Staff Picks: Movies
Staff-recommended viewing from the KPL catalog.
Most of us prefer sound with our visual imagery when it comes to movie watching. However, if you’re looking to challenge yourself to experience visual poetry and storytelling in new ways without the element of music or dialogue, here’s a quick introductory sampler of well-regarded works.
People on Sunday
Le Quattro Volte (sound, but no dialogue)
The Passion of Joan of Arc
People on sunday
Francois Truffaut’s sinuous portrait of provincial childhood is one of his lesser known works but those who appreciate his acclaimed 1960’s movies (The Antoine Doinel series, Shoot the Piano Player) will no doubt discover that Small Change is a true gem within his oeuvre. Known for depicting the complicated by joyous nature of French childhood with a tender humanism tied to an un-romanticized realism, Truffaut approaches his young subjects and the local adults like a documentarian, concentrating his focus on capturing both the special and everyday moments that mark a life. A first kiss, the anxiety of answering a question in front of the class, sneaking into a movie theater with a friend, even falling from an open window--Truffaut effectively mixes the lighthearted with the darker shades of growing up.
When it was released in 1960 to universal acclaim, visionary maverick Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless broke all the rules of conventional moviemaking. As posited by The Criterion Collection site, "there is a before Breathless, and an after Breathless” along the timeline of film history. The film’s radical break with tradition promptly posed new questions about what a movie could look like, sound like, mean, and most importantly, what a film could be. Even today, the film that kicked off the French New Wave retains a freshness and vitality that are striking and discomforting to those new to its anarchic, free-jazz sensibilities and inventive modes of representation. Godard’s reinvented salute to the American gangster genre mixes together into a highly original work of art with countless allusions to previous movies, references to literary texts, celebratory homages to American directors, and stylistic devices such as his famed jump cuts and an enthusiastic embrace of natural lighting and sound that in 1960, deviated from mainstream studio practices. It’s a film that is winking at the audience from the eye of its director and yet even as we push aside it’s question posing and deeply philosophical implications, it also functions as a terribly entertaining movie. Not only is the film considered one of the most influential, it subsequently launched the career of French leading man Jean-Paul Belmondo, who went on to work with Godard on A Woman Is a Woman and Pierrot le Fou. The Criterion Collection has just recently re-released Breathless on Blu-Ray and DVD with a wonderful array of supplents to go along with the feature.
The Danish political drama Borgen has been favorably compared to the American hit show House of Cards. While it resists the kind of farcical plotlines and hyper-cynicism of the Netflix-produced show, there features more than enough intrigue and Machiavelian maneuvering for political power to keep the storylines interesting and germane. Some critics have also alluded to The West Wing’s influence but Borgen resists the kind of naïve portrait of contemporary politics as a romantic idyll or a noble vocation. Borgen’s female protagonist is both a savvy political player engaged in political jousting and a committed wife and mother which suggests that there will be plenty of personal and political sacrifice to go around when the mud begins to fly. This is bingeworthy television, Scandinavian style.
In case you needed one last, post-Oscars list to use for upcoming checkout's. According to a survey of the editors and contributors of Film Comment magazine, these are the Top 20 films of 2013. Some have been released on DVD and others have yet to hit the shelves.
- Inside Llewyn Davis
- 12 Years a Slave
- Before Midnight
- The Act of Killing
- A Touch of Sin
- Computer Chess
- Frances Ha
- Upstream Color
- Museum Hours
- Blue Is the Warmest Color
- Spring Breakers
- Like Someone in Love
- Stories We Tell
- American Hustle
- The Grandmaster
While there’s wisdom in that adage advising us to avoid judging books by their covers, when it comes to movies, I don't feel the least bit superficial when I admit that I’m swayed by an attractive cover- even if only a mildly interesting synopsis is on the back. When I recently saw the cover for Reaching for the Moon- sunshine, blue skies and a radiant, happy couple on a beach- I hurriedly borrowed it, learning only after that it is a drama depicting the real life love affair between renowned poet Elizabeth Bishop and Brazilian architect Lota de Macedo Soareswas.
While the film takes artistic liberties with actual events, its depiction of the romantic relationship between these two complex women is done in a way that feels as honest and real as a fictionalized account can, and, thankfully, is light on sentimentality; while Reaching for the Moon tells the story of women who are lovers, it is not a romance and its focus isn't only on their love. The lives of these talented, accomplished women, the places and times they navigate, their lifestyles, their complicated relationship and the poetry it all inspired are tastefully explored and make for a remarkable film, one far more interesting and and better told than many. I expect to be recommending it for quite some time.
Reaching for the Moon
What happens when one of the staff persons charged with helping young people overcome trauma, neglect and abuse at an at-risk juvenile home is quietly suffering from her own painful past? This is the question at the center of this wonderful, little film propelled by strong acting performances and a deft touch at balancing grim subject matter with moments of levity and humor. Grace, played by a fantastic Brie Larson, and her devoted boyfriend Mason work together to help kids manage their feelings and cope with the cards they’ve been dealt. But her strength of character and compassionate heart alone are of little use when it comes to facing her own feelings of fear, anxiety and anger. Short Term 12 proves again that a film’s success is in no way related to the number of celebrity actors, use of CGI or amount of super hero characters. Sometimes, going small produces large rewards.
Short Term 12
Often cited as one of the most influential, low-budget films that contributed to the emergence of the American Independent Film Movement of the 1980’s, Paris, Texas is an inspired evocation of the personal journey of a tortured soul (Harry Dean Stanton) progressing toward forgiveness and redemption. Set in Texas and Los Angeles, German director Wim Wenders paints a moving and poignant picture of an emotionally troubled man seeking to make sense out of his fractured, tumultuous past and in the process, repair some of the damage he’s inflicted upon those he loves. Pitch perfect as a kind of neo-Western, road-film, from the casting down to the spare beauty of Sam Shepard’s writing, Wenders unpacks the story of Travis and Jane to reveal the power of guilt, regret and selflessness.
“Jem Cohen’s Museum Hours is a small movie that contains multitudes”—Luc Sante
Jem Cohen’s film Museum Hours is a brilliant and mesmerizing answer to a question that he himself poses in the essay that accompanies the DVD—“How then to make movies that don’t dictate exactly where to look and what to feel? How to encourage viewers to make their own connections, to think strange thoughts, to be unsure of what happens next or even what genre of movie it is? How to combine the immediacy and openness of documentary with invented characters and stories?”
While not formulaic in the commercial, Hollywood sense, Cohen’s film does have a plot but one would be hard pressed to characterize the film as plot-driven nor does it particularly care about predictable scenes where characters recite lines from a script. It’s a much looser and improvised affair that speaks to Cohen’s interest in depicting the poetic and ephemeral place where life and art intersect, those elements of everyday life that register on the periphery of perception but that still make up the subjective landscape of human experience and history. What the film is (its form and conceptual concerns) and what the film is about (perception, loneliness, the universality of art over time and its allusive, individual character, etc.) is not one in the same but rather they complement each other.
The film at its core is the story of two strangers who meet at the Kunsthistoriches Art Museum in Vienna. Johann is a middle aged guard who spends his hours staring at people looking at art. Anne is a woman visiting her ailing cousin who is dying in a nearby hospital. He befriends her after they meet amongst the paintings of Bruegel, Rembrandt and other European masters. He serves as a kind of Viennese tour guide and translator for her as she awaits news about her comatose cousin. They wander through bars, take hillside strolls, amble through urban markets, and board an underground boat ride, both connecting the other to their life in miniatures, doing so as strangers once did prior to social networking. The dialogue is magically awkward and feels as though the actors were directed to improvise their conversational responses. Anne, played by cult singer Mary Margaret O’hara is especially magnetic. This is one of my favorite films from last year.
Sandra Bullock may have taken on deadly space debris in Best Picture contender Gravity, but it’ll likely be Cate Blanchett that destroys her chances at winning a second Oscar come Sunday, March 2nd. That’s right, the 86th Academy Awards ceremony is less than two weeks away, which mean now’s the time to catch up on all those critically-acclaimed movies you’ve been meaning to watch. Thankfully, the Kalamazoo Public Library is here to help with this list of all the Oscar-nominated films that you can check out from us right now:
- Best Picture nominee Captain Phillips received 6 nods overall, including Supporting Actor (Barkhad Abdi), Adapted Screenplay, Film Editing, Sound Editing and Sound Mixing (Tom Hanks just missed the cut for Best Actor, but his performance is riveting, especially in the film’s final 10 minutes).
- Cate Blanchett is the front runner for Best Actress in Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine. The film also received nominations for Supporting Actress (Sally Hawkins) and Original Screenplay.
- Best Animated Feature nominees The Croods and Despicable Me 2 are available now (Front-runner Frozen will be here in March). Despicable also received a nomination for Best Song with Pharrell Williams’ “Happy.”
- Four of the five Best Documentary Feature nominations are here: The Act of Killing, Cutie and the Boxer, Dirty Wars, and 20 Feet from Stardom.
- Big-budget summer films Iron Man 3, Star Trek Into Darkness, and The Lone Ranger received nominations for Best Visual Effects. Ranger also received a nod for Hairstyling & Makeup alongside fellow unlikely-contender Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa.
- Baz Luhrmann’s opulent take on The Great Gatsby was recognized for Costume Design and Production Design.
- Best Foreign Language Film nominee The Hunt is currently available, while fellow contenders The Broken Circle Breakdown and The Great Beauty will arrive in March.
- The third part of Richard Linklater’s beloved romance trilogy, Before Midnight, received an Adapted Screenplay nod.
- All is Lost features a great performance from Robert Redford and was recognized for Best Sound Editing.
- Abduction thriller Prisoners is competing for Best Cinematography.
Several more Oscar contenders will be available on DVD or Blu-ray very soon:
- With 10 nominations (including Bullock’s), Gravity (available February 25th) will be a force to be reckoned with on Oscar night. It has a great shot at winning Best Picture and Director (Alfonso Cuarón) and is also the front-runner for technical categories like Visual Effects, Sound Editing, and Sound Mixing. The film was also recognized for Cinematography, Film Editing, Original Score, and Production Design.
- Also out on February 25th is Nebraska, which welcomed nominations for Best Picture, Director (Alexander Payne), Actor (Bruce Dern), Supporting Actress (June Squibb), Cinematography, and Original Screenplay.
These Oscar contenders will be available in March, and you can place a hold on them right now:
- 12 Years a Slave received 9 nominations, including Best Picture, Director (Steve McQueen), Actor (Chiwetel Ejiofor), and Supporting Actress (Lupita Nyong'o).
- American Hustle was nominated for 10 Oscars, including Best Picture, Director (David O. Russell), Actor (Christian Bale), Actress (Amy Adams), Supporting Actor (Bradley Cooper), and Supporting Actress (Jennifer Lawrence).
- Dallas Buyers Club has 6 nominations, including Best Picture, Actor (Matthew McConaughey) and Supporting Actor (Jared Leto), and both actors are favored to win in their respective categories.
- The Wolf of Wall Street was nominated for Best Picture, Director (Martin Scorsese), Actor (Leonardo DiCaprio), Supporting Actor (Jonah Hill), and Adapted Screenplay.
- Philomena is competing for Best Picture, Actress (Judi Dench), Original Score, and Adapted Screenplay.
- Also arriving in March are nominees The Grandmaster (Cinematography, Costume Design), Inside Llewyn Davis (Cinematography, Sound Mixing), The Book Thief (Original Score), Saving Mr. Banks (Original Score), and Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (Original Song).
Keep an eye out for the rest of the nominees, which are sure to follow. In the meantime, come on down to KPL and start prepping for Oscar night!