A recent post by Merry Farmer (merryfarmer.net) about a small and wonderful picture called “The Girl in the Cafe” led me to ponder those small films that just are gems, the ones you think you and your friends and family alone have discovered and that you buy on DVD or Blu-Ray and watch over and over again, much more often, when you come to think about it, than the big blockbusters like “Lord of the Rings”. So this essay is going to be about just a few favorites among my film discoveries over the years.
To go back in time a bit, let’s first talk about “Mindwalk”. This was a film made in 1990, written and directed by Bernt Capra, starring Sam Waterston, Liv Ullman and John Heard. The movie is subtitled “A Film for Passionate Thinkers,” and was based on a book by the same writer named “The Turning Point”. Mr. Capra had an epiphany about how the universe and our world really work. The entire movie is comprised of a conversation among three people who meet at Mont St. Michelle on a chilly spring day. Nothing much happens except talk, there are very few exciting or weird camera angles or cutting styles, mostly the director just lets the camera run and the actors walk and talk or sit and talk. And the film is riveting, absolutely mesmerizing. It discusses time and atomic decay in ways that help a non-physicist finally understand some of what is really going on underneath what we see. But more than that, the film works to place us, human beings, within the context of what the universe is really about. A treasure. “Whatever this movie’s dramatic shortcomings, it’s nonetheless engrossing to let your mind experience this barrage of ideas — that there are worlds within worlds, organisms within organisms, systems within systems; that everything is connected; that few of us think that way; and that, as far as human survival goes, a fully articulated, macro-sensitive world vision is essential.” (Review in The Washington Post by Desson Howe.)
For another film from long ago (1968, in fact), let’s look at “The Lion in Winter.” Not really a “small” gem, but a true jewel nonetheless, the movie is based on, practically word for word, James Goldman’s play of the same name. When I was a mere slip of a girl, a director’s casting choice had me portraying the sixty-ish Eleanor of Aquitaine, my favorite role. Now that I’m more the, ahem, right age, I would give a great deal to portray her again. The movie starred Peter O’Toole and Katherine Hepburn, with Anthony Hopkins as Richard, Jane Merrow as Alais, Nigel Stock as William Marshall, Nigel Terry (later to be seen in “Excalibur,” to be discussed in a bit) as John, John Castle as Geoffrey, and Timothy Dalton as Philip II. For Dalton and Hopkins, this film gave them their first major roles. For the gentleman named Peter O’Toole, it was his second superb take on Henry II (his first was in “Becket” which won all sorts of awards for Richard Burton in the eponymous role and for O’Toole, but which is not a favorite film of mine). Here the pleasure is the acting and the impossibly witty and cogent dialogue. The film imagines a Christmas court in Henry II’s 57th year (when, as he put it, “I’m the oldest man I know, hell, I’ve got a decade on the Pope”). He brings his wife, Eleanor, out of jail (where he’s kept her for years because she keeps mounting revolts against him), to Chinon Castle, his favorite winter residence. And he insists his three living sons attend upon him there. Oh, and then there’s Alais, the beautiful “ward” who is Henry’s mistress but who is (technically) betrothed to Henry’s son Richard (the Lionheart, of course), who is more interested in Philip of France, the young king, and so round and round we go. The plot has to do with naming Henry’s heir, and all the plotting and planning goes beautifully wrong since the young men have ideas of their own. The most interesting thing about this film (or play) is that in reality nothing happens. It’s like a rondo where everybody ends up where they began, but oh the fun they have stabbing each other in the back or in the front with beautiful daggers of words along the way. Peter O’Toole was born to play Henry II and Katherine Hepburn crowned her career with a well-deserved Oscar for her performance as Eleanor. Until I do get another chance to play the richest, most powerful and most intelligent woman in the world (up until Hillary Clinton, I suppose), I will continue to enjoy the movie, the very funny words, the bitter irony that lives within the characters, the extraordinary archaic music, and the sense that living in winter in a French castle was slightly south of cozy.
As I said, now it is the turn of “Excalibur.” John Boorman wrote, directed, produced and practically willed this film into being, finding young and older British stars to inhabit the most iconic characters in all of myth. The Matter of Britain, it’s called, the story of the Once and Future King, Arthur. Nigel Terry (see above for his great turn as John Lackland, son of Henry II) plays Arthur, Nicol Williamson plays Merlin, Helen Mirren is beautifully distracting and deliciously wicked as Morgan le Fey and we get one of our first chances to drool at Liam Neeson, towering over everybody as Galahad. It’s a huge cast, the costumes seem somehow as rough and ready as they would have to have been, and the story is fairly close to La Morte D’Arthur, with a few modern incursions (Igraine’s seductive dance to her husband’s friend and her own seducer Uther Pendragon is not to be missed). Boorman uses the Carmina Burana as the basis for his soundtrack and it works beautifully, sounding quite strange and medieval and untamed.
Let’s move up in time a bit to “The Illusionist“. This film, starring Edward Norton, Jessica Biel, Rufus Sewell and Paul Giamatti, is set in late 19th Century Vienna and is a story about a magician, the duchess he loves and can’t have, the (wicked and really deliciously bad) heir to the Empire, and the Police Commissioner who, in his words is “no, not entirely corrupt.” The love story is between the magician and the duchess. The other two are working with clever might and main to make sure the love story doesn’t happen. All to the music of Philip Glass and with magician’s illusions that were mostly done on camera. Edward Norton is always interesting to watch and never plays the same kind of role twice. Here he is totally romantic as the illusionist who always loved magic and who lost the girl when he was still a boy, then wandered the world to find real magic but found only illusion and never got over the girl. He comes back to Vienna as a brilliant illusionist who always states that he does tricks, there is no real magic, and he finds his duchess again, about to be married to the Emperor’s evil son. How he and Jessica Biel (who has never been lovelier or better) trick the bad guys right under the nose of the Police Commissioner is delightful, surprising, inevitable and, yes, magical. One of the best and most lyrically filmed love/sex scenes I’ve seen in a long time, too. The movie is beautiful, intimate, charming, and romantic without being in the least soppy. Just a great time at the movies!
Of course one of Russell Crowe’s films must be a part of this listing. So the one that I’ll choose for this essay is “A Good Year”, partially because he shows such sweet and passionate romance, but also because he demonstrates a real flair for slapstick that most of his roles don’t let him show. The swimming pool scene is an especial joy, and how they made a tennis match between him and his vintner both exciting and funny I only know resulted from great acting, good directing and superb editing. He stars in it with Marion Cotillard, and it’s a story of redemption and love and of finding yourself after not even realizing you were lost. Freddy Highmore plays his younger self and this is an actor with a major future. Albert Finney, who as an actor had a major past and is still stealing all scenes he’s in, plays the expansive uncle, who taught Max how to live. Max (Crowe’s character) has to rediscover the true value of life. Of course, it’s a lot easier when you’re a rich stockbroker and then you inherit a vineyard and a villa in Provence, but he still has a hard time of it. It’s funny, truly funny, and sweetly romantic, and Crowe does his usual brilliant job of simply being the person he’s playing and not letting it show. You can’t catch this man acting. Take a special look at him stepping in as a waiter at Cotillard’s restaurant on a day where everything’s going wrong, briskly doing his job and getting lots of tips. (Her response after the end of a long day? “Here are your tips. You’re fired.”) And their first date is charming, managing to show the awkwardness of any first date along with the real chemistry growing between them. A subplot about his uncle’s possible (probable?) illegitimate daughter (played delightfully by Abbie Cornish) adds to the fun.
Now let’s go far back in time, at least movie time. One of my favorite 40’s films is “Laura.” A woman is killed and the detective who is assigned to the case falls in love with her from her portrait, her beautiful apartment, and the things he’s told about her by her friends and enemies. Then it turns out it wasn’t her that was killed. From there it gets really interesting. Gene Tierney is gorgeous, of course, but the movie seems to display a mystery about her that entices and fascinates all of the other people in the movie, from the Walter Winchell-esque journalist who brings her into prominence to the southern playboy who supposedly loves her to the detective who becomes obsessed with her. You really won’t figure out whodunit until the end and you’ll love the music and the delicious black and white photography. Trust me on this, but don’t trust anybody in the movie.
There has to be a western in this cavalcade and my choice for all-time favorite, best-ever western is a tie. Ooops, but I’m going to concentrate on “The Magnificent Seven” (the other one in the running is “Shane.”) “The Magnificent Seven” is a remake of “The Seventh Samurai” and tells the story of a gunfighter hired by the people of a Mexican village to free them of a pest — said pest played with over-the-stop scenery chewing fun by Eli Wallach. The gunfighter, Yul Brynner, gathers a collection of other gunfighters and misfits, including Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, Robert Vaughn, James Coburn and others. Each of them have private agendas that play out during the film, but they call come together in a gorgeously choreographed battle for the sake of the villagers, to Eli Wallach’s vast surprise. (As the McQueen character says, “It seemed like a good idea at the time.”) The music, by Elmer Bernstein, is beyond glorious and is still used to convey the feeling of the Great American West. There’s a good deal of humor, but the subthemes of the changing of the West from lawlessness to commerce and law, the ending of the era of the gunfighter, and the haplessness of ordinary people when faced with evil are all deeply moving. If you haven’t seen it (how could you not have seen it by this time?) please make it a point.
Moving right along to Hitchcock, let’s talk about “Rebecca”. “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again” is one of film’s most intriguing opening lines (it was the opening line to the novel by Daphne de Maurier), and the nameless heroine, played by Joan Fontaine, makes you feel her awkwardness in attempting to step into the designer shoes of the evil and memorable Rebecca. Laurence Olivier plays Maxim de Winter, and Judith Anderson plays the terrifying housekeeper. If you haven’t seen it before, you’ll go nuts trying to figure it out. The twist in this film is not only the reason for all the fear and strangeness at Manderley (you really won’t guess it, at least I didn’t), but also the emotional twist that leads to the happy(?) (the question mark is intended) ending comes directly out of Rebecca’s own character. Enjoy the experience.
Another twisty Hitchcock thriller, this time with a comic bend to the corkscrew: “North by Northwest” stars an impossibly lovely and cool Eva Marie Saint and an equally impossibly suave Cary Grant in a thriller taking them from New York City on the 20th Century Limited to Chicago. After that come two of the classic set pieces in film, the chase in the cornfield and the one on Mr. Rushmore. Too much fun not to see over and over. Very funny lines, one of James Mason’s best villains, and a classic (i.e., ultimately meaningless) McGuffin (a name apparently invented by Hitchcock to explain, presumably, what everybody’s after). Tres sophisticated, filled with gorgeous late fifties, early sixties clothes and Ms. Saint’s hair is more perfect than any head of blond hair has ever been or ever will be.
Jumping around a bit, there’s one of my best guilty pleasures, “Gosford Park”. In this one, it helps to have the captioning on, because everybody’s talking at once, usually. This is Bob Balaban and Robert Altman at their finest, using their upside down and inside out talents to re-envision the Agatha Christie-type country house mystery. It’s filled with a lot of the best actors in Britain, of which they don’t come any better, with Helen Mirren as the sinister housekeeper, Michael Gambon as the crude rich man who married up, Kristin Scott-Thomas as the Earl’s daughter who’s married to a man she can’t stand and who sleeps with visiting male servants, Emily Watson as the upstairs maid sleeping with the boss, Clive Owen as the mysterious valet and Maggie Smith stealing every scene she’s in just the way she always does. The plot is simple. Who is going to kill the master of the house? And hurry up about it because he’s horrible! And then we find out it isn’t so simple after all. They’re all brilliant, the camera never stops moving, the sets are gorgeous (makes you want to even work in such a house, let alone own it) and I watch over and over again just to be with them in the place and time once more. By the way, the set design is spectacular and try to notice the floral arrangements the next time you watch it. Amazing! The theme of the ending of the era of servants and country houses lies underneath and shores up the whole thing, making it a worthwhile look at snobbery and a group of people who perhaps needed to be made redundant. But oh how beautifully (and boringly, when push comes to shove) they lived and usually didn’t get a chance to actually love. As the Balaban character (an American film producer there scouting locations) says to the guy playing Ivor Novello (an actual historical character): “How do you stand these people?” His answer. “I make my living impersonating them.”
“The Girl in the Cafe” is best talked about by Merry Farmer, so I refer you to her at merryfarmer.net, but I must add for myself that Bill Nighy and Kelly MacDonald make their fumbling attempts to reach each other so poignant, so real that they break my heart.
“The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” is one of my favorite films this year. And it has my favorite line in several movie years: “It will all be all right in the end. So if it is not all right, it is not the end.” My new mantra for my own life, believe me. And if only I could age like Judi Dench, funny and brilliant and so so so pretty and loving and warm. In any event, a group of “the elderly and beautiful” in England realize or think they realize that they can get more for their retirement dollars moving to Jaipur to a “luxury hotel”, which turns out, of course, to be anything but. Each of them has a different agenda, different hopes and plans, and they go about them with gusto. The film shows off the brilliant, brightly colored, hot and damp vibrancy and chaos of Jaipur and it shows the reactions, whether positive or negative or simply bewildered, of these babes in this particular wood. One utterly favorite and beautiful moment: One of the characters, played by Tom Wilkinson, has come to make a pilgrimage to his youth. He dies after completing said pilgrimage and there is a continuing misty shot of a great white heron (I think) taking off and flying into the golden light which may seem, in the telling, to be incredibly clichéd, and yet it is absolutely not. A beautiful moment. And the whole movie does, indeed, come out all right in the end.
If you would like to see Jane Austen done absolutely right, rent (or preferably buy for future viewings) “Sense and Sensibility”. Emma Thompson wrote the screenplay. One of the little extras on the DVD is watching her give her acceptance speech for best screenplay at the Golden Globes, which she does in the form of a letter from Jane Austen to her sister, discussing Hollywood, the film, and modern life. Hysterical. The film itself is filled with the best of British actors, one of the most gorgeous men ever (whom Emma, no fool, later married in real life), named Greg Wise, and Alan Rickman, who makes me drool when he plays Snape and so you can imagine my reaction when he plays a Jane Austen hero. Also, Hugh Grant, just to keep the ladies interested, and Kate Winslet in one of her first roles being impossibly beautiful, willful and brilliant as Marianne. This is an Ang Lee film, and it’s just one step along the way to his fully earned Oscar this last year for “Life of Pi”. Brilliant filmmaker and wonderful film, capturing the essence of Austen’s novel and making it sing. It was shot mostly on location, too, in some of those old, exquisite British country houses. Last and by no means least, it’s quite funny.
Sandra Bullock is always terrific and, while a lot of us could watch “Miss Congeniality” over and over again, my favorite of her films is “While You Were Sleeping”. In this film, she plays a very lonesome young woman who wants to have a family. She has a crush on a man she knows she’ll never meet who comes by her booth (where she works for the transportation authority taking in tokens for those traveling on the El). When he’s mugged and lands on the tracks on Christmas day, she saves his life and then is mistaken for his fiancée. And then she falls in love with his quirky and funny and warm family. And then she falls in love with his brother. By the time the first guy wakes up, she’s in total trouble, but the whole family is enamored of her and convince the coma guy that she is indeed his fiancée even though he remembers her not at all. The way she works it out is true and genuine and funny, but it’s her relationships with all her costars that are the gem here, from the guy in her building, Joe Junior (played with gusto by Michael Rispoli), who has a veneer of total and stupid self-confidence overlaid over lonesomeness and need, her boss who finds her dilemma aggravating and impossible to understand, the family friend who promises to help her straighten out her dilemma and just gets her deeper in (her response? “You’re fired”) and the family itself, with whom she simply falls in love. Bullock conveys this just by watching them cavort around and it’s heartbreaking. A lovely, lovely film to watch during the holiday season.
The film that kickstarted Sandra Oh’s career, “Sideways”, also restarted Virginia Madsen’s and Thomas Hayden Church’s careers and it certainly added to the admiration Paul Giamatti so richly deserves. A little film about a last getaway to the Solvang wine region before Church’s character gets married, it’s funny, poignant and very real. Giamatti plays a man who has written a very very very long novel he can’t get published and who is a junior high teacher. Church plays a somehow totally likeable but absolute jerk who wants to have a last fling before he marries and can’t fling his southern brain around any longer. Sandra Oh plays one of those people who serve the wine at wine tastings who wants a real boyfriend and Madsen plays Maya, a waitress at a good restaurant who truly loves wine and who finds the magic in it and in Paul Giamatti. There is a scene when Sandra discovers Church’s real agenda that is such a hoot I will always remember it. Things get very complicated primarily because the Church character is such a damned fool, but it feels real, for all that, not artificially stirred up the way so many comedies these days seem to be. And the romance with wine that all the characters have is lyrical. (I happen to love Pinot Noir the best of all wines, too, so it was especially poignant to me.)
“Office Space” is very funny little cult movie that in an indirect fashion probably led to the British and American TV series, “The Office.” One of its supporting actors is a very good friend of mine, Joe Bays, and he is beyond terrific, but it’s got even more gems of performance and comedy than that. It stars Jennifer Anniston and Ron Livingston. In the Initech office, the insecure Peter Gibbons hates his job and the abusive Division VP Bill Lumbergh who has just hired two consultants to downsize the company. Peter’s best friends are the software engineers Michael Bolton and Samir Nagheenanajar (they also hate Initech), and his next door neighbor Lawrence. In an attempt to get around the consultants, Peter’s life deteriorates, what with hypnotists and a scheme to embezzle fractions of cents from each company account which goes just a little awry. For anyone who’s ever worked in cubicle hell, this film is a kind of medicine. You’ll swear you’ve met the characters in your own working life, and you know the ones I mean, the ones you have to keep smiling at no matter what.
“Starbuck” is the newest film on my hit parade. We went to see it as a final treat while I was in LA on vacation early this spring. It’s a French-Canadian film with subtitles about a schlub (played with sweet brilliance by Patrick Huard) who does everything wrong and gets everything right. It’s not a spoiler to tell you that he has a very very very very bad day, culminating (and the word is used deliberately) in the discovery that the sperm donation he engaged in when he was twenty has resulted in him fathering (biologically, that is) 533 children, most of whom are now in their late teens and early twenties. His life, which had fallen apart before he finds this out, gets even more complicated, but he manages, in his schlubby but loving way, to make it all come out right. A charming, loving, happy film. And very funny.
So, with this to perhaps kickstart some new favorites of your own, see you at the movies!