White Dog 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.
Nearly forty years after it was made, Samuel Fuller's White Dog is timelier and more sobering than ever—an outraged depiction of how white supremacy pervades a society, rotting it away from the inside. That such an indictment takes the guise of a visceral, pulpy thriller only adds to its intensity, though it's probably also (in part) what led to accusations that the movie was racist upon its release. (Calling this movie racist is like calling Fox News progressive; it's antithetical to their very reasons for existing.) The movie's central metaphor is overt but no less profound: it bears witness to the destruction of an innocent creature for the sake of domestic terrorism.
Mrs. Miniver is propaganda; there's no doubt about that. This is the film that Winston Churchill claimed did more for England's war efforts than a fleet of destroyers, with a rousing, climatic speech that was reprinted in Time and Look magazines, broadcast on Voice of America radio, and excerpted in leaflets dropped over ally and enemy nations alike. As Joseph Goebbels admiringly wrote, "its refined, powerful propagandistic tendency has up to now only been dreamed of." The extent to which Hollywood was and is part of the war machine, clamoring for public support as a cog in the military-industrial complex, remains unsettling even in the context of the so-called Great War. But propaganda can't be flatly dismissed for its ethical conundrums—to do so would require throwing out everything from Battleship Potemkin to I Am Cuba—and Mrs. Miniver should be remembered for what it is: a moving, richly interwoven, powerfully constructed drama about war intervening in the unspectacular lives of a stolid middle-class family.
I Walked with a Zombie
I Walked with a Zombie 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.
In its 69 minutes, I Walked with a Zombie packs a dense and fascinating allegory for the damning effects of slavery and the tenuous coexistence of cultures. Like many of the B-grade horror films produced by Val Lewton at RKO Studios, it began life with a certain set of parameters and expectations: saddled with the title I Walked with a Zombie, Lewton was tasked with adapting an American Weekly Magazine article about plantation workers in Haiti who are turned into "zombies" through rampant drug use, an insidious form of ongoing oppression. (One imagines RKO execs were mostly attracted to the title; such a storyline would have been hard to get by the Hollywood Hays Code at that time.) Instead, Lewton decided to make, as he called it, the "West Indies Jane Eyre," and concocted, with screenwriters Curt Siodmak and Ardel Wray, a story about the coma-stricken wife of a plantation owner and the Canadian nurse who believes that voodoo magic may help cure her. There are no actual zombies in the film and it's often closer to romantic melodrama than horror (like the Brontë novel that inspired it), but these numerous conflicting forces make for Lewton & Company's most haunting film.
The Curse of the Cat People
There are countless cases of Hollywood producers meddling with directors' artistic vision, as the crude demands of commercialism ruin ambitious creative endeavors. But it must be admitted that, sometimes, the push-and-pull between bottom-line moneymen and iconoclastic artists results in fascinatingly rich cinematic texts. Case in point: The Curse of the Cat People, which was marketed by RKO Studios as a sequel to the 1942 chiller Cat People, though the filmmakers—among them producer Val Lewton, directors Robert Wise and Gunther von Fritsch, and screenwriter DeWitt Bodeen—instead created a fantastic world ruled by childlike imagination, as well as a bewitching ode to the power of storytelling.
Pickpocket, the first film that Robert Bresson directed from an original script not based on a previous literary work, is a radically internalized film. Not unlike Bresson's previous film, A Man Escaped (but more audaciously), Pickpocket has a general plot outline and even a few scenes that suggest an action-thriller: an aimless young man in Paris decides to become a pickpocket, evades the police, and collaborates with two other thieves to wreak havoc on unsuspecting Parisians' pocketbooks. (Rumor has it that Bresson was even inspired by Samuel Fuller's pulpy 1953 film Pickup on South Street.) But Bresson uses this concept as a springboard to confront existential despair, to philosophize about the (perhaps fruitless) search for meaning, to expose a character's soul onscreen. This was the first true elaboration of Bresson's austere, "transcendental" style (to use Paul Schrader's description), and it still feels jarringly uncompromising.
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.
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 Wizard of Oz
Not many movies can claim to be a beloved landmark in our pop-culture consciousness as well as a personal favorite of such iconoclasts as Salman Rushdie and David Lynch. Such is the paradoxical nature of The Wizard of Oz, which is both a masterpiece of lavish, big-budget entertainment and a nightmarish journey into the uncanny—a shining example of how movies make our deepest childhood dreams and terrors come true. I remember first seeing The Wizard of Oz at five or six years old and being unable to sleep for days because of the Wicked Witch and her Flying Monkeys; even now, when the green-hued witch appears in a red fireball to destroy the peace of Munchkinland, or when her devilish monkeys flit across the ground and abscond with Dorothy into the sky, I shudder at such a primal image of innocence besieged by monstrous evil.
It’s tempting to begin with a valid concern about reviewing Citizen Kane: what more can be said? Constant contender for Best Film of All Time polls, fabled story of a Hollywood boy wonder rewriting the cinematic rules on his first attempt, thinly veiled biopic of news magnate William Randolph Hearst (who tried to destroy every print of the film after its release), a macabre allegory for the heights and horrors of American capitalism—it’s no exaggeration to claim that Citizen Kane is the most analyzed movie of all time. Because of this, most people—even some who have seen Orson Welles’ film several times—assume that Citizen Kane is a dry, dusty classic, studied beyond exhaustion, sitting in its insular cloud of acclaim, yielding no new surprises or delights after decades of dissection.