Seven (1995, dir. David Fincher)
My Full Review
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to have a lot of respect for David Fincher’s filmmaking. I know Alien 3 was my first encounter with him, but Seven was the first Fincher film to leave an indelible impression on me. I didn’t first see it until I was in college. I was able to pick up one of the special editions that came out in 2000; from what I gather, this was all the material from a Criterion Laserdisc transferred over to New Line Cinema. The bonus materials on a Fincher DVD are often very informative, allowing you to really dig into how he approaches the craft.
Having recently rewatched Seven for my City Horror series, I have found a new appreciation for it. It’s clear how influential this movie was on what was to come in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Most viewers can’t forget some of the most horrific scenes and the overall feeling of grit & grime the setting provokes. I think we often forget some of the warm, beautiful moments in the picture. They stand out to me more now, and I think the rich sense of love in these scenes is what makes the ending hit even more tragically. Because we’re allowed to experience the love of Mills & his wife and the burgeoning friendship they have with Somerset, it’s impossible not to get caught up in the utter inhumanity revealed in the ending. The chemistry between Freeman, Pitt, and Paltrow is incredibly underrated.
A Face in the Crowd (1957, dir. Elia Kazan)
My full review
Andy Griffith is thought of as the understanding but firm father figure of his popular 1960s sitcom. However, he was a true actor who just became associated with that part because of how long he played it. A Face in the Crowd challenges the public perception of people today because Griffith is an outright scoundrel here. He plays Lonesome Rhodes, a drifter whose charm & charisma makes him a potential media star as radio & television dominate people’s homes. Rhodes enjoys fame, but he really likes the growing sense of power he has over the mind of everyone. Like a proto Sean Hannity or Tucker Carlson, Rhodes builds a media empire for himself where viewers buy whatever he tells them, and now he’s interested in seeing if they will vote for the candidates he endorses. My complicated feelings about this film come from its director Elia Kazan, a filmmaker infamous for naming names in the House on Un-American Activities Committee. Kazan was an extremely talented director who made terrific films. A Face in the Crowd seems to predict our current state where demagogues rule the discourse and shape public perceptions. However, Kazan feels to me in some of his actions outside of filmmaking to have been an American propagandist. He’s a director who I wrestle with repeatedly, and I’d love to do a series about his films one day here.
The Producers (1968, dir. Mel Brooks)
Mel Brooks exploded onto the scene with this feature film that I fell in love with immediately when I first saw it. I worked at the public library as a teenager and got first dibs on donations made by patrons. I was digging through a box that came in one Saturday and came across this Mel Brooks movie I’d never heard of. I loved Gene Wilder and enjoyed a lot of Brooks’s work. Unlike some of his later work where Brooks is parodying a genre or a specific film (Blazing Saddles, Spaceballs, etc.), this just feels like a hilarious movie taking place in a slightly cartoonish world. Wilder gives us his first raging blubbering performance, and Zero Mostel could not be more perfectly cast. The musical score stood out to me very early on, full of this sense of magic & possibility. The actual musical production of “Springtime for Hitler” is still one of the funniest & most absurd things I’ve ever seen. As I’ve been making this list, I’ve noted that the comedies I enjoy most refuse to be grounded in reality and demand to create their own version of the world. I think Brooks does it best because he can get in his jabs at well-deserving targets but never feels like he is preaching to his audience.
The Apartment (1960, dir. Billy Wilder)
My full review
I’d known of Billy Wilder, but it wasn’t until 2020 that I made myself sit down and work through his best work. I walked away absolutely loving his films, a mix of comedy & drama that put characters center stage. The Apartment feels absolutely revolutionary when you look at the context it was released into. This is the Mad Men-era where women in urban office settings were seen as objects used by men. It was merely an evolution of what was before modernization, just with fluorescent lighting and copy machines. Wilder refuses to let them get away with this and delivers the story of CC Baxter (Jack Lemmon) learning to recognize elevator operator Fran (Shirley MacClaine) as a person deserving of respect and decency. Baxter loans his apartment out to executives looking for a place to run off for a tryst with their mistresses, and it turns out Fran is seeing one of these men. She and Baxter become entangled as friends when she’s horribly wronged by this man, and it leads him to realize he can’t keep participating in their boys’ club and feel like a good person anymore. The Apartment is the kind of comedy filmmakers today want to make but just can’t seem to find the magic ingredient for. It’s a sensitive, humane, and genuinely funny story about people trying to get by in the modern world.
In the Loop (2009, dir. Armando Iannucci)
My full review
Despite the current effort to candy-color the Bush-era in America and give that war criminal a free pass, those of us who were paying attention during that time will not give in. George W. Bush and his ilk are war criminals responsible for millions of deaths globally. Armando Iannucci was well aware of this and gave us this biting satire about the buffoonery and incompetence of those in power. I think that may be the grand conspiracy no one is willing to accept, that those in power are not part of some shadowy cabal with a master plan but incompetents scrabbling around in the dark acting as though they have something of meaning to add to the world. In the Loop follows the fallout surrounding the comments of a British minister during a radio interview where he says “war is unforeseeable.” This causes ripples in both the U.K. and U.S. intelligence communities as they engage in some absolutely insane doublespeak and one-upmanship. Blazing like a comet in all his heated fury is Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi), the head of communications in the UK government. Eventually, the Brits head to Washington D.C. and ultimately the United Nations for the grand finale as they try to decide whether war is a good thing or a bad thing and what they should say to the press. Few films capture the mundane depravity and insane minds behind the War on Terror as good as this one does.
Don’t Look Now (1973, dir. Nicolas Roeg)
My full review
Watching a Nicolas Roeg film is so unlike watching other movies. His penchant for cross-cutting in a non-linear manner intentionally disorients the viewer, but it is a perfect blend for a picture like Don’t Look Now. This is a horror film based on a short story by Daphne Du Maurier. In the story, an architect and his wife (Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie) live in Venice while he oversees the renovation of a church. They are still mourning the tragic drowning of their young daughter when the couple encounters a pair of sisters traveling, one of whom claims to be a psychic. She tells the wife their daughter is around them, and she is happy & at peace. This encounter upsets the delicate balance in this marriage as Sutherland refuses to acknowledge life after death. Meanwhile, Venice is plagued in the background of this story by a serial killer. Bodies are dredged up from the canals, and the population lives in fear. It feels like a mish-mash of ideas and plots for most of the picture, but it’s clear that what happens was inevitable by the chilling conclusion. The themes here are how blind people can be when solutions are screaming out for their attention, how willingly we look away from the other side out of fear of what we might see.
Rushmore (1998, dir. Wes Anderson)
I first became aware of Rushmore when working at the public library during my senior year of high school. I don’t know what drew me to the review in a copy of Time, but I was intrigued with the image and the description. It would be a year later when my friend Keith, the same friend that introduced me to The State and Mr. Show, let me borrow his copy of Rushmore. It was my introduction to Wes Anderson, and I have enjoyed most of his movies ever since. This film was hot off the heels of Bottle Rocket and was made during Anderson’s best period, in my opinion. His comedic tone in these early films still appeals to me, and he wasn’t entirely as absorbed in making his pictures so exaggeratedly stylized. Anderson introduces us to Jason Schwartzmann as his lead Max Fischer at Rushmore Academy, who is in love with a Kindergarten teacher. Anderson cleverly pairs Schwartzmann with Bill Murray as a wealthy industrialist who serves as Max’s unlikely friend and his rival in love. You can feel that this is an Anderson film without it being overrun with the aesthetic that some viewers have come to dislike. You also have the first of what would become some of the best movie soundtracks of the 2000s with this picture. Anderson culls through his encyclopedic knowledge of music and pairs his scenes with the perfect accompaniment.
Hereditary (2017, dir. Ari Aster)
My full review
I don’t know why I knew it, but I was sure I would love Hereditary when I first read about this film. Now, this could be said to be a case of my bias predetermining how I would feel regardless of seeing the movie, but I genuinely find it to be one of the most aesthetically pleasing horror movies I’ve seen in years. Ari Aster potentially sets himself up as the Wes Anderson of horror movies here with the attention to detail, focus on an upper-middle-class family of intellectuals and artists, and even diorama reproductions of real places. Yet, Aster brings his very particular dark sense of humor to the film that simmers and delivers great bursts of shocking moments. The audience feels out of sorts from the first scene and is challenged about whose point of view this story is being told from. What follows is a horror story that clearly understands characters come first, and out of their relationships is where the horrific can be found. Aster even manages to touch on families with a thread of mental illness running through them and find the ripples of harm that can cause throughout generations. Toni Collette reminds us why she is such a beloved actress and was robbed of many awards. This is about as impressive as they come for a debut feature from Aster, confidence already coming across on screen with a particular point of view behind it. Let’s hope he continues with this quality and more.
Blade Runner 2049 (2017, dir. Denis Villeneuve)
My full review
I saw Blade Runner 2049 on a crisp rainy October afternoon in a rundown theater with just three other people in the entire room. In this slightly dystopian setting, I was transported to a decaying future where people have been crushed down to the very last fibers. Labor is provided by replicants, beings genetically engineered, and born with expiration dates. K (Ryan Gosling) is a replicant and a blade runner who hunts down rogue replicants. He stumbles into a mystery surrounding a potential human/replicant hybrid with roots in the first film in this series. K is aided by his holographic lover Joi as they travel across a blasted land to find answers. They are, in turn, hindered by the Wallace Corporation and envious replicant Luv. By the time we reach the end of this story, we’ve seen sand smothered Vegas and watched the massive waves strike against the Pacific seawall. This is a sequel that improves on the original by leaps and bounds, building out the world established in Ridley Scott’s picture but, in my opinion delivering a stronger story. It also has one of the best examples of digital special effects that serve the characters and their relationship. The sex scene is one of the most amazing things I have ever seen where two people literally become one. Denis Villeneuve has delivered something extraordinary here, and it is worth many rewatches.
Zodiac (2007, dir. David Fincher)
From the opening murder sequence of this true-crime film, the audience is immediately aware they are not dealing with something they’ve seen before. Fincher lifts the terror of the Zodiac Killer out of what could have been a very procedural retelling of the facts and delivers a visceral experience. I don’t think anyone can forget the incredible sound mixing during the picnic by the lake scene. While the Zodiac terrorizes San Francisco and surrounding areas, we follow three men trying to figure out the killer’s identity while holding onto some shred of their personal sanity. Fincher manages to capture the sensation when personal fixation teeters over into the quicksand of obsession. There are wonderfully moody pictures painted that get under the skin and put us in the shoes of these people, trying to make sense out of fragments of clues. Zodiac also contains some fantastic digital special effects to recreate San Francisco over the 1970s. Fincher uses the construction of the TransAmerica building to reflect the passage of time, and that’s one example of how being very subtle with digital effects, he can add richness to the story. He uses these features to add to the story and give us camera shots that would otherwise be physically impossible. Without a doubt, this stands as one of my favorite crime films of all time.