“Frank, let’s face it. Who can trust a cop who don’t take money?”
There’s a whole sub-genre of movies about people who stand up for the right thing even when everyone else in their lives doesn’t care. Serpico, directed by Sidney Lumet (12 Angry Men, Murder on the Orient Express) and starring Al Pacino, takes that formula, but it does what few other movies like this dare to do: it’s not afraid to be messy, morally gray, and frustrating. If the combination of Lumet, Pacino, and a morally complex plot based on a true story sounds familiar, it’s because these things came together again in 1975 for Dog Day Afternoon—a testament to how well they worked in this film. Serpico shows us the harsh reality of a world where, even in the police force, morality is not so clearly divided into good guys and bad guys, and the struggle to do the right thing can be painfully tedious.
Marie Antoinette, the person, is someone I didn’t know a whole lot about, aside from the fact that France beheaded her and she allegedly told peasants to eat cake when they had no bread. Marie Antoinette, the 2006 film by Sofia Coppola (Lost in Translation, The Virgin Suicides), takes that vague historical figure and brings her to life, making her more human than a lot of fictional characters I see in film. Starring Kirsten Dunst and Jason Schwartzman, the humanity of Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI really is the focus of this film. Antoinette especially is made relatable to viewers today, even if the film is not 100% historically accurate—a very conscious decision on Coppola’s part. This is a film that I didn’t fully appreciate until my second viewing, as the true depth of the film evaded me on my first viewing because I was expecting something very different. The film has some great things to say about gender norms and societal expectations that elevate this from a breezy biopic into intelligent social commentary that’s surprisingly relatable.
“There’s never been a black cop in this city. We think you might be the man to open things up around here.”
There are a lot of films that are good, but far fewer that are both good and important: timely, thought-provoking, painfully honest, and still entertaining. BlacKkKlansman, directed by Spike Lee (Do the Right Thing, Malcolm X) and starring John David Washington and Kylo Ren, is an entertaining film that really spells out how racism in America took its current form and went mainstream, starting in the 70s. The script is clever and it has some hilarious moments, some genuinely touching moments, and some suspenseful moments to keep it from getting dull. But the real genius of the film is how it tackles such a difficult and misunderstood topic and breaks it down and makes it easy to follow, tracing the idea’s lineage from years in the past to today. The blatant racism can be difficult to watch, but this film is undoubtedly one of the most important of recent years, especially in today’s political climate.
“America. They want someone to love, but they want someone to hate. I mean, come on! What kind of frigging person bashes in their friend’s knee? Who would do that to a friend?”
Biopic films have, to me, always seemed like pieces of a far-off history, far removed from my actual life. It’s very rare that one hits as close to home as I, Tonya did. Directed by Craig Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl, The Finest Hours) and starring Margot Robbie, Sebastian Stan, and Allison Janney, this tells the real-life story of Tonya Harding, the infamous figure skater whose scandal rocked the world in the 90s. It’s a story I got a periphery glance at, through media headlines and rumors passed around school, but I never knew Tonya—only the scandal. This film lets you know Tonya, and it does an amazing job of bringing her to life in a way that’s not only sympathetic but also tragic. In-between tragic events are darkly funny happenings and self-aware humor that keep this from getting too depressing. This is a great story that adds some depth to events that I remember from my childhood, and it’s definitely one of the best biopics I’ve ever seen.
“I never met a soul more affable than you, Butch, or faster than the Kid, but you’re still nothing but two-bit outlaws on the dodge. It’s over. Don’t you get that? Your times is over and you’re gonna die bloody, and all you can do is choose where.”
The 60s were a time of great growth and change in film, and no genre shows that more than the Western. Films like 1966’s The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly shook things up a big, and censorship loosened up in 1967, opening the doors to explore new territory. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, directed by George Roy Hill (The Sting, Slaughterhouse Five) and starring Paul Newman, Robert Redford, and Katharine Ross, seems pretty straightforward by today’s standards, but was a huge jump forward for the genre. It’s also a fun Western with great characters and lots of effective humor. I’ve honestly never been a fan of the old classic Westerns, but I had a lot of fun watching this one.
“This is very cruel, Oskar. You’re giving them hope. You shouldn’t do that. That’s cruel!”
Schindler’s List is, without a doubt, one of the most important films of all time. If you don’t know, it’s probably the best and one of the most accurate films about the persecution of the Jews in Nazi Germany (and Nazi-occupied Poland) in World War II, and it’s based on real people and events. It’s one I had always known about, but had never seen—partly because I was intimidated by it. The Holocaust is not an easy thing to watch, and I was worried it would be, well, a bit too much. I’m happy to report that, while there were some awful things portrayed, it remains very accessible and I actually loved this powerful film. Director Steven Spielberg (E.T., Jurassic Park) had a tremendous amount of respect for the subject and was careful to make a film that stays true to history, no matter how dark, and honors the survivors, some of whom make an appearance in the final scene. There are some heartbreaking scenes, but this is a truly great film that doesn’t just rely on the historical significance of its subject matter.
“Undisciplined… unpunctual… untidy. Knowledge of music… knowledge of literature… knowledge of… knowledge of… You’re an interesting man, there’s no doubt about it.”
Lawrence of Arabia is widely heralded as one of the greatest epic films of all time, and it certainly is that, but it goes a level deeper with its exploration of heroism. Directed by David Lean (Doctor Zhivago, The Bridge on the River Kwai) and starring Peter O’Toole, Alec Guinness, and Anthony Quinn, this World War I epic captures a unique little corner of history and makes an interesting comment on what heroism really means. This film really embodies what epics are all about, especially considering that this film was released in 1962 and uses all practical effects. It’s stood up well over the years, and this film could hold its own against just about any other epic film out there.
“As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.”
Since The Godfather basically defined the crime genre in 1972, there have been a lot of imitators and followers, some good and some bad, but nothing ever came close to the original. It’s hard to compare, but I’d say that Goodfellas came pretty close in 1990. (Legendary critic Roger Ebert actually preferred Goodfellas to The Godfather.) Directed by Martin Scorsese (Taxi Driver, The Wolf of Wall Street) and starring Ray Liotta, Robert de Niro, Joe Pesci, and Lorraine Bracco, this is a mobster story with as much depth and humanity as The Godfather, but it shows a different side of the story. The Godfather shows the view at the top—the big boss and his family calling all the shots. Goodfellas shows the working man’s view of organized crime—a kid trying to break into the business and make a name for himself. The film is actually based on real-life mobsters, one of whom consulted on much of the film, so there’s a real authenticity to the film that’s missing in most crime films. It’s a great entry in the crime genre that I believe deserves a place right next to some of the biggest names in the genre.
There are a few things in life that rarely impress me. Biopics, musical performances in movies, and country music are on the list. So you’d think I would hate Walk the Line, a musical biopic about country artist Johnny Cash—but I didn’t. Directed by James Mangold (Logan, Girl Interrupted) and starring Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon, this film does everything right. Its musical performances move the plot forward and aren’t just for decoration. It focuses on real-life characters without relying on nostalgia and idealized, romanticized versions of them. The music is excellent (Phoenix and Witherspoon performed all numbers live and did an amazing job), the characters are deep and fascinating, and the plot, while not wholly original, walks a careful line between dark and sweet. This is a biopic that would work just as well as a work of fiction, and that says a lot about the level of art involved.