I managed to crack off a few from the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list recently. So to speak. And ended up with an unexpected entry on my best of the year list…
The Heartbreak Kid*, Elaine May (1972, USA). I think I’ve said before that some of the picks for the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die are, quite frankly, baffling, and this is certainly one of them. There you are on your deathbed, and you’re thinking about the movies you wished you’d got around to seeing… and a smug comedy about a man who abandons his wife on their honeymoon to run off with a younger, and WASPier, woman, with no guarantee of a relationship, can hardly be near the top of the list. True, this is a Neil Simon script, although I’ve never really understood his appeal, and a female director, and it’s a very American Jewish story but… Charles Grodin is an up-and-coming sporting goods salesman in New York. Like every young man his age, Jewish or Gentile, his life revolves around relationships with women. He meets a young woman, also Jewish. They get married. And go to Florida for their honeymoon. Where Grodin meets Sybill Shepard. He splits with his wife and follows Shepard back home to Minnesota, declares his undying love, and eventually persuades her father to let him marry her. At which point he realises he has given up his life and culture for something he never really understood and cannot relate to. And, to be honest, it’s hard for the viewer to care. The story is so universal the Jewish elements seem almost irrelevant. They could, in fact, have applied to any self-identified cultural group in the US. True, the Minnesotans’ (#NotAllMinnesotans…) antisemitism is laid bare as the plot unfolds – and the fact of its existence likely comes as little surprise to anyone who watches this film. It’s like the old bloke at bus stop who complains that there were no black people in the UK when he was growing up. He’s a racist; he’ll always be a racist. That’s hardly a twist ending.
Zero Kelvin*, Hans Petter Moland (1995, Norway). This is much more like a candidate for the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, a Norwegian film set in the 1920s and filmed in the Arctic Circle. A poet in Oslo signs a contract to assist a pair of trappers in Greenland. He ships out there, and meets them – one is a taciturn scientist-type, the others is a rough-and-ready alpha male type. The poet and the alpha male type do not get on very well. The former is friendly with the dogs, the latter mistreats them, because, he claims, if your life depends on them then they’ll respond better if they fear you. A common excuse used by psychopaths. Their – er, the poet and the alpha male, that is, not the dogs – relationship has its ups and down, partly mediated by the scientist. And embalming alcohol. But it all goes horribly wrong, as things do, and their hut burns down, the scientist dies, and the two head off across the arctic waste to the nearest settlement. It’s all pretty intense stuff, and the scenery – it was filmed on Svalbard – is astonishing. After The Heartbreak Kid, this is definitely a film that belongs on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. And Stellan Skarsgård as the trapper is on top form. Worth seeing.
Rust and Bone, Jacques Audiard (2012, France). I’m pretty sure I stuck this on my rental list after seeing a trailer on another disc. Having now seen it, I wonder what it was in the trailer which persuaded me to add it to my list. It’s good film, there’s no doubt about that, the sort of dysfunctional romance the French do so well (in fact, they’re probably the only country to have made a genre of it; indeed some French directors have made entire careers out of it). Matthias Schoenhaerts is a single father with a young son, a drifter and unemployed, who ends up in Antibes. Where he gets a job as a bouncer. Marion Cotillard is a trainer at a marine world, working with orcas. She likes to go out dancing, but gets into a fight at the night-club where Schoenhaerts works. He intervenes, and ends up driving her home. Soon after, there’s an… accident at the marine world, and Cotillard loses both her legs. Her life falls apart, and just about the only person who doesn’t reject her is Schoenhaerts. She accompanies him as he tries to make money bare-knuckle fighting, and thanks to his support she starts putting her life back together. It is, as I said, very French. A well-acted drama, with two good leads, and if not a cheerful story then a well put together one.
Science Fiction Volume 1: The Osiris Child, Shane Abbess (2016, Australia). I’ve no idea where I came across mention of this movie, but I hadn’t known it was Australian until I came to write this. Certainly there are no clues in the film, and all the cast speak with American accents. I have to wonder about that title, however. Science Fiction Volume 1? Although it was apparently retitled Origin Wars in Ireland. For, er, reasons. But that original title has to be a hostage to fortune. I mean, this is bog-standard space opera – in science fiction terms – although the film-makers have done a good job in realising it on screen. A pilot for an off-world military contractor finds himself trapped on Earth when his fighter is shot down, and he must travel to a nearby city to rescue his young daughter. He is captured by an escaped convict, and the two form an unlikely alliance. And there are these genetically-engineered creatures from the prison the guy escaped from, which are out to kill everyone. The Osiris Child‘s biggest problem was that it couldn’t decide what it was: The Force Awakens or a Mad Max movie. It tried for both. It didn’t help that the villains of the story – the genetically-engineered creatures – looked like something out of Dark Crystal. Having said that, there was nothing bad about it. It felt like a mostly unoriginal sf novel that was quite well-written. The special effects were good, the mise en scène effective, the acting quite good… but it all added up to bits and pieces seen before. The director had tried to mix things up by adding a prologue and epilogue, making the film’s main narrative a flashback, but it didn’t quite work. All the same, I’ll keep an eye open for Volume 2.
The Rapture*, Michael Tonkin (1991, USA). Mimi Rogers plays a telephone operator who enlivens her humdrum existence by picking up couples with her partner and engaging in sex. But then one day she is accosted by a pair of earnest young Christian door-knockers, and converts. She converts acquaintance David Duchovny, and the two marry and move away and have a little girl. Some years later, Duchovny is killed when an employee goes postal, so Rogers and kid move to a national park and start living rough. But, convinced the Rapture is near, Rogers kills her daughter. But she cannot kill herself, so she is arrested and put in jail. So far, so humdrum. There are countless stories about people finding God, losing God, finding Him again, losing him again, whatever. And it’s dull as shit. Especially to an atheist. Despite Rogers’s excellent performance, and the generally well-made nature of The Rapture, I’d have written it off as a well-played but uninteresting drama that failed to make a cogent point, except… Tonkin takes it all the way. He totally commits to his concept. The actual Rapture takes place, and Rogers ends up wandering a strange empty wasteland. Her daughter tries to persuade her to forgive God, but she refuses. It’s not unknown for films to take a sudden turn in the final act which totally redeems what has gone before. And, to be fair, the title was probably a big clue. But I hadn’t actually expected it, and it really did make the movie. I suspect it deserves its place on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. Worth seeing.
Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan (2017, UK). I’m not a Christopher Nolan fan. I thought Memento was brilliant, but nothing by him since has impressed me. Interstellar, his film most likely to appeal to me, looked fantastic in parts, but was a horrible mess. Having said that, he’s the nearest thing Hollywood currently has to an auteur, and is successful and powerful enough to pretty much pick his own projects and do them the way he wants to. Which brings us to Dunkirk, a film I had every intention of avoiding. In these days of Brexit, the last thing I wanted to watch was some luvvie-heavy depiction of past glories as some sort of motivational mandate for our current economic death spiral. But I ended up watching it anyway. And it is completely brilliant. Seriously. It has no plot. It’s just the day of the BEF’s evacuation from the beaches of Normandy in mind-numbing and brutal detail. Yes, there are luvvies in it, but not that many; and they don’t have character arcs or narratives, or even overplay their parts. But it’s all so solid on the details – you have guys on fishing boats wearing ties! It doesn’t need to editorialise about the events, they are their own commentary. I don’t how much of the audience were familiar with the actual events, although I suspect most thought of Dunkirk as some sort of British success, which in actual fact it was the final indignity of a failed campaign by the British Expeditionary Force in France. It’s nothing to be proud of. Our army was so badly prepared, they fled in retreat. And we had to use fishing boats to rescue them. “Dunkirk spirit” means failing so badly we have to rewrite history in order to make it a victory. Nolan stitches together a variety of tales from the evacuation, and presents them in convincingly accurate detail. He’s not making a point about Dunkirk and British spirit. He’s just showing what happened. There’s no through-line. I tweeted while watching Dunkirk that it may well be the film of the early twenty-first century as it’s pure spectacle, with no story just pure historical voyeurism – and given the present fad for finding narratives in current affairs, that’s refreshingly contrary. Oh, and the film looks absolutely gorgeous too. I might even invest in my own copy on Blu-ray…
1001 Movies you Must See Before you Die count: 899