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.
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.
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.
Moon about penguins and parrots all you like, but An Inconvenient Truth, Davis Guggenheim and Al Gore’s dissertation on global warming, sets up the big environmental picture, and gets the sirens going. No matter what kind of gag orders are placed on using the words “climate change,” the burden of unassailable evidence says the wheels have already been set in motion for making our planet essentially uninhabitable and no amount of corporate or political prevarication will make that fact go away.
To date the second-largest-grossing documentary ever made (after Fahrenheit 9/11), this French-made, Morgan Freeman–narrated tribulation observes the Antarctic emperor penguins as they traverse miles of open ice to mate, lay eggs, and hatch chicks. Fascinating for at least a while, March of the Penguins also indulges in cutesy music cues, anthropomorphic stereotypes, and hilarious assumptions about the feelings of inexpressive marine wildlife.
Easily the most globally integrated entry in the postmod New Cartoon Wave, The Wild Thornberrys Movie, about a globetrotting, dysfunctional family of wildlife documentarians, made for a fairly rote feature, in which poachers are battled and defeated. Still, there’s no denying the charm of bespectacled, braces-ridden, homely wild child Eliza (Lacey Chabert), who can speak to animals—and who emerges as one of the most stirring heroines in contemporary media. With Tim Curry.
A French film made with minimal dialogue and dubbed into scores of languages, The Bear is a zoological odyssey that follows a real orphan Kodiak cub who latches onto a full-grown male and attempts to steer clear of hunters. Tremendous unspoiled locales (Canada, the Italian Alps), cute animals, and at least one dramatic confrontation between man and animal that’ll make your eyes bulge.
Will insects inherit the earth? Of course they will, eventually, but this feverish quasidocumentary, narrated by a fictional scientist played by Lawrence Pressman, makes the case that it’ll happen sooner rather than much later, since bugs are shown to be many times tougher and more adaptable than any other life on the planet. The facts are disquieting by themselves, but The Hellstrom Chronicle whips up a frenzy of entophobia with galling sequences of insect warfare and predation. Yuk.
Arguably the best American TV series about small children, Rugrats was also one of the subtlest and wisest about Jewish family life in the United States. In this special, the toddlers imagine themselves into Ancient Jerusalem. “A Maccababy’s gotta do what a Maccababy’s gotta do!” A richer meal, even, for parents than for tykes.
Joan Micklin Silver’s groundbreaking indie—a historical film about immigrant life in 1890s New York, made for next to nothing—recreates the Russian-Jewish ghetto world with a savvy ear for dialect and distinctly unsilvery black-and-white cinematography. Other than the Yiddish films of Molly Picon, Hester Streetmay be the next best thing to being there. With Carol Kane.
The only German Expressionist staple—and the only horror-genre tale—of the Chanukah offerings, the Paul Wegener production (he’s the director and monolithic star), which has its origins in ancient Judaic myth, details the magical creation, in sixteenth-century Prague, of a giant clay man to defend the Jews from persecution. Other versions, including a FrenchLe Golem released in 1936 and a British thriller calledIt! (1966), aren’t as memorable The Golem.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.