TV Party is a Friday feature in which Film Editors Dominick Mayer and Justin Gerber alongside Editor-in-Chief Michael Roffman suggest one movie apiece to enjoy over the weekend. Joining them each week will be two rotating film staff writers to help round out the selections. Seek out any of the films via Netflix, Amazon, Redbox, Hulu, OnDemand, or abandoned Blockbuster and Hollywood Video stores — however you crazy kids watch movies these days! Enjoy ’em for the first time, a second, or maybe a redemptive third.
A Serious Man
While it might seem a little pre-emptive to consider a film from six years ago “passed over,” it’s hard to deny that already the Coen Brothers’ A Serious Man hasn’t received the same overwhelming love as some of their other recent offerings, from No Country For Old Men to True Grit. In reception it fared better than the equally masterful Inside Llewyn Davis, but for a Best Picture nominee, the Coens’ story of an embattled Minnesota college professor (Michael Stuhlbarg) circa 1967, whose life collapses around him for seemingly no reason at all, the film still doesn’t get the reception it deserves, as one of the brothers’ truly great works.
As Larry Gopnik, Stuhlbarg delivers a master class in understated comedy. Surrounded by a town exclusively full of the sort of distinctive weirdoes the Coens tend to favor, Larry has to weather everything from his wife leaving him for his arch-rival to a disgruntled student who threatens to destroy his chances of tenure to his neurotic, troubled brother (Richard Kind), all while searching for answers in both the everyday and the divine. A Serious Man deliberately wanders and misdirects, all with the constant threat of violence and punishment hanging overhead, but it’s either the most or least pious film you’ve ever seen. As suggested by the many parables Larry’s offered in an effort to bring him comfort, it’s all really a matter of perspective.
The Oscar nominees for Best Picture in 1941 were full of classics, including John Ford’s Grapes of Wrath, Charlie Chaplin’s controversial The Great Dictator, and George Cukor’s comedy The Philadelphia Story (back when the Academy had a sense of humor). Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca ended up winning, but did you know the Master of Suspense had not one but two movies in the running that year? If I told you the second movie was Foreign Correspondent, would you believe me? Hell, have you ever heard of it?
In many ways Foreign Correspondent is a precursor to Hitch’s North by Northwest — it has a great sense of humor, an engaging romance, and features a man on the run in foreign correspondent Johnny Jones, pen name “Huntley Haverstock” (Joel McCrea). He’s sent to get the scoop on what’s really going on in the UK during Hitler’s rise to power in Germany, inevitably getting swept up in murder, political intrigue, and a plane crash that rivals anything you’ll see on the big screen today. George Sanders as British reporter Scott Ffolliott (last name explained in the movie) is a standout as the most proper smartass to ever appear in a Hitchcock film, and that’s saying something.
Long before Cameron Crowe there was the great Billy Wilder. The Austrian-born American filmmaker, screenwriter, producer, artist, and journalist worked for more than 50 years and created over 60 films. He was a jack of all trades — ahem, his film noir masterpieces Double Indemnity (1944) and Sunset Blvd. (1950) remain essential — though his calling card soon shifted to dramatic comedies, in which he knocked out successive hits like Sabrina (1954), The Seven-Year Itch (1955), and Some Like It Hot (1959).
Although Some Like It Hot is considered one of the funniest films of all time, it’s not his greatest work. That would be his Oscar smash of a followup, 1960’s The Apartment. The film came to fruition when Wilder and his co-conspirator I.A.L. Diamond devised a way to work once more with Jack Lemmon. Inspired by a real-life Hollywood scandal and Noël Coward’s adulterous British film, Brief Encounter, the story follows a hapless insurance clerk, who lends out his digs to his upper management in order to get a leg up in the company.
They’re all scumbags — typical veteran alpha males — who jump at the chance to cheat on their wives. Now, that may sound dirty or downright rotten, and it is, but Wilder keeps things light with a hilarious performance by Lemmon and his sugary-sweet chemistry alongside a young Shirley MacLaine (who catches the eyes of both Lemmon and his employer). Basically, if you love the charming wit and heart of Crowe’s top works, specifically Jerry Maguire or Singles, then you’ll go nutso for Wilder’s work.
Okay, so the film’s not exactly “forgotten”, per se, but I’m still stunned by how many folks plead ignorance to it year after year — especially given all the awards it snatched up. Speaking of which, here’s a fun fact: The Apartment nabbed Wilder an Oscar as a producer (Best Picture), a director (Best Director), and a screenwriter (Best Original Screenplay). To date, he’s one of only five stars to have that honor. Beyond deserved, methinks.
In the Bedroom
Films about grief are difficult to watch. Perhaps that’s why In the Bedroom, a slow-moving masterpiece that trudges through death’s gaping maw for over two hours, went home empty-handed at the 74th Academy Awards in 2002. Competitors in the Best Picture category included a high-fantasy epic (The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring), a pastiche-jukebox musical (Moulin Rouge!), a British caper (Gosford Park) and the Academy’s favorite awardee, the inspirational story of an eccentric-genius man who beats the odds (A Beautiful Mind), that of course won top honors.
In hindsight, it’s easy to see why In the Bedroom, which also lost in the categories of Best Actor for Tom Wilkinson, Best Actress for Sissy Spacek, and Best Supporting Actress for Marisa Tomei, got brushed aside. Writer-director Todd Field paints a bleak picture of a Camden, Maine family—specifically an older married couple, Dr. Matt Fowler (Wilkinson) and his music teacher wife, Ruth (Spacek), whose only son, Frank (Nick Stahl), is shot and killed by the estranged husband of Frank’s single mom girlfriend, Natalie (Tomei)—and it’s one that is almost too real, and, therefore, almost too agonizing to bear.
Having spent my childhood summers in Portland and Kennebunkport, I recognize the characters (stodgy family men of few words and weather-beaten faces, with rigid wives who live to serve, but never without their resentment prickling just below the surface) and the rituals (fathers taking their sons lobster-fishing at the crack of dawn, then grilling “hot dogs and hamburgs” on a Sunday afternoon while the smaller kids play Pickle, the local priest sits in a lawn chair with an ice-cold beer, and the women make coleslaw in the kitchen), which makes Matt and Ruth’s stumbling through grief’s cold aftermath—blaming each other, blaming themselves, blaming the incestuous, insular sham of their small town life—that much more excruciating.
Field has directed only two feature films, this and 2006’s Little Children, another grim dissection of the American family that remains just as underrated as his directorial debut. According to IMDB, he has a new project in development, the 1910 crime drama The Creed of Violence, with Christian Bale in talks to star.
Could the third time be Field’s Oscar charm? Here’s hoping.
A Star is Born
It’s with a bit of hilarity that A Star Is Born was nominated for Best Picture, and features a scene where its own lead character is accepting the Academy Award for Best Actress In a Leading Role. You can’t pat yourself on the back any harder than that.
But wait, there’s more!
Vicki (Janet Gaynor … in an Oscar-nominated role), the little girl from North Dakota that dreamed of becoming a Hollywood actress someday has finally arrived. She’s winning an awards statue! But then, like a bull in a China shop, her petty, boozy hubby Norman (Frederic March) appears out of nowhere, and harangues the entire audience, demanding not one but three Oscars, for worst acting of the year! He calls the Oscars a “valuable little piece of brikabrak.” He’s bitter over commercial critic failure. And then, worst of all, he smacks Vicki by accident.
WEHOA! Such scandal! Such insane and shocking drama, and that’s just a sliver of A Star Is Born’s cautionary success story.
Before The Artist, before Singin’ in the Rain, before its multiple remakes (including a Clint Eastwood/Beyoncé version that’s in development hell), there was William Wellman and David O. Selznick’s A Star Is Born, the proto-show-biz drama.
As a Best Picture nominee, A Star Is Born holds up for its glam and excess and Hollywood ballyhoo. The rapturous metaphorical sunsets, the showy Technicolor, the drunken joys of Andy Devine! (Kong from Dr. Strangelove, in an early role.) Here’s a great old studio romp for ya, that is still cunningly relevant for the US Weekly generation.