I remember well, in my youth, the thrill of attending the Saturday matinee double bill at the Newton Theater in my home neighborhood in Washington, D.C. We would buy buttered popcorn and a soft drink and nestle in the comfy seats. While my parents exercised appropriate guidance in the selection of films that we could watch, I used to think that a slice of heaven would be to have the wherewithal to attend every one of the movies that we saw in the previews.
When I began my undergraduate education at Notre Dame, weekend movies were available for free in Washington Hall. It was a great study break and also a real bonding experience with the rest of the student body.
On the academic side, the study of film was just coming into its own in the 1960s. The Engineering Auditorium was the presentation site of the new wave of critically acclaimed works, many from Europe and Asia. Often these showings were introduced by some bright undergrad full of self-importance and seemingly comfortable in the new vocabulary of film criticism. I was fortunate to have Don Costello as a professor who, in his English courses, helped us to develop a degree of competence in understanding the distinctive characteristics of cinema as a genre.
Much has happened in my life since those undergraduate
years, but I have never lost my enthusiasm for and enjoyment of movies as works of creative expression. My tastes are eclectic, and my access has been considerably expanded since I joined Netflix. I have explored historically significant works from around the world. For periods of time, I focused on a given country, like France or Spain, Japan or China or Russia. I also have explored genres like documentaries, biographies, anime, war films, romances and animated features. I am not easily offended by content, whether language or violence or sexual expression, unless the director seems to be distorting reality, pandering to the audience or promoting
an amoral perspective on human life.
The movies that I rank most highly help me to see the world with fresh eyes, to enter more fully into the human condition, to laugh and cry and come away full of wonder and reappreciation. Depending on my mood or the events of the recent past, I may want one time to escape from all that weighs me down and another to become more reflective about fundamental things.
I claim no specific credentials as a reviewer other than a lifetime of movie watching. With that caveat in mind, I now offer my evaluation of particular films from recent years.
‘The Fall’ (2006) Set in a Los Angeles hospital in the 1920s, the movie stars Lee Pace as a paralyzed movie stuntman and Catinca Untaru as a 5-year old girl with a broken arm. The stuntman is a gifted storyteller who entrances the girl with adventure tales. Part of his motivation is to get the girl to steal morphine from the infirmary so that he can commit suicide. But will the girl help the man to regain his zest for life? This film is creative and stunningly beautiful.
‘Saint Ralph’ (2004) In a film set in Canada in the early 1950s, Adam Butcher portrays Ralph, a 14-year old boy, whose father is dead and whose mother is lying in a coma in a hospital. Ralph is bedeviled by hormonal preoccupations and a degree of “Catholic guilt.” He decides that the only way his mother will come out of her coma is for him to be involved in a miracle. At heart, this is a story about growing through the teenage years and the ways that our peer group and our mentors affect us for better or worse.
‘Dancing at Lughnasa’ (1998) This Irish film stars Meryl Streep as the eldest of five unmarried
sisters who are carving out a hardscrabble existence in Donegal in the 1930s. The story is about family
bonding, about the mix of the religious and the pagan in Irish culture, and about the yearning for romance and love. The family has a radio, which, when it works, frees them up to dance and express their individual and collective desire for togetherness and for meaning. Like much of Irish creative art, there is an underlying sadness to the story, but it is tenderly rendered.
‘Persepolis’ (2007) This animated film is intended for adults and not for children. Based on Marjane Satrapi’s autobiographical graphic novel, it follows her life story from her childhood in Iran under the Shah, to her adolescence in France, to her return to Tehran as an adult. The movie portrays the travails of modern Iran, as well as a less-than-sympathetic portrayal of the West. The animation is deliberately cartoonish yet powerfully done.
‘Once’ (2006) This Irish independent film stars Glen Hansard as a street musician in Dublin. He
develops a friendship with a Czech migrant, who
supports her mother and daughter by working various
low-paying jobs. While the story is a love tale in a sense, it does not lead to the two lead characters
becoming partners. Instead, they write songs together
that help them to express unresolved feelings about personal relationships. The plot unfolds in a charming
way, and the music is to be enjoyed. This movie is a good example
of indie creativity and simplicity being merged in a compelling narrative.
The ‘Hurt Locker’ (2009) Set during the Iraq War, the film follows a three-man unit whose job is to defuse bombs. One soldier among them wears the ‘Hurt Locker’ or large full-body armor that looks like an astronaut’s outfit. The film is an adrenaline rush from beginning to end. It is less about the horror of war (although there is a lot of that), but more about why some are attracted to participation in war as the ultimate aphrodisiac.
‘Paranoid Park’ (2007) Set in Portland, Oregon, the film stars Gabe Nevins as a 16-year old skateboarder whose parents are going through a divorce. By accident, he is involved in the death of a security guard who patrols the railyards. His friends sense that something is wrong but they are not sure what.
The boy’s grip on reality begins to slip as he tries to find a way out of his dilemma. The film is well-acted and totally believable.
‘The Lives of Others’ (2007) This Oscar-winning German film is set in Berlin in the 1980s. It shows how the East German secret police engaged in perhaps the most extensive surveillance program in human history. Husbands betrayed wives, children reported on their parents, and friends turned in accounts of the activities of their friends. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, all of these reports became available to whoever wanted to see his or her file. The plot is full of surprising turns, but the real impact of the movie is its portrayal of how an evil system worked and how individuals learned to cope within it.
‘Lars and the Real Girl’ (2007) This film has a bizarre plot but a surprisingly effective tone throughout. A young man, who fears human touch and personal relationships, buys a life-size, anatomically correct female doll over the Internet to be his girlfriend. His relatives and small-town neighbors must learn to accept the new reality. The man has an ongoing set of sessions with a psychologist who tries to lead him through his delusional condition to a real relationship with a live woman. This movie creates an imaginary world that works and, in the process, offers wisdom about human fragility, community and family support, and the complexity of
‘Memoirs of a Geisha’ (2005) This film traces the career of a woman from her humble origins in a remote fishing village to her education and life as a geisha during World War II. The geisha dances, entertains and plays the coquette. But she must preserve her virginity for the man willing to pay the highest price. Taught that her destiny is not to want or to feel, can this geisha find true love? Featuring strikingly beautiful cinematography, this film is a good love story with fine insights into Japanese life and culture.
‘The Illusionist’ (2006) This film is a romantic story about an illusionist (or magician) who fell in love as a teenager with an aristocratic princess. When they are forcefully separated, he tours the world and perfects his art. When he returns to Vienna, they are reunited when she participates in his act on stage.
But she is now married to the crown prince, who becomes jealous and tries to quash the illusionist in
devious ways. The period backdrop is Vienna in the early 1900s. The steady pace of the story, the camera
work and the editing, are all first-rate.
‘Picnic at Hanging Rock’ (1975) This Australian
classic, directed by Peter Weir and set in 1900, tells the story of a party of schoolgirls who mysteriously disappear
while at a picnic at Hanging Rock (a geological formation
in a nearby park). Believed to be based on a true story, the subtext of the tale is life at the exclusive school and the domineering role of the principal. The overall tone of the movie is haunting, eerie and evocative.
‘Henry Poole Is Here’ (2008) Simply made and wonderfully acted, the film stars Luke Wilson as Henry Poole, a man who has been told he will die from a rare disease. After hearing his diagnosis, he buys an ugly house in his old neighborhood and decides to live his remaining days on Twinkies, pizza and liquor. But his meddling neighbors give him no peace. This movie is rich in insight and full of pleasant twists. It is about belief, life, love and friendship.
‘Amazing Grace’ (2007) This film stars Ioan Gruffudd as William Wilberforce, the 18th century British politician and social reformer, who fought for more than 20 years to abolish the slave trade. He was a fervent Christian who spent the rest of his life in efforts to reform education, prisons and other social concerns. The title comes from the Christian hymn which was a Wilberforce favorite. The film has a compelling story and fine acting. And like all good period pieces set among the upper class, it has beautiful scenery as its backdrop.
‘Vitus’ (2007) This German film tells the story of
Vitus, a child prodigy pianist whose parents put pressure
on him to live up to their ambitions for his potential career. However, the boy’s grandfather urges him to be
himself and follow his heart even if it means giving up what he loves. In order to attain an ordinary childhood, the boy takes steps that eventually lead to a new, surprising direction and a role that impacts the whole family.