One of the most acclaimed filmmakers of his generation, two-time Academy Award winner Milos Forman has left an indelible mark on the history of film. Rising to prominence during the Czechoslovakian New Wave movement, he would go on to transition into the “New Hollywood” era of the 70s with the likes of Spielberg, Lucas and Scorsese. Forman’s body of work includes well layered character studies as well as powerful, insightful dramas and witty black comedies.
From his early works in Czechoslovakia, Forman has had a fascination with odd yet sympathetic characters, exploring their struggles as individuals against systems and standards that oppress them. The political turmoil of Forman’s homeland was no doubt an influence on his work, and this theme can be seen whether it’s artists fighting to create against the cultural norms of their time, or idealistic people trying to rebel against perceived injustices.
10. Goya’s Ghosts (2006)
Forman’s last directorial effort to date takes some historical liberties to construct a narrative depicting characters, both real and fictional, dealing with incidents related to both the Spanish Inquisition and the French Revolution. Large in scope and ambition, Goya’s Ghosts is an interesting but imperfect film that shows Forman trying some new things, while also sticking to his usual guns.
As the Spanish Inquisition tears through Europe, the famous artist Francisco Goya finds himself in company with a band of influential men responsible for some of the Inquisitions most questionable practices. Chief among them is Lorenzo; a man who defends Goya amongst his detractors, but harbors unsavory attitudes of his own.
When one of Goya’s subjects, Ines, is arrested and charged with crimes against Christianity, Goya pleads with Lorenzo to have her freed on behalf of her father; a mutual friend. Lorenzo meets with Ines, but his selfishness and weak character result in an act that ripples out through the years and proves dire to Lorenzo, Ines, and Goya.
The film is an impressive piece of spectacle, rivaling Amadeus in terms of Froman’s dedication to period-quality filmmaking. A masterful cast help elevate the film’s well intentioned, but, uneven material into something special.
The fight against the cruel practices of the Inquisition create a compelling backdrop for Goya’s fight for the truth and Lorenzo’s dark deeds, but the pacing of the story and the overall conclusion leave a bit to be desired. While it may not be the cream of the crop, Goya’s Ghosts is a provocative film from a master director.
9. Valmont (1989)
An adaptation of the French novel Les Liaisons dangereuses, Forman’s 1989 film suffered from comparisons to 1988’s Dangerous Liaisons, another period piece adapted from the same novel which fared better both critically and commercially. Still, what Forman delivers is an intriguing drama that skillfully plays its characters off one another in an engaging story.
The titular Valmont is man in love with a married woman; the Madame de Tourvel, an unrequited love that he desires to consummate. Valmont is approached by the scheming Madame de Merteuil, his former lover, to assist her in sabotaging the wedding of her lover. Valmont’s refuses, and ends up striking a bargain with Merteuil over his ability to seduce Tourvel, with the stakes for Valmont’s loss being a life of chastity.
Valmont is an odd section of Forman’s filmography, as it’s not the type of material he is known for tackling. The cast itself is a nice mix of Forman regulars, as well as new faces such as Colin Firth and Meg Tilly (who was cast in Amadeus until an injury forced her to drop out).
The interweaving, scheming plots of multiple characters to either find love or destroy it is handled well, but feels very alien when held up against his larger body of work. Still, Forman shows that he can thrive with any material given to him, delivering a fine drama with interesting characters that is undeniably worth a watch.
8. Hair (1979)
Forman’s follow up to One Flew Cuckoo’s Nest refocuses his examinations of rebellion in a much lighter way with his adaptation of the popular Broadway musical. A number of changes to the story deviate from the original stage play, but they allow for Forman to apply his unique touches to deliver something truly memorable.
The film’s protagonist Claude is a country boy who arrives in New York City on the eve of his deployment to Vietnam, only to encounter a group of free-loving, drug experimenting-hippies.
Claude becomes friends with the group and and their leader, George, and together they embark on a series of adventures highlighting the social, political, and racial tensions underlying the country at the time. Claude’s foray into the hippy lifestyle is undercut by the looming threat of his deployment. When his new friends attempt to help make Claude’s life easier, it leads to tragic consequences.
Although the Vietnam War had concluded by the time the film was released, Forman still manages to use the story of these wayward youths to reflect on the changing social and political views of the time. The hippies Claude fell in with reflect the growing counterculture of the time, and their desire for peace and love in the face of an ugly war speak to sentiments often felt today.
While some dislike the changes made from the broadway version, the film still retains many of the show’s famous standards, including “Aquarius” and “Let The Sunshine In”. Often seen as inferior to Forman’s preceding work, Hair still remains an entertaining and emotionally satisfying film.
7. The People Vs. Larry Flynt (1996)
Forman’s first film of the 90’s saw him once again chronicling the trials and tribulations of an idealistic, but controversial, individual. This time his subject was the notoriously sleazy Larry Flynt, publisher of Hustler magazine, who is captured perfectly by Woody Harrelson in a career-making performance. Harrelson’s brash persona aligned perfectly with the over-the-top exploits of Flynt, a man who struggled with addiction, faith, and in his own words: “Being guilty of bad taste”.
“The People Vs. Larry Flynt” allowed Forman to flex his knack for comedy in a way that hadn’t been seen in years. Harrelson headlines a colorful cast that delight in recreating the origins behind some of Hustler’s most infamous stories, from drawing the Wizard Of Oz cast into compromising sexual positions to publishing controversial articles on their detractors, such as the Reverend Jerry Falwell.
Flynt’s journey to live as loud and as lewd as he desired was a natural fit with Forman’s already proven track record for depicting idealized individuals fighting against a system that doesn’t understand them. Flynt goes through many obstacles to earn the freedom he so deeply desires, and by deftly balancing these dramatic lows with the story’s comedic highs, Forman and Harrelson each turn in one of their most fascinating works.
6. Black Peter (1964)
Forman’s first narrative effort focuses, much like Loves of a Blonde, on Czech youth. The film is shot in an almost documentary-like style that chronicles familiar teenage struggles in a relatable fashion. The style was undoubtedly helped by Forman’s years as a documentary filmmaker, and the successful transition showed off Forman’s ability to thrive no matter what genre he is tackling.
Peter, a wayward young man, struggles with the tediousness of his part time job in a supermarket as he longs to get out and enjoy the summer. Over a stretch of several days, Peter’s experiences with work, love and his home life come together as he meets and interacts with a cast of colorful characters.
Forman’s knack for comedic,human storytelling is evident from the get-go; with the film standing as a fascinating prototype of the narrative filmmaker that Forman would go on to become. His cast deliver many memorable performances, both comedic and dramatic. But it’s Forman’s focus on examining the common, everyday nature of the character’s world that stands out, as the simple yet engaging story can speak to anyone.