett) and Miss Tanner (Alida Valli). Rumors of witchcraft swirl about. There's little doubt the Bennett's and Valli's characters are practitioners of the dark arts. The staff put Suzy on a "medicated" diet that prevents her from leaving the school's dormitory. The academy's pianist is a blind man (played by Flavio Bucci) accompanied by a guide dog. Such details are embellished for all of their Grand Guignol potential during extended scenes of gory mayhem. Such flashes of grotesquery as a throat being slashed or an exposed heart being stabbed are the name of the game. "Suspiria" (1977) is a weird cinematic journey inside a corporeal vision of architectural abstraction. Although not quite campy, considerably humor accompanies the bloody shocks. In the end, Giallo is an acquired taste.
With his virtuosic adaptation of Arthur C. Clarke's novel, Stanley Kubrick invented the modern science fiction film. That "2001: A Space Odyssey" has blown many audience members' minds to the point of causing them to walk out, is a testament to Kubrick's distinctive vision that better reveals itself the more times you see it. Part philosophical reverie, part social satire, and part sheer cinematic poetry, the story jumps from a pre-historic era when apes first discovered using bones as tools, to a futuristic space-age when man discovers proof of intelligent alien life in the form of a gigantic black monolith on the moon. "2001" is a purist film that eschews tropes like narration in favor of a strict poetic license that necessarily utilizes classical music from the likes of Johann Strauss as an inner-connecting emotional fabric upon which Kubrick balances mesmerizing outer-space sequences. The director fully embraces a less-is-more format to allow the viewer to interact with the film in the same way that scientists and astronomers work beyond the boundaries of their knowledge and imaginations to discover what lies beyond. "2001: A Space Odyssey" is a film that dares to admit that humans simultaneously comprehend nothing, and yet too much, about the power we hold to affect one another and the universe around us. Kubrick's multi-dimensional context is larger in scope than any other film ever made. It is a cinematic journey that goes somewhere no other filmmaker has ever gone before, or since.
Team America: World Police
Inspired by the '60s British television series "Thunderbirds," Stone and Parker use Jerry Bruckheimer's action movie plot template to parody America's bullying military with one-third-scale puppets that give new meaning to "wooden acting." The ridicule hits a fever pitch anytime the comic duo's brilliantly phrased songs modify the puppet action sequences (you'll be chanting "Team America, F**k Yeah" for days). Kim Jong II exploits the Film Actors Guild (including Alec Baldwin, Tim Robbins, Samuel Jackson and Sean Penn) for his evil schemes while the Team America World Police recruit a Broadway actor to infiltrate an Iraqi terror cell. This all-out adult satire pulls no punches and takes no prisoners. The movie slyly acknowledges the fact of multinational global corporate oppression--that there is no such thing as a war on terror, just as there can be no war on the desperation that drives ostracized people from committing any act of abysmal depression.
When our puppet commandos kick off "Team America" by killing a group of Muslim terrorists in Paris, they consequently destroy the Louvre and kill many French civilians. It’s no accident that the French are the first to suffer at the hand of America’s fraternity minded group of mercenary heroes with ammo belts hung across their chests to preclude any confusion about the heroes’ agenda.No quarter is given to corporate shills like George Bush or John Kerry, or to puppet enemies like Osama or Hussein. Instead the filmmakers go right for the jugular of North Korea’s Kim Jong Il as a lonely dictator baddie who feeds UN Weapons Inspector Hans Blix to a shark. That scene won’t stick in your memory as much as the much-debated hilarious puppet sex scene, but the film’s final explanation of the world’s problems as based on assh*les, Puss**s, and di*ks, surely will.
Roman Polanski’s intense 1976 psychological thriller stars the director himself as Trelkovsky, a troubled file clerk who takes over the former apartment of a young female suicide victim named Simone Choule who jumped from its Parisian windows. Trelkovsky comes to believe that his cruel nagging neighbors were to blame for the woman’s suicide, and are now using their same bizarre methods to extract a similar response from him. Enigmatic performances from Isabelle Adjani as a chic friend of the deceased, and from Polanski as a man losing his sanity, contribute greatly to the film's unusual layers of suspense that coincide with the director's keen eye for Paris locations, and brilliant visual compositions. Known as the last of Polanski’s apartment trilogy, following “Repulsion” and “Rosemary’s Baby,” “The Tenant” contains one of the most outrageous double climaxes ever committed to celluloid. Nightmares will follow.
La Terra Trema
Luchino Visconti's third film is set in Aci Trezza, a poor Sicilian fishing port village being exploited by wholesale merchants. Based on Giovanni Verga's novel, the 1948 film concentrates on a family of fishermen who attempt to break the economic stranglehold of their capitalist oppressors by starting their own private business. The comparatively well-off family take out a loan to buy their own boat, against the wishes of their impoverished community of fishermen. As its title presages "La Terra Trema" is an earth-shattering example of neo-realist filmmaking that feels as much like a documentary as it does a fictional narrative film. Visconti leans too much on explanatory narration view points, but his use of real Sicilian fishermen as non-actors expressing their daily rituals, harsh circumstances, and deeply ingrained beliefs is profound. The overall effect is a powerful portrait of human dignity caught between the cruelty of the sea and the opportunistic greed of a few. As a portrait of an Italian family's economic collapse at the hands of mother nature and an economically repressive society, "La Terra Trema" exposes fundamental humanitarian conflicts that capitalism breeds.
There Will Be Blood
Paul Thomas Anderson based his film on the first 150 pages of Upton Sinclair’s novel "Oil!," about a 1920s oil miner named Daniel Plainview (exquisitely played by Daniel Day-Lewis) who strikes it rich after being approached by the twin brother of a young preacher about purchasing his family’s oil-rich land in Southern California. Paul Dano plays evangelist Eli Sunday, a man with Plainview’s avaricious heart but not his iron stomach for exacting the pounds of flesh that come with such thickly veiled ambition.
Embedded in Anderson’s profoundly epic literary adaptation are timeless themes of savage greed, blatant corruption, and social oppression. At the heart of the story is a rivalry of showmanship between Plainview and Sunday as opposite sides of the same cast-iron coin. The young minister has a knack for the theater of the pulpit where he casts spells over the local citizens of a rugged desert town that wants desperately to be funded by a veritable Niagara of cash flow that Plainview’s oil-drilling promises. Both men are self-made inventions so thoroughly invested in their presentational lies that there is no room for any inner voice of conscious to interrupt the tyranny of their intentions. But Eli Sunday is a rank amateur compared to Plainview whose carefully guarded sense of personal responsibility lends the film its crucible of thematic essence. "There Will Be Blood" is a historically rooted parable that traces a vital path of Western culture through the industrial revolution via a primitive yet cunning man who sees a prevalent opportunity, and selfishly sets about claiming all he can for himself. It is about an iconic archetype of a man who starts out with the barest trace of human decency, and by the end of his life has none.
Aesthetically, there is visual, musical, and linguistic poetry in every frame. Plainview’s mechanical nature does not allow the story a traditional life-affirming closure. A more cynical perspective would favor the black oil that Plainview uses to build his fortunes as a welcome result to his barbarous methods. From this viewpoint, oil is the fountain of life that feeds generations of hungry people. Paul Thomas Anderson embraces the inexplicable facts for their intrinsic dramatic truths, and what we are left with is a complex study of an evangelical, corporate, and political culture.
The Third Man
Carol Reed’s 1949 noir staring Joseph Cotton and Orson Welles, and based on Graham Greene’s screenplay, is set in post war Vienna--a shell of a city divided into American, Russian, French, and British zones. Joseph Cotton’s Holly Martins arrives to Vienna with the promise of a job from his old college pal Harry Lime (played by Welles), but Lime’s funeral is the only welcoming he gets. Harry's supposed accidental death after being hit by a truck raises burning questions that Holly explores in a city that breathes with corruption from its active black market. A porter (played by Paul Hoerbiger) tells Holly of a "third man" that helped carry Lime's body away from the accident site, only to turn up murdered the next day. Holly eventually discovers the truth about his friend's underworld activities, and finally meets with Harry on Vienna's famous Ferris wheel in one of cinema's most beloved scenes where Welles delivers a truly cynical monologue that was at least partially improvised. "The Third Man" also has one of the best chase sequences ever filmed—and it doesn’t involve cars. The film won the Grand Prix for Best Feature Film at Cannes in 1949.
The Tim Drum
Volker Schlondorff's adaptation of Gunter Grass' groundbreaking WWII novel is no less shocking in its representation of a boy named Oskar (brilliantly played by David Bennett) who, on his third birthday is given a tin drum. Oskar resolves to remain small and for the first 18-years of his life he remains the size of a 3-year-old boy, carrying around the tin drum that he protects with an unearthly shriek that will shatter glass. Resourceful Oskar is a tenacious survivor who uses his compact body-size as a perfect disguise during the Nazi's reign of terror. The Tin Drum encompasses a wing of Polish/German wartime history with an explosive cinematic nerve that contributed to a revitalization of German cinema in 1979 shared by Werner Herzog, Wim Wenders and Rainer Werner Fassbinder.
Touch of Evil
In 1957, "Touch of Evil" became Welles's first return to studio work in Hollywood after ten years, since his experimental version of Macbeth. Universal hired Welles to write, direct, and act in what they considered to be a B-picture. Little did anyone know that "Touch of Evil" would mark the end of the cinematic movement known as Film Noir. Welles adapted "Touch of Evil" from a functional pulp novel called "Badge of Evil" (by Robert Wade and H. Bill Miller), and crafted it into a bizarre anti-capitalist, anti-racist morality tale. Welles cast himself as Captain Quinlan, a nasty police officer with a low code of ethics. By telling the linear story from three different viewpoints, Welles avoids structural clichés like flashbacks or narration. Welles was careful to give special attention to the material's obsession with vice that colors every scene. In one of the most harrowing scenes in all of film noir, Janet Leigh is drugged and lies passed-out in a darkened hotel room where Quinlan strangles to death an Hispanic man against the brass bedpost where she lay.
Marlene Dietrich speaks the film's theme lines as Tana, a Mexican whore with a German accent. Every frame of Dietrich's non-blinking screentime spits humanist ethics against the corruption that surrounds her character. When Quinlan comes sniffing around Tana's brothel in the middle of the night, he asks her to read his fortune. Tana replies, "You haven't got any; your future's all used up. Why don't you go home?" Dietrich's bedroom eyes belie the somber world-weary tone of her gutsy character. The lines are all the more poignant because "Touch of Evil" also represented a kind of finishing touch for Welles's and Dietrich's careers. Welles once fought in a bullring in Spain during his youth, and went on to spend his life searching for cinematic challenges that could match the power of a grunting bull. In "Touch of Evil," Welles killed the metaphorical bull.
Touching the Void
The docudrama genre has never been as well utilized as it is in director Kevin Macdonald’s groundbreaking rendering of the remarkable true story of two young British mountain climbers’ near death experience climbing the 21,000 foot Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes in 1985. Based on mountain climber Joe Simpson’s book "Touching the Void: The Harrowing First-Person Account of One Man's Miraculous Survival," the film uses talking-head accounts by the actual climbers (Joe Simpson and Simon Yates), intercut with breathtaking reenactments of the actual events using stunt climbers and actors (Nicholas Aaron and Brendan Mackey). Fascinating, intense, and steeped in the extent of man’s will to live, “Touching The Void” is a film that will rattle your nerves and give you a colder chill than you have ever felt before. "Touching the Void" stands as a definitive textbook example of the rarest of feature film genres; the docudrama.
Tristana is a sly feminist treatise about an escape from patriarchal subjugation paired with its own set of physical obstacles. Revenge also plays into the stylized narrative cards which Luis Buñuel reorders from Benito Perez Galdos's 1892 novel in order to emphasize the freedom of will of his enigmatic title character (unforgettably played by Catherine Deneuve). In Toledo, Spain, the death of Tristana's mother leaves her to be "adopted" by Don Lope (Fernando Rey), a wealthy duplicitous liberal who views Tristana as both daughter and his virginal wife-to-be. Disgusted by the elderly man's attempts to limit her freedom and curtail her education, Tristana falls for a local painter named Horacio (Franco Nero) in a love-at-first-sight meeting that catches Lope off guard. Also close by is Saturno (Jesus Fernandez), the mute teenage son of Don Lope's maid. Buñuel uses Saturno's inability to speak as a corollary thematic element of restrained desire that finds liberation late in the film, when Tristana gives herself over to a thrilling moment of erotic exhibitionism from her balcony.
Two years spent living with Horacio come to an end when a terrible cyst in Tristan's foot causes Horacio to bring her back to Don Lope for the older, and ostensibly wealthier man, to care for her. Buñuel depicts the horse-trading that goes on between the men as yet another way that women are treated as possessions. As with Buñuel's "Diary of a Chambermaid," "Tristana" (1970) carries a significant element of foot fetishism expanded into an amputee fixation, as witnessed by Tristana's prosthetic leg lying on the bed with her lingerie, or the exposed nub beneath her skirt as she plays piano. The film also contains an element of horror that rears up in Tristana's recurring nightmare about the man who attempts to control her destiny.
Bette Gordon's independent psychological thriller, written by Kathy Acker, is a stunning proto-feminist noir experiment set in the sex shops of 1983 Times Square. During Manhattan's economic downturn Christine (Sandy McLeod), a Midwest transplant, takes a job as a ticket booth clerk at a Times Square porn theatre called the "Variety." Surprisingly, the sleazy urban atmosphere fires her erotic desires, and curiosities about the power of her own sexuality. Christine goes on a baseball game date at Yankee Stadium with Louie (Richard Davidson), a wealthy regular patron at the Variety with underworld connections, and secretly follows him after he's called away from their date. When she isn't stalking Louie, Christine tests the influence of her dirty imagination by speaking erotic fantasy monologues to her non-pulsed journalist boyfriend Mark (Will Patton). Daring, raw, and in tune with the social crosscurrents of the period, "Variety" achieves a cumulative effect of short-circuiting preconceived notions of taboo sexual stereotypes via Christine's journey of discovery. It's a thriller that takes poetic liberties equal to the harmonic leaps of John Lurie's evocative musical score.
"Vertigo" is Alfred Hitchcock's beautifully stylized psychological thriller about a man in love with a fetishized romantic fantasy invented by another man. Following "Rope" (1948), "Rear Window" (1954), and "The Man Who Knew Too Much" (1956), "Vertigo" is the last of four films James Stewart made with Hitchcock. Here Stewart's quintessential depiction of mid-20th century amiable masculinity plays Scottie Ferguson. Scottie is a retired-cop-turned-private-investigator who suffers from a debilitating case of vertigo. Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore), an old college buddy who knows about Scottie's phobia, hires him to follow his potentially suicidal wife Madeleine (Kim Novak) around San Francisco during melancholy days of brooding self-reflection. Madeleine routinely goes to the Legion of Honor Museum in order to gaze upon a haunting painting of her grandmother Carlotta Valdes, whose grave she also visits daily. A despondent leap into the cold waters beneath the Golden Gate Bridge affords the film one of cinema's most iconic images and gives Scottie permission to rescue Madeleine and win her tragically wounded heart.
Noir elements of deception and material artifice are a constant throughout this mystery. Madeleine's staged suicide from a Mission bell tower turns Scottie into a inconsolable man filled with lust for the deceased wife of his former client. When Scottie spots a woman named Judy Barton who is the spitting image of Madeleine(also played by Kim Novak), he pursues her with a twisted romantic motivation that borders on insanity. Hitchcock's brilliant use of Bernard Herrmann's lush music, camera movement, dream sequences, a strict color palate, and precise framing, draws the audience into the mystery with a scintillating blend of cinematic structure. Gravity is its primary image system, bringing Scottie and Judy to equally unsure footing in a relationship that cannot by definition exist. To see the restored version of "Vertigo" (1958) on the big screen is to enter into the prolific mind of one of cinema's most accomplished masters. Sublime.
The Wages of Fear
Henri-Georges Clouzot's 1953 magnum opus "The Wages of Fear." Based on Geroges Arnaud's novel, the fiercely anti-capitalist story follows four out-of-work loners (played by Yves Montand, Charles Vanel, Peter Van Eych and Folco Lulli) hanging out in a desolate South American town. The men take on a highly dangerous job of transporting two truckloads of nitroglycerine over 300 miles of bad road to put out raging oil fires. William Friedkin did an admirable but overlooked remake called "Sorcerer" in 1977, on which he squandered his enormous success with "The Exorcist." "Wages of Fear" is an uncompromising parable about money, greed, and man's jealous desire for that which he can never have. Yves Montand is outstanding in this gritty and unrelentingly suspenseful picture.
The Wind That Shakes the Barley
Winner of the 2006 Cannes Film Festival Palme d’Or, Ken Loach’s historic film enables a look forward by looking back in time. Set in West Cork, Ireland in 1920, the story fixes on the strife within a group of Irish freedom fighters, the IRA’s Flying Column. The Flying Column is attempting to reclaim Ireland’s independence from Britain’s proxy Black and Tan squads occupying their verdant land. The formerly apolitical Damien O’Donovan (Cillian Murphy) gives up a budding career as a physician to join the resistance fight with his fiercely idealistic brother Teddy (Padraic Delaney), whose familial and political loyalties will be sorely tested by the story’s end. The story evokes a lesson that governments around the world consistently refuse to learn—that occupied people, regardless of their culture, always fight back with more energy than their oppressors since they have more at stake and less to lose. "The Wind That Shakes the Barley" is an exceptional work of vigorous cinematic art, filled with dynamic performances from its very talented all-Irish cast.
Perhaps Britain's most beloved cult film, Bruce Robinson's 1986 semi-autobiographical dark comedy is an obsessively observed character study. The movie revels in its leading character's alcohol-fueled rants of outlandish poetic narcissism. Out-of-work London actors Withnail (Richard E. Grant) and the story's narrator Marwood Paul McGann) make the mistake of leaving their squalid Camden Town flat to "go on holiday by mistake" at a rustic cottage in the Lake District owned by Withnail's wealthy uncle Monty (Richard Griffiths). The broken and bare cottage proves as cold as the area's locals who intimidate Withnail and Marwood at every opportunity. Uncle Monty's unexpected arrival brings food, wine, heat, and a certain erotic agenda aimed at Marwood. The regal Uncle Monty is an affected aesthete who believes Marwood to be gay per Withnail's disinformation. Intent on capitalizing on the situation even if it means committing "burglary," Monty's romantic overtures toward Marwood drive one of the film's energetic sequences of over-the-top farce.
Richard E. Grant fantastic portrayal of Withnail (circa 1969) indentifies the fiendish character as on par with Hunter S. Thompson for being ahead of the counter-culture curve. Withnail proved a breakout role for Grant's feature debut. Grant went on to give a similarly inspired performance three years later under Bruce Robinson's direction in "How to Get Ahead in Advertising."
"Withnail an I" is a weird kind of time capsule. Music by Jimi Hendrix informs the film's late '60s atmosphere of intellectual and economic desperation. Withnail and Marwood represent British underclass archetypes whose irreverence is their greatest asset and their most damning flaw. "London is a country coming down from its trip. We are 91 days from the end of this decade and there's going to be a lot of refugees." Withnail and Marwood pre-disastered.
A Woman Under the Influence
In his 1974 film, John Cassvetes’ wife Gena Rowlands plays Mabel, an alcohol addicted and psychologically challenged wife to Peter Falk’s construction foreman Nick. The couple’s dysfunctional household, complete with their three kids, serves as an emotional lightening rod for their families and for their working class neighbors. Cassavetes defined the process of independent cinema by producing and distributing the film himself, without the aid of any traditional distribution channels. Gena Rowlands gives a fearless, career-defining tour de force performance that is a pinnacle of film-acting in an earth-shattering film unlike any other ever made. If you've never seen a Cassavetes film, this is a great one to start with. You will be changed.
In 1974 Mel Brooks caught comic lightning in a bottle with his appropriately black-and-white spoof of James Whale's 1931 classic horror film "Frankenstein." Brooks was on a tear with his hugely popular film "Blazing Saddles" when he unleashed the innuendo-laced "Young Frankenstein" on unsuspecting audiences, who found themselves with stomach aches from sustained fits of laughter. Gene Wilder brilliantly plays the semi-mad college lecturer Frederick Frankenstein, who insists on the proper pronunciation of his name as "Fronkenschteen." As the grandson of the more famous mad scientist, Wilder's zany doctor inherits his family's Transylvanian estate. Naturally he decides to go there and is soon inspired to continue his grandfather's experiments, which involve creating life from parts of corpses. Frankenstein's comely blonde lab assistant Inga (Teri Garr) distracts the doctor from his soon-visiting fiancée Elizabeth (hilariously played by Madeline Kahn), and with the help of the very funny Marty Feldman as Igor (pronounced Eyegor), makes a Frankenstein monster of his very own. Peter Boyle fills the creature's clunky dancing shoes—yes, there's an incredibly goofy song-and-dance-sequence--and Cloris Leachman strikes many a funny chord as Frau Blucher, whose name excites horses whenever its mentioned. Brooks used many of the actual props created by Kenneth Strickfaden from Whale's original film, which gives "Young Frankenstein" an atmosphere of reverent delight beneath its bawdy puns and outrageous physical humor.
In 1969 the Greek-French filmmaker Costa-Gavras adapted Vassilis Vassilikos's novel about the 1963 political assassination of Greek leftist political leader, Gregoris Lambrakis. Following in the footsteps of activist filmmakers including Francesco Rosi and Gillo Pontecorvo, Gavras opened this defiantly agitprop film with the caveat: "Any similarity to real persons and events is not coincidental, it is intentional." Yves Montand plays the doomed deputy, soon to be assassinated by a cabal of hired goons with the tacit consent of police officers who stand idly by. Enter Jean Louis Trintignant as the Examining Magistrate who, aided by pictures provided by a local photojournalist (Jacques Perrin), interviews the right-wing murderers and the military officials who sanctioned the crime.
Deploying quick cutting, a delicate use of flashback sequences, and a verité style, Gavras captured a hard line of rebellious defiance that was ultimately defeated by the more deadly methods of rightist colonists. Arriving at the end of a decade that witnessed the murders of John F. Kennedy, Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King, "Z" hit cinemas as a shockingly cynical view of a corrupt manipulation of military and political power that citizens of the world now take for granted. There's a white-heat to the outrage that "Z" expresses about the fractured state of societal collapse. It's a film that bluntly and stylistically depicts the impotence of truth as a weapon against authoritarian injustice.