Sunday, February 28, 2016

8 great American leftist films -- An alternative Oscar playlist

Tonight, as I am sure everyone knows, is the Oscars. Every year the new aristocracy of the famous get together to celebrate each other, collect trophies, be seen on red carpets and get expensive swag bags that they do not at all need!

I have always, despite that cynical introduction, actually enjoyed the Oscars in an abstract way. The terrible spectacle of it all, the occasionally surprising and correct choices, getting involved in Oscar pools, etc. Now that I have kids we make a yearly ritual of it with popcorn, fun foods and, for the grown-ups, champagne (or rather, inexpensive Preseco!)

To be honest, though, I usually take a pass on many of the nominated movies. And despite its grandiose pretensions and its occasional nominations and nods to the cinema of other countries, the Oscars are, in reality, all about English language and, even more often, American movies.

This year -- though they have raised the possible nominees for Best Picture to ten recently -- eight movies are nominated for the top prize.

As an alternative "playlist" to these movies, whatever their merits -- (MAD MAX FURY ROAD FTW!!!) -- I want to take this opportunity to celebrate eight great moments in American leftist cinema! I do not claim my "nominees" are the "best" necessarily, (and as with all lists of this type many great films get left off) but they are all terrific movies and an antidote to much of the usual fare. (As is the case with the Oscars, they do not include documentaries, which are never nominated for the ultimate statue).

So now, in no particular order, here are the nominees:

Salt of the Earth 1954

Salt of the Earth is a truly amazing film for many reasons. A fictionalized account of a real strike in New Mexico, it used real miners and their families to tell a tale of resistance and worker's struggle. Directed by blacklisted  Herbert J. Biberman, the film itself was essentially blacklisted at the time with theatres refusing to screen it, politicians denouncing it and even film critics like Pauline Kael joining in the attempts to make sure it did not find an audience.

It has in the years since, however, and it stands as a courageous moment in American cinema. It is also a damn fine film!

You can now watch the entire film on You Tube!

Missing 1982

Directed by Greek director Costa-Gavras, unlike our previous nominee Missing had some Hollywood heavy hitters in the cast. namely Jack Lemmon and Sissy Spacek. It was also actually nominated for the Best Picture prize and won for Best Screenplay.

Missing tells the true story of Charles Horman -- who went missing during the fascist military overthrow of the Allende regime in Chile in 1973 -- and the quest of his father and wife to determine his fate. In doing so it also examines American participation and complicity in the coup. Like Salt of the Earth, Missing was unavailable for a time, as the former US ambassador to Chile unsuccessfully attempted to sue Costa-Gavras.

Norma Rae 1979

Based on the true story of Crystal Lee Sutton, Norma Rae looks at the efforts of the lead character, played perfectly by Sally Field in an Oscar winning performance, to get a union and better wages and working conditions in the factory she works at.

It is a triumphant, inspiring story and features one of American cinema's iconic moments when Rae defiantly raises a placard with word Union written across it. Powerful stuff!

Milk 2008

Featuring a mesmerizing, and again Oscar winning, lead performance by Sean Penn, Milk is a look at the rise, life and times, and tragic assassination of the heroic activist Harvey Milk, the first openly gay person to be elected in California.

Beautifully directed by Gus van Sant, it is a powerful and moving film that shows Milk's fight not only for gay rights, but for civil rights and worker's rights broadly. One of the best films of its decade.

  Lone Star 1996

One of my favourite movies of the nineties, Lone Star, written and directed by John Sayles, is ostensibly a murder mystery, but is in reality so much more than that. It is a trenchant look at race, class and immigration in Texas that moves back and forth through time and confronts its subjects head-on without much of the whitewashing of history that is commonplace in US cinema.

Featuring marvellously witty dialogue and great acting from its leads -- including a notably menacing turn by singer Kris Kristofferson as the vicious, racist and deeply corrupt Sheriff, Charlie Wade -- Lone Star is one of those rare movies that gets better with age and with each viewing.

Reds 1981

Reds, which is rightly seen as Warren Beatty's masterpiece, was an attempt to bring the story of American Communist John Reed, Louise Bryant and the Russian Revolution to the screen in an epic and notably sympathetic way, especially given that it was released in the Reagan era of the Cold War.

It is a flawed movie, but any film that attempts to weave in characters as diverse as Emma Goldman, Lenin, Eugene O'Neill, Zinoviev  and so many others is, at the very least, ambitious! For the most part Beatty pulls it off, with images and scenes worthy of the best in epic scale cinema, with his amazing interspersion of flashback mini-interviews with actual people who lived through the events and knew the real characters, and with the profoundly moving penultimate final scene  of reunion between Reed and Bryant on the platform of a Moscow railway station.

Spoiler alert on the film clip...but I cannot help but share one of the great romantic scenes in film history!

Malcolm X- 1992

A movie that, thanks to Spike Lee's exceptional direction and an absolutely perfect performance by Denzel Washington, is as good a "bio" pick as you are ever likely to see.

Nuanced, powerful and very moving, it also has a devastating and yet deeply inspiring final scene featuring Nelson Mandela. Keep the Kleenex ready.

and the winner is...


Ok...I said no particular order, but Matewan stands as an exceptional moment in American leftist cinema.

Written and directed by John Sayles, this masterpiece is based on the fight to unionize the coal mines in West Virginia in 1920.

It is a stunning film, epic in scope, with amazing period detail. Tense, dramatic and violent, it also in its climactic moment even pays homage to the American Western, while turning its standard narratives on their head.

The bosses and their Pinkerton henchmen are really evil here, and the townspeople and the union activist have to overcome terrible odds. For once an accurate and beautiful representation of American history not as it is romanticized and taught, but as it really was.

At any rate, here is to the joy of the cinema!

Whether you intend to watch the Oscars or not, watch a good movie with friends or family soon...and, Go Mad Max!

See also: 5 Great Songs for International Workers' Day! Featuring Paul Robeson, Billy Bragg, The Red Army Choir & more