Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Dreams in Celluloid, Part II

This is the second installment of an extensive list I'm currently compiling about my favourite directors. For the previous 10 click here.


Edge of Heaven (2007)

Akin is a pretty interesting director and one of the few contemporary filmmakers who manage to deal with the issue of race and cultural differences without falling into that horrible clichéd ridden pit of political correctness. I suppose the lack of sentimentality about such subjects is partly due to him being Turkish and living in Germany. So the few films I’ve seen by him all have that cross-cultural dichotomy between an increasingly liberal Germany and an increasingly global Turkey. His most recent film Edge of Heaven is by far his best and shows just how much he’s matured since Head On, which was good, but didn’t quite have the same amount of kick.


Marketa Lazarová (1967)

Long Czech epic set in the 13th-century as Christianity begins to replace the old Pagan cults. Beautiful black and white imagery, a complex storyline, profound insights, it’s almost like no other, almost… but then of course there’s that other film which has the same majestic grandeur set in turbulent times, you know the one, about the painter. Anyway, I haven’t seen any of Vlácil’s other films, but had to include him, because this film is a spectacle of all things grand. And impressively spiritual for such an epic. Bring on the Czech New Wave.


Nagareru (1957)

Naruse is probably one of the lesser-known post-war Japanese directors, but after recent revivals, he’s sure to get his day, which is only fair since his films have that same quiet beauty as his counterparts like Ozu and Mizoguchi. Quiet is a good way to describe Nagareru the best of Naruse’s films that I’ve seen. Everything is very formal, which lends itself quite easily to a kind of Buddhist spirituality, but Naruse is particularly discerning in what he does and doesn’t show as we watch the old world of the Japanese Geisha house come crumbling down. And surprise, surprise, it’s about as far removed from Memoirs of a Geisha as possible. The clip below is from When a Woman Ascends the Stairs.


Ashes and Diamonds (1958)

Wajda was an important figure in Polish New Wave cinema of the late 50s and early 60s, but subsequently seems to have sunk into obscurity, which is a shame because he made so many great films and is surely one of the precursors to later Polish filmmakers like Kieslowski. His films are notably centred on the history of his own country, but Ashes and Diamonds is his most, well, fierce.


Badlands (1973)

The tagline to this film says it all really: ‘He was 25 years old. He combed his hair like James Dean. She was 15. She took music lessons and could twirl a baton. For a while they lived together in a tree house. In 1959, she watched while he killed a lot of people.’ That’s it more or less. Very straightforward almost to the point where it turns into black comedy, I say almost, because it’s actually quite shocking despite its lighter moments. Malick seems to be one of those directors who only made a handful of films and gained a largely mixed reception, but there’s always something to admire in his slow paced, remote style of filmmaking. The Thin Red Line also deserves a nod for being one of the better Hollywood war films, if only because it’s a far cry from the sentimental, patriotism of anything by Spielberg or Stone.


Taxi Driver (1976)

I suppose there are some similarities between this film and Badlands, the slightly psychotic protagonist, his rather endearing affection for a particular girl, his apparent rationalisation of everything around him, and how to in the end none of that really matters. This is one of the more disturbing American films along with the obvious Silence of the Lambs, but it’s far more powerful in its message because everything about the film is so human. You can sympathise with Travis where you can’t with Hannibal Lector. Scorcese went on to make a whole host of films with De Niro, but I don’t think he ever quite managed to reach this level again, not even Goodfellas has the same amount of psychological depth.


The Dying Swan (1917)

Bauer was undoubtedly the master of early Russian cinema. Very much a precursor of the great German expressionist cinema of the 1920s. His films are some of the strangest, darkest vignettes into the lives of madmen, murderers, artists and dancers. They’re full of sex and death, jealously, obsession, strange habits. Bauer also was also one of the earliest filmmakers to use cinematic lighting with highly dramatic effects as opposed to the more stage-like conventions of other directors.


Les Enfants Du Paradis (1945)

A three-hour masterpiece and perfectly executed plot centred on the Parisian Theatre des Funambules during the 1840s. The film is awash with heavy symbolism and metaphor, from the dichotomy between artifice and reality, the nature of art, the clash between the classes and the need for escape. From the arrogant aristocrat to the devious criminal to the romantic mime artist, the characters avoid their typical stereotypes and stand as testament to the films awe. And at the heart of everything is the graceful, streetwalker Garance.


Close-Up (1990)

In the early 90s, Godard said that, ‘Film begins with DW Griffith and ends with Abbas Kiarostami.’ Recently Kiarostami has said that he doesn’t believe Godard would still agree with his own statement, but if the great French auteur makes such a grand statement about another director, you have to reckon there’s something special going on somewhere. And Close-Up is pretty damn special. Half-documentary, half-fiction, Kiarostami weaves an intriguing tale around the trial of Hossain Sabzian, an Iranian who was arrested for impersonating the Iranian director, Mohsen Makhmalbaf. And there are plenty of fascinating insights thrown up by the film into everything from identity to culture to our place within society.


Best of Youth (2003)

A six hour epic, following the Italian Carati family from the 60s to the present day. Picking up where Visconti left off, Giordana seems to be happy to fill the gap for long dramas left empty since the great Italian filmmaker's death in 1976. Giordana shows remarkable flair in constantly maintaining the films focus through his varied cast of characters. If you’re going to make a long epic that spans several decades it’s so important to keep a good sense of rhythm, and this Giordana does very well. Switching from political turbulence to domestic family affairs and complex personal decisions, Best of Youth is entertaining on every level.


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