The Firemen’s Ball, Milos Forman, 1968
In this absurdist, satiric comedy, a group of firemen plan a gala affair for their retired chief (actually, he retired the year before, but now that he has cancer they feel they’d better hurry up and get it over with before he kicks the bucket). Throughout the film the event grows increasingly disorganized and chaotic, from reluctant beauty contest participants fleeing the stage, to disappearing door prizes (right down to the glazed ham), to an actual fire breaking out nearby, which none of the fire department seems to respond to, as they’re all too busy worrying about the ball. Meanwhile, they’ve neglected their venerable chief, who’s been patiently waiting by himself at his table of honor. There’s an air of sadness pervading beneath the hilarity—for the dying old man who just wants to collect his award with dignity, for the man whose home is engulfed in flames (when the party attendees offer him their raffle tickets, in what they perceive as an act of great generosity, all he can muster is a dumbfounded stare), and for the people—and, presumably, society in general is implied here too—that have forgotten what’s really important in life.
This surrealistic gangster film, shot in striking, high-contrasted black and white, features Hanada, Japan’s Number Three killer, who has a fetish for the smell of boiled rice. He's hired by the death-obsessed, proto-goth Misako—in our first encounter with her, she's driving a convertible in the rain with the top down, a dead bird hanging from her rearview mirror instead of an air freshener—but he botches the hit when a butterfly lands on his gun just as he’s pulling the trigger. Now that he’s killed a civilian, he becomes a target, hunted by the “Phantom Number One,” which culminates in an unforgettable scene in a deserted boxing ring. The basic plot points echo that of a typical thriller, but the bizarre details and disjointed structure transform it into something much weirder, yet beautiful, heavily laden with symbolic imagery and motifs. For instance, Misako’s bed is covered with dead moths and butterflies, with more pinned to the apartment walls; in another scene, Hanada is assaulted by cartoon rain, moths, and birds; and lest we forget that aforementioned butterfly with such impeccable timing. This is the kind of film that takes several viewings to piece together exactly what's happening, though that’s not necessarily a fault.
12 Angry Men, Sidney Lumet, 1957
Legendary director Sidney Lumet’s debut film effectively depicts the incompetence of our legal system, how one’s fate is placed in the hands of twelve people who don’t really want to be there in the first place. These jurors aren’t willing to actually think about the case—a boy’s life is at stake and they just keep looking at their watches. When they take an initial vote, some of them are glancing around to see what the others are going to do, shakily raising their hands according to the majority’s opinion: guilty.
Gradually, one person at a time, Juror #8 (Henry Fonda) convinces the others of the boy’s innocence (or the possibility of it, at least), dissecting and unraveling the so-called hard evidence of his guilt. While I think Juror #8 does a good job of discrediting the witnesses, some of his arguments are kind of improbable. The defendant owned a knife that was identical to the one that killed his father; he claims it fell out of his pocket earlier in the day. Yes, “it’s possible,” as Juror #8 keeps insisting, that by some bizarre coincidence he’s telling the truth, but it seems extremely unlikely.
Regardless, it’s a pretty incredible feat to maintain such an engaging, gripping momentum for 90 minutes when, essentially, the only action taking place is a dozen men talking and arguing around a table. The confined feeling is particularly effective—as time goes on, the camera closes in on the actors, accentuating the discomfort, the intense heat and sweat, seldom allowing the viewer a breath of air.
The Long Goodbye, Robert Altman, 1973
In this brilliant reimagining of Raymond Chandler’s classic detective, Philip Marlowe, instead of tough, hardboiled, and humorless, our leading man is a smartass, wise-cracking underdog, a kind of radical private eye for the 70s. Elliot Gould’s Marlowe sleeps fully clothed in cheap J.C. Penney attire, a cigarette perpetually dangling from his lips, mumbling humorous witticisms like “He’s got a girl, I got a cat” and his catchphrase, “It’s okay with me.” One could say he’s sort of an amalgamation of Gould and Marlowe; a 1973 New York Times review conjectures that at the ending, when Marlowe is walking away, his back to the audience, that’s the character’s exit. When he starts dancing, it’s entirely Gould.
In addition to Marlowe, the film is brimming with endearing and memorable secondary characters: the security guard who does impressions of classic Hollywood actors, the bumbling hood following Marlowe around (our man gives him directions to the place he’s headed to in case he gets lost in traffic), Marlowe’s hippie neighbors who practice yoga topless from their deck, and, perhaps the real star of the show, Marlowe’s cat, who, in the opening scene, wakes him up at 3:00 in the morning demanding to be fed. (The cat is quite particular about what he eats, sending Marlowe to the 24-hour grocery store in search of Courry brand cat food.)