It is a new year, and there are resolutions to be made. I have never been one for New Year’s resolutions myself, but allow me to suggest one for you, dear readers. Repeat after me: “I hereby resolve to watch more thought-provoking and artistic films this year.” Abandon your "Twilight" DVDs, throw Michael Bay in the trash, and swear off Adam Sandler forever. Here are ten alternatives to get you started:
Breaking the Waves  – The first in Lars Von Trier’s “Golden Heart Trilogy,” this film is about a simple woman named Bess who loves her husband to the point of obsession – so when he becomes paralyzed and asks her to take lovers to fulfill his fantasies, she reluctantly (at first) complies. It is a beautiful and troubling film rife with intriguing religious symbolism.
The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover  – Four players: the crude and demeaning thief, his beautiful wife who is sick of him, the bookstore owner she takes as her lover, and the cook in whose restaurant all this comes to pass. This is a dark and philosophical film about sex, violence, and food, and it keeps the viewer gripped until the shocking finale.
Dancer in the Dark  – Björk is quoted as saying that director Lars Von Trier “broke my soul” to obtain her gut-wrenching performance as Selma, a Czech immigrant who is trying to raise enough money for an operation for her son’s eyes. She gets joy out of life by imagining herself as living in a musical, and tries to hold on when her whole world goes to hell. If you don’t bawl your eyes out, you have no soul.
Henry & June  – The true story of the love triangle between Anaïs Nin, Henry Miller, and his wife June in Paris in 1931. This is a deeply beautiful and erotic film which explores the idea of sexuality as an essential life experience rather than merely an expression of love. (Bonus suggestion: read Miller’s amazing novel “Tropic of Cancer” and Anaïs Nin’s collection of erotic fiction, “Little Birds.”)
Inland Empire  – David Lynch’s latest offering is about a woman named Nikki who is cast as the lead female in a film. Any semblance of narrative quickly crumbles as we are plunged into a horrific labyrinthine world where nothing makes sense and reality itself comes into question. It is like watching a nightmare, and the viewer comes away feeling brain-raped – and yet it is so beautiful in its own way. (Pro tip: watch Lynch’s short-lived television show “Twin Peaks” beforehand for some possible hint on what may be going on here.)
Metropolis  – Fritz Lang’s silent epic about a dystopian future in which the wealthy live in a beautiful city while the workers endlessly toil to keep the machinery running underground. When the son of the city’s leader discovers the horrendous truth about his comfortable life, he becomes a sort of messiah to the workers. Grand in scale and energy, it is truly impressive even by today’s standards. (Be sure to get “The Complete Metropolis.” Any other versions have scenes missing and the wrong soundtrack.)
Stardust Memories  – In Woody Allen’s homage to Fellini, a film director wants to make more serious and artistic movies, but when he attends a retrospective of his work he is thronged by his adoring fans who especially love his “early, funny films.” At once dramatic and funny, this meditation on art and creativity is Woody Allen’s greatest film, in this writer’s opinion. (Bonus suggestion: Woody Allen scored four home runs in a row in the late 1970s: “Annie Hall,” “Interiors,” “Manhattan,” and this film. Watch them in order for the greatest effect, and follow it up with “Hannah and Her Sisters.”)
Sunrise  – I believe that this is the most beautiful love story every put to film, because it is the most true of any such movie I have seen. F.W. Murnau’s silent masterpiece is about a man who has grown distant from his wife. His lover tells him to kill his wife and run away with her to the city, but when he goes to do the deed, he cannot – he realizes that he still loves his wife, and they attempt to rekindle their passion. Again: if you do not cry, you have no soul.
The Virgin Spring  – Originally based on a Swedish ballad , this film was later remade by Wes Craven into “The Last House on the Left” (which itself was later remade). Forget the imitators; this is Ingmar Bergman’s tale of a man in medieval Sweden whose daughter is raped and killed… and then her killers unknowingly seek shelter for the night in her father’s house. Beautiful black-and-white cinematography aids the tense and dramatic story.
Anything and everything by Charlie Chaplin  - Chaplin is one of the greatest filmmakers in the history of the artform, and his Little Tramp is without a doubt the most endearing character ever to grace the screen. He will make you laugh, but he is also a master of touching tenderness. “The Kid” is a heart-wrenching tale in which the Tramp ends up having to raise a child; in “The Gold Rush” the Tramp sets out to Alaska to seek his fortune; the Tramp obtains a job as a performer in “The Circus,” Chaplin’s funniest film, in my opinion; “City Lights” is about the Tramp’s efforts to raise money for an eye operation for a blind flower girl; “Modern Times” is about the plight of the working class and the Tramp’s struggle to find his place. Finally, watch his first talkie, “The Great Dictator,” in which he cleverly satirizes Hitler and his whole regime. Charlie Chaplin is good for the soul; you just can’t help but feel good while watching one of his films. Do yourself a favor; I promise you will be a happier person with Charlie in your life.
(Do you have essential film suggestions? Share them in the comments!)
Images courtesy of the Internet Movie Database.