1990

454. Europa

I make no secret of the fact that I don’t really like Lars von Trier. (See my entry for Antichrist.) So I was wary of watching EUROPA, one of his earlier works—and pleasantly surprised when I actually enjoyed it. The story follows an American pacifist who has decided to take work in post-WWII Germany, of all places, as a sleeping car conductor. He falls in love with the railway magnate’s daughter, and soon finds himself embroiled in violent, political events that force him into choosing a side. It’s a passable plot made exponentially more interesting with the film’s beautiful cinematography. The visuals seem borrowed straight out of classic Hollywood and then deconstructed, so that color mixes with black and white, characters interact with their projected backdrops, and the romantic railroad setting suddenly feels dirty and claustrophobic. Add to that Max von Sydow’s disembodied voice implying that the whole thing is simply a hypnotist’s suggestion, and the end result is something strange, beautiful, and—compared to other von Trier films—sort of fun.

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519. Close-Up

Documentaries aren’t always my cup of tea, but then, there aren’t many documentaries like Abbas Kiarostami’s CLOSE-UP. Combining real events and fiction, the film chronicles the trial of Hossain Sabzian, who has been charged with impersonating the popular director Mohsen Makhmalbaf. But why? The family that invites him into their home, thinking they will star in his next film, assumes he intended to rob them. Yet it soon becomes clear that the reasons for his deception are much more complex, and speak to themes of identity, creativity, self-worth, and the transcendent power of film. At one point, I found myself identifying so strongly with Sabzian, that I had to step back and make sure I wasn’t projecting my own motives. The most fascinating scenes are when the film’s subjects actually reenact their own events, adding another layer of cinematic distance that somehow manages to reveal more truth. Moving and engrossing, I really can’t recommend it enough.

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488. Howards End

The Schlegel sisters, living in turn of the century England, are independent and compassionate, and capable of befriending anyone. This includes the wealthy Wilcoxes and the decidedly less wealthy Basts, whose lives intertwine (in a way too complex to summarize here) and leave everyone changed. This is one of those films where I read the book first, so I’m afraid I can’t help reviewing it without making comparisons to the source material. Fortunately for HOWARDS END, that works in its favor. Producer Ismail Merchant and director James Ivory collaborated on a number of E. M. Forster adaptations, a handful of which I’ve seen, and they consistently have a talent for getting at the heart of Forster’s stories. Sure, there are plenty of beautiful period costumes and lush locations. But that’s just window dressing for the characters, their relationships and their lives, that make the narrative powerful and surprisingly contemporary. Of course, a cast that includes Emma Thompson, Vanessa Redgrave, Anthony Hopkins, and Helena Bonham Carter doesn’t hurt.

359. The Double Life of Véronique

Criterion recently announced they would be releasing Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Three Colors trilogy, so it seems like perfect timing to review the director’s other Criterion title, THE DOUBLE LIFE OF VÉRONIQUE. The film begins with two scenes of two little girls speaking two different languages. And that’s how we’re introduced to Weronika and Véronique, complete strangers who are leading oddly connected lives. As adults, both roles are played by Irène Jacob, in a subtle and completely arresting performance. The wandering narrative unfolds like a fairytale, bright and dark and mysterious, and seems to be more interested in themes of love and loneliness than telling any one story. But the cinematography is so beautiful and each moment so carefully painted that the film never loses its focus. It also features one of the most moving scores that I can remember; in fact, it may have inspired me to take up singing again.

100. Beastie Boys Video Anthology

Can I just start by saying how glad I am that this is in the collection? I’ve been a music video fanatic since my youth, growing up on MTV and VH1 back when they still played them. So I was thrilled to sit down and watch some Beastie Boys classics. The videos themselves are almost an exercise in bad taste: stock footage, the tackiest of camera effects, and more fisheye lens than I’ve ever seen in one place. Fortunately, for the most part it works, and the rappers themselves are charismatic enough to carry any scene. Then, of course, there are the standouts. I was already quite familiar with “Sabotage,” Spike Jonze’s perfect 70s cop show tribute, as well as the robot vs. octopus battle on “Intergalactic.” Some new favorites are the simple, explanation-free “Three MCs and One DJ,” and the deranged epic “Body Movin’.” But where is “Fight For Your Right?” Where’s “No Sleep Till Brooklyn?” And when will Criterion start putting out more music videos?

42. Fishing With John

FISHING WITH JOHN is one of Criterion’s odder picks; it’s a six episode TV series instead of a movie, and it’s not particularly important or filmed particularly well. It is, however, hilarious. That is, it’s hilarious if you share actor and musician John Lurie’s dry sense of humor, which I guess is why it was recommended to me.  In each episode, John takes a special celebrity guest fishing in some unlikely location. He hunts for sharks with Jim Jarmusch, explores Jamaica with Tom Waits, ice fishes with Willem Dafoe (my favorite), and brings Dennis Hopper to Thailand to chase after the mystical giant squid. No one seems to know much about fishing, and just like the real fishing shows being satirized, nothing all that interesting ever happens. It’s mostly the voice-over that takes these dull excursions and turns them into comedy. For example, did you know that the giant squid can hypnotize most mammals? I certainly didn’t.

277. My Own Private Idaho

River Phoenix, who is incredible, and Keanu Reeves, who is far better than you’d expect, play street hustlers and best friends. With themes like narcolepsy, travel, and the meaning of family, MY OWN PRIVATE IDAHO looks at the line between reality and escape in scene after beautifully shot scene. But what really stays with me is the bittersweet friendship between the two protagonists. Keanu is the mayor’s rebellious son, who is able to make sharp distinctions between his squalid lifestyle and the fortune that awaits him, as well as his own sexuality and what the job requires. River’s character doesn’t have either of those luxuries. Their relationship, whether affectionate, callous, or one-sided, is completely engaging throughout the film.