1. BRIDESMAIDS: I admit that I had no intention of ever seeing Bridesmaids. It looked like little more than a typical chick flick with some R-rated comedy thrown in. One thing I most object to with chick flicks (and chick lit) is they often are about female-on-female jealousy. Women who find out a friend has landed a man/landed a great job/both and secretly hate them for it. Or, successful women are portrayed as failures for not having caught a man.
And on the surface, it would seem that Bridesmaids is about both those annoying chick flick themes. But that’s only on the surface. Protagonist Annie (Kristen Wiig) finds out her best friend Lillian (Maya Rudolph) is getting married. Annie has hit a bad patch in her life: her business, a cake shop, was one of the casualties of the economic downturn, her boyfriend left her, she’s living with a very weird British brother/sister duo, and she has to work a crummy job for her mother’s friend.
Assuming she will be the one to plan all the pre-wedding events, Annie is stunned to see her status as Lillian’s best friend threatened by a pretentious upstart named Helen (Rose Byrne). Every event Annie plans or takes part in ends up a disaster, from dress shopping to a bachelorette trip to Vegas to the shower. Each disaster is laugh-out-loud funny, but is also poignant because Annie drifts farther and farther apart from her best friend. At the same time, many other areas of Annie’s life start to crater–her roommates kick her out, she loses her crummy job, and she messes up her chance with a new love interest.
Of course there’s a love interest, and he’s one of the most refreshing I’ve seen in a romcom in years: nice cop Nathan Rhodes (Chris O’Dowd) who’s funny and smart and–surprise, surprise–not an immature jerk. (Jon Hamm plays the immature jerk in this movie as Annie’s occasional sex buddy; in most romcoms today he would be the hero who is eventually “cured” of his jerkiness by love.)
Most refreshing of all is that the movie doesn’t present Nathan as the answer to Annie’s problems. As co-bridesmaid Megan (the hilarious Melissa McCarthy) tells her, “You’re your problem, Annie.” Megan, who could have easily been nothing more than the jolly fat girl stereotype, straightens Annie out and presents herself as a true friend who knows a lot about the strife life has to offer.
Even Helen overcomes romcom stereotypes and reveals another side to her nature. In the end, this story is not about women fighting to one-up each other–it’s about friendship, its ups and downs, and how it can throw a lifeline to us when we’re at the lowest points in our lives.
Serious stuff for a movie that is so hilariously funny.
2. THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION: I will never forget the first time I saw The Shawshank Redemption. It was my birthday, and my plans had been scuttled at the last minute because the friend who was taking me to dinner became ill. Depressed that it was too late in the day to make other plans, I went to Blockbuster (ah, nostalgia) to rent some movies. Of course, everything I wanted was out, so I grabbed The Shawshank Redemption, thinking a prison movie was just the thing to match my mood.
Well, that movie saved my birthday, because the moment it ended I knew it had joined my list of all-time favorites.
Based on a novella by Stephen King (who often features memorable friendships in his stories) it is about Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins), who has been wrongly convicted of murder. In prison, he is automatically singled out as vulnerable and is routinely abused by other prisoners. Long-time inmate Red (Morgan Freeman) teaches him how to survive in prison.
As the years roll by, Andy seems to find his own way of surviving–by never losing hope, even though his chances of getting out are close to nil. Red warns him that hope is the worst thing in a place like prison.
I really don’t want to get into too much of the specifics about the movie, in case you’re one of the three people in the world who’ve never seen it. But the movie has one of the most interesting structures I’ve ever seen: for the first part, Red is the guiding force for Andy. By the end of the movie, the relationship has flipped and Andy is the one guiding Red.
The final scene is one of those great movie moments you never forget. Two people who would never have known each other if not for an unusual circumstance are changed forever by the relationship.
3. THE KING’S SPEECH: Another movie about two people from totally different spheres changing each other’s destinies. This is the true story of Bertie, the Duke of York, who unexpectedly became King George VI of England when his brother, Edward VII, abdicated to marry the woman he loved.
Unprepared for the role thrust upon him, Bertie (Colin Firth, in an Oscar-winning performance) has a speech impediment. A problem that is difficult for anyone to contend with, it’s utterly disastrous to one in his position, where speaking in public is one of his most important responsibilities. With the advent of radio, reaching out to the entire British empire has become possible, putting even more pressure on Bertie. By this time, the king is little more than a figurehead, but still looked up to by the populace during times of crisis. And a big one is coming at them: the onset of World War II.
Before King Edward abdicates, Lionel Logue, an Australian speech therapist, has begun to help Bertie manage his affliction so he can speak well in public. Because of royal protocol, there is a wall between the two men (Logue is initially forbidden to delve into Bertie’s personal life as a source of his stuttering) which over the course of the movie breaks down. They eventually become good friends, a relationship that lasts until Bertie’s death.
The scene of Bertie and Lionel alone in a room together as the King gives the most important speech of his monarchy up to that time–the declaration of war against Germany–is both suspenseful (will he get through it?) and poignant, as the two friends work in tandem to accomplish an important moment in history.
4. PASSION FISH: May-Alice (Mary McDonnell) is a soap opera star who has become paralyzed from a car accident. She returns to her family home in Louisiana. Refusing to come to terms with the sudden, tragic turn her life has taken, she drinks too much and takes no interest in her physical therapy–or much of anything else. After driving away several nurses, a new one named Chantelle (Alfre Woodard) arrives. Desperate to keep the job, Chantelle nevertheless doesn’t let May-Alice get away with drowning in self-pity. As May-Alice begins to take interest in life again, including an interest in an old (though now married) beau (David Strathairn) the two women, who are so different from each other, slowly bond as friends. Director John Sayles uses a light touch with material that could very easily have become sappy or melodramatic (he probably made May-Alice a soap actress for that reason, keeping the melodrama to the fiction part of her life). This is a quiet film about moments, but I personally never found it boring, because Sayles brings these two characters completely to life.
5. MIDNIGHT COWBOY: The first X-rated movie to win the Academy Award for Best Picture (though for sure now it would be R-rated) this is the tale of naive Texan Joe Buck (Jon Voigt) who travels across country by bus to make it big in New York City as a male prostitute. There he crosses paths with a disabled street hustler Ratso Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman). Initially conned by Rizzo, Joe soon finds himself relying on him to survive in the dark underside of a city that wasn’t waiting for his talents, after all.
This surely has to be one of the most unlikely friendship stories ever put on film, but a strong screenplay by Waldo Salt and great performances by Voigt and Hoffman make you believe it. The final scenes pack a surprising punch. As with Sayles’ Passion Fish, it never falls into trite territory.
6. CLUELESS: A modern retelling of Jane Austen’s Emma, Clueless features Beverly Hills teen Cher (Alicia Silverstone) as the girl who thinks she can decide the destinies of her friends. When new girl Tai (Brittany Murphy) arrives at her school, Cher decides to take her in hand and help her become popular, as well as match her with the perfect guy. As in Austen’s novel, everything goes awry.
This is actually one of my favorite adaptations of Austen’s work, deftly transporting her comedy of manners to a modern-day setting. While marriage is not a theme (as Cher says, “As if! I’m only sixteen, and this is California, not Kentucky!”) the examination of friendship remains, as Cher learns she can’t move her friends around like chess pieces to suit her view of the world.
7. ON A CLEAR DAY YOU CAN SEE FOREVER: This movie isn’t exactly about friendship, but it does feature two disparate people who are brought together by circumstance and change each other’s lives forever.
Daisy Gamble (Barbra Streisand) seeks the help of Dr. Marc Chabot (Yves Montand) to get rid of her cigarette addiction because her uptight fiancee thinks her smoking will cost him a job he’s after. When Chabot hypnotizes her, he accidentally discovers that Daisy had a past life as Melinda Twelvetrees, a social-climbing woman who lived in Regency-era London.
Leaving Daisy in the dark about his discovery, Chabot learns everything about Melinda’s life and falls in love with her. Daisy, misunderstanding his interest in their sessions, falls in love with him. Problem is, he loves Melinda but can’t stand Daisy. When Daisy finds out the truth, all hell breaks loose–including a few campus riots (hey, it was the 60s!).
This movie is kind-of-sort-of a musical (Streisand sings a few songs, but there are no dance sequences or other things you might associate with a musical). The production is fabulous, with an exaggerated 1960s “mod” look in the modern section, and sumptuous sets and costumes in the Regency sections. Jack Nicholson shows up briefly in the modern section as Daisy’s stepbrother. It’s not one of Streisand’s most famous movies, but it’s one of my favorites, and she does a fantastic job with the dual roles.
Underneath its terrific production values, the movie is mainly about how your path can be changed by meeting a person you may not even like that much–at least, in this life.