I'm resurrecting this feature for my last post of the year, having watched enough classic films this year that I actually have a decent list. Entries are unranked and listed below by release date. Since this was the year I watched eighty films from the 1980s, most of the titles are from that decade. Enjoy.
Before the Devil Knows You're Dead (2007) - Sidney Lumet's final film explores a crime gone wrong and the gut-wrenching fallout. The director has no trouble juggling all the pieces of the complicated, non-linear narrative, and excels at charting the unraveling of his three leading men. Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ethan Hawke, and Albert Finney all give stellar performances, and Lumet delivers one, last, stark portrait of the dark side of human nature.
Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003) - An incredibly immersive maritime adventure film that puts the viewer onboard a British warship during the Napoleonic war. Peter Weir's attention to detail makes all the difference, giving the film a rare verve and sense of history. And the leads, played by Russell Crowe and Paul Bettany as the ship's captain and doctor, are one of my favorite odd couple pairings in all of cinema.
Elizabeth (1998) - The ascension of Elizabeth I, played by Cate Blanchette, is a tense game of political chess, which requires her to not only navigate a hostile web of court intrigue, but also to transform herself from an exuberant princess into an iconic monarch. Michael Hirst's screenplay is sharp, director Shekhar Kapur has a great eye for memorable pageantry, and Blanchette gives an absolutely commanding, and at times chilling performance.
Eve's Bayou (1997) - Young Eve lives in a world full of ghosts and secrets. Through her story, director Kasi Lemmons reveals a part of the African-American experienced I'd never seen before, full of complex family dynamics and untold history. Its fascinating to watch Eve learn the limits of her power as both a young woman and as the inheritor of a certain role in her community. And Samuel L. Jackson gets to deliver what may be his best performance ever.
Sid and Nancy (1986) - Before Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen are dragged down into their notorious folie a deux of addictions and self-harm, they have a bloody good time thumbing their noses at polite society in this quintessential punk rocker biopic. From Sid's scalding rendition of "My Way" to the tender make-out session in a trash-strewn alley, Alex Cox tells the counter-culture love story of his generation in energetically cinematic terms.
Moonlighting (1982) - A crew of Polish workers are smuggled into Britain to renovate a house, in Jerzy Skolimowski's darkly funny and mercilessly cruel social satire. It touches on the woes of immigrants, refugees, exploited workers, and their nervous overlords. Even more impressive is the limited scope of the production, where only one major cast member spoke any English, and the action is confined to one small suburban neighborhood.
Nosferatu: Phantom of the Night (1979) - Werner Herzog's homage and reimagining of the silent German classic is a classic in its own right. The film is minimalist in construction, but tingles with atmosphere and imagination. The two central performances by Isabell Adjani and Klaus Kinski are absolutely fantastic, especially Kinski picking up where Max Shreck left off. Herzog's additions to the story also introduce some new, fascinating dimensions.
Coal Miner's Daughter (1980) - Sissy Spacek's fantastic run in the late '70s and early '80s arguably peaked with this film, where she plays country singer Loretta Lynch from a shy teenager to a superstar in her thirties. And she's well paired with Tommy Lee Jones, as her tumultuous true love. Frankly, after so many poor entries in this genre, I didn't know a musician biopic could be this good, this richly resonant or deeply emotional.
The Falls (1980) - Peter Greenaway's debut feature is a science fiction film presented in the form of a starkly simple video encyclopedia. Each of the numerous entries lists a victim of a "Violent Unknown Event" and how it affected them, in great detail, accompanied by a few simple visuals. The result is a fascinating, disturbing glimpse of a world that's been fundamentally changed by unknown forces. I've never seen anything else quite like it.
Bay of Angels (1953) - Jacques Demy's most New Wave film is a tense little psychodrama about a pair of gamblers who are both lovers and fellow addicts. Claude Mann and Jeanne Moreau play the leads, the novice and the veteran, who get caught up in a downward spiral together, despite both of them knowing better. Demy proves he has chops far outside his milieu, especially when it comes to wringing tension from the roulette table.