Lumet: Running on Empty (1988)

One of Sidney Lumet’s most mercurial films, Running on Empty centres on a countercultural couple, Annie and Arthur Pope, played by Christine Lahti and Judge Reinhold, who’ve been on the run ever since they blew up a napalm factory in 1971. In the process, they’ve managed to raise two sons, Danny and Harry, played by River Phoenix and Jonas Abry, while keeping one step ahead of the law. At one level, the film’s generated by what happens when they reach a town that threatens to hold them down, break their momentum. Yet it’s also buoyed up and propelled by the fact that this could never really happen, if only because Lumet chooses to shoot Annie and Arthur as environmentalists more than political outcasts, which isn’t to say that their politics are displaced or dismissed, but that they balloon out into an activist ambience that’s as amorphous as it is inescapable. Everything they touch turns into something they’re fighting for, especially “the heartland of the nation, the small communities,” which unfold before their windscreen with a kind of imminent nostalgia, an environmentalist prescience that their time may be limited. If anything does have the power to slacken Annie and Arthur's movement, it’s the janitor they accidentally blinded during the napalm explosion, who haunts every shot with all the eyes that will never see it, allowing Lumet to showcase his skills as a location director more than any of his films since Prince of the City. Of course, this time around, he’s jettisoned from his perennial New York backdrop, which bookends the narrative, and lurks around the fringes as a brooding, unforgettable possibility. But that’s also what allows him to generate such a free-floating luminosity of place, cushioning his mise-en-scene in escalating hush until it’s more like a silent movie, a subterranean language of gestures and postures. As the crises build, everyone seems to have less and less to say, drawing us into the reflexive softness of a family whose lives have just got quieter and quieter, further and further from all but the most untravelled highways and byways of Main Street U.S.A. For them, radicalism is an art of stasis, a study in stillness – the stillness you can only distill from the most rigorous momentum – as they move with the eye of the storm, seeking out the few safe harbours where they can still listen to America. And Lumet moves with them, wrapping us deep in the woods, as if searching for the romantic roots of civil disobedience, lingering hearthside confidences, parlor dreams of revolution that his camera remakes in its own transcendental image.


Redford: A River Runs Through It (1992)

Robert Redford has always been a passionate curator of nostalgic Americana, but he brings a particularly elegiac edge to A River Runs Through It, his adaptation of Norman Maclean’s autobiography of the same name. Set in the Rocky Mountains in the early twentieth century, it’s about a pair of brothers – Norman (Craig Sheffer) and Paul (Brad Pitt)  – who come of age against the kind of landscapes that Aaron Copland might have dreamed of, vistas and visions that set out to rival the greatest canvases of American Romanticism. Like Maclean’s writing, it’s textural, rather than expository, a series of impressionistic incidents anchored in Norman and Paul’s love of fly-fishing, which they get from their father (Tom Skeritt), a Presbyterian minister. For him, it’s the closest he can get to “God’s rhythms,” and the film tries to lock itself into those rhythms, with all the simplicity and majesty of a Protestant sermon, as Redford sketches out a series of landscapes that are too imposing or overwhelming to simply calm or relax you, but too tempered by the river to leave room for any more awful or imposing sublimity either. What does remain is a robust, bracing sense of the open air - the Macleans are descended from highland Scots – that makes Norman and Paul feel as if they’re perpetually plunging into a cold, clear, mountain stream, quivering with an ever so slightly uncomfortable awareness of being alive. Pitt’s face, in particular is incredible, glittering with a million little micro-movements at once, until it feels like a kind of Romantic ideal, the vision of rapturous communion with nature that lies behind Norman’s eventual move to Chicago to become a Professor of Romantic poetry. It is the face of Thoreau, the face of Emerson, and that’s an incredibly imaginative and innovative cinematic vision, not least because the rest of the film is quite staid and sepia-toned in its nostalgia, devolving so subliminally that you don’t realise how much of an elegy it is until the very last scene. Still, Pitt’s face is what remains – that and the landscapes it generates, and between them there's a whole world, more than enough to leave your “soul restored and imagination stirred.”


Waters: Mean Girls (2004)

Mean Girls is a kind of update of Clueless, released roughly a decade after Amy Hecklerling’s makeover masterpiece. In this case, though, the story is told from the point of view of the person getting the makeover – Cady Heron (Lindsay Lohan), who finds herself adopted by “Queen Bee” Regina George (Rachel McAdams) – which is perhaps why the film itself is less confidently or emphatically of its time than Clueless. Where Cher’s narration made for a film that was inviolable in its sense of hip, its ability to make over even the most uncool viewer with a new canon of taste, Cady’s narration makes it feel a bit more like Mean Girls is trying to articulate a period of transition. In part, that’s a matter of hindsight, since one of the odd things about the film is that it is almost entirely about gossip, but also set on the very cusp of the social media revolution. While it might be a bit of a stretch to describe it as Gossip Girl in filigree, it’s driven by odd, contorted scenes in which everyone at Cady’s new school seems to be present in the same room, or in the same space, even when it seems physically impossible or narratively implausible – especially to Cady, who’s spent her whole childhood on African zoological reserves, rarely surrounded by more than a couple of humans at a time. Every conversation feels at least four-way, semi-networked, while the whole drama is driven by the “Burn Book,” an insult catalogue for staff and students that the Queen Bees compose in Regina George’s bedroom, and which comes back to bite them in the final act. To say that it’s about online bullying is perhaps to ignore the mild comic palette of it all, but there’s certainly something prescient – and original – about the sheer scale with which this collection of utterances made outside of school manages to find its way back into the school population, trolling and trawling every classroom and corridor when it finally goes viral. Like Cady herself, it makes the film feel a little uncertain about what it means to be a teenager, let alone a funny teenager, perhaps explaining why Tiny Fey is so much more hesitant than Heckerling to craft an idiolect all of its own. Certainly, there are new catchphrases, but they’re often about dissing other catchphrases (“stop trying to make fetch happen”), rather than building a language on the scope and scale of Cher's. In years to come, people might look back on it at the last wave of teenspeak that wasn’t entirely colonised by social media – you can just see the incipient wilt, like an exotic, hothouse bloom that’s been exposed to its first few seconds of fresh air - but for now it’s strangely familiar and unfamiliar, closer and more distant than Clueless.


Allen: Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993)

In the late 80s and early 90s, Woody Allen released a string of fairly heavy movies. Between September and Husbands and Wives, a new strain of existential angst crept into his work, disquieting even his most comic moments with a brooding fixation on mortality and finitude. Add to that the fact that Allen’s personal life had more or less collapsed by the time Manhattan Murder Mystery was released, and it’s nothing less than a miracle that such a concerted will to joy could have come to fruition, let alone blossomed into Allen’s most carefree, resilient film since Annie Hall. In part, that’s because it’s essentially the original version of Annie Hall, which Allen and Marshall Brickman conceived as a murder mystery before it became the romantic comedy we know so well today. Teaming up with Brickman and Diane Keaton for the first time since Manhattan, Allen offers a great, late tribute to their collaboration, by way of two Manhattan couples – Allen and Keaton, Alan Alda and Anjelica Huston – who gradually realise that they’ve become privy to the perfect crime. None of Allen’s films are so tightly plotted, allowing him to elasticise his frenetic, handheld cinematography as never before, until it feels as if every image arrives at cross-purposes, jostling for elbow room, ebbing and flowing from frame to frame with a conversational texture and momentum that’s utterly intoxicating. On the one hand, that syncs perfectly with Allen’s screwiness, his taste for capers so crazy they’re already self-parodies. But it also introduces a new kind of classicism, almost a new stateliness, as Alvy and Annie brace themselves for 90s Manhattan, taking stock of the past with an extraordinary poise and candor. Keaton, in particular, radiates as only Allen made her radiate – it’s her film really, one of her last absolutely great roles, as she skirts all the pitfalls of baby boomers behaving badly to become something like the city’s great remedy or apology for itself, distillate of all its balms and tonics. And perhaps that’s why more of it is shot on location than any Allen feature before or since – it outdoes even Manhattan – as he curates one of his most effusive, effervescent tributes to his greatest love, finally finishing the masterpiece he started some twenty years before.


Dahl: Rounders (1998)

Rounders features Edward Norton and Matt Damon as a pair of high-stakes poker players, but it’s hard to say whether it’s a crime film or not. For the most part, it’s about their efforts to work their way into old New York money, or at least scam as many Ivy League graduates as possible, by way of the underground gambling scene. As a result, the whole film is poised at a queasy cusp where the warm glow of trust fund clubrooms washes out into the cool fluorescence of the street, creating a grungy, tungsten ambience that’s quite undecided about who are the criminals and who are the good guys. Shot through with a subterranean, startup palette, it takes its cues from the cyber underground that was starting to become prevalent in films around this time, the perpetual graveyard shift that seemed to momentarily bring noir cityscapes to life again. In fact, Damon’s voiceover, which makes up at least half the script, could quite easily play as a self-help audio book, a business guide for anyone wanting to ride the bubble that seems to be expanding with each new poker game, each new circle of gullible faces. From his perspective, poker is hardly about strategy at all, let alone chance, and more about being able to network, read people, read the room, which also means scrutinising faces for the most minor, subliminal tics and tells, invisible or ineffable to all but the most accomplished players. More than that, it’s about a heightened apprehension of style, a taste for cool that inevitably favours the younger generation, which also means that it’s not a film that subsists on tension so much as simply inhabiting Damon and Norton’s heightened palette and perception, their exquisite sense of poise. And that’s perfect for Norton’s face, which has enough twitch and glitch to bury any tell deep inside itself. He’s an actor who can perform ambiguity like a pro, which perhaps makes Rounders the film in which he comes closest to playing himself, or playing his own star image. Filmed poker can sometimes make you reach for the remote, but Rounders reminds you that it's really one of the most cinephilic of sports, a sport lived, breathed and apprehended in close-up, especially when it’s shot as atmospherically and suspensefully as it is here.