Spike Lee’s wildly ambitious telling of the life and times of the Muslim minister and human rights activist is fueled by Denzel Washington‘s incredible performance in the title role, a portrayal that unfortunately lost the Oscar to Al Pacino‘s more crowd-pleasing “Hoo-haa!” showboating in Scent of a Woman. Based largely on Alex Haley’s 1965 book, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Lee’s film dramatizes the story of Malcolm Little, a two-bit Harlem criminal who became one of the most influential (and controversial) ministers of the Nation of Islam. Lee shows us key events in Malcolm’s criminal career, his imprisonment and conversion to Islam, his ministry and eventual falling out with the Nation of Islam, his marriage to Betty X (Angela Bassett), his pilgrimage to Mecca and finally his assassination at Manhattan’s Audubon Ballroom on February 21, 1965. Overlong at 202 minutes and perhaps occasionally too much of a vessel for Lee’s own personal crusading, Malcolm X is nonetheless an exciting, fascinating and extremely well-made portrait of a key figure of 20th-century America, a more than worthy companion piece to Oliver Stone’s equally seething JFK.
James Franco makes for an excellent Allen Ginsberg in this ode to “Howl,” the beat poet’s 1955 hat tip to his fellow “angel-headed hipsters” and a poem considered to be one of the great works of the Beat Generation, along with Jack Kerouac’s On the Road and William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch. A variation of sorts on Todd Haynes’ experimental portrait of Bob Dylan, I’m Not There, Howl explores — through a variety of different film styles and techniques (including animation) — the Six Gallery poetry reading in San Francisco in October 1955 at which “Howl” had its first public “performance” and the subsequent 1957 trial in which Ginsberg was charged with obscenity for the poem’s frank descriptions of “deviant” sexuality. While the film’s constantly changing visual kaleidoscope gets a little fussy at times, Howl is an inspiring homage to Ginsberg and his influential work as well as a clever recreation of a long-gone creative community that helped to herald the West Coast literary revolution known as the San Francisco Renaissance. Franco’s lead performance is admirably restrained and nuanced, with Jon Hamm making a big impression as Ginsberg’s boisterous defense attorney, Jake Ehrlich, whose life went on to inspire the Perry Mason television series.
Director Oliver Hirschbiegel’s intense and melancholy character study dramatizes — mostly through the eyes of one of his secretaries, Traudl Junge (Alexandra Maria Lara) — the last ten days of Adolf Hitler’s life as he wallows in madness and delusion in his bunker, contemplating different methods of suicide as the Red Army descends on Berlin. Downfall doesn’t paint a sympathetic portrait of one of the most loathsome monsters in history, though it spares no details (or emotions) in showing us a man broken by defeat, completely unhinged as he watches what he thought was the most powerful (or at least the most feared) military power on Earth crumble before him. Alexandra Maria Lara is quite good as the film’s unofficial “spirit guide,” and Bruno Ganz (one of the angels in Wings of Desire) is nothing short of amazing as Hitler, portraying the dictator and mass murderer as a pathetic little man prone to temper tantrums and outrageous accusations of betrayal and incompetence against even the poor fools who stood by him until the very end.
Director Jim Sheridan’s My Left Foot tells the story of Christy Brown (Daniel Day-Lewis), an Irishman with severe cerebral palsy who had control of only his left foot and went on to become a celebrated author, painter and poet. Day-Lewis is, not surprisingly, quite incredible as Christy, bringing an intense physicality and raw emotion to a role that must’ve been at least ten times more exhausting for him to perform than it is for the audience to watch him (he apparently broke two ribs by being in the hunched-over position for so long and often refused to come out of character); he won a well-deserved Oscar for his performance, as did Brenda Fricker for her portrayal of Christy’s fiercely proud and loving mother, Bridget, who insisted on raising Christy at home with her other children. Based on Brown’s own autobiography of the same name, My Left Foot vividly recreates working-class Dublin pre-, during and post-World War II, bringing a sense of gritty realism to what in many ways is a rather whimsical tale of a man who could be seen as something of a miracle worker.
Director Bob Fosse traded his usual glitz and glamour for true grit with this down and dirty portrait of self-destructive stand-up comic Lenny Bruce, played by Dustin Hoffman in what might be his most underrated performance (despite his, by that point, somewhat obligatory Oscar nomination). The film’s narrative jumps back and forth between a “shock comic” in his prime and a strung-out, washed-up has-been who had succumbed to paranoia and drug abuse, pouring out his personal frustrations in a series of increasingly bizarre and vulgar stream-of-consciousness rants — whether there was anyone there to listen or not. Lenny also recreates Bruce’s tumultuous courtship of and marriage to his “Shiksa goddess,” a stripper named Honey (Valerie Perrine, who won Best Actress at the 1975 Cannes Film Festival), and his seemingly constant run-ins with the law due to obscenity charges. Like Raging Bull after it, Lenny is a fascinating story about a very unlikable man whose insecurities and almost crippling self-loathing took him down a very dark and lonely path.