Favorite Films (Part II)

1924: American comedian Buster Keaton (1895-1966) armed with only a magnifying glass and a copy of 'How To Be A Detective' hopes to become a great detective in the film 'Sherlock Junior'.


Life and Nothing More

Life, and Nothing More (Dir. Abbas Kiarostami, Iran, 1992)

Piggybacking on the success of Close-Up’s fusion of documentary and narrative filmmaking, Kiarostami’s Life, and Nothing More marks his second attempt to redefine the rules of cinematic storytelling. In its construct alone, Life is a challenging, yet rewarding watch as it tells the fictitious story of the filmmaker who shot Kiarostami’s actual film Where Is the Friend’s Home? But, Kiarostami’s typical affirmation of life elevates this film from clever set-up to profoundly humanist as he documents a people’s resilience to keep on living in the aftermath of a devastating and life-altering earthquake.

Read the full evaluation here.


Mother

Mother (Dir. Bong Joon-ho, South Korea, 2009)

No film has ever charted the surprisingly thin line between parental love and destructive overprotection quite like Bong Joon-ho’s thriller Mother. In the vein of Hitchcockian suspense, Bong’s film tells a gripping story with constant twists and turns with an explosive ending guaranteed to leave viewers’ jaws on the floor. No one is making genre films like Bong today; he effortlessly fuses horror, thrills, character study, and humor better than any of his contemporaries. With Mother he has crafted his greatest feature yet.


Mulholland Dr

Mulholland Drive (Dir. David Lynch, United States, 2001)

Often lauded as the last decade’s best film, David Lynch’s surrealistic tale of love and loss in Hollywood is complex, sexy, stylish, noirish, and thrilling all at once. Naomi Watts shines as both Betty and Diane, possibly split personalities or one a dream version of the other. The intrigue lies in this intentional ambiguity. Lynch offers no extra-film details to speak of, thus since its release, the Internet has been abuzz with possible solutions to the puzzle – one that will likely never be fully solved and one that is worth revisiting again and again.


My Neighbor Totoro

My Neighbor Totoro (Dir. Hayao Miyazaki, Japan, 1988)

The halcyon days of mid-century simplicity out in the Japanese countryside are alive in Miyazaki’s delightfully nostalgic My Neighbor Totoro. Devoid of easily defined villains or major plot devices, Miyazaki’s film is truly that rare film for all ages – neither beholden to children’s movie clichés nor overly serious. It’s a simple fable of rich spirituality, tender familial relationships, and the splendor of childhood imagination. It boasts some of the master’s most memorable characters in the cuddly Totoro, the mysterious soot sprites, and the grinning Catbus.


My Night at Mauds

My Night at Maud’s (Dir. Eric Rohmer, France, 1969)

Philosophy and religious debate have never been more seamlessly woven into the dialogue of a film than in Rohmer’s masterpiece My Night at Maud’s. Ever known for his talky films featuring the intellectual elite, one might assume his work comes across as lofty and cold. Not so – the conversations in Maud’s are heady, but refreshingly so. The characters are complex, but they’re also all the more real. And, though our four major characters delve into Pascal and modern liberalism, the moral quandary at the film’s center is remarkably simple. It’s as if Rohmer asks us: what would you do?

Read the full evaluation here.


New World

The New World (Dir. Terrence Malick, United States, 2005)

Director Terrence Malick seems to have found the perfect subject for his particular brand of wonder in the historical figure of Pocahontas. The New World tells the sort-of story of the beginning of Jamestown in early American history and the clash of cultures between the English and the natives. Malick most often sides with his daring heroine (portrayed beautifully by newcomer Q’orianka Kilcher), but he’s careful to showcase beauty whether in the unspoiled lands of what would be America or in the elaborate courtyards of a developing England.


Psycho

Psycho (Dir. Alfred Hitchcock, United States, 1960)

Still terrifying to this day, Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho is a perfect exercise in genuine horror – something so few films actually get. Save one legendary murder sequence and a few others smattered throughout, Hitchcock’s classic is short on gore, but heavy on bone-chilling terror. Dread lurks around every corner, and Hitchcock’s unprecedented decision to kill off his leading lady mid-film effectively subverts his audience’s expectations and leads to an uncomfortable fear that anything could happen.


Raise the Red Lantern

Raise the Red Lantern (Dir. Zhang Yimou, China, 1991)

Destined for not more than the fourth wife of a wealthy landowner, Songlian is a tragic figure in Zhang Yimou’s breathtaking Raise the Red Lantern – a film that is at once a biting social critique on China’s devaluation of women, a study in the power of tradition, and a canvas for some of the most gorgeous visuals committed to film. Songlian and the other wives deceive and betray one another seeking preferential treatment and the affection of their distant husband. It’s a powerful film, but also one of great subtlety.

Read the full evaluation here.


Rashomon

Rashômon (Dir. Akira Kurosawa, Japan, 1950)

Akira Kurosawa’s Rashômon was groundbreaking in its unreliable narrative. The concept was by no means new to cinema by 1950, but Kurosawa dedicated an entire film to exploring distorted narration and perception versus reality. Four characters recount the same story with diverging and contradictory anecdotes, and the audience is left to decide for him or herself who (if any) are telling the truth. Never a fan of neatly packaged endings, Rashômon may anger viewers who like their stories spelled out for them, but its strength and intrigue lies in its complex puzzle with a potentially satisfying ray of hope at film’s end.


Rear Window

Rear Window (Dir. Alfred Hitchcock, United States, 1954)

Before Hitchcock took a dive into truly dark territory with Vertigo and Psycho, his light-hearted romance set against a neighborhood whodunit that is Rear Window revealed his unequivocal skills as a filmmaker like none of his other works before. Effectively claustrophobic and meticulously controlled, Hitchcock’s film takes place entirely within an apartment with a view of the courtyard below. That he manages to construct a rather suspenseful murder mystery within these confines (with humor and charm to boot) speaks to this legend’s vast array of talents.


Royal Tenenbaums

The Royal Tenenbaums (Dir. Wes Anderson, United States, 2001)

Forget that it spawned countless insufferable imitators; trendsetter Wes Anderson’s magnum opus The Royal Tenenbaums remains the essential “indie” film in every sense of what that word has become. Fortunately, Anderson’s film avoids archetypes and clichés to become a genuinely heartfelt story of familial dysfunction that brilliantly tows the line between deadpan humor and considerable depth. Nothing is too serious to be laughed at in Anderson films (divorce, infidelity, death, suicide, addiction), but the way his characters deal with it all sure feels real.


Rules of the Game

The Rules of the Game (Dir. Jean Renoir, France, 1939)

Capturing the absurdity of French classicism (and effectively pissing off the French government), director Jean Renoir sheds light on the stark divisions of the lower and upper classes in his comical The Rules of the Game. The film is at once biting satire and also a showcase of brilliant and intriguing characterizations (notably the loveable Octave played by Renoir himself). Renoir’s characters, both seated at the dinner table and scurrying about the servants’ quarters, strive to do whatever they please, but at the end of the day will always bow to the strict societal rules that govern their lives.


Safe

Safe (Dir. Todd Haynes, United States, 1995)

Todd Haynes’ Safe is a refreshingly confounding work. It’s a film that can be understood on a whole host of different levels. There is a superficial tale of suburban malaise, but as the story unfolds – around Julianne Moore’s career-best performance – it adopts metaphors for a patriarchal society, environmentalism, the AIDS crisis, classicism, racism, and fringe religious movements. Essentially, it’s a startling microcosm of late-twentieth century angst in one impeccable film.


Seventh Seal

The Seventh Seal (Dir. Ingmar Bergman, Sweden, 1957)

Containing some of the most memorable images of the imminence of death (ah, that classic game of chess), Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal is dripping with the filmmaker’s dreary fatalism, but its cynicism surrounding both the thought of death and the perceived empty promises of religion give it a humorous edge that sustains his audience. Set against the devastation of the plague that ravished Europe in the Middle Ages, The Seventh Seal features a fair amount of thought-provoking existentialism and several memorable characters – most notably, Death himself.


Sherlock Jr

Sherlock, Jr. (Dir. Buster Keaton, United States, 1924)

In his most entertaining and most endearing film, Buster Keaton humorously maximizes the limitations of the silent era and capitalizes on the outlandishness of his comedy by framing a good portion of the story as a dream sequence – to this day unparalleled in its influential approach. Vaudevillian tricks and puzzling editing techniques create the illusions we see on screen, and it still stuns when we see Keaton climb up on stage and walk into the screen at his local movie theatre. The comedic master may be remembered best for The General, but it’s Sherlock, Jr. that boasts the finest distillation of his best qualities.


Singin in the Rain

Singin’ in the Rain (Dir. Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly, United States, 1952)

Has there been a more perfect musical in all of cinema’s rich history? Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly’s Singin’ in the Rain may be the most fun you’ll have at the movies this side of Pixar. Remarkably choreographed with an eye-popping Technicolor palette and a number of truly unforgettable songs, Singin’ in the Rain has stood the test of time in ways many Hollywood musicals have not. This is in part due to the Hollywood-centric story it follows. Movies about movies are a dime a dozen, but Singin’ in the Rain’s chronicle of the historic transition from silence to sound has lost none of its pizzazz or its outright humor.


Spirited Away

Spirited Away (Dir. Hayao Miyazaki, Japan, 2001)

Somewhat of an alternate take on The Wizard of Oz, Hayao Miyazaki’s delightfully imaginative film Spirited Away is a feast of beautiful visuals as young Chihiro discovers courage on her own unique path to self-discovery. Miyazaki brilliantly allows his narrative to wander introducing us to spectacular and unforgettable characters who are all surprisingly multi-dimensional. The characters in Miyazaki’s world are wholly real in their internal struggle to choose between good and evil. It’s a wondrous journey for all who revel in the magic within.

Read the full evaluation here.


Spring in a Small Town

Spring in a Small Town (Dir. Fei Mu, China, 1948)

Mainland China’s first cinematic masterpiece still resonates today. Its central conflict between bowing to tradition and pursuing personal happiness clashed with the growing Communist ideal that sought to snuff out any semblance of social individualism. But, today Fei Mu’s Spring in a Small Town is as relevant as ever as its delicate story challenges the conventions of arranged marriages versus marrying for love. But, in refusing to assign simplistic designations of protagonist or antagonist, Fei’s film is remarkably balanced as it seeks to show how one woman’s choice might affect everyone around her.


Stalker

Stalker (Dir. Andrei Tarkovsky, Soviet Union, 1979)

The films of Andrei Tarkovsky are particularly challenging for this cinephile. They’re slow, sparse, and heavily contemplative. They require a good deal of patience – for which I’ve found I don’t have much with some of his works – but I’ve always been struck by Stalker. Its philosophical implications are frustratingly ambiguous, but there’s something remarkably satisfying about that too. It’s a film that’s never left me since I first saw it years ago.


Sunrise

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (Dir. F.W. Murnau, United States, 1927)

The pinnacle of the effect German expressionism had on cinema occurred after Murnau’s move to the U.S. He set out to create a fable-like tale of right and wrong and the power of marital bliss. Sunrise is that film – an enchanting masterwork that is both storybook-like in its beautiful cinematography and impressive set design and incredibly humane in its portrayal of the triumph of love. Both leads give impeccable performances, but it’s Janet Gaynor who truly shines as the endearing and loyal wife to George O’Brien’s conflicted countryman.


Taxi Driver

Taxi Driver (Dir. Martin Scorsese, United States, 1976)

Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver may be the closest thing to a perfect character study there is in cinema. With the help of Robert De Niro’s iconic performance, we crawl inside the skin of this troubled war veteran as he encounters the sleazy underbelly of New York nightlife. Travis Bickle, undoubtedly one of cinema’s greatest characters, is anti-social, emotionally unstable, and incapable of maintaining a normal romantic relationship. But, as the film’s finale suggests, he still may be capable of heroism if not for purely altruistic motives.


There Will Be Blood

There Will Be Blood (Dir. Paul Thomas Anderson, United States, 2007)

A flaming oil derrick, an eerily pristine bowling alley, a claustrophobic one-room church, the vast and arid Texan plains – P.T. Anderson’s There Will Be Blood is a film of jaw-dropping images. The director has been refining his aesthetic over the years, ingesting the styles of other American greats, but Blood finds him coming into his own with a startling command of mise-en-scène and cinematography. The film is significant for its political, cultural, and religious implications, but it’s also a fascinating character study. Daniel Day-Lewis turns a gargantuan performance as oilman Plainview giving cinema a character for the history books.


Third Man

The Third Man (Dir. Carol Reed, United Kingdom, 1949)

Though a little late to the game, Carol Reed’s The Third Man nonetheless remains the finest film noir in cinematic history. Whether it be the zithers or Orson Welles’ turn as the fiendish Harry Lime or its fitting post-war setting or that famous closing shot of complete rejection, Reed’s film stands out amongst its contemporaries. The film’s crowning achievement, however, can be witnessed in the late-film chase sequence underground. A stark glowing light illuminates the jet-black tunnels as Lime scurries about evading the police. It’s quintessential film noir.


This Is Not a Film

This Is Not a Film (Dir. Jafar Panahi, Iran, 2011)

How to describe a film like Panahi’s unexpected masterstroke This Is Not a Film? For in one sense, it’s not a film. Is it an essay? A video diary entry? An elaborate hoax? No matter what it is, it’s a heart-wrenching portrait of an artist stripped of his tools to create as its maker remains under house arrest and banned from filmmaking for twenty years. The injustice suffered by Panahi looms over the entire project, but the film’s daringly unique construct enthralls from beginning to end. Dare I say it’s one of contemporary cinema’s most unexpected thrillers?

Read the full evaluation here.


Through the Olive Trees

Through the Olive Trees (Dir. Abbas Kiarostami, Iran, 1994)

Perhaps the greatest instance of meta-narrative in all of cinema, Kiarostami’s Through the Olive Trees adds a few more layers of complexity to the thread that ties Where Is the Friend’s Home? and Life, and Nothing More together. If Life is a faux documentary on the events of Friend’s Home, then Olive Trees is another fictitious behind-the-scenes story, this time of Life, and Nothing More. It’s a wonder that Kiarostami’s densely layered works never fall prey to formalist gimmicks, but it speaks to his unparalleled skills as a contemplative filmmaker that his films always engage the intellect as well as the heart.

Read the full evaluation here.


Touki Bouki

Touki Bouki (Dir. Djibril Diop Mambéty, Senegal, 1973)

Colonialism left the entire continent of Africa marred by the effects of Western infiltration, and though it’s unfair to lump nations as disparate as Senegal, South Africa, and Sudan into one category, Djibril Diop Mambéty’s Touki Bouki is probably the best film on post-colonial Africa in the history of cinema. Mambéty captures a nation grappling with its Western influence and an encroaching modernity in its French New Wave-riffing style, yet provides ample screen time to the rural and traditional ways of Senegalese life. In this juxtaposition, Mambéty has created one of the finest films on the rural/urban divide.

Read the full evaluation here.


Tropical Malady

Tropical Malady (Dir. Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand, 2004)

With Tropical Malady, director Apichatpong Weerasethakul masters the bifurcated narrative structure that has become a fixture of the filmmaker’s work. He’s gone on to direct great works since, but Tropical Malady remains his best. A tender, unhurried romance in the film’s first half gives way to an allegorical reverie of sorts in the second as the romantic pursuit between the two characters takes on the form of a hunt. The line between hunter and hunted becomes blurred as Weerasethakul forces us to meditate on the nature of love and longing.

Read the full evaluation here.


Trouble in Paradise

Trouble in Paradise (Dir. Ernst Lubitsch, United States, 1932)

Ernst Lubitsch’s sometimes forgotten classic is remarkably as fresh today as it was back in 1932 when it first shocked audiences with its devilish humor and witty double entendres. It still holds up for its comedy that incites laughter to this day (bolstered by three winsome lead performances), but it’s most notable now for its progressive portrayal of women – individuals in control of their own sexuality, enjoying it and never apologizing for it. For that, the influence of Trouble in Paradise is no laughing matter.


Uncle Boonmee

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Dir. Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand, 2010)

As a career summary up to this point, Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee represents the culmination of the themes, contemplative inquiries, and visuals that have populated his previous work. He meditates on reincarnation as a traditional religious belief and how it fits in with an increasingly secular society. He reveals a fading rural landscape as modernity bleeds into the jungle and the subsequent changes in tradition and spirituality. And yet, as always, there’s playfulness in Weerasethakul’s craft as he highlights the absurd and knowingly teases his own spectacular imagination.

Read the full evaluation here.


Wind Will Carry Us

The Wind Will Carry Us (Dir. Abbas Kiarostami, Iran, 1999)

To cap off a decade of fantastic cinema, Abbas Kiarostami gave us one of his very finest with The Wind Will Carry Us – a riveting meditation on the urban/rural divide. The film’s protagonist leaves his stressful professional life as a journalist in Tehran to capture a traditional funeral ritual in a far-off village. There his patience is tested as he quickly discovers he must bend his own will to the ways of the villagers, and not the other way around. As usual Kiaromstami plays with cinematic form to trace this narrative; and as always, the story turns to one of celebrating and affirming the art of living.

Read the full evaluation here.


Continue to Part III (#20-11) 

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