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Staff Picks: Movies

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.

 


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.


TV Series Ending 2014-2015

Every May television networks announce the fate of their current lineup of television series and present their new shows to advertisers in what are called upfronts. The upfronts earlier this month weren't too shocking, but this year marks the end of many beloved and/or highly acclaimed series. While you wait for the slate of new shows to begin in the fall, re-watch a few that ended this year:

Parenthood
Parks and Recreation
Mad Men
The Newsroom
Boardwalk Empire
Sons of Anarchy
Justified
Glee
The Mentalist
Revenge

You can also place a hold on the first season of this year's smash hit, Empire, and catch up on the original runs of two cult favorites reportedly coming back in the near future: Twin Peaks and The X Files.


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.


The Arts

We have an amazing documentary film collection with a sizable portion dedicated to the subject area of art and biography. If you are looking for inspiration or want to learn about the creative vision of both well-known and obscure makers of things, check out some of these stimulating works:

Cutie and the Boxer
Marwencol
Exit Through the Gift Shop
Yves Klein, La Revolution Bleue
Marina Abramović: the artist is present
The Cool School: how LA learned to love modern art
Rivers and Tides: working with time
Painters Painting : a candid history of the New York art scene, 1940-1970
Gregory Crewdson: brief encounters
Ai Weiwei, Never Sorry
Guest of Cindy Sherman
Art 21 (television series)
The Woodmans
Visual acoustics: the modernism of Julius Shulman
Beautiful Losers
Jean-Michel Basquiat: the radiant child
And many, many more…


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.


Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin

This amazing PBS documentary won more than 25 awards; I’m not surprised. Bayard Rustin was a strong civil rights organizer, peace activist, openly gay man. He lived with pride, refusing to kowtow to those who said he should hide his sexual orientation on behalf of his antiracism organizing. The principles for which he stood are as vital today as they were during his lifetime.

The movie shows several clips of Rustin addressing a crowd. He was powerful and persuasive, whether speaking to Congress, other organizers or young people. I especially enjoyed a scene where Rustin was visiting children overseas. He interacted with them in a joyful, respectful way, teaching them to sing a song. Though they didn’t speak his language and he didn’t speak theirs, they connected, and the kids responded to his kindness and enthusiasm.

The film includes interviews with many people who knew Rustin personally and/or professionally. One of his colleagues on the organizing committee of the famous 1963 March on Washington for Jobs & Freedom, current Congresswoman Eleanore Holmes Norton, talked about how politicians and the news media discouraged the organizers from trying to create the march. Yet they didn’t realize that it just couldn’t fail, with an organizer like Bayard Rustin behind it. “They didn’t know what I knew, and that was that the best organizer on the planet was organizing this one!”

In August, 1963, Ms. Norton volunteered to stay in the March on Washington office till the eleventh hour, answering last-minute phone calls, which meant she had to fly on a plane to the March. “… And If I live to be 500, I will never forget what I saw….” The film then cut to a birds-eye view of the National Mall from above, completely filled with thousands of people marching peacefully.

There are many moving scenes in this film about Bayard Rustin and his influence on social justice across the years. I wrote this above, and I’ll write it again: The principles for which he stood are as vital today as they were during his lifetime.


Nothing Is What It Seems

One of the most significant and original British directors of the post-war era, Nicolas Roeg has carved out a unique and influential oeuvre, making radically inventive films that advanced the grammar of cinema. Narratively complex and often puzzling films that work like mosaics, his films tend to have very powerful images and enigmatic shifts in tone that work to foster unease and uncertainty. Known for innovations in plotting, sound effects and editing, Roeg’s most well-known movies are his finest beginning in 1970 with the beguiling Performance, starring Mick Jagger. Walkabout (1971), Don’t Look Now (1973), The Man Who Fell to Earth (1975), Bad Timing (1980), and Insignificance (1985) have all been deemed by critics as significant contributions to movie making for their adventurous, envelope-pushing qualities. The Criterion Collection has recently released arguably his best and most commercially successful film, the psychological thriller Don’t Look Now, a film so full of misdirection and subtle ambiguities, viewers will want to return again and again to plumb its possible meanings. The film, ostensibly about a grieving couple working through their trauma takes on a more sinister tone when viewers are confronted early on in the film with the possibility that “nothing is what it seems.” An absolute masterpiece without categorization.


God Help the Girl

For fans of the Scottish musical group Belle and Sebastian, it will come as no surprise that the recently released musical God Help the Girl is a film that mirrors the vision, style and conceptual interests of the band’s singer Stuart Murdoch. Murdoch wrote the music and the script as well as directing this charming, respectable first effort. Light on the maudlin and mawkish for a musical, yet a bit heavy on the “yeah right” moments, those who fall for the modish surface of the film and who already enjoy Belle and Sebastian’s tunes will embrace the film’s strengths while likely ignoring the uninspired story that centers on the forming of a pop group.