Nosferatu (1922)


“Blood is life.”

Nosferatu is one of the scariest vampires committed to celluloid. His long, slow-moving fingers and eyes like dark portals make for, arguably, the most sinister movie monsters. He’s more creature than man, more lust than logic. He wants flesh, and that’s all there is to it. It’s so simple, it’s scary.

The film is loosely based on Stoker’s Dracula novel, which got Nosferatu into a lot of trouble, forcing most original prints to be destroyed. Thomas Hutter (Gustav von Wangenheim) is sent by his employer to a remote Transylvania castle where he meets the chilling Count Orlok (Max Schreck), a heartless vampire who hungers for Hutter’s flesh, along with the flesh of his beautiful wife Ellen (Greta Schröder).

I admire the economy of the film, how it moulds Stoker’s complex story into a simpler, more expressionist symphony. Characters are only used as necessary, and the screenplay is cleverly structured around the most interesting character, Nosferatu and no one else. Ellen is arguably the tragic hero, not Hutter whom we’re lead to believe will be our hero, and this makes for a surprising finale that weighs on the audience and ends the film on a strange, somber triumph.

Scenes are constructed expertly, with a careful restraint given to exposition, comedy, and other detractors from the central terror. The film is paced like a nightmare, cutting between events with dream-like fluidity. Hutter, his wife, and the rest of the townspeople, are made to suffer, and the film balances these scenes well. I also enjoyed how Nosferatu wasn’t afraid to travel around, breaking conventional notions of the secluded, manor-bound vampire. (There’s a scene where Nosferatu is a pirate, and I think that’s awesome.)

Nosferatu is short, sweet, and it delivers. It’s a film that puts all its eggs in one basket: in this case, its villain. And it works. Schreck gives one of the most powerful performances you’ll ever see, as if there’s something rat-like and inhuman about the actor himself. It’s a perfect slice of horror from which modern filmmakers could learn quite a bit.

Films Left to Watch: 828

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Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975)

Image result for salò or the 120 days of sodom

“Within a budding grove, the girls think but of love. Hear the radio, drinking tea and to hell with being free. They’ve no idea the bourgeoisie has never hesitated to kill its children.”

I thought it would be a while before I watched Salò. It’s generally considered the most disgusting movie on Criterion and also on the 1001 List, and ironically recommending Salò is one of the hottest “arthouse cinema” memes right now. I remember being afraid of it for a long time. Roger Ebert famously owned the film on Laserdisc but never watched it due to its reputation. Yet, curiosity got the better of me, so here we are.

I’ve read that while the movie is transgressive and horrifying, it’s one of the most beautiful films you’ll ever see (unironically). I’ve never seen a Pasolini film, and some people say that Salò really isn’t as shocking as its reputation makes it out to be. Strangely enough, at the Barnes & Noble Criterion shelf during last month’s sale, it was the first movie that caught my eye. I felt the case in my hands and decided I needed to see it.

The setting is 1944 Fascist-occupied Italy: a beautiful landscape nestling a strange but ornate castle. Inside is a disgusting shitshow as a series of socialites and men of power kidnap and rape a group of young men and women. The film is broken into different “circles” reminiscent of Dante’s Inferno, and their sexual torture only grows worse as each level deepens. It’s a dismal “story” without the faintest hint of hope, and it will likely exhaust and sadden you until you can’t take any more. Then it gets worse.

The shock value is a prominent aspect of the film, but I think the most harrowing thing is that you hardly get the perspective of the victims at all. There are one or two shots of rebellion where children whisper about how they’re scared, or they defy the rules set in place for them, but these rebels are immediately shut down and punished harshly. Most of the time, we merely see them as cattle: a bulk of naked bodies being paraded and used for the enjoyment of the elite. It is in through these villains, rather than the victims, that we get the perspective of the film. We watch as they choose which children to take, how to control and abuse them, and ultimately how to pick them off. The closest thing to backstory or character development is only for the villains (and the eerie “storyteller” woman that serves as inspiration for the horrors of the castle). Through this limited, dark perspective, Pasolini builds a world where you never start to believe the children will be freed. And spoiler alert, they aren’t.

The movie is beautiful in a twisted cinephile sort of way. Pasolini knows how to wield a camera, and shots are so imaginative that they seem to be the only solace from the horrors of the plot. He relies on Wes Anderson levels of symmetry while also finding fascinating shapes and colors in his offbeat torture-porn setting. In his commentary on the horrors of fascism, we also get a cinematic experiment in beautiful composition of ugly, sadistic subjects, and that certainly makes the movie worth adding to the 1001 List in my opinion.

Is Salò as hard to watch as everyone claims? Yes and no. I think it could easily be the most disgusting movie of its type, but there are lots of types of movies. Raw has the advantage of another forty years of cinematic technique and refined technology to aid its unclean, modern realism. Pink Flamingos is an even dirtier form of realism where the glorification of trash gives the movie its power. I think both of those are harder to watch than Salò for their own reasons, but Salò probably still takes the cake in terms of the last one I’d want to watch again. It’s not just shocking, but dismal and desensitizing. I don’t plan to watch it again soon, but there’s something cinematically comforting (and humanely disgusting) in knowing that I could.

Films Left to Watch: 829

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Ghostbusters (1984)


“Ah, if there’s a steady paycheck in it, I’ll believe anything you say.”

I was looking forward to relaxing with Ghostbusters one evening over a month ago, but since then I’ve found that I don’t have much to say about it. It’s been sitting in my drafts, haunting me like an unbusted ghost. It’s a fun movie. It’s a clever script with a great splash of dry humor. For a relaxed viewing with the knowledge that you’re diving into a classic, Ghostbusters hits the mark without much complaint.

The film follows Peter Venkman (Bill Murray) along with his cohorts Egon (Harold Ramis), Ray (Dan Aykroyd), and eventually Winston (Ernie Hudson) as they start a “ghost-busting” business to hunt and contain supernatural forces that have been plaguing New York City. In particular, they must face Gozer, a shape-shifting god of destruction and his hellhounds Zuul and Vinz Clortho. Along the way, there are many quotable gags as the somewhat bumbling team of heroes gains fame as the city’s only hope.

I think a big success of Ghostbusters is that it doesn’t get carried away with its impressive special effects. A sharp script should always come first in an action-comedy such as this, and most failed imitators seem to draw too heavily from the big-budget wow factor of Ghostbusters than they do from building memorable characters. Bill Murray’s cynicism makes him the perfect frontman for the group. The driest of comedic actors getting slimed and looking ridiculous is a key part of the movie’s offbeat appeal. The film is quotable and never takes itself too seriously, never feeling constrained by its fun special effects. They serve as secondary to the well-maintained tone of the movie.

I can’t say I care enough about Ghostbusters to have a stake in the fandom debates of recent years. There was a remake, and like the original, it was okay. I’d say I prefer the original to the new one, which I thought had some fun moments in the first half but had a boring final battle scene. The original Ghostbusters feels like a tighter story with everything placed where it needs to be. While the remake copies a lot of plot beats, I think it lacks the dry humor that always works better for me. That said, I’m not in love with either.

The best thing about the franchise is probably its eccentricities. The firehouse as the Ghostbusters headquarters, for example, is something strange and memorable you wouldn’t find in a more standard action-comedy. The Stay Puft Marshmallow Man is another oddity that would be something of a gamble today; yet it solidified the Ghostbusters brand and conjures memories in your mind. Even the dialogue, which has such a dry tone and is often hard to pin down, remains a memorable risk taken by the movie.

Ghostbusters is a classic with widespread appeal. It’s a sharp story with enough memorable weirdness that is has planted itself nicely in our culture. You don’t need me to tell you that it’s Ghostbusters. It’s fun. It’s harmless, and you can’t go wrong with it.

Films Left to Watch: 830

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Safe (1995)


“We are one with the power that created us. We’re safe and all is well in our world.”

Safe is a movie about a lot of things. It’s about class. It’s about gender. It’s about health hysteria in modern America. I think it’s also a film about spaces, and this is what caught my attention more than anything. In the slow discomfort of a film like this, the beauty is in the cinematic craft. Safe uses formal elements of cinema masterfully, and it begs to be analyzed more than it cares to entertain.

Julianne Moore plays Carol White, an upper class housewife in a stagnant but functioning marriage. She meets up with her cold friends, discussing fad diets, until she becomes ill. She is soon convinced that her environment, the 20th century itself, is causing her illness. She seeks help from fringe medical specialists while her husband and primary care providers doubt her beliefs. We watch her unravel and try to find a “safe” place where she can put herself back together again.

I do some of my best analysis when I start to get bored. Maybe that’s a strategy of slow cinema. Director Todd Haynes relishes in long takes and moving the camera far away from the actors, shrinking them down in the frame. Safe isn’t a fast movie by any means, and it leaves you a lot of time to think. It feels like homework at times. Still, though, you get a lot of time to consider it. I considered why the frame always has frames inside it. Paintings, mirrors, vertical bars, square furniture – this movie is incredibly rectangular. The obvious interpretation is that Carol is meant to seem trapped in all these frames, but I think there’s also something to be said about how much people just love putting things in boxes. There’s an obsession with compartmentalization, and it’s rarely broken for the duration of the movie.

The film also asks you to consider why Carol is sick. It’s the driving force of the plot, after all. You can probably guess that it’s never explicitly explained. Rather, you’re forced to consider what is intangibly causing her illness. Is it really the chemicals, or is it more broadly the 20th century? What does that mean? I think the movie is so explicit in its depiction of gender, class, and other societal factors that there are a lot of things to blame. It’s a stagnant, upper class existence bubbling with formalities that finally serves as a catalyst for something awful. She has energy. She’s passionate about something. Carol’s illness might be a good thing. That’s my take, at least.

There’s a clear two-act structure that reminds me of Room (2015). Act One is a problem. Act Two is an attempt at a solution. For Safe, I think I enjoyed the former more. The second half has a lot more dialogue as Carol meets people similar to her and tries to recover, but I can’t shake the feeling that the movie works best when it’s about the real world. You get a lot more of the rectangular, horrifying America in the first act. It seems more focused on the movie’s themes. The second half is more open-ended and has its powerful moments, but I remember the first act more, and I almost wish the structure would have been more consistent throughout.

Safe isn’t the easiest watch. It’s distance and uncomfortable. You’ll find it hard to latch onto anyone, but it will leave you more time to appreciate what a thoughtful movie it proves to be. Its power lies in its stillness, and if you can find yourself in the mood to sit with it for a while, you’ll have a lot to chew on afterwards.

Films Left to Watch: 831

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Solaris (1972)


“When man is happy, the meaning of life and other eternal themes rarely interest him. These questions should be asked at the end of one’s life.”

It was with great joy that I unwrapped Solaris, a recent pickup from the Criterion summer sale. The only other Tarkovsky I’ve seen is Stalkera film that challenged me cinematically and one that I think about often. I was more prepared this time for Tarkovsky’s slower, creeping scene construction and his varied use of color. I seem to recall a similar feeling while watching Stalker as I did this time with Solaris where the first hour seemed far too slow but the payoff made me eat my words. I feel the need to proselytize everyone to this wonderful director, and particularly to this clever, beautiful work of science fiction.

Kris Kelvin (Donatos Banionis) is a dismal but otherwise fairly normal psychologist when he is tasked with visiting a space station hovering over the mysterious planet of Solaris from which little knowledge has been extracted. He first believes the ship only consists of himself and three scientists. (There were nearly a hundred, but Solaris has proved a challenge, and interest in research has halted.) On arrival, though, he finds that his friend Dr. Gibarian has committed suicide and left him a strange warning about the effects of the planet. When visions of other humans start consuming Kelvin’s mind, he begins to experience what every former Solaris researcher has warned about.

Tarkovsky seems interested in similar themes that he would solidify in Stalker. The movie is a surprising exploration in existentialism, often making reference to writers such as Tolstoy and Camus. (Mild Spoilers Ahead) As Kelvin begins to fall for Solaris’s recreation of his deceased wife Hari (wonderfully performed by (Natalya Bondarchuk), you begin to wonder what sort of approach the movie will take to her presence. Typical sci-fi would somehow condemn Kelvin for falling for the new Hari with an inevitable “she isn’t real” brand of conflict, but Solaris takes a dark, uncertain approach that challenges conventions about love and humanity.

Coated on top of these uncertainties is also a natural beauty rarely captured on film. There’s a wonderful piece of writing by Akira Kurosawa about the first time he met Andrei Tarkovsky and his thoughts on Solaris. (The two ended up getting drunk and singing the Seven Samurai theme song together.) Kurosawa claims that the slow but beautiful opening to the film is necessary to make the audience miss being on Earth. I was transfixed when I read this; it’s such a poignant point about the film. The opening scene shows you the beauty of Earth, while the majority of the film is a gray space station. It sucks you into Kelvin’s fever dream experience. Not only does he miss Earth, but we also miss Earth. We want to see more of Tarkovsky’s Earth, and the closest thing we get is Hari. There’s a wondrous parallel between Natalya Bondarchuk’s performance and the way Tarkovsky films the life and people on Earth, including Kelvin’s parents. The heartbreak at the center of the movie is that the beauty goes away, and we (along with Kelvin) crave it.

I knew better than to expect the expectable when I read the Solaris synopsis for the first time, but I was still surprised at how very Tarkovsky is felt. The film is a tad more accessible than Stalker (more grounded in “reality” of the plot and with a bit more conventional editing), but the themes and the slow beauty are there. I can’t imagine anyone else telling this story (which is why I’ll probably avoid the Soderbergh version for a while). Solaris is a fantastic success from an auteur who filmed the world in a unique, powerful way.

I’d recommend Solaris to cinephiles, sci-fi fans looking for a challenge, and anyone who’s down for an existential crisis of an evening. The film is beautiful, packed with ideas, and still accessible enough that it can resonate with most anyone. Well done, Andrei.

Films Left to Watch: 832

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Night and Fog (1956)

Night and Fog

“Who among us keeps watch over this strange watchtower to warn the arrival of our new executioners? Are their faces really different from our own?”

I first heard about Night and Fog from another film I watched recently, Hotel TerminusIt was described as an important persuasion piece against early Holocaust denial. It’s a short, meditative piece in which Alain Resnais shows footage of concentration camps Auschwitz and Majdanek with reflective narration by Michel Bouquet.

It seems every film about the Holocaust hits you in a different way. The clear theme of Fog and War is that we must not forget the crimes against humanity that have occurred. The footage and the narration invite you to consider the daily activities of the camp. It makes you think about logistics. I was reminded of when I walked through Auschwitz myself. A ground-level tour of these places brings a sadness that hits close to home, as if you’re seeing the atrocities before your eyes. Night and Fog captures this realism, this familiarity with the real world. It’s effective in a way that Hollywood dramatization isn’t.

I can only imagine the impact that this movie had given its recency. I think I can take for granted how easy it is to film important places and events today, but it must have been unreal to collect footage from Auschwitz only a decade after its liberation. Night and Fog reminds you that documentary film is important. It boldly claims, “This happened. Don’t forget about it.” In only a half hour of film, it remains one of the most effective calls for remembrance I’ve seen in a film.

The writing by Jean Cayrol is also worth noting. The poetry couples with the imagery perfectly. It’s a dazing experience to see Night and Fog. The immersion of the visuals is equally matched by the somber narration: a reflection on one of humanity’s greatest tragedies. You could read this writing in a book and be stunned all the same, but the restrained of the now-dormant concentration camp imagery lulls you into a powerful melancholy that good documentary so rarely accomplishes.

It’s the job of storytellers to make the world feel smaller. Facts and figures do little to convey the human weight of some tragedies. Night and Fog does a lot more. I found it compelling and terribly important, and I believe it should continue to be studied for years to come.

Films Left to Watch: 833

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The Godfather: Part II (1974)

Godfather 2

“If anything in this life is certain, if history has taught us anything, it is that you can kill anyone.”

I think The Godfather II is hailed as the greatest sequel of all time because it doesn’t think like a sequel. I would even say it couldn’t, because the formula for the bad sequel hadn’t really been devised yet. It follows one of the highest praised movies of all time, and instead of repeating plot beats, it only repeats style. Instead of retracing themes, it expands on them and blossoms them to fruition. I also think the story is so much more engaging, and it has so many powerful scenes, that I would say it’s my favorite Godfather movie.

The film cuts between the new Godfather Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) and the early life of his father Vito (now portrayed by Robert De Niro) who we see rise to power from troubled beginnings. Michael faces threats from new enemies such as the aging Miami crime boss Hyman Roth (Lee Strasberg) and also from within his own family.

I think an “epic” as these movies are often labeled shouldn’t just be long; it should be layered. Not only does Michael face a host of opponents, but he must maintain his allies and use his wit to survive from scene to scene. There’s also his wife bringing a moral dimension to the movie. She’s one of the best parts of the series because she holds no literal power, but she is able to hit Michael harder than anyone else, and it makes for one of the finest scenes in the movie. Then the beautifully constructed (and acted) Vito storyline legitimizes the Corleone family, and it has insightful parallels to the main plot. There’s nothing tiresome about the second Godfather. I think even if you aren’t a fan, it’s an undeniably rich story.

The style is also an important carry-in from the first movie. I think the creeping honesty of the first movie was pivotal to its success, and the second film follows the same pattern. Shots aren’t too surprising or experimental, but they are engaging all the same. There’s this slow suspense to the Godfather films where dialogue is action. Everyone is slick, knowing exactly what to say to whom and when. It’s when this balance is disrupted or someone chooses to act against it that the movie becomes so exciting. Just as a sequel should be, the world and its rules are the same, but everything else seems fresh.

Vito Corleone is an incredible titan of cinema in the first film, but I feel more connected with the second Godfather because Michael isn’t quite the same way. We’ve seen him rise from cowardice to assume cutthroat leadership, but we also see what he’s lost to get there and that maybe those things still matter to him. The Vito storyline also rounds out who was a fascinating but sometimes stagnant character from the first movie as well. You could say that Godfather II has more soul in this way. It takes changed men and contrasts them with who they once were. The first movie definitely touches on this, but this theme really shines in Godfather II, and it’s a driving factor behind why I loved this movie.

With incredible style and clever, substantial action, these two movies are absolute treasures of cinema. They’re among the greatest of their kind, and while I think I still prefer the fast, playful gangster spirit of the 90s, these movies are still so satisfying when you can find time to sink your teeth into them.

Films Left to Watch: 834

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