Arts and Faith Top 25 Films on Memory

Cinema, after all, is a kind of collective memory. Films are both time capsules, preserving the original period of their release, and a collection of thoughts and ideas that extend from the artists and craftsmen that lived in its time.

Thus, the Arts & Faith Top 25 Films on Memory is an exercise in commemoration. It is an attempt by Image’s Arts & Faith online community to celebrate and examine the unique ability of cinema to speak to the theme of memory.

From Ryan Holt’s excellent introduction to the Arts and Faith top 25 films on memory.

I have been a member of Arts & Faith for over two years, and I participated in voting for the titles on this list, and I wrote three of the blurbs as well. Including films from How Green was My Valley to The Tree of Life and Rashomon to Last Year at Marienbad, this is an all-around great list of movies. Check it out!

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All About Eve

Year of Release: 1950     Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz. Starring Bette Davis, Anne Baxter, Celeste Holm, George Sanders, Gary Merrill, Hugh Marlowe, Thelma Ritter, and Marilyn Monroe.

As George Sanders provides his opening voiceover as the conceited theatre critic Addison DeWitt, the camera slowly zooms out from its focus on an aging actor, ignoring the actor – as DeWitt informs us we should – and instead revealing a prestigious awards ceremony, at the center of which is Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter). That shift of focus is apt foreshadowing of the story which follows, a story of backstage backstabbing, insecure aging actors, rising new stars, occasional romance, and a masterclass in manipulation.

Margo Channing (Bette Davis) is a star of the theatre; she became a star at four years old, and she will always be a star. However, Margo is aging, and at forty years old, she worries her glory days are soon going to end. After all, the good leading roles are twenty-year old characters. Compounding her insecurities are the new starlets whom Addison DeWitt touts, such as Miss Claudia Casswell (Marilyn Monroe in a meta bit of casting before she became famous). However, Margo can be nice to the wannabes; she has far greater acting chops than any of them will ever have, so they’re no real threat to her. But Margo is also reminded of her age by her talented director boyfriend, who as a director and as a man will remain thirty-two for his entire career. And then, there’s Eve, a devoted fan of Margo’s who dreams of an acting career herself.

Unlike the other young actresses, Eve is talented, very talented. With the help of Margo’s good friend Karen (Celeste Holm), playwright Lloyd Richard’s (Hugh Marlowe) wife, Eve soon finds herself in the good graces of Margo and working as her assistant. The only person Eve fails to win over is Margo’s crusty maid Birdie (Thelma Ritter), who remains suspicious of the young girl who studies Margo’s every move, “as if she were a play or a book.” Given Margo’s insecurity about her age, losing her relevance, and being replaced, she soon subscribes to Birdie’s distrust as well, even as her friends find her actions and her rants more paranoid and insufferable than her usual anxieties.

If this film about the ugly backstage life of insecure famous actors with an eclectic ensemble of vibrant characters, one of whom is an intelligent yet arrogant critic, sounds kind of similar to the recent Birdman (which won the best picture Oscar sixty-four years after All About Eve did), the two films do have some thematic similarities. However, whereas Birdman opts for an ambiguously happy ending that gives all its characters a celebration which may or may not be deserved, All About Eve is unafraid to follow its characters to the end of each of their storylines, where happiness results from suffering and learning from mistakes and selfishness begets more selfishness.

Joseph L. Mankiewicz penned one of his finest screenplays for All About Eve, filled with clever references to stage productions and Hollywood films, and the entire cast turns in fantastic performances, delivering one brilliant line after another, such as “Have you no human consideration?” “Show me a human, and I might have!” This story of killers pursuing their desires of prestige and importance makes a bumpy but thrilling ride. I’m sorry, did I say “killers?” I meant champions.

 

Content Advisory: Some intense discord and discreet sexual references.                              Not rated.

Suggested Audience: Teens and up.

Personal Recommendation: A+

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Still Alice

A mediocre film elevated by a very good performance from Julianne Moore and an excellent one from Kristen Stewart.

Full review: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/1morefilmblog/still-alice-glatzer-westmoreland-2014/

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As It Is in Heaven

Year of Release: 2014     Directed by Joshua Overbay. Starring Chris Nelson, Luke Beavers, Shannon Kathleen Baker, Jin Park, and John Lina.

What if the wolf in sheep’s clothing really believes he is the shepherd? That is not unusual, many false prophets take themselves seriously. But what if the wolf really, deeply believes he is helping and pasturing the sheep and putting their interests ahead of his own even as the sheep’s lives become increasingly miserable? That is the angle of As It Is in Heaven, and for me that is a thought provoking and semi-unique take. Even Robert Mitchum’s predatory preacher from The Night of the Hunter, perhaps the greatest film about a wolf in sheep’s clothing, knows he is first and foremost helping himself, even though he thinks he is doing the Lord’s work.

David (Chris Nelson) is not only convinced he is doing the Lord’s work, he also thinks that he is helping to prepare his followers for life as it is in heaven. Having recently taken over a doomsday cult after the unexpected death of their prophet Edward (John Lina), David believes he has been chosen by God to prepare the community for the rapture in thirty days, as predicted by Edward. Further complicating matters, Edward’s final act was to anoint David as his successor, passing over his son Eamon (Luke Beavers). Naturally, a sort of rivalry begins to form between Eamon and David; however, it is not motivated by jealousy, but a difference of opinion on what the cult was supposed to be. With David’s increasingly strict guidance as he mandates a thirty-day fast to purify everyone for the rapture, Eamon is genuinely concerned for the well being of the community, which is a family to him.

As It Is in Heaven is interested in much more than just a conflict between two ways to lead a doomsday cult. It explores the dangers of interpreting scripture without any guidance, the trust people naturally feel for a respected leader, and the confused emotions of the members of a religious sect through a period of upheaval.

David has all the fire and enthusiasm of a recent convert (which he is, having been baptized only one year ago), and along with that comes a stubbornness and arrogance that he knows exactly what God’s will is. Chris Nelson is excellent at portraying the passion of a man who truly believes his own words and that he is preparing the last remnants of the faithful for the second coming of Christ. He makes David surprisingly sympathetic to a point, until his actions become truly monstrous, at which point it is hard to know what to think of him. As Eamon, Luke Beavers conveys a deep respect for this way of life and a reluctance to do anything that might harm the community, but he balances that with increasing determination as he witnesses the costly consequences of David’s orders. As the newest member Abiella, Jin Park is reserved and portrays the conflict of someone who wishes to believe she made the right choice even as nothing turns out as she expected.

First time feature director Joshua Overbay beautifully films the community and its quiet rural setting. Opening with a couple fluid long takes, the camera slowly follows one member to the river for a Baptism, by which Overbay suggests an idyllic world where a community lives in peace. When that world is shaken by David’s leadership and harsh proclamations, the camera begins to shake as well. The effect is not overdone, and it subtly suggests the upheaval through which the community will soon go.

It has been remarked that Night of the Hunter ruins then redeems the favorite hymn “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” the similarly themed and nearly as compelling As It Is in Heaven ruins then redeems not only its very flawed protagonist, but also the entire doomsday cult. Although the community could at first appear to be nothing more than a group of fundamentalist extremists with a monstrous leader, As It Is in Heaven portrays misguided, sympathetic characters who struggle to do what they believe is best. The result is gripping and tragic, and it underscores the film’s greatest irony: as these characters become more confident that they are doing God’s will on earth as it is in heaven, their society becomes less and less like heaven.

 

Information on viewing As It Is in Heaven can be found here.

 

Content Advisory: Mature themes including the death of an infant, a non-graphic murder, and implied off-screen adultery.                             Not Rated

Suggested Audience: Teens and up.

Personal Recommendation: A-

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American Sniper

Year of Release: 2015     Directed by Clint Eastwood.  Starring Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller, Sammy Sheik, and Keir O’Donnell.

It is always unfortunate when a film generates such strong political reactions that those reactions dominate any discussion of the film. Such reactions make it difficult to discuss the film and its merits without first addressing the controversy. I must admit I’m baffled disappointed to see the intense politicized responses American Sniper is receiving because it supposedly celebrates the Iraq war and glorifies a man who may have been a war hero, but was apparently less than a role model in real life. I think that in calling the film a straightforward defense of the Iraq war, critics are seriously undermining the film’s strengths and selling short its sense of conflict and its depiction of the tragic effects of the war and a career dominated by violence.

In his four tours of duty during the Iraq War, Navy SEAL Chris Kyle (a very good Bradley Cooper) is credited with 160 kills out of a probable 255, and he feels confident that every shot he took was the right thing to do. Kyle, having a penchant for violence, is eager to join the army, fight for his country, and kill those damn terrorists. Having hunted all his life he is a natural sniper, and he soon becomes a hero to his fellow soldiers who feel safe when he is overseeing them. American Sniper is the story of a very pro-war, pro-gun soldier, and thus, it makes total sense that the Iraq War is accepted as something that happened. Just because the film depicts the war without questioning its wisdom or lack thereof, does not mean the film glorifies the war or condemns it. American Sniper is neither pro-war nor anti-war; it is just war.

More importantly, there are many scenes which show the tragic effects and heavy toll of both the war and Kyle’s many killings. I really do not understand how someone could watch the scenes between Kyle and his wife, his son, and his colleagues and call the film unapologetically pro-war. When Kyle takes his wife for her prenatal checkup, his resting blood pressure is 170 over 110. He screams at a nurse who does not respond to his crying daughter quickly enough. He is unable to accept a complement from a marine when he is out with his son. The breakdown he has at a child’s birthday party is very painful to watch. To call the film a celebration of the Iraq war is to badly sell those scenes short.

American Sniper undoubtedly has some pacing problems, and there are a couple miscalculated subplots which should either have been removed or developed into much larger segments. The standoff/manhunt between Kyle and rival Iraqi sniper Mustafa (Sammy Sheik) plays too much like a conventional thriller, and the half-baked attempts to set up a rivalry between them would only have worked if Mustafa had been given much more back story. As it is, the scenes of him hunting Kyle distract from the story and make it too obvious how their standoff will eventually end. The resolution of that subplot is the film’s weakest moment, because it is handled like a triumphant moment out of a mediocre Marvel movie.

I also wish the final twenty minutes had been developed into a full hour. There is rich, poignant material in that section concerning PTSD, guilt, adjusting to a quiet life after being one of the deadliest SEALs, and one’s duty as a husband and father. While some scenes do capture the tension, raging emotions, and painful consequences, as a whole that part of the story is rushed through too quickly.

As a point of comparison, when Francis Ford Coppola was asked to write the screenplay for Patton, his first thought was, “Oh crap. Half the country loves him because they think he won the war, and half the country hates him because they think he was a sadistic war criminal. If I chose either side, I’ll alienate half my audience.” He chose to respect both sides, portraying Patton as a brilliant general who loses his temper and gives in to nasty violence, a conflicted character who too often gives into his violent nature but still has a strong sense of dignity. Jason Hall did something similar with his script for American Sniper. He does not shy away from portraying Kyle’s violence and even showing it to be at times successful, but he also portrays a damaged human being whose choices harm not only on himself but his family as well. The scene when Kyle’s brother (Keir O’Donnell ) makes a disparaging comment about the war, only to have Kyle look at him as if he were a stranger is a particularly acute example.

Kyle’s first kill, which opens the film, is another powerful example of the cost of violence. As a mother hands her son a grenade, Kyle hesitates to shoot. It is the first scene, we have no context, and this a perfect textbook example of self-defense. Taking the shot seems like a no-brainer. Before Kyle pulls the trigger, there is a half hour flashback to his childhood and training, showing him bonding with his equally violent father, protecting his little brother, grieving on 9/11, and flirting with his wife-to-be (Sienna Miller). After witnessing the hardships and joys of Kyle’s life, when the film returns to Iraq, his hesitation is perfectly natural, and the tragic evil of deliberately ending any life is fully dramatized.

Finally, if anyone doubts Eastwood’s stance on violence, remember, he wrote and directed this:

 

Content Advisory: Some brutal wartime violence, disturbing gory images, profane and obscene language throughout, intense themes of PTSD and family discord, and mildly sensual foreplay.                               MPAA rating: R

Suggested Audience: Adults

Personal Recommendation: B-

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