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Staff Picks: Movies

Citizen Four

What ultimately makes the Academy Award-winning documentary film Citizen Four so refreshing and such a fascinating piece of cinema is that the film’s subject was essentially filmed in real time over the course of several days, when Edward Snowden was holed up in a Hong Kong hotel room after leaking classified NSA documents to several journalists and news outlets. This element of being a fly on the wall provides a unique viewer experience, giving the audience unfiltered access to Snowden’s emotional state and personal motivations as he watches his entire life unravel. I’m not sure the film will induce viewers to reevaluate their views about whether or not Snowden should be considered a whistle-blowing hero or a national traitor but as a piece of cinema, it is an absorbing work with all of the elements of a tense John Le Carre thriller that perfectly captures a historical moment. Snowden certainly comes off as a sensible everyman who deeply cares about the public’s interest and right to know about the NSA spying program rather than as an angry ideologue or megalomaniac looking for notoriety. A not to be missed film for fans of documentaries and for those interested in the debate between individual privacy rights and national security.

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.

Great Music in Great Movies

After re-watching the wonderful film The Deep Blue Sea, I did a little digging around to find out the name of the evocative music played throughout the film. British director Terence Davies, whose films prominently feature music to wonderful effect, chose as the emotional centerpiece of this harrowing film about the cost of unrequited love, the second movement of Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto. This got me thinking about some of my all-time favorite film scores and those pieces of music that bring so much to a movie’s overall impact. Here is a sampling:

• Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings featured in Platoon and The Elephant Man
Georges Delerue’s theme (Pierre et Nicole) for Francois Truffaut’s The Soft Skin
• The theme from A Very Long Engagement by Angelo Badalamenti
• The elegiac Cavatina from the 1978 Oscar Winner The Deer Hunter
• The haunting theme from Schindler’s List, composed by Itzhak Perlman
• Philip Glass’ music from the film The Hours
John Tavener’s The Lamb, featured throughout The Great Beauty
• Debussy’s Claire de Lune featured in the romantic film Frankie and Johnny
• Georges Delerue’s Theme of Camille featured in both the film Contempt and Casino
• Yann Tiersen’s score for Goodbye Lenin


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.

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.

Far from the Madding Crowd

One of this year’s finest works of cinema is a rare accomplishment, a book to film adaptation that sees the updated version live up to the acclaim of the classic novel by British writer Thomas Hardy. Actress Carey Mulligan’s performance and director Thomas Vinterberg’s deft treatment of the material breathes fresh life into Hardy’s 19th Century tale of a headstrong woman’s proto-feminist inclination to play the field on her terms as she is pursued by three very different suitors. Vinterberg’s expressive use of color and striking rural photography makes this luminous work register as much visually as it does emotionally. Mulligan’s charming performance as Bathsheba Everdene, a single, estate-owning woman determined to live as though she weren’t defined as a second class citizen bound to Victorian conventions and patriarchal expectations is one of this year’s best. But as with other Hardy novels, happiness and security are variable by class and misfortune with romance often falling victim to life’s paucity of assurances. As a modern woman driven by the sort of agency and self-confidence rarely depicted in period dramas, Bathsheba’s struggle to have it all comes at a cost, one that both Hardy understood in the 1870’s and one that may still resonate with contemporary viewers.

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.  

Dido Elizabeth Lindsay

The movie Belle has been in our Blu-ray collection for a year now. I finally got curious enough to take it home and watch it. I’m glad I did. I learned enough from the movie to want to know the facts

Dido Elizabeth Lindsay, also known as Belle, was the great niece of William Murray, the First Earl of Mansfield and the Lord Chief Justice. Her father was a naval officer and her mother was a slave in the West Indies. When she was just a girl her mother passed away so her father came and got her and entrusted her to his uncle. Belle became a companion to her cousin, Lady Elizabeth Murray, who was living in her uncle’s home, also because her mother had passed away. Belle lived in the Lord Chief Justice’s home for three decades. 

According to most sources (including the movie), she had a generous allowance, spent time with the family but did not eat with them. There was even talk that she was accepted as a member of the family. According to (an online reference guide to African American history) and the movie, Belle, Dido’s presence might have had some influence on the way the Earl, the highest ranking judge in Great Britain, ruled in two of his cases. In the Somerset Case Mansfield ruled that English law did not sanction slavery and in the Zong Massacre Case he ruled for the insurer who refused to pay a ship’s captain for cargo lost when they purposely threw a number of slaves overboard.

The movie certainly made use of their poetic license. In the movie Dido received an inheritance from her father as well as an unlikely love story. There is speculation that her relationship with her uncle’s family was very close. She did receive a small inheritance from the judge and his wife along with her freedom papers. She married John Davinier, a French gentleman’s steward, the year her uncle past away. She and John had three children and lived a comfortable life.