Ava Duvernay last brought us Selma (2014), an unexpectedly brilliant biopic of Martin Luther King Jr. and his 1965 march in Alabama to call attention to voting rights. In a controversial Oscar season, her film won an Oscar for Best Song, and received a nomination for Best Picture, and nothing else. Now Duvernay takes off the gloves and offers 13th (2016), a shattering, essential new documentary. While the end of slavery and the beginning of the Civil Rights movement were great moments in American history, Duvernay’s film argues that they are connected by a long string of whites in power, cultivating a fear of black people and using that fear to acquire not only more power, but wealth.
Named after the 13th amendment of the constitution, the movie argues that since slavery was a financial institution, the United States needed a way to regain those lost profits, and the wording of the amendment itself—“except as a punishment for crime”—provided the answer. In order to make money from a prison system, fear of African-Americans had to be created and spread. The film makes strong connections between many events of history, beginning with the amendment in 1865, including D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, activities of most of the U.S. Presidents, the “War on Drugs,” and up to today. (Eugene Jarecki’s excellent doc The House I Live In covered this territory, too, but Duvernay takes it much further.) Many scholars, a few politicians, and Angela Davis herself are interviewed, and the presentation is thorough, calm, logical, and devastating. It’s an absolute must-see.
The African Queen (Netflix)
Following the disappointing financial performance of his movie version of The Red Badge of Courage, director John Huston redeemed himself with this successful and critically acclaimed classic. Huston hired the noted film critic James Agee—who had raved about Huston’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre—to write the screenplay based on C.S. Forester’s novel. Huston’s frequent star Humphrey Bogart plays Charlie Allnut, a drunken riverboat captain. Katharine Hepburn plays Rose, a missionary in South Africa who hitches a ride with Allnut after her brother is killed. On route, she decides that they must attack and sink a German gunboat that has been causing trouble. Allnut isn’t too excited about this dangerous plan, but she’s far too stubborn to convince otherwise.
Shot in beautiful Technicolor, Huston’s storytelling is beautifully fluid, with the two expert performances driving things (Bogart won a long-overdue Best Actor Oscar). Huston received a Best Director nomination, and shared a screenplay nomination with Agee, while Hepburn snagged the fifth of her 12 career nominations. But the behind-the-scenes stories are almost more harrowing. Huston shot on location in Africa, using unwieldy cameras, in rough conditions that caused most of the cast and crew to fall ill. (According to legend, Huston and Bogart staved off malaria by remaining drunk much of the time.) Several books and documentaries tell the story, but Clint Eastwood’s fictitious account, White Hunter, Black Heart (1990) is especially excellent.
Big Eyes (Netflix)
One of director Tim Burton’s best films is his offbeat biopic Ed Wood (1994), the story of the “worst” filmmaker of all time. Twenty years later, he re-teamed with the celebrated screenwriters of that movie, Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, for an equally oddball biopic. Big Eyes (2014) tells the story of the painter Margaret Keane (Amy Adams), whose works—mainly of children with strangely huge eyes—achieved a kind of gross popular success, while earning scorn from the serious art world. Unfortunately, her husband Walter (Christoph Waltz), a selfish opportunist, takes credit for the early sale of a painting, and the lie grows hideously out of control. He begins to claim responsibility for all the paintings, handles their marketing, while locking his wife away and turning her into a one-woman factory.
Things come tumbling down in an amazing 1970s-era trial sequence, in which both Keanes must prove themselves to a judge. This is one of Burton’s most grown-up movies, depicting a twisted picture of domestic life and a twisted, grown-up relationship. The characters fit nicely into Burton’s regular collection of misfits, though Walter is arguably the most deceptive; Burton clearly disdains him because he doesn’t ever create anything of his own. Danny Huston plays real-life San Francisco Examiner reporter Dick Nolan who regularly writes about the Keanes, and Krysten Ritter (of TV’s Breaking Bad and Jessica Jones) plays one of Margaret’s few friends.
The Doors (Netflix)
Oliver Stone is mainly known for his political dramas, digging into the Vietnam War as well as figures like Kennedy, Nixon, George W. Bush, and, recently, Edward Snowden. But earlier in the same year that brought us JFK (1991), Stone made this crazy, drug-strewn rock ‘n’ roll movie filled with music, sex, and excess. The Doors (1991) tells the story of the short-lived rock band that may have been among the best of their era. Jim Morrison (Val Kilmer) begins as a poet, and then joins John Densmore (Kevin Dillon), Ray Manzarek (Kyle MacLachlan), and Robby Krieger (Frank Whaley) in making music (Manzarek’s keyboard doubling as a bass, which the band lacked). They rocket to the top, grapple with wealth, girlfriends (Meg Ryan is Morrison’s girl Pamela), and drugs before a spectacular fall.
Stone gives us plenty of weird, twisted, psychedelic sequences, as well as images of American Indians (part of Morrison’s visions). It’s all taken fairly seriously, but in the years since, the movie’s ridiculousness comes out more and more. It’s arguably the most purely fun movie Stone ever made, filled with the band’s thundering, mystical music. Kathleen Quinlan plays Patricia Kennealy, who claims to be involved in witchcraft (the real Kennealy also appears in the movie), and Crispin Glover is an amazing, spacey Andy Warhol. Remarkably, Kilmer did his own singing, but despite widespread praise, he did not secure an Oscar nomination for his performance.
The Conversation (Hulu & Amazon Prime)
Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation (1974) was released in a time that also included The Godfather Parts I-II and Apocalypse Now, perhaps establishing Coppola as the greatest American director of that decade. Coppola’s original screenplay was a thing of genius, centering on Harry Caul (Gene Hackman), a surveillance man in San Francisco who may be the best in his field. He’s so good that he’s paranoid about opening himself up to any kind of vulnerability. He sometimes sees a girlfriend (Teri Garr), but doesn’t really let her into his life, and he even keeps his own colleague Stan (John Cazale) at arm’s length.
Harry becomes obsessed with his latest job, recording a couple (Cindy Williams and Frederic Forrest) as they walk around Union Square, trying to look and sound normal, but clearly wary, or afraid, of something. As Harry rejiggers the recording, and raises red flags for his employers (played, in brief scenes, by Harrison Ford and Robert Duvall), he does find that his own existence is not entirely opaque, much like the weird see-through raincoat he wears throughout the film. Walter Murch’s powerfully precise editing and haunting sound design are just two more parts of what emerges as a masterful film. It won the Palm d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, and received three Oscar nominations, for Best Picture, for Coppola’s screenplay, and for the sound. However, competing against Coppola’s own The Godfather Part II, it lost all three.
Rounders (Hulu & Amazon Prime)
Though he now mainly works in television, director John Dahl was once one of the most exciting of all modern-day film noir directors. With his films like Red Rock West and The Last Seduction, he seemed to burrow inside the genre, to understand its squirmy inner workings and emotions, rather than merely pay tribute to it, as most other film-school-generation filmmakers had done. His Rounders (1998) is a compulsively watchable look at seedy, late night card games and those who win them by knowing both psychology and a deck of cards. Having lost everything he had in a high-stakes game, Mike McDermott (Matt Damon) is now going to law school with his girlfriend (Gretchen Mol), and is no longer allowed to play cards.
But the underworld always calls, and the true noir hero can never deny the call. Mike’s best friend Worm (Edward Norton) is released from prison, and he immediately puts pressure on Mike to defy his girlfriend and head to a card game. Unfortunately, Worm is in serious debt, and now Mike is in trouble too. They have a few days to raise $15,000 to save their necks, and it all involves facing the notorious Russian gangster Teddy KGB (John Malkovich) in a game. The movie is very casual in its use of slang, and its showing of the cards; it assumes this world’s allure to audiences, and never over-explains anything. It’s sincere about its sleaziness. (In one of the best scenes, Mike and Worm stop after an all-night bout to get an old-fashioned shave.) A colorful cast, including John Turturro, Famke Janssen, Martin Landau, and Goran Visnjic, completes the deck.
Venus in Fur (Hulu)
There once was a time when a new Roman Polanski movie was a major event, but his newest movie, Venus in Fur (2014) had a very limited opening with little fanfare, and even though it generated some kind reviews, it disappeared quickly. Perhaps the octogenarian is still under the shadow of his controversial past, or similarly under the shadow of masterpieces like Rosemary’s Baby, Chinatown, or The Pianist? In any case, this adaptation of a two-person play is bold in a way that American films generally are not; it has the audacity to explore sexual fetish, and to ask tough questions about sexual power.
Playwright Thomas (Mathieu Amalric) is auditioning actresses for his new play based on Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s novella Venus in Furs. The day has been a failure, and he’s exhausted. In from the rain walks Vanda (Emmanuelle Seigner, Polanski’s real-life wife and muse). At first she seems like another letdown, but her audition is surprisingly on-the-nose, though she seems to have something else on her mind. Polanski has made a career of characters coming psychologically unravelled within limited spaces, and this one fits into his filmography nicely. Though it’s all shot in a theater, the movie is far from stagy; Polanski shoots it like a movie, with the camera roaming, exploring, changing direction, as well as using whatever lights or props happen to be laying about (the previous show is a musical version of Stagecoach). Above all, this movie is a playfully tricky thing for grown-ups.
Punch-Drunk Love (Hulu)
In retrospect, I have come to believe that this beautiful, odd thing is Paul Thomas Anderson’s best film, though popular opinion usually falls to one of his more ambitious (and longer) works. Punch-Drunk Love (2002) is a grab-bag of ideas ranging from plungers to pudding, but it’s centered on the director’s admiration for Adam Sandler. As he did with Burt Reynolds in Boogie Nights and Tom Cruise in Magnolia, Anderson looked deep within the actor’s soul, found his essence, and challenged him to step up and play a real role. Sandler plays Barry Egan, who runs a novelty plunger company and wears a metal-blue suit. He deals with a gaggle of bossy, bullying, overbearing sisters and tries to keep an explosive temper in check.
He finds a harmonium in the street, collects pudding coupons in hopes of getting a free airline ticket, and calls a phone sex line, meekly handing over most of his personal information. But then he meets and falls in love with Lena Leonard (Emily Watson), and everything changes. Anderson’s prism-color scheme and use of music and sound (a tribute to his mentor Robert Altman), as well as his choice of awkward and distant angles, make the film into something of a dream, or a dreamy unreality that’s funny, prickly, and lovely. Philip Seymour Hoffman is sharply potent in a few scenes as the architect of the phone sex scam, Luis Guzman plays a slightly confused coworker of Barry’s, and Mary Lynn Rajskub plays the most helpful of Barry’s sisters.
Peeping Tom (TubiTV)
In the 1940s, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger were known as “The Archers,” a filmmaking team of almost otherworldly talent, using color and fantasy together in a marriage with hard reality in ways no other filmmaker could match. Their classics The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, I Know Where I’m Going!, A Matter of Life and Death, Black Narcissus, and The Red Shoes remain an essential part of any movie buff’s education. A decade later saw a different story. After a series of less successful films in the 1950s, they split ways and Powell set out to make Peeping Tom (1960). This astonishing film may seem tame today, but the very idea of it still startles.
Mark (Carl Boehm) is a shy camera buff who works by day on a film crew, but by night makes his own movies. He uses a tripod with a sharpened leg, stabs his women victims, and films them at the moment of their death. In the movie, he meets Helen Stephens (Anna Massey), who lives in the same building, and who tries to form a friendship with him, unaware of his secret. In flashback, Powell shows Mark’s father submitting him to weird experiments as a child. In this way, the movie has some similarities to Hitchcock’s Psycho, released the same year, but while Hitchcock’s movie was a celebrated hit, Powell’s film was viewed as dangerous and offensive, and it brought his career nearly to an end. Today—thanks in part to work done by Martin Scorsese—Peeping Tom is considered a brilliant work of art, a sly, dark commentary on voyeurism and movie-watching.
Cult director Don Coscarelli made his first foray into horror with Phantasm (1979), a film short on budget but long on imagination. It begins with a very basic and primal human fear. Thirteen-year-old Mike (A. Michael Baldwin) lives with his grown-up older brother Jody (Bill Thornbury) after the deaths of their parents, and worries that Jody will go away and leave him behind. He begins visiting a cemetery where he sees strange things, such as a Tall Man (played by the wonderfully named Angus Scrimm, who died this past January) singlehandedly lifting coffins; small, hooded creatures like demonic Jawas; a silver ball that flies through the air, attaches itself to people’s faces, and sprays blood everywhere; and a portal to another planet.
Reggie Bannister plays Reg, a friend who works as an ice cream man, occasionally plays music with Jody, and offers a helping hand as well as some comic relief. It’s perhaps easy to see how some viewers may not have been able to decide what to make of it all. Though it didn’t initially garner the instant fandom of certain other late-1970s horror hits, it has become a kind of cult classic with its own die-hard fans, including J.J. Abrams. Coscarelli directed three sequels himself: Phantasm II (1988), Phantasm III: Lord of the Dead (1994), and Phantasm IV: Oblivion (1998). In 2016, the original film received a much-needed restoration and re-release, along with a brand-new sequel, Phantasm: Ravager. Shudder is offering both to subscribers.
This early feature by the great Hollywood director Howard Hawks (Bringing Up Baby, The Big Sleep, Rio Bravo) deserves to be a well-known classic, and yet it’s still relatively obscure (its much-loved 1983 remake by Brian De Palma notwithstanding). Shot in beautiful black-and-white, Scarface (1932) came only a few years after the introduction of talkies, but Hawks was already pushing the envelope on what could be shown, and the various ways to show them. He established a visual pattern of giant “X’s” looming everywhere, warning of death. Another great shot shows a gangster played by Boris Karloff killed while bowling, the camera tracks the just-released ball down the alley as it knocks over all the pins except one; that one spins and spins until it finally falls.
Paul Muni plays the scar-faced one, Tony Camonte, who rises through the ranks of the Chicago underworld in the 1920s, but his maniacal jealousy over his sister (Ann Dvorak) proves his undoing. Karen Morley co-stars as the unfortunate object of Tony’s affections. Hawks does not sentimentalize these thugs, and Muni plays Tony like a simian, animalistic and unappealing (which is perhaps a strong reason why this movie is not more of a classic). The movie was loosely based on the life of Al Capone, and, according to one legend, screenwriter Ben Hecht received a visit from Capone’s men at one point (he was able to talk his way out of danger). Scarface is available through Hoopla, a service that’s totally free to holders of public library cards; check your local library for details.
The Infiltrator (Vudu)
Directed by Brad Furman (The Lincoln Lawyer, Runner Runner), this movie is more serviceable than it is extraordinary, and it often relies on either cool, copied Scorsese- or De Palma-style shots accompanied by cool pop songs, or on clumsy, poorly staged shots. However, the caliber of acting is extremely high, and the relationships, emotional bonds, and harrowing experiences created by Bryan Cranston, Diane Kruger, and John Leguizamo make The Infiltrator (2016) well worth seeing. Cranston plays real-life federal agent Robert Mazur, who, at the height of the 1980s cocaine craze, goes undercover as a slick money launderer in hopes of getting close to infamous drug lord Pablo Escobar.
When he says he has a wife to avoid an incident with a lap-dancer at a night club, he is appointed one, a rookie agent Kathy Ertz (Diane Kruger); to make matters more complicated, Mazur does have a real wife at home (played by Juliet Aubrey), who doesn’t know about his day-to-day activities. One great scene occurs during a night off, an anniversary dinner at a restaurant, when some “work” colleagues walk in. John Leguizamo plays the unpredictable fellow agent Emir Abreu, always providing an emotional defense system for his character’s foibles. Benjamin Bratt is likewise great as Escobar’s high-ranking lieutenant Roberto Alcaino, slowly growing to trust Mazur. And Amy Ryan is very funny as Mazur’s foul-mouthed boss. Perhaps another failing of the movie is not questioning whether any of this did any good in the long run, but that subject is better covered elsewhere.