Natural Born Killers, 1994

Coming into Natural Born Killers, I associated it with horrific acts of violence like Columbine, but Oliver Stone’s uber-violent satire contains some of the most interesting and arresting visual filmmaking of the project so far. The film explodes with color, and Stone sets the camera adrift, using cocked angles to capture the madness of the narrative. Stone creates a disturbing pastiche of media genres that feels all too relevant in today’s true crime crazy culture.

For my money, the most effective portion of the film is the first half, in which Mickey (Woody Harrelson) and Mallory (Juliette Lewis) go on a killing spree of epic proportions. A psychedelic Bonnie and Clyde, the pair gleefully commits brutal and senseless murders to escape their tormented childhoods. Stone, though, departs from the aforementioned road movie by incorporating black-and-white cinematography, cartoons, commercials, and more to comment on the impact of media.

From this early scene, it is clear that Stone is throwing all traditional rules of realist filmmaking to the wind.

Hitting the screen in the era of O.J. Simpson and the Menendez brothers, Natural Born Killers is an obvious reflection of the mania of the time, and it partially incited the mania of our own time. The “media is to blame for the rise of violent crime” message comes off as a bit heavy handed, particularly with the film’s ending clips of Simpson, Menendez, and even Tonya Harding. Stone’s recycling of commercials, news clips, and even other films as background images, though, provides a much more sly take on his thesis.

Being familiar with Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July, I didn’t expect such an experimental and striking film from Stone. I think of Oliver Stone as a straightforward, if violent, filmmaker, but Natural Born Killers challenged my understanding of his style. The melding together of various genres and formats shook up my film viewing experience in an exciting way.

The chaos of images in the trailer pales in comparison to the wild editing of the film.

With such fast pacing and relatively little plot, Natural Born Killers would fail without stellar performances. Luckily, Stone had the good fortune to secure some of the driest wits in Hollywood. Joining Harrelson and Lewis are Robert Downey, Jr., Rodney Dangerfield, Tom Sizemore, and Tommy Lee Jones (in a role more in the vein of Two-Face than some of his more serious fare). Each actor dips a toe in farce, satire, and exploitation brilliantly.

It is a shame that Natural Born Killers is demonized for the violent acts it allegedly inspired. In reality, the film condemns violence and the media frenzy that stokes further crimes and sensationalism. The few viewers who chose to twist the plot to fit their own dark sensibilities clearly missed the point and tainted the film’s legacy. However, Stone’s visuals speak for themselves and prove a challenging experience for any first-time audience member.


Forbidden Planet, 1956

I anticipated Forbidden Planet to follow the well-trodden path of The Day the Earth Stood Still and countless other sci-fi films: use the genre to make thinly veiled comments on current events. Instead, Forbidden Planet harkens back to the science fiction of George Méliès and focuses on using technology to craft a fresh, unique narrative. Although Forbidden Planet vaguely explores modern theories such as Sigmund Freud’s id, the film is much more concerned with pushing the boundaries of special effects.

Forbidden Planet has about as much depth as an episode of Star Trek. (That’s to take nothing from Star Trek.) Suave Commander Adams (Leslie Nielsen) lands on an alien planet, seduces the local women, and saves the day. If that’s not a Captain Kirk storyline, I don’t know what is.

Rather than looking to modern times, Forbidden Planet adapts classical literature.

I grew up watching Nielsen on Police Squad, and my only familiarity with Forbidden Planet was the line in Rocky Horror Picture Show, “Anne Francis stars in Forbidden Planet.” With that bizarre, B-movie pedigree, I anticipated more campy comedy. But Forbidden Planet actually delivered a slow drama with considerable exposition and lore.

Robby the robot stands as one of the most memorable robots in film history. Knowing almost nothing about the film, the image of Robby carrying Alta (Frances) from the film’s poster seeped its way into my consciousness. The demonstration of Robby’s powers is perhaps the most obvious bit of exposition: it is revealed later that he refuses to attach the id monster because he cannot attack a human thing.

If I didn’t know this was a serious film, I would think this was a spoof.

The most delightful part of Forbidden Planet is the in-camera trickery and clever editing to create a new world. Modern sci-fi films rely so heavily on computer graphics, whereas classic sci-fi films lean on political messages. Forbidden Planet, though, shirks those proscriptive narratives and just tells a pure sci-fi tale, inspiring generations of writers — particularly in TV — for years to come.

Midnight Cowboy, 1969

For years, I have confused Midnight Cowboy and Easy Rider. They’re both buddy movies that played a significant role in the New Hollywood movement. They feature trippy visuals and iconic soundtracks. They launched some of the greatest actors of their generation. But Midnight Cowboy has something Easy Rider never quite reaches: heart.

It may seem odd to consider a drama about a young hustler as a romance, but the relationship between Ratso Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman) and Joe Buck (Jon Voight) is as strong as any love story. Joe’s search for connection in the bustling city of New York finds its match in Ratso, and it takes a bus ride to Miami to solidify that bond.

Even the trailer plays out like a romance.

Voight and Hoffman form a formidable duo, with Voight taking a surprising turn as a soft, sad-eyed loner and Hoffman also playing against type as the greasy conman. Being more familiar with their later careers, their performances in Midnight Cowboy complete shattered my understanding of the two as performers. Voight sheds his gruff demeanor to fully embody the wide-eyed naif from Texas.

Schlesinger’s dream sequences and flashbacks make the film a singular experience.

Hoffman, though, retains a bit of the wily youth from The Graduate. As Ratso imagines the trip to Miami, the same sly smile that ends Hoffman’s earlier film crosses the actor’s face. To watch Ratso’s decline is a tragic experience, especially when considering the whip-smart young man he likely once was.

Director John Schlesinger breaks all the rules of traditional filmmaking just as Midnight Cowboy‘s narrative breaks all the rules of Hollywood. The use of psychedelic flashbacks and dream sequences is inspired. These sequences feel very much of their time — the drug-heavy late 60s — but they also feel absolutely unlike anything else I have seen. Filmmakers have attempted to capture the feeling of a dream or a memory, but few have come as close as Schlesinger.

Buck’s youth and vitality are evident from the first scene. By the end, he will be a broken man.

As a depiction of isolation and longing for connection in New York, Midnight Cowboy hits the nail on the head. Buck resonated deeply with me, and as I guessed Ratso’s fate in his first scene, I didn’t want the film to end. Few of the films I have watched recently necessitate a rewatch, but Midnight Cowboy will stick with me for the foreseeable future.

A Streetcar Named Desire, 1951

Tennessee Williams utterly destroys the idea of nostalgia, peopling his plays with aging women longing for the past and then punishing them harshly for their sentimentality. A Streetcar Named Desire is no different. Blanche (Vivian Leigh), a rather obvious stand-in for the artifice and pretense of the old South, follows a similar trajectory as Maggie the Cat and Amanda Wingfield. Williams sounds the death knell for a way of life in the South, and he does so with glee.

Blanche’s sparring partner, of course, is Stanley Kowalski (Marlon Brando), and right down to the performances, the two are at odds. Stanley is brutish and brooding, pacing the apartment like a wild animal; whereas, Blanche drifts along as if floating on a light summer breeze. Their inevitable collision makes for some of the most cracklingly tense moments in cinema history.

Leigh, a vestige of the studio system, represents everything Brando would destroy with the Method.

While Brando and Leigh are the clear standouts among the strong ensemble cast, there are several meaty roles with limited screen time. Most notably: Mitch (Karl Malden), Blanche’s suitor. Malden, who would go on to act opposite Brando in On the Waterfront, is the ideal second fiddle to the Method actor. While Brando yells and cries and breaks furniture, Malden simmers softly and quietly steals every scene he’s in. (In my opinion that baton has been effortlessly passed to John C. Reilly.)

Director Elia Kazan, a frequent collaborator with Brando and veteran of adaptational work, transforms Williams’s play for the screen beautifully. Most notably, he broadens the play’s scope to encompass the surrounding New Orleans neighborhood, making Blanche’s feelings of claustrophobia more pronounced. As the film progresses, the sets begin to shrink and become more cramped and the outside noise of the city encroaches.

It’s illegal to talk about A Streetcar Named Desire without referencing this scene, right?

Kazan flexes his cinematic muscles in the more surreal elements A Streetcar Named Desire. He allows Blanche’s intrusive thoughts to intrude into the reality of the film. Most memorably, he turns the flower seller into a haunting specter, rising from the misty New Orleans street.

The final element of the film worth noting is its score. Composer Alex North uses everything from sensual jazz melodies to traditional orchestral strains to highlight and underline the characters’ emotional states. I was particularly taken by the use of jazz, especially for an early 1950s film.

A Streetcar Named Desire remains a critical hit to this day.

Like most of Williams’s work, A Streetcar Named Desire was partially rewritten to erase mentions of homosexuality and promiscuity. Those subjects are still implied in the film, but censorship has clearly had its way with the piece. However, the emotional core of the film stays intact, which cannot be said of other Williams adaptations. Even with the restrictions, A Streetcar Named Desire endures as one of the most influential and also one of the most thoughtful films in history.

The Thin Man, 1934

This may seem odd that I’m writing this now in mid-February, but I watched The Thin Man almost two months ago the morning after I watched The Maltese Falcon on Turner Classic Movies. As a means of comparison, this pair makes perfect counterpoints. As hard-boiled as The Maltese Falcon is, The Thin Man is effervescent. John Huston’s meticulously plotted script in The Maltese Falcon is the complete antithesis of The Thin Man’s silly nonsensical murder investigation. (In fact, while watching, I somehow completely missed one of the three murders pinned on Wynant.) In short, The Thin Man is a joyous, pre-code romp.

The beating heart of W.S. Van Dyke’s Dashiell Hammett adaptation is Nick and Nora Charles, played by William Powell and Myrna Loy. Powell seems to relish the opportunity to play the whip-smart and reed-thin Nick after spending his early career portraying villains, thugs, and military types. Loy, similarly, brings a mix of sophistication and playfulness. As a duo, Nick and Nora play off each other as one of the great married couples in film history.

Nick and Nora make marriage seem fun.

Amazingly, Nick and Nora don’t get much screen time until 30 minutes into the film’s 90-minute run time. For a film that doesn’t seem concerned with a clear plot, Van Dyke labors over setting up the social web that Nick and Nora fall into. Margaret O’Sullivan’s Dorothy even seems to be the film’s central character until the plot shifts to the Charles’ investigation. O’Sullivan brims with youth and vitality as she invites her father to her Christmas Eve wedding (Shouldn’t he already know about his daughter’s upcoming nuptials?), but she fades into the background as a cavalcade of suspects clogs the film’s periphery.

Powell and Loy earned a second life in their careers with The Thin Man.

Despite the baker’s dozen suspects that gather around the table in the film’s climactic scene, Powell and Loy come out head and shoulders above the rest. Loy, relegated to playing the vamp at this point in her career, displays pinpoint comedic timing alongside Nora’s true affection for Nick. She shirks the usual stereotypes of the shrewish or jealous wife, and although she pushes Nick to take up the case, her insistence never comes across as nagging.

Moments that would be played as high drama in film noir retain their comedic air.

Considering The Thin Man within the context of the 1930s provides another layer to the material. Nick, living off Nora’s inheritance, has retired from detective work and has started to pour himself into the bottle. Elements of the Great Depression and the vestiges of Prohibition leak into the film, but the extravagant world of Nick and Nora likely offered audiences a brief respite from the economic downturn.

Within the scope of film history, The Thin Man represents a bridge between genres. Nick and Nora sound and look like the couples of screwball comedies of the early 1930s, while the plot and directorial style presage the film noir era of the 40s.

My Fair Lady, 1964

I suspected that I would run across films that are revered more for their individual parts than their actual merit. In my eyes, My Fair Lady is one such film. With stars Rex Harrison and Audrey Hepburn and director George Cukor, the classic musical has the pedigree for greatness, but its content doesn’t live up to that potential.

The controversial choice to dub Hepburn’s songs while allowing Harrison to speak-sing his songs sets a double standard that echoes the misogynist message of the film. The fact that Harrison went on to win an Oscar for his performance (which consists almost entirely of him yelling about how much he hates women over a whimsical score) while Hepburn failed to be nominated is a crime.

This scene is TRAGIC.

Eliza Doolittle (Hepburn) and Henry Higgins (Harrison) are among the most iconic roles in musical theatre, but that doesn’t mean they’re interesting or complex. Higgins, in particular, is spiteful and stubborn. Eliza exists solely as a catalyst for his minuscule and superficial change. He strips her of her autonomy and strength, boasting at one point that he quite literally owns her.

Eliza, for her part, doesn’t seem to have any sense of logical motivation. She entertains one suitor, Freddy (Jeremy Brett), only to throw him over for Higgins in the last minute of the film. Her choice to join Higgins as a student in the first place is equally perplexing. She seems bandied about by the fancies of men.

Cukor leans into the theatricality of the material, giving the film a few standout moments.

Despite the film’s complete lack of internal logic, Cukor crafts a delightful visual feast. Having started as a theatrical director, he seems right at home with the material. Occasionally, as in the above scene, Cukor blocks his ensemble in a way that resembles a stage play more than a film. He never quite leans into a broad dance number, but there are a few lyrical sequences that stand out.

Unfortunately, My Fair Lady fails to find a balance between the Broadway-caliber material and the ordinariness of the performances. If I want to be yelled at by a middle-aged white guy who thinks he knows more than everyone else, I can just log onto Twitter.

Seven Samurai, 1954

The very definition of an epic film, Seven Samurai has had such a profound impact on the visual language of film that, in retrospect, it seems somewhat pedestrian. Director Akira Kurosawa essentially created the action genre that is blossoming in today’s age of superhero extravaganzas. Kurosawa’s definitive masterpiece laid the groundwork for the abundance of team-up movies hitting screens in the early 21st century. In other words, without Seven Samurai, we would have no Avengers: Infinity War.

Seven Samurai‘s climactic battle sequence, which last the full final hour of the film, established such classic action filmmaking techniques as the use of slow motion and a multiple-camera setup. Necessity once again proved the mother of invention as Kurosawa constantly battled with producers to secure funding for the sprawling film. Aside from developing the cinematic language of an entire genre, Kurosawa’s script, co-written with Shinobu Hashimoto and Hideo Oguni, established classic archetypes that have been mimicked countless times in the past 65 years.

Kurosawa approached his work as a writer as seriously as his directing work.

Like Rashomon, Seven Samurai soars to the next level of cinema thanks to superb performances by its stars. Takashi Shimura, as the leader of the titular samurai, conveys the necessary strength and poise to set the tone for the film, while Toshirô Mifune’s Kikuchiyo serves as a perfect foil. Mifune is quickly becoming one of my favorite actors for his sheer intensity and passion.

Also to be lauded is Isao Kimura’s performance as apprentice samurai Katsushiro. Despite being 31 years old, Kimura pulls off the wide-eyed hero worship of adolescence. Katsushiro’s affair with the farmer’s daughter serves as one of the emotional cores of the action-packed film.

Seven Samurai‘s impact on world cinema may be greater than any other film in history.

Although I recognize and respect Seven Samurai‘s indelible impact on today’s Hollywood, I find that I prefer Rashomon and Throne of Blood. I believe that Seven Samurai‘s impact on film is actually to the film’s detriment. Having seen countless imitators, the original seems less, well, original.