Harakiri is part of "my canon," a totally arbitrary and subjective list of my 100 favorite movies. For reviews of other movies on this list, look for the Top 100 category on the right sidebar.
Edo, 1630: in the city that will become Tokyo, only three decades into the Tokugawa shogunate’s 250-year reign of Japan, a ronin appears at the House of Iyi. Disheveled, dour, compelled by a grim resolve, the ronin, Tsugumo Hanshiro (Tatsuya Nakadai), requests the use of the clan’s forecourt to commit harakiri, or ritual suicide by disembowelment. Though harakiri (or seppuku, to use its formal Japanese name) was perceived as an honorable action by samurai who had lost their masters and were forced to roam Japan during peacetime, there seems to be an ulterior motive in Hanshiro’s request; he speaks with the stoic dignity that defines the bushido code of honor, but his piercing glare simmers with rage. So begins one of the finest samurai films ever made: Harakiri (1962), a haunting, bitter allegory by Masaki Kobayashi that reflects Japan’s postwar “economic miracle” as much as it does the movie’s 17th-century feudal setting.
Pom Poko is part of "my canon," a totally arbitrary and subjective list of my 100 favorite movies. For reviews of other movies on this list, look for the Top 100 category on the right sidebar.
It’s hard to think of a more ceaselessly inventive, invigorating, lovely, and complex film than Pom Poko, Isao Takahata’s 1994 gem released by Studio Ghibli. That this masterwork comes in the form of a narrative about a gang of shapeshifting raccoons who rise up against the human developers that threaten to demolish their land makes the movie’s success even more astounding: silly on the surface but complicated at heart, Pom Poko is a seemingly inexhaustible nugget of riches and delights, visual and otherwise.
Tehran, sometime in the mid-to-late 1980s: the Iran-Iraq War is in full effect, with Saddam Hussein’s air forces bombing Tehran mercilessly in an effort to shatter morale. The details of the war are hardly exposited, which is fair: for the citizens caught in the middle, there was no logic or historical context, only two countries with longstanding animosity trying to weaken the other and reclaim land.
The title instantly poses associations with the well-trodden genre: where are Western’s figurative cowboys and Indians? Do we find a civilization lurching uncomfortably into modern times? Is there frontier justice, a sense of a moral code being written spontaneously in blood and sweat and dust? All of these things might be detected in Western, but it soon becomes apparent that the deeper meaning of the title is geopolitical. In a tiny Bulgarian village, perched on the border between the “West” of Europe and the “East” of Turkey (and, across the Black Sea, Russia), notions of nationalism, wealth, and masculinity are ready to combust.
Replication plays a major role in Blade Runner 2049, not only in the centrality of its replicant characters—uncanny androids who have developed (or learned how to imitate) the human capacity for rebellion—but also in its status as a sequel to 1982’s influential sci-fi neo-noir. Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner envisioned a near future bathed in neon and obsessed with simulacra, smuggling themes of affect and reality into a pulpy story of a grizzled “blade runner” tasked with eliminating troublesome replicants. Those themes might not be as profound as Blade Runner often makes them out to be—the question of what it means to be human is posed in a broad, cursory manner, more of a plot device than a thematic exploration—but the film is a stylistic masterwork, offering a chaotic, cyber-dystopian world that has become entrenched in our pop-culture consciousness.
If you’re wondering why Asghar Farhadi’s acclaimed third feature, Fireworks Wednesday, hasn’t gotten an American release until now—ten years after its original release in Iran—the answer is unsurprising, if depressingly familiar: money. In 2006, Asghar Farhadi was a less recognized name internationally than Jafar Panahi, whose Offside was released the same year, thus "saturating" the market for Iranian film in the United States, at least as far as film distributors were concerned. So while Fireworks Wednesday’s original American release was limited to the festival circuit, its belated distribution ten years later—after A Separation (2011) and The Past (2013) have cemented Farhadi as one of modern cinema’s great humanist filmmakers—amends that mistake, proving why Farhadi deserves to be mentioned alongside his compatriots Panahi and Abbas Kiarostami (though his style, tone, and subjects differ markedly from them).
First-time directors throughout the history of film have turned to the horror genre to make an indelible mark. “Godfather of Gore” Herschell Gordon Lewis made a living knocking out schlocky horror pics on minuscule budgets; John Carpenter defined a subgenre with his first feature, Halloween (1978). David Lynch avoided the confines of the horror genre per se, but still made terrifying early shorts and one of the most hauntingly beautiful feature debuts with Eraserhead (1977); and a few decades later, Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick, with the help of some shrewd and influential online marketing, made blurry handheld video truly frightening in The Blair Witch Project (1999).
Rosemary's Baby is part of "my canon," a totally arbitrary and subjective list of my 100 favorite movies. For reviews of other movies on this list, look for the Top 100 category on the right sidebar.
The most chilling moment in Rosemary’s Baby sounds like nothing at all: by now convinced that every man she knows has conspired to offer her unborn baby to Satan, Rosemary waits in a phone booth, trapped and terrorized, for a phone call from an obstetrician named Dr. Hill. Considering her husband, the elderly couple next door, and another doctor named Sapirstein all seem to be in on this treacherous plot, Rosemary has reason to distrust everyone. Having finally picked up a call from Dr. Hill, Rosemary doesn’t notice when a tall, hulking man approaches the phone booth, his back facing the audience. The camera tracks slightly right and downward, there’s a brief musical cue on the soundtrack—and that’s it. The effect of such a minuscule formal choice, however, is shattering, as this unknown man comes to symbolize all of the evil besieging Rosemary: from her husband and friends, the supposed terrain of love and family; from a heteronormative culture, which sees Rosemary’s pregnancy as her ultimate worth in marriage; and from the patriarchal medical field, which prescribes dubious pills and concoctions and expects only silence and obedience from Rosemary.
The line between law and larceny has always been fuzzy in America, but that doesn’t mean we need another rote crime saga about how cops and criminals are flipsides of the same corrupt coin. This is a lesson Scott Cooper could have learned before making Black Mass, a blunt and tacky gangster film that offers absolutely nothing new in the way of thematic insight or visceral excitement. As the credits and promotional materials proudly state, the movie is “based on a true story”: that of James “Whitey” Bulger, a notorious South Boston kingpin who partnered with the FBI to take down the Italian mafia, only to exploit those connections to expand his crime empire throughout the city. Despite its real-world origins, though, Black Mass can only come off as forced and generic, developing a bloodsoaked storyline familiar to anyone who’s seen Goodfellas or American Gangster (or Prince of the City or The Godfather or Serpico or pretty much any crime picture you can think of).
A surefire contender for best film of the year has already arrived with Alex Ross Perry’s Queen of Earth, a shapeshifting riddle that’s equally hypnotic and haunting. At a remote lakeside home somewhere in New York, two old friends reunite: Catherine (Elisabeth Moss), who is still reeling from the near-simultaneous death of her father and a breakup with her longtime boyfriend; and Virginia (Katherine Waterston), whose relatives own the house and who is all too content (as Catherine repeatedly reminds her) to laze around every day, relying on her family’s wealth. So maybe "old friends" isn’t the best way to describe them; “diametrically opposed forces of nature” might be more appropriate, their emotions (and our sympathies with them) shifting practically from scene to scene. That Queen of Earth allows two incredible actresses to dig their claws into meaty, insightful roles—and adopts the chilling style of a psychological horror movie to boot—only scratches the surface of how complex and bewitching the movie is.