Eyes Without a Face
If The Night of the Hunter (1955) is the most savagely beautiful fairy tale in the history of movies, Georges Franju’s Eyes without a Face is a close second. The contradictory tone of Franju’s film—it’s chilly and tragic, lurid and graceful—is essential to its ethereal horror, a lingering unease as solemn as it is terrifying. Like many of the best horror movies, it holds the awful corruptibility of man in one hand and an empathetic pity in the other, taking advantage of the horror genre’s potential to show human beings at their best and worst extremes.
Norte, the End of History
Over the last decade, the Filipino film industry has quietly been producing some of the most unique movies on the planet. (I urge you to see the ravishing melodrama The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveiros in particular.) One of the highlights of the Philippines’ cinematic output—especially among its semi-experimental, independent vein, which flourished after the waning of the country’s commercial industry—has been the director Lav Diaz, whose films have unfortunately received scant distribution in the US. That changes slightly with Norte, the End of History, Diaz’s four-hour opus inspired by Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. One of the director’s few films shot in color, with a 250-minute running time that’s actually modest by Diaz’s standards (his 2008 film Melancholia lasts nearly eight hours), Norte, the End of History strives to do no less than place a philosophical debate about guilt and free will in the context of modern Philippines’ stratified class system. In other words, it’s as thematically fascinating as it is socially urgent (not to mention visually astonishing), an achievement that embraces the complexity and insight of Dostoevsky while becoming distinctly its own creature.
Hector and the Search for Happiness
There’s more wisdom to be found inside a fortune cookie than in all of Hector and the Search for Happiness, which (inadvertently, you would hope) winds up as a tribute to the woe-is-me entitlement of the privileged western world. The titular Hector (Simon Pegg) is a well-to-do psychiatrist in London; he has a posh apartment overlooking the Thames and a gorgeous girlfriend (Rosamund Pike) named Clara who dotingly prepares his morning breakfast, ties his bowties, neatens his sock drawer, and generally does everything a man’s juvenile fantasy of saintly mother-sister-lover is expected to do. And yet, Hector feels that something is missing, which becomes clear when he starts freaking out at his patients during psychiatric sessions, ridiculing their petty problems. (The irony is apparently lost on him that he’s undergoing the same bourgeois-blasé crisis.) What is a neurotic man-child to do? Why, abandon his girlfriend and jet around the world in an ostentatious quest for “happiness,” of course. (The audience should take note: if you want to pursue a similar search for happiness, all you need is hundreds of thousands of dollars and friends in at least three different continents.)
The Lumière Brothers and Georges Méliès are often credited with laying the foundation for two divergent paths in film history: a documentary-like inclination towards realism in the former, and an emphasis on fantasy and spectacle in the latter. It is indeed hard to overstate the importance of both traditions in the ensuing century-plus of movies, but there’s a third and maybe equally significant influence that emerged from early French cinema. The crime serials that started populating storefront cinemas in France in the 1910s—by which point the powerhouse production companies (like Gaumont and Éclair) had already been established and urban audiences had begun flocking to movies as the modern era’s pop-culture medium of choice—walked a fine line between mainstream entertainment and subversive surrealism. French artists like Louis Aragon and Andre Breton praised such serials for inscribing the headlong velocity of the twentieth century onscreen.
Down by Law
Down by Law 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.
Down by Law is not only Jim Jarmusch’s finest film; it’s also one of the greatest American comedies ever made, not to mention one of the most American movies released over the last half-century. That last designation might seem somewhat meaningless—by what criteria do we deem something more or less American, considering the attributes of national cinemas always point towards generalization and simplification? When we think of distinctly American movies, big-budget Hollywood products or hard-boiled post-World War II film noir might come to mind. But Down by Law, in deceptively complex ways, is about American culture and communication: the natural landscape that’s both desolate and majestic, the simultaneous exploitation and celebration of immigrant populations, the cocky sense of entitlement that masks an all-consuming drive for success and happiness. Jarmusch’s poetic minimalism conceals one of the more remarkable expressions of "Americanness" ever exuded on film.
Twenty-four years after its original release, it’s nearly impossible to view Pulp Fiction on its own merits, as a self-contained entity. It’s easy enough to be thunderstruck by Quentin Tarantino’s ease with dialogue, his bold structural experimentation in only his second feature, and the sheer stylistic verve of this ultra-artificial concoction. But then, thoughts of overzealous film students proclaiming Pulp Fiction the greatest thing on earth—not to mention memories of the grating imitators it spawned (anyone remember 2 Days in the Valley?)—might rankle the sensibilities of film buffs who lament Tarantino’s pervasive influence on the industry. Yes, Pulp Fiction catalyzed the independent-film scene like a bolt of lightning and reached delirious, Möbius-strip heights of postmodernism—but whether or not that’s a good thing is another matter.
Most Western-movie heroes are stoic loners, wandering through a desolate desert landscape that threatens to overwhelm them. “Friendless,” Buster Keaton’s stone-faced character in the 1925 Western lampoon Go West, is no different, but this time Friendless’ solitude isn’t exactly by choice. A diminutive but resilient New Yorker who hops a train out West (following Horace Greeley’s aphoristic advice) and becomes an unlikely cowboy on a cattle ranch, Friendless is—like many Keaton heroes—oblivious in the face of danger. He triumphs by sheer luck and determination, taking to the cattle-rustling business in the same unassuming way that Johnnie Gray, Buster’s character in The General, assumes the cavalier role of Confederate spy.
Most horror-movie monsters are unleashed from somewhere deep within our collective id—the repressed fears which linger in “the dark, inaccessible part of our personality,” as Freud described it. We’re taught early in life that ghosts, vampires, and demons don’t really exist, but horror movies lure such terrors out into the open, agonizing the audience with a horrifying “what if…?” The one and only Godzilla, on the other hand—progenitor of all kaiju beasties and a pervasive influence on Spielberg, George Lucas, Guillermo del Toro, et al.—is frightening and poignant because it represents the disturbingly real. A manifestation of nuclear holocaust and a warning against the self-destruction that humans can wage, Godzilla remains shocking in how boldly it visualizes Japan’s recent war trauma: less than a decade after Hiroshima and Nagasaki became the first cities to suffer a nuclear attack, Japanese audiences were ravaged by a beast awakened by atomic testing. The sins of humanity repeat themselves perpetually.
Under the Skin
The human body is a ravishing enigma in Under the Skin—a landscape concealing a vast multitude of secrets. The kind of sci-fi film that uses the possibility of alien life to question the essence of our own, Jonathan Glazer’s third feature churns along on its overpowering audio-visual wavelength, intimating a story of death and alienation through foreboding, cryptic poetry. A cosmic opening resembles 2001’s “Star Gate” sequence and a number of swooping tracking shots bring The Shining to mind, but with his haunting, visceral austerity, Glazer refutes any accusations that he’s just another Kubrick imitator—proving instead that he’s one of this generation’s most exciting and commanding filmmakers.
The 39 Steps
Alfred Hitchcock’s nearly unquestioned reputation as “the Master of Suspense” (not to mention his broader acclaim by practically anyone who cares about movies as one of the masters of cinema) began to solidify around the time of The 39 Steps (1935). Made at the peak of the director’s British career—he would go on to make four more films in the UK (including 1938’s The Lady Vanishes) before being invited to Hollywood by David Selznick in 1939--The 39 Steps is practically a blueprint for Hitchcock’s later stylistic, narrative, and thematic obsessions. The story of a debonair, wrongly-accused man embroiled in a murder-espionage plot with a coolly erotic blonde, The 39 Steps foreshadows elements (if not entire plotlines) of Young and Innocent (1937), Saboteur (1942), The Wrong Man (1956), and North by Northwest (1959), among others. But, as is often the case in Hitchcock’s films, the narrative foundation doesn’t matter as much as the precise formal construction and witty visual entendres.