Some quick thoughts on six random films I recently caught up. From 1933 to 2013, from musicals to art cinema, these films cover a lot of ground.

The Wind Rises / Hayao Miyazaki / 2013 / fourstar

The last film from Japanese animation giant Hayao Miyazaki, The Wind Rises is a gorgeous and elegant look back at a life from the clarity and remove of old age. Although the film is ostensibly a biopic of the Jiro Horikoshi, the inventor of the Zero planes used in WWII, Miyazaki is more interested in quietly observing the beautiful (and painful) things in life than considering the devastating impact of Horikoshi’s invention. And indeed, Miyazaki’s eye is unerring, singling out visual details that move us and wound us with the power of Ozu.
Blue is the Warmest Color / Abdellatif Kechiche / 2013 / threestar

This controversial Palme d’Or winner follows, with laser focus, the life of a young student and her passionate relationship with another woman. What a privilege cinema provides us to experience such an intense closeness with another life. But it also comes with a responsibility to truthfulness, and while I don’t mind Kechiche’s stylistic (and much discussed) commitment to this closeness, it only occasionally yields the emotionally rawness he intends. Under such scrutiny, some of the director’s—and even the courageous young actress’s—choices can feel false. Only the editor comes out unscathed.

Footlight Parade / Lloyd Bacon & Busby Berkeley / 1933 / fourstar

A boisterous, exuberant and incredibly fast-paced musical spectacular co-directed by Busby Berkeley. James Cagney’s tough-guy energy finds a perfect home in the world of show biz as a producer tasked with assembling a number of elaborate musical prologues designed to precede screening of new talkies. Thanks to the film’s breakneck pace, even its pair of romantic stories feel life and welcomed, a feat Berkeley’s Gold Diggers of 1933 couldn’t achieve. Still, the emphasis is on the musical numbers, and the film’s breathtaking fountain sequence even boasts images of avant-garde beauty.

The Informer / John Ford / 1935 / fourstar

John Ford’s incredibly atmospheric moral tragedy shows that he brings the same poetic eye to claustrophobic urban locations as to vast Western landscapes. Victor McLaglen gives an intense and miraculously un-dated performance as a drunken brute who fingers an Irish revolutionary to gain money to travel to America. The ever-present fog and Ford’s chiaroscuro lighting obscure as much as liquor and politics as the informer staggers through a night of lies, guilt and whiskey.

Nostalghia / Andrei Tarkovsky / 1983 / fourstar
Perhaps Tarkovsky’s most trying film, Nostalghia is nonetheless a fascinating evocation of a sort of existential purgatory. Tarkovsky made the film in exile in Italy and transposes his mourning for his home country onto the character of a Russian writer. Characters circle, slowly, around a desolate landscape (externalizing the film’s emotional tone of elegy) and struggle to move forward. Nostalghia will not convert any viewers who don’t respond to Tarkovsky’s visual poetry, but its stunning final shot confirms how memories can trap and immobilize us.
Ed Wood / Tim Burton / 1994 / threestar

Tim Burton’s charming ode to the schlock of films like Plan 9 From Outer Space boasts great black and white cinematography and an unironic appreciation for Ed Wood’s passion. Still, it misses the opportunity to explore and indulge in the pleasures of this type of filmmaking. I never understood Ed’s tastes, ideas or his drive to create, but it’s fun to watch him strive.