There are many parallels between the films that are among my all-time favorites and the directors who produce them. Again, this is a personal list, but many of the works of the ones on this list can be considered classics. There are two legendary directors with Kubrick and Hitchcock, and contemporary directors with the Coen Brothers and Wes Anderson, both known for their offbeat productions.
Just because I only chose these four doesn't take away from the work of the greats — Coppola, Scorcese, Spielberg, Ford, Kazan, Forman, Wilder, Huston, Tarantino — but these top four represent an amazing number of my favorite films.
A new age of fabulous movie makers have emerged over the last two decades. Someone could show up on my list like Christopher Nolan, who blends amazing visuals, great dialogue and incrdible sound into his films. Others include Sam Mendes, Paul Thomas Anderson, Kathryn Bigelow, Ana DuVernay, Jordan Peele, Taylor Sheridan and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarrito .
The great thing about Hitchcock is the many different ways he creates suspense. This is not about the horror, but about raising your level of anxiety. It's psychological. Like Hitchcock explains, horror is showing what happens when a bomb blows up. Suspense is showing you the bomb, telling you when it's going to go off, and then building the mental pressure as the time winds down. He can move you to the edge of your seat with pure terror, such as “The Birds,” or how our minds affect our reality, like “Vertigo” or “Rear Window.” Hitchcock called “Shadow of a Doubt” his favorite film, and style here is unique. Hitchcock doesn’t wait until the end to unravel a mystery. He tells you right form the beginning that Uncle Charlie is a miserable, cynical serial killer. We, the audience, knows he is the killer. The suspense comes from how or if his naive, small-town family learns about his terrible secret. He hardly holds back or tries to hide who he is. His soliloqy at dinner is chilling. Only his niece, who believes she has a special connection to her beloved uncle “twin,” begins to understand who he is and that he has brought his dark world and a certain bit of reality into their idyllic setting. The rest of the family blissfully floats through life, in spite of Uncle Charlie’s overt pronouncements. Even the benign game that Joseph and his friend, Herbie, play about how to get away with murder doesn’t register in its morbidity. The psychological drama we follow is with Young Charlie as the veil of the real world is slowly lifted. Her quest for adventure results in seeing that there is a dark world out there, and it has swallowed her uncle.
NORTH BY NORTHWEST
I’ve already discussed much about “North by Northwest” in my Essentials list, but I can say that I see it as the most polished of Hitchcock’s films in terms of look, story, sound, dialogue and performance. There are times of subtle discourse, and times of straight-forward action. Hitchcock allows the viewer to try and unravel the mystery along with Roger Thornhill right up to the famous concluding scene, with its suspense heightened by a fantastic musical score.
SHADOW OF A DOUBT
This one is also discussed as an Essential. While those who study Hitchcock might not put it in their top list, I thoroughly enjoy it. The setup is pure Hitch — introducing a foreign element into setting and see how everyone reacts to it. The mystery is not whether Uncle Charlie is the killer, Hitchcock has told you right from the start that he is. It’s not even a matter of whether he will be caught. The film is built around how this malevolent presence changes those around him.
Jimmy Stewart’s famous animated nightmare sequence, tied with Bernard Herrmann’s incredible score, set this film apart from Hitchcock’s other works. There’s still a lot of Hitch in the story as we become invested in Stewart’s mental spiral and subsequent obsession. Stewart’s nightmare is a bit over the top, but it needs to be to contrast it with the rest of the movie, which in itself seems like one long dream sequence with its odd scenes and flashing colors, including the final transformation of Judy into Madeleine as she walks out of the glowing green light into Stewart’s view. Not as physically draining as “The Birds,” as straight-forward chilling as “Psycho,” or as polished as “North by Northwest,” this film does do a lot of things well, and has had a bit of a renaissance recently in the eyes of critics.
Played out in a single voyeuristic tapestry, Hitchcock again taps into a certain amount of viewer discomfort as Jimmy Stewart’s temporarily-disabled Jeff has only the windows of his neighbors for entertainment, and his imagination to create dysfunctional stories about each of them, from simple loneliness to a potential murder. Those are all played off against his own relationship with the Grace Kelly’s Lisa, a fashion-industry insider whose New York career clashes with the globe-trotting grind of Jeff’s photographer lifestyle. Wen Jeff’s fantasy stories about the neighbors becomes reality, he is physically unable to react, just as we the viewers are only able to sit and watch, unable to intervene. As a sidenote, this movie displays the incredible beauty of Grace Kelly. There may not be any more beautiful and elegant woman in any film than the way Kelly appears in this movie.
In many movies, there is an unknown factor, or a mcguffin, that drives the film. In “The Birds” we wonder what is causing the birds to attack this small California town. The truth is, it doesn’t matter why. All that maters is how it happens and how everyone reacts to the attacks. Hitchcock makes you give a second glance to any bird sitting on a tree branch outside your window, wondering if it is plotting against you. Terrific music and an uneasy ending make this one memorable, but it really doesn’t stand up to Hitch’s best psychological thrillers.
STRANGERS ON A TRAIN
PIt’s a terrific plot, and while the acting is not the greatest (save for the chilling performance by Robert Walker), it has a lot of Hitchcock’s famous touches. The cinematography is outstanding at times. We see a murder take place in the reflection of glasses. Close-up shots of horses in the final scene turn a benign carousel into an evil deathtrap. Only Hitchcock could make the reaching for a dropped lighter into an edge-of-your-seat sequence. Walker, playing the disturbed Bruno, makes your skin crawl in just about every scene he’s in, and drives the film. There’s no more telling scene than the one at the tennis match, showing spectators following the action with side-to-side head movement, except for Walker, who stares straight ahead, into the camera, at Farley Granger’s character Guy Haines.
In his best foray into film noir, Hitchcock created a stylish, sophisticated effort. For the great storytelling Hitchcock, this movie is as much about the artistry as it is the narrative. It doesn’t hurt to have two of the most glamorous stars ever in Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman, joined by Claude Rains in a love triangle that adds government espionage and an underground Nazi organization in shadowy days following World War II.
Under a backdrop of glamorous surroundings, Hitchcock crafts a film that is beautiful to look at in addition to creating a terrific story. We se the great director’s later signature style starting to come into play here with his fabulous camera work. including unique point-of-view shots, high angles, tight zooms and even disorienting views. The highlight comes at a key plot time with a high and wide shot tracking into Bergman’s hand as she nervously holds a key that will lead to the events at the climax of the movie. And even in the middle of a serious life-and-death drama, Hitchcock still manages to interject some of his trademark dry humor in some of the dialogue, especially with Grant, who would use it to such great effect later in Hitchcock’s “North by Northwest.”
STILL WORTH A LOOK
Based on a novel by Daphne du Maurier, this is the only one of Alfred Hitchcock’s films to win an Academy Award. It’s a sophisticated psychological thriller with a stellar cast led by Lawrence Olivier, with solid performances by Joan Fontaine and George Sanders and the standout Judith Anderson as the disturbed housekeeper Mrs. Danvers.
Because of the movies codes of the time, Hitchcock had to work around some of the book’s themes that challenged 1940 morals. But Hitchcock still crafts a terrific tale of obsession that stays mostly true to the novel.
Olivier is Maxim deWinter, whose first wife, Rebecca, has died. His new wife is played by Fontaine, and she soon realized the memory of Rebecca holds a large presence over Maxim and the entire household, including housekeeper Mrs. Danvers, who makes abundantly clear her obsession for Rebecca. to further diminish the second wife, the first name of Fontaine’s character is never revealed in the film.
Despite trying to lease her new husband, the second Mrs. de Winter is tortured mentally by Mrs. Danvers. Events then take place that reveal the true nature of Rebecca and her demise.
Of all of the great films made by Hitchcock, “Psycho” is probably the best known by the majority of the population, based on the classic shower scene and final surprise reveal scene. It made Norman Bates part of popular culture and made Janet Leigh into a star, despite the fact that she really doesn’t have that much overall screen time and is gone a third of the way through the film. Less an overall thriller or suspense movie, it is more know for the shock value of brutal murders, falling more into a horror category. It is more well-done than a typical slasher film, and slowly unravels Norman’s mental deterioration. There are still the small touches by Hitchcock and Bernard Herrmann once again provides the landmark soundtrack that make this one a classic and a seminal film of the genre. In the end, though, the film is more famous than great.
It’s a bit of political propaganda made in 1940 before the U.S. had officially entered World War II, with more than a nod to Edward R. Murrow’s dispatches from London to end the film. But as a political thriller it stands up as Joel McCrea unravels a mystery through Europe. McCrea has always ben one of my favorite actors of that period, although Hitchcock wanted Gary Cooper. There’s standard Hitch fare, including the use of famous landmarks as props. In this one, he uses Dutch wlndmills and city rooftops as sets.
There is not one movie made by Stanley Kubrick that doesn’t need multiple viewings to absorb all the details that the master filmmaker has included. And some of those nuances may never be noticed, no matter how many times you watch. It might be as subtle as the pattern in a carpet, or the way items are arranged on a windowsill. For those who look deep into films, such symbolism can be viewed either as a challenge or as a maddening search for answers. But even a casual viewing of a Kubrick film still leaves you with plenty of questions, starting with “What did I just watch?” From a dark comedy in “Dr. Strangelove” to a period drama in “Barry Lyndon,” or an epic in “Spartacus,” Kubrick shows his range in filmmaking. It is in the intriguing films as “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “A Clockwork Orange,” and “Eyes Wide Shut” that Kubrick showcases all of skills in the telling of stories with deeper meanings. Kubrick was a pioneer in cinematography, technology, and effects, among many other areas. His realistic look of “2001” predated Star Wars, and he employed steadicams in “The Shining” a decade before they made their way into general use. Kubrick began his career as a still photographer, and his eye and style show that connection, and can explain the way he views a scene differently than a filmmaker whose background only included moving images. At minimum, Kubrick’s films prompted discussion; at their extreme they courted controversy, particularly films like “Lolita,” “A Clockwork Orange,” and “Eyes Wide Shut,” which all faced censorship and opposition for their content. Always a perfectionist, Kubrick can easily be compared to Orson Welles in terms of his style, work, and even personality. Their films will continue to spur discussion, and their legacies are ultimately in the eye of the viewers. What is certain, however, is that Kubrick, like Welles, influenced scores of filmmakers who followed, including the greatest of the current day. And to me, the height of homage comes from "The Simpsons," where the brilliant writers have incorporate many, many references to Kubrick films.
I discuss “Dr. Strangelove” above in my Essential Films list. It’s a brilliant black comedy with a great look and terrific performances. It might be seen as a bit of a vanity piece by Peter Sellers with his three different roles, but it is the supporting performances by George C. Scott, Sterling Hayden, and Slim Pickens that make the film a complete project and one of the best ever.
2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY
Volumes and volumes have been written about “2001:A Space Odyssey” and its impact not only in filmmaking, but in science, psychology, philosophy, ethics, religion, and on and on.
Just on the surface, Kubrick’s masterpiece remains the definitive work of science fiction, even 50 years after its release and into the age of hyper-realistic computer generation. The film still LOOKS great, even before diving into the basic story and certainly before examining Kubrick’s attention to detail, symbolism and subtleties that mark nearly all his works. paired with the writing of fellow genius Arthur C. Clarke, this film does not lower itself to scenes of exposition to explain to viewers what are difficult concepts to grasp. Much of this film is left to be interpretation of the viewer, leaving it purposely vague and even disorienting.
Kubrick makes great use of what is called “Pure Cinema,” where large stretches contain little or no dialogue, letting physical movement and scenery carry the sequence. In “2001” this happens at various times, including the first 10 minutes of the movie in the “Dawn of Man” sequence, and in the final 10 minutes with the journey of astronaut Dave Bowman. “2001” remains an integral part of modern culture. It has been referenced, copied or parodied in numerous other movies, television and media.
A CLOCKWORK ORANGE
Kubrick’s look into the near-future makes statements on all forms of society in a building dystopian existence filled with violence, political manipulation and the breakdown of social morality. It is disturbing to watch, but that is how Kubrick made his film. His use of beautiful, harmless music in opposition to the violence on the screen is only one of the aspects of Kubrick’s commentary. By keeping the film set not too far in the future, Kubrick keeps enough connection to current times that as viewers we can extrapolate our own existence into the wold of Alex DeLarge and his “droogs.” As terrifying as their “ultra-violence” is, the government’s psychological experiments on “rehabilitation” are equally chilling. It’s a commentary on “goodness,” whether it is inherent or if it can be manufactured, and if it can be induced in an individual, is it really true goodness or a removal of free will.
The pairing of Kubrick with Stephen King was bound to result in a classic, or at least in a film that would provide hours and hours of discussion and attempts at interpretation. Kubrick was at the height of his visual prowess, and the imagery he provides here is perhaps his greatest work, right down to the patterned carpeting on the floor of the Overlook Hotel’s hallways to the Apollo sweater young Danny wears, perhaps Kubrick’s play on the conspiracy theory that he had filmed a staged moon landing in 1969. Jack Nicholson is perfect in the role of Jack Torrance, and Kubrick does all he can to wring out Nicholson’s performance, perhaps in part from the endless takes Kubrick requires from his actors who he pushes to their emotional brink. Shelly Duvall could not have been a better choice as Jack’s wife for someone to look as pathetic as she does in the face of her husband’s breakdown. King, who has depicted evil in a car and in a Saint Bernard, places it this time into the hotel itself, with no explanation, of course. We are left disoriented, trapped, and above all, scared. Kubrick does his part to add to all of that with his camera work, from the low-angle tracking of Danny’s Big Wheel to the snowy, surreal hedge maze. These only scratch the surface of the analysis of “The Shining.” In addition to numerous books and commentaries, there is an entire documentary, “Room 237,” providing an examination on the film.
PATHS OF GLORY
In his followup to “The Killing,” Kubrick teams up with Kirk Douglas for the first time in this fog of war/morality tale. They would work together three years later in Douglas’s star turn in “Spartacus.” In “Paths of Glory,” Douglas plays a French officer in World War I under an ambitious, but reckless general. Despite protests from Douglas’s Colonel Dax, the general orders a suicidal attack that is a failure. The general tries to cover for his decision with a court martial of three soldiers as examples of cowardice. Dax volunteers to defend the soldiers, but the trial is a sham and the soldiers are executed. Kubrick’s camera work begins to show here, with his use of light and shadow, close ups and angles and walks through the trenches. The battle scenes are among the most realistic for the time. The use (and non-use) of sound also lends to the drama.
Made when he was just 28, Kubrick’s venture into the film noir/heist genre, of course, deviated from the standard method of telling the story. It’s a straight-forward story of a $2 million holdup at a race track, but there are certainly touches of Kubrick’s special vision with camera angles and narrative. Because of the way the movie was shot and arguments how it should be put together, it can seem a bit confusing at times, with portions in a documentary style that only adds to a bit of the mystery. Sterling Hayden, who would later be a part of Kubrick’s magnificent “Dr. Strangelove,” is Johnny, the leader of the heist group, and foreshadows many of the nihilistic characters that would follow in subsequent films, topped by a dramatic ending and Johnny’s resigned “What’s the difference?”
STILL WORTH A LOOK
FULL METAL JACKET
Kubrick’s take on Vietnam stands in comparison with several others during the period, particularly “Apocalypse Now” and “Platoon.” All three take looks at the complex and often ambiguous morality of that war, and all three do it in different ways.
Kubrick’s film is broken down into two halves of a journey: the first half shows Marine recruits going through basic training under relentless abuse from R. Lee Ermey, an actual drill sergeant who turns in an incredible performance that carries the first half. The climax of the first part leaves the viewer as emotionally wrung out as the recruits.
The second half finds the soldiers in the field and Kubrick takes them on a their own morality journey in the midst of war. Like “Apocalypse Now” and “Platoon,” there are moments when lines of right and wrong are blurred. Kubrick presents many moments that are examples of this duality, as simple as Private Joker wearing a peace pin while having “Born to Kill” on his helmet. There are even more subtler signs throughout the movie, even inlcuding the music, such as the platoon walking through a bombed-out city singing the song from “The Mickey Mouse Club.”
This is Stanley Kubrick’s art project. He pulls out all the stops with the camera, from wide angle epic shots to tight hero shots as he chronicles the journey of Ryan O’Neal’s title character. First viewing of this period drama over three hours at a purposely plodding pace produces the typical groan. A second viewing, should anyone be willing to attempt it, offers a bit more appreciation for not only Kubrick’s artwork, but for the story itself. O’Neal’s Barry Lyndon gets the hero treatment in terms of visuals, but he’s hardly the hero type, so it’s definitely not a morality tale. To go along with the drama of the period, Kubrick loads his movie with a soundtrack of the best classical music he could find to round out the entire experience.
EYES WIDE SHUT
Yeah, this is the weird sex movie. Kubrick’s last film is his most controversial, especially with the orgy scene that underwent some edits to make it more comfortable for the studio to release. This was a risk for then-real life couple Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman to take on, and Kubrick put them through their paces in his typical meticulous style. The film took more than a year to shoot, including a scene with Cruise and Sydney Pollack shot 200 times. The story, in such a Kubrick style, is a personal journey, clearly his most intimate, and also like Kubrick, gives no wrapup in a nice, bowed package. If the nudity is not a distraction, Kubrick provides another visual stunner, perhaps his best use of color. Music, again, is used to great effect. Like nearly every Kubrick film, this one generated a great deal of discussion, even beyond the controversial aspects. It can be a difficult movie to watch, let alone understand, if that’s ever possible. Kubrick probably couldn’t be happier leaving us with this kind of film.
THE COEN BROTHERS
It is very hard to pin down the works of Joel and Ethan Coen, because the projects they have written, directed, produced, or in any way conjured, span every genre or style of filmmaking. Certainly, they have their classics, most of which are easily recognizable as Coen works — Fargo, O Brother Where Art Thou, Barton Fink, Raising Arizona, The Big Lebowski — which have varying levels of dark comedy. Then there are others which lean more to the drama, with a subtler edge of sarcasm or parody, like “No Country for Old Men,” “A Serious Man,” and “True Grit.” Then they will throw in a semi-biographical film on 1960s folk music with “Inside Llewyn Davis.” On top of those production and directorial works, they have had less-prominent hands as writers in more somber films such as “Bridge of Spies,” and “Unbroken.” There are some common threads through many of the Coens’ works. They have a stable of actors who regularly appear in their films in varying combinations, including Joel’s wife Frances McDormand, who won an Oscar for her portrayal of the pregnant police Chief in “Fargo.” Others who have appeared in multiple films are John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, George Clooney and John Turturro, among others.On nearly all their films, the Coens have used cinematographer Roger Deakins, While there is not one particular Deakins “look,” one of the hallmarks of Coen Brothers’ productions are the visuals, which can be attributed to the collaboration between Deakins and the Coens. Above all, the writing for the films, usually done by the Coens themselves, is always sharp. Rarely is a word wasted. Conversations between characters draw you into a scene, where there is a certain rhythm that sets these films apart. There is no better example than in “No Country for Old Men,” which won the Coens an Academy Award for best picture in 2007, and earned Javier Bardem an Oscar for best actor. Trying to decided on a list of top Coen Brothers’ films is difficult, not so much as with what to leave in, but with what to leave out. I include two of their earliest films. “Blood Simple” and “Miller’s Crossing.” They don’t quite have the polish or the rich feel of later films, but they have great stories and the writing is distinctly from the Coens. I included “Burn After Reading” just because it was goofy enough and I just really liked it. I picked it over “A Serious Man” and “The Man Who Wasn’t There,” which are two more terrific films but just couldn’t make the cut. I also didn’t include the more recent “Hail, Caesar!” I suppose I had higher expectations for it, but it fell flat, feeling a bit forced and unfocused.
O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU?
I cover this film in the Second Tier list above. Borrowing from the “Odyssey,” this tale of treasure seeking is set during the Depression and includes the smart dialogue, symbolism, offbeat roles and terrific music characteristic of Coen Brothers offerings. Probably the best soundtrack of any of the brothers’ films, highlighted by the fantastic “Man of Constant Sorrow.”
Arguably the most acclaimed film from the Coen Brothers, it earned Frances McDormand a Best Actress Oscar in 1996 for her role as the pregnant police chief Marge Gunderson. Car dealer Jerry Lundegaard’s need to raise cash for a never-disclosed reason sets the events in motion around three set pieces - Lundegaard and his family, the two murdering kidnappers hired to snatch Lundegaard’s wife, and the investigation into the murders by Gunderson. From the real story that really isn’t a real story, to the “Ya, you betcha” Minnesota accent detail, there is a great depth and richness to this film that sets it apart. Of course, it has its odd moments, including a scene with Marge and her high school classmate Mike Yanagita, the interrogation of the two prostitutes (“Go Bears”). There’s a Coen Brothers touch where Marge and her husband, Norm, are only seen in scenes together when they are in bed or eating. Then, of course, there’s the wood-chipper.
There seems to be a healthy debate about this Coen Brothers art project that falls into the love it-hate it category. John Turturro and John Goodman, who would be regular players for the Coens, fill the main oles in this period piece set in 1941 Hollywood. Tuturro plays Barton Fink a struggling movie screenwriter, and Goodman as his neighbor in a rundown apartment building. It marks the first collaboration of the Coens with cinematographer Roger Deakins, creating a look and feel for many of their subsequent films. While not truly symbolic, the Coens and Deakins pay particular attention to detail in several shots — the peeling wallpaper, the calendar on the wall, only showing the elevator moving downward, and of course, the burning building at the end. There’s also the typical ambiguity that we are left with in several of the Brother’ movies. At the end of this film, we have Barton on the beach with a box, not knowing what is in it. We suspect, but we don’t know. And we have the closing shot of the woman on the beach in the same pose as the calendar in Fink’s room. What it means, we don’t know, but that make for part of the enjoyment.
THE BIG LEBOWSKI
Its classification as a “cult” classic really does the film a disservice. It’s probably not in the same league as “Fargo” or “No Country For Old Men,” but it still stands up as a solid film in the same quirky comedy category as “Raising Arizona.” With a number of the Coens’ regular acting troupe, including John Goodman, John Turturro and Steve Buscemi, along with Jeff Bridges and his now-legendary Jeffery “Dude” Lebowski, the movie probably gets more airplay than any other of the Coen Brothers films. It certainly is quoted more often and has more of a following than any other, including “Fargo.” Unlike other offerings from the Coens, there’s not a lot of plot or symbolism here, but the movie is built on the wide variety of characters. There is the main set of players - the bowling team of the Dude, Walter Sobchak (Goodman), and Donny (Buscemi), and how they deal with the Dude’s case of mistaken identity when the Dude is attacked by people in search of a different Jeffrey Lebowski. The Dude, only trying to replace his damaged rug (“It really tied the room together”), goes in search of the other Lebowski (the “Big” Lebowski) for compensation, and along with way crosses characters like the porn magnate Jackie Treehorn, the other Lebowski’s daughter Maude, and a group of German nihilists (“these men are cowards”). The situation eventually is resolved (mostly), leaving the Dude to go back to bowling and White Russians. The Dude abides.
This is the first film written and directed by the Coens, and even in this debut effort, many of the features of following efforts come through. “Blood Simple” had a bit of a noir feel to it, with it’s gritty, sleazy story, filled with twists in the plot and characters with little or no morality and obsessive behaviors. It’s more violent than the noir films of the 1940s, and the bits of humor are deeply dark and sarcastic, which is another trait that is part of the more serious films of the Coens. The casting of character actors M. Emmett Walsh and Dan Hedaya match the griminess of the film. Frances McDormand, Joel Coen’s wife and a fixture in their films, also makes her screen debut and shows well as the addled wife. Certain threads follow through the story despite the many complex turns, something that the Coens would polish and stylize more later in their Oscar-winning “No Country For Old Men.” Each scene and each event build on the previous and raise the anxiety level to where the “Blood Simple,” or “craziness” takes hold.
After the Coens debuted with the violent “Blood Simple” and followed with the goofy comedy “Raising Arizona,” they returned to the neo-noir genre with “Miller’s Crossing,” inspired by the crime novels of Dashiel Hammett, which also inspired “Blood Simple.” This time, the Coens take on Prohibition-era organzied crime. Casting is solid with Gabriel Byrne and Albert Finney as the Irish crime bosses, with Jon Polito as his Italian rival, and John Turturro (in his first of many Coen films) as the sap caught in the middle. As had already been developed, the plot twists and turns throughout, with running themes and phrases reappearing, inlcuding the famous “Look into your heart.” There is also the attention to detail that is a constant of the Coens, and nods to great crime and noir films of the past, including “The Godfather” and “The Third Man.” The film is beautifully shot by Barry Sonnenfeld, who would go on to direct “The Addams Family,” “Get Shorty,” and the “Men in Black” series.
NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN
The Coens had produced an Oscar for Frances McDormand in her role in “Fargo,” but it wasn’t until “No Country for Old Men” that they reached the pinnacle themselves with a Best Picture Academy Award. Although had produced dramas earlier with “Blood Simple” and “Miller’s Crossing,” they had built their reputations on straightforward comedies or at least dramas with a dark comedy element within them. Javier Bardem is beyond chilling with his portrayal of the cold-blooded killer Anton Chigurh. Tommy Lee Jones is perfectly cast as sheriff Ed Tom Bell, and Josh Brolin plays Llewelyn Moss who accidentally finds himself on the run, in the middle. Like 2016’s “Hell or High Water,” it’s not so much about the money or the chase. It’s about the three men, how they deal with people and situations, and the randomness of life. The random element is demonstrated in most basic form as the hair-impaired Chigurh’s callous flip of a coin decides who lives and who dies. Everyman Moss has moral struggle with running off with money as he randomly stumbles onto a drug deal gone bad. The lawful Bell maintains his stoic compassion which sounds uncaring, but which conveys a lifetime of seeing lives lost, seemingly at random, and his inability to save them. It's also three takes on morality, from the choices Moss wrestles with to Chigurh's coin flip seemingly removing his responsibility for his killings to the "fate" of the coin, and the moral Bell's futile fight against immorality. This is not “Fargo,” but there are similar themes. Yes, it is bloody, and at times darkly humorous. It is not wrapped up in a simple package. It certainly has the Coen’s smartly-written dialogue with pace and rhythm, the subtle and not-so-subtle symbolism, and it is beautifully shot by frequent Coen collaborator Roger Deakins. The movie plods along, like a low-speed “Terminator” as Chigurh always tracks down what he is looking for, leaving a trail of bodies in his wake. The pace is intentional; it's meant to be relentless with the idea that you can never be comfortable or let down your guard. The random factor continues all the way through the finish, even catching up with the single-minded Chigurh.
There are several fabulous scenes, including a pair of encounters with Chigurh, one by Woody Harrelson, whose character is also chasing the money, and Moss's wife, Carla Jean. Both try in their own ways, to dissuade Chigurh from his murderous trail, only to fail. But a more telling moment occurs when Sheriff Bell enters the Moss trailer just moments after Chigurh was there. He drinks form the same milk bottle. He sees his reflection in the television, just as Chigurh had earlier. The scene cement the conection between the two — two sides of the same coin, relentless in their particular pursuits.
STILL WORTH A LOOK
INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS
For the Coen Brothers, there really is no perfect ending. In most of their films, resolution comes at a price. For Llewyn Davis, it’s just failure. The odds seem stacked against him, but he doesn’t do himself any favors, either, as he tries to make it in the folk music scene in 1961. Oscar Isaac plays the hangdog title character well; at times he’s sympathetic, while at other times he seems to get what he deserves. Even the weather is bleak. The only real survivor among the characters seems to be Ulysses, the cat who escapes early on, and despite some misidentification and a a demise that ends up being premature, finds its way home by the end. As per their style, the Coens are detailed in their approach to the music so central to the story. The original songs in the film, produced by T-Bone Burnett along with the Coens, mimic those from the period, and there are a handful of traditional songs. The presence of Justin Timberlake in the cast adds to the musical integrity, and Isaac holds his own in performing his own songs.
BURN AFTER READING
A goofy dark comedy, “Burn After Reading” harkens back to a similar style that the Coens used in “The Big Lebowski” and “O Brother, Where Art Thou.” This film involves a series of unintentional crossing of paths among people who seem to be mentally compromised in some way. Miserable John Malcovich is the CIA operative who quits his job before he is fired for his drinking problem. His suffering wife Katie (Tilda Swinton) uses the episode to push for a divorce so she can be with Harry (George Clooney), an overly paranoid U.S. Marshall who is also seeing Linda (Frances McDormand), a middle-aged woman obsessed with getting plastic surgery who works at a gym with the dim Chad (Brad Pitt). Through a series of events, all of them become entangled, escalated by the individual personality disorders, eventually involving the Russians and the U.S. intelligence community. Like “The Big Lebowski” and “O Brother,” the whole situation is resolved — maybe not so neatly for some — but enough.
In this most comedic of the Coen Brothers films, “Raising Arizona” gets over-the-top performances, but yet ties the whole thing together in a package that’s just fun to watch. It’s well-shot with some terrific dialogue typical of Coen films. The action is a bit slapstick, although it’s a complete story. A solid cast helps keep the whole thing from veering too far off into a complete farce. It is interesting to compare “Raising Arizona” to the Coen’s other cult classic “The Big Lebowski.” Both comedies have their outlandish moments, but in “Lebowski” the humor seems to be more natural, while in “Raising Arizona” is feels more contrived and forced.
I was watching “Rushmore” for the first time, and very early in the film, the yearbook montage comes on, backed by the song “Making Time” by Creation. At that moment, I was absolutely hooked on Wes Anderson, even before I knew who Wes Anderson was. At first blush, it seemed that “Rushmore” was a quirky little film about the underdog teen, the coming-of-age teen, the teen angst, and oh-by-the-way-here’s-Bill-Murray movie. But somewhere in the middle, I realized I was seeing something different. This wasn’t a formula movie. And I just really loved it. I watched it again. It was a real film, brilliantly done, in a style that I really hadn’t seen before. The interplay between Max Fischer, Herman Blume and Rosemary Cross was complex; their characters had depth. They were surrounded by a strong cast in interesting roles, and the music — familiar, yet unfamiliar — managed to be perfectly fit to each moment. The cut-aways and side-cuts, which would be so much a part of later Wes Anderson films, are used effectively on a smaller scale in Rushmore, but they proved a unique way of adding backstory and context. By the “Royal Tenenbaums,” “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou,” “Moonrise Kingdom,” and “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” those techniques would be refined in ever-more stylish ways. The themes in Wes Anderson films often follow a similar thread. Flawed characters striving for a certain identity that is likely out of their reach, but they eventually come to terms with who they are, and maybe while they don’t find true happiness, they find a certain contentment in their lives. Often that contentment comes in slow motion, another Wes Anderson trait that frequently ends his films.The dialogue is sharp and sophisticated with pace and rhythm. Not a word is wasted. Similar to the Coen Brothers, Anderson has a got-to stable of regular actors. Many are the same as the Coens have used, including Frances McDormand (wife of Joel Coen), Tilda Swinton and George Clooney. The regulars for Wes Anderson include brothers Luke and Owen Wilson, Jason Schwartzman, and Bill Murray, along with terrific character actors in Seymour Cassel and Kumar Pallana. In addition to his live-action work, Anderson made a stop-motion animation feature in “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” and is working on a second, Isle of Dogs,” set for release in 2018. He has also produced a few commercials and short films that are worth searching for. Anderson makes marvelous use of music in his films. Often he will use unfamiliar tracks from familiar artists, mostly from the 60s and 70s, and generally in some kind of loose theme. For “The Life Aquatic,” Anderson uses several tracks from David Bowie, many of which are acoustically sung in Portuguese by Seu Jorge.
I’ve covered this film extensively throughout this section. It was Anderson’s second film after “Bottle Rocket” and really started to set into place what would be Anderson’s particular style. While it is not as polished or stylish as his later films, “Rushmore” still has a great story with terrific performances
THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS
While “Rushmore” was my first and holds a special place in my heart, I consider “The Royal Tenenbaums” as Wes Anderson’s best film. The unique style of storytelling, using Alec Baldwin’s narration and asides to fill in the backstories of the main characters, almost small films-within-a-film. They add an incredible richness to what is basically a simple tale of a man (Gene Hackman) trying reconnect with his grown children, ex-wife, and grandchildren. But it becomes more than that, as each of the characters go through the Anderson treatment of trying to find some measure of happiness in what have been somewhat dysfunctional lives. The cast is first-rate with the likes of regulars Bill Murray, and brothers Luke and Owen Wilson, joined by Anjelica Huston, Danny Glover and Gwyneth Paltrow. The soundtrack is probably the best of any Anderson film, starting with “Hey Jude” performed by the Mutato Mzika Orchestra. The arrival at a bus station by Paltrow’s character Margot to “These Days” by Nico hits a perfect note, while Royal Tenenbaum’s excursion with his grandsons to Paul Simon’s “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard” matches the fun. There’s the Ramones’ “Judy is a Punk” backing the aside of Margot’s interesting history, and the haunting “Needle in the Hay” by Elliott Smith over the suicide attempt by Richie (Luke Wilson). Even the final (slo-mo, of course) scene with the entire family to Van Morrison’s “Everyone” makes for a satisfying ending.
Choosing the best of Wes Anderson is difficult, because while they all exhibit his particular style, they are all unique in their own way. That is a good thing, but makes it tough separating good from great. “Moonrise Kingdom” edges ahead of “The Life Aquatic” and “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” but that’s only in my own list. Every Anderson fan is going to have a list of their own. “Moonrise” had a terrific look. You feel you are on a New England seashore in the 1960s. The story swirls around the crisis of runaway tweens Sam and Suzy and their journey, but we have terrific tales of other characters with Suzy’s parents (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand) and their stagnant marriage that involves Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis) and the mother with their secret affair, and the scout master (Edward Norton) questioning his life. Then there is an amazing supporting cast with Anderson regular Jason Schwartzman, Harvey Keitel, Tilda Swinton in her bright purple uniform as Social Services, and the wonderful Bob Balaban and the film’s narrator. As with other Anderson films, the trials of the characters lives aren’t resolved perfectly, but they reach a certain level of individual awareness and contentment.
THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL
This is Wes Anderson’s grand project, coming together in look and style. He combines his storytelling style that includes the pastel look with miniatures, lavish sets, beautiful detail and an incredible cast that includes four Oscar winners and 12 other Academy Award nominees. And that doesn’t include the cameos (see if you can spot George Clooney in a quick cut near the end of the film). The bright, pink hotel is at the center of the movie, and its rich history told through the eyes of onetime lobby boy Zero, who relates a tale from the hotel’s height and his exploits with legendary concierge Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes). As always, the characters are rich with detail. There are asides that give depth to the story. Wes Anderson’s films all add those small, wonderful details, while in many cases do not advance the story, but do add to the tapestry of the film. The only criticism I have with “Grand Budapest” is that there are SO many characters and the plot is more convoluted and tangled than previous films, that it is easy to get lost in wave after wave that is thrown at the viewer. It all can be overwhelming.
THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU
I have been chastised for my fairly tepid reception of “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou.” Multiple viewings have given me a better appreciation of the film, but it didn’t grab me and hold me the way others have on its initial watch. The feel is kind of like saying “What if you took ‘Moby Dick,’ ‘The Magnificient Ambersons’ and ‘Treasure Island,’ mashed them together, an then had Wes Anderson direct it?” Once again, it has a superb cast and all of Anderson’s particular touches. The music is very good, particularly Seu Jorge’s acoustic takes on familiar David Bowie classics. Bill Murray (Steve Zissou) is terrific, as always, and Jeff Goldblum absolutely chews the scenery is his role as Zissou nemesis Alistair Hennessey.
FANTASTIC MR. FOX
This is one of those curveballs thrown at you, but after seeing “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” there is no doubt the hand of Wes Anderson is on it. While the screenplay for this stop-motion animated movie was written by Anderson and frequent collaborator Noah Baumbach, it is his first adaptation of someone else’s story, based on a Roald Dahl children’s novel. Dahl’s best-known works are “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and “James and the Giant Peach.” The story of Mr. Fox, his family, and his band of animal friends, and their battles with local farmers plays right into Anderson’s wheelhouse where his whimsy and imagination are mostly unlimited. Anderson does still to his themes and story-telling style here, and even anthropomorphic characters are given depth and individual journeys of self-awareness. As always, there’s a wonderful soundtrack, capped by the film-ending “Let Her Dance,” a 1965 song by Bobby Fuller.
The original “Bottle Rocket” was a short film made by Anderson along with Luke and Owen Wilson that eventually was remade into Anderson’s first feature-length production. It is a caper film in which three friends (the Wilsons and Robert Musgrave) plan a series of robberies as part of what Dignan (Owen Wilson) has devised as “The 75-year Plan.” Along the way they meet up with Mr. Henry (James Caan), a part-time criminal who becomes the gang’s boss. Things don’t go as planned, and the group splits, only to come together again for another heist. This film obviously does not have the polished treatment of Anderson’s later works, but it does have his signature attention to interesting details, and the dialogue between characters is trademark Wes Anderson. What the lack of flash or color or expansive story or cast does do, though, is show what a great storyteller and filmmaker he was in 1996, and the type of genius he will showcase in his future works.
STILL WORTH A LOOK
THE DARJEELING LIMITED
There are all the hallmarks of a Wes Anderson production here, with characters all working through personal struggles and going on individual and, literally, a physical journey aboard the “Darjeeling Limited” train. Anderson regulars Owen Wilson, Jason Schwartzman and Adrien Brody are reunited brothers making a trip of self-discovery across India. Similar to “Bottle Rocket,” there is a plan for the trip, secretly detailed by Wilson’s character Francis, who hasn’t told his brothers that he is taking them to see their estranged mother, now a nun in the Himalayas. They encuonter numerous episodes challaneging who they are as men, sons and brothers. And as in all of Anderson’s films, there is resolution of sorts for all of them, at least enough to shed baggage — real and otherwise — and embark on the next phase of their lives. The backdrop of India gives Anderson a chance to expand his cinematography skills to include the spectacular vistas and showcase a variety of cultures that he had previously not explored. While the film has its humorous moments, and finishes with a bit of satisfaction and hope, there is a somber undertone that flows throughout. The movie also lacks the creative development of character depth through asides, even though each of the characters allude to rich backgrounds. For a bit of background on Schwartzman’s character, Jack, see the writeup of “Hotel Chevalier” below.
Anderson shot this 13-minute short film in 2005 with Jason Schwartzman and Natalie Portman over a two-day period in Paris. At the same time, Anderson was working on the screenplay for “The Darjeeling Limited” and realized that Schwartzman’s character in the short film would fit as one of the brothers in “Darjeeling.” So “Hotel Chevalier” ended up being a bit of a prequel for the feature-length film, although Portman’s character only makes a cameo in the “Darjeeling,” and none of the events in “Hotel Chevalier” are mentioned in the longer movie. “Hotel Chevalier” puts the viewer into a vignette of a couple struggling with their relationship. Schwartzman’s character has left for Paris, only to be tracked down by Portman’s character. It’s an awkward and uncomfortable time, and while we don’t get any of the circumstances of their estrangement, we know that they have a something of a long time time together, or a least long enough to have a deep familial feel between them. We are able to get enough information to have an understanding of their attraction and also of their antipathy for each other.