Film Expert Gary Olsen

This post is part of our Guest Picks series, featuring members of our library community sharing their favorite books and movies.

Gary Olsen gives monthly film lectures at the Central Rappahannock Regional Library on the best film directors of all time. His previous lecture series on the Academy Awards' best pictures drew upon his extensive knowledge of film and cinema history.

Mr. Olsen worked as a producer, director, editor, and videographer for the U.S. Department of Justice for 30 years before his retirement in 2013. A graduate of Emerson College, with a master of arts in communication and media studies, he has written on film for Front Porch magazine and The Free Lance-Star newspaper.

He also shares his knowledge of cinema with students who attend Mary Washington ElderStudy.

Gary Olsen
Film Expert Gary Olsen at our Headquarters Branch

Here, he shares some of his favorite books and films:

If you make an effort to see all the listed films from 1902's "A Trip To The Moon" to the present day, count yourself as an expert in film history. Editor Steven Jay Schneider canvassed dozens of film critics, historians and lovers of film to compile the definitive list of movies that marks the creative high points in cinema. The selections are neither ultra high-brow nor excessively simple blockbusters for the popular masses. A blend of entertaining and enlightening movies that will interest those who want to expand their knowledge in what some call the greatest art form ever created.

Seize the Day by Saul Bellow -- This novelette packs a punch in such a short number of pages. The epiphany from the main protagonist, a failed actor in his 40s, that his life is being squandered away, that life is indeed worth living, is unfolded like no other book I read. Bellow's brilliance makes you appreciate what life is all about and what one is capable of doing worthwhile during the time given here on Earth.

Especially Phaedo. Besides the Bible, there is no better source for the immortality of the soul than Plato's Dialogues. Easy-to-read yet deep in its subject matter, Plato translates Socrates' philosophy so succinctly that it is hard to believe this was written over 2,500 years ago. The mystery of life is logically discoursed in the Dialogues. As Socrates knew his time was up, his insights into what he would be facing on the other side of life are incredibly illuminating.

A spellbinding, detailed book on one of Civil War's most one-sided battles, December 1862's The Battle of Fredericksburg. O'Reilly, who works for the National Park Service, unearths mind-boggling facts that he unfolds chronologically on the development and implementation of this crucial fight. What makes it most important for the local reader is that the events of the battle occurred right here in our own neighborhood. An indispensable book that can serve as an invaluable guide to the historic clash that will make the reader appreciate every square foot of the city's battleground.

Of all the books on films published, Cook's work provides the most fascinating detail on the history of film as well as the unique techniques the masters of cinema created to deliver memorable movies that stand the test of time. Cook's meticulous examination on the movies is broad-based, yet concise in that his knowledge and research pinpoint the succinct aspects of each crucial phase in film history, both here in the United States as well as internationally. Never dry, Cook's prose is lively enough to keep even the remotely interested cinephile engaged.

This film is on a majority of "Best of" lists, and rightly so. The third movie of Leone's "man with no name" trilogy, The Good rewrote the rules of the Western genre, introducing a grittier, more realistic setting to the savagery portrayed during that era than had ever been seen on the screen. The Mexican standoff at its conclusion between Clint Eastwood, Eli Wallach and Lee Van Cleef assures that this picture will be immortalized forever.

This simple Danish film is one of the most realistic, or "naturalistic" movies that deals with the power of faith, love and the supernatural. You may think you're watching a traditional chamber drama about a family dealing with eccentricities, but the final payoff leaves the viewer reflecting the circumstances leading up to that conclusion as well as the deep tranquility the film offers. Only Dreyer could have produced such a monumental movie that will have you thinking on life's possibilities long after the credits end.

Imagine a genius who has discovered the mathematical formula for the universe that links everything from the stock market to The Bible. Boring? Hardly. Interested groups hear about the breakthrough and the chase is on. What makes this film so intriguing is Aronofsky's surrealism combining the paranoia of Kafka with a cinema composition that reflects the dramatic tension our hero faces. The ultimate cloak-and-dagger film that looks as unique as its subject.

Mix Leone's realism with Frederico Fellini's fantasy, and you get a Western that is unforgettable yet deep on so many levels. One gunslinger's quest for enlightenment is rich in allegorical situations, but what makes this Western so unusual is the film entertains and educates at the same time. The movie's setting is a cycle of Life, Death and Rebirth, yet El Topo's travels reflects everyman's journey through life in an historic setting that is as modern today as any movie currently released.

The contrasts between civilization and the wilderness unfold in this stunning film about two city Australians, a 16-year-old girl and her much younger brother, who find themselves stranded in the undeveloped Outback. Eventually, they come across an Aborigine who teaches them how to survive in this stark country. This is no ordinary survival tale since Roeg cuts between the Outback and city life to reflect how we as a species have completely severed any relationship with our origins.

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