Boys n the Hood (1991)

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John Singleton’s Boys n the Hood is possibly the most important, most thoughtful and best coming-of-age story ever put on film. It centers around the two relationships that form the life of Tre Styles (Cuba Gooding Jr.). First is his relationship with his father Furious (Lawrence Fishburn), and second is his relationship with his gang-influenced neighborhood.

In the movie’s opening scene, we see Tre around age 11 in a fight at his school, where he was very much in the right. But he had made an agreement with his mother that if he ever got into a fight, he would have to go live with his father. He was scared to go live with his father, but his mother’s decision was not a punishment for getting into a fight but the necessary action of a mother. She made the agreement with her son, because she understood his involvement in fights as evidence that he needed his father to raise him, to teach him how to be a man. And this is exactly what we see happen throughout the rest of the movie.

Through his own actions and experience, Furious teaches his son how to become a good man in difficult surroundings. He shows him how the gang mentalities that have infiltrated the neighborhood are the results of systemic racism, but he never allows anyone, especially his son, to use that as an excuse to give into the hopelessness or violence of the hood. Furious teaches that the police are to be feared and respected, both for the good they are supposed to do as well for the racial bias and brutality more often experienced in the hood than any good, recognizing that Tre could be a victim of police brutality at any time just for being at the wrong place at the wrong time. One of the perfect touches of the film is how every time police officers are present, the camera always ironically emphasizes the words on the police car that say “to protect and serve” while showing police behavior that does the opposite.

Because everything that Furious teaches his son is based on his own experience, the fact that Tre was born when Furious was 17 is the anchor of every aspect of the father-son relationship. Their talks about sex are very frank but surprisingly conservative. Tre is surrounded by teens that have become parents. He knows he would never be one of the fathers around him who abandons his child/children and their mothers, but he also knows that an unwanted pregnancy would be devastating to his dreams of getting out of the hood. Just as Furious teaches Tre an appropriate fear for the gangs and the police, he also teaches him an appropriate fear of sex. The best line in the movie is when Furious says, “any fool with a d*** can make a baby, but only a real man can be a father.” Whenever the two are together, Furious lives this and shows his son how to as well.

The other formative relationship for Tre, his relationship with the hood, is the test of how well he applies everything he learns from his father. His dismissals of the most notorious gangster in the neighborhood, Doughboy (Ice Cube), shows how well he’s trying. His genuine love and respect of his girlfriend Brandi (Nia Long) looks completely different from any of the romantic/sexual relationships in the hood. But the fact that Doughboy’s brother is Tre’s best friend Ricky (Morris Chestnut) is where the rubber meets the road for Tre. The scenes that keep us asking whether or not Tre will listen to the voice of his father when confronted by the voice of the hood when it comes to all he experiences in his friendship with Ricky are handled in way almost like a thriller. We are so invested in Tre’s wellbeing that his deliberations over life-altering decisions are some of the most intense and exciting moments the movies have ever brought us. Boyz n the Hood transcends both coming-of-age and gangster film genres by taking us directly into the life of a kid living in the hood who wants to stay separate from that same hood. Its political and racial implications are very important for the America we live in 27 years later. Its philosophical and spiritual implications are universal, confronting all viewers with the questions of how and why we make the decisions we do and what are the voices we listen to and value that inform those decisions.

 

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List: Best Movie Casts #60-41

Here’s the next set of entries in my list of the best ensemble movie casts of all time. See #100-81 here and #80-61 here.

 

60. Secrets & Lies (1996: Brenda Blethyn, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Timothy Spall)

59. Charade (1963: Audrey Hepburn, Cary Grant, Walter Matthau, James Coburn)

58. Unforgiven (1992: Clint Eastwood, Gene Hackman, Morgan Freeman, Richard Harris)

57. Singin’ in the Rain (1952: Debbie Reynolds, Gene Kelly, Jean Hagen, Donald O’Connor)

56. Bringing up Baby (1938: Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, May Robson)

55. Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936: Gary Cooper, Jean Arthur, Ruth Donnelly)
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54.  (1963: Marcello Mastroianni, Anouk Aimée, Claudia Cardinale, Sandra Milo)

53. Django Unchained (2012: Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio)

52. Network (1976: Faye Dunaway, Peter Finch, William Holden, Ned Beatty)

51. Shadow of a Doubt (1943: Joseph Cotten, Theresa Wright, Patricia Collinge)

50. Blade Runner (1982: Harrison Ford, Sean Young, Rutger Hauer, Daryl Hannah)

49. This Is Spinal Tap (1984: Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, Harry Shearer)

48. The Apartment (1960: Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine, Fred MacMurray)

47. The Butler (2013: Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, David Oyelowo, Liev Scheiber)

46. The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2012: Judy Dench, Maggie Smith, Tom Wilkinson)

45. The Band’s Visit (2007: Sasson Gabai, Ronit Elkabetz, Saleh Bakri, Shlomi Avraham)

44. O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000: George Clooney, Tim Blake Nelson, John Tuturro)

43. Anatomy of a Murder (1959: James Stewart, Arthur O’Connell, Lee Remick)

42. Arsenic and Old Lace (1944: Cary Grant, Raymond Massey, Peter Lorre, Jean Adair)

41. Do the Right Thing (1989: Spike Lee, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Bill Nunn, Danny Aiello)
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The Band’s Visit (2007)

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On Sunday night, the 72nd annual Tony Awards were held for the best shows of the 2017-18 Broadway theater season. The big winner was a new musical based on the delightful 2007 Israeli film The Band’s Visit. The movie opens with a disclaimer that what we’re about to see are things that happened that don’t matter much. I can’t help but imagine how much better Hollywood would be if it approached true stories in this way instead of the heavy-handed way it usually does with the tag “based on a true story” used to hype its self-importance.

Because The Band’s Visit makes no pretentious of importance, it charms us, entertains us  and eases us into its profound message always buried deep beneath the surface of the enchanting comedy we’re given. The events the movie depicts center around a military band getting stranded, certainly living up to the disclaimer that the events don’t matter much. But because the band is an Egyptian military band stranded in Israel, the seemingly unimportant events show how sometimes the things that seem most trivial can have an impact far beyond what we realize.

The Egyptian band members are forced to accept the hospitality of the Israeli restaurant owner Dina (Ronit Elkabetz). They don’t speak each other’s language, but everybody involved knows enough English to get by during this encounter. Perhaps the most inventive aspect of the movie made entirely in non-English-speaking countries is something that can be best appreciated by native English speakers. Of course we get English subtitles whenever the Egyptians are talking amongst themselves and whenever the Israelis are talking amongst themselves, but we also get English subtitles whenever Egyptian characters and Israeli characters are speaking to each other in English. We need this because the people of both original languages speak a broken English that is very different from the other’s broken English. The English language is their only way to communicate with each other, yet they have each learned the language differently and express themselves so differently that the Israeli-English and Egyptian-English we hear spoken throughout the movie sound like two different languages.

These differences in how the Israelis and Egyptians express themselves in English is highlighted through the English subtitles we see that express the intent of what the characters are trying to say more than the words they use that are based on their limitations of speaking a second language. These differences are the very heart of the movie as its source of some of the funniest moments in any movie I’ve ever seen (particularly the moment when an Egyptian character tries to woo an Israeli character by impressing her with his skills in the English language proclaiming, “You have eyes”). These differences are also the source of all the genuine warmth that The Band’s Visit has to offer. These characters work very hard to bridge gaps to be able to communicate with each other. The movie doesn’t introduce us to any of the political conflict of the Arab-Israeli world, but that conflict is the backdrop for introducing us to a group of people on both sides of the conflict who did not allow their politics to determine how they view each other. All through a seemingly unimportant accident, lives intersected that aren’t usually supposed to intersect.

One of the winners of Sunday night’s Tony Awards described the story of The Band’s Visit very simply as a picture of Arabs and Israelis getting along with each other, something we desperately need. He’s absolutely right, and the simplicity of the story is its power. Because it doesn’t take itself seriously and allows the importance and the humanity of the story to all flow out of its humor, director Eran Kolirin made a movie that, despite its opening disclaimer, is very important in an extremely subtle, artistic and hilarious way.

List: Best Movie Casts #80-61

Here’s the next set of entries in my list of the best ensemble movie casts of all time. See #100-81 here.

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80. Holiday (1938: Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, Lew Ayres, Edward Everett Horton)

79. Chicago (2002: Rene Zelwigger, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Richard Gere, Queen Latifah).

78. Mansfield Park (1999: Frances O’Conner, Harold Pinter, Jonny Lee Miller)

77. Guys and Dolls (1955: Marlon Brando, Frank Sinatra, Vivian Blaine, Jean Simmons)

76. La cage aux folles (1978: Ugo Tognazzi, Michel Serrault, Benny Luke, Michel Galabru)

75. Little Miss Sunshine (2006: Abigail Breslin, Steve Carell, Alan Arkin, Paul Dano)

74. The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014: Ralph Feinnes, F. Murray Abraham, Tilda Swinton)

73. Emma (1996: Gwyneth Paltrow, Toni Collette, Alan Cummings, Juliette Stevenson)

72. Boyz n the Hood (1991: Cuba Gooding Jr., Laurence Fishburn, Angela Bassett)

71. The Snake Pit (1948: Olivia de Havilland, Celeste Holm, Beulah Bondi Leo Glenn)

70. All or Nothing (2002: Timothy Spall, Lesley Manville, Ruth Sheen, James Corden)

69. Home for the Holidays (1995: Holly Hunter, Anne Bancroft, Robert Downy, Jr.)

68. Moonstruck (1987: Cher, Olympia Dukakis, Nicholas Cage, Danny Aiello)

67. Ed Wood (1994: Johnny Depp, Martin Landau, Sarah Jessica Parker, Bill Murray)

66. You Can’t Take It with You (1938: James Stewart, Jean Arthur, Lionel Barrymore)

65. My Man Godfrey (1936: William Powell, Carole Lombard, Alice Brady, Jean Dixon)

64. Parenthood (1989: Jason Robards, Diane Wiest, Tom Hulce, Steve Martin)

63. Gaslight (1944: Ingrid Bergman, Charles Boyer, Joseph Cotten, May Whitty)

62. The Social Network (2012: Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield, Justin Timberlake)

61. A Prairie Home Companion (2006: Meryl Streep, Lily Tomlin, Kevin Kline)
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Holiday (1938)

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In the adaptation of Phillip Barry’s play Holiday directed by George Cuckor (A Star Is Born), Katharine Hepburn (On Golden Pond) plays a woman blinded by love, but not in any way like most movies, especially most screwball romantic comedies in the 1930s. She’s so blinded by the love she has for her sister that she sees her sister how she wants to see her rather than seeing her for who she really is. Both Linda (Hepburn) and her sister Julia (Doris Nolan) are trapped in their family’s slavery to riches and high society. Linda wants out so badly that she assumes her sister does too, especially when Julia introduces the family to the man she intends to marry who has the same ideals as Linda. The problem is both Linda and Julia’s fiancee Johnny, played by Cary Grant (Notorious) assume that Julia wants the same freedom from a culture that prizes wealth above all else, but when she’s offered the opportunity to obtain that freedom, they realize she doesn’t want it at all and that she doesn’t really love Johnny the way they thought they she did.

This is a problem for Linda because she’s so blinded by her love for Julia that goes to great lengths to make sure that the wedding between Julia and Johnny happens despite all the objections of their father and despite her own romantic feelings for Johnny. She’s willing to sacrifice everything she wants to give her sister what she thinks her sister wants. These predicaments are all founded on the division within the Seaton family (Linda’s & Julia’s family) that most of them don’t even realize is there.

The head of the Seaton family tells Julia that “there’s a spirit of rioting in the world that I don’t like, it doesn’t care about money, it’s un-American.” He’s right about that spirit’s existence, but he doesn’t realize how much it has taken hold of his family, and most of all he doesn’t realize that it’s a rebellion that needs to happen and that he’s the one who’s wrong. Linda and her brother Ned (Lew Ayres in one of the greatest movie depictions of an alcoholic) are the rioters. When Julia (who, like her father, doesn’t like the “spirit of rioting”) brings Johnny into the picture, that “spirit of rotting” is given free reign to take hold of the family. Of course, most of the family won’t allow it, but when Linda does through turning from the blind devotion of her sister and transfers her affections to the man she spends most of the movie trying to get to marry her sister, freedom is achieved.

The title refers to Johnny’s philosophy for his life. Because of his unfortunate life circumstances, he’s worked since he was 10 building up enough money in savings for a holiday beginning in his 30s to extend as long as the money lasts. He’s not going to be bound by money. But the holiday isn’t laziness. It’s introspection, it’s a spiritual search for who he is with the intention of working again some day knowing that his money won’t last forever. But once he starts working again, he believes that he’ll know more of who he is and what he’s working for. The movie brilliantly and comically shows characters on a spiritual journey to freedom from materialism and the stubbornness and even unintentional hatred of those trapped by materialism.

List: Best Movie Casts #100-81

Over the next 5 Fridays, I will publish my list of the best ensemble casts that the movies have ever given us. Here are the first 20 great movie casts.

 

100. Shrek (2001: Mike Myers, Eddie Murphy, Cameron Diaz, John Lithgow)

99. The Sweet Hereafter (1997: Ian Holm, Sarah Polley, Caerthan Banks, Tom McCamus)

98. Rebel without a Cause (1955: James Dean, Sal Mineo, Natalie Wood, Jim Backus)

97. Little Women (1933: Katharine Hepburn, Joan Bennett, Frances Dee, Jean Parker)

96. Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1944: Robert Montgomery, Claude Rains, James Gleason)

95. The Artist (2011: Jean Dujardin, James Cromwell, Bérénice Bejo, John Goodman)

94. Rebecca (1940 : Joan Fontaine, Laurence Olivier, Judith Andress, George Sanders)

93. Chinatown (1974: Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, John Huston, Diane Ladd)

92 Mary Poppins (1964: Julie Andrews, Dick van Dyke, David Tomlinson, Glynis Johns)

91. The Killing (1956: Sterling Hayden, Elisha Cook Jr., Marie Windsor, Coleen Gray)

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90. The Thin Man (1934: Myrna Loy, William Powell, Maureen O’Sullivan)

89. Best in Show (2000: Christopher Guest, Eugene Levy, Catherine O’Hara, Fred Willard)

88. Ordinary People (1980:  Timothy Hutton, Mary Tyler Moore, Donald Sutherland)

87. Winter’s Bone (2010: Jennifer Lawrence, John Hawkes, Dale Dickey, Lauren Sweetser)

86. The Big Short (2015: Steve Carrell, Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling, Marissa Tomei)
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85. The Royal Tenenbaums (2000: Gene Hackman, Angelica Huston, Gwyneth Paltrow)

84. American Beauty (1999: Kevin Spacey, Annette Bening, Chris Cooper, Thora Birch)

83. Interiors (1978: Geraldine Page, Diane  Keaton, Sam Waterston, Maureen Stapleton)

82. The Children’s Hour (1961: Shirley MacLaine, Audrey Hepburn, Miriam Hopkins)

81. David and Lisa (1962: Keir Dullea, Janet Margolin, Howard da Silva)

 

Sense and Sensibility (1995)

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The masterful novelist Jane Austen had one low point in her career. Her Sense and Sensibility was so entrenched in a world of gossip and secrecy that it was impossible to recognize when anybody was telling the truth and for that matter what the truth of the story was. We know that Elinor is the personification of sense, and Marianne is the personification of sensibility, but that’s about the only thing in the book that made any sense until Emma Thompson wrote her screen adaptation of it. Using the bare bones of Jane Austen’s confused story, Thompson crated a story as witty, as charming, as romantic, and as socially conscious as anything Jane Austen wrote in her otherwise magnificent career.

Having Taiwanese filmmaker Ang Lee (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) direct the movie strangely brought a cultural authenticity to the 18th-century English world that it takes us to. Being from an Eastern culture where views of marriage, love and gender roles are much closer to those of 18th-century England than any culture in the modern West (though still very far removed), he is probably able to understand the hearts and minds of Elinor and Marianne better than most Western filmmakers. His collaboration with Emma Thompson brought this world to life through the lives, romances and pre-feminst feminism of these two sisters.

Elinor Dashwood (Emma Thompson) and Edward Ferrars (Hugh Grant) have a fascinating conversation when their romance begins to develop. They share the deepest truths about themselves, about what they think about their places in the world. When discussing their desires for their futures, Elinor tells Edward, “At least you will inherit your fortune. We [women] can’t even earn hours.” This line tells us everything we know about the trappings of the culture that the story’s female characters find themselves in. Yet, it doesn’t really tell us anything about Elinor and Marianne who are products of that culture but not bound by it.

Just like Jane Austen, Emma Thompson never for a second allows the oppression of women to be source of depression for her characters or an excuse for her characters to stop dreaming or  looking forward to the possibility of a better life. And she never allows the story to get preachy; it’s easy to root for these women and to want the best for them, but even though their culture is oppressive against them, we can never see them as victims. This is because, just like Jane Austen, Emma Thompson never bogs us down with the harsh realities but always finds humor out of the hypocrisies and stupidity in those cultural norms, and she finds warmth out of the real love and friendships that can grow out of that kind of mutual struggle.

Elinor’s sense and Marianne’s sensibility make them completely necessary for each other. These sister complement each other in ways that make them incapable of living without the other’s influence. This kind of closeness can only develop out of necessity when the rest of the world seems like it’s against you. But the complimentary quality of their relationship means that they also have a lot of conflict since their differences make it very difficult for them to understand each other. They don’t often understand each other and are frustrated by those misunderstandings, yet their dependence on each other  is the foundation of their sisterly love. That interdependence and love is what makes them able to endure every struggle they face.