Blue Velvet Blue Velvet. “It’s a strange world, isn’t it?” Graphic sexual violence and Dennis Hopper’s shocking portrayal of a sadistic psychopath holding a singer’s family hostage for her acquiescent brutalization provoked a storm of controversy around David Lynch’s dark, disturbing, dreamlike mystery. Lynch’s depiction of the cruelty, sickness, and horror lying just beneath the surface of nice, clean, white-picket-fenced middle America is not exactly subtle, but it is remorselessly gripping, bold, and stylish. Blue Velvet combines an air of twisted mystery with ironic, satiric Americana and a singular, chirpy, lightly stylized tone. The same winning mixture of the repulsively strange and the cozily familiar, the artful and artless, made Lynch’s television series Twin Peaks the cultural phenomenon of 1990 and strongly influenced numerous imitators.
Kyle MacLachlan and Laura Dern are engaging as Jeffrey Beaumont and Sandy Williams, the naïve youngsters caught up in the macabre relationship between Hopper’s crazed, oxygen-tank-dependent kidnapper-killer and brave Isabella Rossellini’s bruised Dorothy Vallens, the tormented cabaret singer at his never-tender mercy while he holds her husband and little boy captive. Lumberton is a sunny, dreary American Everytown, with its neat lawns and flowerbeds, its industrial core, and the colorless diner where Jeffrey and Sandy combine forces as amateur sleuths while love blossoms. But everything is off-kilter, from curious college boy Jeffrey’s discovery of a human ear in a field and his anxious, dangerous adventures as a crime-busting voyeur to his stunned arrival on a bizarre death tableau. When Harry Met Sally. When Harry Met Sally. When Harry Met Sally provides indisputable proof, if it were needed, that all the right ingredients—a skilled comic director (Rob Reiner), great script (Nora Ephron), and brilliant casting (Billy Crystal, Meg Ryan)—do add up to a damn-near perfect piece of film entertainment.
Sharing a postcollege car journey from Chicago to New York in 1977, smart-mouthed Harry (Crystal) announces to snobbish Sally (Ryan) that they will never be friends because, in his often skewed logic, “men and women can’t be friends because the sex part always gets in the way.” At the end of the trip, the pair go their separate ways, only to cross paths a few years later in an airport and then again when she is on the verge of breaking up with her boyfriend and he has split up with his wife. Of course, they do eventually become friends, and it is inevitable that they became more than that before the movie’s end—but that is half the fun.
A romantic comedy that tips its cap to Woody Allen movies like Annie Hall (1977), this is brought right up to date by Ephron’s witty dialogue that accurately depicts the modern-day dating game. Against the backdrop of the most cinematic of cities, New York, scene upon scene is either a classic or features memorable dialogue and is played expertly by the two leads: Sally’s fake orgasm in the deli, after which a woman at a neighboring table (played by Reiner’s own mother) says, “I’ll have what she’s having,” and the store karaoke session when Harry bumps into his ex-wife are just two examples. Shine Shine. David Helfgott (Geoffrey Rush) is a gifted pianist. But his promising talent as a concert pianist never reached the heights experts—his father included—expected of him. This film, by Australian director Scott Hicks, a former TV documentary maker, shows why, allowing Helfgott’s story to unfold in a tragic way.
Like a slow-motion car accident, it is sometimes almost too painful to watch. As a young boy, Helfgott (played as a youth by Alex Rafalowicz) was cited as possibly the best pianist of his generation and the next big thing in classic piano. This talent, however, wilted under the overwhelming and presence of his father (played by Armin Mueller-Stahl). He’s a man who lost his parents in the gas chambers and her certainly loves his son—but does not have a clue how to understand or manage his talent. It is the father’s mistakes about his son that ultimately destroy the boy’s burgeoning career.
Mentally fragile, Helfgott’s prodigious skill at the piano surfaces only at the rarest times. Shine, for all its sadness, contains some of the most lustrous cinematic moments in memory, if only through juxtaposition with its bleaker instances. Based on a true story, this intense drama disturbingly reinforces the idea that suffering might just be the key for some artistic geniuses. Pan's Labyrinth Pan's Labyrinth. Pan’s Labyrinth is something of a summative film from Mexican director Guillermo del Toro. Having worked on projects that offered a high level of special effects, such asHellboy (2004), as well as those that created an unnervingly otherworldly atmosphere (for example, 2001’s The Devil’s Backbone), here, in perhaps his most mature picture, the director brings the two strands together. The result is a film that is both eerie and built around special effects technology (hence its three visual-related Oscars).
Set in 1944, Pan’s Labyrinth tells the story of Ofelia, a young girl who discovers a fantastical world of woodland creatures when her mother takes her to northern Spain to join her stepfather, a brutish and bitter member of General Franco’s Facist army. Del Toro gathers together a roster of top-line Spanish actors, including Sergi Lopez, Ariadna Gil, Maribel Verdu, alongside Ivana Baquero as the young girl.
Set against a backdrop of post-civil war Spain, the film’s startling beauty and strength of its performances offer much to admire. “Shooting Pan’s Labyrinth was very painful,” del Toro told Sight & Sound, “but it also became a war about me not compromising. I gave back my entire salary in order to get the film made the way I wanted it.” If the story fails to fully unite the reality and fantasy elements—Pan’s Labyrinth remains two outstanding halves rather than one spectacular whole—this does not make del Toro’s accomplishment any less extraordinary. The Hurt Locker Hurt Locker. The Hurt Locker is Kathryn Bigelow’s greatest film yet. Like the following year’s District 9, Inglourious Basterds, and Avatar (by Bigelow’s ex-husband and ex-collaborator James Cameron), it taps back into the sentiment of the “good war” that audiences clearly craved after an onslaught of dreary films such as Rendition (2007), Stop Loss (2008), and Lions for Lambs (2007): “unjustified war” stories that had kept theaters empty for years. In 2010, Bigelow made history as the first female director ever to win an Oscar—only three female directors had previously been nominated.
Her fascination with violence and our relationships to it (audience and characters alike) here gets its most distilled and most visceral treatment. Action in movies excites, she has always proclaimed, and the lives of the violent, those who choose to live with danger, are the most worthy of her attention. With the steady hand of screenwriter and ex-journalist Mark Boal, she creates almost unbearable suspense, with Jeremy Renner in an Oscar-nominated turn as Staff Sergeant William James. Set during the Iraq War, The Hurt Locker skillfully pulls us into the chaos of an elite U.S. bomb deactivation unit by concentrating on authenticity and character, while avoiding politics and polemics. Through escalating set pieces and dollops of personal information, Bigelow presents not the nature of war, but rather the nature of the warrior. Bonnie and Clyde Bonnie and Clyde. Arthur Penn’s attempt to make an American “outlaw” film with French New Wave style and youthful exuberance proved an outstanding success with audiences, who appreciated its antiestablishment politics. Critics, too, eventually applauded the director’s effort to infuse American cinema with a new energy and seriousness. However, Bonnie and Clyde was roundly condemned on its release for its graphic depiction of violence. Technological developments had made it possible to show gunshot wounds more realistically, and Penn’s camera often lingers on the effects of bodies being torn apart and on the pain and suffering that results. Previous American films, of course, had often centered on violence, but Bonnie and Clyde was the first Hollywood picture to make the spectator strongly experience its horror and, even, mesmerizing beauty.
Initial reviews of the film were dismissive, even condemnatory, but the tide of critical opinion soon dramatically turned. Alternating effectively between scenes of terror, brutal realism, and almost slapstick comedy, Bonnie and Clyde is loosely biographical and has a very realistic feel due to meticulous art design and location shooting in northeast Texas. With some historical inaccuracies, it traces the exploits and eventual tragic end of the Depression era’s most famous bank-robbing duo, who in their own time were celebrated as folk heroes. Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway are scintillating as the criminal couple, while terrific support is provided by Gene Hackman, Estelle Parsons, and Michael J. Pollard. Harold and Maude Harold and Maude. The label “cult film” is commonly used today as a marketing stunt for quasi-independent or mainstream films flirting with various subcultures. Harold and Maude, however, is the genuine thing, combining the directorial talents of former editor Hal Ashby with the oddball personas of main actors Bud Cort and Ruth Gordon. Cort, age twenty-one, had just done his first leading part as a flight-obsessed kid in Robert Altman’s Brewster McCloud (1970). Ex-screenwriter Gordon, age seventy-six, had a string of memorable supporting roles behind her in the 1960s, the most well known being her Manhattan witch in Rosemary’s Baby (1968), for which she won an Academy Award. In Harold and Maude, their peculiar chemistry made them an engaging, unforgettable romantic couple, challenging most taboos of youth, aging, sex, death, and happiness.
Most interesting, perhaps, is that this challenge not only is a run-of-the-mill counterculture pose against traditional patriarchal society, but is even more aggressively directed against the contemporary youth-quake. This is primarily made by reversing the 1960s concept of youth as the vital, mold-breaking counterforce to the inevitable physical and spiritual deadness affecting everybody over age thirty. Here the young and rich Harold is a living corpse because of his inability to break free from an oedipal fixation with his cold mother (Vivian Pickles), whose attention he tries to get in vain through a series of hilarious fake suicide attempts. It is only when he meets the old but vital and anarchic Maude that he comes to life.