100 American Movies to Save: Pugilism (1995-2003)

You can find the introduction and index for this series here.

FilmDirectorYearType
Before SunriseRichard Linklater1995Narrative feature
Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood HillsJoe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky1996Documentary
ScreamWes Craven1996Narrative feature
Waco: The Rules of EngagementWilliam Gazecki1997Documentary
The Thin Red LineTerrence Malick1998Narrative feature
One True ThingCarl Franklin1998Narrative feature
Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr.Errol Morris1999Documentary
You Can Count on MeKenneth Lonergan2000Narrative feature
“First Plane Hits North Tower”Jules Naudet2001Short
“Are You Gonna Be My Girl?”Dave Myers2003Industrial film

Before Sunrise is an ultimate Rick Steves movie, not least because on top of only needing a camera and Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, we have two young people spending a night in Vienna. And even though it seems like it should be easy to recreate Before Sunrise, which seems to require so little even compared to other romances aimed at young adults, it is impossible to recreate Before Sunrise. Even Richard Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy only came close to doing so once, and Before Sunset is so tonally different from Sunrise that it’s only formally like its older sibling. Before Sunrise has magic in it.

This scene should be cloying. Two people imagining phone conversations with friends as ways to reveal what they’re actually thinking about each other should be a slog, another stilted and awfully talky choice in a movie that by now has been talking at you with the aggressiveness of an American stranger in an enclosed space. But I’ve never tasted something cloying that took my breath away, least of all something that did so every single time. At this point in the movie, the effect of the chemistry these two have with each other has gone beyond firecrackers or fireworks and met fireplace. It’s natural, flickering, crackling, and almost too warm to be near. He’s pretty, disarmingly so. The boy with huge dreams that she saw immediately and started to fall in love with not soon after is there in those eyes of his and the way he sucks his lips in when she says they’re big. She’s adorable, soft. The girl with this remarkable blend of fierce intellectual confidence that intimidates him, but who has reassurance that makes him safe with her. Most people die without something this romantic happening within three zip codes of them.

I had a difficult time deciding which of these three movies I was going to put on this list. The second one was the one I was originally going to go with, because it was so spot on. In the rush to find someone who was actually guilty of the horrifying crimes rather than their teenaged protagonists judged by appearances, Berlinger and Sinofsky rush to judgment of John Mark Byers based on how he seems to them. Furthermore, the second installment documents one of the earliest cases of true crime becoming an Internet obsession, which, given the basically certain innocence of Byers, is the only segment of the doc you can watch that doesn’t just hurt. But I’ve said before and I reminded myself here that I didn’t want to include stuff for condescending purposes. That’s what Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills is here for instead, the best documentary of the three but also socially necessary in its own right. There is not a better document of the Satanic panic of the 1980s, not least because the trials of Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley occurred in the 1990s; it is the final shriek of rage levied by this iteration of the panic, which has of course found new forms in the past few years in Pizzagate, QAnon, and other like hoaxes. Paradise Lost is a film that is not undertaken lightly, because every frame of the film is about the destruction of young lives. One feels most for the three murdered children, but one has to feel for three boys who are dragged through the mud, despised by their community, and ultimately sentenced heavily for crimes they’ve never committed. I watched all three of these in the space of a weekend, so I no longer remember which one Echols says it in, but I’m haunted by the way he talks about how he acted in the courtroom. I acted nonchalantly and like I didn’t care, he says, because I thought they couldn’t convict you for a crime you hadn’t committed.

Speaking of movies I thought long and hard about not including, here’s Scream. It’s far from the first horror movie to screw around with the conventions of the genre generally and the slasher specifically, and to be honest, its insistence on how much we all get the joke that these horror movie characters know the rules of horror movies is tiresome. The film makes two clever updates on horror, or, to put it more correctly, on Hitchcock. Killing off Drew Barrymore in the first fifteen minutes of the movie has to be the most delightful and disgusting misdirect since Psycho took care of Janet Leigh. The second is that I think this movie does a better job of outdoing Rope as a commentary on the Leopold and Loeb murder. Two teenage boys who have a much stronger thing for one another than they do for girls—the gay subtext between them is only slightly less obvious than what’s happening in Nightmare on Elm Street 2—get into the business of thrill killing. With the advantage of history, Billy and Stu don’t stop at one like Leopold and Loeb did, or John Dall and Farley Granger in Rope. They know that serial killing is where it’s at, the great psychological release that the extreme homophobia of the 1990s wouldn’t have allowed these boys to get out any other way, and they take advantage of all the thrusting pleasure that stabbing provides. Subtlety is for types of horror which aren’t focused on screaming teen queens.

Wes Craven didn’t have much use for subtlety, and in the first quarter of 1993, neither did the federal government in its approach to the Branch Davidians.

The American far-right movement has its roots in the ways white people, especially those with capital, find ways to preserve their dominance while defending their sins through some veneer of respectability. In the 1990s, the great irony is that the rallying of the far right, primarily inculcated through the blood of their martyrs, was done primarily through government surveillance and attacks on majority-white communities. Just a year after Ruby Ridge, which with the benefit of hindsight I’d call the most important event of 1992 in the United States, four government employees and eighty-two civilians were killed in a like standoff which inspired Timothy McVeigh at the time and motivated him for the rest of his time as a free man. Waco: The Rules of Engagement may not be the truest documentary about what happened at Mount Carmel. The film definitely works hard to convince us that the fire that obliterated the Branch Davidian compound and killed so many was started by government agents; in the present day, there’s probably more evidence suggesting that David Koresh ordered his own people to start the fire. But there’s a different kind of truth in the documentary, one that I’ve found other sources are good at working through but not this good. Waco walks this line where it never questions the falseness of Koresh’s evangel, nor does it ever ask us to sympathize with a man who did some pretty heinous stuff in his life. At the same time, it’s impossible not to be horrified by the persistence of the violence with which he and his religious set are met—the feds never get into a shootout with the Catholic priests who have molested children, do they?—and Waco gives us more reason to be horrified still. In 1997, Waco was merely the primary basis for the worst act of individual terrorism on American soil. In 2022, Waco is still a nightmare that keeps up and stimulates the worst elements in American politics.

I made a business decision here, because I didn’t want to overwhelm this list with a bunch of films I’d just talked about as being among the greatest of all time. Safe, as you can tell, isn’t here, but a few months ago I called that America’s twelfth-best movie. With the exception of The Master, which is only becoming eligible this year for the National Film Registry, every movie I believe rates among the ten best in American history is part of that list. Except for The Thin Red Line. (Checks to see if Saving Private Ryan is there already.) Damn it. (Searches the personnel credits page for Steven Spielberg’s name.) They have The Goonies in the National Film Registry? Why am I spending so much time thinking about this junk if no one else is taking this seriously?

The resistance on Guadalcanal by the time the movie stars of The Thin Red Line arrive is pretty thin. There are a bunch of men killed there, but it’s plain that the operation could have been achieved with far less bloodshed if the commander was not hellbent on seizing this opportunity for personal glory. The Japanese are worn out, exhausted, down to the nubs of personhood. The final rousing assault made on the Japanese position once the machine gun entrenchments have been destroyed is far less rousing when you see the Japanese. They are haggard, sick, injured. The Thin Red Line has a swelling Hans Zimmer score behind it in that moment, but for the most part all you can feel is pity. Pity for the Americans who have sweltered and dodged bullets and feared, and pity for the Japanese who cannot even rise up to defend themselves against their enemies of many years, with millions of military and civilian casualties to show for it. It’s the truth that All Quiet on the Western Front understood; what is right is a question for governments more than men to riddle out.

One True Thing feels like a basically forgotten movie despite having six acting Oscars between the three names on the top of the poster. It’s one of the twenty-one movies that Meryl Streep has gotten an Oscar nomination for, and if Letterboxd popularity means anything, it might even be the least seen of those twenty-one movies. That’s an injustice, because this is one of the better Streep performances of that group and one of the better movies of that twoscore collective. Movies about illness, and perhaps especially movies where a key character has cancer, are so often these gawky, maudlin little affairs about discovering purpose or learning things about yourself before you kick the bucket. One True Thing isn’t immune to soapsuds, but I appreciate that this movie has a pretty hard edge about the Streep character’s illness. Based not all that loosely on Anna Quindlen’s relationship with her mother, who died of cancer, one assumes the reality of this comes from the Quindlens. This isn’t a movie where Kate starts spouting profound truths as a result of her illness, and there’s nothing inspiring about watching her waste away and die in front of us. This movie gets at one of those nasty saws that more of us have to ‘fess up to than not, which is that we don’t take the people close to us seriously until their situation becomes more obviously serious. Ellen thinks her mom is a real doofus, and not in the endearing way, until she realizes how many secrets Kate has simply kept inside (like her knowledge that her overbearing husband is a serial cheater) and how much forbearance she’s always had. At that point, it is too late to recognize that goodness in her mother in a way that genuinely respects it. In other words, Ellen has little to do but wave at that goodness while it passes rather than holding hands with it for the many years they had available to them.

Documentaries are not usually a super twisty genre—it’s rare that I think a twist in a documentary is actually a sound narrative decision—but if you don’t know the twist in Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred. A Leuchter, Jr., it feels like a shame to ruin it. For those people out there who casually know the cases of well-publicized Holocaust deniers, back before it felt like everyone on Twitter was doing it in one voice, the twist must have been ruined beforehand. It is not out of the question to think that Leuchter would be just an exceptional choice for Morris to talk to, given that he had just made Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control. Meeting a mediocre engineer who basically networked his way to being the executions methodology dude in many states is very Morris. Meeting a guy who decides that his own expertise, such as it is, in execution makes him qualified to do anything but grieve at Auschwitz is staggering. There are so many Fred A. Leuchters out there, people who are so certain that they just know better and are willing to take “just asking questions” or “doing my own research” to an extreme where, in numbers, they can attempt to cripple a centuries-old democracy.

Twenty years later, I don’t know that people necessarily look to In the Bedroom before they look to You Can Count on Me as representative of Northeastern small-town angst, but I just want to go on the record saying that those people are wrong. You Count on Me has any number of tawdry events within it, from fistfights to affairs to just plain lies. None of those are an excuse to get to some kind of goofy murder plot like we have in In the Bedroom, because Kenneth Lonergan is too busy using those moments as moving indicators of character. I like Manchester by the Sea, but I think part of the reason that movie doesn’t work on me as strongly as You Can Count on Me is because the “distant loser uncle uncomfortably made a father figure by circumstance” plotline works so much better when Mark Ruffalo is filling it. Terry is exactly what Rudy needs, this well-meaning and brash figure who injects energy into the boy’s somewhat staid life. He brings an incredible dose of reality as well, seeing as he’s there/the transportation when Rudy finds out just how mean a guy his dad actually is. He’s also not someone who can stay for all that long before his welcome is worn out and he’s shown himself to be good for only a few things. Catharsis is his business, and the shock of seeing his father as a bad guy rather than a good one who’s just missing from his life could only happen for Rudy with Terry around. Catharsis, as any good writer knows, is not for the day-in and day-out. Terry has to leave at the end of the movie, not just because that town is no longer big enough for him and his reputation but because he’s served his purpose like a tank of fuel is burned off to move a car.

Life imitates art. In The Thin Red Line, one of the things I most admire about that movie is a shot that Malick could not possibly have planned, one where a butterfly flies across the path of some American soldiers on their mission. In this video, which was part of a documentary about New York firefighters that ended up being about New York firefighters in a very different way, birds fly above the head of the cameraman, in their own small way obscuring the fireball of the North Tower.

I don’t know that I have much more to say about this film. All I know is that if the Zapruder film is in the National Film Registry, then this should be there also. The world ended when John F. Kennedy was assassinated. The world ended again when Flight 11 disappeared into the North Tower.

Thank God Apple was there to help us lick our wounds. Where would we have been without iPods?

I hang onto technologies as long as I can because it annoys me to have to learn something even slightly new compared to the system I’ve worked with. Even I am no longer using my iPod (which at this point I could probably make some cash off of as an antique). The “Are You Gonna Be My Girl?” ad looks strange now too, given the unmistakable prevalence of the wires that one no longer sees out in the wild. (Yes, I still use wired headphones from time to time.) In the 21st Century, no company has done a better job telling you who they are and making you believe it than Apple. There are three colors on the TV when you’re watching this ad. The first is black, the total silhouette of a person. The second is whatever the background color is, some green or purple or pink or yellow that makes equivalently colored saltwater taffy look dingy. The third is iPod color. The insinuation of the ad is that you are alone with your music, even obliterating the setting you’re lip-syncing and dancing around in so that you have more room to gyrate. With the exception of a jet airliner colliding with a skyscraper, this is the film from this block which I most associate with the pugilistic ideal because it is so emphatically a statement about physical expression. The human is a cyborg with kicking legs and punching fists in this commercial, plugged into his or her iPod like plastic mechanisms make a Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robot slug his opponent. The effect of the ad, which is part of a series of like commercials, is to signify the iPod alone with this set of visual sensations. Those three colors—black, neon, and iPod—are so much bolder than anything else that would show up on your screen. They dominated the television, more colorful and more potent than anything that even early 2000s TV could come up with to compete with it.

As for me? I will always associate “Are You Gonna Be My Girl?” with the unmatched Madden 04 soundtrack before it goes to Apple commercials. Take that, Steve.

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