There’s no repressing the happy grins emerging from René Clair’s classic early talkie, an anti-industrialization parable (which years later would be largely ripped off by Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times) that follows two escaped convicts who confront modern factory life. Spring is the season for wishing for irresponsible alternatives to maturity and duty, and this sunny, flowery, goofy film is a wish come true.
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.
Jack Nicholson, a telepathic boy, an empty hotel, an axe. And oh, so much more—Stanley Kubrick’s landmark boo-fest rewards repeat viewings like a slot machine, from the awful sound of the kid’s Big Wheel on those silent corridor carpets to the beautiful naked ghost in the bathtub to Lloyd the saturnine bartender, fueling the animal for a night of mad havoc. The Shining is as much a hair-raising exploration of writer’s block, wintertime claustrophobia, and paternal impatience as it is a whacked-out horror flick—and it does run amuck in its own ozone. If little else, it’ll surely cure you of the notion that getting genuinely snowed in within a cavernous resort hotel might be fun or restorative, but being trapped at home with this dilly can electrify a cold, dull afternoon. If you can’t already quote at least half a dozen lines (“Give me the bat, Wendy . . .”), you need to catch up with the rest of America. All work and no play, indeed. With Shelley Duvall, Joe Turkell, and Scatman Crothers.
It’d be hard to do better than to hunker down with Murder on the Orient Express. A gleefully professional, completely confident all-star cast, on an aristocratic-age luxury train, on a day when the snow piles up outside just like it piles up around the train, stuck as it is in a Yugoslavian mountain drift while one of its passengers (Richard Widmark) is murdered in his private berth. Agatha Christie stalwart Hercule Poirot (Albert Finney, slicing his lean ham so nicely) interviews the suspects, twirling his trademarked moustache, and decades of celebrities parade before us, acting up snowstorms. Ah, the lost days when murder was fun, train travel was elegant, and royalty were to be pitied their vanished empires. An Oscar went to Ingrid Bergman for her one scene because, well, she’s Ingrid Bergman.
It’s a universal assumption by now that this bouncy, matter-of-fact sci-fi thriller was actually directed by producer Howard Hawks. This accounts for the snappy patter and all-business plot stuff, but the “trapped in the Arctic with an alien” scenario comes from veteran genre scribe John W. Campbell Jr.’s story “Who Goes There?” Tight and suspenseful as hell; The Thing was remade in 1982 to significantly more garish effect.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Ron Shelton’s making his incisive way through the major sports (let’s hope he hasn’t given up before getting to boccie), and here he rampages across the green with Kevin Costner’s gone-to-seed golf rogue, who’s trying to qualify for the U.S. Open in order to impress Rene Russo. Because it’s Shelton, Tin Cup is probably the most faithful movie ever made about the game, even if it’s too long and Costner’s aging rapscallion pales after a while.
The pivotal National Lampoon/Saturday Night Live–era comedy, co-written and directed by Harold Ramis, in which gophers run amok, Chevy Chase hits droll notes (this was back when he was funny), Bill Murray invents Carl the groundskeeper, Ted Knight bursts a blood vessel, and Rodney Dangerfield asks who, in fact, stepped on a duck. There’s more. Caddyshack is a bit of a mess, but golfers can’t go wrong with this film, especially if they’re loaded.
Katharine Hepburn is a pro golfer, Spencer Tracy is her promoter, and Garson Kanin and Ruth Gordon’s screenplay gives them helping after helping of gender-combat banter, on and off the course (we’re treated to the sight of Hepburn herself, in a championship game, hitting against legendary real-life pro Babe Didrikson Zaharias, who was the subject of the 1975 TV movie Babe). Pat and Mike is perhaps the best of the Hepburn-Tracy comedies—because here, Tracy doesn’t always get the upper hand.
This vintage Charlie Chaplin two-reeler (amounting to about thirty minutes) is the first notable golf comedy: Chaplin’s Tramp infiltrates an aristocratic golf club and shows up the snobs. The brilliant pratfall gags in The Idle Class are so concise you’d think they were digitally timed.
Yet another disaffected-teen indie but one loaded to the brim with energetic personality, comic timing, bizarre non sequiturs and raw script wit. Two high school buddies with generational problems – motherless Joe (Nick Robinson) has commanding widower Nick Offerman dishing him sarcastic shit every day, while Patrick (Gabriel Basso) endures hilariously overripe helicopter parents (Megan Mullally and Marc Evan Jackson) – discover a patch of forgotten woods, and decide, with a third kid, the cryptic weirdo Biaggio (Moises Arias), to run away, build a makeshift house in the secret glade, and “live off the land,” more or less forever. The dissection of The Outsiders mythology is deft, and there’s no denying the film’s blast of nonstop drollery (even a running gag about the largest Chinese takeout dumplings on Earth keeps paying off) or verdant hang-out aura.
The story of Jackie Robinson, the first black player to be brought up into the Major League show in 1947, has a particularly heroic, folkloric glow, and the impulse to cinematize it into an all-American chest-sweller was so strong that Robinson was egged into starring as himself in 1950’s ill-advised The Jackie Robinson Story. That didn’t work out, but although this Spielbergian version isn’t the film Spike Lee had wanted to make for years, 42 tells a necessary story, and reconstitutes a a slew of baseball legends and gives them props, from Chadwick Boseman‘s long-suffering Jackie to Lucas Black‘s egalitarian Pee Wee Reese to Harrison Ford‘s avuncular character turn as Dodgers executive Branch Rickey. The telegraphed nobility, dumb as it is, can warm your baser nerve endings if you let it, which shouldn’t be hard for a fan.
Generally given to writing sitcomish comedies that are sticky with bathos, Neil Simon uncorked his cellar of shtick for this murder-mystery parody, composed entirely of a character cast making easy hay of Sam Spade, Nick and Nora Charles, Miss Marple, Hercule Poirot, and Charlie Chan (not to mention blind butler Alec Guinness and deaf-mute maid Nancy Walker). The “world’s greatest detectives” are locked in a booby-trapped house in a rainstorm, of course (by host Truman Capote, which is the part of Murder By Death we still don’t get), but the cast (including Peter Falk, Eileen Brennan, David Niven, Elsa Lanchester, James Coco, and Peter Sellers) are savvy pros at the top of their game, and not a campy stitch is dropped.
This grim British chiller’s title says it all: the grainy black-and-white film allows not a shred of sunshine or color as we follow a guilt-ridden Richard Attenborough around London as he carries out unhinged wife Kim Stanley’s plan to “borrow” a rich little girl and make everyone believe their own long-dead son has revealed to her the girl’s whereabouts in an afternoon séance. Everything about Séance on a Wet Afternoon is gray and gloomy; the boarded windows of the room where the girl is hidden, Stanley’s eerie hospital-nurse pretense as she ministers to the drugged child, Attenborough’s desperate unraveling as the little girl grows ill and remorse and shame overtake him. The rain dominates: windshield wipers on chauffeur-driven cars, umbrellas popping open, splashing puddles—even the music sounds like dripping water, and the raindrops on the camera lens will make you feel as if it’s your window you’re looking through, and that you’re damned thankful to be inside.