BIGGER THAN LIFE (1956). Place the happy homemakers from Leave It to Beaver in the haunted house at the center of The Amityville Horror, and the result might be something akin to Bigger Than Life, a startling exercise in the dismantling of the nuclear family of the 1950s. The suburban spread at the center of this drama isn't actually under the influence of supernatural forces, but as filmed by director Nicholas Ray, it proves to be weirdly menacing nonetheless. James Mason (also producing) stars as Ed Avery, a pleasant schoolteacher whose pain from a sudden medical crisis can only be treated with the new wonder drug cortisone. Initially, the pills offer relief, but once he gets hooked on them and the side effects take over, he becomes a towering figure of terror to his loving wife Lou (Barbara Rush) and doting son Richie (Christopher Olsen). Radical for a '50s feature, Bigger Than Life pushes Ed's dementia to the edge, with the results of his personality change alternating between humorous (his language as he addresses a roomful of parents is riotous) and horrific (Ed flatly states that "God was wrong" in how he settled the Abraham and Isaac affair and contemplates the alternative when deciding how best to handle his own son). Ed's behavior as a raging, irrational patriarch is unsettling enough, but Ray raises the stakes by eventually filming the Avery home – aka a man's castle – in an ominous manner, with the director's use of shadows as effective as when he employed them in the Humphrey Bogart classic In a Lonely Place. Mason and Rush are both excellent, while an up-and-coming Walter Matthau (in only his third film appearance) turns up as a concerned family friend.
DVD extras include audio commentary by critic and author Geoff Andrews (The Films of Nicholas Ray); a 1977 half-hour TV interview with Ray; a half-hour discussion of the picture by author (and fan) Jonathan Lethem; and a 22-minute interview with Ray's widow, Susan Ray.
AN EDUCATION (2009). Coming-of-age movies are a dime-a-dozen, but this one was special enough to land high on my year-end 10 Best list. Sensitively directed by Lone Scherfig and exquisitely penned by Nick Hornby (adapting Lynn Barber's memoir), this lovely drama set in London during the early 1960s stays true to its title by showing how its teen protagonist learns life lessons as they relate to issues of class, sex, schooling and her country's own growing pains. In a tremendous breakout performance, Carey Mulligan stars as Jenny, a 16-year-old whose intelligence and maturity level place her far above everyone else at her high school. Her strict father (Alfred Molina) and comparatively more lenient mother (Cara Seymour) expect her to attend Oxford upon graduation, but that plan threatens to get derailed once she meets a debonair gentleman (Peter Sarsgaard) twice her age. She's instantly smitten by this older man who introduces her to a whirlwind life of nightclubs, champagne and fine art, and her decision to possibly toss aside higher education troubles her favorite teacher (Olivia Williams) as well as the school's principal (Emma Thompson). Morals may be gently suggested by the story but no easy answers are ever provided, marking An Education as that rare film which acknowledges that regrettable situations don't always destroy lives but can sometimes be used to positively shape long-term outlooks. Hornby and Scherfig set up a number of believable conflicts for Jenny to navigate, and the acting is uniformly splendid. An Education is clearly one motion picture that passes with high honors.
DVD extras include audio commentary by Scherfig, Mulligan and Sarsgaard; a 9-minute making-of featurette; 16 minutes of deleted scenes; and theatrical trailers.