Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992, dir. David Lynch)
My full review
Longtime readers of the blog won’t be surprised to hear what an influence David Lynch has had on me in my taste for media and artistic perspectives. I watched Twin Peaks during its original run at the age of 9-10. However, it wouldn’t be until college that I first saw the feature film prequel Fire Walk With Me, and I can’t say I enjoyed the film on my first viewing. Like many Peaks fans, I found it was very different from what I expected.
However, as time has passed, and especially with the release of Twin Peaks: The Return, I have revisited FWWM, and I think it might be the best piece of Twin Peaks media. Lynch didn’t like that the story of his television series had drifted so far away from Laura Palmer, so with this film, he went back to recenter her as the focus and add to the cryptic mythos of the world. The result is a film experience that is more emotional than logical. If you push away the more fantastic bits, which can be seen as metaphors, it becomes the story of a young girl being abused & traumatized by her father and how she chooses to end the cycle of abuse. Sheryl Lee delivers an amazing performance that needs to be seen and reminds me why she has been such a magnetic presence over the entirety of Twin Peaks.
The Truman Show (1998, dir. Peter Weir)
The Truman Show may have been the first time I realized my childhood belief system was based on lies. All my life, I had weird feelings about the right-wing Christian rhetoric I grew up around yet would parrot it because that is what the bubble I lived in thought and believed. However, The Truman Show challenges the notions of living in a bubble and particularly allowing cosmic forces to determine the direction of our lives. It’s my favorite dramatic performance from Jim Carrey as Truman Burbank. He’s the first person legally adopted by a corporation and grows up oblivious to how his life is scripted and manipulated by a television producer. The film becomes the story of how people that came to know Truman are desperate to have him see the truth. But ultimately, they cannot save him. Truman, armed with just a hint of what is really going on, has to make a choice to escape and fight back against the system he was born into. I love that the film leaves what happens to Truman outside the massive sound stage he’s grown up in a mystery. We never see him out there as we’re watching the film mainly from the perspective of a program viewer. That ambiguity allows the viewer to reflect on their own life and think about the fear Truman must feel balanced by the bravery this act requires.
The Thing (1982, dir. John Carpenter)
My full review
When it was first released, The Thing was a total box office flop. The violence and gory special effects did not hit the audience well; they were ahead of their time. The film was released as a summer flick based on director John Carpenter’s growing reputation as a master of the horror genre. I think he might have leaned into the visuals attributed to Lovecraftian horror a bit too much, and so general audiences of the early 1980s were turned off. However, The Thing has withstood the test of time to become a beloved horror classic. I can’t think of another genre picture that evokes the tension associated with paranoia as organically as this picture. The script is tightly written with so many beautiful misdirections and withholding of information. The viewer becomes like these men trapped in an Antarctic research station. They become aware of the disturbing presence among them and spend most of the movie trying to suss out who it’s disguised as. For the uninitiated, the shock of the legendary special effects is unlike anything else. I don’t think modern horror films have given us anything close to disturbing and gorgeously designed as we see here. While some practical effects use shadow to hide the strings and seams, these effects are pulled off in bright light, almost defying the audience to spot the line between fantasy & reality.
Alien (1979, dir. Ridley Scott)
My full review
Despite the numerous sequels and thematic follow-ups, nothing has managed to top the original Alien. I don’t consider myself a fan of Ridley Scott, but he has earned my respect for what he accomplished here. In the wake of Star Wars, it would seem a dangerous move to tackle science fiction, but Scott does so by going in the complete opposite direction. This is a science fiction film for adults about the working class being exploited at the hands of a faceless monolithic corporation. Yes, the savage xenomorph, rending humans apart and leaving viscera plastered on the strangely bio-organic halls of the Nostromo, is awful. However, if you step back, it becomes clear the villain of the film is the Company (later named Weyland-Yutani). The workers on board this mining vessel are brutally wiped out, save Ripley, purely because The Company wanted a xenomorph specimen they could potentially develop into a weapon for sale. When I think about Alien, couched at the terminus of the placeholder Carter administration, the destructive force of the Reagan presidency breathing down its neck, it feels somewhat prophetic in regards to the corrosion of the working class in America and the world. It won’t surprise me if a company like Weyland-Yutani rules the spaceways one day, sacrificing its workers for profit.
Children of Men (2006, dir. Alfonso Cuaron)
My full review
Speaking of prophecy, Children of Men has been my go-to example of how science fiction is never really about the future but a reflection of the time in which it is made. Director Alfonso Cuaron disregards most of P.D. James’s source novel in favor of a story about Western society in the wake of the War on Terror. Migrants & refugees are turned into the scapegoats of a Great Britain on the verge of collapse. Global infertility has left a clock counting down the last days of humanity as Theo Faron (Clive Owen) is pulled into a mission to save the species. As part of a resistance movement, his ex-wife has found a pregnant African refugee whose incubating child could be the key to reverse this curse on humanity. Theo’s journey is one of the most harrowing I’ve seen put to film. Cuaron employs camera trickery and straight long takes to create set pieces that will knock the wind out of the viewer. Death happens so quickly, and people are forced to keep moving, so they never get a moment to breathe. Those few quiet breaks are teeming with emotions bursting free, tears, and anguish. It’s very reminiscent of the mad fervor American society is in now, and it was just as relevant during the Bush Jr. years as the War on Terror was used to incite fear in the masses. I fervently believe that 9/11 was the flashpoint for a societal mental breakdown, and I have never seen a narrative film that reflected that psychological break better than Children of Men.
The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957, dir. David Lean)
My full review
I love David Lean’s films. It’s incredible to watch them in a modern context and see how good they look compared to most other movies of their time. The Bridge on the River Kwai is one of the best anti-war films ever made and has moments where the lightning is just perfect, that you feel as if you are watching something made today. Of course, there’s the obligatory American hero story with William Holden that bored me to tears on my initial watch. I was much more interested in what was happening with Lt. Col. Nicholson (Alec Guinness), the British military officer sustaining his sanity while adhering to an insane code of honor. The film was written by Carl Foreman and Michael Wilson, both of whom had been blacklisted as communists by the House Un-American Activities Committee in the United States. They were living in exile in England and worked on the script in secret. It took until 1984 for the Academy to retroactively change the Best Adapted Screenplay from the novel’s author Pierre Boulle to these two men who actually wrote the movie. The Bridge is a movie that reminds us that systems of honor & decorum are toxic when we use them to aid our enemies. It’s a fact Nicholson realizes too late but still manages to do something about it.
Full Metal Jacket (1987, dir. Stanley Kubrick)
My full review
It took me a while to warm up to Full Metal Jacket, but it now holds a place as my favorite Kubrick film. I think the discourse around FMJ turned me off to it when I was in college. This was a time when a particular dudebro mindset flocked to FMJ and saw it as a celebration of their toxic masculinity. I think they saw humor in much of the events in the first half of the movie with R. Lee Ermey barking orders as the boot camp cadets. I have to imagine their attention wandered because that section and the rest of the film feel like a descent into madness. I held Apocalypse Now up as my favorite Vietnam War film for a long time, but now I think FMJ does it better. Kubrick seems to observe his characters with a detachment that allows the audience to watch the atrocities they commit in a context that underlines how horrible war is at its core. It’s hard to fault these young dumb men for killing when they’ve been tossed into a terrible situation that pits them against people simply defending their home. I find it very fascinating that the soldiers never address why they are doing this. Going to war is just a rite of passages, like their fathers before them. When they are confronted with the stark humanity of a Vietnamese teenager in the film’s conclusion, that detachment becomes profoundly harder to maintain. In the end, they become monsters and then erase any further contemplation of their acts from their minds.
Parasite (2019, dir. Bong Joon-ho)
My full review
This is the most recent film on this list but not the first South Korean film I have loved to watch and rewatch. I’ve been watching Bong’s movies since 2006’s The Host and, with each subsequent picture, have become a bigger fan. Parasite is the writer-director working at the peak of his talent. Parasite is a blend of biting cultural satire and slapstick comedy. I think the picture had such broad appeal because its sense of humor stays relatable the entire time. There are so many left turns along the way that never feels like a logical stretch of what has been previously established. I keep hearing M. Night Shyamalan state that his recent movies are satirical, but I don’t think he knows what that word means. Parasite is the prime example of how you make a comedy about social class, rife with narrative twists and an ending that hits like a brick wall. Song Kang-ho, playing the patriarch of Mr. Kim, was the standout for me. He’s so apathetic about most of what happens until the third act. I think it was a masterful portrayal of someone resigned to being poor and not allowing themselves to worry about the downturn of the Wheel of Fortune. That attitude he maintains for most of the film, barely showing annoyance with the cretinous Park family, is what makes his final actions of the movie resonate so powerfully. Bong Joon-ho deservedly won an avalanche of awards for this film, and there are plans to make a companion series on HBO. It won’t be a sequel or remake, but the specifics are not out yet. I know whatever this director does next, I’ll be there to watch it.
There Will Be Blood (2007, dir. Paul Thomas Anderson)
The act of watching There Will Be Blood in the theater was a visceral one. The Johnny Greenwood musical score immediately creates a sense of unease. Over the first ten minutes of the picture, we’re told the story without a single piece of dialogue. Just music and images. PT Anderson lets the audience know this will be a film about primal things, ideas that sometimes words are unable to articulate. Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) is one of the great monsters of cinema, and I’ve fervently held to the idea that There Will Be Blood is a horror movie. The picture was made amid Bush Jr’s second term as the wars in Iraq & Afghanistan raged on and became increasingly harder to justify as if they ever had been. Plainview is the ideology behind those wars, behind America, made manifest. He’s profoundly misanthropic, eventually destroying his relationships with everyone in his life. His one compulsion is to conquer, in this instance, the oil drilling industry. It’s appropriate that we first meet him slaving away in a dank muddy hole, cravenly seeking treasure. No matter how well he cleans up for the remainder of the picture, Plainview remains a primordial beast, steaming breath flowing from his nostrils, unconcerned with the plight of others, merely existing to consume.
Harold and Maude (1971, dir. Hal Ashby)
My full review
Hal Ashby managed to create something extraordinary with this movie, an atmosphere Wes Anderson spent much of his early career chasing but never quite nailing. Harold & Maude is at once a sensitive love story & a damning indictment of society. Bud Cort is perfectly cast as Harold alongside Ruth Gordon’s Maude. Each actor so perfectly captures the core of their characters beautifully. As they fall in love with each other, we too fall in love with them. Harold is the nihilistic youth that so many of us have related to, seeing the world as a terrible place without much hope. Those Harolds need the Maudes of the world to remind them that there is beauty even in the worst circumstances. Maude worships the joy found in small places but held as if it has the force of a thousand suns. Ashby manages to touch on the anti-war movement & American society’s hurtling towards solving our problems through computers. I feel this could be seen as cheesy by today’s standards; it is undoubtedly dripping with hippy energy. However, that earnestness is what has caused it to endure for over fifty years. The themes here are not overly complex on the surface, but when you take your time with the picture, ruminate on what it is saying and reflect on your own life that you start to see what an intricate and beautiful thing it is.