dir. Stanley Kubrick
What is there to say about 2001: A Space Odyssey that hasn’t already been said about the classic in the almost five decades since its release? The fact that a film so hard to qualify (IMDB categorizes its genres as “Adventure, Mystery, Sci-Fi, all of which are – oddly – simultaneously accurate and misnomers) has a lasting legacy of prestige is quite curious. Kubrick used the film to make grandiose observations and insights about mankind’s origins and existence, but made arguably the most esoteric and inaccessible studio film ever. Additionally, great amount of work and innovation went into creating the Oscar-winning visual effects, yet frequency of long, static takes and infrequency of cuts results in a minimalism that is actually deceptively meticulous. It’s hard to find a point at which to start when it comes to talking about 2001because it does so much in such a remarkably controlled way that it’s completely understandable if you walked away thinking either (or both) “that was brilliant” or “that was pretentious.” That was on purpose – Kubrick and co-writer Arthur C. Clarke admitted to wanting to raise more questions than answers and when it comes to such philosophical dense questions of mankind’s design, existence and (after)life, then how could anyone ever possibly offer anything satisfyingly concrete? Kubrick’s approach to tackling the ambiguous is by employing the most evocative tools of Art, the one way in which we experience and interpret life that still seems to hint at our intangible Otherness from the rest of creation. Juxtaposition through cuts, detailed geometric set design, and the marriage of music with image all allude to – without explicitly concluding anything about – the Force (for lack of a better word) that allows us to create, to change, and, perhaps most importantly, to contemplate it all. Kubrick’s meticulous nature has always elicited criticism of emotional coldness and while 2001 does not indulge in sentiment, its ambiguity hints at a mysticism or spirituality that is equally as difficult to define in our real life, while the fusion of classical orchestrations with depictions of scientific discoveries imply that order and objectivity need not undermine art and subjectivity (classic compositions – indeed, most songs that you can think of – follow a meter and pattern, after all). Kubrick just happened to be brilliant enough to be aware enough of that to visualize it with a space station docking set to “Blue Danube.”
dir. Michael Curtiz
Casablanca is perhaps the height of studio-era filmmaking. It is much more a collaborative film then an auteur’s masterpiece, but it maintains a singularity of tone and style that is unmistakable. The Epstein brothers gave this cast some of the strongest and snappiest dialogue that American cinema has ever seen. Humphrey Bogart oozes cool, but still beautifully portrays the pain behind Rick’s devil-may-care façade. Ingrid Bergman gives the performance of her career as the conflicted Ilsa. In a wonderful twist of irony, a film about patriotism takes place in a setting where no one is really at home. Casablanca is an in between place, where no one can really ever have a solid footing. Both a gripping war intrigue and a dramatic love story, Casablanca is a timeless classic.
dir. Orson Welles
Considered by many to be the best film of all time, Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane changed the way movies were made. Welles brought his unique knowledge of theatre and radio – along with a refusal to acknowledge his own limitations – and crafted a film that is a perfect blend of the visual, the audio, and the dramatic. The film studies the life of a great man, Charles Foster Kane, who eventually loses everything due to his own unfulfillable needs. Like the visual quality of the film, the storytelling itself is unique and spellbinding, favoring other characters’ interpretation of Kane over his own; it is, in many ways, the perfect way to make a movie about a public figure, who is defined as much by other people’s opinion as his own actual identity. As we search for the key to unlocking the mystery of Kane, we soon find that the complexity of the filmmaking is meant as an expression of the internal complexity, not only of Kane, but of us all. It is a film that concludes that nobody can be summed up by one object, one relationship, one career. Each person’s life is a vast, interwoven tapestry of experiences, beliefs, and actions that can never be totally understood nor explained. It is a staggering, confident work that has forever shaped the way film is made, and watched.
dir. Alfred Hitchcock
The most common statement I hear after any first-time viewing of Vertigo (and I said it myself the first time I saw it) is, “That wasn’t at all what I was expecting.”
It’s an understandable reaction. Alfred Hitchcock is known for thrills and suspense, for political conspiracies and wrongfully accused protagonists. And with the opening scene in Vertigo, it’s hinted that you might be receiving more of the same. But the opening scene, a chase across rooftops, is not a narrative setup, but a character one. It’s meant to establish the condition of Scottie Ferguson — played brilliantly as usual by Jimmy Stewart — that gives the film its title.
Something of a critical and commercial dud when it was first released (it barely broke even at the box office and received mostly mixed reviews), there has been a distinct re-evaluation (and steadily increased admiration) of its merits since the late 70s. This makes rather good sense, as it is a film which rewards re-evaluation. If you saw it for the first time understanding that it is considered a masterpiece, you’re just as likely to leave the film scratching your head and wondering what you missed as you are to exit singing its praises.
We typically presume that a story’s plot is its defining quality, particularly when it comes to suspense films. But with Vertigo, the narrative is largely frustrating, and contains more than a few question marks as to how certain things happen and whether or not they resolve. Viewers are likely to try to follow the clues to the mystery when the mystery itself is largely a red herring. The mystery isn’t the point, the man at the center of it is.
Vertigo is a condition which causes its victims to become dizzy and light-headed as they near heights. It’s often accompanied by severe anxiety. Scottie Ferguson is haunted by the condition and by the cost it has brought to him (a drastic change in his career and the death of a fellow officer). The film is a measured examination of the power which our own limitations (whether they be internal, external, or psychological) have on how we understand and navigate through our little world. The film begins at one height and ends at another, with the man in the midst of both having taken a nightmarish journey through the treachery of obsession, phobia and paranoia.
The mystery of the film’s plot and the mystery of the film’s protagonist are both solved, but the film is only primarily concerned with one of them. Because ultimately the most compelling mystery of all is humanity, both the heights we will so often try to climb and the dizzying lengths we will go to in order to get there.
dir. David Lean
David Lean helped define what it means for a film to be “epic”. With his Bridge on the River Kwai and Doctor Zhivago, Lean took us from the depths of the jungle to the frozen tundra, throwing his characters in the midst of these harsh elements and forcing them to figure out who they were. But, as effective as those films can be, it is Lawrence of Arabia that stands above them all. This isn’t merely due to the gorgeous photography of the vast, unforgiving deserts of the Middle East, though that does definitely play a role. The reason Lawrence of Arabia is so fascinating is that Lean chose to place at the center of his WWI epic a quiet, enigmatic young man whose actions set everything in motion, but whose motivations are a complete mystery. T.E. Lawrence is one of the most complicated characters in film history. He is a man of contradictions. He is British, yet loves the desert. He is rebellious, yet a brilliant tactician. He is egotistical and pompous, and yet remains charismatic and likable. Nobody knows what he wants or needs, least of all him. But that doesn’t stop him from leading or others from following him. The risk that David Lean took, hinging such a huge, self-assured production on a character so unknowable, paid off and Lawrence of Arabia remains a lavish, exciting, frustrating, daring film that raised the bar for epics, biographical pictures, and film itself.
dir. George Lucas
The movie that changed sci-fi forever, and one of the first “blockbusters” to hit the big screen. Star Wars excels on so many levels. It appropriates classical mythology to create an epic journey, predicated on a battle between good and evil. It gave us a different kind of sci-fi setting, that looked old and lived in, rather than shiny and futuristic. It wowed audiences with special effects unlike any they’d ever seen. George Lucas and his team of artists created a wealth of iconic imagery, from Star Destroyers, to lightsabers, to droids, to Darth Vader. It’s a story that’s big enough for exploding planets, but small enough for a young man struggling over his destiny. Star Wars is one of the classic stories of the twentieth century, and will surely gain fans for decades to come.