2009 / Sam Taylor-Wood > What’s most impressive about conceptual artist Taylor-Wood’s directorial debut is her ability to take the celebrity out of a teenage John Lennon. By the end of the film, his relationship with his family is of greater interest than his impending tales of success (though the hints are all over the place). Aaron Johnson, notable in the U.S. for his lead role in Kick-Ass, actually gets to show off his acting chops with a highly emotive portrayal of Lennon that’s hopefully indicative of better things to come. Also of note is the rich yet low-key performance by Kristin Scott Thomas who, having been neglected by the Academy for I’ve Loved You So Long, may actually get a much deserved nod.
1965 / Sidney J. Furie > Kind of a pity that most people will know Michael Caine for being Batman’s butler rather than the sublime counter-espionage agent Harry Palmer. The Ipcress File finds a middle ground between bitterness of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and the flashiness of James Bond in creating a calculated experience with a certain suave demeanor. Palmer doesn’t ask for his Martini to be shaken but instead is adept at cooking a meal for two and solving some mysteries while he’s at it. If you’ve never experienced Caine in his heyday, the Palmer series is apparently tops, though I’ll reserve further judgment until I get around to watching Funeral in Berlin.
1965 / Martin Ritt > If there ever was an elegy to Cold War espionage, this may be it. Based on a John le Carré novel, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold doesn’t waste time romanticizing the profession that modern day moviegoers identify with the flash and glamour of James Bond. In its bitterness, we witness a carrying performance by Richard Burton where he completely erases the line between the sides. It can be argued that no actor has ever portrayed the confusion of being a double agent better.
1975 / Sydney Pollack > An elegantly composed spy thriller centered around Robert Redford who accidentally stumbles upon a topical secret while working at a CIA think tank. For those who appreciate a slower pace and a healthy dose of paranoia, Three Days of the Condor is fitting and satisfying and works as a complementary piece to The Parallax View.
2009 / Rajkumar Hirani > There’s an easy explanation as to why 3 Idiots is easily the highest grossing film in Bollywood history, almost doubling the box office receipts of its nearest competitor: The film defines generations of Indians (and South Asians in general) and is relevant now more than ever. On the surface, it’s just a fun film with quite a lot of predictability, cheesy moments and phoned-in laughs. But the thematics of a generation lost to examinations and monetary success are rooted deep within the culture’s bones. Most Indian students, male or female, know the pressure of success in one of the world’s toughest educational marketplaces, the fight for a spot in elite private schools, combating parental pressure and the selflessness this all carries.
Dreams are often tertiary to jobs and family, but in 3 Idiots, Hirani has offered a glimpse of hope to the Indian youth. Chances are it will have little effect on how families work, how parents push their children to the edge, but the exploration, in all its glossiness, is a worthy cause that’s obviously been taken to heart by the country’s moviegoers. As long as it’s not taken out of context and mistreated as an Indian equivalent of Dead Poets Society, there is much satisfaction to be had. And who knew Aamir Khan (whose Memento-derived Ghajini holds that second all-time spot) could so convincingly play a college student at age 44?
2000 / Béla Tarr > While beautiful and often mesmerizing, Werckmeister Harmonies is not easy to digest on the first viewing. Its metaphysical aspects hint at quite a bit of depth but for those without background knowledge of Hungary within the context of European history, the lessons in tow may seem shallow. Tarr’s apparent preference (or obsession) for very long takes are mostly enjoyable, though there are times one has to wonder if certain scenes could have been shortened here and there for greater impact. Also rather fascinating is star Lars Rudolph having to be dubbed as he’s German and the film is in Hungarian, which is apparently a rather complex and almost insular language. This is initially jarring in the intro sequence (which is absolutely fantastic itself) but becomes less of an issue as time goes on. Supposedly, this is one of the least accessible of Tarr’s works but can still serve as an appetizer before attempting his seven and a half hour labor of love Sátántangó. Just be prepared for a second viewing.
1958 > Yasuzo Masumura > Several times during Giants and Toys, I checked when the film was made. Kept on thinking late 70s, maybe mid-60s. But no, this was the prescient work of Masumura back in 1958, before the world of AMC’s Mad Men and a far cry from the salarymen lifestyle we see now in Japanese cinema. This is as biting a morality tale as Sweet Smell of Success but with a lot more color, a girl with terrible teeth and pop culture satire undermining the apparent comedy. No wonder Park Chan-wook considers this man one of his great influences.
2009 / Soi Cheang > Easily the most accessible film Cheang has made in the latter half of the decade, Accident is a cryptic piece about assassins who construct seemingly random chains of events to do their dirty deeds. On the outside, the package is filled with the kind of polish meant for a classy thriller, but underneath the hood, the focus is really about self-paranoia, or rather, when your business is making illusions, at what point does your reality cease to exist? Produced by Johnnie To, the film also acts as a showcase for Louis Koo’s acting abilities. After a career of being a slighted pop performer, he’s really starting to carve out a name for himself as Hong Kong’s go-to frontman (also see Election 2 and Overheard). Accordingly, Cheang also continues to impress with fresh, genre-hopping efforts similar to fellow countryman Edmond Pang that gives quite a bit of hope to the future industry of the country that brought us both John Woo and Wong Kar-Wai.
2009 / Richard Kelly > As a kid, I was pretty obsessed with classic Twilight Zone episodes. They were all about possibility and imagination, about the world that may be out there without us knowing. Kelly, after his commercial fuck-up in Southland Tales, pastes on Cameron Diaz and brings forth The Box, which, in the most positive way possible, is a feature length version of a 1950s Twilight Zone episode. With a bigger budget allowing for a fully realized and more refined production process, the film allows us to enter the mindset of mid-century America with fears of the Cold War. Except, of course, there are more sinister things in the air than Communists. There’s some level of campiness involved here, no doubt, but if one can accept that as part of the experience, this is an unpretentious sci-fi treat not often found in today’s cinema.