The final stretch is upon us!
Something to note with these movies: while they’re technically in order just to keep the list convention afloat, I sort of think of these films as an amorphous blend of “First.” Each does a component of what I value in fiction incredibly well, or speaks eloquently on a personal level. It feels especially unfair to rank them. But! Here we go anyway.
5. Naked Lunch (1991)
Exterminator William Lee has been short on bug powder lately, and discovers his wife has been lifting it as part of her addiction. Not long after, Lee himself begins seeing strange things, including a monstrously sized bug from the “Interzone,” who tells him he’s been assigned to kill an enemy agent – his wife. Lee balks, but during a “William Tell” party trick, he accidentally shoots his wife in the head. He escapes to the Interzone himself, his mental state quickly deteriorating amongst drugs and further conspiracies.
Having sat through Perfect Blue, End of Evangelion, and Green Vs Red, I can cheerfully confirm that this is the weirdest movie I have ever seen in my life. And I kind of love it for that. I’d call this film the hinge of David Cronenberg’s career: the point at which he started shifting completely away from overt horror and warping of the human form as an examination of inner flaws and into the sort of fishbowl observation of dysfunctional human behavior that makes up his later films. To do that he had to expunge his love of bug motifs, which are everywhere throughout this film. Alien typewriter bugs, bugs under threat of extermination, bugs that bleed and blend with human forms with and without the aid of powerful hallucinogens. You could have a field day with the symbolism (particularly the Kafka-esque elements), but let that not stand in the way of how breathtakingly grotesque it all is. This is often a film one watches with eyebrows firmly in hairline, under assault from the intense dream logic and visual panache and layers of story and satire from the novel famously said to be unfilmable.
And that’s the other thing (or one of) that I admire so much about this film – it understands the different needs of its medium compared to the source material, and opted to create an adaptation that was true to the book in spirit rather than trying to pound out an onscreen version of the plot occurrences of the book. Not that you could – Naked Lunch doesn’t really have a narrative in the traditional sense – if you’d like a taste, there is one scene in the film that has Peter Wellers directly relate one of the stories from the book. It’s more a collection of short sketches, anecdotes, and prose poetry (William S. Burroughs, the author, was quite an influential figure on the beat poets of the 1960s). A lot of the stories are dripping in sex and other fluids (as well as some pretty cringey 50s racial epithets), and the power of the book as a whole is in that sense (that later works like Howl would share) of capturing the screaming voice of a trod-upon group. There’s a lot of downright acidic satire of America’s treatment of the queer community in there, some of which we’re not so far removed from as we’d like to think.
But for all its value, a direct translation would beat out Caligula for how purely impossible it would be to market. So instead they made a meta story that wove in aspects of Burroughs’ life with the hallucinogenic visions found in the novel. The shooting that begins main character William Lee’s downward spiral really happened, and there are fictional stand-ins for more than a few people Burroughs knew. And as he stumbles through all of the Interzone intrigue, the “case notes” he’s writing become the novel Naked Lunch. So it’s a cyclical commentary on itself, on the experience of writing, on emotional breakdowns and loss of self (and on the relationship of Famous Dude Authors to women and queerness, but that’s an essay for another day). There’s so much to unpack thematically and visually that you could watch it a dozen times and always find something new. And mmmmm, that is good surrealism.
4. Tokyo Godfathers (2003)
Three transients – middle aged drifter Gin, former lounge singer and trans woman Hana, an 16 year old runaway Miyuki – find a baby abandoned in the trash on Christmas Eve. At Hana’s insistence, they set out to find the child’s parents.
There isn’t a single work in Satoshi Kon’s tragically small oeuvre that doesn’t fascinate me in some capacity, so to an extent this is the Kon Movie Slot on the countdown. But at the same time, there’s something special about this film – undeniably the most gentle and grounded of Kon’s films without sacrificing any of his pet themes or the auteur elements that made him who he was (eh, maybe not so much the “self as fractured through presentation in media,” but all the other ones).
It’s rare for movies, especially movies taking place at Christmas, to find a balance of being earnest without falling into cloying (the film does have a field day with the holiday, mixing soup kitchen bartered proselytizing, secular sentimentality, Japanese folklore and Christian imagery into its hearty humanist stew). The cast of the film are rough around the edges, but they’re almost universally good deep down, and we’re given the privilege of seeing at least a glimpse of their humanity. Hana particularly might be my favorite character in all of Kon’s work: she’s allowed to encompass both dignity and overexaggerated animation, selfishness and unfathomably deep compassion, and she unflaggingly caries the film’s heart and its better nature (which, given anime’s track record with explicitly trans characters, is refreshing).
The fact that this is (for lack of a better term) the grounded Kon film also means that his usual vein of surreal visuals morphs into something more akin to magical realism, with the characters existing in a world that conforms to basic reality and yet running into coincidence after coincidence or “miracle.” Its subtlety ends up making it feel like a creative stretch for Kon, forcing him to suggest what he normally paints boldly across the screen in the name of keeping this a character rather than theme/visual-driven story. And such characters, lovable one and all in the full breadth of their flawed, pained humanity. It’s not missed a holiday airing at my house since the day I saw it.
3. Cabaret (1972)
Englishman Brian Roberts comes to live in Berlin in 1931, the final days of the Weimar Republic. He finds lodging at a boarding house also populated by the effervescent Sally Bowles, a dancer at a hole in the wall cabaret called the Kit Kat Club who’s convinced she’ll be on her way to stardom any day. The two begin a relationship as society falls apart around them. Cause, y’know, Nazis.
Okay, despite the summary this is not actually a Film About Nazis. I mean it is, but…how to explain this. Most film that take place directly before or during World War II are About Nazis: soldiers from various nations are signing up to fight Those Dirty Nazis, families are torn asunder by them, countries are invaded by them, and that stuff is almost always at the forefront of the characters’, if not the narrative’s, concerns. Which is fine, but it’s rare to find a film where Hitler’s rise of power is just kind of happening in the background, occasionally surfacing to pierce ugliness into life but not consuming every waking moment of it. Because that too is an experience of life, and there are many who are affected by Important Historical Events who aren’t at the center of the famous, recognizable thing. I love stories that assume you’re smart enough to glean the clues of whatever’s happening historically, and then go on telling stories of individual lives.
It’s a good story too, if a painful one. Sally (the role for which Liza Minelli won an extremely deserved Oscar) is a wonderful deconstruction of what more modernly became known as the Manic Pixie Dream Girl – quirky, waifish young women with charming eccentricities who live life to the fullest, and have decided to sweep the milquetoast male protagonist into their worlds. Sally is quirky alright, but she’s also incapable of commitment or serious responsibility, willing to drop or do anything in the name of her dreams of stardom and running at top speed from weighty emotional problems. Sally and Brian’s relationship is a story of two people who had multiple chances to be happy together, but whose mutual flaws and poor communication dragged them down into stabbing one another in the heart.
And for the record: I do, quite unashamedly, prefer the film to the stage version. The excising of the book songs, locking the film’s musical numbers within the cabaret, strengthen their position as commentaries on the actions of the plot and as a funhouse mirror of the societal changes going on in Germany (no matter how much the Emcee might claim that troubles stay “outside”). I enjoy the rewriting of Franz’s subplot, which isn’t necessarily better than the musical’s but makes an effective mirrored counterpoint to Brian and Sally’s story (internal versus external strife and secret keeping). I like the Baron subplot for obvious reasons (writing Brian’s queerness from the source novel back into the story! Huzzah!). It’s a stellar example of the film musical, paving the way for all sorts of experiments in presentation and form. And the painful emotions at its core endure, despite the double whammy of being a period piece released in the 1970s (that most easily dated of film decades).
2. Chasing Amy (1997)
Comic artist Holden meets fellow artist Alyssa Jones and is instantly smitten, in spite of the fact that Alyssa openly and comfortably identifies as gay. When the two eventually do start dating, his fuzzy bubble of being The Progressive Guy doesn’t last so long when he learns more about Alyssa’s past dating history – and jealousy starts creeping in.
I’ve talked about this film before in some detail, mostly regarding how impressed I am with the subtlety of its exploration of identity politics and the careful sincerity with which it looks at its grey spectrum of characters. After all of that it feels a bit redundant to point to all of that and say “but for personal, though.” But here we are, and it’s true. Kevin Smith made a movie that challenged the permanence of identity, and as someone who lives firmly wedged in the center of a number of spectrums, it continues to speak to me even as the film dates itself with a bunch of flannel and a deep seated terror of the word bi/pansexual.
It isn’t afraid of poking at exclusionary mindsets in both gay and straight communities (not just for Alyssa, but in the wonderfully light touch Dwight Ewell brings to Hooper’s balancing act as a black gay man putting on a traditionally hyper-masculine face to market his comic), but it also knows better than to speak for the oppressed characters in its story, making Holden’s tragic inability to let go into the lens through which other characters have to suffer. It’s a beautiful, sad little love story that’s frequently maligned from all sides, in no small part because of literally the worst ad campaign of all time.
Since it’s early Smith the film lives and dies by its script, and it’s a good one. Ponderous and heavy at times but always sincere, filthy but sweet at its core, thoughtful and retrospective – all of the things that his best stories do. And that’s…all I have to say about that.
1. The Castle of Cagliostro (1979)
World renowned thief Lupin III heads to the tiny duchy of Cagliostro in hopes of tracking down the source of some legendarily high quality counterfeit bills, only to instead become embroiled in an unexpectedly heroic attempt to save the unwilling bride Clarisse from the ruling Count.
On the one hand, this is another one of those Personal Things: this was the first Lupin III story I ever saw, if you discount a few minutes of Red Jacket here and there on Adult Swim, and that franchise led both to me starting this blog and to meeting some very dear friends. And in some ways it’s a comfort food film, with one of Miyazaki’s few downright mustache twirling villains and lines of conflict as simple and clean as the lines on the gang’s character designs. But that’s far from all there is to it.
Cagliostro is exemplary at achieving simplicity in form and function. Sure, there’s a Bad Guy and a Damsel in Distress (though one allowed more agency than most) and a Dashing Rogue who comes to save the day, but there’s a cleverness of execution every step of the way that defies a viewer to offer what more it might need. The backgrounds are pure Miyazaki, lush and detailed and full of fancy steampunk machinery; but the characters are just on the edge of being cartoony, allowed stretch and bounce to the very edges of physics without sacrificing gravity in the dramatic scenes. The action scenes are stunning for their day, going on to inspire both Spielberg and the folks at Disney, and still read as wonderfully smooth and high energy into the modern day.
It’s an exacting tightrope that results in a beautiful range of tones and thrills – we can laugh as Lupin accidentally runs down a roof and across an impossible jump, and still fear for his life when he’s shot. We can boo and hiss right melodrama-like at the Count, and then settle in for the gentle melancholy of Lupin remembering his life as an accomplished criminal. And that’s what raises that simplicity into art: it’s a poignant, beautiful goodbye to a character who started off Miyazaki’s career, and that gentle farewell seeps into every frame of the thing.
It’s a fairly common sentiment that Cagliostro is “a good film but a bad Lupin film,” and I couldn’t disagree more. It certainly stands on its own, and until the last few years was the most common inroad to the franchise in the West, but it clicks perfectly into place as a final chapter as well – the “Whatever Happened to the Caper Crusader?” of Lupin stories. It’s an accomplished, wiser version of a brash character reflecting on his past failures and glories, a cyclical return to an old failure as an opportunity to choose human connection over material gain, an “ending” that allows for someone else’s beginning. It’s a fleet, straightforward adventure story with emotional meat on its bones; a damn fine first outing for one of my favorite directors, and an unmissable beauty of a film.