For the last couple weeks, John LaRue, curator of The Droid You’re Looking For — one of the funniest movie blogs on the internet — has been posting top ten lists from other movie lovers which feature their favorite Criterion releases. I was invited to take part, and after much deliberation I was able to whittle my list down to ten films (plus a handful of honorable mentions). You can check out my full list by clicking the banner above.
In what has become an annual tradition, I have decided to embark in a third round of the 50 Movies Project. The premise is simple — I have put together a list of 50 movies that I feel I absolutely must see in order to continue my progression as a film lover. With so many films to see, it’s easy to get off track and forget about some of the essentials. This is my way of making sure I watch those that have been on my “must see” list for too long.
The Battle of Algiers 
Director: Gillo Pontecorvo
Screenplay: Gillo Pontecorvo, Franco Solinas
Starring: Brahim Hadjadj, Jean Martin, Yacef Saadi
Running Time: 121 minutes
Reason for inclusion: This is considered one of the greatest and most important war/political films ever made.
Accolades: Golden Lion winner at the Venice Film Festival, three Oscar nominations in two separate years (Best Foreign Language Film, Best Director, Best Screenplay), ranked #6 in Empire magazine’s “The 100 Best Films Of World Cinema”
It’s rare to find a war film that doesn’t pledge its allegiance to one side of the battle. In the U.S., we are so accustomed to films that either act as tributes to our soldiers, or those that paint us as bloodthirsty warmongers. There is usually no middle ground.
The Battle of Algiers has no commitment to either of the two sides it shows at war, and that’s what makes it so refreshing and still relevant.
The film acts as a capsule of the Algerian War (1954-62) between native Algerians and its French colonists, with the greatest emphasis placed on the Battle of Algiers. This is a war I knew nothing about, but the film does a good job getting viewers up to speed. The first half of the movie follows along with the urban guerrilla tactics of the insurgents in the National Liberation Front (FLN). Their goal is simple: they want their freedom back, and they will do anything to get it.
Many of the acts of the FLN could be considered flat-out terrorism. There is one particularly gripping scene in which a trio of Algerian women get haircuts and ditch their traditional garb in order to casually stroll past the French checkpoints in their city. Once through, each woman obtains a bomb, heads to a populated area and leaves their purse — containing the bomb — behind in a hidden location. The destruction is horrifying and we are there to see it all — the effects are made worse due to the fact that we are shown shots of people sitting down, eating, talking, basically not knowing that they are living the last moments of their lives. The shot of a little boy eating ice cream slayed me.
With the FLN it’s all or nothing, and while we can empathize with their request for freedom, we sure as hell can’t sympathize with their terrorist actions.
The second half of the film focuses on the French army paratroopers who are sent in to find and kill all of those active in the FLN. This group of elite soldiers, led by Lieutenant-Colonel Mathieu (Jean Martin), are there to do their job, nothing more, nothing less. Their tactics are as ruthless as the rebels — torture, assassinations and lynch mobs are just some of the Draconian methods they use. Their method is to systematically take down the movement, one-by-one, before ultimately reaching the head of the group.
The Battle of Algiers is shot documentary-style, making the presentation even more effective. While everything is staged, certain scenes could easily pass as news reel footage. Director Gillo Pontecorvo made sure to include a disclaimer at the beginning of the film stating that this was shot live. The cast is composed of almost entirely unknowns, with Jean Martin being the only professional actor in the bunch. As such, there is little in the way of character development; instead, Pontecorvo relies on the war itself to tell the story. We know some of the participants in the revolution (the actual insurgent, Saadi Yacef, even plays someone loosely based on himself), but they are bit players in the grand scheme of things. This is a battle between two nations.
The influence of The Battle of Algiers is still widely present today. In 2003, during the beginning of the Iraq War, the film was screened for Pentagon employees. In the late 60s, it was mandatory viewing for Black Panthers. The film is perhaps most relevant today, given the recent Arab uprisings in Egypt, Libya and other countries. This is one that has stood the test of time, and will almost certainly continue to do so.
Due to the overwhelming success of my initial Movies Project, I decided to do a second round for 2012. This time around I put a greater emphasis on directors I am not familiar with, but I also tried to compile a mix of different genres and eras. This will be an ongoing project with the finish date being sometime this year.
Blow Out 
Director: Brian De Palma
Starring: John Travolta, Nancy Allen and John Lithgow
Runtime: 107 minutes
I don’t watch the news. It’s too depressing.
Frequently cited as one of Quentin Tarantino’s top three favorite films, Blow Out is a gripping thriller that has built up a bit of a cult following since its 1981 release. Last year, the movie was treated to an expansive Criterion Collection package, which was a big reason why I became so interested in seeing this.
John Travolta stars as B-movie sound technician Jack Terry, a man who has worked on such classic titles as Blood Beach, Blood Beach Two, and Bordello of Blood. One night, while he is out recording frogs, owls and other night sounds, Jack witnesses a horrific car crash. One of the car’s tires blows out, sending the vehicle and its inhabitants plunging over a bridge and into the river below. Jack frantically dives in to help, and pulls out the girl trapped inside, Sally (Allen). The other victim, later found out to be a governor and presidential hopeful, is not so lucky, and he dies on scene.
Initial signs point to this being a “freak” car accident, but Jack, being a sound guy and all, is positive that he heard a gunshot before the blow out. Revisiting the audio from the evening seems to confirm this, and now he wants to dig deeper and try to figure out just who the hell shot out the tire.
Now here’s where shit gets real: there was another person at the river that evening, Manny Karp (Dennis Franz). He recorded the entire incident on film, and he begins shopping his photos around to all sorts of tabloids. With some particularly helpful prior knowledge, he was at the scene to make a quick buck. He didn’t shoot the gun, however.
That was Burke (Lithgow), an assassin who was hired as part of a greater political conspiracy. The plan (allegedly) was never to have him murder anyone, but Burke decided to take things to another level on his own. Now he is hot on the tail of Jack and Sally, with plans to kill both of them and finally cover up this political scandal once and for all.
If Blow Out sounds like a film with deep layers embedded with conspiracies, well, it is. There are obvious allusions to real life events such as Watergate, the JFK assassination and the Chappaquiddick incident. There are so many ideas in place, and all of them are covered remarkably. Just as Jack Terry methodically edits sound for B-movies, director Brian De Palma carefully crafts a film that connects on many different levels.
Part of the film’s brilliance also lies heavily on John Travolta’s shoulders. This may very well be his finest performance, as he is extra charismatic as a regular guy who just so happened to be in the right place at the wrong time. Much can be said about John Lithgow’s icy cold take as the assassin/serial killer, a role he would expound upon even more nearly 30 years later in TV’s Dexter. Nancy Allen is passable at best, but she does not detract from the film’s quality.
There were moments during the second act where I felt the film was kicking its tires a bit (pun intended?), but the epic conclusion really renewed my sense of appreciation. The ending, draped in patriotic symbolism, is one that I will never forget.
With its grandeur release from Criterion, Blow Out has much deservedly reached a new generation of fans (myself included). Fans of crime, mystery and thrillers ought to give this a watch.