– by JD Westfall, VW’s movie connoisseur –
We know each other well enough we can dispense with the small talk now, right? Let’s get to it, shall we?
- Beau Travail (1999)
Directed by: Claire Denis
Starring: Denis Lavant, Michel Subor
A trope we see in films far too often is the glorification of war. Whether it’s by portraying war as a jolly boy’s day out (as in Kelly’s Heroes) or even in the most brutally realistic way (Saving Private Ryan) still films tend to highlight the thrills and heroics involved in warfare. Which is exactly what sets Beau Travail apart from the rest.
Despite focusing exclusively on the lives of military men, the film gives us not a single glimpse of warfare. Rather, we are subjected to the rigors of peacetime military life. Laundry, ironing, cooking, ironing, polishing uniform buttons, ironing … OK, really a whole lot of ironing. While I admit this sounds dreadfully dull, it actually gives us a shocking and unflinching look into the psychological toll this monotonous lifestyle takes on one of the officers, and how the routine begins warping his relationship with his men, eventually leading to a shocking conclusion.
The film also gives us one of the all-time great closing shots of a film. If you see just the one scene it will mean nothing, but in the context of the film as a whole, it explains everything.
- Unforgiven (1992)
Directed by: Clint Eastwood
Starring: Clint Eastwood, Morgan Freeman
In your mind, picture Clint Eastwood right now. I think it’s safe to assume you imagined a rugged cowboy, right?
Such an image is hardly surprising, given that westerns are what made Eastwood’s career. Sergio Leone’s Dollars trilogy introduced him to the world as an actor, and films like High Plains Drifter demonstrating his early skill as a director. Eastwood and westerns go together like salt and pepper.
Thus, it was quite shocking in the early ‘90s when he announced he would be putting together his final western film. This could have been a career killer. It would be akin to Quentin Tarantino giving up humor and violence, or Zack Snyder giving up terrible films (I’m looking at you, Batman v. Superman.)
And yet, Eastwood knocked it out of the park. He managed to revolutionize the western film while simultaneously paying homage to all the classics that had preceded it. It also gave us incredible supporting turns from Gene Hackman (who won an Oscar for his role) and Morgan Freeman. In addition to all this, it was a huge commercial success and won the Academy Award for Best Picture.
- Conte d’Hiver (1992)
Directed by: Eric Rohmer
Starring: Charlotte Very, Marie Riviere
When selecting the roster of films to include in this list (an incredibly difficult task) I asked numerous people how many they had seen. Naturally, the responses varied wildly. Every single person had seen Lion King, very few had seen Beau Travail. But there was only one film that absolutely no one I polled had ever seen. That film was Conte d’Hiver.
Conte d’Hiver (or A Tale of Winter in English) is a powerhouse late stage film by the legendary director Eric Rohmer, who had helmed classics throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s such as My Night at Maud’s, Claire’s Knee, and Love in the Afternoon. However, he was far from finished.
This film deals with the aftermath of a passionate (but brief) love affair between a young girl on holiday and a local chef. After five years apart they meet again and resume the affair. While the plot is rather simple, the performances are incredible and elevate this film into must-see territory. If you enjoy it, you may also wish to see the rest of Rohmer’s so-called Tales of the Four Seasons series: 1990’s A Tale of Springtime, 1996’s A Summer’s Tale, and 1998’s Autumn Tale.
- 12 Monkeys (1995)
Directed by: Terry Gilliam
Starring: Bruce Willis, Brad Pitt
No, not the stunningly mediocre television series of the same name. The far superior film that inspired the series!
Since the days of Monty Python, the sole American member of the comedy troupe – Terry Gilliam – has proven himself quite the directorial master. After three great films in the 1980s (Time Bandits, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen and his masterpiece Brazil) he continued his hot streak into the 1990s with this excellent film. It follows a convicted felon in a future Earth, which has been ravaged by a seemingly unstoppable plague. He is chosen to be sent back in time on a highly dangerous and experimental mission in order to find the origin of the plague, and hopefully provide scientists with clues to help them cure it.
Not only does it feature Brad Pitt’s breakout performance as the insane Jeffrey Goines, 12 Monkeys has also proven to be one of the finest remakes of all time, having been mostly derived from the classic French film La Jetée. As to which film is better, you’ll just have to watch them both and decide for yourself.
- Whisper of the Heart (1995)
Directed by: Yoshifumi Kondo
Starring: Youko Honna, Issei Takahashi
Studio Ghibli is a name that tends to whispered in awed, hushed tones by fans of animation, and it is easy to see why. With incredible film upon incredible film being poured out of the studio, it has provided us with some of the all-time greatest films, mostly through the filmographies of Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata.
However, Ghibli has one mostly unsung hero in director Yoshifumi Kondo, who made his debut with 1995’s stunning Whisper of the Heart. The protagonist is a young girl with a passion for books, who notices that every book she checks out from the library has the same name stamped in them over and over. Overcome with curiosity, she sets out on her own private adventure to discover who this person is. Along the way she encounters many unusual characters and a fascinating ceramic cat doll (who proved so popular he even got his own spinoff film!)
Unfortunately Whisper of the Heart proved to be Kondo’s only film, as he died of an aneurysm at age 47, but what a lovely legacy (and filmography) nonetheless.
- The Departed (2006)
Directed by: Martin Scorsese
Starring: Matt Damon, Leonardo DiCaprio
Few directors are able to make a great film, and even fewer are able to make a masterpiece. A director who can make a masterpiece in every single decade of their career is a rare breed indeed. Enter legendary Martin Scorsese, who boasts a lineup of films capable of making nearly filmmaker green with envy. Taxi Driver in the ‘70s, Raging Bull in the ‘80s and Goodfellas in the ‘90s … which leads us to 2006 when he dropped The Departed on us, a remake of Infernal Affairs. While truly good remakes are also a thing of exceeding rarity (see 12 Monkeys mentioned above) this film really proves to be the exception, especially since it boasts a powerhouse cast including Jack Nicholson, Matt Damon, Leonardo DiCaprio, Martin Sheen, and … Mark Wahlberg? What?
OK, anyway, the large cast is put to great use in a complicated (but enrapturing) plot detailing the struggles between the Boston police force and the local mob, as each competing entity plants a mole amongst its opponents. Eventually, they each learn of the other’s plots and set out to find the moles.
The film received amazing reviews, finally winning Scorsese the coveted Best Director Oscar, and garnered the stellar cast … one acting nomination? Wait, for Mark Wahlberg? What??
- Taste of Cherry (1997)
Directed by: Abbas Kiarostami
Starring: Homayoun Ershadi, Abdolrahman Bagheri
Full confession: I have spent at least 20 minutes staring at my screen trying to figure out what to say about this film. As horribly clichéd at this is to say, words simply cannot describe the experience of watching this.
The plot is both simple and incredibly tragic. A man drives around Tehran seeking to find someone who will do a job for him. He has dug a six-foot grave and plans to lie in it and kill himself. All the other person need do is bury him underneath the dirt.
The film mostly shows a series of encounters between the man and the people he seeks to hire, even getting so desperate he picks up a hitchhiker and offers him the job. For various reasons the people he recruits beg off from accepting,
So again, not an exciting, fast-paced thriller. But through these simple conversations, director Kiarostami gives us a moving examination of life, as viewed through the eyes of a man desperate to get it over with, contrasted with the views of people who respect it too much to get involved in his plot.
- The Lego Movie (2014)
Directed by: Phil Lord, Christopher Miller
Starring: Chris Pratt, Elizabeth Banks
From slow and meditative to brightly colored and fast paced! I think it’s safe to assume that when we heard a full-length feature film was being made about Legos, and the plot was essentially: “I dunno, Legos?” We all thought there was no chance of it possibly turning out well.
But wow, did they manage it. Not only did it prove to be a watchable film, it is already being hailed as a future classic, and easily the best animated film of its year. How did that happen?
Simply put, the Lego Movie subverted our expectations. We were assuming it would be a two-hour commercial that behaved like all other commercials. But this film twisted that by encouraging non-conformist views, railing against corporate greed, placing heavy emphasis on individuality and finding value in anyone and anything, whether they be current and popular (Batman) or old, outdated and forgotten (Spaceman!).
Of course, corporate greed still managed to win out somehow, considering that every scene from the film has an officially licensed Lego set you can now buy … but I’m here to review the movie, not the company.
- Wadjda (2012)
Directed by: Haifaa Al Mansour
Starring: Waad Mohammed, Reem Abdullah
Feminism and the Middle East, not two things you really expect to see going together. Which is precisely what makes this 2012 gem so blasted good. The first film ever made in Saudi Arabia was directed by a woman, written by a woman, starred women in the lead roles, and features a plot about an 11-year old girl seeking the same rights as a male classmate. Basically, she wants a bicycle.
Really, that’s it. That’s the plot. She’s forbidden from getting a bicycle because that’s just not something women do, so she determines she’s going to get the money herself, and when she gets it, she’s going to learn to ride it and beat her classmate in a race.
If this film were made anywhere else, might it still be as good? Sure it would, but knowing the facts behind its creation makes this simple story the most subversive and rebellious movie I’ve ever seen, despite never being shocking or offensive.
Wadjda remains my personal favorite film from this decade, and even years later I am still angry it did not score an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language film. I may not ever get over that.
- Son of Saul (2015)
Directed by: Laszlo Nemes
Starring: Geza Rohrig, Urs Rechn
World War II remains a treasure trove of stories for filmmakers. Some examine the heroics of the soldiers (Thin Red Line), while others examine the after-effects on people’s lives (Ida). 2015’s Son of Saul takes aim at a much more personal level as a tale of an ordinary man who seeks a proper burial for a victim of the Nazis.
Geza Rohrig plays a Hungarian prisoner in Auschwitz who is tasked with cleaning up after executions. One day he sees a body that may be his son, so he begins trying to find a way to give him a proper Jewish burial. The film magnificently portrays the caring within this man to perform this simple task, thus showing how he maintains his humanity despite the atrocities going on around him and despite the danger he brings to himself.
Of course, this movie cannot be regarded as entertainment. It does not soften any aspect for the comfort of the audience. Go into the film only if you are fully prepared for it. But I encourage you to do so nonetheless, for it is very much worth the pain.
Once again this brings us to the end of our selection of films for today. Join us next time as we move into the top 50 and discuss a surrealist masterpiece, the most intelligent SF film of the century, and the greatest ever documentary about filmmaking.
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.