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Staff Picks: Movies

Best Sequels

From the November/December issue of Film Comment comes the magazine’s always provocative “Film Comment’s Trivial Top 20” list, curated by their contributors. What do you think? 

Best Sequels
1. The Godfather: Part II
2. Dawn of the Dead
3. The Empire Strikes Back
4. Before Sunset
5. The Bride of Frankenstein
6. For a Few Dollars More
7. Toy Story 2
8. Gremlins 2: The New Batch
9. Aliens
10. Evil Dead II
11. The Testament of Dr. Mabuse
12. Mad Max 2 aka The Road Warrior
13. A Shot in the Dark
14. Mad Max: Fury Road
15. Terminator 2: Judgment Day
16. Sanjuro
17. From Russia with Love
18. Aparajito
19. The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
20. French Connection II

White God

The 2015 Hungarian film White God is part R-rated fairy tale, part coming of age narrative, part allegory, and part revenge thriller. If this sounds tonally uneven, you’d be spot on in your analysis. These seemingly disparate constituents do by the end, congeal to form an interesting if not imperfect film. Set in a city that has banned mixed dog breeds, a young girl hopelessly searches for her pet after her father abandons the dog along the side of the road. Needless to say, the abused and demonized dogs in this town aren't going to take it sitting down and thus the element of getting even courses throughout. The film on the level of directing and dog training certainly deserves the acclaim it has received given the amazing results without the use of CGI.

Let the Fright One In

I am a fan of good horror, though good horror can be hard to find. If you’re looking to settle down with a top-notch scary movie for Halloween, here are some recommendations for you:

It Follows  – Hailed as an instant classic upon its release earlier this year, this unnerving, Detroit-based film centers around a curse that passes from person to person in which a terrifying, body-jumping entity pursues the victim ceaselessly—and you don’t want to be caught by it!

The Babadook  – Imagine Tim Burton wanted to use his storybook style to make you soil your pants. That’s what the titular creature in this Australian thriller feels like. Top it off with an unhealthy dose of the parental stress that comes with being a single parent raising a child with severe emotional problems, and you’ve got an intense, teeth-grinding thriller!

Let the Right One In  – When an emotionally-abused boy befriends the strange new girl next door, who happens to be a vampire subsisting off blood reaped in a most unseemly manner, the two socially isolated creatures form a relationship that leads to both brutal vengeance and unnerving consequences.

28 Days Later/28 Weeks Later – Oscar-winning director Danny Boyle kicked the (then un-played out) zombie genre into high gear by making his rage virus-infected undead fast! Both the original and the sequel provided plenty of both scares and social commentary.

The Cabin in the Woods  – This horror-comedy is at once an homage to popular genre tropes throughout the ages, and a gory, twisty, laugh-out-loud thriller in and of itself. From producer, co-writer, and all-around geek guru Joss Whedon, this is one scary Cabin you want to visit!

Tucker & Dale vs. Evil – A couple of bumbling rednecks attempt to have relaxing vacation at a cabin out in the woods, but are mistaken for murderous lunatics by a gang of college kids who keep dying off through gory-yet-hilarious accidents.


One of the Best of 2015

Coming soon, our staff curated best-of round up will be posted for library users but in the meantime, here is one of my favorite movies released in 2015 that will make my list. 

Ex Machina is one of this year’s best films. Led by strong performances by actors Oscar Isaac and Alicia Vikander, director/writer Alex Garland’s debut doesn’t attempt to reinvent the clever, ideas-filled sci-fi movie that many have described it as being but it definitely doesn’t shy away from immersing the viewer in an original and intense examination of philosophical, scientific and moral investigations that feel both pertinent and cinematically fresh. Surely, it is a work that explores what so many science fiction films before it have tried to grapple with, the question of what makes us human in an age where artificial intelligence not only exists in the conceptual realm but in the everyday as well. What drives Ex Machina to stand out as a great film are the subtleties that the actors and the director bring to the weighty subject matter that should result in some abundant, late night conversations about the film’s themes, ambiguities and symbolism.

Top 5 Directors

Inspired by a recent filmspotting podcast (highly recommended for movie fans) episode where the two hosts asked their listeners to choose the five directors (and their films) they’d take with them to a deserted island, I thought I'd mull it over. Here’s who I would take with me, keeping in mind that this is not a list of my "favorite" directors but just those whose work I'd want access to while passing the time.

1. Wes Anderson—a great mixture of comedy and melancholia would keep my island dwelling emotional state evenly balanced.
2. Coen Brothers—the storytelling virtuoso of their genre films would fill in for an absence of books.
3. Martin Scorsese—For both the variety and quality of his oeuvre.
4. Ingmar Bergman—Bergman’s films have the excellence, the quantity and the kind of philosophical depth that would keep me ruminating on the big questions while stranded.
5. Stanley Kubrick—If he had only made Dr. Strangelove, Kubrick’s film making flair would be enough to keep my isolation bearable, but throw in The Killing, Paths of Glory, The Shining2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clock Work Orange, and Full Metal Jacket and you have more than enough masterworks to choose from. 

Honorable Mention Includes: Louis Malle, Jean-Luc Godard, Paul Thomas Anderson, Robert Bresson and Terence Malick.

Liked That, Try This

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...

Domestic Dramas--

Liked The Royal Tenenbaums try Fanny and Alexander

Liked Late Spring try Yi Yi

Liked Savages try You Can Count on Me

Summer Romances--

Liked Summer with Monika try A Summer's Tale

American Literature--

Liked To Kill A Mocking Bird try The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter

Film Noir--

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

Science Fiction--

Liked Interstellar try Solaris

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!



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.  


If Horror Could Win a Caldecott...

Every year, dozens of horror films are dumped on the movie-going public—many of them profitable, most of them awful. Thankfully, each year there always seems to be one or two gems that manage to make it to market, and as a fan of the genre, it is my duty to seek them out. Last year, one of these instant cult classics was The Babadook, the terrifying (if curiously titled) Australian film debut from writer-director Jennifer Kent. I discovered this film at my annual pilgrimage to the Traverse City Film Festival and have been singing its praises since.

The Babadook follows Amelia, a beleaguered single mother whose troubled young son, Samuel, is a very taxing ward. Samuel has a hyperactive fear of monsters and a predilection for making homemade weapons, which gets him into a lot of trouble both at home and at school. He constantly seeks nighttime refuge in his mother’s bed, tense and clinging. Amelia finds herself overworked, overstressed, and severely deprived of sleep. She also harbors an unspoken resentment of her son; she secretly blames him for the death of her husband, who died in a car accident while taking her to the hospital the night Samuel was born.

The film gets its title from a children’s storybook that Amelia finds in her house: Mister Babadook tells the tale of a ghastly figure in a black overcoat and top hat who terrorizes children and represents one’s darkest impulses. Once Amelia reads this book to her son, they begin to be tormented by an unsettling presence. But is there really a monster named Babadook after them, or is Amelia just becoming psychologically unraveled? Either way, danger will reach a boiling point.

The Babadook plays like a Tim Burton acid-trip gone horribly wrong. It’s arguably the most intense film I’ve ever sat through—even without the dread-inducing bogeyman, the reluctantly dutiful relationship between mother and son is such a source of angst and consternation that you’ll be clenching your fists and gritting your teeth for the majority of the film’s running time. All of which is to say, this film is a must-see for horror fans. It’s one that will get under your skin and stick with you, because much like the eponymous storybook suggests, once you let him in, you can’t get rid of The Babadook.


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.