December is my least favorite month of the year. Oh, what am I saying? I hate it to bits. It's the month when you can't even buy a pint of milk without getting your brain liquified by the most saccharine holiday music. The streets are filled with people madly scrambling from shop to shop, mall to mall. The Season of Stress.
This is also the season of cold and flu, and apparently swine-flu related e-mail phishing scams. (Yeah, like I'm really going to believe that the CDC is sending me an e-mail to "register" my vaccination status.) This is the month where I'd like to go to hibernate under a rock. Paint me green and call me a Grinch - I don't care.
What one needs at this time of year is distraction. Unfortunately it's also the time when television programming spirals down into new depths of hell. Dante's Inferno has a ring dedicated to Christmas Specials. Fortunately for you, My Dear Reader, there is a solution: Movie rentals! And I have a list of films that have escaped the attention of most viewers.
When I first saw Lone Star (1996 dir. John Sayles) it completely bowled me over with the way its story unfolds, unrolls. It takes place in a small Texas border town, where the discovery of a skeleton along with a sheriff's badge sets things in motion. There are multiple plot lines, some based in the present, others stretching back a generation, but they all end up connecting at one point or other. It's storytelling at its best. The lead character, Sam Deeds, the current sheriff of the town, is played by the talented Chris Cooper, who mostly known as a character actor from such movies as American Beauty or Adaptation. Also worth noting the interesting visual device dealing with the frequent flashbacks.
Brick (2005 dir. Rian Johnson) is a classic film noir of the best Raymond Chandler, Dashiel Hammett tradition - played out in current day Southern California suburbia by high schoolers. It is not played for laughs however. There is death, drama, double cross, dangerous dames, dangerous games; the whole nine yard of the hard boiled detective genre. Brick is the quintessential indie movie, made on a small budget, by a bunch of talented young people who love the movies. It's also a brilliant update of a tried and true genre.
The Painted Veil (2006 dir. John Curran) was a love project of actor Edward Norton who also plays the lead along with Naomi Watts. It is based on a novel of the same title by W. Somerset Maugham, and in my opinion an improvement over the novel. It's the story of bacteriologist Walter Fane who takes a government job in 1920's China, and takes his wife Kitty with him. It is very much a character driven story played out in front of the background of the politics of the colonialist era and the beautiful Chinese landscape. The script is first rate and the acting matches. Aside from Norton and Watts, Liev Schriber and Toby Jones turn out masterly performances.
Liev Schriber was the director of Everything is Illuminated (2005). The film is about a young Jewish man, Johnathan Foer - played by Elijah Wood - who travels to Ukraine to find a woman who is said to have saved his grandfather's life during WWII. At this point the viewer along with Jonathan experiences a farcical culture shock. His tour guide is Alex who becomes the narrator, and whose textbook English is the cause for the movie's title. Their driver is Alex' grandfather who in an absurdist turn believes himself to be blind. They are accompanied with Sammy Davies Jr. Jr., the "seeing eye bitch". The four of them take off to the country in a trabant looking for a town that's not on the map any more. The film is fine balance of humor, dreaminess, and poignancy.
The Interpreter (2005) was the last film directed by the great Sidney Pollack, who also plays a small role in it. By genre, this is a political thriller, but more importantly it is a film that rests on smart, very well written script, strong characters and great acting. Sean Penn and Nicole Kidman give taut, edgy performances. There is the UN, a possible assassination plot, murder, plenty of suspense, but to me some of the most riveting parts are the dialog. Carefully chosen words make my spine tingly. This is the movie that probably fits the least with the others, since it had a pretty decent run in the theaters - yet I managed to miss it completely at the time.
I saw Mystery Train (1989 dir. Jim Jarmusch) during my first year in the US, and I felt like Jarmusch read my soul. At that time I was free-floating, lost, and slightly bewildered - not unlike the characters of this film. There isn't much plot I can recall, just a quirky mélange of characters, including two teenage japanese tourists and the ghost of Elvis, who all converge in a run-down Memphis motel. Watching the movie at the time made me realize the part of the culture shock I was not expecting: Not the skyscrapers and the fancy things, but the banality of a crumbling urban landscape.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Undead (2009 dir. Jordan Galland) is not to be confused with the Tom Stoppard play and film - although they get a mention within the film. It is an indipendent film of the tongue in cheek variety; a delicious romp about aimless youth, Hamlet, and vampires. This film actually not out on DVD yet, but it has not yet had a wide theatrical release. I got to see it during the Hollywood Film Festival. If it comes to your neighborhood, don't miss it.
I have plugged Moon (2009 dir. Duncan Jones) before, but I will again. It is a small, but finely crafted science fiction film. It starts maybe just a touch slow, but then maintains suspense without any fancy special effects. The DVD will be out in January.
Siesta (1987 dir. Mary Lambert) is a film nobody has ever seen despite of the fact it's chock full of stars like Elen Barkin, Jody Foster, Isabella Rosselini, Martin Sheen, Gabriel Byrne. At the beginning of the story, Claire, an American, wakes up in a field behind a runway, wearing just a red dress, covered in blood, and no memories of how she got there. It sounds like a mystery-thriller, but it is that as much as Antonioni's Blow Up is: not at all. It's a hard to describe film, slightly surreal, haunting like its Miles Davis - Marcus Miller score. When I first watched this movie at the end I realized that I was watching a completely different story then I originally thought.
I'm going to throw in few foreign films, and that's a bit of cheating, since they rarely ever get wide distribution in the US, but it's my blog, I do what I want.
Until the End of the World (1991 dir. Wim Wenders, German) is an international road movie with science fiction undertones. Claire (Solveig Dommartin) bumps into Sam (William Hurt) and spends the first part of the movie chasing him around the globe, till they all end up in the Australian outback - at which point practically a new movie starts. Oh never mind the plot, it's a good ride, hop on. There is a 5 hour "director's cut", but unfortunately it's not available in the US.
Knotroll (2003 dir. Nimród Antal, Hungarian) is a sometimes dark, sometimes humorous, always suspenseful tale of Hungarian subway ticket inspectors. Yeah, you've read that right. There is a killer haunting the subways, there is conflict with a rival group of ticket inspectors, various passengers trying to get away with not buying tickets. It's a thriller with a rough East European finish, with touch of fairy tales, Freud, and Greek Mythology.
Tell No One (2006 dir. Guillaume Canet, French) is a straight mystery-thriller. It's about a doctor, Alex (François Cluzet) whose wife was murdered years before. He is putting his life back together when something happens (I'm not telling you what), and well, shit hits the fan - to use the technical turn. There are chases, murders, secrets being uncovered, and all the good stuff you'd expect from a film of this genre. The pacing is just right, the characters are engaging, and the suspense is non-stop. If you like a good thriller - and don't mind reading subtitles - this is the movie for you.
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