– by JD Westfall, VW’s movie connoisseur –
Four score and seven years ago, our forefathers brought forth upon this nation, a great and new nation, conceived in holiness and liberty for as long as you both shall live, in sickness and in health, until death do you part.
Admit it, you never read these introductory paragraphs, so it really doesn’t matter what I say.
- Inside Out (2015)
Directed by: Pete Docter, Ronnie Del Carmen
Starring: Amy Poehler, Phyllis Smith
From the years 1995 to 2010, Pixar could do no wrong. Their films were huge box office successes, won gobs of awards, and brought in billions of dollars in marketing sales. They were on a constant upward trajectory.
Then came 2011. That was the year that brought us Cars 2, a film that no one asked for but apparently some greedy stockholders demanded. The film became (to date of writing) the sole Pixar film to receive mostly negative reviews, despite still pulling in some good box office. Unfortunately, the next three years showed little sign of improvement, with Brave and the prequel film Monsters University being somewhat critical disappointments (Brave’s Oscar win notwithstanding. I still don’t understand that one).
Finally, though, 2015 arrived, and with it Pixar came roaring back to its former glory. Inside Out exceeded all expectations with its shockingly mature and well-thought-out tale of five emotions living inside a young girl’s mind. This movie has everything. Plenty of gags and action to entertain young ones, with an astonishing amount of intelligent humor for adults and more refined children (including references to Chinatown and even Waiting For Godot, of all things!)
- The Lives of Others (2006)
Directed by: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
Starring: Ulrich Muhe, Martina Gedeck
The falling of the Berlin Wall in 1989 was a tremendous moment in world events. It has since been immortalized in many works of art, literature, photography, a Pink Floyd concert … well, a Roger Waters concert. You knew what I meant.
Anyway, one of the more recent cultural homages to this event was 2006’s incredible film, The Lives of Others. The debut film of now-legendary filmmaker Florian Donnersmarck, it made the risky move of putting as protagonist an East German operative (for those of you not familiar with the ins and outs of Reagan era politics, an East German man would be known as the “bad guy” in most circumstances). This main character, named Wiesler, is tasked by his superiors with observing a playwright named Georg Dreyman. After a short while, Wiesler begins to realize that his task is not politically motivated; his superior is simply in love with Dreyman’s girlfriend and wants an excuse to kill the man.
As unique as the plot is, one of the true joys of this film is in the details. At a casual glance you’ll be entertained, but with a deeper and attentive viewing you’ll feel and experience much more, and will likely understand why it was voted as the second best European film on the so-called “Europe List.” If you’re curious what took places one and three, stay tuned to future installments on this series.
- Beauty and the Beast (1991)
Directed by: Gary Trousdale, Kirk Wise
Starring: Paige O’Hara, Angela Lansbury
Animated films have generally been regarded as just “kids movies” throughout most of their history. Regardless of the quality of each individual one, they seemed unable to overcome that label. That is, up until 1991 when Disney released their take on the legendary tale Beauty and the Beast.
Gorgeous visuals, memorable songs, a haunting musical score and impressive work by a talented voice cast propelled this film to instant classic. Despite some material that makes for easy nitpicking (come on witch, he was a 12-year-old boy, of course he’s not going to let into his house!) the film won huge acclaim on release, going on to become the first animated film to earn a coveted Oscar nomination for Best Picture (a feat only repeated twice since, each time by Pixar).
I don’t think it’s necessary to rehash the plot since I guarantee you already know it. Though if you’d like an alternative take on the story, I also recommend Jean Cocteau’s version from 1946. It lacks Angela Lansbury, unfortunately, but still amazing.
- The Tree of Life (2011)
Directed by: Terrence Malick
Starring: Jessica Chastain, Brad Pitt
Earlier in our roundup (I’ll be honest, I’m too lazy to check which part of it. Come on, I write on the Internet for a living, you can’t expect a compelling work ethic) I directed your attention to Terrence Malick and his impressive, albeit confusing, career path. Two great films in the 1970s, hiatus until 1998 when he released The Thin Red Line, followed by another hiatus until 2005 when he brought us his take on Pocahontas. While reception of that film was rather mixed, he did redeem himself 100% with this film.
Describing the plot of any Malick film is not easily done, but The Tree of Life takes the cake. On the surface, it examines the lives and relationship between a father and his son, told via cutting between the son as a young boy and as a grown man. However, with closer attention you can see impressive commentary on the origin of life as well, as told through the stunning visual effects that play out continuously in the film.
After numerous delays (pushing the eventual release back by two years) it finally played at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, becoming one of the few American films to win the top prize. And, from the way things are going, might very well be the last. (I’m looking at you, Batman v. Superman)
- Amour (2012)
Directed by: Michael Haneke
Starring: Emmanuelle Riva, Jean-Louis Trintignant
Bring out the tissues. It’s time we tackled a Michael Haneke film.
Seeing as I don’t know you, I clearly don’t know how much classic French cinema you’re familiar with. Therefore, allow me a brief divergence into a history lesson. Emmanuelle Riva is an actress who began her career in 1959, starring in a truly great surrealist film named Hiroshima Mon Amour, which you should all absolutely go out and watch right now. Since then, her film appearances have been few and far between (having appeared in only four films between 1967 and 1993) but put in a killer performance in every one of those films.
Fast-forward to 2012 when director Michael Haneke handpicked the 85-year-old Riva to lead his romantic drama film about an aging married couple. Riva’s character begins suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, leading her loving husband to battle with himself about the best way to handle her illness.
The film is great, the screenplay is great, the directorial work is great … but watch it for Emmanuelle Riva’s performance. One of the all time greatest roles ever put on film.
- A Separation (2011)
Directed by: Asghar Farhadi
Starring: Peyman Moaadi, Leila Hatami
On the surface, A Separation seems rather dull and routine. A married couple has a disagreement that proves to be the straw that broke the camel’s back, and they separate.
The wife, Simin, wants the family to move from Iran to the United States to avoid worsening conditions where they currently live. The husband, Nader, doesn’t want to leave as he has an aging father to care for. On top of this, they also have a young daughter to think about. From the separation, the film patiently shows us the effects on every individual. It never devolves into hacky screaming matches or dishes getting tossed in anger, rather allowing us to sympathize with each person, so it becomes impossible to take sides in the issues.
The film won massive acclaim, and deservedly so. It gives us a beautiful insight into a world that most of us likely know nothing about (middle-class citizens of Iran), so really you owe it to yourself to get a glimpse into this world. Films like this may be your only chance for a very long time.
- The Pianist (2002)
Directed by: Roman Polanski
Starring: Adrien Brody, Emilia Fox
Hollywood has a long and difficult history with history. Blatantly smudging facts or outright fabricating plotlines to make the film more interesting (see Braveheart, Gladiator, and many similar films that will definitely not be appearing on this list). That’s precisely what sets this movie apart from all the rest.
Adapted from the autobiography of the same name, The Pianist tells the true story of Wladyslaw Szpilman (don’t ask me how it’s pronounced, I’ve watched the movie a dozen times and I still don’t know). As a Polish, Jewish man, Szpilman was clearly near the top of Hitler’s “to kill” list. However, through wit, good connections, and sheer accidents, Szpilman survives every single attack and tribulation brought against him. Separated from his family, run out of home, shot at repeatedly and finally left alone in an abandoned Warsaw.
Not only does the film take almost zero liberties, (director Roman Polanski admittedly added in a few features from other people’s lives, but which were still true elements) but the lead role is perfectly played by a young Adrien Brody. All this adds up to being not only the most historically accurate WWII film you’ll ever see, it’s also one of the few instances of the movie being every bit as good as the book. Which you should read. And see the film. Both heart rending, but great.
- Upstream Color (2013)
Directed by: Shane Carruth
Starring: Shane Carruth, Amy Seimetz
Shane Carruth is a name you perhaps aren’t terribly familiar with, but I’ll soon fix that. He’s directed only two films to date, nine years apart from each other. The first was 2004’s Primer, which appeared at number 49 on our roundup (all right, so sometimes I’ll go back and check data. Shut up.)
Finally in 2013 we got his next film, the perfectly made Upstream Color. Have you ever watched a film where in the first half hour you keep thinking to yourself “What the heck is this film even about? This makes no sense!” and then a little while later thought “Oooooh, I get it now! That’s genius!”
Yeah, that’s what Upstream Color is like. It tells a strange tale of an unknown organism that follows a three-part life cycle, first inhabiting orchids, then pigs, then humans. Hey, like I said, at first it makes no sense. As the film progresses, it follows two humans whose lives are pulled together by a series of tragic events, eventually leading them to encounter the organism.
Okay, so maybe it still doesn’t make sense. Just see it for yourself. By the one-hour mark you should get it. I think.
- Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
Directed by: Michel Gondry
Starring: Kate Winslet, Jim Carrey
I find in having conversations about popular movies, Jim Carrey is a divisive name. Some love him and his off-kilter brand of humor, others can’t stand him. However, the one film of his that everyone I know likes, regardless of their stance on Jim Carrey, is Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
The plot is a unique one. A love affair has gone sour, so sour in fact that the man and woman to choose to simply have all memories of one another erased. As the process begins, the film shows us the fragmented memories as they’re wiped away, revisiting all the happy moments that caused them to love one another in the first place.
The screenplay is a masterpiece of nonlinear storytelling, and continues to invent and surprise as the film continues. If you weren’t already a fan of Charlie Kaufman after Being John Malkovich, then this should do the trick.
- Embrace of the Serpent (2015)
Directed by: Ciro Guerra
Starring: Nilbio Torres, Antonio Bolivar
If I say South America, what do you picture? I’m guessing either a Brazilian festival, drug cartels, or Zika. Right?
Which is precisely why you should see this film. It tells a partially fragmented story about an indigenous medicine man named Karamakate, and two adventures he was involved with. The first is in 1909, where as a young man as he leads a German scientist deep into the Amazon in search of a sacred plant named yakruna. The second adventure was 31 years later, as he guides an American seeking to follow the same journey as a way to discover what became of the German scientist.
The film criss-crosses between the two narratives, which serves to build the dramatic tension, as until the very end the audience is just as unaware as the American as to what happened to the German those decades before.
Embrace of the Serpent is full of stunning footage of the wild areas of South America, and will leave you desperate for a vacation. Trust me. I speak from experience.
Thus endeth thy sixth installment. I beg thee, returneth upon this site in nary a week’s time to partake of part the seventh.
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.