Independent, low-budget, big-hearted, well-written, well-acted, intimate little films that will bring a smile to your face and a tear to your eye.
Twice a year, in the summer and at Christmas time, Hollywood rolls out their big blockbuster movies, full of special effects, including 3D. But you know, I rarely go back to those films. The movies I keep coming back to are what I would call “little films”: movies that are full of intimacy, a good story and memorable characters. Those are the films that last, and, if it’s possible, change lives.
Here are some of my favorite “little” movies. For the most part they’re independent, low-budget films; yet, they’re all well-written, well-acted and full of heart. They’re the kind of movie that puts a smile on your face and a tear in your eye. I hope you enjoy them. Happy New Year!
The Artist (2011)
5-Star Masterpiece – Romantic Comedy-Drama – starring Jean Dujardin, Berenice Bejo and John Goodman; written and directed by Michel Hazanavicius – Weinstein Company
Rarely do I see a movie that I would call “perfect”… but this one is. It has everything: a wonderfully touching story, great performances, beautiful cinematography and score. The one thing it lacks is sound. That’s right – it’s a silent film. Because it is about a silent movie star, the producers decided to make the film itself silent. When I first heard about it, I doubted that a silent film would work today, let alone get to me – but it did. It is the most delightful film I’ve seen in a long, long time. The details of late 1920s Hollywood, when sound movies were making their debut, are perfect: no film has ever been successful at capturing that period, in my opinion – until now.
With great charisma and charm, French actor Jean Dujardin portrays silent film star George Valentin (loosely based on Douglas Fairbanks), the hottest idol in Hollywood, and someone who really enjoys the spotlight. Then he meets Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo), a young woman who wants to break into film herself. George is taken with her and decides to give her a break; in the process, they fall in love. Then sound enters the picture, and movies go from silent to talkies almost overnight. As George, who is unequipped for this change, watches his star fall, Peppy’s rises meteorically. It’s a classic love story set against the most turbulent years of Hollywood.
The filmmakers masterfully use the medium of silent film to tell their story in a very poignant and very clever way that I predict will take the Oscars this year by storm. (Dujardin has already won Best Actor at Cannes and the Golden Globes for his performance, and the film itself has won Best Comedy and Best Score at the Golden Globes.) There are many nods to Hollywood icons, including Singing In The Rain (which deals with the same time period), A Star Is Born (which, like The Artist, deals with the rise of a young actress and the fall of an older actor), Asta (the scene-stealing dog from The Thin Man series), etc. John Goodman is wonderfully cast against type as producer Al Zimmer. For those who love good movies, this one will steal your heart.
Midnight In Paris (2011)
5 Stars – Comedy – starring Owen Wilson, Rachel McAdams, Marion Cotillard, Corey Stoll and Tom Hiddleston; written and directed by Woody Allen – Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
Woody Allen has found a younger actor, Owen Wilson, to play the roles that he would typically fill; so as the actor-writer-director ages, we’re still able to enjoy his classic, paranoiac humor, while seeing some fresh faces on the screen. In this latest, Wilson’s character longs for 1920s Paris, when European and expatriate American artists, writers, musicians and filmmakers congregated to enjoy the intoxicating air of their own intellect and inspiration. Through the magic of filmmaking – but not explained in any scientific way – Wilson’s character Gil is transported back to that era, when he is able to meet and rub elbows with his idols – F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Pablo Picasso, Gertrude Stein, et al. He also meets a lovely artist’s model named Arianda, played by Marion Cotillard, which causes him to question his life as a hack Hollywood screenwriter, as well as his relationship with fiance Inez (Rachel McAdams). While the story, characters and settings are extremely interesting – especially if you’re a Francophile, history buff or creative in any way – Corey Stoll basically steals the show as Hemingway. For those who love this period and all things artsy, you’ll think you died and went to heaven. This is one of Allen’s best, and his love letter to Paris. The opening shots of the city are breathtaking.
Get Low (2010)
4 Stars – Comedy-Mystery – starring Robert Duvall, Bill Murray, Sissy Spacek and Lucas Black; directed by Aaron Schneider – Sony Pictures Classics
Here’s one that fell under the radar for most viewers. It’s a little film with a limited release, but it has some excellent actors doing a very good job with a very good story. In the 1930s, an antisocial, crusty old backwoodsman named Felix Bush (Robert Duvall) decides he wants to throw his own funeral party while he’s still alive to enjoy it. He lets the public know that, at that time, he is going to raffle off his real estate, which is 300 acres of prime Tennessee timberland, as well as disclose the truth behind rampant rumors that have been circulating for years about his mysterious past. It promises to be quite a day. To help him with his plans, he hires a mortician and his assistant, played by Bill Murray and Lucas Black. If you’ve never seen Murray in a serious role, it’s interesting. Snake oil comes to mind. Black’s performance as the reluctant but earnest assistant is probably the best part of the whole film. Also in the cast are Sissy Spacek and Bill Cobbs. The script has some problems: halfway through it begins to unravel under first-time director Aaron Schneider, who’s background as a cinematographer (Titanic, et al) doesn’t help. Right when he needs to pull out all the stops (e.g., when Felix is disclosing all at his party), he drops the ball. Nevertheless, it’s very entertaining and a refreshing break from the usual Hollywoodland fare.
Miss Potter (2006)
5 Stars – Romantic Comedy-Drama – Renee Zellweger, Ewan McGregor and Emily Watson; directed by Chris Noonan – Weinstein Company
Wonderful Story about a Remarkable Lady
Miss Potter is a delightful film about children’s author and illustrator Beatrix Potter, played by Renee Zellweger. Beatrix decides she will not marry, and instead pursues a career as an author and illustrator of children’s books – a very bold and unusual thing in Victorian England in the late 1800’s. She receives scant encouragement in her pursuit, until the Warne brothers agree to publish her first book, The Tale Of Peter Rabbit, and assign it to their youngest brother, Norman, in the hope that he will fail and thereby give up the idea of joining them in the family business. Played by Ewan McGregor (Star Wars, Moulin Rouge, Down With Love, Big Fish), Norman becomes enchanted with Miss Potter and her book, as does his sister, Millie, played by Emily Watson (Gosford Park, The Waterhorse). The three become great friends, and eventually Norman and Beatrix fall in love.
Meanwhile, Miss Potter’s books are selling like hot cakes, and she eventually finds herself a very wealthy woman – much to the surprise of her mother, who has never understood her or her interest in art – and can now make her own way in the world – again, highly unusual for the time. She begins buying up estates in the Lake District of England – at first to settle there, but later to preserve the area as a farming district. Eventually, she donates 4,000 acres of the most prime real estate to the British people as a national trust. This is one of the most gorgeous films you will ever see, and a wonderful story about a remarkable lady. It is full of imagination, cleverness and childhood magic. Director Chris Noonan (Babe), writer Richard Maltby, Jr., and the entire production crew should be commended for creating a cinematic gem.
The World’s Fastest Indian (2006)
4 Stars – Comedy-Drama – starring Anthony Hopkins, Diane Ladd and Iain Rea; written and directed by Roger Donaldson
Based on the life of New Zealander Burt Munro – who spent years rebuilding a 1920 Indian motorcycle, and then set the land-speed world record on it at Utah’s Bonneville Salt Flats in 1967 – this story of his journey is incredible. He has no money, a bad heart and no way to get to the United States. But somehow he manages, and people help him along the way – many of them bizaare characters, yet kind-hearted. Never once does he use them or they he. Rather, there is mutual respect and generosity on both their parts, and Munro is always open and friendly with everyone, which serves him well.
Once Munro is in the US, the officials at Bonneville don’t want to qualify him or his bike. But again, fate steps in and he’s able to race, and it’s amazing… as is the man. In real life, after winning the land-speed world record with a bad heart at the age of 68 on a 47-year-old bike, Munro continued to race at Bonneville until just before his death at the age of 78.
The extra feature, “Burt Munro: Offerings to the God of Speed,” about the real Burt Munro, is just as incredible as the feature film.
Mrs. Palfrey At The Claremont (2005)
4 Stars – Comedy-Drama – starring Joan Plowright, Rupert Friend and Zoe Tapper; directed by Dan Ireland – Terra Entertainment
Mrs. Palfrey (Joan Plowright) is coming to the end of her life. So she decides to take a room at an extended-stay hotel in London, to be near her grandson. Only, she envisioned something quite different. The Claremont is not exactly what you would call luxurious, and the residents aren’t exactly the creme de la creme of society. On the contrary, they’re a very odd lot. But she decides to stay and give it a go. After weeks of waiting for her grandson to make an appearance, it’s starting to become embarrassing. Then she meets Ludovic (Rupert Friend), a delightful young man who is struggling to become a writer. Quite by accident, the residents take him to be Mrs. Palfrey’s grandson… and she lets them. Their friendship grows, and Ludovic really does become a loving “grandson” to her. Then the real grandson shows up.
Based on the novel by Elizabeth Taylor, this is a delightfully insightful look at what it would be like to become old and have no one in your life (or at least no one who cares); and then, quite unexpectedly, to find someone… someone who’s interesting, and who finds you just as interesting. We should all be so blessed.
Not Rated. (I would give it PG.)
Saints And Soldiers (2005)
4 Stars – Action-Drama – starring Corbin Allred, Alexander Polinsky and Kirby Heyborne; directed by Ryan Little – Excel Entertainment Group
Authentic War Story with Heart
You don’t find a lot of war movies out there that feature a Bible-toting soldier as its hero. Is it because Hollywood doesn’t believe there are any, or just because they don’t want to show them? Patton certainly was one, and so was Audie Murphy; and now the producers of Saints And Soldiers have given us another. But they’ve given us more than that: they’ve also given us a well-crafted, intelligent war movie that is gritty, personal and has a lot of heart.
This film is remarkable on many levels. It was done by a relatively young independent with a lot of vision: director-cinematographer-producer Ryan Little (The Last Good War, Freedom On The Water). Only Band Of Brothers compares in grit, realism and the personal side of war. It is well-written, well-cast (an ensemble of relative unknowns), well-acted, well-directed (Little), well shot (Little, in Utah), well-designed – even the art on the DVD cover is remarkable, which is what initially drew me to this film.
The story is based on real WWII events that took place during the Battle of the Bulge. A group of American soldiers, being held prisoner by the German SS near the town of Malmedy in Belgium, are massacred by their captors – the Malmedy Massacre. But a handful manage to escape into the Ardennes forest: a cynical medic named Gould, played by Alexander Niver; a soldier with strong Christian beliefs named Deacon (Corbin Allred); his sergeant Gunderson (Peter Holden, who is actually playing his own grandfather); and another soldier named Kendrick (Lawrence Bagby). Later, they hook up with a downed British flyer named Winley, played by Kirby Heyborne, who is carrying a message to Allied forces that could save thousands of lives. But time is running out.
Most of the conflict in the story occurs between the men needing to survive vs. the message needing to reach the Allies; but there is also a healthy contention between the medic Gould, with his cutting remarks, and the Christian soldier Deacon, who is struggling with guilt over having killed a German family by mistake. I really like the fact that the writers, Matt Whitaker and Geoffrey Panos, gave the only gun in the group to Deacon, who, although he’s the best shot, is also the least stable and the most unpredictable. He becomes even more of a question mark when they capture a German soldier who turns out to be a friend of Deacon’s from his pre-war missionary days in Germany. This creates a lot of dramatic tension and suspense.
Whether Hollywood wants to admit it or not, most American soldiers who fought in WWI and WWII were probably Christians. I’ve still got both my grandfather’s and my dad’s Army issue Bibles, and they are both well-read; and neither man was what you might call religious. Yet, being a soldier does something to you: it puts a good healthy respect for God, the brevity of life and the sting of death in you. I’m glad we finally have a film that depicts that. Saints And Soldiers is an excellent movie about war, priorities in conflict and sacrificial love.
If you want an additional treat, check out the Saints And Soldiers website – it’s wonderfully interactive – at http://www.saintsandsoldiers.com/
Dear Frankie (2004)
4 Stars – Romantic Drama – starring Gerard Butler, Emily Mortimer and Jack McElhone; directed by Shona Auerbach – Lions Gate
This is a very touching, poignant film about a single mom, struggling over whether she should tell her son the truth about his father, who was abusive before they ran away from him; or continue to feed his fantasy that his father is a loving, considerate sailor who is just away at sea. When she hears that the ship she invented for him to be aboard is actually getting ready to dock, she scrambles to find a stranger who can step in and pretend to be her son’s father, home from the sea… but with unexpected results. I don’t want to short-change you; so I’m going to send you to my full review, which has more details and many shots from the film. You can find it at http://www.moviesbydecade.com/2004/Dear_Frankie.html
This is a wonderful film by first-time director Shona Auerbach.
Keys To The House (Le Chiavi di Casa – 2004)
4 Stars – Comedy-Drama – starring Kim Rossi Stuart, Andrea Rossi and Charlotte Rampling; directed by Gianni Amelio – Italian with subtitles – Lions Gate
This is a fascinating study of, not only a father-son relationship, but what is involved in raising a developmentally disabled child. Kim Rossi Stuart plays a thirty-something man, Gianni, who abandoned his son at birth when his wife died. The boy, Paolo (Andrea Rossi) has been raised by his aunt and uncle. Now that Paolo is 16, Gianni wants to come back into his life. But he has no idea what is involved in trying to be with him, let alone love him. A woman named Nicole (Charlotte Rampling), who has a child even more disabled than Paolo, tries to offer help; but she is torn in her feelings about Gianni, just as he is about Paolo. Will Gianni abandon Paolo a second time, or will he stick this time? Keys To The House (don’t ask me why it’s named that) is a beautifully made film that is both upbeat and touching, with some excellent performances by the three leads.
The Chorus (Les Choristes – 2004)
5 Stars – Comedy-Drama – starring Gérard Jugnot, François Berléand and Jean-Baptiste Maunier; directed by Christophe Barratier – French with subtitles – Lions Gate
Gorgeous Music, Wonderful Heart
In this masterful effort by first-time director Christophe Barratier, the new prefect at a school for troubled boys decides to start a chorus, against the cruel headmaster’s warnings. It seems just the thing to give the boys purpose and unity. But then a true juvenile delinquent is enrolled as an experiment, and he upsets everyone’s world and even sabotages the chorus.
Gerard Jugnot is wonderful as Clement Mathieu, the prefect, whose heart for the boys and love of music holds the whole piece together. Jean-Baptiste Maunier plays Pierre Morhange, an exceptionally talented boy in whom Mathieu takes special interest, and who is telling the story as an adult. Marie Bunel plays Pierre’s single mother, with whom Mathieu is smitten, and of whom Pierre is ashamed because the other boys tease him about her beauty. Francois Berleand plays the dapper but unfeeling headmaster Rachin.
There is an often repeated philosophical maxim at the school: action-reaction. Rachin uses this concept to show the boys that whenever they do something wrong, there will be a negative reaction, often in the form of “lock-up.” Mathieu goes against this system by showing the boys love. It is his love that wins them over to his way of thinking, while Rachin’s methods only alienated them and made them worse. The boys see that Mathieu is on their side, so the chorus grows and blossoms, and so do the boys.
Mathieu writes all the music the boys sing, and it is wonderful, especially the solos by Pierre. He has a beautiful soprano voice. This is a very touching, heart-warming film, but there are some rough moments. It isn’t easy converting a prison into a boys’ home. Anyone that loves music, boys, education and seeing how love can change someone’s life will love Les Choristes.
I Am David (2003)
4 Stars – Drama – starring Ben Tibber, Jim Caviezel and Joan Plowright; written and directed by Paul Feig – Lions Gate
A Charming Story of Self-Discovery, Gorgeously Shot in Italy
I Am David was one of the first films produced by the newly formed, family-oriented production company, Walden Media. In my opinion, it is still one of their best to date. Based on the novel by Anne Holm, it is the story of a boy (Ben Tibber) who is separated from his family in post-WWII, communist Bulgaria, and has to grow up in a concentration camp, helping to break rocks all day. His only friend is a man named Johannes (Jim Caviezel), who encourages him not to give up hope, because as long as he’s alive, he can change things. One day that advice pays off when a way of escape is made available. Through an elaborate series of instructions given by the voice of a man never identified until the end of the film, David makes his way south by ship from Bulgaria to Italy, and then north through the Italian countryside, until he reaches Switzerland.
Along the way, David meets a variety of interesting people. But he is very cautious, especially of people in uniform, because he has been warned not to trust anyone. Almost everything is new to him – including taking a bath! He is constantly trying to buy food, but doesn’t understand how to get money or how much things cost. Luckily, because the concentration camp included people of many different nationalities, he understands a variety of languages and so is able to communicate. But one thing he doesn’t understand is how to smile. Finally, he does meet someone that is able to make him smile, and this amazes him.
This is a very charming film with gorgeous photography – you can imagine how gorgeous, being shot in Italy – and a sweet story, not unlike The Black Stallion (1979) – without the horse, of course. It also reminds me of the film A Boy Ten Feet Tall (aka, Sammy Going South – 1963), which I saw when I was a boy. There is something about a boy trekking across a continent on his own that holds your attention. In A Boy Ten Feet Tall, he is traveling across Africa. So, it is far more hair-raising than I Am David, although the latter film does have its moments of angst.
When David reaches the Italian Alps, he meets an artist named Sophie (Joan Plowright) who is the first person he trusts since Johannes. It is while he is with her that an incredible secret is revealed, which of course I won’t say any more about. But let me just say that it is worth the wait. His time with Sophie is my favorite part of the film. She reminds me of my own grandmother.
Near-first-time director Paul Feig does an outstanding job on script and direction, which earned the film the Heartland Film Festival Crystal Heart Award, among others. I hope Walden Media does more intimate films like this in the future, and doesn’t get carried away with the big blockbusters, now that Prince Caspian has opened the door for them. For those who like these little, personal stories, check out Dear Frankie (2004) with Gerard Butler and Emily Mortimer: not as pretty, but as sweet. And a great love story to boot!
4 Stars – Romantic Comedy-Drama – starring Juliette Binoche, Judi Dench, Alfred Molina and Johnny Depp; directed by Lasse Hallstrom – Miramax Lions Gate
Sweetly Romantic Adult Fairy Tale
Juliette Binoche (The English Patient) glows as Vianne Rocher, a free-spirited young woman that, one day, the wind blows into a small, morally obsessed and oppressed French town. Possessing an ancient Mayan recipe discovered by her father, she and her daughter have come there to open a chocolaterie. Her confections are out of this world, and she uses them to try to help mend the various broken people and relationships in the town. But the mayor (Alfred Molina – Spiderman 2), whose family has dominated the town for centuries and who fears she will lead the townspeople away from their traditional faith and mores, declares war on Mademoiselle Rocher and tries to turn the townspeople against her.
One by one she gains allies, first in the form of her landlady, Armande Voizin (Judi Dench – Shakespeare In Love, Pride And Prejudice) and her grandson Luc Clairmont (Aurelien Parent Koenig – debut), which infuriates Luc’s mother, Caroline (Carrie-Anne Moss – The Matrix), who has forbidden him from seeing his grandmother. Then she gains a battered woman (Josephine Muscat – The Ninth Gate), whose husband (Peter Stormare – Fargo) the mayor tries to reform in order to prove that his way is better. It doesn’t work. Johnny Depp doesn’t appear until the second act to reinforce Vianne in her cause and to offer romantic interest. Like Vianne and her daughter, he and his river gypsy friends are considered undesirables by the mayor and his allies.
What’s interesting about this film is that the Christian townspeople are being held hostage by the self-righteous, morally oppressive mayor, and consequently Vianne acts more like a Christian than any of they, even though she is not a believer. She takes a genuine interest in people and tries to help them with her friendship and her chocolates. The mood of the film is magical, though magic has nothing to do with it – it’s really about love. The question is, will love win out before Vianne gives up and decides her cause is hopeless?
This film is rated PG-13, which is a shame because, if several scenes that are not critical to the story had been toned down or left out, it would have made a wonderful family film. It has a story-book setting and feel that would appeal to any age. Unfortunately, several scenes push it into the category of adult romance. Nevertheless, it is a wonderful story about love in the face of prejudice that all of us need to hear, as well as enough chocolate shown onscreen to satisfy any chocolate lover’s craving.
October Sky (1999)
5 Stars – Inspirational Drama – starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Chris Cooper and Laura Dern; directed by Joe Johnston – Universal Studios
Directed by Joe Johnston (The Rocketeer), and based on Homer H. Hickam, Jr.’s memoirs, Rocket Boys, this beautifully executed film chronicles the true story of young West Virginian star-gazer and inventor, Homer Hickam, Sr., and how he and his three high school buddies overcame all odds to invent a working rocket on the eve of NASA’s own program. Homer (Jake Gyllenhaal) defies his down-to-earth, coal-mining father John (Chris Cooper), who wants him to follow in his footsteps, and instead follows the inspiration of his teacher Miss Riley (Laura Dern), who sees in Homer the makings of a real rock scientist.
Jake Gyllenhaal is absolutely perfect as Homer Hickam. Besides going against all conventions in his town, Homer and his friends are accused of setting a forest ablaze with one of their rockets. If that’s not enough, Homer’s father John becomes incapacitated, so that Homer has to go down into the mines to work in order to keep his family afloat, ending all hope of his ever becoming a scientist – or so it seems. All systems are go in this fine production by a director who seems to have built his career on rocket fuel. This one definitely makes it to the moon and back.
The Mighty (1998)
4 Stars – Comedy-Drama – starring Kieran Culkin, Elden Henson and Sharon Stone; directed by Peter Chelsom – Walt Disney Video
What do you do when you’re small and handicapped, but highly intelligent; or when you’re big and oafish, and not-so-bright? You combine forces! That’s what Kevin the Freak (Kieran Culkin) and Max the Mighty (Elden Henson) must do to survive and thrive, in this wonderful adaptation of Rodman Philbrick’s book, Freak The Mighty. Knighthood blossoms, as Kevin helps Max improve his reading by using stories of King Arthur and his knights. They take what they’re reading to heart, making it their mission to fight off bullies and rescue damsels in distress. But their good deeds lead them to the lair of someone from Max’s past – the partner of his father, who was incarcerated for killing Max’s mother, but is now being released on good behavior. When he gets this news, Max, who is deathly afraid of his father, starts having nightmares. Those nightmares are about to become reality.
Sharon Stone plays Kevin’s mom in this very touching, enduring tale of friendship, courage and going beyond one’s limitations to do what’s right. Sting sings the theme song.
Big Night (1996)
4 Stars – Comedy-Drama – starring Tony Shalhoub, Stanley Tucci, Ian Holm, Mini Driver, Isabella Rossellini and Marc Anthony; directed by Campbell Scott and co-written and directed by Stanley Tucci – Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
Big Night is about two immigrant brothers, Primo and Secondo, who own an Italian restaurant called “Paradise” on the New Jersey shore in the 1950s. Primo (Tony Shalhoub) is a very talented chef, and a purist when it comes to how Italian food should be prepared. Secondo (Stanley Tucci), on the other hand, just wants to run a successful restaurant by giving his customers what they want – like their competition down the street, Pascal’s, which is owned by a very successful businessman of the same name (Ian Holm), yet serves very mediocre, “Americanized” food. In spite of both brothers’ efforts, Paradise is failing. And even though Pascal would like to hire them for his own restaurant, he agrees to help them by setting things up for a famous jazz singer, Louis Prima, to stop by their restaurant the next time he’s in town. That is the “big night.”
When it arrives, the boys pull out all the stops and spend all their money. They bet everything on the success of this one night, preparing the most fabulous dishes, and inviting all their friends to share in the evening – including Secondo’s girlfriend, Phyllis (Minnie Driver), who’s been waiting a long time for a proposal; Gabriella, Pascal’s wife (Isabella Rossellini), with whom Secondo has been having an affair; and Pascal himself. Yes, it promises to be quite a big night. While Big Night is full of fun and funny moments, it is also a serous look at the relationship between two brothers who are opposite and who want totally different things, but who still love each other. It’s a good story with some very good, understated performances. The R rating is almost solely for the language of Pascal, which fits his sleazy, unethical character. But don’t let that put you off, because, in spite of it, this is a very enjoyable film.
Rated R for language
The Hudsucker Proxy (1994)
4 Stars – Comedy – starring Tim Robbins, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Paul Newman; written by Ethan & Joel Coen and Sam Raimi, and directed by Joel Coen – Warner Home Video
The Coen brothers (Ethan and Joel) are known for their off-the-wall and black humor, but this is almost a fairy tale, it is so innocent. It is the story of the invention of the hula-hoop. Tim Robbins is a man with a future – and for him, “the future is now.” He’s also a man with an idea. (Wait ’til you see how he presents it.) He comes across as a naive rube. Well, that’s exactly what Paul Newman and the board of directors of Hudsucker Industries are looking for to be the titular head of their corporation. With the recent death of Waring Hudsucker, who owned 51% of his company, Newman and the board want the company’s stock to plunge so they can buy it all up. What they don’t know is that Robbins has an idea that will revolutionize the company and send the stock through the roof. Clever in every way, with as much dry humor visually as verbally, this film is a gem that has been underestimated and overlooked by both critics and audiences. Jennifer Jason Leigh and Bruce Campbell are terrific as reporters, and Jim True-Frost makes an entertaining elevator operator. Everyone in this film is a caricature, so don’t expect realism.
Babette’s Feast (1987)
5 Stars – Comedy-Drama – starring Stephane Audran, Bodil Kjer, Birgitte Federspiel, Jarl Kulle and Jean-Philippe Lafont; written and directed by Gabriel Axel, based on the novel by Karen Blixen – Danish with subtitles – MGM
A Divinely Delicious Tale
Babette’s Feast is by Danish director Gabriel Axel, and tells the story of a French woman named Babette (played by Stephane Audran) who shows up one night on the doorstep of two spinster sisters living in far away Jutland toward the end of the 19th century. Since the passing of their revered pastor father, it is all the two women can do to keep his bickering flock together. They agree to take in Babette and make her their housekeeper, and for twenty years she serves them faithfully. Then one day she surprises the sisters by announcing that she has won the French national lottery: 10,000 francs. To show her gratitude to them, and to celebrate the upcoming anniversary of their father’s passing, Babette asks to be allowed to prepare a real French meal for the sisters and their guests. They agree, and she sends away to France for the ingredients.
When Babette’s nephew returns with all the preparations for the meal, the plain people of the town, who have never seen such things as sea turtles and quails, suspect that she’s a witch, and decide they will make no comments about the food during the meal, lest they enjoy it and become bewitched. The night of the feast is spectacular. Never have any of them tasted such divinity. One of the guests, a General who once courted one of the sisters and is still in love with her, comments about how the food tastes just like the delicacies he once enjoyed at a very famous Parisian restaurant which boasted a lady chef. Miraculously, Babette’s feast heals all wounds among the pastor’s congregation, and confirms the love the General has always harbored for the sister, and she for him. A very beautiful scene is the congregation outside after the feast with hands joined in a circle, singing under the stars.
Afterwards, the two sisters comment that they suppose Babette will now return to France. “I have no one there anymore,” she tells them. “Besides, I have no money to return.” “But the 10,000 francs you won!” they contend. Then Babette confesses that she was the famous female chef to which the General eluded, and that a meal at her restaurant for that number of people would have cost exactly 10,000 francs. This is a wonderful, beautiful film that is an allegory of the Lord’s Supper, and an example of God’s grace and love. If you like food, you will love every delicious detail of the feast. The film is subtitled for English, but also includes a dubbed version which I would not recommend because I think the film loses much through it. Endure the subtitles – it will be worth it. Babette’s Feast, which is based on a novel by Karen Blixen, won a well-deserved Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, plus ten other awards.
5 Stars – Romantic Comedy – starring Katharine Hepburn, Rossano Brazzi and Isa Miranda; directed by David Lean – Criterion
This is an incredibly romantic, beautifully shot film about Venice and a summer romance between two not-so-young people that come from totally different backgrounds. Rather than give you the two cent tour, I’m going to ask you to read my full review, which also has some very interesting shots of the film. You will find it at http://www.moviesbydecade.com/1955/Summertime.html
Not rated. (I would give it PG-13.)
Roman Holiday (1953)
5-Star Masterpiece – Romantic Comedy – starring Audrey Hepburn, Gregory Peck and Eddie Albert; directed by William Wyler – Paramount Pictures
This may very well be the most perfect romantic comedy ever made. It has everything: location shooting in Rome (one of the first movies shot on location, by the way); Audrey Hepburn in her first starring role, plus Gregory Peck; William Wyler directing (Ben-Hur, Mrs. Miniver); and 10 Oscar nominations back when that meant something. It won Best Actress (Hepburn), Best Costume Design (Edith Head) and Best Story (Dalton Trumbo). It was also nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Film Editing, Best Cinematography, Best Supporting Actor (Eddie Albert – he’s terrific), Best Art Direction-Best Set Decoration. It just doesn’t get much better than this, as far as good romantic comedies. And the way it was shot makes you feel like you really are in Rome with these wonderful characters.
Read my full review, which has some wonderful shots of the film, as well as behind-the-scene location shots and stories, by going to http://www.moviesbydecade.com/1953/Roman_Holiday.html
B&W. Not rated. (I would give it PG.)
Brief Encounter (1945)
5 Stars – Romantic Drama – starring Celia Johnson, Trevor Howard and Stanley Holloway; directed by David Lean – Criterion
Superb Look at the Emptiness and Madness of Stolen Love
Written by playwright Noel Coward, directed by David Lean, starring Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard, and set to the impassioned music of Rachmaninoff’s Concerto No. 2, this is a story about two people living quietly dull lives, married to equally dull spouses, who suddenly find someone interesting to share a brief encounter with. This masterful film shows how hungry normal, ordinary people are for the feeling that life is exciting, and that there is someone who finds them interesting to share it with. The normal avenue for such a relationship would have been their own spouses; but they are unable to find it there, somehow. So they find it one day, accidentally, illicitly, secretly, dishonestly, soul wrenchingly in a stranger. Now these quietly dull souls become quietly desperate souls, as they realize that stolen love comes with a price, and that what had promised to bring them boundless happiness is instead bringing them more sorrow than they have ever known before.
I found many parallels in this movie with other quietly desperate people that I know: friends of mine who have tried to find happiness illicitly, secretly, dishonestly in work, sex, alcohol, drugs, co-dependent relationships, etc. I think this movie has a powerful message for our times. It is not about a love relationship that was doomed because of a stricter social and moral code than we have today, as some have contended; rather, it is about the emptiness and madness of stolen love of any kind. I love the way the film ends, with repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation. This film is a timeless gem.
B&W. Not rated. (I would give it PG-13 for adult subject matter.)
Waitsel Smith, January 23, 2012
Text © 2012 Waitsel Smith. Photos © the Respective Movie Studios. All Rights Reserved.