Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Best Movies You've Never Heard Of (Part II)

The self-indulgence continues. Anything to avert our gaze from Democratic Congressional "muddling through" and the further Republican descent into nasty irrelevance.

19. The Trial (1962)
You'll either hate it or love it, and if you're in the "love it" camp with me, it'll be because of the sheer theatricality of the visual imagery, not because the story makes, uh, perfect sense or has a clear beginning, middle, and end. It's based on a Franz Kafka story, after all, so it's all about paranoia and motiveless malignity. Stars Anthony Perkins (a couple of years after he made Psycho) as the hapless "Josef K.," who finds he's an enemy of the state for reasons he can never figure out. The real star, however, is the great Orson Welles who directed it and also acts in it as a cigar-chomping lawyer. The set pieces are dazzling, in black and white (natch!).

20. I Am Cuba (1964)
I saw this amazing Russian-made propaganda piece only recently, and perhaps we're far enough away politically from the Cuban Revolution to view this incredibly beautiful docu-drama without the over-burden of debilitating politics. The film tells several peasant stories and makes the case, effectively, for revolution against the corrupt, cruel Baptista regime. It's the visuals, again, that make this movie riveting and unforgettable.

21. Wings of Desire (1987)
Believe in angels? Then this is the movie for you, though prepare yourself for the jolt of discovering that an angel's existence is fraught in ways you never could have guessed. They stand watch over all our human grief and fury and longing, forced to witness silently and absorb it all patiently, without the release of emotion. This is German director Wim Winders' great poetic ode to post-war Berlin, which, though bombed-out and strafed as it was, proved a lovely venue for the story of one angel's quest to be released from heavenly duty (and detachment), to take on human form and human joy and the muddiness of decay. The scenes shot in the immense Berlin public library are too haunting and beautiful for words.

22. Trainspotting (1996)
When I heard it dealt with heroin addiction, I avoided it. I'm squeamish about needles. Senator Bob Dole, running for president against Bill Clinton at the time, attacked the movie as a threat to American values (he later admitted he'd not seen the film). Well, given the provocation, how could I not eventually check out what was supposed to destroy my eternal soul, if not my patriotism? Amazingly, I found Trainspotting so ... jaunty and outrageously funny and very strangely logical and, yes, morally strict. The main character, played by young Ewan McGregor (long before he was Obi-Wan Kenobi in those dreadful "Star Wars" prequels) is totally self-aware and undeluded. He sez, ruefully but in self-defense: "Choose Life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family. Choose a fucking big television, choose washing machines, cars, compact disc players and electrical tin openers. Choose good health, low cholesterol, and dental insurance. Choose fixed interest mortgage repayments. Choose a starter home. Choose your friends. Choose leisurewear and matching luggage. Choose a three-piece suit on hire purchase in a range of fucking fabrics. Choose DIY and wondering who the fuck you are on Sunday morning. Choose sitting on that couch watching mind-numbing, spirit-crushing game shows, stuffing fucking junk food into your mouth. Choose rotting away at the end of it all, pissing your last in a miserable home, nothing more than an embarrassment to the selfish, fucked up brats you spawned to replace yourselves. Choose your future. Choose life... But why would I want to do a thing like that? I chose not to choose life. I chose somethin' else. And the reasons? There are no reasons. Who needs reasons when you've got heroin?" Expertly directed by Danny Boyle, who recently achieved the much more mainstream "Slumdog Millionaire" (go figure the karma of that!), this is the first great movie on my list that's actually in color.

23. The Journey of August King (1996)
Made on location in the western North Carolina mountains, based on Asheville writer John Ehle's novel about an escaped slave girl and the white farmer who helps her despite himself, and directed by an Australian who had the right touch for depicting American regional culture in the 1820s, this was the undiscovered gem of 1996. A movie with so much heart and so much scenic beauty and so much actual research into early settlement in these mountains, it should be on everyone's must-see list.

24. City of God (2002)
Directed by Brazilian filmmaker Fernando Meirelles, this portrait of the wild children of the streets in Rio de Janeiro earned Meirelles a Best Director Oscar nomination in 2004 (he lost to Peter Jackson for "Lord of the Rings"). Meirelles brings a tough humanism to those mean streets, depicting both the realities of lives trapped in violence and the possibility of escape.

25. Frida (2002)
Three major contributions to this sensual, sexy bio-pic of Mexican revolutionary artist Frida Kahlo: Selma Hayek, starring as the artist; the inventive, sensitive direction of Julie Taymor, the woman behind the Broadway version of "The Lion King"; and some of the actual artwork of Kahlo which not only decorates the narrative but comes to life in surprising ways. What is depicted actually happened (mainly), making the surrealism of Kahlo's art seem cosily domestic. Plus you get a pretty good dose of Mexican history in the early 20th century.

26. The Corporation (2004)
The only true documentary on this list, and the only documentary you'll ever need to understand the fix our democracy now finds itself in -- a country of, by, and for large corporations. Made by a Canadian team who were not blinkered by nationalistic pieties, this film will certainly educate you and might just change your life.

27. Hustle and Flow (2005)
I had not seen the movie when it's main song, "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp," won the 2006 Academy Award for Best Original Song, beating out the far superior Dolly Parton song, "Travelin' Thru." I thought at the time, "Oh brother!" but then I got around to seeing the movie and discovered that it really IS hard out here for a pimp. In fact, the song -- the making of the song -- by pimp Terrence Howard is pretty much the plot of the movie, which is really in some sense a bio-pic about the city of Memphis, its black culture and its music scene. The fact that the writer/director of "Hustle and Flow" is a white boy from a privileged background just flat out amazes me, that he could muster that level of insight and empathy.

28. Paradise Now (2005)
A story about the recruitment, the training, and the self-doubt of Palestinian would-be suicide bombers, written and directed by an actual Palestinian. In other words, a dangerous subject told from a viewpoint not seen much in American media. It might have become a piece of pure propaganda, but that's not the case. It's a patient and understanding exploration of the social reality of that world and of its two main characters, childhood friends who have suffered under Israeli occupation and who have grown to hate and who are easily manipulated into wanting to end it all in a blaze of Israeli blood. I won't reveal what actually happens, but the focus is on the inner turmoil of one of those two boys, and it offers a perspective I'm glad to have.

29. The Squid and the Whale (2005)
Maybe the best movie ever made about the breakup of a marriage and the effects on children ... okay, a dark topic, but handled deftly (and with a lot of knowing humor) by writer/director Noah Baumbach, who drew on his own biography. Best thing: it stars Laura Linney as the mother, with Jeff Daniels as the father. I'd watch Laura Linney read the phonebook any day. With pleasure.

30. The Weather Man (2005)
When's the last time Nicholas Cage made a good movie? We date it to "Raising Arizona" and "Moonstruck" in 1987. Then came all that dreck, stuff like "Honeymoon in Vegas" and those awful "National Treasure" movies and (ick) "Ghost Rider." But tucked in there was this little adult gem, which absolutely nobody went to see but which deserved a big and wide audience. Cage plays a middle-aged man who earns a very good salary as a Chicago TV weatherman, without, ahem, meteorological qualifications. People hate him automatically because he forecasts the weather, and he often gets it wrong. His wife has left him, his kids are a trainwreck, his own father (played by Michael Caine) is a successful writer, a man with purpose and distinction in his life. The weatherman-son has neither. This is a comedy, yes, but also a serious look at the true nature of "success" and the importance of human connections.

31. Friends with Money (2006)
Written and directed by independent moviemaker Nicole Holofcener, with the radiant Catherine Keener (she who can do no wrong) and (surprise) Jennifer Aniston, playing very much against type as a poor woman who cleans other people's houses. It's an ensemble piece, featuring the intertwining lives and jealousies of four women friends, some of whom have money and some of whom don't, some of whom have men and some of whom don't. It's funny and carefully observed and nuanced ... all the qualities that mainstream Hollywood junk doesn't offer.

32. Brand Upon the Brain (2006)
One of the oddest, warped-est, funniest films you'll ever see, done by Canadian Guy Maddin very much in the style of mid-1920s German expressionist silent film with voice-over narration by Isabella Rossellini. If you have no taste for silent movies, you might want to avoid this. But if you like the pioneering achievements of early moving pictures, you'll find this "towering monument to weird" (as it's been described) both unforgettable and often laugh-out-loud funny. And you'll wonder, how did Guy Maddin do that?

33. I Served the King of England (2006)
A Polish movie about both Nazi-sympathizers and Nazi-haters in Poland before, during, and after World War II, but that's just the topic. The tone of this is pure hilarity, or at least dark comedy, with the main character a little Candide-like figure of surpassing innocence and wide-eyed acceptance, who drifts through life at everyone's beck and call. It's freakin' brilliant. And very sexy.

34. Lars and the Real Girl (2007)
One of the more improbable plot devices in these last hundred years! A shy, practically dysfunctional young man falls in love with a rubber sex doll that he insists on treating like a living person. In fact, he treats her like a mighty virgin and becomes her courtly, chivalrous suitor, while his family and community humors the delusion in hopes of helping him out of his shell. Family and community end up buying into the "humanity" of the doll themselves, and everybody is healthier for it. Sounds as bad as a movie plot could get, right? But it works and is howlingly funny to boot.

35. In Bruges (2008)
Colin Farrell's best movie evah. He plays a mob hit man who is terribly unqualified for the job because of his guilty conscience: on a recent snuff job in London, he accidentally killed a child, and he is totally haunted by that memory. The Big Crime Boss has sent him to Bruges, Belgium, the best preserved medieval city in all of Europe, to hide out. Farrell is accompanied by his closest friend and fellow assassin, who is both fatherly toward him and also secretly assigned to rub him out on the Big Boss's orders. Mayhem, death, and redemption follow. The plot is the least of it. The dialogue is some of the most hilariously profane I've ever encountered in any movie, outdoing even Scorsese. "Maybe that's what hell is, the entire rest of eternity spent in fucking Bruges."

36. JCVD (2008)
Brace yourself: those initials stand for "Jean-Claude Van Damme," the action hero from Belgium who has starred in many a wildly improbable shoot-'em-up, but this film is a rueful reexamination of all that film hype, a very thoughtful psychological study by the film star himself of the differences between film stardom and the grubby realities. So, yes, Jean-Claude Van Damme plays "J.C.V.D." who stumbles into a post office robbery gone very wrong. J.C.V.D. first gets blamed by the police for masterminding the crime (because, hey! He's Jean-Claude Van Damme, and this is the sort of thing he could do) and then becomes chief negotiator between the real criminals and the police. It's a tour-de-force of actual, genuine acting, brave in its self-exposure, especially when near the end Van Damme speaks directly to the audience about the wear and tear that his violent film career has had on his psyche and our complicity in trapping him with that super-hero image.

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