Did you ever try “grown-up” food when you were a kid? Whether it was caviar, brussel sprouts or even a sip of merlot, your young taste buds were so unprepared for it, you probably hesitated to try that food again, even as an adult. The same can happen with films. If you’re like most people you’ve been spoon-fed Hollywood’s baby food for so long, that anything outside of that narrow tradition will shock your system a bit. So, here’s a roadmap for those trying to move from the kids’ menu to the prime rib. (For a diner’s guide on how to properly digest great films, click here.) I’ll be listing various categories of films, and for each, giving you films in three levels of “difficulty”. (With apologies to vegetarians)
STEAK –These are the movies that just about anybody could enjoy,
but you still need a knife. These films will act as a nice introduction to the
SUSHI – A little less popular, and a bit more of an acquired
taste. If you really liked the steak films you’ll need to check these out
ESCARGOT – Something to shoot for, these are the films that are
considered some of the greatest in their respective fields, but are only for the
truly refined palettes.
STEAK (Easily digested)
Spirited Away – It’s ironic, I suppose that the first grown-up movie I’m recommending is a cartoon. But this is movie is no kids’ film! It is the largest grossing Japanese film of all time. Disney has redistributed almost all of Hayao Miyazaki’s films with pretty good English dubbing. And these stories are among the most creative you’ll ever find. Miyazaki films are like a Jacuzzi for the imagination. In fact, anime, in general, is not just for comic book geeks. There’s some great art out there. (Check out Cowboy Bebop and Kiki’s Delivery Service as well.)
The Professional – Who says action can’t be art? Luc Besson is a French director who uses light in captivating ways in this film about a professional hitman who takes in a young Natalie Portman. Exciting, funny and touching. And Portman’s acting is right up there with the great childhood performances of Leo in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? and Haley-Joel Osment in The Sixth Sense.
SUSHI (Acquired taste)
The Man Without A Past – A quirky, quiet little Finnish film that takes an honest look at what life would be like with a clean slate. This film’s impact will sneak up on you and you’ll be astonished that a film from a country where people rarely smile can make you laugh.
Jesus of Montreal – This French-Canadian film follows a troupe of actors trying to put on a controversial Passion Play. Their travails start to feel very familiar after a time, and you’ll find yourself amazed at what the filmmakers have done.
Not of this World – An Italian production that follows an unlikely team, a loner Laundromat owner and a nun, that try to provide for an abandoned baby. The director does an interesting thing here. In the midst of the story, he makes each setting of the film a landscape of human life. Any scene that takes place in a set we’ve not yet seen is preceded by a snapshot photo of all the souls that work or live there. The film is tremendously aware of a world infinitely peopled, as we should all be.
ESCARGOT (Refined palette)
Dekalog (The Decalogue) – Ten one hour films, each of which take one of the Ten Commandments as their theme. Some very interesting and relevant stories.
Yi yi (One, and a two…) – A powerful Taiwanese film that follows an endearing family through issues of purpose and integrity. One of the sweetest and most powerful endings to a film I’ve ever seen. But it’s a long road to get there and those thrown off by a slow pace will not make the journey.
Also check out: Trois Coloures (Three films – Red, Blue, White)
Art house/ Independent – These are a little harder to define these days because big studios are often lurking behind independent-looking films. But loosely, these are the films that aspire to be more than mere entertainment and that usually play in the artsy-fartsy movie houses.
STEAK (Easily digested)
Ghost World – A truly fun and quirky exploration of what happens to the hip apathy of teenagers once graduation hits and they have to start figuring out how to live. A fascinating look at a generation who has defined being “cool” as being “real” and what happens when they must figure out what is, in fact, real in their own lives. Thora Birch, Scarlett Johansson, and Steve Buscemi lend familiar faces and outstanding performances.
The Big Kahuna – Profundity from lubrication salesmen. A one room drama that pits Kevin Spacey’s fast-talking cynic against a pie-eyed Christian who values sharing his faith with clients over selling them product. Danny DeVito steals the show with a nuanced performance that makes this one of his best performances. Based on the play The Hospitality Suite, by Roger Rueff, this is a must-see for all Christians.
The House of Sand and Fog – Ben Kingsley is a genius. Any film that bears his name in the cast list will have some redeeming value and he lends his formidable talent to this unique tale of a young woman whose house is put up for auction because of a town clerical mistake. Kingsley’s character, a retired colonel in the army of the Shaw of Iran, acquires the home and he and his family see it as a step on their road back to the comfortable life they once knew. Jennifer Connelly plays the troubled, evicted woman. The power of this film is in the depth of the characters. There is no villain here, just perfect examples of flawed humanity.
SUSHI (Acquired taste)
Tape – Hopefully, by now, you pay close attention to who is directing a film. If so, you’ll want to know that Richard Linklater is an important voice among American filmmakers right now. Not including his bread-winning efforts like Dazed and Confused and School of Rock, his films speak with a power and love of language like few others. Tape is another one-room drama, but one wracked with tension and soul-wrenching conflict. Married actors Ethan Hawke (a Linklater favorite) and Uma Thurman and Robert Sean Leonard chew up the scenery and the dialogue is air tight. Also check out: Before Sunrise
Wit – Along with directors, it’s always wise to find out about a film’s source material. Wit is the film version of a Pulitzer-winning one-woman play. Emma Thomson plays a turgid English professor who loves the work of John Donne and picks apart his work as though dissecting a rare specimen. But when she discovers she has cancer, she becomes the specimen, prodded and probed. This made-for-HBO film demonstrates the power of understatement. For example, the first time Dr. Bearing is asked her name she has to say it twice, and then spell it. Then she is asked "Doctor?" And she replies, "Yes, I have my PhD in 17th century litera..." The orderly interrupts, "No, your doctor's name." She replies, "Oh, Dr. Kelekian." By the end of the film, when she goes for another test, the orderly barely has a chance to open his mouth and she says "B-E-A-R-I-N-G, Kelekian". It's never addressed directly, but the language of the hospital is part of her world now, whether she likes it or not.
Lost in Translation – As an Academy Awards nominee and the long-awaited return of Bill Murray to film, many people saw this movie and their reaction to me was simply, “Hunh?” This movie certainly breaks free of the Hollywood stereotypes as it traces an odd friendship between a past-his-prime movie star and a young photographer’s wife stranded in Tokyo with nothing to do. Drawn together initially by loneliness and boredom, they soon find a mutual longing; not for each other, but for lost passion. The film’s pacing is slow, and yet, if you’re not watching closely you might miss the magic that happens here. There’s some very dry humor as well. Amazing performances by Scarlett Johansson and Bill Murray.
ESCARGOT (Refined palette)
Magnolia – Another important American director, Paul-Thomas Anderson weaves a grand tale of disparity and depravity through the lives of several characters. Hard to watch at times with an ending that may just blow your mind, Magnolia is a feast of highly discussable issues and ideas. An all-star cast includes Tom Cruise, Julianne Moore, and William H. Macy. However, Philip Seymour-Hoffman and Tom C. Riley steal the show. (One of these two actors can be found in just about every critically-acclaimed film for the past four years.)
Pi – A bizarre and hard-to-follow black and white film by Darren Aronofsky (Requiem for A Dream). It is the story of a man who is exploring the patterns in the number Pi, but who is haunted by crippling migraines and various religious and corporate groups who want to take advantage of his discoveries. The ending gets very bizarre, but there’s a grit and imagination to this film that make it well worth the journey.
Waking Life – A truly innovative film, by typically talky director/writer Richard Linklater. This film is animated, but by first filming and then drawing over the images. The effect is very surreal, which captures perfectly this ethereal exploration of existence that sometimes takes place in real life and sometimes in dream states. This one is very heavy on the philosophical lingo, but if you can make it through that, you’ll find some fascinating ideas and images throughout.
Documentary – Despite his notoriety within the mainstream, Michael Moore is certainly not the hero of this genre. His films are often regarded as too fictitious, ironically, for fans of this non-fiction genre. Documentaries are so much more vast and rich than what you’ll see on The Discovery or History Channels. They range from hysterical to horrifying to beautiful, sometimes in one film.
STEAK (Easily digested)
Spellbound – This is a favorite among just about all documentary lovers. The premise sounds ridiculous, but it ends up being a riveting, often hysterical tale of eight contestants in the National Spelling Bee. Each child comes from a different socio-economic background and area of the country so that the film gives an interesting cross section of the next generation. The contestants range from a socially stillborn boy who jokingly asks if the microphone is edible to an Indian-American whose grandfather has paid 5000 people in their homeland to be praying for him in the 24 hours leading up to the contest. This film is a perfect introduction to documentaries.
Hell House – Secular filmmakers decide to tell the story of a Texas church that puts on an enormous evangelistic Haunted House called Hell House. It is a relatively even-handed look at this strange phenomenon where a young girl, after looking at the newly-posted cast list declare to their friends “I got it! I’m the abortion girl!” and church leaders bark orders to stagehands like “Go to hell… and let them know we’re two minutes behind.” A constant juxtaposition of innocent images, like teens cheering at a football game and interviews where the same young faces are telling us “The devil is very real and evil is all around us” raise serious questions about the theological lens through which this branch of the Christian subculture sees life. And yet, there is sincerity to the passion and compassion of the people in the film that cannot be edited out. Another must-see for Christians.
SUSHI (Acquired taste)
Sound and Fury – A heart-wrenching look at the deaf community and the effect of a technology that is threatening its very existence. Deafness, to most, is seen as a disability and ridding the world of it sounds like a good idea to the hearing. However, the deaf community so loves the world and culture they’ve created there are many who hate the introduction of a new brain-implanted hearing aid. This film follows the tale of an extended family that is largely deaf, but when the hearing daughter wants to give her own deaf daughter a cochlear implant, that would essentially make her hear normally, the rest of the family is devastated, feeling she is shunning their identity.
Stevie – A moving story that looks at the troubled life of Stevie through the eyes of filmmaker Steve James, who was once Stevie’s “Big Brother” and who has returned to find him far worse off then when he left. It is a scathingly honest and vulnerable look at the fimmaker’s sense of obligation to be a force in Stevie’s life. Stevie and his family are the type of people that have become the spectacle of our society, paraded in front of us for disapproval on Jerry Springer. Yet, in this film we are forced to see their humanity and simultaneously question our own for the times we’ve dismissed people like them in our own lives.
ESCARGOT (Refined palette)
Winged Migration – A stunningly beautiful video document tracing the journey of several flocks of birds as they migrate North and South. Using the glider device seen in Fly Away Home, cinematographers shot footage of these birds over hundreds of thousands of miles. And there, amidst the flock there is something so peaceful and graceful about the flap of the wings and the group formation, it’s hard not be gripped by the serenity. Then, your eyes turn to the things passing below: crumbling castles, super highways, ancient, winding rivers, the pre-9/11 World Trade Center. The audience is given, quite literally, a bird’s eye view of a world that keeps turning below them and the impact is profound. Technically, this is also a foreign film, but there is so little narration it’s hardly noticeable.
CRÈME BRULE (Only this category bears a dessert. As an offshoot of documentaries, a comedy genre has begun that has been labeled “mockumentary”. In the style of its more serious parent genre, mockumentaries are entirely fabricated stories told as though they were real events. You have to see one to really get it, but look for the driest, most intelligent humor being made today.)
Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show, A Mighty Wind – Christopher Guest has assembled a highly-talented group of improvisational actors that periodically get together and poke fun at various subcultures. They are listed above in chronological order and his targets respectively have been small town community theatre, dog shows, and folk singers. As he continues making the films he creates his characters with more and more compassion. And what started out as an endeavor to merely garner laughs has resulted in some meaningful explorations of humanity, that are still funny as hell.
Zelig – One of Woody Allen’s lesser-known films, this one is especially fun for American history buffs. It is the story of a man with a medical malady that causes him to take on the characteristics of those around him, both physical and mental. Labeled the Human Chameleon, he becomes an international craze. A young woman psychiatrist takes an interest in him and in one of their sessions, he begins taking on the characteristics of a psychiatrist. He says that he worked with Freud for a time, but that they “split over the issue of penis envy. Freud thought it should be limited to women.” In the midst of this tale that explores issues of personal identity and our desire to please others, Allen drops in a few hysterical zingers to keep us on our toes.
Classic and Older Films - This is another category that has quite a range to choose from. We have the bad habit of treating movies like disposable art, and if they were not made in the last 10 years that they are hardly worth our time. A popular Christian online magazine recently published a list of The Most Profound Movies Ever Made, and to this reader’s shock and horror all of the films were from 1993 or later. With that in mind, I realize that anything before 1985 is fair game when it comes to older films you probably haven’t seen.
STEAK (Easily digested)
Harvey - A delightful comedy with an outstanding performance by Jimmy Stewart, who plays Elwood P. Dowd, a likable chap who believes he is accompanied by a six-foot invisible rabbit. This movie harkens back to the days when comedies had more to offer than flatulence gags. Dowd and Harvey espouse and a way of life, and if you’re caught up in their spell you may start to see the rabbit too.
Rear Window – Brushing up on your Alfred Hitchcock films is an occasion where the medicine is both good for you and tastes great. It is important to know the work of Hitchcock, but almost all his films are a lot of fun. Rear Window is my favorite because of the white-knuckle moments (When I show this in my film appreciation class, I have high school students shouting out warnings to the characters onscreen) and because of the divine Grace Kelley. Many great Hitchcock trademarks, including one of his more obvious cameos. In my opinion, the most famous Hitchcock films (Psycho, The Birds) are not his best. Instead check out: North by Northwest.
SUSHI (Acquired Taste)
Annie Hall – Woody Allen is another director with which you need to become familiar. However, try to see his films from before 1988 or so. His films, of late, have been purely mean-spirited satire with little of the playful voice or hope found in his earlier films. Annie Hall was his most critically-acclaimed film and his only Best Picture Oscar. Here’s a taste of his classic, neurotic wit, “I was thrown out of N.Y.U. my freshman year for cheating on my metaphysics final, you know. I looked within the soul of the boy sitting next to me.” What Hitchcock is to suspense, Allen is to irony. He wields it to move us, to slay society’s monsters and to reward us with laughter along the way. Also check out: The Purple Rose of Cairo, Crimes and Misdemeanors, and Manhattan)
The Conversation – This is by no means an ancient film, but off the map of today’s commonly viewed films. This is the only film where Gene Hackman is called upon to play more than an angry bull dog and he does it quite well. Francis Ford Coppola made this film about a professional eaves dropper facing a moral dilemma after finishing Godfather, but before starting Godfather II. Those two films usually overshadow this one, but he was clearly at the top of his game as the direction is simply brilliant, especially in his use of sound and repetition. This is a little-known gem of a movie.
ESCARGOT (Refined palette)
Citizen Kane – The nearly undisputed greatest American film ever made. This one is a study in cinematography utilizing camera angles, editing, and elaborate set devices all in the service of visual storytelling. It is a highly unauthorized send-up of the life of real life newspaper tycoon, William Randolph Hearst. The film was almost destroyed by this powerful man when he learned of its existence and he pretty much single-handedly destroyed the career of auteur-prodigy Orson Welles. After watching it, be sure to catch the documentary The Battle Over Citizen Kane, available on the widely released DVD version of the film and then the excellent commentary by Roger Ebert. You’ll learn enough about filmmaking from those three viewing experiences to make you a relative expert compared to your friends at the water cooler.
A Man for All Seasons – This is a stirring film about the Chancellor of England around the time when Henry VIII concocted a denomination that wouldn’t look so harshly on his divorce and new bride-to-be. Sir Paul Scofield puts forth a Herculean performance as the principled Thomas More. There is so much power when he utters the lines of conviction like “This country is planted thick with laws from coast to coast. Man's laws, not God's. And if you cut them down - and you're just the man to do it - do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then?” Another excellent viewing for Christians.