Knife in the Water, Roman Polanski, 1962
For me, the most memorable aspect of this film is how visually stunning it is (though the visuals certainly don’t overshadow the plot, a complex, understated exploration of jealousy and exhibitionism). The crisp, black and white images are exceptionally striking, every shot framed in an interesting way, so that it seems as if any given still could serve as a museum-worthy photograph.
Scent of a Woman, Martin Brest, 1992
A typical prep school coming of age movie, wherein a young, naïve student and an old man are paired together and end up teaching one another about life. Pacino is an amazing actor (see The Godfather, Dog Day Afternoon, Serpico) but even he can’t save this cliché-ridden, saccharine, Hollywood version of a “profound” movie. It conveys a message I can get behind, but the problem is that the message is delivered in the form of a not-so-subtle speech, after which an auditorium full of people stands up and applauds. (Please.) I guess it seems kind of mean to make fun of a movie about a blind man, but come on—it’s just a movie, and a mediocre one at that.
Monty Python's And Now For Something Completely Different, Ian MacNaughton, 1971
While this is billed as their first feature, it’s not so much a cohesive film as a collection of sketches that are rather seamlessly segued into one another (except for when John Cleese announces, “And now for something completely different!”). While not as strong as later films like The Holy Grail and Life of Brian, there’s nothing all that problematic about this one, because whether or not there’s a single, unifying plot, it’s still funnier than most comedic movies could ever hope to be. (Hell’s Grannies, anyone?)
Manderlay, Lars von Trier, 2005
A lot of people seem to take offense to the fact that a European director is criticizing their country when he’s never even been here—that, however, doesn’t stop American filmmakers from making films about countries they’ve never visited. Moreover, I don’t see why one has to spend a holiday here in order to comprehend the impact we’ve effected on the world, nor to understand and express the facts of our history as recorded.
That said, Manderlay, while perhaps more accessible, is not quite as strong as 2003's Dogville. The minimalist set, consisting of a sound stage marked off with chalk and the occasional one or two-walled façade, which seemed so fresh and innovative before, doesn’t quite produce the same effect when used a second time. The film would likely have been more compelling if it hadn’t continued with the same characters from Dogville, acting not necessarily as a direct sequel, but the second film in a thematically linked trilogy. Nevertheless, Manderlay’s premise of introducing democracy to a community is a timely, topical one (it’s pretty clear in its paralleling of the situation in