Here at The Thread, we’ve always admired the people who lie for a living: writers, directors, actors.
Filmmakers tend to be obsessed with the slippery nature of identity. Part of the reason is obvious: people who make movies are self-invented, and all too aware of the thin line between self-invention and self-delusion.
But as audience members, we are intrigued too: these movies give us the exhilarating opportunity to slip the chains of biography and experience what it might be like to live in someone else’s skin.
The TV landscape is full of anti-heroes who have reinvented themselves: Don Draper, Walter White, Nicholas Brodie, Lucius Lion, Elizabeth and Philip Jennings. And out of all the lists we’ve done, this was one of the hardest to pare down – where is Persona, Mulholland Drive, Jacob’s Ladder?
But since it’s the next to the last weekend of summer, we decided to keep it lighter and more superficial — even though our lead title is one of the first in the mouthwatering wave of indies and awards movies that will start in September.
As Tom (Michael Shannon ) celebrates his birthday with a few friends, one of them turns up with the new girlfriend he’s been talking about.
Tom instantly recognizes Alice (Rachel Weisz) – they were lovers 20 years before. Except then her name was Jenny, and she disappeared.
As it turns out, she has spent the intervening years in serial reinvention – every few years she takes on a new name, a new career, new lover, then disappears.
Over the course of the evening, she tries to convince him to discard the life, the wife, the friends he has carefully constructed and join her in a life of serial reinvention.
Young directors are particularly drawn to movies about identity, maybe because they are still caught up in the first frenzy of self-invention. Faking it until they make it.
Memento is an extended mind game – but so exceptionally clever, both in conception and execution, that it catapulted Christopher Nolan into the Hollywood mainstream.
Memento was Nolan’s second film. Its hero (Guy Pearce) suffers from “anteretrograde amnesia” – he remembers who he is/was, but can’t make new memories. By the end of a long conversation he will forget how it started. He is battling his condition on a seemingly impossible quest to find his wife’s murderer-rapist — the only way he can move forward is by using tattoos, notes and Polaroids to inform his future self about what he’s discovered.
As you watch the movie, the situation of the protagonist begins to feel somehow universal. Aren’t we all making it up as we go along — scrambling to construct a consistent personality by surrounding ourselves with bits and pieces of past days, writing notes and Facebook posts that help remind us who we are?
Five years before Momento, The Usual Suspects was the pitch-perfect tour-de-force by fledgling director Bryan Singer that earned him his seat at the big boys’ table.
More playful than Momento, the hero of The Usual Suspects is also its villain. A petty con man, a cripple (Kevin Spacey in his breakout role) is being interrogated by a customs agent (Chazz Palmentieri) about the explosion of a cargo ship. The con weaves an increasingly complicated tale about a lineup of colorful characters, all working under the shadow of a fearsome master criminal named Kayser Soze.
In the penultimate beat of the script, the con man walks out of the police station. Only then does the interrogator realize that the whole story was made up on the spot using bits of information from postings on a billboard – and that the little rat he just let walk away is actually the fearsome crime lord.
Like Momento, Usual Suspects is a delightful mind game that rewards a second viewing not because of its subtlety or poetic vision, but because it is so perfectly executed.
OK, Steven Spielberg wasn’t exactly a struggling young director when he made his 23rd feature film in 2002.
But the movie is so blithe and breezy that it makes some of his masterpieces feel contrived. Likewise with Leonardo DiCaprio’s zipless performance as Frank Abagnale, a high schooler who teaches himself to become a master forger and con artist — half because he’s driven and half because it’s just so fun and easy.
The film is based on a true story – as fiction it would be too unbelievable. And while it’s nominally a “crime” story, it’s very light on malice aforethought. The crimes are almost a byproduct of the hero’s discovery that he can live the American dream by just literally being anything he wants to be.
When his parents divorce, young Frank runs away and starts impersonating airline pilots, eventually branching out into law and medicine, meanwhile forging millions of dollars in checks. He is pursued for years by an FBI agent played by Tom Hanks, who over the course of his pursuit develops a kind of bemused affection for the kid – even after he himself has been scammed.
An exploration of identity for those who habitually live two parallel lives – one online and one in the material world.
We who grew up before computer games became immersive (and even before Dungeons and Dragons), the question of which world is “real” one is far more abstract Zen than it is for a teenage kid today, who regularly split their time between two or more identities .
Keanu Reeves (in a marvelously serendipitous stroke of casting) is Neo, a hacker in a future world who is contacted by mysterious forces. He becomes awakened to the fact that the great mass of human beings, himself included, live in a dreamworld called the Matrix. The Matrix is a virtual reality created by sentient machines, who maintain the human population in a perpetual state of suspended animation, harvesting their energy for machine sustenance.
Along with a group of awakened human steampunk rebels, including the woman Trinity, and the leader, Morpheus, Neo battles machine enforcers across layers of reality, trying to rescue the human race from total subjugation.
The monolithic success of The Matrix franchise and its progeny has many allures – it’s a mind game that aficionados can watch again and again. It’s a Zen parable for those of us caught up in the waking dream of consumer society. And the cascade of meanings are rendered even more resonant by the fact that since the both the Wachowski siblings have lived the transformational dream — both transitioning from male to female.
We’re painfully aware that this list is short on female heros – at one point we thought of going down a very different with much more female driven list — Breakfast at Tiffany’s, My Fair Lady, Persona; but somehow the POV wasn’t quite jelling.
So at least Alejandro Amenabar’s mindbending Spanish language parable has pivotal female characters and crazy karmic kickback for its male protagonist.
The film starts with a series of layered frames – a young man awakes to a voice saying “Open your eyes…”, he wakes a second time with a woman in bed, and finally he finds himself in a Madrid prison cell, talking to a psychiatrist.
Finally, (like Complete Unknown) the narrative anchors itself in flashback to a birthday party. A handsome young playboy (Eduardo Noriega) wants to dump his current lay, and is attracted to a friend’s date (Penelope Cruz). In layers of circular storytelling he lives through a horrible accident that destroys his precious face, he sleeps with the friend’s date, and he may or may not murder the woman he wants to be rid of. But to complicate matters, much of what he experiences may be artificial, implanted as he languishes in the laboratories of a suspended animation company.
If this all sounds familiar, it may be because the Cameron Crowe/Tom Cruise collaboration, Vanilla Sky, was a close remake – even down to casting Penelope Cruise as the second woman.
We like the Spanish original better. Another throughline — it was a young Amenabar’s second film and it bought him a ticket to them mainstream. He went on to make the clever and spooky The Others starring Nicole Kidman, and Spanish language Oscar winner The Sea Within.