Saturday, January 30, 2010

Films that Deserve to be Seen

Films that deserve to be seen (avoiding the obvious):

Foreign Films

The Adventures of Prince Achmed (Germany, 1926) - 3 and a half stars; first full-length animated cartoon
Aguirre, the Wrath of God (Germany, 1977)
The Apu Trilogy: Pather Pachali/Aparajito/World of Apu (India, 1955/1956/1959)

What else can be said about this trilogy that hasn’t been said already? The series provides a perfect glimpse of a human being’s life. His life occurs in stages, and each movie is one stage. The first stage is tragedy; the second stage is determination amid adversity; the third is failure and redemption. Together, they create a unique and valuable experience. (on DVD)

5 stars

Ashes and Diamonds (Poland, 1958) - 5 stars
Baran (Iran, 2001)

Baran is a beautiful Iranian film about a lazy man who works but does very little at a construction site. When his job is given to another worker, he gets angry and tries to make that worker’s life as hard as possible - that is until he realizes that the worker is a young girl trying to support her family. The rest of the film is unforgettable. (available on DVD)

4 stars

Barefoot Gen (Japan, 1983) - 4 stars
The Battle of Algiers (France, 1965) - 4 stars
Black and White in Color (France, 1977) - 4 stars
Black Rain (Japan, 1988)

A very fascinating look at the experiences of people who lived in and around Hiroshima when the atomic bomb was dropped and how difficult it was for them to lead normal lives afterwards, even if they appeared healthy. Interesting and heartbreaking. (on DVD in Region 1)

3 and a half stars

Bloody Sunday (Ireland, 2002) - 4 stars
Chac: The Rain God (Mayan/Tzeltal, 1975)

A tribe is convinced that there is a drought because the Rain God is angry with them. They ask a kind of witch doctor to help them remove the curse. When the rain still doesn't come, they blame the witch doctor and plot revenge against him. Slow but shocking. (on DVD)

3 stars

Children of Heaven (Iran, 1998) - 4 stars
Chunhyang (South Korea, 2001) - 4 stars
City of God (Brazil, 2003) - 5 stars
City of Life and Death (China, 2009)
The Class (France, 2009) - 3 and a half stars
Close to Eden (Mongolia, 1991)

A Russian crashes into a river after seeing a dead body while dancing to stay awake during a long drive. He and a Mongolian family begin a friendship despite the fact that they can’t speak to each other. It is at times very funny and at other times emotional, as both men are dealing with challenges internally and externally. The film has much to say about the effects modernization has had on Inner Mongolia.

4 stars

*Nominated for Best Foreign film in 1991
*unavailable on DVD in Region 1; available in other regions but without English subtitles (the VHS tape is most likely out of print)

Confessions (Japan, 2010) - 4 stars
Crossing (South Korea, 2008)
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (China, 2000) - 4 stars
The Day the Sun Turned Cold (China, 1994)

One day, a young boy went to a police station in China and said he wanted to report a murder. The victim he said was his father; the person he suspected of murdering him was his mother. What follows is heartbreaking, as a family, as well as a country, is divided irreparably. A strong, well-acted film. (available on VHS from Kino; never released on DVD)

4 stars

The Decalogue (Poland, 1989) - 5 stars
Depatures (Japan, 2008) - 5 stars
Divided We Fall (Chechoslovakia, 2000)

This is an extraordinarily moving film about a husband and wife who protect a Jewish neighbor during World War II. The husband is forced to take a job helping to force evictions in order to deflect his neighbors' suspicions, which later causes him to be seen as having collaborated with the Nazis. (on DVD)

4 stars

Downfall (Germany, 2004)

Downfall details the last hours of Hitler's life and the immediate aftermath of his death. In the film, Hitler's commanders seem to recognize that the end is at hand, but Hitler still barks out orders, often to commanders who have no army to fight or to troops that are no longer among the living. As bombs go off, Eva Braun gives her own orders, for the party to continue, for there to be dancing and merriment. However, even she is aware of the inevitable. Yet Hitler still has his following, including a family who would rather poison their children than let them live in a defeated Germany. Bruno Gatz gives an amazingly powerful and scary performance as Hitler. (on DVD)

5 stars

The Dreamlife of Angels (France, 1998) - 4 stars
Drunken Angel (Japan, Kurosawa, 1949)

This little seen Akira Kurosawa film stars the great Toshiro Mifune as a gangster who is told by an alcoholic doctor that he has tuberculosis. At first, he doesn't believe it. After all, he is a powerful man. As the disease begins to take hold of him, his power as a gangster simultaneously wanes. What's left is a dangerous man with nothing to lose. (on DVD from the Criterion Collection)

4 stars

Dust in the Wind (Taiwan, 1986)
Earth (India, 1998)

After the end of World War II, India was divided into two independent countries. Earth shows how this event changed the lives of a small group of people who previously had been friends, but now found themselves divided along ethnic lines. Extremely powerful and tragic. (currently OOP)

4 stars

The Eel (Japan, 1997)

This film won Best Picture at the Cannes Film Festival several years ago. It is about a man who receives a letter telling him that he is the laughing stock of town, for everytime he goes fishing, his wife's lover comes over to his house. Embarrassed, he returns home early one day and catches them in the act. In a rage, he stabs his wife and then gets on a bicycle and goes to the police station, where he turns himself in. Years later, he is released from jail, but his rage has not dissipated. After he meets a young woman, he is tested in more ways than one. The picture is never predictable, and the acting is impressive. (currently OOP)

4 stars

Eighteen Springs (China, 1997)

This is a great Chinese film, and if you’re lucky to find it, you’ll be glad you did. It is the story of two young people who are deeply in love and perfect for each other. However, their union is opposed due to the young woman’s family history. This sets in motion a series of dramatic events, including betrayal by the women’s own sister. (on DVD)

4 stars

The Equation of Love and Death (China, 2008) - 4 stars
Europa, Europa (Germany, 1990) - 4 stars
Farewell My Concubine (China, 1993) - 4 and a half stars
Female Convict Scorpion (Japan, 1972) - 4 stars
Giants and Toys (Japan, 1958) - 4 stars
God Man Dog (Taiwan, 2007) - 4 stars
The Goddess (China, 1934)

One of only eight movies starring Ruan Lingyu to still exist. In this one, she plays a single mother forced to be a prostitute to support her child. The movie is proof that she was indeed a skilled actress. Ruan Lingyu's story was told in the movie Centre Stage starring Maggie Cheung. (on DVD)

3 and a half stars

Gojiro (Godzilla) (Japan, 1956) - 4 stars
Hatakari (Japan, 1962) - 4 and a half stars
Hate (La Haine) (France, 1995) - 4 stars
Heart of Glass (Germany, 1976)
Infernal Affairs (Hong Kong, 2002)
Ju Dou (China, 1990) - 4 stars
Jules and Jim (France, 1961) - 3 and a half stars
Kandahar (Iran, 2001)

A woman tries to sneak into Taliban-controlled Afghanistan after receiving a letter from her sister saying she is going to kill herself at the end of the full moon. As she makes her way toward Afghanistan, she meets a child who was recently kicked out of a religious school and an American who fought against the Russians and is now provided limited medical service. It is a tough film to watch, but like Osama, it is a powerful reminder of what life was like under the Taliban.
(on DVD from New Yorker Films)

4 stars

Kedma (Israel, 2002) - 3 and a half stars
The Kingdom and the Beauty (Hong Kong, 1962)
Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India (India, 2001) - 4 stars
Life is Beautiful (Italy, 1998) - 4 stars
The Lives of Others (Germany, 2006) - 3 and a half stars
The Lizard (Iran, 2004)

This has to rank as one of my favorite movies in a long time. It is the story of a thief named Reza who escapes from prison by stealing a mullah’s clothing. All he wants is to get a fake passport and get to safety. Instead, he is mistaken as the mullah that has been sent to a small village. As he tries his best to get the passport, his action (such as sneaking out at night) are interpreted as charity and delivering to the poor, one of the pillars of Islam. Soon, the village is following his “example.”

The film portrays many in Iran as looking for guidance from mullahs and an equal number as being unaffected by them. For example, while the man is dressed as a mullah, he tries to hitchhike, but no one will stop for him.

The film was initially approved and shown in Iran. However, it appears that people were laughing at the “wrong” places, and upon further review, it was banned in Iran. The film played in Los Angeles briefly. (available at

5 stars

The Magdalene Sisters (Ireland, 2002) - 4 stars
Malena (Italy, 2000) - 4 stars
Marooned in Iraq (Iraq, 2002)

An exceptional film about Iraq right after the Iran-Iraq war at the time of Saddam’s gassing of the Kurds. A man receives word that his ex-wife, who ran off with a friend of his years ago, is in trouble and sets off with his two sons to find her. Together, they travel through an Iraq filled with chaos and mass graves. They find a wedding party that someone is determined to disrupt, a woman trying to find out whether a family member has been killed in a chemical attack, and a camp for orphaned or abandoned children. The journey is one of self-discovery for the two sons and one of duty for their father. It is one of the most powerful movies I’ve ever seen. (on DVD in Region 1)

5 stars

Minbo: The Art of Japanese Extortion (Japan, 1992) - 4 stars
A Mongolian Tale (China/Mongolia, 1995) - 4 stars
Monsieur Ibrahim (France, 2004) - 4 stars
The Monster (Italy, 1996) - 3 and a half stars
Munyurangabo (Rwanda)
No Man’s Land (Yugoslavia, 2001) - 4 stars
No Puedo Vivir Sin Ti (Taiwan, 2009) - 4 stars
Nobody Knows (Japan, 2004)

Kirokazu Kore-eda's heartbreaking story of four children abandoned by their mother in modern Tokyo. The movie has a slow pace, yet it is consistently moving. The film also contains some amazing performances, in particular, that of Yuya Yagira.

3 and a half stars

Not One Less (China, 1999) - 4 stars
Once (Ireland, 2006) - 4 stars
One Day (Taiwan, 2010) - 4 stars
Once Upon a Time in China I/II (Honk Kong, 1991/1992) - 4 stars
Our Lady of the Assassins (Columbia, 2001) - 3 and a half stars
Paradise Now (Palestine, 2005)

This is the story of two young Palestinian men who are chosen (and are quite happy about it) to be suicide bombers. One of them is tough and militant; the other gentle and the object of a young women's affection. As the day of the operation approaches, they have one of the most interesting and terrifying inner struggles ever recorded on film. The end of the movie is shocking and tragic. To its credit, the film does not sympathize with the would-be suicide bombers; rather, it shows how two people could make such a choice and how the community around them reacts. (on DVD)

5 stars

Passion of Joan of Arc, The (France, 1928) - 5 stars
Picnic at Hanging Rock (Australia, 1975) - 4 stars
Prisoners of the Sun (Australia, 1990) - 3 and a half stars
Pushing Hands (Taiwan, 1992)

Lee Ang's debut film is about a Taiwanese man living in New York, his Caucasian wife, their son, and the man's father, who speaks little English. The film is about family and the things that bring them together (family and culture), tear them apart (misunderstandings and poor judgment), and finally reunite them (family). The late Sihung Long is impressive in the role of the father, a man who cannot seem to relate to his son and his son's wife, and while the film does contain what many consider a stereotype, the aging tai chi/martial arts expert, its characters are not stereotypical.

The film was released on DVD by Image Entertainment about ten years back. The transfer is poor, and the picture looks like it could be that of a video simply transferred to DVD. The DVD is currently out-of-print, which hopefully means that someone is working on a better edition.

4 stars

The Quiet Duel (Japan, Kurosawa, 1949)

Another pairing of Kurosawa and Mifune. This one is about a doctor played by Mifune who contracts tuberculosis while treating a patient during World War II. Because he has to move around, he is unable to keep taking medicine to cure his illness. After the war, he must struggle with what he wants - to marry his girlfriend - and what he knows would happen if he did. Mifune is remarkable as usual. (on DVD)

4 stars

Quitting (China, 2001)

Quitting is a difficult film to categorize. It is not a documentary, and yet all of the people in the film play themselves, and that fact adds to the film’s power. Quitting details the fall of Jia Hongshen, an actor who became addicted to drugs. The drugs caused him to be aloof, argumentative, and unsympathetic. Meanwhile, his family struggles to help him and not lose themselves in the process. Watching the film is in itself an experience. It is eerie to watch a father be struck by his son, knowing that what you are watching really happened to the people you see on the screen. The film does not offer a cure for drug addiction, and at the end of the film, I was not completely sure whether Jia Hongshen had indeed kicked the habit for good. As the film ends, you see that the end of the film is just the end of a day for this family. While for the audience, the experience is over; for Jia Hongshen and his family, it will never end completely.

The Region 1 DVD of Quitting is clear and has yellow subtitles. However, not everything is subtitled. At the beginning of the film, while people are saying what they remember about Jia Hongshen, several statements are not translated. The film also includes a poor translation (my guess is this was done on purpose in order to avoid paying royalties) of the Beatle’s “Let It Me.”

4 stars

Raise the Red Lantern (China, 1991) - 4 stars
Red Beard – (Japan, Kurosawa, 1965) - 5 stars
Red Sorghum (China, 1998) - 4 and a half stars
Remembering the Cosmos Flower (Japan, 1997)

Remembering the Cosmos Flower is the story of a teenager with AIDS in Japan who tries as hard as she can to live a normal life. What makes this film special is the characters: a mother trying to be strong, a nurse trying to be supportive, a best friend alienated by her classmates and dumped by her boyfriend because of her friendship with someone with AIDS, and the lead character, a young girl just trying to live the rest of her life as a normal teenager. While the film gets a little predicable at the end, the rest of the film succeeds. (on DVD in Region 1)

3 and a half stars

Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles (China, 2005) - 3 and a half stars
Rosetta (France, 1999) - 4 stars
Salaam Bombay! (India, 1988) - 4 stars
Sandstorm (Bawandar) (India, 2000)
Secret Ballot (Iran, 2001) - 4 stars
Sound of the Mountain (Japan, 1954)
Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Fall (South Korea, 2003) - 5 stars
Strike (Russia, 1924) - 4 and a half stars
The Terrorist (Tamil, 1998)

A young woman volunteers to be a suicide bomber only to find out later that she is pregnant. She is torn by her cause, which she believes in, and the new life growing within her, which she find herself more attached to every moment. She also finds herself drawn to the family she is staying with. They seem to sense both of the causes of her confusion and offer her a permanent home with them. Like Paradise Now, it demands to be seen. (on DVD)

5 stars

The Terrorizers (Taiwan, 1986)
Three Seasons (Vietnam, 1999) - 3 and a half stars
To Live (China, 1994) (Zhang Yimou and Gong Li)

Perhaps this is my favorite of Zhang Yimou's films with the great Gong Li. In it, Ge You plays a man addicted to gambing. He ignores his family and eventually owes so much money that his father is forced to give up his house to cover his son's debts. Ge You is skilled at using shadow puppets and sets off to make money that way. The experience changes him. Upon returning home, he is reunited with his wife and children. Life is good for a while. And then the cultural revolution begins. (on DVD)

5 stars

Tokyo Story (Japan, 1953; director Yasujiro Ozu)

The story of a family in post-WWII Japan. A couple goes to visit two of their children in Tokyo. Instead of greeting them with excitement, the children seem to be bothered by their presence and have no idea what to do with them. The only one who makes time for them and treats them with respect is the widow of their son who died eight years earlier. It is a very powerful look at cultural change and generational disappointment. (on DVD from Criterion Collection)

5 stars

Tropical Fish (Taiwan, 1995)
The Twilight Samurai (Japan, 2003) - 4 stars
2000 As Seen By… (all eights films, 1999)
Two Women (Iran, 1999)

The story of two young women going to school before the Iranian revolution caused them to shut down. One of the women is stalked by a man after she rejects his advances and offer of marriage. Because of him, her life is permanantly altered. This is a powerful story about the status of women in Iran. (on DVD, but with white and sometimes obscured subtitles)

4 stars

The Vertical Rays of the Sun (Vietnam, 2000) - 4 stars
The Virgin Spring (Sweden, 1960) - 4 and a half stars
The Wages of Fear (France, 1953) - 4 stars
Water (India, 2005) - 3 and a half stars
Windhorse (Tibet, 1998)

Windhorse is the story of a brother and sister in present-day Tibet. The brother is lazy and seems to have no goals; his sister is a singer who is asked to sing pro-Chinese songs if she wants to be famous. One of their relatives is a Buhhdist nun. After leading an impromptu protest, she is arrested and tortured. The siblings must find a way to smuggle a video of their relative out of the country. The film is fascinating and disturbing. (currently OOP)

4 stars

The Wooden Man’s Bride (China, 1995)

A bride-to-be is kidnapped on her way to her wedding. Her groom races off to save her, only to die in an accident. The women is rescued by one of the men who had been assigned to guard her and brought to her "in-laws" house. He is shocked to hear not only that the wedding will carry on as planned but that the young woman will marry a wooden statue meant to symbolize her fiance. (on DVD in Region 1)

4 stars

Z (France, 1969) - 4 stars

Pre-1970 Classics

The African Queen (1951)
All That Heaven Allows (1955, Douglas Sirk)
Arsenic and Old Lace (1948)
Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1926)
The Caine Mutiny (1954)
Cape Fear (1962)
Charade (1963)
Christ in Concrete (1949)

This is one of only two blacklisted films. It tells the story of a young immigrant construction worker who is known to his friends as being principled and putting the safety of his workers ahead of costs. He and his wife save all of their money to buy a house, but the day on which they have finally saved enough is the day of the great stock market crash. Their money disappears as work becomes harder and harder to find. He falls apart and in the process loses his morals. This is a very strong film that deserves a audience. (on DVD)

4 stars

Dinner At Eight (1933)
Double Indemnity (1941)
Duck Soup (1933)
Dutchman (1967)
Four Sons (1928, John Ford)
Freaks (1932)
Fury (1936)
Gaslight (1944)
Goldfinger (1964)
The Good Earth (1937)
I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932)
Imitation of Life (1959)
In A Lonely Place (1950)
The Informer (1935)
The Lady Vanishes(1938)
A Letter to Three Wives (1949)
Lonely are the Brave (1962)
The Love Light (1921)
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)
Monsieur Verdoux (1947)
My Darling Clementine (1946)
The Nun's Story (1959)
A Night at the Opera (1935)
The Night of the Hunter (1955)
Our Hospitality (1923)
The Ox-Bow Incident (1943)
Paths of Glory (1957)
The Petrified Forest (1936)
A Raisin in the Sun (1961)
Red-Headed Woman (1932)
Rio Bravo (1959)
Salt of the Earth (1953)
The Sea Hawk (1940)
The Set-Up (1949)
Seven Days in May (1964)
Shane (1953)
Shenandoah (1965)
Singin' in the Rain (1952)
Spartacus (1960)
Stagecoach (1939)
The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946)
Sunrise (1927) possibly my favorite film of all time
Three Bad Men (1926)
The Three Faces of Eve (1957)
Town Without Pity (1961)
Waterloo Bridge (1931)
Written on the Wind (1956)

Post-1970 Classics

Adaptation (2002)
Almost Famous (2000)
Amazing Grace (2006)
And Justice For All (1979)
The Anniversary Party (2001)
The Believer (2001)
Better Luck Tomorrow (2002)
Brain Donors (1992)
The Cat’s Meow (2001)
Changing Lanes (2002)
Combination Platter (1993)
The Corner (2000, HBO)
Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989)
Dog Day Afternoon (1975)
Exotica (1994)
Eyes Wide Shut (1999)
Gods and Monsters (1998)
Gosford Park (2001)
Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)
Heaven and Earth (1993, Oliver Stone)
House of Sand and Fog (2003)
Husbands and Wives (1992)
The Ice Storm (1997)
In the Company of Men (1997)
Love and Death on Long Island (1997)
Maryam (2002)
Max (2002)
Memento (2000)
The Merchant of Venice (2004)
Much Ado About Nothing (1993)
Mulholland Dr. (2001)
Network (1976)
Our Song (2001)
Rosewood (1997)
Savior (1997)
Sex, Lies, and Videotapes (1989)
The Shape of Things (2003)
The Sweet Hereafter (1997)
Tender Mercies (1983)
Titus (1999)
To Be or Not To Be (1983)
Traffic (2000)
Traffik (1989, BBC)
25th Hour (2003)
21 Grams (2003)
Two Girls and a Guy (1997)
United 93 (2006)
The Upside of Anger (2005)
Wag the Dog (1997)
Waitress (2008)
Waking the Dead (2000)
The Woodsmen (2004)
The Wrestler (2008)

Extraordinary Documentaries

Attila '74: The Rape of Cyprus
Bus 174
Children Underground
Common Threads: Stories From the Quilt
The Corporation
Daughter From Danang

A daughter is reunited with her birth mother after she sent her to the United States during Operation Babylift. What should have been a heartwarming reunion turns into a cultural misunderstanding that damages their relationship forever. A very moving experience. (on DVD from PBS's American Experience)

4 stars

Death in Gaza
The Devil’s Playground
Game Theory (2010)
Genghis Blues

This film records the late Paul Pena's trip to Tuva to compete in a singing competition. After seeing this movie, you'll wish life had been kinder to this truly gifted individual. (on DVD)

4 stars

The Long Way Home
Moving the Mountain
Pandemic: Facing AIDS
Point of Order
Sound and Fury

A State of Mind

Two teenagers prepare for North Korea's mass games. The film provides a rare and fascinating look at the lives of North Koreans. (on DVD from Kino)

4 stars

The Weather Underground
When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts
The World at War

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