Stuart Rachels


Great Movies You Haven't Seen

Well, you might have seen some of them.

I won't say much about these movies. If you're like me, you want to be ignorant going in.

My favorite TV drama, The Shield, is on DVD. It's a gritty, violent, exciting cop show starring Michael Chiklis. It's sequential, so start with season one. I'm an addict.

Also check out HBO's cop show, The Wire. As with The Shield, you must start with season one. If the first two episodes don't grab you, keep watching. It builds. It's fantastic.

If you liked Borat (2006), check out Da Ali G Show (2003), the HBO series in which Sacha Baron Cohen plays Ali G, Borat, and Bruno, in alternating segments. Ali G and Borat make me howl with laughter. It's as though Andy Kaufman reached up from his grave to create something funnier.


Documentaries

Touching the Void (2003), about a mountain climbing accident in Peru, is my favorite documentary after The Thin Blue Line (1988). We see interviews with the survivors interspersed with dramatizations. The participants are articulate, the scenery is awesome, and what happened is almost unbelievable. In terms of icy human adventure stories, it's second on my list behind Ernest Shackleton's ordeal.

PBS's "American Experience" series is wonderful. My favorites are MacArthur (1999), George Wallace: Settin' the Woods on Fire (2000), and Scottsboro: An American Tragedy (2000). MacArthur and Wallace were complex, fascinating characters who made an enormous impact on America. Scottsboro is about a legal case in Alabama from the 1930s in which some African-American teenagers were falsely accused of raping two white girls.

Hands on a Hard Body (1997) is about an endurance contest in rural Texas to win a truck. People stand around the truck, touching it. The last person to move their hands off the truck wins. Surprisingly gripping! "It's a human drama thing," as one contestant put it.

For true crime fans, I strongly recommend Jean-Xavier de Lestrade's The Staircase (2004), about a trial in North Carolina in which a man is accused of killing his wife. He says she fell down the stairs; the police say he beat her to death. It's six hours long, in eight episodes. Almost as good is de Lestrade's Oscar-winning Murder on a Sunday Morning (2001), about the trial of a 15-year-old African-American boy in Florida charged with murder.

The Times of Harvey Milk (1984) is the Oscar-winning story of the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in America. Harvey Milk was murdered by fellow councilman Dan White, who employed "the twinkie defense," blaming his crime partly on the consumption of junk food. Milk is enormously charismatic, and it pains me that his life and political career were cut short. It seems good to remember him.

I also want to remember Richard Feynman. The Quest for Tannu Tuva on the BBC (a.k.a. The Last Journey of a Genius on PBS) (1988) is a wonderful 45-minute look at the most likable and idiosyncratic scientific genius of the last fifty years.

The Weather Underground (2002) looks at The Weathermen, the violent student group from the Vietnam era whose members eventually went into hiding to avoid arrest. Among those interviewed is Bill Ayers, the "domestic terrorist" whom John McCain and Sarah Palin accused Barack Obama of being friends with during the waning days of the 2008 presidential campaign.

Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story (2008) is about the amoral liar from South Carolina who was instrumental in George H. W. Bush's come-from-behind victory over Michael Dukakis in 1988. The movie is not polemical; our impression of Atwater comes mostly from his friends who remember him with amusement, as though his antics had only been part of a campaign for fraternity president. The title emanates from the fact that this Karl-Rove-of-the-80s liked to sing the blues.

And the Band Played On (1993), based on Randy Shilts' book, is the true story of the early AIDS epidemic in America, as seen through the eyes of a CDC epidemiologist played by Matthew Modine. HBO had a hard time funding this movie, but then Richard Gere, Steve Martin, Alan Alda, Anjelica Huston, and Phil Collins (who plays a sleezy bathhouse owner) accepted minor roles. It is not a documentary, but it appeals to me as a true story.


Comedies

I'm From Hollywood (1989) tells the story of Andy Kaufman's feud with Memphis wrestling champion Jerry "The King" Lawler. Though it is Kaufman's show, Lawler plays his role perfectly. Kaufman is the self-proclaimed "Inter-Gender Wrestling Champion of the World." Lawler, however, wants Kaufman to wrestle a man: him. This film is only 59 minutes long.

The Castle (1997), an Australian film, should have been a big hit--it's as though The Full Monty took up all the space in 1997 for foreign comedies in America. I love it.

Black Dynamite (2009) is Michael Jai White's hilarious spoof of the 1970s "blaxploitation" genre. Almost as funny is Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story (2007), a silly spoof of the biopic genre, in which John C. Reilly plays a Johnny-Cash-like character.

The In-Laws (1979), starring Peter Falk and Alan Arkin, should not be forgotten. Falk is second only to Peter Sellars among comic actors.

Citizen Ruth (1996) pokes fun at abortion activists. Naturally, it was not a big hit, but it is funny.

I don't know why nobody saw Series 7: The Contenders (2001). Maybe the humor is too black? It's a parody of reality shows. Here each randomly slected contestant in a small town must kill all the other contestants to go on to next week's show. Dawn, the defending champion (played by Brooke Smith) is pregnant, so she is also fighting for the tiny life inside her.


Dramas

Not many people have seen Christopher Nolan's Following (1998), which Nolan did before Memento (2000). It's creepy. And good.

Maria Full of Grace (2004) is a Spanish-speaking movie about a young woman in Colombia. Once you see it, you'll appreciate the title.

Donald Sutherland's Eye of the Needle (1981) is one of my favorites. Sutherland plays a German spy during WWII who needs to get out of England.

In Affliction (1997), Nick Nolte plays a man whose life is going badly. If you've only seen Nolte in mug shots and 48 Hrs. (1982), you'll be surprised at how good he is in this role.

Another good dark drama is Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995), about a little girl who gets bullied a lot in junior high school.

Nine Queens (2000) is an Argentinian con artist movie. It is far better than, say, House of Games (1987).

Ian Richardson's miniseries House of Cards (1991) is one of my all-time favorites. It's a story of scandal and intrigue in Britain's House of Commons. House of Cards is the first part of a trilogy bearing the same name; I strongly recommend only that first part.

State of Play (2003) is a British mini-series about some reporters trying to solve a murder with political overtones. I like it even better than Prime Suspect (1991-2006, in its various iterations). Avoid the boring Hollywood version, starring Russell Crowe and Ben Affleck: State of Play (2009).

The Lives of Others (2006), set in Cold War East Germany, is a poignant, monochromatic film about a STASI agent who is conducting surveillance on a young couple.

The Piano Teacher (2001) is a French movie about a stern woman who teaches piano. If that doesn't sound like your cup of joe, it doesn't sound like mine either. But it's very good. Warning: do not watch this movie with your children/grandmother, due to the sexual content.

Control (2007) is a biopic about Ian Curtis, the lead singer of Joy Division, who committed suicide at age 23. This movie captures the feel of the post-punk scene in England in the 1970s. It is not a concert film. It is a dark pychological portrait.

In Solitary Man (2009), Michael Douglas plays a charming, arrogant, aging businessman whose sins are catching up with him. Douglas is great, as is the supporting cast: Susan Sarandon, Jenna Fischer, Danny DeVito, Mary-Louise Parker, and Jessie Eisenberg.

Ikiru (1952), starring Takashi Shimura, is Kurosawa's masterpiece about an old man seeking meaning in his life.


Slice of Life Movies

These movies are about people. The plot-lines don't matter.

You Can Count on Me (2000) stars Laura Linney, Mark Ruffalo and Matthew Broderick. Ruffalo is Linney's brother, and Broderick is her boss. It's my favorite slice of life movie.

The Station Agent (2003) is about a dwarf played by Peter Dinklage. It's my second-favorite movie in the genre.

Love and Death on Long Island (1997) is a quirky love story starring John Hurt and Jason Priestly.


One Mystery and One Animated Feature

Evil Under the Sun (1982) stars Peter Ustinov as Hercule Poirot. You're on an island, there's a murder, everyone's a suspect, and at the end Poirot puts together all the clues to explain whodunnit.

The Iron Giant (1999) is about a boy who makes friends with a big metal alien. Brad Bird created it, and the studio buried it.