Billy Elliot (2000) Written by Lee Hall Directed by Stephen Daldry
In 1984 in the United Kingdom, the Thatcher government led an effort to shut down coal mines and oppose strikes as a means of union breaking. This led to violent clashes between striking miners and police to protect the corporation’s property and help get scabs into the mines. These strikes were declared illegal by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, and by 1985, the unions had been weakened to the point that they took concessions that were much less than they had been fighting for. This is the background of Billy Elliot, an unexpected time and place to set this story. When I first saw this film around 2001, I did not expect to be introduced to this conflict, and it is a pretty great thematic element for Billy’s story.
Gladiator (2000) Written by David Franzoni, John Logan, and William Nicholson Directed by Ridley Scott
I am not a fan of Ridley Scott, a statement I’m sure I’ve made multiple times on this blog. I have certainly said it out loud plenty of times. I think he is a fantastic production designer, building worlds in intricate detail. But he is not a consistently strong storyteller or director of human beings. Filmmakers with prolific careers often reveal their personal views for their work, especially if they make big-budget Hollywood pictures. In Scott’s work, I see themes centered around a disdain for how humanity is crushed by institutions and the military’s glorification. In this film, Blackhawk Down, and others, he romanticizes and mythologizes the warrior figure in a personally uncomfortable way.
First Cow (2020) Written by Jonathan Raymond & Kelly Reichardt Directed by Kelly Reichardt
In all of Kelly Reichardt’s films, and especially in First Cow, she makes the audience contemplate moments & the stillness of life. This view of the world was especially prevalent in the 19th century when this film takes place. There was a lot of time spent sitting and mending clothes and equipment, and so you found comfort in the silence. This quiet space likely meant peace as you weren’t struggling, just keeping things put together so that you could continue to survive. If you have been following social distancing lately, there’s a chance you have experienced these moments, but more likely, you, like myself, have filled that space with the chaos of the news and social media.
Spartacus (1960) Written by Dalton Trumbo Directed by Stanley Kubrick
Spartacus helped to end the Hollywood blacklist. As a result of The House Un-American Activities Committee beginning in 1947, radical right-wing legislators sought to root out Communism in the nation, and this led to artists working in the film industry to be placed on a blacklist. Being placed on this list meant you were considered unhirable because your presence would lead to suspicions of Communist sympathies. 151 American entertainment professionals were put on this list and suffered greatly as a result. Dalton Trumbo was one of those people, and the combination of Kirk Douglas getting Trumbo hired to write Spartacus and director Otto Preminger doing the same for Exodus was a signal that over a decade long blacklisting was over. President John F. Kennedy crossing the picket lines of anti-Communists to view the film further spread the message that this horrible period should end.
Reversal of Fortune (1990) Written by Nicholas Kazan Directed by Barbet Schroeder
I have faint memories of the names of Klaus & Sunny von Bulow in the late 1980s/early 1990s likely from episodes of A Current Affair or Inside Edition. I was a child, so I didn’t really know who these people were or what the reporters were talking about. As time has passed, it seems the von Bulows are becoming a forgotten piece of pop culture, fading from the collective memory as our 24-hour news cycle floods us with new information. So who are these people that they would devote a whole movie about them based on a book by Claus’s lawyer, Alan Dershowitz?
Coming Home (1978) Written by Waldo Salt and Robert C. Jones Directed by Hal Ashby
Ron Kovic has proved to be an inspirational figure since the 1970s. His memoir, Born on the Fourth of July, was turned into a film by Oliver Stone in the 1980s. But before that, he served as the basis of this movie by Hal Ashby. Kovic was serving in Vietnam when he was caught by the Viet Cong while helping a South Vietnamese unit. The soldier was shot through his foot, then shoulder, ending up with a collapsed lung and a spinal cord injury that left him paralyzed from the chest down. Kovic’s passionate anti-war activism inspired Jane Fonda to want to make a film about injured veterans and their families to share the story of what happens after the parades and medals are handed out.
Friday Black: Stories by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah Ever since I read Civilwarland in Bad Decline and Pastoralia, both by George Saunders, I have been searching for that sort of literary voice, and I think I’ve found it in Adjei-Brenyah. The most obvious connection is the short “Zimmer Land,” a theme park where people come to act out their aggressive fantasies while mostly ethnic minority employees (wearing high tech protective gear) become human punching bags. “The Finkelstein Five” continues that exploration of contemporary race conflict as the narrator becomes caught up in the reaction to the acquittal of a child murderer who took the lives of four black children with a chainsaw. There’s a duo of stories about the Thunderdome like conditions of a future shopping mall, where customers kill each other over insulated parkas. My favorite was the closing story, “Through the Flash” and it brought me to tears while reading it. That tale features a teenage girl caught in a dystopian time loop where she and her neighbors have lived the same days for thousands of years. It was an oddly hopeful and heartbreaking story. Of all the fiction I’ve read this year Friday Black gets my most enthusiastic recommendation.
Insurrections: Stories by Rion Amilcar I had heard a lot of hype about Amilcar after his latest collection, “The World Doesn’t Require You,” was published earlier this year. I went back and read his first anthology and was a little underwhelmed. When Scott is at his best, he channels the urgency of Flannery O’Connor. Most of the stories fell flat for me, and it did cause me to move his new book down my reading list in favor of other titles. My favorite story in this collection was “A Friendly Game,” which follows a high school student caught up in an incredibly toxic male friendship. This is paralleled with the story of a mentally ill homeless woman in their neighborhood who lost her son years earlier, which led to her breakdown. The antagonist in the story is great and really gets you inside of what the main character is having to deal with daily.
The Irishman (2019) Written by Steve Zaillian Directed by Martin Scorsese
Frank Sheerhan sits in a nursing home, hair gray and receding. He’s telling his story of rising from the ranks of a truck driver in Philadelphia to the close confidante of Jimmy Hoffa to no one. As the film unfolds, we can surmise his daughter Peggy is the imagined audience. She is perceptive in her youth, realizing the violent work her father does, and finding a more positive role model in Hoffa. She refuses not only to hear Frank’s story but will also not speak to him.
Don Diego de Zama was sent by the Spanish crown to a remote colony in South America to serve as a functionary under the governor. When we meet Zama, he is standing on the shore, staring off into the ocean anticipating a vessel to carry him back to his family, a ship that will never arrive. This is the living nightmare that Zama exists in, a place where the governors come and go but where he is trapped. He suffers the temptations of the flesh, has belongings stripped from him, and has to reside in a haunted shack. Finally, Zama volunteers to be part of a doomed expedition to capture the infamous Vicuña Porto.