Nobody cares about new movies right now. They’re going straight to streaming, and no one cares. Name one new release aside from Pixar’s “Onward.” Name one new movie anybody’s actually seen.
With the death of cinema and the movie theater experience on the horizon, it’s time to revisit some modern classics to remind us of when people actually enjoyed going to see movies. And in this time of massive upheaval, let’s turn back the clock to the year 2000. Y2K and the prospect of a New Millenium led to a very mixed feeling entering the new century/decade, but that didn’t stop it from being one of the best years for cinema.
Before “The Dark Knight” Trilogy, “The Prestige,” “Inception,” and “Interstellar,” Christopher Nolan burst onto the scene with his sophomore effort “Memento,” which despite its far more limited budget and smaller scale is still his best and most innovative film.
Based on a short story by Jonathan Nolan—the director’s brother and frequent creative partner—the mind-bending thriller follows Leonard Shelby, a man plagued by a rare condition: anterograde amnesia. Leonard knows who he is, what he was doing before his accident, and what he’s after—the home invader who raped and murdered his wife and gave him the head injury which caused his condition. But Leonard can’t form new memories. He has resorted to obsessively documenting his steps, tattooing important information to his body, and photographing every important person he meets to ensure they are who they say they are. As Leonard attempts to track down his wife’s attacker and get vengeance, it becomes increasingly clear things are not what they appear—and Leonard’s sense of himself, even prior to his accident, is not so concrete.
Nolan’s film is profoundly brilliant. It is most famous for its structure, being told in two sets of sequences: a series of black-and-white scenes which play sequentially, and the “main story” color sequences which play in reverse order, with each black-and-white scene serving as a bookend. Both sets of sequences build towards a separate series of paradigm-shifting reveals, and this structure is more than just a gimmick: it allows an audience to really be in Leonard’s shoes, to experience the world and the unraveling mystery as he does—in 10-15 minutes increments without context for what has transpired before. It’s a mystery told in reverse, being reconstructed from end to beginning (or is it the middle?—that’s for you to parse out yourselves) like a detective might have to.
Guy Pearce absolutely disappears into Leonard Shelby. Pearce is always terrific, but he embodies this character as both erratic and fidgety yet somehow highly organized and efficient. It’s a highly unique performance, befitting a highly unique character. Leonard is a likable protagonist, a real underdog. He’s pitiable and tragic and the viewer wants to see him succeed in his mission. But there’s something a bit mysterious about Leonard; hints that’s there’s something just off about him. He’s hiding something—maybe even from himself. Why are his clothes ill-fitting? Why does he have that badly bleached and amateurish haircut? These aren’t just fashion choices he made. He can’t even notice changes in fashion trends. So why the bizarre and disheveled appearance? Even easy-to-miss details in the way this character presents himself can clue the audience into something deeper and darker beneath the surface.
Carrie-Anne Moss and Joe Pantaliano—both fresh off “The Matrix”—are great in their supporting roles as well. Some Nolan regulars such as Mark Boone Junior and Larry Holden have small appearances. Stephen Tobolowsky, an immensely prolific and talented character actor, has a role that’s imperative to understanding the movie, as Sammy Jankis. Watch out for him and for that name. Don’t worry, it comes up quite a bit. But pay close attention when it does.
“Memento” is a marvel in every way. On a technical level—the amount of continuity that had to be maintained via costuming, makeup and hair, time of day when shooting, editing, etc. to make this concept work and be digestible to a mainstream audience is astounding—and on a storytelling level. Not to mention on a more existentialist level beyond the film: are our memories trustworthy? Are they a fabrication? Can we convince ourselves to rewrite our own history? All of these are questions raised by the narrative, and they are as unsettling and disorienting as the movie itself. This movie also provides endless fodder for theories as to the story beyond what an audience gets to see, and is immaculately detailed—it is plot hole proof. Every single moment or detail has an in-universe logical explanation for viewers who are highly attentive. And this film demands re-viewings to pick up every breadcrumb Nolan has left for his audience.
No facet of this film is weak. And this is only Nolan’s second feature. It’s incredible and one can only hope he returns to a more grounded thriller approach like this in the future. “Memento” is the perfect blend of a high concept film—now Nolan’s trademark—combined with a gritty and remarkably naturalistic presentation and affect.
Requiem for a Dream
Gonna sound like a broken record here. This is another entry from a director who’s had a killer track record since—“Black Swan,” “The Fountain,” “The Wrestler,” and “mother!”—and it’s another sophomore feature that happens to be the director’s best movie. Darren Aronofsky’s adaptation of Hubert Selby Jr.’s mostly—and unfortunately—forgotten novel, “Requiem for a Dream” is a great example of a film that’s hard to love and even harder to sit through.
The film’s editing and use of music is highly innovative. Dubbed the “hip hop montage” technique, each montage in the film is set to a rhythmic beat with each montage going faster and faster as a viewer’s eyes get adjusted to the effect. Each cut—mostly comprised of extreme close-ups—is accompanied by an extreme and amplified sound effect, which themselves become a sort of music. The bass sound accompanying the dilating of pupils of our drug addict characters, the metallic and shrill swipe of a razor cutting up lines, the snorting of those lines, the bubbling of heroin on a hot spoon… each of these are played in a specific order to create a strange beat out of the everyday sounds, while juxtaposing them with images of hardcore drug abuse.
Not to mention, the increasing speed of these montages of drug preparation and use puts us in the shoes of the characters; what does shooting heroin feel like? The montages start as jarring and almost seductive with its style, before becoming mundane and comfortable, and finally they come and go in the blink of an eye—like the diminishing effects of heroin and other drugs over time, and the slow descent from rebellious youth and a sexy, rockstar lifestyle into decay and self-abuse.
But the style of “Requiem” is not its only strong suit. Ellen Burstyn’s performance of our lead Harry’s mother is pathetic, haunting, horrifying, and tragic, and should’ve won her the Oscar. Hers is perhaps the most infamous arc of the film, and her scenes take the film from a drug drama into the realm of surrealist psychological horror.
Speaking of character arcs, it’s probably best to clarify the plot of this film. “Requiem” examines the lives of four interconnected people in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn. Harry, his girlfriend Marion, and his best friend Tyrone—all three being heroin junkies with big dreams of success—and Harry’s mother Sara, a lonely widower who has a bad diet and sedentary life in her quaint apartment, who also has a dream: to appear on a daytime talk show she regularly indulges in. That dream appears to be coming true when a random cold-caller, claiming to be from the show, says Sara has been selected from a lottery to be on the show. Sara wants to fit into the red dress she wore to Harry’s high school graduation, but can’t fit. Her doctor begins prescribing diet pills—i.e. speed—warning her not to increase her dosage. She doesn’t heed that warning.
All of these characters are dragged down by their addictions and eventually their mindless and impossible pursuit of their goals crumble around them as their minds and bodies spiral into a violent free fall.
“Requiem for a Dream” has one of the most uncomfortable aesthetics in all of cinema. Every facet—music, sound design, cinematography, the performances—are designed to induce a sense of nausea and create an oppressive and nightmarish atmosphere. Whereas most films focus on creating a seamlessness to their techniques—such as the maxim “Good editing should be unnoticeable”—in order to ensure maximum engagement by the viewer, wherein they forget they are watching a film at all, Aronaofsky rejects this. Like Martin Scorsese and Spike Lee before him, Aronofsky wants his audience to know they are watching a film. Only instead of basking in the beauty of the cinematic form like Scorsese, or creating a passionate fury and chaotic energy of rebelliousness like Lee, Aronofsky’s modernist approach to film is concerned with assaulting the senses. To overwhelm and brutalize the audience until, by the end, a viewer is emotionally gutted and left in despair.
“Requiem for a Dream” is a masterpiece in every sense of the word. Immaculately constructed, it uses techniques unique to film to place a viewer in the shoes of its damaged characters and gets them to feel like the characters—when they’re nauseous or paranoid, the camerawork recreates that effect for the audience. As in the scene where Marlon Wayans—in one of his best and most surprising performances as Tyrone, and another example of a guy known for low-brow comedies absolutely nailing a dramatic role—screams desperately for help while Harry—played by Jared Leto—shrieks about his infected arm, and both are going through heroin withdrawals. The camera shakes viciously, the men are sweaty and spittle dribbles from their mouths as they talk, the camera is uncomfortably close to their faces, there’s a sharp feedback sound that blares out along with the screams…it’s viscerally upsetting and brutalizing to a viewer.
Aronofsky’s film is profoundly successful precisely because it isn’t a PSA. Aronofsky has stated he had no interest in directing a hyper-stylized DARE special. He used the story of drug abuse to analyze the self-destructive tendencies which lurk within us all, and the impossibility of many of us to achieve our dreams. In the eyes of Aronofsky—at least when he made this film—the American Dream is a toxic lie, and the pursuit of it is a path to a profoundly isolated existence, unimaginable pain and ultimate failure.
Also, viewers may recognize the iconic and haunting ending song “Lux Aeterna,” composed by the underrated Clint Mansell, which was much more popular than the film itself and made its way into a number of blockbuster trailers, notably for “Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.”
And Sean Gullette, the lead actor from Aronofsky’s debut “Pi” has a small but memorable part here as a smug and genuinely disgusting shrink for Jennifer Connelly’s character. Gullette shows a lot of range, going from the pitiable and paranoid hero in “Pi” to a smarmy and revolting character here.
The Mary Harron-helmed adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’s controversial and highly disturbing black comedy/satire novel “American Psycho” is a famous example of a film having more cultural impact and longevity than the original work.
Set in the late 1980s, the film follows Patrick Bateman, a young man working on Wall Street—though we never see him actually working—obsessed with a handful of things: maintaining physical perfection and a stunning appearance, getting a great table at the hippest high-end restaurants and clubs, his material possessions, his collection of pop music, and regularly butchering those who annoy him in a variety of gruesome and depraved ways—even though he’s actually quite an inept serial killer. The things he doesn’t care much for? His stupid and oafish girlfriend, his loyal secretary who clearly crushes on him, homeless beggars and their dogs, his co-workers…pretty much anything with a pulse. The film serves as a sharp skewering of 1980s New York yuppie culture and the excess and extravagance of Wall Street, and the type of personalities this environment attracted: could a true psychopath really just blend in within this vapid and superficial culture? “American Psycho” says yes.
Christian Bale delivers perhaps the best performance of his career as the titular psychopath Patrick Bateman. Bale is absolutely one of the main reasons to watch this movie. It was his first really dramatic physical transformation, now his trademark as an actor—changing in a few months from a normal build to a chiseled physique befitting the highly narcissistic, vain and self-obsessed Bateman. Bale swings wildly between a chillingly robotic and monotone delivery style—with a dead-eyed gaze that would make The Terminator look sympathetic and cuddly—to comically manic bouts of psychotic rage, to a very wooden and almost Lynchian style of small talk. The third style of Bale’s presentation is the most intriguing and important. He delivers his words when talking to colleagues and friends with a sort of dreamlike aura—it feels like someone giving a bad line reading for a school play. But it’s an intentional choice on Bale’s part: Bateman’s such a monstrous and dysfunctional psychopath that he can’t even mimic normal human communication without it seeming hollow and affected. The genius of the satire is that all of his friends are so hollow and self-involved themselves that no one really notices how transparently disturbed Bateman is—with Bateman regularly seen engaging in highly suspicious behavior before it is quickly brushed off.
There’s also Jared Leto, Reese Witherspoon, Chloe Sevigny, Justin Theroux, Matt Ross and Josh Lucas, who are all great. The best supporting player, though, is Willem Dafoe as an enigmatic detective. His series of conversations with Bateman are absolutely uncanny—some of the most bizarre and upsetting dialogue exchanges in film. Director Harron had Dafoe do each scene in three ways: the detective knows, doesn’t know, or isn’t sure whether Bateman is a killer. Harron then took each take and edited them together, creating a highly unique and uncertain quality to Dafoe’s performance, and maximizing the surreal quality of their interactions.
This effectively helps an audience to empathize with Bateman, in that both the viewer and the character are perplexed by Dafoe’s detective, and also makes Dafoe’s character a bit terrifying, even though he’s ostensibly a good guy. He should bring Bateman in. Viewers should want to see him punished. But the viewer knows more about Bateman than can be gathered from the unreadable Dafoe… and the unknown is always scarier. That’s a brilliant use of invisible editing techniques to get an audience to side more with Bateman, a completely vile and pathetic character, than a police detective—and coaxing viewers deeper into Bateman’s mentality and worldview.
The film is hard to really categorize. It’s not a conventional thriller or psychological horror film, but it’s also so dark it cannot be identified as a run-of-the-mill black comedy. Its satire and humor are so pitch black they probably won’t register with a majority of viewers, and some of the sequences are played straight, refusing to make light of the brutality and violence on display. There is something very unnerving and eerie about the tone of the film, and we often see things from Bateman’s perspective: the reality of the film is heightened and stylized, with all characters being warped caricatures and deeply repugnant, and the logic of the world of the film shifting and bending until we can’t recognize what is reality and what is merely being interpreted for us through the fractured psyche of Bateman.
“American Psycho” captures with startling effect the experience of viewing the world through the eyes of a psychopath, and the implications of the film are bigger than that: is this what viewing the world is like through the eyes of a vain and selfish Wall Street hustler? A person with everything who feels nothing anymore as they are so drowned in excess. Someone so narcissistic and superior that they are at once repulsed by their own friends and colleagues while also gleefully trouncing upon the poor and needy. So detached from reality and any sense of humanity due to the soullessness of their environment that increasingly aberrant behavior—the extreme being casual murder—becomes just a way to pass the time? To even feel real? When capitalistic excess strips someone of their individuality and their humanity and they become just a series of fashion trends and social signifiers, does it take empathy with it?
“American Psycho” isn’t here to provide answers to these questions, but to explore these hypotheticals through an extreme and exaggerated scenario that suggests perhaps the culture of American extravagance that perpetuated the 80s and continues today is perhaps just as corrosive to the human spirit as any major disaster, and perhaps just as insidious and horrifying as another Ted Bundy or Jeffrey Dahmer. And it manages to be grimly humorous and endlessly watchable along the way.
M. Night Shyalaman’s follow-up to his mega-hit “The Sixth Sense” flew under the radar during its initial release, but slowly developed a cult following and garnered two sequels: “Split” and “Glass.”
Bruce Willis stars as David Dunn, a security guard at a college football stadium in Philadelphia. After a horrifying train crash that kills every passenger but himself, and he is left without any injury or trauma, he is approached by Elijah Price—played by Samuel L. Jackson—an eccentric art collector with a focus on pop art and comic books who believes David is a real-life Superman.
Due to the release of sequels since this film, it’s possible that most people are aware of the twist ending. However, if not, go into this film blind. It’s definitely not a typical superhero film. Washed out in muted and grey colors and possessing little-to-no action, the film is remarkably subdued and focuses more on human drama than flashy popcorn movie antics or colorful costumes.
Willis and Jackson have terrific on-screen chemistry, and both turn in rather downbeat performances. Jackson shows a lot of range in this part, showing he’s just as comfortable turning in a quiet and rather sad performance as he is with the more lighthearted banter and scenery-chewing most know him for.
The film focuses just as much on the recovery from trauma and tragedy as it does on David’s slow discovery of his powers—which themselves are made more ‘realistic’: he can bench 500 lbs without breaking a sweat and take ridiculous abuse with little pain but isn’t going to be flying or punching through skyscrapers anytime soon. Shyamalan seems less preoccupied with satisfying genre tropes and conventions than with establishing a sense of relatability with David and his family, and focusing on the true psychological toll it would take on a normal person to discover they have superpowers. How would someone actually respond? Would they deny it? For how long? Would they try to keep going about their day-to-day?
“Unbreakable” is without a doubt Shyamalan’s best film aside from “The Sixth Sense” and reveals his talent for grounded and often quite poignant and emotional storytelling through traditionally low-brow genres—like superhero films and horror. It’s a shame it took him nearly two decades to recapture this with “Split”—though that’s less emotionally resonant and more of a straightforward thriller film—and almost immediately drop the ball with “Glass.”
This cult classic from Japan predates “The Hunger Games” by about a decade and is a much better execution of a similar concept. “Battle Royale” delivers far more shocking violence and emotionally investing stories than those three films combined in its two-hour runtime. It’s also a favorite of Quentin Tarantino, who cast one of the leads in this film, Chiaki Kuriyama, as Gogo in “Kill Bill: Volume 1.”
This clever Canadian horror film starring scream queen Katherine Isabelle offers a unique take on the werewolf myth by serving as an allegory for puberty and sexual awakenings. Two sisters, Ginger and Brigitte, revel in their status as outsiders and weirdos at their high school. After Ginger is attacked by a massive wolf responsible for killing local dogs, she undergoes a radical physical and mental transformation, and quickly becomes sexually (and generally) aggressive, which earns her the attention of their entire class. However, her transformation doesn’t stop there, and Ginger’s aggression quickly spirals out of control. Not to mention Ginger starts growing a tail and sharp canines. Brigitte hopes to find a way to save Ginger before she inevitably devolves into a rabid wolf creature.
The film works well as both a B-movie werewolf story, and a commentary on the societal fears and shaming of female sexuality and a gnarly reminder of the bodily horrors we all faced as teenagers. And the relationship between the sisters can be viewed as an allegory for when siblings grow apart with age, and the pains of that transformation. Is Brigitte saving her sister from a horrible fate, or trying to return to a stagnant state of ‘normalcy?’
Matt Cotter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter @NevadaSagebrush.