Sunday, March 29, 2009

My Favorite Lefty Films

Last night, I came across Distributorcap NY's Must See Movies list, which was inspired by Yahoo's 100 Movies to See Before You Die. It all got me to thinking what were my favorite left-wing movies of all-time?

What do I mean by "left-wing" as opposed to, say, "liberal" movies? If you're liberal or leftist, you will naturally disagree with this (contention's in the DNA), but I look at it as sometimes simply being a matter of perspective: liberals believe in the system more than a leftist ever would. So (and I have to thank Union Paul for this comparison), a liberal anti-corporation movie would be Erin Brockovich, where our heroine sees a wrong and through heroic, individual action she takes down the evil corporation because, in America, one can bring down the evil corporation and, in America, the justice system is always on the side of right. Oh yeah, and we can all get rich!!! in the process. A leftist, anti-corporation flick would be something like Silkwood where they kill the bitch off for startin' some shit.

The other way a film can be more liberal than leftist is when they get all Jack Nicholson "You can't handle the truth!" and tone down what needs to/actually was/should be said in order to (one assumes) better appeal to their audience. So, the teacher they based Dangerous Minds on used hip-hop to teach her inner-city students English while in the movie they used Dylan, though it made absolutely no sense whatsoever.

The movie can also just made a bald-faced appeal to one's middle-class, bleeding-heart sensibilities, in order to gain your sympathies as opposed to just telling a story. Boyz N The Hood is a perfect example of a "liberal" ghetto tale. Ice Cube's no cold-blooded killer. He actually cries while blowing some dude's head off. Morris Chestnutt's character is murdered just before he scores high enough to get an athletic scholarship and escape the 'hood. And, if that ain't enough pathos fo' yo' ass, Ice Cube makes an open appeal with "Either they don't know, it don't show, or they don't care what's goin' on in the 'hood."

Menace II Society lies somewhere in between (if you excuse those horrible Charles Dutton speeches) because folks are just brutal. Our "hero" is no hero whatsoever. And, while he dies just before he gets out, you wonder if his moving to Atlanta would've really made him turn his life around. If he'd been moving to Des Moines, that would've been one thing. But the ATL's just as dirty as LA. Despite Jada's wishes, he still could've been pulling those "driiiiiiiiive-bys." She was just so ghetto in that movie. Ha!

However, I consider The Wire to be totally leftist. They never tried to appeal to your bleeding-heart sympathies. They'd have killed the puppy if it had made a better story. You're not tricked into feeling sympathy for their characters. It's the three-dimensional writing in the series that you connect with all the folks in it. And through that brilliant writing, they subvert your assumptions. There's something human in the drug dealers and dope fiends we've been trained to view as animal, as well as something animal in the police and politicians we're trained to view as our heroes. So, you're all pissed off that Bodie caps Wallace in Season One but somehow feel proud of Bodie for having gone out like a soldier in Season Four. It's that beautiful subversion that makes The Wire a leftist masterpiece.

I hope that long-winded, half-assed explanation helps you in reviewing my list. As with all lists, it's not as comprehensive as I'd wished and, of course, I would've liked to add more. But hell, coming up with and explaining 15 was hard enough. Feel free to add your suggestions. I hope you enjoy.

1. Network (1976)

Much better and more eloquent people have waxed on about how brilliant this movie is. Paddy Chayefsky, Sidney Lumet, William Holden, (Oscar-winning) Peter Finch, Faye Dunaway (in her prime), Robert Duval (ditto), Ned Beatty. How couldn't it have been great? It's been inducted into the Producers Guild of America's Hall of Fame; the Writers Guild of America--East named the script one of the Top 10 of all-time; AFI named it the 64th greatest film of all-time (which is way too low in my opinion).

Frankly, Network is my favorite movie of all-time. As an aspiring satirist, this is the level of satire I aspire to. OK, that whole Holden speech to Dunaway about how she is TV is a bit lame, but the rest of it is absolutely perfect. The black revolutionaries ultimately arguing about market share. Ned Beatty delivering the word of God--money--to Finch. And the courage it took to have that ending!

Hollywood simply can't make a good satire these days because it doesn't have the courage to trust its audience and take the damned thing to its logical conclusion. Bamboozled came close, but then Spike felt the need to explain the entire movie at the end. Thank You for Smoking decided to bash us over the head with a "moral to this story is..." when the moral is the satire itself. And A Day without a Mexican, which had the potential to say so much, turned into some bullshit, liberal, PC claptrap about why can't we all just get along? I almost cried at the wasted opportunity.

But Network has balls coming out its ass (a serious medical condition where one should immediately consult a physician), and I love every minute of the movie for it.

2. Do the Right Thing (1989)

I think the thing that still amazes me about this movie is that the tension in the movie is still palpable. I don't think there's a better movie that captures anger and rage more than this movie. The one thing Spike's always been good at is casting, and this movie's just loaded: John Turturro, Samuel L. Jackson, Danny Aiello, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Bill Nunn, Giancarlo Esposito, Robin Harris, Martin Lawrence, Rosie Perez's breastseses, the list goes on and on. The one thing Spike's always sucked at is just shutting the hell up every once in awhile, but the didacticism (is that a word?) in this movie doesn't seem so bad because everybody's all pissed off. The constant use of PE's "Fight the Power" was brilliant. Tuturro and Esposito are perfect racist counterweights to each other, and it's probably Lee's only "race" film where the white guy (Aiello) is multidimensional and the most sympathetic character. For the record, this is my second favorite film of all-time.

3. Matewan (1987)

Well, I was born a coal miner's grandson and another one's nephew. I'm heavily pro-union. Hell, my mom's from a small mining town outside of Pittsburgh that had no stop lights and one, huge slag heap. In other words, I was bred to love this pro-union, coal mining movie set in West Virginia. And this is one of many reasons why John Sayles is one of my favorite (if not my favorite) directors. I love Chris Cooper and James Earl Jones in this movie. And David Strathairn as the sheriff caught in between the striking miners and the Pinkerton boys is absolutely brilliant. I could watch this movie all day.

4. Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972)

OK, this is more of a childhood favorite than anything else. I mean, I used to love The Planet of the Apes. I watched all the movies, the TV series, the cartoon. I had the action figures. I still love the franchise as an adult (though that Mark Wahlberg movie sucked; and what was that with Charlton Heston ape being all anti-gun?). Conquest is my favorite movie of the bunch. I guess there was a fledgling black nationalist in my little boy frame. That's the only thing that could explain why I love this one best. After all, all the Apes movies are political. But this is the one where the ... uh ... apes take over.

5. The Battle of Algiers (1966)

OK, I think (if I remember correctly) this movie's been praised throughout the ages for its gritty realism. It's definitely that. I think what struck me just now is just how relevant the damned thing still is. Minus today's Muslim fundamentalism (Algeria's was a post-colonial nationalist movement), the questions about a Western occupying power in a Muslim country and the uses of torture and terrorism are still plaguing our country today. Even without all that, Battle is still a brilliant movie.

6. The Conformist (1970)

This movie sparked my brief love affair with Bernardo Bertolucci, but it only lasted as long as this movie and 1900, which is a long-ass movie in and of itself. The movie's set in Mussolini's Fascist Italy, where this spineless guy is sent to assassinate a former professor who's fled to France. You can watch it as a searing indictment of Fascism and its participants. Or you can choose to look upon it as some kind of highfalutin' existentialist tract. Either way, it's a great movie.

7. Putney Swope (1969)

Growing up, my Dad would always tell me how Putney Swope was the funniest movie he's ever seen. As a teenager, I didn't get it. But I don't think teens are physiologically able to understand satires. As an adult, Putney is definitely one of my favorite comedies ever. Like father, like son, eh? Much like Conquest, it's a speculative piece on what would happen if the ... uh ... apes took over. The CEO of a powerful Madison Ave. ad agency dies, and everyone on the board votes for Swope to take over because they all assume nobody would vote for the token black guy. Of course, all hell breaks loose and hilarity ensues. I don't know what else Robert Downey, Sr., has ever done (aside from seriously screw up his kid), but this is a definite classic.

"The Boorman 6 Girl's got to have soul!"

8. Dr. Strangelove (1964)

Well, if you haven't figured it out, I love satire, and what better anti-nuke satire is there? This movie and Peter Sellers are hilarious through and through. 'Nuff said.

9. Burn (1969)

When people talk about great Brando performances, I don't think I've ever heard anyone ever mention this flick, but I think he's absolutely brilliant. Burn is about a British agent (Sir William Walker, oddly enough) who tries to stir up a little slave rebellion on the Caribbean isle of "Queimada." Modeled very loosely on the Haitian revolution, I love how this movie has the rebellion and Walker's stooge turn the tables on the provocateur. It's as though Faustus finally got the upper hand on Mephistopholes. You can skip that Emperor Jones bullshit (though I love Paul Robeson) and just watch this bad boy.

10. City of God (2002)

I think I've admitted this before, but I was absolutely fanatical about this movie when it came out. It's one of the few movies I rushed back to the theater to see again right after I'd seen it the first time. I think what I loved so much about it was its utterly brutality and seeming honesty. It was like, "Yeah, this is fucked up." But they didn't try to tug at your heartstrings or appeal to your empathy. They just showed it as close to how it T-I-is that a work of fiction can get.

(PS. I'm so nutso about this movie, while in Mexico, I watched it in Portuguese with Spanish subtitles; yeah, you guessed it, I don't speak Spanish.)

11. Paths of Glory (1957)

Yep, another Kubrick film, and probably my favorite anti-war film that I can think of. Based on a true story, Kirk Douglas plays a French commander who's forced to make an example out of some soldiers who refused to advance after the rest of their company was mowed down by the enemy. It's a brilliant study of the futility of war and the class politics that are played out in any conflict. Kirk Douglas is, well, Kirk Douglas, but Adolphe Menjou is perfect as the romantic, DeGaulle-esque, self-aggrandizing, blood-seeking general.

General Mireau: I can't understand these armchair officers, fellas trying to fight a war from behind a desk, waving papers at the enemy, worrying about whether a mouse is gonna run up their pants leg.

Colonel Dax: I don't know, General. If I had the choice between mice and Mausers, I think I'd take the mice every time.

12. Salt of the Earth (1954)

This is one of those movies that you're pretty sure wouldn't be made today. Salt of the Earth is based on an actual strike against the Empire Zinc Mine in New Mexico, where Mexican-American miners hit the picket line for equal pay with their white counterparts. This movie deals with racism, union issues, discrimination, and is one of the strongest feminist treatments (the miners' wives are the bomb) you can see in American cinema.

13. Serpico (1973)

All those great '70s actors (DeNiro, Nicholson, Pacino, Hackman) are now simply caricatures of their old selves and usually annoy the hell out of me whenever they're on the screen (except for Duval). But when I really want to remember how great Pacino was, I just throw in Serpico. Talk about your ultimate police corruption story. This movie also runs counter to most Hollywood stories. The hero generally sticks his neck out and saves the day. In Serpico (I guess because it's based on a true story), the hero sticks his neck out, gets shot in the face, and, while some things do change, he doesn't really do much good. Pretty much defeated and destroyed, he runs away to Europe probably wondering, "What the fuck was that all about?"

14. State of Siege (1972)

I think Costa-Gavras gets a lot more credit for making Z., and he should really get slapped for having made that bullshit, Betrayed; but I really love this one. Yves Montand plays an American USAID official in Uruguay who gets kidnapped by the leftist Tupamaros. They use his interrogation as a backdrop to portray the conflict between the leftist guerrillas and Uruguay's military regime.

Faux Netflix Feature: Those who liked Four Days in September also liked State of Siege.

15. Stalingrad (1993)

The Battle of Stalingrad is considered the bloodiest battle of modern history, with nearly 2 million casualties on both sides. What I love most about this movie is how they portray the romantic, youthful exuberance of going off to war that I think mostly every country enters a war feeling slowly and painfully turning into a mad, dog-eat-dog, desperate scramble for self-preservation. It's not a movie many politicians would take to heart (because none of them is immune to "war fever"), but it's one that more of us 'Mericans should.


nunya said...

I've only seen three of the movies you mention. Network is one of my favorites, as is Erin Brockovich. I think she is still working

Karen said...

I love the fact that you post your 11-15 on facebook and tease us to come to your blog for 1 - 10. I love the fact that reference Union Paul and I love the fact that you love the Wire. :) I can't wait to watch all of your movies that you recommended.

boukman70 said...

Oddly enough, Karen, I have two friends named "Paul" and they are both "Union Paul." Go figure.

nunya said...


I tried to watch (google vdeo)
Battle of Algiers straight through last night. I made through it and it is worth watching.

However, maybe it's all the msm brainwashing, maybe it's because I'm female and have had bad experiences with Arab men, but I hate listening to Arabic. I'm not fond of the sound of Hebrew either.

boukman70 said...


I feel the same way anytime a movie set in Victorian England comes on--though I'm guessing not for the same reasons.

nunya said...

Wow, I never came back to see if you responded. I hate Victorian England movies also, lol.

It's funny, reviewing this list I feel just as ignorant as I did the first time, not that I haven't seen and loved some of these movies. I think in 3 years I've only watched one other movie on the list - Serpico, and I liked it. I know I've watched "Do the Right Thing" again. It's a great movie and I always get something new out of it every time I watch it.

After re-reading my comment I can say that because I was raised on the border I'm a bit partial to movies in Spanish, but I will watch many movies in many different languages now. I sometimes have to watch them twice though, because I focus on the subtitles. I've seen a couple of movies in Arabic that I truly loved, but being female I am partial to movies with a strong female protagonist. That is somewhat rare in any country :(

I don't know if "A Price Above Rubies," or "Waiting to Exhale" would be considered "progressive" but they are two of my favorites.