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.
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.
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.
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.
Civil War enthusiasts will be sorely disappointed if they watch the brilliant film Sherman’s March believing that the critically acclaimed, National Film Registry inclusion is about the 19th century war and the union general’s destructive rampage of the South. Ross McElwee’s autobiographical documentaries are poignant, self-deprecating and honest examinations of his life, notably his sometimes troubled relationship with family members, women and the South (he was born in Charlotte, NC). Noted for the humor and candor that he brings to his one-man, low production films about his angst-filled life, McElwee’s significant works are collected in The Ross McElwee DVD Collection. These are personal works that meditate on existential and universal themes: death, birth, love and family.
March is Women’s History Month and so in keeping with the theme of highlighting the achievements and contributions of women involved with movie-making, here’s a list of writers, directors and some of their groundbreaking works.
Ava DuVernay (I Will Follow, Middle of Nowhere, Selma)
Agnes Varda (Cleo from 5 to 7, Vagabond)
Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty)
Lena Dunham (Girls, Tiny Furniture)
Maya Deren (Maya Deren: Experimental Films)
Penny Marshall (A League of Their Own)
Allison Anders (Border Radio)
Claire Denis (White Material, Bastards)
Chantal Akerman (From the Other Side, Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles)
Lynne Ramsay (Ratcatcher)
Ida Lupino (The Hitchhiker)
Elaine May (The Birdcage, A New Leaf)
If you're looking to supplement your Valentine's Day activities with some movie-watching, here are some standard and not-so standard (the quirky, the weird and the sad) romantic films from the KPL collection.
An Affair to Remember
The Time Traveler's Wife
The Fault in Our Stars
Never Let Me Go
When Harry Met Sally
Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, Before Midnight
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Voyage In Italy
In the Mood for Love
Matter of Life and Death
The Age of Innocence
Out of Africa
The Way We Were
Harold and Maude
Writer, actor and filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich once said that it was always the French who told us what was great about American filmmaking, in essence, that the French tended to be more enthusiastic about particular films and filmmakers that were under-appreciated by American audiences and Hollywood studios (examples would include: Orson Welles, Sam Fuller and Howard Hawkes). It was also the French who took the American crime thriller genre and elements of film noir and who with stylish flare re-modeled two decades worth of brilliant movies that depicted criminal protagonists and their anti-social activities (see: Rififi, Bob the Gambler, Les Doulos, Le Samourai, Shoot the Piano Player, and Breathless).
One of these outstanding films is Touchez Pas Au Grisbi (1954), starring a washed up, leading man (Jean Gabin) and an unknown actress who would become an international star in the coming years (Jeanne Moreau). Everything simply clicks in this Jacques Brecker directed film about an aging gangster who just wants to retire after a big heist. Gabin plays the affable Max, a man who is both loved and respected by the women and fellow mobsters in his life. When his beloved but bumbling side-kick Riton becomes embroiled in a messy dispute with another gangster, Max must choose between his money and his friendship. The title translates as Don’t Touch the Loot but fans of film noir should certainly get their hands on this classic.
The following were my favorite movies of the past year that are available from the KPL movie collection. Some are classics, many are foreign language, a few are funny, and on occasion, a masterpiece or two made the list. There were also the casual discoveries of pulling a movie from the shelf without knowing that much about it and being pleasantly surprised. Hopefully, there's something for everyone to enjoy. It was a good year to cross off a few from my ever-growing bucket list of movies to watch.
The Funny: The Grand Budapest Hotel, Bull Durham, The Big Chill, Bad Words, and The Trip to Italy
The Masterpieces and Classics: Safe, Rififi, 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Vanishing, Persona, Double Indemnity, Eternity and a Day, Autumn Sonata, Pierre le Fou, Down By Law, Walkabout, Brute Force, The American Friend, Johnny Guitar, Ida, Hail Mary
The Surprises: Omar, Certified Copy, The Landlord, Black Orpheus, The Double, Still Walking, Secret Sunshine, Purple Noon, Gerry, Mystery Train, Happy Together, 2046, Captain Philips, Bronson
Documentaries: Black Fish, The Punk Singer, Beware Mr. Baker, Benjamin Smoke, The Bones Brigade: An Autobiography, These Birds Walk, Plimpton, The Armstrong Lie, Cousin Jules, Harry Dean Stanton.
One of my favorite films of the year comes from director/writer Jim Jarmusch, who has made a very charming movie (Only Lovers Left Alive) about...well...very cool vampires with excellent musical and literary tastes, hanging out in Detroit, lamenting the zombie-led destruction of all that which they consider civilized (vintage guitars, romantic poetry, art). The film feels a bit like a love letter to all of Jarmusch's influences and interests. Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston play two bummed out, very 21st Century vampires in love who have lived a very long time on earth and who are feeling a bit blue about the future of not only the world's swing toward ruin but their own crisis of faith in continuing their tiresome slog through the centuries. Hey, it's tough out there for a vampire.