United 93 (new 2/11)
In-between directing the second and third Jason Bourne movies, English filmmaker Paul Greengrass brought his realistic, suspenseful, shaky-cam style to United 93 (2006), a harrowingly realistic imagining of the events of the morning of September 11, 2001. It’s a truly grueling experience that nonetheless earned enthusiastic applause from most critics as well as the Academy, which nominated Greengrass for Best Director. Even some brave audiences checked it out, and the film doubled its modest $15 million budget.
The Way Back
Though there’s nothing else quite like United 93, the acclaimed Australian director Peter Weir also turned in an excellent wartime suspense film, The Way Back (2010), more focused on old-fashioned rousing adventure than on realism. A band of soldiers (Jim Sturgess, Colin Farrell, Ed Harris) escape from a Siberian prison camp and must survive the freezing, snowy woods, even after thwarting the angry guards. Making their way toward the Mongolian border, they discover that they now must likewise survive the baking, brutal flatlands. Saoirse Ronan co-stars as another refugee that the soldiers reluctantly take along.
Another wartime tale, Marco Bellocchio’s brilliant Italian-language drama Vincere (2009) tells the true story of Ida Dalser (Giovanna Mezzogiorno), who claimed to have been the first wife of Benito Mussolini (Filippo Timi) and had a son by him. As the First World War begins, Mussolini no longer acknowledges her, and she begins a lifelong fight to restore her son’s rightful heritage. Director Bellocchio’s passionate touches and daring ideas—such as subbing in newsreel footage of the real Mussolini in the film’s second half—raise the level of filmmaking to equal the dramatic intensity of the story. Bellocchio is a true veteran; his first feature, Fists in the Pocket (1965), is considered by some critics to be one of the finest debuts in movie history.
The beautiful romantic drama Everlasting Moments (2008), from veteran Swedish director Jan Troell, also takes place during the First World War. It concerns Maria (Maria Heiskanen), who wins a camera and develops an interest in photography. She marries the brutish Sigfrid (Mikael Persbrandt) and starts having a brood of children. But when she ventures into a camera shop one day, she finds herself drawn to the gentle, artistic Sebastian (Jesper Christensen). The story takes place over many years, more concerned with the long-burning embers of life, rather than the fiery passions of the moment.
Me and Orson Welles (expiring 2/17)
Richard Linklater’s Me and Orson Welles (2009) tells the true story of how the boy genius Welles (Christian McKay) directed a modern-dress stage production of Julius Caesar in 1937. McKay’s magnetic, commanding performance makes him the best screen Welles since Welles himself, and Claire Danes, Zoe Kazan, Eddie Marsan, and James Tupper round out the great cast of characters. The film’s main drawback is the “Me” part, the passive observer character that serves as our entrance point into this world. Not only is this character not very interesting, but he’s also played by the expressionless Zac Efron in a blank, bland performance. However, Linklater’s intelligent, observant direction and McKay’s tour-de-force performance save the day.
Like Orson Welles, Truman Capote was a larger-than-life artist, as famous for his persona as he was for his writing. Bennett Miller’s Capote (2005) focuses on the most challenging and noteworthy part of his career: The writing of the 1965 non-fiction masterpiece In Cold Blood. In the months following the murders, Capote (Philip Seymour Hoffman, in an Oscar-winning performance) finds himself getting a little too close to an accused murderer, Perry Smith (Clifton Collins Jr.). This exceptional movie takes time to explore who Capote was rather than what he did.
I Love You Phillip Morris (expiring 2/3)
Sometimes true stories are funny as well as dramatic, as in Glenn Ficarra and John Requa’s I Love You Phillip Morris (2010). Jim Carrey plays real-life con man Steven Russell, who became a church-going family man before coming out of the closet and living an openly gay lifestyle. Soon, his skill for lying turns into full-blown cons, pretending to be lawyers, accountants, and other schemes to make money. Once he meets the sweet, soft-spoken Phillip Morris (Ewan McGregor) in prison, however, he starts conning for love. The writers-turned-directors nicely balance the comedy and drama here and craft a superior vehicle for Carrey’s skills.
George Hickenlooper’s Casino Jack (2010) is based on another true story, with a similar balance of comedy and drama, and a similar, showstopping lead performance. Kevin Spacey (at top) plays cynical, snappy Washington D.C. “superlobbyist” Jack Abramoff, who cons millions from Indian tribes and invests in some shady floating casinos, while bragging that he’s using the profits to open schools and restaurants. The movie gambles on—and succeeds with—its sleazy, shady protagonist, who handily makes up for whatever drawbacks the rest of the movie might have. Hickenlooper died just months before the film opened. A documentary about the real Abramoff, Casino Jack and the United States of Money, was released the same year.
Escape from Alcatraz
Sometimes true stories can be filled with suspense and action. In Escape from Alcatraz (1979), Clint Eastwood stars as Frank Morris, a new inmate in San Francisco’s Alcatraz Island prison. He immediately sets out to escape, which is a slow, painstaking process that requires the aid of several other inmates. Moreover, it’s only a matter of time before the warden decides to move Frank to a new cell, and before a murderous prisoner called “Wolf” gets out of solitary. This was Eastwood’s fifth and final film with the great genre director Don Siegel, ending a superb run for them both. Siegel directs with great patience, focusing on details and building suspense naturally.
Here’s a true story with lots of amazing, poetic kung-fu fighting. In Fearless (2006), Jet Li uses his considerable charisma to great effect in the role of Huo Juan-jia who, in 1910, restored dignity to China with his success in a martial arts tournament. But Huo’s biggest battle was with his own arrogance; his attitude eventually cost him his family, friends, and finances. Hong Kong director Ronny Yu (The Bride with White Hair) gives the movie an old-fashioned storytelling style, as well as swift, clear action sequences.
- Mona Lisa Smile (2/7)
- The Burning Plain (2/12)
- The Chinese Connection (2/15)
- David Holzman’s Diary (2/16)
- The Gold Rush (2/15)
- Nobody’s Fool (2/4)
- Triumph of the Will (2/15)