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. 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. Peter Jackson
While it can be difficult to separate the three films that make up the Lord of the Rings trilogy, it is the first that bears the biggest burden. In The Fellowship of the Ring, director Peter Jackson must set the stage, introducing us not merely to the characters and the story, but to the world of Middle Earth itself. Combining every element of filmmaking, both new and old, Jackson creates a very real and tangible world; one that can be both beautiful and unforgiving. It is fantastical, yet often feels like it could be in our own backyard. This place of imagination brings out the child in us, eager to go on an adventure and explore new places and meet new people. And as our heroes encounter Elves, Dwarves, Wizards, Goblins, and many others, the audience is drawn deeper and deeper into a magical reality that somehow manages to feel like home.
Jaume Collet-Serra’s The Shallows is an effective little creature feature about a young woman trapped on a rock in the ocean, two hundred yards from shore and terrorized by a huge great white shark. As the tide rises and the rock slowly begins to disappear, our heroine must figure out how to outsmart the shark and get back to the beach. Everything is fairly straightforward and the film is sturdily-made, featuring a handful of thrills and a sustained tension throughout.
dir. Francis Ford Coppola
After the commercial and critical success of The Godfather, Francis Ford Coppola had his work cut out for him in crafting the sequel. Clearly uninterested in simply telling the same story again, Coppola chooses instead to explore the cyclical nature of the Corleone family, showing us the early endeavors of a young Vito and the modern criminal empire of Michael. In doing so, we see two men who engage in horrifying acts of violence, but are driven primarily by their desire to take care of their families. And while Michael slowly but surely descends further into a cold, soulless loneliness, we are treated to Vito’s swift ascent to the top of the criminal food chain. Things are hopeful and exciting for Vito and his family. And yet, by seeing the eventual fate of Michael and Fredo (and remembering poor Sonny in the first movie), the film reminds us that, despite his good intentions, Vito has set his family on a path to Hell. With this ambitious sequel, Coppola’s exploration of the corrosive nature of the criminal enterprise is fully realized and we finally see that, in the world of The Godfather, there are no happy endings
“Beauty isn’t everything. It’s the only thing.”
So says a particularly incisive fashion designer in Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon. The quote is a bit on the nose, but certainly seems to be the mantra of Refn himself. His films have always been visually striking, even when treading familiar narrative ground. Refn’s ability to marry sound and image, crafting an overall tone that is both jarring and haunting, distinguishes him as one of the most unique directors working today. And while I haven’t always responded to the stories Refn has chosen to tell – and felt them to be somewhat incongruous with the style with which he tells them – The Neon Demon seems like the film he was born to make. Finally, the vapid shallow beauty inherent in Refn’s preferred filmmaking choices matches that of the characters we’re watching. The film is ultimately gorgeous, meditative, and extremely trashy, making it one of the most interesting cinematic experiences of the year.