As soon as the movie listings are completed on Monday I take off for a week in Florida. No, it’s not a film festival this time, nor is it a gathering of overaged horror movie geeks. It is, in fact, as close as I’ve come to vacation in nine years, but it has its movie-related side. Some time back—in a column about changing tastes—I mentioned becoming reacqainted with a friend I’d lost track of for nearly 20 years. While I’d lost track of him, he’d lost track of modern movies.
Indeed, I believe my friend hasn’t actually seen a movie made after 1995. He’s of course heard things about the state of modern film, and what he’s heard hasn’t enticed him to venture into it. Naturally, I’ve taken it upon myself—with his seemingly enthusiastic permission—to bring him into the 21st century of movies. The trick is I have five—maybe six—days in which to do this. The question then is how to do this? What really is essential viewing for a baptism into the quality side of current film and filmmaking? How do you reduce that to six or seven movies?
I’ve been working on this and discussing it with others for some considerable time. Bear in mind, that there’s no attempt at being all-encompassing here. That’s clearly not possible given the time frame. Also realize that I’m basing this partly on a knowledge of his taste in movies, which, thankfully, is not dissimilar to mine. (It would be remarkable if it was, since I had a youthful hand in shaping his taste in film. I’m the guy who made him get up at 6 a.m. one Saturday morning in 1970 to watch Preston Sturges’ Christmas in July —something he wouldn’t have done on his own, believe me.) Still, the overall idea is to demonstate that movies these days aren’t just some dismal wasteland of unadventurous rubbish and remakes.
Some of the choices have been easy. Not everyone will agree, but you just can’t undertake 21st century film and not include Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge! (2001). It doesn’t even matter if you like it or not. It did bring back the musical film in an altered form, and its stylization and aggressive editing technique have had a profound impact on film in general—both for good and bad. Yes, Luhrmann’s film borrows heavily from the work of earlier filmmakers—most obviously Ken Russell—but that doesn’t mean it is without its own influence and importance. As a result, it’s in there.
Similarly, Julie Taymor’s Across the Universe (2007) was a given. It treads some of the same ground as Moulin Rouge!—and throws a Milos Forman influence into the mix—but differs in as many ways as it’s similar. I’m not just talking stylistically, since Luhrmann’s film deals with the 1960s mindset in an allegorical manner, while Taymor’s film tackles it head on—and with somewhat greater complexity, since it recognizes a downside to the era that Luhrmann ignores. This one is also something of a very personalized choice in that my friend is (to put it mildly) crazy about the Beatles. He will either embrace this movie wholly, or hate it with a passion.
After those two, it gets trickier. In my mind, you can’t, for example, look at this century and not include a Wes Anderson film. Fine. But which one? I suspect The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) is the most accessible starting point, but it’s not my favorite by a good margin. I could just throw him into the deep end and run The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004), but that’s easily the least accessible of his movies to someone not familiar with his work. As a result—after much back and forth with co-critic Justin Souther, who is easily as big an admirer of Anderson as I am—the choice appears to be The Darjeeling Limited (2007), which seems to embody something of the accessibility of Tenenbaums with the full Anderson experience of Life Aquatic.
I have similar feelings about Michel Gondry, but I can’t really think of a stand-alone Gondry title that will do the job, so for the moment I’ve ruled him out. Alfonso Cuaron seems a given, but again the question of which film arises. My leaning is Children of Men (2006), but that really doesn’t cover his diverse filmography, so he may get slighted on this initial journey. The Coen Brothers present a similar problem, but if I do opt for them, it’ll certainly be O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000). That is a distinct possibility, not in the least because it’s also the film that, for me, turned George Clooney into the essential “movie star” of our age.
Guillermo del Toro is a certainty for me, and Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) is the clear winner there—especially since we cleared the question of a possible resistance to subtitles (there isn’t one). So that one’s settled, I think. Really, can anyone make a case that this isn’t del Toro’s finest film to date? (Yes, I’m sure someone can and probably will now that I think about it.) Granted, it probably has more power if you’ve seen Cronos (1993) and The Devil’s Backbone (2001), but I think it stands on its own pretty well. (And if you want to get into the whole stand-alone question, you can also argue that both Pan and Backbone work better if you’re familiar with the films of Luis Bunuel.)
I do think I’ll dip back into the 1990s in one case—Bill Condon’s Gods and Monsters (1998). This is grounded to a great extent in the realm of knowing my audience. The fact that it’s tied to a person—James Whale—with whom he’s familiar and an era in movies he likes is a plus. But I also think of it as one of the great modern films on a number of levels. Much the same dynamic is at work in another possible choice, E. Elias Merhige’s Shadow of the Vampire (2000), the utterly fantasticated story of the making of F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922). Its mix of fact, legend and fiction is quite possibly unique. And I have a soft spot for it since it was the first film I reviewed for the Xpress to get five stars.
I’d love to introduce him to Rian Johnson’s work, but I likely won’t be bearing a copy of The Brothers Bloom (2009) and don’t think that Brick (2005) by itself is quite essential, though it’s a very near thing. As a result, Johnson may have to wait for another trip.
Danny Boyle, however, is going with me—and, yes, in the form of Slumdog Millionaire (2008). I suppose that almost seems like a cliched choice, but I don’t know a better Danny Boyle picture—which in itself says a lot. Plus, it has the advantage of being a pretty shining example that it is possible for the Oscars to get something right.
So right now what I have are Moulin Rouge!, Across the Universe, The Darjeeling Limited, Pan’s Labyrinth, Gods and Monsters, and Slumdog Millionaire as firm to pretty firm choices—with a few others waiting in the wings. And I’m not disatisfied, but it seems such a meager cross-section. I’ve left out some key filmmakers. Where are Tim Burton, Pedro Almodovar, John Cameron Mitchell for starters? I’d put in Tarantino if I had a copy of Inglourious Bastards, but I don’t. I hate leaving out David O. Russell’s I Heart Huckabees (2004) and Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York (2008). I’m not much keener about omitting Marc Forster’s Stranger Than Fiction (2006), if it comes to that. There are many others.
I deplore the fact that there’s not a horror movie on my list, but I can’t settle on one that seems absolutely essential. I guess Pan’s Labyrinth will have to suffice, but it’s only partly a horror film. So it goes. There are, I’d say, some horror pictures that are essential to the genre without being essential in a broader sense. So it goes. There’s just no way to do it all here.
Having said all that—and being mindful of the fact that I’m sure I’ve forgotten some candidates—the process is still somewhat in flux at this time—and will remain so through Monday during the day. With that in mind, I put it to you to make suggestions for titles I have overlooked or not considered as I should. In short, a little help would not go unappreciated. And, yes, I did think of Pootie Tang (2001)—for maybe five seconds. I have not ruled out just leaving my copy behind for him to stumble upon after I’m gone. Would that be intolerably cruel?