Of all the films screening this November for the Claire Denis retrospective at the Gene Siskel Film Center (full schedule here), Beau Travail was my most anticipated. With only a dismal American transfer by New Yorker Films available on DVD, the opportunity to see Denis’ breakthrough film rarely presented itself as ideal. Thankfully, the experience was an incredible one - even though a single viewing may only scratch the surface of this deceptively colossal film.Read More
I initially began writing this column before my vacation. Well, that came and went. And while my procrastination on getting this up may suggest otherwise, this is a pretty important column to understand what I look for in films. What this Thursday Ten reflects are the best films released since 1988 – the year I was born. I’m 24 now and things, least of all my cinematic taste, have changed. I keep all ten of the listed films close to the heart. Selecting ten films and arranging them in order ended up being more than I bargained for though, so as an addendum to my formal list, I have also selected ten other films that could’ve easily made an appearance on a different day.
Being the newest and most recent film on the list prompted me to hesitate – perhaps my one viewing of Margaret was deceiving. But it’s a picture that shook me and continues to call upon my attention months after viewing it. My initial critique on the film noted the problematic pacing of its final act, which undoubtedly reflects director Kenneth Lonergan’s problematic production issues. The scarring and misjudged pacing almost works for Margaret’s benefit, as the complex emotional terrain has been given added affect. The way in which the narrative contracts and expands, all the while balancing everything it takes in, is some kind of marvel. With a Blu-ray release coming in early July, which will include both the theatrical and Lonergan’s cut of the picture, I might have a clearer grasp of how I feel about the picture’s eccentricities. As far as I’m concerned though, Margaret’s the most impressive and ambitious film I’ve seen in years.
Only one Stanley Kubrick film was released during my lifetime, and I didn’t even get to see it until almost a decade after its release. While I may have been too young to have seen Eyes Wide Shut on its opening day, I doubt I would have enjoyed it much. It’s a labyrinth of a picture, one so dense in its construction and so oblique in its treatment of human emotions. Shrouded by a sense of mystery, it’s a film that moves at a daydream’s leisure yet carries the anxiety of a nightmare. As Tom Cruise wanders the streets of New York City, succumbing to the sexual insecurities of being a cuckold, we’re transported to a dark yet culturally exquisite underworld that instills fear into its viewer. There’s a mystery in Eyes Wide Shut, but it’s not the one involving Tom Cruise and his exploration of that shady underworld – it’s the mystery of where the lines of reality and dream are drawn.
Recalling classic films like Jean Vigo’s L’Atlante and Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights, Leos Carax’s The Lovers on the Bridge possesses the poeticism and goofiness associated with films of the 30s. It’s a lovely throwback that essentially believes in the more confounding and boisterous aspects of love. It’s both rich in sentimentality and melodrama, as its plot delves into the idea of homelessness being an afterthought - especially if you can just dance along an abandoned bridge while fireworks go off in the background. The Lovers on the Bridge is a film rooted in a reality outside our own, yet attains a certain level of grounded resolve – its intentions are noble in the sense that it makes no grandiose statements on love and its uncertainties. It’s simply tells a simple story of people falling in love.
I saw Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man during my sophomore year of college. Taking a literature and religion course, I was reviewing Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy, particularly the Inferno. Watching Dead Man was not part of the course nor did I have any previous expectations that my viewing of the film would correspond to what I was reading. I simply decided to watch the film based on its critically diffusive reputation. What I saw was a film that lingered in its imagery with deft awareness. Richly composed yet formally idiosyncratic, Dead Man not only subverted genre expectations, but also tested formal storytelling techniques. I corresponded this viewing to what I was learning, viewing the odyssey in which Johnny Depp embarked upon as similar to Dante’s descent into the various circles of Hell. When you watch a film at just that right moment, it can certainly leave a last impression – watching Dead Man essentially rocked my impressionable worldview of how films can tell a story.
Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind has the benefit of being viewed at two very distinct times in my life. One part of me admired the film while I was in high school, where I viewed the picture as a serendipitous and supernatural take on the pangs of relationships and love. As I distanced myself from the picture, only to rewatch it again during my late college years, the film’s density really shined through. The insight on relationships and the difficulty of extended courtship were still there from my previous viewing, but obviously my ability to relate grew as I got older. Unlike similar films that inspire profundity while a youth only to seem immature as I go back to them (Garden State, for example), Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind acknowledges that some moments in life, no matter how many times it happens, will always hurt.
2007 was a pivotal year in shaping my movie palette. It was an impressive year that highlighted an incredible amount of talent. So much of that year’s output has essentially shaped my expectations and readings of contemporary films. The landmark viewing came in 2007 at a midnight prescreening for Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood. The picture, which was considered a bit of a dark horse Oscar contender, was on my radar for most the year as I was going through Anderson’s filmography for the first time. Boogie Nights, Magnolia, and Punch-Drunk Love. With a sold-out crowd in attendance on a snowy Chicago night, I remarked on the contribution that a group collective can have on watching a film. Stunned awe for most of the opening runtime, as not a single character speaks over composer Johnny Greenwood’s score. It’s followed by one of the most bombastic performances in contemporary cinema, as Daniel Day-Lewis embodies Daniel Plainview, a ruthless oilman whose ambitions sustain a film with such unshakable intensity. Eerie in tone and at times absolutely confounding, There Will Be Blood abides by Anderson’s incredible formal elegance while subverting narrative expectations throughout. It’s a much more formal and immaculately crafted film than any of his other films, but at the same time, it’s less human, more rigid and ambiguous in its categorization. That, in itself, sets it apart.
The finer qualities of David Fincher’s Zodiac aren’t just in its precise direction, dense script, or elaborate set design. What Zodiac accomplishes so effectively is its capturing of a universal feeling. Through the obsessive glares of its many characters, the audience navigates through a horrific world. Jake Gyllenhaal embodies the role of an everyman whose festering complacency motivates him to solve a series of gruesome murders. The picture begins and ends with his role in the investigation, but as the everyman, he doesn’t linger on the procedural middle portion. It’s here where our appointed heroes attempt to piece together the various pieces of the puzzle. It’s only with the everyman’s help are they able to get the wheel moving again.
Zodiac, like so many other films that I hold close to the chest, is the sort of film that requires multiple viewings to wholly embrace. Its procedural elements only get more and more interesting with subsequent viewings. And the decade-spanning narrative isn’t immediately appreciated until you understand how time and place play such a significant role to the character’s psyche. Few films capture the obsessive anxiety of a single character – Zodiac achieves this through a macro perspective by empathizing with the boiling anxiety of a city.
When you’re exposed to so many American animated films with their hyperactive lunacy and recycled plots, it comes to a shock to see an animated film that subverts virtually all those qualities. My Neighbor Totoro was my first exposure to Studio Ghibli and remains a pivotal viewing in my life. It’s a film so quiet in actions and careful to the touch. It’s not about obnoxious characters or saving the princess. It takes place in a grounded world, where two girls live on the countryside with their father. The children’s mother is sick and resting in a nursing home. What I just outlined are three distinct aspects foreign to American animation; father’s are not absent figures, parental role models can have ailing health, and two girls can be lead characters. The fantasy elements of the picture are a consequence of the girl’s imagination – they’re not used to motivate the plot in one direction or another, instead, the giant Totoro is utilized as an observer as opposed to a plot point.
Not every film on this list needs to speak to a larger universal truth. Some of these pictures, in particular My Neighbor Totoro, works for being a film that just makes me happy. There’s joy to appreciate in the craft, no doubt, but its simple narrative and visual sights make for an experience of pure delight and enjoyment.
Several films over the past decade have embraced a stream of consciousness approach, where the audience falls for the surreal and poetic qualities of a picture as opposed to a conventional framework. But few films effectively compromise their dreamy qualities with a narrative framework. That’s a quality that is solely accomplished in Krzysztof Kieslowski’s The Double Life of Véronique. It’s a film that implicitly tells its story through images, allowing the audience to immerse themselves in a quasi-dreamscape.
Part of the magic of The Double Life of Véronique is that it really doesn’t demand clear cut answers. It’s something that one watches for the feelings it evokes as opposed to a narrative – this framework has no bearing on how compelling the picture is as a whole. Having seen the picture half a dozen times, there are still moments that surprise me. I can recall certain scenes accurately, but I still find myself surprised by the inclusion of particular scenes whenever I return to the film. Like a good dream, you forget crucial details almost immediately after waking up. For a film to accomplish the same through its mysterious elegance is no small feat.
When the idea came up to make this Thursday Ten, what was going to be number one was never up for debate. This just might be my favorite movie ever. For anyone’s favorite films, one can’t help but find a little bit of themselves in what they’re watching. This is kind of an embarrassing admission, provided that Barry Egan (Adam Sandler) is an introverted and socially inept person in Punch-Drunk Love. But there are certain traits in Egan that I can’t help but relate to in his quest for love, acceptance, and happiness. These are the sort of traits that most people obviously strive for. But in Punch-Drunk Love, these qualities carry human heft. Despite the weirdness of some aspects of the picture, it still feels incredibly grounded in its observations on people. People get embarrassed, they lash out, and they get scared.
It took a bit for me to fully embrace the film. Like many who go through Paul Thomas Anderson’s filmography, I embraced his more explosive films, such as Boogie Nights and Magnolia before Punch-Drunk Love. But as I’m drifting away from my teen years, I’ve found renewed admiration for this work. It’s all in the confrontation between Sandler and Philip Seymour Hoffman – the line “I have a love in my life. It makes me stronger than anything you can imagine” struck me as particularly insightful in my teen years. At least I can attest to that line now.
On Another Day: An Angel at My Table, Everything Will Be Ok, Fargo, Fish Tank, In the Mood for Love, Jackie Brown, King of the Hill, Lost in Translation, Rushmore, The Social Network
As I think about the Almodóvar films I’ve seen, I have to really think about why I don’t embrace his work more. His sensibilities really do befit mine. He has a very particular stylistic approach that is visually stimulating yet never overbearing. Almodóvar’s writing blends humor with melodrama in an effective manner, maintaining an impressive scale between characters and community – he really is a terrific writer (this being based entirely on All About My Mother (1999), Talk to Her (2002) and Volver (2006)). He neutralizes gender to the point where the lines between them are not clearly defined, and often does so as a means to comment on ascribed notions of sexuality. He seems to actively hit at my tendencies to look at films through a sociological lens. So why is it that I can’t fully embrace his work? It’s not that I would say any of his films are bad, but rather, they seem to be geared toward a very specific culture that alienates my understanding – problematic as it may seem, I suppose the simple answer is that there is a cultural barrier that prevents me from fully comprehending the gravity of his melodrama.
All About My Mother begins on a somber note: Manuela (Cecilia Roth) takes her son, Esteban (Eloy Azorín) out to see a stage production of A Streetcar Named Desire. It’s his seventeenth birthday, and the two decide to wait out in the rain for autographs. During their rather long wait, Manuela confesses to her son that during her acting days, she once played Stella to his father’s Stanley – up to this point in his life, Esteban had not known anything of his father. Manuela promises to tell Esteban more once they get home, but a series of events results in Esteban chasing after a car in the rain – ultimately leading to his death. The loss is devastating and elevates the material beyond melodrama – it’s a very palpable moment when Manuela decides to give up her son’s organs at the very hospital she works in.
In an effort to reconcile (and honor) her son’s death, Manuela leaves her work and goes to search for Esteban’s father to tell him the news. The journey takes Manuela to an old friend named La Agrado (Antonia San Juan) – a transvestite who used to live with Manuela and her ex-husband. From here, Manuela encounters a variety of women, including the actress who was partly responsible for her son’s death.
The relationships that Manuela forms during her period of self-discovery are interesting, though at times, some of the grander comments that I sense Almodóvar is making are lost upon me. In spite of the melodrama and the very active humor, All About My Mother is an incredibly dense and rich film. Not to say a melodrama or comedy can’t be rich, but rather, for films of that type, this is one of the most symbolically charged and difficult to outright assess. So much goes on in individual frames, with Almodóvar actively bridging the gap between imagery and dialogue – All About My Mother is truly a masterful work. Future rewatches will undoubtedly prove to be fruitful, but as for now, I can’t shake off the fact that there is a greater social framework that I’m overlooking in connecting the dots.