Top Five American Historical Films


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History and movies are well paired, particularly during award season. Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” which has grossed over $150 million, as well as “Hyde Park on Hudson,” are part of the great film tradition of films about politics and about history. Daniel Day-Lewis, almost a lock for Best Actor, is part of an industry tradition that recently included Colin Firth, in “The King’s Speech,” and Meryl Streep, in “The Iron Lady.” This year’s Tony Kushner-scripted movie about America’s political situation between 1861 and 1865 is one of the most gripping films ever made about the civil war. As we leave the holiday season behind, here are five other great films about American history to be thankful for:

5. “All The President’s Men” (1976)

Alan J. Pakula directs Dustin Hoffman (Bernstein) and Robert Redford (Bob Woodward) in this dramatic adaptation of Richard Nixon’s fall from power. Hoffman, in particular, is at the height of his powers as a reporter obsessed with following the story to its end. Watching it nowadays one wonders if there was ever a time when newspapers were powerful enough to bring down a President of the United States. Pakula also helmed The Parallax View, another great American political thriller with a convoluted, conspiracy minded plot, but “All The President’s Men” is a masterpiece and tragedy about American power and overreach.

4. “Oh Brother, Where Art thou?” (2000)

Written, produced and edited by Joel and Ethan Coen, this is one of the best films about the Great Depression. Starring George Clooney, Holly Hunter, Charles Durning, John Turturro and John Goodman, this film, scored, organically, with American folk music, is about chain gangs, treasure, robbery, selling ones soul to the devil in order to play good guitar and other all American past times. If you haven’t seen this movie, please do.

3. “The Patriot” (2000)

Much has been made of the whitewashing of slavery in this film – not its best selling point, to be sure — and much has been made of Mel Gibson afterwards. That having been said, flaws and all, The Patriot is one of the best contemporary retellings of the American Revolution and, particularly, the way in that war divided colonial society. Historians believe that roughly one-third of Americans supported the revolution. I cannot think of another film that expresses that difficult fact as thoughtfully as this one does. Nor has there been a film in recent memory that captures the uphill battle that the patriots fought in revolting against the British, at the time the world’s superpower, with only minimal help from the French. Chris Cooper, as Henry Burrell, does an amazing job as well.

2. “Malcolm X” (1992)

Spike Lee’s sprawling, magnificent “Malcolm X” is another American historical film that was looked over, unfortunately, by Oscar. Taking in much of the 20th century from the point of view of a complex, driven and principled African-American man, Denzel Washington gives the performance of a lifetime. The three hour and twenty minute running time goes by briskly as Spike takes us from the era of Pullman porters of Harlem jazz, of the rise of the Black Muslims and, towards the end, the Vietnam war. As Roger Ebert wrote, “Watching the film, I understood more clearly how we do have the power to change our own lives, how fate doesn’t deal all of the cards.” What could be more American than that?

1. “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” (2007)

Okay, the title is a bit off putting. But the performances – by Brad Pitt and Casey Affleck and Sam Shepard and Mary-Louise Parker – are astonishingly good. Clocking in at 160 minutes, this is a richly drawn American film about outlaws and the thirst for fame (notoriety?). It could not have been made anywhere else but on this shore.

Brad Pitt, one of the best actors of his generation, gives us the ultimate Jesse James: rich, complex, criminal, possibly bipolar, yet all the time sympathetic. He should have won an Oscar for this role. This might be one of the best films ever made that few people have heard about. If you, like me, love history – particularly the history of the West and of railroads – watch this film via Netflix. Roger Deakins does an amazing job at cinematography, with his slow, majestic scenes of railroads and of the nineteenth century landscape.

What is your favorite American Historical Film? Tell us in the comments below or on Facebook and Twitter.

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Weird Roles

Anthony Michael Hall’s Most Rotten Movies

Catch Anthony Michael Hall in Weird Science on Friday at 8P on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Universal/Everett Collection

Anthony Michael Hall was the quintessential ’80s nerd. We love him in classics like The Breakfast Club and National Lampoon’s Vacation. But even the brainiest among us has his weak spots. In honor of Weird Science airing this Rotten Friday, we analyze Hall’s worst movies.

Weird Science (1985) 56%

A low point for John Hughes, Weird Science is way too wacky for its own good. Anthony Michael Hall’s Gary and his pal Wyatt (Ilan Mitchell-Smith) create the “perfect woman.” Supernatural chaos ensues. The film costars a young Bill Paxton, floppy disks, and a general disconnect from all reality.

The Caveman’s Valentine (2001) 46%

This ambitious drama starring Samuel L. Jackson couldn’t live up to its rich premise. Jackson plays Romulus, a Juilliard-educated, paranoid schizophrenic who lives in a cave. Hall co-stars as Bob, a rich man, who wants to see Romulus play the piano. The plot centers around Romulus investigating a murder, but with so much going on, the movie never quite finds its rhythm.

All About the Benjamins (2002) 30%

Ice Cube plays a bounty hunter who teams up with Mike Epps’ con man to catch diamond thieves. Hall plays Lil J, a small-time drug dealer. It’s definitely a role we’ve never seen Hall in, but overall the movie isn’t funny or original enough to justify its violence.

Freddy Got Fingered (2001) 11%

This showcase for Tom Green’s goofy gross-out comedy is often hailed as one of the worst films of all time. Green plays Gord, a 20-something slacker, who dreams of having his own animated series. Hall is Dave Davidson, a CEO of an animation studio who eventually helps Gord find success. Too bad Tom Green wasn’t so lucky.

Johnny Be Good (1988) 0%

Hall plays against type as Johnny Walker, a star quarterback. Robert Downey Jr. is his best friend and Uma Thurman plays his devoted girlfriend. Despite the support of a future A-list cast, the movie lacks central conflict and charm. Or, as TV Guide put it, “Johnny be worthless.” Ouch.

Catch the “Too Rotten to Miss” Weird Science this Friday at 8P on IFC.

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Season 6: Episode 1: Pickathon

Binge Fest

Portlandia Season 6 Now Available On DVD

The perfect addition to your locally-sourced, artisanal DVD collection.

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End of summer got you feeling like:

Portlandia Toni Screaming GIF

Ease into fall with Portlandia‘s sixth season. Relive the latest exploits of Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein’s cast of characters, including Doug and Claire’s poignant breakup, Lance’s foray into intellectual society, and the terrifying rampage of a tsukemen Noodle Monster! Plus, guest stars The Flaming Lips, Glenn Danzig, Louis C.K., Kevin Corrigan, Zoë Kravitz, and more stop by to experience what Portlandia is all about.

Pick up a copy of the DVD today, or watch full episodes and series extras now on IFC.com and the IFC app.

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Byrning Down the House

Everything You Need to Know About the Film That Inspired “Final Transmission”

Documentary Now! pays tribute to "Stop Making Sense" this Wednesday at 10P on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Cinecom/courtesy Everett Collection

This week Documentary Now! is with the band. For everyone who’s ever wanted to be a roadie without leaving the couch, “Final Transmission” pulls back the curtain on experimental rock group Test Pattern’s final concert. Before you tune in Wednesday at 10P on IFC, plug your amp into this guide for Stop Making Sense, the acclaimed 1984 Talking Heads concert documentary.

Put on Your Dancing Shoes

Hailed as one of the best concert films ever created, director Jonathan Demme (Silence of the Lambs) captured the energy and eccentricities of a band known for pushing the limits of music and performance.

Make an Entrance

Lead singer David Byrne treats the concert like a story: He enters an empty stage with a boom box and sings the first song on the setlist solo, then welcomes the other members of the group to the stage one song at a time.

Steal the Spotlight

David Byrne Dancing
Cinecom/Everett Collection

Always a physical performer, Byrne infuses the stage and the film with contagious joy — jogging in place, dancing with lamps, and generally carrying the show’s high energy on his shoulders.

Suit Yourself

Byrne makes a splash in his “big suit,” a boxy business suit that grows with each song until he looks like a boy who raided his father’s closet. Don’t overthink it; on the DVD, the singer explains, “Music is very physical, and often the body understands it before the head.”

View from the Front Row

Stop Making Sense Band On Stage
Cinecom/Everett Collection

Demme (who also helmed 1987’s Swimming to Cambodia, the inspiration for this season’s Documentary Now! episode “Parker Gail’s Location is Everything”) films the show by putting viewers in the audience’s shoes. The camera rarely shows the crowd and never cuts to interviews or talking heads — except the ones onstage.

Let’s Get Digital

Tina Weymouth Keyboard
Cinecom/Everett Collection

Stop Making Sense isn’t just a good time — it’s also the first rock movie to be recorded entirely using digital audio techniques. The sound holds up more than 30 years later.

Out of Pocket

Talk about investing in your art: Talking Heads drummer Chris Frantz told Rolling Stone that the members of the band “basically put [their] life savings” into the movie, and they didn’t regret it.

Catch Documentary Now!’s tribute to Stop Making Sense when “Final Transmission” premieres Wednesday, October 12 at 10P on IFC.

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