Rhapsody in Beautiful Black and White: George Gershwin’s “Someone to Watch Over Me” and Woody Allen’s Manhattan
The swell of strings, the melancholic brass, the two people sitting on the bench, and the gorgeous night cinematography of said two people looking towards the Queensboro Bridge as the sun rises. There is pretty much no more iconic cinematic still than the scene from Woody Allen’s masterpiece Manhattan, as Isaac and Mary sit on a bench, well into the morning talking about life. One of the film’s greatest attributes, besides the splendid photography from Gordon Willis, its sense of humor, its pathos, etc., is its brilliant use of music by George Gershwin to illustrate New York. And, as we know from the beginning of the film, as “Rhapsody in Blue” paints the City That Never Sleeps vividly, Isaac, and Allen to boot, loves New York. He “romanticizes it all out of proportion”. So, thus, it would be fitting not only to use some of the composer’s greatest selections for the film to heighten the stylized romanticism, contrasted against the urbanite intellectualism of the setting, but to use one of Gershwin’s most well known standards, “Someone to Watch Over Me”, over the most memorable scene from the film. Granted, when you think about the song from a lyrical standpoint, you kind of wonder, why this song? Who’s watching over whom? It doesn’t make sense for Isaac to look over Mary, but what if it’s the other way around? Aside from the sheer romanticism of the song, Allen may have slyly used the song to further characterize the slightly insecure, undeniably pretentious, and oddly alluring Mary Wilkie, as portrayed by Diane Keaton, as well as a love letter to the city the film takes place in.
“Someone to Watch Over Me” was originally written by George and Ira Gershwin for the musical Oh, Kay! in 1926, and soon after it became a jazz standard and a staple of the Great American Songbook. The song details what could be unrequited desires for a romantic guardian and, what sounds like, a co-dependent romantic entanglement. The persona is vulnerable, sensitive, and even, perhaps, insecure. My two favorite renditions include a classic recording by the great Ella Fitzgerald and a nicely traditional performance by Cheyenne Jackson (who briefly was on 30 Rock). You would be hard put to find a more romantic song that was able to articulate those kinds of yearnings without sounding overly sappy or, even, needy and desperate. Instead, it sounds more like a contemplation of one’s own weaknesses and the need for some kind of protector. The song is normally performed by a female vocalist, which, maybe unfairly, accentuates the submissive nature of the song. This aspect is important, which I will get to in a bit.
If 1977’s Best Picture winner Annie Hall was Woody Allen’s transition from from absurd laugh a minute jokey comedies to more mature, thoughtful, even philosophical comedy films, Manhattan was the filim that firmly planted Allen’s feet in the ground as a master writer, director, star of comedies with nuance and depth. Though he had backfired with his venture into the Bergman-esque realm with the previous year’s Interiors, Manhattan was another bunce back. Although Allen himself hates the film (he even offered United Artists to completely reshoot the film for no pay), it represents one of the most mature and beautiful comedies ever projected on the silver screen. And, oh, that silver screen! Shot in glorious black and white by the Prince of Darkness himself, cinematographer Gordon Willis (known for his work on The Godfather), the classical look imbues the film with sophistication and romanticism.
As seen in the film Manhattan, the song drops its lyrics, as with the rest of the Gershwin score, giving its orchestral arrangement a certain power and sensitivity that, while native to the track itself, greatly imbues the scene with those same elements. As the song is about to play, Isaac Davis (Woody Allen), an insecure nebbish who recently quit his job as a TV writer and is dating a 17 year old, is discussing his book about his mother with Mary Wilkie (Diane Keaton), a pompous intellectual type whose favorite phrase is “I live in Philadelphia, where we…” But they pause for a moment as the song begins playing, filling the scene with as much wonder as Gordon Willis’ and Allen’s joint mise-en-scene. They pause their discussion of his book and just look at the city, in all of its beauty. A knockout, Isaac calls it. And this scene truly is.
So, with this in mind, the song’s meaning is twofold (maybe three fold, if you consider the song contextually). Manhattan tells a story of a very specific group of people and their very specific environment. Amidst this environment, Isaac is tries to break out of this environment by dating a nubile, but very intelligent, 17 year old named Tracy (Mariel Hemingway). This somewhat awkward relationship involves Isaac somewhat frequently undermining her intelligence because she’s young, but he can, nevertheless, be intimate and fairly honest with her. However, his encounter with Mary Wilkie, a woman who represents the kind of people he supposedly detests, suggests an odd polar reaction in terms of attraction. He claims to dislike the intellectual, high society he belongs to, but, as his attraction to Mary reveals, he does belong to that environment. But, in this relationship, the intimacy, like the academically driven society the film sets itself in, is kind of superficial with claims of being “deep”.
Throughout the discourse that Mary discusses, from the photographs that were “straight out of Diane Arbus, but with none of the wit” to the bashing of Norman Mailer, Mary is, at heart, insecure, unsure about her competency, worried about her failed marriage. But she masks it by saying she realizes that she’s a beautiful woman, by taking a job that is technically beneath her (writing novelizations of screenplays/movies), and being so sure of her relationship with Isaac’s best friend, Yale (Michael Murphy). So, the relationship between Isaac and Mary is thus based on the surface of things, people so sure of their competency to make them look good to other people, that they never get deeper than that surface. Isaac, though, doesn’t need to make himself vulnerable to Mary. For that, he has Tracy.
Tracy, young, intelligent, but outside of that pseudo-intellectual stratosphere that he so uncomfortably lives in, is the antithesis to Mary. She’s modest, and that modesty and genuine sincerity should offer Isaac the perfect opportunity to connect with someone not only intellectually, but emotionally as well. And, at times, when he isn’t trying to discredit her intelligence, they do. She often initiates these conversations, but it’s there, much more evident than anything he has with Mary. After his relationship with Mary is done and over with, he realizes that, although he isn’t willing to initially admit it, he needs Tracy. Tracy is his ticket out of the sort of social environment he doesn’t even like. If anything, you could say that Mary was his transition out.
Anyways, let’s backtrack to the bridge scene. Because Mary is the much more sensitive of the two, masking that sensitivity with her proclivity towards pretension, “Someone to Watch Over Me” works more from her perspective than it does for Isaac’s. Isaac, as aforementioned, doesn’t need to make the kind of confession that the song makes; Mary does. Considering her track record with marriage and relationships with married men, emotional connectivity is what she wants but what she is afraid of.
There’s a somebody I’m longing to see
I hope that she turns out to be
Someone to watch over me.
I’m a little lamb who’s lose in the wood
I know I could always be good
To one who’ll watch over me.
The confessional begins with the concept of continually searching and never finding love, and that lost feeling when you can’t actually find love. But the connection that Mary seems to make with Isaac seems to be the one that she thinks she’s been looking for. Isaac, hardly the virile type, is, for Mary, someone to watch over her.
Outside of that, during this scene the music plays as the two of them, on the bench (a prop which was brought to the set), they gaze at New York, bedazzled. For these two people, sometimes confused and sometimes sure of themselves, New York watches over them as their home. Ironic though it may be that New York would watch over anyone to protect them, the place and the setting is so familiar to them, so homey for them, that the conclusion is perfectly reasonable. It is a love letter to New York, as much as the use of “Rhapsody in Blue” at the beginning of the film, as much as the film itself, and as much as nearly any film Woody Allen has ever made. The lights come up and he loves New York.
The overt romanticization works with the story, the characters, and the setting well, for, as much depth and nuance as they may have, a lot of it seems like a caricature. The intellectuals in the film are stereotypes, the same kind of stereotype that Allen has used numerous times; Allen’s Isaac is his alternate persona with heightened neuroses; and the film’s black and white sheen seems to fit an era more home to the likes of Casablanca and The Lady Eve than Annie Hall or Interiors. The song itself isn’t only romantic in its notion about finding love, but also in its deep felt desire. Its musical structure, major in its key and absolutely designed to make you swoon, again, accentuates this element. SO, the inclusion of the song as a love letter to this city makes sense, and can be, itself, a romantic notion.
The Gershwin filled score of Allen’s Manhattan is one of my favorite aspects of the film. I’ve listened to the album literally hundreds of times. But it serves a greater purpose as Allen uses it for illustrating one of its main characters, thereby fleshing out dynamics, and also by working as a song pining for a place, with people, stories, and quirks from a city he loves.
If you saw my personal top ten list of films, my personal favorites, you may have noticed that, instead of the standard ten, on there were technically thirteen. Some films were grouped together like thematic double features, while others stood on their own ground. Numerous (well, what I consider to be numerous) people asked me about this, specifically why. The reason: I’m indecisive.
Although it is my deepest desire and aspiration to become a professional film critic, I know my least favorite thing will be to compile any sort of end of the year list. That hasn’t really stopped me from making one for 2011 (though I published it in July 2012) or one even for 2012. But to make a list of my favorite films ever? I haven’t seen Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, but I assume that’s what they were talking about during the torture debate.
So, I’m indecisive. I know it isn’t comparatively a lot next to people like Alex of And So It Begins, Tyler of Southern Vision, or Matt of the No-Name Movie Blog, but I’ve seen something like 1200 films and to reduce all of my favorites to a simple ten? A nightmare. It was hard enough compiling a list of 101 (where, again, I sort of cheated with some films). I have a running list on my computer of my favorite films and it has nearly 350 films on it.
So, I chose the films that I go back to, or would go back to, on a fairly regular basis. Such films included Lars von Trier’s Melancholia, which is his most enjoyable and even most optimistic film; Clue, a delightful murder mystery comedy; Manhattan, Woody Allen’s gorgeous masterpiece; and Stranger Than Fiction, a touching examination of human life and the writing process. Other films I included were ones that left me thinking, that I could literally not stop talking about or thinking about: David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr., his surreal poison love letter to Hollywood; Metropolis, arguably the most important film ever made; Holy Motors, Leos Carax’s deadpan eulogy for film; and Pan’s Labyrinth, Guillermo del Toro’s majestic, adult fairy tale. And some film are just gorgeous and the kind of thing you want to watch over and over again: Fanny and Alexander, Bergman’s most whimsical film (even at five hours); Modern Times, Chaplin’s last outing as the Tramp; Vivre sa Vie, Godard’s most humane film; and Nights of Cabiria, Fellini’s own fairy tale.
Bringing Up Baby is sort of a default answer as my favorite film of all time. It was one of the first films I ever saw and one that continues to make me laugh. I suppose I’m fortunate that the first film I fell in love with happens to be a staple of classic cinema, and one of the best screwball comedies ever made.
Now, onto why I grouped films together. I understand that such lists and their limitations (10, 20, 30, 101, etc.) are basically self-imposed, as a way to make the critic more decisive and definite about what he or she may declare their favorite or the best of cinema. I can barely do this because I am a weak person. I have no will power. I have no intention in investigating the philosophy or nature of lists, their arbitrary nature, etc. I also hate ranking things, which is why you can see most of my lists are in alphabetical order instead of something numbered. I am a terrible person.
So, grouping films together was my compromise. Lang’s Metropolis and Chaplin’s Modern Times were together as they represent political idealistic, almost utopian films, sort of social commentaries. The juxtaposition of drama and comedy, of silence and sound (sort of) is, of course, a little intentional. Mulholland Dr. and Holy Motors are the surreal companion pieces, both as much about the medium as they are about the industry, both incredibly intoxicating to watch, and both masterpieces of cinema. And finally, Nights of Cabiria and Vivre sa Vie, one a film out of the magical realism that Fellini had crafted out of the neo-realistic movement in Italy, the other a more humane drama or tableaux that Godard put together during the French New Wave. Both are, to me, companion pieces, both about women whose dreams have come crashing down into a world of almost lewd hedonism, something neither Giulietta Messina nor Anna Karina want. They’re both about prostitutes, and while their execution and detailed stories are different, their paths and the tragedy of both characters are extremely similar.
So, I grouped and doubled films generally by theme. I knocked some films off the list, which sort of hurt, but I’ll get over it. (I will miss you, galaxy far, far away…) It hurts to take off films that mean a lot to you, but I think list making is like some sort of masochistic activity that film buffs really enjoy partaking in. I also knocked off Casablanca, Singin’ in the Rain, and Casino Royale. The first two, I suppose, had more merit (to me) in terms of knocking them off because I didn’t go back to watch them as often as I did the Bond film. As a lifelong Bond fanatic, it pains me to knock something sort of unique on my list off in favor of what could be considered fairly canon material. Which, I guess, is the sham of the whole thing. It’s a combination of the canon and of the off the beaten path, but all of which fall under a personal meaning to me.
Though, I think that’s the point. Regardless of the masochism, the self imposed confinements and restraint, it’s about finding what means the most to you, even if that goes past your originally intended limit. It’s about sharing the films and experiences with others and finding both similarities and differences in those experiences. It is, I think, about enjoying what you are passionate about, engaging in your passion with other people, and continuing to explore that with those people. It isn’t a contest. It’s constant exploration, conversation, and broadening of understanding and depth and taste. And, most of all, cinephilia.
Thanks for reading and let me know what you think!
Shout out to Alex Withrow!
Creating a “definitive” list of your favorite 101 films is a task unto itself, and one that I spent many hours compiling and weeping about. Only those who have also made similar lists know what it feels like to take off one of your favorites in order to fit the constraint of 101. I do have a larger, more random list, but, like most people, I was prompted to do this with the recent release of Sight and Sound’s 50 Greatest. The films that follow may not be the greatest, but they are most definitely my favorites. From the hilarious to the somber, to the “I want to go kill myself”; I think every film on the list has something to recommend it. Every film has a special place in my heart and I have unforgettable memories sparked by these films. I suppose the best way I can describe this list is the best of my favorite written like an objective list. Sort of. I hope this list sparks a little debate and some conversation! (The films are listed in alphabetical order, but the ones in bold would be in my top 10.)
- 12 Angry Men/Anatomy of a Murder (1957/1959) | Directed by Sidney Lumet/Otto Preminger
It probably goes without saying that 12 Angry Men and Anatomy of a Murder are the essential courtroom films. Lumet’s film deal exclusively in real time, studying the dozen men of the title and their motivations. Their personal ethics are on trial for the audience as they themselves must decide the fate of a young man on trial for murder. Lumet’s masterful direction and the tight, often claustrophobic cinematography center in less on the case itself than who these men are as people. Meanwhile, Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder is like the best episode of Law & Order times one hundred, with more focus on the latter. Taking you through nearly the entire process of a trial, and its noir0ish tendencies forcing the audience to question the legitimacy of, once again, the ethics of the cast of characters, Preminger sets the stage for a slow burning but hot mystery. Both are on a similar subject, yet handle the matters differently; with the former concentrating on the ethics of the men who will play god and the latter on the ethics of those on trial.
- The 400 Blows (1959) | Directed by François Truffaut
When one of his mentors challenged him to make a film since he had such a bad reputation as being an incredibly harsh critic, Truffaut’s first feature, and one of the first of the nouvelle vague, made him the John Hughes of the era. Adolescent angst tends to look really foolish and preposterous on screen, but Truffaut tackles the melodramatic woes and misfortunes of his protagonist, Antoine Doinel, with sympathy and nostalgia. This may partly because that Doinel, played excellently by Jean-Pierre Léaud, and the events in the film are heavily based on events and experiences that occurred in the auteur’s early life. And like John Hughes, Truffaut is able to present normally ridiculous and unsympathetic actions on the screen so that, without making Doinel seem like a martyr, the audience can gain insight into how the angsty adolescent feels. Certain lines resonate with any kid who has told a lie or tried to make their parents proud and failed. The adults around Doinel are not, surprisingly, made out to be monsters, but simply strict adults who, like in reality, may sometimes lose touch with who they once were. Truffaut’s touching film is the perfect coming-of-age story.
- A Christmas Story (1983) | Directed by Bob Clark
Based on memoir-esque essays by the film’s narrator, Jean Shepherd, A Christmas Story is one of the most perfect slices of nostalgia to ever grace the screen. Taking place sometime in the 1930s in the Midwest, the only thing little Ralphie wants for Christmas is a Red Ryder BB gun with all the fancy accessories. One kid’s quest because our delight. Its quaint, fun period setting and detail, and the nature of narrative structure make the film incredibly fun to watch. Told in vignette-style episodes, each segment really seems to be a slice from Ralphie’s life. It seems that, rather than assume the duty of creating a very long arc and narrative to what would, undeniably, be a far less interesting film, the episodic style makes the actions more quick paced, reminiscent of old sitcoms and radio shows. Were they to ever adapt David Sedaris’ work to the screen, they should look no farther than A Christmas Story.
- Alien/Aliens (1979/1986) | Directed by Ridley Scott/James Cameron
Alien and its sequel Aliens are very different films, but both are equally entertaining. While simultaneously nearly inventing the modern sci-fi film and subverting it in the same breath, Alien is, at its core, a haunted house movie with a crew aboard a ship that also contains a large monster. It combines the older clichés of that subgenre, recalling some stylings of Vincent Price, yet its characters aren’t always stupid. This is a nice change. Some very memorable thrills occur in Alien. Its sequel is different in tone and style, with James Cameron at the helm and his “no holds barred” style coming with him. More overtly an action movie, Aliens is more “exciting” than its predecessor, but that is merely because of the style change. All the while, the two films present curious ideas regarding pregnancy, birth, and feminism under the first layer of skin. As they say, though, in space, no one can hear you scream.
- Annie Hall (1977) | Directed by Woody Allen
Annie Hall was Woody Allen’s most obvious change in style, as he had slowly transitioned from “joke after joke” in Love and Death. This film, though, presents Allen not only as the comic, but as the artist. Using humor to illustrate the nuances in a relationship, Allen surprisingly allows us to get to know Alvy Singer and Annie Hall intimately. Despite the film being told mainly from his perspective, we become connected to Singer’s amour as well. The non-linear style aids this and accentuates those nuances. Eternal Sunshine would copy this method of retracing a relationship through memories, but in a way, Annie Hall does it, if not exactly better or more effectively, then just differently. The lack of straightforward linearity is the reproduction of memory, jumping to the moments that stand out to you the most in no particular order. The breaking of the fourth wall seems to prove it: Annie Hall is a walk down memory lane.
- Army of Shadows (1969) | Directed by Jean-Pierre Melville
While better known for his gangster films, Jean-Pierre Melville’s WWII neo-noir is an intricately plotted escape plan, drawn up to thrill like any of his other films. The difference between this and, say, Le Cercle Rouge, is that a real emotional connection is made. The dark palette and tenseness of the film drives the viewer to the edge of their seat, rooting for every character in the Resistance to get away. It’s a shattering film about the dangers of political resistance, as well a triumph of personal beliefs and heroism.
- Arsenic and Old Lace (1944) | Directed by Frank Capra
Amongst the first films I ever watched, Arsenic and Old Lace holds a very special place in my heart. Theater critic Mortimer Brooster’s two old aunts invite old, lonely men into their home and poison them, burying them in the basement. These goodhearted, decidedly Christian women are kind of like Dr. Kevorkian, but for the old and lonely. Mortimer’s older brother, who would have made both Boris Karloff and Jeffrey Dahmer proud, comes home one night and, as one would guess, antics ensue. Playing with primarily one set and the conventions of comedies and mysteries, Capra’s screwball comedy is listless and fun. The journalistic roots of Cary Grant’s character (who is, unshockingly, perfect) present an opportunity for the film to subvert certain filmic elements in a self-aware way. It isn’t meta-humor exactly, but it understands what it’s parodying. The wonderful John Alexander’s perfect portrayal as Teddy (Mortimer’s other brother who thinks he’s Teddy Roosevelt) is so pitch perfect, it would end up impacting my personal political views.
- La Belle et la Bête (1946) | Directed by Jean Cocteau
If I tell people that one of my favorite films is Beauty and the Beast, I always have to annotate my statement with “I mean the Jean Cocteau one”. For this majestic adaptation makes singing teapots and dancing clocks seem quaint and even, gasp, dated. Cocteau was one of cinema’s greatest magicians, and his camera tricks are gorgeous to see on the screen. Far more reliant on the older German version of the tale than the Disney film was, Cocteau’s splendid adaptation makes the Beast seem more human than ever. This is a tale of unrequited love and reflections of the human spirit. I think it was Greta Garbo who exclaimed, upon the Beast turning into the handsome prince, “Give me back my Beast!” It’s that kind of beauty that fills the screen and fills our hearts.
- Being John Malkovich (1999) | Directed by Spike Jonze
I often credit Jonze and screenwriter extraordinaire’s head trip for helping me grasp the concept of “existentialism”. For what else is this film other than trying to understand one’s self by experiencing it through another’s body? The film is genius visually, conceptually, every way. With unrecognizable John Cusack and Cameron Diaz, the lines are fast and smart and the concepts tricky yet entertaining. Spike Jonze’s music video sensibility does not, contrary to assumption (and a little thing called Chaos Editing), hinder the film’s artistry but enhance it. It is not cut to music but the beats of action, mood, and dialogue. It’s visually inventive (“Malkovich, Malkovich, Malkovich…”), complex, and thoroughly entertaining.
- Bicycle Thieves (1948) | Directed by Vittorio De Sica
De Sica’s neorealist masterpiece rolled in that wave of films that look at the harsh realities of the common people. The simple storyline of a man who is finally able to get a job, but has the bike he needs for it stolen is more heartbreaking than you could ever imagine. Is it the fact that, as most neorealist films would do, the film used nonprofessional actors, making the tragedy more real? Is it the cinematography, with the frame always tight with the social problems of Italy, that makes the film compelling? Or the angelic face of young Bruno, who must grow up in the conditions, allowing all the motion in the film to pour out of his cherubic eyes? Bicycle Thieves is a tearjerker without the melodrama, something that feels real and painful and undoubtedly one of the most incredible films ever made.
- The Big Lebowski (1996) | Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen
There are few things as memorable as Jeff Bridges as The Dude. And there are few films as quotable as the Coen Brothers’ The Big Lebowski (“Vagina.”). The Coens’ ear for dialogue, eye for scene construction, and sensibility for story dominate the film. This wildly unique neo-noir takes its plot loosely from the classic noir The Big Sleep, but its endlessly colorful cast of characters is the best thing on display. The dialogue in particular is the most interesting thing about the film. Combining surfer/stoner/slacker vernacular with articulately constructed lingo, it’s commonplace to hear phrases throughout the film like “Also, Dude, Chinaman is not the preferred nomenclature. Asian–American, please”. The Coens bowl a perfect set with this one.
- Black Swan (2010) | Directed by Darren Aronofsky
Part intimate character study, part psychological thriller, and part art house horror film, Darren Aronofsky’s enigmatic Black Swan is all enthralling. With the strains of obsession and quest of perfection found in The Red Shoes and Perfect Blue, Aronofsky’s ode to those who would willingly go insane for their art is chilling and intriguing. Natalie Portman’s childish and virginal Nina is contrasted by her understudy Lily, darker and more elusive. Revolving around a production of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, Portman and Mila Kunis represent the respective swans in the ballet, Portman’s quest to be able to emulate and portray both with Kunis out of her way. Aronofsky’s presentation, with mirrors all around and various tipoffs to Nina’s character, is exemplary. The handheld cinematography forces the viewer to see the events from Nina’s point of view, making Nina’s descent into insanity more thrilling and chilling. It’s a grand film, with a gorgeous score from Clint Mansell. For Nina, her experiences can be summed up in an exchange from the classic The Red Shoes: “Why do you want to dance?” “Why do you want to live?”
- Blue Valentine (2010) | Directed by Derek Cianfrance
There are few films as heart wrenching as Derek Cianfrance’s portrait of a romance, from its beginning to its end. Realism takes a front seat here, to an extent that much of the dialogue was improvised and the film’s stars even lived together for a month. Every frame of every scene seems genuine, which makes the experience of watching the film even more romantic and subsequently crushing. Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams are absolutely incredible. Their chemistry, making love or arguing violently, is palpable. With its story overlapping with memories, the past and the present have distinctly different looks. Blue Valentine doesn’t feel like film at all; merely the portrait of two people who fall in love and fall out of love.
- Brick (2005) | Directed by Rian Johnson
Rian Johnson’s high school neo-noir is unlike any high school movie you’ll ever see. Everything is pulled straight from the classic film noirs of the Pre-Code Era and even the dialogue is reminiscent of Dashiell Hammet. Johnson, though, is no fool. Though his plot is complex and his intention is to reinvent both the neo-noir and the high school movie together, he knows that just making it like a labyrinth and having funky lines won’t be enough. Brick is just as inspired visually as it is in literary terms. And while this is Johnson’s first film, he handles the material like a pro, with Joseph Gordon-Levitt perfectly fit as a high school hooky playing amateur gumshoe. Brick turns out to be a fascinating appropriation of those classic noir techniques set in high school, without the gimmick and with all of the thrill.
- Bride of Frankenstein (1935) | Directed by James Whale
Yes, Whale’s Frankenstein brought German Expressionism to American horror, and yes, it was good, but it didn’t have the heart and soul of Bride of Frankenstein (which may or may not be a tad ironic). Although mob mentality and the psyche of a mad scientist are explored in Frankenstein, no attempt is given to understand the Monster. Here, not only does the Monster demand a mate, he demands to be understood. James Whale offers up a perfect examination of the kindness that can lie within the Monster’s heart. (There were bits shown in Frankenstein, though not to this extent.) Elsa Lanchaster’s iconic scream and Karloff’s reaction shot with the words, “She hates me” is one of the most memorable scenes in film history. Bride of Frankenstein works incredibly as the study of the monster and his broken heart.
- Bringing Up Baby* (1938) | Directed by Howard Hawks
I’m fortune enough that arguably the first film I ever saw just so happens to be an incredibly funny work of genius. Yep, the insane work of comedy was one of the very first films I ever watched. Howard Hawks’ screwball masterpiece will always unfailingly take the cake for my favorite film of all time. Sexual innuendo permeates the dialogue, and there’s always a sense of the battle between the sexes underneath all of the shenanigans. Once again, we have an incredible director subverting clichés, and in this case, romantic comedies. Though, this is the definitive romantic comedy, starring Cary Grant as a wonderfully naïve paleontologist and Katherine Hepburn as the waify socialite who falls madly in love with him and follows him around. This film was ravaged when it was first released, but has reestablished itself as a gem. Although the situations are familiar, their familiarity to the audience is deliberate, Hawks playing with what we know about romance. With some of the best line deliveries of all time (“I just turned GAY all of a sudden!”), and nary a dull moment, Bringing Up Baby is one of the funniest films ever made and my favorite film of all time.
- Burn After Reading (2008) | Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen
While the plot is knowably a little complex, the sadly underrated Burn After Reading is in a way Fargo Lite. It received mix to positive reviews upon its release, perhaps because it was so drastically different in tone to the previous Brothers Coen film, Best Picture winner No Country for Old Men. Nay, do not let that detract from seeing it! The familiar air of dark comedy is mixed with noir-ish espionage. And once again, it’s the cast and the script that shines. John Malkovich as a crazy ex-CIA agent and Brad Pitt as a dimwitted personal trainer are the highlights. As buffoonish as nearly everyone is in the film, it sheds an interesting light on the nature of surveillance and that, in this world, secrets never stay that way forever.
- Cabaret (1972) | Directed by Bob Fosse
Based loosely on Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories, Cabaret is one of the greatest musicals ever made. It seems to be post-modern in its approach, almost shocking for a musical. While songs generally express the feelings of characters on stage, the song and dance numbers at the Kit Kat Club are utilized specifically to reflect the events of the play and the mirroring social and political atmosphere. The looming threat of Nazis is always in the air, and no musical sequence dares to detract from that aspect. In fact, those sequences are there expressly for that purpose: to remind you of that threat and fear. The Kit Kat Club is a fantasy in which all the players’ lives, the players representing the countries in World War II, are mocked on stage. Joel Grey gives an electric performance as the sinister Emcee at the club, his sweetly romantic “If You Could See Her” ending with the lines, “…she wouldn’t look Jewish at all!” But, come to the Cabaret, old chum!
- The Cabin in the Woods (2012) | Directed by Drew Goddard
It’s nice when people who like the same kind of movies, in this case horror, you like come to the same conclusion as you have: they’re getting dull and predictable. In one of the most original horror movies in recent memory, Drew Goddard and Joss “King of All the Fanboys” Whedon came together to pen a script which subverted the horror genre and its clichés even further than Wes Craven’s Scream did in 1996. Spoilerific though it may be, the film explores why we love carnage, and not in that obnoxiously pretentious way that Funny Games did. Clearly, the filmmakers like horror just as much as the audience does, and enough to want to serve up something new. Featuring a stellar cast, great comedy, and shocking moments, The Cabin in the Woods is the perfect horror film for the meta-humor age.
- Casablanca* (1942) | Directed by Michael Curtiz
How can anyone not love Casablanca? The best representative of the collaborative process of filmmaking, especially in the Golden Age of Hollywood, Casablanca is one of the greatest love stories ever set in celluloid. Political allegories notwithstanding, it’s the love story that captures everyone’s hearts across generations. Bogart’s outward bitterness and internal romanticism, Bergman’s effervescent beauty, and the doomed love between them are captivating for every second. The darkly lit cinematography, the atmospheric music, and the performances are splendid. It may be the greatest love story ever in film. There’s no need to tell us, “You must remember this”, because everyone who loves a good romance will without asking.