Category Archives: The Time of Their Lives

Kicking and Screaming (1995)

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.

Reality Bites (1994)

Reality Bites
Reality Bites (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.

Fandango (1985)

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.

Fandango (1985 film)

Fandango (1985 film) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Graduate (1967)

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.

Graduateposter67.jpg

Human Resources (2000)

Laurent Cantet’s first film presents a meaty interpersonal crisis for the modernized age of the MBA. A new biz-school grad (Jalil Lespert) returns to his hometown to take a managerial position at the factory where his father (Jean-Claude Vallod) has been working for thirty years. Once the layoffs begin, the bile between the generations begins to flow. Shot ultrarealistically, Human Resources makes for mesmerizing drama, all of it completely convincing.

Office Space (1999)

Office Space
Office Space (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A brilliantly unassuming comedy by Beavis and Butt-head creator Mike Judge. A stressed-out software drone (Ron Livingston) takes a hypnotic suggestion at its word and ceases to care about his job—doing it or keeping it or even showing up—a disorienting mode of behavior that’s mistaken for self-directed confidence by the consultants who’ve been hired to determine who gets the ax. Although ignored upon its release, Office Space has become the definitive white-collar movie of techno-era America. Gary Cole’s smarmy manager, in particular, will leave a heel print on your brain. With Jennifer Aniston.

How to Get Ahead in Advertising (1989)

Many jobs call for ethical compromise, and in How to Get Ahead in Advertising, a devilishly uncomfortable comedy, an adman’s anxious doubts about his job manifest as a giant pimple on his shoulder. Soon enough, the zit sprouts eyes and a mouth, and begins persuading him toward new heights of capitalistic venality. As both perpetrator and victim, Richard E. Grant is a whirlwind of neurotic craziness.

How to Get Ahead in Advertising
How to Get Ahead in Advertising (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1956)

In this bestseller-derived drama, Gregory Peck plays a memory-haunted vet who returns to his suburban life and a new media PR job, only to struggle with the banality of corporate striving, with the ghosts of the war still impinging on his consciousness. The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit may be the first film to seriously weigh the difference between leading a happy life and succeeding in the business world—a common, if not easily dramatized, modern dilemma. Fredric March plays the hard-charging boss as if he’s imagining the saddest future possible for his bank-exec vet character in 1946’s The Best Years of Our Lives.

The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit
The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Bank Dick (1940)

The Bank Dick
The Bank Dick (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Bank Dick is perhaps W. C. Fields’s masterwork, in which the unfocused, red-nosed layabout takes a job as a bank guard; the structural demands of employment only add to the Fields persona’s already looming mountain of agitations. Brutally hilarious, especially if you, too, are pickled (on the job?!). Fields was easily the most despicable comic figure in Hollywood history, making dour jokes about his own alcoholic ruin, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t know what was funny.

Birth (2004)

A hypnotic, confident tour de force that centers on a beautiful widow (Nicole Kidman), and the little ten-year-old creepazoid (Cameron Bright) who asserts that he is the reincarnation of her dead husband. But the metaphysical suggestions (coscripted by Buñuel’s former screenwriter, Jean-Claude Carrière)  turn out to be merely a device to scrutinize the woman’s gangrenous case of grief, and Jonathan Glazer’s film is crafty, subtle (Kidman’s manner sometimes suggests the presence of prescription tranquilizers, but in a way that calls attention to itself), and, in the end, heartrending. There’s also this, for what it’s worth: several bright critics have noted how Birth features scores of visual echoes of Buñuel’s 1929 surrealist assault Un Chien Andalou, itself a madcap dream parable about lost love. Maybe. With Lauren Bacall.

Cover of "Birth"
Cover of Birth

Ponette (1996)

Jacques Doillon’s harrowing film Ponette may very well be the best, most grueling, and in the end most truthful and transcendent film ever made about  the mechanics of grief. Don’t watch it on a lark, particularly if you’re a parent; after viewing it, you’ll feel as if you’ve been scoured with steel wool inside and out.  The situation is purposefully simple: as we open, a pint-sized four-year-old named Ponette (Victoire Thivisol, a best-actress winner at the Venice International Film Festival) is in the hospital with a broken arm after a car wreck that killed her mother. As she is jockeyed around, during the transitional post-funeral period, from her aunt’s house to a live-in preschool to finally her father’s home, Ponette undergoes her own tribulation: she refuses to accept her mother’s death and move on. Nobody around her has much time or patience for the child’s inconsolable grief, and so she must go the road alone, attempting to collate what little she understands about God and Heaven into a reasonable scheme by which she can once again see or at least speak to her mother.  What Ponette does best is quietly but indelibly express the plight of children as they attempt, with such inadequate tools, to survive under the merciless wheels of the adult world.  All the more amazing, then, that Doillon finds deliverance for Ponette, in what may be either a simple dream experience or an unsentimental blast of secular magical realism. This isn’t merely a movie—it’s a mesmerizing ordeal by cinema.

Ponette
Ponette (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Fearless (1993)

A great, overlooked film of the American 1990s, this throat-grabber from director Peter Weir begins with a catastrophic airliner crash, then follows the dazed path of a survivor (Jeff Bridges), with a post-traumatic sense of invulnerability. Fearless‘s second story thread is where it leaves its bruises: a young mom (Rosie Perez) is ruined by grief after she fails to hold onto her baby son during the crash. The two them enact a dubious, free-for-all self-cure, and the fallout—particularly when Perez dares to smell someone else’s baby in a mall, or faces off against the dubious condolences offered by airline company grief therapy—is brutal and beautiful both. Be careful; it plays for keeps.

Fearless (1993 film)
Fearless (1993 film) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Men Don’t Leave (1989)

Fleshing out a grown-up, uplifting vibe in the mourning process that says “it’s time to move on,” this Paul Brickman drama has Jessica Lange’s soft-spoken widow Beth weather attempts, by her children and a quirky neighbor, to help her get back to the business of living. The give-and-take in Men Don’t Leave is sweet and genuine; the real gut-wrenching scenes—spoiler alert—are reserved for the youngest son (Charlie Korsmo), who must deal with the loss of his father via an unfinished tree house.

Mr. & Mrs. Smith (1941)

Every pair of married lovebirds has to ask: if you had to do it all over, would you get married again? The luminescent Carole Lombard asks Robert Montgomery that very question and he responds “no,” leaving us all to wonder if his eyes, brain, and loins are still in functioning order. It turns out that a paperwork glitch grants him his wish—they’re not legally wed after all, and Carole hands him his hat in high dudgeon, giving him no choice but to woo her back. It certainly seems improbable that this marital conundrum is brought to you by cynical master Alfred Hitchcock, but we should be so lucky as to still have romantic comedies like this: you haven’t seen anything until you’ve seen Montgomery try to punch himself in the nose, or Lombard handle acres of prime slapstick dialogue with the fierce energy of a tornado. A caveat: Mr. & Mrs. Smith is an anniversary movie only for those who would answer that question—“Would you marry me all over again?”—with an emphatic yes. Otherwise, your yearly celebration of conjugal bliss might end in separate bedroom assignments.

Cropped screenshot of Robert Montgomery and Ca...
Cropped screenshot of Robert Montgomery and Carole Lombard from the trailer for the film Mr. & Mrs. Smith (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Awful Truth (1937)

A movie about a couple in the midst of a divorce may seem an odd choice for an anniversary movie, but this is the antiromantic romance, marriage as ping-pong, and one of the preeminent screwball comedies. Director Leo McCarey and timeless stars Cary Grant and Irene Dunne are virtually without peer in handling sparkling dialogue. Even when they’re actively destroying each other’s lives in bouts of schadenfreude, they’re entertaining—and the characters (embodying 1930s Hollywood’s excellent idea of a healthy marriage) are just as addictively entertaining to each other, as well. The Awful Truth isn’t the choice for couples who want to moon at each other over candlelight, but if you’ve seen enough road to find laughs at each other’s expense, it’s essential viewing.

Cover of "The Awful Truth"
Cover of The Awful Truth

The Thin Man (1934)

An eccentric inventor disappears and there’s no shortage of suspects, from his tawdry girlfriend to his ex-wife’s deadbeat husband. There’s a Dashiell Hammett mystery at the bottom of this movie, but it’s inconsequential—what this dishy lark is really about is the enthralling banter between the most debonair, comfortably droll, mutually secure movie couple of all time, Nick and Nora Charles (William Powell and, in a career-making turn, the delectable Myrna Loy). The Thin Man is an anniversary movie for those who don’t want romance and sentiment; these two are past that stage, and instead they make marriage look fun, from Loy’s dismissive nose shrug to Powell, hungover, shooting at Christmas ornaments while reclined on the sofa (“Best Christmas present I ever got!”) to fur-trimmed dressing gowns and flowing martinis. Movies haven’t dared to portray this kind of grown-up relationship too often, and this one made stars of its leads. But the secret of it is that this is romance, too—there are no moony gazes or clinches, but it’s evident to the blind that the Charleses, however they may snipe and gripe, are terribly, splendidly in love, and that they enjoy each other like sunny days.

Cropped screenshot of Myrna Loy from the trail...
Cropped screenshot of Myrna Loy from the trailer for Another Thin Man (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Queen Christina (1933)

Arguably the definitive Greta Garbo film—the epitome of her lush melodramas, made by inventive visual artist Rouben Mamoulian and costarring John Gilbert, Garbo’s old love, whose floundering talkie career Garbo tried to boost. The couple’s rueful circumstances alone make Queen Christina a swoon-worthy prize (Gilbert, an alcoholic whom Garbo had left literally standing at the altar years before, died of heart failure three years after making this film). But the story is a tragic daydream version of the eponymous Swedish monarch, resisting arranged international marriage and falling for Gilbert’s Spanish emissary. Surprisingly sexy, poetic, and, in the end, devastating.

Cropped screenshot of Greta Garbo from the tra...
Cropped screenshot of Greta Garbo from the trailer for the film Queen Christina (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Flirting with Disaster (1996)

A devilishly rich character comedy about how being a new parent compels one to explore one’s own roots, David O. Russell’s high-concept rip Flirting with Disaster is packed with unpredictable rhythms, dead-perfect line readings, and hilarious peripheral characters. New dad/adopted schlemiel Ben Stiller wants to find out who his biological parents are; a cross-country journey ensues, in which viewers are treated to frustrated wife Patricia Arquette, chain-smoking social worker Téa Leoni, gay cop couples, a raft of mistaken identities, inadvertent LSD consumption, armpit sex, and the meddlesome hell of Jewish parents Mary Tyler Moore and George Segal. The baby is somewhat secondary to the mind frames of the neurotic father, but the states of parenthood and familial belonging have never been so hilariously besieged. One viewing won’t cut it.

 

Raising Arizona (1987)

Joel and Ethan Coen’s second film, and a wild-eyed, Rube Goldberg riot, as Southern-fool marrieds Nicolas Cage and Holly Hunter, unable to have babies of their own (“Her insides were a rocky place,” Cage’s dopey felon bemoans in an unforgettable narration, “where my seed could find no purchase.”), kidnap one from a set of quintuplets. From there, Raising Arizona is a veritable Road Runner cartoon revolving around the infant’s essentially irresistible baby-ness, and there are enough character-rich hee-haws for ten movies. The urgent matter of getting your hands on some Huggies in the worst of circumstances was never made so thrilling.

3 Godfathers (1948)

 

3 Godfathers
3 Godfathers (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

The template for the “bachelors find themselves raising an infant” comedies of later years, this John Ford western is actually pretty emotional and defiant of expectations, what with John Wayne as a self-pitying leader of a band of bank robbers (which also includes Pedro Armendariz and Harry Carey Jr.), the last act’s desert walk of death, and Ward Bond’s humane lawman. Made a decade after Stella Dallas, that ode to maternal martyrdom, this might well be the first American film that’s centered on the paternal sacrifice for the future of a gurgling newborn. Ignore the canned New Testament parallels and invocations if you can

 

The Lego Movie (2014)

As the song says, everything is awesome, from the joke visuals to the machine-gun-fire spew of one-liners and textual gags. Transforming Legos from a line of personality-less building blocks into an iconic and lovably hilarious culture staple is just the first of many surprises of The Lego Movie; getting Liam Neeson‘s career performance out of him might be the last. With Chris Pratt, Morgan Freeman, and Elizabeth Banks.

The Wind Rises (2013)

Japanese master animator Hayao Miyazaki ‘s final film, portraying the youth of a flight-obsessed Japanese boy who grows up to design airships and war planes for his country prior to WWII. It doesn’t sound like rich material for poetic animated epipanies, but Miyazaki is a wizard, and the film is a eye-candy elegy for everything lost in life, and the exquisite beauty of ephemeral things. The Wind Rises might also be the single best film ever made about flying and the machines that enable it.

Life of Pi (2012)

Life of Pi
Life of Pi (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Magnetic and fundamental storytelling from director Ang Lee, from the ubiquitous bestseller, Life of Pi leads viewers of every age comfortably through a life-&-death arc (aboard a floating lifeboat, tensely inhabited by a boy and a tiger), all the way from pure survival drama to wondering about the necessity of storytelling and faith. Visually bedazzling, and though the narrated denouement is sort of questionable, as it was in the novel, it may start young gears turning and conversations rolling.

Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)

Wes Anderson‘s stop-motion terrarium-movie, loosely based on an old Roald Dahl story, is a fast-talking, zesty riot, in which the eponymouse George Clooney-voiced egomaniac hero jeopardizes his tabletop country’s animal denizens by stepping outside of his tamed middle-class life and succumbing to his essential fox-ness. Kids will be dazzled in an analogue kind of way – it’s made of handheld toys more convincingly than the sheeny Toy Story films – and parents will be struck be its grown-up comic timing and the fact that, unlike other films of its kind, Fantastic Mr. Fox is a film that remembers but does not mourn childhood, in all of its cobbled-together, dirt-digging, plan-hatching dizziness. With Meryl Streep.

Fantastic Mr. Fox (film)
Fantastic Mr. Fox (film) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Iron Giant (1999)

The Iron Giant
The Iron Giant (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Adapted from the fantasy tale that poet Ted Hughes wrote for his children after their mother, Sylvia Plath, killed herself, this splendid Brad Bird feature is as visually arresting as it is a potent skewer through 1950s Cold War anxieties and arms-race paranoia. The climax, involving an errant nuclear missile, the naive alien robot of the title, and a single inspiring memory of Superman comic books, is a throat-catching marvel.  The Iron Giant has voices by Jennifer Aniston, Harry Connick, Jr.