There is no shortage of documentaries on war. The subject fascinates us as history, as sociology, and as drama. Some documentaries chronicle history in great detail, some grapple with the issues and forces behind the conflicts, and some flat-out propagandize. But very few of those documentaries actually engage with the human experience. So for Memorial Day we look at films about the diverse group of men (and in some cases the women) in war—not just why they fight but what they saw, heard, and endured, and how it changed them.
The Battle of Midway (1942)
American director John Ford (The Quiet Man, The Searchers) served his country by offering his talents as a filmmaker to the Armed Services. His first assignment was to photograph what turned out to be the first major American victory in the war against Japan. “Yes, this really happened,” informs one of the film’s four narrators during the combat section of the film, but audiences didn’t need to be reminded. The authenticity was evident. One bomb landed so close to the camera that it knocked both Ford and his camera assistant off their feet.
“The Man in the Fallout Shelter” (Season 1, episode 9) The show’s first Christmas episode quarantines the team in the lab over the holidays. Along with the inevitable seasonal bonding between characters who are, at this point, barely more than colleagues, we meet (through a glass barrier) Angela’s blues-guitarist father (ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons) and Booth’s young son, Parker (Ty Panitz). The first is the coolest addition to the Bonesiverse (seriously, this guy becomes an enigma bordering on mythological trickster). The second is our first peek into the personal life of Booth and an introduction to the most important person in his world. The team’s chemistry really starts to bubble here.
We’ve been hearing people pronounce the death of DVD and Blu-ray for years now. You’d never know it from the astonishing wealth of Blu-ray debuts, restored movies, and lovingly-produced special editions in 2016. The sales numbers are way down from a decade ago, of course, thanks in large part to the demise of the video store, which drove sales of new movies to fill the new release rental racks. The studios still handle their own new releases on disc but many of them have licensed out their back catalog to smaller labels—some new, some longtime players—who have continued to nurture the market for classics, cult films, collectibles, and other films from our recent and distant past. Criterion, Kino Lorber, Shout! Factory / Scream Factory, Twilight Time, Arrow, Olive, Blue Underground, Flicker Alley, Raro, MVD, Cinelicious, and others have continued to reach those of us who value quality and deliver releases that, if anything, continue to improve. We prefer to own rather than rely on compromised quality of streaming video and the vagaries of licensing and contracts when it comes to movies.
2016 has been as good a year as any I’ve covered in my years as a home video columnist and paring my list of top releases down to 10 was no easy task. In fact, I supplemented it with over two dozen bonus picks and honorable mentions. My approach is a mix of historical importance, aesthetic judgment, quality of presentation, and difficulty of effort. It is an unquantifiable formula influenced by my own subjective values but you’ll see some themes emerge. I favor films that have never been available in the U.S. before, significant restorations, discoveries, and rarities. But I also value a beautiful transfer, well-produced supplements, insightful interviews and essays, and intelligently-curated archival extras. You’ll see all these in the picks below.
1 – Out 1(Kino Lorber / Carlotta, Blu-ray+DVD) – This was my cinematic Holy Grail for years, Jacques Rivette’s legendary 12-hour-plus epic of rival theater companies, an obsessive panhandler, a mercenary street thief, an obscure conspiracy, the post-1968 culture of Paris, puzzles, mysteries, creative improvisation, and the theater of life. The history is too complicated to go into here (check out my review at Parallax View) but apart from periodic special screenings it was impossible to see until a digital restoration in 2015 followed by a limited American release in theaters, streaming access, and finally an amazing Blu-ray+DVD box set featuring both the complete version (Noli me tangere, 1971 / 1989) and the shorter Out 1: Spectre (1974), designed for a theatrical release after French TV balked at his original vision. It was shot on 16mm on the streets with a minimal crew and in a collaborative spirit, incorporating improvisations and accidents and morphing along the way. The disc release embraces the texture of its making and also includes the new documentary “The Mysteries of Paris: Jacques Rivette’s Out 1 Revisited” and an accompanying 120 page bilingual booklet. There were more lavish sets and more beautiful restorations on 2016 home video, but nothing as unique and committed as this cinematic event, which made its American home video debut over 40 years after its first showing. Full review here.
Niklas Frank and Horst von Wächter are the adult children of high-ranking Nazi officers. As we learn in My Nazi Legacy, their fathers sent tens of thousands of people to their deaths, and Niklas and Horst spent decades dealing with the legacy of that birthright, though not in the same way. While both men speak out against the Nazi atrocities, Niklas holds his father responsible for his complicity while Horst insists that the “good character” of his loving father fought against the Nazi machine, all evidence to the contrary. He’s not a Holocaust denier, mind you. He merely denies his father’s part in the Third Reich’s heinous crimes.
The intersection of the personal and political gets complicated when faced with the crimes of a loved one, a colleague, even a culture. Evidence can be overcome by emotion. How can a doting father be responsible for barbarous crimes? How can a government have lied to those who followed its every command? Is it possible for true believers to acknowledge the crimes they committed in the name of a corrupt ideal, or simply to survive a brutal culture? Here are a few documentaries and feature films that explore how some people come to terms with such actions — their own and others — while others simply cannot or do not.
The Holocaust and the Legacy of Nazism
Hotel Terminus: The Life and Times of Klaus Barbie (1988): Gestapo officer Klaus Barbie was branded the “Butcher of Lyon” for the atrocities committed under his command, yet he escaped prosecution and lived free for almost three decades in Bolivia before he was extradited to France to stand trial for war crimes. Filmmaker Marcel Ophuls’ profile of the man and his crimes reveals a culture uneasy about dredging up the past and people trying to hide their complicity in shielding one of the most notorious war criminals of the 20th Century. Their justification? He was such a warm, likable man. How could he be guilty?
My list this year is light on foreign movies, largely because I didn’t get out to as many festival screenings as I have in past years, and because many of the foreign language films placing highly on other lists have not opened in this corner of the world.
1. Boyhood (Richard Linkater, US)
2. The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson, US)
3. Inherent Vice (Paul Thomas Anderson, US)
4. Gone Girl (David Fincher, US)
5. Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer, UK)
6. Only Lovers Left Alive (Jim Jarmusch, US)
7. Ida (Pawel Pawlikowski)
8. Manuscripts Don’t Burn (Mohammad Rasoulof, Iran)
9. The Babadook (Jennifer Kent, Australia)
10. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (Ana Lily Amirpour, Iran/US)
And because this film turns it up to 11. Snowpiercer (Bong Joon Ho, US / South Korea / France / Czech Republic) – high concept science fiction thrillers are always best when serving as metaphors for sociopolitical commentary. Amiright?
More honorable mentions (in alphabetical order: Force Majeure (Ruben Östlund, Sweden), The Homesman (Tommy Lee Jones, US), The Immigrant (James Gray, US), John Wick (Chad Stahelski and David Leitch, US), Locke (Steven Knight, UK), A Most Violent Year (J.C. Chandor, US), Nightcrawler (Dan Gilroy, US), Night Moves (Kelly Reichardt, US), The Strange Little Cat (Ramon Zürcher, Germany), We Are the Best! (Lukas Moodyson, Sweden), What Now? Remind Me (Joaquin Pinto, Portugal)
“We didn’t need dialogue. We had faces.”
—Norma Desmond, Sunset Blvd.
You say that you’re really into old movies and you can’t get enough of the classics but you just haven’t found a way to love silent cinema? You say that all your friends are doing the silents and you feel left out? You say that you too want to be part of the early cinema crowd but just haven’t found your way to loving the movies before sound?
Even among many classic cinema buff, silent movies can appear alien and unfriendly, a duty more than a treat. And it shouldn’t be that way at all. In their day, silent films were a universal entertainment, a truly popular art that transcended language and culture.
There are those who think of silent films as primitive and naïve. Some were, to be sure, but movies grew up quickly in those early years. Those primitive experiments and one-shot gags matured into feature films in under two decades, and the knockabout slapstick comedies of the Keystone Kops gave way to the comic grace of Charlie Chaplin and the invention of Buster Keaton just a few years.
And then there’s those scratchy, poorly-preserved prints that were often presented at wrong projection speeds that made everything look sped up and absurd. It’s hard to appreciate let alone recognize the scope and technical wonder of the silent extravaganzas under such conditions.
Thanks to the efforts of film preservationists, a new spirit of cooperation between international film archives, and new digital tools, those days are fast disappearing. Silent cinema is getting a makeover and audiences are finally getting a chance to see the glamor and splendor that original audiences saw when they went out to the flickers.
There is a universe of films, genres, moods, sensibilities and styles to be discovered in the thirty-plus years of cinema before the introduction of sound changed the way films were made and experienced. This isn’t necessarily a list of the greatest or the most important silent films (though there are some of both sprinkled through), but rather a selection of the most entertaining and engaging films of the era. Consider it a place to start your appreciation of the glory and grandeur that was the cinema before sound.
A Trip to the Moon (1902, Georges Méliès)
You want to get an idea of how lavish and creative the so-called primitives could be? Magician-turned-filmmaker Georges Méliès was a pioneering special effects artist and a fantasist with an unbound imagination, but more than anything else he was a showman and A Trip to the Moon is his most ambitious spectacle. Thanks to the painstaking restoration of the sole surviving hand-painted print of the film by Serge Bromberg and Eric Lange, we can now see what enthralled audiences at the turn of the 20th century: a picture-book fantasy brought to life as a work of pure, playful imagination with crazy special effects and delirious color. Accompany this with a screening of Martin Scorsese’s Hugo (2011) and you might just come away with a new appreciation for the early years of filmmaking. And if this inspires more interest in the pre-feature era of filmmaking, try the fantasies of Ferdinand Zecca and the work of Alice Guy-Blaché, the most versatile filmmaker of her era.
Sex sells, as the saying goes, and movie producers, distributors and exhibitors have known this since pictures began to move.
In That’s Sexploitation, filmmaker Frank Henenlotter and exploitation legend David Friedman celebrate the freewheeling culture of sexploitation, the sensationalistic underground of independent filmmakers and studios who cashed in on promises of carnal thrills and forbidden spectacle, specifically naked flesh (mostly female). These are the films that sprung up between the cracks of the production code and studio restrictions and, as the moniker suggests, they aimed straight for the lurid and the tawdry.
But not all films that sold themselves with the promise of erotic thrills and taboo-busting presentations of sexuality were a matter of pure exploitation. American movies started taking on adults themes once again in the fifties while films from the more permissive Europe blurred the lines between art and erotica as they explored sexuality with both a maturity and a more graphic explicitness. In other words, people got naked and shared bed right on the screen. “That’s not smut, that’s art,” was the implicit argument, even if it was the sex that the exhibitors marketed.
Here are ten films from the heady days of the sexual revolution to the present that smudge the line between art and exploitation. Sex may be the subject, the subtext, or the motivation, but promise of steamy spectacle and erotic delights was used attract patrons that normally might not otherwise attend such fare and give them the cinematic equivalent to the time-honored justification for purchasing Playboy magazine: “I get it for the articles.”
Contempt (Jean-Luc Godard, 1963) Blow-Up (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1966)
Here are two examples of marketing skin to attract audiences to challenging films from European intellectual filmmakers. Contempt (1963) is an unlikely meeting between nouvelle vague legend Jean-Luc Godard’s anti-Hollywood sensibility and the showman aesthetic of (uncredited) producer Joseph E. Levine in an international co-production about the clash between art and commerce, the politics of artistic integrity and compromise and the dissolution of love. To meet his producer’s demands, Godard added an opening bedroom scene and inserted pin-up style nude shots of star Brigitte Bardot. Wouldn’t you know he actually makes them work as a comment on the very process of filmmaking compromise? Blow-Up (1966), the English-language debut of Italian filmmaker Michelangelo Antonioni, is an existential murder mystery starring David Hemmings as a jaded fashion photographer who may have taken a picture of murder and Vanessa Redgrave as the mystery woman of his photograph. Set in swinging London, full of mod fashions, free love, a score by Herbie Hancock and an appearance by the Yardbirds, it’s a timepiece by way of Antonioni’s brand of contemporary alienation and it won the Palme d’Or at Cannes. It was also the first mainstream movie to show female pubic hair (however fleetingly) and that was a bigger selling point for a lot of the patrons.
“The Deep Blue Sea” (Music Box), adapted from Terence Rattigan’s play by Terence Davies, is a ravishing and devastating, a romantic drama of impossible love between the cultured wife (Rachel Weisz) of a loving older husband and a hot-tempered working class war veteran (Tom Hiddleston) in the years after World War II. Davies’ direction is graceful and intimate and loving, embracing her story as both tragic and liberating. Blu-ray, DVD, and On Demand. Videodrone’s review is here.
“Silent House” (Universal), a horror film starring Elizabeth Olsen, is more than simply a haunted house movie. This remake of the Oscar nominated “La Casa Muda” from Uruguay is, in the words of MSN film critic Kat Murphy, “head-trip territory.” Blu-ray, DVD, and On Demand.
“Brake” (IFC) is another claustrophobic thriller, this one starring Stephen Dorff as a Secret Service agent trapped in a Plexiglass box in the trunk of car. Blu-ray and DVD.
“Jiro Dreams of Sushi” (Magnolia) is a documentary portrait of the most celebrated sushi chef in the world. Blu-ray, DVD, and On Demand.
From Israel comes the satire “Footnote” (Sony), one of five Academy Award nominees for Best Foreign Language Film (Blu-ray, DVD, and On Demand), and from Norway is “The Monitor” (Lionsgate), a thriller starring Noomi Rapace (DVD only).
“Boss: Season One” (Lionsgate), the acclaimed Starz original series, stars Kelsey Grammer as the Mayor of Chicago and the reigning king of the political machine, holding on tight as he fights a degenerative disease eating away his mind. Though nowhere near as popular as its sex-and-gladiators series “Spartacus,” it’s the network’s best original series to date and Grammer sinks his teeth into the role with the ferocity it demands. Eight episodes on two discs, plus supplements, on Blu-ray and DVD.Videodrone’s review is here.
“Endeavour” (PBS) is the “Inspector Morse” prequel, starring Shaun Evans as the young Detective Constable Morse on a case that takes him back to Oxford and changes the course of his career. Originally shown in the U.S. on “Masterpiece Mystery.” Blu-ray and DVD. Reviewed on Videodrone here.
“Treasure Island” (Vivendi), the new mini-series adaptation made for SyFy, stars Eddie Izzard as Long John Silver and co-stars Donald Sutherland and Elijah Wood. Blu-ray and DVD.
“Jean Grémillon During the Occupation (Eclipse Series 34)” (Criterion) casts a welcome spotlight on the work of a French director little known outside of France, notably a trio of films he directed during the German occupation that are considered his best work: “Remorques” (1941) starring Jean Gabin, “Lumière d’été” (1943), and “Le ciel est à vous” (1944). Let the rediscovery begin. DVD only, with essays. Videodrone’s review is here.
“Institute Benjamenta” (Zeitgeist), first live action film from surrealist animators The Brothers Quay, is remastered for a new DVD edition, along with a 2007 short from the filmmakers.
Derek Jarman’s 1988 “The Last of England” (Kino) is also remastered for DVD and its Blu-ray debut, and “Kunoichi” (Sentai) is a Japanese Ninja thriller from 2011 (DVD only).
“Metropolitan” (Criterion) was the confident and witty feature debut for director Whit Stillman, and his 1998 “The Last Days of Disco” (Criterion) his third and most popular film, and for more than a decade his final film (until “Damsels in Distress” this year). Both arrive on Blu-ray from Criterion in new high-definition masters with the old director commentary from the earlier DVD releases.
“Army of Crime” (2009) is not a “Dirty Dozen”-style thriller but an engrossing war drama from Robert Guédiguian based on a true story of a resistance force in Nazi-occupied Paris formed of French Jews, communists and immigrants—the very “undesirables” targeted by the Nazis.
Miranda July’s “The Future” (2011) is an offbeat comedy about a hip young couple adrift in stasis and self-doubt, narrated by a shelter cat awaiting adoption.
Mark “Mutant Girls Squad” (2010) down for you “WTF?!” viewing, a truly insane, exceedingly violent, tongue-in-cheek action movie from Japan about teenage girls with crazy powers unleashed on the world.
Available on Friday, in advance of its theatrical release, is the thriller “The Good Doctor” with Orlando Bloom and Riley Keough.
Available from Redbox this week:
Day and date with video stores: “Brake” on Blu-ray and DVD and “My Way” and “Meeting Evil” on DVD only. See New Releases above.
Also arriving in Redbox kiosks this week: “Mirror Mirror” with Julia Roberts and Lily Collins (in Blu-ray and DVD, reviewed here) and “Intruders” with Clive Owen (reviewed here). Flashback release of the week: “The Machinist,” a 2004 psychological thriller starring pre-Batman Christian Bale.
The Tree of Life, which led the Online Film Critics Society nominations with seven, was the big winner at the 15th Annual Online Film Critics Society Awards. The film took home the prize for Best Picture as well as trophies for Best Director (Terrence Malick), Best Supporting Actress (Jessica Chastain), Best Editing and Best Cinematography. No other film won more than one award.
The other three acting winners were Michael Fassbender winning Best Actor for his performance in Shame; Tilda Swinton’s work in We Need to Talk About Kevin won the award for Best Actress; and Christopher Plummer received the Best Supporting Actor prize for his work in Beginners.
The full list of winners of the 15th Annual Online Film Critics Society Awards:
The Tree of Life
Best Animated Feature:
Terrence Malick – The Tree of Life
Best Lead Actor:
Michael Fassbender – Shame
Best Lead Actress:
Tilda Swinton – We Need to Talk About Kevin
Best Supporting Actor:
Christopher Plummer – Beginners
Best Supporting Actress:
Jessica Chastain – The Tree of Life
Best Original Screenplay:
Midnight in Paris
Best Adapted Screenplay:
Tinker Tailor Solider Spy
The Tree of Life
The Tree of Life
Best Film Not in the English Language:
Cave of Forgotten Dreams
Special Awards (previously announced):
To Jessica Chastain, the breakout performer of the year
To Martin Scorsese in honor of his work and dedication to the pursuit of film preservation
Founded in 1997, the Online Film Critics Society has been the key force in establishing and raising the standards for Internet-based film journalism. The OFCS membership consists of film reviewers, journalists and scholars based in the U.S., Canada, Europe, Latin America and the Asia/Pacific Rim region. For more information, visit the Online Film Critics Society at ofcs.org.
For Seattle cinema lovers, 2011 was a good news/bad news year. For the bad, there was the May closure of the Columbia City Cinema and the February conversion of the Neptune into a music and events hall. The empty Uptown reminded us of another neighborhood theater with history gone dark. And the rush to digital projection in the minimally manned multiplexes left too many screens getting dimmer because of 2-D digital prints run through 3-D splitters (no, it’s not your eyes going bad) and more digital prints replacing 35mm screenings of classic films. But let’s not forget the good. Here are the 10 best reasons for movie-loving Seattleites to celebrate this year.
1) SIFF saves the Uptown! And in the same year the Seattle International Film Festival left its McCaw Hall time-share for its own year-round theater/permanent headquarters at Seattle Center. The Uptown deal came together more quickly (over the past year), and its October reopening gave SIFF four screens with both film and digital capabilities. Two blocks apart, the two venues will expand local access to the kinds of foreign, art-house, and independent films that other cities can experience only on Netflix and VOD.
2) The Cinerama 70mm Festival. Paul Allen just gave his pet movie palace a costly new renovation, and brought in independent management (Greg Wood of Portland’s Roseway Theater) to replace national operator AMC. So while it can and does show big blockbusters and digital 3-D, the Cinerama celebrated its makeover in September with 16 days of 70mm and Cinerama prints of classic films (the original high-def). Change is inevitable, but every movie lover deserves to see the texture and color of actual film.
The only disappointment for me is that I was unable to see two of the films that made the Top Ten compilation list: Margaret (still hasn’t screened for Seattle critics and no Fox offered no DVD screeners) and A Separation (that did screen in Seattle, but only after the poll deadline).
On the bright side, my top four films all placed in the compilation Top Ten. Which ones are those? You’ll have to can see my list here.
Just for the record, and because it’s no surprise, The Tree of Life took the top spot, just as it did for the Indiewire survey and the MSN poll.