By Jack Paganelli
Annie Hall (1977)
Director: Woody Allen
Annie Hall, a film conceived and executed entirely by Woody Allen, is, superficially, a comedy, and a very clever one at that. Like most of Allen’s middle-period comedies, it pokes fun at, while reveling in, self-righteous and uptight intellectual culture. The protagonist is, by extension, Woody Allen; well, he calls himself Alvy Singer, but both are witty, insufferable, intelligent, well-read, neurotic Jewish men who suffer from ennui and romantic issues, so it’s close enough, really. This is a smart, funny film with tragic undertones that seep through the cracks in both Allen and Singer’s personas. The opening joke is famous, but the line that comes after it is essential to understanding the mood of the film:
“There’s an old joke. Two elderly women are at a Catskill mountain resort, and one of ’em says, ‘Boy, the food at this place is really terrible.’ The other one says, ‘Yeah, I know; and such small portions.’ Well, that’s essentially how I feel about life—full of loneliness, and misery, and suffering, and unhappiness, and it’s all over much too quickly.”
The main character deflects all of his social shortcomings with humor. Alvy Singer is an incredibly neurotic person, and it constantly interferes with his romantic life. Allen has found a way to make this shortcoming both incredibly funny and incredibly depressing. His inability to come to terms with his “quirks”, his neuroses, lead all of his relationships, be they with friends or lovers, into bitterness and resentment. Still, Singer finds time to crack jokes at others’ (and, as becomes more often towards the end of the film, his own) expense, hoping that being funny or witty will take the sting out of what Singer has come to accept as life.
The film has a very clever way of dealing with flashbacks, allowing us to see the patterns that lead to Singer’s depression. He consistently places himself both as a viewer and participant in the dissipation of previous relationships as well as childhood experiences, through both physical and verbal presences; he calls his uncle an “asshole” at a childhood dinner party for making a bad joke; he reveals what previous classmates are currently up to using their voices (“I used to be a heroin addict; now I’m a methadone addict,” says one six-year old boy); he steps into a memory of a party with his friends; he criticizes a previous boyfriend of Annie’s through a flashback; and so on. His memories are constantly intruding into his own life. Mostly, he remembers previous girlfriends and what set them apart: himself.
A previous scene in the film had Singer and Annie Hall break up. Singer, too depressed to continue comedy, decides to start writing dramatic plays instead. We cut to a read-through; an actress, ostensibly playing Hall, breaks up with Singer, only to take back her decision seconds later. Every word of the scene in the play, up to the decision to come back to the actor playing Singer, was the same as in the scene in the film in which the real Singer and Hall break up. The play, Singer tells us, was not successful.
Annie Hall is funny, vulgar, and heartbreaking in an incredibly personal way. It doesn’t really make an argument about “modern” relationships; it only tries to portray one that was, perhaps, doomed to an ugly, ambiguous end from the start, regardless of the good times in the middle.
Apocalypse Now (1979)
Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Apocalypse Now is an exercise in stunted beauty and brutality, the product of a mind that was, for a time, as diseased as its protagonist’s. Francis Ford Coppola declared at Cannes that Apocalypse Now was not about Vietnam: it was Vietnam.
The plot of Apocalypse Now is that an Army captain named Willard who is given orders to travel 200 miles up the fictional Nung River to kill a rogue colonel named Kurtz. The film was very loosely adapted from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, published 80 years before the film. In the Conrad novella, a steamer captain called Marlow, working with the evil ivory trade in the Belgian Congo, travels up the Congo river to meet an ivory trader called Kurtz. This Kurtz must die as well. In the center of the serpentine waterway, he discovers some placid truth as to the hypocrisy of civilization; that we are all so totally dwarfed by nature, by the huge trees and the stench of the riverbed, as to be insignificant, and thus meddling in each other’s affairs is nothing more than barbarism. Apocalypse Now does not go so far as to reveal the hypocrisy of civilization, but rather the hypocrisy of war, though Willard, the film’s Marlow equivalent, is consistently overwhelmed by both the native combatants and the impotence-inducing jungles of Cambodia and Vietnam, in a parallel to Conrad’s argument about the permanence and power of nature.
Apocalypse Now, as a film about the Vietnam War, is horrifically disturbing. Scenes of reckless carnage and death are commonplace. It is a bloody, terrifying, wholly violent movie. The film’s most brutal moment comes when the members of the patrol boat (which is carrying Willard) stop to search a merchant saipan; a teenage girl runs for a basket containing what is later revealed to be a puppy; the patrol boat opens fire on the merchants, killing them all. In another film, there would have been an explosion of grief, guilt, and accusations, until a resolution was reached and the mood was reset; in Apocalypse Now, the weight of the brutality hangs with the boat until the end; the mood is somber from that point on, even if the saipan is never again addressed. An emotional and mental line has been crossed, both for the characters and for the tone of the film.
The mood is, as is befitting of the subject matter, always heavy. But this is not a slow movie at all; it is paced superbly, stringing one tremendous scene after the next, from the famous helicopter attack on a Vietcong-controlled village to the ultimate confrontation between Kurtz and Willard. It is completely impossible to look away. Its cruel and uncensored depictions of not only war but also of humanity hold the audience’s attention for the entire run-time. Visually, this is an unbelievably beautiful film, accompanied by a trance-inducing soundtrack with a harmonic mix of synthesizer and rock-and-roll, book-ended by The Doors’s “The End,” in one of the most powerful uses of song in a film.
Apocalypse Now defies description, or explanation. It takes a very respectable work of fiction and projects it on the screen, and it is like Coppola took a two-dimensional idea and made a three-dimensional work of art on a separate plane from literature as a whole. It is a heavy, violent, beautifully haunting film. I think it’s objectively one of the ten best ever made. I don’t ever want to see it again.
Director: Terrence Malick
Badlands is not really a romance, not really a thriller, not really a crime movie, not really a road movie, not really any sort of genre. It is a film about a girl who falls in love with a killer. They run away together. They dance, and kiss, and dance some more; people die, and she keeps trying to convince herself that this is her life, that she is happy, that she is in love. This is a film about people who decide that laws don’t apply to them because they do not want any part in civilization.
These people are the killer, played by Martin Sheen as a man who doesn’t think of himself as a killer but as a philosopher who just so happens to kill, and the girl, played by Sissy Spacek as someone who wants to be in love, who has never been in love, who makes herself believe that she is in love, because she feels that it is what she needs to be alive. They are happy outside of civilization, for a little while, and nobody dies. They build themselves an idyll in the woods, a sort of treehouse of the kind that children dream about, with traps to catch food, and a hammock or two, and a ladder made from felled trees. But civilization, in the form of three bounty hunters, intrudes, and the killer kills them, and the girl has her doubts, and the killer explains them away, and they are on the run again, and he has now killed four men.
These are two people at odds with civilization, who retreat into nature; one is evil, and the other is just impressionable. Are they in love? He seems to think so, but she doesn’t know. They consider themselves in their own lenses, and carve out an existence based on what they think of themselves. By the end of the film, the killer seems to have “it” all figured out. But the girl still doesn’t know through which lens she should consider her life, which, by the time they are caught, has been irreparably altered. She still doesn’t quite know who she is.
Barry Lyndon (1975)
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Barry Lyndon, like 2001 before it, is a film that depends heavily on its visuals. Every shot is carefully arranged, every detail painstakingly organized into a whole setting. The camera does not move as much as it cuts between these settings, made to appeal to the eye; and they work. Barry Lyndon, on the most superficial level, is a beautiful film. In this visual style, it is essentially a portrait of a person that is doomed to the negative parabola of character development. That is, they gain, and then they lose. What does Barry Lyndon gain? Money, respect, love. What does he lose? The same things, and his dignity, his sense of self-worth, his respect, any ethics he might have had. The key of the film lies in the means by which his life improves and declines. Barry Lyndon becomes prosperous out of luck; it is by his own hand that he again becomes a poor outcast.
The Big Lebowski (1998)
Directors: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
I don’t know what The Big Lebowski is about. It’s a comedy, and inhabiting it are two friends with opposite personalities who become unwitting participants in a scheme involving a hostage, a porn company, a reclusive millionaire, a briefcase, an artist who paints naked from a harness, and a missing toe. There is a lot of talking, and it’s the rare kind of talking in movies where the characters discuss anything with almost literary eloquence and vulgarity. This kind of talking is the kind that few today can write. Quentin Tarantino is the only other practitioner of this sort of dialogue that I can think of.
It is as though there are two The Big Lebowskis; one is inhabited by the characters and their thoughts, worries, and experiences, and one is occupied by the real events of the film. The two intersect often enough, but they are definitively not the same film, as is the case with a vast majority of movies, and therein lies the major appeal of the movie.
The Big Lebowski is a unique, odd film that has attained a cult following based on its protagonist, called “The Dude,” whose life philosophy is refreshingly simple; go with the flow, be cool-headed, and take it easy. And The Dude does just that, through all the absurdity that life has decided to throw at him. At the end of the film, he has neither lost nor gained; he has decided not to let the events of the film affect him. He drinks, bowls, and smokes, and is happy. What more is necessary?
The Birds (1963)
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Though not Hitchcock’s best movie (I’d hesitate to put it in the top five), The Birds is his best example of suspense. There are several scenes in this movie that are pure suspense, pure tension, and pure waiting. The titular birds attack when they please; the threat is not constant. There are lulls in the attacks that cause the characters to have nothing to do for some minutes but sit around and wonder and worry over when the next wave of attacks will be. These are brilliant scenes of panic and paranoia; and plenty of speculation over the cause of the attacks, which ultimately amounts to nothing. After all, the cause of the attacks doesn’t really matter, so much as the result and the effect they have on the town’s residents. The Birds is Hitchcock’s greatest claim to the title of the “Master of Suspense.”
Director: Michelangelo Antonioni
A bit of background that will be useful now, and in late entries; from 1934 to 1968, films were made under an artistically oppressive code known as the Hays Code, or the Motion Picture Production Code. It forbade excessive talk about sex, gratuitous violence, kisses over a certain length of time, and profane language; most absurd of all, any character shown committing a crime must later be shown being punished, so as not to glorify a criminal lifestyle. Some of the greatest directors of the 20th century, such as Hitchcock, Kubrick, Welles, and Huston, were forced, for the majority of their careers, to operate under this creative inhibition. Blowup was one of the few controversial films, made near the twilight of this law, that helped to overturn it.
It is objectively about a London photographer who believes that he has, unwittingly, photographed a murder. However, it diverts from that plot point so often that it almost seems like a subplot. The mystery is never fully addressed, however, and the film ends with all loose ends left untied. The film is really more about this photographer, a man with some nondescript ennui, who wanders through life idly taking in its pleasures without achieving long-term happiness. When he thinks he’s photographed a murder, he becomes passionate; his life gains some meaning. By the end, he’s no closer to solving the “mystery,” but perhaps he’s more content with his “spiritual hunger.”
Blowup dealt curtly with taboo sexual subjects, all but portraying a threesome between the protagonist and two models and showing topless women from the side. The controversy around a film that was extraordinarily popular (for an art film, at least) in the United States helped to oust the Hays Code from affecting art in film. After the code was dismantled, studios began to use ratings (G, PG, R, X) instead of outright barring films from release, allowing art-film directors that would emerge in the 70s (Coppola, Scorsese, etc.) to explore the depths of their talent without the limitations of a more puritan era.
Bonnie and Clyde (1967)
Director: Arthur Penn
Bonnie and Clyde, like Blowup of the same year, used its popularity and sex appeal to help dismantle the Hays Code and allow greater artistic freedom in films. But Bonnie and Clyde is twice the film Blowup is, and does not use its violence or its sexuality simply for shock’s sake. I’ve used adjectives loosely in describing the better aspects of the other films on this list, but if I simply put a bunch of descriptive words on my entry for Bonnie and Clyde, I would run out and not get any closer to the point I try to make in using them. It is a work that combines so many wide-ranging emotions that it seems, more than a vast majority of other films, to capture some culmination of the human experience. It is a movie that breathes and thinks and feels. Every protagonist feels, is real; when they die, it is a real person that has died (and I’m not referring to the fact that this film is essentially a work of nonfiction).
This film is made of completely real emotions. It is not exploitative entertainment, though it would go on to influence a wave of films that used its format for schlocky, violent B-movies. It is not entirely a dark, tragic crime story about cold-blooded killers, nor is it a story with protagonists that we can completely identify with and cheer on. This is a film about people who love, suffer, feel, think, and kill. Bonnie and Clyde do not emerge as characters, but as human beings. The audience cannot fully sympathize with the pair; nor can we sympathize with the pursuant police department. There are moments that are legitimately funny, and moments that are brutal. Anyone can die, and before they die they laugh, and before they laugh they cry. This is an empathetic film with a tremendous heart.
Bonnie and Clyde, like the killer and the girl from Badlands, look at themselves as just people rebelling against a disorderly civilization; but while the killer and the girl glide through isolation, only stopping to kill and get supplies, Bonnie and Clyde seem to revel in publicity, and their newfound status as newspaper heroes for common people, entertainers who put smiles on readers’ faces when they hear about their newest bank heist. They so love being themselves; it is the publicity they seek, as well as the fun.
Bonnie and Clyde is impossible to replicate. It will make you smile, and laugh, and your jaw will hang open at the sheer brutality of some scenes, and the total natural beauty and silence of others. When the title pair are left alone, they love, and they fight, and they smile, and they cry. This is their human side, the side the newspapers exploit in contrast to their bank-robbing personas. But the film does not ever exploit the pair, their heists or their squabbles or their love life, or what there is of it. There is a startling amount of genuine pathos that, more than anything else, makes it one of the greatest and most iconic movies ever released.
Director: Jean-Luc Godard
Breathless is a jazzy, smooth movie, made by an anti-authority film critic near the height of French repression under DeGaulle. The film’s protagonist is an anti-hero; perhaps he is not a villain solely because we know him well. He is a suave, petty thief named Michel, though he would have you believe that his name is Laszlo.
Breathless was revolutionary in tone, pacing, and style. The camera jumped around frenetically (Breathless was the first film to popularize the use of jump-cuts in film), following characters down alleyways and across bedrooms. Watching it over fifty-five years on, it’s still dizzying. Its protagonist is a counterculture figure that revels in his asshole persona and idolizes Humphrey Bogart, hastily killing a policeman. He spends the rest of the movie on the run, in debt, and pursued, taking shelter in his ex-girlfriend Patricia’s apartment. She has the best role in the film, as a young reporter who has to question her loyalties when she discovers that this figure whom she may or not may not be falling in love with is a killer and the subject of a country-wide manhunt. She is an intellectual, content in her world of American fashions and authors, and he is a wannabe gangster, who has no time for her intelligence; he loves her body, and only the idea of her mind. The contrast between them is apparent in their minutes-long chats about anything from dresses to William Faulkner. Indeed, the best scenes in the film are the conversations between her and Michel, where they lie around on her bed, get up, move about, come back, make love (the camera cuts away and resumes on a different note in the same space), and it is refreshing to see the camera follow them as they converse, stop to perform menial tasks, then return.
Breathless is a very loose, free-form movie, supported by music that seems to match its jazzy tempo. It’s 90 minutes long, easy-going, and long-lasting. It is cool, quick, and refreshing.
The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)
Director: David Lean
The Bridge on the River Kwai presents us with a battle between two titanic egos; one, Colonel Saito, is the cruel leader of a Japanese prison camp; the other is one of his prisoners, a Colonel Nicholson, who is tortured intensely in the first days of his stay for purely ideological reasons. Saito wants a bridge built, and enlists Nicholson’s men to build it. Nicholson refuses, and is put in a corrugated iron hut in intense heat.
Saito rescinds the torture, abandoning the bridge project. Nicholson decides to have the bridge built, and enlists his officers. Nicholson decides that not only will the bridge be built, but it will be built better than any Japanese officers could ever hope to build it. To teach the supposedly inferior Japanese of proper British fortitude is his goal.
The men serving under Colonel Nicholson, who is played by Alec Guinness in a (deservedly) Oscar-winning performance, respect him so dearly that even the wounded jump up to help build the bridge; one that will be used to help the enemy. The bridge becomes an object representing a clash between superior attitudes; both the British and the Japanese think themselves superior to the other, only it’s the British who have the better leadership. Col. Nicholson, therefore, cannot allow to have the bridge destroyed, even for tactical reasons. If he does, then he, in a sense, concedes cultural superiority to the enemy.
Eventually, a squadron is called in to destroy the bridge. At the helm is a former prisoner, the only surviving escapee. He doesn’t know yet that his former commander has gone mad. The prison officials, the ones that Col. Nicholson is functionally serving, shot two of his friends. The inevitable confrontation between them is fascinating.
The Bridge on the River Kwai is, more than anything, about madness. Both colonels are obviously insane, and it is the bridge that drives this insanity. The key cultural difference, which is the really interesting part of this movie, is how this madness causes them to react. Saito is almost driven to suicide; Nicholson is almost driven to murder.
The film is, without all psychological pretenses, an incredible work of entertainment. It is gripping, suspenseful, engaging, and cerebral. It’s also pretty long, clocking in at two and a half hours. But you’ll watch it in one sitting, I bet.
Images: http://mentalfloss.com/article/64355/15-things-you-might-not-know-about-annie-hall; https://www.theguardian.com/film/filmblog/2015/apr/30/my-favourite-cannes-winner-apocalypse-now; http://laurenwinter.co/blog/urenwinter.co/2011/11/badlands.html; http://collider.com/lolita-blu-ray-review-barry-lyndon-papillon-blu-ray-review/; http://mentalfloss.com/article/61708/21-things-you-might-not-know-about-big-lebowski; http://www.filminamerica.com/Movies/TheBirds/; https://mubi.com/films/blow-up; http://theredlist.com/wiki-2-17-513-864-875-view-history-biopic-6-profile-1967-bbonnie-and-clyde-b-1.html; http://www.filmaffinity.com/es/filmimages.php?movie_id=864598; https://i.ytimg.com/;