The Best of Youth (La meglio gioventu)

The Best of Youth

What do you read? What words fill your head?

I had kinda hoped my random number picker would’ve chosen this one sooner, just to get it out of the way due to its length, as it clocks in at just over 6 hours straight through. Still, even with the length, The Best of Youth turns out to be an interesting film in many ways. It is not a unique one, I will say that; there are several films on the list alone that follow a select character or characters over a large timespan that seems to reflect their country’s history as it also progresses with them. To be honest, though, most of these aren’t worth watching; they’re either needlessly long or don’t have enough actual watchability to warrant sitting through them, oftentimes both. Boy was I happy to find that The Best of Youth is neither of these things. Sure, it’s long, but it’s long merely because it chooses to not bifurcate its story by truncating it in any way; this is a story on a scope that demands an extensive running time, and for once, it actually felt worth it.

The film in particular focuses on two brothers, Nicola and Matteo, in the Carati family, and like almost all of the other list films of its like that have come before it, the plot is basically the entire lives of these two individuals, from their youth in the 1960s, through their struggles with their professions and parenting, to the denouement of their lives; not their death, but merely the point at which the story ends. Like I said, nothing unique, but the way that The Best of Youth unfolds makes the premise feel entirely fresh. Many reviews and discussions about the film have described the story of The Best of Youth as also being about the story of Italy during the same time period as the lives of the two brothers. Me, though, I didn’t see that; sure, events in Italian history have an effect on the story, but only sometimes, and only when it directly affects the actual story being told here: that of the two brothers and the lives they live. The story is really about that; how a life can evolve and change based on what happens in it, and the ramifications all the way down the road that these tiny moments can lead to. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the film is so well made to boot; a constant thought as I was watching this was that it was consistently excellently made the whole way through, and that it just so happened that “the whole way through” ends up being six hours – never once did the film feel stretched or bloated. That’s how solid the storytelling was, as well as the technicals.

There’s so much to take away from The Best of Youth, no matter what your inclination, that I’m actually finding it hard to not recommend it. Really, the only reason I’d do so is because of the extreme length; other than that, there’s pretty much no reason not to go watch this one. It’s currently streaming on Netflix Instant, so as long as you have a Netflix account, it’s basically free to watch, and… you know what, to hell with it; you should take the time to see this. It really is that good. There’s a couple of versions floating around, and I apparently saw the shorter one, and honestly, the only reason I didn’t watch it all in one day was because I started it too late yesterday for it to be mathematically possible for me to do so. There’s a lot more I could be saying about this film, but a lot of it I’m not fully certain I’d be able to really put down into words; there’s an ethereal beauty to what The Best of Youth does, and I’ll happily join the chorus of people that’s arisen in recommending that more people experience it for themselves.

Arbitrary Rating: 8/10

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Bowling for Columbine

Bowling for Columbine

I couldn’t wait to go out and shoot up the neighborhood. Those were the days!

Right off the bat, I didn’t understand the need to add another Michael Moore documentary to the list. The other two that have made it, I’ve basically had almost identical reviews for, so to add another one seemed like a redundant prospect for me. Sure, Bowling for Columbine was technically the film that got Moore breakthrough status as a documentarian in Hollywood, right before he exploded further with Fahrenheit 9/11, and sure, Moore ended up winning the Academy Award for Best Documentary for this one. But Moore still comes off as a one-trick pony, even despite (and partially because of) the effectiveness of his methods. Still, like I have in the past, I will give Moore one thing if any: his films are easily entertaining.

If it weren’t apparent by the title, here Moore takes on the mental state of America and Americans that, he argues, led to the Columbine High School massacre; the position of gun control by both the NRA and their opponents, the relentless dispersement of violence in the news media, and the general attitude of Americans towards these issues compared to the attitudes of people from other countries. The typical Moore touches are here; the stunts used to ostensibly prove a point (including one that actually gets a response bigger than what Moore had expected, in a good way), the presentation of one side of the argument as the only correct side, etc. I did enjoy the segmented fashion of Moore’s presentation; it kept everything flowing forward and made the film very watchable, as opposed to focusing so much on the issue that all we get is two hours of the same thing. I will say, though, there was also a segment in the latter half of the film that had Moore revisiting much of the same material he used in Roger & Me; that of the poor and affected blue-collar population of Moore’s hometown of Flint, MI and surrounding communities. Even though Moore tried to tie it into his general thesis on gun and violence problems in America, it seemed a little too far of a tangent, especially one that Moore had already covered.

I had to admit; it was a segment in the middle of the film where Moore compares living in Canada to living in the United States that had me buying into Moore’s argument almost unequivocally, which given that it’s Moore, I always try and take his filmed arguments with a heaping pile of salt. So yes, to say that Moore is not effective at what he does is to be, frankly, incorrect. But you’ve known this for some time now, either through my reviews or otherwise; I went into this expecting another entertaining albeit skewed documentary from Moore, and that’s exactly what I got. The topics may be different (if just slightly), but he does pump out the same sort of film every couple of years or so. Granted, I won’t begrudge him for doing so, since what he does works so well for him. But it doesn’t warrant three spots on the list, even if you consider the technicality of removing one of his previous films to add this one.

Arbitrary Rating: 7/10

The Lives of Others (Das leben der anderen)

The Lives of Others

Are you still on the right side?

It’s a topic so rarely touched upon in cinema that, until now, I’d only ever heard of one other film that covered it; what it was like to live in the oppressive regime of Cold-War-era East Germany. So far, the list has given me Good Bye Lenin, which I thoroughly enjoyed, and now, we have The Lives of Others, the dramatic flip side to the comedy half of Good Bye Lenin’s narrative coin. This is apparently the debut feature film for director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, who has probably the most German-sounding name in cinematic history. The silliness of the name aside, Donnersmarck must have had a hell of a list of credentials, as this is definitely one of the finest cinematic accomplishments I’ve seen from a first-time director.

Wiesler is an officer in the Stasi, the East German Secret Service, tasked with the subjugation and surveillance of the people under their watch. Wiesler in particular is very good at his job, knowing how to stress out subjects in interrogations and when and how to glean information from the nonverbal cues they give. As such, he is the first person on his higher-up’s list to be assigned to a fresh case; the surveillance of playwright Georg Dreyman. It soon is made apparent to him, however, that Dreyman is only under surveillance because one of Weisler’s superiors has eyes for Dreyman’s actress girlfriend, and it is this disgust with the purpose of his own job, coupled with an unfamiliar sense of camaraderie with the playwright, that causes him to question his purpose within the organization, all while he also begins to blur the line between third-party observer and willing participant in the events and people he is surveilling. First off, hats off to Donnersmarck and the production team for this one; this was by and large one of the most exquisitely crafted films I’ve seen in a good long while. The production values were excellent, and channeled through the camera lens to create quite the visual aesthetic; looking back on it, I could easily remark that The Lives of Others is cinematic poetry on screen. The acting was superb, the script even better, and even though the film was over two hours long, not a frame felt out of place or unnecessarily added. The plot was a subdued one, but it had every right to be, and even though many have brought up qualms about making the Stasi surveillance man out to be a sympathetic hero, I found no such qualms myself, and was gladly able to empathize with Wiesler and even smile approvingly at his character’s transformation.

This ended up winning the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, over even Pan’s Labyrinth, which some would decry. Me, I can totally see how this won, and after watching it, I’m completely fine with it winning; this is really that good a film. It’s not the type of really good cinema to smack you upside the head with how unbelievably amazing it is; this is a slow burn, able to worm its way under your skin in such a way that you are more than happy to let it do so. Donnersmarck would go on to direct the laughably-misadvertised Johnny Depp/Angelina Jolie film The Tourist, which is a shame, since his debut feature here is by far one of the most promising first films I think I’ve ever seen. This is definitely one to watch at some point; make the time to do so.

Arbitrary Rating: 9/10

Osama

Osama

You’re my last hope, other than God.

When I was watching Osama, I couldn’t help but have some of the same thoughts I had when I was watching Children of Paradise; I suspected it had made the list mostly because of the circumstances in which it was made, and not because it was a particularly amazing film. Sure, it only got added in the 10th edition, so it’s kinda late to the party, but the reasons behind its making (and its addition to the tome) are only more important and resounding now than they were when it was made a decade ago. This is a film, made in Afghanistan, about the Taliban’s regime, and specifically how women are forced to live under it. To say that the film’s making must have been heated is to put it lightly; I wouldn’t be surprised if the filmmakers’ lives were in jeopardy just for trying to make this film.

Osama deals with a young girl, a pre-teen, who lives with her mother and grandmother. The men in their family were all shipped off to war where they were killed, and under the Taliban’s regime, women cannot go about unaccompanied by a man, and they cannot work unless a man is present, which makes the young girl’s family basically crippled in their ability to fend for themselves. Desperate, they decide to cut the young girl’s hair and pass her off as a boy, so that she may work and provide for the family, but of course, this is easier said than done. What I noticed pretty soon after starting Osama was that the film had a story to tell, but seemed unaware of exactly how to tell it. Plot points were skimmed over and barely touched upon, and yet the film continued forward despite its lack of actual narrative building. It seemed that the film was more concerned with the oppressive government that the film takes a microscope to, and portraying the lives of these women under this government, that it has either forgotten or never knew to begin with how to actually tell a story from beginning to end. That, plus the film’s relentless ending, made for a film that just felt structured all wrong, despite how effective it is at what it does want to do.

This one was short, less than an hour and a half, and it really felt truncated as a result. That, added with the film’s inability to hold a proper narrative, meant the film didn’t really succeed as a vehicle for the story. It reminded me a bit of Kandahar, another film that dealt with the reality of female living in the Middle East, and really the two are two sides of the same coin. But, I will give Osama this; it at least does have a narrative, even if it is a disjointed one. There is a pre-story, the main story itself, and then what happens after; it’s just how it gets from each of these to the next that I ran into some trouble with. Seeing as how Kandahar did not make the 10th edition, whereas this one was added instead, was a fact that was not lost on me, and frankly, between the two, I’d pick this one. But only by a little.

Arbitrary Rating: 7/10

Once

Once

And I love her so… I wouldn’t trade her for gold.

Here we go; the last musical I have left on the list, according to the genre index in the back of the Book. Once is an interesting little quirk of a film, one unlike almost any other purported musical I think I’ve seen (with the half-exception of Dancer in the Dark). Besides being very much a modern film, as opposed to most musicals that seem to be made in and for an era gone by, Once is probably the closest a musical film has come to being neorealistic. Even the numbers in Lars von Trier’s musical were of a heightened reality; here, they all take place firmly in the real world, where the film is set and shot in.

The film is set in Dublin, and deals with two main characters, who go without names through the whole film. The guy is a vacuum repairman by day, and street busker by night, singing original stuff he’s written since, by his words, nobody wants to hear anything but familiar songs in the daytime. The girl is a Czech immigrant who walks the street selling flowers, who meets the guy when she listens to some of his street singing and ends up enjoying it. She is a musician as well, and the two strike up a harmonious relationship through their shared love of music, which ends up benefiting them both by the end. Now, even though this is classified as a musical, that’s not really what the film feels like. While most musicals have the characters break out spontaneously into song and dance numbers that almost intentionally break the immersion factor in a film, here the two main characters are songwriters, and thus the songs fit into the narrative as they write, play, and record songs together. The resulting film is sort of a mash-up between a concert film like Gimme Shelter and a hyper-realist docu-drama, and I was surprised at how much it worked, mostly because of the huge heart the film had in regards to its two main characters. In that regard, the film is very much a musical at heart; nothing really bad happens to anyone, and everyone ends up better off at the end. Oddly enough, the film is still worth watching, even despite this potential hitch. The accents take a little getting used to, but just like the film does, it grows on you as it goes on. Oh, and as for the songs themselves, they were actually very well done, even being written by the film’s two main stars, who even won an Academy Award for one of them.

Even though I found a lot to enjoy about this one, and would recommend it to a pretty wide audience, I was left somewhat wondering what the point of the film was. I went into it thinking it would be a much more reality-based love story, but after I thought about it a little, I realized how off-base this assumption ultimately was. I wouldn’t even say that this is a love story, or a romance film. It’s a film about the small encounters with the supposedly inconsequential people in our lives that ultimately prove to be the most beneficial and impactful on who we are. This is such a warm film that I’d feel a little uncomfortable around people that have watched it and didn’t have some form of smile on their face after it was over. If that sounds like the kind of film you need at some point, put this on your docket.

Arbitrary Rating: 8/10

City of God (Cidade de deus)

City of God

If you run away, they get you… and if you stay, they get you too.

I’ll admit I have a propensity to laud praise on a film that is technically brilliant, even if it falls somewhat short in the story department. So, when a film like City of God comes along, that is not only technically one of the best films I’ve seen in a long, long while, but also tells a hell of a story, I’m left in the unique position of just how much praise should I give it. This is another foreign film that I’d heard of long before I found the list; it was that critically acclaimed, and easily entered cinema’s storied lexicon. Once again, just like the other amazing foreign films I’d known of before the list, now that I’ve seen it, I completely get why it became so popular.

The film tells the story of a bunch of self-professed hoodlums living in a small city-suburb of Rio de Janeiro called Cidade de Deus, or City of God; their beginnings as children, how they came to power, and the struggles of how they try and consolidate and hold onto their power. Interestingly enough, the story is told not through one of the hoodlums, but by Rocket, a wannabe photographer who is largely exempt from the criminal lifestyle the rest of the menagerie of characters happily take part in, but still finds himself involved in the proceedings simply by virtue of living in the City of God. So, what exactly does this film get right? Would you hold it against me if I merely said the word “everything” and left it at that? Because there wasn’t a thing wrong with this film. At all. The story was engaging the whole way through, the script was excellent, the acting from the non-professional actors was superbly believable. And the technicals; my god, the technicals. It has been so long since I’ve seen a film that really knew how to grasp and hold interest through the use of its editing that I only now realized how much I’d become jaded by the other films that I’ve seen that aren’t half as good with their editing style as City of God is. This film doesn’t just cut to the beginning of each shot, wait until the action and dialogue have finished, and then cut to the next shot; every shot in this is interwoven with the shots before it, after it, and the rest of the scene, almost as if the editor were composing a symphony rather than merely piecing together reels of frames just so the story can be told. It’s pretty rare for a foreign film to get Oscar nominations outside the Foreign Language category, but when it happens, you had damn well pay attention to that film; City of God got nominations for not only its editing, but its cinematography (which was fantastic, knowing how to use a handheld camera instead of just using a handheld camera), its screenplay, and for its director, Fernando Meirelles. Take note again of the categories; these aren’t the bare technical categories like Art Direction or Costume Design, these are major categories, and City of God earned every one of them. It’s frankly a wonder this didn’t get nominated for Best Foreign Language Film, but a fun factoid: it was only eligible for that award in the year before, and had it gotten that nomination, it wouldn’t have gotten the four nominations it did get the year after, so it was really a blessing in disguise.

Seriously, the only thing I could hold against the film was that the story didn’t really break any new ground; there are stories of this kind fairly frequently on the list, and certainly all over the realm of cinema. But, if I can be frank, none of them do it nearly as well as City of God. For every film that tells this story, before and after 2002, they either were building up to this masterful achievement, or they are merely trying to swim in its wake. City of God is the pinnacle of this kind of story. The top. Bar none. See this film. You pretty much owe it to yourself to do so at least once in your lifetime; if not for the story, than to see how to make such a well done and well put together film that people everywhere will be calling it perfection. I don’t know if it is perfect, but as of right now I seriously cannot think of any reason why it wouldn’t be.

Arbitrary Rating: 10/10

A One and a Two (Yi yi)

A One and a Two

Who needs movies? Just stay home and live life!

Now this is an Edward Yang film worth watching, even despite its running time. Yang’s other list film, A Brighter Summer Day, I remember almost nothing of, probably because it was so unremarkable, and the four-hour running time made you feel every second of it, so my brain probably shut itself down during most of it as a self-defense mechanism. I’m sure part of it was the fact that it was technically a period piece, taking place in the first half of the century. Yi Yi, subtitled A One and a Two, is squarely set in the modern age, and that was only one of the things that Yang ended up doing right in this film that made me not only able to get through it, but to come out the other end spellbound at the experience I’d just had.

The film follows the life of the Jian family, specifically through three of its members in three narrative threads. The first is the father, NJ, who struggles with his job and how he feels he isn’t suited for it, all while an old crush from school suddenly reappears in his life. The second is the teenage daughter, Ting-Ting, who finds herself in-between one of her friends and their boyfriend while they quarrel, passing messages between them, until finally a love triangle blossoms. The third is the young boy, Yang-Yang, who has his own problems at school, and finds a way to channel his own interests into a new hobby. Each of the three main storylines is a different beast, as they should be; the father’s story seemed mired in business experience, and thus was, for me, the most obfuscated, while the stories following the daughter and young son were much more accessible. I personally enjoyed Yang-Yang’s odyssey with his camera the most, trying to, in his words, capture the half of life that people don’t see. It was poignant, and even more so that it was this young kid, only eight years old, who was doing it. The others were well enough in their own right, but where Yi Yi really succeeds isn’t in the individual parts or assets, as well done as virtually all of them are. Yi Yi is a fantastic example of a film that, everything blended together, ends up somehow more than the sum of its parts. I’ve seen other reviewers basically speechless as to how to describe the allure of this film, and others who are nearly so, able only to articulate that this film is basically life itself. That’s about where I ended up, and even despite the nearly three-hour running time, I found myself loving this more and more as it went on.

Now, one might very easily run into the argument that there really isn’t much to this one; that after watching it, you basically don’t have anything to show for it on the other end. Honestly, they’d be right; there isn’t much of a payoff to this film. What this is is a portrait of a family in a particular place and time, just like any other portrait you would hang on your wall, only this one is made with moving images rather than just one still frame. It’s films like Yi Yi that really emphasize the medium of motion pictures, and what they can be used for. I can’t attest to Yang’s other film making the list, but this is one I will happily champion.

Arbitrary Rating: 9/10