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Staff Picks: Movies

An Iranian Masterpiece

Close-Up is a masterpiece of both poetry and philosophy. Movies like this don’t come around but a couple of times a decade and when this 1990 film was released in the West to much acclaim, it made its Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami, an international star. It’s a tremendously moving film that mixes together fictional elements and scripted moments with real people playing versions of themselves as they reenact scenes from a bizarre, true event. 

Kiarostami's film functions as a meditation on cinema’s verisimilitude and its power to blur binaries like true/false and fiction/documentary. Viewers will find it difficult to parse out what is true and what was constructed by Kiaraostami because of the inventive way he threads artifice into a depiction of the actual event, infusing it with universal themes in a sympathetic way. One of the most beguiling, radically ingenious films of the last century, Close-Up is widely considered one of cinema’s most important in pushing the art form forward. 


Love Means Never Having to Say You're Sorry for Eating the Cat

Kalamazoo is really fortunate to be home to an Alamo Drafthouse; they are one of the most prestigious theater chains in the world. As a massive film geek, I don’t spend my movie-going dollars anywhere else. One reason for this (beyond the strict no-talking, no-texting policy) is their penchant for bringing independent, foreign, and art-house films to Kalamazoo—ones that would never normally play in our mid-sized market. In fact, the Austin-based company has its very own distribution arm and, as you can imagine, they specialize in “provocative, visionary and artfully unusual films new and old from around the world” (their own words). Some of the many great movies found under the Drafthouse Films label include A Band Called Death, The Act of Killing, The Overnighters, A Field in England, and many more.

One recent favorite of theirs I saw was a creepy indie film called Spring that one promotional blurb perfectly referred to as “Richard Linklater meets H.P. Lovecraft.” As a fan of both creators, this intrigued me. The story follows a young man who sets off to backpack around Europe after his mother dies and the rest of his life falls apart. In Italy, he begins a flirtation with an attractive-yet-aloof young woman, and the two spend a lot of time walking and talking around her scenic coastal village, much like Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy did in Linklater’s Before Sunrise series. However, the woman is harboring a dark secret—one that evokes the primordial horror of Lovecraft tales, and one that may pose a threat to more than just their relationship. To say more would be to spoil, but I definitely recommend checking the film out if you’re looking for an unusual twist on two familiar genres. And be sure to check other Drafthouse Films, both here at KPL and at downtown’s Alamo Drafthouse location!

 


Don’t Miss Hader and Wiig Together on Screen Again

Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader have great chemistry as estranged twins (Maggie and Milo,) who find their way back into each other’s lives as the result of Milo’s personal crisis. It turns out they are both having crises, and each could use the other’s help to get through it. Maggie finds Milo and invites him to stay at her home for a while, to get himself together. At first, Milo acts resentful, prickly—ok, obnoxious and self-centered. Maggie has her own prickly ways. Each have reasons for their resentment. Gradually they soften, and what unfolds is beautiful to observe.

The overall flavor of The Skeleton Twins is poignant and sometimes heartbreaking, laced with humor. In one hilarious scene, Milo tries to cheer Maggie up, and he launches into a camped-up rendition of Starship’s “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now.” Maggie ultimately responds in kind, and they both light up the screen.

Wiig and Hader worked together for years on Saturday Night Live, and they roll well with each other’s comedic styles. They are convincing as brother and sister, who ‘get’ each other, even after years of no contact.


Fortitude

Fortitude is a new drama set in an isolated, northern island somewhere near the arctic. Branded as the safest city in the world, with its governor hoping to develop a high concept hotel built inside of a glacier, the citizens of Fortitude seem normal enough if you ignore the multitude of personal secrets, infidelities, emotional traumas, corruption, frozen mammoths, and you guessed it, the bizarre string of murders that are beginning to shake this once calm town's residents. For fans of dark and suspenseful shows like The Bridge and True Detective.  

 


Life of Riley

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.


Girlhood

While the French film Girlhood won’t likely earn the buzz and accolades that Richard Linklater’s hit Boyhood received last year, it presents a more prescient depiction of adolescence, assimilation and identity of the underprivileged, disenchanted French teens looking to escape the housing projects located in the Parisian suburbs. While the story meanders along, feeling stale and uninspired at points, the cast does an admirable job at realistically embodying the emotional high and low points of a first love, the complex navigation of friendships and a future of unknown possibilities.


Leviathan

Leviathan (nominated for an Academy Award last year) is a grim portrait of one man's futile attempt at saving his home and property from a powerful and corrupt mayor who has plans to evict the hard drinking, auto mechanic. Saddled with an unhappy wife and an increasingly rebellious teenage son, Kolya invites an old army buddy turned Moscow lawyer to the small, northern town where he lives in hopes that the lawyer can dig up enough dirt on the mayor to get him to change his mind. While the dark story may be read as a symbol of Putin-era political corruption, the juxtaposition of the picturesque beauty of the coastal town and the ugliness of unaccountable authority paints a bleak picture of humanity and that of a Russian democracy in 2015.


1001 Movies You Must See...

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.


Watership Down

Last month, The Criterion Collection re-released a new version of the animated classic Watership Down (1978), an allegorical film that explores themes related to human conflict and political repression through the eyes of a band of rabbits, seeking a peaceful life, far away from the dangers posed by human development and other predatory animals. Working as an intense, often grim critique of the environmental cost of land development, a small group of rabbits led by Hazel, Bigwig and Fiver, attempt to flee both the dangers posed by people and an increasingly authoritarian rabbit society, one that could be read as a symbol of the rigid class divisions in Britain of the late 1970's. Beautifully drawn, scored and voiced, Watership Down hasn't lost its power to question and explore social and environmental dynamics, much of which remains germane today.


Hidden Gems

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.