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Sunset Blvd. (1950)
Billy Wilder's Best and a total Classic
It's uncanny how modern so many of Billy Wilder's movies are. That's one of the things that makes him one of the greatest directors in history. His films almost never seem dated. And this masterpiece is still a wonderful example, about a struggling, broke Hollywood screen writing wannabe who jumps at the chance of making money shacking up with a washed-up and aging silent-movie actress and writing her terrible comeback script. The story goes into bizarre and sexually-uncomfortable territory when he realizes that he has become her kept sugar baby and boy-toy.
There is one element that feels VERY dated, and that is the spectacular performance by Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond, but it's supposed to feel dated! In one of the greatest performances of all time, here's a woman completely stuck in the past and in her now fading stardom, struggling to reclaim her past glory. It's fascinating the similarities between Norma and the Gloria, who at the time was also a silent movie actress who lost popularity. Even the silent movie Norma watches near the beginning is a real one starring Gloria Swanson!
This movie works in every way and is a timeless classic.
Brokeback Mountain (2005)
Brilliant FIlm! One of the Best of 2005!!!
It is a clichè that there can never be anymore original stories. And because that has a lot of truth to it, finding an original WAY to tell that story is important. Romances have also become a clichè, the same stories being told over and over again. BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN basically tells that same story but in the most crafty, clever way that I've seen in a LONG time.
The film is superbly directed by Ang Lee (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), who gives one of (if not THE) Best directing jobs of this (or last) year. Brokeback Mountain, written for the screen by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana and based on a short story by novelist Annie Proulx, follows two cowboys who meet in the early '60's while herding sheep on the titular mountain. They form what they think is just a sexual bond, but when they reunite four years later, after they both separately married and had kids, they discover that the feelings that they have go far deeper. The film is simple and the pace is deliberate, taking its time to develop the relationship between these two men, discovering their deep emotional love, but doesn't handle it to the point of corniness. Lee's directing is curious, peeking at these characters but not getting too close, letting the actors bring the characters to life and push the story along. His approach is laced with subtleties, which I love to see in a director's work, making simple things like the twitch of an eye, a slight glance, or a smile or frown speak volumes.
This approach can also be seen in the fabulous photography by acclaimed Mexican D.P. Rodrigo Prieto (21 Grams, 8 Mile, 25th Hour). Aside from his beautiful landscape photography of the Midwest mountains and plains and his stunningly realistic firelight and moonlight sequences, his trademark mix of different film stocks is used to touching effect here. The different textures that he lays throughout the picture captures the emotional arc and different worlds of the two characters. And probably the most noticeable achievement is the amazing acting by the ENTIRE cast. Michelle Williams plays the shattered wife of Ennis with an intense sadness, but of course it is the two leads, Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal, that ultimately carries the picture. Ledger (Williams's real-life girlfriend), in what is undoubtedly his greatest performance, is brooding as Ennis Del Mar, torn between his feelings for Jack and his fear of others finding out about them and what might happen in consequence. And Gyllenhaal, right off his career-topping performance in Jarhead, is equally great here, playing Jack Twist, the cowboy/rodeo man, who's immense frustration at not be able to be as close as he wants to be with Ennis, seems to slowly consume him. But this frustration seems never to lessen his love for Ennis, lighting up with great joy at each sight of him. And rising composer Gustavo Santaolalla (The Motorcycle Diaries, North Country) laces the film with a beautiful, romantic, award-worthy acoustic guitar score, that sports heartbreaking nostalgia.
Throughout the film, you realize that Brokeback Mountain is not just the title, not just a place, but a symbol of a deep yearning for love, a love that is so close but still ultimately unattainable; something that probably anyone can relate to. Brokeback Mountain is doing very well in the precursors of this award season, and it deserves all the attention its getting. Please, go out and support this beautiful picture. They hardly make them like this anymore.