Every summer weekend now seems to be a potential springboard for a blockbuster, but I don't think it's a coincidence that Memorial Day and the Fourth of July have historically been the most lucrative spots on the calendar. These are long weekends, sure, but they are also traditionally times when Americans feel compelled, in one way or another, to reflect upon their national history; studios have capitalized on that reflection by releasing sequel-ready comfort spectacles that show present-day Americans rising to world-historical occasions. This usually involves stopping massive explosions, be they caused by extraterrestrials (Independence Day, War of the Worlds, Transformers), super-villains (Spider-Man 2), or plain old natural disasters (Armageddon).
While some of these mass-appeal pileups are better than others--I am particularly fond of Steven Spielberg's somber and unsettling War of the Worlds adaptation--it's probably best to mark the Fourth by watching something a little less desperate to please. And at home you can stay on-theme without bursting your eardrums, or feeling like you're being pandered to.
Terrence Malick's staggeringly beautiful The New World (2005), which retells the story of Pocahontas and John Smith, easily gets my vote for best film of the last decade. Malick's previous three films (Badlands, Days of Heaven, and The Thin Red Line) all to some degree burrowed into the American mythos, but The New World finds the writer-director taking on one of the country's most enduring legends. What he hits upon is not particularly flattering: Jamestown here is a miserable pit, and the clashes between the colonists and "the Naturals" are brutal. Yet the film makes ideal July 4 viewing not as an act of protest--though, coincidentally, its star Q'orianka Kilcher was recently arrested demonstrating at the White House--but as a stirring rumination on America's origins, its Edenic promise and its early descent into petty squabbles imported from the Old World.
Directed by an Australian (Peter Weir), adapted from a series of novels by an Englishman (Patrick O'Brian), and starring a native New Zealander (Russell Crowe), the seafaring epic Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003) wouldn't seem to make for ideal patriotic viewing. But I can think of no other film that so movingly vivifies seemingly hidebound notions of duty and honor. In the superbly crafted, episodic film, the British square off with the Napoleonic French, but All Movie Guide's more general classification of the film's mood, "For Love of Country," seems just about right.
Last year, the Brooklyn Academy of Music programmed Jim Jarmusch's vitriolic revisionist Western Dead Man (1994) right before the Fourth, which seemed to be a political statement given the film's hellish depiction of life in and around the fictional frontier town of Machine. Dead Man, which stars Johnny Depp, is hands-down my favorite Jarmusch film, but for those in a less dyspeptic mood this weekend, several of the independent filmmaker's earlier droll comedies (Stranger Than Paradise, Down by Law, and Mystery Train) feature wide-eyed foreigners adrift in the land of opportunity.
Two of Otto Preminger's sprawling late-career works, Anatomy of a Murder (1959) and Advise and Consent (1962), also come to mind. They are terrifically entertaining, expansive films that show the complex inner workings of the country's judicial system and Congress's upper house, respectively. Going further back, Preston Sturges's Christmas in July (1940), a rags-to-riches screwball comedy of unsustainable living, lovingly needles the concept of the American dream. The list goes on and on, but hopefully some of the above films can serve as a reminder that we need not be faced with Armageddon to reflect on our national character.
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