Favorite Films: Part 3

Comedies are the hardest films to take seriously. But perhaps that’s exactly why they’re so darn fun and why we can’t resist watching them. Still, because of our innate love for them and the release they give us from the strains of living, the craft is often compromised. It’s not surprising that there are hardly any comedies listed in the top 100 lists. It’s REALLY hard to make a great comedy. Most are compromised. Nonetheless, there are exceptions. Here are my faves that I like to turn to for a good laugh and smile.

Annie Hall (directed by Woody Allen)

Woody Allen’s most famous film Annie Hall was groundbreaking when it arrived on the silver screen. It still is; it’s as fresh, real and funny as when I first saw it. Here, Allen set out his trademark one liners that ignite laughter at every turn. Intelligent and thoughtful, but without being snooty or overly cerebral, Annie Hall evokes nostalgia while exposing our most basic human frailties. The visuals highlight Allen’s excellent sense for physical comedy, all captured brilliantly by Gordon Willis’ superb photography. With love and relationships the core theme here, Alvie Singer (Woody Allen) and Annie Hall (Diane Keaton) are a perfect match in comedy heaven. Falling in and out of love continuously, the two characters weave their way through ambitions and insecurities in truly fantastic fashion. The screenplay here is so fun that it’s near impossible to count all the great lines of dialogue. Some viewers might be turned off by the bittersweet ending, but I don’t think it could’ve ended any other way without it losing its purity. Winner of Allen’s first  Academy Award for Best Picture and Best Screenplay, some would argue that Annie Hall is not only his best movie, but the best and most original comedy ever written. There is literally no film like it out there before or since.

The Big Lebowski (directed by Joel and Ethan Coen)

The Coen brothers make great films. All kinds too. But my absolute favorite of theirs remains their brilliant, yet absurd comedy about nothing, The Big Lebowski. It’s been hard for the magnificent Jeff Bridges to be thought of as anyone else but the “Dude” after his iconic contribution here. In typical Coen style, Joel and Ethan Coen crafted an absolutely unique comedy, with a character that’s essentially an easy-going bum; Jeffrey Lebowski is literally the laziest man we’ve ever come to love on screen. With standout performances from supporting cast members John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, John Turturro, and Julianne Moore, the viewer finds himself laughing at one ridiculous scenario after another. The exploration of topics include nihilism, ransom etiquette, the Sabbath, sex/pornography, the First Amendment, and modern art. And the visuals and music are perfect compliments. All this, and bowling too. What more can a movie fan ask for?

When Harry Met Sally (directed by Rob Reiner)

The late Nora Ephron made a big name for herself with When Harry Met Sally and she deserves the acclaim. Seldom do we find popular romantic comedies so well written. Along with the deft hand by director Rob Reiner, we find ourselves watching the actors at their very best — both Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan shine here  — as neither has been able to top or even duplicate their performances here. Set in New York City, it captures a time and place that anyone who’s lived through it can totally understand. The scenery, humor, and the scenarios— they’re all reminiscent of the way American men and women thought and talked in the 1980’s. And even now, we are just as anxious and uncertain about love as these characters were then. I loved how, unlike other romance movies, love wasn’t found at the end of the film, but instead it was something that occurred during a long relationship; the characters didn’t court each other, they learned to love each other. It just so happens that they took a long time to realize that they’ve been giving each other love and companionship the whole time they were friends. What a great and unforced view of love! That this happens with great dialogue, laughter and silliness makes this a perfect little romantic comedy.

Back To The Future (directed by Robert Zemeckis)

Who didn’t want a stainless steel DeLorean after watching Back To The Future? Robert Zemeckis made one of the funnest films of all time here. Time travel has always been a difficult topic to present in movies, but here, the execution is perfect. I always had a soft spot for Michael J. Fox (we’re from the same hometown after all), and his performance as Marty McFly was perfect. So too, was the supporting cast. Christopher Lloyd will likely always be remembered for being Doc Brown, the crazy scientist who invents time travel with his flux capacitor. And though there’s fun action and adventure here, it’s those moments of character interactions that provide all the fun: Marty’s mom (Lea Thompson) having the hots for her future son; the son realizing that Biff’s bullying of his father goes way back;  Marty finally getting the chance to take the musical stage uninhibited. Many films have aped a lot of the ideas first presented here, but none have been able to duplicate its sincerity. Despite being a film with science fiction elements, VFX plays only a small but effective part here, complementing the wonder of the moments and the acting of its stars. Two sequels were made of Back To The Future, the third being pretty decent. In each, the actors reprise their roles in a fun and unique manner. But it’s the original that’s the gem — it’s the one worth going back to future for.

L.A. Story (directed by Mick Jackson)

I love LA. And I love L.A. Story. In a city full of sunshine, silliness, urban sprawl and bizarre behavior, what could make for a more ridiculous setting for love than Los Angeles? Steve Martin is a genius. Renown for his physical comedy and stand-up performances on stage, Martin is also an intelligent, whimsical and philosophical innovator. The screenplay, which he also wrote, captures all those little goofy nuances and caricatures that make LA  what it is. Having lived there for a significant portion of my life, it brings back memories of all the little perks and hideouts that make the city so unbelievably fun and strange. And Martin makes it all shine. Every scene is visually hilarious and the dialogue is filled with wit and charm as Martin plays wacky weatherman Harris K. Telemacher, a man who finds himself dating one woman, “SanDeE” (yes, that’s how it’s spelled!) played by Sarah Jessica Parker with star-turning charm, while falling in love with another, Sara McDowell, played by Victoria Tennant. Like a tourist traveling through the inroads of Los Angeles, the viewer is taken on a fantastical ride that has a magical Hollywood twist; a signpost that talks to people in distress. The set up gives Martin ample opportunity for visual chaos and sharp tasteful dialogue. L.A. Story is so fun yet so smart, I never get tired of watching it.

Jerry MaGuire (directed by Cameron Crowe)

It’s hard to make a popular mainstream movie that’s both entertaining and inspiring without it feeling cliché, forced or patronizing. Cameron Crowe’s Jerry MaGuire is one of the few films able to pull it off successfully. He also made it funny. In a screenplay that moves swiftly, you can’t help but feel for Tom Cruise’s character, Jerry, even if he’s that smooth-looking guy with the smarmy smile typical of untrustworthy sales people. The set up of man rediscovering who he can be is a hopeful one, and one that sends a truly inspiring message to all who listen. Cruise is fantastic here; at times confident and charming, at other times, he’s a complete and vulnerable mess as his character goes through the whipsaw of personal emotions that’s familiar with all men who are honest with themselves. Disguised as a sports movie, it’s really a character development piece wrapped around again by love and friendship. Cast members Rene Zellwegger and Cuba Gooding Jr (who won Best Supporting Actor) illuminate here in support. With some tasteful Bruce Springsteen music, great lines, and playful turn of events, Jerry MaGuire is a moving gem that always makes me smile at the end.

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love The Bomb (directed by Stanley Kubrick)

Stanley Kubrick was a pioneer in many aspects of the film medium. In Dr. Strangelove, he invented the black comedy with perhaps the darkest (and probably sickest) joke of all time — nuclear annihilation of the entire human race. The movies serves as a warning as to our obsession for land, power, and bragging rights to selfish ideology. Boasting a sensational cast — the primary characters all except one played by the amazing Peter Sellers who’s renown for his Inspector Clouseau character in the Pink Panther — the film resonates with brilliant humor and ludicrousness. Here, Sellers takes on the role of US president, the English Colonel Mandrake, and the bizarre ex-Nazi scientist, Dr. Strangelove himself. (He was scheduled to play the Texan bomber pilot too, but a broken leg prevented the actor from climbing into the cockpit of the plane.) Shot in black and white, the stage of the drama that unfolds feels classic, but at the same time profound despite the comical demeanor of the players involved. With nuclear war being triggered by a US General who’s lost his mind, America’s military leaders are left with the choice of going with the flow and bombing Russian Communists to hell with the head start or call in the Russians for clarification and a unified approach to stop the planes from completing their bombing missions. The potential triggering of a Doomsday machine — an automatic response defense mechanism set up by the Russians in the event of a sneak attack — pushes up the stakes significantly. The famous “War Room” and detailed bomber cockpit were inventions of Kubrick himself, exemplifying the creativity of its director. The fact the nuclear war has been started because of a man experiencing a bad sexual episode makes this joke all the more funny and typically believable as to the stupidity of men.

Favorite Films: Part 2

We continue our introduction/re-introduction to influential films. As noted earlier, it’s difficult to pick and choose one film over another in terms of their excellence or originality, for art is ultimately a matter of personal preference, but here are a few more. These are foreign titles:

Ran (directed by Akira Kurosawa)

Akira Kurosawa is clearly one of the most prolific filmmakers of the 20th century. With films like The Seven Samurai, Ikuru, Rashomon, Throne of Blood, Yojimbo, High and Low, and Kagemusha, his work, like Hitchcock’s, is mandatory viewing for every aspiring filmmaker. Ran, produced when the director was 75, is my favorite of his. The reason lies not only in the stunning imagery and powerful acting (Tatsuya Nakadai is absolutely amazing as the manic emperor), but in the maturity of the film-making. Kurosawa’s creative choices in his version of Shakespeare’s King Lear, show a depth to it that is almost unexplainable — it feels like a movie created by a man who has actually lived life thoroughly and not just conjured it out of one’s imagination. As I age, the film itself seems to come with newer meaning and empathy every time that I view it. Beautifully balanced between moments of deep family drama and stunning battle sequences (no one does a battle sequence better than Kurosawa), Ran pulls you right inside the world of feudal Japan with its gorgeous costumes, make up and sets. The story maybe Shakespeare, but the film is definitively Japanese.

To Live (directed by Zhang Yimou)

What a film To Live is. Zhang Yimou’s penetrating movie about the history of the 20th century Chinese experience is one of those films that covers a massive amount of living. Portraying life in post WWII China, it’s a film that follows the hardships of a strong yet very real woman in Jiazhen, played with immeasurable depth and beauty by Gong Li. In the journey, we witness both her’s and her husband’s battle for survival during immense cultural and social change, as they experience the transfer of power from the Nationalist Party of China to that of a Communist regime. In their travails, there are a moments of hope and sadness, advancements and setbacks — all played out with dutiful honestly. Even as it avoids political statements, it demonstrates the director’s high level of sophistication and respect for the life of the ordinary citizen during the rule of the Red Guards. Still, Zhang Yimou was banned from directing for two years after the film’s release, even as it triumphed in international festivals. I believe To Live is a film that young people today, both in China and around the world, need to see or revisit. History has been captured here, and captured with dignity, sincerity and frankness.

Spring Summer Fall Winter and Spring (directed by Kim Ki Duk)

Kim Ki Duk’s simple yet profound movie Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter and Spring is one I return to seasonally. Buddhist in theme but universal in application, it captures the cyclical and karmic wonder of life as we follow the journey of a young boy who lives with a Buddhist monk on a floating temple in the middle of a remote lake. It’s a film that tells a tale of discovery, innocence, and suffering. We witness the coming of age of a young man, how he turns away from simplicity to complication, from peace to desire (for lust and passion), and how this ultimately pulls him away from a life of harmony. It’s too hard for any young man to understand the peace and wisdom that surrounds him, and hence we witness the inevitable display of karma and the lessons that the universe is here to tell (or in this case show) us. The film is light and almost ethereal in nature — it captures nature’s innate healing power. The sets, costumes and the atmosphere feel handmade; you can almost touch and even smell it. This beautiful yet philosophical movie moves me deeply each time I see it.

Cinema Paradiso (directed by Giuseppe Tornatore)

Giuseppe Tornatore made two very beautiful films, Cinema Paradiso (1988) and Malena (1990), both of which are paired to the perfect music of Ennio Morricone. Malena is richer (and sadder), and possibly more beautiful with its throwback to Fellini. But it’s Tornatore’s earlier film that has that enigmatic quality to it that holds onto you more deeply. It’s a nostalgic film that captures the innocence and curiosity of boyhood better than a lot of films that have come before and after it. Everything is simple and small scale but like childhood, everything that happens while you’re living it feels so grand and dramatic. Both the main characters’ (Salvatore and Alfredo) and the townspeople’s joys and frustrations revolves around the love of movies, and more specifically the tiny village theater. Watching it is like experiencing the past all over again, revisiting a time and place that no longer exists. Along the way, we find deep friendship and romance — the two things that matter more than anything else in the world for its protagonist and, by default, the viewer. Cinema Paradiso expresses itself as a simple story carried by beautiful imagery and music but at heart it’s a film about love and a film for people who love movies.

Fireworks (directed by Takeshi Kitano)

As writer, director, editor and actor of most of his movies, there’s little that Takeshi Kitano doesn’t understand about the film-making process. He’s internationally famous for his flock of Yakuza stories and facial twitch as a performer. His films, which are characterized by long sustained moments of silence and brief bursts of intense violence, signal an assured directing hand that controls every element of the pacing and energy. In Fireworks (Hana-bi), the creator is at his best — the movie explodes with emotion across the screen. Playing a character Nishi, who’s faced with the paralysis of his best friend and the impending death of his wife, Kitano carries a quiet but brutal power. His scenes with Miyuki (Kayoko Kishimoto) are tender and balanced with delicate humor. Each sequence has a fresh feel completely unique in the world of cinema — they hold you, make you wait and then stun you. Afterwards, you find yourself releasing that slow breath that echos the gravity of situation just experienced. The creative mix of cutting and imagery also make the film visually tactile, even as it reveals a deep undercurrent of pain and pending violence throughout. The winner of the  Gold Lion Award for Best Film at the Venice Film Festival, Fireworks is bound to leave an impression on anyone who sees it.

In the Mood For Love (directed by Wong Kar-Wai)

Auteur Hong Kong director Wong Kar-Wai is famous for his eclectic manner of movie-making. Like a Miesner actor, who reacts to the immediacy of the opposing actor, Wong seems to direct on instinct, working his magic with the sets and actors almost unscripted. Perhaps that is why his films have such a dreamy, free-flowing quality to them, yet at the same time what results is a product that couldn’t be more perfectly melded together in sight and sound. In The Mood For Love is Wong at his best. Paired with the hypnotic music of Shigeru Umebayashi, the viewer succumbs to the director’s spell as he travels along with the camera, peeking inside hidden worlds and carefully constructed images containing intimately guarded secrets. Acted with flawless subtlety by Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung with few words spoken, it’s a film that expresses very loudly our longing for love and connection even as we all live with loneliness and do so mostly in secrecy. While the film displays no overt physical intimacy, the love that emerges between the two characters is rich, stirring and unforced even as it feels prohibited. In The Mood For Love, like its stars, is hypnotically beautiful and the emotions that run through you as you watch can only be described as a deep sort of aching that can’t be fulfilled, much like the romance between its characters.

Old Boy (directed by Chan Woo Park)

Chan Woo Park’s mind-blowing film about a man who appears wrongfully imprisoned for reasons beyond his or the audience’s understanding is truly original in both theme and execution. From the opening scene to the last, the viewer is powerlessly sucked into a ride that is non-stop, hypnotic and terrifying. In Park’s Old Boy, it’s near impossible to predict what may come next. In each scene, we frenetically yet methodically wander along with its protragonist Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-Sik) to find out what this story — his story — is about, and, along the way, we empathize with his confusion, his anger, his hope and his tragedy. Buoyed by an astounding physical and emotional performance by Choi Min-Sik, and fantastic scene after fantastic scene, Park has made an incredible film so unique and so creative, that it makes you ponder hard about it as soon as it’s over even as you feel drained from your viewing experience. The film is in many ways absurd, masochistic and gory. But it’s also a wildly entertaining ride that’s perfectly bound together by its kinetic score and eclectic visual imagery. Old Boy won the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes in 2004, and deservedly so — it’s a stunner. It’s the kind of film being made today (although more and more so in the East than in the West) that gives me hope as a lover of cinema in the midst of the standard fare of Hollywood remakes and superhero sequels.