#23. All That Jazz (1979)
Directed by: Bob Fosse
Written by: Robert Alan Aurthur, Bob Fosse
Starring: Roy Scheider, Jessica Lange, Leland Palmer, Ann Reinking
All That Jazz is Bob Fosse’s semi autobiographical masterpiece about his experiences as stage dancer and director, as well as his time working on his previous film Lenny and the stage production of Chicago simultaneously. All That Jazz follows stage director and performer Joe Gideon (Roy Scheider) as he splits his time between editing a feature film and directing an ambitious new Broadway show. In order to cope with the stress, Joe relies on his a trusty cocktail of cigarettes and pills, which eventually catch up to him. Joe eventually begins to experience serious chest pains and is rushed to the hospital – where he is forced to stay for a number of weeks. With his projects on hold indefinitely, Joe is forced to deal with his health issues and reevaluate his life decisions. What follows is a surreal and dreamlike series of bombastic musical numbers and existential angst, imagined only as a visionary like Bob Fosse could. Roy Scheider gives a career-best performance as Joe Gideon, who is a compulsive, workaholic visionary who never comes across as anything short of genuine. Scheider’s Joe is perfectly understated and subtle – something I had never seen from the actor before All That Jazz. Bob Fosse’s work behind the camera is highly energetic, self-indulgent, and full the director’s stylistic flares – the dream sequences in particular are some of the highlights of All That Jazz. The director’s attention to detail pays off in spades in the incredibly well-choreographed musical numbers, proving that his time on the stage could translate perfectly to the big screen. The screenplay by the duo of Fosse and Robert Alan Aurthur is entirely self-aware and death-obsessed – it’s clear that these themes and ruminations are coming from a very intimate and personal place. All That Jazz is Bob Fosse’s brilliant take on a subject many all-time great directors have tackled – a self-aware exploration of the tortured mind of an artist, obsessed with their legacy and their untimely death. It’s easy to argue that Fosse’s film is self-indulgent and more impressed with itself than it should be, but to deny its sense of passion and the artistry involved would be plain foolish. All That Jazz is not always an easy or joyful watch (especially for a musical), but it’s one hell of an affecting film.
#42. 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days (2007)
Directed by: Cristian Mungiu
Written by: Cristian Mungiu
Starring: Anamaria Marinca, Laura Vasiliu, Vlad Ivanov
4 Months, 3 Week, and 2 Days was the first Romanian film I had ever seen, and it instantly turned me onto the largely ignored films from this part of Europe. Cristian Mungiu’s Palme d’Or winning film is one of the best and most powerful films of the 2000’s, and I’ve hesitated to recommend it to even the most seasoned film fanatics. 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days follows Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) and Gabriela (or Gabita) (Laura Vasiliu) as they arrange for an illegal late-term abortion for Gabita in 1980’s Communist-led Romania. The women struggle to arrange for a hotel room where the abortion can be performed, and are forced to lie to the man performing the operation, Mr. Bebe (Vlad Ivanov), about how far along Gabita truly is. Things begin to go awry when Bebe threatens to walk out on them, and the women are forced to make great sacrifices in order to see it through. Once everything is all said and done, it is clear that the relationship between Otilia and Gabita will never be the same again. As you can probably tell by the brief synopsis, Mungiu’s film is not a playful one. It’s a deadly serious look at the sacrifices made by people in a desperate situation, and the lengths that citizens of a country must go to when they can no longer rely on aid from their own government. The historical setting and atmosphere of 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days is one of the best I’ve seen, with characters having to go the extra mile in order have such a significant operation performed. The film approaches the story from a very minimalist perspective, which furthers the atmosphere as we aren’t treated to conventional filmmaking techniques like grand establishing shots or tracking cameras through the streets. We’re confined almost entirely to an apartment building and a hotel room, both of which are dimly lighted and sparsely decorated. The performances by co-leads Anamaria Marinca and Laura Vasiliu are incredible, with Marinca playing Otilia, the supportive and incredibly helpful best friend who is pushed to the limits by the lies told to her by Gabita. Vasiliu’s Gabita is desperate for aid, but strong in that she’s willing to go the extra mile in order to get the treatment she believes she needs. Her internal struggle is clear throughout, as is the immense pain she is forced to feel during and after the abortion. Without these two powerful performances, all that would be left is a palpable atmosphere, and an affecting social commentary about Communist-era Romania. 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days is an extremely important film for its social commentary and progressive nature, but is one that should be approached with caution. This is absolutely not a film for everybody – but there’s absolutely no denying its inherent power. If Romanian cinema in general sounds interesting to you, I can recommend another Cristian Mungiu film, Beyond the Hills, which very narrowly missed my top 100 list. While that film is also very minimalist and deliberately paced, it has an incredibly powerful story and great performances, and is probably much more immediately accessible than 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days.
#65. Kagemusha (1980)
Directed by: Akira Kurosawa
Written by: Akira Kurosawa, Masato Ide
Starring: Tatsuya Nakadai
Kagemusha is Akira Kurosawa’s epic tale of deception within a political dynasty in Sengoku era Japan. The film served as Kurosawa’s return to Japan after a brief excursion to Russia in order to make the equally incredible Dersu Uzala. Kagemusha’s intricate story sees Takeda Shingen (Tatsuya Nakadai), leader of the Takeda clan, save a thief from execution due to his uncanny resemblance to the daimyo. This “Kagemusha” (also played by Tatsuya Nakadai) is taught the ways of the Takeda clan in order to serve as their leader’s double, eventually fooling even those closest to the daimyo. After a series of unfortunate events, the Kagemusha is forced to assume leadership upon Takeda Shingen’s untimely demise, throwing the clan into chaos when their enemies suspect that something is going on. Akira Kurosawa is best known for his intimate and action-packed samurai-era epics, and Kagemusha absolutely delivers on that front. While it may be something of a slow burn in its first act, the story being told by the director is an intimate and delicate character study of an incredibly powerful man and his enemies. Stories of people being thrown into positions far over their own heads are age-old, and yet Kagemusha manages to shed a new light on the classic story structure. The titular Kagemusha is transformed from a barbaric thief to a dead ringer for the daimyo of the Takeda clan, and the transformation is wonderful to behold. While Kagemusha is a more personal tale than some of Kurosawa’s other epics, it also features incredible, sweeping panoramic scenes of action. While never as thrilling as something like Ran, Kurosawa’s film doesn’t seem interested in telling a non-stop thrill ride – instead it’s sure of what it is, which is a tale of deception and intrigue, and it delivers on these fronts. The dual performance of Tatsuya Nakadai is admirable, with the actor eventually able to blend the two dynamic personalities into the transformed Kagemusha. The samurai epic saw modest success, tying with Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz for the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, and picking up an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Film. While it may not be the best introduction to those not familiar with the samurai genre, Kagemusha is a captivating, beautiful, and highly rewarding for those brave enough to give it a shot.
Director: Gus Van Sant
Writer: Gus Van Sant
Starring: Alex Frost, Eric Deulen, John Robinson
Runtime: 81 minutes
Rating: 72% Fresh
Views: 1st Viewing
Gus Van Sant’s second entry into his “Death Trilogy” (which also includes 2002’s Gerry and 2005’s Last Days) has been a controversial film since its initial release in 2003 and its Palme d’Or and Best Director wins at the 2003 Cannes Film Festival. Elephant was a truly relevant film upon it’s release, coming just four short years after the Columbine High School massacre, and just one year after Michael Moore’s controversial Bowling for Columbine documentary. Elephant is about a school shooting at its very core, but there’s much more to it than just a school shooting. Alex (Alex Frost) and Eric (Eric Deulen) are two high school students who one day decide to shoot up the school, with targets including the “jock” kids, and their principal. Along the way, Gus Van Sant’s camera is never not moving, and we follow the lives of a regular day in a pretty regular high school (even if nobody seems to go to class in this school, as everybody just kind of roams around the halls throughout the film).
Gus Van Sant’s roaming camera during the first half of the film is incredibly beautiful, giving the audience an idea of what a regular day at this high school feels like. None of these young teens have any way of knowing about the horrible events that are going to happen to them in a few short hours, and it makes this film (and the reality of shootings like Columbine) seem even more tragic. As far as filmmaking goes, Elephant is a fascinating and incredibly well-structured film. The school shooting scenes are over as quickly as they begin, and are never once easy to watch. Van Sant follows the two shooters with as much care and thoughtfulness as did while following the lives of the students during the first half of the film. The cast is mostly made up of non-actors, and the realism of these performances really comes through while watch the film, adding that much more to the experience.
Elephant is an incredibly troubled film when you really dig deep into its themes and motivations. Van Sant never delves into why Alex and Eric decide to shoot the school up, other than showing us some fairly minor bullying at the beginning of the film. Elephant isn’t about giving us the answers, and one can definitely understand why the answers aren’t provided. We still don’t understand why Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold massacred their Colorado school in 1999, and we probably never will, which is why this works within the film. The trouble with Elephant lies in the symbolism and some of the more subtle imagery Van Sant paints as Elephant wears on. The first time we see Alex and Eric together, one of the them is playing a mindless first-person shooter video game on his computer, giving the indication that perhaps violence in the media is to be blamed for this. In a scene soon after where the two boys are unpacking their brand new weapons, a documentary about the relationship between Hitler and Mussolini is playing in the background. A lot of these things would feel like cute satire in most films, but Van Sant’s direction makes them feel unflinchingly serious in these scenes, to the point of distraction. The point of all this is that Elephant is both heavy-handed and disconnected at the same time, and it simply doesn’t work. I can’t recommend Elephant to anybody, unless they’re interested in truly great technical filmmaking. It’s far too heavy-handed and flawed for me to look past, and I really expected more from a director and writer like Gus Van Sant. 6/10.