The gangster epic Once Upon a Time in America as fractured opium daydream, tripping back and forth in the skull of a Jewish hood (Robert De Niro) until the past, present, and future more or less mush into a mournful opera of betrayal and guilt. Along for the pageant: James Woods as a weaselly cohort, pre-Downton Abbey Elizabeth McGovern as the trollop that got away, Tuesday Weld as a decaying slattern, and Joe Pesci as an unlucky rival. Directed by Sergio Leone, the man that made Clint Eastwood famous in A Fistful of Dollars, this reckless monstrosity spends its plot, characters, and themes like a drunken sailor: settle for nothing less than the nearly-four-hour version, but even then, the film can barely contain so much stuff. 1890s New York childhoods, teenage hookers, Prohibition, hits, rapes, backstabbings, lost love—Leone left nothing out, making this the buddy elegy flip side to The Godfather’s familial moan. With, ironically enough, one of Ennio Morricone’s most heartfelt scores.
This brutally comic hit found the lurking fears of all young lovers who are meeting their prospective in-laws for the first time—and lit them up good. Ben Stiller is just, well, Ben Stiller, but Robert De Niro, as the fiancée’s father, shines: much more than just a controlling, disapproving patriarch, he’s actually a semiretired CIA ramrod, with only his little girl now to serve and protect. Every step Stiller makes is the wrong step; every action is scrutinized mercilessly. Stiller’s anxious gaze of disbelief as each new mishap befalls him is a wonder, and De Niro flexes all of his dead-eyed menace.
This is Christmas in New York City in the 1980s, where you can meet your soul mate in a shopping bag mix-up at Rizzoli, potentially the toniest of all the Manhattan bookstores, rich with wood trim, elaborate architecture, and holiday shoppers in designer businesswear. The lovers, a low-key Robert De Niro and Meryl Streep, find mutual attraction almost immediately, but they’re each married to someone else. Within the year, they flirt with an affair, try, fail, surrender to the fact of it, hem and haw—nobody easily finishes a sentence in this movie—and another Christmas comes around. It’s no Brief Encounter, for sure, but the actors are cooking on all burners, and the holidays-in-Manhattan feel is everywhere.