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.
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
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.
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
Kicking and Screaming
The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou
This Is Spinal Tap
Harold and Maude
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.
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.
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...
Liked The Royal Tenenbaums try Fanny and Alexander
Liked Late Spring try Yi Yi
Liked Savages try You Can Count on Me
Liked Summer with Monika try A Summer's Tale
Liked To Kill A Mocking Bird try The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter
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
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.
Ana Lily Amirpour, the director of A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, describes her debut film as an “Iranian Vampire Spaghetti Western.” It’s the perfect description of this slowly paced, moody film in which a vampire roams the streets of Bad City, preying on its most unseemly citizens. I would guess that Amirpour has been heavily influenced by Jim Jarmusch and David Lynch, and though she’s still honing her director skills, I would recommend this film to fans of Jarmusch and Lynch.
Close-Up is a masterpiece of both poetry and philosophy. Movies like this don’t come around but a couple of times a decade and when this 1990 film was released in the West to much acclaim, it made its Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami, an international star. It’s a tremendously moving film that mixes together fictional elements and scripted moments with real people playing versions of themselves as they reenact scenes from a bizarre, true event.
Kiarostami's film functions as a meditation on cinema’s verisimilitude and its power to blur binaries like true/false and fiction/documentary. Viewers will find it difficult to parse out what is true and what was constructed by Kiaraostami because of the inventive way he threads artifice into a depiction of the actual event, infusing it with universal themes in a sympathetic way. One of the most beguiling, radically ingenious films of the last century, Close-Up is widely considered one of cinema’s most important in pushing the art form forward.