My Top 5 Documentaries

Having already posted about my top 10 films of all time, I felt it was important to share some of my favorite documentaries (as of 2013). In no particular order:

The Bridge (2006) – In 2004, Eric Steel, inspired by a news article entitled “Jumpers,” set up a camera to film the Golden Gate Bridge continuously for one year. He and his crew managed to capture footage of no fewer than 23 of 24 known suicides that occurred, the site being a popular method for those who wish to end it all. Steel wisely avoids providing any narration or hand-holding, letting the interviews with the victim’s loved ones (none of whom were informed about the existence of the footage beforehand) speak for themselves. The film has an almost eerie stillness about it that fits the subject matter, but also keeps it from feeling sensationalized or preachy.

In The Realms of the Unreal (2004) – In 1973, shortly after the death of eccentric recluse Henry Darger, his landlords entered his apartment and found among his belongings a typed 15,145 page manuscript entitled The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion, along with several hundred watercolor paintings. Both served to flesh out an elaborate fantasy world that Darger spent most of his private life creating. Jessica Yu’s documentary explores the work and the man behind it, putting aside the interest they have generated (today Darger is hailed as an example of outsider art, and his watercolors fetch upwards of $80,000) to focus on why and how it all came about. Though many have called it a travesty, the animation of Henry’s drawings, used to illustrate passages from The Realms, helps to bring his world alive for the audience. Be warned: his tendency to draw his young heroines in the nude, coupled with his being altogether innocent of the difference between males and females, results in some…uncomfortable imagery.

Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son about His Father (2008) – This is a doc that, as a film major, I shouldn’t like nearly as much as I do, as it fails the test of objectivity; right off the bat, director Kurt Kuenne makes his bias and objectives quite clear, though given the circumstances, you can hardly blame him. On November 5th of 2001, Dr. Andrew Bagby was shot to death by his sociopathic ex-girlfriend, Shirley Jane Turner, who was released on bail and later fled to Canada. Soon after, she announced that she was pregnant with Andrew’s child. Kuenne, a filmmaker and Andrew’s best friend, set out to make a documentary so Andrew’s son could learn about the man his father was, obtaining interviews with all of the many people whose lives he touched. However, as time went on, the focus shifted to David and Kate, Andrew’s parents, who struggled to obtain custody of their grandchild, as well as justice for their son. What the Bagbys were forced to suffer through as a result of this woman, as well as the Canadian court’s complete inability to do right by Andrew and his son, is heartbreaking. Note: if you have any interest in this film, DO NOT look up anything about the case before you see it. And make sure you have tissues on hand.

The Woodmans (2010) – Another tear-jerker, and another on the topic of suicide, the film examines the Woodman family, all prolific artists whose lives were shattered by the suicide death of young Francesca, a promising photographer with severe emotional problems. Like The Bridge, no narration is given, and the audience is left to their own judgments. Was Francesca a free spirit who burned out too soon, or was something lacking in her life that led to her demise? Are her family genuinely torn apart by her death, or are they shallow individuals who are simply annoyed by the attention it takes from their own work? And is great art – and more importantly, the pain and suffering that often begets it – worth the life of the artist?

Midnight Movies: From the Margin to the Mainstream (2005) – It’s odd to think that movies like “Rocky Horror,” “Eraserhead,” and “El Topo” had a major effect on popular culture, seeing as how they were regulated to the midnight hour in seedy, underground cinemas. But without them, for better or worse, we likely wouldn’t have the permissiveness that we do today. Stuart Samuels’ Midnight Movies provides insight into a world long gone, where late night screenings provided a forbidden access into counter-cultural debauchery, bizarre mysticism and social commentary provided by directors who were ahead of their time. Much of the impact, sadly, may be lost on today’s audiences (Divine eating dog shit in the final reel of “Pink Flamingoes” won’t mean much to an audience raised on Fear Factor, for example), yet it’s because of this impact that writers and directors have the freedom to tackle subjects that only thirty years ago would have been off limits.

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Return to Oz (1985)

Shortly after the release of the 1939 classic The Wizard of Oz, the Disney Company bought up the rights to L Frank Baum’s Oz series of books, both to capitalize on the success of the film and, presumably, to cockblock MGM from making any sequels. While during the 1950s there was talk of filming some of the stories as specials with the Mouseketeers, nothing ever came of the idea, and the books were set aside.

Skip ahead to the 1980s. A group of filmmakers known collectively as the Film School Generation, who included among their ranks the likes of George Lucas, Brian DePalma, Francis Ford Coppola, and Steven Spielberg, had risen to prominence during the New Hollywood era, which lasted from the late 60s and into the 80s. Although the films made during this period had challenged the conventional rules of Hollywood with an independent and rebellious sensibility, by the 80s the movement was being crushed under it’s own weight. Excessive, overbugeted pet projects such as Heaven’s Gate (1980) and One from the Heart (1982) failed at the box office, serving to undermine the independent vision on which the movement was based. At the same time, the lesson taught to studio executives by the successes of films such as Jaws (1975), Star Wars (1977) and the Indiana Jones series was that big budget, mass appeal spectacles, which could be heavily marketed and provide revinue far beyond the film itself, were the way of the future, thus ensuring the birth of the blockbuster.

One member of the Film School Generation, despite being a very important and well respected part of the industry, had not yet managed to become a household name: Walter Murch. A prolific sound designer and film editor, Murch has worked with sound in such films as The Godfather Part II (1974), The Conversation (1974), and most famously Apocalypse Now (1979), for which he won an Academy Award. For working on The English Patient (1996), Murch won Oscars for both sound design and editing (the first ever Oscar for electronic editing, on Avid), and was the subject of Patient author Michael Ondaatje’s book The Conversations (2002). He was also chiefly responsible for setting the Final Cut editing software as the industry standard (which can be good or bad, depending on how you feel about Final Cut).

Scounting new talent in 1980, Disney production chief Tom Wilhite questioned Murch about projects he would like to helm. Murch said “Oz,” and Wilhite, knowing that Disney owned the rights to the Oz books and wanted to do something with them before they expired, agreed. However, Murch’s depiction of Oz would be a radical departure from the 1939 musical. Much closer in tone to the Oz books, the film was a dark, more realistic and sometimes scary look into the world over the rainbow.

Taking place six months after the tornado that set off the events of the first film, Dorothy (Fairuza Balk, in a much younger and book accurate depiction) has been having nightmares about her experiences in Oz. Her Aunt Em (Piper Laurie) and Uncle Henry (Matt Clark) are worried about her mental state, already dealing with financial troubles related to the reconstruction of their house and keeping their farm running in order. In order to cure her of these delusions, they decide to take her to Dr. Worley (Nicol Williamson) a medical quack specializing in a new kind of “electric healing” (what we know today as shock therapy). Left in the care of Worley and his nurse (Jean Marsh), Dorothy is saved from her fate by a mysterious young girl (Emma Ridley) who warns her that she is in danger. The two are chased out into a storm at night, where Dorothy tries to escape down river on a floating crate.

Awakening in Oz, Dorothy discovers that the enchanted land she once knew is gone. The munchkins have disappeared, the yellow brick road has been torn to shreds, and the emerald city lies in ruins, its inhabitants having been turned to stone. The city streets are patrolled by a gang of Wheelers, Cirque de Solei rejects with wheels instead of hands and feet, and who are footsoldiers of the wicked Princess Mombi (Marsh), a vain witch with a collection of 30 heads that she can exchange with her own at will. On her journey Dorothy meets Tik Tok, a rotund clockwork man who is equal parts R2D2 and Robby the Robot; Jack Pumpkinhead, a Jack Skellington-esque being made of sticks and straw; and The Gump, a sofa-creature made by Dorothy herself as part of an escape plan. The four travel to the lair of the Nome King (Williamson) to discover the fate of the Scarecrow and return Oz to its rightful state.

The production was a troubled one, running way over budget. At one point, Disney execs were ready to fire Murch over dissatisfaction with the dailies they were seeing, only staying their hand at the insistence of George Lucas, a good friend of Murch who had developed sizeable clout due to the Star Wars franchise. To make matters worse, during this period the Disney Company had a change of regime, with Michael Eisner taking over as president and CEO. While the new regime’s disinterest in the project meant that Murch had final cut, it also meant that little to no studio effort was put into the film’s advertising and distribution, heavily compounding the eventual failure at the box office. Widely decried as being both inferior to the original musical (which it was never really intended to be a direct sequel to) and way too frightening for children, the film was panned by critics, and though it was nominated for an Oscar for “Best Visual Effects,” overall was considered a failure. Along with a single episode of Star Wars: The Clone Wars (2011), this is Walter Murch’s only directing credit to date.

So, is the film really as terrible and inappropriate as the critics of the time would have you believe? In this critic’s humble opinion, absolutely not. There is a reason why Return to Oz, with the advent of home video, endured as a cult classic: childhood is full of ghosts and goblins, witches living in candy houses or peddling poison apples, monsters living in closets, evil step-parents, and other horrors. It is those stories that refuse to talk down to children, that give them a taste of the dark side, which are the ones they most adore, for the greatest adventures are the ones that face the darkest of foes and ultimately reap the greatest of rewards. The care and attention to detail in this film is immaculate, from the sound direction and editing, to the use of color and scenery, eye-popping special effects, and the incredible music score by David Shire, all a love letter to the L Frank Baum book series from which it began.

In the past decade, there have been numerous re-imaginings of Baum’s stories, most recently Disney’s to-be-released second outing in the land over the rainbow, Oz the Great and Powerful (2013), suggesting that audiences are now willing to accept a non-MGM musical version of the tale on it’s own terms. Hopefully this will bring about a new appreciation of Return to Oz and those who labored to bring it to life.

Fausto’s All-Time Favorites

By Steve Rowand

This list comprises my top-ten favorite movies of all time (as of September 2011):

10: Blue Velvet (1986) – David Lynch’s noir thriller is easily one of his most coherent (and that’s saying something) offerings. Yet even in the quaint town of Lumberton, something feels amiss. After returning from college following his father’s heart attack, Jeffrey (Kyle McLachlan) discovers a severed ear lying in a field. With the aid of friend/love interest Sandy (Laura Dern) he manages to track the gruesome find to a roadhouse singer (Isabella Rossellini) and her tormentor (Dennis Hopper), only to discover too late that he’s in over his head.  Lynch manages to contrast two opposing worlds – the bright colors and Reagan-era suburban sprawl of Lumberton, and the deep, dark underbelly that hides just under the surface. Shots, color and performances combine to create an incredible cinematic experience.

9: Naked Lunch (1991) – Canadian director/body horror enthusiast David Cronenberg wisely decided against a literal adaption of William Burrough’s masterwork, a stream-of-consciousness novel depicting vulgarities beyond human comprehension. Instead, he made the film a very loose retelling of Burrough’s own life (including the death of his common-law wife, Joan Vollmer, via a spontaneous game of William Tell) with parts of the novel added in. The end result will have the average movie-goer either scratching their heads or cowering in fear (sometimes both). William Lee (Peter Weller) works as an exterminator, unaided by wife Joan (Judy Davis), who’s been stealing his bug powder for its apparent narcotic properties. After accidentally killing her (or purposely killing her, under the orders of a talking insect, the film’s a little fuzzy on that point), Lee flees to Interzone, where he’s instructed to seek out Dr. Benway (Roy Schieder- yes, that Roy Schieder) by seducing the wife of fellow writer Tom Frost (Ian Holm). Creepy, trippy, and even a little existential, the film certainly earns its place in the Criterion Collection.

8: The Fall (2006) – Director Tarsem Singh’s incredibly epic (and criminally under-appreciated) fairytale sets itself during the golden age of film making. Having been severely injured after an on-set accident, stuntman Roy Walker (Lee Pace, of Pushing Daisies fame) finds himself paralyzed and convalescing in a Los Angeles hospital. He befriends Alexandra (Catinca Untaru), the five-year old daughter of immigrant workers, who broke her arm after falling from a tree. Roy tells her an elaborate adventure tale of a hero, the Black Bandit, and his pursuit of a beautiful princess in the clutches of the evil Governor Odious. However, Roy has ulterior motives in mind, and before long, Alexandra decides the story isn’t safe in his hands and sets about finishing it herself. Visually, the film is beyond stunning, bringing to life the kind of mad dreams that surrealist artists could only hope for. Plot wise, the film may be somewhat lacking, however, the characters are endearing, the story is compelling, and the end result is a feast for the senses.

7: The Silence of the Lambs (1991) – Jonathan Demme’s macabre thriller needs little introduction; its sweeping of the Academy awards and iconic etching into pop culture consciousness should already make it familiar to anyone reading this review. An FBI trainee (Jodi Foster) is sent to interview Hannibal “the Cannibal” Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), an incarcerated serial-murdering psychiatrist, in the hopes of gaining information on a string of gruesome killings. The two play a battle of wits and wills as the killer, known only as Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine), selects his next victim. Foster is a master of subtle acting, and Hopkins compels with the sinister charm of an aristocratic vampire. A true classic of suspense.

6: Amadeus (1984) – Screw historical accuracy. If every “very loosely based on a true story” film could be as entertaining as this, historians everywhere would be told to go f%$# themselves. Milos Forman’s fictionalized version of the life of Mozart shines at every turn, from the acting to the sets, music composition, and beyond brilliant writing. The ultimate revenge tale, the film is narrated by Antonio Salieri (F. Murray Abraham, in one of the most incredible performances ever captured on celluloid) who recounts life in the shadow of his greatest idol/enemy Mozart (Tom Hulce), a gifted but troubled man with an appetite for debauchery. The film beautifully relates Salieri’s internal struggles – with God (who he blames for denying him Mozart’s talent), with “the creature” and with himself. Most impressive is the cinematography, the use of natural light giving one the impression of an oil painting brought to life. An experience not to be missed.

5: Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) – Imagine if the events of “Alice in Wonderland” had occurred within a Nazi death camp, and you get a vague sense of Guillermo Del Toro’s balance between the horrors of war and the power of the imagination. Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), a young girl living in the aftermath of the Spanish civil war, travels with her mother (Ariadna Gil) to live with her stepfather, Captain Vidal (Sergi Lopez), a Falange officer trying to wipe out the last of the rebel resistance.  Seeking to codify her existence with fairy tales, rather than use them as an escape, Ofelia is greeted by a faun, who informs her that she’s the princess of the underworld. In order to prove her claim to royalty, she must perform three tasks before the next full moon, or risk being trapped in the mortal realm. Meanwhile, Mercedes (Maribel Verdu), Vidal’s maid and Ofelia’s only confidant, has been aiding the rebels as a spy. An eerie, enthralling and deeply moving film.

4: To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) – I had long ignored this film, as I had the novel on which its based, for no other reason than having associated it with the kind of garbage I was forced to read in middle school. However, after finally sitting down and giving it a look, I can honestly say that this is the classic American film, the standard by which all others are judged. The story follows Scout (Mary Badham) and Jem (Phillip Alford), a pair of siblings growing up in the depression-era south, whose father Atticus (Gregory Peck) is given the unpleasant task of defending a black man (Brock Peters) accused of rape. As the trial heats up, the children witness firsthand the realities of bigotry and prejudice.  Peck’s performance is amazing. A must see for anyone who considers themselves a fan of the cinema.

3: Spirited Away (2001) – Often referred to as the Japanese Walt Disney (a title he reportedly hates), Hayao Miazakyi’s films have a substance and maturity about them that not even the House of Mouse has even come close to duplicating. Of these, Spirited Away is by far the most celebrated, and deservedly so, having won an academy award (and beating out Disney’s Lilo and Stitch in the process). While moving to a new town, young Chihiro (Daveigh Chase) and her family discover a seemingly abandoned amusement park in the middle of nowhere. Finding a feast laid out at a stall, her parents decide to dig in, only to be transformed into pigs. In order to save them from their curse, Chihiro must make a deal with the greedy witch Yubaba (Suzanne Pleshette) and work in a bath house for the nature spirits. In true Miazakyi style, every frame of this film is a work of art, and all to service the story, a classic and yet totally original Japanese fairytale.

2: A Clockwork Orange (1971) – Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece (that is, one among many) is a work that straddles the line between exploitation, art house and science fiction, and yet still managed to nab an Oscar. Taking place in a not-too distant dystopian future, the film follows Alex DeLarge (Malcolm McDowell), the head of a brutal street gang, who robs, rips and rapes innocent citizens with glee. However, after finally being brought to justice, he ends up the willing guinea pig of a brain-washing treatment that dampens his capacity for violence…but also robs him of his free will. Horrified as we are of Alex’s crimes, we are equally disturbed by the ‘cure’ and its aftermath, and left to wonder whether the ends justify the means.

1: Suspiria (1977) – Pretty much anyone who really knows me could have guessed right off the bat that this would be very high on the list, if not number one. Granted, the film tends to be extremely polarizing, even among fans of the Italian horror genre from which it springs; you either get it and love it, or you don’t, in which case you may eventually develop a respect for it, but never really understand it. American student Suzy Banyon (Jessica Harper) attends a celebrated dance academy in Frieburg, Germany, arriving the night of a gruesome murder. As the killings continue, Banyon begins to suspect that the Directoress, Madame Blanc (Joan Bennett, of Dark Shadows fame) and the mysterious, unseen headmistress may be behind it all. The perfect hybrid of fairytale and nightmare, the film was printed using the 3-strip Technicolor process, which provided a vivid color scheme echoing the likes of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). Together with the score by prog-rock band Goblin, a twisted lullaby as played on a toy keyboard, the film is a study in sensory excess, as artistic as it is horiffic.

Welcome to my World!

Greetings, fellow cinephiles! Today begins a journey of serious film criticism, discussion, observation, and …Zombies. And ghosts. Don’t forget robots. Or samurai warriors. Or mutant lobsters. How about kung-fu Jesus? And, of course, homicidal transvestites. And how could we leave out the nazi elves with bazookas for arms?

Never fear, Fausto is here, to watch, review, discuss, dissect, and completely obliterate the most dangerous and forbidden of all cinematic spectacles ever created. So grab a crucifix, a bowl of popcorn, and some 3-D glasses, and get ready for The Cinema Cell!