Make Way for Tomorrow (1937): When comic director Leo McCarey (Duck Soup) collected his Oscar for directing The Awful Truth, he told the Academy he’d won it for the wrong movie. Made the same year—and newly out on Criterion—this cooly gut-wrenching drama stars Victor Moore and Beulah Bondi as an elderly couple too poor to live together. (The film was made as the introduction of Social Security was still hotly debated.) When their kids can't provide for them, the two are split up, likely forever. But before that, they get one last night on the town together— a lovely reverie before a bittersweet farewell.
Umberto D. (1952): Another great Italian neo-realist weepie from Vittorio De Sica—who had already given the world Shoe-Shine and Bicycle Thieves —this tale finds an old genetleman (Carlo Battisti) so impoverished he seeks to off himself. But not before he finds a stable home for his beloved dog Flike.
Imitation of Life (1959): Tough to single out the saddest entry in Douglas Sirk’s career, but my money goes to his last Hollywood blockbuster, chiefly the half about the black maid (Juanita Moore) whose light-skinned daughter (Susan Kohner) so wishes to pass for white she demands her mother pretend they’re not related. To which Moore agrees, in one of the most sadistically wrenching scenes ever committed to film.
The Ballad of Narayama (1983): In Shohei Imaura’s first Palme d’Or winner, a rural 19th-century Japanese village has a custom: When you reach 70 you travel up to a mountain to proceed to the next life. Translation: You starve to death amongst a sea of human bones.
A Lion in the House (2006): A four-hour documentary about kids with cancer. Jesus.
Old Joy (2006): Two old friends. One (Daniel London) settling down, with a kid on the way. The other (Will Oldham) still “bohemian,” possibly penniless and drug-addicted. They reunite. It’s awkward. They part ways. Probably for good. Such is life.
The unwritten rule is: likable lead chracters. They can be a bit dickish, but the audience must feel safe rooting for their betterment.
Shirley Temple: As the myth goes, America was brought out of—or at least sufficiently coddled during—the Great Depression by Shirley Temple. Audiences were less interested in such frivolity as WWII loomed—good timing, since Temple had by then gone into double digits. The 1940s featured sporadic appearances, most notably (and uneasily) as a teen in love with Cary Grant in 1947’s The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer . By 1950 she was retired; today she is 81. Jodie Foster: The poster child for career success at all ages, Foster began acting in commercials and innocuous kiddie fare at age 3. At 14—the same year as...
Ever since Ed Wood, Tim Burton has been more brand than artist, trying, with increasing strain, to make each film “a Tim Burton film.” Tim Burton does Charlie and the Chocolate Factory ! Tim Burton does Alice in Wonderland ! For a true stretch, how about Tim Burton’s Northanger Abbey?
American Dreamz (2006): The masses have rejected the serious—or allegedly serious—films made about our current stints in Iraq and/or Afghanistan. (For example, In the Valley of Elah , Lions for Lambs , Redacted ) Alas, they’ve been only slightly kinder to films that tried to wrap the same issues in the coating that is genre. No one saw Paul...