Michael Clayton (2007)
I love Tony Gilroy. I think he's a fabulous writer with a gift for taut direction, especially when it comes to his actors. When I first saw Michael Clayton, its professionalism and expertise impressed me, because let's be honest, there are very few *great* corporate conspiracy movies anymore. The acting and writing was what initially compelled me, but on repeat viewings the movie stands up on all technical levels. Take, for example, the way Robert Elswit lights most scenes, drawing out natural light while playing up shadows, giving an odd, almost surreal whiteness to lots of scenes.
The Conversation (1974)
If Blow Up is about the fragility of the photographic image, The Conversation is about the contrapuntal relationship between image and sound, and how the reality between those two elements is tenuous at best. Next to Godfather, it's Coppola's best, a haunting little suspense film where fragments of an audio track are clues to uncovering a murder. The scenes of Hackman trying to piece together a recorded conversation are remarkable, thanks in large part to Walter Murch's film and sound editing that uses repetition in dramatic instead of reductive ways.
Blue Velvet (1986)
I always bring Blue Velvet up when I talk about a cinema of extremes. I wrote a lengthier piece about it earlier in the year, but as I watched it again I tried to pay more attention to the sound than the images. What aids the film is its very unnatural ambient distortions and its music that plays like a cross between a jazz club and a 1940s noir. It also turns the classic tune "In Dreams" to a sadomasochistic playground.
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)
It's easy to criticize Capra's film for its uplifting and patriotic spirit that's almost annoyingly pervasive. On further inspection though, it's obvious he's providing a criticism of Congress at a pivotal moment in its history (brink of WWII), while simultaneously asserting the "good old American values." If it's propaganda, it's expertly condensed in Jimmy Stewart's earnest expressions.
The Road Warrior (1981)
This was a first-time viewing of George Miller's post-apocalyptic action piece that launched Mel Gibson to international status. While I didn't fall for the film (it seems rather dated and campy, plus any plot all feels routine and forceful), the action bits are all very clever and well-edited, photographed with a noticeable assurance that makes me lament how stocky and indecipherable action films have largely become.
Way Down East (1920)
First time viewing of the D.W. Griffith melodrama. It has all the Griffith trademarks - close-ups, intercutting, intense formalism and lengthy compositions, with all the drawbacks - derivative intertitles, drawn out drama, reducing characters to archetypes instead of individual studies. Far less intense and universal than his 1919 Broken Blossoms, but still noteworthy.
Barton Fink (1991)
After No Country for Old Men, this is probably my favorite Coen Brothers film. The amazing interplay between John Turturro and John Goodman, between the artist and his subject, is a really stunning look at authorship and social criticism. And that's BEFORE the third act, when it becomes more of a surrealist battle between a writer and his demons.