DANTON (1983). In its Jan. 4, 1982, issue, Time selected Polish Solidarity leader Lech Walesa as its Man of the Year, and almost exactly one year later – upon its Jan. 12, 1983, release in France – Polish director Andrzej Wajda's Danton likewise paid tribute to the political activist (Walesa's Nobel Peace Prize would come later that year). Of course, Danton is about the French Revolution that took place at the close of the 18th century, but it's difficult not to spot similarities – superficial or otherwise – between these earthy men of the people and their adversaries: Communist General Wojciech Jaruzelski in the case of Walesa and Reign of Terror figurehead Maximilien Robespierre in the case of Georges Danton. Radically reworking a play by Stanislawa Przybyszewska, five screenwriters – including Europa Europa's Asnieszka Holland, the great Jean-Claude Carriere, and Wajda himself – keep their focus tight, centering only on the events that led Robespierre (Wojciech Pszoniak), now as tyrannical as those he once fought, to sign off on the execution of Danton (Gerard Depardieu), a more moderate revolutionary whose faith in both the people and the political process help contribute to his downfall. Historians continue to argue over whether Danton should be seen as savior or sinner, but Wajda's film clearly comes down on his side, a position solidified by the casting of the congenial, robust Depardieu as Danton and the frail, pale Pszoniak as Robespierre. Not the model of verisimilitude as other renowned period epics, Danton is occasionally stagy to the point of distraction. Yet because the story's focus is on words rather than actions, that's not a crippling approach by any means.
Extras in the two-disc DVD edition include a 42-minute behind-the-scenes documentary; interviews with Wajda, Carriere and Polish film critic Jerzy Plazewski; and the theatrical trailer.
THE LAST METRO (1980). Arriving on the heels of the violent and critical war movies that appeared during the second half of the 1970s – films like Germany's The Tin Drum and Italy's Seven Beauties, to say nothing of Hollywood's spate of Vietnam war flicks – France's The Last Metro almost seems as if it hailed from a different period of cinema, bringing to mind the humor of 1942's To Be Or Not to Be and the sentimentality of 1943's Watch on the Rhine more than the bleakness of its cinematic contemporaries. That's hardly surprising, though, considering not only the fact that this was largely inspired by writer-director Francois Truffaut's own rose-colored memories of his childhood during World War II but also that the picture functions as the auteur's loving ode to theater (just as his 1973 Oscar winner Day for Night served as his tribute to filmmaking). When Jewish stage director Lucas Steiner (Heinz Bennent) is forced to flee Paris after the Nazi takeover, it's up to his wife Marion (Catherine Deneuve) to take complete control and keep their theater afloat. But while everyone thinks that Lucas has hightailed it to South America, only Marion knows that he's actually hiding in the building's cellar, doing his best to keep his spirits up and figuring out a way to remain involved in the daily rehearsals taking place above him. Deneuve is radiant in the central role, while co-star Gerard Depardieu offers up his usual combo platter of swagger, sweetness and sophistication as the matinee star who also happens to be a member of the French Resistance. This earned an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film.
Extras in the two-disc DVD set include audio commentary by Depardieu, historian Jean-Pierre Azema and Truffaut biographer Serge Toubiana; separate audio commentary by author Annette Insdorf (Francois Truffaut); one deleted scene (it's not subtitled, which makes its inclusion pointless except for viewers who understand French); vintage interviews with Truffaut, Deneuve, Depardieu, and others; and 1958's Une histoire d'eau (A Story of Water), a 12-minute short co-created by Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard.
NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN (2007). Joel and Ethan Coen have always been known for genre-hopping, and their adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's novel smacks of both a contemporary Western and a crime thriller. But may I add the classification of monster movie to the mix? As I watched Javier Bardem's seemingly unstoppable Anton Chigurh shuffle his way through the picture, killing left and right without remorse, I realized that it had been a long time since I had seen such an unsettling creature on the screen. No Country for Old Men is a delirious drama that often echoes such classics as Psycho, Touch of Evil and Chinatown, not only in its intricate and unpredictable plot structure but also in its look at an immoral world in which chance and fate battle for the upper hand and in which evil is as tangible a presence as sticks and stones. Chigurh spends the film, set in 1980 Texas, on the trail of Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), a cowboy who stumbles upon the aftermath of a drug deal gone wrong and walks away with $2 million in cash. The cat-and-mouse chase between Chigurh and Moss is enough to propel any standard narrative, yet tossed into the mix is Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), a weary sheriff who, baffled and deflated by the wickedness that has come to define his country, nevertheless trudges from crime scene to crime scene, hoping to save Moss and stop Chigurh. This isn't the first great movie to have its ending criticized even by many who enjoyed the rest of the picture (Apocalypse Now also springs to mind), yet love it or hate it, accept it or debate it, it's perhaps the only proper conclusion for a movie as uncompromising as this one. It's not often that the Academy and I agree on the best movie of any given year, but here's one of those rare instances where they nailed it right down the line: Best Picture, Director and Adapted Screenplay Oscars for the Coens (sharing the top prize with co-producer Scott Rudin), and a Best Supporting Actor statue for the phenomenal Bardem.