“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.
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“Only by interrogating the other passengers could I hope to see the light. But when I began to question them, the light, as Macbeth would have said, thickened.”
A good mystery is not obvious, but neither is it impenetrable: it will give you all of the pieces of the puzzle in a jumbled mess, and then one of the characters will put them together. Most mystery movies fail on some level—they are either too obvious or, to get around this, will withhold key pieces of information until the end. Murder on the Orient Express (1974) is a true mystery, and it’s a good one. Directed by Sidney Lumet (12 Angry Men, Dog Day Afternoon) and starring Albert Finney and an all-star cast, this is a movie that won’t necessarily thrill you, but it will delight you as the pieces come together and the complex picture is revealed.
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“It’ll be just like in the movies: pretending to be somebody else.”
Every once in awhile, a movie comes along that makes you question everything you’ve seen. Fight Club and Donnie Darko have walked this path; but very few movies do it as masterfully as Mulholland Drive. Written and directed by surrealist filmmaker David Lynch (Eraserhead, Twin Peaks) and starring Naomi Watts and Laura Harring, this is a movie that takes the typical Hollywood ending and shoots it and leaves it in a gutter to die. Most movies will cleanly wrap everything up by the end of the film, but this one seems to introduce new questions right up until the unexpected ending. Truth be told, it’s best that you go into an initial viewing without knowing a lot about the movie, so I’m going to leave the conversation on this one pretty sparse and reveal absolutely no spoilers. The movie is brilliant, though, if you’re willing to put in the time to piece things together.
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“Be careful with that gun! This ain’t no cartoon, you know!”
Every once in awhile, a movie comes along that asks, What if cartoons were real? These are usually cute and funny—for instance, Space Jam answers the age-old question of how well cartoons can play basketball. The original, though, is Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and it tells a very different story. Directed by Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future, Forrest Gump) and starring Bob Hoskins and Christopher Lloyd, Who Framed Roger Rabbit is a film noir that asks what happens when a cartoon murders someone. It follows the classic film noir formula, but injects it with classic cartoon gags and logic. The result is a darkly funny and unabashedly unique mystery-comedy that’s unlike any other movie out there.
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“I’m sorry I thought you were the murderer. But how was I to know he was as big a liar as you are?”
Describing a Hitchcockian mystery-thriller as “fun” may seem ridiculous, but that’s the first word that comes to mind for Charade. Directed by Stanley Donen (Singin’ in the Rain, Funny Face) and starring Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant, this movie is equal parts comedy, mystery, and romance. Many of the lines and situations are genuinely funny, even silly, but it’s still a very competent mystery with plenty of twists and danger around every corner. As you can imagine, trying to build a romance through all of that also proves challenging for the characters, but that’s enjoyable too. Overall, this is a highly entertaining movie that’s a joy to watch.
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“Death’s at the bottom of everything, Martins. Leave death to the professionals.”
The Third Man is a difficult movie to sum up. Directed by Carol Reed (Oliver!, The Fallen Idol) and starring Joseph Cotten, Alida Valli, and Orson Welles, this film noir is both suspenseful and whimsical, and seems to turn many Hollywood formulas on their heads. I’ll admit, there are a lot of movies that do suspense better, and a lot that do whimsy better, and even a few that do both just as well. But there’s something about this movie that’s just somehow more charming than others in the same league. It took me a while to reach this conclusion—I actually wasn’t all that impressed during the first half of the movie—but on reflection, I’m finding that I love this movie.
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“Murder is my favorite crime.”
I’ll go ahead and say it: Laura is the best mystery I’ve ever seen. Most mystery movies are needlessly cryptic, with the characters serving the plot in withholding key pieces of information until the very end. Not so with Laura, which allows each character to act naturally according to their own motivations while still maintaining suspense and unfolding into a masterful puzzle that keeps the viewer guessing until the very last minute. Directed by Otto Preminger and starring Gene Tierney, Dana Andrews, and Clifton Webb, this 1944 film noir mystery holds up extremely well today.
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“I don’t mind a reasonable amount of trouble.”
Film noir has its roots in the 1930s, but it really took off in the 40s, and movies like The Maltese Falcon really helped make it popular. This was the breakout movie for legendary director John Huston (The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The African Queen), and acting from superstar Humphrey Bogart certainly helped too. So a new style, considerable acting and directing talent, and an outstanding story come together to create a truly amazing movie. As of writing this, The Maltese Falcon is one of the few movies to achieve a 100% score on movie review aggregator site Rotten Tomatoes, joining the ranks of movies like Citizen Kane and The Grapes of Wrath. If that’s not a strong enough testament to how good this movie is, I don’t know what will be.
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