Now that I’ve gotten the lowlights out of the way, let’s move onto the films that, if you haven’t watched, you absolutely should.
The Double Life of Veronique (Krzysztof Kieślowski, 1991)
Krzysztof Kieślowski is one of those arthouse directors who would effortlessly run circles around today’s auteurs. He wouldn’t even break a sweat doing it, either. While I would argue The Double Life of Veronique doesn’t quite reach the same emotional and intellectual high as Dekalog that preceded it or the Three Colors trilogy that followed, it has got plenty of pathos and logos to spare. Indeed, any film director who fancies themselves an intellectual needs to really study Mr. Kieślowski’s body of work to determine what makes them tick. A modern-day auteur would either inject too much ego into their project, talk down to their audience, or, in many cases, both. Mr. Kieślowski, on the other hand, crafts his story around the premise of a woman having an exact double who is somehow connected to her despite never meeting each other, builds upon that premise, and expects audiences to keep up. I feel if there were more arthouse directors like him, the umbrella term would be thought of much more favorably.
The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (Peter Jackson, 2001)
The Lord of the Rings is one of those series I had heard about for a long time, yet didn’t quite get around to experiencing until very recently. I couldn’t tell you why it took me so long to take the plunge, but I was glad when I finally did. Peter Jackson did an amazing job translating what many believed to be unfilmable books into what ended up being the Star Wars of its generation. His adaptation of The Fellowship of the Ring does a stellar job setting up all of the important pieces and gets the overarching story off to a great start. The best part is when you realize that as great as this film is, things are only just getting started.
The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (Peter Jackson, 2002)
Speaking from experience, the worst film in a given trilogy tends to be either the second or third entry. This does make sense; trilogies have to begin with a fairly strong entry or their prospects of seeing sequels end before they could begin. Strangely, this seems to also apply to trilogies that critics roundly dislike. Anyway, Mr. Jackson certainly had his work cut out for him for this film considering that he was filming what amounts a second act of a larger entity. This means, he had the task of making a film that essentially had neither a beginning nor an end. Admittedly, even after reviewing it, I’m not sure how he made it work, but he found a way. It’s true that as a standalone film, The Two Towers would be mostly incomprehensible, but they were meant to be seen side-by-side, so I’d say such an argument would be moot to begin with. Also, it has Legolas shield surfing. If that doesn’t make you smile, consider getting anti-depressants immediately.
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, & Rodney Rothman, 2018)
In what was otherwise a fairly drab year for films, Spider Man: Into the Spider-Verse was a breath of fresh air the industry desperately needed. I’m sure that the MCU is a little difficult to approach given the sheer amount of good films in that franchise, so I definitely think that this one provides a great alternative for those unwilling to get into the series. The twenty-first century saw the debut of many good Spider-Man films, and this manages to be a fresh take on the famous character. With a style all its own and a lot of clever writing, it is definitely worth looking into.
The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (Luis Buñuel, 1972)
Speaking of arthouse films that would eat contemporary ones for breakfast (and still have enough room for an entire meal), here’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. Considering the kind of material I’ve frowned upon in the past, I can imagine some readers are shocked I would like a film with such an openly cynical tone. While this film is cynical, the key difference between it and today’s arthouse fare is that it isn’t scathing. Whereas a contemporary piece like this would be over the top, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisies treats its often hypocritical subjects with a sense of bemusement. Not many creators can make a film starting with a group of people showing up for a dinner party on the wrong day into a surrealist, absurdist comedy, but Mr. Buñuel wasn’t most creators.
The Night of the Hunter (Charles Laughton, 1955)
If you wanted proof that critics don’t bat 1.000, The Night of the Hunter is a great historical example wherein they completely dropped the ball. To be completely fair, they did more of an excuse to let their emotions get to them than the current wave of critics. A world-spanning war that killed millions of people would naturally want the people to gravitate towards happier fare than a film about a psychotic killer chasing after children. Nonetheless, it’s a shame that Charles Laughton’s directorial prospects had to suffer because they couldn’t keep their emotions in check. We got one great film out of the deal, but one wonders how many masterpieces we were denied because the critics couldn’t keep their personal feelings in check.
The Prestige (Christopher Nolan, 2006)
I have to say that The Prestige catching critics off-guard is a little more understandable than most cases. After all, Memento was such an innovative film with a premise so novel that the idea of the same director being able to create something easily in the same league would catch even the most open-minded critics off-guard. Even so, it’s interesting seeing a film that has a fairly modest score on Rotten Tomatoes beat out more unanimously praised works on various “Best films of the 2000s” lists. To be fair, I don’t think it’s quite as good as Memento, but it is every bit as mind-bending. Also, David Bowie.
Dog Day Afternoon (Sidney Lumet, 1975)
It seems to be a running theme with a lot of the great films of old I’ve seen in that that they somehow manage to tackle a subject far more tactfully than a majority of the praised films today. In some ways, I think current artists attempting to be progressive end up evoking the Centipede’s Dilemma when crafting their narratives. That is to say, by actively trying to be progressive, they come across as more backwards-looking than creators who were progressive without really thinking about it. This brings us to Dog Day Afternoon. While progressive-minded directors today would make one’s gender or sexual orientation A Thing™, Mr. Lumet was content with treating members of the LBGT community as normal people without drawing attention to it. The fact that it’s about a hilariously botched robbery is sure to throw even the savviest of cinephiles for a loop when they discover this film for the first time.
8½ (Federico Fellini, 1963)
I honestly could have highlighted 8½ when I wrote that article about films the current wave of critics would have rejected. This is because it begins with a fairly pretentious critic giving its main character advice that seems to parody the impenetrable language they employ. Funny how it manages to be relevant over fifty years later, isn’t it? I’m half-convinced the character in question was actually Owen Gleiberman’s dad. Anyway, 8½ is a paradoxical film about a director with severe director’s block getting over it by making a film about a director with severe director’s block. If you wanted a film that highlights all the ups and downs of the filmmaking process, this is the one to watch.
M*A*S*H (Robert Altman, 1970)
When I learned M*A*S*H won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, I was immediately convinced they are far more forward-looking than the Academy. The idea of an unapologetic wacky comedy winning Picture of the Year is rather ludicrous, yet a much more internationally-renowned organization went and did it like it was nothing. It’s interesting how Hollywood types tout themselves as progressive when, in practice, what they end up praising is very narrow in scope. Maybe they should take cues from Cannes and loosen up a little. Also, it contains the first F-bomb uttered in a major Hollywood production, so that by itself makes it worthy of admiration.
The Sting (George Roy Hill, 1973)
Do you like films that become a vastly different experience the second time you watch them? If so, The Sting is for you. It works both as a great period piece and a great character study, successfully channeling everything that made the New Hollywood era so memorable with its great, charismatic acting performances.