– by JD Westfall, VW’s movie connoisseur –
In which our intrepid film commentator brings us some more obscure offerings and reveals his comfort in the strange and macabre.
- The Hole (1998)
Directed by: Ming-liang Tsai
Starring: Kuei-Mei Yang, Kang-sheng Lee
Full confession: If this film had been properly described to me ahead of time, I doubt I would have watched it. But I watched it, and by golly am I glad I did.
The Hole does not easily fit into genre descriptions, but I’ll try. A Taiwanese post-apocalyptic romantic comedy musical surrealist art film? Yeah, seems about right.
At first glance it has a familiar plot. A plague has begun wiping out huge segments of the population, and we see the struggles of two people left behind in an abandoned city trying to survive. But things take a turn in an unusual direction when we begin looking more closely at the two protagonists. One lives directly above the other, which causes tension when a hole gets knocked in the floor/ceiling between their apartments. At no point do these two speak to one another, so how does the film let us know what they’re thinking and feeling? Why, through brightly colored musical dance numbers, of course!
Like I said, I wouldn’t have watched it if I had known. But am I ever happy I did. You should watch it too. Right now.
- Dark Knight trilogy (2005-2012)
Directed by: Christopher Nolan
Starring: Christian Bale, Michael Caine
Despite Batman being a beloved and legendary fictional character, he’s gotten the short end of the stick when it comes to film adaptations. For many years, the best-known film starring him was the campy one with Adam West in the 1960s. (“Robin! Bring me the shark repellent Bat Spray!”) Despite some fairly good films since then (well, the two Tim Burton ones. Those are all that exist. Right? Right??), no live-action Batman film existed that lived up to the character.
That guy who directed Memento announced he was bringing us a new Batman film, and that it would be a “dark and gritty reboot” (a phrase I think most of us had never heard before this) and my lord did it work. With one simple film, Batman was brought roaring to life again and this version even set a new standard for superhero films.
Then came 2008, and the standard was set even higher, thanks mostly to Heath Ledger’s genuinely incredible performance as the Joker. While the conclusion to the trilogy in 2012 was the weakest of the three, it still managed to finish off the saga in an admirable way, and left us with high hopes for any future onscreen appearance of Batman.
So naturally the DC Cinematic Universe decided to crush our hopes and give us the single worst Batman movie known to humankind (I’m looking at you, Batman v. Superman).
- As I Was Moving Ahead Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty (2000)
Directed by: Jonas Mekas
Starring: Jonas Mekas, Jane Brakhage
Remember how in part 2 of the roundup, I said that my favorite film title ever was A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence? I take it back.
This is undoubtedly the most personal documentary ever made. The description is simple: Filmmaker Jonas Mekas shares decades worth of home movies. What makes that so special? The way it’s assembled. Mekas doesn’t take the obvious route and present everything in a linear manner, but rather, an emotional and thematic one. For example, we see all the vacations lumped in one go. All the picnics. But not just events, but feelings. The tragedies that strike, the personal triumphs. We see his children learning to walk, their parties, all assembled into a continuous feed. Throughout all this, Mekas himself adds further insight by his sparse narration, which never overtakes the film, rather holding a supporting role.
Fair warning: this film is five hours long. I personally only know of one person besides me who’s watched it all in one go (you know who you are, DBZ), so if it takes you a few attempts to get through it, no judgment. I appreciate the effort.
- Moonrise Kingdom (2012)
Directed by: Wes Anderson
Starring: Kara Hayward, Jared Gilman
I’ve discovered in the process of writing this list that it is impossible to not mention the Coppola family when discussing great movies. So far we’ve presented films by Francis Ford Coppola, his wife Eleanor, their daughter Sofia, their former son-in-law Spike Jonze, and now we bring you a film written by their son Roman.
Roman teamed up for a second time with director Wes Anderson for this whimsical tale of two 12-year-olds who fall in love and decide to flee home together. Unfortunately for them, they live on a small New England island, meaning they have only so far to run. The adults on the island begin a huge manhunt to find the young lovers, which is maybe the greatest ensemble ever put together. Frances McDormand, Bill Murray, Tilda Swinton, Bruce Willis, Edward Norton, Bob Balaban, Harvey Keitel, and Jason Schwartzman (who also happens to be the nephew of Francis and Eleanor Coppola).
As charming as the screenplay and acting are, another highlight is Wes Anderson’s impeccable eye for detail. The color scheme and set design is highly unique, at times giving you the impression of watching a scene play out in a dollhouse, leading the film sticking with you long after it’s over.
- Life is Beautiful (1997)
Directed by: Roberto Benigni
Starring: Roberto Benigni, Nicoletta Braschi
“This is a simple story. But not an easy one to tell.”
So begins the opening narration of Life is Beautiful, voted by the so-called Europe List as being the greatest European film ever made.
What makes this film to special?
It shares with us the life of Guido Orefice, a Jewish-Italian man who moves to Rome and immediately falls in love with a local schoolteacher. Although she is already engaged to another man, Guido pursues her relentlessly until he wins her over. This makes up the first third of a movie full of tonal shifts.
After this part has passed, the film fast-forwards about five years. Guido has married this woman of his dreams and they have a young son. However, in this middle third of the film the tone shifts to a darker and more dramatic tone, as the Nazis begin taking power. Soon Guido and his son are arrested and sentenced to a concentration camp.
Admittedly, the film has been dogged with some controversy since its release, with many criticizing the choice of setting a comedy film in a concentration camp. To which I say, have you watched this movie? The comedy angle is mostly dropped once the Nazi atrocities begin to take center stage, with the focus shifting to Guido doing whatever necessary to protect his son. The intent is not to be funny, but to show how the power of human spirit and the love of a father can overcome any obstacle.
- The Tale of Princess Kaguya (2013)
Directed by: Isao Takahata
Starring: Aki Asakura, Kengo Kora
In an earlier article, I included our first Studio Ghibli film, Whisper of the Heart. The most familiar works from Ghibli are normally created by either Hayao Miyazaki or Isao Takahata. Now we’ll take a look at the latter of those two.
Takahata has been with Studio Ghibli since he directed 1988’s incredible Grave of the Fireflies for them, and has had an amazing career with them since. His latest film (as of writing) was 2013’s Tale of Princess Kaguya, a film based off one of the oldest folk tales in Japan (a monogatari if you want to get technical.)
It opens with a bamboo cutter deep in the woods when he finds a baby, of all things, nestled inside a stalk of bamboo. He takes it home, and the baby grows with startling speed, eventually becoming the most sought-after woman for the eligible bachelors in the region.
Overall a strange, yet hypnotic and memorable film, especially thanks to the fascinating animation style used.
- Three Colours trilogy (1993-1994)
Directed by: Krzysztof Kieslowski
Starring: Juliette Binoche, Irene Jacob
Once again I find myself with a film (or rather sequence of films) that leaves me staring at my screen, unable to articulate. Bear with me as I attempt to make something cohesive.
The three colors of the title are Blue, White and Red, the colors of the French flag. Just as the French flag has three colors, they also claim to have three chief political ideals. Liberty, equality and fraternity. Hence, each film in the trilogy is inspired by one of those ideals. Which one handles which is left intentionally ambiguous (as director Kieslowki had done in his Ten Commandments inspired miniseries, The Decalogue)
Three Colours: Blue stars Juliette Binoche as the widow of a composer. She begins exploring her newfound (though regrettable) freedom and tries to cut off all ties with her former life and companions. But to quote another, somewhat lesser film, “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.”
Three Colours: White is the most conventional of the three. It stars Julie Delpy as a woman who divorces her husband despite still being in love with him. He attempts to return to his former lifestyle, but an encounter with a mysterious stranger helps him to set up a reconciliation with his ex-wife.
Three Colours: Red is the one primarily responsible for me staring at my screen in silence. See, I realized if I just type a plot synopsis it sounds immensely dull (woman hits dog, tracks down owner, sits and talks with dog owner for about two hours), but this film really deserves better. It uses subtle choices of color, sounds and actors’ movements to express its points. One paragraph and a summary can’t do it justice.
Personal confession: one of my little joys in life is finding others who love this trilogy, asking them which entry is best and then sitting back and watching the argument flare wildly, out of control. Seriously, watch this and you’ll be passionate about it.
- Close-Up (1990)
Directed by: Abbas Kiarostami
Starring: Hossain Sabzian, Mohsen Makhmalbaf
Before anyone attempts to watch Close-Up, they must be warned. This is totally unlike anything else you’ve ever seen. That’s not to say it’s an onslaught of psychedelic weirdness, but rather this is a very unconventional documentary.
In the late 1980s in Iran, a man conned his way into a family’s trust by impersonating a popular film director named Mohsen Makhmalbaf. He claimed (in his role as Makhmalbaf) to be scouting locations for his next film, and told the family that their house would be the perfect setting. Over the course of this deception, he was able to extort money, food and free rides all over Tehran. However, pretty quickly the family caught on and the con man was arrested.
Before the trial begins, Iranian directors Abbas Kiarostami and Mohsen Makhmalbaf himself learned about this story. They interviewed the family and eventually filmed the trial. The family ultimately pardons the con man, and Makhmalbaf meets him in person after his release.
Then, never able to let a good film opportunity go to waste, the directors decide what their documentary footage needs is reenactments to pull everything together. Pretty common practice. But somehow Abbas Kiarostami managed to get all the actual people to play themselves in the reenactments. So when you watch the film, you’re now presented with a series of admittedly jarring transitions between the comfortable, familiar archive footage we always see in documentaries, and the more unusual scenes of the family and con man playing themselves in what feels like a fiction film.
Darn good nonetheless. Watch it, and then go and watch the Makhmalbaf film that started the whole process, The Cyclist.
- No Country For Old Men (2007)
Directed by: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Starring: Javier Bardem, Tommy Lee Jones
Cormac McCarthy does not bring smiles to most faces. McCarthy has spent years making a living by bringing us the most despondent literature many of us have ever encountered, and the film adaptations are often more of the same.
Which is what made the Coen brothers perfectly suited to tackling McCarthy’s novel No Country For Old Men. They’d had a long history tackling grim subject matter, but presenting it in a manner that makes it easier to digest without watering it down at all. (See Fargo, for example.)
But when it came to adapting McCarthy, the Coens pulled no punches, and neither did the cast. Javier Bardem lights up the screen with his terrifying portrayal of psychopathic killer Anton Chigurh, who is on the run from police. Everyone he encounters has a chance to meet with death. With a simple coin toss, he determines their fate.
With their terrifying, suspenseful blend of noir and western, the Coens elevated this novel into must-see territory.
- It’s Such a Beautiful Day (2012)
Directed by: Don Hertzfeldt
Starring: Sara Cushman, Don Hertzfeldt
Before anyone attempts to watch It’s Such a Beautiful Day, they must be warned. This is totally unlike anything else you’ve ever seen. That’s not to say it’s an unconventional documentary, but rather an onslaught of psychedelic weirdness.
This is an animated film, but unlike the CGI of Inside Out or the pseudo-watercolors of The Tale of Princess Kaguya, it uses simple stick figures. With a twist.
The plot can be confusing and seemingly scattershot at first (“The pipe is leaking”) but it quickly harmonizes into a cohesive storyline. A man named Bill begins feeling ill and visits the doctor, but soon he realizes the illness is far worse than he ever could have imagined. Along the way we’re given flashbacks into his childhood and his extended family, so we have a better idea of the kind of life Bill has had leading up to his sickness.
The film gets very macabre at numerous times, but fear not, it has one of the greatest endings in film history.
Next, we begin the move into the top 20. Prepare your pitchforks.
J.D. became a film buff at age four after viewing his first Buster Keaton movie. Since then he’s found a passion for everything from Shakespeare to Sharknado.