Today Wes Anderson is considered one of the most original and inventive directors working who is beloved by the critics while also commercially successful. So singular are his works that even the casual observer would likely recognize his stylistic flare, thematic tropes and continual collaboration with particular writers and actors (parodies of his films are commonplace). Like most first works, Bottle Rocket shows a great deal of promise but lacks some of the visual panache and flamboyant use of color and mise en scene that gives his later films such vitality and depth. Yet, it's still an accomplished work with lovable but flawed characters journeying through their need for love or family by way of a bumbled heist.
Not satisfied with 2015 humor? Looking for some older films with vintage comedy? Look no further than these classic send up’s, satires, spoofs, and screwballs from the incomparable Criterion Collection. It’s just not a distributor of grim, art house movies. Some of the best films that sought to activate your funny bone have been cleaned up, remastered and re-released back into cultural circulation. Some of my favorites include:
Dazed and Confused
Kicking and Screaming
The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou
This Is Spinal Tap
Harold and Maude
It's another installment of Liked That, Try This, where we match movies with similar styles, themes, or intersecting approaches to movie-making. Here goes...
Liked The Royal Tenenbaums try Fanny and Alexander
Liked Late Spring try Yi Yi
Liked Savages try You Can Count on Me
Liked Summer with Monika try A Summer's Tale
Liked To Kill A Mocking Bird try The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter
Liked Double Indemnity try The Killers
Liked The Third Man try Odd Man Out
Coming of Age--
Liked Boyhood try King of the Hill
Liked Fish Tank try L'enfance Nue
Liked Ratcatcher try The Long Day Closes
Liked Interstellar try Solaris
Newly re-released as a Criterion Collection selection, fans of the 1982 cross-dressing comedy may want to revisit this Sydney Pollack directed classic that stars Dustin Hoffman, Teri Garr, Bill Murray and Jessica Lange. On its surface, Tootsie is a warm-hearted story about a down on his luck actor who disguises himself as a woman in order to land a role on a soap opera. However, look a bit deeper and you’ll discover the poignancy and depth of a film that raised questions about society’s capacity to grapple with issues of gender, sexuality, identity and equality. At the film’s core are questions regarding gender roles and how they function socially and at the unconscious level of individuals and their relationships. The Criterion Collection version provides a wealth of interviews, an essay and short films detailing the making of the movie.
French director Alain Renais died last year, ironically on the day the Academy Awards were held. He left cinephiles with a significant body of work which features several films considered classics including Night and Fog, Hiroshima Mon Amour and Last Year at Marienbad. His inventive, non-commercial, form breaking sensibilities are still on display with his farewell film, Life of Riley. Based upon a British play, Renais transforms the theatrical stage into a cinematic framework, blending the two together to create a work that looks and feels like both. The film doesn't attempt to negate the artificiality and obviousness of the set or limit the dialogue saturated plot. It is a play inside of a film and vice versa. There's a levity to the film that I wouldn't exactly describe as comedic and yet it tackles serious subjects like adultery, illness, aging and friendship.
We own a comprehensive reference book called 1001 Movies You Must See before You Die. I’ve used it on several occasions to select titles for the collection. I am pleased to report that the library owns many of these classic films. I thought I would share a film from each decade, highlighted by the editors of the book. There are many films that we simply cannot add to the collection because they are not available or out of print.
Intolerance (1916)—D.W. Griffith’s attempt to counter the negative reception of his previous film The Birth of a Nation
Metropolis (1927)—Widely considered by critics as the first, science fiction epic, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis was far ahead of its time, incorporating elements of sex, violence and special effects into the plot structure. It so confused audiences with its various allusions, subtext and allegories that it bombed at the box office.
The 39 Steps (1935)—Before making films that unnerved American audiences in the 1950’s and 60’s, British director Alfred Hitchcock made this high octane film that employs the trope of the character who unwittingly sees something they’re not supposed to see and who then becomes entangled in a mystery (that always involves a chase) that endangers their life.
The Philadelphia Story (1940)—Slapstick and romance never worked so well in this star power-driven farce that features Cary Grant, James Stewart and Katharine Hepburn.
Umberto D (1952)—Made during the peak of Italian Neorealism’s influence, Vittorio De Sica’s heartbreaking tale of the daily struggles of an elderly man and his pet dog will undoubtedly produce a tear or two.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966)—One of the great film adaptations of a stage play, Mike Nichols’ film was successful in due part to having a real life married couple playing the lead characters. Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor give electrifying performances in this dialogue-heavy portrait of marital gamesmanship.
Killer of Sheep (1977)—Considered by many critics an essential piece of American independent movie-making, Killer of Sheep was Charles Burnett’s first feature and his most critically praised. Subtle yet moving, the film established itself as one of the first films to depict African Americans as ordinary subjects going about their everyday lives, burdened yet dynamic, imbued with dignity and agency.
My Left Foot (1989)—The first of three Oscars for actor Daniel Day-Lewis who gives a fantastic performance in this portrait of one man’s extraordinary spirit in the face of physical limitations and social prejudice.
Goodfellas (1990)—With all due respect to The Godfather trilogy, this is the greatest mob film and arguably Martin Scorsese’s best work.
Russian Ark (2001)—The film that ultimately achieved the technical feat that Hitchcock once sought to accomplish (cameras ran out of film after 10 minutes in the late 40’s)—a film shot in one continuous take without a single cut.
Here are some selected titles that staff feel are hidden gems, secret treasures or unknown classics that you may have missed or simply never knew existed.
Before Ryan Gosling was a huge movie star and occasional internet meme, he made the quirky, small budget film Lars and the Real Girl, a tale about a socially awkward man who falls in love with…yes…a blow up doll.
Years before he struck it big with Birdman, Alejandro Innaritu directed Amores Perros, a gritty film set in Mexico City that connects several storylines and characters together ala Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia or Innaritu’s more commercially successful work Babel.
Safe is “a profoundly unsettling work from the great American director Todd Haynes, Safe functions on multiple levels: as a prescient commentary on self-help culture, as a metaphor for the AIDS crisis, as a drama about class and social estrangement, and as a horror film about what you cannot see. This revelatory drama was named the best film of the 1990s in a Village Voice poll of more than fifty critics.”—The Criterion Collection
Prior to Peter Jackson’s adaptations of the Lord of the Rings books, he and a young and relatively unknown actress named Kate Winslet collaborated on Heavenly Creatures, a shocking, true crime story that took place in New Zealand in the 1950’s. Two teenage girls develop an inseparable bond and as their fantasy-fueled relationship grows increasingly lethal, their parents attempt to break them apart.
Forbidden Games is a 1952 French film that depicts the macabre yet childlike way that an orphaned girl grapples with her grief after her parents are killed by the Germans during World War II. Befriended by a young boy and taken in by his peasant family, the adults are ill equipped to sympathize with the grisly ways in which the children cope with the trauma of war.
Certified Copy might be one of the more unique and certainly beguiling films to explore the complexities and narrative like qualities of a relationship. Similar to the Richard Linklater “Before” trilogy in that these films focus on dialogue more so than plotting and action, Iranian master filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami tackles questions about truth, authenticity and subjectivity both in how these ideas manifest themselves within human relationships as well as art.
Shadows was the first film from maverick American director John Cassavetes and while it doesn’t possess the richness and complexity of his later films, it marked a key moment in the history of American cinema for its low budget appearance and verite approach. Exploring interracial relationships in New York City during the Beat-era and originally scored by bassist Charles Mingus, Shadows is considered by historians as an early prototype for what came to be dubbed “independent cinema.”
Election—Alexander Payne’s debut hits all the right marks when it comes to this high school-set black comedy starring a fantastic Reese Witherspoon as the hyper-achieving foil to Matthew Broderick’s squeaky clean teacher.
Muriel—Alain Resnais, the late French master of fragmented pyscho-dramas with beguiling plot structures made his name with Hiroshima Mon Amour and Late Year at Marienbad but fans of those works should give this lesser known work the attention it deserves.
After a recent binge-watching of the fantastic BBC series Call the Midwife, I decided to explore other British films that were made or set in the post-war era, focusing my interest upon the 1950’s and early 60's, a time when England faced significant social and economic challenges. Many of these films depict the private trials of characters confronted by rigid class divisions within British society as well as the social and personal costs of having to rebuild after the war ended.
The Browning Version
The Horse’s Mouth—Before he played Obi-Wan in Star Wars, British actor Alec Guinness played a highly dedicated painter of loose moral fiber in this 1958 comedic romp.
The Deep Blue Sea—Terrence Davies’ most recent film is a tender, wonderfully acted and beautiful evocation of a married woman’s love for another man and the troublesome conflict between adhering to social norms or following one’s heart (see also: A Brief Encounter).
The Long Day Closes—This quintessential Terrence Davies film that put him on the cinematic map, is a semi-autobiographical portrait of a young man’s difficult and complicated engagement with adolescence. Gorgeously shot, edited and scored, this is Davies dreamy evocation of memory and nostalgia even when it delves deep into the sorrows of growing up during difficult times.
Of Time and the City
This Happy Breed
This Sporting Life
The Loneliness of the Long Distant Runner—A film about an angry young man’s struggle against social norms that tangentially raises critical questions about the legitimacy of authoritarian institutions that mediate relations between the haves and have not’s.
The Hour—Only two seasons long but a great BBC series that like Mad Men, depicts the emergence of an industry (television journalism) as it struggles to develop amid the ever present social anxiety and fear of Eastern Bloc communism. Loads of intrigue and plot twists!
March was a decent month for film viewing as I've finally gotten around to seeing some high quality documentaries like The Pleasures of Being Out of Step. Here are some other highlights for your consideration.
10. Fox Catcher
9. Top Five
8. Force Majeure
7. Boy Meets Girl
6. The Overnighters
5. Life Itself
4. Days of Being Wild
3. The Internet's Own Boy
2. The Soft Skin
1. A Summer's Tale (Eric Rohmer may not be as well known as his French New Wave compatriots Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut but this late film (1996), finally released in the United States, proved his knack for chatty characters on scenic locales could still elicit charming insights about youthful romance and relationships thirty years after his peak.
March is Women’s History Month and so in keeping with the theme of highlighting the achievements and contributions of women involved with movie-making, here’s a list of writers, directors and some of their groundbreaking works.
Ava DuVernay (I Will Follow, Middle of Nowhere, Selma)
Agnes Varda (Cleo from 5 to 7, Vagabond)
Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty)
Lena Dunham (Girls, Tiny Furniture)
Maya Deren (Maya Deren: Experimental Films)
Penny Marshall (A League of Their Own)
Allison Anders (Border Radio)
Claire Denis (White Material, Bastards)
Chantal Akerman (From the Other Side, Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles)
Lynne Ramsay (Ratcatcher)
Ida Lupino (The Hitchhiker)
Elaine May (The Birdcage, A New Leaf)