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Staff Picks: Movies

Fuzzy Memories

Memory loss, amnesia and the human tendency to construct images and establish narratives in the service of making sense of the past has long fascinated filmmakers, writers and artists. The ‘unreliable narrator’ has been employed by many a director and writer to create a world of uncertainty and suspense within the mind of the viewer. I enjoy films that explore the discontinuity and fallibility of our memories in the service of depicting the unstable character of our perception toward others, including our own limitations of understanding of the self. This depiction of the cruelty of unpredictability has found its way inside the DNA of countless films that have dealt with the subject in varied ways, some through the vehicle of a character’s mind and others through a narrative approach.

Hiroshima Mon Amour
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Away from Her
Total Recall
Before I Go to Sleep
The Vow
Last Year at Marienbad
The Bourne Trilogy
Dark City
The Long Kiss Goodnight

Wings of Desire

I haven’t watched Wings of Desire in quite some time but it’s a film that crossed my mind this afternoon after reading a news article about the singer Nick Cave (he makes a cameo late in the film). It’s a wonderful film directed by the German Wim Wenders and starring a fantastic Bruno Ganz, the American actor Peter Falk and Otto Sander. Hailed by critics upon its release in 1987, it’s a story about two angels (Damiel and Cassiel) stuck inside of a kind of purgatorial state, neither heaven nor hell, where angels are continuously present but without the benefit of the senses. The two of them wander the streets and drift about the West Berlin citizenry, unseen by everyone but children. They provide solace to the suffering and observe the human condition in all of its messy beauty, cruelty and chance. Ganz’s Damiel grows increasingly frustrated with this kind of aloof, calcified perfection. His wanting to know and to feel the emotional rawness of the human experience positions him in opposition to his duties. The desire to love and be loved, to taste both joy and pain begins to out weight the promise of an immortal yet detached life (one born before there were humans) of angelic service. Wenders has constructed a poetic fable about the embrace of life without the trappings of sentimentality.

Let the Fright One In

I am a fan of good horror, though good horror can be hard to find. If you’re looking to settle down with a top-notch scary movie for Halloween, here are some recommendations for you:

It Follows  – Hailed as an instant classic upon its release earlier this year, this unnerving, Detroit-based film centers around a curse that passes from person to person in which a terrifying, body-jumping entity pursues the victim ceaselessly—and you don’t want to be caught by it!

The Babadook  – Imagine Tim Burton wanted to use his storybook style to make you soil your pants. That’s what the titular creature in this Australian thriller feels like. Top it off with an unhealthy dose of the parental stress that comes with being a single parent raising a child with severe emotional problems, and you’ve got an intense, teeth-grinding thriller!

Let the Right One In  – When an emotionally-abused boy befriends the strange new girl next door, who happens to be a vampire subsisting off blood reaped in a most unseemly manner, the two socially isolated creatures form a relationship that leads to both brutal vengeance and unnerving consequences.

28 Days Later/28 Weeks Later – Oscar-winning director Danny Boyle kicked the (then un-played out) zombie genre into high gear by making his rage virus-infected undead fast! Both the original and the sequel provided plenty of both scares and social commentary.

The Cabin in the Woods  – This horror-comedy is at once an homage to popular genre tropes throughout the ages, and a gory, twisty, laugh-out-loud thriller in and of itself. From producer, co-writer, and all-around geek guru Joss Whedon, this is one scary Cabin you want to visit!

Tucker & Dale vs. Evil – A couple of bumbling rednecks attempt to have relaxing vacation at a cabin out in the woods, but are mistaken for murderous lunatics by a gang of college kids who keep dying off through gory-yet-hilarious accidents.


Howard Hawks

The great American director Howard Hawks was part of the Hollywood studio system for most of his career and yet he was still able to produce high-quality films that were both praised by critics and commercially successful. Like his contemporary Billy Wilder, Hawks was adept at moving seamlessly from genre to genre, directing westerns, crime dramas and screwball comedies. Hawks was a rebellious figure who worked within the conservative dictates of the Hollywood system in order to remain employable but at the same time his films often subverted social norms and expectations by countering dominant cultural narratives. Hawks worked with John Wayne in Rio LoboRed River and Rio Bravo, doing much to reconfigure Wayne's macho, heroic screen image. Considered by critics to be one of the most important American directors to have influenced the French New Wave and New American Cinema movement of the 1960’s, Hawks’ films have an edge and emotional complexity to them that distinguish them from the more formulaic pap of the era. Standouts include: Red River, Rio Bravo, His Girl Friday, Only Angels Have Wings, The Big Sleep, Bringing Up Baby and Scarface.

Liked This, Try That

And we come to another installment of Liked This, Try That…our imperfect but always enthusiastically crafted form of cinema advisory. 

Liked Jauja, try Meek's Cutoff 

Liked Harry and Tonto, try Next Stop, Greenwich Village

Liked The Imitation Game, try A Beautiful Mind

Liked Frances Ha, try Damsels in Distress

Liked The Fault in Our Stars, try Me, Earl and the Dying Girl

Liked Ida, try Au Hasard Balthazar

Liked Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, try Taste of Cherry

Liked The Lives of Others, try Goodbye Lenin

Liked The Third Man, try The Complete Mr. Arkadin a.k.a. Confidential Report


Top 5 Directors

Inspired by a recent filmspotting podcast (highly recommended for movie fans) episode where the two hosts asked their listeners to choose the five directors (and their films) they’d take with them to a deserted island, I thought I'd mull it over. Here’s who I would take with me, keeping in mind that this is not a list of my "favorite" directors but just those whose work I'd want access to while passing the time.

1. Wes Anderson—a great mixture of comedy and melancholia would keep my island dwelling emotional state evenly balanced.
2. Coen Brothers—the storytelling virtuoso of their genre films would fill in for an absence of books.
3. Martin Scorsese—For both the variety and quality of his oeuvre.
4. Ingmar Bergman—Bergman’s films have the excellence, the quantity and the kind of philosophical depth that would keep me ruminating on the big questions while stranded.
5. Stanley Kubrick—If he had only made Dr. Strangelove, Kubrick’s film making flair would be enough to keep my isolation bearable, but throw in The Killing, Paths of Glory, The Shining2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clock Work Orange, and Full Metal Jacket and you have more than enough masterworks to choose from. 

Honorable Mention Includes: Louis Malle, Jean-Luc Godard, Paul Thomas Anderson, Robert Bresson and Terence Malick.

The Magnificent Ambersons

After watching the illuminating and highly entertaining documentary Magician: the astonishing life and work of Orson Welles, a film timely released to celebrate the centennial birth of the incomparable genius behind the 1941 masterpiece Citizen Kane, I thought it compulsory to sing the praises of Kane’s 1943 follow up, The Magnificent Ambersons—just one of many of Welles’ films shrouded in controversy and legend. After the success of Kane, Welles decided again to focus on a rise and fall motif, this time concentrating on the decline of an entire Midwestern family’s fortune and standing as pride, generational conflict and ideological stasis erodes family unity. It’s a great film as it stands but there are many Welles purists who would argue that the “real” work has yet to be seen. After completing a rough cut of the film, Welles departed to Brazil in order to work on a wartime film called It’s All True. While overseas, RKO Radio Pictures (the studio) took over production of the film, including re-cutting the original and shooting additional scenes against the protestation of Welles. It has been argued that the Welles cut differs dramatically with the studio version, including the ending of the film and overall tone.

Dazed and Confused 22 Years On

Appropriately selected as part of the Criterion Collection, Richard Linklater's celebratory portrait of 1970's high school culture is one of his best films and the one that introduced the world to future stars Ben Affleck, Parker Posey and Matthew McConaughey. Much of the film centers around the stereotypical activities of rebellious and anxiety-ridden kids as school gets out for the summer. The freshman students worry about the hazing rituals they'll face and the seniors fret about their future while still taking time out to party to classic rock anthems. It's a loving and personal work about youthful dreaming as much as it a hilarious look at the absurd yet significant moments young people go through before adulthood kicks in.

Bottle Rocket

Today Wes Anderson is considered one of the most original and inventive directors working who is beloved by the critics while also commercially successful. So singular are his works that even the casual observer would likely recognize his stylistic flare, thematic tropes and continual collaboration with particular writers and actors (parodies of his films are commonplace). Like most first works, Bottle Rocket shows a great deal of promise but lacks some of the visual panache and flamboyant use of color and mise en scene that gives his later films such vitality and depth. Yet, it's still an accomplished work with lovable but flawed characters journeying through their need for love or family by way of a bumbled heist.

5 Great Movies You Probably Have Not Seen

Just kidding, some of you have likely seen a few of these little treasures buried deep within our movie collection. 

Eternity and a Day--A work of mesmerizing poetry about a dying man's struggle to reconcile his past while befriending a young boy living precariously on the streets of Greece.

The Actuality Dramas of Allan King--A weirdly affecting assortment of "reality-based" documentaries that touch on subjects like marriage, end of life care and a 1970's counter-culture commune in Canada.

Like Father Like Son--A film that asks the question, what would you do if your biological son had been switched at birth with another child from a family with lesser means? Gut gripping stuff.

The American Friend--Most know of Wim Wenders through his classic film Wings of Desire but there's a lot to like about this German/English language adaptation of a Patricia Highsmith story that stars Bruno Ganz and the always unhinged Dennis Hopper.

George Washington--A classic "indie" film set in the south that seems to be under-appreciated and unknown. It's a quirky coming of age drama that takes place in North Carolina over a single summer. A group of young kids are confronted  with tough choices as they attempt to grapple with a secret.