I see nightmares of suicide, I see tales of abandonment, survival, and grief. I see psychos and murderers, and potential world destruction. Oh, it’s just another ten movies with the female of the species sitting in the director’s chair.
Meshes of the Afternoon (1943) – Maya Deren — Robin Write @WriteoutofLA
Maya Deren was one of a kind, a creative thinker and executor of dance movement, photography, film theory, the written word. Her most famous, accessible accomplishment was the short film Meshes of the Afternoon. I say accessible not referring to the content of the piece by the way (Lynch and Hitchcock loved this I expect). Experimental, surrealist, avant-garde, however you want to label it (the super-talented Deren earned those terms for herself), the mere quarter of an hour film challenged standard narrative cinema long before most of us even knew what it as. Deren plays the woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown herself, haunted through her own day-to-day routine. Where a key can drop down stone steps, and later be pulled from your mouth. A knife that keeps turning up, immediately implying deep, dark fear and dread – in some ways more effective than what we experience so frequently today in cinema. There are dark, clear shadows, sharp pans of the camera that manipulate the space, some fine editing jolting the very concept of time – somehow reminiscent of those dreams were you can never quite reach the thing you’re chasing. The mirror-face figure only contributes to its eerie nature. Meshes of the Afternoon was made with Deren’s second husband Alexander Hammid, and also features a nerve-jangling score by third husband Teiji Ito, which was added years later.
American Psycho (2000) – Mary Harron — Marshall Flores @IPreferPi314
Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho – the infamously lurid critique of American capitalism and consumer culture – was something I thought was completely unfilmable. Ellis’ satirical vivisection of the materialistic, shallow narcissism of the 80’s was a rich read, but there was just so much grotesque depravity permeating the world of serial killer Patrick Bateman. I strongly felt any honest adaptation of “Psycho” would not survive the scrutiny of film censors. But after a decade of development and multiple directors/stars attached, director Mary Harron (along with screenwriter Guinevere Turner) delivered a first-rate adaptation in 2000. Combined with a tour-de-force performance from Christian Bale, Harron’s “Psycho” stays true to its perverse roots while also excising Ellis’ excesses (and avoiding the wrath of the MPAA). With this “less is more” approach, Ellis’ caustic commentary on the “greed is good” decade is strengthened and focused. Harron and Turner also insert in a feminist subtext not present in the novel – all the male characters are interchangeable, soulless corporate vipers; only the female characters have some shred of humanity. That said, Harron certainly doesn’t shy away from detailing Bateman’s depravities on-screen, instilling a glossy, horror chic visual style appropriate to the setting. For example, the now-legendary scene where Bateman murders Paul Allen to “Hip to Be Square” isn’t explicitly gory, but the shiny, designer-looking axe, the crimson geyser spraying on Bateman’s face after the first whack, Bateman’s sitting on his couch half-drenched in blood while lighting a cigar – the entire scene plays like a horror yuppie funhouse depiction of Jackson Pollack at work. A dazzling, unforgettable moment that successfully evokes both shock and laughs — just like the rest of the film.
Ratcatcher (1999) – Lynne Ramsay — Robin Write @WriteoutofLA
Set in a Glasgow in transitional turmoil during the early 1970s, Lynne Ramsay’s incredible, bleak Ratcatcher looks and feels like a film made by someone at the peak of their game – this is Ramsay’s debut feature, which makes it feel even more accomplished. From it’s sucker punch opening trauma, part of the director’s task is to keep the story compelling enough throughout the remaining ninety minutes following that heavily emotional pinnacle. Dredging through the misery of, and adapting to, the journey of fresh grief is handled assuring by Ramsay, taking her time with the`everyday recovery, primarily from the point of view of the young boy James. He feels responsible, and has to go about his childhood business in unfamiliar territory, forced to experience feelings even adults struggle to cope with. Ramsay takes James on a learning curve, as kids do, the stepping stones from trying beer for the first time, to the intrigue in the comfort of an older girl, to taunting with the big boys. Somber this is for sure, given the down-trodden landscape and the horrid circumstances of loss, but Ramsay carries the whole thing along with a somehow inspiring sense of progression and optimism. Children still want to know more about the world they live in, even in the hardest of times – that final smile feeds our heart with just the faith we might need.
The most telling trait that The Savages carries with it, besides being a wicked top-shelf black comedy, is how human it carries itself – not just in its story but most importantly, with its characters. Siblings Jon and Wendy Savage have the difficult task of finding out and taking care of their increasingly senile father while they deal with the difficulties of their own lives as a college professor and a playwright respectively. As 2007 was a banner year in American cinema (especially on the independent front), Jenkins’ multi-layered writing and nuanced direction was up there among the best. The portrayal of generational abandonment and fracture within a family is harrowing to watch – what’s the best way to take care of a father when he needs it who never took care of his children when they needed it? But the performances by two master New York thespians by Linney and Hoffman anchor the portrayal and that question with such realism. Despite how hard the situation is, and the siblings are hard on each other as well, the love Wendy and Jon have for each other is apparent, from helping each other through their individual and tumultuous love lives to the last shot of them together hugging as Jon catches a cab. Oscar-nominated for Best Actress and Original Screenplay, Jenkins’ film is an incredible text on the multitude of levels that it delves into.
Deep Impact (1996) – Mimi Leder — Robin Write @WriteoutofLA
You may think you know director Mimi Leder from the movies, but it is more likely you recognize the name from countless works on television, most notably China Beach and ER. Her filmography is actually only five features long. I’ve heard mixed things about the likes of The Peacemaker and Pay It Forward, but her most cinematic, crowd-pleasing film has to be Deep Impact, made in the late nineties by which time the disaster film was always a stone’s throw away. Leder’s big budget effort (penned by Bruce Joel Rubin and Michael Tolkin no less) packs quite a few punches in the entertainment arena, somehow remaining one of the more compelling, valid – can we say scientifically accurate – pictures of that genre surge. And a diverse, likable cast mixes kids (Elijah Wood, Leelee Sobieski), flavors of that time (Téa Leoni, James Cromwell), and acting veterans (Robert Duvall, Vanessa Redgrave). The tension and adrenaline of such end of world tragedy is fast-balled, while the finale offers some true hope in the message that we can rebuild our planet. And Morgan Freeman as the President of the United States, well, we all had that dream.
Originally posted August 2015.