10 more favorite films

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I’m following up on “10 favorite films” with numbers 11-20. I make no claim for them other than that they are movies I love. My emphasis is on lesser known and offbeat movies rather than classics like Citizen Kane or The Searchers or The Godfather or The French Connection. With the long holiday weekend coming up next week, I thought some readers might find the list of interest or perhaps of use one way or another.

11. The Big Red One: If you love movies, you are probably familiar with the work of Sam Fuller. This was his dream project. Fuller wrote and directed this autobiographical film depicting an unnamed “Sergeant” (the absolutely brilliant Lee Marvin) leading an Army platoon in World War II from North Africa in 1942 to the liberation of a Nazi concentration camp in Czechoslovakia at war’s end in 1945. Saturated in Fuller’s cynicism and black humor, the movie “is an enduring monument to Samuel Fuller, the writer, soldier, raconteur, and prodigal filmmaker who virtually invented the now familiar form of the war-film-as-memoir.” The two-disc DVD set restores 47 minutes to the original version that had been cut without Fuller’s consent before its release in 1980. (I loved it, too.) The restoration or reconstruction was produced by critic Richard Schickel, who provides commentary on it for the first disc in the DVD set. Schickel is so knowledgeable that he all but speaks in Fuller’s voice.

12. Thank You For Your Service: If you blinked, you missed this 2017 film. Of the movies I have seen in recent years, Thank You For Service was the only one that moved me, shook me up, taught me something I didn’t know, and made me want to learn more, all while increasing my gratitude and respect for the service to which we pay tribute in the stock slogan that gives the movie its title. It also introduced me to David Finkel’s incredibly powerful book of the same name.

13. Harry and Tonto: Harry (Art Carney) is a retired high school English teacher and widower. When his New York City apartment building falls victim to redevelopment, Harry compares himself to King Lear: “He gave up his real estate, too.” Like King Lear, Harry turns to his kids to put him up. Harry’s travels to and from his kids across the country with his pet cat (the Tonto of the title) give rise to a series of closely observed portraits. Co-written, directed, and produced by Paul Mazursky, this is a comedy with a difference. In his memoir, Mazursky brings his brief remarks on the film to an abrupt conclusion: “Art Carney won the Academy Award for his devastatingly simple looking portrait of Harry.”

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14. The Lives of Others: Among other things, this incredibly powerful and moving German film “portray[s] how effective, how demoralizing, and how corrupting…was the statistically more-benign soft totalitarianism employed by the ‘post-Stalinist’ and fairly consolidated communist regimes of 1960-1989, particularly in Europe. You might not be shot, Gulag-ed, nor ever physically tortured if you questioned the regime, but other ways would be found to grind you down into submission.” Bowled over by the film, William Buckley deemed it a “holy vessel of expiation.”

15. Gridlock’d: Written and directed by Vondie Curtis-Hall, this autobiographical comedy of the welfare state stars Tim Roth and Tupac Shakur. Only the subplot is an unwelcome distraction.

16. Boyhood: Written and directed by Richard Linklater and running nearly three hours, the film is absorbing from beginning to end. Indeed, I found the running time hard to believe; it seemed much shorter. Realism is the film’s mode — it used the same actors to film the story over a 12-year period — and it seems to me full of the genuine emotions of family life.

17. End of the Tour: Based on David Lipsky’s book about his time on assignment from Rolling Stone to profile the mentally troubled author David Foster Wallace, this is a most unusual film. When I went to see it at the Uptown Theater in Minneapolis, the marquee read: “Filmed at the Mall of America.” “The tour” in fact ended in St. Paul, at the late, great Hungry Mind Bookstore. New York Times reviewer A.O. Scott concluded: “There will always be films about writers and writing, and this one is just about as good as it gets.” What got to me was the moment of blissful release Wallace is given at the end of the film.

18. O Brother, Where Art Thou? The Coen Brothers have made some wildly excellent films including, just for example, cult favorite The Big Lebowski. In this one they follow in the footsteps of James Joyce, turning The Odyssey to their own purposes. They make the music the hero of the story; music saves the day. It made perfect sense that the soundtrack set off a craze for bluegrass music, sending contributors including Ralph Stanley on a “Down From the Mountain” national tour that I saw once in Minneapolis and once in St. Paul. Will Hodge’s No Depression essay looks back on the soundtrack in “O Brother, Where Aren’t Thou?”

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19. The Subject Was Roses: Frank Gilroy won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama with The Subject Was Roses in 1965. The play portrays the homecoming of Timmy Cleary from Europe to the Bronx after his military service in World War II. Timmy’s parents are trapped in a loveless marriage full of hurt and hate. Their son is caught in the middle. At a crucial point Timmy tells his father of a recurring dream in which he learns his father is dead. In the dream Timmy runs crying into the street. He tells his father that in his dream someone would stop him and he’d say, “My father is dead and he’s never said he loves me.” He says he realizes that, by the same token, he’s never said those words to his father. “I say them now–,” he says, “I love you Pop.” The film preserves terrific performances by Jack Albertson and Martin Sheen, who played the roles on Broadway.

20. Crossing Delancey: This is a romantic comedy set in New York City with a Jewish overlay. Bubbe Ida Kantor (Reizl Bozyk) reminded me of both of my grandmothers. It’s a good movie that I include here for the scene at the hot dog diner in which Izzy (Isabelle Grossman, played by Amy Irving) has lunch on her birthday. A crazy street singer enters with a song she directs to Izzy. Izzy resists the message, but you can see her thinking it over. This seems to me something close to a slice of real life.

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