By Katherine Bielawa Stamper
It’s cold outside. Let’s talk movies—good movies, that is.
I’ve always been a movie person, drawn to old films as a child. Comedies and dramas from the 1930s and 1940s featuring stars like Frederic March, Margaret O’Brien and Jimmy Stewart captured my imagination. I loved the stories, costumes, hairstyles and dialogue from a previous time. Katharine Hepburn taught me about feminism while Alfred Hitchcock offered tutorials on the fine art of suspense.
Although I may catch a modern-day Hollywood movie, I favor works representing a different catalogue of creativity. Foreign films appeal for cultural nuance and more “active” viewing—to read subtitles. “La Vie en Rose” (2007), about Edith Piaf, is painfully beautiful. Independent films push the artistic envelope, free from the strictures of a Hollywood poised to sacrifice art for profit. Robert Altman’s “Short Cuts” (1993) and Errol Morris’ documentary “The Thin Blue Line” (1988) are fine specimens.
I’m not a film expert, but I’ve developed a mental scorecard on how I measure the quality of a film.
Plot: Does the film tell a good story? Are there interesting twists or is it blandly formulaic like uninspired commercial popcorn with fake butter?
Writing: Is the screenplay well-written, like a carefully-edited poem? Does it read tightly and crisply? Does the dialogue feel scripted or real?
Cinematography: Is the film a stimulating visual experience? How does the director use camera angle and proximity? What about lighting and shadow? Are frame rates appropriately staccato or fluid, thus enhancing viewing pleasure?
Ensemble: What is the chemistry among actors on screen? Do you feel a connection? Are they simply stick people, like stale pretzels moving past one another? Do they conjure dynamism, an energy evoking an emotional response from you?
Music: Should background music matter? Absolutely. If done well, it integrates seamlessly, engaging more senses while enhancing the tapestry unfolding before your eyes. Silence is also an effective tool.
Special Effects: I’m not much of an action film fan. Cars flying through the air do little for me. That said, the creative imagery in the movie “The Life of Pi” (2012) dazzled my eyes. Stillness can also enhance a film. Belgian filmmaker Chantal Akerman did this in her feature about the U.S.-Mexico border entitled “From the Other Side” (2002).
Editing: Has the fluff—superfluous dialogue and footage—been excised? Is it visually and orally tight? Does it feel just long enough? Might it be better with thirty minutes shaved off?
I enjoy the communal experience of going to the cinema. Local libraries and video rental shops provide a wide and interesting catalogue for home viewing.
Here are a few of my favorite older flicks. Each was nominated for or won an Academy Award for Best Picture—a healthy litmus test.
“Gentleman’s Agreement” (1947): This film, directed by Elia Kazan, features Gregory Peck as a reporter who goes undercover to investigate anti-Semitism in corporate America.
“Citizen Kane” (1941): Orson Welles starred in, directed and co-wrote the screenplay for what might be the best American film ever made. It’s about a newspaper tycoon who dies lonely and friendless in his opulent mansion. Newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst, on whom the film was supposedly modeled, tried to suppress the movie and have it destroyed. This tale of greed features masterful cinematography.
“The Best Years of Our Lives” (1946): William Wyler directed this film about challenges faced by three World War II veterans returning home. Harold John Russell, a veteran, won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. He is one of only two non-professional actors to have received the coveted prize in the history of the Academy of Motion Pictures and Arts.
“Sunset Boulevard” (1950): Gloria Swanson portrays a faded silent-screen star, forgotten when unable to navigate the transition to “talkies.” She picks up a gigolo and it doesn’t end well. It’s classic film noir—a crime drama with a flash of Hollywood flair—directed by Billy Wilder.
“All About Eve” (1950): Joseph Mankiewicz directed this flick about the lure and lust for fame. The sweet-then-nasty chemistry between Bette Davis and Anne Baxter leaves the bitter taste of distrust in viewers’ mouths.
“Mildred Pierce” (1945): Joan Crawford artfully demonstrates why it’s never OK to spoil our children. Michael Curtiz directed this classic of film noir. This seemed an ironic prelude to Crawford’s real-life role as “Mommie Dearest.”
“Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” (1967): The make-up, music and costumes are definitely dated, but the message is timeless: love is blind. The powerful ensemble comprised of Katharine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy, Sidney Poitier and Katharine Houghton tell the story of interracial marriage in the midst of the Civil Rights era. Director Stanley Kramer and actress Houghton received death threats for their participation in this film which was released three months before the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Grab a flick and pop some popcorn served with real butter and minimal salt. Better yet, invite friends to watch a movie with you and TALK about it afterwards.
Stay warm. Stay inspired. Happy New Year!