Sunday, January 10, 2016

Dispatches from Film School: The Best (Previously Seen) Films of the Semester

I'll conclude my first-semester experience with films that I had previously seen and enjoyed, but haven't written about on this site. Some of these films I may have made mention of before, but I have not written about more than in passing. I highly recommend seeking out all of these films; all of them are classics that deserve to be seen by cinephiles and casual viewers alike. So, without further ado, eight films that you should definitely seek out.

From "American Masterworks"

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (dir. Mike Nichols, 1966)

Mike Nichols would go on to have an incredible career as one of the United States most notable directors, and he made one hell of a debut with Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, the film adaptation of Edward Albee's hit play. Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor - a Hollywood power couple famously on-the-rocks at the time - are perfectly cast as bitterly resentful couple George and Martha, playfully toying with young couple Nick (George Segal) and Honey (Sandy Dennis). As the booze flows, so do the pent-up frustrations and passions, as just about every character unveils their most unseemly attributes. Nichols orchestrates everything with perfect pitch, reining everything in with precision. That this film was only the beginning of his illustrious career only makes it all the more impressive.

The Best Years of Our Lives (dir. William Wyler, 1946)

Mark Harris' incredible nonfiction book Five Came Back has a phenomenal account of Wyler's time serving the United States during World War II. Given his experiences, it's no surprise that his first project after the war was The Best Years of Our Lives, a stunningly intimate account (given its nearly three-hour running time) of three servicemen returning from the war to the same hometown. Fredric March, Dana Andrews, and Harold Russell (a veteran who lost both of his arms in the war, making his acting debut) deliver captivating, heartbreaking performances as their characters struggle to make the adjustment to peacetime domesticity. Wyler demonstrates his prowess as a director through deep-focus photography that keeps the characters' environments perpetually in focus, paradoxically isolating them while also integrating them. There is perhaps no greater document of the adjustment after war than this film.

Films from Robert Altman, Francis Ford Coppola, Roman Polanski, and more after the jump.

The Long Goodbye (dir. Robert Altman, 1973)

Noir was fashionable again in the 1970s, with Roman Polanski's Chinatown (1974) serving as the exemplar and Brian De Palma's Obsession (1976) and Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver (1976) reinventing and remixing the genre's elements. Robert Altman, still considered an independent iconoclast with a background in television, made his contribution to the trend with this adaptation of Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe novel. Elliott Gould stars as Marlowe, laconic and jaded, who has been tasked with solving the murder of a friend's wife. The film is a free-wheeling detective story that is less interested in the crime than it is in Marlowe's washed-out Los Angeles and the eccentric denizens that inhabit it. If you enjoyed Paul Thomas Anderson's Inherent Vice (2014), you'll want to give this film a shot.

*If that's not enough, the film also features a brief appearance by Arnold Schwarzenegger in one of his first film roles.

Shampoo (dir. Hal Ashby, 1975)

Warren Beatty's reputation as a playboy was well-known in the mid-1970s, which only made his casting as libidinous hairdresser George in Ashby's pointed satire all the more obvious. Yet Beatty gives one of his best performances in this film, perfectly embodying the sexual freedoms of the 1960s and the long hangover that came afterward. Julie Christie is excellent as George's forbidden paramour, while both Goldie Hawn and Lee Grant deliver as George's put-upon girlfriend and lover, respectively. Ashby's film is a scathing critique of what happens when free love dream comes to an end, and it works as both effective comedy and social commentary.

The Conversation (dir. Francis Ford Coppola, 1974)

I cannot speak highly enough about The Conversation, Francis Ford Coppola's masterpiece (come at me, The Godfather and Apocalypse Now fans). Gene Hackman stars as Harry Caul, a surveillance expert who becomes too attached to a case he is working on. Hackman is a marvel of paranoid delusion (or is it?), and both John Cazale and Harrison Ford do great work as Caul's wiry assistant and slimy client's lawyer, respectively. Of course, Walter Murch's delicious sound editing is the secret to the film's stunning success (Michael Ondaatje's indispensable book The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film goes into great detail about Murch's process for the film), and Coppola's camera hovers like an omnipotent entity, always watching Caul. There is no greater film about paranoia and self-destruction than The Conversation.

From "Avant-Garde Cinema"

My lack of experience with Avant-garde cinema means that most of what I saw this year was new to me. The one film I was familiar with beforehand was Dziga Vertov's Man with a Movie Camera, which you can read about here.

From "Gender and Horror"

Rosemary's Baby (dir. Roman Polanski, 1968)

The film's reputation certainly precedes it, but enough cannot be said about what an unnerving film this is. Rosemary's (Mia Farrow) and Guy's (John Cassavetes) spacious apartment, in Polanski's hands, becomes a hollow hall of horrors, with every corner appearing to hold some sinister secret. Farrow is an absolute marvel, as his Ruth Gordon as the worst neighbor imaginable. To top it all off, it contains some of the most horrifying sequences I've ever seen through sheer associative editing. There's a reason it stands tall among the greatest horror films ever made.

Carrie (dir. Brian De Palma, 1976)

If we're being honest, De Palma's career has been one decades-long fetishistic attempt to become Hitchcock, cutting and pasting from the master director's filmography to create slavish tributes that don't always work without knowing his reference points. Carrie, however, is easily among his best because it feels like De Palma crafting his own style. Of course, it helps that Stephen King's story is a great starting point, and Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie are both phenomenal as Carrie and her fatally religious mother, respectively. This is a horror film that feels vibrantly alive, brimming with energy and building to something truly devastating. It's arguably De Palma's best film.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (dir. Tobe Hooper, 1974)

This was the first horror movie I ever saw. I saw it when I was in ninth grade, when I was definitely not a horror person, and it was purely to impress a crush. Coming back to it for the first time since then (eleven years later!), Hooper's film is a marvel of the genre. Shooting in a grainy, sweat-soaked palette that effectively evokes the stench of a rural summer, Hooper crafted a film that wasn't afraid to make its villain - Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen, excellent) - childlike, cartoonish, and terrifying. The dinner table scene is the stuff of low-rent legend, imbued with a verve of authenticity that makes it even scarier. No need to impress anyone anymore. This film is a genuine masterpiece.

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