By The Playlist Staff | The Playlist February 28, 2013 at 11:01AM
Cities are always documented best by outsiders, so it's no surprise that when "L'Avventura" and "La Notte" director Michaelangelo Antonioni came to London to make his English-language debut with the formally playful anti-thriller "Blow-Up," he ended up producing one of the most seminal cinematic looks at the city in the midst of the Swinging Sixties. With a central character inspired by Carnaby St. icon David Bailey, and cameos from Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck among others, it's certainly an image of its time, but it's also an almost impossibly innovative and brilliant film away from all of that. The owl-eyebrowed David Hemmings plays Thomas, a fashion photographer who takes a photo of a woman and her lover, only to realize he might have accidentally captured evidence of a murder. The plotting, such as it is, is thin, but due to the film's existential ennui, epitomized most by the brilliant ending, it never really goes anywhere. Antonioni might be appropriating the imagery of the time, and even inventing a sort of visual language to match it, but he's never enamored by swinging London (the director was, after all, well into his 50s when it was made), almost always painting it as a bleak and deeply unhappy place. Only when Thomas has his camera in his hands is he truly alive. It's impossible to underestimate the influence of "Blow-Up;" it became a monster hit, bringing down the Production Code, and causing the creation of the MPAA in the process, and perhaps more importantly, led the way for the European influence on Hollywood, from "Bonnie & Clyde" to serving as a direct inspiration for films like "The Conversation" and "Blow Out."
At the time, Amenábar had been on Hollywood's radar for a little while – his debut feature, "Thesis," was a chilling thriller about the accidental discovery of a snuff film (it makes the Nicolas Cage movie "8 MM" seem even more cartoonish) and his sophomore film, "Open Your Eyes," an odd, amazing mixture of horror, sci-fi and romance, had recently been optioned for remake purposes by Cameron Crowe as his follow up to the critically adored "Almost Famous." (Crowe's wonky remake, "Vanilla Sky," would open later the same year that "The Others" was released.) But with his English-language debut, the backwards ghost story "The Others," Amenábar really made his presence known. "The Others" was produced by Tom Cruise and starred Nicole Kidman (recently separated - awkward), and was loosely based on the Henry James novella "The Turn of the Screw" (memorably adapted by Truman Capote as "The Innocents" and later as a bizarre Marlon Brando horror movie called "The Nightcomers" by the irrepressible trash kingpin, the late Michael Winner). Amenábar didn’t rely on gore or cheap scares but let the story, which largely takes place in a cavernous Victorian home, ruminate and breathe. It's a quiet movie, punctuated by moments of sheer terror, both because of their literal scariness and the amount of existential dread that's already haunting the film. Since "The Others," Amenábar returned to Spain for the genuinely moving "The Sea Inside," but faced major hurdles with his big-budget, creatively compromised historical epic "Agora," released back in 2009. Hopefully he's working on something just as frighteningly good as "The Others."
Anyone who saw "City of God," the Brazilian epic about the slums of Rio that Fernando Meirelles co-directed with Katia Lund (who went on to oversee the television spin-off "City of Men"), was also blown away by its use of color, its energy, its scope, its style, the way that its propulsive nature never got in the way of its emotional center. So when it was announced that Meirelles would helm an adaptation of a beloved John le Carré novel, "The Constant Gardner," expectations were high. Thankfully, they were all met. Less a straightforward thriller than an elliptical look at the nature of love, it starred Ralph Fiennes as a British diplomat in Africa whose wife (Rachel Weisz) is tragically murdered. Their relationship is told mostly in flashback, as Fiennes races to uncover the truth about what happened to her (it involves a labyrinthine conspiracy and the pharmaceutical industry), in a weird way expanding the idea of the things we hide from our significant others into crazy spy movie territory. Meirelles somewhat reigns in the hyperactive style that made "City of God" so memorable, but still relies largely on handheld camera work and bright, nearly glowing colors, which combined creative a feeling of immediacy and exoticism. "The Constant Gardner" is brilliant, beautifully made, and totally heartbreaking (almost as heartbreaking as Meirelles post-"Constant Gardner" career).