Blade Runner – heartbreaking, melancholic, mystical and ethereal. Not only is its underlying message one which has baffled philosophers for millennia (what makes us human?), but it is so beautifully filmed, so atmospheric, that it can’t help but leave an indelible mark. Its cinematic power is all the more impressive given its complex and challenged gestation (as explained in the documentary Dangerous Days and the book Future Noir: The Making of Blade Runner). The use of light by Ridley Scott and his Cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth is nothing short of masterly, and it showcases superb use of matte painting to achieve sci-fi special effects in film which still look beautiful and cutting edge. Add Vangelis’ haunting soundtrack to the mix and you have a truly extraordinary piece of cinema. N.B The ‘Ultimate Cut’ is the best version to watch!
Michael Mann’s Heat, Manhunter, Collateral, Thief and Miami Vice are all very good. Heat is virtually perfect as far as crime thriller movies go, with a great script and cast. The smouldering night-time vistas of L.A. add even more gravitas to an already enchanting production. Collateral too gloriously showcases nocturnal Los Angeles, much of it made possible by Mann’s pioneering use of digital cinematography. He also uses the high sensitivity of digital video to great effect in Miami Vice, and even manages to make digital noise in video look good, which is no mean feat. Manhunter melds a moody soundtrack and chiaroscuro-influenced cinematography to channel a gloriously ’80’s vibe and produce a powerfully atmospheric piece of cinema. Appearing a quarter of a century later, Nicholas Winding Refn’s excellent movie Drive would seem to pay great homage to Mann’s ’80s work.
Other notable mentions:
Ben Affleck’s Gone Baby, Gone (based on a Dennis Lehane novel) and The Town – gritty, but artful homages to contemporary Boston.
Good Will Hunting
City of God
Winter’s Bone (based on the novel written by the very brilliant Daniel Woodrell)
The Graduate – fantastically ‘of the era’, and yet at the same time it also manages to be timeless. The cinematography is laden with brilliantly simplistic imagery and a mix of ‘hidden’ camera wide-angle scene establishing shots and steadicam-esque work.
The Wire – not a movie, but perhaps better than the whole lot above. Quite simply the finest piece of media I’ve ever seen. This series will rightly go down in history. Homer’s Odyssey for our times – a complex sprawling masterpiece with rich characters, gripping plot, a documentary of ‘The War on Drugs’, urban decay, social injustice and poverty, and a moving critique of the neo-liberal social reforms ushered in by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. The documentary The House I Live In is also very good, and features The Wire’s creator David Simon. It systematically analyses and debates the merits of ‘The War on Drugs’, highlighting the failures of a blanket heavy-handed approach which fails to deal with the underlying issues of drug abuse.
Recommendations too to Game of Thrones for its excellent plotting and characterisation, but most notably for its superb thematic references to politics and the abuse of power – certainly a must watch for any students of international relations. A special mention should be given too to True Detective, which uses incredible cinematography and an atmospheric soundtrack to create a gloriously moody series.