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.
Certain Women is the kind of movie that seems simple on the surface, but beyond the most obvious narrative level, its scope is almost limitless. This is director Kelly Reichardt's typical approach, to express complex ideas and social mechanics through stories that feel low-key and tranquil at first glance. Old Joy (2006) follows two estranged friends as they reunite on a hiking trip, but the growing rift between them speaks volumes about class inequality and notions of responsibility in American life. Wendy and Lucy (2008) observes the relationship between a woman and her dog, but it's one of the most shattering portrayals of how financial hardship can affect and endanger the bonds we hold most dear. Even Meek's Cutoff (2010), a pseudo-Western in which a band of travelers becomes lost and faces mortality in the arid Oregonian desert, is closer to the observational cinema of Chantal Akerman than a survival drama. Now, Certain Women, a triptych of stories following women living in modern-day Montana, is so reserved and open-ended in its storytelling that the stakes feel low at times, but that imperturbable surface hides a firestorm of emotions and ideas.
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.
Most American movies about motherhood seem obligated to portray it as a blissful, transcendent experience: your life as a woman doesn't truly begin, these movies seem to imply, until you've had a child. While that may ring true for some mothers, it ignores the vast number of women for whom parenthood is an ambivalent, anxiety-ridden, life-defining ordeal, or who felt pressured (by their partners, by society) to have children in the first place. Mainstream comedies like Knocked Up and Waitress, ostensibly about unwanted pregnancy and the pressures facing first-time mothers, inevitably end with the realization that parenthood is what these characters wanted all along, the ultimate vocation that will give their life meaning. Even something like Bad Moms (not surprisingly) avoids commenting seriously on the trials of motherhood in favor of a generic, "let loose and live a little" vibe, in which the stresses of nine-to-five jobs, indifferent husbands, and upper-crust PTA boards can always be solved by finding a sitter and indulging in a night of debauchery.
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.
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).
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.