The secret to gift giving is empathy. The perfect gift will feel like it was picked out with great care, as if telepathically (or empathically, I suppose) for the person who receives it. Every now and then, I come across a movie that, when I watch it, feels like the filmmaker has given me a gift, a movie that was carefully crafted to appeal to my own individual sensibilities and sense of humor.
These are the kinds of movies that help define a movie lover. The adolescent version of you will screen the movies for prospective girlfriends or boyfriends as a pass/fail litmus test.
The movies discussed in this post are not universally lauded by critics or massively popular. Some of them are polarizing. But (for whatever reason) they mean a lot personally.
I’m terrible at answering certain simple questions like “What’s your favorite book/song/movie?” but when it comes to the last category, this movie has at least been in the conversation since I first saw it. It stops me down if I come across it channel surfing. It sucks me in. And I’m not the type of person who generally likes to watch movies more than once, even movies I love. I like quite a few Coen brothers movies, but I like this one the best. It’s the perfect film noir (adapted from a Dashiell Hammet story), with well plotted intrigue and snappy dialogue, and a wonderful performance from its lead, Gabriel Byrne. Marcia Gay Harden and John Tuturro also put in memorable performances, but the most amazing trick of all is pulled off by a then relatively unknown Steve Buscemi, who is in the movie for maybe five minutes, but manages to act as if the whole plot revolves around his character (and it does). I love pretty much everything about this movie. Sure, The Godfather (Parts I and II) and Goodfellas are great movies, but this is my personal pick for the best gangster movie of all time. And I realize and accept the fact that most people will disagree. I’m fine with that.
I’m a fan of punk music. And of Japanese punk music. And of non-linear, character-based puzzle movies where all the seemingly unrelated pieces fall into place at the last minute to create a wonderful mosaic. How could I not love this movie? It’s about a punk song that saves the world. Taking place over several decades, culminating in a near-future that is doomed by the impending arrival of a meteor, each of the subplots (in turns comic, frantic and poignant) revolves around a little-known punk song recorded in Japan by an unknown band a year before the Sex Pistols invented punk. Things that don’t make much sense at certain points in the movie make a lot of sense at the end. I can’t recall a movie that pays off as well as this one does. I defy anyone to watch this movie all the way to its conclusion and not feel joyful about it. Then again, maybe it’s just me.
The Brothers Bloom
I love this movie, and find it hard that others don’t necessarily love it as much as I do. But not surprising, I guess. Rian Johnson, the auteur writer/director, might be something of an acquired taste. I gushed about his first movie (Brick, a pitch-perfect detective noir set in a California high school) so much to my then-boss that she saw it, then made a point of telling me how much she hated it and that she’d never trust me again when it comes to movies. Johnson’s latest, soon-to-be released movie, Looper, will likely either be his breakthrough or it will ensure that he never makes another big-budget movie again. I won’t say that much about The Brothers Bloom (you can read my original Kulturblog review here), except to say that it’s clever, funny, moving and inspired. It may be a bit too zany for some, but behind all the international con-man capers is a masterfully crafted movie that explores some really interesting themes and characters, as well as making profound points about the art of storytelling itself. This is a movie that works on so many different levels, and rewards multiple viewings. It’s also (for me, anyway) a whole lot of fun.
Whit Stillman is a polarizing filmmaker. For his fans–and I’m definitely one of them–his movies are wry and wonderful, chatty character pieces that walk a fine line between irony and sincere earnestness. A lot has been written (too much I think) about how Stillman’s world is limited to the WASP-ish, cloistered world of the American upper class. But that’s just the style and the context. You don’t have to be a debutante, a yuppy, or a U.S. ex-patriot living in Spain during the Cold War to appreciate Stillman’s movies. I’m not any of those things, and I think his movies are great. Stillman apparently writes what he knows, and this movie no doubt draws deeply on his own experience living as an American salesman in Spain. Stillman has only made four movies in his almost twenty-five year career. (His latest, Damsels in Distress, is now playing in limited release. I watched it the other day. It’s great.) This one is my favorite. Maybe because it’s the most personal, and most straight-forward. The interplay between the two main characters (American cousins, one an ex-pat salesman and one a Naval officer, living in Spain in the early 1980s) is awkward, hilarious, and ultimately touching. You can probably figure out about ten or fifteen minutes into a Stillman movie if you like it. Either you’ll find yourself bored and irritated, or you’ll be alternately laughing and smiling and enjoying the show. I’m in the latter group, obviously. Barcelona is like comfort food to me.
What movies do you love? What shows speak to you?