Yesterday I talked about tangible accessibility, so now it’s time for the much more difficult topic of intangible accessibility and I think this is the part where will lose the most readers. But gladly, I can live with that.
Here’s the problem: Why is understanding movies such a sin? I understand that some (many) movie critics might seem arrogant and I probably do as well, although I can’t really claim to understand movies on the same level as the actually good critics out there. I guess that’s the culture now. You try to explain something complicated and you are automatically an arrogant prick. I might be, but not because of this.
Now, even though many movies are meant to be entertainment, they will include messages, which have been inserted knowingly or unknowingly. While it might be easy to overlook those messages, that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. As a fan of movies, one of the things that interests me is what these movies tell us about the authors (whether writers, directors or in some cases producers) and how they perceived the world.
I might not have understood it at the time, but Ghostbusters is basically a tale of neoliberalist ideals against the government. EPA is a much bigger villain than the big marshmellow man. That tells you a lot about the political climate and the ideology of the movie. Even if most of the people went and saw it based on the ghostbusting premise, they did see the anti-government messaging as well and if they did not understand the messaging, it’s likely that as they didn’t think about the movie critically, that the movie affected their thinking. The idea that the goverment official trying to protect the environment was wrong. It was a huge hit. How much has it actually changed politics or was it just an indicator of what was going on and about to happen?
How does this relate to the accessibility? When you become interested in the messages of the film, you look at them differently. Take for example Satantango. It’s a seven hour movie. Actually seven and a half hours, depending on the format you are watching it in. That in itself makes it quite inaccessible, because it’s not going to be easily available, nor will many people be interested in putting in the time to see it (I saw it in three parts, like the movie itself suggests). Having very long and slow shots is not helping. The theme itself, that of a small Hungarian village rising from the ruins of communism only to stumble into the treacherous capitalism, is not something many would like to see.
Except if you have this curiosity about what Bela Tarr tried to do with the movie. What is he trying to express? What is he trying to tell us about these people or capitalism? If you just want noise and quickly moving bright colors, this will not be the movie for you, but if you want to get insight on what happened in Eastern Europe after the fall of communist regimes, this just might give you a more complete picture than most books on the subject.
However, this doesn’t come easy. It’s just that much easier to watch the more commercially inclined movies and enjoy the spectacle. To have the patience to see the more arthouse-y movies, you need indoctrination in the larger world of movies, making these movies less accessible to many people, because they are not interested in putting in the work.
I don’t think it’s necessary to do this with movies specifically, but I would hope everyone finds their own artform to learn about the world through. I’m a 42-year-old white middle-class male in a white society. It would be quite easy for me to form a bubble around me (and obviously I have, as everyone has) and just shut myself off from all the problems other people face in the world, but I don’t want to. I need movies to learn about the world. To me, the years or actually decades of movies many would consider obscure, has been worth it. To me having seen movies from all over the world is part of the richness of my life, but that doesn’t mean I can just recommend a movie about a Syrian kid suing his parents to anyone, even if I found the movie very interesting (albeit the premise being unneeded and pretty much the worst part of the movie), because of this intangible accessibility issue.
64. El ángel exterminador (Mexico 1962)
(The Exterminating Angel)
Director: Luis Buñuel
A bunch of rich people gather for a dinner party. For some reason, the staff at the house feels compelled to leave the premises, while the party itself finds itself compelled to stay, while the people outside find themselves unable to enter.
Of course the name of the movie implies that there is some sort of supernatural force involved, but that’s the extent of the explanation we get. Actually, the movie itself tells you this upfront. There will be no explanation. This is not the place for rational thinking. Even the title was actually just a promotional ploy from Bunuel, who thought a movie with that name would draw crowds.
Gladly, that’s not the interesting part. For over an hour we get to see these supposedly sophisticated people lose all semblance of civility. Not that they are that civilized from the start. They are vicious, untrustworthy and hypocritical. Their situation just brings this to the fore.
Knowing Bunuel’s work, this is a comedy. It might not seem like one to the uninitiated, but he is having fun with his subject matter. After all, the medieval society had those who toiled (peasants), those who governed (nobility) and those who held the truth (clergy), but there was also the jesters, who had the right to tell how things really are. Here Bunuel takes that very role and this isn’t his only movie in which he laughs at the upper classes, which is where laughs should in general go.
63. Ed Wood (United States 1994)
Director: Tim Burton
Ed Wood dreams of directing films, but lacks in both resources and talent. Still, he is at least enthusiastic.
Ed Wood is widely known as the worst director of all time and Plan 9 From Outer Space is similarly often mentioned as the worst movie of all time. Well, neither of these are true. Sure, they are bad, but hardly the worst. Clearly, that reputation is the draw for this movie. Not that this was a huge hit or anything. On the other hand, the draw for Burton (and Depp) was the other side of him: He might not be talented, but he was at least passionate.
This is a quite sympathetic movie. Wood might not really make it as a director, but at least we feel for him and his posse of misfits. We are on his side when he needs to argue for his funding or no one shows up at the premier or he defends Bela Lugosi. This is, however, a fantasy. I doubt the situation was quite this idyllic. Reality does creep in at the very end, when we get the title cards about what happened to all of them. Spoiler: it wasn’t that good.
The bittersweet thing is that both Burton and Depp seem to have lost their love for their work. The bubble has burst in the same way as in the movie. Jeffrey Jones has had his own legal troubles as well.
This is in a weird place in the genre of biographies. Of course they all edit the truth more or less to make the movie more interesting, but this one seems just way more honest about presenting everything in a more positive light. Or at least Ed Wood taking everything in stride.
There is a strong competitor for this movie in Dolemite Is My Name, which was actually written by the same duo, but the problem is that Netflix doesn’t release it’s movies on physical media, so I can’t get my hands on it, which is a requirement for this list. I might have to rethink that for the next list, as physical media is being phased out anyhow.
62. Four Lions (United Kingdom 2010)
Director: Christopher Morris
A bunch of inept terrorist-wannabes try to fight their holy war in the UK.
How do you take away the power of terrorists? You make fun of them. After all it’s terror-ism or the idea that you can enforce your ideas upon the world by invoking fear. But if you are just laughable, how are you able to do that? Mel Brooks is the master of taking away the power from various groups in this manner, especially with The Producers. Lindsay Ellis brought up American History X in this context. It’s about the rehabilitation of a Neo-Nazi figure, but at the same time, when he is a full-blown member of his group, he seems like a powerful figure. Paraphrasing Ellis, all this might seem bad, but isn’t also just a little bit bad-ass? Well, Brooks and Morris (the director of Four Lions) don’t leave any room for this. They present these figures as jokes. Do you want to be a joke? No. Obviously not (in most cases, for some the attention is enough).
The subject matter is dark even for a black comedy, but Morris has never been one to shy away from controversial subjects. If you’ve ever seen Jam, his sketch comedy show based on his earlier radio show Blue Jam, or Brass Eye, a parody of a news magazine show, you know his irreverence. Jam was broadcast on a commercial network, but without commercials, because who in their right mind would attach their brand to a show which, among many others, had a sketch about parents having their own form of gay therapy by having the mother disguise herself as a prostitute to have sex with the son. Yep. These segments had a sketch structure, but no real punchlines. They were disconcerting both in subject matter and in their production (for example, the cast would mime to their own lines from the radio show). There was always something off.
Four Lions is much closer to mockumentary in it’s portrayal, but it is still quite hard to swallow for many people. For me, perhaps the most interesting part is that the our main character is actually quite moderate. He has problems with many of the rules of Islam and is ready to confront others of his faith about this. Still, it is he, who in the end goes through with the attack, while his compatriots fall by the wayside for various reasons. It’s not only fighting for his faith, but it’s more like frustration with the attitudes against his people. That racist preconception is what actually breeds the violence in the end.
We need filmmakers like this probably even more than ever. Certain politicians, like Trump, have been trying to shut down critical voices, and it sadly it has largely worked. Many movies will ridicule politics, but do it in a light manner. They are lightly roasting these people instead of actual criticism. By making fun of how Trump communicates, the focus is moved away from his actually horrible policies. I’ve mentioned this before and I’ll mention it again: If we don’t have comics to show us how things really are, who is going to do it? Not the mainstream media, that’s for sure. They don’t want to alienate anyone, which means they make mediocre content for the masses. I do believe this is the wrong strategy for the 21st century, where you need to stand out to gain the eyeballs.
Well, at least we have Morris and some other British comedians still working for us. One of Morris’s collaborator will actually show up next time.
61. The Grapes of Wrath (United States 1940)
Director: John Ford
A family of Okies is uprooted from their ancestral home because of the Great Dust Bowl (which, as I understand it, was the result of the disappearance of buffalos unbalancing the ecosystem). They move west in hopes of finding work and a new home, but everywhere they go, they face prejudice and hardship, which begins to wear on their small clan.
Henry Fonda was not afraid of tackling political issues in his movies. I don’t think much of this movie would fly in the neoliberal political climate of the US. Or at least there’s a notion that neoliberalism is the norm. You can’t even really make a stand. Longshot was a highly leftist movie until suddenly we had to understand the republican viewpoints as well. Why the fuck? The movies from the right don’t bother with this at all. They don’t present democratic viewpoints as reasonable, while in Longshot they went out of their way to do exactly that. Grapes of Wrath is not afraid to push an agenda. And there’s nothing wrong with that, if the agenda is positive.
In this case the agenda is about the very basic right to live. That shouldn’t be leftist notion, but somehow it has become one and was one even this early. It also stands up for unions, which are still a heated issue. When was the last time we saw anything about those in mainstream movies, even though it’s also a big issue in Hollywood? There is the excellent Sorry to Bother You, but that’s pretty much it. I bet the major studios are afraid of discussing the subject in any way, because it might encourage their people to do it more than they are doing it now.
Weirdly, John Ford, the director, had made many movies on the Manifest Destiny, in other words about the US right to settle the whole of the continent. This was the dark side of that phenomenon. Now, the land was no longer for the little people, it was controlled by the banks and huge, faceless corporations. These people moved into the same direction, but now with false optimism, as there was nothing waiting for them.
Tom Joad, as played by Henry Fonda, is one of the great heroes of movies. In the beginning he’s just out of prison for killing someone in a bar fight. During their voyage, he kills again, but this time it’s for a greater cause. He is protecting himself, but at the same time he now sees his place in the larger community that needs him to fight for them. This is where the movie manages to dodge certain nomenclature. Tom is not seen as an agitator for communism. He is just someone who sees a chance for his kind in this kind of philosophy.
60. Metropolis (Germany 1927)
Director: Fritz Lang
One day in his carefree bubble of a life, Freder Fredersen stumbles upon a beautiful woman and some children. They flee and he tries to follow them, but instead finds himself in the dark underworld, where the workers live. All this comes as a horrible surprise to Freder, who had no idea about how their world functioned. The woman is called Maria and she has a vision of the workers (Hands) and those in power (Head) working together (through a Heart) to make the world better for everyone. When Freder’s father learns of this, he decides to stop it in any way he can, after which we find ourselves in a Queen video.
The whole setup is a bit problematic from todays point of view. The masses shouldn’t wait for a savior from among the super rich. It will be up to the masses to find a better solution than what we have now. The super rich use charity as a form of good PR, after having made billions off the backs of their workers. Many of them don’t actually even follow-up on their promises, as the rules in the US allow them to claim the tax benefits while deferring their own payments to the actual causes to sometime in the future.
These political problems aside, the movie is magnificent, but at the same time sort of weird. Hitler liked it well enough for Goebbels to promise Lang a promotion to honorary Aryan despite Lang’s jewish heritage. While the budget has been exaggerated and the real budget would seem ludicrously miniscule at $24 million in today’s currency when compared to the reported budget of the current leader, Avengers: Endgame (around $400 million). It was enough to nearly bankrupt the studio. Things were a bit different back then, when markets weren’t as international as they are now. Although, I guess a movie from Germany with that kind of budget would still be a risky proposition in the face of American competition. Even now, the average movie budget in Germany is just over $3 million, while the average budget of a Hollywood movie budget based on one source (which didn’t feel very reliable) was almost $140 million.
The way the world is presented, with almost heavenlike imagery of the topside and the automaton like workers in the underworld, might be a little too much for these days, but the imagery still lives on. Okay, that Queen video (Radio Ga Ga) I mentioned earlier is already 36 years old, but that army of workers walking in a tight formation still works and has been copied numerous times. The factories make those from Chaplin’s Modern Times look like a utopia in comparison.
59. Unforgiven (United States 1992)
Director: Clint Eastwood
William Munny has been trying to live a quiet life with his children in his little farm in the middle of nowhere. Things are not going well at the farm, however, so when Schofield Kid comes around to seek his help in killing a couple of cowboys, Munny reluctantly agrees bringing Ned Logan, his old partner with them.
This is all about dismantling the old western myths, which Eastwood was a big part in building. Sure, his film work in the genre was already revisionist, but this just takes that extra step. When W.W. Beauchamp, a biographer of old gunslingers, latches himself onto Munny, we find out that he doesn’t remember much of his exploits as he was drunk through most of it. We also learn that the stories Beauchamp had learned from interviewing two others were just lies and boasts, with these romanticized criminals just actively building their own brand as heros of the old west.
The Kid also quickly learns that he doesn’t have the stomach for this. Initially he wants to join the ranks of these legendary men and is even eager to kill to achieve that, but he also has the same romanticized view as Beauchamp. Perhaps he has even learned his views specifically through Beauchamp’s work. In reality, these legends of the old west were often very aware of their image. They might not have any kind of fashion sense, but they would clothe themselves based on the notion of how they thought they should look. This would sometimes lead to outrageous results. I guess Wild Bill Hickok is the best example of this, with his feathers (of course, travelling as a showman also had it’s own requirements).
This West just isn’t the magical land of opportunity it is in so many movies. These men are old and Clintwood contemplates their age, having recently hit 60 himself at the time. He both does and doesn’t feel obsolete. His age is weighing on him, but at the same time, the young aren’t going to handle these situations either. The young are cowards or just inefficient. The same men, who were in control in those bygone days are still there and are still in control. There doesn’t seem to be a new generation capable of taking over from the old. Is this how Eastwood views the world? He is a republican, even if many of his political leanings seem to make him more of a RINO (Republican In Name Only), so perhaps.
Women actually have a larger role here than in most Westerns. They are actually the progenitors of the action. They themselves don’t have much in the way of power, as they are basically slaves of the saloon owner. As prostitutes, they still feel the need for protection, so they pool together the little money have been able to accrue in order to avenge the disfiguring of one of their own. Here again, the almost literal impotence of the young is how all of this began, as the reason for the disfiguring was that the prostitute laughed at the penis of one of the men. The women might not have much of a role in this society, but at least they have their own actual motivations, even if they are once again very much dominated by the eldest among them.
58. Ex Machina (United Kingdom 2014)
Director: Alex Garland
Caleb wins a lottery to be able to join the owner of their company, a reclusive billionaire genius, Nathan, in his house in the middle of nowhere to help him in an experiment: His job is to figure whether Ava, an android built by Nathan, is truly intelligent.
We don’t get enough of these kinds of movies these days. Or probably ever, for that matter. I guess Her is quite closely related predecent, and Moon also brought back this more character focused approach a few years before that. Still, most of the more recent sci-fi movies have moved more into the realm of action, where the actual sci-fi themes get lost in the mess of special effects.
Sci-fi is often misunderstood. It should be about what happens or could happen to society when new ideas and technologies are introduced. Star Wars and Transformers are not sci-fi, even if certain outlets like to call them exactly that (although, IMDb now calls Star Wars fantasy and rightly so). Ex Machina (or Moon or Her) doesn’t really look at the society as a whole, but instead looks at all this from a very limited perspective, but still brings up all the important questions we probably need to face as a society in the near future.
There aren’t many AIs I generally feel compassion for (Roy from Blade Runner being another big one), but here Alicia Vikander manages to make Ava sympathetic. It definitely helps that it’s her own face, but she also manages to be believable as an android. There is always certain amount of calculation in her movements and she lacks certain social norms, because why wouldn’t she. There’s also a chance that she just knows when to follow them and when not to.
In many ways she’s more human than Nathan, who lives in his own cloud, where other people are mostly distractions and pieces in his own puzzle for the future. He might not want to disassemble Caleb, but that’s more of a moral choice enforced on him than actual goodwill.
However, the movie is not only about AIs. The decision by the moviemakers to make the androids appear to be a female is not arbitrary. There is also a message of gender relations. Both Nathan and Caleb enjoy just looking at Ava secretly through security cameras (although Ava is aware of this). Also, how weird is it that Nathan builds these things to have sex with them? As a billionaire, he could probably find interesting women without having to construct them himself, but he has still decided to to do just this. Since he is also trying to build them as intelligent and self-aware as possible, there seems to be a strong element of abuse.
This is exactly the kind of sci-fi we need. Sure, there’s technology at the fore, but in actuality it’s all about the humanity and how these changes affect us.
57. The Ox-Bow Incident (United States 1942)
Director: William A. Wellman
Gil and Art are visiting a town for the first time after winter just to find out that Gil’s girl has left town. As they hang around at the saloon, the discussion moves into the cattle rustling that’s been going on in the area. Then suddenly there’s a youngster come to get help as there’s been a murder. There’s some rational voices in the town who want the whole thing to be handled properly, but others are out for blood and in some cases to prove themselves. One of the elders in town asks Gil and Art to see to it that the whole business gets done “regular”. The posse soon finds a couple of strangers and a trial of sorts follows.
Fonda had actually seen a lynching as a teenager in Omaha where he grew up, so the subject was close to his heart. The subject matter was problematic for the studio, who shelved it for months after the premier, because they didn’t know how to market it. This was also wartime, so politically controversial movies might have been problematic. It was actually the worst grossing film of the year for Fox. The sources I found are missing pages here there, but based on this information there hasn’t been a worse drawing film by Fox ever since. I guess that’s what happens when you try to make a movie with a message the audience doesn’t appreciate, although I guess you could blame the studio as well. I bet quite a few people would have seen the movie just on the basis of Henry Fonda starring.
The movie isn’t very long and by the time they find their suspects, we are about halfway through even though the mock-trial is the centerpiece of the movie. It still manages to do what it sets out to do. We get to see both the dark side and the good side of humanity. The suspects are doomed from the moment they are found, even though the evidence is flimsy at best. The friends of the dead man want their revenge, others just want a hanging for the sake of it and there’s an officer, who just wants them dead to make a man of his son. Seems like taking the son to a prostitute like they did in the US back in the day seems like a better option.
We do have some people actually trying to stop the lynching, but they are drowned out by numbers and mostly baseless authority. The good guys do have very good arguments, but interest in them is not very strong. The movie is very efficient and economical about showing a wide variety of characters. Still, we understand who they are, where they come from and what motivates them.
As a Western, the movie is very different. Usually the people on the frontier are depicted as good, hard-working people, but here they are vengeful and callous. The sheriff isn’t there to handle things, so they just do what they please. There is no hero in a white hat to save the innocent, when needed.
56. Twelve Monkeys (United States 1995)
Director: Terry Gilliam
James Cole is the latest in a long line of prisoners being used to figure out what exactly happened in the past, before the fall of society. The scientists behind the project know that it was a virus, but they don’t know where it originated from, so they are sending disposable people through time to gather evidence. Their time travel methods are far from accurate, but they work well enough. What they can’t really account for is the toll the system takes on the mental health of the traveller. So, when Cole is caught in the past and put into a mental institution, he begins to doubt his own mind.
This was before Brad Pitt was a major star and there was a certain sense of freedom in his work, as if he didn’t feel a need to protect his image. There are other such films on the list and I, for one, wouldn’t mind getting this 90s Pitt back. I guess his cameo in Deadpool 2 has a very tiny bit of this playfulness, at least in spirit. Bruce Willis as the lead hasn’t thrown himself into a role in the same way since this either. He doesn’t let himself be vulnerable in the same way he is here, at one point drooling after being detained by the police.
The world is clearly from the mind of Terry Gilliam, even if it isn’t quite as distinctive as most of his movies. It is sort of based on a short movie called La Jetee, but only the kernel is from there. La Jetee was actually just a series of photos rather than an actual movie, even if there was a narrative there. It didn’t include much of the story in the movie.
I like how this movie plays with mental pressures. Cole knows that the world is going to end, but can’t actually do anything about it. All those people he meets in the past are going to die. This is known as Cassandra Complex, as the movie so nicely explains. Obviously, this isn’t Cole’s only problem. He meets someone in a mental asylum, who believes himself to be from another planet. Now, which is more believable: you are from the future or you are crazy? Logically, we should figure out that the future might easily be just a false memory brought on by our tortured mind. Even if we decide to believe this, there are still going to be pressures into the other direction and humans do have a tendency to react to how others think. If we can’t find support for our thoughts from others, we sort of tend to fall in with the more popular opinions. How is someone like Cole going to cope with this weird situation he has no handle on?
The story is a bit of a mess (although I bet that if you would actually map it out, it would all work and there would be no major plotholes), but that’s what time travel does to stories. You could even try to defend it by saying that this is what situation is doing to Cole, so maybe the point is to give us a little bit of the same medicine, but I wouldn’t go that far. After all, the movie is presented in such a way that we believe Cole.
55. Sound of Noise (Sweden 2010)
Director: Johannes Stjärne Nilsson, Ola Simonsson
Amadeus was born into a family of classical musicians (and probably named after Mozart). He just happens to be tone-deaf and musical notes actually bother him quite a bit. He’s also a cop. Sanna is sick of the banality of modern musical performances, so when her collaborator presents her with a new composition, she gathers a sextet of eccentric drummers to perform for the whole city, whether they like it not. Amadeus ends up investigating the related crimes.
As with Nuovo Cinema Paradiso, I had problems tracking down a copy of this film in a language I’m comfortable with, so I have only seen this movie in it’s original Swedish with French subtitles. Now, I know some Swedish and I can read French menus fairly well, but I may have missed some subtler points due to a language barrier. However, I don’t think so. The center of the film is the music, so there’s not that much dialogue and when there is, again as with Nuovo Cinema Paradiso, it’s easy enough to infer the meaning from the context, even if you aren’t familiar with the actual words.
The music doesn’t always work, but that’s not the point. Each musical piece is presented pretty much as a music video, with a title in the beginning. The performances are quite weird. Sometimes their audience is quite limited (as in one case, where the only audience is an unconscious man), but they are always well planned and orchestrated with improvised instruments (can you call them improvised, if they have been planning to use them?). They are quite anarchistic, hitting various institutions, and sometimes they even risk other people in their work. I guess it’s fine in this weird fantasy of a movie.
Mostly, it’s just fun. I do have an appreciation for weird artistic experimentation and even though most of them don’t pay off, obviously arts as a whole need these mavericks, who are willing to try out new things. This is a celebration of those pioneers in a form of a comedy.
The movie borrows heavily from heist movies. It has similar scenes of recruiting the various drummers and obtaining equipment as well as plans. Much of this is brushed over pretty quickly, but your brain will still retain the information. Gladly, we get to see each drummers personality as they are picked up.
While Amadeus is kind of plain as a character, the drummers are all kind of fun. As there are six of them and the movie focuses largely on Amadeus, we don’t get to see too much of them. Five of them aren’t really actors either, so it might be better to leave them in the background, when their musical skills aren’t needed.
Although the pair of directors have made a bunch of shorts, including Music for One Apartment and Six Drummers, which this movie is largely based on, this is their only feature. I guess, if you only get to make one movie, you could do much worse than this.
54. M – Eine Stadt sucht einen Mörder (Germany 1931)
Director: Fritz Lang
There has been a string of brutal child murders in the city. Everyone is in a panic. As the police begins to shut down the city, the criminal element notice that their business is hurting. In order to return to normalcy, they decide to take the matter into their own hands and organize a citywide manhunt for the murderer with the help of the beggars.
Can anyone listen to “In the Hall of the Mountain King” after this and not feel the dread? It starts playfully enough, but becomes more and more intense. In the movie it depicts the murderers need to kill surfacing once again. He whistles the tune to attract the attention of children, but we know that it soon turns into a harbinger of death. The interesting point here is that as sound was still very new in films, the soundtrack hadn’t been used for much more than songs in musicals and dialogue (obviously music had been around for the silent films as well). Lang approached this differently. He was trying to produce a more realistic world, where sounds could originate off-screen and a narrator. It also had silences before startling noises, which I can forgive, because he couldn’t have known better. The sound design is in no way perfect here, but it was definitely revolutionary.
The way the murderer stalks the children is quite chilling. This is the kind of stuff which leaves parents unwilling to give their children any kind of freedom (although, here in the Nordic countries we let the roam the world – they’ll be fine and much more adjusted that way). The kind of warning I got about adults I should stay away from, were probably largely based on this specific character, even if I doubt my parents have ever seen the movie. Still, the stories start from somewhere.
Peter Lorre himself was perfectly cast. He was a good actor and could portray this slimy and desperate character to perfection. He isn’t really sympathetic when is begging for his life in the later movie, but he does bring up good ethical points of view. Not that those points necessarily work in the context of movies, which follow their own rules.
53. Akira (Japan 1988)
Director: Katsuhiro Ôtomo
Over 30 years ago, Tokyo was destroyed by Akira, a boy with psychic powers. The city has been rebuilt as Neo-Tokyo and it’s falling to pieces. The police state is trying to supress various rebellious groups and biker gangs are causing havoc by fighting with each other. During one of these fights, the army arrives to take a mutated child into custody and one of the gangs just happens to be in the middle of it all. They are arrested as well and one of their members, Tetsuo, is taken to a hospital and operated on. Turns out, he is psychic, but not really interested in using his power for good. Instead, it seems like the events from 30 years ago might repeat themselves.
Back in 1988, the Western world had seen nothing like this and it became a cult hit on video. Well, it’s now 2020 and the Western world has still seen anything quite like it. Sure, we have seen many other vulgar and violent animations since then, but this still holds a special place in the cold, black hearts of everyone who enjoys these weird and irreverent movies. Gregory J. Smalley at 366 Weird Movies compared the approach to violence in Akira to the work of Sam Peckinpah. Everything revolves around violence. We start with a huge act of violence in the form of destruction of Tokyo, move into gang fights, police brutality, more gang fights, psychic children trying to stop Tetsuo and so on and so on. It never ends. Why would Tetsuo choose something other than evil in a world like this? The city is on the brink of war at pretty much all times.
The story is a mess and we have weird sideplots that aren’t really needed, but you don’t really care either. Much of what is going on might very well have a deeper meaning for the Japanese. Is Akira a metaphor for nuclear weapons? In 1988, the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were still very much in living memory. That will haunt a nation (see Godzilla).
In many animations and children’s movies, children need to forge their own path without the help of adults. Here, the only hope for the world is in the hands of the children. The adults are corrupt and self-serving. The ones that are on the side of good have lost all control of the situation and despite their decades of planning and building of counter-measures, they are impotent when the shit hits the fan. Tetsuo’s friends need to come to his aid, but they can’t do much either. In the end, it’s little kids who understand the situation well enough to actually stop it.
52. Das Leben der Anderen (Germany 2006)
Director: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
Hauptmann Wiesler is a loyal and capable agent of Stasi. He knows a wide variety of techniques, not only the tools, but also how to get into the heads of his targets. He is a feared man, but at the same time it would also seem like fear is the only thing keeping him in line. He doesn’t show it, but does toe the line very meticulously. He is very good, but just doesn’t seem to have the same passion as he might have once had for the job. When he’s assigned to watch over a writer and his lover, he becomes more and more aware of the politics of the situation when it turns out that high ranking government official wants the pair to be separated so that he can step in and claim the woman. Wiesler first let’s a few little things to slip through, but ends up more and more invested in protecting the them.
If someone was looking at you 24/7 and had an agenda for doing so, what are the chances that they’d find something incriminating? In this regard, the movie is quite topical, except that instead of 100,000 agents and 200,000 informants (in a country of 16 million people), we have various ways of automating the surveillance (Internet behavior, ubiquitous facial recognition software, listening through the various microphones in our lives and so forth). China even has Social Credit System, which doesn’t even require enforcement, as it basically reinforces itself through forcing people to act a certain way to keep the score high, including ditching friends with low scores, which is a completely new form of government sponsored peer pressure.
This movie might be historical now, but it is not something we should be forgetting. Our democratically elected leaders seem to forlorn for excuses to be exactly like Stasi here. It’s very possible that I’m flagged for this very writing in some form of list somewhere. Am I an enemy of the state? No. Would it be easy to paint me as such? Very.
Wiesler is an interesting case. He is very observant and unlike many others around him, he has managed to keep some remnants of ideology. On the other hand, his life seems hollow. He only has his work, which he doesn’t even seem to take that much pride in. He is just an automaton that performs a function. He does it very well and efficiently, but that is his whole life. But he has an arc. We begin to see little cracks here and there. At one point a kid asks whether he is a member of Stasi. He asks whether the kid even knows what Stasi is. When the kid answers that Stasi are people who take other people away, Wiesler’s initial instinct is to ask for the name of the father, but he manages to fight it. This is how people feel about Stasi and that’s the simplified version the kid has adopted. Does that mean that the father needs to be interrogated? Well, in order to maintain the terror, sure. From an ethical point of view, no. We see other glimpses of change as well. At one point Wiesler steps into a bar. Initially he just orders a water, but then quickly changes it into a vodka, double.
The point of Stasi is not to know everything either. It’s largely just about giving the illusion that they know everything. Just by dropping some little piece of information at the right moment, they can keep the people in line (although they do know a lot – at one point they call in an expert on typewriters, who can recite which writer uses which machine from memory). It’s also about controlling information. When the writer is actually pushed into doing something illegal, he writes a piece on suicides, as they weren’t something discussed openly. And they managed to hide the rate. For the longest time, we in Finland thought we had the highest rate in the world, but after the fall of the Iron Curtain (and better statistics from Africa), we found out that we are ranked 32nd (which is still the second worst in what we would formerly think of as the West). Our rate is even know just half of that in Russia.
The movie in itself is a great thriller, with a very unexpected human element. Besides drama and thriller, IMDb lists it as a mystery, but there is no mystery involved. We, as the viewer, know pretty much everything and Wiesler is aware of much of it as well. There are some suspenseful moments, but they are not nearly as intriguing as Wiesler.
51. Kind Hearts and Coronets (United Kingdom 1949)
Director: Robert Hamer
Louis is a scion of noble family, but since his mother was banished from among them, Louis has lived in relative poverty. After his mother dies, Louis decides that it was her family’s fault, and since there is a special dispensation to allow the title of a duke held by the family to be inherited by the female members, Louis finds himself in the line of succession. All he needs to do is to get rid of the eight people before him.
I guess the movie is best remembered for the octuple role by Alec Guinness, who plays all of the family Louis needs to kill, but this is somewhat unfortunate, as the movie is great with or without his splendid performances, which do make each of the family members quite distinct. They are also the funniest part of the movie.
The movie is quite restrained. It is humorous, but never in a laugh-out-loud manner. Obviously, with subject matter such as this, it is also clearly a black comedy. It’s actually quite an early black comedy. There were some before this, like Arsenic and Old Lace, but that movie feels more like a part of the screwball comedy tradition than that of black comedy, but at the same time, new subgenres don’t arise from nothing.
The movie was black enough to warrant six minutes of cuts under the Hays Code in the US. By today’s standards it’s actually very mild in the sense that there is no violence. Deaths happen off-screen. Today Louis would have to kill at least a few of them with his hands (although I guess the more violent approach would also be branded a horror comedy), but here a more tactful approach works just fine.
50. The Nightmare Before Christmas (United States 1993)
Director: Henry Selick
Jack Skellington, the king of Halloween, is bored with doing the same thing every year. While singing about this he discovers a portal to various other holiday lands, so he decides to try his hand at something else, namely Christmas. In order to do this, he kidnaps Santa and goes for the rounds himself, which doesn’t exactly go to plan.
After a rocky start, where Disney tried to distance itself from it, this movie has received a lot of love. It’s been re-released many times in a time where re-releases are rare, it was the first stop-motion movie to be converted into 3D and Disney decided that producing a sequel would take away from the magic of the original, so for once they didn’t do it. There’s even a tribute to the soundtrack with artists such as Marilyn Manson and Korn. And why not? As Halloween has been diffusing itself into various countries through pop culture, we sort of need artifacts like this. Things that convey the spirit of the occasion. It uses various Halloween tropes, but has fun with them. We don’t actually find many of these things scary anyhow, so why not approach them light-heartedly?
And light-hearted it is. With Danny Elfman’s energetic music (and he’s also the singing voice for Jack) and the weird Burton (who wrote the story and characters, as well as produced, but did not direct) cast of characters, even a grinch like me sort of warms up to Christmas. Not really, but sort of. The movie is often morbid, but in a way even the kids can laugh at. Many of the supposedly scary things are actually cute. Many of the actually scarier things are just hinted at in dialogue or the songs (vampires sucking blood or children playing with heads of dead people).
I am somewhat unsure of the moral of the story. If we are supposed to think that you should be happy with what you have, than I think it’s problematic. On the other hand, it is true that most of us would be happier with the problems we have, which we’ve learned to live with, than those of someone else. Some would say that it’s a children’s movie, so we shouldn’t take it too seriously, but children are the most easily manipulated, meaning that we should be most careful with what messages we present to them.
The movie did sort of bring attention to the stop-motion animation as a method of making movies. Not that there have been many since than, but some. Making these things takes such a long time and this wasn’t such a huge hit that they aren’t plentiful even now. We did get James and the Giant Peach in 1996, Corpse Bride by Burton in 2005, Coraline in 2009 and Burton finally got to make Frankenweenie, a short from his early career, into a feature. There’s others, such as the Wes Anderson animal movies Fantastic Mr. Fox and Isle of Dogs, and various clay/puppet movies from Aardman. It seems like something certain artists are very interested in, but as it’s risky, it’s never going to be that popular. Sadly. The method does have a unique feel to it.