La Dolce Vita (1960)
Like 8 1/2, La Dolce Vita is an Italian film directed by Federico Fellini – it follows a journalist named Marcello on his journey through life, searching for pleasure and satisfaction among the society of Rome. It certainly reminded me a lot of 8 1/2: an unfaithful protagonist struggling to find direction; using celebrity and religion as themes; and the characters even speaking a mixture of languages. The film takes an episodic approach, with a number of independent stories; these are ultimately linked by Marcello himself, and the recurring scenario of rich people who may look like they have it all, but are constantly dissatisfied and looking for ways to amuse themselves. There is a good mixture of tones, from light-hearted to sombre, and it paints a number of different pictures of the world it takes place in. I can’t say I fully grasped its meaning, except perhaps the necessity of love and purpose in life; Marcello doesn’t appear to have found either by the end.
This historical epic directed by Stanley Kubrick tells the story of Spartacus, the Thracian slave and gladiator who led a revolt among his fellow slaves against the might of ancient Rome. This film gets just about everything right – except that the second act moves a bit slowly – to produce an entertaining experience. It generates a range of sub-plots and sources of conflict very quickly, and manages to include just about everything the audience wants: drama, action, intrigue and romance. It definitely succeeds in stirring emotions: we become engaged in the fate of the rebelling slaves as we see them living happily together and invoking a sense of true community; and we are inspired by their ability to make the Romans sweat by coming together as one. It’s not just about the slaves, however: politicking among the Roman officials plays an important role and adds an extra layer to the whole thing. Spartacus doesn’t have as much action as, say, Braveheart – much of the fighting happens offscreen, and the climactic battle is over quite quickly – but what is onscreen is so good that it hardly matters.
In this crime film, Al Pacino plays Vincent Hanna, an LAPD detective trying to track down experienced robber Neil McCauley (Robert de Niro) before he commits his next grand heist. This was a film I should have really enjoyed on paper, but ultimately didn’t engage me to a significant degree. The profiles of the characters were interesting, and the acting is certainly excellent – particularly the scene where Hanna and McCauley talk to each other in a cafe, being honest with each other without being able to do anything to each other there and then – but I found myself not caring about them that much. The story, too, has some good intrigue but was only okay overall. The instrumentals are good, and the ending is pretty poignant, but…yeah, just OK for me.
I didn’t feel like I truly grasped this film until I was about an hour in, so I definitely think I’d appreciate it more on a second viewing. It tells a number of interwoven stories, taking place over the same period of time, for a range of characters who are interconnected to various degrees. Its structure is comparable to Love Actually, except that this ain’t no romantic comedy: pretty much all the characters are driven by guilt, regret and bottled-up feelings of some description, and all together, they bring a wide range of different problems and responses to the table. Even in the third act, when they’re trying to deal with their regrets, many don’t do it in the healthiest ways; and by the end, you’re not sure of the direction that everyone will go in. The acting is excellent all-around – I was particularly impressed by Tom Cruise and Julianne Moore – and the music is especially good, building along with the characters’ emotional states and bringing extra cohesion to the whole thing.
The Sting (1973)
Robert Redford plays Johnny Hooker, a con artist who gets into trouble when he unwittingly targets a courier for a dangerous racketeer, Doyle Lonnegan. After Hooker’s partner is murdered by Lonnegan’s men, he decides to get revenge, teaming up with more experienced grifter Henry Gondorff (Paul Newman) to cheat Lonnegan out of a fortune. The construction of the story is the best thing about this film, particularly in the later stages: there are some clever elements – like how Lonnegan continues trying to have Hooker killed without realising that the man helping him to cheat at horseracing actually is Hooker – and some excellent twists, like the identity of Lonnegan’s best assassin, Salino. The ending was the real kicker: it gave me a shock and left me thinking “Wow. This was supposed to be a comedy, right?”, only to find that what happened was just a gag too. There’s also some great acting from the main players, generating tension or humour where appropriate.
There’s no doubt that watching all these films in the past year has been a worthwhile experience, which has expanded my understanding of film in general. I only gave five of the 53 films a rating of 3/5 or less: Annie Hall, Manhattan, Raging Bull, Casino and Taxi Driver. Notably, two of these are Woody Allen films and the other three are by Martin Scorsese; I’ve been learning a lot about my personal tastes too (though I did enjoy another Scorsese film, The Departed).
I gave another five films a rating of 5/5, for a few different reasons. Gone with the Wind and Strangers on a Train were both expertly crafted in terms of story, characters and pacing to create brilliant viewing experiences. Life is Beautiful had serious emotional power. Before Sunrise and The Grand Budapest Hotel were unlike any films of their kind I had seen before: The Grand Budapest Hotel was uniquely quirky, and Before Sunrise – my favourite of the 53 – got me more engaged than I had any right to expect in what is basically a film about a young couple wandering around and talking to each other for a whole night.
There are still plenty of films I haven’t yet seen and want to, but this year, I’ll be taking it more casually.