19. Short Cuts (1993)
After M*A*S*H, Robert Altman enjoyed a golden era up until 1975’s Nashville and then he seemed to go into a decline . That dry spell ended with 1992’s The Player. This inaugurated his silver age, which lasted until his death. Perhaps the finest, certainly most Altmanesque feature from this period is Short Cuts, a tapestry of life in modern L.A.
Altman had neither an original script nor could he find a novel to convey just what he wanted to show about life in the Big Orange. To get what he wanted, he and his co-writer Frank Barhydt blended a number of stories by acclaimed writer Raymond Carver into a telling synthesis.
The result showed a city which looks to be prosperous and full of casual pleasures but which, in fact, contains a number of citizens nearing moments of crisis, if not at the very breaking point. The results are pure Altman with what may be his very best ensemble cast ever (Lilly Tomlin, Jack Lemmon, Julianne Moore, Fred Ward, Anne Archer, Robert Downey, Jr, Madeline Stowe and many others).
The dialog overlaps, the various plotlines criss cross andthe humor quotient is high though there are a number of tragic moments as well. One thing that changed from his M*A*S*H days is the fact that the director seemed to have found more compassion for his characters, not that he was ever cruel, but a new layer of sympathy was present.
Though he made other fine films before his death, the fact that Altman was given a great third act was worth it if only for this gem.
18. Seconds (1966)
David Ely isn’t the most familiar of novelists but the film director John Frankenheimer made from his novel, Seconds, has caused the story to be well known.
Having just come from a meteoric career in early television, the director was one of the budding star film makers of the 1960s. Frankenheimer often looked at life in that progressive decade and saw that many elements of deep change were occurring, making the country unstable in the process.
The core of this inquiry are three films which make up what film historians now call his “paranoia” trilogy. Each film had a literary source and the first two, the acclaimed The Manchurian Candidate (1962) and the excellent Seven Days in May (1964), dealt with politics and how potentially extreme situations in the country’s political life weren’t out of the question in reality.
These films had a subversive sense of humor married to dark narratives and were filmed in a style that was evocative of the on-the-fly television news camera work of the day. Simply stated, a Frankenheimer film had a look of its own and a bold and refreshing one at that.
Seconds takes this paranoia into the personal life of Americans. The story opens with Arthur Hamilton (John Randolph), a middle aged businessman who could be poster boy for Thoreau’s theory of “quiet desperation,” being handed a message by a shadowy figure as he’s boarding a commuter train in New York City.
The message and unsettling follow up phone call from a supposedly dead friend informs him that a secret organization gives men “new lives” and that Hamilton is being offered that possibility. Against his better judgment, he goes to the arranged rendezvous and finds there’s no way back.
Via elaborate plastic surgery and legal and financial trickery he finds himself legally dead. He is given a new identity as California-based artist Tony Wilson (Rock Hudson, and that’s some good work by the doctor!) However, he soon finds out that wherever you go that’s where you are and that by allowing the organization to fake his death and bury his old life, he has opened himself up to a situation which can only be described as a nightmare.
Many directors have used heavy-handed and unconvincing methods to reproduce nightmares on screen but Seconds looks and feels like one thanks to innovative direction, the superb black and white “fish-eye” cinematography of the great James Wong Howe (who helped to create an extraordinary hallucination scene in the early part of the picture, a striking bacchanal in the middle and horrific final scene), and sharp and unsettling editing.
The film makers were kidding themselves if they really thought that this deeply telling but depressing and unhappy film would ever make a profit. However, time has redeemed it as a notable work of art and one of its director’s best efforts.
17. Nosferatu, Phantom of Night (1979) / Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)
There have been many cinematic versions of Bram Stoker’s classic story of the big bloodsucker. Despite the famous 1931 version directed by Todd Browning, two really stand out for artistry.
German New Wave director Werner Herzog often explores unique characters in extreme situations (and frequent collaborator, actor Klaus Kinski, who plays the vampire here, was just the man for that job). His version is as much homage to the silent 1923 Nosferatu of director F.W Murnau as to the Stoker novel.
In this version happily married and loving Jonathan and Mina (Bruno Ganz and Isabelle Adjani) find their joy disturbed when the husband is summoned to a remote corner of 19th century Germany by a mysterious noble who wishes to move to their hometown of Bremen.
Alas, after an arduous journey through an oddly threatening mountainous countryside, Jonathan finds that the ratlike Count Orlock (Kinski) is a vampire holed up in his decaying castle, He is not only planning to spread evil through the countryside, he has an unhealthy interest in Mina’s photo.
This plot is basic but Herzog is not interested in fangs and voluptuous vampire women, garlic, or crucifixes. The vampire here is more representative of a moral sickness and even his demise near the end of the film does little to stop the infestation.
Herzog seems to be seeing evil as something rooted in Germany’s history and something that devours even lovely souls such as Jonathan and Mina . Though the film has a most stylish period look, the pervasive theme gives it haunting sustenance.
By contrast, Francis Coppola, coming off a bad decade or two sees his Dracula as an exercise in pure style. Yes, Gary Oldman, is an eyeful as Dracula but this film is really Coppola’s chance to use every cinematic trick, special effect, dramatic use of set and costume , makeup and editing device which he could conjure.
Yes, the film does tell a vampire story but everyone sort of knows that story anyway. Sometimes it’s all in the way one does it and this film is style and technique with a capital S and T.
16. Jules and Jim (1961)
One of Hitchcock’s greatest admirers was another memorable director, but one most unlike the master. Francois Truffaut had been a budding juvenile delinquent until he was saved by, among other things, his love of film.
He was one of the Cahier du Cinema authors who helped to create the auteur theory and one of the founders of the French New Wave, a movement that took old cinematic devices such as irises, wipes, dissolves, freeze frames, camera movement and editing that match the emotional tempo of the scene involved and married these things to a jumpy editing style that didn’t take continuity into consideration.
All of these he brought to his early films especially and one of the very best was Jules and Jim, the story of two friends who try to share the love of the enigmatic Catherine in the early part of the 20th century and how it all goes very wrong.
Truffaut had discovered the book, released years earlier with little fanfare, in a second hand bookstore and tracked down its by then elderly author, Henri-Pierre Roche. He, admitted that his novel was a fictionalized version of a triangular relationship in which he had been involved.
Truffaut was only at the start of his directing career and didn’t have a huge budget for what became his third film. However, instead of concentrating on exact period detail, he emphasized character, composition and technique in telling a story that just happened to take place in a different era.
Another key component was the casting, with Henri Serre and noted German actor Oskar Werner giving fine performances. But the key player is the unforgettable Jeanne Moreau as Catherine. Had she not given such perfect life to the complex and emotionally mysterious character and made the viewer believe that the men would risk so much of their lives and friendship for her then all of the director-writer’s work would have fallen flat.
However, Truffaut believed in Moreau, then just ascending to the pantheon of great actresses. The New Wave wanted to break through artifice to find real emotion and thanks to these two artists, among many others who worked on this film, Jules and Jim finds that life.
15. Requiem For A Dream (2000)
Hubert Selby, Jr. may well be termed an “underground” writer. His writing is much acclaimed but his works aren’t exactly the kind of novels chosen for book club discussion. He wrote of those living on the margins of society who have given up on themselves and anything good coming into their lives. Hope is the ultimate four letter word in Selby’s universe.
It’s not surprising that there have been no adaptations of his works until recent years and even then only brave, independent film makers would tackle his books. Such a director is indie giant Darren Aronofsky, who also had the courage to ask the then still living Selby to help him adapt Selby’s novel, Requiem for a Dream.
Requiem tells the sad story of a group of interrelated people who are all addicted to something. In it a young couple’s dreams of an artistic and adventurous life go down the drain when they join with the young man’s friends in the illegal drug trade in order to support their heroin habit.
Meanwhile, the young man’s mother, thinking that she will be appearing on TV soon, has become a diet pill addict in hopes of regaining her youthful weight. To relate that everyone ends in a really bad place is a gross understatement.
This is not a pretty story and, appropriately, not a pretty picture. However, it is a dynamic one as the director, per his usual style, turns it into a mosaic of complicated edits that gives the film a fragmented feeling that matches the fragmented lives of the characters perfectly. He also is a master of selecting camera shots and angles and using all his techniques to blur the lines of fact and fantasy plaguing the characters.
Aronofsky is also a marvel at directing actors. Oscar-winning actress Ellen Burstyn added another, most deserved, nomination to her list with one of her finest performance as the pill-addicted mother.
The film was also a terrific boost for future Oscar winners Jared Leto and Jennifer Connelly as the heroin-addicted couple along with Marlon Wayans as their questionable friend. No, it’s not an uplifting story but film lovers of films will be uplifted by such adroit film making.
14. The Thin Red Line (1998)
James Jones, a former military man turned writer, was one of the finest authors writing about the military mind that 20th century America produced. He wrote about soldiers in war and peace and what happened to them after their military days were over.
Many remember his classic novel From Here to Eternity and the memorable 1953 film version of it but his massive novel, The Thin Red Line, and the 1998 film version can give both of those entities runs for their money.
The story concerns the events, seen from a personal level, surrounding a significant battle in the Guadalcanal Campaign during World War II. This version was directed by the renowned but reclusive and mysterious Terrence Malick, returning to film- making after a self-imposed twenty-year exile.
Many big names asked to appear in the film and Malick obliged and ended up with a five hour rough cut. After many months of editing, he discovered the 2 1/2- hour film which he had wished to make inside that cut, one that was missing most of the star names and which reduced others to mere cameos .
What emerged, though, could have been made by no one but Malick. The film is stately, dignified, distanced, restrained yet deeply felt and compassionate. Malick always favors an interior narrative voice that personalizes the drama on screen and marries that to a deep reverence for nature and native peoples. He shows that the world is made up of many things and what is of vital importance to one sector may be a matter of indifference to another.
Being a war story there are many battle scenes but never has battle and war had a more human face. During editing Malick decided that the inherently noble, admirably self-contained Jim Caviezel as Private Witt would emerge as the main character, which was perfect for what the film maker wanted. Malick’s films may be too cerebral and quiet for many but those who can flow with them will experience a profound cinematic experience.