Another war movie, this time in Vietnam, where Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen) relates his experiences fighting the enemy, coping in a tough environment, and dealing with the conflicts of his fellow platoon members. There’s not that much of a story in this film; much of it is showing off just what it was like in that time and place – the director, Oliver Stone, served in Vietnam himself. It does a good job of conveying how out of their element the American troops are, and the atmosphere amongst them – seeing these soldiers partying and wearing football shirts feels slightly surreal. There’s also a scene where the soldiers take out their fear and anger on an enemy village harbouring a weapons cache, which manages to be incredibly disturbing and bleak. It takes care with little details, like when we briefly see a soldier deliberately injuring himself to be sent home. The main weakness is the combat sequences, which can sometimes seem to blend together. While it doesn’t feel especially fresh now, I can imagine it was bringing a new perspective when it first came out.
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)
In 1920s Mexico, two down-on-their-luck men, Dobbs and Curtin, decide to try and make their fortune prospecting for gold. Teaming up with an old timer named Howard, they head into the Sierra Madre mountains, and soon find the gold they’re looking for – only for tensions to rise as distrust and greed start getting the better of them.
I went into this film expecting an old-time adventure, and it does indeed have some adventurous elements: chopping through forest, climbing mountains, and fighting off hostile bandits. Really, however, it’s about the dynamic between the three main characters: first there’s Howard’s interactions with the two less experienced men, and then things get really interesting once the gold starts piling up. Unnecessary suspicions arise, gradually turning to paranoia and outright villainy, and opportunities for certain characters to get their priorities straight don’t always stick. The film manages to keep generating new situations that will keep up the conflict and tension; and Humphrey Bogart’s performance as Dobbs, the most questionable character, is especially good – he looks the part right from the beginning. It’s a fairly simple story, but very engaging, and I was as satisfied with the ending as the characters themselves were.
Life is Beautiful (1997)
I should point out that for many of the films on my list for this year, I’ve gone in completely fresh, without really knowing much about them except that they were highly rated. Such was the case for Life Is Beautiful, an Italian film directed by and starring Roberto Benigni, and the experience of watching this film is not one I’m going to forget in a hurry. It begins in Italy in 1939, where the main character Guido falls in love, and pursues the woman in question, Dora, with impressive determination. Their love story covers most of the first half of the film, and after all the serious and sombre films I’ve watched this year, this was a joy. The cinematography is colourful, Guido’s antics – involving a lot of physical comedy – are genuinely funny, and he’s such a likeable and enthusiastic character that you can’t not root for him.
Eventually, Guido and Dora do get married and have a son, Giosue – at which point they all get taken to a concentration camp.
As you can imagine, at this point, it’s not such a happy film – but it’s the approach that is chosen to handle the subject which creates a serious impact. We see Guido still trying to play the clown for his son’s benefit, and putting an innocent slant on everything around them, only now it’s to protect his son from the horrific reality that he’s too young to deal with – in other words, to convince him that Life Is Beautiful. The humour that was so pleasant in the first half now becomes utterly heartbreaking. And there’s no ignoring the truth of the Holocaust, with the stories Giosue hears that his father has to try and dismiss. There’s one particularly chilling scene where Guido almost walks into a massive pile of naked bodies, which appear through a haze, just enough for you to be certain what they are. Everything about this film works perfectly; it’s unique, hard-hitting and unforgettable.