Best of: Movies

Absolutely Must See List MMIV


A Beautiful Mind, Ron Howard, 2001.
Love, hope and belief dominate this portrayal of one of the greatest, yet tortured, minds in the twentieth century. I understand that much of the biography was edited out, and that doesn't detract from the film for me. Rather, it heightens the story that Howard chose to tell [along with Nasar and Goldman]. This is not some sordid parade of sour grapes, illustrating that even Nobel Prize winners are screwed up and letting us somehow feel better about ourselves by having sullied someone else. Rather, it is a unique and reverent look at the real story behind John Nash and how his genius was able to survive. The lasting image of the film is the acceptance speech with Crowe addressing Connelly as though the entire world didn't exist but for these two. Such is the message of the movie: Behold the power of love.

The Abyss, James Cameron, 1989.
A master work. This is science fiction for the non-science crowd as well as for the dyed-in-the-wool geek. The plot weaves characterization and the subplots propel the compelling story. I actually found myself sitting on the edge of my seat more than once. Best viewed on the big screen. This picture didn't skimp on the effects, but it's the story that stayed with me, not the bells and whistles. How far would you go for love?

Amelie

American Beauty, Sam Mendes, 1997.
Another film with Kevin Spacey, and one in which he gives genuine performance to a wholly different character. This time, I found myself wincing with him over what had become his family, cheering when he submitted his letter to his new supervisor and aching for him as his neighbor visited. For what have you sold your life, and how many others are you taking with you? What would you give to have it back and what would it look like?

Benny and Joon, Jeremiah S. Chechik, 1993.
This love story between the mentally ill and the eccentric is charming, endearing, and captures more reality than it ought to. Depp as the weirdo devotee of Buster Keaton is quietly engaging, while Mary Stuart Masterton’s Joon is real, universal, and as is said in the movie “aside from her mental illness, she’s pretty normal.” This is a movie about acceptance and dealing and loving and living.

Blade Runner, Ridley Scott, 1982.
[NOTE: A director's cut was released on the tenth anniversary of the film. I haven't seen it, but in thinking on the movie and the nature of the impact it had on me -- the whole reason it makes this list -- I think it would be best to see the original. See the director's cut if you'd like later, but I think it would be most interesting to those with an interest in special effects, camera angles, you know: the film makers.] This film changed my life when I saw it; perhaps I was just very thirteen, but the questions it raises about humanity, technology, life and how we live it are ones that became part and parcel of who and what I am. I don't have any hard and fast answers, and I think, ultimately, that's my hard and fast answer.

Boondock Saints, Troy Duffy, 1999.
Each piece in this film came across beautifully; the way the pieces wove together created a rich tapestry, and this film presents a delicious look at life, loyalty, crime and justice. Best part: the cat. Creepiest part: the dynamic between the brothers closely resembles the interaction between Tiger and Dragon. Funniest part: tough to call, for there are a number, but the duct-crawl scene gets my vote. Note: heavy language and violence. I recently heard of a drinking game based on this movie. Every time someone says a particular obscenity or dies, you drink. I can't imagine anyone being able to see the whole movie before passing out. Me? I'd last fifteen minutes. At most.
For all that this is an action flick with an irreverent and irrepressible humour, at the core there is a strong message about the evil of good men who do nothing to stop evil acts. Referred to as angels, the religious hard-working blue-collar brothers do indeed show us that there is a line which, once crossed, should not be tolerated. Defoe's character brings deep statements about the importance of listening to our feelings, as they are the conduit of god's voice within. See this one. Twice.

Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, John Madden, 2001.
This almost doesn’t make it because of the Hollywood ending, but if you need more of a bitter twist, it’s not too hard to imagine. Cage delivers a wonderous performance, packed with tension and tenderness.

Catch Me If You Can, Stephen Spielberg, 2002.
This is a movie that most people will experience as a bit of a suspense, but one that i see ever so differently. It is a tale of what happens when families fall on hard times, when all that you need and know and love and trust shivers in your face one afternoon like a mirror, and all that you are willing to do to put it all back, grasping at hope and love and belonging.
More than anything, love and belonging. This was a great film.

Children of a Lesser God, Randa Haines, 1986. Movie adaptation by Mark Mendoff.
William Hurt and Marlee Matlin are wonderful and endearing in this portrayal. Or perhaps it was just that I was younger then. What barriers can hold back love?

City of Lost Children, Marc Caro & Jean Pierre Jenuey, 1995. [French]
Weird. Definitely full of statements about adulthood, responsibility, youth, vision, professionalism. But more than anything, if it didn't touch your heart, begin to question if you have one.

Closet Land, Radha Bharadwaj, 1991.
Alan Rickman and Madeleine Stowe are the only actors in this Amnesty International film that relentlessly illustrates the plight and prospects of political prisoners. Definitely not the feel-good movie of the year, but brilliant and beautiful nonetheless, perhaps not in spite of its darkness but because of it.

Dangerous Liaisons, Stephen Frears, 1988.
Glenn Close, John Malkovich, Michelle Pfeiffer, Uma Thurman. Beautifully poignant and doomed exploration of love and passion in the Victorian age, a time not wholly removed from our own. Lust, seductions, society, revenge: What masks do you wear and what do they cost you?

The Dangerous Lives Of Altar Boys, Peter Care, 2002.
When I saw the trailer for The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys, I admit I thought it would be funny and light and perhaps a tender look at adolescence and coming of age. It's a bit more than that, and it should come with the following caveat: If you ever were an outcast among your peers and created adventures for yourself and your friends to escape a bunch of yelling in your house that is not a home, this film might leave you a bit dazed. See it only if you haven't had major fights with your close friend(s). Or maybe more especially if you have.

Dead Again, Kenneth Branagh, 1991.
Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson, Andy Garcia. His directorial debut is brilliantly crafted, beautifully filmed and wonderful acting only ices this glorious cake. An especially great film for mystery fans or for anyone with a penchant for Irish folk tales. Robin Williams makes a delightful short appearance as a whacked-out psychotherapist. How many times would you die for love? If Daphne DuMaurier had written a film, this would be it.

Dead Man Walking, Tim Robbins, 1996. [Based on the book by Helen Prejean.]
Sean Penn as a death row criminal (Matthew Poncolet) is no real shocker. Susan Sarandon as the nun (Helen Prejean) who visits him is a shocker, though. What she finds in him during her accompaniment in Poncolet's final days make this a definiete entry on The List. See it with others who like to think, and to talk, and who think before they talk. See it with plenty of time afterward to journal or sit on a wall. Who was innocent? Who was guilty? What is guilt? Maybe I went too far or was in a particularly literary mood, but this one struck deeply.

Dead Poets Society, Peter Weir, 1989.
This film sets the stage for where many emotion-over-action films will take us over the following decade. The characters are lovable, believable, at times pitiable, but always genuine. Robin Williams' portrayal of John Keating encourages us to question, always to explore, to live, no matter how high the cost.What makes your life extraordinary?

Devil's Own, Alan J. Pakula, 1997.
Duty and destiny lock head-to-head in this Irish tale, one that comes in as one of the best we've seen in a long time. Harrison Ford and Brad Pitt work well against each other, the plot moves along, building the sense of tragedy fluidly. Beautifully filmed. What do you hold so dearly that you would fight insurmountable odds, assured only of failure?

Enemy At The Gates, Jean-Jacques Annaud, 2001.
One hesitates to use terms such as poignant, but this film manages to embody the essence of the definition (courtesy of Merriam Webster: m-w.com): painfully affecting the feelings : PIERCING (2) : deeply effecting : TOUCHING b : designed to make an impression : CUTTING if this moving does nothing else, it makes a deep impression. Within the first minute, the carefully crafted cinematography and terse screenplay engage the intellect and the imagination, pulling us along into one of history's most decisive empty battles. One comes away from this film feeling as though the survivors of the battle are the victims, and the victory is a life sentence. Yet for all its dyed-in-the-(moth-eaten-)wool bleakness of a true Russian tale, the story unfolds with a sense of suspense that is distinctly American. Each successive frame only serves to highlight the statement our young hero makes early on that "tomorrow we might not be here to write back." The film, in the end, depicts life as fleeting and fickle, with each moment a gift and the only possessions that count for anything to be friends and loves. I really liked it. But then, I would.

The English Patient, Anthony Minghella, 1997.
A beautiful and heartrending film. Ralph Fines and Kristin Scott are powerful and believable, perfected in their fallibility. I haven't read the book by Michael Ondaatje, but it inspires me to do so. Caveat: do not see it as a first date. [Revision Note: I have read the book, and as beautiful as the film is, the tome is captivating. Pick it up, irrespective of seeing the film.]

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Michal Gondry, 2004.
I’m not ordinarily a Jim Carey fan, but this film hit home. What is so painful you would erase it, and would it truly be better not to know? Is it better to have loved and lost? This along with Vanilla Sky could make for an evening Kant would die for. What does loss reveal in the losing?

The Fisher King, Terry Gilliam, 1991.
Robin Williams is a crazy weirdo living in a boiler room who through his insanity shows Jeff Bridges the real importance of living. I liked the filmwork, the acting, the point. Two men search for everything from Ethel Merman to love. What are your dragons and what will you do when they come for you?

The Godfather I, II, III; Francis Ford Cuppola, 1972, 1974, 1990. [Based on the book by Mario Puzo.]
Icons of our time. Brilliantly taken from the page to the screen, and Al Pacino is beautiful. His transformation of, by and for his familia is what drives this picture (I think of it as one nine-hour film with intermission). Francis hits the nail on the head straight away and is relentless from then on, pulling us along as we hold our collective breath, unfolding the scenes. Francis and Mario together are making strong statements about the roles we are born into, the culture we inherit right along with our eye colour. And of course, about the nature and flavour of power.

Insomnia, Christopher Nolan, 2002.
For those of you hoping to see the next incarnation of The Fugitive, this won't satisfy, so stay home and wait for the video to come out. This is not the thriller it is touted to be, and is so much better than the marketers are giving it credit. Directed by Christopher Nolan, who brought us the cult insta-classic Memento, it could have been another seedy and sultry foray into a labyrinthine psyche. Given that it stars Al Pacino and Robin Williams, it could have been the heavyweight match of over-acting. It wasn't either. Indeed, Nolan is to be commended on reigning these two heavy hitters in, for he has found a quietly spookiness in Williams that is more powerful than his flamboyance, and a lingering weariness in Pacino that weighs in more than his intensity. And if you're looking for a cliff-hanger or nail-biter, the picture reveals that Williams is the killer early on. This character film moves along handily, developing gently and asking much on the part of the audience. I liked it, and really went away with a sense of self, if not one of satisfaction. It's a character film to the core, and if you prefer a sense of Right and Wrong, this won't be it for you. Instead, it asks questions subtly, and provides few answers. When do you go over the line? Is there any turning back once you're there? What do you do when the Truth isn't what is Right?

Keiner Liebt Mich (Nobody Loves Me), Doris Dorrie, 1994. [German]
A true romantic comedy. This movie has become a Valentine's Day tradition -- a rarity that can be seen by a group of both the blissfully taken and the woefully available, the happily unattached and the lamentably paired. Statements about looking for love and what we find when we aren't looking. This is a great picture. If you want to see it in the States, you'll have to call Klaus Phillips at Hollins. Since Doris is an alumna, we staged her unofficial stateside debut. Clear your calendar and head for the women's college this February.

L.A. Story, Steve Martin, 1991.
Steve's directorial debut, starring with his wife, Victoria Tennant. This is what happens when a man on the brink of a decade asks for a sign and gets one.

Life of Brian, Terry Jones, 1979.
All you ever needed to know about (and laugh at) Christianity. Contains the Single Best Line Ever in film: I'm not. Puts our religious heritage in a light it deserves. Pay special attention to the discussion concerning reproductive freedom with "Loretta." Cameo by George Harrison, the monastic, bluesy Beatle.

The Life Of David Gale, Alan Parker, 2003.
I enjoyed this picture. Spacey is genuine, giving once again a performance so subtly strong I can't imagine any other actor in the role. The plot is well done, and no matter where you stand on the death penalty, this is a film in which thinking and engaging is not optional. Not preachy, it uses activism as a character element, and delivers well-done suspense without being heavy handed.

The Moderns, Alan Rudolph, 1988.
Based on Hemingway's A Movable Feast, this film highlights ex-patriot Parisian culture and comedy between the wars. Fun to watch, the movie's statements about the copying (nature) of culture, the copied, and those who copy, our sense of ownership and our criteria for value sneak in amongst the plot. Great lines ("Bernie, what's verisimilitude?"), great clothes, great acting. Hemingway as he should be. Linda Fiorentino delivers a Rachel who is as delightful as she is frustrating in her naïveté and Keith Carradine gives Nick Hart his artistic, dapper best.

Mostly Martha, Sandra Nettelbeck, 2001. [German]
A film filled with life and food and love. If there were a subtitle, I would call it "life that happens after life falls apart." The directing, acting, screenplay, and cinematography all are so well done and blend seamlessly to the point that they aren't noticeable on either first or second glance. I liked (and identified with) the main character here far more than I should have. We will have to own the copy of the film so that when I look at Phillip and say "remember in Mostly Martha where there were the metal hanging bands above the counter and . . . ." and he looks at me blankly, I can go to the DVD player and show him. A delightful and charming development of love and the opening of self to a world beyond one's own defining of it. Too bad for phillip that he took me to see this movie -- he has been hearing "I want to start a restaurant" at least daily for a while now. Good for me that he went: in a world filled with food and love and passions and hopes, one should not see this movie alone.

Original Sin, Michael Christofer, 2001.
Among the questions explored are the definition of love, love's mandate, and love's price. What is power and what is the power of love? Between Angeline Jolie and Antonio Banderas, this could have been a real teen-flick, but it strikes to the core of some very adult issues.

Out of Africa

Phone Booth, Joel Schumacher, 2002.
In many ways, this picture is not anything groundbreaking or artistic or provoking. What lies do you tell? What lies do you live? What lies do you need? What would it take to make you come clean?

Il Postino (The Postman), Michael Radford, 1996. [Italian]
This is what film can be, aims for, aches for, imagines. This is film at its most poetic; poetry at its most visual. See it. Live.

p.s., Dylan Kidd, 2004.
The tagline for this movie is “What would you do for a second chance?” but there’s a lot more than that going on here. Laura Linney shows a woman who isn’t living for a second chance, but is dying without one. When Topher Grace shows up and presents the possibility of reliving a life she always imagined, things are sweet and tender and sour all at the same time. What hold does the past have on you and how much is it costing you?

The Quest for the Holy Grail, Terry Gilliam & Terry Jones, 1974.
Proof that history is funny. All you will ever need to know about British Medieval History, or anything else, for that matter. Filled to the hilt with commentary and comedy. Break out the popcorn and the Guinness, and get prepared to learn and laugh at everything our culture is based upon.
Red, (also with White and Blue, Blue being my favorite of the three) [French]

Romeo + Juliet, Baz Lurhmann, 1996.
Claire Danes, Leonardo DiCapprio. A glorious interpretation of the Shakespeare classic, this is the first rendition I've seen that doesn't portray Romeo as a wimp. Dane's Juliet is genuine as the ultimate ingenue. "My only love sprung from my only hate."

Se7en, David Fincher, 1995.
Masterfully written, weaving, blending, shocking, and tragic in the classic sense. Morgan Freeman is at his Easy-Reader best, and this is the picture in which Brad Pitt convinced me he could act. Gwyneth Paltrow is as convincing as she is endearing. Also filled with beautiful shots of the NYC Public Library, some of the best in film. What, in a movie that packs each frame with symbolism, is Freeman's role? What does he symbolize and what is being said through and about his character?

The Soloist

Unfaithful, Adrian Lyne, 2002.
This was well done from every point of view. The story pieces unfold with the precision of tumblers in a lock. The camera angles, dialog and acting each provides subtle movement, ensnaring the viewer along with the characters. Though there are points where the pieces don't quite make sense, they manage to highlight that chaos of unpredictability that is humanity. I really liked this film, and it wasn't altogether surprising that it is based on a French picture. What are your hungers and what feeds them? What price are you willing to pay?

Vanilla Sky, Cameron Crowe, 2001.
I was much more impressed with this than I imagined I would be. This brings to the fore the issues of life and ownership of one's life. What defines success? This brings up beauty, manipulation, and the power of beauty to manipulate. Early on in the film, one character says to another "your body makes a commitment whether you do or not." What is happiness to you? How far would you go to obtain it? Do you prefer a pretty lie or the ugly truth? This movie has enough deep questions to fill a journal.

The Widow of St. Pierre, Patrice Laconte, 2000. [French]
A true story of revenge and redemption, fear and forgiveness, and the true meaning of love. I can’t sum it up any better than that, and prepare to laugh at the little twists of language and bemoan the twists of fate. Real life worth living, at any cost.

You Can Count On Me, Kenneth Lonergan, 2000.
This character-driven film stays true to life at every turn, portraying the real scope and cost of love, family, and trust. If you want to escape for the evening, this is not the film for you. Laura Linney is fresh and convincing and Mark Ruffalo meets the challenge of the complexity with which his character is written. Rory Caulkin provides a brilliant counterpoint to his mother and uncle. None of the three steals the show, making the film well-balanced even when the characters are not. The group of three proceed to serve up a film that has you by turns laughing and wincing, relentlessly relying on character insights to unfold the film instead of great sweeping Hollywood Events: no one comes down with Leukemia or gets hit by a train; this is much more subtle. The ending is a bit unsatisfactory in that it lacks a sense of real closure; the characters continue beyond the frame, but that's life for you. If you prefer reality to any hoax no matter how sparkly, this one is sure to be a hit. Only at the Grandin, of course.