Best of the 1990s

Postcards from the Edge (1990)Postcards from the Edge (1990)

Actress Suzanne Vale (Meryl Streep) reluctantly moves in with her mother, Doris Mann (Shirley MacLaine), a star of musical comedies in the 1950s and 1960s, because studio executives demand she stay with a responsible party when she returns to work following a stint in a drug rehabilitation center.

Meryl Streep is very funny as the conflicted Suzanne, but she’s not as good as her costar Shirley MacLaine.

Suffering from the same fate as many older actresses, MacLaine’s star has faded as she’s aged, but this film reminds us: when given quality material, she’s a more than capable actress. Doris is torn in a million pieces: she wants to be a good mother, but she’s jealous of her daughter’s success; she’s nostalgic for the days when she was a big star, but doesn’t want to admit those days have passed.

I’m a sucker for an energetic musical number and this film delivers, in a scene which more or less encapsulates the whole movie.

Mike Nichols was a powerhouse director of famed Broadway musicals, including the original productions of Annie and Spamalot, and an accomplished film director, including Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), The Graduate (1967), The Birdcage (1996), and Closer (2004). Unusual among big name directors, he seemed content to let his work speak for itself, rarely going out of his way to seek the limelight.

In addition to Streep and MacLaine, this film features Dennis Quaid as a philandering producer, Gene Hackman as a kind director, Richard Dreyfuss as a doctor who takes an interest in Suzanne, and Annette Benning as a small time actress.

Streep and MacLaine are very good, but the movie is special because of its backstory. Carrie Fisher (of Princess Leia fame), wrote the novel on which the film was based and the screenplay for this film adaptation. It’s easy to see the relationship between Suzanne and Doris as a stand in for the relationship between Fisher and her famous mother, Debbie Reynolds.

This film skillfully combines a biting Hollywood satire, a touching movie about family jealousies, and a juicy tell-all memoir.

Barton FinkBarton Fink (1991)

Barton Fink (John Turturro) is a celebrated Broadway playwright hired to write Hollywood scripts in the early 1940s. While in California, he stays at the rundown Hotel Earle to maintain his connection with “the common man,” where he meets Charlie (John Goodman), an insurance salesman hiding a dangerous past. Fink dreams of creating important, artistic films, but his boss at Capitol Studios, Jack Lipnick (Michael Lerner), is only interested in making money.

Few actors can boast of working with the Coens, Spike Lee, Adam Sandler, and Michael Bay; John Turturro has been in multiple projects with each of them.  He’s an incredible versatile performer and very good as Barton, but this movie belongs to John Goodman’s Charlie. The Coens always bring out the best in him in films such as Raising Arizona (1987), The Big Lebowski (1998), and O Brother Where Art Thou (2000), but this, easily his darkest and most fearless work, is in a different league and leaves an indelible impression.

John Polito (an early Coen favorite), Steve Buscemi, John Mahoney, Tony Shalhoub, and Judy Davis round out the supporting cast.

In the past decade, the Coen brothers have worked to make their films more accessible and mainstream, but this film remains one of their most challenging; the last third of the movie descends into a dream-like Lynchian madness involving a serial killer, a huge fire, a severed head, and a postcard.

Nonetheless, this was immediately recognized as an important film and helped separate the brothers from the glut of quirky, independent filmmakers at the end of the twentieth century. At the 1991 Cannes Film Festival, this under appreciated and misunderstood film became the first to win the Best Picture, Best Actor, and Best Director awards at the festival.

It’s a funny, insightful parody of the Hollywood studio system at the beginning of World War II and a probing look at the nature of art.   Fink is dismayed when he’s assigned to write a film about wrestling because he considers the subject beneath him, but four hundred years ago, Shakespeare’s plays were disdained as low culture entertainment; now, they’re the pinnacle of Western civilization.  In five hundred years, will critics be studying the  collected works of John Cheever or Full House?

BarakaBaraka (1992)

This spiritual successor to Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisquati (1982) was directed by Ron Fricke, the cinematographer of the earlier film.

Containing no narrative, it’s a series of long tracking shots of people and places from around the world, often using time-lapse photography: the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, oil fields in Kuwait, Auschwitz, African tribal ceremonies, a crowded subway terminal.  It’s National Geographic without interpretive voice overs.

A statement about the interconnectedness of humanity, it’s a breathtaking, beautiful film highlighting the diversity of the world and the wonder of creation.

Groundhog DayGroundhog Day (1993)

When Pittsburgh weatherman Phil Connors is assigned to cover the Groundhog Day festival in Punxsutawney, he’s inexplicably forced to relive the same day over and over again.

As Ned Ryerson, Stephen Toblowsky straddles the line between annoying, over-eager salesman and pathetic everyman; Andie MacDowell’s Rita is the most genuine person in the film and its emotional anchor; Chris Elliot’s physical comedy serves as a counterbalance to the film’s cerebral aspirations, but this movie belongs to William James Murray.

Prior to this, everyone knew Bill Murray was funny, but no one knew if he could act. As Phil Connors, he runs the gamut from depressed loser to jaded cynic to self-centered asshole to altruistic boy scout. Caddyshack (1980) and Ghostbusters (1985) made him a star, Groundhog Day made him an actor.

This movie breaks countless storytelling rules, but no one walks away thinking about the gaping plot holes.  Instead, viewers fill in the blanks with their own metaphysical  and philosophical explanations, whether they be Buddhist, Christians, humanist, or conservative.

Director Harold Ramis is often compared to fellow Chicagoan John Hughes, another hugely influential comedic voices in the late twentieth century. I prefer Ramis, but the difference between the two is negligible.

From Ferris Bueller, to  Del Griffith, to Kevin McCallister, Hughes’s films feature insecure people trying to figure out how the world works.

From Ty Webb, to Peter Venckman to Phil Connors, Ramis’s films feature overly secure people trying to understand why the world doesn’t work the way they think it should.

On paper, this philosophical, romantic comedy about existential angst with an underdeveloped fantasy plot shouldn’t rank as one of the greatest films of all time, but it does. 

The Shawshank RedemptionThe Shawshank Redemption (1994)

1994 was a miracle year for movies, but while Forrest Gump was a technical marvel and transformed Tom Hanks into a national treasure and Pulp Fiction ushered in a new era of hyper violence, the cream of the crop was the story of the wrongfully convicted Andy Dufresne.

Its continuing power is due to the amazing cast of characters.

Thousands of people dream of Morgan Freeman narrating their lifestory, but what they really want is the comforting, soothing gravitas of prisoner Ellis “Red” Redding magnifying the minutiae of their lives.

Bob Gunton is one of the greatest screen villains as the hypocritical, Bible-thumping, slightly obtuse warden, Samuel Norton.

James Whitmore is heartbreaking as Brooks Hatlen, the lifelong prisoner unable to adjust to life on the outside.

Andy’s quiet quest to secure his freedom stands in contrast to the bitterness and defiant anger we expect, and the image of him emerging from the sewer a free man and looking up into the falling rain is a triumph of the human spirit.

Mighty AphroditeMighty Aphrodite (1995)

Lenny Weinrib (Woody Allen), and his wife, Amanda (Helena Bonham Carter), can’t conceive, so they adopt a baby boy. When the child turns out to be a  prodigy, a curious Lenny seeks out the birth mother: Linda Rush (Mira Sorvino), a porn star / aspiring actress.

A modern Greek tragedy, complete with a Greek chorus and a Deus ex machina ending, this is Woody Allen at his most playful, and Helena Bonham Carter at her most sane, but the reason this film is great begins and ends with Sorvino.

Linda Rush is one of my favorite characters, nonchalantly filthy and utterly charming.  She’s completely at ease with her porn star career and naively believes quality work in pornography will result in better roles in the future.

Sorvino deservedly won an Oscar, but sadly it would appear she’s content working in independent films, avoiding the limelight attached to high-profile roles.

The Crucible (1996)

In this film inspired by the infamous Salem Witch Trials, John Proctor (Daniel Day-Lewis) love his wife Elizabeth (Joan Allen), but an earlier infidelity with Abigail Williams (Winona Ryder) causes a rift in their relationship which ends in violence and engulfs the whole town.

Daniel Day-Lewis rarely disappoints.  His John Proctor is torn between protecting his reputation or his family.  Ultimately, he chooses his family, but like The Gift of the Magi, his wife refuses to confirm his unfaithfulness.

Beginning in the mid 1990s, Joan Allen began an impressive decade long run of quality films including  Nixon (1995), The Ice Storm (1997), Pleasantville (1998), The Contender (2001), and The Notebook (2004).  She brings a quiet dignity to Elizabeth Proctor, who continues to love her husband despite his infidelity.

Winona Ryder is a versatile performer who can be goofy,  sarcastic and mean, or quietly manipulative. Sadly, her career was derailed after her arrest for shoplifting.  Since then, she’s been relegated to supporting roles in films like Star Trek (2009) and Black Swan (2010).

She’s still relatively young, but I fear we’re going to look back on her career and see it as a squandered opportunity.

Paul Scofield focused on the theater, but the few films he participated in were memorable including A Man for All Seasons (1966),  Henry V (1989), and Quiz Show (1994). He’s excellent as Judge Thomas Danforth, the architect of the trials.

Jeffrey Jones who played Thomas Putnam is fondly remembered as the dad in Beetlejuice (1988) and the principal in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986), but those fond memories were tainted when he was arrested for child pornography in 2003.

I’d read Arthur Miller’s play in high school, so I knew the film used the witch trials as an allegory for McCarthyism, but I didn’t anticipate the film’s message about love and commitment which makes it a perfect companion piece to The Age of Innocence (1993), also starring Day-Lewis and Ryder.  The earlier film shows what sacrifices must be made to maintain fidelity in a relationship, while this film shows the consequences of breaking this vow.

The Wings of the DoveThe Wings of the Dove (1997)

Kate (Helena Bonham Carter) is dependent on her Aunt Maude to support her and her drug addicted father (Michael Gambon).  Maude wants her to marry for money, but Kate’s in love with a poor journalist, Merton Densher.  She befriends a dying American heiress, Milly (Elizabeth McGovern), and schemes to have Merton woo Milly and inherit her fortune; heartbreak and anguish follow.

This film reminds us Helena Bonham Carter was a fine actress before Tim Burton turned her into a permanent weirdo.

Elizabeth McGovern is perfectly cast as the dying Milly. I’m happy to see her belatedly getting deserved recognition for her recent work in Downton Abbey,

Based on a Henry James novel, this is the sort of lush, morally complex, melodrama I imagine when I think of romance.

The Truman ShowThe Truman Show (1998)

As he turns 30, a series of events leads Truman Burbank to suspect everything is not as it seems and begin an investigation which leads to an unsettling discovery: he’s the unwitting star of a reality television show. His entire life has been filmed by hidden cameras and broadcast on a dedicated network.

Every relationship, from his parents to his best friend, has been carefully choreographed. His father’s death was a ratings stunt. His wife was selected following an intense audition process.

It feels like reality television has been with us forever, but amazingly, this film premiered two years before Survivor.

For Jim Carey, this film was the inevitable dramatic turn attempted by every successful comedic performer. Despite some success, such as Man on the Moon (1999) and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), his dramatic career never materialized and twenty years later he’s making  unwanted and unnecessary sequels to remain relevant.

Written by the director of Gattaca (1997), Andrew Niccol, this film asks important questions about the nature of entertainment, the power of individuality, and the evil of a world where everything is a commodity.  It invites us to see the creators of the show within the movie as cruel manipulators and demands outrage at the use of people for entertainment purposes.  Left unsaid is the parallel between the viewers watching Truman’s life unfold and the millions of people who watch similarly exploitative programs like Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.

The movie wisely ends ambiguously.  Truman escapes, but without a camera following his every move, we have no idea what he does next, nor should we: it’s none of our damn business.

Magnolia (1999)

The lives of the characters in this film intertwine in a ridiculous labyrinth.

Phillip Baker Hall, perhaps best known as Lt. Bookman in an episode of Seinfeld, is Jimmy Gator, an aging, alcoholic host of a children’s quiz show who, because of his alcoholism, can’t remember if he sexually abused his daughter.

The underrated John C. Reilly is Jim Kurring, a dimwitted policeman in love with Gator’s daughter.

William H. Macy is Donnie, a former quiz show champion who believes dental work will solve his insecurities.  After Fargo (1996), it seemed Macy was destined to become a major star, but he seems content with smaller character work.

Jason Robards is Earl Partridge, who wants to reconcile with his son before he dies.  Robard’s death one year after the film’s release adds an urgent poignancy to his performance.

Julianne Moore is Linda Partridge, the morphine-addicted, much younger wife of Earl.  In my opinion, Moore’s an overrated actress, but she’s compelling here.

Phillip Seymour Hoffman is Phil Parma, a hospice nurse who takes care of Earl.

Tom Cruise plays against type as Earl’s son, the misogynist / pick up artist Frank Mackey, whose fractured relationship with his father manifests in unexpected ways. His performance is a career highlight.

Just as we realize it will take a miracle to unravel the film’s ridiculous plot, the miracle happens: a storm carrying thousands of frogs descends on the city.

Near the end of the film, a succession of characters sing “Wise Up” by Aimee Mann.  It’s an odd, haunting scene, forcing us to remove ourselves from the story and focus on the characters.

Director and screenwriter Paul Thomas Anderson understands films in a way few in Hollywood do: the details of the plot of a movie will be forgotten, but great characters such as Jack HornerDaniel Plainview, and Lancaster Dodd will survive

These Orchids are Deadly

220px-Adaptation._filmAdaptation. (2002)

It’s a loose adaptation of Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief, a non-fiction account of the arrest of John Laroche for poaching rare plants in Florida.

Calling it an adaptation is a sleight of hand by Jonze and frequent collaborator Charlie Kaufman.  It’s more like an interpretation; freely adding fictional elements to Orlean’s non-fiction work.

Kaufmann is a consistently inventive screenwriter.  From Being John Malkovich (1999), to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), to Synecdoche, New York (2008), his films are hyper post-modern examinations of the fractured reality of 21st century existence.

Kaufmann was hired to adapt The Orchid Thief and, suffering from writer’s block, wrote a screenplay about his struggle, creating a fictional identical twin brother in the process.  As a joke, he gave this make-believe brother a co-screenwriting credit, making Donald Kaufmann the first (and only) fictional character to earn an Academy Award nomination.

In an insightful parody of the Hollywood process, Charlie attends a screenwriting seminar led by controversial Hollywood guru, Robert McKee.

Donald suspects Orlean (Meryl Streep) is hiding something, so the brothers follow her to Florida and discover she’s having an affair with Laroche (Chris Cooper).  The reason he stole the orchid was because the plant can be used to create a drug which causes fascination.  Laroche gave this drug to Orlean and she subsequently developed an obsession with him.

The end of the film is a pastiche of action movie clichés as Orlean and Laroche try to kill the Kaufmanns to protect their secret.

Chris Cooper was a late bloomer with Lone Star (1996),  but afterwards exploded with roles in American Beauty (1998), The Patriot (2000), the Bourne movies, Capote (2005), The Town (2010), The Muppets (2011) and Norman Obsorn in The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014).  He deservedly won an Oscar for his work as John Laroche.

Nicholas Cage is talented, but often chooses movies not worthy of his talent and claimed in 2011 to have developed his own style of acting, “Noveau Shamanic.”  His dual role as Charlie and Donald Kaufmann,  while not likely to change any opinions, is one of his best performances.

Despite only directing four feature films, Spike Jonze has developed a reputation for experiential narrative in films where a secret door provides access to John Malkovich’s mind, or a man falls in love with his phone’s operating system.

The more you pursue the seeming loose ends in this twisted, funny movie, the more you realize Kaufmann and Jonze anticipated your questions and answered them.  It’s a perfect film to begin a new millennium, deconstructing the practice of adapting works of art to different mediums.

This film was replaced as my favorite film released in 2002 by Talk to Her.

Talk to Her (2002)When Lydia falls into a coma after suffering serious injuries during a bullfight, her boyfriend Marco faithfully visits her every day at the hospital until he learns she had intended to break up with him but never had the opportunity.

Benigno, a male nurse at the hospital, is assigned to take care of Alicia Roncero, another coma patient who was once a promising dance student.

When lab work shows Alicia is pregnant, a hospital investigation identifies Benigno as the father. Unexpectedly, the physical shock revives Alicia, but her child is stillborn.  After he’s arrested and jailed for his crime, Benigno commits suicide.

Despite the appalling and reprehensible act Beningo perpetrates on Alicia, Almodovar casts him in a sympathetic light, implying his actions are a product of intellectual limitations and emotional issues stemming from his relationship with his mother. Alicia was an outlet to release his frustration and sadness about his lonely, isolated life; this vulnerability created an attachment which Benigno misinterpreted as love.

Almodovar bizarrely films the rape scene as a stylized parody of the silent films Benigno loves, which further contextualizes his actions.  The film stops just short of justifying the rape, but we are saddened by Benigno’s  imprisonment; his death is not the righteous punishment due a rapist, but the devastating demise of a misguided outcast.

A modern-day Douglas Sirk, Pedro Almodovar specializes in female centric melodramas filtered through the tropes of Spanish language soap operas and uses dark humor to expose cracks in the facade of normalcy and challenge convention.

This movie illuminates the fine line between love and obsession. Love leads us to place the needs of others above our own. Obsession leads us to subjugate and displace the needs of our beloved. Love is a mutual agreement, while obsession is a one way street. The obsessed will talk to her, a lover will listen.

Tim’s Big Adventure

Edward ScissosrhandsEdward Scissorhands (1990)

When Avon salesman Peg Boggs (Dianne Wiest) discovers Edward, (Johnny Depp) the final creation of The Inventor (Vincent Price), living alone in an abandoned mansion, she pities him and takes him to live with her family.

Edward falls in love with Peg’s daughter, Kim (Winona Ryder), but their relationship is complicated by her jealous boyfriend, a sexually aggressive neighbor, and Edward’s lack of hands.

The Inventor died before he could finish Edward, leaving him with scissors instead of hands, and, as a result, he’s great at ice sculpting, cutting bushes, and styling hair, but pretty lousy at holding things.

With the possible exception of his work as Jack Sparrow in the Pirates of the Caribbean films, this, the first of Depp’s countless collaborations with Tim Burton, is the best thing  he’s ever done. They’ve become so intertwined in the public consciousness, it’s easy to see Depp, and therefore Edward, as a proxy for Burton’s own feelings of isolation and loneliness. 

One of the things which makes this film memorable is the obvious, genuine chemistry between Depp and Ryder.  It should shock no one to learn they dated following the completion of the film and were briefly engaged.

Alan Arkin and Diane Wiest are fantastic as Edward’s adopted parents and may be the best, and most authentic representation, of parenthood in any Burton film.

Despite a fifty two year career, this is Vincent Price’s legacy.  His earlier work will fade away, but his late performances (playing, essentially, an exaggerated version of himself) in this and his contribution to Michael Jackson’s Thriller (1983) will blaze brightly for years to come.

This was the first of Tim Burton’s films to merge his unique vision with a universally relatable story. It’s much easier to identify with the socially awkward, self-conscious teenager in Edward Scissorhands than the overgrown man-child in Pee Wee’s Big Adventure (1985), or the mischievous ghost in Beetlejuice (1988), or the billionaire crime fighter in Batman (1989).

This film was succeeded as my favorite film released in 1990 by Postcards from the Edge.

Postcards from the Edge (1990)Actress Suzanne Vale (Meryl Streep) reluctantly moves in with her mother, Doris Mann (Shirley MacLaine), a star of musical comedies in the 1950s and 1960s, because studio executives demand she stay with a responsible party when she returns to work following a stint in a drug rehabilitation center.

Meryl Streep is very funny as the conflicted Suzanne, but she’s not as good as her costar Shirley MacLaine.

Suffering from the same fate as many older actresses, MacLaine’s star has faded as she’s aged, but this film reminds us: when given quality material, she’s a more than capable actress. Doris is torn in a million pieces: she wants to be a good mother, but she’s jealous of her daughter’s success; she’s nostalgic for the days when she was a big star, but doesn’t want to admit those days have passed.

I’m a sucker for an energetic musical number and this film delivers, in a scene which more or less encapsulates the whole movie.

Mike Nichols was a powerhouse director of famed Broadway musicals, including the original productions of Annie and Spamalot, and an accomplished film director, including Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), The Graduate (1967), The Birdcage (1996), and Closer (2004). Unusual among big name directors, he seemed content to let his work speak for itself, rarely going out of his way to seek the limelight.

In addition to Streep and MacLaine, this film features Dennis Quaid as a philandering producer, Gene Hackman as a kind director, Richard Dreyfuss as a doctor who takes an interest in Suzanne, and Annette Benning as a small time actress.

Streep and MacLaine are very good, but the movie is special because of its backstory. Carrie Fisher (of Princess Leia fame), wrote the novel on which the film was based and the screenplay for this film adaptation. It’s easy to see the relationship between Suzanne and Doris as a stand in for the relationship between Fisher and her famous mother, Debbie Reynolds.

This film skillfully combines a biting Hollywood satire, a touching movie about family jealousies, and a juicy tell-all memoir.

The Best of the 1950s

Sunset Boulevard (1950)Sunset Boulevard (1950)

Faded silent screen star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) steadfastly believes she will regain her former glory and hires writer Joe Gillis (William Holden) to help with her planned comeback, but as the project drags on their relationship becomes dangerously complicated.

William Holden brings a weary everyman quality to Joe Gillis while Gloria Swanson’s history as a former silent movie star adds an emotional depth to her performance. Erich von Stroheim, himself a famed silent director, is perfectly cast in the subservient and humiliating role of Max von Mayerling, Norma’s butler.

The cameos by director Cecil B. DeMille (largely credited with making Swanson’s career) and silent film legends Buster Keaton, H. B. Warner, and Anna Q. Nilsson blur the line between the fictional world created by Charles Brackett and Wilder and reality.

This cautionary fable is a near perfect film about identity and the fickleness of fame and one of the sharpest and most insightful examinations of the nature of Hollywood.

People Will Talk (1951)People Will Talk (1951)

This bizarre movie merges several seemingly incongruous narrative strands in a Seinfeldian way. There’s a man who survived an execution, an unmarried, pregnant woman whose fear of embarrassing her alcoholic father leads to a suicide attempt, a doctor who pretends he’s a butcher because the town doesn’t believe in medicine, and a jealous rival hellbent on sabotaging the career of his competition.

In a career full of funny, charming performances, Cary Grant’s work as Dr. Noah Praetorius is one of his most interesting roles.

Jeanne Crain is delightful as the pregnant Deborah Higgins who falls in love with Praetorius.

Hume Cronyn is ornery and spiteful as the jealous Professor Ewell and his inevitable comeuppance is immensely satisfying.

In a career which includes The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947), A Letter to Three Wives (1949), All About Eve (1950), Suddenly, Last Summer (1959), and Sleuth (1972), this is Joseph Mankiewicz’s funniest and most creative film.

It defies categorization: there’s melodrama, discussion of serious social issues, heroic self-sacrifice, romantic comedy, and courtroom drama. Like a great stew made of a hodgepodge of ingredients, its disparate components complement each other perfectly.

It’s difficult to imagine how a movie featuring a pregnant, unwed woman was made in 1952, but it was, it starred Cary Grant, and it’s a joyful miracle.

Ikiru (1952)Ikiru (1952)

When widowed, mid-level bureaucrat Kanji Watanabe (Takashi Shimura) is diagnosed with terminal stomach cancer, he tries to drown his miseries in a bottle. When this fails, a younger female colleague inspires him to find something he’s passionate about. Emboldened, he dedicates his remaining life to creating a park out of a cesspool and dies a happy man, content with what he has accomplished in his life.

Surprisingly, this film doesn’t end with Watanabe’s death, but continues with the reaction of his friends and family following his demise. As his coworkers marvel about the change in attitude and renewed dedication to his work in the months before his death, they realize he must have known he was dying. His unspoken courage in the face of mortality inspires them.

This unassuming movie about an unimportant, dying man is Akira Kurosawa’s best and most important film. It teaches us to appreciate and celebrate life, and the final thirty minutes serve as a beautiful reminder our story does not end with death,  but begins as friends and family craft our legacy.

Tokyo Story (1953)Tokyo Story (1953)

When retired couple Shukichi and Tomi Hirayama visit their son and daughter in Tokyo, their children are too busy to spend any time with them; the only person who pays them any attention is their widowed daughter-in-law, Noriko, and after Tomi’s death, Noriko is the only concerned about what will happen to Shukichi.

While Yasujiro Ozu’s quiet films are often compared to his contemporary Akira Kurosawa’s more action oriented work, both filmmakers provide invaluable insight into the psyche of the Japanese following their defeat in the second World War.

This loose remake of Leo McCarey’s 1937 film Make Way for Tomorrow asks important questions about balancing the demands of family with other responsibilities. As people continue to live longer lives, and dealing with elderly parents becomes a rite of passage; this film is a poignant reminder of how difficult it is to grow old and how marginalized the elderly feel when their children brush them aside to focus on their own lives.

Dial M for Murder (1954) Dial M for Murder (1954)

When Tony Wendice (Ray Milland) discovers his wife Margot (Grace Kelly) is having an affair, he plots to have her killed.

Because she retired at the tender age of 26, Grace Kelly’s public image was frozen as a young, beautiful woman. Her marriage into royalty created a mystique and allure unique among American celebrities. Add a tragic and unexpected death, and you have a recipe for a legendary career despite only appearing in eleven feature films.

Ray Milland won an Oscar for his work in The Lost Weekend (1945), but his career is best understood as a slightly more celebrated version of Ronald Regan.

This film is pure Hitchcock: a betrayal, an intricate plan, a murder, and  a beautiful blonde.  It’s a modest movie with very specific goals, but it more than achieves them.

Ordet (1955)Ordet (1955)

Morten Bergen is a widower with three sons. His oldest, Mikkel, is married to Inger, a devout believer, but has lost his faith. The middle child, Johannes, is obsessed with Søren Kierkegaard and believes he’s Christ incarnate sent to reinvigorate the faith of the community. His youngest son, Anders, is in love with the daughter of a local religious leader.

When Inger dies, everyone dismisses Johannes’s claim she’ll rise from the dead if the family has faith as the ranting of a madman. However, when Inger’s young child innocently asks Johannes to bring her back, she revives, and everyone’s faith is renewed.

Carl Th. Dreyer’s films illuminate the practical ways philosophical theories impact the lives of individuals and give us a blueprint for the role of spirituality in the 20th century. This film doesn’t quiet reach the heights of his earlier film, The Passion of Joan of Arc (1924), but it’s a wonderful examination of faith in the modern world.

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)

When Dr. Ben McKenna (James Stewart) learns about an upcoming assassination attempt on a foreign dignitary while vacationing in Morocco with his wife, Jo (Doris Day), their son is kidnapped to prevent him from sharing this information with the authorities.

Jimmy Stewart’s popular image as a wide-eyed everyman was cultivated in a series of beloved films with director Frank Capra: You Can’t Take it With You (1938), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), and It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), but his later work with Alfred Hitchcock is much more subtle and jaded.

Doris Day’s work here shows a great deal more depth than the light romantic comedies with Rock Hudson for which she is best remembered. In the 1950s and 1960s, Day had a large, dedicated following, and still ranks among the highest grossing stars in Hollywood history. However, while other popular actresses of the same era, such as Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor, are remembered fondly, Day’s star has faded as tastes have shifted.

A remake of his earlier 1934 film of the same name, this is Hitchcock’s most playful, lighthearted movie; there’s more humor than typically known for, and it prominently features a song.

“Que Sera Sera,” would become Day’s anthem and a frequent touchstone in popular culture, although few are aware of its Hitchcockian origin.

Much like Day’s career, this film is often overlooked and rarely mentioned among Hitchcock’s best. This misjudgment must be corrected. It’s a great film, made even better because it subverts our expectations. Because it’s so unlike his other work, it provides a unique view into the mind of one of the great artists of the 20th century.

Wild Strawberries (1957)Wild Strawberries (1957)

This film follows seventy-eight year old Professor Isak Borg (played by Bergman’s idol and mentor Victor Sjolstrom) as he travels to accept an award from his alma mater. Through a series of dreams, visions, and flashbacks, we learn how the unfulfilled promise of his childhood and adolescence caused him to become the bitter individual he is today.

The film doesn’t break new ground; many films focus on the elderly coming to terms with their mortality.  But in Bergman’s hands, an ordinary film becomes  profound, and this is the definitive film dirge, following Professor Borg as he prepares his mind and soul for his own imminent demise.

Vertigo (1958)Vertigo (1958)

Retired police detective Scottie Ferguson (James Stewart) is asked by an old friend, Gavin Elster, to spy on his wife, Madeline (Kim Novak), whom Elster believes is possessed by the spirit of a deceased relative.

During the course of this investigation, Scottie and Madeline begin a brief relationship which ends when she inexplicably runs to the top of a bell tower and jumps, killing herself.

Scottie is despondent until he meets Judy Barton who looks exactly like Madeline. They, too, begin a relationship, with Scottie vaguely suspecting the resemblance is more than coincidence. In order to uncover the truth, he is forced to confront his own past and fears.

Critical reception at the time of its release was tepid, but fifty years later, this dark, twisting tale of obsession is universally recognized as one of the greatest films from one of the greatest directors and one of Jimmy Stewart’s best performances.

Some Like it Hot (1959)Some Like it Hot (1959)

When jazz musicians Joe (Tony Curtis) and Jerry (Jack Lemmon) witness the St. Valentine’ Day Massacre, they go on the run by pretending to be women and joining an all girl jazz band where Joe falls in love with bandmate Sugar Kane (Marilyn Monroe).

Tony Curtis is fantastic here, and in Sweet Smell of Success (1957), The Defiant Ones (1958) and Spartacus (1960). But in the 1960s, his career stalled, while costar Jack Lemmon’s soared. The divergent paths of their careers can be partially traced to their respective roles in this film. Curtis is great as Joe, but the role is not as flashy as Jerry. Lemmon got the laughs, while Curtis played it straight. Lemmon had already won an Oscar for Mister Roberts (1955), but the goodwill from this film made him a star.

Marilyn Monroe is so closely identified with the role of Sugar Kane, it’s easy to pretend she was playing herself. This melding of her private life and public persona makes her performance riveting.

While Billy Wilder’s earlier film, Sunset Boulevard (1950), was a dark, cynical satire, this film was focused solely on being as funny as possible, and it worked: in 2000, the American Film Institute named it the greatest comedy of all time.

With its foundation in cross-dressing, gender-bending comedy, this film serves as an important marker in understanding how attitudes about homosexuality and transgender issues have evolved in the last half-century.

The Best of the 1980s

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The Shining (1980)

Writer Jack Torrance takes a job as a winter caretaker at the Overlook Hotel which was built on a Native American burial ground. Haunted by the numerous evil spirits which populate the hotel, Jack slowly loses his mind and unsuccessfully attempts to kill his wife, Wendy and young son, Danny.

Contrary to what Mr. King expressed in the afterword to his sequel, Doctor Sleep, this is far superior to the original novel.

Many of the scenes from this harrowing descent into madness have become iconic, but none more than this:

Much has been written about the dense symbolism and imagery of Stanley Kubrik’s masterpiece, and there’s even a documentary dedicated to the numerous conspiracy theories surrounding the film.

RaidersRaiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

In 1936, archeologist Indiana Jones is summoned to help find the Ark of the Covenant before it falls into the hands of the Nazis.

Buried beneath pulpy adrenaline, the film does have something to say about faith and the supernatural, but interpreting an Indiana Jones film is like riding a roller coaster and focusing on the physics.

This movie is rolling boulders, melting faces, and pits of vipers, not metaphysical pontification.

Few actors create one iconic character in their careers; Harrison Ford did it twice in four years. Sadly, he never achieved the same heights again, but this is partially the result of unfair and unjustified expectations after his initial, unprecedented success.

George Lucas has become a popular object of derision, but Star Wars and Indiana Jones should be more than enough to secure his legacy and we should forgive him for the indulgent Howard the Duck (1986) and the less than stellar prequel films.

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Annie (1982)

John Huston was nominated for a Razzie for Worst Director and Aileen Quinn won the Razzie for Worst Supporting Actress (odd since she was the titular character and in nearly every scene). In spite of the critical consensus, I unashamedly love this film and invariably smile when I think of it.

How could a movie directed by John Huston and starring Carol Burnett, Tim Curry, Bernadette Peters, and Albert Finney not be awesome?

I admit my adoration is informed by childhood nostalgia.  Judge me if you want, but this schmaltzy film is infectiously optimistic, and contains one of my favorite musical numbers:

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Zelig (1983)

Leonard Zelig (Woody Allen) possesses a chameleon-like ability to assume the characteristics of the people around him. When he’s in Harlem, he’s a black man; when he’s in Mexico, he’s a Mexican; when he’s in a jazz club, he’s a jazz musician. During a hospitalization to cure his condition, he falls in love with his nurse (Mia Farrow).

The movie is styled like a documentary; contemporary intellectuals such as Susan Sontag and Saul Bellow offer their analysis of Zelig’s life while we view “archival” footage of him with the rich and powerful of the 1920s, including Charles Lindbergh, Babe Ruth, Carole Lombard, and Adolf Hitler.

Amazingly, eleven years before Robert Zemeckis wowed audiences with Forrest Gump, Allen and cinematographer Gordon Willis covered a lot of the same ground without the benefit of sophisticated computer technology.

In this existential comedy, the story of Leonard Zelig becomes an allegory for the nature of identity: do we define ourselves or are we defined by others?

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Ghostbusters (1984)

Peter Venkman (Bill Murray), Raymond Stantz (Dan Aykroyd), and Egon Spengler (Harold Ramis) are struggling parapsychologists at Columbia University. When they develop a technique for trapping ghosts and supernatural beings, they become mini-celebrities, until the nefarious EPA shuts them down.  But when the evil Gozer the Gozerian threatens the existence of NYC, the ragtag, unorthodox Ghostbusters are the last best hope for the city.

This film created a genre (sci-fi comedy), propelled Bill Murray to superstardom, warned us against crossing streams, and gave us the fantastic theme song by Ray Parker, Jr.

Few films in the past thirty years have had a bigger impact on poplar culture; every science fiction film since exists in the significant shadow of the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man.

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The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985)

During the Great Depression, Cecilia (Mia Farrow) goes to the movies to escape her bleak existence. When she’s watching The Purple Rose of Cairo for the umpteenth time, one of the primary characters, Tom Baxter (Jeff Daniels). miraculously walks out of the screen and joins her in the theater.

Tom and Cecilia fall in love, but this is complicated when Gil Shepherd, the actor playing Tom in the movie, arrives to convince him to return to the fantasy world of the film.

Drawing inspiration from Buster Keaton’s Sherlock, Jr. (1924) among others, this film asks if reality or fantasy is more important.

Movies about movies are one of my favorite motifs; movies about the Golden Age of Cinema even more so.

During his fertile collaboration with lover Mia Farrow, Woody Allen could do little wrong; this is no exception.

Little_shop_of_horrorsLittle Shop of Horrors (1986)

Seymour Krelborn (Rick Moranis) and Audrey are coworkers at Mushnik’s Flower Shop.  The shop is struggling until Seymour showcases an unusual plant he bought from a rival Chinese florist. The only problem: this plant, which Seymour names “Audrey II,” is actually an alien which needs human blood to survive.

The movie features Steve Martin as a cruel dentist, Miriam Margoyles as his nurse, Bill Murray as his masochistic patient, and John Candy as a radio DJ.

Directed by Frank Oz, this surreal, dark comedy is an adaptation of an off-Broadway musical inspired by a 1960 film.  What sets it apart is the astounding energy in every scene. Like a bizarre children’s version of Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), this is as chaotic as Airplane! (1980), and as surreal as a Dali painting, with a catchy rock soundtrack.

It’s a tad too cynical (in the original ending, Audrey II destroys the world), but the relentless gallows humor is so infectious and irrepressible, it’s impossible not to love.

WingsofdesireposterWings of Desire (1987)

Two angels, Damiel and Cassiel, roam Berlin, watching the humans in the city and listening to their inner thoughts.

Damiel falls in love with a trapeze artist, Marion and, growing bored with infinity, renounces his immortality to be with her.

It was remade for American audiences as the more conventional City of Angels (1998), but this film is about more than the sacrifices of love. Wim Wenders creates a black and white rumination on the nature of existence with Peter Falk giving a career defining performance as a fictionalized version of himself.

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Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)

When Marvin Acme is murdered, cartoon superstar Roger Rabbit is the primary suspect and private investigator Eddie Valiant (Bob Hoskins) reluctantly agrees to help prove Roger’s innocence. Eventually, Valiant discovers Judge Doom (Christopher Lloyd) framed Roger and is secretly working to destroy Toontown and replace it with a freeway.

Robert Zemeckis (who also directed Back to the Future and Forrest Gump) has a clear talent for visually inventive films, and while technological advancements make this movie seem a little dated, it still works because its premise is every kid’s fantasy: cartoon characters are real.

As a kid, Judge Doom was my hated nemesis in one of the toughest video games I ever played. Beating him is on my video game bucket list.

If you like classic animation and have ever dreamed of seeing your beloved characters on screen together, this is a must see.

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Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989)

Successful ophthalmologist Judah Rosenthal (Martin Landau) is having an affair with Dolores Paley (Anjelica Huston). When she threatens to expose their affair, he arranges for someone to kill her.

Cliff Stern (Woody Allen) is hired by his brother-in-law Lester (Alan Alda) to make a documentary. During the job, he falls in love with Lester’s assistant, Halley (Mia Farrow). The finished product is a satire of Lester’s life and work and, to Cliff’s dismay, Halley announces her engagement to Lester.

Nearing the end of the second phase of Woody Allen’s career (coinciding with his relationship with Mia Farrow), this movie is a wonderfully tragi-comic interpretation of Doystoyevsky, which asks important questions about the nature of guilt and the relationship between art and commerce.

The Best of the 1970s

Little Big Man (1970)

This underlooked Dustin Hoffman gem is a brilliant revisionist Western satire with George Custer (Richard Mulligan) reimagined as a bloodthirsty villain.

It’s like Forrest Gump (1994) meets the Old West.  Just like Gump, Jack Crabb is tangentially involved in major historical events, only he’s more intelligent and self-aware than Forrest.

Arthur Penn directed the western / mobster mash-up Bonnie and Clyde (1967), then helped change public attitudes about westerns forever with this deconstruction of the genre.  After this movie, it was difficult to view a traditional John Wayne style western the same way again.

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Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971)

Gene Wilder’s best role.  Willy Wonka is how he should be: a bit crazy, a bit cruel, but a child at heart.  Unlike the remake, this movie wisely eschews Wonka’s backstory.

Just thinking about the Golden Ticket, Grandpa Joe floating to the ceiling, Violet, Veruca, and the Oompa Loompas brings a smile to my face.

To those who say the tunnel scene is too frightening for children, I point to the long tradition of slightly scary stuff tucked in the middle of children’s themed entertainment. Some of the scenes in The Wizard of Oz must have been frightening to children in 1939. Children’s entertainment often uses mild horror as a proxy for adolescent angst.

If you’re in your 30s or younger and haven’t seen this movie, I’m not sure where you’ve been living.  Parts of it don’t hold up well, but it’s vastly superior to the Tim Burton / Johnny Depp version.

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The Godfather (1972)

There’s so much to love: every scene with Brando, the horse head, Robert Duvall, Abe Vigoda.  This movie made me fall in love with the mafia.  I’m sure the real thing is more Goodfellas (1990) and Bugsy (1991), but when I think of the mob, I see a mumbling Brando lurking in the shadows.

The rise of the mafia in the United States was a natural result of the death of the outlaw gangs of the late nineteenth century.  Whitey Bulger and John Gotti are spiritual descendants of Billy the Kid and Jesse James.

Much like the mobster succeeded the western outlaw in the beginning of the 20th century; the mobster movie succeeded the western in the late 1960s, beginning with Bonnie and Clyde (a hybrid western / gangster movie).  With The Godfather, the transition was complete and the western began its decline.  Despite occasional flashes of brilliance, the westerns of John Ford have been supplanted by the mobsters of Martin Scorsese.

ExorcistThe Exorcist (1973)

Despite its reputation, this is not a horror film, but well disguised a spiritual film which asks tough questions about faith: if you believe in God, how do you deal with evil?  Do you intellectualize it, or face it head on?

It’s one of the most honest representations of on-screen evil. Refusing to force a happy ending where the pure priest vanquishes the evil spirit makes it more special because fighting evil requires sacrifices from good people.

It holds up remarkably well. The special effects still feel organic and not cheesy.  I wish this movie were embraced in religious circles as a starting point for a dialogue about evil, its nature, and what the fight against it looks like.

HarryandtontoposterHarry and Tonto (1974)

I thought my favorite film of 1974 would be The Godfather Part II, but I’m a sucker for any film about the elderly reflecting on their life.

Art Carney is amazing in this small movie with quiet ambition.

If you’re interested in seeing who beat Pacino in The Godfather Part II for Best Actor, or if you love movies focused on people coming to terms with their mortality, this movie is for you.

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One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)

Jack Nicholson’s coming out party has a firm place in the American pantheon.  Every time I watch this movie I’m amazed to see Danny DeVito and Christopher Lloyd as patients at the mental institution and blown away Louise Fletcher didn’t make a career out of playing a cold-hearted bitch.

This movie is so bleak.  I’ve never been more angry at a film than when Billy commits suicide.

While Ken Kesey’s book makes it more clear, the film obscures the reason for McMurphy’s prison sentence: statutory rape of a 15-year-old.  Does this change your opinion of him, or whether or not he deserved his fate?

Is Milos Forman the best “not quite famous” director?  He’s a two time Academy Award winner for Best Director for this and Amadeus (1984), and he directed both The People vs. Larry Flynt (1996) and Man on the Moon (1999), yet most Americans have never heard his name.

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Network (1976)

This is not just a move about network politics in the 1970s, but about how we view success and asks if ethics and morality matter in contemporary capitalism.  Howard Beale is one of the greatest screen characters, foreshadowing Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Keith Olbermann, and Rachel Maddow.  Anger made for great television then and continues to do so today.

Dripping with the wet paint of cynicism, it doesn’t feel jaded, but earned and legitimate. The movie concludes cynicism is the only logical worldview.

It’s a shame Rocky beat it out for the Academy Award for Best Picture, but it’s an understandable debate.  However,  Beatrice Straight should never have beaten Jodie Foster in Taxi Driver (1976) in the race for Best Supporting Actress.  She was in the movie for less than six minutes while Foster’s star making role has more than withstood the test of time.  Straight rode a wave of good will for Network and walked away with an Oscar.

Sidney Lumet was the director, but this film belongs to writer Paddy Chayefsky. If you think you’re smart, or think you’re a writer, watch and marvel at what Chayefsky does.

AnniehallposterAnnie Hall (1977)

The six movies Woody Allen directed before Annie Hall are among the zaniest, silliest, and funniest movies of all time, but didn’t prepare audiences for what he unleashed in Annie Hall.

It’s a brilliant fusion of Allen’s comic persona with an honest reflection on the ups and downs of a relationship, demonstrating there is more to Allen’s schtick than hilarious one liners.

Allen has spent forty years trying to recapture the magic of this film.  He’s never quite achieved the same pinnacle again, but the movie did launch an unparalleled fifteen year of excellent movies, which was only broken by the deterioration of Allen’s relationship with Mia Farrow.

Autumn Sonata (1978)Autumn Sonata (1978)

This is a collaboration between Swedish film giants Ingrid Bergman and Ingmar Bergman.

In the final major theatrical release of Ingrid Bergman’s career, she went out with a bang as aging concert pianist, Charlotte, who’s called to visit her estranged daughter, Eva (played by Ingmar Bergman regular / sometime lover Liv Ullmann).  Charlotte was cold and distant during Eva’s formative years, focusing on her musical career instead of her family.  To add to the awkward family reunion, another daughter, paralyzed Helena, comes to live with Eva during this time.

The movie is a tour de force in dysfunctional family relationships.  It has all of the family drama of the more recent August: Osage County (2013), but doesn’t resort to cheap stunts like incest or suicide.  The characters involved are relatively normal people who made rational, albeit cold-hearted decisions based on their own self-interest.

This masterful non-romantic view of families doesn’t try to sensationalize the dysfunction, nor falsely promise familial reconciliation.  It’s Eva’s insistence on clinging to unrealistic notions of family which thwart her fulfillment.

Ingmar Bergman’s influence on twentieth century art can hardly be overstated.  His career spanned six decades and included some of the most personal and reflective films of all time.  Everyone is familiar with the chess playing grim reaper in The Seventh Seal (1957).  His other 1957 masterpiece Wild Strawberries is one of the best films focusing on an elderly man coming to terms with his life in his twilight years.    The trilogy of films: Through a Glass Darkly (1961), Winter Light (1963), and The Silence (1963) offer a profound meditation on faith in a postmodern world.  Cries and Whispers (1972) is an unflinching look at the mixed emotions which accompany a loved one’s death following a long illness.

If you’re interested in seeing Ingrid Bergman as something other than Ilsa, I recommend this film, one of the most accessible of Ingmar Bergman’s films, which are often obscure and dense.

Die_BlechtrommelThe Tin Drum (1979)

Just before World War II, Oscar Matzerath, decides he will stop growing at the age of three.

Despite his increase in age and the resulting changes (including sexual awakenings), Oscar is, by all outward appearances, a child. This is how he experiences Nazism, concentration camps, the Soviets, and the American liberators.

Because the character does not age, we’re forced to filter the film through the eyes of a child.   This movie is about children forced to make adult decisions because of circumstances beyond their control, loss of innocence, and the futility of war.

The best critiques ridicule the object of their criticism.  An anti-war film is one thing, but an anti-war comedy is more effective.

Volker Schlöndorff’s adaptation of Günter Grass’s 1959 novel The Tin Drum is an audacious, surrealist, funny film, like Salvador Dali directing MASH.

This is a dark and, at times, uncomfortable, but always fascinating film.

The Best of the 1960s

Testament of Orpheus (1960)

The final film in Jean Cocteau’s Orphic trilogy is a rumination on the nature of reality, Cocteau’s way of asking if his work and life mattered.

He plays a fictionalized version of himself and encounters characters from his previous films before he’s forced to appear in front a tribunal where he must defend his life and art.

Cocteau is not as well-known as later French filmmakers, Jean Luc Godard or Francois Truffaut, but his films introduced avant garde sensibilities and philosophical underpinnings into cinemas.  There had been earlier attempts (particularly by the Dadaists and the Surrealists), but Cocteau was the most successful at combining them with a format recognizable to moviegoers.  His films are artistic essays, but they work as films because Cocteau respected the medium on its terms. While Dali made surreal films, Cocteau made films which included surreal and philosophical elements.

Cocteau’s career spanned both World Wars and cast a shadow over the artistic and intellectual life of France for nearly half a century.  His circle of friends and acquaintances included Edith Piaf, Coco Chanel, and Marlene Dietrich. Pablo Picasso and Yul Brunner make cameos in this film.  In addition to directing, he wrote novels, poetry, and librettos for Stravinsky operas.

Cocteau is a towering figure in the development of film.  You can see his influences in the films of Ingmar Bergman, Woody Allen, and Christopher Nolan. He deserves more widespread recognition.

Judgment at NurembergJudgment at Nuremberg (1961)

Inspired by the Judges’ Trial, a part of the larger military tribunals after World War II used to hold surviving members of the German ruling class responsible for the war crimes committed by the Nazi regime, this movie explores the culpability of every day German citizens in Nazi atrocities. Were the judges who carried out sentences according to Nazi law wrong to do so?

Spencer Tracy is Chief Judge Dan Haywood who’s committed to a fair trial, despite pressure by the US government to go easy on the Germans so they would support US policies in the Cold War.

Burt Lancaster is Dr. Ernst Janning, a world-renowned jurist and the primary defendant in this particular tribunal. The role could have easily been played as a villain, but Lancaster shrewdly plays him as a victim, and somehow manages to make a man who helped carry out Nazi orders sympathetic.

Marlene Dietrich is Frau Bertolt, a widow of a German general executed by the Allies.  She provides a context for understanding how Germans allowed the Nazis such power.

Judy Garland is Irene Hoffman, a reluctant witness against the Germans who’s torn between loyalty to her native country, a sense of what is right, and fear of retaliation for her testimony.  Garland is excellent and once again proves she was more than a big and powerful voice.

Montgomery Clift is Rudolph Peterson, a witness for the prosecution who was forcibly sterilized by the Nazis. Clift’s life was tragically cut short and his filmography is slighter than you might expect, but he, along with Marlon Brando and James Dean popularized the naturalistic approach to acting still en vogue today.

Surprisingly in this all-star cast, the highlight is Maximilian Schell as German defense attorney Hans Rolfe.  Rolfe gives impassioned and logical pleas justifying leniency for the German judges, painting a picture of a helpless situation: the Germans were downtrodden after WWI, eugenics was at one time widely practiced, other countries had given legitimacy to the Nazis, and so on.  Schell has an unenviable task; he has to argue for the indefensible and make us momentarily believe what we know can’t be true, what every fiber of our being teaches is wrong.  Miraculously, he succeeds, and was rewarded with an Oscar for his effort.

The cast also includes a pre-Star Trek William Shatner and Werner Klemperer who would achieve greater fame playing a decidedly different Nazi: Colonel Klink.

The movie made a bold decision to show actual footage from the Russian liberation of concentration camps.  It’s one thing to see fictional representations of the horror of the Holocaust, but when you realize those are actual people, actual victims, it makes every Holocaust film since seem trite in comparison.

This movie doesn’t justify the actions of men like Janning, but it does ask if we’re sure we would do something different and ends with a powerful reminder of the duty each of us has to ensure justice is carried out.  The convicted Janning argues since he never intended for so many innocents to be slaughtered he shouldn’t be held accountable.  Haywood retorts, “Herr Janning, it came to that the first time you sentenced a man to death you knew to be innocent.”  Failure to do what you know to be right is a tacit endorsement of what you know to be wrong.

The Man Who Shot Liberty ValanceThe Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

US Senator Ransom Stoddard (Jimmy Stewart) comes to Shinbone to attend the funeral of rancher Tom Doniphon (John Wayne).  Once he arrives in town, a local reporter asks the senator why he traveled so far to pay respects to such an insignificant person.

As explanation, Stoddard tells the story of when he first moved to Shinbone as an idealistic attorney and ran afoul of outlaw Liberty Valance.  The pacifist Stoddard was unwilling to use violence to combat Valance, despite the protests of local ranchers, including Tom Doniphon.

Stoddard believed in the power of strong ideals, while Doniphon believed it was important to project strength, fighting violence with violence.  In addition to their opposing worldviews, Stoddard and Doniphon pursued the affection of the same girl, Hattie (Vera Miles).

Eventually, Stoddard and Valance confronted each other in a shootout and Valance was murdered. The fame which accompanied killing such a notorious outlaw propelled Stoddard to a storied political career, but in reality Doniphon killed Valance to protect Stoddard, because he realized Hattie loved him. Stoddard may have been right to eschew violence, but he owes Doniphon his life.

Despite their lengthy and iconic careers, this was the first film to feature John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart.

The popular image of John Wayne is a larger than life crusader, always on the side of the good guys, but in many of his most beloved films such as Red River (1948) and The Searchers (1956), Wayne played a corrupt or semi-corrupt pragmatist motivated by self-interest.

Jimmy Stewart’s image has likewise been whitewashed by nostalgia. We think of him as representative of a certain attitude and era, wholesome and clean-cut. While this is certainly true in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) and It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), his later work in The Greatest Show on Earth (1952), Rear Window (1954), Vertigo (1958), and The Anatomy of a Murder (1960) was much more complex and ambiguous.

In addition to Wayne and Stewart, the film features a bevy of character actors famous for their parts in Western films: Andy Devine, Woody Strode, Strother Martin, and Lee van Cleef, and Liberty Valance was masterfully played by Lee Marvin who radiated warmth even when playing such an evil character.  We hate Valance, but we’re captivated by him.

In an ironic twist, one of the chief 20th century progenitors of the mythology of the American West, John Ford, directed one of the first and best deconstructions of popular misconceptions about the era.  Without this movie, later “revisionist” Westerns such as Bonnie and Clyde (1967), The Wild Bunch (1969) or Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) would not exist.

Winter Light (1963)Winter Light (1963)

This is the second part of Ingmar Bergman’s spiritual trilogy which included Through a Glass Darkly (1961) and The Silence (1963).

After serving in the Spanish Civil War, pastor Tomas Ericsson was unable to reconcile the idea of a loving God with the atrocities he witnessed. His faith since has been a perfunctory show; a job, not a calling.

He’s confronted by his former lover Marta who still has feelings for him and cannot understand why he doesn’t reciprocate them.  His parishioner Jonas (played by Bergman regular Max von Sydow) is filled with dread after learning China has tested a nuclear bomb.  When Tomas is unable to adequately assuage his concerns, Jonas commits suicide.

The movie offers a challenging, pessimistic view of traditional Christian morality, but ends with a glimmer of hope. Tomas refuses to cancel his afternoon service despite only one person showing up, suggesting even a tiny amount of faith deserves our respect and attention.

Bergman is one of the most philosophical filmmakers who makes deeply personal films which explore unanswerable questions and the inner workings of the soul.

I am Cuba (1964)I am Cuba (1964)

Mikhail Kalatoz’s 1964 film about life in Cuba during the Castro revolution was financed as communist propaganda, but immediately  suppressed by dissatisfied Soviet and Cuban officials; it was unknown in the western world until 1995, twenty years after Kalatoz died.

Split into four separate stories joined only by a female narrator known as the “Voice of Cuba,” the film offers a dizzying view of Cuban life during the Revolution.

In the first story, Maria works as a dancer in a Havana bar frequented by rich Americans and lives an idyllic existence with her fruitseller boyfriend, Rene, until one morning when Rene comes home to find an American businessman dressing, cavalierly tossing money at Maria on his way out.

In the second story, Pedro’s landlord has sold out to a conglomerate.  When Pedro is told he will have to leave his home, he burns the land and inadvertently dies of smoke inhalation.

In the third story, student protestors clash with police and one of the demonstrators is killed.  In a transcendent scene, the camera follows the coffin of the martyred protestor through the streets.

In the final story, a small farmer is reluctant to join the revolution, but changes his mind after witnessing the violence forced upon his homeland.

Putting aside its obvious politics, this is a beautiful film.  Of course it’s a little too sympathetic to the communist cause, but watching it demonstrates why communism and the promises of socialism were so appealing to the people of Cuba.  If this is the life they lived; no wonder they were willing to embrace a philosophy which promised equality.

A Thousand Clows (1965)A Thousand Clowns (1965)

Murray Burns (Jason Robards), an unemployed writer raising the son of his deceased sister, is a delightful iconoclast who doesn’t think work should be all-consuming. He believes people only find identity in their jobs to distract them from more important questions.

Robards is hysterical; it’s a shame he spent so much of his career in serious theater (particularly the works of sourpuss Eugene O’Neill).

Martin Balsam is most famous as Milton Argobast in Psycho (1960), but he won an Oscar as Burns’s more pragmatic brother and the dialogue between the two of them is a master class in the real world effects of unchecked idealism.

I love this movie because it somehow maintains the energy of the zaniest scene of the Marx Bothers career through an entire film.

No one wants to work. We’d all rather pursue those things which interest us, but as Arnold Burns reminds us, if everyone followed this philosophy, there’d be a lot of hungry people.

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)

George (Richard Burton), an associate history professor, is married to Martha (Elizabeth Taylor), the daughter of the college president.

Martha invites a new professor at the college, Nick (George Segal) and his wife Honey (Sandy Dennis) over for some late night drinks where George and Martha proceed to engage in a series of humiliating “games” in front of their guests, exposing fractures and difficulties in both relationships.

The movie builds to a pair of devastating discoveries. George and Martha couldn’t conceive and created a fictional child for the sake of their relationship. Nick married Honey because he thought she was pregnant, only to find it was a hysterical pregnancy.  Nick is resentful, but doesn’t know the truth: Honey was pregnant, but terminated her pregnancy.

Nick and Honey are what Martha and George must have been like twenty years earlier: idealistic, naively believing they could overcome the imperfections in their relationship by lying.

What makes this movie special is the real, stormy relationship between Burton and Taylor. It’s easy to imagine George and Martha as somehow providing a window into their personal lives.

This was a turning point in Elizabeth Taylor’s career. Before this film, she was known as one of the most gorgeous women in Hollywood, but when she gained thirty pounds to play the ugly Martha, it was impossible to dismiss her as simply a beautiful face.

This powerful adaptation of Edward Albee’s play advocates for honesty, while acknowledging even the best relationships incorporate little lies to make things function more smoothly. A wife deludes her husband into thinking he’s as attractive as he was when they first met. A husband doesn’t tell his wife he hates her cooking. But the movie patiently reminds us the bigger the lie, the bigger the fallout if, and when, it’s exposed.

Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967)Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967)

Joanna Drayton comes home unexpectedly to announce to her parents, publisher Matt (Spencer Tracy) and art gallery owner Christina (Katharine Hepburn) she’s getting married to John (Syndey Poitier).  Joanna’s progressive parents have always taught her race should not be a determinate in how you treat other people, but their theoretical posturing is put to the test when they realize their little girl is going to marry a black man.

In 1967, this was cutting edge, but now it seems dated; most of the film’s major concerns were worked out years ago. However, it remains important as a reminder there was a time when serious, fair-minded people had reservations about interracial relationships.

But I don’t love this movie because of its importance to the history of race relations in America. I love it because it’s the last film to feature Spencer Tracy who died less than a month after filming ended. You can sense Tracy’s struggle with mortality in his performance; you can feel Katharine Hepburn’s pride and sadness.  The pain and loss of the two leads creates a beautiful film about dying and grief underneath the surface of this film about the travails of racism in late 1960s America.

The Lion in Winter (1968)The Lion in Winter (1968)

During the Christmas of 1183, Henry II of England (Peter O’Toole) contemplates the plans for succession after he dies. He wants his youngest son, John, to inherit the throne, while his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine (Katharine Hepburn) wants their oldest son, Richard the Lionheart (Anthony Hopkins) to be the next King of England. Henry makes no attempt to hide his numerous infidelities or his disdain for Eleanor. She uses her previous position as wife of the King of France to antagonize Henry.

The film is noteworthy for its surprisingly modern treatment of Richard the Lionheart’s homosexuality.

Watch this, then watch Charly (1968), which featured an Academy Award winning performance from Cliff Roberston, and you realize the extent of the travesty which denied O’Toole an Oscar despite a record eight nominations.

Despite her initial success, Katharine Hepburn was labeled as “box office” poison at the end of the 1930s, but with this film she won her second consecutive Oscar and third overall, cementing her reputation as one of the best actresses of all time.

This brilliant film about the intersection of politics and personal relationships should be viewed alongside Becket (1964).  In the earlier film, Peter O’ Toole plays a young Henry II as he creates a legacy.  Four years later, he plays an older Henry II looking to ensure his legacy is preserved.

Army of Shadows (1969)Army of Shadows (1969)

With this unsympathetic view of the French resistance during World War II, Jean-Pierre Melville creates a drama as morally ambiguous as 24, but not nearly as outrageous.

To those in the French Resistance, secrets were the lifeblood of the cause; the leaders of the movement routinely killed those suspected of betrayal with little regard for the legitimacy of the accusation. The highest moral imperative was to keep France from falling completely under the control of the Nazis. Everything else: allegiances, morality, and friendship was subservient.

The movie walks an interesting line, glorifying the men who risked (and often lost) their lives to protect France from Nazism, but refusing to whitewash their actions. The movie, like the movement, has already decided their actions were justified and doesn’t feel the need to persuade anyone.

It’s chilling to watch people kill one another for coldly rational reasons, but we find ourselves nodding our heads. This sort of moral complicity has been explored in American television shows like The Sopranos, The Shield, and Breaking Bad, but while we enjoyed living vicariously through the misdeeds of Tony Soprano, Vic Mackey, and Walter White, we never forgot they were bad people.

But, in this movie, it’s the good guys who have little regard for the lives of their friends and compatriots. It’s uncomfortable, but speaks important truths: we believe in doing right and living by a strict moral code in theory, but in practice this is often more difficult than it seems, and we’re more lenient than we want to believe.

The Best of the 2000s

215px-Memento_posterMemento (2000)

Leonard was viciously attacked and now suffers from anterograde amnesia.   Deprived of the ability to make new memories, every day he has to start over while the world around him changes.   He can’t develop new relationships, he can’t get a job; the only thing he can do is obsess and despair over his unfortunate predicament.

Leonard finds purpose in pursuing vengeance.  Every day, he leaves clues for himself to discover the next morning so he can continue to hunt his attackers.

After he finds the culprit and extracts revenge, Leonard is unable to cope without the goal of finding his attacker; the burden of a life with no memories is unbearable.

Realizing he won’t remember he found his attackers, he tricks himself into thinking they’re still on the loose.  He creates an unsolvable puzzle, continuing to leave clues day after day, knowing when he wakes up, he’ll once again be comforted by his obsession.

After achieving success in Australia, Guy Pearce rose to prominence in the US with LA Confidential (1997).  As Leonard, he creates a likable and accessible character, while maintaining a degree of danger and mystery.  We like Leonard, but never completely trust him.

Carrie Ann-Moss is best known as Trinity from the massively successful Matrix trilogy.  She’s excellent as Natalie, a woman with a murky past who uses Leonard’s condition to manipulate him for her own purposes.

Joe Pantoliano‘s career has mostly consisted of supporting roles (often as a violent criminal like Ralph Cifaretto), but his performance as Teddy is the lynchpin to making this movie work.  We have to believe he could be a bad guy and simultaneously believe Leonard could trust him.  It’s a difficult tightrope, which Pantoliano pulls off.

Of course, any movie with Stephen Toblowsky, is on its way to being a good movie.

This was Christopher Nolan’s first major success and may be his best movie.  He doesn’t tell a story, but instead forces his audience to create a story with him.  There’s a plot, but it’s so layered it’s virtually inaccessible.  Much like his later film, Inception (2013), the point of the movie is to figure out the puzzle he’s created.

The movie is even structured like a puzzle: events are shown out-of-order, murdered characters show up a few scenes later.  The effect is dizzying, and approximates Leonard’s condition, making the audience unsure of the reality of any moment.

This is an excellent fusion of film noir techniques and experiential storytelling.  To describe what happens is simple, but watching it is a complex, rewarding experience.

220px-The_TenenbaumsThe Royal Tenenbaums (2001)

A perfect portrait of a dysfunctional family told in a loving, almost worshipful way, this film proves the Frat Pack are capable dramatic performers.

Eli Cash, the adopted Tennebaum and Margot’s secret lover, is the most fully realized character of Owen Wilson’s career.

By most reasonable standards, Luke Wilson has had a successful career, but he’s been overshadowed by his brother Owen’s success.  This is his best film, and eccentric former tennis player Richie Tennebaum is his best role.

Her work as Margot Tennenbaum reminds me there was a time when Gwyneth Paltrow was a great actress and not prima donna tabloid fodder.

Danny Glover gives one of his better performances as Henry Sherman.

Alec Baldwin is a perfect choice as the narrator.  His rich baritone makes the movie feel like a bad idea for a bed time story.

Everyone assumes Anjelica Huston was given her spot because of her famous father and grandfather.  She’s not a typical Hollywood beauty and doesn’t always come to mind when thinking of the great actors of her generation, but her resumé: This is Spinal Tap (1984), Prizzi’s Honor (1985), The Dead (1987), Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989), The Grifters (1990), and Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993) should place her in the discussion.  Fortunately, since her performance as Etheline, the Tennebaum matriarch, she’s experienced a late career Renaissance.

Many commentators credit Wes Anderson with reinvigorating Bill Murray’s career, but he did more than revive it, he created it.  Murray was a popular middlebrow comedian whose career stalled as he aged like fellow SNL alumni Dan Ackroyd, Chevy Chase, and Steve Martin, but starting with the Anderson directed Rushmore (1998), he transitioned into a laconic, super cool trend setter / Internet legend.  His later work has been so good, it’s forced us to view his earlier work through a different prism.  We see Peter Venkman and Phil Connors differently because of Herman Blume and Bob Harris.

This was the last great role for Gene Hackman who epitomized the 1970s in films like The French Connection (1971), The Poseidon Adventure (1972) The Conversation (1974), and Young Frankenstein (1974).  Sadly, in 2003 he decided to spend his twilight years engaged in other pursuits, ending his fifty year Hollywood career.  Luckily, Royal Tennenbaum, the enigmatic, selfish father is a glorious farewell.

Bottle Rocket  (1996) has moments of what would become Wes Anderson’s trademark style, Rushmore (1998) brought him mainstream success, but The Royal Tenebaums (2001) cemented his reputation.  Despite the success of Moonrise Kingdom (2012) and The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014), this remains the quintessential Wes Anderson film.

 

Talk to Her (2002)

Talk to Her(2002)

When Lydia falls into a coma after suffering serious injuries during a bullfight, her boyfriend Marco faithfully visits her every day at the hospital until he learns she had intended to break up with him but never had the opportunity.

Benigno, a male nurse at the hospital, is assigned to take care of Alicia Roncero, another coma patient who was once a promising dance student.

When lab work shows Alicia is pregnant, a hospital investigation identifies Benigno as the father. Unexpectedly, the physical shock revives Alicia, but her child is stillborn.  After he’s arrested and jailed for his crime, Benigno commits suicide.

Despite the appalling and reprehensible act Beningo perpetrates on Alicia, Almodovar casts him in a sympathetic light, implying his actions are a product of intellectual limitations and emotional issues stemming from his relationship with his mother. Alicia was an outlet to release his frustration and sadness about his lonely, isolated life; this vulnerability created an attachment which Benigno misinterpreted as love.

Almodovar bizarrely films the rape scene as a stylized parody of the silent films Benigno loves, which further contextualizes his actions.  The film stops just short of justifying the rape, but we are saddened by Benigno’s  imprisonment; his death is not the righteous punishment due a rapist, but the devastating demise of a misguided outcast.

A modern-day Douglas Sirk, Pedro Almodovar specializes in female centric melodramas filtered through the tropes of Spanish language soap operas and uses dark humor to expose cracks in the facade of normalcy and challenge convention.

This movie illuminates the fine line between love and obsession. Love leads us to place the needs of others above our own. Obsession leads us to subjugate and displace the needs of our beloved. Love is a mutual agreement, while obsession is a one way street. The obsessed will talk to her, a lover will listen.

220px-Mystic_River_posterMystic River (2003)

Three boys are playing in the streets of Boston in 1975.  One of them is kidnapped and sexually assaulted, escaping after four days in captivity.

Thirty years later, the three of them still live in the Boston area, but are no longer friends.  Jimmy Markum (Sean Penn) is an ex-con who runs a store.  Sean Devine (Kevin Bacon) is a detective with the state police.  Dave Boyle (Tim Robbins) is leading a normal blue-collar life.

When Jimmy’s daughter Katie is murdered, Sean is assigned the case.  Circumstantial evidence and suspicious behavior suggests Dave was the murderer.

The movie slowly builds suspense until the heartbreaking twist ending, which, in retrospect, was inevitable; the only path the three boys could have taken.  Their lives were spent playing the roles they were given when those kidnappers picked Dave.

Sean Penn has never been better than as Jimmy Markum, who turns to a life of crime because it’s the only life he knows.

Tim Robbins is masterful as the pitiful Dave Boyle.  Destroyed as a young child, Dave will never be anything but a scared, broken boy.

Kevin Bacon is not in the same league as Penn and Robbins, but he’s good as Sean Devine, torn between his job as a policeman and his old loyalties to Jimmy and Dave.  Thirty years later, he still feels guilty about not protecting his friend.

Marcia Gay Harden and Laura Linney do yeoman’s work as the wives of Jimmy and Dave.  Linney has become one of my favorite actresses; when she’s in a movie, I’ll have strong feelings about it.  I loved Searching for Bobby Fischer (1993), The Truman Show (1998), You Can Count on Me (2000), Love Actually (2003), and The Savages (2007).  I hated Primal Fear (1996) and Kinsey (2004).

Laurence Fishburne has had a fascinating career. His debut was Apocalypse Now (1979).  He played Cowboy Curtis in Pee Wee’s Playhouse.  He’s been in The Matrix (1999), starred in CSI, played Perry White, and fought Hannibal Lecter.  He’s decent as Sean’s partner, Whitey Powers, but the role is just background.

Despite his iconic status, succeeding John Wayne as a symbol of masculinity, Clint Eastwood is a better director than actor.  As an actor, his range is limited.  As a director, he’s unbelievably versatile; he can handle westerns, war pictures, foreign language films, and musicals.  He won his second Best Director Oscar the next year for Million Dollar Baby, but this is his best movie.

I love Dennis Lehane’s novel.  It’s a hypnotic story about coincidence, fate,  jumping to conclusions, and inadvertent consequences, asking how much of our lives are under our own control.  This is a near perfect adaptation of a near perfect novel.

220px-Before_Sunset_posterBefore Sunset (2004)

Richard Linklater’s series of films chronicling the romance of Jesse and Celine is one of the most honest and complete looks at a relationship captured on film.

In the first film, Before Sunrise (1995), Jesse, an idealistic American fresh out of college meets Celine, an opinionated French girl, while traveling through Europe. They spend the night talking about their worldviews and personal philosophies and eventually make love.  When the movie ends, they promise to meet again in six months.

This sequel takes place nine years later.  Jesse returned to Vienna as agreed; Celine did not.  Jesse, now married with a son, has written a novel based on their encounter and is at the Shakespeare and Company bookstore in Paris to promote it.  Celine comes to explain why she didn’t meet him as planned: her grandmother died and she had to attend the funeral.

As they catch up on their lives and how they’ve changed since their first encounter, their feelings for each other are rekindled. The movie ends ambiguously as Celine sings to Jesse and reminds him he has to catch a plane.

Despite his Texas roots, Linklater’s films are closer to European cinema: dialogue and idea driven; what happens is not as important as the ideas explored.

Ethan Hawke is an underrated actor who rarely makes a bad movie, with the recent exceptions of The Purge (2013) and The Getaway (2013).  His work with fellow Texan Linklater is the best stuff he’s done.

Julie Delpy is great as Celine and plays a Celine-like character in 2 Days in Paris (2007), and its sequel 2 Days in New York (2012), however the character becomes annoying without Ethan Hawke to support her.  Adam Goldberg and Chris Rock are funny, but they’re not as capable of elevating her performance.    Her best work outside of the Before … series is Kieslowski’s Three Colors trilogy.

This is a great film about the petty squabbles, quiet moments of intimacy, and meandering conversations which are the hallmark of a good relationship.

220px-BrickmovieposterBrick (2005)

This hard detective story in the mold of Sam Spade and Phillip Marlowe set in a contemporary California high school, is a sort of spiritual cousin to the pseudo noir TV show, Veronica Mars. But while Mars is a tongue in cheek  homage, this film is a serious update to the genre.

Outcast Brendan Frye (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) receives a mysterious note which leads to a payphone where he hears a cryptic, frantic message from Emily (Emilie de Ravin), his ex-girlfriend.  When he tracks her down through her stoner friends, she denies there’s anything to worry about, but within days, he discovers her dead body.

Feeling responsible for her fate, Brendan is determined to discover what happened.  His investigation untangles a wicked plot of deception and places him in the middle of a power struggle between The Pin (a local drug dealer) and Tug (his enforcer).

Lukas Haas gives a fine supporting performance as The Pin and Emilie de Ravin does her best work outside of Lost, but the reason to watch is Joseph Gordon-Levitt.  Already famous for his work in 3rd Rock from the Sun, his performance as Brendan Frye catapulted him into the upper echelon of young actors.

Rian Johnson’s impressive directorial debut originated in his obsession with Dashiell Hammet.  After seven years trying to get Hollywood backing, he financed the film himself.  Since, he’s directed the time travel thriller Looper (2012) which also starred Gordon-Levitt, and the series defining “Ozymandias” episode of Breaking Bad’s stellar fifth season.

In the tradition of the best noirs, the plot borders on ridiculous; many will find it difficult to keep up with who’s betraying whom, but like those noirs of yesteryear, the point of the film is to entrance us with the characters and dialogue.  In the best noirs, the question, “What’s it about?” is as ridiculous as asking what a Jackson Pollock painting is about.  The story is secondary  to the dangerous, paranoid atmosphere.

225px-Leben_der_anderenThe Lives of Others (2006)

Gerd Wiesler is tasked to spy on playwright Georg Dreyman, who the Minister of Culture is convinced is a security threat despite his communist sympathies.   But the Minister has a hidden agenda: he fancies Dreyman’s girlfriend, actress Christa-Marie Sieland, and uses the information supplied by Wiesler to blackmail her into a sexual relationship.

During his surveillance, Wiesler grows sympathetic to Dreyman and Sieland and eventually, must make a decision between the country he loves and the friends who are unaware he exists.

The final scenes of the movie are a beautiful illustration of how powerful the actions of an individual can be, even against the full apparatus of the  state.

There’s a sublime scene when the Stasi workers assigned to intercept mail learn the Berlin Wall has fallen.  Without a word, they stop their work and leave their cramped office; they know without being told their world has ended.  We think of history as a slow march towards progress, but it often leaps forward: one day you’re spying for the East German communists, the next you’re living in a democratic, unified Germany.

The first film directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck has been hailed as a conservative masterpiece, but the movie transcends politics.  People and ideologies only become evil when corrupted by an insatiable desire for more power.

A German language film about the oppressive tactics of East German intelligence during the Cold War doesn’t sound like a celebratory movie, but this is a hopeful film.  It explores mankind’s capacity for evil and how immoral regimes rely on ordinary people following orders to commit their crimes, but it shows a way forward through such evil.

Gerd Wiesler was a part of the apparatus of evil, but in the film’s final act, he transcends and atones for his mistakes.  If the last ten minutes don’t stir something inside you, there’s little chance any film will.

215px-Gone_baby_gone_posterGone Baby Gone (2007)

Private investigators Patrick Kenzie (Casey Affleck) and Angie Gennaro (Michelle Monaghan) see a local news report about Helene McCready (Amy Ryan) whose daughter has been kidnapped.  Smelling a profit, they reach out to Helene and her family to help find the missing girl.

It appears Amanda was abducted because Helene and her boyfriend “Skinny Ray” stole money from a drug lord, but uncovering the truth of her abduction reveals a complicated web of deception.

Casey Affleck is mesmerizing as Patrick.  He begins the film as a cynical private detective, but ends with a resolute idea of right and wrong.  Sadly, Casey’s career has been overshadowed by his brother Ben’s, and while the abysmal failure of I’m Still Here (2010) did not help, his work here and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007) prove he’s a more than capable actor.

Amy Ryan’s an incredibly versatile performer: believable as Holly Flax, Michael Scott’s nerdy love interest in The Office, and as the competent, but shy Beadie Russell in The Wire, but her performance as Helene McCready is a career highlight.  Ryan’s Helene is a feral animal: trapped by her limited education, her family, her child, and her drug addiction, who sees the attention from her daughter’s kidnapping as a way out of her miserable life.  We recognize Helene has no business being a mother, but because of Ryan’s amazing work we still empathize with her.  Affleck is the moral center of film, but Ryan is its emotional core.

Morgan Freeman uses his public image and credibility as misdirection in his performance as Captain Jack Doyle.  We believe Doyle more than we should because we believe Freeman.

Ben Affleck’s directorial debut is a triumphant achievement.  He would direct the Best Picture winning Argo five years later, but this is, so far, his best film.  His directorial style is similar to another actor turned director: Clint Eastwood.  Both are technically proficient directors who don’t rely on trickery or special effects and strive to stay out of the way of the story as much as possible.  They understand what an actor needs and use this knowledge to get the most from their cast.

Author Dennis Lehane’s worldview is dark, but he maintains a glimmer of hope in humanity’s capacity to improve its lot.  To illustrate this, he tells intimate stories of ordinary people forced to confront the evil in the world.

This is a great movie, which asks uncomfortable questions: if a wrong thing can save a girl’s future, is it wrong?  Is it okay to cheat the system to get the desired result?

Deapartues (2008)

When Daigo Kobayahsi loses his job as cellist, he moves back into his childhood home with his wife.  Looking for work, he sees an advertisement for someone to “assist with departures.”  He assumes the job is with a travel agency, but soon learns it’s a mortuary.

In Japan, dealing with the deceased is “unclean” and being a mortician is humiliating.

Kobayashi is repulsed and ashamed of his accidental career.  His wife leaves him; his friend, Yamashita, disowns him.

When Yamashita’s mother dies, Kobayashi is asked to handle the encoffinment. He finds fulfillment in his duty, while his wife and friend realize the importance of his work.

Despite the numerous masterpieces from Kuroswa and Ozi, this was the first Japanese winner of the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.

There are several breathtakingly beautiful scenes as Kobayashi washes and cares for the recently deceased. It’s hard to watch these scenes and not imagine your own deceased loved ones.

It’s a tad too sentimental in places, but this is inevitable in a film about the rituals of death. The movie demonstrates the common humanity we discover when we realize all paths lead to the same end.

Mr. Nobody (2009)

In 2092, science has evolved to render death obsolete; 118 year old Nemo Nobody is the last mortal on earth. A reporter tries to document Nemo’s life before he dies, but his life story is a series of seemingly impossible contradictions.

Nemo, like Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse Five exists outside of time.  However, while Pilgrim could only move backwards and forwards in his own timeline, Nemo is able to travel through multiple timelines; he’s lived several lives and has memories of each.  In one timeline, he married Elsie (who’s in love with someone else).  In another, he fell in love with Anna (his step-sister from his mother’s second marriage).  In a third, he married Jeanne and had a family.

This film asks us to ponder the importance of the decisions in our lives and argues “there are no good or bad choices. It’s simply that each choice will create another life for you.”

Via a series of educational vignettes, it explains scientific concepts such as the Big Bang, the Big Crunch, chaos theory, the butterfly effect, and pigeon superstition, then explores the real world ramifications.

Jared Leto is one of my favorite actors.  From Requiem for a Dream (2000) to Dallas Buyers Club (2013), he’s always riveting, but it’s difficult to believe he’ll ever be better than in this movie.

Sarah Polley is great as Nemo’s emotionally disturbed wife, Elsie.  A fine actress, she’s an even better director: Away from Her (2006) is a devastating portrait of Alzheimer’s; Take this Waltz (2011) is a bittersweet movie about a dying relationship; Stories We Tell (2012) is a searing look at the lies families tell to function and survive.

Part Slaughterhouse Five, part Run, Lola Run (1998), part Amelie (2001), part The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008), part Cloud Atlas (2012), part advanced science lesson, part love story, part philosophical discussion: this a great movie I hope to watch many more times.

I Want My Shakespeare!

Romeo + JulietRomeo + Juliet (1996)

Baz Lurhmann’s film is Shakespeare filtered through MTV.

The reason this works while other adaptations of Shakespeare have failed is because they left the Shakespearean dialogue alone, while modernizing the presentation.  By making it like a new MTV video with Shakespearean language, this adaptation highlights the language and forces us to pay even more attention to it.

Released one year before Titanic, this is the beginning of Leonardo DiCapprio’s ascent to superstardom.

The role of Juliet was originally offered to Natalie Portman, but producers were uncomfortable with how young she seemed in her scenes with DiCapprio.  Fortunately, Claire Danes is exactly how I would have imagined Juliet.

The fantastic supporting cast includes Paul Sorvino, M. Emmet Walsh, Paul Rudd, John Leguizamo, Miriam Margoyles, and Pete Postlethwaite.

Watch this just to be reminded how great Shakespeare can be when done well.

This film was replaced as my favorite film of 1996 by The Crucible.

I’d read Arthur Miller’s play in high school, so I knew it was an allegory for McCarthyism, but what I didn’t anticipate was the film’s message about love and commitment.  John Proctor and his wife Elizabeth love each other, but his act of infidelity with Abigail Williams causes a rift in their relationship which ends in violence and engulfs the whole town.

Daniel Day-Lewis rarely disappoints and this is no exception.  John Proctor is a man haunted and shamed by his past, torn between protecting his reputation and the well-being of his family.  Ultimately, he chooses to sacrifice his reputation, but in a reenactment of the O’Henry story, The Gift of the Magi, his wife tries to protect him and refuses to confirm his unfaithfulness.

Beginning in the mid 1990s, Joan Allen had a pretty impressive decade long run:  Nixon (1995), The Ice Storm (1997), Pleasantville (1998), The Contender (2001) , Plesantville (1998), The Notebook (2004).  In recent years, her career has not been as prolific, but this film was during the peak of her career and she brings a real dignity to Elizabeth Proctor, who knows her husband has been unfaithful, but continues to love him.

With the right material, Winona Ryder is a great actress. She can be goofy: Beetljuice (1988) and Edward Scissorhands (1990).  She can be sarcastic and mean: Heathers (1988).  She can be quietly manipulative: The Age of Innocence (1993).  She’s a capable action movie star: Alien: Resurrection (1997). 

Sadly, her career was derailed after her arrest for shoplifting.  Since then, she’s been relegated in supporting roles in films like Star Trek (2009) and Black Swan (2010).

It seems like she’s been around forever, but she only turns 43 in 2014, so it may be early to give a career assessment of her work, but it seems we’re going to look back on her career and see it as a squandered opportunity.

Paul Scofield focused on his theater career, but the few films he participated in during his fifty year career were memorable: A Man for All Seasons (1966),  Henry V (1989), and Quiz Show (1994).

Jeffrey Jones is fondly remembered as the dad in Beetlejuice (1988) and the principal in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986), but those fond memories were tainted when he was arrested for child pornography in 2003.

This film is a perfect companion piece to The Age of Innocence (1993), which also starred Daniel Day-Lewis and Winona Ryder.  The earlier film shows what sacrifices must be made to maintain fidelity in a relationship.  This film shows the consequences of breaking this vow.

24 hour intervals in Paradise

Days of Heaven (1978)Days of Heaven (1978)

Terrence Malick’s second major film, Days of Heaven contains many of what would become his defining characteristics: it’s slow and plodding, beautifully composed, and filled with Biblical allusions (in this case the story of Abram and Sarai in Egypt).

Richard Gere has never been more understated.

The plot is simple, but has one major hole: why do Bill and Abby pretend to be brother and sister?.

While the story is easy to describe, the movie manages to create a good deal of suspense.

The film is composed like a series of paintings; the plot is an excuse to move towards the next set piece.

This is a beautiful film, maybe the most beautiful Malick film which makes it a must see.

This film was replaced as my favorite film of 1978 by Autumn Sonata.

Autumn Sonata (1978)

This is a collaboration between Swedish film giants Ingrid Bergman and Ingmar Bergman.

In the final major theatrical release of Ingrid Bergman’s career, she went out with a bang as aging concert pianist, Charlotte, who’s called to visit her estranged daughter, Eva (played by Ingmar Bergman regular / sometime lover Liv Ullmann).  Charlotte was cold and distant during Eva’s formative years, focusing on her musical career instead of her family.  To add to the awkward family reunion, another daughter, paralyzed Helena, comes to live with Eva during this time.

The movie is a tour de force in dysfunctional family relationships.  It has all of the family drama of the more recent August: Osage County (2013), but doesn’t resort to cheap stunts like incest or suicide.  The characters involved are relatively normal people who made rational, albeit cold-hearted decisions based on their own self-interest.

This masterful non-romantic view of families doesn’t try to sensationalize the dysfunction, nor falsely promise familial reconciliation.  It’s Eva’s insistence on clinging to unrealistic notions of family which thwart her fulfillment.

Ingmar Bergman’s influence on twentieth century art can hardly be overstated.  His career spanned six decades and included some of the most personal and reflective films of all time.  Everyone is familiar with the chess playing grim reaper in The Seventh Seal (1957).  His other 1957 masterpiece Wild Strawberries is one of the best films focusing on an elderly man coming to terms with his life in his twilight years.    The trilogy of films: Through a Glass Darkly (1961), Winter Light (1963), and The Silence (1963) offer a profound meditation on faith in a postmodern world.  Cries and Whispers (1972) is an unflinching look at the mixed emotions which accompany a loved one’s death following a long illness.

If you’re interested in seeing Ingrid Bergman as something other than Ilsa, I recommend this film, one of the most accessible of Ingmar Bergman’s films, which are often obscure and dense.