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Staff Picks: Movies

Ozu's Family Dramas

The great Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu’s post-WWII work returns again and again to his interest in domestic drama and the sometimes strained relationship between old and young, traditional and modern. His final film and second photographed in color was An Autumn Afternoon (1962). Like his 1948 masterpiece Late Spring, this final work presents the growing pressure a widower feels to locate for his daughter a husband to marry. Ozu’s style was one of exacting commitment to framing scenes symmetrically with a stationary camera set up on the floor (the “tatami shot”). The graceful simplicity of his films further their overall richness while neither excluding humor nor giving in to empty sentimentality. His poignant films capture the essence of the love between family members even when that love becomes interwoven within changing social roles, expectations and values. His films evoke both the melancholy and lament of an older generation’s realization that modernism, consumerism and technology had become a staple part of post-war Japan.

 


Liked That, Try This

It's another installment of Liked That, Try This, where we match movies with similar styles, themes, or intersecting approaches to movie-making. Here goes...

Domestic Dramas--

Liked The Royal Tenenbaums try Fanny and Alexander

Liked Late Spring try Yi Yi

Liked Savages try You Can Count on Me

Summer Romances--

Liked Summer with Monika try A Summer's Tale

American Literature--

Liked To Kill A Mocking Bird try The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter

Film Noir--

Liked Double Indemnity try The Killers

Liked The Third Man try Odd Man Out

Coming of Age--

Liked Boyhood try King of the Hill

Liked Fish Tank try L'enfance Nue

Liked Ratcatcher try The Long Day Closes

Science Fiction--

Liked Interstellar try Solaris


Stalker

One doesn't merely watch an Andrei Tarkovsky film, they experience them. They are haunting, enigmatic poems that explore the kinds of questions plumbed by philosophers and theologians. There is nothing commercial nor common place about these slowly paced, gorgeously shot works of art that eschew specific meanings while meditating on the nature of existence, memory and the immaterial. Even among his peers, his creative vision and technical prowess were considered unmatched in their power to evoke and mystify. His movie-making heroes acknowledged his greatness throughout his short life with Ingmar Bergman saying, "When film is not a document, it is dream. That is why Tarkovsky is the greatest of them all. He moves with such naturalness in the room of dreams. He doesn't explain. What should he explain anyhow? He is a spectator, capable of staging his visions in the most unwieldy but, in a way, the most willing of media. All my life I have hammered on the doors of the rooms in which he moves so naturally."

Of his films, Stalker is my favorite and likely his most accessible for those unfamiliar with his style. The look of this film is almost indescribable. You simply have to see it to fully appreciate the level of artistry (all done without a Hollywood budget no less). Three men venture into the Zone, a quarantined area (ostensibly set in The Soviet Union) where a meteor had crashed. It has been rumored that the zone holds supernatural powers to grant individuals their special requests. A stalker, those who smuggle people into this no-go area, ventures deep into the heart of the unknown with two other characters, a writer and a professor, both of whom have different reasons for wanting to engage with the mysteries of the zone. Writer Geoff Dyer loved this film so much that he wrote an entire book about it called Zona.     


A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night

Ana Lily Amirpour, the director of A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, describes her debut film as an “Iranian Vampire Spaghetti Western.” It’s the perfect description of this slowly paced, moody film in which a vampire roams the streets of Bad City, preying on its most unseemly citizens. I would guess that Amirpour has been heavily influenced by Jim Jarmusch and David Lynch, and though she’s still honing her director skills, I would recommend this film to fans of Jarmusch and Lynch.


An Iranian Masterpiece

Close-Up is a masterpiece of both poetry and philosophy. Movies like this don’t come around but a couple of times a decade and when this 1990 film was released in the West to much acclaim, it made its Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami, an international star. It’s a tremendously moving film that mixes together fictional elements and scripted moments with real people playing versions of themselves as they reenact scenes from a bizarre, true event. 

Kiarostami's film functions as a meditation on cinema’s verisimilitude and its power to blur binaries like true/false and fiction/documentary. Viewers will find it difficult to parse out what is true and what was constructed by Kiaraostami because of the inventive way he threads artifice into a depiction of the actual event, infusing it with universal themes in a sympathetic way. One of the most beguiling, radically ingenious films of the last century, Close-Up is widely considered one of cinema’s most important in pushing the art form forward. 


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.