‘Crouching Tiger,’ ‘Howards End,’ ‘Talk to Her’: the best of Sony Pictures Classics

and 06.16.14 2 years ago 18 Comments

Sony Classics

Sony Pictures Classics honchos Michael Barker and Tom Bernard have been feted up one side and down the other lately. The duo celebrated 20 years of SPC in 2012 and have received awards from the Museum of the Moving Image and the Gotham Awards as of late. Tonight they will receive the Los Angeles Film Festival's Spirit of Independence Award as the love keeps pouring in.

Given that we recently celebrated the 20th anniversary of Fox Searchlight – another crucial entity in the indie film space – it seemed like we were over due for a similar appreciation of Sony Classics' 22 years of output. The interesting thing, though, is that unlike Searchlight, there isn't necessarily anything outwardly identifiable about Sony Classics films as, well, “Sony Classics films.” They all have a strong whiff of good taste but they don't have the heavy marketing footprint of some of the studio's contemporaries. Barker and Bernard's cinephile passion is always evident, but beyond that, any and all kinds of cinema can end up in their wheelhouse.

Naturally, then, when Greg, Guy and I decided on our separate top 10s, there was a lot of derivation. So we thought instead of the usual gallery, we would provide space for each of our separate, unique lists. And I think I speak for them when I say, this was no easy chore. But at the end of the day, what speaks to us speaks to us, and, you know, different SPC strokes for different folks.

Check out our lists on the following pages, and feel free to tell us what yours might look like. And most of all, congrats to Barker and Bernard and their team for 22 wonderful years. Here's to many more.

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GREGORY ELLWOOD

10. “Beautiful Thing” (Hettie Macdonald, 1996)
Before “Brokeback Mountain,” this uplifting tearjerker was the greatest gay-themed movie ever made. Really.

9. “Safe” (Todd Haynes, 1995)
The movie that brought Todd Haynes and Julianne Moore to the forefront. A haunting and disturbing piece of work that is as relevant today as it was – gasp! – 19 years ago.

8. “Caché (Hidden)” (Michael Haneke, 2005)
Haneke's superb and unconventional thriller is certainly not a movie you'd expect to be an art house hit. A sterling example of how the studio continues to enlighten the American art house scene. (Worth noting: SPC made more money on this Juliette Binoche French-language movie in the U.S. than the French distributor did. Wow.)

7. “Welcome to the Dollhouse” (Todd Solondz, 1996)
Like many films on this list, another '90s breakthrough that SPC had the guts to release (and in the summer, no less). It's an indie classic that fundamentally influenced a whole generation of American filmmakers.

6. “The City of the Lost Children” (Marc Caro, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 1995)
A visual wonder that, like “Dollhouse,” inspired a whole generation of filmmakers and convinced Fox to let Jean-Pierre Jeunet direct “Alien Resurrection.” (On second thought, maybe that should knock it lower on this list…)

5. “A Prophet” (Jacques Audiard, 2009)
Would any other mini-major have given Jacques Audiard's masterpiece the love that SPC did? Maybe The Weinstein Company, but that's a big assumption. Another sterling example of how the studio continues to enlighten the American art house scene.

4. “Waiting for Guffman” (Christopher Guest, 1997)
Castle Rock eventually moved Christopher Guest's films to Warner Independent, but SPC introduced the one and only Corky St. Clair to the world. And qfor that, we're eternally grateful.

3. “All About My Mother” (Pedro Almodóvar, 1999)
Arguably Almodóvar's greatest work, a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar winner and part of a creative partnership that stretches back to Michael Barker and Tom Bernard's Orion Classics days.

2. “Run Lola Run” (Tom Tykwer, 1999)
Many forget or are unaware that Tom Tywker's breakout was an SPC release because its so unlike their usual fare. Now, 16 years later, it's still a must-see for any real movie fan.

1. “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” (Ang Lee, 2000)
Arguably still the studio's greatest moment. And oh so close to a Best Picture Oscar win.

***

GUY LODGE

10. “Damsels in Distress” (Whit Stillman, 2012)
Stillman's uber-arch brand of highbrow comedy has always been an acquired taste, and never more divisively so than in this gleefully absurdist campus farce, with Greta Gerwig on top form as the queen bee of the preppiest Heathers clique ever put to screen. It may be my favorite American comedy of the last decade.

9. “Synecdoche, New York” (Charlie Kaufman, 2008)
Charlie Kaufman's astonishing, almost impossibly expansive directorial debut sharply divided critical opinion: some thought it a shatteringly honest, logistically dazzling articulation of artistic insecurity, others as the painful farewell note of an insecure artist retreating – hopefully not irrevocably – into himself. Couldn't it be both?

8. “Jindabyne” (Ray Lawrence, 2007)
Lawrence works at a slower rate than Terrence Malick these days, which is a shame, since his brand of even-handed, morally exploratory humanism is in preciously short supply as it is. This organically transplanted adaptation of Raymond Carver's short story “So Much Water, So Close To Home” tops its treatment in Robert Altman's anthology effort “Short Cuts,” which is no faint praise.

7. “The Class” (Laurent Cantet, 2008)
Cantet's densely conversational classroom film was a surprise winner of the Palme d'Or at Cannes in 2008, but was absolutely the right choice. Deftly sidestepping every imaginable cliché of the rough school/inspirational teacher subgenre, it's a witty, moving and marvelously articulate examination of the purpose and challenges of education, built around an authority figure whose passion doesn't preclude serious errors in judgment.

6. “Caché (Hidden)” (Michael Haneke, 2005)
Haneke has made more immaculate films than this stealthily cerebral horror movie, but I don't think he's made one that contains or suggests more. “Haunting” is a word sorely overused by critics, but for me, it proved applicable in this case: the last shot alone nagged at my brain for months after my first viewing.

5. “The Illusionist” (Sylvain Chomet, 2010)
Just thinking about the final scenes of Chomet's luminescent picture-book valentine to innocence (and Edinburgh) makes my tear ducts prickle. This resuscitation of a long-buried Jacques Tati script is a fable that finds the perfect meeting point between two artists with wildly different skill sets but much the same heart.

4. “Howards End” (James Ivory, 1992)
“Merchant-Ivory” has become snarky critical shorthand for an entire genre of stuffy corset drama, but graceful, emotionally full-bodied literary adaptations like this adaptation of E.M. Forster's social comedy prove why that's an unfair tag. One of Sony Classics' first major releases, it remains the filmmakers' high point and won three well-deserved Oscars.

3. “Talk to Her” (Pedro Almodóvar, 2002)
Almodóvar's masterpiece – not a word that should be dragged out too often – represents an immaculate collision of his sexual, psychological and aesthetic collaborations that the Spanish auteur hasn't since come close to repeating; it's a love story so uniquely affecting and exquisitely strange that even the Academy couldn't quite ignore it.

2. “Junebug” (Phil Morrison, 2005)
Beyond Amy Adams' deservedly Oscar-nominated breakout performance, not much fuss was made of this tiny heartland drama at the time, yet nearly a decade on, it looks more pristine and more exploratory than a lot of lavishly garlanded indies from the time. It's the social and spiritual generosity of this culture-clash comedy that separates it from the crowd.

1. “Safe” (Todd Haynes, 1995)
This unnerving investigation of social antisepticism turned toxic among the Los Angeles elite has proven more influential than anyone might have guessed at the time of its modest release. (Nearly 20 years later, David Cronenberg's “Maps to the Stars” couldn't quite reach its chilling heights.) It might be Haynes' most searching film, and feature Julianne Moore's most fearless performance – neither superlative one to be said lightly.

***

KRISTOPHER TAPLEY

10. “Before Midnight” (Richard Linklater, 2013)
Barker and Bernard have worked with Linklater a number of times over the years, stretching back to the Orion Classics days and the his debut, “Slacker.” With this continuation of a fascinating multi-film experiment, the director painted a rich, moving portrait of Celine and Jesse, a few more years on.

9. “Another Year” (Mike Leigh, 2010)
Leigh is one of a few auteurs that Sony Classics has continued to nurture. But it's unfortunate that this, one of his most expert and deeply felt familial dramas, has kind of just been forgotten, a mere four years later. It is master-class-level work!

8. “Amour” (Michael Haneke, 2012)
Haneke's second Palme d'Or win came for yet another film Barker and Bernard pounced on. It was a devastating tale but a humanist one, the director's very wheelhouse. Emmanuelle Riva delivered such a brave and dedicated performance that no Oscar could have been reward enough.

7. “In the Company of Men” (Neil LaBute, 1997)
Sony Classics has gotten into bed with new filmmakers frequently over the years, and Barker and Bernard's taste often pays off. Rarely was this more the case than with Neil LaBute's debut, which announced a wonderful and absolutely unique new voice in the black comedy space.

6. “Persepolis” (Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud, 2007)
Satrapi and Paronnaud's animated coming-of-age story set against the tumultuous backdrop of the Iranian Revolution (and based on Satrapi's autobiographical graphic novel) was a hugely personal statement. When SPC invests in animation, it's always something special.

5. “Crumb” (Terry Zwigoff, 1995)
Zwigoff's documentary about the wild and wonderful world of legendary underground cartoonist Robert Crumb is staggering for its honest, unflinching portrait of the artist as an icon. Zwigoff poured his life into its making, and it shows in every flickering frame.

4. “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” (Ang Lee, 2000)
Lee's 2000 wire-fu spectacle remains a milestone for Sony Classics, the first film from the studio to ignite at the box office ($100 million-plus) and with Academy voters. It was a master at the height of his talent, a poem on film, a bold vision.

3. “Run Lola Run” (Tom Tykwer, 1999)
Tykwer burst onto the scene with this adrenaline rush that captured so much of the excitement of cinema and crystallized what's possible in the medium. It wasn't just an arbitrarily structured movie for the film school set, either; it had something to say.

2. “Talk to Her” (Pedro Almodóvar, 2002)
Almodóvar won an Oscar for his writing on this, his very best film to date. Barker and Bernard have maintained a consistent, rewarding relationship with the filmmaker over the years, but this was the high water mark. A masterful piece of work.

1. “Synecdoche, New York” (Charlie Kaufman, 2008)
This was in many ways the culmination of a decade of Charlie Kaufman's talents on screen. It was his directorial debut, a mind-bending internal odyssey that no one – but NO ONE – else could have delivered.

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