Top Five: The Lives of Others and More Great Surveillance-Themed Movies

On January 31, the

Museum of Fine Arts Houston

will hold a screening of

The Lives of Others

, a 2006 film about a member of the German secret police assigned to monitor a playwright and his actress girlfriend for reasons that come to horrify even the loyal agent. It won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 2007 and received numerous accolades from many critics, chosen as the best film of the year on several year-end lists.

The Lives of Others

plays on the Sundance Channel occasionally, but its screening at the MFAH as part of the museum's "Movies Houstonians Love" series is a rare opportunity to see it in a theater, and also to see it introduced by author and Rice University professor Justin Cronin. We asked Cronin why he chose this film, and he told us, "I'd seen it again because I'd recently been to what was formerly East Germany, which sent my mind back to that era, which is actually really recent. It's an accurate and persuasive representation of what life was like under the Stasi. When they asked me to do this, I wanted an undisputedly great movie, so I just naturally chose this one. It pushes all my buttons. I know a lot of people already saw it when it was first released, and it's also one of those films that gets better with repeated viewings."

Just in case The Lives of Others whets your appetite for surveillance movies, we've got five more great films about people keeping their eyes on other people.

5. Cache (Hidden)

A disturbing film about secrets and trauma from the past,

Cache

is the story of a couple who begin to find videotapes left on their front porch. In the beginning, the videotapes are recordings of the couple, interacting in their home. Disturbed by the fact that they're being watched, and by the tapes' sinister packaging (they arrive wrapped in paper festooned with bloody doodles), the couple goes to the police, who offer no help. Not only have the neighbors not seen anyone camped out at the spot where the cameraman must have been, but the couple themselves have passed the spot several times and seen no one. What starts out as a simple invasion of privacy becomes a complex, metaphysical journey into the minds and souls of the couple as clues on the videotapes begin to point to a long-hidden and horrible secret of one of them. With a slow, tense build and no violence until the very end,

Cache

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lies halfway between Alfred Hitchcock and David Lynch on the "Unsettle-O-Meter". Don't watch it if you like your endings wrapped up in a neat little unambiguous package, either.

 

4. Cape Fear (1962)

When prosecutor Sam Bowden testified against shady miscreant Max Cady eight years ago, he couldn't have expected that Cady would read up on the law while in prison and once released, use his knowledge to follow and harass Bowden and his family while remaining perfectly within his legal rights. The 1991 Scorsese remake with Nick Nolte and Robert DeNiro got a lot of positive press for DeNiro's portrayal of Max Cady, but to us, the original will always remain the superior film. Gregory Peck makes a much more formidable leading man than an uncharacteristically squirrelly, impotent Nolte, and Robert Mitchum makes a far more subtle (and therefore believable) bad guy than the tattooed and shrieking DeNiro. Instead of a frustrating one-sided assault on a family, the original is a much more balanced contest of wits between two near-equals and presents heightened suspense as to who will emerge the victor.

 

3. Brazil

Like

The Lives of Others

,

Brazil

is a study of a totalitarian government and abuse of power, but that's where the similarities end. In traditional Terry Gilliam fashion,

Brazil

is rife with satire and humor, while at the same time possessing a real sense of romance and a dark undercurrent that eventually bubbles to the surface. The sets and cinematography are amazing, and the story is a savagely humorous study of bureaucracy run amok. It features poor, put-upon Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce), a lowly government clerk who becomes involved in a vast government conspiracy neé comedy of errors when a man named Harry Buttle is arrested by mistake instead of populist "terrorist" Harry Tuttle - an air-conditioning repairman/freedom fighter played by Robert DeNiro. From there, Lowry becomes involved with Buttle's neighbor, who happens to (literally) be the girl of Lowry's dreams, and together they work to escape their Orwellian-by-way-of-

The-Peter-Principle

nightmare world. Just when you think you've got this movie pegged, it pulls the rug right out from under you.

 

2. Pi

When

Pi

begins, it's not people that are being monitored, but instead the stock market by a supercomputer run by mathematical genius Maximillian. Analyzing the data presented by the markets, the computer spits out the number known as pi to the 216th digit, then crashes. At first Max thinks nothing of it, but the more he digs, the more he comes to find that pi is actually some kind of mystical, theological key to the universe which is hidden not just in the stock market, but in religion as well. Max becomes the target of numerous organizations, and his headaches start to become worse and worse; eventually it starts looking like something is literally trying to bash its way out of his head. The film debut of

Black Swan

mastermind Darren Aronofsky,

Pi

's wildly creative and disturbing premise and the smart, tense unfolding of its plot helped launch Aronofsky's so far very distinguished career.

 

1. Rear Window

Anytime you hear someone refer to a film as "Hitchcockian,"

Rear Window

is almost always the film they're referring to. It's the original "spying on your neighbors" suspense drama, with Jimmy Stewart as Jeff Jeffries, a wheelchair-bound photographer who, while adjusting to his limited mobility, becomes obsessed with watching the lives of others--his neighbors'--unfold across the plaza of his apartment complex. Before long, he comes to suspect that one of these neighbors may be a serial killer. Grace Kelly plays his girlfriend, who for some reason can't get Jeff to pay attention to her, which leads us to believe that Jeff may not be suffering from a mere broken leg but may actually be dead from the waist down. The suspense slowly builds as you progress from thinking of Jeff as a kooky voyeur to a guy who may actually be right. Toward the end of the film, the tension becomes almost unbearable when real danger is present and Jeff finds himself unable to come to the aid of his girlfriend or to flee.

Honorable Mention: Disturbia, an underrated 2007 Rear Window-style thriller in which a surprisingly bearable Shia LeBouf plays a kid under house arrest who comes to believe, like Jimmy Stewart, that one of his neighbors is a killer. What should have been a lackluster and derivative film is instead taut and genuinely scary, with excellent performances by Catherine Anne Moss as LeBouf's mom and David Morse as the creepy neighbor in question. Surprisingly gruesome for a PG-13 movie.


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