Richard Doyle's

Zéro de Conduite
(Jean Vigo, 1933).
Vigo's surreal comedy/drama set in a boarding school has been enormously influential, most notably on Truffaut's The 400 Blows and Lindsay Anderson's If .... The director grew up in a boarding school himself, after his father, the militant anarchist Miguel Almareyda, died in prison, and he draws on his experiences to ground the film in the often gritty reality of a boys school. He also draws on his anarchist sympathies and his attraction to surrealism to give the film a dreamlike quality and a playful, lampooning sense of humor. The boys behave believably like young boys, and the setting is unpolished and very realistic, yet one boy makes a ball vanish to entertain his friends, a drawing of a little man comes to life on the page, and the school's headmaster is a strutting, pompous midget. The film was banned upon release for its "anti-French spirit" and not shown again in public during Vigo's short lifetime. Although it hardly seems as controversial these days, its playful rebelliousness and mad sense of humour identify it as a piece of outlaw art.

Smilla's Sense of Snow (Bille August, 1997).
A film with a split personality, moody and intriguing at first, but devolving into a schlocky conspiracy thriller in the end. Julia Ormand stars as Smilla, a native of Greenland living in Copenhagen, who becomes suspicious about the death of a young Inuit boy who plunges from her roof. Aided by an ambiguous neighbour (Gabriel Byrne), her investigation leads to connections between the boy and a mining company. The further the film delves into these connections, the more it moves into formulaic thriller territory, and the less interesting it becomes.

The Buddhist Fist (Yuen Woo-Ping , 1980).
An early and undeservedly overlooked martial arts film by Woo-Ping, best known as the fight choreographer for The Matrix and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. A young man returns to the village where he grew up to discover that his father, the local police captain, has gone missing. His search for his father's whereabouts targets him for assassination. The plot is little more than an excuse for Woo-Ping to stage fight after startling fight, especially since the identity of the mysterious villains can be easily determined from the beginning of the film. However, the fights are some of Woo-Ping's most inventive, with every object in the vicinity of the combatants involved in the action. The standout sequence involves an assassin armed with fortune-telling sticks against a chess master armed with nothing more than a chess board.

Tombstone (George P. Cosmatos, 1993).
Wyatt, Virgil and Morgan Earp (Kurt Russell, Sam Elliott and Bill Paxton) and tubercular gambler Doc Holliday (Val Kilmer) team up to save Tombstone from the villainous Cowboys gang. This skewed but not wildly inaccurate telling of the events leading to the famous gunfight at the O.K. Corral is a fast-paced and entertaining western, at least until the gunfight. The movie trails off into routine action movie mechanics in the final act, but it's still one of the best recent additions to the western genre. Kilmer's extremely odd but engaging performance is the highlight of the film.

Z (Costa-Gavras, 1969).
Tells the true story of the assassination of left-wing Greek politician Gregorios Lambrakis (played here by Yves Montand) and the subsequent investigation by an intrepid official (Jean-Louis Trintignant). Shot in the immediate aftermath of the fascist military coup in Greece, the film feels like a fierce political polemic without succumbing to distortions of fact and without sacrificing narrative flow. A powerful, exciting and kinetic film, relentlessly in motion, never lingering too long on scenes that impart information, and utilizing rapid cuts to get through sequences that show the passing of time. Although extremely realistic in style, reality is often distorted to great psychological effect, most particularly in a repeated depiction of the murder from different angles with the details altered to reflect the distorted testimony of witnesses. In short, a masterpiece blending such contradictory elements as documentary realism, narrative flow, and visuals that heighten the feelings of paranoia and political hopelessness. The model for many of the great political thrillers of the 70s.

Gangster No. 1 (Paul McGuigan, 2000).
A promising film that completely disintegrates in the third act. In 1968, a young gangster attempts to emulate his boss (David Thewlis), until a psychotic streak takes over and he frames his boss for the brutal murder of a rival. Paul Bettany is good as the scary young thug, and the film has the visual flair one has come to expect from British crime flicks. The film falls apart when it jumps to the present and a badly miscast Malcolm McDowell takes over the lead role. Thewlis is released from jail and McDowell confronts him and tries to absolve himself of the betrayal. The decision to cast McDowell as the older gangster while keeping the original actors in the other roles is a puzzling decision, and scenes between McDowell and Thewlis in makeup (Thewlis is supposed to be the older one) are unconvincing and jarring. Adding to the problem, nothing dramatic or interesting really happens between the two men.

Julien Donkey-Boy (Harmony Korine, 1999).
Korine's meditation on mental illness is, safe to say, like no other film you've seen before. Ewen Bremner plays Julien, a young schizophrenic, with astonishing realism (he prepared for the part by spending many days with Korine's schizophrenic uncle). Werner Herzog plays his abusive father and Chloe Sevigny plays his pregnant sister. Filmed with a handheld digital video camera, the film seems more like a home movie than a commercial release, eavesdropping on the dysfunctional family as it goes about its day-to-day existence. The director uses only available lightning and props found on location (this was the first American film to receive the Dogma 95 certificate), and yet, heavily treated in post-production, the film has a vaguely abstract appearance, giving the impression that you're sharing Julien's perspective. This virtually plotless movie seems to generate a "love or hate" reaction in most, but is undeniably adventurous and of interest to anyone who appreciates new cinematic experiences.

©2002 Richard Doyle