AND NOW, the Top 5…Movies that make a powerful visual impact
Each of these picks was helmed by one of a small cadre of truly artistic directors who work their medium in creative and skilled ways to produce unique visions on screen. Some were hits, some not, but they can all be found still at Amazon.com. You may have different ideas, and I’d love to hear them, possibly for a new post.
Here’s my countdown from #5:
5) The Cell, 2000
Tarsem Singh, Director. Starring Jennifer Lopez, Vince Vaughn, Vincent D’Onofrio
A psychological thriller in a class by itself, so well executed and so intelligently thought out, that it elevates itself beyond the subject matter. The scenes are extraordinarily detailed and have movement that takes them from one into the next, borrowing from surrealism, cubism, and impressionism to evoke the disturbed subconscious of a killer.
Psychotherapist Catherine Deane (Lopez) has a special ability to bond with very troubled patients using a special technology that allows her to visit them in their own minds. When a serial killer (D’Onofrio) is caught with one of his victims still hidden alive somewhere, Catherine ventures into his demented world to find the answers. There they mingle in a sometimes beautiful, sometimes horrifying world shared by the killer’s childhood self, who needs to protect her from the demon he has become.
This film enters the realm of the imagination, marrying symbolism to the subject matter in a way that keeps the story moving and very clearly connects reality with dark fantasy. Artists who use symbolism too often get mesmerized by the complexity of their own thinking, rendering the artwork confusing and inaccessible to an outside audience. By drawing heavily on references to conceptual and contemporary art (ranging from Escher and Dali to H.R. Giger, a sculptor and painter who contributed to the visual effects of Alien), the film creates an extraordinarily unique plane where the story can play out between realities, and anything can happen. The stills from the film present a showcase worthy of any gallery opening, but the film has a movement beyond the stills that you won’t want to miss. Dark though it is, it’s also mesmerizing.
The Cell is a fantastic example of how to use symbolism, metaphor, color, and the full range of a painter’s palette to enhance a very grounded story. The biggest surprise is how you can come to empathize with the demon, whose motivations become clear and understandable, and how the director leads you back out of the dark fantasy world to resolve the real-world crisis.
Watch the Trailer.
4) Three Days of the Condor, 1975
Sydney Pollack, Director. Starring Robert Redford, Faye Dunaway, and Cliff Robertson.
I think every visual artist (photographer, filmmaker, painter) should see this beautiful film by Sydney Pollack, a masterful filmmaker who died last year. He made many hugely successful movies with major stars, including The Way We Were, Tootsie, Absence of Malice, and Out of Africa (among many others), all of which are well worth watching, but this film stands out as a visual and storytelling masterpiece.
What Sydney Pollack does best―and perhaps better than any other director―is establish a tone for a film, which he carries through visually, in the music, in the dialogue, and the overall pacing of the piece. The tone of Three Days of the Condor is pensive, brooding, lonely, and a little sad—an interesting counterpoint for a political thriller. Pollack personalizes the mortal conflict in bittersweet detail, showing characters who are alone even in a crowd. Nobody is safe.
If you don’t know the story, Redford plays Joe Turner, aka “Condor” a researcher for the CIA who comes back from lunch to find his coworkers all murdered. Out on the street, he calls in to Langley HQ where his section chief wants to “bring him in.” A string of hits set Turner up as both the target and the assailant, and drive him underground to clear his mind and figure out who his enemies—and his friends, are. He takes Kathy Hale (Dunaway), hostage on the street and has her drive him to her apartment in Brooklyn, where he begins to piece together the puzzle. In one of the most poignant scenes, Turner examines the photos Kathy takes professionally:
Turner: Lonely photographs.
Turner: You’re funny. You take pictures of empty streets, and trees with no leaves on them.
Kathy: It’s winter.
Turner: Not quite winter. They look like…November—not autumn, not winter, in-between. I like them.
The colors of the film are muted and drab, deeply shadowed so that nothing seems completely visible—or completely invisible. Each character stands alone. Most of the scenes in the film have two characters, sometimes three, suggesting that the big problems of the world often come down to the actions of just a few people. Pollack is also interested in making observations about the futility and emptiness of what was then the Cold War—a standoff in anticipation of the real thing. A world of mistrust separates us all from each other. Watch for a particularly stark and underplayed moment near the end of the film between Turner and his potential assassin, played by Max von Sydow.
Here’s an interesting clip of an old interview where Pollack talks about how the film evolved, and how it was received by audiences and critics. If you haven’t seen Three Days of the Condor, or seen it recently, then make sure to watch it again soon!
Watch the Trailer.
Lasse Hallström, Director. Starring Robert Redford, Jennifer Lopez, Morgan Freeman, Josh Lucas.
…An amazing closing shot that just perfectly sums up so many of the scenes in the film.
So we’ve got another film starring Robert Redford—not because I am a particular fan (although I am), but I think he often chooses films with strong visual sensibilities, by directors with similar vision. This film is by one of my favorite directors, Lasse Hallström, who gives extraordinary attention to color, composition, and movement in every frame. As an artist, you must watch the film with the Swedish director’s commentary turned on, as he explains how he chose the absolutely lyrical shots taken from deep in the
Hallström also directed other visually appealing films, including Ciderhouse Rules, Casanova, and What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, as well as two films I especially recommend: Chocolat, and The Shipping News (a visually stark film that completely captures the harsh life on the Nova Scotia coast).
Hallström seems to choose a palate for each of his films and approaches them as a painter would, which is why you should really get a bunch of them from the library or video store and do a weekend marathon. Casanova, the most commercial and to my mind, least appealing of his films, still captures the rich golds, ambers and red of the venetian sunset in every frame, and the wardrobe and interiors are extremely vibrant as well. The Shipping News is rendered in grays with blue and green overtones, often like sepia, and for Chocolat, he manages to make you salivate, even in frames that don’t have food in them, by carrying over the rich browns, tans and white of the confectionary store.
But for real mastery, his work reaches a high point with An Unfinished Life, which is rendered as a moving landscape film that tells a compelling story about the people who inhabit (or come and go) this unforgiving countryside. In particular, there are long shots of the gravesite of (Einer Gilkyson) Redford’s son, and a shot taken of the dilapidated ranch house from various angles. Hallström explains that for one shot taken from the barn he actually added by CG the silhouettes of two cats in the frame watching Einer in the yard. For more background on the film, visit this interview with the director for Box Office Mojo by Scott Holleran.
Watch the Trailer.
2) Where the Heart Is, 1990
John Boorman, Director. Starring Dabney Coleman, Uma Thurman, Crispin Glover, Suzi Amis, Christopher Plummer
Forget the Natalie Portman movie about the girl who gives birth in Walmart, this one-of-a-kind film of the same name is an absolutely unique story by rogue writer/director John Boorman about the fall of society through decadence and the rescue of the human soul through—you guessed it, ART.
Funny, strange, and very entertaining. the story starts off with Dabney Coleman as the wealthy NY City real estate developer who specialized in demolition of historical sites. His three spoiled kids have all been following their muses on Daddy’s largesse for too long, and so he cuts them off from the family gravy train and drops them off at the historical site rescued from his wrecking ball by protesters. They are given $750 each and encouraged to use their considerable educations and wits to make a living.
When they finally adjust to the notion of becoming self-sustaining, they tackle the task through the filters of their substantial creative abilities in a myriad of unusual ways Dad never planned on. They agree to bring boarders into help their plight. Brother Jimmy brings home his Wall Street buddy, while sister Daphne (Thurman) brings home a magical well past his prime, who now lives in a box. Chloe (Amis) invites her friend who is at work on his first fashion collection.
But it is Chloe’s own art project that ties all of the stories together as she gets to work on photographs for a calendar, using housemates covered in body paint against tromp l’oeil backgrounds for each of the portraits. The result is a stunning visual experience that many followers of the movie (myself included) have tried to find in the real world.
Unfortunately, as a non-Hollywood film, product marketing was not figured into the distribution strategy, and the much sought-after calendar was never made available. Real-life artist Timna Woollards has kept a very low profile, but parts of the calendar can be viewed from the blog, Pandora’s Parlor.
As Dad’s empire crumbles under the weight the stalled demolition, and Wall Street takes the first of several big tumbles, the people with the money (including Dad and his banker) are all turned out and are taken in by the creatives, who stand behind their artworks.
Boorman is known for producing a number of major films, including Deliverance, writing another dozen or so, and directing almost as many. Where the Heart Is is certainly one of the lesser-known of his films that has become a cult classic over the years since it was made.
As a writer/director, he often made allegorical films that were rich with symbolism and cultural epiphanies, such as 1985’s The Emerald Forest (which I just picked up at Staples for $4.99). He seems fascinated with the ways man destroys the world around him, and pondering what will save us. In Where The Heart Is, he offers the belief that human survival comes from nurturing creativity in the middle of urban blight―as civilization dies, art lights the future.
Unfortunately, the Trailer is not available, and the only place I have seen this film for sale is on Amazon.com
And now….here’s my vote for #1:
1) Joe Versus the Volcano
This allegorical movie is wonderful for so many reasons—it will also be included in future lists for writers and composers. But for now, we’re focusing on the visual elements, of which there are many delights. It actually reads like a giant picture book. Written and directed by John Patrick Shanley (Moonstruck, Doubt), the shots are very carefully and artistically composed as a photo montage about the meaning of life. You can see Edward Hopper in many of the early shots, and the later sequences take on simplistic, primitive elements of Henri Rousseau (like Boat in the Storm) with large blocks of vibrant, solid color. Much of the last third of the film is populated by beautifully lyrical shots of the moon, the boat, the ocean, in illustrations reminiscent of Maxfield Parrish (see also a previous post), which Shanley uses very effectively to remind us he is telling a bedtime story…
Schooled film directors are taught to use paintings and photographs to develop their initial storyboards of how their film will look, so you can probably find a lot more paintings in this movie.
Then there’s the script—always fun, and full of the sharp, quirky dialogue Shanley is so well known for (he got more serious as he got older).
So now that we have the artists and writers on board (a writer’s pun), you can make it a family movie night because of the brilliant cast. This was the first pairing of Tom Hanks at his young, charming best as Joe Banks (where you see the beginnings of films like Castaway) with Meg Ryan and Meg Ryan and Meg Ryan as three entirely different characters. Their famous chemistry is immediately evident. There’s also a small boatload (sorry, can’t help myself) of fun character shots with Lloyd Bridges, Abe Vigoda, Nathan Lane, Dan Hedaya, Amanda Plummer, Robert Stack and Ossie Davis. This movie is far more entertaining than I remembered, and surprisingly inspiring.
Here, Joe starts to learn about the small moments in life:
Patricia (Meg Ryan): Do you know where Joe Banks is?
Waponi Chief (Abe Vigoda): Maybe he run away. Maybe he don’t wanna jump in the big Wu.
Movie Message: When life really looks bleak, it’s time to take a giant leap into the unknown.
And here you can view the Hollywood Trailer, which manages to capture not one of the many marvelous shots from this movie! Shows you what Hollywood can do with great material. See it anyway, twice!!
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