In lieu of “real” art, movie posters are featured on the walls of my living room. (My ceilings aren’t high enough for James Ensor’s “Christ’s Entry into Brussels in 1889″; plus, wouldn’t it take like a million dollars to buy that piece from the Getty?) The posters represent films that have impacted me greatly as a viewer and/or as writer. I’ve seen them multiple times, so they’re highly recommended. To you. Yes, you.
The Band’s Visit (2007). Whenever I stumble across an absolutely pitch-perfect, flawless comedy like The Band’s Visit, it makes me want to hunt down anyone who’s every made a crappy film that’s supposed to be funny and yell, “You are an idiot for thinking you know how to make movies!” And then I want to track down all the actors in those movies and scream, “You are an insult to humanity for thinking you’re funny!”
The many awards that The Band’s Visit has won at festivals around the world (including at Cannes) don’t even come close to doing justice to this small film about an Egyptian police band that ends up stranded in the wrong town when they go to Israel to play a concert at an Arab Cultural Center. While it may seem that the film is a political one (indeed, it was banned in Egypt because the Egyptians and Israelis in the movie effortlessly commingle), The Band’s Visit is primarily about everyday people and their longing for love and connection.
If you want to be an actor, it would behoove you to study the droll and wry perfection and comic timing by every single person in this movie, from the leads right down to the last supporting character. And if you want to be a filmmaker, go out on a quest to find writer/director Eran Kolirin (who spent nine years writing the script) and beg him to teach you everything he knows not only about cinema but about life.
Aside from the laughs, The Band’s Visit is chock full of deeply moving characters, scenes, and metaphors that in and of themselves are remarkable acts of transcendence.
The trailer doesn’t quite capture the hysterically funny and sometimes sad heart of the movie, but it will have to do:
The Fall (2006). It’s not an exaggeration to say that The Fall generously offers some of the most original, arresting, and rapturous images ever committed to film. Director Tarsem’s labor of love—it took four years to make in 18 different countries, in between commercial-directing gigs—tells the epic tale of five mythical, mismatched, anachronistic heroes who travel stunning landscapes and get into fantastical scrapes in order to seek revenge upon the evil Governor Odious.
Those who dismiss the movie see it as over- and self-indulgent, obsessively embracing style over substance. But those who love it see substance dripping off every shot of this beautiful and deeply affecting film.
The adventure is framed by the smaller story of an American stuntman (terrifically played by Pushing Daisies’ Lee Pace) and a Romanian girl (the amazing Catinca Untaru) in a 1920s Los Angeles hospital and their tender friendship—he’s the one who spins her this epic yarn, and, in exchange, she sneaks him drugs he’s not supposed to have.
One broken man’s redemption through the love a child is moving and gratifying, sure, but Tarsem (working with co-writers Dan Gilroy and Nico Soultanakis) is getting at something more—an intriguing statement about the art of storytelling (for Tarsem, more specifically, it’s about the art of cinema), about the symbiotic relationship between artists and audiences, about artistic ownership, and about how imagination can be more transformative and necessary than truth.
In an age when fake memoirs are the greatest literary controversies of our time, The Fall shuns simplistic questions such as, “Is this story true?” The more apt question, the more timeless question, is, “What is truth?” The Fall is smart enough to ask that question. And it’s even smarter to suggest that coming up with an answer is a shared task—between the movie and you.
Love Songs (Les chansons d’amour) (2007). Although Love Songs is shot on location in Paris (with “extras” in the background who turn to the camera because they don’t even know they’re in the movie) and although it often displays a documentary aesthetic, the film veers far away from the kind of realism you’d expect, instead opting for an alternate French reality in which characters—entangled in straight, bisexual, and gay love affairs, without the burden of those pesky labels—wear their hearts on their sleeves by expressing exactly how they feel through matter-of-fact dialogue and a dozen or so gorgeous, heartfelt pop songs.
Director Christophe Honore and composer Alex Beaupain’s beguiling film is populated by characters who seem emotionally schizophrenic, navigating scenes that wildly shift moods at the drop of a tune. It’s like watching a bipolar musical. And the fact that it doesn’t collapse under the weight of its own naivete and its French New Wave conceits is a wonder. How can a movie mired in melancholy (after all, the entire story hinges on an unexpected tragedy in the first act) also enchant you with its charm, its sense of play, and its thirst for passion? In every way imaginable, Love Songs (which also pays fitting homage, of course, to The Umbrellas of Cherbourg) defies logic—as demonstrated by its audaciously romantic final shot.
Together (2002). Directed and co-written by Chen Kaige (of Farewell My Concubine fame), Together is the unabashedly sentimental but extremely smart and constantly surprising story of a 13-year-old Chinese violin prodigy and his father, trying to make it big in bustling Beijing. It boasts vivid and loving characterizations (you even fall in love with the “villains”), beautiful visuals, layers of meaning (Kaige’s father was a victim of the Cultural Revolution), and an ending that—yes, I’m willing to admit this—made me sob.
Some complained that the movie is overly sentimental, but I think that’s such lazy criticism. The film simply lacks cynicism and possesses a deep and affecting humanity. I remember MPW Director Brighde Mullins once challenging writers to “dare to be sentimental.” It’s an important thing to take into consideration when your aim as an artist is to have some kind of effect on your audience. Remember that there’s a big difference between sentimentality and sloppy manipulation. (But also remember, however, that all art is manipulative.)