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These are not the best movies I've ever seen, nor the most enjoyable. They are simply movies that are, in my opinion, worth watching. I have tried to avoid the summer blockbusters, historical epics, and special effects extravaganzas in favor of movies that make you ask yourself, "What did I just see?"

 

Donnie: "I made a new friend today."

Dr. Thurman: "Real or imaginary?"

Donnie: "Imaginary."

-Donnie Darko (2001)

Donnie, Gretchen, and
Donnie's new friend at the movies.

 

I have arbitrarily limited myself to recommending just ten movies. Some are very recent, while at least one dates from 1969. In every case, I have purchased a copy of the movie after seeing it and I continue to view them on a regular basis. So, hang on to your hats, here we go (and in reverse chronological order, at that)....

Donnie Darko (2001)
Director:
Richard Kelly

This is a challenging movie. When Frank, obviously a man in a Giger-esque rabbit suit and mask, appears to Donnie to tell him that the world is going to end in "twenty-eight days... six hours... forty-two minutes... twelve seconds", you know that there are not going to be any easy answers. It is a little disappointing to me that the director, Richard Kelly, states so plainly in his DVD commentary track that the movie is just science fiction. This does not do justice to the rich story and the internal conflicts of the characters. It is a tribute to Kelly's skill (he also wrote the screenplay) that he makes us care for so many of the characters in such a short time and under such odd circumstances. Depending upon the viewer, the ending is either absolutely perfect or the weakest part of the movie. Watch it and decide for yourself. I vote for perfect. (Internet Movie Database reviewers voted this movie the third best movie of 2001. It should have done much better at the box office.)


Requiem for a Dream (Director's Cut) (2000)
Director:
Darren Aronofsky


This is not a fun movie. It is hard and painful and depressing. Darren Aronofsky tells a story with many lessons and few answers. Ellen Burstyn is outstanding in her role as a middle-aged widow headed for self-destruction. Jared Leto and Jennifer Connelly are also excellent as her son and his girl-friend, each with their own fatal flaws. This is a graphic movie and it pushes human frailty right into your face, not in any effort to gain sympathy, but in strange, cathartic, predestined voyages to personal Hells. The viewer comes to understand very little about the history and background of the situation and far too much about the characters' ultimate fates. This is an unusual movie in that it seems to make little difference if the viewer is aware of the outcome of the movie prior to watching it. The camera work is intermittently frenetic, employing several modern filming techniques, and, for once, this style actually contributes to the story. Distressing and confrontational. Not for the faint of heart!


Crash (1996)
Director:
David Cronenberg


Requiem for a Dream is confrontational and difficult to watch. David Cronenberg's Crash is just plain unsettling. The movie looks into the life of a couple defined by their sexual ennui. Following a serious car accident, the couple is drawn into a small group of people obsessed by vehicle crashes (and I do mean "obsessed."). This is a very sexually graphic movie with absolutely no titillation factor. Unlike Donnie Darko, there are no great mysteries or puzzles here, just a strange fascination and primal unease with the aggressive intimacy of the story. This movie is about violation...violation of norms, violation of trust, violation of the body. James Spader and Holly Hunter do a great job with challenging roles, while Deborah Unger is perfect in her role as Spader's wife. Cronenberg often has something to say in his movies, but the message is often cliched (eXistenZ) and sometimes muddled (Videodrome). I'll let you judge for yourself about the message here.


12 Monkeys (1995)
Director:
Terry Gilliam


Another highly-rated and respected film that failed to do as well at the box office as it deserved. Gilliam's Brazil created a bizarre vision of the future and was genuine eye-candy, but the plot and characterizations in this "what if?" tale of time travel and paradox are much more satisfying. Both Donnie Darko and 12 Monkeys require several viewings before you begin to truly appreciate the irony and understand the alternative possibilities the directors are suggesting. Who wouldn't have died? Who would have? What revelations would ultimately have emerged? Is fate actually a cruel jokester? What power and free will do we actually have? The interlinking of the events in both movies is both overt and subtle. It's one thing to say that the events would have transpired differently except for the characters' actions, but in what way would they have been different? And would the outcome actually have been worse...or better?


Romeo is Bleeding (1993)
Director:
Peter Medak


This is a hard movie to adequately describe. Is it film noir? Or is it a classic tragedy? A character study? An exercise in method acting? Who knows! I like Gary Oldman a lot and he does a superb job here as a corrupt police officer who consistently betrays the trust placed in him by his wife, his family, his friends, and his community. What happens to him simply defies description...or defies simple description. It is a tribute to the film that it manages to make his character as sympathetic a figure as it does. The film transcends any simple labels. Unlike The Bad Lieutenant, it is not simply a story about corruption and the struggle for decency and justification. And unlike Leon, in which Oldman plays another corrupt cop, the character has obvious redeeming qualities. This is a more complex story where regret takes the first step along with Oldman and stands with him constantly. The plot itself is a cartoon, with super-heroes and super-villains. This is sad movie, but it is, in some ways, uplifting because of the possibilities for hope it both raises and dashes.


Miller's Crossing (1990)
Director:
Joel Coen


This is my favorite Coen brothers movie, hands down. Whether it is the mood of the production, or the clever script, or the individual performances, I can't say, but the net result is outstanding. This is an old-fashioned gangster movie with equal doses of violence, humor, irony, tragedy, and sarcasm. It's the very inevitability of the plot turns that makes them so surprising. As with most Coen brothers movies, you never know exactly who's going to end up dead...or alive. Gabriel Byrne is perfect as the world-weary lieutenant to Albert Finney's mob boss. Unlike many Coen characters, he is an honorable man and earns a lot of our respect and sympathy. (I can't say the same for everyone else, though.) The dialogue just sparkles and you'll find yourself laughing at almost every turn of phrase. I have this movie on laserdisc, as it has not been available on DVD. Get a wide-screen version, if possible, as the film is beautiful. I think that the Coen brothers are simply incapable of making a bad-looking movie.


National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation (1989)
Director:
Jeremiah S. Chechik


OK, OK...so all the SNL writers and performers keep saying that Chevy Chase is a jerk and possibly the worst guest host ever on the show. This is STILL one of the funniest movies I have ever seen. I watch this at least twice a year and it is as much a holiday tradition as It's a Wonderful Life. Strictly speaking, this popular film shouldn't be on my list because it was a respectably successful film and did well when it was released. The whole movie hangs together much better than most ensemble comedies and has some of the funniest sequences imaginable (including "the cat who chewed the extension cord" and "the squirrel in the tree".) The cast is absolutely flawless and keeps me in stitches. The yuppie neighbors are my favorites ("Todd!"..."Margo!"), though it's hard to beat Randy Quaid as Cousin Eddie. Underneath it all is a genuine affection for the holiday season and for our childhood. As Aunt Bethany says, "Play ball!"


Blood Simple (1984)
Director:
Joel Coen


I sure hope that the Coen brothers are paying royalties on this film to all the appropriate directors and screenwriters. Like a Detroit car designed for a pre-existing frame using off-the-shelf parts, this movie selects the best and discards the rest. Spare, stylish, and totally satisfying, from the retro opening credit sequence where the windshield wipers "wash away" the text to the startling but not unexpected conclusion. As with many of the Coen movies, the viewer is completely aware of the plot twists and the actions of the characters. But this makes little difference in the tension as the characters each look after his/her own interests, projecting his/her own interpretation on the facts. You remain totally engrossed in what is happening, while caring very little about the characters themselves. "Unsympathetic" is the operative word here. M. Emmet Walsh and Dan Hedaya are particularly good in their parts. A real treat!


An American Werewolf in London (1981)
Director:
John Landis


I rarely feel the same way twice after seeing this move. It was, at the time it was made, a special effects tour de force, relying entirely on puppets, models, and elaborate makeup, with no CGI at all. It has some shockingly graphic scenes and some extremely tender and romantic scenes as well. To top it all off, it is a very funny movie. When the end credits roll, you are unsure whether you should clap, laugh, or cry. A brief synopsis: Two Americans, David and Jack, are attacked by a werewolf while touring England and Jack is killed. David recuperates under the care of a beautiful nurse with whom he falls in love. David experiences nightmares and sleepwalking episodes, culminating in a visit from Jack, who warns him that he will become a werewolf himself unless he commits suicide. Sounds simple, right? Well, it is, sort of.... (I recommend that you get the 20th Anniversary edition, if you can. It is much clearer and has better sound than earlier VHS and DVD copies. The extra features are worth the price of the DVD by themselves.)


The Wild Bunch (1969)
Director:
Sam Peckinpah


Some have said that this film used more (blank) ammunition than did the actual Mexican Revolution of 1914. This is probably apocryphal. But there is no doubt that Sam Peckinpah opened up a whole new realm of violence in film-making when he directed this movie in 1969. The themes of the movie, though, are not violence or revenge, but the time-honored ideas of loyalty, friendship, and trust. The restored Director's Cut is a necessity if you're going to watch this film. Peckinpah never wanted to cut the film as severely as he did. The restored material adds much, particularly a storyline explaining the relationship between two of the protagonists. All of the actors are marvelous and some of the best sequences were completely unscripted (including the famous "walk"). Besides, forget Stallone! Forget Ahnuld! If you really want to see a few guys take on a whole army, check out the last ten minutes of this flick!


 

I hope that you will give one or more of these movies a try. I think that you will be rewarded with a cinematic experience. Happy viewing!

Take me to the Internet Movie Database web site so I can learn more about these movies!

If you want to correspond with me about these or other movies, Id be happy to give you my poor opinions. Just send mail to me. I would be particularly interested in your comments about Donnie Darko, a movie that people either seem to hate or love.

 

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