Sunday, July 28, 2013

Weekly Top Five: The best of Brian De Palma

Posted By on 07.28.13 at 09:00 AM

Blow Out
  • Blow Out
Brian De Palma's Scarface, a remake of the 1932 Howard Hawks gangster classic, screens at the Logan on Mon 7/29, 11 PM. As Dave Kehr notes in his review, this is De Palma's most serious film, which makes it probably his least interesting. (The Bonfire of the Vanities is also a strong candidate, although Vilmos Zsigmond's cinematography occasionally impresses.) Indeed, De Palma is at his best when he's at his most quirky, though his perceived irreverence has earned him as many (if not more) detractors as supporters. I've long admired De Palma's various idiosyncrasies, including his curiously cynical political positions, his obsession with the various limits and possibilities of the cinematic image, and, of course, his reverential application of Hitchcock's work to his own. Each of these elements contribute to De Palma's bold stylistic vision, a knowing disregard of convention (narrative, visual, and everything in between) in favor of a heightened sense of materiality and artifice. You can catch my five favorite De Palma films after the jump.

5. Snake Eyes (1998) It's surprising that Nicolas Cage has only worked with de Palma this one time, as he seems the ideal actor to carry out the director's flamboyant vision. Luckily, their sole collaboration resulted in this nutty, Rashomon-esque thriller in which De Palma repurposes his voyeur fetish to explore themes of surveillance, which, as the movie artfully points out, aren't exactly mutually exclusive methods of viewing.

4. Greetings (1968) An early curio, and the first major role for Robert De Niro. Even at the beginning of his career, De Palma favored loose narratives over meticulous ones, and the story here, virtually incomprehensible, is no exception. But the film has a satirical edge that can't be denied. It's so thoroughly counterculture that it actively parodies counterculture, proof that De Palma began his career already obsessed with the art of exaggeration.

3. Femme Fatale (2001) De Palma wages war against realism. There's a metaphysical quality to this sultry neonoir that keeps the audience at arm's length. Indeed, De Palma refuses to let the audience mistake what's happening onscreen as anything other than a fantasy, so much so that the film's supposed "twist ending" isn't so much a twist as it is a statement of purpose.

2. Sisters (1973) Probably De Palma's most homage-y film, and that's saying something. Hitchcock abounds (Psycho, Vertigo, Rear Window), as do references to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Freaks, but the immediacy of De Palma's own vision is felt not only in his patented split screens, but also his characterization of the whole—the whole person, the whole persona, the whole whatever—as inherently duplicitous.

1. Blow Out (1981) De Palma at his most streamlined and personal, a succinct and knowing exploration of how audiences relate to cinematic images and the manipulative, obsessive nature of filmmaking. Like Femme Fatale, the movie verges on the metaphysical, particularly in its use of split-focus diopter effects and exaggerated characterization. The film has an ending that's as chilling and bleakly humorous as any in history.

Drew Hunt writes film-related top five lists every Sunday.

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