Staff Picks: Movies
Staff-recommended viewing from the KPL catalog.
I watch more films than the average person, so while the allure of the Lake Michigan shore often takes priority during these warm, sunny months, I've still managed to find some time to view several exceptional films that are worth checking out.
- Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (Classic political satire from Frank Capra)
- La Vie En Rose (French biopic on singer Edith Piaf with an amazing performance from Marion Cotillard)
- Vivra Sa Vie (Classic from the French New Wave master)
- Avatar (Lot's of CGI without much of a plot, at least not an original one)
- Metropolitan (A cult indie classic from influential director Whit Stillman)
The French film director Jean-Luc Godard was arguably the centerpiece of the La Nouvelle Vague (New Wave). This loosely associated group of French directors and critics were heavily indebted to the contributions of the Italian Neorealism movement (Federico Fellini, Vittorio De Sica, Roberto Rossellini e.g.) and came to prominence in the late nineteen fifties and early sixties, seeking to revitalize French cinema with paradigmatic changes to the classical style of Hollywood movies, their plots and aesthetic approaches to narrative and editing techniques. Godard, who continues to work today, created some of world cinema’s most recognizable and influential films; his most important and conventional, produced between 1960 and 1967. For the beginner, I would recommend delving into Godard’s self conscious tales of cinematic referentiality, satiric deconstruction, and counter cultural politics in chronological order: Breathless (1960), Vivre sa vie (1962), Alphaville (1965), Pierrot le fou (1965) and Weekend (1967). A very stylized director who broke with traditional movie-making norms and cinematographical techniques throughout his long career, Godard's influence can be witnessed throughout contemporary movies as well as in the sort of jump-cut editing found in television commercials and MTV videos.
The Beaches of Agnes is a clever, Surrealist mash-up that chronicles the life and memories of Belgian director/screenwriter/editor/producer Agnes Varda. Employing both documentary and memoir, Varda whimsically stitches together her recollections using photographs, scenes from her films, and playful reenactments that retell her story, from her childhood in coastal France, her success as an influential film maker during the sixties and seventies, to her long marriage to French director Jacques Demy. In addition to being a love letter to the great film makers of French cinema, this is a fun, lively and visually experimental piece that locates the nebulous nature of memory as one of the primary characters.
Beaches of Agnes
This is following upon Ann's earlier post about the depth and diversity of our film and television collection. I'd also like to point to the marvelous array of foreign language movies and in particular those that have been released by the Criterion Collection. There is no better way to introduce yourself to the rich body of world cinema then to explore Criterion's growing pool of cult films, many of which have never found a broad audience here in the United States. I'm referring to Larisa Shepitko's heartbreaking The Ascent (Russian), François Truffaut's memorable new wave coming of age story The 400 Blows (French), Hong Kong action hits like John Woo's The Killers (Cantonese), the highly influential masterpiece Rashomon by Akira Kurosawa (Japanese), and Steven Soderbergh's provoking narrative about drug trafficking Traffic (Spanish/English).
Essential art house. Rashomon [videorecording]
Looking for a great film to watch after the kids have sleepily gone to bed after tearing open their gifts? Cozy up with a leopard skin Snuggie and warm glass of egg nog and put in a dvd of one of these critically acclaimed films.
The animated film Waltz With Bashir is a magnificent film that reminded me of the recently adapted graphic novel Persepolis, especially the way in which memoir, history and social turmoil are woven together not only as a compelling narrative form but also because in both works, the primary characters struggle for certainty, meaning and peace in a world of war, conflict and confusion.
The main plot takes place in contemporary Israel, where a man who was an Israeli soldier during the Lebanon/Israel War of the early 1980's sets out on a journey to rediscover his lost memories of the war and to determine what role, if any, he played in the Sabra and Shatila massacres. The film's director and protagonist Ari Folman depicts the war as a horrorific act against humanity, where neither side was innocent of committing atrocities. Winner of many awards in 2008 and nominated for a Best Foreign Film Academy Award, Waltz With Bashir is a haunting and visually rich meditation on memory, war and healing.
Learn more about this piece of history by accessing the library's information databases. They can put you in touch with the information you need to understand today's vital issues.
Waltz with Bashir [videorecording]
I love films that often appear at first glance to be very simple in form or plot yet possess a profound range of emotional depth and suggestive weight that when perfectly pitched with gorgeous cinematography and credible acting, lays bare the lyricism of the human condition even as characters struggle with loss and grief. In short, the film Cherry Blossoms conjures such a description. One of the best films I’ve seen all year.
What happens when a wife discovers that her husband is dying of a terminal illness but who then dies herself before telling him or their family? Subtle and yet packing an emotional punch, this film is a modern day love story that is heartbreaking yet poetic in its life affirming tone.
Cherry blossoms - Hanami [videorecording]
For weeks after watching The Cave of the Yellow Dog, my daughter and I would play “Cave of the Yellow Dog”, our own make-believe game based on the movie. She would pretend to be Nansal, the plucky young protagonist of the Mongolian/German film who, against her father’s wishes, really wants to keep a stray puppy. “But Papa,” she would say, “I really want to keep the dog. “Sorry Nansal,” I would play along. “Where there are dogs, there are wolves. Wolves will eat the sheep.”
This quietly beautiful film by Byambasuren Davaa portrays daily life for Nansal, her younger siblings, and their parents - also a family in real life. Nansal finds a black and white dog in a cave and names it Zochor (Spot). Her father forbids Nansal from keeping the dog, warning that wolves may follow and attack the family’s livestock. In an effort to find Zochor after he has run away, Nansal becomes lost and takes refuge with an old woman who tells her the story of the Cave of the Yellow Dog.
Many elements of this film on the edge of documentary work together to make it special. There is the realistic representation of kids being kids. Real life siblings Nansal, Nansalmaa, and Babbayar Batchuluun and their parents are shown, well, being a normal family. Then there's the sheer pluck of Nansal who, accompanied only by her dog Zochor, heads off on horseback to graze the sheep. Yet when Zochor runs off and Nansal herself becomes lost trying to find the dog, the movie never loses its calm feel. Finally, a subtle yet important theme of the film is contemporary Mongolia's creep towards consumer culture. Davaa explores this theme more overtly in The Story of the Weeping Camel.
Set under blue skies with a backdrop of mountains and windblown steppes, The Cave of the Yellow Dog is captivating for adults and children. The dialogue is Mongolian with a variety of languages available as subtitles if you and your kids don’t understand Mongolian. The great thing about foreign language films with subtitles is that they allow you - force you, really - to read the movie aloud to your pre-reading children when you choose to watch with them. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that kids under two years old not watch any TV and that those older than two watch no more than one to two hours a day of quality programming. This programming would be a great choice. I think reading the film aloud to my own pre-reading daughter may be what opened the movie up for make-believe games long after viewing.
The Cave of the Yellow Dog
The documentary film Bergman Island is an intimate portrait of one of the most influential, post-war film directors. Swedish auteur, Ingmar Bergman, known for his revolutionary work in cinema, television and theater created some of cinema’s most recognizable and enduring images over a long career, ending with his death in 2007. Known as a reclusive, solitary figure (he lived alone on an island off the coast of Sweden for many years) who rarely spoke about his life or the details of his creative achievements, Bergman Island explores the enigmatic director’s relationship with his parents and those he collaborated with on films, raises questions about his turbulent personal life and bares new insights about the muses, themes and inspirations behind his work. Bergman is best known for his films and television programs, The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries, Through a Glass Darkly, Persona, Fanny and Alexander, and Saraband.
Ingmar Bergman’s classic Wild Strawberries is an affectionately drawn portrait of nostalgic pining as the regrets of an aged doctor are exorcised through stark flashbacks and ominous dreams that force the film’s protagonist to rethink his life. Dr. Isak Borg sets out to trek across pastoral Sweden for the city of Lund, where he is to accept an honorary degree for his longtime commitment to medicine. Along the way, the doctor mines the psychic territory of his past by visiting seminal scenes of his life, many of which are painful recollections of regret and missed opportunity. By the end of the trip, Dr. Borg rediscovers a more meaningful sense of who he is as his inevitable death approaches. He will learn that the complicated paths of life are wrought with both beauty and disappointment. The final scene is art house cinema at its finest. Bergman’s other notable films are The Seventh Seal, Fanny and Alexander, and one of his most enigmatic films, Persona.
Essential art house. Wild strawberries [videorecording]