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Staff Picks: Movies

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.

The Magnificent Ambersons

After watching the illuminating and highly entertaining documentary Magician: the astonishing life and work of Orson Welles, a film timely released to celebrate the centennial birth of the incomparable genius behind the 1941 masterpiece Citizen Kane, I thought it compulsory to sing the praises of Kane’s 1943 follow up, The Magnificent Ambersons—just one of many of Welles’ films shrouded in controversy and legend. After the success of Kane, Welles decided again to focus on a rise and fall motif, this time concentrating on the decline of an entire Midwestern family’s fortune and standing as pride, generational conflict and ideological stasis erodes family unity. It’s a great film as it stands but there are many Welles purists who would argue that the “real” work has yet to be seen. After completing a rough cut of the film, Welles departed to Brazil in order to work on a wartime film called It’s All True. While overseas, RKO Radio Pictures (the studio) took over production of the film, including re-cutting the original and shooting additional scenes against the protestation of Welles. It has been argued that the Welles cut differs dramatically with the studio version, including the ending of the film and overall tone.

Dazed and Confused 22 Years On

Appropriately selected as part of the Criterion Collection, Richard Linklater's celebratory portrait of 1970's high school culture is one of his best films and the one that introduced the world to future stars Ben Affleck, Parker Posey and Matthew McConaughey. Much of the film centers around the stereotypical activities of rebellious and anxiety-ridden kids as school gets out for the summer. The freshman students worry about the hazing rituals they'll face and the seniors fret about their future while still taking time out to party to classic rock anthems. It's a loving and personal work about youthful dreaming as much as it a hilarious look at the absurd yet significant moments young people go through before adulthood kicks in.

Bottle Rocket

Today Wes Anderson is considered one of the most original and inventive directors working who is beloved by the critics while also commercially successful. So singular are his works that even the casual observer would likely recognize his stylistic flare, thematic tropes and continual collaboration with particular writers and actors (parodies of his films are commonplace). Like most first works, Bottle Rocket shows a great deal of promise but lacks some of the visual panache and flamboyant use of color and mise en scene that gives his later films such vitality and depth. Yet, it's still an accomplished work with lovable but flawed characters journeying through their need for love or family by way of a bumbled heist.

5 Great Movies You Probably Have Not Seen

Just kidding, some of you have likely seen a few of these little treasures buried deep within our movie collection. 

Eternity and a Day--A work of mesmerizing poetry about a dying man's struggle to reconcile his past while befriending a young boy living precariously on the streets of Greece.

The Actuality Dramas of Allan King--A weirdly affecting assortment of "reality-based" documentaries that touch on subjects like marriage, end of life care and a 1970's counter-culture commune in Canada.

Like Father Like Son--A film that asks the question, what would you do if your biological son had been switched at birth with another child from a family with lesser means? Gut gripping stuff.

The American Friend--Most know of Wim Wenders through his classic film Wings of Desire but there's a lot to like about this German/English language adaptation of a Patricia Highsmith story that stars Bruno Ganz and the always unhinged Dennis Hopper.

George Washington--A classic "indie" film set in the south that seems to be under-appreciated and unknown. It's a quirky coming of age drama that takes place in North Carolina over a single summer. A group of young kids are confronted  with tough choices as they attempt to grapple with a secret.   

Summer Vacation Is for Laughs

Not satisfied with 2015 humor? Looking for some older films with vintage comedy? Look no further than these classic send up’s, satires, spoofs, and screwballs from the incomparable Criterion Collection. It’s just not a distributor of grim, art house movies. Some of the best films that sought to activate your funny bone have been cleaned up, remastered and re-released back into cultural circulation. Some of my favorites include:

Dazed and Confused

Frances Ha

Kicking and Screaming

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou

This Is Spinal Tap


Sullivan's Travels

Harold and Maude


10 Best French Films from the 1960's

I love making lists. Of course, these are simply opinions but I thought I'd try my hand at coming up with the 10 best films from France during the 1960's. It was a great decade for film-making with several prominent directors producing innovative masterpieces that continue to inspire.

1. Contempt--Brigitte Bardot and Jean-Luc Godard at the height of their talents and popularity came together in this gorgeously shot work that investigates the messy businesses of the film industry and desire. It features one of the most moving and melancholic scores (Theme of Camille by Georges Delerue) that you'll ever hear.

2. Au Hasard Balthazar--Though I love Robert Bresson's earlier films A Man Escaped and Pickpocket, this is my favorite of Bresson's work. I'm not sure suffering has been depicted both so beautifully and with such heartbreaking cruelty.

3. My Night at Maud's--Truffaut and Godard have gotten most of the ink as the two primary directors of the Nuevo Vague but Eric Rohmer's style and approach to subject matter and narrative is just as unique and just as innovative.

4. La Jette--The enigmatic Chris Marker's brilliant dystopian, tone poem (using only still photographs) was the inspiration for Terry Gilliam's film 13 Monkeys.

5. Last Year at Marienbad--Requiring of multiple viewings, this mesmerizing puzzle of a film continues to confound audiences with it's anti-linear narrative and unreliable narrators. If you thought that Memento, Upstream Color or Inception were confusing, check this out and have your mind be opened and scrambled. 

6. Playtime--A wordless masterpiece of absurdity and social criticism that highlighted Tati's questioning of the cool, sleek, dehumanizing nature of modernism and its architecture.

7. Pierre Le Fou--Godard's anarchic mash up of color, pastiche, politics, satire, and text reunites Godard with Jean Paul Belmondo (Breathless).

8. Army of Shadows--You simply have to have a Melville movie on this list given his track record for dark, noirish films that breathed new life into the crime thriller genre. Army of Shadows drew upon Melville's knowledge and experience of resistance fighters struggling against the Vichy and Nazi regimes during the war.

9. Jules and Jim--Following The 400 Blows and Shoot the Piano Player, Francois Truffaut's portrait of a love triangle over the course of 25 years further cemented his reputation as one the best directors on the planet.

10.Le Trou-- Next to Bresson's A Man Escaped, arguably the best of the best of prison break-out films.  

Ozu's Family Dramas

The great Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu’s post-WWII work returns again and again to his interest in domestic drama and the sometimes strained relationship between old and young, traditional and modern. His final film and second photographed in color was An Autumn Afternoon (1962). Like his 1948 masterpiece Late Spring, this final work presents the growing pressure a widower feels to locate for his daughter a husband to marry. Ozu’s style was one of exacting commitment to framing scenes symmetrically with a stationary camera set up on the floor (the “tatami shot”). The graceful simplicity of his films further their overall richness while neither excluding humor nor giving in to empty sentimentality. His poignant films capture the essence of the love between family members even when that love becomes interwoven within changing social roles, expectations and values. His films evoke both the melancholy and lament of an older generation’s realization that modernism, consumerism and technology had become a staple part of post-war Japan.


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


One doesn't merely watch an Andrei Tarkovsky film, they experience them. They are haunting, enigmatic poems that explore the kinds of questions plumbed by philosophers and theologians. There is nothing commercial nor common place about these slowly paced, gorgeously shot works of art that eschew specific meanings while meditating on the nature of existence, memory and the immaterial. Even among his peers, his creative vision and technical prowess were considered unmatched in their power to evoke and mystify. His movie-making heroes acknowledged his greatness throughout his short life with Ingmar Bergman saying, "When film is not a document, it is dream. That is why Tarkovsky is the greatest of them all. He moves with such naturalness in the room of dreams. He doesn't explain. What should he explain anyhow? He is a spectator, capable of staging his visions in the most unwieldy but, in a way, the most willing of media. All my life I have hammered on the doors of the rooms in which he moves so naturally."

Of his films, Stalker is my favorite and likely his most accessible for those unfamiliar with his style. The look of this film is almost indescribable. You simply have to see it to fully appreciate the level of artistry (all done without a Hollywood budget no less). Three men venture into the Zone, a quarantined area (ostensibly set in The Soviet Union) where a meteor had crashed. It has been rumored that the zone holds supernatural powers to grant individuals their special requests. A stalker, those who smuggle people into this no-go area, ventures deep into the heart of the unknown with two other characters, a writer and a professor, both of whom have different reasons for wanting to engage with the mysteries of the zone. Writer Geoff Dyer loved this film so much that he wrote an entire book about it called Zona.