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.