The Great Dictator (Charlie Chaplin, 1940). The audaciousness of Chaplin making a comedy that mocks Adolf Hitler — predicated at least somewhat on the two men’s shared taste in mustache grooming choices — is undercut, though only slightly, by the fact that he eventually regretted it, openly stating that he wouldn’t have created The Great Dictator had he been aware of the full extent of the Nazis’ crimes against humanity. Delivered as World War II was still in the ramping up process, the film is a brilliantly scathing satire, not just of Hitler’s brutal ambitions but of war itself and the lust for geopolitical power. Chaplin plays the dual role of a despotic leader with designs on his neighbors and a vile animosity towards the Jewish citizenry of his own country, as well as a gentle Jewish barber, a veteran of an earlier war whose shellshocked memory loss imbues him with a kind innocence. The two characters look exactly alike, which isn’t remarked upon in the slightest, a detail that signals Chaplin’s welcome preoccupation with thematic elements over the rigorous kneading of the plot into proper shape. The Great Dictator offers ample, pointed commentary of everything from the callousness of leaders who’ll never step near a battlefield to the acquiescence of the persecuted. It’s a shocking bold work.
Whiplash (Damien Chazelle, 2014). In many respects, the story embedded in Chazelle’s breakthrough film is bracingly simple and direct. A music student (Miles Teller) comes under the influence of a notoriously demanding instructor (J.K. Simmons) who’ll broach no weakness whatsoever in developing his competitive jazz ensemble. Many of the storyline bears are struck as dependably as a standard rhythm. As the film suggests, it’s not the notes on the page but how they’re played. Chazelle brings a bruising authority and a breathless energy to the film, straining for new pinnacles of delirious intensity every time the structure of the narrative threatens to become too comfortable. If the film seemingly siding with the theory that genius can only be achieved through punishing, abusive hardship is a little tough to take, that’s in part a measure of how empathetically Chazelle has told his story. Simmons is getting all the awards season accolades, and while I’ll not chafe at the likely conclusion of the veteran character actor winding up with an Oscar to call his own, I think Teller gives an even better performance, tapping into how quickly neediness and desire can curdle into entitlement and arrogance.
Oblivion (Joseph Kosinski, 2013). This is what star-driven, big budget, sci-fi tedium looks like. Kosinski apparently leveraged the surprise box office success of the lousy Tron sequel, his directorial debut, into this project, allowing him to revive a graphic novel he couldn’t get published (he never finished it in that form, later claiming he always saw it as little more than development for a film that happened to be funding by an eager comics company). The plot involves a future Earth that’s been battered by interstellar adversaries and is being harvested for power to help fuel a colony of human evacuees on another planet. There are drones and clones and scrubby rebels in cool sunglasses and leathery body armor. There are some reasonably science fiction premises built into the story, but too much of it plays out in the most predictable fashion imaginable making the whole film feel like a wagon train of tired tropes. In the lead role, Tom Cruise continues to demonstrate that he’s lost all connection to whatever small, occasional fidelity with nuance he used have.
The Red Shoes (Emeric Pressburger and Michael Powell, 1948). The lush, intimate, carefully detailed cinematography of Jack Cardiff is justly lauded at every opportunity. It’s not for nothing that he’s one of the rare artisans behind the camera to become the subject of a feature documentary. The dance sequences in this ballet drama are the obvious artistic centerpiece, but the construction of shot after shot is a marvel. Watching a boisterous group of kids thunder into a posh theater ahead of a ballet performance is to see a glorious spectacle that rivals and ultimately outdoes any more overtly epic tour de force found in a legion of artistically accomplished cinematic sagas. The backstage melodrama is defined by a floridness that perfect suits the film, especially when some pronouncement of disdain is being delivered by theatrical producer Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook) with just the right strain of imperious upheaval. The story is fine, but the image is really the thing. The team of Pressburger and Powell shaped the visuals within the frame like few others.
Design for Living (Ernst Lubitsch, 1933). Beyond the chance to marvel over the characteristic deftness of the famed Lubitsch touch, the primary appeal of Design for Living comes from taking note of its jovial embrace of a fairly salacious storyline, right before the Hays Code started clamping down on such shenanigans. Based on a Noël Coward play from the previous year, the film concerns a female commercial artist (Miriam Hopkins) equally attracted to couple of chums (Frederic March and Gary Cooper), both of whom are struggling creative types. Though hardly a Fifty Shades of Grey precursor, the proudly hints at more complicated romantic entanglements than an early pledge of “no sex” would suggest. Featuring a screenplay by the great Ben Hecht, the film is playful and charming, with an especially nice performance by Cooper. For all that stolidness that typifies his signature works, he had a remarkable gift for comedy.