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Category Archives: Historical Movement / National Cinema Primers

A New Hollywood/ Film School Generation Primer

The period in American cinema from 1967 – 1980 has recently been anointed by some critics and historians as the last true golden age for Hollywood film production. This was a time of incredible risk-taking and creativity — when the first American film school graduates (Scorsese, Coppola, Lucas, Spielberg, et al) started to make an impact in Hollywood while a number of Hollywood’s older masters were able to take advantage of the “new freedoms” afforded by the death of the old studio system and its restrictive production code. It was also certainly the last era when the majority of America’s zeitgeist movies were aimed at adults rather than children and teenagers. In essaying the Easy Riders, Raging Bulls generation, I am deliberately casting my net wide by also including independent films in order to paint as full of a portrait of the era as possible. I’m also leaving off such touchstones as The Graduate, Harold and Maude, anything by Spielberg and Lucas, etc. because those films have never meant much to me personally and, besides, they’ve been written up enough elsewhere.

David Holzman’s Diary (McBride, 1967)

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A true American “kissing cousin” of the French New Wave, Jim McBride’s no-budget feature — made for just $2,500 in 1967 money — is one of the great debut films, one of the great mock-documentaries (before the concept even existed) and one of the great movies about filmmaking. The premise is that the lead character, David Holzman (L.M. Kit Carson), an amateur filmmaker, decides upon losing his job to document his life with a 16mm camera — believing that the filmmaking process will allow him to better understand himself. But things only go from bad to worse as he loses his girlfriend, his filmmaking equipment and eventually his soul. As a portrait of existential despair, I don’t know whether this is a comedy or a horror movie. But it’s definitely a masterpiece. “Bring your life into focus, lad.”

Two-Lane Blacktop (Hellman, 1971)

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While 1969’s Easy Rider may have captured the zeitgeist at the time, Monte Hellman’s existential road movie from two years later looks a hell of a lot better — and more modern — from a 21st century vantage point: James Taylor and Dennis Wilson (pop musicians who favorably impress in their only acting roles) are a couple of long-haired gearheads who illegally drag-race their beloved 1955 Chevy for money. Warren Oates is the mysterious owner of a yellow GTO who challenges them to a coast-to-coast race. Laurie Bird is “the girl” who vies for all of their attention. Much of this film’s haunting power comes from the shape-shifting nature of Oates’ character, who invents a new identity for every hitch-hiker he picks up (and who thus resembles the narrator of Nog, the cult-classic novel by Blacktop‘s screenwriter Rudy Wurlitzer). Austere, beautiful and infused with an irresistible deadpan humor.

Fat City (Huston, 1972)

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John Huston, one of the American cinema’s most overrated filmmakers, was arguably the director from Hollywood’s Golden Age who most successfully took advantage of the death of the old studio system. Many of his best films came in the 1970s and 1980s when it was easier for him to take advantage of location shooting and laxer censorship laws. 1972’s Fat City, in spite of accruing a certain cult following, remains tragically underseen and is arguably Huston’s finest hour. Adapted by Leonard Gardner from his own novel, this incredible portrait of working-class life follows the opposite career trajectories of two boxers: the up-and-comer Ernie (Jeff Bridges) and the down-and-outer Tully (a terrific Stacy Keach). This is no Rocky-style underdog story, however. It’s a beautifully observed character study about losers struggling to survive in an authentically seedy milieu (the sets were designed by Dick Sylbert and the cinematographer was the peerless Conrad Hall).

The Godfather (Coppola, 1972)

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Francis Ford Coppola’s epic gangster saga is the rarest of feats, a cultural phenomenon that is also a great work of art. Transcending the pulp novel on which it’s based (and which Coppola was initially ashamed to adapt), every aspect of this movie is the stuff of legend: iconic performances by a heavyweight cast of Method actors (including Marlon Brando, Al Pacino and Robert Duvall), hauntingly beautiful Nina Rota score, cinematographer Gordon Willis’s innovative use of “Rembrandt lighting,” and a plot that achieves the proportions of a Shakespearean tragedy. A lot of people prefer the Godfather Part II but not me.

The Long Goodbye (Altman, 1973)

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Robert Altman’s masterful but wildly unfaithful adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s classic crime novel takes the legendary “hard-boiled” detective Philip Marlowe, has him incarnated by nebbishy Elliot Gould and deposits him in an incredibly absurd 1970s Los Angeles. The L.A. Altman portrays is one of pastel colors, where women eat hash brownies while practicing yoga, mobsters travel in curiously multiethnic packs and the local supermarket has too much of everything — except for the one brand of cat food that Marlowe desperately needs: the tone of the film, both elegiac and ridiculous, is set by the opening scene in which Marlowe attempts to trick his cat into eating a new, unfamiliar brand of cat food). Altman’s career was always hit or miss but this, for my money, represents one of the twin peaks of his career alongside of 1971’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller. Neither the Coen brothers’ Big Lebowski nor Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice would have been possible without it.

Chinatown (Polanski, 1974)

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Robert Towne’s complex original screenplay (one of the finest ever written) combines with Roman Polanski’s taut direction and Jack Nicholson’s charismatic but subdued lead performance as private eye J.J. Gittes to create this definitive neo-noir. As with the classic films noir of the 1940s — and the detective novels on which they were based — this begins with what seems like a “routine case” (of marital infidelity) that soon opens up a hellhole of political corruption involving land and water rights, murder and family secrets too terrible to be true. Released during the height of the Watergate scandal, and shortly before Nixon’s resignation, Chinatown captures the paranoia and mistrust of authority that characterized the era better than any other single American film. They don’t make ’em like this anymore.

A Woman Under the Influence (Cassavetes, 1974)

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John Cassavetes was the godfather of independent American cinema. His 1959 debut, the self-financed Shadows, tackled taboo subjects involving race and sexuality with a “DIY” spirit before the concept in American cinema even existed. While his entire filmography is a limitless treasure chest, this 1974 domestic drama probably deserves to be called his supreme masterpiece. Gena Rowlands (Cassavetes’ wife, muse and perennial leading lady) gives one of the greatest acting performances ever captured on celluloid as Mabel Longhetti, a woman somehow driven inexorably to madness by her status as the housewife and mother of a blue-collar Long Island family. Because of the stark realism, the emotional honesty, the refusal to bow to Hollywood conventions (much less cliches), I’ve never felt more devastated watching a movie than I have this one.

Taxi Driver (Scorsese, 1976)

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The qualities most associated with the New Hollywood/Film School Generation are 1. an innovative visual style 2. an awareness of film history (especially classic Hollywood and 1960s European art cinema) and 3. revisionist genre films centered on anti-heroes. Taxi Driver has all of these qualities in spades: the location photography turns pre-Disneyfied New York City into an Expressionist nightmare corresponding to the disintegrating mental state of protagonist Travis Bickle (Robert DeNiro). Director Martin Scorsese and screenwriter Paul Schrader deliberately draw upon film noir as well as the Hollywood western (the plot is essentially a rehash of The Searchers — with the crazed Bickle’s obsession with rescuing a teenage prostitute an updating of Ethan Edwards’ obsessive search for his kidnapped niece) while also adding a troubling dose of Robert Bresson-style spiritual redemption. One of the key films of the 1970s.

Killer of Sheep (Burnett, 1977)

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The directorial debut of UCLA film school grad Charles Burnett (it was his Master’s thesis), Killer of Sheep is one of the great American films of the 1970s. This plotless examination of the lives of a handful of residents of South Central Los Angeles served as a conscious rebuttal to the negative stereotypes of African Americans then prevalent in the American cinema. Effortlessly alternating between comedy and tragedy, as well as realistic and poetic modes, Burnett’s episodic narrative focuses primarily on Stan (Henry Gayle Sanders), a slaughterhouse worker who struggles to provide for his wife and children. Though this impresses because of the insider’s view it offers of life in a working class black neighborhood in the mid-1970s, the scenes of children goofing off, throwing rocks at one another and playing in railroad yards never fails to bring tears to my eyes because of how much it reminds me of my own childhood growing up in Charlotte, North Carolina in the 1980s (where we played in abandoned houses and had “dirt clod” wars). The awesome soundtrack provides a virtual audio tour through 20th century black American music, from Paul Robeson to Louis Armstrong to Little Walter to Earth, Wind and Fire.

Days of Heaven (Malick, 1978)

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Reclusive, secretive director Terrence Malick’s second — and best — movie is this bucolic 1978 study of the lives of migrant farm workers. The plot updates the love triangle between Abraham, Sarah and the Pharaoh of Egypt from the Book of Genesis (incarnated here by Richard Gere, Brooke Adams and Sam Shepard) to World War I-era America although it’s hard to imagine a Hollywood film being less plot-centered than this. The true value of Days of Heaven is as a sensory experience: images of the farmers at work against the backdrop of the growing, harvesting and reaping cycles — captured with an aching, painterly beauty by the great D.P. Nestor Almendros — reference everything from the paintings of Andrew Wyeth and Edward Hopper to the films of F.W. Murnau and Alexander Dovzhenko, while recreating a vanished America with an almost transcendental splendor besides.

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A Silent British Cinema Primer

This list of essential British silent films is, above all, a testament to the power that “home video” has had to rewrite movie history. A couple of early Hitchcocks notwithstanding, the silent British cinema has never figured prominently into any official versions of the story of early motion-picture development. Fortunately, the efforts of numerous film institutions and preservation foundations have in more recent years seen to the restoration and re-release of many important silent British movies. (the story broke only a couple of months ago that an important British silent, George Pearson’s Love, Life and Laughter, was discovered in Amsterdam — proving yet again how notions of film history evolve with the vicissitudes of fate.) Below are nine eye-opening personal silent British favorites that I consider well worth any movie buff’s time.

Electric Edwardians: The Films of Mitchell and Kenyon (Kenyon/Mitchell, 1900-1913)

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This is not a feature film but rather a series of brief documentary shorts of Edwardian England that were put out as a DVD anthology approximately 100 years after their initial release. Originally produced between 1900 and 1913, the movies of Sagar Mitchell and James Kenyon were advertised as “Local Films for Local People” and screened at town halls and local fairs across the U.K. by itinerant showmen. A kind of Anglo-equivalent of the earliest films of the Lumiere brothers, the Mitchell and Kenyon shorts are mostly one-shot actualities that delightfully show how English men, women and children lived, worked and played in the early 20th century. These are invaluable documents of a now-vanished era, particularly interesting for what they reveal about fashion sense, social interactions and how the subjects vibrantly but unselfconsciously “perform” for the camera. Culled from 28 hours of footage, the superbly curated 85-minute “Electric Edwardians” DVD features an enlightening audio commentary by one Vanessa Toulmin and was released by the BFI in the U.K. and by Milestone Films in the U.S. Unmissable for lovers of what historian Tom Gunning has dubbed the “cinema of attractions.”

The Epic of Everest (Noel, 1924)

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“Since the beginning of the world men have battled with Nature for the mastery of their physical surroundings. Such is their birthright, and such is their destiny.” So reads a quintessentially British — and vaguely imperialist — opening title card in this mesmerizing documentary from explorer/filmmaker Captain J.B.L. Noel. Newly restored and released on Blu-ray by the British Film Institute, this masterpiece is the official record of George Mallory and Sandy Irvine’s ill-fated 1924 attempt to scale the world’s highest mountain. The film’s focus, refreshingly, is not on the personalities of the men involved but on the arduous task of mountain-climbing itself; most of its power stems from shots of wee man, often not more than a black speck on the horizon, crawling all over the overwhelmingly indifferent, ice-capped peaks of Mount Everest. Some of Noel’s astonishing montage sequences feature shots where the most dramatic thing happening is the way drifting clouds cast shadows over mountaintops, images that resemble moving paintings in their abstract beauty. The best such scene is arguably the last, after the two men spearheading the trek have perished; the final images of Everest, tinted blood-red, conjure up the futility of their mission with an almost unbearable poignance.

The White Shadow (Cutts, 1924)

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One of the great recent stories of the discovery of a film previously thought to be lost is the 2011 unearthing of Graham Cutts’s silent British melodrama The White Shadow from a New Zealand archive. The discovery sparked worldwide interest mainly because the movie was a formative work in the career of Alfred Hitchcock (who wrote the script and also functioned as set designer, assistant director and editor). Although Hitch wouldn’t make his own feature directing debut until the following year, it’s surprising how much his artistic DNA seems to be all over this (e.g., Expressionist lighting effects, a “doppelangger” motif, and a plot revolving around mistaken identity). Betty Compson excels in a dual role as twin sisters — one naughty, one nice — both of whom become romantically involved with an American tourist (Clive Brook) who is unaware that they are, in fact, the same person. Unfortunately, the last three reels of the film are still missing and so it ends in the middle, right when all of the characters have congregated at a seedy Parisian nightclub named “The Bohemian Cat” — the kind of joint in which Louis Feuillade and Fritz Lang would have been at home. But a synopsis fills us in on the conclusion, which apparently involved a mystical transfiguration between the sisters. Cinephiles should be grateful for what exists, however, for an important, previously missing piece of the Hitchcock puzzle is now firmly in place.

Hindle Wakes (Elvey, 1927)

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My favorite silent British film of all is Maurice Elvey’s 1927 adaptation of Stanley Houghton’s play about mill employee Fanny Hawthorn (Estelle Brody) and her leisure-time adventures during “Wakes Week,” a traditional week-long holiday for factory workers and students in Lancashire. This is the most shockingly progressive silent movie I’ve ever seen in terms of how it portrays gender relations: Fanny has a tryst with the mill owner’s son who is engaged to be married to another, more respectable woman. The film’s sympathetic — and casual — treatment of a woman engaged in a pre-marital sexual relationship, and the way it attacks the hypocrisy of how society views the behavior of single men and women, makes the tone feel strikingly modern. (Also modern is an utterly sublime ending that suggests the resilient heroine will survive and endure.) But the progressiveness of the film’s content is also impressively matched by its innovative form: a scene taking place at an amusement park that uses extended point-of-view shots of characters on carnival rides is as cinematically breathtaking as any similar scenes in more well-known silent masterpieces like Sunrise, Lonesome and Coeur Fidele.

The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (Hitchcock, 1927)

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One of the most delightful home video surprises of this decade was the UK label Network’s sensational Blu-ray disc of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lodger. The master of suspense’s first thriller was originally released in 1927 and the Blu-ray was based on an impeccable restoration by the British Film Institute that gloriously renders many heretofore unseen details in the luminous, Expressionist-influenced photography. I would go so far as to say I never realized what a truly great movie it was until viewing the BFI’s restoration. Hitchcock fans who haven’t yet seen it might be shocked at how fully formed the master’s style was so early on in his career: there are a series of murders, a “wrong man” plot, a beautiful “Hitchcockian blonde” and a highly memorable kissing scene. Network’s generous Blu-ray package includes a booklet with extensive liner notes about the film as well as an impressive 2-CD soundtrack of composer Nitin Sawhney’s newly composed, Bernard Herrmann-esque score.

Underground (Asquith, 1928)

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In recent years, the British Film Institute in particular seems to have spearheaded an effort to raise awareness of silent British cinema in general, which I’ve been delighted to find is of interest beyond the earliest masterpieces of Alfred Hitchcock. One of my most pleasant film-related surprises of the past year was discovering the great silent movies of Anthony Asquith, an English director better known for his less-exciting sound-era work. BFI’s home video division released a revelatory Blu-ray of Asquith’s second film, 1928′s Underground, last June. The plot, a love triangle between a shop girl, a nice-guy subway worker and a douchebag power-plant employee, allows Asquith to indulge in some wondrous cinematic conceits — including astonishingly fluid crane shots during a protracted climactic chase scene — and offers a fascinating, documentary-like glimpse of “ordinary” Londoners from a bygone era besides. The image has been painstakingly restored (as evidenced by a short doc included among the extras) and the new orchestral score by Neil Brand sounds brilliant in a 5.1 surround-sound mix. Hopefully, a Blu-ray release of the same director’s even better A Cottage on Dartmoor, a late silent from 1929, will not be far behind.

Blackmail (Hitchcock, 1929)

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Alice (Anny Ondra), the girlfriend of Scotland Yard Inspector Frank (Johnny Longden), agrees to meet another man, a young artist, behind her inattentive boyfriend’s back. After the artist attempts to rape her, Alice kills him in self defense but refuses to confess to the crime. Frank is assigned to investigate the case and figures out the truth but the pair soon find themselves being blackmailed in exchange for their silence. This was originally released in silent and sound versions, making it both Hitchcock’s last silent and his first talkie. The latter version features a much-acclaimed experimental employment of sound and dialogue (in particular during the famous “knife” sequence) but I think the silent version trumps it as an elegant work of purely visual storytelling. Hitch’s effective use of real London locations, especially the climactic chase through the British Museum, prefigures the director’s celebrated use of iconic American locations later in his career. The silent version was restored, along with the eight other surviving Hitchcock silents, by the British Film Institute in 2012.

A Cottage on Dartmoor (Asquith, 1929)

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This unique and incredibly dynamic film pulls out every cinematic trick in the book to tell the tragic story of Joe (Uno Henning), a barber’s assistant, who is sent to prison after using a razor to menace another suitor to the object of his affection, manicurist Sally (Norah Baring). The story plays out in flashback as the love triangle is remembered by Joe, who has escaped from prison and is making his way to the cottage in Dartmoor where Sally now lives with her husband and child. Director Anthony Asquith’s command of visual storytelling in this late silent, arguably more advanced than what Hitchcock achieved in the same era, is incredibly sophisticated — light and shadow, striking close-ups, and rapid-fire editing are all used to establish a poetic mood and sustain a suspenseful tone. The film’s undisputed highlight, however, is also its most lighthearted scene: the main characters go on a date to the movies to see a double-feature of a silent comedy followed by a “talkie.” A montage of faces in the audience watching the latter in stunned silence (undoubtedly meant to express Asquith’s displeasure with the new technology) is a poignant commentary on one of the most important transitional periods in cinema’s history.

Piccadilly (Bennett, 1929)

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Anna May Wong was the first Asian-American actress to achieve movie stardom, although she’s better known today for her iconic visage (and pageboy haircut) in still photographs than for any of her actual performances, which tended to be supporting roles and “dragon lady” villains. The best showcase for her acting talent is not a Hollywood film at all but the 1929 British production of Piccadilly. The story concerns a love triangle between a nightclub owner (Jameson Thomas) and two of his employees — a dancer (Gilda Gray) and a dishwasher (Wong). Wong’s character, “Shosho,” makes a dazzling early impression in a sequence where she dances on top of a table in a restaurant kitchen and, much like Sessue Hayakawa in Cecil B. DeMille’s The Cheat, undeniably goes on to steal the show even though she’s ostensibly not the lead. The melodramatic courtroom finale is a little too twist-filled for its own good but the direction — by German filmmaker E.A. Dupont (who had earlier made Variety, one of the masterpieces of the Weimar-era German cinema) — is consistently lively, expressive and fluid.


An African-American Cinema Primer

In honor of Martin Luther King Day, today’s post is an African-American cinema primer. This list is not meant to be exhaustive (for one thing, I’m limiting myself to one film per director) but here are 10 essential movies made by African-American filmmakers that I think have valuable things to say about black life in America. I hope this will serve as a useful starting point for anyone interested in exploring African-American cinema.

Within Our Gates (Micheaux, 1920)

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The only films made by African Americans prior to Gordon Parks helming The Learning Tree for Warner Brothers in 1969 — much to the shame of the major Hollywood studios — were independently financed. The most important black filmmaker in the first half of the 20th century was Oscar Micheaux, who directed over 40 films in a career spanning 30 years in both the silent and sound eras. The incendiary drama Within Our Gates was Micheaux’s second film and is the earliest surviving feature directed by an African American. Sylvia Landry Evelyn Preer) is a young Chicago woman who endeavors to raise money to save a school for black children in the rural south. Much like The Birth of a Nation, Micheaux’s story alternates between scenes taking place in the north and south, and also cuts back and forth between action occurring in separate time frames in order to generate a suspenseful climax — a lengthy flashback to the events that led to Sylvia’s adoptive parents being lynched by an angry white mob. This lynching scene is intercut with an equally horrifying scene where a villainous middle-aged white man attempts to rape the young Sylvia before recognizing a scar on her chest that identifies her as his own illegitimate daughter. The complex and clever intercutting of this climax intentionally unpacks the racist ideology of Griffith’s film by showing the historical reality of who really did the lynching. Within Our Gates was thought to be a lost movie until a single print was discovered in Spain (under the title La Negra) in the late 1970s. Restored by The Library of Congress in 1993, it is now available on DVD via Grapevine Video.

Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (Van Peebles, 1971)

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“. . . Sire, these lines are not a homage to brutality that the artist has invented, but a hymn from the mouth of reality . . .” So reads a fitting quote at the beginning of Melvin Van Peebles’ groundbreaking third film, one that he financed independently (which included a $50,000 assist from Bill Cosby) when Columbia Pictures balked at the proposed storyline. Van Peebles himself stars as “Sweetback,” an L.A.-based gigolo who beats up some racist cops for harassing a Black Panther and then flees to Mexico with help from members of the black community (who are collectively credited as “starring” in the movie in the opening credits). This film bears roughly the same relation to 1970s blaxploitation cinema that John Carpenter’s Halloween bears to 1980s slasher flicks: it almost singlehandedly kickstarted a dubious subgenre after becoming a surprise commercial phenomenon (although none of the movies that followed in its wake arguably matched it for subversive political content). And while its still debatable as to whether the copious, unsimulated sex scenes are necessary (Van Peebles contracted gonorrhea while shooting one scene and was able to get “worker’s comp” from the DGA for being “hurt on the job” — money that he promptly sunk back into the budget), it’s important to remember that cinematic depictions of black American males prior to this had always been meek and asexual. A fascinating relic of its era that still feels revolutionary today.

Cooley High (Schultz, 1975)

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This terrific high school movie — made in Chicago in 1975 but taking place in 1964 — is often referred to as the “black American Graffiti.” It’s so good that I wish American Graffiti were referred to as the “white Cooley High.” Like George Lucas’ beloved period piece, this low budget indie looks back nostalgically and humorously on a more innocent time by focusing on a group of teenagers at the end of a school year — and features an equally amazing soundtrack (nearly all Motown) to boot. Best friends Preach (Glynn Turman) and Cochise (Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs) cut class, crash a party, chase women, shoot craps, inadvertently get mixed up with the law after unknowingly going for a joyride in a stolen Cadillac, etc. All the while, their friendship is tested by their divergent career paths: the literary Preach, a character modeled on screenwriter Eric Monte (who grew up in Chicago’s Cabrini-Green housing project), dreams of becoming a successful writer, an ambition that Cochise doesn’t understand. This was directed by Michael Schultz, a former theater director who does wonders with a cast of mostly unknowns. It also features arguably the greatest use of Chicago locations of any picture shot in my fair city.

Killer of Sheep (Burnett, 1979)

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The directorial debut of UCLA film school grad Charles Burnett (it was his Master’s thesis), Killer of Sheep is one of the greatest American films of the 1970s. This plotless examination of the lives of a handful of residents of South Central Los Angeles served as a conscious rebuttal to the negative stereotypes of African Americans then prevalent in the American cinema. Effortlessly alternating between comedy and tragedy, as well as realistic and poetic modes, Burnett’s episodic narrative focuses primarily on Stan (Henry Gayle Sanders), a slaughterhouse worker who struggles to provide for his wife and children. Though this impresses because of its insider’s view of life in a working class black neighborhood in the mid-1970s, the scenes of children goofing off, throwing rocks at one another, and playing in railroad yards never fail to bring tears to my eyes because of how much they remind me of my own childhood growing up in Charlotte, North Carolina in the 1980s (where we played in abandoned houses and often engaged in “dirt clod” wars). The awesome soundtrack provides a virtual audio tour through 20th century black American music, from Paul Robeson to Louis Armstrong to Little Walter to Earth, Wind and Fire.

The Killing Floor (Duke, 1984)

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Bill Duke is best known for his work as a character actor (with scene-stealing cameos and supporting roles in everything from Predator to Menace II Society) but he’s also carved out a distinguished if regrettably little-known parallel career as a film director. This invisibility is in part because, like Charles Burnett, his filmography spans the disparate worlds of Hollywood, independent and made-for-television movies; even many of the people who admire this auteur’s work are unaware that what they are fans of are actually “Bill Duke films.” My favorite of his movies are the 1992 neo-noir Deep Cover and the 1984 T.V. film The Killing Floor, which tells the true story of the migration of one black man, Frank Custer (Damien Leake), from the rural south to Chicago in the early 20th century. Upon arrival in the Second City he becomes involved in labor struggles involving a controversial and newly formed union, and eventually witnesses the notorious race riots of 1919. This is a terrific history lesson, a compelling drama and a lovingly recreated period piece all rolled into one. Duke identified it as one of his own favorite movies when I interviewed him in 2013.

Do the Right Thing (Lee, 1989)

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Spike Lee’s long and prolific career has been maddeningly uneven but he is also, in the words of his idol Billy Wilder, a “good, lively filmmaker.” Lee’s best and liveliest film is probably his third feature, 1989’s Do the Right Thing, which shows racial tensions coming to a boil on the hottest day of the year in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn. Lee himself stars as Mookie, a black deliveryman working for a white-owned pizzeria in a predominantly black community. A series of minor conflicts between members of the large ensemble cast (including Danny Aiello, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Giancarlo Esposito and John Turturro) escalates into a full-blown race riot in the film’s unforgettable climax. While the movie is extremely political, it is also, fortunately, no didactic civics lesson: Lee is able to inspire debate about hot-button issues without providing any easy or reassuring answers. This admirable complexity is perhaps best exemplified by two seemingly incompatible closing-credits quotes — by Martin Luther King and Malcolm X — about the ineffectiveness and occasional necessity of violence, respectively. It is also much to Lee’s credit that, as provocative and disturbing as the film at times may be, it is also full of great humor and warmth, qualities perfectly brought out by the ebullient cast and the exuberant color cinematography of Ernest Dickerson.

Daughters of the Dust (Dash, 1991)

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Julie Dash is part of the “L.A. Rebellion” school of black filmmakers along with her fellow UCLA graduates Charles Burnett, Billy Woodberry and Larry Clark. But unlike her male counterparts, all of whom directed their first features in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Dash’s independent breakthrough feature wasn’t completed and released until 1991 (it was, in fact, the first feature-length movie directed by an African-American woman). It was also worth the wait: Daughters of the Dust is a uniquely poetic and moving film about members of the Gullah culture, former slaves and their descendants who live on the Sea Islands off of the coasts of South Carolina and Georgia. More specifically, Dash’s movie centers on one Gullah family, the Peazants, as they plan on leaving the islands behind and immigrating to the mainland for good at the turn of the 20th century. The film is primarily a non-narrative experience, one that Dash claims is based more on African folklore traditions rather than Western storytelling: characters in period costume frolic on the beach, their movements abstracted by slow-motion cinematography, images frequently accompanied by poetic voice-over narration about the importance of tradition and memory. Regrettably, this is also Dash’s last theatrical feature to date.

One False Move (Franklin, 1992)

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Three drug dealers/killers — two men and one woman — pull off a big score in L.A. and then head across the country to the small town of Star City, Arkansas. Two L.A. cops, aware of the trio’s plan, beat them to their destination and must work there with the local-yokel sheriff in order to apprehend the criminals. The always welcome, perennially underrated character actor Bill Paxton has arguably his best role as Sheriff Dale “Hurricane” Dixon, a man who seems overly eager to have the chance to crack an important case alongside of the big city cops. What starts off as a compelling neo-noir, however, gradually deepens into something much richer and more complex as layers are peeled back from each of the characters, some of whom prove to be connected in unexpected ways. The screenplay was co-written by Tom Epperson and a pre-Sling Blade Billy Bob Thornton (who also co-stars as one of the crooks). The taut direction is by Carl Franklin who, as a result of this, landed the plum assignment of helming the Denzel Washington-starring Devil in a Blue Dress. But I would argue that the independently made One False Move, which makes no false moves, remains the director’s finest hour.

Menace II Society (Hughes/Hughes, 1993)

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Menace II Society is by far the best of the early 90s “hood movies,” which essentially transposed classic Hollywood gangster film tropes to contemporary urban black neighborhoods. The auspicious directing debut of twin brothers Allen and Albert Hughes (and still their best movie to date) follows Caine (Tyrin Turner), a recent high school grad and hustler, and his charismatic but crazy sidekick O-Dog (Larenz Tate) as they navigate life on the mean streets of Watts over the course of one long and deadly summer. This is much more violent and less obviously moralistic than John Singleton’s Boyz n the Hood, the film that had kickstarted the genre two years earlier, and consequently generated much controversy upon its first release. Seen today, it’s much easier to view it as the intelligent cautionary tale and social critique that the filmmakers intended.

Eve’s Bayou (Lemmons, 1997)

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Kasi Lemmons wrote and directed this singular fever dream of a movie about a woman looking back on her childhood growing up on the Louisiana bayou in the late 1960s. It begins with the title character narrating as an offscreen adult how she “killed” her father the summer that she turned 10-years-old. Much like John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley, this is a great “memory film” that introduces viewers to the cast of a large, colorful family through the subjective reminiscences of its youngest member. Samuel L. Jackson, who also produced, gives one of his finest performances as Louis, a handsome doctor and the patriarch of the Batiste family. His extra-marital dalliances, which cause his family grief even as they put up with his roguish behavior, ultimately lead to tragedy. Among several interwoven story threads is one involving Louis’ sister and her practice of witchcraft, and another involving a disturbingly ambiguous treatment of incest. I’ve heard it said that female filmmakers are less concerned with narrative logic than their male counterparts, and more concerned with the poetry of emotions. Whether or not that’s true, Eve’s Bayou is an unusually poetic narrative in the best possible sense.


A Japanese New Wave Primer

Out of all the “new waves” that sprung up around the world in the wake of France’s revolutionary Nouvelle Vague in the 1960s, perhaps none was as explosive — politically, morally and aesthetically — and offered such a thorough repudiation of what had come before, as Japan’s Nuberu Bagu. While Nagisa Oshima and Shohei Imamura remain far and away the best-known directors associated with this movement, many other filmmakers have been unfairly lurking in their shadows for too long. I therefore limited myself to one title per director in this list of what I consider a dozen essential Japanese New Wave movies.

The Warped Ones (Kurahara, 1960)

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There are a couple of Nagisa Oshima features from 1960 (Cruel Story of Youth, The Sun’s Burial) that might be considered superior to this film but Koreyoshi Kurahara’s tale of rebellious youth offers a better correlative to Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless in terms of form and content, and is therefore arguably the more logical starting point for a Japanese New Wave primer. The aptly-titled The Warped Ones is a fucked up movie that details the misadventures of two young thugs and their prostitute-girlfriend as they run wild through the streets of Tokyo, thieving, raping and listening to American jazz. The luscious black-and-white cinematography is amazing, at once stylized and conveying a tangible documentary-like sense of place, but the nihilistic characters (who are far more unlikable than any of their French New Wave counterparts and anticipate anti-heroes more associated with 1970s cinema) might make this a tough sell for some viewers.

Onibaba (Shindo, 1964)

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This amazing tone poem of a horror flick tells the story of two women in 14th-century Japan — the wife and mother of a soldier deployed to fight in a civil war — who trap and kill wandering samurai and sell their clothes and weaponry to a black marketeer in order to survive. A deserter-friend of the soldier soon arrives bearing bad news but it’s not long before both wife and mother-in-law become romantically obsessed with him. In order to prevent the wife from meeting the young man in the middle of the night, the mother-in-law attempts to frighten her by pretending to be a demon. Written and directed by the great, underrated Kaneto Shindo, the mesmerizing Onibaba manages to be both genuinely frightening and genuinely erotic.

Woman in the Dunes (Teshigahara, 1964)

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An entomologist from the big city travels to a rural seaside town looking to collect insects. A mysterious woman entraps him in a giant sandpit in her yard and forces him to perform the endless task of digging sand out of the pit, which solves a water supply problem for the local villagers. The captor and captive soon form a weird, erotic bond that eventually drags on for years. I’ve always felt there was something a bit too thesis-ridden about this premise (the bug expert who becomes like a trapped insect!) but there’s no denying the tactile, sensual pleasures of the lush images, which impressively manage to be sexy without the liberal use of nudity (unlike, say, Onibaba). For his effort, director Hiroshi Teshigahara was a deserving — and surprising — Best Director nominee at the 1966 Academy Awards.

A Fugitive from the Past (Uchida, 1965)

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I am a sucker for the “police procedural” (from Fritz Lang’s M in 1931 to David Fincher’s Zodiac over 75 years later) and Tomu Uchida’s 1965 masterpiece A Fugitive from the Past is one of my very favorite examples of this subgenre. Uchida isn’t technically a New Waver — he was born in the late 19th century and began directing in the silent era — yet I’ve never seen a film from the 1960s made by anyone of his generation that feels as modern as this. Uchida uses a massive, chronologically-scrambled timeline to tell two gripping, interlocking stories of a prostitute and a police detective, both of whom spend many years looking for the title fugitive for different reasons: the former because he left her an obscenely large tip, the latter because he committed a triple homicide. This was shot in black-and-white CinemaScope with a lightweight 16mm camera — resulting in incredibly-staged set pieces, one of which involves hundreds of characters, that feel simultaneously epic and intimate. What arguably impresses the most, however, is the way the suspenseful narrative holds viewers in thrall for over three hours while also subtly explicating the Buddhist precept of karma. Routinely cited by Japanese critics as one of the best Japanese movies ever, A Fugitive from the Past is tragically unknown in the West.

Red Angel (Masumura, 1966)

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One of the great things about the Japanese cinema of the 1960s is how its directors exercised “new freedoms” in tackling subject matter that would have been off-limits to previous generations. A prime example is Red Angel, a highly disturbing account of the Sino-Japanese war by the diverse and underrated director Yasuzo Masumura (whose comedy Giants and Toys is one of my favorite Japanese films of he 1950s). The story follows Sakura Nishi (Ayako Wakao), an attractive nurse who is sent to the front, where she is first raped by wounded soldiers before embarking on doomed affairs with an amputee patient and a morphine-addicted, impotent doctor. There is much pain and sorrow in this movie, which nonetheless provides a cathartic reckoning with one of the most harrowing chapters in Japan’s recent turbulent past.

Branded to Kill (Suzuki, 1967)

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Seijun Suzuki is one of the boldest visual stylists the Japanese film industry has ever known. And, while this 1967 experimental/crime movie mind-fuck is regarded by many as his masterpiece, it’s better known today for the legend of how it was received upon its initial release (Suzuki was fired by longtime employer Nikkatsu on the grounds the movie was incomprehensible) than it is actually watched and appreciated. The plot has something to do with Goro Hanada, Japan’s No. 3 hitman (that’s right, this movie takes place in a world where hitmen are ranked like professional athletes), bungling his latest job, which makes him the next target of his employer. But you don’t watch Suzuki for the plot, you watch for the surrealism, the psychosexual undercurrents (Hanada, played by chipmunk-cheeked Jo Shishido, has a fetish for sniffing boiled rice) and the super-cool set-pieces (the film’s most famous scene sees a butterfly alighting on the barrel of Hanada’s gun). Suzuki was a master of using color symbolically and purposefully (check out Tokyo Drifter, which features an assassin-protagonist in a powder-blue suit) but Branded to Kill is equally remarkable for its expressive use of black-and-white.

Nanami: The Inferno of First Love (Hani, 1968)

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Imagine that Jean-Luc Godard went to Japan and made a soft-core porn movie in the late 1960s and you’ll have some idea of what maverick independent director Susumu Hani’s best-known movie is like. Shun (Akio Takahashi), a man who was sexually abused as a child, meets and falls in love with a nude model and prostitute, the title character (Kuniko Ishii), in a series of loosely linked vignettes. Their story is told through freewheeling handheld camerawork and an aggressively non-linear editing scheme that recall the “distancing devices” of Bertolt Brecht while evoking some of the early classics of the French New Wave. But Susumi’s avant-garde sensibility is ultimately put to the service of a uniquely Japanese portrait of postwar despair, one that brims with psychological and sociological insights.

Profound Desires of the Gods (Imamura, 1968)

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Shohei Imamura is my personal favorite filmmaker to emerge from Japan’s New Wave era. He started off as an assistant to Yasujiro Ozu before carving out his own path as a writer/director in the early 60s with a series of distinctive films, alternately funny and tragic, that chronicle the frustrated lives of Japan’s contemporary working class. Profound Desires of the Gods was an epic super-production (the shooting alone lasted 18 months) that ambitiously attempted to allegorize the clash between Japan’s most ancient traditions and the influence of the modern (i.e., “western”) world. Kariya (Kazuo Kitamura) is an engineer from Tokyo tasked with digging a well for a sugar mill on a remote island whose inhabitants have had little exposure to outside influences. Upon arrival, Kariya is ensnared in the lives of the backwards and inbred Futori family, an experience that will change his life forever. Neglected upon its initial release, this indescribably beautiful 3-hour extravaganza, which juxtaposes humans and animals in a way that would make Terrence Malick envious, has been deservedly reappraised since the UK label Eureka/Masters of Cinema released a perfect Blu-ray edition in 2011.

Boy (Oshima, 1969)

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Nagisa Oshima is primarily known in the west today for having directed the features In the Realm of the Senses (1976) and Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1983), the former a scandalous arthouse hit featuring unsimulated sex and the latter a World War II P.O.W. camp drama starring David Bowie. But these international co-productions followed many groundbreaking films in the 1960s that captured Japan’s postwar malaise with a sometimes shocking ferocity. My favorite Oshima film is 1969’s Boy, based on the true story of a Japanese family who intentionally got into roadside accidents in order to shake down money from their “culprits.” Oshima’s style here is fascinatingly matter-of-fact while also sticking closest to the experiences of the older of the family’s two young sons. The end result is a film that achieves a tone of unparalleled compassion precisely because it doesn’t seem to be trying very hard.

Double Suicide (Shinoda, 1969)

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Director Masahiro Shinoda’s great achievement in his justly celebrated Double Suicide was to take ideas familiar from other recent New Wave films focused on contemporary subjects and apply them to an 18th century period piece. The story concerns a married paper merchant and his ill-fated love affair with a courtesan, the kind of subject that Mizoguchi would have tackled, but it’s the modernist and self-reflexive execution that puts this into a class of its own. Double Suicide transitions between the “invisible style” associated with Hollywood storytelling and daring reminders that we are watching a movie (most obvious through the use of “stage hands” who manipulate sets and props but also through the dual performance of Shima Iwashita as both the courtesan and the wife). The end result is a bunraku puppet play in which the puppets have been replaced by live actors and the end result is as emotionally engaging as it is intellectually stimulating.

Eros Plus Massacre (Yoshida, 1969)

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Although the English-language title might sound like the trashiest kind of exploitation movie, this seminal work of 1960s countercultural filmmaking is anything but. Yoshishige Yoshida’s masterwork deftly intertwines two timelines: in the 1920s, radical anarchist Sakae Osugi (Toshiyuki Hosokawa) preaches “free love” (i.e., polygamy and the importance of financial independence for both men and women), while ironically being married to a journalist, Itsuko Masaoka (Yûko Kusunoki), who supports him financially. Meanwhile, in the 1960s, a promiscuous female college student drifts through a series of casual affairs and occasionally reads and talks about Osugi and Masaoka (who were, in fact, real people). Over the course of its three-hour-plus running time, the intercutting of these stories — based on fascinating thematic parallels — achieves an awesome Griffithian velocity, although Alain Resnais might be the best point of reference: Yoshida’s complex editing patterns fragment time and space in an almost-Cubist manner and the black-and-white cinematography is frequently dazzling in its Marienbad-like brightness.

Funeral Parade of Roses (Matsumoto, 1969)

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This is one of the weirdest movies I’ve ever seen, maybe the weirdest, and therefore a fitting note on which to end this list of essential Japanese New Wave films. Toshio Matsumoto’s astonishing surrealist masterpiece offers a portrait of several Tokyo subcultures (primarily the drag queen scene but also that of dopers and avant-garde filmmakers). One story thread involves Eddie, a young queen who, in a bizarre inversion of the Oedipus myth, kills his mother with a butcher knife in order to “be” with his father. Later, this same character puts out his own eyes with the same knife. As brutal and disturbing as all of this is, Matsumoto’s form is just as violent as his content: from this film, Kubrick stole several visual and aural ideas for A Clockwork Orange, including long takes seen in fast-motion accompanied by pop versions of classical music, and montages that are so rapid-fire they can only have a subliminal effect on the viewer. But while Kubrick took Matsumoto’s innovations and wedded them to commercial storytelling, they deserve to be seen here in their undiluted, experimental form. As one character says in the middle of the film: “All definitions of cinema have been erased. All doors are now open.” He’s not kidding.


An Australian/New Zealand Cinema Primer

A dozen titles from Australia and New Zealand, two sister-countries whose local film industries didn’t really take off until the 1970s.

Wake in Fright (Kotcheff, 1971)

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This early entry in the remarkable Australian New Wave of the 1970s is easily one of the most disturbing films I’ve ever seen — not so much because of any “extreme” content (although that is certainly present in the kangaroo-massacre montage) but rather because of the way Canadian director Ted Kotcheff paints such a convincingly bleak picture of self-destructive masculinity, moral degradation and human nature in general. The film begins with a rural schoolteacher (Gary Bond) embarking on a summer holiday. While staying overnight in a nearby mining town en route to visit his girlfriend in Sydney, the teacher becomes persuaded by the locals to engage in their favorite pastimes of binge-drinking and gambling, which leads to an unintended week-long stay of increasingly debauched and animalistic behavior. The performances, especially by Bond and Donald Pleasance as a sexually ambiguous doctor, are excellent and Kotcheff sustains an almost unbearably tense and unsettling atmosphere from beginning to end.

Walkabout (Roeg, 1971)

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A man takes his two young children — a teenage girl (Jenny Agutter) and her pre-adolescent brother — on a picnic in the Outback, goes berserk without warning by trying to shoot them and then turns the gun on himself. Stranded, the children soon meet up with a 16-year-old Aboriginal boy (David Gulpilil) on a “walkabout,” a monthlong coming-of-age ritual in which he is separated from his tribe. While the Aborigine leads the children safely back to civilization, they are nonetheless incapable of truly understanding one another, and their miscommunication inevitably leads to tragedy. The solo directing debut of British cinematographer Nicolas Roeg, Walkabout is a visually stunning and thematically rich meditation on the clash between civilization and nature, the loss of childhood innocence and the first stirrings of burgeoning sexuality. In spite of its darker elements and a liberal use of nudity, I think this beautiful, hypnotic film is ideal to show to children.

Picnic at Hanging Rock (Weir, 1975)

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Picnic at Hanging Rock is a haunting, enigmatic film — often erroneously referred to as being based on actual events — about the disappearance of three female college students and a middle-aged teacher during a Valentine’s Day picnic in the year 1900. Like Antonioni in L’avventura, director Peter Weir refuses to provide a concrete explanation for their disappearance while simultaneously hinting at several possible interpretations (including a supernatural one). Trying to figure out “what happened” is ultimately irrelevant, however; this is really about the foolhardiness of British settlers trying to impose Victorian values on an alien landscape, which is made most obvious in a parallel plot about the school’s repressed headmistress relentlessly punishing a student for expressing a schoolgirl crush. But Picnic at Hanging Rock is also a true cinematic wonder: it is finally the striking images of those young women — immaculately attired in white dresses, walking in slow-motion among primordial rock formations — that will stay with me forever. Contemporary viewers may want to look sharp for multi-Oscar nominee Jacki Weaver in a small role as a maid.

The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (Schepisi, 1978)

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It is remarkable how many Australian filmmakers of the 1970s were able to deal honestly with their country’s painful racist and colonialist past. The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith may be the most impressive Aussie film in this cycle; based on a novel by Thomas Keneally, which was itself based on a true story, it charts the adventures of a half-caste Aboriginal title character whose axe-murdering of an entire family is seen as stemming from a lifetime of having endured condescension and outright abuse at the hands of his white employers. This is not, however, a simple polemic; the murders are graphically depicted (one particular shot involving an egg yolk is genius in its disturbing detail), which is one of many ways director Fred Schepisi refuses to make us fully sympathize with the title character, even while he takes great pains to explain Blacksmith’s behavior. A tough, complex and essential movie.

Newsfront (Noyce, 1978)

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What a delight it was for me to discover this little-known gem of a film, the auspicious debut of director Philip Noyce. Newsfront lovingly recreates the lives of newsreel cameramen living in Sydney from the late 1940s through the mid-1950s — highlighting their rivalries with each other and their clashes with the top brass, the conflicts in their family lives and, most importantly, the challenges posed by working “in the field,” which makes cinematography seem almost as adventurous a profession as archaeology was for Indiana Jones. I especially loved how distinctly Australian it all seems (with genuine newsreel footage of important events being seamlessly intertwined with the fictional scenes) and how, like David Fincher did in Zodiac, Noyce captures the passage of time through a careful, nuanced selection of detail.

My Brilliant Career (Armstrong, 1979)

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Gillian Armstrong’s terrific adaptation of Miles Franklin’s celebrated novel depicts the life of a precocious young woman with literary ambitions living in rural Australia at the turn of the 20th century. Judy Davis, impossibly young and fresh-faced and, as Sailor Ripley might say, “dangerously cute,” is Sybylla, the headstrong author-surrogate who has to choose between marrying the man of her dreams (Sam Neill) and keeping her independence to pursue her career as a writer. This witty, poignant film is much less dark than any of the other period piece movies on this list and yet it still manages to deviate from the conventions of cinematic fairy tales in a way that is immensely gratifying and should prove empowering to young women.

The Road Warrior (Miller, 1981)

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George Miller’s 1981 action-movie masterpiece is the best and most influential of the post-apocalyptic Eighties trend. Even more impressive is the fact that he did it all on a relatively meager budget of $2,000,000 — with old-fashioned (i.e., “real”) stunts and exceedingly clever production design in which an assortment of 20th century detritus is reconfigured in surprising ways (e.g., punk rock fashions and S&M gear happily co-exist with pieces of athletic uniforms). The film is set in the future, when gasoline is an even more precious resource than it is today, and concerns a former cop (Mel Gibson, reprising his role from the non-post-apocalyptic Mad Max) helping a gasoline-rich colony fend off attacks by a gang of marauding bandits. The climactic action set-piece, a long chase involving many different types of vehicles barreling through the barren Australian outback, takes up most of the second-half and ranks as one of the most exhilarating such scenes ever captured on celluloid.

The Year My Voice Broke (Duigan, 1987)

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John Duigan’s fine coming-of-age film, set in New South Wales in the early 1960s, is extremely impressive because of such underrated and low-key virtues as sincerity and modesty. The plot centers on Danny (the immensely appealing Nick Cave look-alike Noah Taylor), a 15-year-old-boy whose heart is broken when his childhood friend and secret crush Freya (Loene Carmen) falls for Trevor (Ben Mendelsohn), a slightly older, thuggish rugby player. The gorgeous locations and effective use of period songs (including Gene Pitney’s “Liberty Valance”) effortlessly conjure a specific time and place, which is bolstered by solid, naturalistic performances and a nostalgic story that avoids sentimentality and cliche at every turn. Contemporary Hollywood screenwriters could certainly learn a thing or three from watching this.

Young Einstein (Serious, 1988)

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This hilarious alternate-history farce imagines Albert Einstein (writer/director Yahoo Serious) as a young man from a Tasmanian farm who invents the theory of relativity in 1905 as a means of solving his father’s challenge to add bubbles to beer — and thereby making it tastier! It isn’t long afterwards that the budding young scientist invents surfing and rock and roll, the latter of which he describes as a “scientific musical theory based on the human heartbeat.” He also romances Marie Curie, saves Paris from being destroyed by an atom bomb and, most endearingly, saves some kittens from being baked in a pie. Serious, wire-thin and sporting troll-doll hair, is as physically expressive in his mannerisms as he is understated in his line readings. As a director, he’s also a great visual stylist like the great filmmaker-performers of yesteryear (Keaton, Chaplin, Tati, etc.). While Young Einstein, Serious’ first feature, was an unexpected global success, his subsequent films unfortunately were not and he has been very quiet since his last, Mr. Accident, in 2000.

The Piano (Campion, 1993)

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Jane Campion’s international breakthrough was this tough and beautiful feminist love story, set in the mid-19th century, about Ada (Holly Hunter), a mute Scottish woman and single mother whose father “arranges” her marriage to an English expatriate farmer (Sam Neill) on the western coast of New Zealand. Shortly after arriving at her new home, however, Ada embarks on an unlikely romance with George (Harvey Keitel), another Scottish emigre and oddball who has “gone native” by tattooing his face and living among the Maori. The melodramatic plot twists that ensues will whip your emotions into a frenzy as expertly as the finest gothic novels of the 19th century, aided in no small part by Campion’s gorgeous mise-en-scene, a quartet of excellent performances (the three mentioned above plus Anna Paquin’s turn as Ada’s daughter) and Michael Nyman’s rhapsodic, piano-driven score. One of the best films of the Nineties.

Heavenly Creatures (Jackson, 1994)

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The career of New Zealand director Peter Jackson can be broken into at least couple distinct phases — with many of the devotees of his early gore-fests unappreciative of his later big budget Hollywood work, while many devotees of his Tolkien adaptations remain ignorant of such delirious low-budget items as Bad Taste and Meet the Feebles. Heavenly Creatures, a black comedy/psychological horror film from 1994, effectively serves as a bridge between these worlds and also remains my favorite of the director’s works to date: it tells the true story of the unholy friendship between two imaginative teenage girls, Juliette Hulme (Kate Winslet) and Pauline Parker (Melanie Lynskey), who conspire to kill the latter’s mother in 1950s Christchurch. In spite of a certain cartoonish stylization in terms of dialogue and performance, this convincingly illustrates how two people can carry out a plan that, had they never come together, would have remained nothing more than a dark fantasy in the mind of each individually.

The Tracker (De Heer, 2002)

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While many consider the “western” a uniquely American genre, there have been plenty of great Australian examples; this is due in part to the lawless, frontier-like region of the Outback in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as well as the conflict between European settlers and native Aborigines, which can be seen as analogous to the Indian Wars so often depicted in American westerns. The Tracker is a particularly good example of an Australian western and one that uses the form to make a powerful statement about racism. In 1922, three white policemen and their subservient Aboriginal “tracker” follow another Aboriginal man suspected of murdering a white women deep into the Australian brush. Throughout the journey, the power dynamics dramatically shift between this quartet of disparate characters, leading to a conclusion as unpredictable as it is sublime. What I especially like about this film (in addition to David Gulpilil’s always-welcome presence as the title character) is the way director Rold de Heer uses primitive folk-art style paintings as well as the songs of Aboriginal singer Archie Roach as additional texts to comment on the narrative. A powerful allegorical movie that engages the heart as much as the mind.


A New German Cinema Primer

Inspired by the French New Wave, the New German Cinema was formed by a loose affiliation of filmmakers in the late 1960s as a reaction against the commercially-oriented and artistically moribund German cinema of the previous several generations. The movement picked up steam in the 1970s when its three most famous proponents (Wim Wenders, Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Werner Herzog) became fixtures on the international art house circuit. Although that trio remains the public face of the New German Cinema to this day, there are many other wonderful filmmakers associated with the movement who helped to reinvigorate world cinema and continued the artistic innovations begun by the nouvelle vague in the post-1968 era. Below are 10 essential films by 10 different directors that I consider lynchpins of the New German Cinema.

The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach (Straub/Huillet, 1968)

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Jean-Marie Straub and Danielle Huillet are the odd persons out in this primer both by virtue of their nationality (they were born and raised in France) and in the sense that their works were more avant-garde than the other directors more commonly associated with the New German Cinema. But they made most of their films in Germany contemporaneously with the other filmmakers listed here, were affiliated with the “Oberhausen group” — an important predecessor to the New German Cinema — and collaborated on a 1968 short film with Fassbinder and his theater troupe. That very same year they also released their first feature film, a biopic of Johann Sebastien Bach that consists mostly of static long-takes of the composer (played by virtuoso harpsichordist Gustav Leonhardt) performing many of his greatest works live on camera. Linking these scenes are interludes depicting Bach’s domestic life that feature his wife, Anna (Christiane Lang), reading excerpts from her diary. Often referred to as “austere,” “rigorous” and “demanding,” this is probably the least conventional and yet arguably the greatest biopic ever made about a classical composer: by focusing relentlessly on his music, Straub and Huillet bring us as close as cinematically possible to the man.

Aguirre: The Wrath of God (Herzog, 1972)

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Werner Herzog was probably less interested in the specific socio-political climate of post-war Germany than any of his fellow German New Wavers. His point of view was always more cosmic, his great subject always man vs. nature, which is nowhere more apparent than in Aguirre: The Wrath of God, the film many would call his masterpiece. The plot details a 16th century expedition of Spanish conquistadors to South America in search of “El Dorado,” the mythical city of gold, a journey destined to end in madness and despair. Aguirre is notable for being the first of many collaborations between Herzog and his alter-ego Klaus Kinski, unforgettable as the eponymous Don Lope de Aguirre, whose journey into the heart of darkness causes him to lose his grip on reality. The view of human nature on display is as bleak as it is absurd but there’s no denying the conviction of Herzog’s vision, nor the hypnotic quality of the images, impressively captured on location in the jungles of South America.

Part-Time Work of a Domestic Slave (Kluge, 1973)

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Everyone should see at least one movie by Alexander Kluge (and if you like it, see more). I recommend starting with Part-Time Work of a Domestic Slave, a Godardian/Brechtian account of a housewife and mother, Roswitha Bronski (Alexandra Kluge, the director’s sister), who works part-time as an illegal abortionist. Although she first embarks on her profession merely as a means to pull in extra income for her family, Roswitha becomes increasingly radicalized along political lines as the narrative progresses — particularly after the factory that employs her husband plans on shipping jobs to Portugal. This bold experiment mixes documentary-like scenes (including graphic images of a real abortion) with political slogans and omniscient narration, resulting in a provocative and heady intellectual stew. But Kluge, unlike his countryman R.W. Fassbinder (not to mention Godard), is more interested in sociology than cinema and his movies consequently remain fascinating documents of the time and place in which they were made that do not necessarily transcend them.

Tenderness of the Wolves (Lommel, 1973)

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Out of all the films of the New German Cinema, this is the one that feels the most indebted to the classic German Expressionist films of the 1920s and early 30s — though the tropes of Expressionism have certainly been updated to the 1970s with a vengeance. Tenderness of the Wolves tells the disturbing true story of Fritz Harrmann, a serial killer dubbed the “Werewolf of Hanover,” who molested, killed and cannibalized at least two dozen boys in the years immediately after WWI, which the filmmakers have updated to the post-WWII years for budgetary reasons. This was written by Kurt Raab who also plays Harrmann as a kind of real-life Nosferatu (surely the bald head and slightly pointy ears are no coincidence), and directed by Ulli Lommel. Both were proteges of Rainer Werner Fassbinder who produced and also has a small role. The supporting cast is a veritable who’s-who of the Fassbinder stock company, so fans of the great German director (and/or true crime aficionados with strong stomachs) cannot afford to miss this.

The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum (Von Trotta/Schlondorff, 1975)

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Katharina Blum, a young “domestic,” has a one-night stand with a man who, unbeknownst to her, is a wanted anarchist-terrorist. The next morning she is arrested by the police and subject to intensive interrogation. Upon being released, she is hounded by an unscrupulous yellow journalist and harassed by both her acquaintances and total strangers. While the film functions as a plea for the civil rights of individual citizens and comes down hard on both the government and the press, this is no simple polemic. Margarethe Von Trotta and Volker Schlondorff (who were married at the time) co-wrote and co-directed this adaptation of Heinrich Boll’s novel, which ambitiously captures the turbulent political climate at the time — when “anti-imperialist” terrorism was rampant in Germany — with all of the intelligence and complexity the subject deserves. Angela Winkler is excellent in the title role but some contemporary viewers might get an even bigger kick out of spying a young Dieter Laser (the mad scientist in The Human Centipede) in an early role as the sleazy reporter.

Hitler: A Film from Germany (Syberberg, 1977)

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Hans-Jürgen Syberberg’s colossal, experimental seven-hour anti-biopic considers the rise and fall of Hitler from a variety of perspectives, all of them Brechtian, which play out on a single dark soundstage equipped with rear projection. Through a series of lengthy monologues we see a multiplicity of Hitlers (Hitler as Charlie Chaplin, Hitler as literal puppet, Hitler as M‘s Hans Beckert, Hitler as ventriloquist’s dummy, etc.), a cluster of signifiers that attempt to show not only how Hitler came to power but what he “means” — as lessons from the holocaust continue to reverberate on the world-historical stage. We also meet other figures of the Third Reich both real (Himmler), fictional (Hitler’s private projectionist) or a hybrid of the two (Hitler’s personal valet), each of whom serves to guide us through this long dark night of the German soul. Syberberg also explicitly deals with the problems of representing his subject without sensationalizing it and the deliberately didactic end result consequently alternates between being riveting and boring. Never before have I encountered a work of art that seemed at once so truly great and yet so necessarily tedious.

The American Friend (Wenders, 1977)

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Since the release of his beloved Wings of Desire in 1987, the critical reputation of Wim Wenders has taken a nosedive (at least as a director of fiction features). But for much of the 1970s and 1980s he was considered to be at the vanguard of international arthouse cinema. Wenders has always been deeply indebted to American culture (as evidenced by my favorite of his films, this adaptation of a Patricia Highsmith novel), which he filters through his distinctly European/existential sensibility. The American Friend revolves around Tom Ripley (Dennis Hopper), an American con artist living in Berlin, and how he contracts a picture framer with a fatal disease (Bruno Ganz) to commit murder. But story ultimately takes a back seat to characterization and, more importantly, atmosphere in this slow-paced, moody neo-noir, which features appropriate and delightful cameos from American noir specialists Sam Fuller and Nicholas Ray.

Berlin Alexanderplatz (Fassbinder, 1980)

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Of all the directors associated with the New German Cinema, Rainer Werner Fassbinder was arguably the greatest and, with some 44 titles to his credit — most of them features (in a career spanning just 16 years!) — certainly the most crazily prolific. Berlin Alexanderplatz is my favorite of Fassbinder’s films, a 15-and-a-half-hour made-for-television epic that ambitiously adapts Alfred Doblin’s equally mammoth 1929 novel. The film begins with Franz Biberkopf (Günter Lamprecht), the protagonist and tragic anti-hero, being released from prison on a manslaughter charge. From there Fassbinder’s fantasia on Doblin’s narrative follows Biberkopf through the dark underbelly of 1920s Berlin as the country is still reeling from the aftermath of WWI and with the rise of the Third Reich just around the corner. Of special interest is Biberkopf’s psychosexual infatuation with his criminal lowlife partner Reinhold, which is thoroughly explored in Fassbinder’s daring experimental epilogue. This ranks alongside of Fritz Lang’s M as one of the all-time great German movies.

Germany, Pale Mother (Sanders-Brahms, 1980)

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Helma Sanders-Brahms’ controversial Germany, Pale Mother was probably the New German Cinema film that confronted the Nazi era (a topic then still taboo) most directly. It tells the story of the lives of ordinary people — primarily a man, Hans (Ernst Jacobi), and a woman, Lene (Eva Mattes) — based on the director’s own parents, and how their lives and relationships are torn apart by World War II. One powerful montage sequence shows the couple’s daughter, Anna, being born during an air raid (complete with documentary footage), which gives the film something of an allegorical flavor, but this is mostly a realistic and observational portrait that feels as if it were made as a form of therapy by someone intent on better understanding their parents’ generation and thus their country’s history. Mattes, a veteran of films by Herzog and Fassbinder, is phenomenal in the lead role.

Palermo or Wolfsburg (Schroeter, 1980)

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The one and only film I’ve seen by the esteemed Werner Schroeter is this 1980 masterwork that has left me eager to fill in on more. Palermo or Wolfsburg is a three-hour movie about a Sicilian laborer named Nicola who moves to Germany seeking better opportunities in life. He gets a job in a Volkswagen factory, embarks on an ill-fated love affair and tragically ends up committing a double homicide. For most of its length this is an impressively naturalistic culture-clash drama that captures the feelings of homesickness and alienation that should be familiar to anyone who has spent a prolonged time in a country far from home. Then, in the murder trial that serves as the climax, Schroeter daringly switches modes to offer something more subjective and surreal, allowing his penchant for flamboyant, experimental cinema and his side career as an opera director to come to the fore. They just don’t make ’em like this any more.


An Eastern-European Cinema Primer

I originally intended this as a companion piece to my Sound-Era Soviet Cinema Primer, in which I was going to discuss key films from various Eastern-Bloc countries outside of the Soviet Union that were made only prior to the worldwide collapse of Communism. I eventually reconsidered to include more recent films from Bulgaria and Hungary — but even these post-Communist films are arguably relevant mainly for what they reveal about life before and after the dissolution of the “iron curtain.”

Ashes and Diamonds (Wajda, 1958 Poland)

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Andrzej Wajda is probably the greatest Polish director to have worked mainly in Poland (as opposed to, say, Roman Polanski or Krzysztof Kieslowski, who are mostly known for the films they made outside of their native country) and Ashes and Diamonds is an ideal introduction to his work. Although it is the third part of a loose “war trilogy” (following A Generation and Kanal), each film features different characters and a self-contained plot, with Ashes arguably providing the dramatic high point of the three. The WWII-set story follows Maciek, a disillusioned Polish resistance fighter who becomes involved in a plot to assassinate a Communist leader (after the Soviets had driven off the invading Nazis). In addition to the complex ethical issues it raises, Ashes and Diamonds is also of interest for the performance of Zbigniew Cybulski (the “Polish James Dean” who helped to set a new standard for cinematic cool) as well as some strikingly poetic cinematography — what Wajda and D.P. Jerzy Wójcik do with a fireworks display will etch itself into your brain.

Knife in the Water (Polanski, 1962, Poland)

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After a couple of promising shorts, Roman Polanski burst onto the international stage with Knife in the Water, his first full-length feature that, although it would be the last film he ever made in Poland, introduced most of the motifs for which he would soon become famous: a suspenseful scenario with psycho-sexual underpinnings, a penchant for shooting in claustrophobic settings, and strong, naturalistic performances from a small cast. The story, a three-person show, concerns a married couple who embark on a yachting expedition and decide at the last minute to take a long a young hitch-hiker. Once they’ve set sail, the husband and the drifter engage in a game of shifting power dynamics with the attractive young wife unwittingly caught between them. An auspicious debut.

The Shop On Main Street (Kadar/Klos, 1965, Czechoslovakia)

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This incredible Holocaust movie illustrates, with commendable subtlety and complexity, how insidiously Nazi ideology pervaded Europe during WWII. The main character, Tono (Jozef Kroner), is an out-of-work carpenter who is granted by fascist authorities the opportunity to take ownership of the title location from an elderly Jewish woman (Ida Kaminska) in a small Slovak town. The woman, however, is hard of hearing and oblivious to the process of “Aryanization” — she thinks Tono is merely looking for a job and agrees to hire him. As the two work together, they begin to like one another but soon the Nazis begin deporting all of the Jews from the town . . . Very few fictional movies on this subject are capable of illustrating the kind of impossible moral choices that faced many ordinary European citizens at this time as well as this masterpiece co-directed by Ján Kadár and Elmar Klos from a screenplay by Ladislaw Grosman. Too bad only a small fraction of the people who have seen Schindler’s List will ever see this.

Closely Watched Trains (Menzel, 1966, Czechoslovakia)

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One of the seminal films of the Nová Vlna (or Czech New Wave) movement is Jiri Menzel’s comedic 1966 account of a young man’s tenure as a train station employee in WWII Czechoslovakia. As the war is nearing its end, partisans are attempting to blow up Nazi supply trains while Milos (Václav Neckár), the protagonist, is mostly interested in trying to get laid. Like Milos Forman’s similarly groundbreaking Loves of a Blonde, Menzel’s depiction of his characters’ earthy desires (including a hilarious subplot about a scandal caused by a train dispatcher’s literal stamping of a woman’s bare ass) was not without ideological import: the Czech New Wave filmmakers took full advantage of the “new freedoms” afforded to them (in terms of form and content) by the brief period of reform known as the Prague Spring. Closely Watched Trains deservedly won an Oscar for Best Foreign Film in 1968.

Daisies (Chytilova, 1966, Czechoslovakia)

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My favorite Czech movie ever is this astonishing piece of radical feminist pop art from director Vera Chytilova. Almost impossible to accurately describe, Daisies is a plotless examination of two women, both named Marie (Ivana Karbanová and Jitka Cerhová), who engage in colorful, madcap adventures that involve going on dates with — and ripping off — old men, dancing, wearing outrageous clothes and make-up, and consuming copious amounts of food and alcohol. While the style veers from Godardian bricolage to silent slapstick, with an innovative employment of color filters throughout, the tone of the film is consistently pitched at a level of joyous anarchy. I’m not entirely sure to what extent Chytilova is railing against patriarchy under Communist rule vs. merely having a bit of dada-esque fun (though the fact that Czech authorities banned Chytilova from making another film until 1975 suggests the former) or perhaps she’s doing both, but I do feel certain this looks as fresh and delightful in the 21st century as it must have looked to audiences in 1966.

The Firemen’s Ball (Forman, 1967, Czechoslovakia)

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Milos Forman’s last Czech film before departing for America is an amazingly subversive comedy about a fire brigade in a small Czech town holding its annual ball, during which time they plan on staging their first “beauty contest” (whose participants turn out to be unwilling female attendees) and honoring the 86th birthday of their former chairman. Perhaps the definitive “Prague Spring” movie, The Firemen’s Ball clearly views the fire brigade at its center as a microcosm of the Communist government: an inefficient bureaucracy presided over by old men whose approach to organization is to essentially make everything up as they go along. This is one of the funniest movies I’ve ever seen and it actually depresses me to think that the man who made it wound down his career making generic biopics in Hollywood.

The Red and the White (Jancso, 1967, Hungary)

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During Russia’s civil war, circa 1919, the “reds” are the Russian bolsheviks and their Hungarian allies, the “whites” are the tsar’s government troops. In many ways, this is like a modern update of Battleship Potemkin: both are propagandistic period pieces that show the brutality of the tsar’s old regime by focusing on teeming masses instead of individuals but, in terms of style, the two films couldn’t be more opposite. While Eisenstein’s movie is virtually one long rapid-fire montage, Miklos Jancso employs a long take/long shot style that features stunningly elaborate camera choreography instead. Indeed, some of the shots in this film are among the most impressive ever captured on celluloid and the complexity of the camera-choreography clearly exerted an influence on the late style of Jancso’s countryman Bela Tarr.

Ward Six (Pintilie, 1978, Yugoslavia/Romania)

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Lucian Pintilie is widely considered the greatest Romanian director of all time and the godfather of the highly regarded “Romanian New Wave” of the 21st century. While his influential films of the 1960s are virtually impossible to find today (at least with English subtitles), this lesser known 1978 masterpiece is ripe for rediscovery. Shot in Yugoslavia with a Serbo-Croatian cast but set in Tsarist Russia, Ward Six is an adaptation of a Chekhov story (Palata No. 6) about a doctor who befriends a patient in a mental hospital. The two engage in lengthy philosophical conversations that precipitate the doctor’s own descent into madness. I loved the lengthy tracking shots used to follow the doctor as he makes his daily walk from home to the hospital, accompanied by industrial noises on the soundtrack as well as internal monologues fraught with moral dilemmas (e.g., if it is natural for humans to get sick and die, why bother trying to help them at all?). I should also note that this uniquely austere work of great cinematic artistry appears to have been appreciated more in Chicago than anywhere else: it won the Chicago International Film Festival’s top prize in 1979 and the only North American video release it has ever received is via Chicago’s Facets Multimedia.

The Decalogue (Kieslowski, 1988, Poland)

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My opinion of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s monumental achievement — 10 one-hour movies that correspond to the 10 commandments, originally broadcast on Polish television — is inextricably bound to the circumstances under which I first saw it. I watched all 10 hours projected in 35mm, exhibited in two-hour installments a piece, while standing in the back of a movie theater that had sold out all of its screenings. As Stanley Kubrick noted, what may be most impressive about The Decalogue is the way Kieslowski and his collaborators were able to successfully dramatize ideas. It’s fun to think about how the individual episodes relate to the commandments: the first episode is a literal adaptation (a man puts his faith in the “false God” of technology — with tragic results) while others are more oblique (the “thou shall not commit adultery” episode is a tale of romantic obsession and voyeurism in which none of the characters are married). Kieslowski went on to even greater fame by subsequently making arthouse blockbusters in France (The Double Life of Veronique, the “Three Colors” trilogy) but The Decalogue easily remains my favorite of his movies.

Time of the Gypsies (Kusturica, 1988, Yugoslavia)

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Though his critical reputation seems to have diminished in recent years, Serbian director Emir Kusturica was considered one of the key directors of the 1980s and 1990s during which time he was a mainstay at prestigious international festivals. My favorite of his films is this gypsy epic set in the former Yugoslavia about Perhan (Davor Dujmovic), a young man who goes to great lengths to prove himself worthy of the woman he loves (after her mother disapproves of his courtship), which includes becoming involved with a local crime kingpin. The gypsy setting allows for Kusturica to provide a feast for the eyes and ears: the non-professional performers, production design, use of color and, especially, Goran Bregovic’s original score (later appropriated by Borat) are all top-notch. Guiding all of it with a sure hand is Kusturica, whose darkly comic approach can be ascertained by the film’s tagline: “When God came down to earth he could not deal with the gypsies . . . and he took the next flight back.”

Canary Season (Mihailov, 1993, Bulgaria)

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Until recently, I had never seen a movie from Bulgaria (a country whose cinematic output has admittedly always been sparse) but tracked down this well-regarded film in the hopes that I might be able to include it on this list. I was not disappointed. Canary Season is a powerfully realistic — and occasionally shockingly brutal — portrayal of life during the country’s recently dismantled Communist regime. It begins in the present as 20-year-old Malin is released from prison following a year’s stretch for assault. After Malin aggressively confronts his mother, Lily, about the true identity of his father, whom Malin has never known, the movie then flashes back to the early 1960s to recount a sad tale rape, forced marriage, and detention at a labor camp and mental hospital — all of which occurs under a cloud of paranioa and fear in a country where the threat of being denounced to a corrupt government is ever-present. High production values and excellent performances make this a formidable addition to the Eastern European cinema canon although this is obviously not for those who shy away from the grimmer realities of life.

Satantango (Tarr, 1994, Hungary)

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Based on László Krasznahorkai’s famed novel, which I haven’t read but which has been favorably compared to the works of William Faulkner, my favorite American author, this seven-and-a-half hour Hungarian epic is one of the defining — and most purely cinematic — movies of recent decades (unlike The Decalogue, director Bela Tarr wants you to see this on the big screen in a single sitting). The plot has something to do with a pair of con artists, Irimias (Mihály Vig, who also scored) and Petrina (Putyi Horváth), arriving at a farm-commune and swindling its members out of their money, but story seems like a mere pretext for Tarr’s despairing allegorical portrait of life in post-Communist Hungary. Krasznahorkai’s ingenious structure, said to be based on the tango (i.e., six steps forward and six steps back), shows the same narrative events multiple times from the perspectives of different characters and is perfectly complemented by Tarr’s utterly singular visual style, which combines epic long takes with elaborate camera movements. But don’t let anyone’s description, including mine, or the running time fool you: this eye-filling black-and-white epic is a much easier watch than its reputation suggests — there is plenty of dark humor to go around and even a fart joke for good measure.


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