By Matt Singer | Criticwire June 11, 2012 at 9:57AM
Q: This week's question is more of a request, and it comes from Criticwire contributor Rania Richardson, who writes:
"I mentor a 14-year-old from Harlem and nothing would make me happier then to have her enjoy 'art house' movies. She goes to Hollywood movies in chain theaters, and doesn't particularly like what she sees. Of course, the fact that she's African-American makes it even harder for me to find movies that I think would speak to her. She is sophisticated and would probably not mind some subtitles and nontraditional narratives. Help!"
So help Rania out: what one "art house" movie would you recommend Rania show her 14-year-old mentee and aspiring cinephile?
The critics' answers:
"I wish I had more titles, but this is a tough one. The first that came to mind was 'Black Orpheus.' It has some adult themes, but it's a beautiful film about love and the difficulties that that foolish notion has in store for us mere mortals. As for other candidates? 'Rushmore,' 'Coraline,' Cuaron's 'A Little Princess,' 'Whale Rider,' 'My Neighbor Totoro' (really any Ghibli), and 'Pan's Labyrinth.' Plus, there are a ton of classic films that are friendly for that age range -- depending on how loose you want to get with the definition of "art house." Mine is pretty loose."
"Gillo Pontecorvo's 'The Battle of Algiers.' It's got all the vitamins and minerals (read: documentary-like realism, radical politics, inspirational fervor) a growing cinephile needs."
"Going by what little we know of this person, I think it best to just name a film we think would be a good start for anyone interested in venturing outside of mainstream Hollywood entertainment. Since I’m a documentary enthusiast, I might as well select a nonfiction film with the idea that maybe that’s what she’s looking for. Again, it’s difficult to come up with the perfect gateway without knowing what the person’s interests are, so I choose 'The Thin Blue Line,' one of the most entertaining docs with crossover potential, as it plays as a great detective story regardless of its being true, and it exhibits the greatest amount of power the medium holds. If she doesn’t like it, well maybe movies just aren’t her thing."
"I think I was about that age and first saw Jim Jarmusch's 'Down By Law' and thought 'Wow, they make movies like this?' and started seeking out indie and 'art house' movies I'd never heard of. In Rania's case I think she should absolutely go with Robert Townsend's 'Hollywood Shuffle.' Townsend's sly satirization of racial stereotypes in Hollywood is dynamic, groundbreaking, and hilarious, requiring just enough of its audience's wit to realize the grand gesture it makes. A perfect introduction to the anti-Hollywood world of 'art house' cinema for a 14-year old."
"It might be liberating for your mentee to see interesting depictions of city life or of adolescence, so I've got two suggestions. The rawness and immediacy of the French New Wave might appeal to your sophisticated young friend, so why not try the unapologetic truth of 'The 400 Blows?' For something more contemporary but still off the mainstream radar, I'd recommend 'George Washington' as a lyrical and unique portrait of youth."
"I would recommend showing her 'Hoop Dreams,' which I think is one of the finest examples of what documentary film can achieve. I don't know if she likes basketball -- or sports, for that matter -- but 'Hoop Dreams' is so powerful that it transcends its subject matter. Also, since she's 14 and has her whole life ahead of her, I think she'll appreciate the journey undertaken by high-schoolers William Gates and Arthur Agee in the movie as they try to position themselves for a career in the NBA. The movie is all about the social, cultural and economic realities that keep young people from reaching their dreams, and filmmakers Steve James, Peter Gilbert and Frederick Marx utilize the documentary form for its highest purpose: to show us our world as it is today. In recent years, documentaries have too often become glib infotainment -- it's as if they're afraid to be genuinely thoughtful lest they get dismissed as being boring -- but 'Hoop Dreams' towers above them with its seriousness of purpose. And for all that, it's also more entertaining and engrossing than any Hollywood movie out right now."
"It's hard to say what is 'art house,' obviously. Need it be on a musty film studies syllabus? While it is hard to believe that something I saw as a young 'un, in a theater, for entertainment might be considered a 'cultural vegetable,' I offer up Woody Allen's 'Hannah and Her Sisters.' To a 14-year old raised on today's popular garbage, a film like this may as well be Eisenstein. But is it *that* different from one of those romantic comedies with two dozen characters like Valentine's Day? Well, I wouldn't know, because I haven't seen Valentine's Day. But you catch my drift -- lots interesting storylines of romantic mishegas, some funny, some sad, some filled with angst. Only, of course, 'Hannah and Her Sisters' is a masterpiece. Hopefully it could lead this young woman to better things, and won't be such a shock to the system. Additionally: I don't buy that this particular girl's African-American-ness means that she'll have a tough time identifying with ANY movie she sees. She's a New Yorker, and New Yorkers -- all New Yorkers -- are international. If she was from Mississippi that'd be a different story, but let's give this young woman some cred."
"Can't go wrong with Jean Cocteau's 'Beauty and the Beast,' a familiar story so beautifully told I'm tearing up just thinking about it. And anything by Powell and Pressburger. You wouldn't label them 'art house' but if you're just going for great go 'The Red Shoes.' Kids like dancing still, right?"
"I think Vittorio De Sica's 1948 neorealist classic 'The Bicycle Thief' is a perfect entree into the world of arthouse/foreign language film. Young adult, adult, middle age... inner city, suburbs... doesn't matter. With a running time of just 93 minutes, it shouldn't be overwhelming for anyone, and the stakes are as straightforward and dramatic as you can get. Man needs job; man needs bike for job; man's bike is stolen; man tries to regain bike. Only his pride, humanity and the future survival of his family are on the line. It's heavy stuff in an accessible package, and a must-see."
"It's certainly an unusual question and it's very kind of you to pose it on behalf of Rania. I honestly have no idea. Frankly, to be told the pitchee is an African-American girl from Harlem tells me nothing. Is she looking for something 'real,' something 'relatable,' or something fanciful? You know, 'Zazie in the Metro' and 'The 400 Blows' are BOTH 'art house' films, both French, both from the same period, both with young protagonists that their directors are sympathetic to...and both ENTIRELY different films. Now granted I am delighted by them both and loved the Truffaut when I was this girl's age. But... does this young woman like mind-blowing visuals? 'The Red Shoes.' Does she mind having her heart broken? 'Kes.' Has she seen enough of 'life' to dig 'The Connection?' I can see aesthetically/intellectually curious teens getting into any of these pictures but even if I knew more about this person I'm not sure I'd be so presumptuous as to propose anything as a surefire art house 'open sesame.'"
"When I think of my own experience learning to switch from more mainstream films that we are all brought up watching (my kids will only be watching post-60s Godard of course), I remember the first film that really challenged how I watched films beforehand, and that was Quentin Tarantino's 'Pulp Fiction.' The film works so well because it has its obvious pleasures -- the cool dialogue and the gratuitous violence -- but it also has it's winding narrative, it's emphasis on making the mundane into myth, and so many other elements that break what we are used to seeing (though, 18 years later, many of Tarantino's breakthroughs have become mainstream). But often, works like Tarantino's work so well because they come from genres we know well, giving us the particular pleasures we are used to, while playing in those structures to create unique visual stories. Plus, seeing 'Pulp Fiction' will certainly inspire someone to check out 'Band of Outsiders,' 'Kiss Me Deadly,' and other films it references."
"'The Class.' I suspect this will make her feel better about her school. (And maybe help her understand the teachers.)"
"Well I suspect a lot of people are going to pick this but my immediate thought was 'The 400 Blows.' Youthful angst and rebellion are universally relatable, no matter the language or time period. And that famous, long shot at the end is just so beautiful. Also, if she loves film, I bet she'd dig 'Cinema Paradiso.' I know this isn't the most fashionable choice, but admit it: The Ennio Morricone score alone gets you choked up."
"'Kikujiro.' It may not be the first choice when folks consider Takeshi Kitano, but it's an art film that masquerades as a family picture. It's a great representation of what you can do with adaptation, since Kitano drew heavily from 'The Wizard of Oz," but also made it inherently Japanese with use of referencing the tengu to playing children's games. It's not a hard art film, but a colorful entry drug that could get kids into less formulaic expectations with how to compose a shot."
"There's no limit to the possibilities here ('The Battle of Algiers' nearly was my choice), but I would suggest that the young lady be shown 'Half Nelson,' which should be like an oasis in the desert when compared to how similar stories have been treated in Hollywood. A strong female co-lead, a realistic take on New York City public schools, and just overall a magnificent and human tale. I think it would turn her on to a whole new type of film, not just what's at the multiplex."
"I'm a believer that, when it comes to art house films, you don't throw someone into the deep end of the pool. I still remember being assigned to watch 'Blow Up' in college. I wasn't prepared for a film so abstract at that point in my life, and I resented the confusion it made me feel. So for that reason, I'd recommend this young woman be shown a picture that's fairly straightforward in plot but more complex in theme. And if it was something she might identify with, all the better. This being the case, I'd recommend Sofia Coppola's 'The Virgin Suicides.' It has an easy-to-understand story with a lot of rich, underlying meaning. She might also relate to its portrait of adolescent infatuation and rebellion. Plus, it's a darn good flick."
"I feel I can recommend Spike Lee's new film, 'Red Hook Summer.' The movie comes out this August but I got a chance to watch it at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year. It's not a clean or cohesive film but it's full of imagination, excitement and joy with a very dark tone and feeling. It takes a look at growing up in Red Hook in Brooklyn but makes this neighborhood feel like a fairy tale world. It's a film that informs us of the pitfalls of growing up while showing us that evil comes in unlikely packages. I feel 'Red Hook Summer' and 'Crooklyn' are great ways to get into Spike Lee's filmography and art-house cinema in general. I'd also recommend Hayao Miyazaki's 'Spirited Away' as another great entry point into world and anime cinema for teenagers."
"While I'd suggest that Rania's 14-year-old mentee try out as many different types of art-house films as possible, a good starting point would be 'Run Lola Run' -- an accessibly fast-paced, philosophically inclined art-house hit that would likely prove an exciting and unique introduction to the headier genre pleasures afforded by both independent and foreign cinema."
"I will recommend the one film I wish I watched when I was 14, Jean Vigo's 'Zero For Conduct' (1933). Anarchically funny, it enacts every rebellious fantasy a schoolkid could dream of. A group of rambunctious boarding school urchins instigate food fights, pillow battles and toss garbage during the commemoration day. It's also beautifully shot and all that, and teaches important lessons about ignoring authority. In French and black and white, but if even if she doesn't like it, it's over in 45 minutes!"
"Recommendations are always tricky without knowing the person in question, but just as tricky is the term 'art house.' Are all art house films from major distributors really so strange or difficult that they couldn't just be wide releases? I think 'Moonrise Kingdom' is a great example of a movie that's unconventional but could win over (almost) anyone of any age. But if I were going to recommend a foreign film, I might recommend one of the first foreign films I ever saw -- 'Cinema Paradiso.' I think it's a good movie for a young person to get their feet wet with, and if she's a cinephile there's also the fact that it's a love letter to movies."
"'City of God.' At the beginning of college, I was struggling with watching foreign films. I just started wearing glasses (too terrified of contacts) and had problems with subtitles. I had to tilt my head into an unpleasant position to read, which meant that the rim of my glasses would block the action. When I saw 'City of God,' that all changed. I became so entranced with the movie, my glasses were not a bother, and that spilled over to every film I watched that came with subtitles. I'm pretty sure I just didn't learn -- at that moment -- how to read faster, but how to become completely hypnotized by a movie which requires reading."
"I think Rania should show her mentee 'Ballast,' the patient drama written and directed by Lance Hammer. It's got elements of a coming-of-age story and she may find the Mississippi Delta setting haunting. The pacing is a little slow, especially at the beginning, but I think a curious 14 year-old is more open to a movie like it than the typical adult."
The Best Movie Currently In Theaters on June 11, 2012: