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Staff Picks: Movies

Life of Riley

French director Alain Renais died last year, ironically on the day the Academy Awards were held. He left cinephiles with a significant body of work which features several films considered classics including Night and Fog, Hiroshima Mon Amour and Last Year at Marienbad. His inventive, non-commercial, form breaking sensibilities are still on display with his farewell film, Life of Riley. Based upon a British play, Renais transforms the theatrical stage into a cinematic framework, blending the two together to create a work that looks and feels like both. The film doesn't attempt to negate the artificiality and obviousness of the set or limit the dialogue saturated plot. It is a play inside of a film and vice versa. There's a levity to the film that I wouldn't exactly describe as comedic and yet it tackles serious subjects like adultery, illness, aging and friendship.


Girlhood

While the French film Girlhood won’t likely earn the buzz and accolades that Richard Linklater’s hit Boyhood received last year, it presents a more prescient depiction of adolescence, assimilation and identity of the underprivileged, disenchanted French teens looking to escape the housing projects located in the Parisian suburbs. While the story meanders along, feeling stale and uninspired at points, the cast does an admirable job at realistically embodying the emotional high and low points of a first love, the complex navigation of friendships and a future of unknown possibilities.


Leviathan

Leviathan (nominated for an Academy Award last year) is a grim portrait of one man's futile attempt at saving his home and property from a powerful and corrupt mayor who has plans to evict the hard drinking, auto mechanic. Saddled with an unhappy wife and an increasingly rebellious teenage son, Kolya invites an old army buddy turned Moscow lawyer to the small, northern town where he lives in hopes that the lawyer can dig up enough dirt on the mayor to get him to change his mind. While the dark story may be read as a symbol of Putin-era political corruption, the juxtaposition of the picturesque beauty of the coastal town and the ugliness of unaccountable authority paints a bleak picture of humanity and that of a Russian democracy in 2015.


1001 Movies You Must See...

We own a comprehensive reference book called 1001 Movies You Must See before You Die. I’ve used it on several occasions to select titles for the collection. I am pleased to report that the library owns many of these classic films. I thought I would share a film from each decade, highlighted by the editors of the book. There are many films that we simply cannot add to the collection because they are not available or out of print.

Intolerance (1916)—D.W. Griffith’s attempt to counter the negative reception of his previous film The Birth of a Nation
Metropolis (1927)—Widely considered by critics as the first, science fiction epic, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis was far ahead of its time, incorporating elements of sex, violence and special effects into the plot structure. It so confused audiences with its various allusions, subtext and allegories that it bombed at the box office.
The 39 Steps (1935)—Before making films that unnerved American audiences in the 1950’s and 60’s, British director Alfred Hitchcock made this high octane film that employs the trope of the character who unwittingly sees something they’re not supposed to see and who then becomes entangled in a mystery (that always involves a chase) that endangers their life.
The Philadelphia Story (1940)—Slapstick and romance never worked so well in this star power-driven farce that features Cary Grant, James Stewart and Katharine Hepburn.
Umberto D (1952)—Made during the peak of Italian Neorealism’s influence, Vittorio De Sica’s heartbreaking tale of the daily struggles of an elderly man and his pet dog will undoubtedly produce a tear or two.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966)—One of the great film adaptations of a stage play, Mike Nichols’ film was successful in due part to having a real life married couple playing the lead characters. Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor give electrifying performances in this dialogue-heavy portrait of marital gamesmanship.
Killer of Sheep (1977)—Considered by many critics an essential piece of American independent movie-making, Killer of Sheep was Charles Burnett’s first feature and his most critically praised. Subtle yet moving, the film established itself as one of the first films to depict African Americans as ordinary subjects going about their everyday lives, burdened yet dynamic, imbued with dignity and agency.
My Left Foot (1989)—The first of three Oscars for actor Daniel Day-Lewis who gives a fantastic performance in this portrait of one man’s extraordinary spirit in the face of physical limitations and social prejudice.
Goodfellas (1990)—With all due respect to The Godfather trilogy, this is the greatest mob film and arguably Martin Scorsese’s best work.
Russian Ark (2001)—The film that ultimately achieved the technical feat that Hitchcock once sought to accomplish (cameras ran out of film after 10 minutes in the late 40’s)—a film shot in one continuous take without a single cut.


Hidden Gems

Here are some selected titles that staff feel are hidden gems, secret treasures or unknown classics that you may have missed or simply never knew existed.

Before Ryan Gosling was a huge movie star and occasional internet meme, he made the quirky, small budget film Lars and the Real Girl, a tale about a socially awkward man who falls in love with…yes…a blow up doll.

Years before he struck it big with Birdman, Alejandro Innaritu directed Amores Perros, a gritty film set in Mexico City that connects several storylines and characters together ala Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia or Innaritu’s more commercially successful work Babel.

Safe is “a profoundly unsettling work from the great American director Todd Haynes, Safe functions on multiple levels: as a prescient commentary on self-help culture, as a metaphor for the AIDS crisis, as a drama about class and social estrangement, and as a horror film about what you cannot see. This revelatory drama was named the best film of the 1990s in a Village Voice poll of more than fifty critics.”—The Criterion Collection

Prior to Peter Jackson’s adaptations of the Lord of the Rings books, he and a young and relatively unknown actress named Kate Winslet collaborated on Heavenly Creatures, a shocking, true crime story that took place in New Zealand in the 1950’s. Two teenage girls develop an inseparable bond and as their fantasy-fueled relationship grows increasingly lethal, their parents attempt to break them apart.

Forbidden Games is a 1952 French film that depicts the macabre yet childlike way that an orphaned girl grapples with her grief after her parents are killed by the Germans during World War II. Befriended by a young boy and taken in by his peasant family, the adults are ill equipped to sympathize with the grisly ways in which the children cope with the trauma of war.

Certified Copy might be one of the more unique and certainly beguiling films to explore the complexities and narrative like qualities of a relationship. Similar to the Richard Linklater “Before” trilogy in that these films focus on dialogue more so than plotting and action, Iranian master filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami tackles questions about truth, authenticity and subjectivity both in how these ideas manifest themselves within human relationships as well as art.

Shadows was the first film from maverick American director John Cassavetes and while it doesn’t possess the richness and complexity of his later films, it marked a key moment in the history of American cinema for its low budget appearance and verite approach. Exploring interracial relationships in New York City during the Beat-era and originally scored by bassist Charles Mingus, Shadows is considered by historians as an early prototype for what came to be dubbed “independent cinema.”

Election—Alexander Payne’s debut hits all the right marks when it comes to this high school-set black comedy starring a fantastic Reese Witherspoon as the hyper-achieving foil to Matthew Broderick’s squeaky clean teacher.

Muriel—Alain Resnais, the late French master of fragmented pyscho-dramas with beguiling plot structures made his name with Hiroshima Mon Amour and Late Year at Marienbad but fans of those works should give this lesser known work the attention it deserves.


The Best 10 Films I've Seen Lately

March was a decent month for film viewing as I've finally gotten around to seeing some high quality documentaries like The Pleasures of Being Out of Step. Here are some other highlights for your consideration.

10. Fox Catcher

9. Top Five

8. Force Majeure

7. Boy Meets Girl

6. The Overnighters

5. Life Itself

4. Days of Being Wild

3. The Internet's Own Boy

2. The Soft Skin

1. A Summer's Tale (Eric Rohmer may not be as well known as his French New Wave compatriots Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut but this late film (1996), finally released in the United States, proved his knack for chatty characters on scenic locales could still elicit charming insights about youthful romance and relationships thirty years after his peak.  

 


Gloria

Gloria loves to hit the dance floor at the singles club and the act of moving her body to music seems to open her up to both the joy and disappointment of life and that’s where we find her at both the beginning and ending of the movie. Set in Chile, Gloria follows a woman in her late fifties as she painfully twists and turns around the up’s and down’s of single life. Divorced for over a decade and with her adult children living independently, Gloria grows increasingly anxious about the passing of her golden years. She’s alone and looking for something or someone to fill the emotional gaps of her life. She believes that she has found a willing partner in Rodolfo, an older man that possesses the passion she’s looking to embrace. Actress Paulina Garcia puts in a brilliant performance as a woman of a “certain age” struggling to find stability and calm in the second act of her life.


Women's History Month Highlights

March is Women’s History Month and so in keeping with the theme of highlighting the achievements and contributions of women involved with movie-making, here’s a list of writers, directors and some of their groundbreaking works.

Ava DuVernay (I Will Follow, Middle of Nowhere, Selma)
Agnes Varda (Cleo from 5 to 7, Vagabond)
Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty)
Lena Dunham (Girls, Tiny Furniture)
Maya Deren (Maya Deren: Experimental Films)
Penny Marshall (A League of Their Own)
Allison Anders (Border Radio)
Claire Denis (White Material, Bastards)
Chantal Akerman (From the Other Side, Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles)
Lynne Ramsay (Ratcatcher)
Ida Lupino (The Hitchhiker)
Elaine May (The Birdcage, A New Leaf)


Master of Alienation

Has there ever been a more handsome cipher than Monica Vitti in L’Eclisse, the third film in a thematic trilogy (L’ Avventura, La Notte) of sorts from Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni. Antonioni’s contribution to film history primarily centers around these three films and their radical break with traditional traits associated with classical movie-making and for their resistance to narrative meaning. Confounding audiences because of their slowly paced plots, minimalist dialogue and murky tones, the films are visual portraits of emotional stasis, spiritual decay and psychic ennui of Italy’s post-war bourgeoisie. 

Inspired by painting and framing scenes from unique perspectives and angles, scenes of L’Eclisse are lined with modern painting’s focus on abstraction and disorientation so as to express the kinds of intense unease of characters and their sense of dread and anxiety. Vitti was the director’s muse both in life and on film during this time period and she more than adequately symbolizes Antonioni’s exploration of modern alienation and its various forms. She knows nothing, feels nothing and floats about the Roman suburbs in a kind of haze of indifference. Recommended for those interested in the art house cinema of the early 1960’s.


A Birdman in the Hand Is Worth 4 Oscars in the Bush

I’m not gonna lie: As much as I personally loved Academy Award Best Picture winner Birdman more than expected winner Boyhood, I’m still shocked that the artsy and eccentric tale of a washed-up superhero actor trying to do “legitimate theater” (and please in your head imagine that pronounced as “theee-ATER”) beat out the wholesome, relatable, coming-of-age tale that was filmed over the course of twelve years.  I’m certainly happy for Birdman—just not so happy about what it did to my Oscar pool.  In addition to Best Picture, Birdman picked up wins for Best Director (Alejandro G. Iñárritu), Best Cinematography (Emmanuel Lubezki) and Best Original Screenplay (Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr. & Armando Bo).

In case you’d like to catch any of the other available Oscar winners that you may have missed, I’ve listed them below. Click on the links and place a hold on a copy today.

  • My favorite film of the year, Whiplash, picked up three wins for Best Supporting Actor (J.K. Simmons), Best Film Editing (Tom Cross), and Best Sound Mixing.
  • Many people won for working on Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel—except poor Wes Anderson himself; the film won for Best Original Score (Alexandre Desplat), Best Costume Design (Milena Canonero), Best Production Design (Adam Stockhausen), and Best Makeup and Hairstyling.
  • Be sure to check out Eddie Redmayne’s Best Actor performance as Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything; it was a well-deserved win.
  • Boyhood's lone win was for Best Supporting Actress (Patricia Arquette).
  • Disney’s Big Hero 6 won for Best Animated Feature; the Best Animated Short winner, Feast, can be found on the Big Hero DVD or Blu-ray.
  • Best Foreign Film winner Ida is amazing and you should watch it--regardless of your unfortunate and snooty hatred of subtitles.

The following winners will be released soon and are available for holds now:

Keep checking back for Still Alice, for which Julianne Moore won Best Actress, Selma, which featured Best Original Song winner “Glory” by John Legend and Common, and must-see Best Documentary Feature winner CitizenFour.  We don’t have releases for these titles yet, but we will assuredly carry them.