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.
Writer-director Nicole Holofcener’s film Friends with Money analyzes a very particular dynamic—that of being a luckless and careerless lonely girl (Jennifer Aniston) in an L.A. circle of friends (Catherine Keener, Frances McDormand, and Joan Cusack) who are all married and rich. Seems preposterous, given the casting, but nobody in this country uses as sympathetic a microscope as Holofcener when examining the conundrums of modern women, and Aniston is convincing and sad. With Jason Isaacs.
A literate, mature indie about a single mom (Laura Linney) who’s stuck in her childhood home after the early death of her parents, saddled with an obnoxious boss and an evasive boyfriend, and raising a son who needs a man around the house. Trouble rolls into town in the form of her screwed-up brother (Mark Ruffalo). Sounds slight, but it adds up—to a portrait not just of a woman’s love life, but of her entire life, and all the emotional complexities it entails. Both stars are remarkable; Ruffalo found himself a career after You Can Count on Me, and Linney was nominated for an Oscar. With Matthew Broderick.
A film designed to win its star an Oscar if there ever was one, Steven Soderbergh’s Erin Brockovich sets up Julia Roberts as a working-class single-mom heroine for the oppressed, legally battling corporate giant Pacific Gas and Electric on behalf of the scores of poor locals who have endured decades of tumors and other illnesses thanks to the illegal use and dumping of poisonous chemicals. Filthy with character details and robust righteousness, the film is also notable for its dismissal of love and even parenthood in favor of doing justice, fighting the good fight, and working your ass off at something you believe in.
Perhaps the most sensitive portrait of feminine loneliness in the post-Eisenhower period, this Paul Newman–directed drama gets under the epidermis of a wilting-lily, thirtysomething schoolteacher (Joanne Woodward) who hopelessly embarks on an aimless affair as she otherwise faces her grim middle years alone. The profound sympathy brought to the heroine’s plight by all concerned keeps Rachel, Rachel very far from being depressing.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.