5 classic films to watch over break

WSS Film Critic Harry Westergaard ‘19 recommends five films to watch over spring break.

There are countless ways to spend your week away from school. If you’re looking for more ways to procrastinate doing your homework, never fear. As your friendly neighborhood film historian, I’m here to provide you with a list of five films to bide your time with over the rest of spring break. But there’s more to it than that. I’m not just picking any five films. The motion pictures I’m going to be highlighting today are from a diverse range of directors and cover a variety of topics and genres with one thing in common: they all celebrate an anniversary this year. That shouldn’t affect your viewing too much, but as a dorky film buff, I find pleasure in celebrating the anniversaries of some of my favorite films by revisiting them myself as well as by introducing them to new audiences. Plus, as with many forms of popular art, films are time capsules. It can always prove interesting to see how much the world has or hasn’t changed since a certain film came out. With that out of the way, here are my picks.

  1. Easy Rider (1969)

“Easy Rider” sort of became a classic film by accident. It’s a road movie following two bikers, Captain America (not the superhero) and Billy, as they journey to New Orleans for Mardi Gras. However, their eastward trek across the United States represents a metaphorical search for the essence of America in changing times. Along the way, they encounter many colorful characters including George Hansen (Jack Nicholson in his breakout role), hippies at a commune and rednecks who disapprove of their freewheeling ways. At the time, the film’s mixture of plotless improvisational wandering and casual philosophical discourse was groundbreaking. Now that type of film is played in arthouse cinemas all across the country. But “Easy Rider” is still special because it reflects our country at a key time when the cultural landscape was changing. Many of the themes still ring true today. Aside from all the heavy subtext, the film is just a fun watch on its own terms, perfect viewing for spring break as it takes you on a road trip across the U.S. from the confines of your living room.

  1. “Being There” (1979)

Hal Ashby’s last great film, “Being There,” is usually billed as a comedy. This label is a tad misleading. While the film plays with absurd ideas in the name of satire, it’s in the same family of comedy as Stanley Kubrick’s “Doctor Strangelove.” Yes, both films star Peter Sellers, but they are also both shot and played straight. Save a couple of scenes, if you played either film without the sound on you could easily mistake them for dramas. That’s not to say that there aren’t genuinely hilarious moments in Ashby’s film, which follows the exploits of Chance, (portrayed by Peter Sellers) a sheltered gardener who has only been exposed to the world through TV. When Chance ventures into the world, he becomes a national icon by complete accident. This is where the film gets the bulk of its gags from. Watching Chance spew the most ridiculous statements, and in turn, seeing the news outlets lap it up as if it’s profound. The movie’s outlook on the nature of celebrity was decades ahead of its time. In fact, it’s only more relevant now when social media and 24-hour news networks are filled with countless stand-ins for Chance. This is a hauntingly funny film featuring one of Peter Sellers’ best performances.

  1. Do the Right Thing (1989)

After two successful indie pictures, “She’s Gotta Have It,” and “School Daze,” Spike Lee broke into the mainstream with the smolderingly political “Do the Right Thing.” The film overtly tackles many racial issues that were common in the era, but what gives the Lee film potency is the strengths of the individual characters. The action takes place on a block in the Bed-Stuy neighborhood in Brooklyn on the hottest day of summer and shifts focus from one character to another in a wonderful ensemble cast. The screenplay gives weight to all of the different groups instead of overtly vilifying one. Though certain characters do come across as more malicious as the film progresses, you understand their motives so it avoids portraying anyone as flat or unrealistic. And that’s just the screenplay. The actors in the ensemble are all superb, including Lee himself, John Turturro, Bill Nunn, Ossie Davis and early roles for Giancarlo Esposito and Samuel L. Jackson. Lee also proves himself to be a fully formed auteur by his third picture; the film looks stunning as he effortlessly hovers from one character to the other, never letting the audience forget it’s the hottest day of the year. “Do the Right Thing,” has had a wide-reaching influence on the cinema for the past 30 years, and no film has quite captured racial tensions in America the same way.

  1. Being John Malkovich (1999)

One thing’s for sure, dear reader: You’ve never seen a film like this before. In 1999, screenwriter Charlie Kaufman and director Spike Jonze released their debut collaboration, a surrealist, mind-bending comedy entitled “Being John Malkovich.” The movie follows a down on his luck puppeteer who discovers a portal that leads into John Malkovich’s head behind a mundane filing cabinet in his office. After the initial shock of discovery, Craig exploits the portal for profit. It’s one of those films that gets increasingly crazy as the plot progresses. Outside of the Malkovich concept, the movie is chock full of intriguing ideas that would make compelling movies on their own. Of course, with the screenplay written by Kaufman, the film demands repeat viewings to catch little gags or subtle bits of foreshadowing that you may have missed. The inventive screenplay, coupled with a wonderful cast playing against type, including John Cusack, Catherine Keener, Cameron Diaz and, of course, Malkovich himself, makes for a roller coaster ride of a viewing.

1.Magnolia (1999)

I know it might seem counterintuitive to recommend a three hour plus long film on a post about what to watch over break. And yes, Magnolia is a little over three hours long and not as fun as the other films on the list (and that’s saying something, I suppose). But, out of all of the films celebrating anniversaries this year, it’s one of the finest. Director Paul Thomas Anderson puts the movie on an “epic” scale, something seldom done in the modern day and subverts the format further by making it about the tragedy and chance in the everyday life of the characters, topics he didn’t think were given the “epic treatment.” The wonderful kaleidoscope of characters consists of Philip Baker Hall as TV show host Jimmy Gator, Melora Walters as his troubled daughter, John C. Reilly as a cop trying to do the right thing, William H. Macy as former “quiz kid” star who’s confused about where his life is at and Tom Cruise in one of his finest roles as Frank T.J. Mackey, the toxic spokesperson for the “seduce and destroy” program, to name a few. The movie is long and at times sad, but you never bore of it due to the characters. Between Anderson’s writing and direction you’re swept up into his world of lost souls, and by the end of the picture you’re sitting there with goosebumps and maybe tears as the Aimee Mann song “Save Me,” plays over the credits. A truly unforgettable film.