Miracle (2004)

It’s nearly impossible to make a sports movie these days that isn’t over-the-top, fists-in-the-air hyper-sentimental and “inspiring,” and most of these recent offerings are deplorable. Miracle may be the best of the lineup, thanks to its period story (the underdog U.S. hockey team besting the Soviet übermensch in the 1980 Winter Games) and Kurt Russell, as the coach, in an outrageous hair-helmet wig.

Mystery, Alaska (1999)

Mystery, Alaska
Mystery, Alaska (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A hockey movie for people who play hockey as well as for those who just watch it. In this small Alaskan town,  the greatest ambition and honor is to skate in the Saturday Game—a weekly event that entails skating out of a log-cabin locker room to the cheers of the town’s populace and playing on frozen ponds circled by towering firs and ice-capped mountains (this is a place where snowmobiles and ice skates are used for transportation, not recreation). Of course, plot-wise, the big-city types invade with a deal to play a show game with the New York Rangers. Mystery, Alaska is heartwarming underdog schmaltz without being smarmy, and true fans will appreciate such quirkiness as warming skates with hot potatoes and being forced to slide, bare-assed, across the ice as punishment for transgressions against teammates. Ranger fans will be put off, though: their team are depicted as overpaid, spoiled princes who can only play in heated rinks. With Russell Crowe, Hank Azaria, Mary McCormack, and Burt Reynolds.

The Mighty Ducks (1992)

Essentially The Bad News Bears on Ice, this formulaic story of a self-centered lawyer (Emilio Estevez) who finds redemption coaching a klutzy peewee hockey team garnered enough box office draw and wholeheartedly devoted fans to warrant two sequels, a TV series, and a video game. For the prepuberty leagues only, The Mighty Ducks certainly pounds home the importance of teamwork—and the potential amorality of rich lawyers.

The Mighty Ducks DVD cover
The Mighty Ducks DVD cover (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Slap Shot (1977)

The first and probably only genuine American satire about hockey, this black-eyed hoot in the Michael Ritchie style (think Smile, The Bad News Bears, and Semi-Tough) has Paul Newman playing an aging sub-league coach/captain determined to make his small-town’s scruffy franchise profitable, even if it means breaking every rule and premeditating assault. Written by veteran radical comedy ace Nancy Dowd, the unglamorous film was a modest success upon its release, but its fame and cult esteem have grown exponentially in the years since. If you can’t quote from Slap Shot, you’ve gotten yourself left behind.

Slap Shot (film)
Slap Shot (film) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The New World (2005)

Terrence Malick’s bleeding-heart romantic vision of the Pocahontas–John Smith saga, The New World is less interested in historical revisionism per se (it does Disney a step better, though) than it is in projecting a rhapsodic feeling for the unspoiled wilderness, frontier intoxication (Colin Farrell, as Smith, is as joyful and quivering as a child at Christmas) and the sun-burnished, beauteous glow of costar Q’Orianka Kilcher, whose Pocahontas should define the character in the popular culture for eons to come. (We’ll forget, as everyone has, that the real Pocahontas was about eleven years old and naked, clothes being permitted among the Powhatan only after puberty.)

Mountains of the Moon (1990)

A terrific, overlooked revisionist epic of the Age of Exploration’s last days, as the impossibly cool Sir Richard Burton (Patrick Bergin) and the not-so-impressive John Hanning Speke (Iain Glen) search Africa for the source of the Nile. If you’re of an anticolonialist mind-set, you’ll be happy to see that they get theirs; in addition, the spirit of Victorian clubs, British savoir faire, and National Geographic adventurism of Mountains of the Moon is intoxicating.

Cover of "Mountains of the Moon"
Cover of Mountains of the Moon

Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972)

Aguirre, the Wrath of God
Aguirre, the Wrath of God (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

German New Wave adventurer Werner Herzog stranded his crew, his cast, and himself in the Andes to film this magnificent parable on fascism, which looks as if it were shot in the sixteenth century. The tale of a mutinied contingent of Spanish conquistadors, lost on a Peruvian river and led by megalomaniac knight Klaus Kinski, Aguirre, the Wrath of God is a muscular, incredibly realistic experience (no safely dismissed special effects here)—a masterpiece.

The Far Horizons (1955)

Donna Reed doesn’t look much like the Sacajawea we have on our dollar coin nowadays, but The Far Horizons isn’t history; it’s Hollywood doing Lewis and Clark (Fred MacMurray and Charlton Heston), whose actual trip would’ve made an eventless movie in the traditional sense, and so dramas are invented involving tribal war, a scurvy French trader (Alan Reed—that’s right, Fred Flintstone), and the love dance between Clark and Reed’s dewy Indian maiden. Shot in Grand Teton National Park.

Cover of "The Far Horizons"
Cover of The Far Horizons

Miller’s Crossing (1990)

Miller's Crossing
Miller’s Crossing (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Coen brothers’ masterpiece one-ups Dashiell Hammett (whose novel The Glass Key was the film’s uncredited template) with a liberal dose of rum-runner-era Midwest ambiance, all overcoats and pine forests and gray skies. The story, so thick with its own web-like narrative hijinks and pearly mock patois, ropes around the conflict of nerves between two crime bosses in an unnamed midwestern city and the one man (Gabriel Byrne) trying, for his own reasons, to play both ends against the middle. Don’t ask us why, but films set in Depression-era Middle America always seem to take place in either summertime (when jobless poverty is of relatively little consequence) or autumn (when, as winter approaches, it begins to matter a good deal more). Of course, the Coens aren’t as concerned with actual socioeconomic conditions as much as with the movie-movie ether left lingering in the cultural forebrain, but all the same, Miller’s Crossing lends its autumn a uniquely resonant identity. In this cockeyed world of tweed, bourbon, and northern zephyrs, being left out in the approaching cold is the sorriest fate there is. with Albert Finney, John Turturro,  and Marsha Gay Harden.

Children of a Lesser God (1986)

Children of a Lesser God
Children of a Lesser God (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Here’s that cuddly, romantic, back-to-school vibe again. The persistent, friendly northern chill in the browning foliage (shot, as it happens, in Canada) and on the cast’s rosy-cheeked faces may be the only aspects of this award winner (set, happily, in an old private school in the woods) that doesn’t feel silly and dated today. But since most autumn movies tend to be either hair-raising or cynical, Children of a Lesser God offers a snuggle-on-the-couch alternative, complete with motormouth William Hurt at his peculiar best, Marlee Matlin‘s passionate debut, and a happy ending.

Sometimes a Great Notion (1971)

Paul Newman’s adaptation of Ken Kesey’s novel about an Oregon logging family is thick—visually and narratively—with trees in falltime (Sometimes a Great Notion was completely shot on location, using real light, as was the curious custom in Hollywood at the time.) As the beach is to summer, the northern forests are to autumn, and here the quotidian of living and working amid the woodlands is altogether palpable—naturalistic, unadorned, unbeautified, respected, and run through with northwest sunlight and shadow. Sometimes retitled Never Give an Inch, which should never be held against it.

Sometimes a Great Notion (film)
Sometimes a Great Notion (film) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

An Autumn Afternoon (1962)

One of the most mature and eloquent voices in cinema, Yasujiro Ozu capped off his astoundingly consistent and insightful career with this paradigmatic masterpiece, in which traditional and contemporary Japanese values “agree to disagree” over a good-hearted widower and his grown daughter, whom he has decided must get married. Ozu was a master, and his films are surpassingly rich with humanity and respect, but although he was always patiently observant of the physical world (he pioneered the use of “still-lifes”—cutaway images of unoccupied space used as counterpoint to the quiet turmoil of the characters’ lives), only An Autumn Afternoon has a distinctly seasonal ambiance. Here the Tokyo autumn is glimpsed only in spare, koan-like tidbits—but in Ozu’s sphere, the season is always as tangible a reality as the fifty flavors of heartbreak that marinate his stories.

Cover of "An Autumn Afternoon - Criterion...
Cover via Amazon

Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995)

Welcome to the Dollhouse
Welcome to the Dollhouse (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If you don’t remember the killing fields of the seventh grade, Welcome to the Dollhouse is a reminder. Todd Solondz‘ movie opens in the Theater of Cruelty of the junior high school cafeteria, where finding somewhere to sit, and people who will let you sit with them, has all the shivery dread of being lost in a police state without ID. The camera slowly circles around eleven-year-old Dawn Weiner (Heather Matarazzo), standing there holding her tray and surveying the combat zone, her bespectacled face a knot of huddled horror. You’ve been there.

The 400 Blows (1959)

The semi-autobiographical French New Wave landmark The 400 Blows by François Truffaut is as potent a vehicle for an adult’s autobiographical ruminations as it is a guide to the new adolescent’s storming terrain. Watch Jean-Pierre Léaud as he watches grown-ups, steals happiness in their absence, and warily regards the world that grates against him at every turn.

Cover of "The 400 Blows: The (The Criteri...
Cover via Amazon

Zéro de Conduite (1933)

Zéro de conduite
Zéro de conduite (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Jean Vigo mini-masterpiece Zéro de Conduite is a vivid snapshot of grade school rebelliousness—you may’ve forgotten what it was like to spitball a teacher in fifth grade, or what it felt like to want to, but this visionary little gem jacks you into that universal spirit in no time flat, and at the same time it acts out your craziest pre-adolescent wishes of ridiculous chaos.

I Was Born, But . . . (1932)

Like a Little Rascals episode writ large and filmed by a meticulous genius, this silent Japanese film by Yasujiro Ozu views the world of two prepubescent brothers from three feet off the ground, as they struggle with the playground hierarchy in their neighborhood and discover, in horror, that their office-worker father is subjugated by the same conflicts. Because Ozu was always concerned with perspective and observation above all things, I Was Born, But… focuses on the real give-and-take of being a boy, and being eight years old.

Tatsuo Saito, Tomio Aoki, Hideo Sugawara from ...
Tatsuo Saito, Tomio Aoki, Hideo Sugawara from the 1932 film Was Born, But… directed by directed by Yasujiro Ozu (Photo credit: Wikipedia)