Sunday Bloody Sunday John Schlesinger, 1971
What it’s about: Sunday Bloody Sunday revolves around Bob Elkin (Murray Head), an extroverted young man having affairs with employment office worker Alex (Glenda Jackson) and doctor Daniel (Peter Finch). Both parties know of each other, but, being so overcome with loneliness in their everyday lives, they’re unwilling to let go of the young man who treats them as objects to be played with rather than people to regard with relational respect.
Why it’s great: Sunday Bloody Sunday is a coercive character study, one so stylistically and substantively subtle that we have to find deeper meaning within ourselves. John Schlesinger’s direction, choosing understated moxie over explain-it-all, wishy washy artifice, lets human emotion speak for itself. (It’s also particularly seminal for the way it treats homosexuality and bisexuality, which are not presented as taboo but rather everyday — sexuality is unspoken, never alienated.) Released at the beginning of the 1970s, among the finest decades in film, it is one of the many cinematic works of the era that chose to make something extraordinary out of the ordinary, not something ordinary out of the extraordinary like so many pieces released decades prior.
What it’s about: After a botched suicide attempt, Shakespearean actor Edward Lionheart (Vincent Price) decides to get revenge on the vicious theatre critics that drove him to such despair and off his detractors in ways mirroring the deaths to have made way in Shakespeare’s oeuvre.
Why it’s great: Released near the end of Vincent Price’s reign as horror’s biggest star, Theatre of Blood is a well-timed summarization of his work, recognizing the campiest aspects of his professional guise and building a succulent (and batshit) black comedy around it. Resulting is one of his best films.
Theatre of Blood Douglas Hickox, 1973
What it’s about: Gay street hustlers Mike and Scott (River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves) travel from Washington to Oregon to Idaho and then to Italy in a desperate attempt to search for Mike’s elusive mother. Self-discovery, though, is inevitable.
Why it’s great: My Own Private Idaho is a mercurial but touching drama far more affecting than a film as experimental as it has any right to be, strengthened by Gus Van Sant’s off-kilter writing and directing and by Phoenix and Reeves poignant albeit committed performances. Its experimental looseness artfully complementing the romanticized aimlessness of its characters, we leave the theater stirred, taken aback by the movie’s offhanded ability to get under our skin after it initially seems frivolous.
My Own Private Idaho Gus Van Sant, 1991
What it’s about: Tourist Linda Westinghouse (Ewa Strömberg) is lured into a web of sensuality and carnage after acting as an audience member to the provocative nightclub act of Nadine Carody (Soledad Miranda), an intoxicating brunette with an enigmatic disposition. Unbeknownst to her, Nadine is the heiress to Dracula’s fortune.
Why it’s great: Jesús Franco’s Vampyros Lesbos blurs the line between tasteful soft core and atypical Eurotrash/arthouse matrimony, but because it’s more so a visually stunning celebration of sex than leering exploitation fodder, it’s erotica that feels more like an artistic statement than an exercise in titillation. With the alluring Miranda (who made six other movies with the director before her tragic car accident death in 1970) at its front, the film avoids vulgarity and goes for euphoric sin. It’s irresistible.
Vampyros Lesbos Jesús Franco, 1971
What it’s about: A man (Art Hindle) interlocked in divorce proceedings with his mentally disturbed wife (Samantha Eggar) is tormented by a series of bizarre murders that seem to be connected to his ugly separation.
Why it’s great: A brilliant allegory regarding the psychological anguish that comes with divorce — especially a divorce that involves child custody — David Cronenberg’s The Brood is a consistently unsettling slow burn of the body horror that stands among his most sensationally disconcerting genre excursions. (And it features one of the best final twists in horror history.)
The Brood David Cronenberg, 1979
What it’s about: An unnamed drifter (Roddy Piper) stumbles upon a box of paranormally enhanced sunglasses and discovers that the world’s upper class is actually comprised of skeletal, ruthless aliens looking to manipulate the general population through media.
Why it’s great: John Carpenter’s damnation of the controlling mass media and the self-centered ruling class in 1988’s terrific They Live might be wiggy — consider that the hero is played by a professional wrestler, that the film spotlights one of the longest, most bizarre fight scenes in movie history, and that its understanding of physics is shakier than my hands after drinking two cups of black coffee on an empty stomach — but wigginess doesn’t always equal shoddiness and Carpenter wisely contemplates all the necessary precautions before going for deep-throated satire. This is a perfect genre feature: death-defying, jam-packed, exciting, manic, and a little cheesy.
They Live John Carpenter, 1988
What it’s about: After his parents go away on a romantic vacation, high school senior Joel (Tom Cruise) makes it his mission to lose his virginity over the course of the week. But following plenty intrigue does his household become a makeshift brothel. How it all ends up is hardly a given.
Why it’s great: Risky Business is all adolescent reverie, sure, but that’s what makes it so much fun — it’s an accumulation of a teenage boy’s wildest dreams, delivered snappily and self-assuredly. Written and directed by Paul Brickman and produced on a respectable budget of about $6 million, it’s objective and it’s conversationally accurate — gifted with an ear John Hughes would kill for and a pen that drips with comedic inspiration, not a moment rings false, which is impressive (considering that the entire film is inarguably implausible).
Risky Business Paul Brickman, 1983
What it’s about: Brothers Cal and Aron Trask (James Dean and Richard Davalos) compete for the love of girl-next-door Abra (Julie Harris). With Aron extroverted, smart, and dating the said love interest at the beginning of the film, he seems to be the eventual victor. But with Cal being so immensely damaged due to his father’s obvious disfavor of him and his mother’s abandoning of his family as a child, Abra’s both attracted to the idea of licking his wounds and attracted to him physically. Tragedy, though, is where it’s all headed.
Why it’s great: Whereas Rebel Without a Cause has dated since its initial release, now playing as a rather safe (but still compelling) coming-of-age shocker, East of Eden prevails as a meditative family drama, visually inventive and naturalistically acted. It captures what made Dean so special beautifully, allowing for his own ticks and sensitivities to break through the celluloid, and it surrounds him with an ensemble just as distinctly disparate.
East of Eden Elia Kazan, 1955
What it’s about: An angel (Bruno Ganz) contemplates his existence as an immortal, ethereal observer after he falls in love with a circus performer (Solveig Dommartin).
Why it’s great: Wings of Desire, dreamy and resplendent, maintains a roaming quality that perhaps excuses the fact that nothing much happens — like a day in the life of a ne’er-do-well, there’s a certain sort of fascination to be found within the confines of an ordinary life. Through its screenplay written by Wenders, Peter Handke, and Richard Reitinger, the film is able to be both philosophical and tremendously personal — for all its fantasy and for all its external mystique, it is deftly romantic and piquantly heartrending.
Wings of Desire Wim Wenders, 1987
What it’s about: Up-and-coming filmmaker Nick (Steve Buscemi) struggles to get through the making of his first feature film as a result of plentiful productional issues and temperamental actors (Catherine Keener, James LeGros, Peter Dinklage).
Why it’s great: François Truffaut’s Day for Night (1973) still takes the cake as the finest excursion into the Movies About Making Movies subgenre — it’s equal parts a loving tribute to “the process” as it is a perceptive commentary regarding fame — but 1995’s Living in Oblivion, which very well could be considered its post-Grunge era equivalent, comes close to recreating its arthouse-to-popcorn affability. Only ninety minutes, we wish that Living in Oblivion were longer — how rare it is to find comedy with this much bite and depth.
Living in Oblivion Tom DiCillo, 1995
What it’s about: After accidentally running over his dog, model/student Valentine (Irene Jacob) befriends retired judge Joseph Kern (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and comes to reach a sort of quarter-life crisis that causes her to question everything she thinks she knows about herself.
Why it’s great: In direct contrast to Kieślowski’s big ideas and his intricate storytelling rituals, Red is corporeal and always hot to the touch — it’s an authentic, human character study spotlessly performed and stunningly stylized and photographed. Acting as the auteur’s swan song (he died in 1996), it serves as one of his most beautiful, accessible features.
Three Colors: Red
Krzysztof Kieślowski, 1987
What it’s about: Four criminals (Roy Scheider, Bruno Cremer, Francisco Rabal, and Amidou) are hired to transport ultra-sensitive nitroglycerin through the dangerous jungles and rocky terrains of bucolic South America.
Why it’s great: Though Sorcerer is a challenging film, a psychological exploration of the limits of physical and mental endurance and a spirit dampener in its firm belief that the hands of fate are near sociopathic in what they throw at their victims of circumstance, I’m convinced that it’s William Friedkin’s magnum opus. It’s a grand statement of artistic maximalism and boundary pushing thematics that at once make it intellectually dense and effortlessly thrilling. Originally formulated as a side project for Friedkin, then still a hot Hollywood commodity after the unparalleled success of 1973’s The Exorcist, Sorcerer was a critical and commercial disappointment upon release in 1977. But come 2016, a high majority considers it to be a lost masterpiece deserving of rediscovery, a forgotten classic to be remembered. I’m among that majority.
Sorcerer William Friedkin, 1977
What it’s about: The thought of a storyline is laughable — the movie’s a rant, an illogical ramble doomed by its nonsensicality. But for brevity’s sake is it more or less a satire of religious practice, esotericism, and cultural exoticism, finding its many layers in various vignettes that involve several individuals’ attempts to find fulfillment or reach some sort of vague sort of enlightenment in their already fitful lives.
Why it’s great: Dizzyingly psychedelic, Alejandro Jodorowsky’s The Holy Mountain is plenty strange and plenty pigmented but never feels masturbatory because he’s so giving in the sharing of his vision. There’s wacky humor to be found within his labyrinth of color and crypticness, and getting lost in the film’s symbols and allegories aplenty is an enticing notion, not a materialistic thought.
The Holy Mountain Alejandro Jodorowsky, 1973
What it’s about: Old friends Ignacio and Enrique (Gael Garcia Bernal and Fele Martinez), the latter a director and the former a burgeoning writer, are reunited after Ignacio brings his screenplay, tentatively titled “The Visit,” to the desk of his childhood buddy in hopes of cinematic adaptation. As Enrique reads and as the two begin to become reaquainted with one another, though, is it revealed that Ignacio’s aspiration isn’t completely pure in its intentions.
Why it’s great: Combining the robust style of Alfred Hitchcock, Douglas Sirk, and Brian De Palma with the hedonistic maneuverings of David LaChapelle, Bad Education is a thriller so cleverly convoluted and so vigorously in awe of art for art’s sake that Pedro Almodóvar’s own structuring of the film hardly feels like something akin to deliberation.
Bad Education Pedro Almodóvar, 2004
What it’s about: Professional type Chuck Glover (Montgomery Clift) is tasked with trying to persuade the stubborn Garth family to leave their island property, which sits at the center of the Tennessee River and is inevitably going to be swallowed whole by the raging body of water. In the process of trying to coax matriarch Ella (Jo Van Fleet), however, Chuck inadvertently falls in love with her granddaughter (Lee Remick), a single mother in desperate need to start a life away from her currently secluded one.
Why it’s great: Acting as a new beginning for era-defining filmmaker Elia Kazan, who was coming off an unbelievably fruitful ‘50s (built up by a sequencing of inarguable classics like A Streetcar Named Desire, On the Waterfront, East of Eden, and Baby Doll), “Wild River” is a minor (but cultishly venerated) work within his oeuvre. It’s a précis of his almost off-handed ability to crank out starkly humanistic films attractive in their visual cues and their charged performances. What I like best about the film, though, is how it’s so capable of seeing so many sides without losing its credibility as a multi-faceted character study.
Wild River Elia Kazan, 1960
The Fabulous Baker Boys Steve Kloves, 1988
What it’s about: Family piano act composed of Frank and Jack Baker (Beau and Jeff Bridges) is thrown off balance when joined by sexy singer Susie Diamond (Michelle Pfeiffer), who eventually starts a relationship with Jack.
Why it’s great: The Fabulous Baker Boys is a compelling spin on the family-in-show-business storyline, taking the conventions of what we’ve come to know (singer causes turmoil within the act, act temporarily breaks up, act works things out and gets back together) and stirring in the necessarily freshness required for material of familiarity. First time writer/director Steve Kloves prefers snappy lines and melancholic truth to stock dialogue and sentimentality, and the stars, at their respective pinnacles, don’t play types as much as they embody people we almost immediately understand.
What it’s about: As long as you’re familiar with Bram Stoker’s original “Dracula” story, you’re already there.
Why it’s great: By 1979, there had already been several adaptations of Bram Stoker’s classic novel (or, at least, several works indebted to the source), making Dracula a figure so recognizable and so familiar that the public, in no doubt, were past automatically recoiling in fear at the mention of the villain’s name. Herzog’s adaptation alters familiarity so painstakingly that the story no longer hints at mundane repetition. His art design, so eerily dank and so intrinsically saturated, evokes alarm that never settles down; the film is an expertly sculpted mood piece as contemporarily artistically pulsating as it is distinctly old-fashioned. Like a silent movie, it doesn’t seem to be of this Earth, existing in a separate galaxy in which evil proves to be almost apocalyptic in power. Herzog’s direction is nothing short of transcendentally brilliant.
Nosferatu the Vampyre Werner Herzog, 1979
What it’s about: The Popes, a family on the run due to former activist mom and dad’s (Christine Lahti and Judd Hirsch) blowing up of a napalm factory back in the 1960s, reach the epiphany that oldest son Danny (River Phoenix) might have to say goodbye to their nomadic way of leaving after being accepted into Juilliard.
Why it’s great: Movies like Running On Empty are treasures I only occasionally stumble upon — it’s seldom that a drama turns you into something more than a casual viewer. The film is a cinematic waterfall of emotion characterized by its humanity, and it leaves you shaking. I love these characters and I love the tear-jerking writing from Naomi Foner and the passionate direction by Sidney Lumet. It’s incredibly effective. And that’s just how I like it.
Running On Empty Sidney Lumet, 1988
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Year in Review
THE BEST DISCOVERIES OF 2016
A look back at the greatest movies watched this year that were not released in 2016.