If it's crap ... We'll tell you
To anyone who knows me well, there's nothing I enjoy more than being a film buff. If there is a film I enjoy, I research the hell out of it and learn all there is to know about it, as well as all those involved in it. Another thing is seeing more films by that filmmaker to see how they've grown throughout their careers. That can be a fun task in and of itself. One thing I do especially enjoy is seeing a well-regarded filmmaker's first film. It gives you a good sense how they got started, and what they had to say early on. A lot of first films are quite bad, but those aren't the one's I'll be concentrating on today. Mind you, these are simply the films I've seen, and so if your favorite film debut isn't among these, that's probably the reason for their absence. A final note: these are not in any order of best to worse, these are simply just listed alphabetically. Enjoy.
12 Angry Me (Dir. Sidney Lumet, 1957) Not long ago, I was fortunate enough to see the original play, 12 Angry Jurors. What a show that was! The way they did it, and I was always curious about how they would do it, was they had the stage in the center of the room, and we, the audience, were swept into the play. I couldn't think of a better theatrical experience, ever! It's one set, and it's minimalistic. The entire experience is rooted in the raw emotion of each of the characters. Seeing a bigoted juror butt heads with another man is one thing on the screen, but to see that from less than ten feet? My God! It's a whole new thing! Those actors were amateurs, all of them, but damn. I mean damn. You could sense the rising tensions, and you could reach out and touch them. That show has to rank as the greatest theatrical experience of my life. I had seen the film several years ago, and it's been a favorite ever since. This was Sidney Lumet's first film, and the man has had such a great track record ever since. This is the only film on this list to have been based on a play, and not be a film the director hasn't written themselves or in collaboration with someone. The film is a treasure, but if you get the chance to see the play, do it!
American Beauty (Dir. Sam Mendes, 1999) What can I say about this film that hasn't already been said? I mean, really. I am at a loss. This is probably the best drama/comedy I've ever seen. When it's serious, it's serious. And when it's funny, it's funny. It was a very sincere film. This is probably Kevin Spacey's best role. How likable was the character of Lester Burnham? Even when he was being an asshole, we still liked him. At least I did. Maybe I'm weird, I don't know. This is the first film on this list to be written by another writer entirely, save for the original play of 12 Angry Men. The writer for this is Alan Ball, and what a fine job he did! I actually got to read the shooting script for this, and I was very impressed with it. Again, I won't go into it too much, as others have already divulged into this film better than I could.
Blood Simple (Dir. The Coen Brothers, 1984) Are there any directors like the Coen Brothers? The closest I can think of is Tarantino. They share qualities. They have the same sick and twisted sense of humor, and they love to delay violence. Here is another film with a small cast and a plot that makes the audience seem dwarfed by its magnitude. I would almost classify this as a zombie movie due to the fact that the same guy gets shot and is thought dead at least five times. I can't make something like that up. It's like he was being shout with a tranquilizer gun, and was just asleep for a period of time. This film also marks the first collaboration with actress Frances McDormand, who went on to marry Joel Coen. Also present is M. Emmet Walsh in what is one of the best performances I've seen as a greedy and frightening Private Investigator. This film is another prime example of what can be done if you utilize your surroundings well.
Bottle Rocket (Dir. Wes Anderson, 1996) Quite the interesting film here. Again, not my favorite, but I did like it. The cool thing about this is that it started out as a 13-minute short film that Wes shot with his friends and showed it at Sundance and got financing to turn it into a feature. I was fortunate enough to see the original, and it's nearly a mirror image of the final product. I know if it were me, I would be tempted to redo a lot of stuff if I knew I would get help from the pros. But, hey, that's me. This is a fairly accurate preview of Anderson's work to come; what with the music cues and image symmetry that make his films such a delight to experience.
Citizen Kane (Dir. Orson Wells, 1941) How could I resist? Orson Wells' first film that is notorious as the greatest film of all time stands alone. No other film has come close to this one. I'm shocked that this is an original story, and that it was told so well. From mind-blowing cinematography (Wells shared his Director's title card with the Director of Photography) to the level of depth it contained (The cryptic meaning of Rosebud). I read into this like crazy. I've only viewed this once, but that was enough to leave an impact on me. I won't go any further, as others can go further in depth better than I can. You really should see this of you haven't already.
Citizen Ruth (Dir. Alexander Payne, 1996) I have long since been a fan of Alexander Payne. I cannot remember my first viewing experience, but I do know that I wanted more ever since. Citizen Ruth was, ironically, his film I've seen most recently. This stands apart from his other films in that it's the only one not to be based off a novel. An guess what? It's just as good as his other films. Even better in some aspects. Don't believe me? The film is centered around Laura Dern portraying a paint thinner-huffing loser named Ruth. The film starts out with her having sex with some guy. We learn that she has four children, all of them taken from her, as she is unfit to raise them. She is arrested again, and a judge familiar with her learns that she is pregnant again. He tells her that he will be more lenient on her if she gets an abortion, sparing the child from certain misery. A right-wing pro-choice group finds out about this, and make a media spectacle of themselves. What ensues is a tug-of-war game between the pro-life and pro-choice groups. Both sides make their cases known to Ruth, and the pot is sweetened by the offering of cash to not have an abortion, and their offer to raise it for her. In my opinion, the best counter offer is made by pro-choice activist Harlan, played by M.C. Gainey. After the pro-life group offers the cash, he matches the offer out of his own pocket, so that the decision is no longer about the money, rather her own will. An action I remember well today, because rarely is an action like that seen on screen. I think of all the films I've seen, this contains probably my favorite ending. The last shot is nearly symbolic, but you really have to see it for yourselves.
Clerks (Dir. Kevin Smith, 1994) A film about two guys going to work at a dead-end 9-to-5. Who would've thought that that concept could be worked out the way they did it? Not I. I want to say I saw Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back on TV one night, and couldn't stop laughing. I immediately searched my library's network for anything Kevin Smith-related, and I came upon Clerks. What a funny film. I mean really. How can you not laugh at someone finding out his girlfriend has blown 37 guys. (“In a row?”) This film was made for $28,000; which came from Smith selling a large portion of his comic book collection and maxing out several credit cards. What was so great about this movie was probably the dialogue and situations for me. Yeah, these guys are working bum jobs, but they close the place to attend a wake which they inadvertently ruin. And they play hockey on the roof with a group of friends. How great is that? Add to that the fact that there is no supervision. They do whatever they want, and isn't that what we all wish we could do? I know that's the case for me. Smith's later films are kind of hit-or-miss with critics and audiences alike, but this film just proves time and time again that he knew what he was doing. While not the greatest film ever made, I can enjoy the hell out of it every time I view it.
Cronos (Dir. Guillermo Del Toro, 1993) It's been a while since I've seen this film, and when I saw it, I wasn't aware that this was Del Toro's first film. And what a film it was! From what I remember. If memory serves, it was a sort of vampire movie unlike other vampire flicks, which is a good thing. I believe an older man finds the Cronos device, which sticks him with a needle injecting him with a youth serum, making him progressively younger. The youth effect on him was like a drug. He couldn't get enough of it. A corporate head is also after the device as he is dying. His henchman is played by Ron Perlman, who speaks English in the Spanish language film as I recall. I could be wrong about these details. All I really remember was liking the film a lot, and due to my inability to recall the details, I may need to see this again.
El Mariachi (Dir. Robert Rodriguez, 1992) This probably ranks as my favorite film in this list. First off, here's a great character in a really fun story. A case of mistaken identity involving a guitar case full of weapons. How great is that? You can really appreciate the film more if you know some background of it. Rodriguez pimps his body out to science by way of a drug research center for one month for a $7,000 (roughly) payday, finds one of his villains in the same facility, and makes an action film in under three weeks all under the pretense of selling it to the Spanish home video market. There was no intention for anyone to actually see it. It was made so he could practice his technique, and make a sequel or two off the profits. And what happened? He gets his tape into the hands of a talent agent, and that sets off a whirlwind no one saw coming: Everyone who saw it loved it. It goes to a ton of film festivals, and kills. All of this culminates in him having one of the most envied careers on the planet. His film was shot in what is now referred to as “Mariachi Style,” in which one guy does pretty much everything. Lighting, sound, camera, music, you name it. This inspired so many people to stop dreaming of making a film and actually go out and make one. His strategy? Use what he had. Figure out all the stuff you have access to, and write your script around that. Easy, right? If you want to read up on how he did it, read his book Rebel Without a Crew. It's a guaranteed great read, and you'll have even more appreciation for the guy.
Eraserhead (Dir. David Lynch, 1977) I just saw this movie quite recently, and was very impressed. It is hard to be a David Lynch fan due to the fact that his films are often obscure, and he refuses to indulge into his films. In a way I hate and respect him at the same time. On one hand, I have to sit through a two hour mindfuck with no explanation about plot or coherency. On the other, he makes it a point to interpret the material for yourselves, and that's pretty great. Everyone can walk away from his films with a different experience. What's really great about this movie is the opportunities that came from it. George Lucas was such a fan that he offered Lynch the chance to direct The Empire Strikes Back. That would've made for a very interesting movie, given Lynch's minimalistic dialogue and meticulous sound design. It's also a given that a few people would've had a hellish dream sequence. Now that I think about it, that may have been George Lucas' inspiration for Luke's vision of his own head in Darth Vader's helmet. Not quite as hallucinogenic as Lynch's dream sequences, but weird nonetheless. Another opportunity was Mel Brooks having Lynch direct The Elephant Man. It's been a while since I've seen it, but if memory serves, it was probably his film that made the most sense. In a nutshell, if compared to the majority of his future endeavors, David Lynch's Eraserhead was a promising portrait of things to come.
Following (Dir. Christopher Nolan, 1998) Damn, how I love Christopher Nolan. I mean it. The guy has yet to disappoint me. I rented this film on the basis of his more well-known works, as well as the curiosity of seeing what he could do with limited resources. I must say, I am thoroughly impressed with this one. What can I say? The man is resourceful as hell. He utilized the houses of his parents and friends better than anything I've seen. The plot is simplistic, but complex at the same time. It may seem fairly straightforward for the first twenty minutes maybe, but after that, then we're on a roll. When Cobb explains to our unnamed hero why he takes the stuff he does from a person's house, that is when the plot delves deeper into the unknown. I'll admit, I was a bit bored for the first five to ten minutes, but I was pulled in when they upped the ante. It's a psychological thriller first and a crime film second. Told in what has become Nolan's calling card, a non-linear plot, it works better here than some others I could name. Shot on gritty 16mm in London utilizing only available light, Following paints a beautiful picture of mystery, deception, and the quest for the truth. If you are able to find a place to rent this from, I strongly recommend you do.
Hard Eight (Dir. Paul Thomas Anderson, 1996) Wow. Just wow. I had seen a couple of P.T. Anderson's movies before this, and loved the hell out of them. I didn't find out that much about the history of this movie, but I know I want to find out about it. I mean, there are essentially four characters we spend time with, and it feels like an epic. I doubt the budget for this was large, but man, did it feel big. If I should be fortunate enough to meet P.T. Anderson, the question I would have is “Just how the hell did you come up with that first twenty minutes?” That could be a film in and of itself and I would be satisfied. But what happens afterwards is one of the greatest crime dramas I've ever seen. A friend and I sat down to watch it one day, and we agreed: this contained Samuel L. Jackson's best performance since Pulp Fiction. Sounds like a stretch? See it for yourself. The sad part is that it's apparently out of print. I for one, would love to see the Criterion Collection put out a print along with a booklet divulging into the film's history. So many twists and turns I never saw coming, along with the most promising feature debut I've seen in a while. This remains a favorite of mine, merely for the fact that it's so inspiring. Four people in one city playing out a story that makes you feel overwhelmed by it's size and intrigue.
Pi (Dir. Darren Aronofsky, 1998) This is a strange film. Very strange. Like Lynch's first opus, Pi doesn't explain a whole lot despite a voice-over narration. We understand that our hero, Maximillian, is a math genius. From what I gather, he has figured out a way to predict the stock market from an equation he has created. We are made aware that a Wall Street firm is trying to entice him to work for them so they can do some insider trading. Another group that wants to recruit Max is a group of Hasidic Jews who perform mathematical research of the Torah. They are interested in a 216-digit number Max's computer spat out that they believe is the coded true name of God. Max is cursed with migraines throughout the film and subsequently we get a flash of white light as if to symbolize enlightenment. Again, very weird, but at the same time very engaging. This film is a prime example of a director's future works. Aronofsky loves to divulge into his characters' psyche in all of his films. Sometimes we want to go along for the ride, sometimes we don't. No one ever said we'd like where we went. Here, Aronofsky offers no apology for what we see, but I don't feel we need one.
Reservoir Dogs (Dir. Quentin Tarantino, 1992) I have loved every single Tarantino film ever made. This is probably my least favorite. Mostly, I'm sure, because his style was a bit unpolished. That's my opinion anyway. Also, it's paced a tad slower than his later films, but again, he developed his style from there. I still like it, and it's a lot of fun. I, for one, will never be able to listen to “Stuck in the Middle with You” without picturing Mr. Blonde with a straight razor in hand. A pretty decent first look into Tarantino's twisted mind, and a promising sign of things to come.
Say Anything... (Dir. Cameron Crowe, 1989) I've only just seen this film, and boy, what an impact. Aside from the fact that it was made in the same year and city I was born in, it was just an all-around great film. It starts the the usual scenario of guy likes girl. She's out of his league, but she goes out with him anyway. The great thing about John Cusack's character is that he is genuine. He isn't putting up a fake image just to get into her pants. He likes her, and she likes him. They connect, and that's what the story is about. Most high school or romance films in general are all about how the couple expresses their feelings for each other. In most films, it is shown as the two culminate their relationship by making love. That is usually the high points of those types of movies, because as like the real thing, after it happens, not much else follows. What I liked about this one is that there isn't even a large focus on the fact that they've had sex. The daughter mentions it almost in passing to her father, who is upset, but understands more after she tells him that she loves the guy. The two are slightly changed by sex, but that isn't the focal point of the story. It still remains about the connection between them. That's the thing I've come to enjoy about Crowe's films. He cares more about the connections between people than anything. That's how his stories are told, and that's why they're so wonderful. I've seen all his films, and liked them. Some more than others, but that's not the point. The point is that the guy knows how to tell a story, and tell it well. Add to that the fact that all the soundtracks from his films are incredible. The stories and the music are almost poetry. They shape the work, and move the story along quite beautify. It's a shame not many people can write human connections the way Crowe has proven himself exceptional at.
sex, lies & videotape (Dir. Steven Soderbergh, 1989) The thing about this film is that as a child, I had seen so many episodes of TV shows that parodied the title, I had no idea what the actual film was about. Now that I think about it, I wouldn't have understood what it was about anyways. The film is strange in and of itself. It's very slow in pace, but for what the subject matter is, the speed works to effect. It's a drama involving the infidelities of a married couple. The husband is the one who actually cheats with his wife's sister, but he gets furious when he thinks his wife has cheated on him with his old best friend who has recently come back into his life. The irony is this: his wife never cheated. She simply talked with the friend on videotape regarding sex. Soderbergh is one of those directors who never makes the same thing twice. He is more interested in how to tell a story vs. what the story is. Great film. Great director.
Well, I hope you guys enjoyed remembering these films as much as I did. And in case you haven't seen the premiere works of your favorite filmmaker(s), be sure to check them out. Until next time. Take care.