Staff Picks: Movies
Staff-recommended viewing from the KPL catalog.
“Jem Cohen’s Museum Hours is a small movie that contains multitudes”—Luc Sante
Jem Cohen’s film Museum Hours is a brilliant and mesmerizing answer to a question that he himself poses in the essay that accompanies the DVD—“How then to make movies that don’t dictate exactly where to look and what to feel? How to encourage viewers to make their own connections, to think strange thoughts, to be unsure of what happens next or even what genre of movie it is? How to combine the immediacy and openness of documentary with invented characters and stories?”
While not formulaic in the commercial, Hollywood sense, Cohen’s film does have a plot but one would be hard pressed to characterize the film as plot-driven nor does it particularly care about predictable scenes where characters recite lines from a script. It’s a much looser and improvised affair that speaks to Cohen’s interest in depicting the poetic and ephemeral place where life and art intersect, those elements of everyday life that register on the periphery of perception but that still make up the subjective landscape of human experience and history. What the film is (its form and conceptual concerns) and what the film is about (perception, loneliness, the universality of art over time and its allusive, individual character, etc.) is not one in the same but rather they complement each other.
The film at its core is the story of two strangers who meet at the Kunsthistoriches Art Museum in Vienna. Johann is a middle aged guard who spends his hours staring at people looking at art. Anne is a woman visiting her ailing cousin who is dying in a nearby hospital. He befriends her after they meet amongst the paintings of Bruegel, Rembrandt and other European masters. He serves as a kind of Viennese tour guide and translator for her as she awaits news about her comatose cousin. They wander through bars, take hillside strolls, amble through urban markets, and board an underground boat ride, both connecting the other to their life in miniatures, doing so as strangers once did prior to social networking. The dialogue is magically awkward and feels as though the actors were directed to improvise their conversational responses. Anne, played by cult singer Mary Margaret O’hara is especially magnetic. This is one of my favorite films from last year.
Set in Yokohama Japan prior to the 1964 Tokyo Summer Olympics, this animated story of passionate students fighting for the preservation of a beloved school building slated for demolition parallels the romantic story of two young teens and the mysterious history that binds them together. The film will appeal to all ages but teens and tweens may be its biggest audience. Maudlin and sweet, From Up On Poppy Hill can be viewed with either the original Japanese or the English language version.
From Up on poppy hill
This is heart wrenching film from Swedish director Jan Troell focuses on one woman’s tumultuous life as a psychologically and physically abused wife and mother who momentarily escapes her domestic torment by picking up a camera—an instrument of creativity and documentation that she uses as a means for both personal expression and as a gateway to escape her unforgiving life. Shot with exquisite cinematography, Everlasting Moments takes the viewer on an anguished ride through the minefield of Maria Larsson’s troubled life—one defined by her amazing strength and fortitude in the face of heartbreak and disappointment. As bleak as her prospects are, Maria (brilliantly portrayed by Maria Heiskanen) discovers that there are moments, sublime in their ephemerality, when she and her alcoholic husband face the obstacles of war, poverty and hunger together and tenderly. Troell has masterly rendered a humane portrait of a family struggling to survive in pre-WWI Sweden, with the centerpiece constituted by Maria’s endless capacity for grace, forgiveness and persistence.
Reader’s Advisory is a term that librarians use to describe the act of linking similar titles together so that readers are exposed to authors and titles that possess comparable thematic or stylistic qualities. This is the first installment of a film version of that kind of process of suggestion. It’s not scientifically based and so absorb these lists with a grain of salt.
• Liked Goodfellas, try Miller’s Crossing
• Liked Charulata, try Everlasting Moments
• Liked The Truman Show, try Real Life
• Liked Drive, try Taxi Driver
• Liked Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, try Petulia
• Liked Last Year at Marienbad, try Memento
• Liked The Ice Storm, try Ordinary People
• Liked Groundhog Day, try Being There
• Liked Take Shelter, try Repulsion
• Liked Il Postino, try Amelie
• Liked E.T, try Super 8
• Liked Doubt, try The Silence
• Liked Mad Men (series), try The Hour (series)
• Liked Paper Moon, try The Last Picture Show
• Liked Harold and Maude, try Delicacy
• Liked Tinker Tailor, Soldier Spy, try The Spy Who Came in from the Cold
• Liked Goon, try Slapshot
• Liked Harry and Tonto, try Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore
• Liked The Newsroom (series), try Sports Night (series)
• Liked Platoon, try The Thin Red Line
• Liked Leaving Las Vegas, try Taste of Cherry
• Liked Dead Man Walking, try Into the Abyss: a tale of death, a tale of life
• Liked There Will Be Blood, try Citizen Kane
• The Bridge Over River Kwai, try Force 10 from Navarone
• Liked Blue Valentine, try A Woman Under the Influence
Force 10 from Navarone
Le Havre is a wonderful film that I missed seeing when it first showed at WMU’s Little Theater several years ago. Named for a provincial city on the northern, French coast, the film is one of Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki’s most warmhearted and charming. Known for his less is more approach to film making, his works tend to give birth to zany, working class characters whose expressions of both joy and futility come off as droll and darkly peculiar (fans of Wes Anderson and Jim Jarmusch will appreciate the brand of humor). Le Havre is a simple story: an elderly shoe shiner stumbles into a plot to hide a young, African boy from the authorities who seek his deportation. Ex “bohemian” Marcel Marx has a difficult enough time as it is in dealing with his critically ill wife. His newest project, one that he had not expected, is to safeguard with the help of his fellow townspeople, a young refuge named Idrissa, who is seeking to travel to London. With the authorities hot on his trail, Marcel keeps ahead of the fuzz with just enough assistance from Le Havre’s band of bartenders, rock musicians, and an unlikely detective. It’s a beautiful fantasy as much as it is a political fable about community and humanity.
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