Director Stanley Kramer was known for years as a heavy-handed, social-issues ideologue, but in retrospect—and considering today’s “serious” films about racism, genocide, environmentalism, and so on—much of Kramer’s oeuvre now seems eloquent, passionate, and affecting. The Defiant Ones is a prime example: escaped convicts Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis, chained together, are forced to bond as men despite their individual races as they scramble across the countryside. Hot under the collar and acted at a fever pitch, this movie makes even some Spike Lee films look cheesy and softhearted by comparison.
Dreamer: Inspired by a True Story supports the theory that animals provide us both a means to connect with one another and inspiration for us to succeed against impossible odds. The horse in this case is Sonador, and the broken family are the Cranes, who own a Kentucky horse farm devoid of horses. Dakota Fanning gives father Kurt Russell her best puppy-dog eyes, and Sonador is immediately ensconced at the Crane homestead for rehabilitation and a second chance at racing, mending the Cranes’ hearts while they mend her leg. You’ve seen it before, but it’s serious, and the well-seasoned Russell supplies gravitas. With Kris Kristofferson.
In 1938, an undersized thoroughbred snagged the attention of the entire country with his dominating speed, and in 2001, an unknown author with chronic fatigue syndrome made the bestseller list with her book about this rather ungainly horse. The ugly duckling syndrome plays out as well for one-eyed jockey Red Pollard (Tobey Maguire), and the whole package is pumped with inspirational juice by screenwriter/director Gary Ross. The period track milieu of Seabiscuit is authentic and omnipresent, and the story still hums.
Probably the greatest horse-love film that will ever be made, Carroll Ballard’s entrancing take on the Walter Farley children’s book is rich in atmosphere, light on unnecessary chitchat (the grand middle passage, set on a desert island populated only by a boy and a wild horse, is essentially dialogue free), and visually so beautiful it can stop your brain from working. From the shipboard opening (with an enigmatic poker game and a traumatic storm) to the stranded courting of horse by kid (Kelly Reno is fabulous) and beyond, The Black Stallion is a deeply mysterious film—clear, but hinting at deeper ravishments. As a result, it may also be one of the best evocations of the ecstatic currents flowing through childhood.
A hallmark family film that is less about a girl’s relationship to her horse than it is about her relationship to her family, her determination, and her adolescence. National Velvet is based on a bestselling Enid Bagnold novel, and features 1940s Technicolor, but none of that is as bewitching as a twelve-year-old Elizabeth Taylor, whose earnest zest for competition lights her from the inside. Well-turned-out performances all around, and with more subtle, genuine moments than fluff, thanks to the good humor of the script and the Oscar-winning performance of Anne Revere as the wise mother.
The Marx Brothers do the horse track—which is to say that A Day at the Races has very little to do with racing at all. Unfortunately, it’s one of the brotherhood’s later films, for MGM, which despite hearty servings of Marxian wackiness are overrun with romantic subplots and unfunny musical numbers. Still, if you’re having juleps, this is your best bet.
Writer-director Nicole Holofcener’s film Friends with Money analyzes a very particular dynamic—that of being a luckless and careerless lonely girl (Jennifer Aniston) in an L.A. circle of friends (Catherine Keener, Frances McDormand, and Joan Cusack) who are all married and rich. Seems preposterous, given the casting, but nobody in this country uses as sympathetic a microscope as Holofcener when examining the conundrums of modern women, and Aniston is convincing and sad. With Jason Isaacs.
A literate, mature indie about a single mom (Laura Linney) who’s stuck in her childhood home after the early death of her parents, saddled with an obnoxious boss and an evasive boyfriend, and raising a son who needs a man around the house. Trouble rolls into town in the form of her screwed-up brother (Mark Ruffalo). Sounds slight, but it adds up—to a portrait not just of a woman’s love life, but of her entire life, and all the emotional complexities it entails. Both stars are remarkable; Ruffalo found himself a career after You Can Count on Me, and Linney was nominated for an Oscar. With Matthew Broderick.
A film designed to win its star an Oscar if there ever was one, Steven Soderbergh’s Erin Brockovich sets up Julia Roberts as a working-class single-mom heroine for the oppressed, legally battling corporate giant Pacific Gas and Electric on behalf of the scores of poor locals who have endured decades of tumors and other illnesses thanks to the illegal use and dumping of poisonous chemicals. Filthy with character details and robust righteousness, the film is also notable for its dismissal of love and even parenthood in favor of doing justice, fighting the good fight, and working your ass off at something you believe in.
Single, alone, and discouraged? Rather than resume the soul-crushing hunt for a suitable, or even bearable, mate, consider entertaining the notion that’s at the wide-eyed core of this seminal, postfeminist war chant: the solution to your problem is to run. There aren’t many males of the breed worth one of your airborne toenails, and, since males run the world, your best bet is to stick it to the man, grab a gun, climb into a big, brightly painted vintage automobile, and make a break for the frontier. This remarkable movie actually makes this dead-end gambit seem worth the price: Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis, both smashing in faded denim and desert-wind-swept hair, revel in all things masculine (cool cars, firearms, the West, teaching lowdown varmints a thing or two about how to talk to a lady), then simply take their own spectacular exit rather than submit to the laws of patriarchal privilege. As a rebel yell,
Thelma and Louise couldn’t be more extreme—or more fun. Anyway, you can’t be blamed for thinking you’d rather drive off a cliff than endure another round of speed dating. Introducing Brad Pitt.
Perhaps the most sensitive portrait of feminine loneliness in the post-Eisenhower period, this Paul Newman–directed drama gets under the epidermis of a wilting-lily, thirtysomething schoolteacher (Joanne Woodward) who hopelessly embarks on an aimless affair as she otherwise faces her grim middle years alone. The profound sympathy brought to the heroine’s plight by all concerned keeps Rachel, Rachel very far from being depressing.
What better company, if you’re without a man and frustrated, than Mae West, a woman’s woman who’s built like a battleship, is in complete control of her sexual identity, and is ready to use up men like tissues, with no more than a smirk and tossed bon mot? In I’m No Angel, West remains an invigorating, optimistic object lesson in how to be comfortable in your own skin, how to love sex for sex’s sake, and why you need never rely on a man.
This Ukrainian WWII saga opens with a tracking shot through the 1942 equivalent of a Bosch painting: for almost four minutes, Sergei Loznitsa‘s camera prowls after three Nazi-arrested locals as they’re led through an occupied Belorussian village, past children and weeping babushkas and relaxing Germans, to the gallows. After that, we’re at the door of a farmhouse, where a steely local resistance fighter comes to execute his erstwhile friend. We only find out why deeper into the film: the farmer was the fourth prisoner to be hung, but he was freed for reasons unknown, a condition that automatically convicts him as a collaborator. The subsequent odyssey through the Eastern Front wilderness proceeds into As I Lay Dying terrain, and Loznitsa makes sure the physical trial stays close to the ground and leave bruises, using long takes, hardbitten hyperreal imagery, and, reportedly, only 72 cuts. In The Fog has the inevitability of an avalanche.
Oscar-nominated if under-seen since, Oren Moverman‘s post-Bush drama The Messenger is by far the most mature and moving film made yet about the Iraqi invasion, even if Iraqis themselves don’t make an appearance as figures mentioned in battle stories. It’s a telling, ethically vibrant film, a home-front war movie with a difference – it’s about the task of manning the home-front, by reporting the dead to their families. We think Ben Foster‘s new reassignee is merely a buttoned-down battle case, and like him, the film is realigning the war-movie priorities – there’s combat, but then there’s the result, families with holes in them, keening parents, shattered wives, orphaned children. Woody Harrelson, as the commanding officer in a pas de deux, also seems to be a stereotype that sheds onion layers – by the middle of the film, after harrowing house visit after house visit, the two men are as complicated by rage and secrets and shame and vulnerability as any that an American independent film has produced in years. The story follows their tentative bonding, and Montgomery’s impulsive attraction to a young widow (the amazing Samantha Morton) after she reacts very differently to the soldiers’ news than they expect her to. But the achievement is more on the micro-level: the time spent absorbing wholesale grief (Moverman’s camera is always ready to hang back and give the victims air, while Foster’s hardass always wells up with tears but freezes), the conversations full of unspoken intention, the rhythms of scenes as the characters, responding to disaster, hunt internally for ways to react. And the acting is razor-sharp, down to Steve Buscemi as a soldier’s father, upping the film’s ante in his pivotal scene, and then raising it again later, unexpectedly. Overall, there’s a sense of tender responsibility here that feels like a tall glass of ice water in an arid modern movie culture most often overrun with simplism (that’s a real word, and a good one) and idiot noise.
Here was the late twentieth century’s generational anthem film, except no one seemed terribly interested in identifying with it. Writer/director Noah Baumbach’s debut, Kicking and Screaming is a rueful portrait of four preppy, Ivy League–ish friends. Living off campus, they’re suddenly left in the weird afterworld in which graduation has marked them as grown-ups, but the indulgent, trivia-obsessed allure of college life maintains its grip. Baumbach poured a hundred college careers’ worth of ironic humor into the script, and Chris Eigeman, Josh Hamilton, and Carlos Jacott are a dry riot. Eric Stoltz almost steals the movie in an improvised role as a philosophical bartender, but it’s hard not to fall for Olivia d’Abo as an impulsive creative-writing major who’s a tad self-conscious about her braces.
Nobody college grad Helen Childress penned Reality Bites, a magnifying-glass comedy about post-graduation aimlessness and slackdom, and with a great cast (including Winona Ryder, Ethan Hawke, Janeane Garofalo, Steve Zahn, and Ben Stiller) it lands on a facet of modern reality rarely seen on film: the way twentysomethings can talk in comic code to each other and to themselves, aggrandizing their nothingness and elevating childhood pop culture to the status of idolhood.
A narrow but rueful valentine to the college grads of the ’Nam era, this is the film that introduced Kevin Costner to the world. Here he plays the larky leader of a motley gang of sullen jerks, each of whom is engaged in either embracing the war, running from the draft, getting married, or merely remaining drunkenly unconscious. Costner’s energy keeps Fandango afloat. With Judd Nelson, Sam Robards, and Suzy Amis.
A generational emblem more than a movie, the Mike Nichols classic The Graduate captures the essence of alienation and social incompleteness as only films made in the late 1960s and early 1970s can. Dustin Hoffman became a star in the unlikeliest of circumstances: as an aimless college grad who cannot get a fix on what he wants out of life. He is seduced by a family friend (Anne Bancroft), and is then pressured into dating her daughter (Katharine Ross); as life gets more complicated, he searches madly for any reason at all to choose one destiny over another. Credit is due to 1967 audiences, who saw themselves in this ambivalent portrait, and who dared to ask big questions of themselves and their movies. Picture, if you can, the new millennium’s freshly graduated degree-holders facing the same choice.
The year’s true World War II masterpiece, The Thin Red Line, Terrence Malick’s comeback film (after a twenty-year hiatus from filmmaking) takes place during and around the battle of Guadalcanal, but is in reality far more concentrated on the emotional experience of battle and the impact, poetically invoked here, of human warfare upon individuals and upon nature. Essentially a three-hour, nonnarrative experiment, there are no main characters—just an ensemble of thirty or more figures—and there’s no story—just impressions, experiences, feelings (the complex weft of narrative voices often do not synch up with on-screen personas), and astonishing images. Oh, yeah—it’s based on James Jones’s 1962 novel, though you’d never know it. Lots of stars packed in: Sean Penn, Nick Nolte, George Clooney, Jim Caviezel, John Cusack, Woody Harrelson, John Travolta, Jared Leto, and Miranda Otto.
The first and more orthodox World War II war film of 1998, Steven Spielberg’s heroic yarn Saving Private Ryan follows a troop of assorted all-American types through the European theater on what seems to them to be a fool’s mission: retrieving a soldier (Matt Damon) from battle after his brothers are killed elsewhere. Tom Hanks rings true as an unlikely macho commander, and the opening D-Day sequence is justly famous for being gut-twisting. With Edward Burns and Tom Sizemore.
It’s Christmas, 1944; the Germans have nearly lost, and everyone knows it. Six mostly inexperienced soldiers (including Ethan Hawke, Frank Whaley, Will Wheaton, and Gary Sinise) are selected for special assignment because of their high IQs, so we know we’re in for a thoughtful movie—no “kill the Kraut” heroism here. After stumbling through the darkened, snowy forest they hole up in an abandoned mansion, wondering what to do; the Germans they meet feel likewise, and for a while—but not forever—it seems they won’t exchange fire more dangerous than snowballs. A Midnight Clear, an unjustly overlooked film, is based on a William Wharton novel.
Stanley Kubrick’s bare-knuckle screed about war and military injustice, set during World War I and amid the French; Kirk Douglas plays a colonel ordered to shove his men into a hopeless slaughter; when they eventually refuse, he’s compelled to court-martial a handful of random infantrymen for cowardice. Paths of Glory is muscular storytelling and unremitting moral outrage.
The Burmese Harp is a haymaker of an antiwar film from Japanese moviemaker Kon Ichikawa, in which a soldier escapes death in Burma by masquerading as a Buddhist priest, then finds himself transformed by the horrors of war into a holy man dedicated to burying the countless dead.
Before there was The Hunger Games, there was Battle Royale. Many of us remember high school as a war zone, and in this ludicrous, disturbing, fascinating Japanese film, from crime-epic master Kinji Fukasaku, the feeling is made literal: in some near future on the verge of youth-gang social collapse, Japan’s fascist government randomly selects a class of teens and strands them on an isolated island with one imperative: that they kill each other until one student is left standing. Battle Royale, a very emotional film (try to find a Japanese or Korean film about high school that isn’t), and the kids’ catalog of slights, betrayals, ostracisms, jealousies, and clique-creation becomes, suddenly, a matter of homicidal payback and adolescent prairie justice. You think you had it bad.