“Some people are OK, but mostly I just feel like poisoning everybody.”
The 90s were a great time for apathy and cynicism. I graduated from high school in ‘99, and let me tell you, we hated everything. Ghost World, an indie art house film directed by Terry Zwigoff (Crumb, Bad Santa) and starring Thora Birch, Scarlett Johansson, and Steve Buscemi, took that 90s angst and injected it with a bit of Existential angst. It’s equal parts Daria and Waiting for Godot. It’s a biting satire not only of the world of the 90s, but also of the angry counterculture that sprang out of it, showing that even all those people who said that everything sucked also sucked. Sardonic, darkly funny, and vaguely depressing, this film is edgy in a way that many other films try to be, and it dares to push further into that territory than any other film I’ve seen.
Cultural revolutions happen when a generation gets old enough to get their ideas out into the world. The baby boomers had their revolution in the 60s and 70s. Gen-Xers like me had ours in the 90s. Well, guess what? We’re due for a new revolution for the Millennials. Over the next 5-10 years, we’re going to start seeing media through the eyes of Millennials. Leading the charge in this revolution is the brilliant Greta Gerwig with her directorial debut, Lady Bird. Starring Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf, this film neatly encapsulates the gap between Millennials and Generation X, as well as the frustrations that Millennials faced in adolescence. It’s also a sweet, funny, and touching story about a daughter growing up with an overbearing mother. This film works equally well as a coming of age story and a metaphor for the coming of age of an entire generation, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a better Millennial anthem than this film.
After some internal debate, I’ve decided to review The Room, written and directed by and starring Tommy Wiseau. Now before you freak out, I know this movie is bad. If you don’t know, it is so, so, so bad that it’s become legendary simply for how bad it is. So what’s it doing on this site of classic, essential, or just plain good movies? It’s so bad that it’s actually extremely entertaining to watch. There is no parody movie in existence that so perfectly parodies basic tropes in major movies as this, and this was done with total sincerity. It’s often said of bad but interesting things that they’re like a train wreck; this is like a train colliding with a submarine in the middle of the jungle. It is just so out there and completely inept that you wonder how any of this got put together in the first place. But it’s all there, and it’s immortalized on film, and there’s really nothing else like it.
“Mmm-mmmm. That is a tasty burger. Vincent, ever have a Big Kahuna Burger?”
Director Quentin Tarantino (Kill Bill, Reservoir Dogs) has distinguished himself as a unique and innovative moviemaker. Love him or hate him, you can’t deny that he’s important. I consider Pulp Fiction to be his finest film. Starring John Travolta, Uma Thurman, and Samuel L. Jackson, this is a wild, entertaining ride, brimming with wit and style as well as Tarantino’s signature grit and violence. You’ll probably feel a bit like a modern gangster while watching this. Tarantino takes the world of the modern professional criminal and brings it to life in a way that few other filmmakers do, showing what happens in-between crime hits as well as the hits themselves. It’s a unique view that’s highly stylized and extremely entertaining, and it earns its spot on this list of great movies.
“Who’s to say that love needs to be soft and gentle?”
BDSM used to be a pretty taboo topic—until the godawful Fifty Shades of Grey exploited it as an artless debacle. But back in 2002, it was a pretty foreign topic in cinema, often used as a raunchy joke if it appeared at all. Secretary, directed by Steven Shainberg (Rupture, Hit Me) and starring Maggie Gyllenhaal and James Spader, could have been either a sermonizing condemnation of the subject matter or a gratuitous exploitation of it; but the way the movie respects the relationship it portrays elevates this from the drivel that usually surrounds the topic. And with great writing and great performances from both leads, this is a fascinating portrait of how a real relationship with BDSM aspects could develop.
“Half my life is over and I have nothing to show for it. Nothing. I’m a thumbprint on the window of a skyscraper. I’m a smudge of excrement on a tissue surging out to sea with a million tons of raw sewage.”
There are two types of jerks in this world: those overwhelmed by a crippling lack of self-esteem, and those overwhelmed by a crippling excess of it. Sideways, directed by Alexander Payne (The Descendants, About Schmidt) and starring Thomas Haden Church and the criminally underrated Paul Giamatti, shows a small road trip with one of each type. The movie is subtle, deep, and complex, although not necessarily hard to follow. There are also a lot of smart wine metaphors and tidbits—so much so that this movie actually boosted the sales of Pinot Noir and hurt the sales of Merlot the year it came out. It’s also a great comedy-drama that I thoroughly enjoyed.
If you think “terrifying” and “ballerina” don’t belong in the same sentence, you need to see Black Swan. Directed by Darren Aronofsky (Requiem for a Dream, Pi) and starring Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis, this is a psychological thriller as much as a drama, and it is anything but boring. The pressure and uncertainty that most artists face is amplified and captured in horrifying detail as the lead character Nina loses herself in her role as the Swan Queen. It’s a different kind of thriller: very character-centric and rich with symbolism. After watching it, you’ll never look at ballet the same again.
“The following is my explanation. Well, more of an account of what happened. I’d been on my own for a while and getting kind of lonely… and bored… nothing to do all day. And that’s when I started shadowing.”
It’s fun looking at an artist’s early work and seeing the ideas and themes that will play out the rest of their careers. Legendary writer and director Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight, Inception) got his start with the low-budget indie film Following, and you can see in it the beginnings of ideas that would play out in Memento and even Inception. Though not quite as impressive as his later films, the plot and writing are still a head above most other movies and carry that trademark complexity that Nolan is famous for, and it’s amazing what Nolan was able to do on such a limited budget (estimated at $6,000, most of which was spent on film). In addition to being historically important, the film is also interesting to watch for its mystery and neo-noir elements.
In modern society, there’s a lot of emphasis placed on winning, while failing is an uncomfortable subject we don’t talk much about. That’s something Little Miss Sunshine tries to remedy. Directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (Ruby Sparks and many music videos) and starring Steve Carell, Toni Collette, and Greg Kinnear, this is a movie that says a lot about failure by talking about success. The point it makes is not heavy-handed or forced—in fact, it’s understated and quite entertaining. At its core, it’s a comedy with some dramatic elements that lets us know it’s alright to fall down from time to time.
“The only people who can afford to be artists in New York are rich.”
Danish Existentialist philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, in his book Either/Or, writes out a debate between two viewpoints on life: the aesthetic, which focuses on beauty and integrity, and the ethical, which focuses on morality and responsibilities. In the end, the answer is that nothing we do in this life, whether aesthetic, ethical, or anything else, will give us the meaning and fulfillment we desire—we have to find purpose independent of our beliefs and actions in something larger than ourselves. In a way, indie movie Frances Ha, co-written and directed by Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale, Greenberg) and co-written by and starring Greta Gerwig, has a similar message. It’s a movie about the idealism and values many modern young people cling to, and it paints a vivid picture of the dream of many young in their 20s.