With movie theaters closed, premieres postponed and shelter-in-place orders still in effect, now is the perfect time to take a chance on an obscure classic or contemporary film — the kind you never seemed to find the time to watch. The Well asked two faculty members from the department of English and comparative literature’s film studies program to recommend some of their streamable favorites.
Rick Warner, director of the film studies program, associate professor and Kenan Fellow, recommends the following movies for their stylistic merit and engaging storylines.
“Detour” is a consummate example of a Hollywood B-movie that uses its shoestring budget to its advantage, generating poetry through its spare visual style. This story of a hitchhiker who can’t outrun bad luck has all the elements of film noir. A careful watch of the film reveals how traits of the genre are partially under critique.
An anti-war film crossed with a legal drama, “Paths of Glory” was director Stanley Kubrick’s first masterpiece. Set during World War I, this impeccably crafted film hinges on the absurd actions of a French general who orders a suicide mission because it will increase his chances of promotion. An attorney-turned-colonel, played by Kirk Douglas, must negotiate between his loyalty to his commanders, his concerns for his regiment and his ethical consciousness. No one exposes the madness beneath “rational” order better than Kubrick.
“Aguirre, the Wrath of God” (1972)
No filmmaker takes the measure of insanity more adventurously than German director Werner Herzog. By turns mystical and haunting, this film immerses the viewer in its thick atmosphere as we follow a conquistador expedition along the Amazon River in search of El Dorado, the lost city of gold. The film was a critical hit and has become a cult classic.
German director Christian Petzold has steadily put together an impressive body of work since the start of the 21st century. His films are sparse and minimalistic but enchantingly beautiful, and they often examine the traumatic past. “Transit” is strangely anachronistic: It offers an account of the refugee experience in a present-day occupied Paris, but the present everywhere seems tied to the German occupation during World War II. “Transit” is one of the most timely (and untimely) films released in recent years.
“Portrait of a Lady on Fire” (2019)
This exquisitely filmed romance set in the late 18th century should have been France’s submission for Best International Feature Film at the Oscars (and should have won — no offense to “Parasite”). Among its many feats, “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” compares film to painting while revising the traditional power dynamic between artist and muse. The less you know about this film in advance, the better.
Martin Johnson, assistant professor, recommends these engaging films to take your mind off the coronavirus pandemic.
A Western for people who don’t like Westerns, John Ford’s “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence” stars James Stewart as a U.S. Senator who is forced to reconcile his personal integrity with his desire to win. Like many, I first encountered Stewart as an affable idealist in films like “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” and “It’s A Wonderful Life.” Stewart’s cold realism here is much more compelling.
“Amores Perros” (2000)
From the opening shots of Alejandro González Iñárritu’s debut feature film, it is clear that Iñárritu is a director with considerable talent, and even greater ambition. An entrancing triptych connected only by a car crash, “Amores Perros” is a visual treat, a film that will keep you engaged for the entirety of its two and a half hour run time.
“Let the Sunshine In” (2017)
Since the release of her English-language debut, “High Life” in 2019, French director Claire Denis has become better known in the U.S. While the Robert Pattinson space drama was a bit too slow moving for many people’s tastes, Denis’ previous film is a light-hearted comedy about a middle-aged-Parisian artist (played by Juliette Binoche) searching for love.
South Korean director Lee Chang-dong is not as well-known as Bong Joon-Ho, whose film “Parasite” won the Best Picture award at the 2020 Oscars, but he is one of the country’s most enigmatic directors. Set in Paju, a rural town at the border with North Korea, “Burning” beautifully captures a strange concoction of ennui and yearning for a better life.
Olivia Wilde’s debut feature film “Booksmart” was a modest success at the box office, but the film deserves to follow “Dazed and Confused,” “Superbad” and “Lady Bird” as a cult classic about the last days of high school. The film perfectly captures two characters who are torn between realizing their own ambitions and sustaining a friendship that carried them through the trials of adolescence.
If none of these recommendations appeals to you, or if you’re looking for other streamable entertainment, University Libraries has hundreds of films and documentaries available online through the Media Resource Center.
By Madeline Pace, The Well