Smart films that will make you think
The film industry is rightfully known for turning out a great deal of eye-candy that requires very little from your neurons upstairs, but if you look hard enough there are some gems that won't send you into vegetation (or extended periods of boredom). Every once in a while, goodness slips through the net...
Howard, network news anchor, has had enough. So one day, signing off his nightly news hour, he says that he will kill himself, that life in this vacuous corporate world isn't worth living. Naturally, ratings for the show go through the roof. Filled with the sort of cutting dialogue and still relevant ideas about ownership and filters long before they became the standard for media critique types, it is worth watching if only for the extended rants to camera. “All I know is, you've got to get mad. You've got to say, 'I'm a human being, goddamn it. My life has value.'”
The Constant Gardener
The words 'drug company' and 'trustful' had never been particularly good bedfellows, but John le Carre's novel and its film adaptation made sure there was little doubt left. Set in the netherworld of British diplomacy in Africa, it shadows Ralph Fiennes' relationship with the British government and a pharmaceutical behemoth named KVH before and after the death of his wife through suspicious circumstances.
Jim Jarmusch is no stranger to strangeness, but Dead Man reaches deep into this particular barrel. Johnny Depp is a wanderer named William Blake who, after killing a man and being wounded himself, ventures into the desert and meets an Indian named Nobody. An ambiguous, chaotic, surreal and beautiful journey into the weird and wonderful.
Lars and the Real Girl
The poster had me fooled into thinking this one was a comedy about a man and his mail order, anatomically correct doll. Which it is, in fact, but there is far more twisted humour and intelligent sentiment than the average Hollywood comedy. Ryan Gosling plays the extremely awkward Lars who, unable to deal with real people, orders a girl with whom conversation is not an issue. That the film is able to take this simple, ridiculous premise and craft a story of genuine warmth is testament to a fine script and finer acting, particularly from Gosling.
In the Loop
If you can stand the excessive swearing, In the Loop is as good as it gets for comedic political-realism, a small but distinguished genre. Mostly unknown actors – excepting The Soprano's James Gandolfini playing a wonderfully unhinged general - lead us into the world of cabinet discussions leading up to the Iraq War and the egos and morality (or lack of) that surrounded it. If this sounds at all dull, think again – the script positively crackles with goodness: “Twelve thousand troops. But that's not enough. That's the amount that are going to die. And at the end of a war you need some soldiers left, really, or else it looks like you've lost.”
Looking like the leftover set of Fear and Loathing with the lights turned low, Brazil is Director Terry Gilliam's take on Orwell's 1984 as a black, black comedy. Following a typo, a man is accidentally arrested and disappeared into the black world of government bureaucracy never to be seen again. Investigating the mistake from the inside is non-hero Sam Lowry, convinced he will get to the bottom of something but constantly thwarted by circumstance and paperwork. Incidentally, anyone who thinks that Michael Palin – of Monty Python fame, as is Gilliam – couldn't possibly play the role of a sinister torturer, think again.
Stranger than fiction
Yes, Will Ferrell is in an intelligent film. Well, sort of. He finds his life inexplicably narrated – Godlike, from above – by his author, who turns out to be somehow writing his life. The only problem is, the author already has a killer ending that doesn't bode too well for Will. Delving into narrative theory and questioning just what it is that keeps us going day by day, this is another example of a simple premise done with more intelligence than you'd first think.
Life is Beautiful
It takes a special kind of genius to take the story of a boy and his father sent to a Nazi concentration camp and turn it into a sensitive (if black) comedy. Roberto Benini is a ball of controlled comedic energy, convincing his offspring that the whole exercise is a game to played, the winner getting a tank. Played out with increasing desperation, the narrative never seems forced into a pigeon-hole of tragedy or comedy, switching whimsically between the two. A must see.
Everyone's favourite 'backwards' film, Memento plays in reverse from finish to start, masterfully revealing details from Guy Pearce's life as we travel back to the source. He plays Leonard, afflicted with short-term memory loss so severe that he cannot make any new memories; the last thing he remembers is his wife's murder. He knows he must catch his wife's killer, and tattoos the relevant details to his body so he won't forget. It's intelligent and visceral, one to watch and watch a second times for the things you missed.
More a serious of interesting conversations than a real narrative, Richard Linklater's take on the nature of consciousness (among other things) is a uniquely compelling bit of film-making. Shot in the innovative animation / live-action blend known as roto-scoping, it also looks like nothing else. And if some of the conversations occasionally wander into late-night-after-some-serious-intoxication territory, you can guarantee there'll be something smart along soon.