Will Schube is performing at Xquisite.
I. The Battle of Algiers (1966) – Directed by Gillo Pontecorvo
One of the greatest war films ever made, although it’s more about oppression and resistance, sacrifice and casualties than it is about war. One of the greatest Italian films the world has known, yet the thing is spoken in French. The Battle of Algiers is full of contradictions—a narrative feature based on real events and shot in the style of a newsreel as to obtain authenticity.
The Battle of Algiers is also a dazzling highlight among an otherwise middling filmography from director Gillo Pontecorvo. Quemada, Algiers’ follow-up, is a good film, capturing Brando at the height of his powers as William Walker, but Alex Cox did the same story twice as well in 1987. Directors elevating their status from good to great off the effort of one film isn’t unheard of. It happens quite often. I’m not trying to accuse Pontecorvo of being anything other than very, very talented. His first film, Kapo (1960), is excellent, but the jump from it to Algiers is mind-boggling. I’m thoroughly convinced that The Battle of Algiers is one of the best films ever made. Pontecorvo never returned to this mountain again, releasing two more features before immersing himself in the world of documentary filmmaking. It’s not a case of what could have been, but instead a case of what for one moment, was perfectly captured. Also: John Zorn’s re-imagining of the film’s soundtrack, titled The Big Gundown, is one of the best soundtracks ever made. If you listen to Aesop Rock, you’ll recognize “Giu La Testa (Duck You Sucker)” from “Flashflood.” Ali La Pointe forever.
II. Fallen Angels (1995/1998) – Directed by Wong Kar Wai
For fellow filmmakers and film fans like myself, trying to track down every influence Barry Jenkins shoe-horned into Moonlight (2016), Fallen Angels is the perfect place to start. This may seem like an odd fit because the two films are practically opposite in a number of ways. Angels is about a contract killer and the various relationships he navigates, tied in with my new favorite character of all time, He Zhiwu (Takeshi Kaneshiro), a drifter who breaks into businesses after hours and makes unsuspecting citizens support “his” stores. Wong Kar Wai edits the thing at a maniacal pace, practically at light speed when matched against the contemplative pace of Moonlight. But the films share a similarity in their use of anamorphic lenses, which essentially squeezes the outer boundary of a frame inwards, scrunching the visual information vertically. This results in focus appears length wise, not depth wise. Picturing a TV screen, focus is usually on a front back axis, whereas the anamorphic lens works on a side to side axis. It gives the film a fisheye look, and it’s what allows Jenkins to be so freaking cool with the use of focus. This may be entirely wrong, but it’s what I see and I’m a ~~~renegade filmmaker~~~ so do as I say AND as I do; you won’t be steered wrong—unless you’re asked about anamorphic lenses…Then you may be wrong.
III. Blood Simple (1984) – Directed by Joel & Ethan Coen
There’s always one tremendous character in a Coen Brothers film. There may be more, but there’s always one. In Blood Simple, that role is occupied by the PI, Loren Visser (M. Emmet Walsh). He laughs too loudly, smokes too much, and is secretly deceptive, maniacal, and has an insane tolerance for pain. Blood Simple is an essential distillation of American Cinema, coming directly after the wave of American indies that changed the landscape of filmmaking—led by Easy Rider, Coppola, and later Cassavetes (among tons of others). Joel and Ethan Coen’s ability to balance these influences with old-school noir and traditional crime thrillers is awe inducing. Blood Simple isn’t their best film by any means (probably not even top 10), but the film’s attention to detail is second to none and the way the plot is both heartbreaking and hilarious is a Coen Brothers staple.
IV. Gray’s Anatomy (1996) – Directed by Steven Soderbergh
I’m on a bit of a Steven Soderbergh bender. What started with his TV Show, The Knick, led to Magic Mike (2012), and eventually on to Gray’s Anatomy.
Steven Soderbergh is the most under appreciated director we have. Who else could make male strippers seem so human? Gray’s Anatomy (1996) is an odd little adaptation of a Spalding Gray monologue, and it’s a perfect blend of an Errol Morris documentary with Robert Altman’s Secret Honor (1984). Equal parts amazing and aggravating, Gray’s Anatomy shouldn’t be an essential film. But it’s a Steven Soderbergh film, so it is.