I love small films —films that are more likely to stay true to the original intent of the writer and closer in execution to the director’s wider vision. Lower budget films have smaller box office expectations so they have greater freedom to explore themes, visual accents and unusual character portrayals. There are no fancy special effects or thundering musical scores. Only stories and characters. Much like real life. They are less contrived and less patronizing but not necessarily less creative or fantastical. After all, real life is filled with unbelievable drama. And the lack of formulas and big management involvement make these films tastefully textural and personal — flavorful ingredients much needed in the broadened global conformity that has enveloped Hollywood. Most of these films exist only because of the love an idea or for the pure love of the craft.
Dead Man (directed by Jim Jarmusch)
Directed by auteur filmmaker Jim Jarmusch, Dead Man is a bizarre yet encapsulating story of a regular man, caught in irregular times — a time of violence, lack of honor, and cold, hard industry. Thinly disguised as a western black comedy, this tale of a city accountant turned gunfighter is really a story about personal discovery and destiny. Life is simply what it is and it’s up to us personally to find out why we’re here on this earth. Starring Johnny Depp — one of the best silent actors of our generation — as the “every man” with no name, his character takes on the identity of poet William Blake, the visionary artist who’s famous for his literary devotion to beauty, innocence and integrity — things obliterated by the Westerner’s capitalistic invasion of native America. In his spiritual journey, Blake makes a new friend, an half-blood native called Nobody (Gary Farmer) who aids him in becoming the hero against all evil and, in so doing, finds his identity and frees his soul. Dead Man is an unusual physical and spiritual adventure, but one that is artistic and strangely entertaining. This little film is sure to stir the emotions of any viewer; garnering deep admiration or alarming confusion (some of the scenes are quite shocking). Shot in gorgeous black and white, the cinematography is stunning, and to me, the film as a whole is a cold yet gorgeous presentation of the deeper themes at play; it’s poetry unlikely to be seen in front of audiences today.
The Wrestler (directed by Darren Aronofsky)
Darren Aronofsky’s beautiful yet tragic film, is a marvelous viewing experience. Watching it, I find myself gaining much respect for so called “professional wrestlers.” Used in an industry to profit from nationalistic pride and as an outlet for people’s inhibited individual expression, pro wrestlers share a strange seat in American culture and history. Like the gladiators of ancient Rome, these “live” performers of good versus evil, act more as a distraction from the bigger issues of life than as a cure for suppressed freedom or symbol of unified identity. But in Aronfsky’s film, we see the other side, the inside — where the actors in the show reveal their true personal selves; these are real men behind all the lights and cameras. In fact, they’re painfully real — they wear glasses, take drugs for their aches and pains, and get old, fat, and wrinkly. More importantly, each of them struggle, as we do, to survive and to find happiness in this game called life. In Aronofsky’s sincere exposé, we witness the hardships and sacrifices each man has made and how wrestling has damaged those who make this “sport” their vocation. Mickey Rourke — an actor no producer wanted save for director Aronofsky, who persistently fought for his inclusion — delivers the performance of his career; he’s soulful, physically believable and fully engaged. Rourke’s vulnerability enlists the audience’s empathy, as he struggles to find love —with Cassidy (Marisa Tomei) a stripper by night and mother by day — and redemption, as he reaches out in hopes of repairing the damaged relationship with his estranged daughter Stephanie (Evan Rachel Ward). But at this stage of his life, living off his past glory as the once famous Randy “The Ram” Robinson, our protagonist is doomed to fail. He’s simply unprepared for reality — a place more challenging and much crueler than the physical violence he’s subjected to inside of the ring.
Dead Poet’s Society (directed by Peter Weir)
In Peter Weir’s Dead Poet’s Society we enter the world of elite education, where the future leaders of society are formed and made. Here, John Keating (Robin Williams) returns to his old-school stomping grounds as a literature teacher of young boys, each of whom are as confused as they are excited about becoming men. Under the subtle guidance and provocation by Keating, the boys form their own mysterious club — the “Dead Poets Society” — a secret place for personal exploration, comraderie and of course, poetry. Here, the boys discover freedom, individuality, and even love. But in their excitement, they battle against conformity and rigid doctrine that makes the very elite institution they reside in famous. Discipline is the order of the day, and the preaching and teaching style of Keating, who favors poets like William Shakespeare and Walt Whitman, are viewed as anarchist. Dangerous drama unfolds, but not without Keating’s impact as a teacher changing each and every one of these young men. Williams is incredible here; he invites, intrigues and inspires. In fact, his Keating is a huge personal inspiration for myself as a teacher. If we are each to live as real men, we must reach for things far greater than what has been given. We must live with courage. Dead Poet’s Society is a film that dares to exhibit its values to its audience, and that makes it a bold and powerful statement of art.
Glengarry Glen Ross (directed by James Foley)
James Foley’s film adaption of David Mamet’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play is absolutely fabulous entertainment. Seldom does dialogue have such bite to it. Boasting a cast of superior talents (including Al Pacino, Jack Lemmon, Alec Baldwin, Ed Harris, Alan Arkin, Kevin Spacey and Jonathan Pryce) the characters explode on screen. Despite grossing a measly $10 million dollars at the domestic box office, the film will sit in history as perhaps the best and harshest presentation of the life of a salesman. Playing the lead character Shelley Levene, Jack Lemmon is old, vulnerable and behind in his sales numbers. With the pressure to keep his job and support his chronically-ill daughter, he’s forced to lower his principles as a man, making attempts to charm the new manager Williamson (Kevin Spacey) and even consider bribery, for he is THAT desperate. As the story unfolds, the audience gets a true sense of the dissasociation that capitalism brings to daily existence. Revered or discarded based only on a “what have you done for us lately” attitude, it symbolizes the Darwin-esque society that we’ve come to accept. There’s no sympathy for any “loser” — circumstances be damned. “Good father? Fuck you, go home and play with your kids” says Blake (Alec Baldwin), the superstar salesman sent from “downtown” to add pressure to all the men in the suburban sales office, by noting emphatically that only the two strongest performers of the month will keep their jobs. The contrast created by the events surrounding the current top sales dog, Ricky Roma (Al Pacino) and the antics of Blake, as well as the dubious tactics exercised by all the other salesmen in the office, make Levine, who was once a very successful salesman himself, a sympathetic character. We forget that he too, was once a lying and deceitful trickster. The film is worth watching for the acting alone. Alec Baldwin’s cameo is legendary. Taking place mostly within the confines of a small, unspectacular office space, Glengarry Glen Ross, despite being a profanity-laced film, is one that delights the ears.
History of Violence (directed by David Cronenberg)
History of Violence is a tiny film taking place in a tiny town. But what figures in it are the deepest and most profound of questions; are we defined by our pre-determined makeup (our genes and upbringing)? Or are we able to re-define our lives by our conscious choices? If we come from a family of monsters are we not monsters? Or are we only monsters if we behave like one? In Cronenberg’s film, the central character Tom Stall (Viggo Mortenson), is a shy man with a unique secret, a hidden history of violence. Until a unique set of events occur in his home town, he’s living life happily, honorably and peacefully. The arrival of some colorful characters from his past changes everything. Sought out by the Eastern mob from Philadelphia, Tom’s hidden identity is ultimately revealed, turning his and his family’s life completely upside down. In a soulful yet fierce performance by Viggo Mortenson, Tom’s character is both sympathetic and frightening — he’s both Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. We’re not sure what to make of him or how he’ll respond to each challenge that surfaces. Surrounded by an excellent supporting cast, Cronenberg’s History of Violence sucks you into a world of monsters, and in this case, the scariest of them all turns out to be the one we’ve been living with all along. Do we root for him because he’s the protagonist? Does he not deserve the chance to prove himself, just as we hope to be given the opportunity to prove ourselves? The final scenes of the film reveal the piercing impact the events have on its characters. The look on the eyes of Tom Stall, the eyes of his adversary Ritchie (William Hurt) and that of his wife (Mario Bello) speak louder than any words can possibly say. This is the power of film regardless of its size.