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The Matrix (1999)
A visionary and complex film, the science-fiction epic “The Matrix” employed state-of-the-art special effects, production design and computer-generated animation to tell a story—steeped in mythological, literary, and philosophical references—about a revolt against a conspiratorial regime. The film’s visual style, drawing on the work of Hong Kong action film directors and Japanese anime films, altered science fiction filmmaking practices with its innovative digital techniques designed to enhance action sequences. Directors Andy and Lana Wachowski and visual effects supervisor John Gaeta (who received an Academy Award for his efforts) expertly exploited a digitally enhanced simulation of variable-speed cinematography to gain ultimate control over time and movement within images. The film’s myriad special effects, however, do not undermine its fundamentally traditional, if paranoid, story of man against machine.
I couldn't agree more. "The Matrix" isn't my favorite film from 1999, but as I said at the start of this piece, I can't imagine anything from recent film history that more clearly pointed the way towards what mainstream cinema would look and feel like. It is an amalgam of a hundred different influences, all of them clearly visible in the finished film, but it combined them in a way that felt revolutionary at the time. The amazing thing is how it has genuinely proven to be revolutionary. I would argue that none of modern superhero cinema would have evolved the same way if "The Matrix" had not happened when it did. George Lucas may have pushed the use of digital effects and characters forward through brute force, but the Wachowskis made it artful. There are images in that first film that are still startling in their mix of horror and beauty and surreality, and I think this is perhaps the most significant entry on this year's list.
The Middleton Family at the New York World’s Fair (1939)
Produced by Westinghouse for the 1939 World’s Fair, this industrial film is a striking hour-long time capsule that documents that historic event within a moralistic narrative. Shot in Technicolor, the film follows a fictional Indiana family of five (mom, dad, son, daughter and grandma) as they venture from grandma’s quaint house in Long Island to the fair’s popular pavilions. The whole family enjoys the gleaming sights, especially the futuristic technologies located in the Westinghouse Pavilion (including something called “television”). While the entire family is affected by the visit, none are changed so much as daughter Babs (played by a young Marjorie Lord), who eventually sours on her foreign-born, anti-capitalistic boyfriend in favor of a hometown electrical engineer who works at the fair. Both charming and heavy-handed, “The Middleton Family” provides latter-day audiences with a vibrant documentary record of the fair’s technological achievements and the heartland values of the age.
One Survivor Remembers (1995)
In this Academy Award-winning documentary short film by Kary Antholis, Holocaust survivor Gerda Weissmann Klein recounts her six-year ordeal as a victim of Nazi cruelty. At age 16, her comfortable life was shattered by the Nazi invasion of Poland. She and her family were sent to concentration and slave labor camps. She alone survived. Mixing footage shot in contemporary Europe at key locations of Klein’s story with interviews and personal photographs, “One Survivor Remembers” explores the effects that her experience had on the rest of her life. It is told with a simple yet powerful eloquence that “approaches poetry,” the Chicago Tribune observed.
In the 1930s, a number of Protestant groups, concerned about the perceived meretricious effects of Hollywood films, began producing non-theatrical motion pictures to spread the gospel of Jesus. “Parable” followed a filmmaking tradition that has not very often been recognized in general accounts of American film history. One of the most acclaimed and controversial films in this tradition, “Parable” debuted at the New York World’s Fair in May 1964 as the main attraction of the Protestant and Orthodox Center. Without aid of dialogue or subtitles, the film relies on music and an allegorical story that represents the “Circus as the World,” in the words of Rolf Forsberg, who wrote and co-directed the film with Tom Rook for the Protestant Council of New York. “Parable” depicts Jesus as an enigmatic, chalk-white, skull-capped circus clown who takes on the sufferings of oppressed workers, including women and minorities. The film generated controversy even before its initial screening. The fair’s president Robert Moses sought to have it withdrawn. Other fair organizers resigned with one exclaiming, “No one is going to make a clown out of my Jesus.” A disgruntled minister threatened to riddle the screen with shotgun holes if the film was shown. Undaunted, viewers voted overwhelmingly to keep the film running, and it became one of the fair’s most popular attractions. Newsweek proclaimed it “very probably the best film at the fair” and Time described it as “an art film that got religion.” The Fellini- and Bergman-inspired film received the 1966 Religious Film Award of the National Catholic Theatre Conference, along with honors at the 1966 Cannes, Venice and Edinburgh film festivals. It subsequently became a popular choice for screenings in both liberal and conservative churches.
Wow. I want to see that. That sounds amazing.
Samsara: Death and Rebirth in Cambodia (1990)
International relief worker Ellen Bruno’s master’s thesis at Stanford University, “Samsara,” documents the struggle of the Cambodian people to rebuild a shattered society in the aftermath of Pol Pot’s killing fields. “Samsara” is a Sanskrit term that literally means “circle” or “wheel,” and is commonly translated as “cycle of existence.” Bruno fleshes out this concept by using ancient Buddhist teachings and folklore to provide a context for Cambodia’s struggle. Described as poetic, heartbreaking and evocative, the film brings a humanistic perspective to the political chaos of Southeast Asia with a deliberate, reflective and sometimes dreamlike pace as it intertwines the mundane realities of daily life with the spiritual beliefs of the Khmer people. One reviewer reflected, “The meditative pacing, the rhythm of bells and chimes, the luxuriant green landscape, the otherworldly response to horrific recent history—I was transported not just to a faraway place but to an altered consciousness.”
Along with “Sex, Lies, and Videotape” (1989), “Slacker” is widely regarded as a touchstone in the blossoming of American independent cinema during the 1990s. A free-floating narrative, the film follows a colorful and engaging assortment of characters in Austin, Texas, throughout the course of a single day as they ruminate on UFOs, Scooby Doo, Leon Czolgosz and many other things. Shot on 16mm film with a budget of $23,000, director Richard Linklater dispensed with a structured plot in favor of interconnected vignettes. This resulted in a film of considerable quirky charm that has influenced a whole generation of independent filmmakers. “Slacker” was eventually picked up by a major distributor and earned more than $1 million at the box office.
Influence is a big part of what earns a film a spot on this list, and LInklater's movie turned on so many other filmmakers to the entire definition of what could or couldn't get picked up for theatrical distribution. Without "Slacker," there's a whole generation of guys who may or may not have had the same epiphanies. And, on top of that, it remains a completely deranged delight, a contact high of a movie.
Sons of the Desert (1933)
Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, along with comedian Charley Chase, star in this riotous comedy of fraternity and marital mishaps. Directed by veteran comedy director William A. Seiter for Hal Roach Studios, “Sons of the Desert” successfully incorporated into a feature-length film many of the comedic techniques that had made Laurel & Hardy such masters of short-subject humor. The film was ranked among the top 10 box-office hits after its release. Film scholars and fans consider it to be the duo’s finest feature film.
There's always room for Laurel and Hardy.