Recommended: Heavyweights, Tier 2
Submitted by jim on Thu, 05/24/2001 - 12:15
- Amores Perros (2000) ... Imagine, a movie with three loosely intertwined stories each containing dog cruelty as a subplot, and I didn't hate it. In fact, it was quite good. A rare welcome Pulp Fiction descendant. All three stories are strong, but the middle tale of the extramarial affair is fantastic. You can taste the decay from almost the first moment, making for an uncomfortable (in a good way) viewing experience.
- The Battleship Potemkin (1925) ... I think all the silent movies I've seen to date have been comedies, so I was shocked at how powerful and visually arresting this 1925 (!) drama was. I don't know why, but I'm reminded of Ben Hur. Whereas that movie generally disappointed me except for the iconic chariot race, this movie is more uniformly terrific, bouying the much-copied Odessa Steps sequence to even greater heights.
- Behind the Sun (2001) ... Set in Brazil, 1910, this is a beautifully shot tale of a generations-old family feud waged over sugarcane land. Each family's code of honor dictates revenge, but in proportion (i.e. a death for a death). It's clear that the fortunes of one family have risen while the other has fallen, so this code of honor is really the only thing keeping the downtrodden family going. It's also clear that this code of honor will die with the patriarchs, so there's a wonderful sense of long-term inevitability to accompany the short-term sense of foreboding. The characters are a bit thin: the overbearing father stripped of everything but honor, the son that questions the need to perpetuate the feud, the beautiful vagabond love interest, etc. but there's a richness to their relationships and interactions. The pacing is also terrific, so I was surprised to find reviews that pegged the movie as slow. For me, I expected the tale to bog down after each flurry of activity, but there was always some fresh development in the story that kept my attention beautifully.
- The Bicycle Thief (1948) ... I've seen this movie compared to Life Is Beautiful, which I think is apt, but I think I prefer comparing it to Zhang Yimou's Not One Less for it's use of unprofessional actors, depiction of poverty, and emotional (although quite different) ending. Regular readers will guess that if I'm comparing it to one of Zhang's movies than I must have liked it, and I did. Sometimes I think the best performances ever are given by regular folks rather than professional actors. Everyone in this movie is fantastic, and the ending is so touching. No father should be faced with such a choice, and no child should have to grow up in one day.
- Bonnie and Clyde (1967) ... Definitely The Wild Bunch of road trip movies. I thought this must have been influenced by Peckinpah's classic, so was quite surprised to discover that it predated it by two years! Funny, violent, and impressive, I never would have thought I'd be so impressed by Warren Beatty. Faye Dunaway also turns in one of her best performances, and then there's the supporting cast that includes a largely untried Gene Hackman channelling George C. Scott, Gene Wilder doing an early version of his disarming neurotic befuddled thing, and that guy from Roxanne that I liked (Michael J. Pollard - I had to look him up). Good stuff.
- Bound (1996) ... An excellent debut movie for the Wachowski Bros. Tightly plotted with great overall and scene-specific tension. There's one trouble scene for the violence-squeamish and one other trouble scene for the lesbian-sex-squeamish. Personally, my only complaint is that some of the dialog didn't quite work for me, but that was mostly in the first 30 minutes before things really got rolling.
- Casino (1995) ... An ambitious, sprawling, complex gangster epic that feels somehow flawed (but I don't know why). Marvelous performances throughout, although Sharon Stone's is particularly surprising and impressive. The movie feels extraordinarily violent, even though the violence only punctuates long stretches of non-violence (but the punctuation marks are all emphatic exclamation points). My recollection is that Goodfellas is more violent across the board, but that Casino's violence peaks much higher. I also have to say that I normally hate voice-overs, and at least half of this movie is told in voice over, but it's required to cover as much of this complex terrain as possible in three hours, and it works. I wish I could articulate why the film felt flawed to me. Perhaps just because it was so obviously an ambitious undertaking that it couldn't help but fall a bit short. I dunno.
- The Deer Hunter (1978) ... I was expecting, having seen years of war movies, a fairly typical (by today's standards) "war is bad" movie. I was wrong. A marvelous movie, spanning different worlds both in time and geography. I didn't expect it to focus so much on friendship, and how it can transform under extreme stress. The US scenes feel real, and the Vietnam scenes surreal, which is a wonderful effect. The cast is fantastic, the story heartbreaking, and the horrors of war perfectly embodied in the POW torture scenes.
- Falling Down (1993) ... I enjoy rooting for the bad guy. But I think it's relatively easy to make a charismatic bad guy that we admire. We forgive him his trespasses 'cause he's so darn charming. It's much harder to make a bad guy that is truly villianous, but that we sympathize (but not admire) with nonetheless. This movie pulls it off.
- Gandhi (1982) ... I watched Gandhi while standing, bouncing a fussy infant in my arms, in 3 to 15 minute segments, and I still thought it was terrific. Ben Kingsley was simply perfect. The cinematography was beautiful, and Gandhi's story is compelling and important. It amazes me that such a man existed.
- Hamlet (2000) ... A surprisingly well done modernization of the classic tragedy. Everybody I know hates Ethan Hawke, and I've never been able to figure out why. They say he can't act, I say he can.
- The Last Picture Show (1971) ... I hate liking a movie and not having much to say about it, but that's what I'm faced with here. This movie simply rings true. Coming of age, suffocating in a small town, love, loss, and above all, sex. It seems like this must be what life is really like in a town that is in the final stages of disappearance. I've always wondered why Bogdanivich gets to do all these interviews and gets called in to deconstruct Hitchcock movies. Now I know; he's got some game (although I understand this is his best, perhaps by a significant margin).
- Leaving Las Vegas (1995) ... I thought I was going to hate this, as I tend to be put off by movies with characters that are defined by their dysfunction, but Nicholas Cage and Elisabeth Shue deliver such riveting performances that their characters are fully realized human beings, not just vehicles for conveying pathos. Uncompromising and tough to watch, the movie is still beautiful in its depiction of love, loneliness, inevitability, and loss. I guiltily enjoy many of Cage's throwaway roles, but it's nice to be reminded that he's capable of so much more.
- Miller's Crossing (1990) ... It's alarming to me that I've seen this movie within the past 10 years, and must have liked it quite a bit (based on how much I liked it this time) but remembered it so poorly. All the scenes were familiar to me as the movie unfolded, but I could at no point tell you what was going to come next. I couldn't even remember if Tom shot Bernie during the famous titular scene! Maybe I had some kind of brain fever at the time, like West Nile or something, although you think I'd remember *that* even more than the movie. In any case, leave it to the Coens to create one of the more unique gangster pictures out there. It's not so much about the hail of bullets as it is about honor, loyalty, friendship, control, and power, all conveyed via the story of Gabriel Byrne and him losing what little soul he started with. Byrne is good, of course, but Albert Finney is perfect, swaggering and bold with a tommy gun in a manner I wouldn't have expected from him. An odd thing though, I look at this movie, which is very good, and The Man Who Wasn't There, which sucked, and I'm hard-pressed to define why one works so well and the other fails so miserably. Good thing I don't get paid for these reviews, as any critic worth his salt should be able to answer such a question.
- Mulholland Drive (2001) ... The further I get from this movie the more I like it. Right up to the end I really didn't care for it. An hour after it was over I might have listed it on Tier 3. Now, the next day, I'm putting it on Tier 2. This is a movie that, more than any other movie I can think of, really needs to be considered as a whole. It is rich in subtext, and is widely open to interpretation. For the first 2/3s I was scratching my head over the Naomi Watt's raves, but then it clicked. The weird thing is that I was kinda bored for most of the movie, and it's only in hindsight that I've developed affection for it.
- Panic (2000) ... Oddly enough, this movie really touched the parent in me. You wouldn't think a movie about a hit man would do that, but Macy's plight as it affected his relationship with his young son (and the culmination of the film) was stirring. His bedtime talks with his son made me regret every rushed moment I've had as a parent, and the scene where he loses his patience is just plain real. And all the other elements work too. Marvelous ensemble cast.
- The Professional (1994) ... A dark, off-beat hitman story. Quite emotional at times. One of these days I'm going to have to watch the uncut version to see how it handles the romantic angle (which is barely hinted at in the cut version).
- Requiem for a Dream (2000) ... It's hard to put this on a "recommended" list, as it's such a nightmare. But it's such a fine look at addiction, and visually unique and stunning. Even grotesquely beautiful. Marvelous performances all around, with Ellen Burnstyn deserving all the accolades she's received (even critics that didn't like the movie loved her performance). I'm leaving this off tier one because the fates of each of our four protagonists are so over-the-top awful as to render them maudlin (at least, to my boring don't-even-drink-coffee eyes :-).
- Rope (1948) ... Considering when it was made, I found this movie shocking. Not for the homosexual undertones (which are subtle enough to go unnoticed), nor for the murder itself, but for the callous behavior of our protagonists after the crime (inviting the victim's parents over to unknowingly eat from their son's coffin-top!). Part of the point, I'm sure, and very well done. Each reel is a single shot, making the movie feel like a play--a bold move that works quite well.
- Three Kings (1999) ... Great war movie. Throws four less-than-admirable characters into hell, and they are transformed by it believably. And I appreciated the blunt statement it made about The Gulf War.
- Wages of Fear (1952) ... While my film history is shaky at best, it surprises me that a movie this dark and violent (at least one scene) was made in the early 50s. This is the story of four desparate men that are hired to drive nitro-glycerin trucks over a hazardous route. The film delivers plenty of tension, along with a fine dissection of fear as it is differently embodied in our four protagonists. But I just don't know what I'm supposed to take away from this movie: Desperate times call for desperate measures? There is no God? Life is nasty, brutish, and short? How am I to evaluate a movie with no apparent moral center? Is THAT the point? Very interesting, this one.