Attack the Gas Station! (Kim Sang-jin, 1999): The plot is beyond simple: four youths find a gas station and raid it, holding its staff hostage by threatening to bonk them on the head with blunt sticks. (The film notably exists in some bizarre universe where where everyone is deathly afraid of this.) Partway through they each fall into daydreamy flashbacks of disappointment and disenchantment with authority; these kids clash with an older generation that’s anti-art and anti-music, filled with old men who bully students just to show that they can. These moments bring to light a deeper meaning behind Attack the Gas Station, and realizes the story as a warning sign to an aging Korean society that if it doesn’t start being more open-minded, its youth will rebel. Problem is, the film’s shallow exterior and often unfunny slapstick facial expressions don’t warrant more than a single cursory viewing.
About a Boy (Chris & Paul Weitz, 2002): A pretty convincing performance by Hugh Grant as an emotionally handicapped pretty boy saves About a Boy from being an awfully contrived quasi-rom-com between a mature child and a childish man. Between this and High Fidelity, one wonders if Nick Hornby’s novels are so well adapted to films because they lack the complexity a properly packed novel should have? Or maybe they’re just easy to summarize? Either way, its final act loses throws away its emotional impact along with its once-natural dialogue, namely when its leading characters refuse to have frankly easy conversations confronting their lies and real feelings. (One wants to reach into the screen and scream at Grant: “Just explain how you met the kid! It’s obviously endearing!”) It falls under a trite emotional arc and culminates in one of the most awkward climaxes ever filmed. Not sure if that’s called “success”.
Safety Last! (Fred C. Newmayer & Sam Taylor, 1923): It is easy to see why Harold Lloyd has not withstood the test of time as much as Chaplin or Keaton; Safety Last!, his most famous film, has no deeper meaning beyond the purely extraordinary stunt of him climbing a 15-story building. But, that said, it’s a helluva scene. Somehow, nearly 90 years after the fact, watching Lloyd slowly inch his way skyward, losing his footing, balancing on ledges, still makes one cover one’s eyes in fear, as if we were still watching him in 1923. Lloyd’s flamboyantly awkward intellectual (big round glasses to later inspire Woody Allen, a three-piece suit he could barely afford) is a pleasant divergence from Chaplin’s immortal tramp or Keaton’s quiet, subdued face, which means, to answer the obvious question, no, just because you’ve seen one silent comedy does not mean you’ve seen them all.
Argo (Ben Affleck, 2012): The opening sequence promptly displays the text: “Based on a true story.” Really, Affleck should have at least italicized “Based on“; it’s unclear why Affleck needed to make this already so ridiculous story even more ridiculous. Still, with the exception of an unnaturally tidy wrap-up, Argo is a totally enjoyable thrill ride, dabbed but not drenched in political history. While the hostages’ three-month-long bottle episode in the Canadian embassy gets occasionally tiresome, viewers will probably most remember the movie’s early Hollywood contingent, featuring the suave, Oceans Eleven–esque Alarn Arkin and John Goodman giddily composing this fake movie, from nothing into dressier nothing. Affleck himself sidles into the background of every scene; he’s gotten some flak for the self-cast, but he does more nothing than harm, allowing the better actors (mustn’t forget Bryan Cranston, breaking out of Breaking Bad to join the authority’s side for a change) to carry the film’s weight.
F For Fake (Orson Welles, 1973): A tsunami of ambiguity, Welles’s last full-length movie has been called more a “film essay” than any other genre, but even that gives it a bit too much credit re: organization. It’s not sloppy, but demands an intense eye and ear from the audience if they wish to understand, well, anything at all–which you won’t, for the first 15 minutes at least; Welles concedes this in the narration, steering the film from story to story, one anecdote to a lie. Flying in the face of these narrative pirouettes is Welles himself, doing his distinctly deep-voiced Wellesian thing, bound only by his dozens of amusing costume changes. There is a moment about an hour in when Welles slows the action down to a monologue about death, which seems both startlingly out of place and the most profoundly beautiful moment in the film. Thirty minutes later, as the credits roll, I was struck by the same feeling I’d gotten after watching 2001: A Space Oddysey and Apocalypse Now: that I had no idea what’d I’d just seen, much less if I actually enjoyed watching it.