THE FEDREV 100: A Progressive Exploration of Film (81-90)

“The FedRev 100” is a personal top 100 films list from a progressive perspective, and on a weekly basis articles will be published revealing 10 films from the list at a time. Once all 100 titles have been revealed, the entire “FedRev 100″ will be published in list form with links back to the write-up articles, so readers will be able to scan the overall list, and then click on individual titles to read up on why each was selected. An in-depth explanation of the list’s criteria will be given when the entire list is revealed, but to briefly explain, the list is comprised of great films that uphold a progressive view of the world. The list is a blend of personal favorites with celebrated classics, as well as a few obscure gems that deserve greater exposure. Here is the The FedRev 100: films 81 to 90.

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81. À bout de souffle [Breathless] (1960, J. Godard) 

“Modern movies begin here,” said Roger Ebert about Breathless, one of the most influential films of all time. Breathless exploded film into the modern age with its radical use of jump-cut editing, a jazzy score, and its overall sensation of freedom. One of the early films of the French New Wave, it has a powerful sense of youth and was a conscious break from the traditional, more conservative method of film-making. It shattered the mold, broke all the rules, and became an inspiration to new film-makers for decades to come. The story is relatively simple, about a murder suspect, Michel, evading the law in Paris, seemingly without a care in the world, while hanging out with his American girlfriend, Patricia, who establishes herself as an interesting and powerful character in her own right. Michel seems more interested in getting laid than getting away, and at times is resigned to spending his life in jail. But in the end he wouldn’t go quietly, free until his last breath. The film has a constantly moving camera, which leaves the audience breathless as well, and cinema was forever changed.

before82. Trilogy: Before Sunrise / Before Sunset / Before Midnight (1995/2004/2013, R. Linklater) 

In 1995, Richard Linklater released Before Sunrise, and every nine years since has released a sequel. While sharing certain characteristics, each film is unique and worthwhile in their own right, but taken as a whole, this trilogy is something truly special. Some say that they are the best films about love and romantic relationships ever made, and they just might be. The series follows Jesse and Celine through the years. Jesse is an American traveling through Europe when he meets a French girl on her way home. They get to talking and Linklater’s camera follows their conversation throughout the rest of that single day as the two fall in love. And every nine years, we revisit the couple at a different stage of life. Because of the time between the films we get the unique experience of watching two characters age, retaining the core of their personality, but taking on greater complexity as the years pass. The first film is about embracing the moment and forging a genuine human connection. The second film, Before Sunset, is about the regret of missed opportunities and the need to be true to yourself. The third film, Before Midnight, is about the consequences of actually getting what you want. Each film utilizes long takes which pull the audience deeply into the dialogue heavy narrative, and the fantastic performances by Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy belie the fact that they’re actually acting. These magical films are not to be missed.

426+Frida+1483. Frida (2002, J. Taymor) 

Frida is a bio-pic about the surrealist Mexican painter Frida Kahlo. The film details her early artistic aspirations and the way she met her future husband, the famous painter Diego Rivera. We also witness the horrific accident that left Frida in pain for the rest of her life, and her development as a master artist while living in the shadow of her husband’s fame. The film is uniquely stylized, literally bringing her paintings to life on screen, allowing the audience to connect the narrative to the artwork. But the greatest thing about Frida is the way it handles the politics involved, both in terms of social relationships, as well as treating Kahlo and Rivera’s communist views with dignity and respect. The film doesn’t celebrate their art while condemning their radical politics, as it easily could have in the wrong hands. Rather, it’s a celebration of the relationship between the two. Frida is ultimately a film about how politics informs and flows through art. Salma Hayek gives a career defining performance as the radical painter, and Julie Taymor directs this wonderful film with a vision that takes the story to great heights.

the_social_network_1284. The Social Network (2010, D. Fincher) 

While some may consider the comparison sacrilegious, The Social Network is essentially a modern version of Citizen Kane, and while it doesn’t have the same scale of Welles’ film, it’s almost as good (it even has its own version of Rosebud). It’s about the true story of Mark Zuckerberg, who became the youngest billionaire in history after founding Facebook. The film uses Zuckerberg’s life as a metaphor for the ironic isolating effect social networks have on individuals. He’s desperate for genuine human connection, but incapable of fitting into the world of the social elite, so he invents a virtual way to crash the party, which only isolates him even further from the society he wishes to be a part of, as well as the few real friends he started out with. It’s an excellent film about capitalism’s “expand or die” principle. Every time Zuckerberg hits a roadblock in his personal life, his answer is to expand the reach of the company in a futile quest to prove his worth. The Social Network features a haunting score by Trent Reznor; its dark tones establish a sinister atmosphere and prevent the perception that Zuckerberg’s attitude and achievements are something to celebrate, and Aaron Sorkin’s script weaves together multiple narrative threads in a seamless structure. David Fincher’s film should be remembered as one of the definitive films of its era.

diaries85. Diarios de motocicleta [The Motorcycle Diaries] (2004, W. Salles) 

The only “road movie” to make THE FEDREV 100, The Motorcycle Diaries is about the journey of a young Ernesto “Che” Guevara and his friend Alberto though South America. On the trip they are deeply impacted by the social and economic injustices they witness, and Che is transformed by the experience that would shape the rest of his life. It’s a film about poverty and exploitation, and it’s filled with a love for the poor and the masses of people. The film doesn’t get into how Che became a famous revolutionary, but rather focuses on his gradual political awakening as he comes to understand the nature of capitalism as a fundamentally oppressive system in which the wealthy benefit from the suffering of the poor. Everywhere Che and Alberto go, in town after town, country after country, that basic formula of oppression is consistent. Diaries stars Gael García Bernal as Che, and his expressive yet subtle performance keeps the audience engaged in the moment while also giving a hint of the future charismatic revolutionary.

proposition86. The Proposition (2005, J. Hillcoat) 

The Proposition is a Western that takes place in the Australian outback in the 1880s. It is brutal, violent, and uncompromising, but also beautiful and thought provoking. It primarily examines the impulse among imperialists to “civilize” the lands they occupy through violence. The film’s narrative flows through a “proposition” made by a local sheriff to a captured criminal. He must track down his outlaw older brother and kill him, or else his younger brother, who was also captured, will be executed. Interestingly, this proposition is essentially a sub-plot in a larger story about one civilization attempting to impose itself upon another, and the brutal oppression required to do that. The film perfectly illustrates this with the image of a perfectly manicured upper-class British home, surrounded by harsh desert populated by an indigenous Aboriginal people. The Proposition is an experience of pure cinema, fully utilizing image, sound, and music to achieve an artistic vision that can only be film.

Double-Indemnity-487. Double Indemnity (1944, B. Wilder) 

One of the best examples of Film Noir, Double Indemnity is a stylistic crime drama about an insurance salesman who is convinced to take part in a murder/fraud scheme by a beautiful woman. A great film to watch late at night, it’s a claustrophobic masterpiece, told from the point of view of the criminals in an utterly dark and irredeemable environment. It has a razor sharp script and exquisite use of light and shadow, both of which came to define the Noir genre. While the film has no virtuous characters, not even the murder victim or the investigators looking into the crime, the film stands as a document on lust, corruption, and greed in a world where profit and self-preservation are primary values. Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray star in Billy Wilder’s enduring, genre defining crime thriller.

Fall2012OliverStone1288. Born on the Fourth of July (1989, O. Stone) 

Born on the Fourth of July is Oliver Stone’s film about a U.S. soldier’s journey from war supporter, to Vietnam combat veteran, to anti-war activist. The film is based on the true story of Ron Kovic, who enthusiastically bought into the militaristic propaganda peddled by Army recruiters, and enlisted in the military to serve his country in Vietnam. Once there he kills a fellow soldier in a friendly fire incident following the murder of Vietnamese civilians, and then he himself is almost killed in the firefight. The film takes us through his recovery process, both physically and ideologically, as Kovic suffers through the bureaucratic failings of the VA healthcare system, and begins to see that he was fooled, starting early in life, into supporting a criminal imperialistic nation. It’s a powerful film about discovering the truth hidden behind propaganda and the political awakening that results when you stop living in denial and follow the truth to its logical conclusions. Born on the Fourth of July is Stone at his most effective, balancing his bold artistic sensibilities with a well crafted narrative, and Tom Cruise turns in one of his career’s best performances in a role that showed why he is a major acting talent as well as Hollywood’s biggest star.

mrsmith.389. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939, F. Capra) 

An all-time classic, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is a scathing indictment of the American political establishment. It’s about Jefferson Smith who is an all-American “Boy Scout” who fully believes in the Constitution and all the myths of American democracy. He’s chosen to replace a U.S. Senator who has died, and because of his spotless reputation in the community and inexperience in politics, the Governor, controlled by capitalist interests, chooses to name him Senator thinking they could easily manipulate him. Once he arrives in the Senate, he quickly discovers that his idealistic (and naive) belief in the American system to reflect the will of the people does match up with reality. He’s smeared by the corporate media (the Washington Press Club denounced the film as un-American after the world premiere) and his efforts to pass a bill to establish a local camp are sabotaged by the corporate political machine because it interferes with plans to build a dam on the same land. Seeing Smith as a liability, the corporate state goes into full character assassination mode, while Smith embarks on a filibuster in the Senate with the goal of exposing the corruption of the system. The brilliance of the film is that it shows how capitalist interests own and control the political system (a system that is set up as a distraction from that fact), and yet it doesn’t allow Smith to be completely triumphant, which would have reinforced his idealism and proven the system can “work” if only good people are elected. The ending is left ambiguous and somewhat bleak as Smith proves his point but nothing is fundamentally changed. Jimmy Stewart gives a fantastic performance as Smith in this classic by Frank Capra.

cap07gattaca90. Gattaca (1997, A. Niccol) 

One of the “little films that could” of The FEDREV 100, Gattaca didn’t even finish in top 100 highest grossing films of 1997, yet over the years it has forged a reputation as a minor classic. It’s now often listed among the greatest Sci-Fi films of the 90s. It’s a story that takes place in the near future where genetic engineering of fertilized eggs allows the parents who can afford it to produce genetically optimal offspring. Children born in this way are considered “Valid” while those who aren’t are labeled “Invalid” and are forced into a permanent underclass. Gattaca is about an Invalid who dreams of becoming an astronaut, yet has no legitimate means of achieving this goal no matter how hard he works or how qualified he becomes. All that matters is his DNA, and so he has to find a way to circumvent the system. Gattaca is surviving the test of time because of how well its message resonates. It’s clear that the class system depicted is unjust, and despite the fact that it’s a story of someone who wants “in” (to the system) rather than “out,” what it has to say about the power of the human spirit to overcome great odds, as well as how artificial class divisions actually are even when (or perhaps especially when) based on genetic “superiority,” more than justifies the film’s limited scope and perspective.

- THE FEDREV 100 (Films 41-50)
- THE FEDREV 100 (Films 51-60)
- THE FEDREV 100 (Films 61-70)
- THE FEDREV 100 (Films 71-80)
- THE FEDREV 100 (Films 91-100)

My Reflections on ‘Boyhood’

Somewhere along the line during my education I was taught that the best way to write to persuade is to express your opinions as statements of fact, and then use supporting evidence and information to explain to your readers why they should agree with your position. For the most part, that’s the kind of writing I do on FedRev. I generally try to take the “I” and “me” out of the equation, and put forward a reasoned argument based on facts. I take a position on a topic and build a case. But as I was watching Boyhood I knew I wouldn’t be able to take myself out of my analysis and that it would be impossible for me not to approach the material from a personal perspective.

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Boyhood is a film 12 years in the making. Writer and Director Richard Linklater cast a young boy and used a groundbreaking concept of filming the movie in short segments as the actor aged from childhood into young adulthood. A similar effect was achieved with the Harry Potter franchise, where we were able to watch Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, and Rupert Grint grow up on screen in 8 films produced over 10 years. But the idea of intentionally making a single film gradually over 12 years to authentically capture the effect of aging, and having the vision, patience, and the opportunity to see it through, is unprecedented in film history. Perhaps not coincidentally, Boyhood contains several references to Harry Potter.

So much of this film felt familiar to me. Even though it’s about a child ten years behind me in age, the world he was growing up in was essentially the same one I experienced. Just like Mason in Boyhood, I too road my bike around my neighborhood with my friends, moved to a new house as a child, lived through some emotionally turbulent events at a young age, was bullied in the bathroom at school, and tried to develop as an artist, haunting my high school’s darkroom. I even came in 2nd place in a state-wide high school art contest, just like Mason did. And, just like Mason, played by Ellar Coltrane, I always felt somewhat isolated, and had the sense, somehow, that something was inherently wrong with the society we live in. Even though I couldn’t quite put my finger on it at the time, I was searching, and that’s really what the story of Boyhood is all about; searching for life’s meaning and struggling to find our place in the world as we grow up.

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Boyhood captures the process of surviving childhood with honesty and without a lot of sentimentality. It simply charges ahead through time, just like life does, without apology. A lesser film might have used clearly defined demarcation points to signal to the audience when one phase of life ends and another begins. There are no “One Year Later” or “Age 12″ title cards. Instead, despite being shot gradually over more than a decade, Boyhood is crafted as one cohesive piece; the years seamlessly blending together. The central gimmick of the film, the character aging, is barely emphasized. It just happens. Supporting characters enter and exit Mason’s life without any artificial Hollywood sentiment. One minute his mother’s second alcoholic husband is part of his life, and the next moment he’s simply gone from the film, never to be seen again. Even Mason’s mother, played by Patricia Arquette, gets a pretty unceremonious exit. In typical Linklater style, he doesn’t pander or feel the need to over-explain the details, he simply presents the reality of any given moment for what it is and trusts the audience to follow along without any unnecessary exposition.

Linklater is clearly interested in the subject of passing time, which is something I can definitely relate to. The universe and the concept of time and space is something that has always intrigued me for as long as I can remember, which is perhaps why several of Linklater’s films appeal to me on such a personal level. In addition to Boyhood, which was shot over many years, he is also the director of the ‘Before‘ trilogy, with 9 year gaps between the films, each depicting a single day in the life of one couple at various stages of their lives. But while the ‘Before‘ films weren’t designed from the start to be an ongoing document on love and age, Boyhood was intentionally conceived as a unique project, executed with a definite artistic vision, though lacking an overly pretentious attitude. Boyhood, while doing something daring and unique, manages to feel humble and grounded in reality. Linklater might be the anti-Wes Anderson.

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Though as much as I appreciate Boyhood‘s concept, it’s a film that causes me to feel a lot of conflicting emotions. There are many moments in the film that feel mundane and ordinary. As I was watching the film there were several moments where I found myself wondering why they made the final cut. Whole conversations seem to be about nothing of any major significance and there are long stretches of time where the central protagonist has very few lines and doesn’t even seem to be all that interesting of a character. In a film that’s almost 3 hours long, that can be a bit tedious.

But on the other hand, isn’t life like that? Not every moment can be a major life-defining event. Some things are just routine, everyday parts of growing up, like fighting with your sibling in the back seat of the car on a road trip. I’m sure my parents wanted to kill me and my brother when we did that, and Linklater makes sure to spend a significant amount of time on these “everyday” moments. So while in the moment I found some of these segments a bit tedious and maybe one of the film’s weaknesses, upon further reflection, perhaps they’re actually one of the films strengths. Even my initial reaction of being slightly bored with the main character makes sense. Mason is just a kid, just like I was, and a film about my life as I grew up might have felt a little mundane at times, too, but that doesn’t mean it’s not important and worth examination.

It just goes to show how conditioned we are to Hollywood formulas, where there’s no room for any “wasted” screen time, and everything in a script has to deliberately, and sometimes artificially, drive a narrative forward and manipulate the audience into feeling certain emotions at specific moments. Boyhood totally throws this mindset out the window and, like I said before, trusts the audience to hang in there throughout a more organic, natural experience. The film doesn’t tell you how to feel, it simply shows you one boy’s life and allows you the space to react to it on your own terms, as well as the time to reflect on your own experiences as you witness Mason’s.

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In a Hollywood landscape dominated by formula-driven films, Boyhood, like a lot of Linklater’s work, is a breath of fresh air. He’s a director whose career began by taking experimental concepts and presenting them in a very accessible, down to Earth manner. Dazed and Confused, the first Linklater film I fell in love with, perfectly captures the atmosphere of small-town, USA in 1976 and takes place on a single day as several kids contemplate their lives, and Slacker, his claim to fame, was a film with a huge cast of characters who briefly own the screen for a few minutes at a time before passing the baton to the next person the camera decides to follow, giving the audience a whirlwind tour of Austin, Texas. It’s a disconcerting experience, but once you get used to it, you suddenly realize the limited range to which most mainstream film-making is confined, and that disconcerting feeling becomes a sense of liberation. Linklater has never allowed himself to be confined. Even his more conventional films feel refreshing somehow, like Bernie and School of Rock, perhaps because they tap into a kind of universal humanity that we can all relate to.

In the end, I think my biggest issue with Boyhood is the way politics are discussed by the characters. Mason’s father, played by Ethan Hawke, bashes George W. Bush, which is fine, but does so while encouraging his kids to grow up to vote Democrat. The film even has a segment in which a woman talks about how cute candidate Obama is while the children are putting Obama campaign signs in people’s yards. I suppose at the time those segments were filmed it wasn’t yet known how blatantly criminal Obama’s administration would be, but, given what we know now, those scenes leave a bad taste in my mouth.

I understand that people in real life are democrats who support Obama, and on one level the film is simply reflecting that fact, but I get the sense that Linklater got caught up in the excitement surrounding Obama back in 2008, and then failed to take the opportunity to challenge those views in any way as filming continued over the years. The way I see it, there’s really no excuse for this, given the now well-known abuses of the Obama administration, especially considering it would have been easy to craft a scene in 2012 showing how the “hope” of Obama had worn away.

But this aside, the film is an unprecedented and groundbreaking work of art. It’s raw and real, and yet refined and accessible. It’s simultaneously a challenge to sit-through and somehow very easy to watch, because it defies the standard formulas we’re so accustomed to and refuses to explicitly spell out every detail, yet it’s so natural and humanistic that the audience can’t help but connect with the film on a personal level. I know I did. And given the leap of faith Linklater took when casting a 6 year old boy, not knowing for sure how the child would develop as an actor as he got older, or even if he’d want to continue the project as the years went on, makes Boyhood a near miracle.

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The way Boyhood was able to capture the essence of what it was like to grow up in that specific time and place, and include a lot of details that make the cinematic experience ring true, while also making the film interesting and absorbing to an audience, is quite a feat. It manages to feel personal and intimate while simultaneously feeling universal. The mundane, everyday experiences of childhood are illuminated beautifully, and the dramatic moments are heart wrenching and real.

The magical experience of watching this film is that even though it’s a movie about one child’s journey into adulthood, it subtlety reveals how all of our lives are important, not only to ourselves, but to the larger fabric of the human experience. Life is something to cherish and celebrate, even while we struggle for understanding and search to find meaning in an infinite universe we’re only a tiny part of. Richard Linklater has somehow managed to bottle up that feeling and share it with everyone in the form of Boyhood.