The Blind Side (2009)

 

Based on Michael Lewis’s book detailing the life-so-far story of NFL player Michael Oher, who was homeless and struggling until a Tennessee family took him in and helped him join the ranks of the highly-prized college athletes. Sandra Bullock won an Oscar as the tough-talking, don’t-mess-with-my-kids adoptive mom.

 

 

Almost Famous (2000)

Film poster for Almost Famous - Copyright 2000...
Film poster for Almost Famous – Copyright 2000, DreamWorks Pictures (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Has the 1970s fostered more after-the-fact memoir movies than any other decade? Here Cameron Crowe semi-fictionalizes the time he got to go on the road with major rock bands, as a teen journalist for Rolling Stone. As usual, the story meanders like a haphazard life, but everything—particularly the hot band in question, led by Jason Lee’s lanky front man and Billy Crudup’s guitar idol—takes you back.

The Ice Storm (1997)

On the face of it, Ang Lee’s thoroughly grown-up movie is a melancholy but bemused Mona Lisa portrait of a very particular time and place: wealthy Connecticut bedroom communities in the early 1970s, when polyester suits were in, Nixon haunted the airwaves, cocktails flowed like monsoon rainwater, and the sexual revolution began to sour the lives of restless suburbanites.

Crooklyn (1994)

Another return to childhood, Spike Lee’s memoir film (co-written with two of his siblings) about the filmmaker’s youth growing up in 1970s Brooklyn amid five kids, a proud jazz musician father (Delroy Lindo), a no-bullshit mom (Alfre Woodard), and an atmosphere thick with infectious pop songs, Norman Lear sitcoms, urban street games, and a sense of a day and age in which many urban neighborhoods were communities instead of war zones.

Crooklyn
Crooklyn (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Real Life (1979)

In 1973, PBS ran a documentary series called An American Family, about a real upper-middle-class nuclear unit, shot in the family’s home. But how could that have been “reality,” asks comic Albert Brooks in his first film, which duplicates the scenario to wicked, double-edged-sword effect. As usual, Brooks is the ogre-ish primary target, but the era’s relationship to TV and fame are also bludgeoned into pulp.

Network (1976)

Howard Beale (Peter Finch) delivering his &quo...
Howard Beale (Peter Finch) delivering his “mad as hell” speech (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This Paddy Chayefsky–written barn burner is such a brilliantly incisive dismantling of the way network television worked in the 1970s that it has become something like a prophecy in the years since—what was true then is five times as true today. Television goes from being a semi-whorehouse to an out-and-out freak circus in the quest for higher ratings; Sidney Lumet’s fastidiously realistic direction and the hair-raising performances of Faye Dunaway, William Holden, Robert Duvall, Peter Finch, et al make it all tangible and undeniable. Were Hollywood films ever really this sophisticated, this caustic, this ethical?

Smile (1975)

Middle America was cool in the 1970s—or at least cool enough to be satirized up and down for its cheesy, oblivious silliness in films like this Michael Ritchie interrogation, which tears apart a second-rate California beauty pageant, from recruitment to training to the final face-off. Everyone—contestants, parents, organizers, judges, choreographers, peeping toms, ad infinitum—gets a vicious lashing, but Ritchie never strains or caricatures. This is how it was, and probably in many ways still is, and it’s hilarious and dismaying because you believe every frame.

The Long Goodbye (1973)

Robert Altman, in his inimitable style, updates this Raymond Chandler mystery yarn, and Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, to 1970s L.A., a sour maze of aging hippies, blithe crime, loneliness, and a certain lack of moral rectitude—something Elliott Gould’s singularly schlubby private eye decides to correct on his own by story’s end. The case itself involves a friend (baseball star Jim Bouton) who’s accused of killing his wife, but various SoCal lunatics are roped in as well, and the film becomes a tapestry of genre jokes, cultural satire, and Altmanesque texture.

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Five Easy Pieces (1970)

The quintessential 1970s film—which is to say, it embodies the cynical death of 1960s idealism while establishing another high bar for the new American New Wave’s focus on working-class life in all of its dead-ended frustration. Jack Nicholson made himself a star as the rebel son of a family of concert pianists who tries working on an oil rig, but can’t settle anywhere. The film’s most famous scene, set in a diner and concerning a chicken salad sandwich, sums up an entire generation’s dashed hopes and rising rage at a complacent America.

Russian Ark (2002)

Saint Petersburg (Russia), Hermitage Museum. H...
Saint Petersburg (Russia), Hermitage Museum. Hermitage Theatre. Watercolour from 1824. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

You don’t need to go to The Hermitage, in St. Petersburg, if you see this remarkable film by Russian filmmaker Alexander Sokurov, which takes a tour of the world’s largest museum (and, in the czar’s day, the world’s largest private residence) in one roving, restless digital-video shot. Never mind that the film intersects with a century of Russian history along the way; the instruction here is in the location. Once you’ve experienced this gargantuan remnant of the imperial age, you’ll know why the Russian Revolution happened.

A Little Romance (1979)

The Bridge of Sighs in Venice, Italy.
The Bridge of Sighs in Venice, Italy. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

L’amour between two precocious young teens—an American girl (a fresh-faced Diane Lane) and a French boy (one-shot-wonder Thelonious Bernard)—on the streets of Paris, and their flirtation takes us on quite the tour: Parisian markets, the Champs Elysées, the Tuilleries, and more. In an effort to pledge their eternal love, they run away to Venice to kiss under the Bridge of Sighs in a gondola at sunset, and they treat us to Italy in the bargain. Laurence Olivier accompanies them, trotting out a French accent that sounds as unassailable as his German accent in Marathon Man.

The Spirit of the Beehive (1973)

Thanks to Generalissimo Francisco Franco, Spain never had the cinematic New Wave it deserved, but it does have this sweeping, poetic, elliptical work from Victor Erice, about two peasant girls, the vast and sun-reflective Castilian plains, a village showing of 1931’s Frankenstein, and a dark-eyed drifter. Essential viewing.

Equestrian statue of Generalissimo Franco in t...
Equestrian statue of Generalissimo Franco in the Plaza del Ayuntamiento (City Hall Plaza) of Santander. It was retired in late 2008. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Conformist (1970)

One of the great European films, made when director Bernardo Bertolucci was only 29, this startlingly beautiful character study and essay on fascist collaborationism and political cowardice is by no means just an evocative Euro-travel primer; it’s essential viewing for anyone who cares about movies. Even so, the film’s passage from World War II–era Rome to Paris to the snowy Alpine forestland between the two cities is as powerful as a dream.

Roman Holiday (1953)

Cropped screenshot of Audrey Hepburn and Grego...
Cropped screenshot of Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck from the trailer for the film Roman Holiday. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Audrey Hepburn won an Oscar her first time out with this expert postwar romance (she’s a bored princess; Gregory Peck’s a cynical American reporter), shot entirely in Rome and utilizing virtually every recognizable tourist spot in the city, from the Spanish Steps to the Colosseum.

Under the Roofs of Paris (1930)

René Clair was one the filmmakers for whom the technological burdens of early sound were not a crippling impediment but an inspiration. This love triangle confection is a fascinating litany of ingenious narrative gimmicks and formal flourishes, as well as a swoony, romantic evocation of the city in the period between the world wars.

Paris Exposition: Champ de Mars and Eiffel Tow...
Paris Exposition: Champ de Mars and Eiffel Tower, Paris, France, 1900 (Photo credit: Brooklyn Museum)

Being John Malkovich (1999)

Perhaps the closest a Hollywood movie has ever gotten—and probably will ever get—to the free-associative shotgun spray of Salvador Dali’s and Luis Buñuel’s Un Chien Andalou, this first film by the team of director Spike Jonze and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman is an ingenious, incredibly entertaining, Rorschach blot of a metacomedy that says a truckload about celebrity, movies, sexual identity, control, and much, much more. The primary metaphoric vehicle is a mysterious, slimy tunnel that leads directly from a small door in an obsolete office building into the consciousness of actor John Malkovich. After fifteen minutes spent in Malkovich’s head, however, tunnel travelers are interdimensionally chucked out onto the shoulder of the New Jersey Turnpike, but the orgasmic thrill of living inside Malkovich’s skull (and what we see of that experience is, not incidentally, less than thrilling) spurs the characters (including office clerk and formerly unemployed puppeteer John Cusack, his frumpy—yes, frumpy—wife, Cameron Diaz, and sultry business chick Catherine Keener) to repeat the experience and steer Malkovich’s actions into fulfilling their sexual fantasies. Plenty of sequences suggest a consciousness on a chemical ride: a pet chimpanzee flashes back to his own orphanhood in the jungle; Charlie Sheen shows up (as himself), blabbering on about “hot lesbian witches!”; and then there’s the climactic homicidal chase through Malkovich’s tortured subconscious.

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

Raiders of the Lost Ark
Raiders of the Lost Ark (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of the handful of times that Steven Spielberg’s patented overmanipulations and blue-tinted “sense of wonder” doesn’t curdle in our bellies, this George Lucas–inspired yarn is blessedly free of UFOs and dinosaurs, and is set, rather rowdily, in a 1930s pulp-serial world in which the instantly iconic adventurer/archaeologist Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) fights Nazis for the sake of Biblical artifacts. Good-natured and distracting without being patronizing.

Rear Window (1954)

Cropped screenshot of James Stewart from the t...
Cropped screenshot of James Stewart from the trailer for the film Rear Window (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Like you, James Stewart is laid up—with an absurdly phallic leg cast—and so, bored, he spies on the movie-like dramas unrolling in his neighbors’ apartment windows, until one of them seems to become a murder mystery (viewed, as they usually are, from a safe, dark distance). One of Alfred Hitchcock’s most valuable essays on discomfiture and audience implication. It’s not a celebration of healing per se, but being helpless has never been so riveting.

Animal Crackers (1930)

The second of the Marx Brothers’ films (after 1929’s

Marx Brothers 1948 adjusted
Marx Brothers 1948 adjusted (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

), this dusty, sarcastically musical vaudeville farce involves a sham “explorer” (Groucho), a society party thrown in his honor, a stolen painting, a pair of suspicious musicians (Chico and Harpo), and so on. The bros’ vim could not be contained even by the primitive early-talkie technology.

Meet the Parents (2000)

Meet the Parents (soundtrack)
Meet the Parents (soundtrack) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This brutally comic hit found the lurking fears of all young lovers who are meeting their prospective in-laws for the first time—and lit them up good. Ben Stiller is just, well, Ben Stiller, but Robert De Niro, as the fiancée’s father, shines: much more than just a controlling, disapproving patriarch, he’s actually a semiretired CIA ramrod, with only his little girl now to serve and protect. Every step Stiller makes is the wrong step; every action is scrutinized mercilessly. Stiller’s anxious gaze of disbelief as each new mishap befalls him is a wonder, and De Niro flexes all of his dead-eyed menace.

My Best Friend’s Wedding (1997)

Film poster for My Best Friend's Wedding - Cop...
Film poster for My Best Friend’s Wedding – Copyright 1997, Sony Pictures (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The question of whether or not men and women can be true friends without being romantically involved is put to the test when Dermot Mulroney tells best friend Julia Roberts that he’s getting married—and, by the way, it’s this weekend, so please fly out to celebrate the nuptials. Nothing ever looks so good as it does after it’s slipped from your grasp, so our heroine pulls out the underhanded stops to try to win him. Eccentric and campy, the fete includes Cameron Diaz, in full bloom, and the irrepressible Rupert Everett rescuing the day more than once.

Miami Rhapsody (1995)

This effervescent, if very Woody Allen–like, comedy from writer-director David Frankel (who would go on to make 2006’s The Devil Wears Prada) poses a particular quandary for its east-coast-Florida-Jewish heroine (Sarah Jessica Parker): how to be ecstatic about getting engaged when everyone around you is cheating. Each of her parents (Mia Farrow and Paul Mazursky) is embroiled with someone else; her newly married sister (Carla Gugino), desperate for the attention she doesn’t get from her jock husband, beds an old boyfriend, while her brother (Kevin Pollack) cheats on his very pregnant wife. Is there something wrong with the Florida water, other than sulfur and chlorine? The incisive jokes and deliveries (Parker has never been so good, before or since) make a good case for remaining uncommitted, so anyone whose toes are getting a little frosty should be careful.

Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994)

A band of single friends, led by the shyly charming Hugh Grant, chase each other around England, attending weddings in various states of disarray and embarrassment. Star-crossed amour and funny wedding mishaps abound, but this international smash sucked in both its audience and an Oscar nomination with the grace of its execution, a brilliantly witty screenplay—perfectly staged and acted—and a pervasive fondness for even the bit characters and background extras.