As always, when I describe movies in this blog, I am merely giving my opinion, not claiming to be able to list the best movies ever made. I am not a movie critic, and I do not play one on TV. But each of these five movies struck me with awe the first time I saw them and continue to make me think after multiple viewings. Sometimes I watch movies merely to be entertained, but when I want to exercise the cells between my ears, these are the kinds of movies I like to see. SPOILER ALERT–There are likely to be spoilers in these descriptions. You have been warned.
All That Jazz (1979): I first saw this as a college student with a group of friends, and when the movie ended we all went next door to the hamburger place, looked at each other for a while, and then began to discuss the experience. In fact, we talked about it all weekend. Bob Fosse wrote and directed this movie about a stage and screen choreographer and director. The story is said to be semi-autobiographical; if it is, then All That Jazz could be regarded as a public confession of Fosse’s faults. Director Joe Gideon abuses alcohol and drugs, is unfaithful in marriage and unkind to women, and is so driven to succeed in his career that he neither tends to the relationships in his life nor takes care of himself. As a result, he lands in the hospital with heart disease. The movie centers around the Kubler-Ross theory of five stages of dealing with one’s own impending death. As these are repeated—first in a comedian’s monologue, and later as a song-and-dance montage—Gideon shamelessly and deliberately flirts with death, who is portrayed in the film by Jessica Lange. The movie is not only about life and death; it is about relationships, caring for other people, and ultimately about the broad gray area between life and art. Not at all a family-friendly movie, but strongly thought-provoking.
The World According to Garp (1982): This is the other movie I saw with my friends in college, and again we spent the weekend talking about what we had just seen. The movie is based on John Irving’s novel of the same name. Robin Williams plays the title character, an aspiring author. (Why is it that so many first novels feature aspiring writers?) The movie shows the entire arc of Garp’s life, featuring the most important people in his life, including his mother (played by Glenn Close), who is a feminist nurse; and a transsexual former football star (played brilliantly by John Lithgow). Like All That Jazz, Garp is not a family-friendly movie, but it will provoke thoughts and discussions about American politics, gender issues, family and fidelity, and the rights of the individual confronted with the needs of society.
Joe versus the Volcano (1990): If any movie could dispel my depression, this would be the movie. Among other virtues, it is the earliest pairing of Tom Hanks with Meg Ryan. Hanks plays the title character, Joe Banks, who is trapped in a mind-numbing job and suffering from a variety of unpleasant physical symptoms. His doctor informs him that he is a hypochondriac, but then reveals that Joe has a brain cloud, a symptomless infirmity that will end his life in a few months. The next day, Joe is approached by a billionaire with a startling proposition: since Joe has only a short time to live, the billionaire wants Joe to jump into an active volcano, a religious ceremony that will close a contract between the billionaire and a Pacific Island nation. In return, Joe is given unlimited funds to spend on his way to the volcano. A splendid series of characters then help Joe redefine his life on the way to the volcano, which the islanders call the Big Wu. Meg Ryan plays three roles—a coworker of Joe in the beginning of the movie, and later the billionaire’s two daughters. Not subtly, but also not in-your-face, the movie uses episode after episode to ask questions about the meaning of life. If we are all on the road to death, why not confront it as a hero? Along the way, though, we must each first ask and answer the question, “Who am I?” which Joe suggests is the only question that really matters. Joe’s religious experience while floating on a raft in the South Pacific is a bit overacted by Hanks, but still important to the plan of the movie. The recurring symbolism of a crooked road, paired with another symbol of unsinkable steamer trunks, help to hold this movie together as a celebration of life itself.
The Truman Show (1998): Jim Carrey plays Truman Burbank, a man who does not realize the truth to the saying that “all the world’s a stage,” since he is unaware that, since birth, he has been the star performer in a television show. Everyone else around him is an actor, and the sets and plot turns are being directed by Chrisof, who lives up in the sky (behind the image of the moon). This exercise in solipsism is set at the very time that Truman is beginning to notice inconsistencies in his life and beginning to ask questions about what is real. What if all of life is an illusion, run by mysterious forces far beyond our knowledge and comprehension? The nearly god-like character of Christof, who loves Truman and yet tortures him for the entertainment of others, seems to have no superior being. Only one character ever utters the name of God, and she is an actress who once tried to free Truman from the set of the show and bring him into the real world. The last few minutes of the movie are spine-tingling, as Truman is confronted with his world’s version of the Big Wu.
American Beauty (1999): Before I saw this movie, I thought it was merely a creepy story about a middle-aged man who pursues a high school girl. That is part of the story, but only part. Lester and Carolyn Burnham (Kevin Spacey and Annette Bening) are unhappily married, with a tidy suburban house, a bitter teen-aged daughter, and an odd family that has moved into the house next door. Lester’s empty life changes for the worse as an efficiency expert inspects the office where he works. Meanwhile, his wife is being romantically drawn to a competing real estate agent. Suddenly, Lester rebels against every meaningless aspect of his life and begins striving instead to live truly. Not all his choices are noble or even respectable, but his motivation is understandable. Meanwhile, his daughter’s romance with the drug dealer living next door opens the Burnham family to new adventures, none of them happy. This startling movie cannot be watched only once; it raises too many questions about the meaning of life and about what actually matters in life.