Staff Picks: Movies
Staff-recommended viewing from the KPL catalog.
The Criterion Collection has a wonderful page on their website that catalogs the 10 favorite Criterion releases from a wide assortment of actors, musicians, directors, writers and other arty types. I always find these selections a good place to start my search for the unseen and unknown. If I were asked to list my ten favorite films from their collection, I’d start with the following:
1. Harold and Maude
2. Hiroshima Mon Amour
3. Au Hasard Balthazar
4. The 400 Blows
5. The Royal Tenenbaums
7. The Passion of Joan of Arc
8. Late Spring
9. Pierrot Le Fou
10. In the Mood for Love
Any sort of discussion of historically significant directors must include the work of the great Satyajit Ray. Ray’s visually brilliant and emotionally moving Charulata (1964) tackles the subject of desire; specifically that of a lonely and bored housewife imprisoned by limited social expectations and later on by romantic feelings for her husband’s cousin. Her newspaper-running husband’s responses to her veiled longing and artistic aspirations come off as glib or paternalistic. It’s only when his wayward, free spirited, poetry-composing cousin arrives to live at their home that Charulata begins to self-actualize and to allow her creative passion for writing to become more pronounced and acknowledged. Ray’s talent was in mixing the styles and tone of European and American films with the local, cultural nuances of Indian society. Always sensitive to develop multifaceted characters that are easy to sympathize with, Ray’s films feel like visual diaries of emotionally repressed or socially oppressed persons struggling to reconcile the old with the new, the traditional with the modern. The quality of acting is also top notch.
One of the things I love about Kalamazoo is the Kalamazoo Film Society. Every month for the past 25 years, this great organization has brought a film to Kalamazoo that would otherwise not have been shown locally. The Society recently celebrated its 25th anniversary with two classic films: Federico Fellini's Amarcord, and Ingmar Bergman's Wild strawberries. Those screenings, earlier this month, were the last at the KFS's long-time home, WMU's Little Theatre. Due to the switch to digital projection, and the lack of the necessary equipment at the Little Theatre, the KFS has entered into a partnership with the Alamo Drafthouse, and will continue bringing great movies to Kalamazoo.
One of the things I love about the Kalamazoo Public Library is that we seem to get everything the KFS shows, allowing me to catch up on anything I missed on the big screen. If you haven't seen every single movie they've brought to town over the years, you can find a list of what they've shown that we've got, which at 196 items as of this writing, covers over 16 years.
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
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
The great films from the silent era to today have always addressed the significant, universal themes and truths that lie at the core of human experience. There may be no better film made about the end of life and the instinctive response to look back on one’s dreams, laments, regrets, and accomplishments while standing upon the precipice than Japanese director, Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru (Bergman’s Wild Strawberries is a close second). More than a somber piece of cinema about an unremarkable everyman’s last days, Ikiru (meaning “to live”) is a life affirming and poetic masterpiece that beautifully portrays our main character’s search for meaning as he learns he has a terminal disease.
Kanji Watanabe, a government employee who nobody seems to know or respect, agonizes over the belief that he has not lived a full life of importance and it’s this doubt that drives him forward to engage his fleeting days with a fierce purpose. For like so many, the presence of the end animates what it means to be alive. Kurosawa uses his immense directorial talents to bring this theme alive in fresh and unique ways. Fans of Kurosawa’s samurai movies may be surprised at the heartbreaking tenderness that he exhibits in this, his most endearing and humane film that explores life’s preciousness through one man’s death.
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
Described as a film about “everything and nothing”, Yi Yi (Translation: A One and a Two) is writer/director Edward Yang’s moving, slice of life portrait about the up’s and down’s, beginnings and endings, laments and celebrations of a middle-class Taiwanese family. Centered on N.J. and his family, Yang depicts the magical moments in life by juxtaposing them against a backdrop of the mundane. The film begins by showing us a wedding and then quickly cuts to N.J.’s mother-in-law’s failing health, stressing the overlapping and sometimes paradoxical nature of life’s imperfect unfolding. Yang expertly evokes the poetry of the everyday, urban experience in all of its messy dynamics, showing us the beautiful interplay between humor, tragedy, romance and ritual from the perspective of the three primary characters, the father, teenage daughter and the eight year-old son.