All That Jazz
All That Jazz (1979) is a perfect film, in my book: insanely well acted, incredible art direction, great writing, beautifully shot, just a director firing on all cylinders. Did I mention the amazing song-and-dance sequences? And Bob Fosse does all this, in a movie that is a very autobiographical account of his own struggle juggling: multiple productions, girls, booze, and pills; all of which lead to a series of heart attacks that culminate in the most spectacular and fantastical deathbed scene ever, with Jessica Lange as the loveliest angel of death. Forget Jaws: Roy Scheider as Joe Gideon, Fosse’s alter ego, is equal parts heroic captain and man-eating shark in this masterpiece.
In this political season, it’s important to remember that politics has always been a dirty business.
Robert Altman scores big with two very well-aimed political targets: the unraveling of Richard Nixon in 1984’s Secret Honor and the media circus surrounding a presidential campaign in his 1988 miniseries Tanner ’88. I grew up watching comedian Rich Little doing Richard Nixon impressions that are seared into my brain. Philip Baker Hall is not doing a Richard Nixon impression. He is Richard Nixon. Sans gimmicks. It is a gut-wrenchingly good performance in what is virtually a one-man show. Tanner ’88 stars Michael Murphy as a decent liberal Democrat who—SPOILER ALERT—does not take the Democratic nomination. Sound familiar? Yeah. Depressing.
Haskell Wexler’s 1969 film Medium Cool should really just be called Super Fucking Cool but then you’d lose the play on the word “medium” and boy is Wexler playing with medium here—a fictional story, shot cinema verité style, against a backdrop of the very real riots at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. It’s a doozy and especially resonant as we watch the circus leading up to what is sure to be an ugly convention season.
Todd Haynes’s gorgeous 1995 metaphor for the AIDS crisis, Safe, is no less timely today. Julianne Moore turns in an amazingly subtle performance as a rich white lady struggling with a mysterious autoimmune disease who retreats to a wellness community. Her character predates all the gluten free, anti-vaxxer, yoga-obsessed, Goop-reading, Lyme-diseased ladies of today and shows what empty, sad, colorless lives their “authentic selves” are left to lead . . . Namaste, motherfuckers.
While Safe is all muted colors, on the other side of the spectrum, there’s the in-your-face brash vision of Terry Gilliam’s 1985 masterpiece Brazil. His plastic-surgery-victim women are camera-ready for a 2016 The First Wives of Beverly Hills reality show. I love this movie’s intoxicating mix of humor and horror.
I remember being on a frigid Canadian ski trip with my family and going to dinner at a rollicking fondue restaurant that had Michael Ritchie’s great-looking 1969 Robert Redford vehicle, Downhill Racer, showing silently on an endless loop. We must have eaten there a couple of times because I remember this flick much more than the miserable week spent skiing icy Mont-Tremblant.
Nanook of the North
I saw Robert Flaherty’s 1922 quasi-documentary film in fourth grade. We watched it on some weird early-’70s, pre-video school format where the teacher popped something that looked like a tape into a machine that jiggled as it played ten-minute segments on a small, dark screen. It looked like shit but the film left an indelible impression on me. The blubber-eating scene, mixed with the perfumed scent of Eugenie, my fourth-grade crush—oops, I mean, teacher—is a heady sense-memory.
A Hard Day’s Night
Now we come to the Rock Box, four films that I love, featuring two bands I adore and two artists that always left me cold, all in one brilliant box set:
A Hard Day’s Night is Richard Lester’s 1964 gorgeous black-and-white faux-concert comedic film, of the four mop tops at the height of Beatlemania. The film ends with them beating a hasty retreat via helicopter from hordes of lovesick fans.
David Maysles, Albert Maysles, and Charlotte Zwerin
So it’s only appropriate that by 1969, when Mick Jagger steps out of a helicopter at Altamont Speedway, in the brilliant rock doc Gimme Shelter, he is promptly punched in the face by a rabid fan. It’s all downhill from there. Here is Mick at his best and worst—decadent druggie, preening queen, rock ‘n’ roll showman, heart-of-gold hustler, unsuccessful snake charmer. David Maysles, Albert Maysles, and Charlotte Zwerin are there to beautifully capture the idealism of Woodstock melt and turn into this bad acid trip.
Dont Look Back
D. A. Pennebaker
Speaking of snake-ish charmers, enter a young Bob Dylan in D. A. Pennebaker’s 1967 Dont Look Back. This may be a documentary, but don’t think for one moment that Dylan isn’t brilliantly putting on a performance as PYT (pretty young thing) “Bobby Dylan, the brilliant folksinger.” And while it’s not to my credit that I could never wrap my mind around folk music, even I am not immune from the oodles of bratty charm that Dylan exudes here.
Lastly, we have The Who. I hate The Who. So Franc Roddam’s 1979 Quadrophenia must be a hell of a film to get me to wade through that much The Who soundtrack. But I’m a sucker for a good coming-of-age film and this one centers around a mods versus rockers conflict, so I loved it.
Jonathan Lethem’s Top 10
Winner of a 2005 MacArthur Foundation Fellows Program genius grant, Jonathan Lethem is one of America's premier contemporary writers. His works include the novels The Fortress of Solitude and Motherless Brooklyn.
D. A. Pennebaker’s Top 10
Filmmaker D. A. Pennebaker (Dont Look Back, Monterey Pop, The War Room) and Chris Hegedus (The War Room, Startup.com), creative partners and husband and wife, offer these favorites.
Adam Yauch’s Top 10
Adam Yauch is a founding member of the Beastie Boys. Recently he created a new division of his company Oscilloscope Laboratories called Oscilloscope Pictures (oscilloscopepictures.com) for the sole purpose of distributing films. He even hired two guy…
Alison Maclean’s Top 10
Canadian-born director Alison Maclean’s films include Jesus’ Son (1999) and the newly released The Rehearsal, an official selection of Toronto International Film Festival and New York Film Festival.