Faculty make their Picks of the Flicks

Seen any good movies lately? That casual question takes on a more serious tone when asked of those who study and teach courses related to film, but, just like other moviegoers, these academics have their personal favorites, too. Here are a few films the rest of us might want to give a look—or a second look—based on the perspective of some faculty experts.

Detective films
John F. Jebb, assistant professor of English

Jebb says there are three movies that must appear on any list of the finest detective films. Here’s what he has to say about them:

“The Maltese Falcon (1941, directed by John Huston) is really the third version of Dashiell Hammett’s 1930 novel, after Dangerous Female (1931) and Satan Met a Lady (1936). Hammett popularized and perfected the ‘hard-boiled’ style of detective writing, featuring action and violence rather than the ratiocination of the stories by Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie. For the 1941 version, Huston famously used the actual book as the shooting script. Well-cast actors deliver Hammett’s lines with authenticity, so the menace of the story becomes apparent. Humphrey Bogart, as everyone says, defined the tough private eye via his portrayal of Sam Spade.

Chinatown (1974, directed by Roman Polanski) re-creates the spirit of the 1930s, the era of Hammett and Raymond Chandler, with a significant contrast. While Hammett’s and Chandler’s detectives followed strict personal codes, detective Jake Gittes is more cynical, as befits a man who specializes in investigating marital infidelity. The screenplay by Robert Towne regularly appears on lists of Hollywood’s finest scripts. The 1990 sequel, The Two Jakes, in which Jack Nicholson reprised his role as Jake Gittes and directed, makes a fun double feature, as the later film constantly references elements in the first.

Fargo (1996, directed by Joel Coen) includes a snow-bound setting, quirky characters and unusual accents, which are but three aspects that viewers enjoy in this tale of a kidnapping turned deadly. The detective is the very pregnant and relentlessly upbeat police chief Marge Gunderson, played by Academy Award-winner Frances McDormand, whose observational skills and analytic abilities recall those of Sherlock Holmes.”

And, Jebb says, some excellent detective films that don’t get the attention of those above include The Naked City, a police procedural that portrays cops as “regular guys with families and lives”; The Night of the Generals, which takes audiences to “an unexpected place—behind the German lines during World War II”; The Conversation, a 1974 film that “seems very up-to-date in its treatment of how surveillance devices facilitate invasions of privacy”; and Brick, which “updates the private eye genre of Hammett and places it in a public high school.”

Thomas Leitch, professor of English and director, concentration in film studies

Despite the belief that the book is always better than its film adaptation, Leitch came up with 10 movies he considers better than the originals. Following are his comments:

All About Eve. The original, Mary Orr’s ‘The Judgment of Eve,’ is a short story, not a book. The movie adds layers of suave nastiness to its fable about acting that Orr’s story never dreamed of.

Double Indemnity. Unlike James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, which is better than either of its major Hollywood adaptations, his Double Indemnity is tentative and soft-hearted compared with Billy Wilder’s peerless film noir.

Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. If Stanley Kubrick had followed Peter George’s novel Red Alert literally, he would have ended up with another, lesser Fail-Safe. But his decision to turn the film into a comedy produced a once-in-a-lifetime masterpiece of black humor and bad taste.

“Gone with the Wind. Sidney Howard’s screenplay does a heroic job of pruning characters, subplots and episodes from Margaret Mitchell’s blockbuster. Mainly, though, it punches up the dialogue between Scarlett and Rhett so that the film plays like the ultimate screwball comedy with the Civil War as backdrop.

“The Graduate. Charles Webb’s novel is so stripped-down and deadpan that it practically reads like a screenplay. But it doesn’t have Dustin Hoffman, Anne Bancroft or that defining scene in the swimming pool.
“The Philadelphia Story. Donald Ogden Stewart’s transcription of Philip Barry’s Broadway hit sharpens the dialogue, opens up the story and adds better jokes, while still leaving plenty of room for Katharine Hepburn to do what she does best.

Pinocchio. For all its saccharine sweetness and its condescension toward its target audience of children, Disney’s animated cartoon is twice as enchanting and 10 times as magical as Carlo Collodi’s children’s novel.

Pirates of the Caribbean. Sure, the Disney ride is fun, but it makes some adults sick and some small children scared, and nothing on the ride can compare to Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow.

“Psycho. Alfred Hitchcock’s seminal horror film is better than its source—a Robert Bloch novel based on the same events that later inspired The Silence of the Lambs—because it insidiously encourages its audience to identify with both a murder victim and her killer without ever noticing what they’re getting into.

The Wizard of Oz. Yes, it’s cornier than the book, and the frame tale (‘There’s no place like home’) can be hard to take down the home stretch. But it’s much more carefully constructed than the book, and its great performances are matched by an equally great musical score. Eat your heart out, L. Frank Baum.”

International films
Suzanne Cherrin, assistant professor of women’s studies and of Latin American studies

Cherrin, who describes herself as “in love with Mexico,” not surprisingly chooses a lot of films that focus on that country for the classes she teaches and as personal favorites. At the top of her list is The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, an acclaimed 2005 movie that marked the directorial debut of veteran actor Tommy Lee Jones. The film, Cherrin says, “is about social relations at the [U.S.-Mexican] border—with a twist.”

Another favorite, which Cherrin included in her “Gender in International Films” series this fall, is Quinceanera (the title refers to the celebration of a girl’s 15th birthday, honoring her passage into womanhood), which explores issues of Mexican-American culture. The film centers on a 14-year-old girl in Los Angeles, with themes that Cherrin says “include unplanned pregnancy, Old World Mexican morality and contemporary U.S. culture, homophobia and stratification by class and ethnicity.”

Other films Cherrin selected for the series are Delwende (from Burkina Faso), based on the true story of a woman wrongly accused of being a witch, driven out of her West African village and banished to one of the “witch villages” where such women must live; Ma Vie en Rose or My Life in Pink (France), the story of a little girl born into the body of a boy and the reactions of parents, friends and neighbors to the situation; Offside (Iran), highlighting gender segregation in Iran by focusing on a World Cup soccer match at which determined women fans, prohibited from sitting in the stands, must masquerade as men and try to sneak in; and Goyangireul Butakhae or Take Care of My Cat (South Korea), which Cherrin says “offers a rare glimpse into the lives of five young women friends in South Korea” and explores such themes as the background of societal change, sexism and regional differences within that country.

Harris Ross, associate professor of English

Ross acknowledges that the horror genre is considered disreputable (second only to pornography), but he says it poses an interesting problem that film theory attempts to answer: What are the pleasures of moviegoing? “Or, as my mother used to say when she found me curled up in front of the television watching Monster Chiller Horror Theatre, ‘Why would you watch something like that?’ Why indeed. My mother would have made a great film theorist,” he says.

Here’s what Ross says about three films he enjoys sharing with students and about his pick for the worst film of all time.

“Since he began his career some 13 years ago, prolific Japanese director Takashi Miike has made over 60 films, making him the Joyce Carol Oates of exploitation cinema. The best of the lot is the movie that established his reputation in this country, Audition (1999). The deliberately plotted opening section follows Shigeharu, a widower who has decided to begin dating again. As the movie shifts into overdrive in the last 30 minutes—not for the faint-hearted—Shigeharu discovers that he can’t understand other people because he doesn’t know himself.

Funny Games (1997) is art-house horror from Austrian director Michael Haneke. Shortly after a middle-class family arrives at their vacation home, two strangers come over to borrow some eggs. They are such polite young men, but why are they wearing cotton gloves? What makes this film so disturbing is that Haneke forces his spectators to confront their complicity in the film’s sadistic games.

“Were I stranded on a desert island with a DVD player, a large projection TV, a popcorn popper and a comfortable recliner, the one horror film I would hope to have with me is The Fly (1986). Director David Cronenberg took the premise from a lame 1950s sci-fi movie—a scientist’s DNA is mixed with a house fly’s when an experiment goes awry—and fashioned a deeply disturbing and deeply moving love story. The best description of The Fly is from critic Molly Haskell. This film, she wrote, follows the story arc of all tragic love stories: One partner changes, but the other doesn’t.

“And now for the worst. Most people would, I’m sure, vote for Ed Wood’s uproarious Plan Nine from Outer Space, but for my taste, it’s too slick. Instead, I nominate The Creeping Terror (1960), the tale of a creature from outer space who lands on Earth with plans for world domination. Instead, it spends 90 minutes bumbling around the woods, pausing to eat a fisherman and his son and to interrupt a high school dance. Not bad enough? The monster is played by three guys wearing clown shoes crouching under a rug. Still not bad enough? The director, Vic Savage, lost the original soundtrack, but that show-must-go-on spirit triumphed over adversity. Savage hired a narrator to relate the storyline in a deadpan tone more appropriate for an audio book on home repair.”