The 400 Blows (1959, Francois Truffaut)
I can't think of another finer film depicting childhood than Truffaut's timeless debut. Bergman's Fanny & Alexander also deserves equal praise with Terrence Malick's The Tree Of Life as a more recent example. But Bergman and Malick - though much to their talent - were utterly ambitious and epic in scope despite their films humble and intimate moments. The 400 Blows is effortless in its simplicity, a film that is both lyrical and uplifting yet harsh and grounded, like childhood itself. The largely autobiographical film based on Truffaut's own childhood experiences has had a lasting effect on cinema which is evident in films as recent as This Is England. But Truffaut's film is influential to such a varying degree it overwhelms this writer to even begin to express its shaping of modern cinema. This film alone is one of the most praised French films on its own, when placed within the movement it helped start along with Alain Resnais' Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959) and Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless/À bout de souffle (1960) and its stature in film history is priceless. At its centre is a startlingly assured performance by then 15 year old Jean-Pierre Léaud, his role of the young Antoine Doinel he would reprise in the five films that followed depicting Antoine's further exploits as he enters adulthood. Scenes such as the gym teacher loosing his pupils one by one as they jog through the streets is as joyous to watch every time, the same goes for the boys taunting of their teacher behind his back as he recites literature. Against the childish glee that certainly runs through the film, there is the unavoidable fact that the story of Antoine is a tragedy. A tragedy that rings true as we see this misunderstood boy being neglected by his parents and eventually entering military reform schooling. In the first scene Antoine is caught in school with a picture of a pinup model being passed around the class, what at first seems like a common misunderstanding actually propels the boy on a dissent into further problems. The ending is one of the most beautifully understated pieces of cinema ever filmed; an extended tracking shot that dreamily never wishes to end before that famous freeze-frame officially stamping its melancholy finish, a perfect finish to a perfect film.
True Romance (1993, Tony Scott)
Revisiting True Romance had been on my mind for several months but it wasn't until the news of director Tony Scott's tragic demise last week that I made the extra effort to spin it one more time. The first script written by the now titan of cinema Quentin Tarantino, True Romance marks a career high for both its writer and director. With a stellar ensemble cast and a script that still feels fresh and punchy, it certainly hadn't dated as much as I feared it would have. Perhaps it's the fairytale quality to the violent couple on the run scenario that has reserved its shelf life; Hans Zimmer's somewhat reworking of Carl Orff's music for Terrence Malick's Badlands has a big hand in that factor, adding a removed dreamlike atmosphere throughout. When the opening credits began, I found myself overwhelmed by the back-to back talent; not many films boast the names Gary Oldman, Dennis Hopper, and Christoph Waltz in such quick succession, and that's not all. Brad Pitt turns in a rather hilarious comic performance as stoner roommate Floyd, but his like most of the performaces are fleeting if not memorable. Everyone has their time to shine before they quickly depart; Gary Oldman as the nasty pimp Drexl is just inspired, though not quite as inspired as the writing on display in the infamous 'Sicilian' speech delivered by Hopper to Walken's 'anti-christ' gangster Vincenzo Coccetti. That scene long served as the high point in Tarantino's career, a widely thought opinion that the director became frustrated with as time went on; a frustration that would lead him to consciously attempt to top it when writing the opening scene to his Inglourious Basterds. Whether he did in fact better the tense stand off of words in True Romance is debatable. Patricia Arquette is just adorable as Alabama, the call girl on the run with comic book/movie nerd Clarence (Christian Slater). Like Clarence's violent outburst towards Drexl, through his gentile exterior, she also is capable of grotesque acts despite appearing as sweet as her boyfriend's coffee. Her showdown with James Gandolfini's gangster stands as a major highlight in a film with many. Tony Scott does a wonderful job in telling Tarantino's story, the words jump off the actors lips in the lyrical way in which we've since become so used to. The choice to linearise the script was also wise, giving us characters to build with rather than confounding us in a redundant guessing game adding nothing to the story other than mere convolution.
Watch of the week: Due to there only being two films this week this is an almost impossible pick, however, due to it being a favourite of mine during my early teens and its lasting effect, True Romance wins. Tarantino claims the film as his most personal work and it's sure easy to see the genuine guise of personality, experience, and fantasy that he poured into his script.
Click here to read Dennis Hopper on the infamous scene he shared with Christopher Walken.