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The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

Wes Anderson has always been unparallelled and rightly heralded as a director who could create his own unique world practically out of scratch, one filled with remarkable and genuine characters who embark on a journey of imaginable circumstance; and its only fitting that as his style has developed over his later years that his largest ensemble and most globe-trotting production requires a whole country invented for his purposes. Yet, the country of Zubrowka doesn’t require much of a backstory as its history runs parallel to that of 1930s European war, its own fictional pieces of art and cultural standpoints pointed to the same lessons our own history points to, but more important to the same lessons the purpose of storytelling, both his own and of European literature, that we’ve heralded. Which makes the incredibly charming and zany madcap adventure within all the more worth its weight in praise.

Gently placed into a framing story of common people, authors, and even the eventual hero forever looking back to their life of adventure from a place of domestication, the madcap adventures of the diligent young Zero and his mentor, Monsieur Gustav, effortlessly achieves a context of the power of brave, creative, and genuine heroes to overcome a whole world crumbling in on itself. The leads are hysterically sincere and polite in their increasingly rude settings, and yet that only makes them the more admirable as they fight for their justice. They are then supported by as colorful as cast as any other Anderson ensemble, blending ethnicity and demeanor to dizzying degrees.

But what makes Budapest recognizable as a large step for the director is that when paired against his previous two films, Moonrise Kingdom and Fantastic Mr. Fox, we see the influence his childhood obsessions of books and adventures has as his productions resemble that of the largest toy set life could offer. Various moments of madcap action play out over impeccable worlds, and are given enamored dedication by the cast and our attention. In the sense of its weight on our common history, Budapest Hotel is indeed Anderson’s largest, heaviest story, one that could’ve well fit those hardbound primary-colored books his characters tote, and its to his beautifully auteur mind that it never needed those volumes of words to impact our souls as it does.

Museum Hours (2012)

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Just as the modern generation wanders through a museum of ancient art whose importance and meaning are enigmas that can only be decrypted by their stirring emotions, so too do the workers and denizens wander through Vienna’s decomposing metropolis of abandoned giant buildings and tiny stores trying to carve out a semblance of purpose for themselves, aimed by obligation and societal connection. This severed connection between the past and present, between legacy and invention, and between people themselves are the main resonance of this spiritual expression of art and life.

Introspection and observation aren’t merely just the sensual elements of this film, they’re the only true manner of expression that life can offer to the lonely bodies here: a quiet museum guard who has folded away from a busy life of managing rock bands to his “share of quiet” in a room full of Brueghel’s and a quiet Irish singer out to visit her distanced cousin in a coma with little else of purpose in her stay. As they quietly and politely become friends, the film also wanders through the city of Vienna, paralleling moments of zen modern beauty of wanderers and skaters to the paintings of worlds long since crumbled. Like the audience of a film, the guard is the lone observer into the minds of these wanderers when confronted with the worlds.

In the most telling point of the film, a museum guide explains the importance of the details, of the subjects in the midst of their own landscapes, and of keeping an open mind in observing reality to a group of tourists, one of whom is particularly unwilling to embrace the ethereal. And as the art museum guard observes his own life, his memories, and the faded connections he carries with him and himself alone, we realize the almost frighteningly grand world and the necessity of art to carve out a notion of meaning, and the beauty of the connections such art can carry with us, even if into the dark.

Before Midnight (2013)

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As romantic yet realistic as ever, Before Midnight is still plenty of a game-changer as an ending to the first two films which pride and even base themselves in concept on being ambiguous as to their character’s fate despite their genuine connection, by in fact being the most concretely resigned. Jesse and Celine open the film with a fulfillment of promises made to each other and the audience, but we find as their story goes on that having such things pinned down doesn’t necessarily mean the same as having them figured out, or that even if their identities are officially labeled to the world and themselves (during a dinner table scene of old couples and one young couple, one recalls the “fragments of souls” conversation they had in Vienna) that they still have resistance, worry, and struggle to embrace what they’ve become.

In their adulthood, Jesse and Celine are constantly looking back at instead of forward to the promises of youth, even finding less joy and introspection in travel and exploration of new venues than they once did. The few moments indeed where the couple can connect with only each other show an intimacy that we’ve never seen with them before, and also a sense of conflict we never could’ve expected. “I’m looking forward to right now.” is whispered as a sweet nothing to the other, a sense of hope still in their jaded reality. And yet moments slip and change as the couple allows, and in fact causes, them to, no longer approaching life with the youthful embrace of whatever may come but instead with their adulthood demand of their own command.

Primer (2004)

Writer/Director Shane Carruth’s followup Upstream Color has seemed to ignite an apologists stance in some reviewers who suggest Primer is the colder, more plot-driven predecessor; but I felt at the time and still feel that his debut is a wisely humanizing piece of lo-fi sci-fi that keeps us on the same emotional page as the characters, if not necessarily the plot, and to an effect of staggering accomplishment considering the complexity of their concerns in the finale and how simply and pointedly Carruth brings them across.

Even as a first feature, the settings and aesthetics float in well-tied synchronicity with the feel and concept of the story as a modern-day discovery of logic-bending science; perverting settings like garages, storage units, gas stations, fountains, and basketball courts as the engineer leads figure out the time-bending parable they accidentally unraveled for themselves. The plot is slowly chiseled out of the leads penchants for details and experimentation, only to find them quickly over their own heads in confusing paradoxes and unfortunate debacles of emotion, betraying themselves, each other, and their scientific method. That the exact details have to be speculated and mapped out to be fully known is beside the point, as the chief concerns in the end are the characters, opposite of where they started, faulted for flying too high and risking too much, still in pursuit of something bigger than themselves. The film isn’t so much a Rubik’s cube of plot points and chronology, as much as it is an accurately complex chart of human folly at the hands of their self-made God.

Upstream Color (2013)

Shane Carruth, having proudly triumphed a spotlight in the independent world with the mind-bending Primer furthers his complicated obsessions and stylistic flourishes in Upstream Color, but not without losing a sense of storytelling or humanity. There are a handful of strange sci-fi metaphors tied into this bizarre experience, but the focus is of a contained yet worldly journey of people, having experienced deceitful loss at the hands of malevolent forces, now having to rebuild themselves and finding power not only in their struggle but in one another and their capacity to dream. That that particular concern is the heart of the story keeps Upstream Color in the best graces of science fiction as a story reflecting our concerns indirectly, and highlighting them in striking settings.Allegorically, it’s readable as a parallel to Carruth’s post-Primer conflict concerning the buildup, struggle, and eventual fallout with the studio system, himself, and others while he developed his passion project A Topiary (Kris is even seen looking at test footage of the project). Artistry, the falsehood of capitalist promises, and the desire of independent creation are expressed within its oddity trappings. But one of Upstream Color’s wonders is that even if the metaphors are that personally attached, they still operate as binding causes and effects to one another in the narrative so that it still plays out as a story that makes sense and has the characters react as concerned and hopeful as anyone of us in the situation would be. Characters are translatable to our own versions of occupations, ones that could be perceived as bizarre if broken down logically themselves, but what is most understandable about it is that the actions that occur come from a basic human drive. In further visual wonder and bizarreness that even overshadows the complex Primer, Carruth furthers himself as an artist who desires to create stories never told before in a manner never attempted, all while keeping a beating heart and curious brain to the mystery and realizations.

Blue Valentine (#64 out of 100)

In a world where everything is fleeting, it’s all too easy to see the desire of romantic love because it does everything in its power to declare itself as everlasting. As an intangible feeling it suggests this connection you’ve made with another person was always meant to be, that this is your purpose here, and that it has done something to you. Even the phrase of “better to have loved and lost than to have never loved” is meant to compliment people who have achieved that sense of permanence within themselves even as the actual accomplishment has become something of the past. No one is meant to walk away from something with this much potential and to feel that it was all for naught, and at the very least romantic love can accomplish that.

In Derek Cianfrance’s fictional debut, Blue Valentine, he pushes forward a couple, still young, and yet haunted by histories of conflicted marriages, lost emotion, and old age in their respective parents and grandparents. Dean and Cindy play out a normal weekend of a marriage, quietly conflicted and exhausting as any other as they raise a young daughter, but set themselves up for a crushing defeat they never saw coming; and to clarify the emotional turmoil of their relationship we’re allowed to see their past as developing young adults meeting each other by chance and finding a love and comfort in one another, still fraught with reality and pain but far more hopeful. This division subverts both their past and present images, Dean turning from a runaway Americana city boy into a blue-collar eagle-sweatered working day dad, and Cindy from a seductive blonde beauty into a more sexually oppressed aged mother. The balance of the spontaneity and naivety of a beginning relationship and the rote ritualism and hard-earned wisdom of a turbulent marriage suggests a universal parallel of American relationship woes, in a world where love is advertised and worshipped but difficult to obtain and even harder to keep.

Filmmaker Hou Hsiao-Hsien, on his youth-focused masterpiece Millennium Mambo, lamented “Looking at the youthful friends around me, I find that their cycle and rhythm of ‘birth, age, illness, and death’ are moving several times faster than those of my generation.” The same could be said about “romance, love, courtship, and death of love”, and for the same reason: breaking from their past and trying to form their lives on their own, modern youth is far more fearless and bold, but also troubled and destructive. Their story and the way romance can be sometimes in a modern world is very much a swift collision of two people full of emotion and action who then explode off each other like balls of light from fireworks, eventually burning out as they become distant. It’s tragic because you can see how the mistakes of the past have added to their fate, but there’s something to celebrate in their story simply because it’s more real than anything else that’s happened to them or the people they know, their color having lightened up their life even for a few years.

Three Resurrected Drunkards (1968)

Recently departed Japanese director/writer Nagisa Ôshima was renowned, as well as renounced, in Japan as an auteur of particularly sexual radicalism, sometimes portraying sexually explicit and extreme relations that would be normally repressed or defied by Japanese government and society. However, one of the most unique and radical films of his career wasn’t about sexual discovery or radicalism, but about a political cry for understanding in modern Japan in Three Resurrected Drunkards, a satirical romp done in a reflexive experimental style not unlike an American release in the same year: “Head” starring the Monkees.

A trio of graduating Japanese students walk along the beach, openingly mocking one of the most iconic war photographs ever taken of a Vietnamese soldier executing an operative by shooting him in the head, their joking actions made all the more striking considering this was a recent event by the release of the film. And almost acting like the hand of God setting them in a path to learn a lesson, as they skinny-dip a hand pops out of the beach and steals their clothes, replacing them with Korean uniforms. They don the uniforms to be decent, but find themselves persecuted by police and on the run, mistaken as Korean stowaways during the Vietnam war. As they run around, they stare straight into the face of their own listless youth, misplaced romance, juvenile crimes, and then suddenly into societal reactions to race, a real worrisome of death and wartime murder and vengeance, and a political awakening for a sudden call for action. Given surreal second-chances in which characters realize almost reflexively how to operate in their politically-torn oddball situations, the trio finally comes at the end to a discovery of human woe and connection in the war, most especially redefining the context of the photograph they initially mocked. But what scares the trio the most, and fuels this biting satire, is that even despite learning their lesson, history always has a chance to repeat again.

Rumble Fish (1983), #28 out of 100

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It’s another hot night in the city as Rusty James, rambunctious teen leader of a gang of ne’er-do-wells, is called into challenge for a brawl; and yet there’s an immediate listlessness to him and his pals reactions. It’s a play that’s been seen and recast too many times, an action as natural and tiring as getting out of bed in the morning, and James alone seems to be excitable about it, because he has the most to prove. The younger brother of the infamous Motorcycle Boy, the previous leader who had since took his bike and left without a word, he’s constantly living under a shadow and having to push his bravado into dangerous territories, only to find he’s the one who cares the most. But it’s when the Motorcycle Boy returns, still as hip and enigmatic as ever, but with a disdain for the life and the youth he has left behind, that Rusty James is forced to question the waywardness of these urban animals.

Coppola’s second adaptation of an S.E. Hinton book about inner-city teen drama wisely eschews the conventional approach he took to The Outsiders and turns Rumble Fish into a wildly freewheeling and spontaneously stylistic jam of desperate youth and broken adults adrift in a sea of half-answers to half-questions. Driven by wildly directed scenes and a constantly shifting soundtrack, the film is just as unwilling to settle as Rusty James, but just as powerfully strong in its belief in itself. The savior to both Rusty James’ chaotic life and the answer to the film is in the contemplative Motorcycle Boy’s newfound discoveries, what answers his lonely travels gave him that the gang lifestyle never did, and the support to give James a chance to make his own journey for himself. That there is a destination alone is enough to give the most forlorn young man hope. Arriving at his own delayed coming-of-age after his brother, Rusty James’ tale of maturation, much like maturation itself, is better felt than explained.

The Long Goodbye (1973)

Philip Marlowe, the main character of Altman’s 70s reinventive noir The Long Goodbye, as played by Elliott Gould wanders through his surroundings with a determined goal, yet shrugs everything around him off with defeated malaise. In fact, for all his almost never-ceasing mutterings, Marlowe doesn’t ever actually quite comment on the situations or persons he stumbles into, preferring to modestly mock them with impersonal jade. His few opinions on moments, not counting his assurances of “It’s alright with me”, are reacting to genuinely unsettling moments of horror and realization. But even still, he quickly sinks back down into apathy, the signs of a private eye who’s been too long into his business to expect people to change. Famously suggested that his persona is transported from the 50s era to a 70s setting, Marlowe realizes everything is too resigned to a final fate for him to get personally involved, and the few times he does ends in woe.

After getting his friend out of a jam, he discovers that his friend’s wife was murdered, presumably by him, and shortly after hears that his friend then committed suicide. Coming off the devastation of that case, he helps an upscale wife find her estranged husband in a brainwashing new-age hospital, and then slowly discovers that the two cases have surprising connection that redefines his perception of the people involved. Yet, he sees things coming, knowing full well that behind every appealing visage is a disappointment waiting to happen. A love interest turns into betrayal, a true personality becomes a tragedy, and a friend becomes a vendetta. Even his adventures, initially punctuated by chases, fights, and moments of violence, find themselves turning into ridiculous farce at the hands of these big egos with their empty lives. At the end of it all, Marlowe can only give the story a finale meant only for his eyes, and then shrug it off, left with nothing much to say about anything.

Submarine (2010)

With Submarine‘s emphasis on quirky and bluntly French New Wave inspired aesthetics, Richard Ayoade’s directorial debut initially threatens to be a Wes Anderson aping exercise in style, but quickly turns out to be richer in substance because of its dedication to the uncomfortable truths of youthful romantic pursuit and the completely awry society of relationships. Oliver Tate, a young teenager noting the dissolution of his parents’ previous passionate marriage into a comfortable rut, finds his own heart in unprecedented conflict. Infatuated with fellow classmate Jordana for how different she is from everyone else, because he too is so different for reasons beyond his comprehension, he pursues her with a truthful clumsiness most teen stories don’t seem to recognize. Instead of grace or touching expression, his development into a relationship with her is instilled through cruelty and trickery on both their parts. But in their quaint little connection outside their school, they find an emotion worth salvaging even under a tough front.

But that is only part of the story as Oliver discovers his mother has reconnected with an old friend, and ex who now sells mumbo-jumbo spiritual tapes and advice, and it looks like it could verge into romantic territory. Combined with dire circumstances in Jordana’s homelife, Oliver treads these roads with good intentions but a decidedly naive and understandably ineffective method of taking on these problems as his own and attempting to solve them through the same trickery that got him there in the first place. Touching and very funny, Submarine’s dual portrayals of romantic turmoil, both young and old, suggest that romantic struggles never get easier or any less ridiculous, and the only true thing that changes is that people learn to be more patient and willing to forgive. It’s a lesson Oliver Tate calmly learns the hard way in order to keep his whole life from becoming undone.