Every week, the Criticwire Survey asks film and TV critics two questions. (The answer to the second, “What is the best film in theaters right now?” can be found at the end of this post.) Send suggestions for future questions to sam at indiewire dot com.
Q: This week’s question comes to us via filmmaking brothers Josh and
Benny Safdie, who asked
about the filmic equivalent of the “golden records“
placed in the Voyager spacecraft. If you could place a movie or three
in a deep-space probe to represent humanity to a curious alien, what
would you choose?
Piers Marchant, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Popmatters
Rather than try to impress them with flattery (i.e. “E.T.,” “Contact,” “Close Encounters”) I think I would want to give these aliens a reasonably clear picture of our collective humanity, while maybe avoiding some of our more base qualities (“Henry,” “Saló,” Eli Roth movies). I think, therefore, with some combination of “Bicycle Thieves,” “Rashômon,” “Scenes From a Marriage,” “The Elephant Man,” and “Dr. Strangelove,” we’d be able to represent a pretty good swath of stuff. Can’t say it would induce them to come visit, but it would be giving them fair warning.
Peter Howell, Toronto Star
I don’t believe in making it easy for space aliens to figure us out, especially since they’re snooping around to steal our resources or to eat us (ever see the “To Serve Man” episode of The Twilight Zone? Shudder.) So I’d send them all three of Richard Linklater’s “Before Trilogy”: “Before Sunrise,” “Before Sunset” and “Before Midnight.” Besides being great films, they’re guaranteed to keep anybody guessing about the nature and utility of romantic relationships. Chew on that, space freaks!
Peter Keough, Boston Globe
“The War of the Worlds” (1953) and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (1977). Gives them a couple of options in case they choose to drop by.
Alonso Duralde, The Wrap, What the Flick?!
“Koyaanisqatsi”: Let them work it out for themselves.
Nell Minow, Beliefnet
I’d have to include a silent comedy, something that would be free of any language barriers and show them the importance of humor. I’ll go with “Modern Times,” with “The General” as a back-up. And I’d have to pick a Frank Capra film to show them that while humans may have a tendency to be bullies, we also are able to transcend it and sacrifice our own interests to help each other. That means “It’s a Wonderful Life,” because it so movingly conveys the impact that a single person can have and the best that a community can do when they come together. And I would add “Departures,” because there is no better depiction of the grace and dignity that can be achieved in grappling with the deepest conundrums of human existence.
Robert Greene, Sight & Sound
In space, for the aliens, I would send Woody Allen’s “Stardust Memories” so they’d know how vain and funny we are, Kon Ichikawa’s “Tokyo Olympiad” to show how physical and funny we are and Douglas Sirk’s “Imitation of Life” to show everything else.
Alan Zilberman, Brightest Young Things
I’d show “Network,” “Ikiru,” and “Samsara.” I choose “Network” to show how fucked we can get, “Ikiru” to show how good we can sometimes be, and “Samsara” to show how varied we really are.
Mike McGranaghan, The Aisle Seat, Film Racket
Chaplin’s “Modern Times” to show our complicated relationship with technology, “All the President’s Men” to show our complicated relationship with the government, and “Purple Rain,” just so they would understand the magic of Prince.
Jason Osder, director, “Let the Fire Burn”
One movie? That’s a dastardly question, Mr. Adams. After some agonizing thought, I’m going to say Barbara Kopple’s landmark “Harlan County U.S.A.” This film has more aspects of the human condition in it than any other I could think of.
Tony Dayoub, Cinema Viewfinder, Slant Magazine
The question begs for a heavy dose of humanism, so my selections would be “The Life and Times of Colonel Blimp,” “The Magnificent Ambersons,” and “The Seventh Seal.”
Neil Young, The Hollywood Reporter, Tribune
“A Canterbury Tale,” “Shoah,” “Stray Dogs.”
Jason Shawhan, Nashville Scene, Interface 2037
Nashville, A Serious Man, and Charlotte’s Web (’74).
Josh Spiegel, Movie Mezzanine
Seeing as the phrase “or three” found its way into the question, I’m going to list that many, because why not: “A Matter of Life and Death,” “Duck Soup,” and “Singin’ in the Rain.” These are three of the greatest English-language films of all time, which might be reason enough to want to display them to some alien race as proof of the power of cinema. But in terms of representing humanity, I can think of few better options. The first two are maybe a more flattering portrait of mankind, as they offer some of the more hopeful and joyous examples of what people can achieve through the power of love and dignity. (Always dignity.) But even “Duck Soup,” an arguably cynical film about our baser instincts and willingness to dive headlong into pointless wars, is a fine showcase of silliness. And anyway, like I said: these are just three incredible films. Even aliens would agree.
John Keefer, 51 Deep
A movie or three to say hello to our far-distant galactic neighbors is a pretty tall order but I’ll do my best. I would avoid any Earth vs. Aliens type movie just so we don’t get off on the wrong foot. I would also have to scour every last inch of my brain to recall all the truly transcendent awe-inspiring films I’ve seen. And then I would just go with whatever comes to mind first and those three would be “The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp,” “The Decalogue,” and “L’Atalante.” So we got war/aging, morality and love/dreams. That about covers it. I would also include a film projector and 35mm prints so the aliens get to watch the films properly.
Michael Leary, Filmwell
This is a timely question, as I began my recent review of “The Strange Little Cat” claiming I would happily toss the film into a deep-space ark of human culture. But I then deleted the paragraph realizing it is the kind of lede I skip over when scanning others’ film reviews. But now actually given the chance to arm Voyager with cinema, I would include a range of human expressions and go with with something that evokes our experience of time and space, something about the horrors of human history, and something that indicates our capacity for kindness and honesty in comedy. And these films need to communicate through formal gestures rather than through high context human scripts. I wager many thought of Kubrick’s “2001” in response, but I am guessing aliens already know all that stuff.
My choices are: “The New World” (Malick), “Night and Fog” (Resnais), “Playtime” (Tati). I would toss in “Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome” when no one was looking.
Kenji Fujishima, Slant Magazine, In Review Online
I’m going to offer two picks, one that paints humanity at something close to its best self, and another that goes to the other extreme — because humans are capable of doing really appalling things, too, and that’s not necessarily something we should hide from curious aliens, at least if we’re interested in full disclosure.
My optimistic pick: Jacques Tati’s “Playtime,” because I think it has quite a bit to say about humanity, in its own visually inventive way. Our capacity for both warm connection and alienating disconnection: It’s all here, in ways that make you laugh heartily even at its iciest.
My pessimistic pick: Alain Resnais’s “Night and Fog.” A documentary about the atrocities that took place in Nazi concentration camps during World War II… really, need I say anything more?
Kristy Puchko, Cinema Blend
I’m sure some will be picking the mind-bending brilliance of “2001: A Space Odyssey” or the maybe “Citizen Kane” for its cinematic history cred. While I know my pick is going to seem deeply sentimental, I’m going with Richard Curtis’s “About Time.” If we’re hoping that a movie would serve as some sort of explanation of what mankind is, I’d favor a movie about the emotional experience of human life over the philosophical or historic. And for me, “About Time” used a simple science fiction premise (time travel) to explore the highs and lows of what our lives are made of, joy, regret, hope, and grief. Call me a sap, but watching that movie always makes feel in touch with the common thread of humanity that unites us all. And it makes me weep like a child every time Nick Cave’s “Into My Arms” plays.
Michael Pattison, Sight & Sound, Fandor
“Days of Hope” (Ken Loach, 1975), “Robinson in Ruins” (Patrick Keiller 2010), “Deorbit” (Takashi Makino and Telcosystems, 2013). Because humans are conditioning as well as conditioned. Because we cannot advance our means of sustenance without also ensuring their eventual disappearance. Because loving is changing and living is destroying and watching is dying.
As Trotsky put it when opening his excellent 1927 essay, “Culture and Socialism,” “culture once signified a ploughed, cultivated field, as opposed to untouched forests and virgin lands. … From the very moment when man separated himself from the animal kingdom — and this occurred approximately when he first took into his hands primitive tools such as stones or sticks and armed the organs of his body with them — from that time the creation and accumulation of culture began, that is, of all kinds of knowledge and skill in the struggle with nature in order to pacify nature.”
John DeCarli, Film Capsule
“To represent humanity” I’d want our golden record film to interrogate something integral to the human experience, something about its frailty, struggles and the mystery of its own existence. Which leads me to Terrence Malick. “The Tree of Life” would serve admirably, but I’ll choose “The Thin Red Line” instead. Malick uses a war between nations as the backdrop for his poetic exploration of the war that exists within us all. Just by sharing in the experience of life, we’re all connected – an idea expressed by the film’s proliferation of voiceovers and its beautifully fluid sense of perspective — but there’s something equally integral to humanity that drives us apart. “The Thin Red Line” would should the aliens that, while we have the potential for something more, humanity is still a petulant and angsty teenager on our evolutionary scale: a valuable lesson for any planetary being.
Carrie Rickey, Philadelphia Inquirer, Yahoo!
“E.T.: The Extraterrestrial”
Zac Oldenburg, Having Said That
I would send them “E.T.,” that way they would think that we can all get along and love each other. Then, hopefully, they won’t enslave us to mine the remaining resources on our planet.
Edwin Arnaudin, Asheville Citizen-Times
I’d include “Spring Breakers” as a deterrent for alien visitation/invasion. Call it a global insurance policy.
Richard Brody, New Yorker
Since the actual Golden Record contains Kurt Waldheim’s voice, I suppose that aliens should get to know a comparable cinematic self-laundering in the interest of fine principles (as well as one that’s a time capsule in itself) – -therefore, I’m tempted to say, “Intolerance,” though it would probably confuse the hell out of aliens, who might think that Griffith was filming in Babylon. “Broken Blossoms” would make more sense. On the other hand, no movie might make any sense to an alien until the distinctions and connections between fiction and documentary were made clear — therefore, “The Human Pyramid.” (A pairing of “Intolerance” and “Good Morning, Babylon” could work, too, but Rouch’s film doesn’t just depict the idea but embodies it.) Because those two films cover the classic and the modern, what’s left is the secret of the cinema itself–not its technique or even its spectacle but its addictively world-spanning allure, and that’s the Tramp: a foot in silence and a foot in sound, with “Modern Times” (although an alien would learn a lot about politics on Earth from even just the last shot of “The Pilgrim”).
Liz Shannon Miller, Indiewire
Despite all their flaws, “Star Wars” Episodes 4-6 is probably my best answer, because if you want to explain to an alien the concept of the monomyth — the basic underpinning of human storytelling — you can’t do much better. It might be a little human-centric, and I wish Leia wasn’t alone on the Strong Female Protagonist front, but at least Lando Calrissian’s there to prove that not all humans are white. MOST IMPORTANTLY, aliens are treated as faithful friends, neighbors and companions: Of all the great American films, it’s easily one of the less xenophobic towards those from other planets. Picking these movies means saying, hey, aliens, please don’t murder us with your superior technology! We’re down with your alternate biology! And we’re cool! C’mon, just look at Lando!
Joey Magidson, The Awards Circuit, First Showing
I was initially thinking that you’d want to have a drama and a comedy in there, along with a silent film, but then I got to thinking a bit more and decided that perhaps it’d be best to just put something ambitious in the probe, to at least show that we had some art in us. You could go in any number of directions, but I think that “The Fountain” would be an interesting mix of everything that we have going on as humans. Hey, maybe these aliens would agree with me that it’s an underrated masterpiece too?
Jeff Berg, Las Cruces Bulletin, ABQ Free Press
“Starman “is a natural! “15 Amore” since it covers so many human traits so well and “Everlasting Moments”.. just because.
Adam Batty, Hope Lies at 24 Frames Per Second
I’d go with my hometown’s finest hour, Alan Clarke’s “Rita, Sue & Bob Too.” Not only is it a genuinely great film, but it offers a legitimate and authentic portrayal of a people otherwise very poorly represented on-screen.
Danny Bowes, Salt Lake City Weekly, Flavorpill
I would want a movie that explains what movies are to the aliens, so “Om Shanti Om” is the no-brainer pick there. Then I want something that’ll leave them too scared to invade, so Arnold Schwarzenegger is necessary here, and I’m thinking “Commando” because he shows less compunction about mass-producing mortality than at any other point in his storied career. Then last, to show them that, despite the implied threat in the second movie, we bear no ill will toward aliens and their culture I’ll include “Stop Making Sense” so the aliens can see how much we respect one of their own, David Byrne.
Anne-Katrin Titze, Eye For Film
Alain Resnais’ “Hiroshima Mon Amour” for its poignancy and because it cuts so sharply to the truth about love and war. Even after many viewings, the aliens will want to see it again just as we do, to fully grasp the film’s historical significance, storytelling innovations and stylistic brilliance. When rain causes panic and food causes fear, the invisible must be confronted. Fully restored and being shown as part of the 52nd New York Film Festival, Resnais’ debut feature celebrates its 55th anniversary during Duras’ centenary year. And in 2114, one curious alien will most likely say to another, “Like you, I forgot.”
Q: What is the best movie in theaters?
Other movies receiving multiple votes: “Guardians of the Galaxy”