100 Exceptional American Movies in 10 Genres: Period, 10-6

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.

10) L.A. Confidential (1997), directed by Curtis Hanson

Other movies in this series are going to run towards something like realistic depictions of a time period. L.A. Confidential knowingly indulges in the excesses of a ’50s town that senses it’s lost something in the recent past. Lynn Bracken is a pricey prostitute who bears a strong and purposeful resemblance to Veronica Lake. For the early ’50s, it’s sort of a weird choice, like fawning over Jessica Lange or Sally Field in the ’90s. (Or, ha ha, Russell Crowe in the ’10s.) L.A. Confidential thus looks over its shoulder while we look over ours to watch, and it’s part of what makes the movie fun in the first place. It looks like a ’90s movie and feels like a ’90s movie (complete with its Usual Suspects-lite twist); ’50s cosplay reigns supreme. Some things are the same as a contemporary viewer: scandal, especially sex scandal, sells, and the L.A. cops don’t have such a hot relationship with their African-American constituencies. Some things are different: who can imagine two cops as moral, really, as Bud White and Ed Exley? It’s not that they’re so squeaky clean, because they’re not. White spends the majority of the movie ducking internal affairs and doing Smith’s dirty work. Exley is the dictionary example of a prig, down to the glasses and the schoolboy belief that what he’s serving is unadulterated justice. We can imagine cops like that from the ’50s. Something gets in the way in the ’90s (or ’10s). Bud White isn’t machismo personified because he’s a tough-talking cop; he’s machismo personified because of the way Smith intones, “I wouldn’t trade places with Edmund Exley right now for all the whiskey in Ireland.” Ed Exley doesn’t have a darkness inside him that it’s impossible to cope with because he’s like, seen things, man, but because some hood shot his dad and was never seen again. In the ’90s, those motivations are like affectations, where in the ’50s we can just accept them for what they are.

Funnily enough, the pieces of the movie which actively throw themselves at that ’50s cosplay are by and large the least interesting. I’ve never been able to bring myself to get invested in Bud White’s courtship of Lynn Bracken if for no other reason than the movie is using her as scenery, not people. The A-plot of the movie doesn’t touch her or her professional sisters for more than a few moments; one of her dead colleagues has a connection to a dead cop which helps get White a clue, but other than that there’s not much there. Danny DeVito is playing a newshound with a nose for only the most sordid stories, and his publication is based on scandal rags from the era. Simon Baker plays a gay actor who gets caught up in one of the scandals. Once again, it matters to the story in a way that a gall bladder matters to the digestive system. In an amusing way, there’s a symbolic kind of truth. In the ’50s, the white men make and break the cases. Women, homosexuals, minorities, and the rest of that crew stay on the sidelines.

9) The Last Days of Disco (1998), directed by Whit Stillman

One of the things I’ve always appreciated about The Last Days of Disco is that it doesn’t bend over backwards to show you that it’s all taking place in the holding cell between Carter and Reagan’s Americas. The excesses of Saturday Night Fever, if they ever really existed like that, are long gone. (“We had nothing to do with those things,” one character proclaims at the end of the picture.) The civilized world of the discotheque in Manhattan calls for shimmery, but not vulgar. There should be shoulders, but there’s a certain level of drink-sipping dance floor modesty that applies to the people who wander in and out of the clubs. Honestly it’s the same kind of self-governance that is supposed to be at play in the fields of the publisher’s, or in the D.A.’s office, or at the bar. Alice is passive and self-possessed, unable to get her own way or get out of her own way. Charlotte needs to get her own way more and does, although it’s not necessarily obvious that that’s a good thing for her. “What if ‘thine own self’ is not so good?” Des laments at one point. “What if it’s pretty bad?” That goes for him…and Charlotte…and Tom, who might be the prize skunk in this surfeit…and Jimmy…and Bernie…but you get the picture. Yuppies abound here, and that more than anything gives this movie its early ’80s flavor. In the Last Days of Regulated Capitalism, The Last Days of Disco sets its eyes on the people who should be climbing to the top, but for one reason or another seem destined to scrape out disappointment with their fingernails and offset it as long as they can by being young and reasonably good-looking. If that’s not the ’80s I don’t know what is.

A soundtrack is always a great way to lend authenticity to someone’s work, and boy howdy does The Last Days of Disco get it right. Josh, who waxes rhapsodic about disco in the final minutes of the movie, understands that its unironic zest is bound to be the butt of many, many jokes in the future. (Disco Demolition Night, one of the strangest things to ever happen on a Major League Baseball playing field and an event referenced in the film, happened in 1979; I’m honestly kind of impressed that the occasionally melancholy Josh isn’t worried about literally being set on fire.) It’s not a coincidence that the music of The Last Days of Disco sounds like what you’d get if you asked Alexa to make a playlist for you that would embarrass you in front of strangers. Amii Stewart’s “Knock on Wood,” Andrea True Connection’s “More, More, More,” two apiece from Chic and Evelyn King, and, praise the Lord, “Let’s All Chant.” It’s a vintage cross-section of dance music which makes the movie an irresistible toe-tapper, but like Cabaret, keeps distance between the club and the sunlit world outside. The movie makes sure that the most robust indicator of the early ’80s, that fading, backgrounded soundtrack, stays laid up in its own little world, away from where moth and stagflation doth corrupt.

8) A Christmas Story (1983), directed by Bob Clark

A Christmas Story is kind of an acquired taste, by which I mean that one acquires it at family Yuletide get-togethers where you can watch it at least three or four times between the time you arrive and the time you’re putting your coat on. It’s also a genius period piece which captures and musses the hair of its early ’40s setting. Ralphie’s upbringing is filled with the memorable and basically harmless mishaps of a pre-WWII childhood. His friend sticks his tongue to a flagpole, and there’s the looming threat of Scut Farkus, and of course one may well shoot one’s own eye out, but there’s no harm done that age can’t make into a joke. Indeed, much of the story is purposefully endearing to our versions of that thing that never was, a simpler past. The movie begins with the gentle, colorful lights in the winter dark; a toy store is at full-bore not long before Christmas, and children are gathered around it, mouths agape and mittens pointing. His teacher assigns him a “theme” at school, which, before seeing this, I had no idea was even an option for a school assignment. Ralphie may imagine a scenario in which he gets “soap poisoning” because of the punishment he receives for the f-bomb he dropped, but there’s something quaint about the “clean your mouth out with soap” treatment that his mother is in charge of. That bizarre child tells Ralphie, “I like The Wizard of Oz,” but in this context that’s as contemporary as a boy his age telling another that he likes the Transformers movies. The secret message he decodes feverishly and clandestinely in the bathroom—what an incredibly anxious scene that is!—is “Drink More Ovaltine,” which might well have been the slogan for the entire homefront in the ’40s. An elementary school kid frequently derives much of his or her pleasure from toys, but compared to the devices available to little people now, there’s something deeply past-tense about the way that Ralphie pines for a flashy BB gun and commits himself to that decoder.

So much of nostalgia is rooted in the celebration of our past ignorance or, to say it more kindly, in our longing for a second chance. A Christmas Story does not trumpet the backwardness of its time, but it quietly shows us how things are. With the exception of the Chinese men who can’t get their /l/ sound to work, there’s no sign of anyone who doesn’t look like the Parkers, and of course the only people of color in the movie are a joke. Ralphie’s mother serves dinner to her family as they finish their plates; I’m not sure we ever actually see her eat in this movie despite the several scenes at dinners. She is the one responsible for disciplining the children and for getting them to eat. She is the one who calls up the other mothers about issues at hand. And it takes some subterfuge and sabotage for her to get rid of that infamous lamp that she cannot otherwise force her husband to dispose of. The role of children is similarly taken: it is, by and large, a no-nonsense approach. Teachers deal with students firmly. Parents are not shy about forms of discipline that would get them into some level of trouble in our own time. Children are as good at hiding their frustrations from adults as ever—that is to say, they successfully cover up about eighty percent of their shenanigans—but every now and then they fail to pull the wool over their eyes and pay for it in sharp words and bars of soap.


7) Inside Llewyn Davis (2013), directed by Joel and Ethan Coen

It’s the winter of ’61 in Greenwich Village, and no one had invented a color brighter than slate for anything but cats and Justin Timberlake’s hair: they both come in orange. What might rightly be called the most tumultuous decade in American history—since the last ’60s, anyway—begins in the grays of pre-dawn. No American, chimpanzee or man, has yet ascended into space. No American has fired shots in Vietnam. None of the great Americans who came to fame in the ’60s have been gunned down just yet. All of this is waiting to happen, but a fair-not-great folk singer, Llewyn “King Midas’ Idiot Brother” Davis, has no more knowledge of it than he knows whose couch he’ll crash on tomorrow. The stakes are higher in Lincoln than in Llewyn Davis, granted, but think about that grandiosely self-important opening. A brief scene of battle in the mud. Lincoln—his back is to us at the beginning, to build “suspense”—is visiting with troops afterwards. The Gettysburg Address gets quoted back at him rapid-fire by a white soldier and then completed smoothly and dramatically by a lone black one. It just drips with the importance of the historical moment. Inside Llewyn Davis calls attention to the edge of history it sits on without ever trying to make it Meaningful. “Please, Mr. Kennedy” is the greatest novelty song ever written, presumably about John Glenn when the average citizen assumed Glenn would be the first man in space. Bob Dylan has wandered into Greenwich Village. Yet these are the margins of a movie that is brave enough to make a drive past Akron in the dark into one of its most powerful scenes.

Like The Last Days of Disco, Inside Llewyn Davis gets a disproportionate amount of its back-then feel from its soundtrack. Llewyn focuses primarily on songs that Dave Von Ronk recorded. Jim, Troy, and Jean are very Peter, Paul, and Mary, down to their rendition of “500 Miles.” “The Last Thing on My Mind” is one of the highlights of the movie and one of the most enduring songs originally written in this period. The first time around, the songs have an atmospheric quality as essential as the dim lighting. Folk music is a vehicle for people who, when they sing, sound like themselves; there’s plenty of room for style but not much space at all for bombast. Inside Llewyn Davis uses this as well to humanize and miniaturize its cast of Greenwich Village characters, who may be ahead of the curve politically or socially compared to the squares in Middle America but who still play by the same basic set of rules. The tagline for this movie is spoken by Llewyn himself, who explains his definition of folk music: “If it was never new, and it never gets old, it’s a folk song.” As a period piece, we can see how the picture hangs outside of time, within and without the past decade of Eisenhower and the appalling rambunctious future ahead.

6) A League of Their Own (1992), directed by Penny Marshall

One of the things I love about A League of Their Own is how it is a study of women in action. I think it’s one of the reasons why the movie struck a chord with viewers when it first debuted and why it continues to be enormously influential into the present day. The summary of women on the home front during World War II inevitably is boiled down to “joined workforce, continued to raise children, were very worried for their men.” A League of Their Own does all of those things, some more effectively than others; Evelyn trying to manage her son is a more effective topic in this movie than the death of Betty’s husband, for example. What troubles me about that summary is not that it’s necessarily incorrect so much as it’s just short, as if it explains everything and there’s nothing left to say. It strips the work and the sweat away from what women did during the 1940s and turns it into an almost formulaic precis for why the women’s rights kicked off. A League of Their Own treasures the sweat of bus trips and etiquette lessons and ninth innings all alike, and it is fundamentally about the kinetic actions of work. The AFI 10 Top 10 named Raging Bull its greatest sports movie, which is sort of like saying 2001 is the best movie ever made about deep space exploration or that The Rules of the Game is the best movie ever made about a house party. A League of Their Own (which, incredibly, was left off of that list) is a sports movie in the sense that its most important moments take place on the field. Kit piledrives Dottie at home: of course it has to do with the relationship between the two of them, but it’s also a baseball moment. The baseball is literally the focus of the shot when it rolls out of Dottie’s hand. At any rate, there’s nothing about A League of Their Own that forces you to imagine what must have been going on with the women of the homefront. You don’t have to imagine a legion of Rosie the Riveter types marching into the factory because the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League exists and is returned to as the setting again and again.

The early scenes of the movie are dominated by Jon Lovitz playing himself with a mustache, and they are frequently eclipsed in the popular memory by elements of the picture which obviously have more to do with baseball. But when Dottie turns down Ernie, preferring to stay home to milk cows and wait for her soldier husband, Kit turns her around. “There’s nothing for me here,” she pleads. To me, there’s as much of the ’40s in that argument as there is in any single line of the picture. Kit knows that there’s no way she’ll be able to leave this hick town in Oregon otherwise; there are no opportunities for a woman to get out of a setting that doesn’t interest her. This opportunity is a miracle—and almost as short-lived in real life as it’s made out to be in the movie—and Kit desperately wants to seize it. Lori Petty and Geena Davis are perfectly cast for Kit and Dottie. Davis, a six-footer who might genuinely deserve the term “statuesque,” is obviously capable of athletic feats. Petty is 5’8″, which is a little above-average for a woman, but something in her mien makes her look shorter, and the squeakiness of her voice exacerbates it. Kit isn’t as mature as her older sister, but she has a keener understanding of her time and place. Her argument is that she wants to—and surely Dottie wants to!—make something of herself, be somebody big and important. If it’s phrased childishly, how can we blame Kit for it? By her admission her family treats her more like a dog than a person, and more than that she hasn’t been given the experiences to think and learn broadly. The AAPGBL isn’t exactly the El Dorado of feminism, as the movie almost excessively shows us. But it is something new masquerading as something much more old-fashioned. A League of Their Own realizes that for a period piece, that combination can be a well-placed double in the gap. (Not a home run. I haven’t fallen that far into cliché just yet.)

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