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Staff Picks: Movies

IRL PT.1: A Wretch Retches

We are living in a golden age of documentary filmmaking. Just in the last couple of years alone, I’ve seen several nonfiction works that have transcended what the medium has heretofore accomplished. I intend to highlight some of these films over my next several recommendations.

The first of the films I want to promote, The Act of Killing, was a contender* for Best Documentary Feature at last year’s Academy Awards. Directed by Joshua Oppenheimer and executive produced by two of the greatest documentarians of all time, Errol Morris and Werner Herzog, Killing examines the Indonesian killings of the mid-1960s through the eyes of several of the perpetrators. A handful of these mass murderers are invited by the filmmakers to recreate and film scenes about their experiences during the genocide. Disturbing and harrowing, Killing asks these decidedly evil humans—who have never faced any punishment for their crimes against humanity—to put themselves in the shoes of the hundreds of thousands of victims who suffered and died at their very hands. By the end, guilt will manifest itself in a very real, physiological way. The Act of Killing is not easy to watch, but it is an important and unique film—there has undoubtedly never been a film like it before**.


*Tragically, The Act of Killing did not win the Best Documentary Oscar that year; the winner instead was the very nice and not-at-all challenging film 20 Feet from Stardom, a film about back-up singers. Sometimes the Academy gets it wrong.

**But now this unique film has a critically-acclaimed companion piece, The Look of Silence, which examines the Indonesian genocide from the perspective of the victims. As of this writing, Silence is now in theaters and is playing at our very own Alamo Drafthouse Kalamazoo. Please watch and support these very important movies.


Teenage

Teenage is not a conventional documentary film that attempts to provide a historical summary of the development of the idea of the “teenager” and its formation as an in-between stage between childhood and adulthood. Rather, it’s a film based upon the book of the same title by punk enthusiast, author Jon Savage. Conceived as an expressionist tone poem that ruminates on various teen movements, fads and stylistic trends during the years 1875-1945, Teenage stitches together voiced over diary entries culled from the United States, England and Germany. Rare archival footage is combined with stylized reenactments to give the film a dreamy, high fashion gloss. From the dance hall floors covered with swinging Jitterbugs to cropped haired Flappers expressing their new found freedom to consume and rebel in equal amounts to the misguided Nazi Youth and their antithesis the doomed Swing Kids, adolescence is shown as a transitory moment of excess, innocence lost and exuberance before the reckoning of adult complexities and truths kick in.


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.   


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


Soccer Stories

Fans of soccer/football will definitely want to check out the ESPN 30 for 30 documentary Soccer Stories, a fascinating collection of eight short films detailing the rich history of the sport. The most notable of the films is titled Hillsborough, an investigation behind the the tragic death of over 90 people during a match in a British stadium. Not only does the film shine a light on the likely causes of the disaster but it also exposes the callous cover-up and myth-making led by the local police, tabloid media and political elites, all of whom placed the blame for the catastrophe on the fans.


Cycling

The Tour de France is off and running and if you’re a bicycling enthusiast you’ll you want to check out our collection of documentaries, including:

The Armstrong Lie
Slaying the Badger
Yell for Cadel
Hell on Wheels
Fixation
Bicycle Dreams: The Race Across America
Vive le Tour

For book readers, check out these titles


The Source Family

How does the strongest boy in America transition from a Judo-loving war hero and murderer into a successful health food restaurateur only to become a cult-controlling mystic guru to rich Los Angeles hippies? The answer rests within the gripping tale of the Source Family, a bizarre cult that began in Los Angeles in 1970 and ended five years later in Hawaii. Led by Father Yod, aka Jim Baker, the Eastern religion-inspired group was comprised of mostly young, doped up kids from Los Angeles who were drawn to Baker’s charms and cosmic cool. Not as well-known as Charles Manson or Jim Jones, Baker’s journey from overseeing a popular vegetarian restaurant on the Sunset Strip to leading an almost too good to be true cliché of a group of mentally controlled automatons is a fascinating and faaaaaaar out trip of a documentary that highlights the dangers of group-think.


Remembering Albert Maysles

Albert Maysles, the trailblazing documentary filmmaker passed away a few months ago but his unique cinematic and narrative vision, innovative editing practices and observational attentiveness are still available to enjoy through the viewing of some of his most important works, including: Grey Gardens, Gimme Shelter, Salesman, LaLee's Kin: The Legacy of Cotton (coming soon!), and Primary.


Let the Fire Burn

This an electrifying documentary released in 2013 that avoids the stylistic structures and editing of many of today’s nonfiction features. In fact, the film is entirely culled from archival news footage and from videotaped meetings led by city leaders and officials in the wake of the tragic events that took place on May 13th, 1985. Let the Fire Burn is a gripping and tense work of filmmaking that addresses subjects like police brutality, political corruption, institutional racism, freedom of speech, the limits of ‘religious’ freedom, and the right of groups to live outside of established social norms and values. Nuanced and thoughtful, the director never leads viewers down a path toward rigid conclusions or moral judgments but rather presents the social and historical complexities as they played out on local television.


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.