American Dream (1990)

Barbara Kopple, with a team of fellow documentarians, returns to the striking life in this Oscar winner about the union workers of a Hormel meatpacking plant in Minnesota who buck up against the corporate headquarters’ desire to cut their wages and benefits despite escalating profits. American Dream is the reality of workers in the post-Reagan era, and it isn’t pretty. Unfortunately, we’re still in the thick of it.


Roger & Me (1989)

Michael Moore’s much-celebrated debut film, which set him on an invaluable career course as the fearless, ever-cynical, derisive antidote to corporate-owned media monopolies. Each of his films is a truthful speaking to power (however he might’ve juggled facts to make them funnier), and in Roger and Me he analyzes the impoverishment of his hometown of Flint, Michigan, in the profit-earning wake of layoffs and factory shutdowns. Riotous and unsettling.

Cover of "Roger & Me"
Cover of Roger & Me

Norma Rae (1979)

Norma Rae
Norma Rae (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Don’t be fooled by the ad art, which features Sally Field leaping and beaming like a cheerleader. Her character, Norma Rae, is a poor, uneducated factory worker who’s had children with men she barely knew; Field looks justifiably wan and sweaty through most of the film. Salvation comes in the form of a Jewish Brooklyn union organizer (Ron Leibman). Forget romance; Norma Rae is all about workers’ politics. Field won her first Oscar for her performance.

Bicycle Thieves (1949) A worker’s horror story: a postwar Rome father obtains a rare job that’s contingent on him having a bicycle; soon enough, his vehicle is stolen, and he and his son go searching for it—in a devastated city filled with bicycles. The great Italian neorealist classic Bicycle Thieves (often mistitled as The Bicycle Thief) by Vittorio De Sica is an unsentimental heartbreaker.

The Grapes of Wrath (1940)

John Ford does John Steinbeck’s dust bowl epic, and does it with little condescension and no romanticism to speak of. Did Hollywood ever before make poor people look this real? The Grapes of Wrath was stark and truthful enough to warrant a boycott call from banks and farming corporations, and its unionizing stance was forceful enough to get Ford, of all people, investigated by the House Un-American Activities Committee years later. With Henry Fonda, Jane Darwell, and John Carradine.

Trailer for the 1940 black and white film The ...
Trailer for the 1940 black and white film The Grapes of Wrath. Henry Fonda. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Birth (2004)

A hypnotic, confident tour de force that centers on a beautiful widow (Nicole Kidman), and the little ten-year-old creepazoid (Cameron Bright) who asserts that he is the reincarnation of her dead husband. But the metaphysical suggestions (coscripted by Buñuel’s former screenwriter, Jean-Claude Carrière)  turn out to be merely a device to scrutinize the woman’s gangrenous case of grief, and Jonathan Glazer’s film is crafty, subtle (Kidman’s manner sometimes suggests the presence of prescription tranquilizers, but in a way that calls attention to itself), and, in the end, heartrending. There’s also this, for what it’s worth: several bright critics have noted how Birth features scores of visual echoes of Buñuel’s 1929 surrealist assault Un Chien Andalou, itself a madcap dream parable about lost love. Maybe. With Lauren Bacall.

Cover of "Birth"
Cover of Birth

Ponette (1996)

Jacques Doillon’s harrowing film Ponette may very well be the best, most grueling, and in the end most truthful and transcendent film ever made about  the mechanics of grief. Don’t watch it on a lark, particularly if you’re a parent; after viewing it, you’ll feel as if you’ve been scoured with steel wool inside and out.  The situation is purposefully simple: as we open, a pint-sized four-year-old named Ponette (Victoire Thivisol, a best-actress winner at the Venice International Film Festival) is in the hospital with a broken arm after a car wreck that killed her mother. As she is jockeyed around, during the transitional post-funeral period, from her aunt’s house to a live-in preschool to finally her father’s home, Ponette undergoes her own tribulation: she refuses to accept her mother’s death and move on. Nobody around her has much time or patience for the child’s inconsolable grief, and so she must go the road alone, attempting to collate what little she understands about God and Heaven into a reasonable scheme by which she can once again see or at least speak to her mother.  What Ponette does best is quietly but indelibly express the plight of children as they attempt, with such inadequate tools, to survive under the merciless wheels of the adult world.  All the more amazing, then, that Doillon finds deliverance for Ponette, in what may be either a simple dream experience or an unsentimental blast of secular magical realism. This isn’t merely a movie—it’s a mesmerizing ordeal by cinema.

Ponette (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Fearless (1993)

A great, overlooked film of the American 1990s, this throat-grabber from director Peter Weir begins with a catastrophic airliner crash, then follows the dazed path of a survivor (Jeff Bridges), with a post-traumatic sense of invulnerability. Fearless‘s second story thread is where it leaves its bruises: a young mom (Rosie Perez) is ruined by grief after she fails to hold onto her baby son during the crash. The two them enact a dubious, free-for-all self-cure, and the fallout—particularly when Perez dares to smell someone else’s baby in a mall, or faces off against the dubious condolences offered by airline company grief therapy—is brutal and beautiful both. Be careful; it plays for keeps.

Fearless (1993 film)
Fearless (1993 film) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Men Don’t Leave (1989)

Fleshing out a grown-up, uplifting vibe in the mourning process that says “it’s time to move on,” this Paul Brickman drama has Jessica Lange’s soft-spoken widow Beth weather attempts, by her children and a quirky neighbor, to help her get back to the business of living. The give-and-take in Men Don’t Leave is sweet and genuine; the real gut-wrenching scenes—spoiler alert—are reserved for the youngest son (Charlie Korsmo), who must deal with the loss of his father via an unfinished tree house.

Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter . . . and Spring (2003)

Lovely to look at and filled with improvised Buddhist exercises, Kim Ki-duk’s film Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter . . . and Spring  takes place entirely on a gorgeous man-made lake, in the center of which floats a monk’s shack. Five seasons (spanning decades) transpire, tracing the hardly simple spiritual education of a young boy. The tug-of-war between the body’s need for satisfaction and the mind’s need for purity is vividly played out.

Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring
Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What Dreams May Come (1998)

Ersatz New Zealand visionary Vincent Ward had his last Hollywood shot with What Dreams May Come, a poundingly romantic dream tribulation, in which Robin Williams, enjoying a digitally splashed-out heaven, must travel down to the depths of the underworld to save the soul of his dead (by suicide) wife (Annabella Sciorra). No painterly, impressionistic (or expressionistic) idea has been left out, and the oddly affecting thing about the film is that everybody involved seems to mean it.

What Dreams May Come (film)
What Dreams May Come (film) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Being Human (1994)

Elliptical, strange, and quietly mysterious, Being Human is Scottish director Bill Forsyth’s tremendously risky and bizarre conception of a Hollywood movie: a five-part, noncomedic (but hardly unfunny) omnibus film (starring Robin Williams) that ranges from neolithic times to the 1990s. Each Williams persona, from fated caveman to Roman slave to post-yuppie weekend dad, is faced with a web of painful circumstances that precludes convenient answers. Magnificently photographed (you’d think the stone-age sequences would be absurd, but they’re breathtaking), Forsyth’s film favors the director’s odd, charming rhythms and dangling non sequiturs. Most arrestingly, the movie’s central subject is paternal angst, regardless of the sometimes fantastic plotlines. Williams’s Cro-Magnon family man loses his entire family to Vandal pillagers; his 1990s counterpart suffers no less as he spends a weekend with children he barely knows and cannot connect with. Being Human is an offbeat, searching film that dares to never give us what we want from mainstream movies—easy solutions, affirmations, and closure.

Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989)

One of Woody Allen’s richest films, and one that dares to take on the weightiest of moral dilemmas, as Martin Landau’s tortured Manhattan ophthalmologist is confronted with saving himself, his wife, and his lifestyle from the destructive forces of Anjelica Huston’s unstable girlfriend. Crimes and Misdemeanors asks: what can we live with? What price can we, and others, pay for peace and happiness? With Mia Farrow and Alan Alda.

Crimes and Misdemeanors
Crimes and Misdemeanors (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)

The Passion of Joan of Arc
The Passion of Joan of Arc (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Danish heavyweight Carl Dreyer shot this French film using bare, expressionistic sets, the immolated saint’s actual trial transcripts, and a stage actress named Maria Falconetti, who delivered what many have considered to be the most beautiful and affecting film performance of all time. Of course the issue at hand is spiritual integrity—do you surrender your beliefs, or say you do, in exchange for clemency from an evil empire? Who does God’s work, anyway? One of the faithful, Dreyer was intent on communicating the tormenting experience of spirit-body conflict, and The Passion of Joan of Arc, a well-worn art-house cornerstone, still astonishes.

The Big Bounce (2004)

How can you go wrong with this one? Based on an Elmore Leonard novel, The Big Bounce is set in Hawaii, directed with snapping fingers by underutilized genre pro George Armitage (Miami Blues, Grosse Point Blank), and graced with likable star Owen Wilson, as a small-time criminal who’s angling for a big score despite his better judgment and the advice of sympathetic local judge Morgan Freeman.

The Big Bounce (2004 film)
The Big Bounce (2004 film) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Color of Pomegranates (1969)

Georgian artist Sergei Paradjanov, after the eye-opening primitiveness of his 1964 film Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, grew more abstract in his storytelling and more hellzapoppin with his folk-art imagery. This demanding and astonishingly beautiful film depicts the life of Armenian poet Sayat Nova (which Paradjanov mixes with the myth-tales of Nova’s own writing), and The Color of Pomegranates is a fabulous visitation of ancient Russian-Arab-Turkish-style fusion, as seen in the most surreal icon art.

The Color of Pomegranates
The Color of Pomegranates (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Black Orpheus (1959)

One of the great mid-century import hits, Black Orpheus, a vivid Brazilian film, is an infectious retelling of the Orpheus-Eurydice myth, set during Carnival and feverish with hip-swiveling hustle, exploding local color, and sleeve-worn heart. Never underestimate the raw energy of South American partying.

Black Orpheus
Black Orpheus (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


Flying Down to Rio (1933)

We can still wistfully recall the days when, in the movies at least, developing world vacation spots were playgrounds for rich people who dressed in tuxedos and gowns, danced, ballroom style, under the palm trees, and nuzzled in the equatorial moonlight. Flying Down to Rio introduced the pairing of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers (but as the second leads, after Dolores Del Rio and Gene Raymond), and it features splendid tunes (by Vincent Youmans and lyricists Gus Kahn and Edward Eliscu) and a good amount of pre–Production Code bralessness—all under a fake Brazilian sky.

Film screenshot from the trailer to Flying Dow...
Film screenshot from the trailer to Flying Down to Rio (1933) announcing the screen partnership of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Mr. & Mrs. Smith (1941)

Every pair of married lovebirds has to ask: if you had to do it all over, would you get married again? The luminescent Carole Lombard asks Robert Montgomery that very question and he responds “no,” leaving us all to wonder if his eyes, brain, and loins are still in functioning order. It turns out that a paperwork glitch grants him his wish—they’re not legally wed after all, and Carole hands him his hat in high dudgeon, giving him no choice but to woo her back. It certainly seems improbable that this marital conundrum is brought to you by cynical master Alfred Hitchcock, but we should be so lucky as to still have romantic comedies like this: you haven’t seen anything until you’ve seen Montgomery try to punch himself in the nose, or Lombard handle acres of prime slapstick dialogue with the fierce energy of a tornado. A caveat: Mr. & Mrs. Smith is an anniversary movie only for those who would answer that question—“Would you marry me all over again?”—with an emphatic yes. Otherwise, your yearly celebration of conjugal bliss might end in separate bedroom assignments.

Cropped screenshot of Robert Montgomery and Ca...
Cropped screenshot of Robert Montgomery and Carole Lombard from the trailer for the film Mr. & Mrs. Smith (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Awful Truth (1937)

A movie about a couple in the midst of a divorce may seem an odd choice for an anniversary movie, but this is the antiromantic romance, marriage as ping-pong, and one of the preeminent screwball comedies. Director Leo McCarey and timeless stars Cary Grant and Irene Dunne are virtually without peer in handling sparkling dialogue. Even when they’re actively destroying each other’s lives in bouts of schadenfreude, they’re entertaining—and the characters (embodying 1930s Hollywood’s excellent idea of a healthy marriage) are just as addictively entertaining to each other, as well. The Awful Truth isn’t the choice for couples who want to moon at each other over candlelight, but if you’ve seen enough road to find laughs at each other’s expense, it’s essential viewing.

Cover of "The Awful Truth"
Cover of The Awful Truth

The Thin Man (1934)

An eccentric inventor disappears and there’s no shortage of suspects, from his tawdry girlfriend to his ex-wife’s deadbeat husband. There’s a Dashiell Hammett mystery at the bottom of this movie, but it’s inconsequential—what this dishy lark is really about is the enthralling banter between the most debonair, comfortably droll, mutually secure movie couple of all time, Nick and Nora Charles (William Powell and, in a career-making turn, the delectable Myrna Loy). The Thin Man is an anniversary movie for those who don’t want romance and sentiment; these two are past that stage, and instead they make marriage look fun, from Loy’s dismissive nose shrug to Powell, hungover, shooting at Christmas ornaments while reclined on the sofa (“Best Christmas present I ever got!”) to fur-trimmed dressing gowns and flowing martinis. Movies haven’t dared to portray this kind of grown-up relationship too often, and this one made stars of its leads. But the secret of it is that this is romance, too—there are no moony gazes or clinches, but it’s evident to the blind that the Charleses, however they may snipe and gripe, are terribly, splendidly in love, and that they enjoy each other like sunny days.

Cropped screenshot of Myrna Loy from the trail...
Cropped screenshot of Myrna Loy from the trailer for Another Thin Man (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Queen Christina (1933)

Arguably the definitive Greta Garbo film—the epitome of her lush melodramas, made by inventive visual artist Rouben Mamoulian and costarring John Gilbert, Garbo’s old love, whose floundering talkie career Garbo tried to boost. The couple’s rueful circumstances alone make Queen Christina a swoon-worthy prize (Gilbert, an alcoholic whom Garbo had left literally standing at the altar years before, died of heart failure three years after making this film). But the story is a tragic daydream version of the eponymous Swedish monarch, resisting arranged international marriage and falling for Gilbert’s Spanish emissary. Surprisingly sexy, poetic, and, in the end, devastating.

Cropped screenshot of Greta Garbo from the tra...
Cropped screenshot of Greta Garbo from the trailer for the film Queen Christina (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Road to Perdition (2002)

An overproduced Oscar bid for both director Sam Mendes and star Tom Hanks, the gangster saga Road to Perdition (based on a Max Allen Collins graphic novel) about a mobster and his son taking revenge on his own clan is rather stale, but again, the money spent on recreating a rainy, sepia 1930s pays off.

Cinematographer Conrad L. Hall set up atmosphe...
Cinematographer Conrad L. Hall set up atmospheric lighting similar to that found in the paintings of Edward Hopper. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)



Pennies from Heaven (1981)

Pennies from Heaven (1981 film)
Pennies from Heaven (1981 film) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This peculiar movie musical, derived from a Dennis Potter BBC series, brings the 1930s back in a unique way: with the original popular recordings of the day, straight off the old, scratchy records, lip-synched by Steve Martin, Bernadette Peters, and others as they live out a pathetic tale of economic destitution in a mythical studio-set city that, during the song sequences, frequently turns into a glitzy fantasy realm. And then back again: the undulation of sky-high oldies and dour “reality” in Pennies from Heaven is disarming and fascinating.

Paper Moon (1973)

Peter Bogdanovich’s grim comedy about the Depression, in which Tatum O’Neal’s raw-mouthed orphan latches onto Ryan O’Neal’s fumbling, Bible-hawking con man (more out of hope for love, home, and a sense of belonging than for loot), has a formidable period thrust. The glowering black-and-white cinematography, the desolate midwestern towns, the exhausted faces of the poor, the empty Kansas skyline—every frame of Paper Moon makes you feel like you landed in 1936 without a nickel in your pocket. It’s largely forgotten now, but it justly received acclaim back in 1973; the sorely missed Madeline Kahn practically steals the movie in a mere twenty minutes, but she lost the Best Supporting Actress Oscar to Tatum, who remains the youngest winner ever of an Academy Award.