Monday, October 10, 2005

After a job interview for a development position recently, the producer wanted to know if I shared her sensibility in films. (Apparently, I don't, but that's neither here nor there.) She gave me the following homework assignment:

Coverage of a script she would messenger to me - par for the course
A list of my favorite movies
A list of the movies I love (and why)
A list of movies I think are interesting (and why)
A list of movies I think are great (and why)
A list of my favorite all time directors
A list of my favorite current directors.

At the time, I thought it was a lot of work (and considering I didn't get the job) I still kind of feel that way, but on second thought, it was a great assignment. And, while I'm still very disappointed that I didn't get the job, I really appreciate that I now have a written list of my favorites. So, without further ado, here is my homework assignment for XXXXXXX XXXXXX.

Favorite movies (not necessarily in any particular order)

Nobody's Fool
Night of the Hunter
Searching for Bobby Fisher
October Sky
Night at the Opera
The Hours
Beauty and the Beast (Disney version)
Bend it Like Beckham
The Thin Man
King of the Hill
Destry Rides Again
Rebel without a Cause
Vanya on 42nd Street

Movies I love (and why)

Nobody's Fool
Films don't have to tell huge stories to get a reaction out of their audience. Nobody's Fool is a small story about a small man who realizes that even though he has rarely left the small town in which he was born, he has made a difference by both his actions and his inactions. The film makes you believe that it's never too late to start making amends for a lifetime time of mistakes, and that itís worth it when you do. It's not easy to produce a movie in which nothing grand happens, but the film perfectly encapsulates the hardships of flawed characters trying to make do in hard times. It makes you care about characters. They are sometimes unlikable, but they are always real. Within the first 10 minutes of the movie, I knew who these characters were and wanted them to succeed. Some did (Peter went back to his wife), some didn't (Carl lost his wife due to his many indiscretions) and some seemed to be on their way (Sully started to earn forgiveness from his son after a lifetime of neglect), but I always believed it and I always cared. In a 110-minute film, that's no mean feat.

Night of the Hunter
I first saw this movie on AMC and if I had known what it was about before the film started, I never would have given it a chance. But, it's an old story; I was going through a Robert Mitchum phase and I was babysitting for a family that had cable, and there was nothing else on, so I gave it a shot. I was blown away. Film noir at its darkest, it is a truly frightening movie that, at its essence, is the story of little Red Riding Hood. Mitchum plays a wolf in preacher's clothing who marries an executed bank robber's widow for the money he stashed and then killed her. Her kids, who know where the money is, take off down the river, with Mitchum hot on their trail. They find safety on the farm of Lilian Gish, as this G-d-fearing woman takes them in. It's a simple story, but first-time director Charles Laughton, along with Mitchum, makes his audience fear for the children's life. We believe, as the children do, that at any moment, Mitchum's preacher will find them. He does this with phenomenal acting from the lead actors to the character actors, at turns spooky and threatening music, and by manipulating shadows and light. In one scene when he wanted to show that Mitchum was close enough that the kids saw him, but he couldn't see them, he dressed a midget in preacher's clothing, put it on a donkey and shot it from the kid's POV to give the feeling of distance on a sound stage. Fifty years later, you can still find references in pop culture to this film, from Bruce Springsteen songs to Spike Lee movies. But, more importantly, even though I own it on DVD, if it happens to be on television, my TiVo is still ready to record it.

Pride and Prejudice is probably Jane Austen's best-known novel, and the BBC mini-series of that novel is one of the best adaptations out there. The recent feature film adaptation of Persuasion is not as well known, but remains one of my favorite films. In making the adaptation, they kept things close to the original source, and the actors did their part to bring Austen's words to life. Austen's characters are generally stereotypes of the landed gentry of the Victorian age. Women, especially, are prone to gossip and that's how they spend their days. In Persuasion, however, the main character Anne rarely speaks. Unmarried at the advanced age of 27, she is destined to remain a spinster. And, not meeting her father's stereotype of beauty, she is the daughter who is left behind. The filmmakers had the tough task of making us care for this character through actions, rather than words, as a woman in Anne's situation in the early 19th century would never think to speak her mind. Instead, she must live within her thoughts. Through glances and reaction shots, we see her pine for the life that might have been and gradually regain hope for a life that may still be. The filmmakers also manage to make such a character speak for the more modern audience of the early 21st century, showing that when it comes to relationships, some things never change. Audiences enjoy rooting for the overlooked ugly duckling, who is just waiting her chance to become a swan. While Ann did so within the confines of her place in society, that does not lessen the courage it took to take that chance. And, at its basest level, Persuasion has a great story and the movie kept that great story and expanded upon it using visual terms.

Searching for Bobby Fisher

The moment when your child surpasses your talent at anything is a difficult one for any parent, whether it's losing your first game of one-on-one in basketball or realizing that you can no longer help them with their math homework. But, what happens when that moment comes when your child is 10 years old, and not only is he better than you are at chess, but heís among the best in the country at playing this game. Your most likely response is to make sure that your child does not waste his gift. But, where is the line between your dream and your child's? Thatís the question that's at the base of Searching for Bobby Fisher. It's a movie with no real villains. The father thinks he has his child's best interest at heart, but how much of his son's desire to play chess is coming from him? Although at its heart, the film is the relationship between father and son, the filmmakers don't ignore the mother. She steps up to speak for her son and threatens to take him away if her husband tries to break what is good and innocent with the boy. It's a quiet scene, but Joan Allen as the mother, imbues it with a steely determination that she must be taken seriously. That type of relationship is all too rare in films today.

Movies I consider great (and why)

Citizen Kane
Citizen Kane is not one of my favorite films. Sometimes I feel that intellectually, it ought to be, but Iíve seen it several times, and while I appreciate the technical know-how evident onscreen, itís not a film I seek out. One reason for that might be because I find the story of a poor little rich boy who grows up to be a megalomaniac to be one I've seen too many times before. But, the use of shadows and lighting, Orson Welles' innovative use of sound, his use of deep focus, along with his use of flashbacks and non-linear story-telling makes the film very interesting to watch. While each of these techniques had been used in previous films, Welles was able to use them together to create a cohesive work of art. He was one of the first directors to realize that talking pictures had the capability to be something more than either silent pictures with sound or a filmed stage play. He realized it could be a work of art that used a variety of techniques to tell the story. Sixty years later, some people still have yet to see that you can make art with celluloid. That Welles realized it, when talkies were still relatively new, and put all the pieces together to give us Citizen Kane, is a great feat.

Godfather - Books 1 & 2
Where Citizen Kane makes my list due to the technical genius of Orson Welles, the Godfather films makes the list because of how well Francis Ford Coppola used the techniques of film to take what might have otherwise been an ordinary adaptation of a gangster film and turn it into an epic experience. Using superb acting and deep character studies, beautiful photography and choreography, authentic recreations of the period, a rich score and superbly-staged portrayals of gangster violence, the Godfather films elevated the genre. Thirty plus years later, it remains the touchstone by which other epic films and gangster films are measured.

Lord of the Rings: The Trilogy
Everyone knows how difficult it is to translate classic novels into really good movies. One only needs to look at the plethora of films that couldnít translate (any film based on a Kurt Vonnegut novel) to realize that. Peter Jackson took a great book trilogy and turned it into a fabulous film trilogy. I believe the main reason for that was because the film was made by people who truly cared about the material and were smart enough to stick to the central storyline. With painstaking detail, they remained true to the story, and combined that with the knowledge that they had to keep the story moving. Most importantly, they realized that there was a whole generation of readers who knew the story, so they didn't have to assume the audience was stupid and dumb everything down for them. It sounds simple, but far too many films seem to take their audience for granted. Yes, the enormous budget and outstanding technical know-how helped, but if they didn't know the story they wanted to tell, it could have been another big budgeted disaster.

Movies I consider interesting (and why)

Far From Heaven
Todd Haynes has never been one to shoot a traditional movie. He'll never be asked to film a blockbuster like King Kong, unlike Peter Jackson who was able to move easily from the indie success of Heavenly Creatures to the Lord of the Rings. But, Haynes does small, internal pictures that seem to insidiously attack middle class mores, and he does that very well. With Far From Heaven, he expanded on a theme he started with Safe, that deep sadness and pain exists in even the most seemingly perfect suburban families. But, other films have delved deep behind the suburban curtain, what makes Far From Heaven so unique? That Todd Haynes did it in the style of Douglas Sirk, the king of glossy, stylized, 50s Technicolor, melodramatic womenís weepies. Without falling into parody, Haynes used Sirk's style of lush music and bright, vibrant colors to bring to the screen a tale of forbidden love, racial tension, and other issues that are as valid today as they were in the 1950s. If you're a fan of films of that era, you realize that Far from Heaven goes beyond homage and is a film that not only works well as a movie today, but it fits in with movies from 50 years earlier. That is an amazing accomplishment.

Waking Life
The first time I saw this movie, I did not like it. One reason might have been the jet lag I was suffering, having just flown in from New York City. Another reason might have been that I was in the mood for a movie with a simple narrative structure. And a third was surely that in the weeks after September 11, I was still searching for movies with simple themes and happy endings ñ comfort food for the soul. But, this acid fueled volcano of animation? Not really what I was looking for in a 10:30 p.m. show in late October. But, my friends wanted to see it, so I saw it. And, I saw it again. And again. And one more time after that. There was always something that kept bringing me back. And then I realized that I was determined to get to the bottom of this movie that I clearly did not understand. Finally, I took a friends advice and decided to stop trying to find the story, and treat it as you do a dream and let it flow over you. I tried that, and was fascinated. I'm still not sure if I like this film, like I like my favorite movies, but it's definitely interesting. Linklater takes different styles of animation marries it to a soundtrack that includes snippets of conversations about life and dreams and a fabulous score, and it is odd and weird and it just works.

Vanya on 42nd Street

As a theater fan, I'm always hesitant to see movies that have been adapted from the stage. Unless they make changes that allow for the proper translation, something always seems to be lacking in the screen version. I think I'd rather have a camera filming a show from the middle of the orchestra pit than suffer through another pale imitation of the original. And so, it was with some trepidation that I sat down for this film. But, I was in a Julianne Moore is great phase, and it was on Showtime, so I watched it. What I saw was a fascinating exercise in theater and film. The movie starts off following the actors as they arrive at an empty theater for rehearsal of the play, Uncle Vanya. They're kissing each other hello, grabbing coffee and donuts, and going over notes with the director. And then, in this sparse space, they start running through the play. And, as much as I'm still not crazy about filmed plays, it's a great interpretation of a great play by Anton Chekhov. Once again, it leads me to believe that if you have a strong story, you can have a strong movie.

Favorite current directors
Cameron Crowe
Wes Anderson
Gillian Armstrong
Brad Bird
Ang Lee
John Sayles
Todd Haynes
Hayao Miyazaki
Sofia Coppola
Peter Jackson

Favorite all-time directors
Steven Spielberg
Joel and Ethan Coen
Frank Capra
Walt Disney
Sidney Lumet
Tim Burton
John Ford
Francis Ford Coppola
Howard Hawks
Douglas Sirk

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