– by JD Westfall, VW’s movie connoisseur –
If you’ll recall, I recently brought you a list of ten of the best films made since 1990, in ranked order from 100-91. So after a shockingly low number of death threats and insults to my mother, I’ve decided now to bring you the next set, numbered 90-81. The same four disclaimers still apply as last time around. Thus, let’s begin, shall we?
- Lost in Translation (2003)
Directed by: Sofia Coppola
Starring: Bill Murray, Scarlett Johansson
Bill Murray has long been one of comedy’s most respected actors. From a hugely successful four-year stint on Saturday Night Live in the 70s to the biggest comedy films of the 1980s and into a close collaboration with director Wes Anderson since the 1990s, nearly everything Murray touches turns to gold. But he had never quite managed a breakthrough into more dramatic fare.
This all changed when he teamed up with writer/director Sofia Coppola (of whom our very own Cecily Knobler has written lovely things about) in a surprisingly meaningful examination of a mid-life crisis, contrasted with the story of a young woman seeking direction in life.
Murray plays an aging actor sent to Japan to film a commercial for Suntory whiskey, while Johansson portrays a young woman in Tokyo shortly after her marriage to a man who suddenly seems to have no time for her. They meet, become close friends, and through their discussions realize that despite their seeming differences, they’re very much the same.
The film brilliantly straddles the line between drama and comedy (with all the best parts coming from Murray’s improvisation on set, unsurprisingly), and garnered Coppola an Oscar nomination for Best Director, becoming only the third woman to ever manage such a feat.
- Much Ado About Nothing (2012)
Directed by: Joss Whedon
Starring: Amy Acker, Nathan Fillion
In our last article we briefly discussed Whedon’s work on 2012’s The Avengers, and how it came to be an incredible success. Unfortunately, due to the overwhelming response to that movie, many missed his other (much better) film from 2012 – an adaptation of William Shakespeare’s classic farce Much Ado About Nothing.
Story goes that during the filming of said Marvel film, Whedon and crew had a two-week vacation. Ever the tireless workaholic, Whedon proceeded to invite a group of his closest friends and collaborators to film another movie, all in the comfort of their regular clothes and even his own home.
This plan works out even better than you might think. By restricting the action to his house, Whedon invokes the same intimate nature of the theater, while still giving the actors enough space to play in so they never look or feel confined into one area. Likewise, rather than having exotic period clothing, having them simply dress in regular modern attire allows us to look beyond the costumes and focus on the performance, and makes it a more comfortable introduction to Shakespeare if you’re not so much a fan already. In so doing, Whedon managed to pull together one of the best-ever filmed versions of a Shakespearean play. I was hoping for a nice version of Twelfth Night in between filming of Age of Ultron, but alas, no such luck.
- Raise the Red Lantern (1991)
Directed by: Yang Zhimou
Starring: Gong Li, Ma Jingwu
In a 1966 interview, legendary Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky said “I don’t know a single film that uses color well.” So I find it unfortunate that he didn’t live to see this incredible Chinese film. What makes its handling of color so notable? The chief thing being that it has a limited color palette. The film is dominated by red, sometimes filling the entire scene in it, other times mixing it with blue or gold. But aside from looking kinda cool, what’s special about that?
Well if we continue on with Tarkovsky’s complaint: “Color film as a concept uses the aesthetic principles of painting, or color photography. As soon as you have a colored picture in the frame it becomes a moving painting. It’s all too beautiful, and unlike life.”
Essentially his complaint is this: in paintings and photographs color adds to the experience of viewing, taking it from merely being a simple image and turning it into art, putting it in motion, if you will. Meanwhile in film, if you use the standard selection of colors you normally see, what’s special? At best these colors nothing, at worst they will distract you from what you’re meant to pay attention to, namely the story.
Raise the Red Lantern overcomes this by using a limited selection of colors to maintain that feeling of being unlike life. Additionally, through limiting the color wheel, it keeps color in its rightful place. It accentuates the visuals to make them beautiful and memorable, but never becomes the chief thing you’re looking at.
It suddenly occurred to me the irony of spending my entire review talking about the colors when the most genius thing about the film is that it does not allow color to overtake the story. Oh well. Just watch it.
- The Triplets of Belleville (2003)
Directed by: Sylvain Chomet
Starring: Beatrice Bonafassi, Michel Robin
When you think of countries that produce great animated films, you likely think of the United States (Disney, Pixar, Aardman Animations hopefully…) or Japan (Studio Ghibli). A country that likely doesn’t generally spring to mind is France, which doesn’t necessarily have the longest or grandest history of animation. Of course, most rules have exceptions, and France has plenty of them.
Enter Sylvain Chomet, who unveiled a radically new style of animation with his film Les Triplettes de Belleville. It mixes common things you’ve seen before with lovely surrealist ideas, resulting in one of the most wholly original films you’ll have seen in a long while.
This simple tale of a grandmother searching for her kidnapped grandson won huge acclaim on its release, and even became the first PG-13 film to be nominated for the Best Animated Film Oscar.
- The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
Directed by: Frank Darabont
Starring: Morgan Freeman, Tim Robbins
You knew this one was coming. It’s easy to forget in the face of IMDb’s ridiculous obsession with this film that, all things considered, it is actually really good.
Just not, you know, that good.
If you’re not familiar with the plot already, it opens with Morgan Freeman’s narration (the first place this cinematic staple appeared) as he tells us about the fate of one of his friends, a young prisoner played by Tim Robbins, who has been wrongfully imprisoned for the murder of his wife (tragically no one-armed men are involved, nor Tommy Lee Jones searching farm houses, outhouses, and doghouses). Robbins’ character is informed that the best thing he can do in Shawshank Penitentiary is just give up hope. Naturally he refuses to do so, instead doing everything in his power to restore hope to his fellow prisoners, improve conditions in Shawshank, and just generally make life better.
The film’s chief power comes from the contrast given between corruption of the officials running the prison against Robbins’ own determination, even when he sees that he’s fighting a hopeless battle. This contrast continues building and building until finally the ending, which is one of the most memorable and inspirational endings to a film in history.
- Jurassic Park (1993)
Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Sam Neill, Laura Dern
In the wake of disappointing sequels and Bryce Dallas Howard, it can be easy to forget just how good and influential the original Jurassic Park film was. Let’s focus first on the most notable feature – the visuals.
Spielberg recognized the potential in the then-new CGI technologies in filmmaking. However, unlike most directors then and now, he also recognized the limitations of it. Therefore, Spielberg wisely decided on a compromise. He figured out what could be convincingly made with computer imagery, and then found alternatives for all else, such as animatronics and even good old-fashioned puppets. The upshot of this is that in the most terrifying scenes, we’re not distracted by “uncanny valley” graphics (the name given to when CGI makes something look almost real, but fake enough we can still easily tell), but can rather watch and enjoy the movie. A lesson that apparently the last two sequels forgot.
The other feature that made the original Jurassic Park great is the story. As in, it actually makes sense. The actions of the villains are clearly set up and explained, rather than a character doing evil things simply because the plot demands that he be evil. Plus these motivations are expertly blended into the script, meaning that we’re given all the necessary information without the story ever slowing down or stopping entirely in order to explain it. A lesson that apparently all the sequels forgot. Like most other Hollywood blockbusters made since then (I’m looking at you, Batman v. Superman)
- Rebels of the Neon God (1992)
Directed by: Tsai Ming-liang
Starring: Lee Kang-sheng, Chen Chao-jung
While researching this article I almost immediately thought of this film. But it got me thinking, for the sake of variety, what other Taiwanese films I might also include. After some thought it dawned on me: this is the only one I’ve ever seen. So adding that to my to-do list. More Taiwanese movies.
Thankfully though, the only one I’ve yet seen is a masterpiece. It follows two different groups of youths, demonstrates how their lives are inextricably linked because of a random act of violence, and shows how that lone act influences so many things. What follows is a powerful meditation on the outside forces that face us and a reminder of how our own actions never affect just us but rather many of those around us, and how our actions may even have further-reaching effects than we can ever see.
The camera work highlights this as well, as most of it is shot on handheld cameras and in public areas, thus adding magnificently to the chaotic feel of the story Ming-liang has constructed. If you see only one Taiwanese film, make it this one (he said, rather hypocritically, as he had no other Taiwanese films to compare it with…)
- Mary and Max (2009)
Directed by: Adam Elliot
Starring: Toni Collette, Philip Seymour Hoffman
In our last article we mentioned the classic Claymation short The Wrong Trousers. Since (and prior to) that movie, many other filmmakers have embraced that field of animation, with admittedly mixed results.
One of the best to ever come of out this style, though, is director Adam Elliot’s fantastic Mary and Max. It tells the deceptively simple tale of a young girl in Australia (Mary Daisy Dinkle) who becomes pen pal with an aging obese man in New York (Max Jerry Horovitz). The conversations range from sweet to frankly shocking (a transition made all the more jarring by the animation style) as they discuss things from their mutual love of chocolate to where babies come from.
“In America, babies are not found in Cola cans. I asked my mother when I was four, and she said they came from eggs laid by rabbis. If you aren’t Jewish, they’re laid by Catholic nuns. If you’re an atheist, they’re laid by dirty lonely prostitutes.”
The film follows their correspondence for over a decade, as Mary ages and goes through difficult changes in her life, but always able to count on Max being there by her side. Figuratively.
- The Thin Red Line (1998)
Directed by: Terrence Malick
Starring: Adrien Brody, Sean Penn
Terrence Malick had set himself up as one of the greatest and influential filmmakers of the 1970s, with his gorgeous crime epic Badlands and his stunning imagery in Days of Heaven. But then suddenly, he vanished.
Fast forward nearly 20 years, and Malick returns with one of the greatest ensemble casts ever put together, a beautiful mix of A-list stars, legends, and newcomers. Sean Penn, George Clooney, John Travolta, Jim Caviezel, Nick Nolte, John Cusack, John C. Reilly, Woody Harrelson, Jared Leto, Tim Blake Nelson, and finally Adrien Brody in one of his earliest starring roles. All these and more rounded out a stunning and sort-of-true tale of the Battle of Mount Austen in the Pacific during World War II.
If you’re expecting a typical narrative war film like Saving Private Ryan or Full Metal Jacket, you’ll be let down. Malick’s film weaves between the characters and narratives in a way to provide not a linear plot, but rather an emotional one. He establishes the many feelings going through the minds and hearts of those who serve during a war. The boredom, the terror, the confusion, everything. Mixed with Malick’s signature visuals and memorable cinematography, it blends into a wonderful and powerful meditation on war and the effect it has on the average man.
- Groundhog Day (1993)
Directed by: Harold Ramis
Starring: Bill Murray, Andie MacDowell
And now we return to an earlier period in Bill Murray’s career. The film fits into the same genre as Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris mentioned in the previous article: that of magical realism. As in, things happen that couldn’t in reality, but the cause isn’t necessarily dwelt on that much, rather allowing the audience to suspend their disbelief and just enjoy it.
The suspense of disbelief in Groundhog Day is the driving plot point. Every morning, television weatherman Phil Connors awakes in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, on the morning of February second, otherwise known as Groundhog Day. After having been initially sent there to cover the festivities, he finds himself in this endless time loop. He attempts to escape, attempts to indulge in hedonism, every kind of thing, but eventually comes to find his existence becoming meaningless.
Rather existential for a Harold Ramis comedy, but hey, it works.
Humorously, an early review stated that while the film was pleasant, it would never be put in the National Film Registry. Take a guess what eventually happened?
That’s all for this time around. Please leave all comments, insults, compliments, and complaints in the comments section below, and forward all generous monetary contributions to my personal Paypal account. And of course, stay tuned for our films ranked 80-71!
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.