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.
A massively clever, thick-as-a-brick screenplay by Daniel Waters gave this teen satire plenty of ground to tear up—it mockingly endorses, among other things, in-school murder, terrorism, and teen suicide, while dishing homosexuality, teachers, parents, football, and bulimia—all in fun, of course. Winona Ryder’s wary clique-follower hangs with the cool, big-haired girls of 1980s Westerberg High (named after Paul, famed lead singer of the Replacements), and has her homicidal fantasies realized by new kid Christian Slater (doing a killer Jack Nicholson). Conceptually Heathers is outlandish, right up to the climactic bomb, but it’s also endlessly inventive, line for slangy line, and the feeling of teen social crisis is there.
Real Genius is a supremely silly 1980s teen comedy about a private high school for scientific geniuses, featuring a fantastically zingy Val Kilmer as the senior class’s reigning brain, who has already decided that being smart will not prevent him from being a complete clown. As the new kid in town, Gabe Jarret is too convincingly awkward.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
If you’ve been wondering why in this day and age, when Hollywood seems to be doing nothing but recycling old movies, no one has thought to remake Topper, consider this: it’s essentially a story in which driving drunk at breakneck speed around dangerous curves with your feet on the steering wheel of a convertible is seen as not just funny, but also as a paradigm for living the good life. Party animals George and Marian Kerby (Cary Grant and Constance Bennett, bouncing screwball dialogue like Ping-Pong champs) become ghosts because of such antics, and they soon learn they’ve got a pretty short resume for applying for residence in Heaven. They set out to do a good deed: loosening up repressed bank president Cosmo Topper (Roland Young), who is henpecked by his propriety-conscious wife and who leads as dull a life as you can imagine. A kind of morality-tale act of retribution on Roaring Twenties hedonism, Topper is also completely 1930s in its battery of platinum blondes in slinky sequined evening dresses, men in tuxes and top hats driving roadsters, bankers in fedoras, and dancing in nightclubs.
A true Hollywood scandal fictionalized rather adroitly: in 1924, pioneering producer Thomas Ince died, perhaps after being shot—maybe accidentally, maybe not—aboard the yacht of William Randolph Hearst (Edward Herrmann), in a scenario that also involved Charlie Chaplin (Eddie Izzard), actress (and Hearst’s mistress) Marion Davies (Kirsten Dunst) and Louella Parsons (Jennifer Tilly), who would soon become a lifelong columnist for Hearst Newspapers. The Cat’s Meow was a return to fluency by director Peter Bogdanovich.
The gangster epic Once Upon a Time in America as fractured opium daydream, tripping back and forth in the skull of a Jewish hood (Robert De Niro) until the past, present, and future more or less mush into a mournful opera of betrayal and guilt. Along for the pageant: James Woods as a weaselly cohort, pre-Downton Abbey Elizabeth McGovern as the trollop that got away, Tuesday Weld as a decaying slattern, and Joe Pesci as an unlucky rival. Directed by Sergio Leone, the man that made Clint Eastwood famous in A Fistful of Dollars, this reckless monstrosity spends its plot, characters, and themes like a drunken sailor: settle for nothing less than the nearly-four-hour version, but even then, the film can barely contain so much stuff. 1890s New York childhoods, teenage hookers, Prohibition, hits, rapes, backstabbings, lost love—Leone left nothing out, making this the buddy elegy flip side to The Godfather’s familial moan. With, ironically enough, one of Ennio Morricone’s most heartfelt scores.
One of the best and wittiest of the comedies made during the 1970s ”look back in fondness” craze, Mike Nichols’s The Fortune —about a pair of nitwits (Warren Beatty and Jack Nicholson) who attempt to murder ditzy heiress Stockard Channing—is so summer-before-the-Crash hazy that the cinematography itself seems light-headed with humidity. The 1920s atmosphere is all sun, white linen, old convertibles, improperly paved country roads, palm trees, and screwball, like a Gatsby scenario with its pants down.
Concerning the idle rich, for whom every season is summer, the semi-forgotten fantasy Death Takes a Holiday (remade decades later, at twice the length, as Meet Joe Black) is vintage “lost generation, in tuxes and satin gowns, loiters with martinis on a marble veranda at midnight.” Until, of course, Death (a stunningly stiff Fredric March) decides to visit and see what being mortal is like.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
A surprisingly spry biopic of actor George Reeves, whose unmeteoric career led to him playing Superman on TV (1952–58), and eventually to a suicide that might’ve been a murder. Ben Affleck, as Reeves, and Diane Lane, as Toni Mannix, a Hollywood producer’s wife and aging tramp, rise to the occasion, and the film is a bath in postwar semi-affluence. Ignore the Adrien Brody framing story if you can.
Frank and Cathy (Dennis Quaid and Julianne Moore) are the perfect 1950s couple: he’s a successful businessman; she’s a beautiful, impeccable hostess with a flawless home, two well-behaved children, and a loyal housekeeper. The facade cracks when Cathy catches Frank kissing another man—and then finds solace in the sympathetic companionship of her gardener, a courteous, intelligent man who happens to be black. This movie is an homage to the Douglas Sirk dramas of the 1950s, right down to the typeface over the opening credits and the swelling Elmer Bernstein score, and it’s a dead-serious “women’s film” melodrama. Gloved hands, cocktails before dinner, crinoline skirts, and the ubiquity of casual prejudice—director Todd Haynes’s film is almost a deliberate attempt to make the nervy movie about the failure of middle-class surfaces that audiences should’ve had the chance to see in 1956, but that the studios were too timid to make.