Here’s the deal, folks, these movies are starting to get really freakin good. They’re only going to get better as we march forth to the #1 movie ever; a movie that may surprise some (so stay tuned). This next bunch is chalk-full of juicy, controversial films. Films that breed conversation. We’re also starting to get pretty multi-cultural. We had Throne of Blood from Japan last week, now we’re getting into French and Italian cinema. We also have our first silent film, and it happens to be a Chaplin! Awesome stuff. So I would love to hear your take, whether at length or in short, about any or all of the films here. If you haven’t seen some, then I’ll ask you kindly to fire up your Netflix queue and enjoy. Sometimes movies are just movies. But other times, a movie is entirely more than just a movie. I believe all the movies on this list are just that. More. Happy watching!
—This is a largely controversial film with as many detractors as fans. The movie is long, at a little over 3 hours, a bit one-sided in view, and excruciatingly violent, but the beauty of the film lies in the honest, committed friendships the men share. Cimino plunges us into the hell of war, contrasted by the security of home, and leaves us to cope with the brutal intensity. In isolation we have almost nothing, but with people we love there is very little we can’t overcome. Seems simplistic, but it is simple. The cast is stellar, as De Niro rounds out a decade of brilliant performances, Streep is… Streep, and Walken is at his heartbreaking best. Winner of 5 Academy Awards, including Best Picture.
Directed by Michael Cimino, 1978. Starring Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken and Meryl Streep.
—This is the second most depressing film I have ever seen*. Jon Voight’s magnificent turn as an optimistic cowboy heading off to New York City to hit it big as a high class prostitute is tremendously heartbreaking. Likewise, Dustin Hoffman’s turn from the teen angst of The Graduate to the ratty, homeless bum, Ratso Rizzo is one of the most daring career decisions in movie history. Most actors just starting, which is what Hoffman was at the time, will take all the roles they can get, but he decided to hold out for this, which got him cast in other daring roles later. Though the film may seem strange, and certainly outdated at times, the payoff at the end is tragically revelatory. Also, this is the first and only X-rated film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture, though by today’s standards it is fairly tame (still a solid R though). Winner of 3 Academy Awards, including Best Picture.
Directed by John Schlesinger, 1969. Starring Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman.
—I don’t know the life-story or inner-workings of Stanley Kubrick, but he was either searching for something deeply profound, or he was just a closet Nietzschean. I think part of the allure of this film, and why it has remained popular for over 40 years, is that it is extremely divisive, and no one can seem to agree whether the film has any merit. It may well be a film with absolutely no redeeming value, handsomely featuring characters who enjoy rape and murder, and are ultimately left unreformed. But it may also be a film with a glimmer of something, hoping to be seen and heard in the horror of nihilism and amorality. Perhaps it is precisely in its absence that something transcendent is present. What does the film as a whole stir inside of us? Is this ultimately who we are and where we’re going as humans? Or is there something in us that screams to choose life in a world where death is the only given? How then should we live? Nominated for 4 Academy Awards, including Best Picture.
Directed by Stanley Kubrick, 1971. Starring Malcolm McDowell.
—The most iconic of the only three films James Dean starred in before his life was tragically cut short, this film taps into youth angst before any film in Hollywood dared go there. Dean brilliantly captures the angst of a generation lost in the wilderness of post-War modernity and perfectionism. To quote Roger Ebert, who speaks as intelligently about film as anyone ever has, “Like its hero, Rebel Without a Cause desperately wants to say something and doesn’t know what it is. If it did know, it would lose its fascination.” Part of the grip of this film is that its angry about something that every one of us sense at some point in our lives, but we don’t know how to articulate it. And because we can’t articulate it there is nothing we can do but recognize it, and recognize that we are in the midst of it together, whether we want to be or not. Nominated for 3 Academy Awards.
Directed by Nicholas Ray, 1955. Starring James Dean, Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo.
—Eastwood’s gritty, magnificent homage to Westerns of the past plays almost like Shakespeare. However, unlike westerns of old, this film does not necessarily stick to the Western genre conventions. There is no clear hero in the film, as everyone’s agenda is a bit muddy. Eastwood plays an ex-hired hand who gets an offer from his old partner (Morgan Freeman) that he can’t pass up – avenge the honor of a prostitute who got cut up by a couple of cowboys. Gene Hackman (brilliantly) plays the brutal sheriff Little Bill, who means to viciously prove that the town is his by stopping anyone trying to kill the cowboys. The film asks the difficult question of whether you can ever change a man’s character, no matter how reformed he may be. Are the sins of the past absolved, and how are the sins of the present framed in light of personal or spiritual reformation? The ending is haunting and savage, and the film overall displays some of Eastwood’s greatest acting and direction. Winner of 4 Academy Awards, including Best Picture.
Directed by Clint Eastwood, 1992. Starring Clint Eastwood, Morgan Freeman, Gene Hackman and Richard Harris.
—This is a movie that ought to remind us of the joys of movie-going. It is a wholly fascinating, rewarding, shocking and genuinely entertaining experience. The movie is a revelation of the reality of post-War anti-jubilation, as well as a philosophical shift toward existential amorality. Orson Welles delivers one of his greatest and most horrifying performances in this film; horrifying because of how much we actually like him and how slyly he convinces us that its all rather inconsequential. The dazzling finale is one of the most outstanding sequences ever shot, and the zither music is awesome. Winner of 1 Academy Award.
Directed by Carol Reed, 1949. Starring Joseph Cotton and Orson Welles.
—This is a movie about the road (la strada) of life, and the purpose of each person’s life. Every thing has a purpose, says the fool (Richard Basehart), but in this particular case, the purpose is not clear at all. Sometimes life is utterly cruel, sometimes there is no rest, sometimes it doesn’t work out. What is the value of a life purposed for destruction? Anthony Quinn’s Zampanò is the very definition of self-destruction. He could have had a wonderful life; he could have been happy, but he took himself too seriously and his decisions buried the lives of those closest to him. Gelsomina (Masina) tries to be happy, but when the fool is gone, so is her spirit. Terrific early film from the legend, Fellini. Winner of 1 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language film.
Directed by Federico Fellini, 1954. Starring Anthony Quinn, Giulietta Masina and Richard Basehart.
—This fast paced narcotics thriller is one of the finest films of the 1970s, which produced many of the greatest movies ever made. It is terrifically paced, with excellent writing, acting, cinematography, editing and direction. Gene Hackman’s ‘Popeye’ Doyle is legendary as a character amalgam between the “tough-as-nails” cop who always does the right thing, and the morally ambiguous/amoral anti-heroes that seemed to wedge their way into American cinema at the time. His Oscar-winning performance, which drives an already pulsing, action-heavy story, produces, especially for 1971, a highly unsettling world; one where the bad guys are bad, but the good guys aren’t all that good themselves. It is a world reflective of the intrinsic confusion caused by the Vietnam “conflict”. Winner of 5 Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Actor (Hackman).
Directed by William Friedkin, 1971. Starring Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider.
—French New-Wave doesn’t get much better than this tale of adolescent rebellion. This is one of the major films to spark the era of post-war French cinema, showing the world there is a different way to make films that deeply, sometimes unexplainably move us. It helped inspire a new breed of Hollywood filmmakers to break the classical Hollywood style of invisible editing, and start making faster, less linear films. It is Truffaut’s (who was a film critic prior to making this) most personal and affecting effort, as many of the things that Léaud does in this film has relation to Truffaut’s own childhood. This is a heartbreakingly sad film that ought to be experienced by everyone, and a transformative film in the arena of world cinema. Nominated for 1 Academy Award.
Directed by François Truffaut, 1959. Starring Jean-Pierre Léaud.
—Charlie Chaplin was an absolute genius. He created some of the funniest, most imitated routines and acts in film history. He wrote, directed, produced, starred in, edited and wrote the music for most of his movies, including this completely unmissable gem. It is one of the funniest, most affecting movies ever made. Chaplin, with many of his films, was one of the first filmmakers to show that you can both make people laugh and cry at the same film. This film, City Lights, The Great Dictator, Modern Times and The Kid are some of the most moving, hilarious films in history, even to this day! Seriously, get yourself acquainted with Chaplin’s work, he is perhaps the earliest, most consistent cinematic master, and still a source of inspiration for people in all fields of the film industry.
Directed by Charlie Chaplin, 1925. Starring Charlie Chaplin.
*The most depressing film I have ever seen is Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (The Sweet Life) (1960), which warrants another viewing. It probably should be on this list, but I haven’t seen it in about a decade so I can’t say for sure.