Kalamazoo is really fortunate to be home to an Alamo Drafthouse; they are one of the most prestigious theater chains in the world. As a massive film geek, I don’t spend my movie-going dollars anywhere else. One reason for this (beyond the strict no-talking, no-texting policy) is their penchant for bringing independent, foreign, and art-house films to Kalamazoo—ones that would never normally play in our mid-sized market. In fact, the Austin-based company has its very own distribution arm and, as you can imagine, they specialize in “provocative, visionary and artfully unusual films new and old from around the world” (their own words). Some of the many great movies found under the Drafthouse Films label include A Band Called Death, The Act of Killing, The Overnighters, A Field in England, and many more.
One recent favorite of theirs I saw was a creepy indie film called Spring that one promotional blurb perfectly referred to as “Richard Linklater meets H.P. Lovecraft.” As a fan of both creators, this intrigued me. The story follows a young man who sets off to backpack around Europe after his mother dies and the rest of his life falls apart. In Italy, he begins a flirtation with an attractive-yet-aloof young woman, and the two spend a lot of time walking and talking around her scenic coastal village, much like Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy did in Linklater’s Before Sunrise series. However, the woman is harboring a dark secret—one that evokes the primordial horror of Lovecraft tales, and one that may pose a threat to more than just their relationship. To say more would be to spoil, but I definitely recommend checking the film out if you’re looking for an unusual twist on two familiar genres. And be sure to check other Drafthouse Films, both here at KPL and at downtown’s Alamo Drafthouse location!
Fortitude is a new drama set in an isolated, northern island somewhere near the arctic. Branded as the safest city in the world, with its governor hoping to develop a high concept hotel built inside of a glacier, the citizens of Fortitude seem normal enough if you ignore the multitude of personal secrets, infidelities, emotional traumas, corruption, frozen mammoths, and you guessed it, the bizarre string of murders that are beginning to shake this once calm town's residents. For fans of dark and suspenseful shows like The Bridge and True Detective.
Every year, dozens of horror films are dumped on the movie-going public—many of them profitable, most of them awful. Thankfully, each year there always seems to be one or two gems that manage to make it to market, and as a fan of the genre, it is my duty to seek them out. Last year, one of these instant cult classics was The Babadook, the terrifying (if curiously titled) Australian film debut from writer-director Jennifer Kent. I discovered this film at my annual pilgrimage to the Traverse City Film Festival and have been singing its praises since.
The Babadook follows Amelia, a beleaguered single mother whose troubled young son, Samuel, is a very taxing ward. Samuel has a hyperactive fear of monsters and a predilection for making homemade weapons, which gets him into a lot of trouble both at home and at school. He constantly seeks nighttime refuge in his mother’s bed, tense and clinging. Amelia finds herself overworked, overstressed, and severely deprived of sleep. She also harbors an unspoken resentment of her son; she secretly blames him for the death of her husband, who died in a car accident while taking her to the hospital the night Samuel was born.
The film gets its title from a children’s storybook that Amelia finds in her house: Mister Babadook tells the tale of a ghastly figure in a black overcoat and top hat who terrorizes children and represents one’s darkest impulses. Once Amelia reads this book to her son, they begin to be tormented by an unsettling presence. But is there really a monster named Babadook after them, or is Amelia just becoming psychologically unraveled? Either way, danger will reach a boiling point.
The Babadook plays like a Tim Burton acid-trip gone horribly wrong. It’s arguably the most intense film I’ve ever sat through—even without the dread-inducing bogeyman, the reluctantly dutiful relationship between mother and son is such a source of angst and consternation that you’ll be clenching your fists and gritting your teeth for the majority of the film’s running time. All of which is to say, this film is a must-see for horror fans. It’s one that will get under your skin and stick with you, because much like the eponymous storybook suggests, once you let him in, you can’t get rid of The Babadook.
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.
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.
March was a decent month for film viewing as I've finally gotten around to seeing some high quality documentaries like The Pleasures of Being Out of Step. Here are some other highlights for your consideration.
10. Fox Catcher
9. Top Five
8. Force Majeure
7. Boy Meets Girl
6. The Overnighters
5. Life Itself
4. Days of Being Wild
3. The Internet's Own Boy
2. The Soft Skin
1. A Summer's Tale (Eric Rohmer may not be as well known as his French New Wave compatriots Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut but this late film (1996), finally released in the United States, proved his knack for chatty characters on scenic locales could still elicit charming insights about youthful romance and relationships thirty years after his peak.
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)
I’m not gonna lie: As much as I personally loved Academy Award Best Picture winner Birdman more than expected winner Boyhood, I’m still shocked that the artsy and eccentric tale of a washed-up superhero actor trying to do “legitimate theater” (and please in your head imagine that pronounced as “theee-ATER”) beat out the wholesome, relatable, coming-of-age tale that was filmed over the course of twelve years. I’m certainly happy for Birdman—just not so happy about what it did to my Oscar pool. In addition to Best Picture, Birdman picked up wins for Best Director (Alejandro G. Iñárritu), Best Cinematography (Emmanuel Lubezki) and Best Original Screenplay (Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr. & Armando Bo).
In case you’d like to catch any of the other available Oscar winners that you may have missed, I’ve listed them below. Click on the links and place a hold on a copy today.
- My favorite film of the year, Whiplash, picked up three wins for Best Supporting Actor (J.K. Simmons), Best Film Editing (Tom Cross), and Best Sound Mixing.
- Many people won for working on Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel—except poor Wes Anderson himself; the film won for Best Original Score (Alexandre Desplat), Best Costume Design (Milena Canonero), Best Production Design (Adam Stockhausen), and Best Makeup and Hairstyling.
- Be sure to check out Eddie Redmayne’s Best Actor performance as Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything; it was a well-deserved win.
- Boyhood's lone win was for Best Supporting Actress (Patricia Arquette).
- Disney’s Big Hero 6 won for Best Animated Feature; the Best Animated Short winner, Feast, can be found on the Big Hero DVD or Blu-ray.
- Best Foreign Film winner Ida is amazing and you should watch it--regardless of your unfortunate and snooty hatred of subtitles.
The following winners will be released soon and are available for holds now:
Keep checking back for Still Alice, for which Julianne Moore won Best Actress, Selma, which featured Best Original Song winner “Glory” by John Legend and Common, and must-see Best Documentary Feature winner CitizenFour. We don’t have releases for these titles yet, but we will assuredly carry them.
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.