Staff Picks: Movies
Staff-recommended viewing from the KPL catalog.
As rabid a film watcher as I am, time restrictions will forever thwart my capacity to plow through KPL’s stellar movie collection but here is an abbreviated list of some of my favorite films from KPL’s collection, watched over the past year. While we add new releases each week, don’t forget about the diversified depth of our collection. We can’t purchase every movie that is requested or inquired about but we can work toward the goal of having most titles for most of our patrons, most of the time.
Upstream Color: With the exception of the increasingly abstract, fragmented and non-linear narratives of Terrence Malick, there have been few notable American films over the past decade or so that have attempted to remake the kind of Eurocentric, anti-classical/realist/romantic films of the 1960’s and 70’s (think: Godard, Bresson, Tarr, Tarkovsky, Resnais, Warhol, Antonioni). With Upstream Color, a sort of Hiroshima Mon Amour for our contemporary times, one hopes that young filmmakers will continue to take the value of abstraction seriously, reimagining it in new and thoughtful ways.
Hedwig and the Angry Inch: A film that came out (pun intended) way ahead of its time. It’s kind of an absurdist musical that is in-your-face bonkers, but bonkers in the most vital, transgressive and beautifully rebellious way. A postmodern Hair.
Young Adult: Charlize Theron gives a great performance as an unraveled mess of a person that attempts to transition from a life of boredom and narcissism toward a more complete, self-aware state where the adjective ‘young’ can finally wither away.
Sullivan’s Travels: I checked this film out because the great American director Preston Sturges’ name kept popping up in literature on director/writer Wes Anderson (a favorite of mine). This well-written and acted screwball comedy hits the mark and lives up to its acclaim as one of the 1940’s best films.
My Dinner with Andre: A film like few others--this conventions-busting mixture of fiction and nonfiction, storytelling and improvised riffing will either bore you into slumber or thrill you with its originality. We almost forget, due to the strong writing, that the great French autuer Louis Malle was its director.
Insignificance: I’m still not sure I ‘get’ this peculiar film but it was certainly compelling, the way in which a film can unfold as both an irritant and a puzzling enigma.
Hiroshima Mon Amour: Before I saw this Alain Resnais masterpiece about memory, love and loss, I considered Harold and Maude my favorite film. Now it’s number two.
12 Angry Men: Watch this fictional, court room drama and then the documentary The Central Park Five. The very notion of facts, evidence, justice and human objectivity are brilliantly rendered as a hollow collection of outdated concepts with tragic application.
Hunger: Not to be mistaken with Steve McQueen’s first film about the imprisonment of IRA soldiers of the same name but rather the nimble and haunting adaptation of the classic, existential novella by Danish writer Knut Hamsun.
Summer with Monika: Arguably, my favorite film of Bergman’s but nowhere near his best. That distinction belongs to his magnum opus Scenes from a Marriage, a film that should only be approached by the single and the happily married couple.
Rules of the Game: My goal for movie watching this year was to view a handful of those classics considered important to the historical development of the art form according to the Sight and Sound Magazine’s list of 250 Greatest Films; a list created every ten years by an esteemed cadre of critics. Renoir’s masterpiece (rated at No. 4) is there for a reason and its influence can be seen in almost every film made since 1939 that skewers the vacuity of the rich and clueless.
La Jetee/Sans Soleil: Made by maverick film essayist Chris Marker, these two films are quite distinct from one another in both content and style. Both represent the best in avant-garde, envelope-pushing cinema that emerged parallel with the various manifestations of the European New Wave movement.
Picnic at Hanging Rock: This 70’s cult classic by Peter Weir still holds up as a truly original film that tackles the subject of loss, regret and repressed longing, all of which are tied to a mystery that leaves an Australian women’s school in shock and confusion.
Other notable films: L’ Avventura, Stroszek, Bringing Up Baby, Amarcord, The Killing, Neighboring Sounds, Damnation, The Lives of Others, Magnificent Ambersons, Harvey, Pat and Mike, The Third Man, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, The Searchers, Elevator to the Gallows, As I Lay Dying, Cleo from 5 to 7, Frances Ha, The Silence, Winter Light, Cries and Whispers, Blast of Silence, Through a Glass Darkly, Argo, Shallow Grave, Band of Outsiders, Fanny and Alexander, Mud, Harry and Tonto, Chasing Ice, and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.
Arguably, one of Canada’s greatest films, Mon Oncle Antoine is a coming of age tale set in rural Quebec. Beautifully shot and with wonderful acting, it's an unsentimental portrait of young people caught up in a confusing and hostile adult world, where youthful innocence is shattered and when growing up means experiencing complex realities. The film is set in the 1940’s as a small mining town prepares for Christmas celebrations. But unlike most holiday films that purposefully avoid seriousness and genuine pathos, Claude Jutra’s film tenderly addresses the subject of adolescent awakenings under the specter of sex and death. This 1971 film was Jutra’s masterpiece and a brilliant film that captures both the goodness in people as well as their human failings. Read a film essay about the film here.
Mon oncle antoine
A groundbreaking documentary when first released in 1968, this Albert and David Maysles (Grey Gardens, Gimme Shelter) production follows the emotional up’s and down’s of a group of door-to-door salesman who are charged with the peddling of a gold embossed version of the Good Book. Each of these real life Willy Loman’s has a nickname (The Rabbit, The Gipper, The Bull) which adds an element of fictive artifice, but what the Maysles brothers are really after, is to paint a psychological portrait of the inner turmoil these men feel as they grind their way through each pitch, expressing frustration (at both each other and their customers), skepticism toward the future of their profession and in some cases, a celebratory belief in the power of their vocation. Funny, heartbreaking and myth-busting, Salesman is an American classic of cinema verite.
The great movie directors have always shown an interest in exploring the subject of growing up and the themes of adolescent awakening, rites of passage and the sometimes complex depiction of individuals straddling both adulthood and childhood. As many different kinds of filmmakers as there are, so to have these kinds of movies been varied, both in terms of genre, point of view and style. Childhood it would appear from some of the beloved films that have been inspired by the subject, is messy, complicated and rendered as a darn right miserable experience.
Youth’s opposite condition, the aging process and growing old has also been explored with both tenderness and horror. Sometimes depicted with gritty realism, other times with romantic sentimentality, many of these films examine the way that the elderly either flourish by growing open to new and different ideas about what it means to live or in some cases, investigate the many difficulties that the elderly are confronted with. Here is a brief list of some of the great films that tackle the subject of both youth and the elderly with intelligence, artfulness and humanity.
Harry and Tonto
Harold and Maude
Away from Her
On Golden Pond
The Up Series
The Straight Story
Murmur of the Heart
My Life as a Dog
Mon Oncle Antoine
Stand by Me
Kid with a Bike
Spirit of the Beehive
The Ice Storm
Harry and Tonto
Cult film Blast of Silence (1961), which seemingly came out of nowhere in the early nineties after years of existing amidst a fog of cinematic obscurity, is a blast of style, kinetic energy and unsentimental nihilism. It's a low budget but artistically rendered and edited gem of a film that follows the life of an increasingly conflicted, paid hit man trying to get out of the business even as he preps for his next pay day during the holiday season. Frankie ‘Baby Face’ Bono stalks his New York City target with machine-like precision while at the same time becoming emotionally interested in an old friend’s sister. Made on a shoe-string budget, Allen Baron’s taut thriller perfectly encapsulates the look and feel of similar films of that era connected to the independent film movement of the late 50’s and early 1960’s.
Blast of Silence
In The Apparitionfour college kids perform an experiment trying to recreate the Charles experiment from the 1970s, only this time they want to manifest the spirit into this world. They have a figurine of Charles that they concentrate on and with the help of computers magnify their concentration from 4 to 4,000 and it works. The table shakes, the figurine is smashed, lights flash and Lydia is sucked through a wall. I thought ok the spirit is here but the movie fades out and we meet Ben, one of the original four apparently a few years/months (not sure which) later with his girlfriend, Kelly. They are house sitting for her parents in a housing development which is mostly vacant, a good setting for a spirit to haunt. Ben checks his email and has numerous messages from Patrick his old buddy from the experiment. Patrick is played by Tom Felton who was Draco in the Harry Potter series. Patrick has sent message after message increasing in urgency saying Ben is in danger. Kelly is taking a shower and we see spirit stuff. The soap goes all fungus looking and the real horror, all of Kelly’s clothes which are hanging in the closet are tied in knots. We are then treated to a lot of convincing spirit in the house sounds, they did a good job with this part. Ben finds out that Patrick has reopened the rift and a spirit wants into our world. They think they can send it back by playing the sounds from the original experiment backwards. This reminded me of my youth when they thought there were satanic messages on a vinyl record if you played it in reverse. I think the movie plot pushed the recreate experiment too far. First they recreate the 1970s, ok that’s a good premise, but then they leave it and allude to recreating the recreation and this time the spirit is unleashed, the rift was widened. It was big enough to suck Lydia through the first time and what happened to Lydia, we hear nothing more of her. Ben and Patrick set up their equipment, we see a diagram of the house and all the devices sync up, Patrick amplifies, we hear the sound track played in reverse, the spirit makes sounds, the house cracks, this is one big spirit and then nothing… I thought it was an anti-climactic ridding of the spirit. But that was because (spoiler alert) the spirit is not really gone. I liked the build-up to the spirit coming and the sound effects but one recreation was enough. Give it a watch sometime, especially at night, preferable when it is stormy and you are alone.
Famously shy and reclusive writer/director Terrence Malick burst into the spotlight with his extraordinary debut Badlands(1973), a classic of American filmmaking starring a young Sissy Spacek and Martin Sheen. The library has recently picked up the expanded and refurbished Criterion Collection edition which features recollections from the two actors and the art director. Fans of Malick’s impressionistic and painterly films (The Thin Red Line, Tree of Life, Days of Heaven, The New World) will certainly want to see this version in all of its restored vibrancy. After watching this amazing film, loosely based on the Charles Starkweather murders of the late 1950’s, I’ve attempted to come up with a short list of significant directorial debut films that we currently have in our collection.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf
The Night of the Hunter
A Bout De Souffle (Breathless)
Knife in the Water
Killer of Sheep
The 400 Blows
The Sorcerer and the White Snake is gorgeous. The mountain scenery is breathtaking, the underwater visuals are amazing. This is a story of True Love. The demon white snake falls in love with a human. All sorts of problems arise from this but she never regrets it because she now knows true love. The White snake said she meditated once for a thousand years but just a moment with Xu Xian (the human she is in love with) was worth more. This was a great story of love based on a Chinese legend, but the best part was the visuals. It was one breathtaking scene after another. As I have a snake phobia, I wish it wasn’t a White Snake but when they are that big they look more like a sea serpent than a snake so it wasn’t too bad, only at the end did they send in the little snakes. Jet Li is the monk and he does do a lot of action. But even the fighting scenes are overpowered by the visual effects. When Xu Xian is under water the details of the plant life and the fish was spectacular. When the White Snake flooded the town and summoned the waters, it gripped you and the music swelled and you were carried away. While the story is of White Snake and her True Love with a human it also displayed the sister love between White Snake and Green Snake. When White Snake was dying Green Snake offered her life’s essence to her sister. It is a foreign film and you will have to read the subtitles but it is the visual effects that will blow you away. A fun part was the monks apprentice turning into a bat demon and the animated mice were delightful.
The Sorcerer and the White Snake
Can a film be at once a tender, macabre, oddball slice of campy surrealism with a heart? Few have treaded these idiosyncratic waters of exotic eccentricity better than Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin. Brand upon the Brain, his feature film from 2008 represents Maddin at his most mainstream, which is not to suggest that the film is going to be embraced by more than a few devotees. But if you’re willing to open your mind up to Maddin’s semi-autobiographical story about a lighthouse that serves as both an orphanage and the setting for mad, scientific experiments, you’ll be rewarded with an enchanting tale of bold, cinematic weirdness.
Brand upon the Brain
Learning of James Gandolfini's untimely passing, my thoughts turned not to his iconic role as Tony Soprano, but his recent performance in Sopranos creator David Chase's directorial film debut, Not Fade Away, one of the most honest and under-rated movies ever made about rock and roll. Though seeing Gandolfini as a New Jersey businessman, struggling to keep peace in his suburban home with his wife and children, stirs up memories of his better-known TV family man, his film father and TV father lead quite different lives.
Set in the 1960's, the film's focus is on his son, a budding musician who gives up his college education, funded by his father and an ROTC scholarship, as his rock and roll outfit, heavily influenced by the blues-based Rolling Stones, gains increasing local popularity, which leads all the members to believe they can make it to the big-time, despite the many ego clashes and professional miscalculations that derail their journey. (If this sounds a bit like the plot of That Thing You Do, be aware that the dramatic tone of Not Fade Away is much heavier, and, to me, much more realistic. The heightened realism is aided, in no small part, by the soundtrack chosen by the film's music director, Steve Van Zandt.)
All the storied culture clashes that accompanied the '60's rock revolution are on display here in their most intimate manifestations, most poignantly in the relationship between father and son. Gandolfini's character wants his son to take the career direction originally agreed upon, but as his son's ambitions grow, and his parental norms can no longer be reconciled with his son's evolving belief systems, he comes to accept the break instead of denying it, which helps to mend their strained relationship. Such sweetness is not the Soprano way.
An especially close dinner conversation between father and son in the film's third act, as well as a scene late in the film where the father bids a farewell to his son that may or may not be final, pack an emotional wallop that hit even harder now in the wake of Gandolfini's passing. Thankfully, we have this film, among many others (not to mention the now-legendary TV series), to keep his screen presence from ever fading away.
Not Fade Away