Written by Hwang Jo-yun, Lim Jun-hyung, and Park Chan-wook
Directed by Park Chan-wook
It’s hard to pinpoint just when exactly American audiences got turned on to South Korean cinema. This year’s Parasite did wonders in spotlighting the great working coming out of that country. But back in the early 2000s, Oldboy was a film that seemed to grab the attention of audiences and not let go. Seventeen years later, it is still a harrowing experience, a combination of fantastic fight choreography and a nightmarish baroque plot of betrayal and other terrible things.
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Sunset Boulevard (1950)
Written by Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder, and D. M. Marshman Jr.
Directed by Billy Wilder
Movies about making movies was not a new thing when Sunset Boulevard came along. What was novel about this film was that it wasn’t a story of rags to riches, a reflection on the dream of fame. This is a film noir version of those Hollywood tales. Our protagonist is a screenwriter who fails to make it big. The antagonist is a movie star who fell from great heights and never recovers. Much like in Day of the Locust, we have an examination of the effects of a system that promises wealth & fame that rarely delivers those dreams.
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Lookin’ To Get Out (1982)
Written by Jon Voight
Directed by Hal Ashby
For some reason, in the 1980s, Hal Ashby made three crime films and a pilot for a failed crime series. I have no idea why he was given this material or why he would be attracted to it. Throughout his 1970s work Ashby reflected a deeply anti-authoritarian theme, particularly toward law enforcement. That’s not to say these movies a pro-police, they traffic in annoying criminal cliches and don’t necessarily give their roguish protagonists anything interesting or unique to do.
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Uncut Gems (2019)
Written by Ronald Bronstein, Josh Safdie, & Bennie Safdie
Directed by Josh & Bennie Safdie
Josh & Bennie Safdie first came to my attention with Good Time, which presented its seemingly simple story with such stylish confidence that it left me stunned. They have a much deeper film career than I realized, and I have also seen Heaven Knows What, which does a similar job of telling a naturalistic story with an evident personal aesthetic. I plan on delving deeper into their filmography in 2020, but for now, I want to look at their latest release, Uncut Gems.
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The Irishman (2019)
Written by Steve Zaillian
Directed by Martin Scorsese
Frank Sheerhan sits in a nursing home, hair gray and receding. He’s telling his story of rising from the ranks of a truck driver in Philadelphia to the close confidante of Jimmy Hoffa to no one. As the film unfolds, we can surmise his daughter Peggy is the imagined audience. She is perceptive in her youth, realizing the violent work her father does, and finding a more positive role model in Hoffa. She refuses not only to hear Frank’s story but will also not speak to him.
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The Death of Dick Long (2019)
Written by Billy Chew
Directed by Daniel Scheinert
The Coen Brothers so successfully cornered the market on rural crime/mystery that a review of any film that falls into that genre will inevitably mention them. So here’s the mandatory mention. The Death of Dick Long is very much in the vein of movies like Blood Simple, dark and funny with a biting wit. The filmmaker understands his characters to a depth that they avoid becoming caricatures. It would be easy to lazily portray everyone here as ridiculously stupid, but the film manages to show them like idiots in a totally realistic way. The lies told to cover up what happened are so paper-thin the audience cringes knowing these guys are going to get caught.
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Birds of Passage (2018)
Written by Maria Camila Arias & Jacques Toulemonde Vidal, Cristina Gallego, and Ciro Guerra
Directed by Cristina Gallego & Ciro Guerra
Colombia is a Central American country that has sadly come to be associated with the cocaine industry of the 1980s. Lost in the greed and violence that came out of the black market drug trade were diverse and vibrant cultures. Birds of Passage follows a family of Wayuu, an indigenous people, who get caught up in the first sprouts of that brutal blight that came to Colombia because of wealthier countries’ desire for drugs. While this story takes place on the dusty plains and humid jungles, the core of the tale is something that is timeless and has been popping up in literature for centuries. Birds of Passage is in many ways Shakespearean, a tragedy fueled by greed with no foresight.
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