Picnic at Hanging Rock (Peter Weir, 1975)
As gorgeous and soft as this film looks, it is deeply unsettling and at times even creepy, and that duality is what makes it so fascinating. The unsolved mystery of three young girls and a teacher who disappear on a daytime trip to Hanging Rock ignites the curiosity and desire of a group of local boys, the last to see them alive. The most beautiful girl, Miranda, is turned into an idealized image, almost angelic, by the boys and her surviving best friend, who is devastated by the tragedy. The film suggests a supernatural world or powerful forces of nature that rise out of the untamed Australian landscape and unleash the emotions of the repressed characters. It’s a very powerful, haunting film, with incredible atmosphere, enduring because of its ambiguity.
The Virgin Suicides (Sofia Coppola, 2000)
This feels like the soul sister of Picnic to me. They both idealize the blonde and the feminine allure in dreamy, sun-dappled imagery with a dark undercurrent. This film dives further into the emptiness left behind when someone leaves you without explanation, and the way that mystery plays into the imagination when accompanied by beauty and desire. The aching of youth, for love, acceptance, or even just rock-and-roll, is captured perfectly in this snapshot of 60s suburbia, in the household of the Lisbon girls and the binoculars of the boys who watch them from their window.
Near Dark (Kathryn Bigelow, 1987)
This unique fusion of horror and Western is marred by an overly conventional ending, but boy, is the ride there fun. Transplanting traditional vampire myth into modern Texas, the film has a very sultry, seedy atmosphere complemented by the colorful redneck, bloodsucking characters. Bill Paxton is especially memorable as an unhinged and blackly comic vampire and Lance Henkrison is delightfully menacing as the leader of the clan. The fast paced combined with Tangerine Dream’s moody score creates a wonderfully compelling and unusual take on a familiar narrative.
The Fearless Vampire Killers (Roman Polanski, 1967)
I love how silly this movie is, yet the attention to detail in its visuals is just striking. On the surface, it has all the elements of a romantic, gothic adventure, with its beautiful sets, costumes, and snow-capped mountains. Sharon Tate is at her most stunning as the damsel in distress, and the film is full of humor and great sight gags. Ambitious comedies like this are rare, and this one has fantastic aesthetics to boot.
Eyes Wide Shut (Stanley Kubrick, 1999)
A mesmerizing journey into the dark corners of sexuality and marriage with unmatched atmosphere. Kubrick’s sharp eye is insightful about the temptations of infidelity and the tendency to draw veils around our desires, to repress our feelings until they manifest in dangerous and mysterious ways. The portrayal of human relationships in this film is quite fascinating, as Bill realizes that he understands as little about his wife’s fantasy life as he does the masked strangers at the cult meeting he stumbles into. Yet they are closely bonded despite their secrecy, and his realization of this after his brushes with lust and death, give the film an emotional resonance beyond its visual and auditory pleasures.
Exotica (Atom Egoyan, 1994)
In many ways, this film is somewhat deceiving. Its overt sexuality is steeped in melancholy and pain, and its characters have far more complexity than they at first suggest. What is supposed to be titillating is shaded with sadness, and the rich atmosphere of the club Exotica is exposed as a hideout for damaged souls. These layers, along with the nonlinear storytelling and overlapping characters, make it a film to be explored and analyzed, not simply experienced for the sensuality of the surface. An incredible acting ensemble, led by Bruce Greenwood and Elias Koteas, come together for an ending that devastates and resonates long after the credits roll.
The New World (Terrence Malick, 2005)
It’s difficult for me to put in words how much I love this film. The languid pacing, the naturalistic performances, the reverent beauty of nature captured in such pristine detail, it all comes together to create something that’s really an experience. It does feel like it transports you back in time, when life was both simpler and harder, and emotions were felt much more deeply. The astonishing work of Q’orianka Kilcher places us right in the perspective of Pocahontas, as she navigates love and adulthood on the shores of two different worlds, and inside her own heart. The result is both incredibly intimate and epic in scope, truly capturing what it feels like to discover your own strength and beauty, as well as all that in the world around you.
All the Real Girls (David Gordon Green, 2003)
This quiet, tender film truly understands the fear and uncertainty that comes with first love, and letting your guard down to trust someone. It’s so difficult to fully embrace feelings that intense and new, as much as you might want to, and the tendency of these characters to destroy their relationship rather than break down the walls inside themselves is heartbreakingly honest. Yet, they come to see that despite the pain and betrayal, it’s impossible to simply walk away, and someone that you have cared for so deeply stays with you forever. The honesty of this film holds a lot of comfort for me, as the specificity of their struggles are made universal through the revealing script and beautiful, brave performances.
Amadeus (Milos Forman, 1984)
This is a great argument against historical accuracy in film, heh. Where a lot of biopics end up dry and uninvolving, especially those set far enough in the past that the characters become unrelatable, Amadeus is wildly entertaining and feels fresh and modern because it takes liberties. “Wolfy” Mozart is a wonderful character, a childlike hedonist with a staggering talent and a ridiculous laugh. His bitter rival Salieri gives the film a dark, tragic edge, as he desires the talent that only he has the temperament and religious affiliation to appreciate on the highest level. The music is a character itself here, soaring, grand, and truly worthy of all the drama it causes. Mozart and Salieri writing the Requiem together is one of the greatest musical moments film has ever seen.
The Piano (Jane Campion, 1993)
Ada is a mute from childhood by choice, and the strength of her will and passion of her spirit tumble out in her music, from the piano that she uses as her voice. When she is separated from the instrument after arriving in New Zealand to marry a man she has never met, the desire for self-expression takes her on a journey of sexual awakening she never expected. Her fiery temper and repressed sensuality attract the rough Baines, and their initial attraction deepens into something purer and more freeing. The intensity of the wild landscapes reflects the powerful emotions of the characters, unleashing their dark sides, but ultimately liberating Ada as she travels across the earth and deep inside herself to find peace within her troubled soul.