Friday, January 23, 2015

The Top 5 classic films I discovered while living in NY

Recently, I was honoured to be featured on Between 10 & 5, where they asked my to name my top 5 films. Since this is clearly impossible and started giving me sleepless nights, I decided to narrow it down, instead, to the top 5 new-to-me classic films I discovered since moving to New York to study film. It's a fairly random selection of films with little in common other than that I love these 5 films so much.

Here's (my section of) the post:

Friedl Kreuser | Film Student and Illustrator

Choosing favourite films is like Sophie’s Choice for me, so I decided to narrow the field by listing the five biggest game changers I’ve discovered since moving to New York to study film.

Sherlock, Jr. (1924), Buster Keaton:

There is no end to the genius of Buster Keaton and, though everything in his filmography is worth exploring, this 45-minute fantasy comedy is bursting with fresh ideas and cinematic creativity.

The plot is irrelevant when you have Buster Keaton – as a haplessly in love wannabe detective / film projectionist – sleepwalking into a movie screen and experiencing first-hand the magic (and, in his case, danger) of film editing – a technically brilliant piece of Meta self-reflection long before Charlie Kaufman made it cool. As if that wasn’t enough, he finds time for a splendid, Bond-esque chase sequence and a perfect, quietly subversive ending.

Strike (1925), Sergei Eisenstein:

Warning: this clip contains spoilers of sorts & is pretty rough on animal-lovers
(Also: why are there not better clips of Strike online?! The opening sequences are blissfully beautifully)

The visceral power of undiluted Soviet montage should be a compulsory life experience, and there is no better place to start than Eisenstein’s masterpiece (far greater in scope, if more lacking in focus, than Battleship Potemkin). Throwing all the rules Hollywood was writing about cinema out the window, Eisenstein needs no protagonist – the humble crowd of factory workers is his hero – makes minimal use of dialogue and simply arranges his endless stream of images as six searing mood pieces of escalating tension.

And he goes for the jugular – throwing at you, by turns, some of the most beautiful, brutal, surreal and disturbing images you’ll ever see. The devastating climax is a clear influence on both Apocalypse Now and Schindler’s List (and Spielberg owes much of his career to one of Eisenstein’s favourite tricks – cutting to close ups of children at just the right moment).

The only thing wrong with it is that it is blatantly manipulative propaganda (but then, isn’t everything?) – so be careful, or it may turn you into a commie.

L’Atalante (1934), Jean Vigo:

This quiet, gentle film – a favourite of both Francois Truffaut and Michel Gondry, who loved it so much he illustrated this poster for it – is the only full length feature by Jean Vigo (arguably the great tragic Van Gogh of film directors, who died of tuberculosis aged 29 while a butchered edit of L’Atalante was being released to lacklustre response).

Beautifully marrying gritty naturalism with just a touch of lyrical poetry, Vigo takes a simple story of ordinary, working class newlyweds (on a barge, filled with cats, and a decidedly strange cabin mate with a splendid cabinet of curiosities) and crafts it into a subtly complex portrait of two stubborn, brittle humans figuring out whether they can belong to one another. Filled with extraordinary detail, surprising sensuality and the most vivid, authentic acting you’ll find that side of Elia Kazan.

L’Atalante poster, designed by Michel Gondry (1990 French rerelease)
L’Atalante poster, designed by Michel Gondry (1990 French rerelease)

Do The Right Thing (1989), Spike Lee:

This is a film so in touch with its time and place, it could stand simply as a document of early 90s cool (a fashion manifesto for young hipsters everywhere), but of course it’s so much more than that. It’s not just about Spike Lee’s invigorating visual style, or the Altman-esque, “plotless” narrative either – what makes Do the Right Thing so great is Lee’s willingness to have something honest and complicated to say about the racial tension he felt around him in early 90s Bed Stuy.

As his central premise, he presents contradictory philosophies from Martin Luther King Jr and Malcom X, and tries to figure out what it means to “do the right thing.” Rather than give us an easy answer, Lee’s confrontational film demands that we have an opinion. With gentrification still creeping across Brooklyn and cops still shooting kids on the street for no reason other than being black, these are conversations that are sadly as critical in America today as ever.

There is also important food for thought here for South Africans. Though I doubt I could ever agree with those who call Mandela a traitor (he saved our country’s soul), Spike Lee’s film – if you let it – does offer some uncomfortable insight into the plight of those on the receiving end of (historical and on-going) racism who are constantly required to smile, forgive and forget.

Love and Death (1975), Woody Allen:

This is a bit of a cheat, because I saw it right before I moved to New York, but it is the great Woody Allen film that I somehow never knew was this great.

What could be better than Woody Allen channelling Tolstoy via the Marx Brothers and Ingmar Bergman via his New York neuroses while dragging Diane Keaton, Mother Russia, Napoleon Bonaparte and the Grim Reaper along for the ride? Epic, irreverent and, most importantly, hilarious.

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