Perhaps the most famous of the Japanese New Wave in the late ‘50s through the '70s, due to his preeminent taboo-busting ways, Nagisa Oshima is still largely unknown outside of hardcore cinephile circles (though that’s slowly changing). While his best known work is “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence” starring David Bowie, and the controversial, pretty much soft-core porn “In the Realm of the Senses,” it's the erotic and haunting "Empire of Passion" that is perhaps his most unrelenting and potent experience. Nightmare-ish in tone, blending horror and the sensual, “Empire of Passion” is essentially a chilling ghost story that leans heavily on the themes of guilt, murder and retribution, not unlike Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” (a play one could argue the film is loosely based on). Centering on the aftermath of passions and the haunting sins of crimes, the plot of “Empire of Passion” (also known as “Phantom Love”) focuses on a an adulterous couple -- a peasant woman and her younger concubine -- who conspire to murder her husband and dump the body down a well. The act is simple. The consequences: gossip, which turns to suspicion and culminates in the husband's apparition returning to stalk her as the law investigates ratches up in a frenzied pitch of anxiety and unease is anything but. And swirling mists and tenebrous cinematography make for a sinister patina of dread that is unparalleled.
Ugly and vile, exploring some of the darkest corners of man’s id, Sam Peckinpah's "Straw Dogs" is often hard to stomach. An arresting examination of violence, masculinity and lack thereof, the noxious potency of the picture lies in what the picture dispassionately suggests yet never quite states. Famously dubbed a “fascist work of art” by Pauline Kael in a rare positive review of the largely excoriated film, "Straw Dogs" holds very little quarter in its Darwin-ian and Nietzsche-esque look at the survival of the fittest. Dustin Hoffman plays a nebbish American math scholar who provokes the envy and ire of the local working class English by settling down with one of their own (Susan George) in their rural countryside town. Masculine, class and nationality politics are chaffed from the start. Hoffman is a rich American deeply out of his element and in marrying the gorgeous (and provocatively dressed) Amy, and hiring the local underclass to fix up his posh cottage, the picture falls just short of saying that he has earned their envy and deserve what's coming to him. A controversial rape in the picture does little to quell the queasy air of disgust one gets from these rancid circumstances and offensive people, but further demonstrates Peckinpah's masterful way of staying mostly detached, while provoking his audience and refracting back the notion that all humans are capable of wretched acts of violence. In forcing Hoffman's character to defend himself in a bloodthirsty rage, the director throws a molotov cocktail at the screen making the viewer complicit in these harrowing and base acts of vengeance. There is no morality in "Straw Dogs," the picture stripping down all elements to their most primal and raw. It's deeply unsettling and unforgiving, which makes Peckinpah's missive on man, passiveness and aggression still shocking and haunting til this day. Directors often talk about pictures' controversial taboos reflecting back the ugliness of life back at them with a mirror, but rarely follow-through. "Straw Dogs" is the real deal that takes a hammer to the reflection and then stuffs the shards down your throat.
The break-out film -- and still the best -- from Peter Bogdanovich, "The Last Picture Show" (an adaptation of Larry McMurtry's novel) remains both one of cinema's most indelible coming-of-age tales and one of its most unforgettable love letters to itself. Duane (Jeff Brdges) and Sonny (Timothy Bottoms) are two small-town Texas teens caught between a girl (Cybil Shepherd) and mourning the death of their mentor, movie-theater owner Sam The Lion (an Oscar-winning Ben Johnson). Deeply felt, heartbreakingly elegaic and perfectly performed by all, it stands head and shoulders above the rest of Bogdanovich's work to an almost alarming degree.
We pretty much had to flip a coin to choose between this and 1984's "Paris, Texas" in terms of Wim Wenders' filmography. But ultimately, it was the magic-realism beauty of "Wings of Desire" that won out for us. Set in West Berlin, it follows a pair of angels, Damiel and Cassiel (Bruno Ganz and Otto Sander), the former of whom falls in love with a trapeze artist after he chooses to become mortal. A deeply weird, of-the-moment tone poem (featuring an appearance from Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, and Peter Falk -- playing a version of himself as a former angel), it's gloriously shot by "La Belle et La Bete" DoP Henri Alekan, and dedicated to the then-recently deceased Andrei Tarkovsky, Yasujiro Ozu and Francois Truffaut (three of Wenders cinematic idols). One senses they would have been delighted by the pure cinema on display in Wenders' picture.
Opening with a chalkboard scrawl that asks viewers of filmmaker Jean Cocteau’s classic 1946 film “La belle et la bête” (“Beauty and the Beast”) to give up their ideas of what is real, and give into the imagination and ridiculous nature of fantasy, and it's a take that continued to define the cinematic fairy tale right up to the present day. Cocteau’s film still resonates today; even if the sweet 1994 Disney musical version of the tale is worth a watch as well, it's Cocteau's that balances the fantasy with the parable; never losing site of either for long. It's also a visual wonder, with many flourishes that are still breathtaking today -- the hallway with human arms holding candelabras is a standout -- and it’s easy to see the seeds of Cocteau’s film in dozens of baroque fantasies that have followed since.
What many critics frame as “the inverse of ‘Psycho,' " Roman Polanski’s elegant horror thriller is every bit as powerful and shocking as Hitchcock’s masterpiece. Catherine Deneuve, radiant and owl-eyed, plays a Belgian manicurist living in London who slowly goes mad. The movie, an early gem from Polanski, whose obsession with madness and closed spaces would continue with two later films to form his “apartment trilogy” (with 1968’s “Rosemary’s Baby” and 1976’s “The Tenant”), has a wonderful sense of perspective – since we see everything through Deneuve’s eyes, we can’t be sure of what’s really happening and what’s just a side-effect from her tortured psychological state. The movie eventually drifts into the surreal, and you can’t help but feel helpless for her – she seems a victim of circumstance that just happened to bite back. The film’s moody black-and-white photography by Gilbert Taylor only adds to the sense of claustrophobia, and it’s a testament to the movie’s raw power that it works as an arty character study and a splashy bit of genre shock. Deneuve, too, gives the performance of a lifetime -- and she’s even adorable as she decays.