By Nina Heyn- Your Culture Scout
For holidays, we bring our 12 Christmas Movie Gifts – as diverse as a partridge in a pear tree and maids a milking would be. The only criteria for a recommendation were that movies had to be entertaining (a value much neglected in a majority of films) and a fruit of professional excellence in filmmaking, research, acting or an intellectual concept.
You may already know some of these movies while some you may have missed, but here is my eclectic list of interesting movies for holiday watching. Enjoy!
1. Artist documentary – a tie between BE NATURAL (2018) and PAVAROTTI (2019)
Be Natural is a biography of one of the first filmmakers – ever. Alice Guy-Blaché was a contemporary of Louis Meliès and the Lumière Brothers – the pioneers who launched an art of moving pictures in Paris in 1895. Alice was right there, making her first film a year later in 1896, and creating altogether over a thousand pictures (about 150 of them survived) – surpassing Lumière and Meliès in every possible way. She was also the first female filmmaker. She lived long enough to see all of her movies lost, forgotten or attributed to other, usually male, artists, and her achievements wiped out from cinema history textbooks. The movie, brilliantly narrated by Jodie Foster and directed with a panache by Pamela B. Green, tries to reverse this process of oblivion by locating long-lost footage and archival interviews.
Pavarotti is a documentary of the greatest opera singer from the turn of this century, full of clips from his most memorable performances. It is directed by Ron Howard (Apollo 13, The Da Vinci Code) – one of the most accomplished feature directors who knows his way around any narrative. Famous arias make a counterpoint to Pavarotti’s life making it a complex portrait of a larger than life figure. A treat for opera lovers.
2. Current Affairs: BOMBSHELL (2019)
Ripped from headline news, it’s a slightly fictionalized account of the 2016 lawsuit of Fox News anchor Gretchen Carlson against the all-powerful Roger Ailes. While this network and its anchors are extremely controversial, the very subject of harassment is what makes this movie worth seeing. A fast and ironic style of narration, and performances by Charlize Theron (who also produced), Nicole Kidman and Margot Robbie make it an easy watch.
3. Politics – VICE (2018)
Vice was praised as The 2018 Solari Report’s Movie of the Year and it still holds as a brilliant way of telling a true political story in an entertaining and insightful way. Director Adam McKay has a gift of turning the pages of political news and financial reports into a fascinating action story with added comic relief. A story of Dick Cheney’s power takeover is replete with narrative tricks to keep the audience entertained while a chilling political commentary unfolds.
4. Crime mystery FOYLE’S WAR (2002-2015 TV show)
Although Foyle, played in an understated way by Michael Kitchen, is a classic “detective who always gets his man,” the British police show is set in unusual circumstances. Foyle becomes a police inspector in a seaside town of Hastings at the beginning of WWII. This means that his crime investigations will unearth German spies, war profiteers, draft dodgers, and criminals taking advantage of chaos created by air raids. Filmmakers recreated England of 1940’s that has now completely disappeared – food and clothing coupons that were used even after the war, women at farms and factories who were “disinvited’ from jobs as soon as the war ended, the technologies of yesterday – mechanical typewriters, coal stoves, wooden farm implements. In this richly reconstructed world, Foyle solves clever riddles while championing his female driver and worrying about his RAF pilot son who defends London skies.
5. Superhero story: WONDER WOMAN (2017)
In the vast universe of cinematic superheroes, there aren’t that many females. Wonder Woman can blow an army out of the sky but she is also a goddess with a good heart – how many of those you have seen on screen. A sequel of this blockbuster will come out in June 2020 so it’s time to check out the original.
6. Spy Tale: TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY (2011)
The movie’s excellence matches its literary source of John le Carré’s novel. Gary Oldman incarnates George Smiley, a spymaster at British MI6 who uses his unorthodox methods to root out a Russian mole from his organization. This novel has been adapted to screen before but this is the most recent and most accomplished. Star cast includes the cream of British male actors: John Hurt, Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Hardy and Mark Strong.
7. Oldie but Goodie Action: RONIN (1998)
If you want to be reminded of some good craftsmanship in cinema, John Frankenkeimer (The Manchurian Candidate) delivered it in this classic heist movie. Robert de Niro and Jean Reno light up the screen as two professionals whose veteran spy skills come into play when trying to take possession of a mysterious silver case. Some of the best car chase scenes ever, Mission Impossible and Bruckheimer /Bay actioners notwithstanding. Since The Irishman just came out with digitally de-aged de Niro, it’s a treat to see him at his true younger self 20 years ago. David Mamet doctored the script to give de Niro the best one-liners.
8. Drama contender for the Awards season: FAREWELL (2019)
When director Lulu Wang’s grandmother fell ill, the family downplayed the gravity of the situation, compassionately trying to spare her the stress. Wang decided to fictionalize this real-life situation, hiring rapper and actress Aquafina (Crazy Rich Asians,Ocean’s Eight) to star as a young, rootless N.Y. woman who travels to China to visit her beloved grandma while trying to keep from her the real purpose of this farewell journey. A beautiful movie that says more about the emotional toll of emigration that many well-meaning documentaries.
9. Historical Adventure – The PHYSICAN (2013)
An underappreciated exotic tale of a young Englishman in the Middle Ages whose thirst for medical knowledge takes him to Persia. He pretends to be of different faith since Christians are not allowed to live in the kingdom. Reversals of fortune, Middle Eastern opulence, and a medical mystery make this for a light entertainment, suitable for older school kids.
10. Foreign Drama – a tie between COLD WAR (2018) and ASH IS PUREST WHITE (2018)
Cold War does take place during the 1960’s polarization of East and West but rather than being overtly political, it is a romantic drama of star-crossed lovers. If you like moody European love stories – this one is exceptional.
Ash is Purest White comes from the other side of the globe, directed by Jia Zhangke – a filmmaker famous for his documentary approach to cinematic portraits of modern China. This is also a movie about an impossible love. A woman starts out as a gangster moll since this is the only option available to her in a post-industrial wasteland of China countryside in the 90’s. Her loyalty and sacrifice almost destroy her life until she manages to change, mirroring the transformation of the new Chinese society.
11. Comedy – a tie between A FISH CALLED WANDA (1988) or OCEAN’S EIGHT (2018)
The best comedies are usually the ones that are still funny after many years. A Fish Called Wanda, starring John Cleese, Kevin Kline and Jamie Lee Curtis, is this kind of comedy. Full of visual gags and fearlessly quirky characters, the story centers on a mismatched team of robbers who try to double-cross each other.
If you prefer something more recent, check out Ocean’s Eight, a female version of the Ocean’s Eleven franchise. The plot centers on an audacious caper of stealing a collection of jewels during a MET Fashion Gala, but the real jewels here are comedic interactions between the eight ladies of crime and a clever plot. The movie also features celebrity cameos and fabulous clothing.
12. A movie for art lovers- KAGEMUSHA (1980)
Ever since Akira Kurosawa’s film Rashomon won a Golden Lion at Venice in 1952, filmmakers and audiences in the West have been inspired by this Japanese artist. His masterpiece Seven Samurai was remade as The Magnificent Seven, and his Hidden Fortress inspired George Lucas to create Star Wars. The filmmaker was less revered in his native Japan, and by 1970’s it took the joint clout of Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola to enable Kurosawa’s comeback into the world cinema. Kagemusha is the result – a war epic and a tale of an impostor who pretends to be a warlord. Kurosawa was a painter in his youth, and in his movies every frame looks like a painting. Five years later, Kurosawa followed this movie with Ran – his samurai version of King Lear which is equally spectacular.