100 Exceptional American Movies in 10 Genres: Speculative, 5-1

You can read up on the basis for this series here, and also find links to other posts in the series.

Movies I’ve reviewed on this site have a link in the title which you can follow to read my full review.


5) Groundhog Day (1993), directed by Harold Ramis

“What if a man was forced to relive a single day over and over again?”

“I’m a god,” Phil (Bill Murray) says to Rita (Andie MacDowell). “I’m not the God…I don’t think.” It’s hard to disagree with Phil’s mindset at this point in the movie, although I personally think he’s more superhero than god; there are plenty of superheroes who can’t die, but there aren’t many gods who are so miserable and powerless. Groundhog Day is structurally brilliant, leaning on full days especially in the early going before opting for montages which edit out so many of the details which would be boring for Phil but even worse for us. (Given the state of prestige television anymore, in which nothing happens for a solid season and a half, it seems like Groundhog Day would be a perfect vehicle to reboot.) Phil commits suicide in increasingly operatic ways; Rita slaps Phil when he tries to make a move on her; Phil tries to save an old homeless man from dying. It’s that last sequence, maybe two minutes long, which makes Groundhog Day more than a high-concept comedy and totally foreign to similar star-driven comedies now. At this point in the movie Phil has long reckoned with the town of Punxsatawney, and must know each of its people by sight. He goes up to the old man on a cold night and tells him he should come someplace warm. Later on he dies in hospital; Phil refuses to listen to the nurse, who says that sometimes people just die. “Not today,” Phil replies. The old man, who never says a word, goes to the diner with Phil, who buys him soup and a hearty breakfast. He calls him “Pop” and “Father.” And the old man still dies that night despite Phil’s attempts at CPR. Any pretensions about his own godhood seem to have left him as he looks to the sky over the corpse of the old man.

Another benefit of moving to montage in this movie, at least until Phil’s last Groundhog Day, is how it takes the shine off of Phil’s remarkable situation. While the last Groundhog Day, from the boy falling out of the tree to the Heimlich maneuver to Phil’s piano playing, repeatedly calls back our knowledge of Phil’s repetitive life, it doesn’t emphasize any single day before it. We take it for granted that Phil has lived for years in this single day after being given a little less than a week of actual introduction to his plight. (The original article is down now, but this estimates, based on improvements in ice sculpture or card-flippng, that Phil spent nearly thirty-four years in Punxsatawney.) The film understands that we cannot be wrapped up in its fantasy aspects forever; it knows that if we’re to stay interested, we have to look to Phil’s improved relationship with Rita or, better yet, his general improvements as a human being. While it’s fun to watch Phil make a getaway with the town’s hallowed woodchuck or to play a post-flapjacks game of chicken, the movie can’t live on those moments; they’re cake and ice cream. I don’t know that we need to find something nutritious in Groundhog Day, but its affect is dependent on more than hijinks.

4) Burn After Reading (2008), directed by Joel and Ethan Coen

“What if everyone living in the D.C. area was fabulously stupid?”

My recollection of Burn After Reading from 2008 – a movie that, uncharacteristically, I saw in theaters – is that people found it a little too weird. And granted, the ending is abrupt. We go very quickly from “John Malkovich is chasing Richard Jenkins with a hatchet” to “David Rasche and J.K. Simmons hash out the end of the story.” And sure, the first time out it almost feels like a copout. Yet in hindsight it’s brilliant. Did we really want to watch Osbourne hack poor Ted to pieces? Or did we want to watch a scene in which one CIA bigwig (David Rasche) found out that the United States doesn’t have extradition with Venezuela, and the other (J.K. Simmons) basically punted on learning anything from this situation short of “Let’s not do it again.” The latter seems superior to me, at any rate. It’s much truer to the message of the movie; the only decent guy in this situation ends up murdered in a grisly, primeval fashion, while venal folks like Harry (George Clooney), Linda (Frances McDormand), and Katie (Tilda Swinton) get off scot-free. It’s sad to lose the aptly named Chad (Brad Pitt), who couldn’t chew gum and ride a bike simultaneously, but his death is no more or less random than Ted’s. (Watching Linda send two men to their deaths over the hope of getting money for plastic surgery is something else.) We failed to read the tone of the movie from the outset. It’s not that Osbourne Cox was getting sent away from his cushy high-level analyst job, but that he’s being sent to the State Department because he has a drinking problem. And it’s not that he has a drinking problem, but that his response to being booted is “I have a drinking problem?” And even then, it’s not until he calls out the Mormon in the room that we can be absolutely sure where this movie is going: “Next to you, we all have a drinking problem!”

I think what we got caught up in with Burn After Reading the first time out was the Clooney-Pitt axis, back when those two men were probably the biggest movie stars on the planet. As far as the speculative nature of this movie goes, they’re more or less small potatoes. It’s Osbourne’s memoirs (invariably pronounced “mem-whas“) which showcase just how quickly a leak becomes a dynamo. In real life – so we used to think – a CD with Osbourne’s memoirs on it would hardly qualify as leakable material; all one would have to do is read the darn things to know there wasn’t anything sensitive in them. It comes down to Linda, assuming that there’s something good just because her moron coworker vouches for it as classified information. And when the government does finally get involved, it’s as clueless as the civilians they’re supposed to be smarter than. Burn After Reading isn’t nearly the movie that Dr. Strangelove is, but Burn After Reading does have a little more venom, in its own way. Dr. Strangelove relies on people in high-stakes, nuclear holocaust mode to make bad decisions again and again, which makes a certain amount of sense. Burn After Reading is a story of no-stakes, pre-Recession mediocrities making a mess that can’t be cleaned up. What’s their excuse?

3) The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), directed by Woody Allen

Picture links back here

“What if characters in movies could could come down out of the screen?”

One of the things I like about The Purple Rose of Cairo is its intelligence about when to set itself. During the Great Depression, the number of movies capable of punting their beings into the real world and doing irreparable, Godzilla-style harm was fairly low. Aside from a horror movie here and there, most movies were fairly realistic (if extravagant), and so a Tom Baxter (Jeff Daniels) wouldn’t make too much fuss. He’s a wealthy, vaguely eccentric young man with a hankering for hanging out inside pyramids and an unexplained love of pith helmets; in short, he’s harmless. The Great Depression was also a key moment in American cinema for escapism and fantasy; you may barely be able to afford your ticket to the show, but look at what Kay Francis or Joan Crawford are wearing! Tom Baxter lands like a bomb on Cecilia (Mia Farrow), one of those people who have already been landed on by the Crash and have never found a way to get up. He is as handsome and trim, as blithe and attentive as her husband (Danny Aiello) is not, and so it is that the fantasy of the movies comes to real life as a visiting attraction.

Funnily enough, just about the only supporter Tom has is Cecilia. The studio, especially actor Gil Shepherd (likewise Daniels), are horrified by the prospect of Tom doing something unforgivable or unlawful or uncouth while he’s roaming the wilds of New Jersey. And Tom’s fellow characters from the screen are similarly angry that Tom has left them hanging; he has a responsibility, after all, to his fellow characters. The end of the movie – where Cecilia chooses to be with Gil rather than Tom, sending Tom dolefully back into the picture and Gil, having fooled an easy mark, back to Hollywood without Cecilia – is sad and surprisingly educational. The Purple Rose of Cairo understands that escapism is all well and good until one begins to make life choices based on that principle. Cecilia’s life has gotten significantly worse since she went to see the picture in the first place; she loses her job, her husband gets angrier and angrier at her, and she makes a personal choice that she cannot take back without sacrificing every ounce of her pride. The only cure is to go to the movies again, to see Top Hat, to watch Fred and Ginger sing and dance it out. The Purple Rose of Cairo is charming, lighthearted, deft. And then it lands (like the bomb or the Crash or Plymouth Rock) on Cecilia and Tom. A little distance can preserve your heart.

2) Seconds (1966), directed by John Frankenheimer

“What if being a new you meant facing the same slate of problems?”

Certainly that’s the trouble that Arthur Hamilton (John Randolph) faces as he goes under the knife to become a new person, more or less. One of the great sales pitches of all time is given in this movie by the founder (Will Geer) of a mysterious Company. Hamilton is the vice-president of a New York bank with a genuine chance at becoming president of it pretty soon. He has a nice house in Scarsdale, a wife he “gets along with,” and a married daughter out West. The founder manages to make this all turn to dust. What do you have, really? he asks, implying that to be a middle-aged man who has achieved a gentle marriage and a seriously successful professional life is somehow nothing. And Hamilton buys. Like plenty of middle-aged men out there, the dream of what he could have had, or the desire to have something even more than what he has – greed, in short – infects him. He literally signs away his life to the Company; after surgery, recuperation, and physical therapy, he has emerged as Tony Wilson (Rock Hudson), a painter with decades of quiet success behind him and no obstacles to personal fulfillment. Tony runs into a nice woman a little younger than him, Nora (Salome Jens), goes to a bacchanalia with her (seriously – it’s one of the most disorienting scenes ever put on film), hosts a party at his Company-assigned butler’s (Wesley Addy) advice. He realizes that what he really wants is a life where he can actually start fresh. He’s a sucker, he comes to understand. He had one life with a bunch of rules and regulations and swapped it for a brand new one with just as many to navigate. Seconds is a nightmare of bourgeois dissatisfaction, even if not all of it is undeserved. It’s inarguable that Arthur’s life is bland, but it’s not as if a man in his position can’t afford a little seasoning.

The imagery of Seconds is staggering. Mirrors proliferate, especially once the transformation to Tony Wilson has been effected. The idea that there are two people, down to the fingerprints, has to work against the reality that Arthur and Tony are the same mind. Seconds was released in the same year as Persona, which is a lovely coincidence, but the style Frankenheimer (with some assistance from cinematographer James Wong Howe) uses is much more in line with contemporary European arthouse movies than the kind of movies which were most popular stateside that year. Close-ups are the meat of the picture. The camera shakes and tumbles with its characters, unless it’s stock-still looking into a walking character’s eyes or shoulder. The dream sequence, which turns out to be something more than a dream but less than real life, is truly surrealist. All of these choices redouble the focus on Arthur/Tony, who is so often the focus of these shots. But they also emphasize the rough-and-tumble nature of his own choice to be reborn. They show us a man in careening motion, imbalanced and flimsy, unable to stop or set himself long enough to get his bearings.

1) JFK (1991), directed by Oliver Stone

“What if the assassination of John F. Kennedy was actually a coup d’etat?”

I love JFK because it’s a rush. Except for those scenes where Sissy Spacek has to play a whiny wife because the patriarchy is cruel, JFK is an electrifying movie, continually amping up the stakes. Before that brain meme that’s all over Twitter, JFK was the brain meme. The small brain would be “Lee Harvey Oswald couldn’t have acted alone,” a statement bland enough that more than half of Americans agree with it. The exploding brain would be “JFK was murdered on orders from the military establishment with the agreement of his vice-president, Lyndon B. Johnson,” which requires several leaps and a profound lack of faith in our federal government. That’s the genius of JFK; virtually no one has faith in the highest levels of American government. After Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq, our generals and military intelligence are fools; after Watergate, our presidents don’t get the benefit of the doubt and their actions prove they don’t deserve it; Congress has never been more unpopular and the judicial branch has become really seriously weaponized in the past few decades. In short, JFK speaks to us and to the innate sensors for dissembling and lying that we all have within. Something about the Kennedy assassination doesn’t sit right with us, and JFK outlines the most detailed yet comprehensible way to make it sit right. You don’t have to believe in all, or even most of the details of a movie such as this to think it’s got a grain of truth in it. Two years ago, I wrote this about the movie’s focus on the New Orleans theory of the JFK assassination:

JFK is the story of what should be true, or at least what feels true. And at its heart, the film is arguing very simply that Kennedy’s death was not the work of one troubled guy with a bolt-action rifle and a view from a warehouse.

When its brain is exploding, JFK manages to do just that. Few films are so willing to put their hands into speech; if we all still listened to radio dramas like they did in the pre-TV times, JFK would be a smashing example of a weeklong serial. Monologue after monologue dominates the movie, for better or worse. “It’s like a riddle wrapped up in a mystery inside an enigma!” remains one of the worst lines I’ve ever come across in a movie, about as bright as the Logan’s Run suggestion “Let’s get these wet clothes off before we freeze.” But for every time we have to see Joe Pesci go full German Expressionist, there’s Laurie Metcalf or Donald Sutherland rifling off round after round of evidence in support of our suspicions. Susie Cox is the one who enlightens us to the interesting and suspicious history of Lee Harvey Oswald; Mr. X gives a scathing report on the happenings in the highest reaches of military intelligence on the day that Kennedy was assassinated. These monologues, and many, many others, are scaffolded with small comments from the speaker’s audience. Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner) provides analogies and commentary while people like Susie or Bill (Michael Rooker) take a breath. Lou (Jay O. Sanders) will reaffirm small details of Garrison’s own monologues based on his experience in the Marines or with other suspects. Even if the movie is far from a documentary and even further from fact, the sheer amount of words in the film make it feel like you’ve attended an entire semester of lectures on our nation’s most mysterious topic in recent memory.

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