Let’s play Bowie’s Life On Mars
for this section. Someone was telling me that they had their significant other watch Joe Versus the Volcano in exchange for him watching The Sound of Music
(a movie that also belongs in this category); it occurred to me that Joe Versus the Volcano
was my movie-test equivalent to someone unlocking the driver’s side door (see Robert De Niro’s A Bronx Tale
). This section shows that there is life on Mars—and what beautiful and gorgeous life there is. Robert Altman, Sofia Coppola, and Terrance Malick bring us to the past; John Patrick Shanley and Tim Burton takes us to places of wonder; and Rob Reiner gives us an intimate tour of the White House.
Joe Versus the Volcano (1990)
John Patrick Shanley’s Oscar-winning screenplay for Moonstruck gave him carte blanche to make Joe Versus the Volcano, which is considered by many as one of the biggest flops (in terms of big-budget comedies) in Hollywood. Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan (in dual roles) bring life to this always-charming, highly-underrated movie that builds a fable-like world, which includes a diagnosis of brain cloud, voyage/adventure, the purchase of the best set of luggage in the world, and a orange soda-drinking Pacific island tribe who believe in offering up a life to their volcano god.
The American President (1995)
Rob Reiner and Aaron Sorkin combine to make a wonderfully good romantic comedy about a widowed President (Michael Douglas) and an environmental lobbyist (Annette Benning) that become romantically involved during a reelection year. Strong supporting characters played by Martin Sheen (the President in Sorkin’s later TV show The West Wing), Michael J. Fox, and Richard Dreyfuss. The White House, the Presidency, and the President’s daughter add nice details and textures to this engaging film as well as flip the phrase ‘a story of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances’ to how extraordinary people live in everyday circumstances.
Gosford Park (2001)
My current obsession with Downton Abbey is not as random as one might think; director Robert Altman and screenwriter Julian Fellowes (Downton Abbey’s creator and Academy Award winner for this script) made Gosford Park over a decade ago. It is a homage to Jean Renoir’s great film The Rules of the Game with a murder mystery twist thrown in the middle. Set in the 1930s at a British manor full of upstairs (upper class/guests) and downstairs (lower class/servants) characters, it focuses not only on class but also what is most important in all Altman movies: the lingering action, dialogue, and interactions between its large and diverse cast.
Big Fish (2003)
Albert Finney plays the unreliable narrator who can be relied on to spin tales and adventures of his past—played by a young Ewan McGregor in the stories—in this rare Tim Burton film with a bright color palette. The relationship between a dying father and his son (played by Billy Crudup, soon to have a child of his own) is put to the test when he cannot reconcile truth and fiction from his father’s tales of growing up. Stories that span birth, childhood, adolescence, joining a circus, meeting his mother, going off to war, and the history of a small town. The question is posed: how does one come to fully understand another person, is it just from facts or is it also through their fictions?
The New World (2005)
A realistic account of the John Smith and Pocahontas tale told through the eyes of a romantic poet. Terrance Malick’s ability to capture nature, including all of its majesty and terrifying beauty, is unparalleled. He maintains the awe and wonder of new worlds at both the beginning and end of this masterpiece. At the moment, it remains my favorite film from the years 2001 to 2010.
Marie Antoinette (2006)
A clash of disparate pop music, fashion magazine photography, authentic period details, and modern dialogue harmonize into one of the most fun films of the past decade. Sofia Coppola’s gift for tone and feeling maintains its stride in this drama-comedy of manners with Kristen Dunst helming the title character, navigating Versailles and the pressures of royalty. The supporting roles are terrific and the film’s pace/editing is inspired.