“Did you ever have to find a way to survive, and you knew your choices were bad—but you had to survive?”
Most films go heavy on plot and light on characters, but I have to admit, I’m a sucker for strong characters even when the plot is not stellar. American Hustle, directed by David O. Russell (Silver Linings Playbook, I Heart Huckabees) and featuring an amazing all-star cast including Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, and Jennifer Lawrence, has amazing characters and performances, even if the plot meanders a bit more than it should. It’s also a ton of fun and a great slice of authentic 70s goodness, even though it came out in 2013. Every character, from the con man to his distant wife of convenience to his brilliant mistress and partner in crime to the overzealous FBI agent, has more vices than virtues, but they’re so complex and fleshed-out that I found myself mesmerized by the characters interacting on screen. If you want a complex and brilliant plot, go watch Chinatown; but if you want a fun film with great characters and style, look no further than American Hustle.
“I always spend New Year’s alone. In crowds. I’m not alone this year.”
In film, lesbians have almost always gotten the short end of the stick. On the one hand, you have the stereotypical butch lesbians, who exist as jokes; on the other hand, you have the stereotypical sexy lesbians, which exist mainly for the entertainment of men. Very rarely do you see a lesbian character in film that’s neither a joke nor a set piece, and when you do see a smartly-written lesbian character, she’s usually a background character with little bearing on the plot. That’s why the 2015 film Carol is so important. Directed by one of the pioneers of the New Queer Cinema, Todd Haynes (Velvet Goldmine, Far From Heaven) and starring Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett, this is a smart romance between two women in the 1950s—a time that was not accepting of two women falling in love, but also a time that didn’t really accept the livelihood of women without men. The hardships they face are as big a part of the plot as the romance itself, and this is a touching but also heartbreaking tale of two women trying to find love.
“I’m becoming much more than they programmed. I’m excited!”
A man falls in love with his computer’s operating system. That’s the premise of Her, a film by Spike Jonze (Where the Wild Things Are, Adaptation) starring Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johannson, and Amy Adams. I’ll admit, the premise sounded so dumb to me that I put off watching this film for a long time. Well, now that I’ve watched it, I’m sad that I did—this is a brilliant film that hits hard in the feelings department too. I don’t think it’s meant to be viewed literally, like most sci-fi films; instead, it’s more like a metaphor or allegory, commenting on what it means to be human and have human relationships by showing us the relationship that develops between a lonely human and this artificial intelligence. In fact, there are some noticeable holes in the science behind this film, so I’d be hesitant to call it a science fiction film at all. It’s a solid drama and romance, though, with some important philosophical things to say about human nature, human relationships, and, of course, love.
“You don’t make up for your sins in church. You do it in the streets. You do it at home. The rest is bullshit and you know it.”
With the newfound freedom afforded by loosened censorship laws, the 70s were a Renaissance of crime films. In 1972, The Godfather made a crime family as familiar as your next-door neighbors. In 1973, Martin Scorsese (Goodfellas, Taxi Driver) released Mean Streets, which brought crime from a family affair back to the streets, where it was untamed, unsafe, and unpredictable. Starring Harvey Keitel and Robert De Niro, this film had a brilliant script, strong performances by lead actors, and some innovative cinematography that made the film seem more real than many of the earlier crime films, as well as many modern ones. This is admittedly not the best work in Scorsese’s stellar career, but it was his first masterpiece, and it holds a place in crime film history, paving the way for many later brilliant films.
“Letting everyone down would be my greatest unhappiness.”
Marie Antoinette, the person, is someone I didn’t know a whole lot about, aside from the fact that France beheaded her and she allegedly told peasants to eat cake when they had no bread. Marie Antoinette, the 2006 film by Sofia Coppola (Lost in Translation, The Virgin Suicides), takes that vague historical figure and brings her to life, making her more human than a lot of fictional characters I see in film. Starring Kirsten Dunst and Jason Schwartzman, the humanity of Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI really is the focus of this film. Antoinette especially is made relatable to viewers today, even if the film is not 100% historically accurate—a very conscious decision on Coppola’s part. This is a film that I didn’t fully appreciate until my second viewing, as the true depth of the film evaded me on my first viewing because I was expecting something very different. The film has some great things to say about gender norms and societal expectations that elevate this from a breezy biopic into intelligent social commentary that’s surprisingly relatable.
“Just because she likes the same bizzaro crap you do doesn’t mean she’s your soulmate.”
Are you sick of romantic comedies? You know, boy meets girl, there’s some cute awkwardness, and then they live happily ever after? The “nice guy” with horrible romantic luck eventually meets the quirky, beautiful girl of his dreams? 500 Days of Summer may be the cure. It’s a smart comedy (I hesitate to call it truly romantic) about what happens when a character buys into that ideal, but the reality doesn’t match. In fact, the lead character, Tom, is so bought into the ideal romance that he completely ignores the woman he’s dating and the real romance right in front of him. Directed by Marc Webb (The Amazing Spider-Man) and starring Zooey Deschanel and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, this film is intelligent, insightful, and oozing with hipster style.
I was in college when Donnie Darko came out. Just about everyone around my age had that one friend who would not shut up about this film, how it was deep and mysterious. I didn’t get around to watching this film until the end of 2016, 15 years after its release. I’ll admit, on my first viewing, I wasn’t that impressed. There seemed to be too many loose ends and unexplained mysteries for me to take it seriously. I’m revising my review after a second viewing, not because I’ve figured out the many mysteries here, but because I think I’ve figured out why they’re in there. Is this a great film? I won’t say it’s one of the best on my list, but it’s unique and thought-provoking, to say the least.
Written and directed by Richard Kelly (Southland Tales, The Box) and starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Jena Malone, and Maggie Gyllenhaal, this is an independent sci-fi film that takes some serious risks. Some of them pay off, and some of them don’t, but this is markedly different than most other films out there, sci-fi or otherwise. There’s also a lot of depth lurking underneath the surface of this film, although some of it is buried a little too deep to make sense of. Is it brilliant? Is it nonsense? I think that’s really open to interpretation. That said, I’ll give you my take on it.
“If you get shown a problem, but have no idea how to control it, then you just decide to get used to the problem.”
Sorry to Bother You is a hell of a movie. Before watching it, I’d heard it described as Office Space for Millennials, but that’s only partly true. Much like Office Space, it goes beyond office humor and very succinctly details all of the generation’s frustrations with the workforce, and it’s very funny to watch; however, Sorry to Bother You goes beyond the office and also comments on race, politics, and capitalism. Office Space was an anthem for Generation X people who were entering the workforce (like myself), but Sorry to Bother You is one of the smartest and most daring satires I’ve ever seen on any topic. Written and directed by Boots Riley and starring Lakeith Stanfield and Tessa Thompson, this is sharp, funny, at times shocking, and perhaps above all else, thought-provoking, and that’s a tall order for any movie, let alone one that’s as entertaining as this one.
“I would like, if I may, to take you on a strange journey.”
There’s no film that embodies the term “cult classic” more than The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Directed by Jim Sharman (Shock Treatment, The Night, the Prowler) and starring Tim Curry, Susan Sarandon, and Barry Bostwick, this delightfully deviant rock opera started showing in 1975 and saw its greatest success with midnight showings. Some theaters have been hosting midnight showings regularly since 1975, making this the longest theatrical release in history. This quirky film gathered a strong cult following and became a cultural phenomenon, and it’s widely regarded as one of the most successful independent films in history. Despite coming out in 1975 (with the original stage play coming out 1973), this is still sharper and edgier than most films being made today. It doesn’t really discuss controversial topics so much as celebrate them, and this is more fun than most other films from any era.
“There’s never been a black cop in this city. We think you might be the man to open things up around here.”
There are a lot of films that are good, but far fewer that are both good and important: timely, thought-provoking, painfully honest, and still entertaining. BlacKkKlansman, directed by Spike Lee (Do the Right Thing, Malcolm X) and starring John David Washington and Kylo Ren, is an entertaining film that really spells out how racism in America took its current form and went mainstream, starting in the 70s. The script is clever and it has some hilarious moments, some genuinely touching moments, and some suspenseful moments to keep it from getting dull. But the real genius of the film is how it tackles such a difficult and misunderstood topic and breaks it down and makes it easy to follow, tracing the idea’s lineage from years in the past to today. The blatant racism can be difficult to watch, but this film is undoubtedly one of the most important of recent years, especially in today’s political climate.