Must see movies for progressives

The Thinker by Rodin

We all have our own ideas about what constitutes a great movie. For me a great movie must not only be well done, well directed, well acted but it should force you outside your box and expand your mind in the process. Two movies that fit that mode ended up in my DVD collection this weekend. I didn’t seek them out but when I was browsing the DVD aisle at the local Best Buy, there they were and I picked them up without hesitation.

If you haven’t seen either of these movies do yourself a favor and pick them up. You won’t go wrong. Neither are perfect movies but they speak to a larger theme and in doing so make them landmark films, in my opinion.

The first is “The Cider House Rules”, released in 1999. It won Michael Caine a Best Supporting Actor award for his portrayal of Dr. Wilbur Larch, the doctor of an orphanage in Maine in 1943. Caine is the big name; there are no others in the movie although Tobey Maguire would use this movie as a springboard for more mainstream movies like “Spiderman”; and Charlize Theron would soon become a sought after actress. The film can at times be a little overbearing because it rarely strays from the main point of the novel by John Irving. Homer Wells is an orphan who is trained by Dr. Larch to be a doctor. Dr. Larch sees a side of life that is rather ugly but he holds together an orphanage full of abandoned children with perseverance, dedication and more than a few escapes into dream worlds aided by ether, which he self administers. In 1943 abortion is illegal but he performs many abortions routinely for the many ladies who ends up at his doorstep. Homer constantly questions Dr. Larch’s pragmatic approach to such things while in the process becoming a physician without a license. Eventually Homer abruptly leaves the orphanage for a year as an apple picker and lobsterman, discovers his own morality can be plenty squishy (such as when he bangs Charlize Theron’s character, who is married to a pilot).

The film doesn’t have many flaws. The only flaw of note is that Tobey Maguire is probably not the best person to play Homer Wells. He plays Homer with the same sort of happy go lucky expression on his face, and a gentle nature; I would have preferred someone who could better express the complexities of the role better. But the whole rest of the movie really works well. The kids in the orphanage are heart breakers, particularly Fuzzy, the poor kid perpetually in an oxygen tank suffering from bronchitis. Each kid is a well-defined and complex character somehow deftly directed by Lasse Halstrom. The music by Rachel Portman is outstanding. The lessons it imparts about the moral squishiness of real life are relevant enough and done occasionally in an overbearing manner, but mostly it just works real well. Like all of my favorite movies it has a great ending scene that is somewhat predictable but starts the tears flowing anyhow. I won’t spoil it for you in case you haven’t seen the movie.

“Dead Poets Society” arrived ten years before “The Cider House Rules”. I hated Robin Williams as a TV actor but I loved him from his very first movie, “The World According to Garp” when I realized he could act as well as be funny. In Dead Poets he plays John Keating, a poetry teacher at a very repressed, very upper class boarding school somewhere in the Shenandoah Mountains. Professor Keating had once been a student at the school some years back. Since escaping from the school it is obvious that Keating somehow became a fully alive and liberated human being, and he returned to the school in part to open the minds of these cookie cutter upper class boys whose parents largely expected them to grow up to be lawyers and doctors.

John Keating is a role that Robin Williams was born to play. It’s hard to imagine anyone else who could have played the part as convincingly. In the process of trying to open and liberate these minds, he succeeds a bit better than he expected. Eventually, of course, he and the establishment butt heads. There is more than a bit of moral squishiness in this movie too, but again it has one of these movie endings to die for.

Both these movies will always be in my permanent collection. If they aren’t in yours then I suggest you watch them. I bet in time they will be in yours too.

Both films were nominated for Best Picture and lost. In both cases I think the picture that won was not nearly as good as either of these pictures. “The Cider House Rules” lost to “American Beauty”, a lovely and quirky film. “Dead Poets” lost to “Driving Miss Daisy”.

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