For Your Consideration: May 9, 2014

It’s a popular notion that truth is stranger than fiction. When it comes to film, sometimes you don’t have to choose. Take This Week in Richard Linklater: we’ve already been talking enough about him lately for his increasingly ambitious work, but a few days ago we learned that what was already one of the more peculiar projects of his career, “Bernie” (2011), just took an even more fascinating turn.

So maybe not every case of a film “based on a true story” winds up with a released murderer living in a Hollywood director’s garage. But there’s a reason filmmakers keep going back to that particular well. So for this week’s lineup, we’re offering up three selections where the backstory is just as (if not more) intriguing than the film it inspired.

– Ethan

“In Cold Blood” (1967)

Cast: Robert Blake, Scott Wilson, John Forsythe, Paul Stewart

Available to rent streaming from Amazon Instant, iTunes, or on disc from Netflix

There’s a fine line between re-enactment and re-creation; at what point do you stop pretending to act out someone’s life and start reliving it? If there’s something particularly eerie and off-putting about Richard Brooks’ adaptation of Truman Capote’s watershed real-crime narrative, it’s not an accident: the director purposefully chose to film in as many of the actual locations involved in the case as possible. That includes not only the actual cells in the Kansas State Penitentiary where Perry Smith and Dick Hickcock were imprisoned and executed, but the actual house in which the two petty thieves murdered all four members of the Clutter family. The flashback scenes to the crime are amongst the most haunting in cinema, with Robert Blake and Scott Wilson drifting through blackened hallways like men possessed.

Of course, Brooks’ film barely even touches on one of the most eccentric pieces of the case, namely the peculiar relationship and camaraderie struck up between the criminals and Capote while he was researching the book. For that part of the story, you can go to Bennett Miller’s 2005 film “Capote,” and learn how Harper Lee and To Kill a Mockingbird somehow got mixed up in all of this.

– Ethan

“The Killing Fields” (1984)

Cast: Haing S. Ngor, Sam Waterston, John Malkovich, Julian Sands, Monirak Sisowath

Available to rent streaming from Amazon Instant, iTunes, or on disc from Netflix

“I wanted to show the world how deep starvation is in Cambodia, how many people die under Communist regime. My heart is satisfied. I have done something perfect.”

-Haing S. Ngor

In “The Killing Fields”, Haing S. Ngor plays Dith Pran, a Cambodian translator and journalist for New York Times reporter Sydney Schanberg (Sam Waterston) during the Khmer Rouge’s brutal takeover of the country. The movie follows Dith Pran as he gives up the chance to escape in order to help Schanberg, but is subsequently trapped in the totalitarian regime that murdered up to 2.5 million people and destroyed a nation.

A doctor by trade, Ngor had never acted before, but drew on his four years under Pol Pot’s horrific regime to deliver an unforgettable performance. His face remains blank for much of the film, but his eyes carry the grief of a man and a country destroyed by utter madness. He won an Oscar for his performance, becoming only the second non-professional actor to do so. “After all, I spent four years in the Khmer Rouge school of acting,” he said after collecting the golden statuette.

“The Killing Fields” is one of the most powerful and authentic portrayals of the violence, cruelty, and senselessness of communist regimes, capturing not only the bloodshed but also the psychological and societal toll of an ideology that believed that all education, culture, and tradition must be destroyed. The film’s haunting images stay with you long after the credits roll, from the muddy expanse of corpses to a child crossing out his parents on a chalkboard. It’s a difficult film to watch, but according to Ngor, it is still “not strong enough, not bad enough, not cruel enough, not violent enough.” That alone should be reason enough to watch it.

– Elaine

“Quiz Show” (1994)

Cast: Ralph Fiennes, John Turturro, Rob Morrow, Paul Scofield, Hank Azaria, David Paymer, Christopher McDonald

Available to rent streaming Amazon Instant, iTunes, and on disc from Netflix…you know, the usual

Imagine that Ken Jennings, the all-time Jeopardy champion who won 74 games in a row, had actually been fed the answers before the show. That is the premise of “Quiz Show,” a movie that chronicles the real quiz show scandals of the 1950s, when America learned that it had been duped by television executives eager for high ratings and contestants unable to resist 15 minutes of fame.

The movie was based on a memoir by Dick Goodwin, the young lawyer whose dogged investigation lifted the lid on the corruption. However, Goodwin, a consultant and producer for the movie, did not consider the quiz show scandal to be his proudest accomplishment—and who could blame him? The accomplished lawyer was a speechwriter and advisor for Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, and was the pen and mind behind LBJ’s landmark speeches on the Great Society and the Civil Rights Act.

With fantastic performances from Ralph Fiennes and John Turturro in particular—and a hilariously sinister cameo from Martin Scorsese—“Quiz Show” is a masterful cat-and-mouse game that transforms into a case study of morality that asks deeper questions about corruption, complicity, and guilt. Because really, with fame and fortune at your feet, what would you have done?

– Elaine

For Your Consideration: March 7, 2014

If you’re like us, come the weekend you end up spending more time going through Netflix’s recommendations than watching anything at all. We here at The Best Films of Our Lives understand your plight, and are here to help! In our new weekly feature, For Your Consideration, we will recommend three movies to help you cut down on browsing time, maximize viewing time, and spice up your week. To keep it relevant, we’ll choose them based on a relevant theme of the week, from political events to cultural milestones to new releases at the megaplex.

For our first week, instead of picking movies set in Ukraine or featuring a quasi-dictator who wrestles tigers and conquers nations, we chose a different route to Eastern Europe. In honor of the release of Wes Anderson’s latest cinematic caper we’ve chosen three films that take place in, you guessed it, a hotel.

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

Now playing in limited release.

Cast: Ralph Fiennes, F. Murray Abraham, Mathieu Almaric, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Harvey Keitel, Jude Law, Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Saoirse Ronan, Jason Schwartzman, Lea Seydoux, Tilda Swinton, Tom Wilkinson, Owen Wilson, Tony Revolori

For a quirky indie director of stylized comedies, Wes Anderson is a remarkably polarizing figure. But Whether you love the touching humanity in his exaggerated characters or hate his overly precious visual style, he’s unapologetically been churning out films that are nothing less than his for two decades now, and influencing a generation of filmmakers in the process. That’s an overly grand way of introducing his latest film, which generally looks like little more than a charming romp with all of your favorite Anderson regulars – Murray, Goldblum, Dafoe, Brody, Wilson, Swinton, etc. But this time he’s added two major new faces: Ralph Fiennes, as the debonair concierge of a fictional East European resort, and Tony Revolori as his young protege. Reviews for that duo, and the film itself, were terrific out of the Berlin film festival in January – if you’re all-in on Anderson, this will surely be a must-see.

Ethan

“A Room With A View” (1985)

Cast: Helena Bonham-Carter, Maggie Smith, Julian Sands, Daniel Day-Lewis

Available on Netflix instant streaming and on YouTube

“Don’t you agree that on one’s first visit to Florence, one must have a room with a view?” Beginning and ending in a Florentine pensione, “A Room With A View” follows Lucy Honeychurch (Helena Bonham-Carter), a respectable young Englishwoman on a grand tour of Italy with her prim, manipulative chaperone (a delightfully horrible Maggie Smith). En route, she meets George Emerson, a strange, idealistic young man who not only offers her a room with a view at the pensione, but a view out of the room of her life. Awash in the golden light draping its romantic Italian vistas, this period piece about a young woman’s self-awakening is not only beautiful but thoughtful, a love story, a critique of the British class system, and an acting master class, wrapped in one.

Elaine

Lost in Translation (2003)

Cast: Bill Murray, Scarlett Johannson, Giovanni Ribisi, Anna Faris

Available on Netflix instant streaming.

Anderson had another, less direct, hand in crafting another seminal movie Marriott. After writing the lead role of her second feature with Bill Murray in mind, Sofia Coppola asked Anderson, a close friend, to help her enlist the reluctant comedy legend to the part. After five months of hounding, Coppola and Anderson won him over, and the result was “Lost in Translation,” one of the finest uses of Murray’s weary empathy yet. As an aging film actor who strikes up a friendship with an aimless college grad (Scarlett Johannson) during their stay at a luxurious Japanese hotel, Murray brought his likable affability to Coppola’s story of existential ennui, isolation and culture shock. Johannson was at her best here as well, and combined with Lance Acord’s dreamy cinematography and Coppola’s nimble direction, the whole thing added up to one of the most romantic, intimate stories of non-romance in film.

Ethan