Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974)
This heart-rendering 1974 movie from writer Robert Getchell, director Martin Scorsese and star Ellen Burstyn (who won the Oscar for Best Actress) is perhaps most well known as the progenitor of the long lived TV sitcom, Alice. But if that’s all you know about this groundbreaking film, you’re in for a huge treat. The story follows the wandering, hopeful, hardscrabble life of single mom, Burstyn, following the accidental death of her husband. But it’s not a movie about being a widow or grieving. It’s about starting over, going it alone, getting knocked down, and standing up again. It’s about the euphoria and awfulness of chasing dreams and pursuing happiness whatever the hell that is from one moment to the next. It’s a complicated, modern American tale of the challenges of leaving behind a seemingly preordained, traditional destiny and identity as a “couple,” “wife” and “family,” and of tackling life, one unpredictable day at a time, as a solo woman in an often misogynist, always shit world. Look for a very young Jodie Foster in (yet another) beautiful, memorable performance, as a misanthropic but honest friend-in-need to Burstyn’s confused, angry son.
The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)
I’m a film school brat. I love movies. When people ask me what are the best movies ever made, this black-and-white oldie always makes my top five. Winner of seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director (William Wyler,) Best Screenplay (Robert E. Sherwood), Best Actor (Fredric March), and Best Supporting Actor (Harold Russell,) this is classic, classic Hollywood storytelling at its finest. A sprawling, ambitious, multi-layered ensemble piece telling of the difficult readjustments of three soldiers coming home from World War II to their quiet Midwestern town, it’s so good, in so many places and ways, I can’t really sum it up in such a short review. Caveat: It’s from 1946, so there are places where it ages less than perfectly, an at-times somewhat dated, too-neat early 20th century Hollywood view about society, family values, male and female roles, etc. But at the same time, it’s eternal. The whole gamut is here: fidelity and infidelity, sex, divorce, physical compatibility, youth and aging, romance, dating, substance abuse, wealth and poverty, growing up and never growing up, parenting, religious faith real and feigned, eternal hope and soul crushing failure, war and peace, economic fairness and inequality. A special, Honorary Academy Award was created just for first-time actor Harold Russell, and believe me, you’ll see why. If you don’t weep watching this one, you don’t have tear ducts. Hell, I get choked up just hearing the first bars of Hugo Friedhofer’s Oscar-winning score.
Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969)
Nominated for several Oscars, this controversial-in-its-time comedy-drama
follows the very 1960s, very California relationships of two young married couples, all friends, as they wrestle with changing mores in changing times: affairs, openness, mate swapping and more. A total period piece that sometimes feels, well, a bit foolish—peak swinging 1960’s California!—it’s surprisingly still resonant, meaningful and funny today, owing to the sincere commitment and warmth of a talented filmmaker (Paul Mazursky) and his all-star cast (Natalie Wood, Robert Culp, Elliott Gould, and Dyan Cannon). One of Mazursky’s gifts is somehow bringing out the honest, messy, interesting humanity in scenarios otherwise ripe for silliness or sentimentality, and this movie is a good example of him turning what could have been a ridiculously thin setup into a kind, soulful grown-up drama.
Filmed over 12 years with the same cast by director/writer Richard Linklater, in this unique drama we get to see a boy, Mason, literally grow up, as the same actor, the wonderful Ellar Coltrane, plays him from age seven to eighteen. Mason is a child of split parents, and we get to see family, marriage and divorce as he sees them, over changing times and many evolutions, a moving, sometimes tearful, sometimes funny, sometimes realistically-blase portrait of a contemporary American family—which isn’t some kind of aspirationally unchanging group, it’s a living organism, easily bruised, with ever developing characters and dynamics. Because the narrative so dramatically, so often leaps ahead in time, some characters and situations feel a little abbreviated, even a little cliched, as there’s simply not enough time for deeper characterizations or nuances. But that’s a nitpick. There are no stick figures, and no easy good guys and bad guys here. There are real humans, living real, tumultuous, gut wrenching, heart exploding lives. Can you tell I really love this movie? Just the whole idea of keeping a cast together for 12 years just blows my mind in its ambition! What a gem.
Vince Vaughn and Jennifer Aniston play a seriously committed, grown-up couple who live in a condo they own together, at least until the seeming mismatches in their personalities cause them to call it quits. Will they stay broken up? Or does love conquer all? (The couple is not married, but that just seems like a plot contrivance, as the filmmakers didn’t want to deal with the subject of marriage and divorce, just compatibility.) This movie makes this list much more for its ambitions and occasional insights than for its overall quality, which suffers from an identity crises: Comedy? Drama? Silly juvenile? Deep and serious? The movie can’t make up its mind. And the script and basic conceit aren’t that nuanced and the result is tiring. Modern compatibility conflict is a great subject for a movie, and the pairing of Aniston and Vaughn initially feels inspired. But quickly the script feels too cute and shallow, and the performances suffer as a result. And while Aniston and Vaughn are talented comedians, that doesn’t serve them well here. Their attempts at emoting can feel like sitcom setups waiting for punchlines. Still, there’s a few really good moments too, good-hearted, trenchant illustrations of the perils of saying things like, “you, forever.”
Divorce American Style (1967)
Written and produced by Norman Lear a few years before he created All in the Family, this 1960s-era attempt at biting satire ages poorly. Given the seemingly blue-ribbon liberal, humanist credentials of its author, as well as that of Lear’s partner, the film’s director Bud Yorkin, it’s odd to watch this movie and realize how misogynistic and hamfisted it is, at least by today’s standards. The subject of happiness in long-term relationships and the challenges of divorce are reduced to one, sneering notion: the ostensible unfairness and burden of alimony on men, and the lengths they’ll go to be free of such obligations. Perhaps in its original release era, the schemes of the male protagonists came off as clever, and as smart satire (many critics of the time thought highly of the picture and it was nominated for the Best Screenplay Oscar), but today it’s just distasteful and unfunny. At best, it’s a museum piece, a testament to both how mores and values change over time, and how even the best intentioned people (like the film’s creators) can look silly or even malicious when viewed through the lens of far future generations.
Based on Elizabeth Gilbert’s best selling, beloved memoir of the same name, this movie did well in theaters but was trashed by critics who complained that a sincere, thoughtful book had been turned into a self-involved Julia Roberts star-vehicle. I’ll just say this: The book is fabulous, a genuine, heartfelt soul-search wrapped in a breathtaking travelogue. It’s every wannabee divorcee’s fantasy of what life will be like after divorce: Travel the world. Sleep with hot partners. Seek spiritual enlightenment and nirvana at authentic sources. Eat all the pasta you want and still don’t mind stepping on a scale. And then fall in love again. Which means Julia Roberts is perfectly cast—she’s the somehow simultaneously down-home but super-glam movie star, someone pretty much every wannabee wants to be. And while I agree with critics like Maureen Dowd, who called the movie “navel gazing drivel,” I also say, so what. Enjoy. What’s wrong with a little self-indulgence, especially if we’re feeling blue, and maybe even hopeless, and very, very, very un-indulged. If you can only do one, read the book. If, on the other hand, you only have a couple hours, enjoy the movie, knowing it’s a candy-colored Hollywood trifle, that still may poke and prod sensitive spots anyway.
This one’s on the list just for the total fun of it. The delightful, classic Hollywood musical features the dazzling Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, plus one of my early Hollywood heroes, the hilarious Edward Everett Horton, plus music including Best Original Song Oscar winner The Continental, and the timeless masterpiece Night and Day by Cole Porter. It’s superficially a story of moving on from marriage and divorce. But like most Hollywood musicals, the plot is just a thread on which to hang glamorous people, gorgeous sets and costumes, and breathtaking dance numbers and tunes. Rogers goes to England to engineer an “at fault” setup so she can finally get a divorce from her long lost absent husband. Complications ensue. A fun historical trivia note: The Hays Office, which in the early 20th century oversaw and censored Hollywood movies for controversial ideas, objected to the movie’s original title, which came from its source, the Broadway show, Gay Divorce. The Hays Office apparently believed it was ok for a person to be gay (happy and light hearted) after getting a divorce, but that the institution of divorce itself should not be considered cheerful. So the producers had to change the name to The Gay Divorcee.
The last role played by James Gandolfini before he died, in this film he shines just as brightly as he did as Tony Soprano while completely stepping outside that role. Here he plays a soft spoken, sweet, tentative newly divorced bachelor. Written and directed by the ridiculously talented but under-appreciated Nicole Holofcener, the story follows the travails of Eva, played cheerfully and sensitively by the fabulous Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who is struggling to find love and happiness as a divorced, self-employed masseuse and mom to a teenage daughter. Gandolfini is her on again off again paramour, Albert, a divorcee with a teenage daughter and new-life challenges of his own. There’s a clever plot device where Dreyfuss discovers that Gandolfini’s ex-wife, played by the always brilliant, frequent Holofcener collaborator Catherine Keener, is her client and good friend—and who loathes her ex-husband Gandolfini. That setup keeps the film amusingly moving along, but the ultimate product is much more than that clever twist. Co-parenting and co-existing with our exes is a major theme, sharply but lovingly handled. Ditto, love and romance post-divorce, and the inevitability and risks of thinking that, at a certain age, we’ve seen it all. Somehow the independent Holofcener continues to get her smart, poignant productions made and distributed. Thank heavens.
The Kids Are Alright (2010)
Directed and co-written by celebrated indie filmmaker Lisa Cholodenko, this colorful ensemble piece uses a couple of quirky plot twists to blow up a few cherished notions about what makes a family, and what keeps one functional. Released in 2010, it was nominated for Best Picture and Best Screenplay and its stars Annette Bening and Mark Ruffalo for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actor, respectively. (Julianne Moore also stars, and is superb.) The first twist is, the story centers on a normal, conventional family of two parents with two teenage kids… except the parents are lesbians and each kid was born to one of them, but both kids were created using the same sperm donor. Follow? Then the second twist is, the two kids decide they want to know who their father/sperm donor was, and track him down, and lo and behold he lives nearby, and, played by Ruffalo, he’s a super cool, nice guy. And he’s actually happy when they find them. But is he their parent? The two moms are not thrilled to even have to think about that. But Ruffalo gets sucked in and meddles, causing tension. But maybe that’s ok: He’s just so sensitive, self-effacing and charming. But then he has a sexual affair with Moore. Then things get really heated. For Moore’s not only a cheater, it appears she’s bi-sexual. It’s complicated. But super well done. This is a unique, special movie. See it.
I watched this again recently and was I glad I did. Nominated for nine Academy Awards, winner of five including Best Picture, Best Director (Sidney Lumet,) Best Actor (Dustin Hoffman), Best Screenplay (Robert Benton,) and Best Supporting Actress (Meryl Streep,) this 1979 drama was amongst the first major Hollywood products to try to realistically, and non-judgmentally, address modern marriage and divorce—and though controversial at the time amongst feminists, also the subjects of misogyny and the struggles of females to live in a male dominated world. The story tells of the blow up of the marriage of Hoffman and Streep, as Streep seemingly abruptly abandons ship, leaving behind her crushed young son with her overwhelmed ex-husband. The utter magnificence of this movie is not just in all the usual places—the wonderful script, fantastic but unobtrusive direction, spectacular performances—but also in the amazing way the film does not devolve into some obvious, pedantic TV-movie-of-the-week, as its plot and even title seem to suggest. Streep won her (first) Oscar for playing a mother who tears herself apart when she abandons her young child. That seemingly unconventional-for-the-sake-of-being-unconventional conceit could easily have devolved into a Cruella DeVille caricature. But no, all the Oscars are richly deserved, not least for making Streep’s character entirely human and heart-crushingly sympathetic. (Streep famously rewrote many parts of the script herself.) Likewise Hoffman’s character, who goes from anger and self-involvement to vulnerability and deeply felt loving commitment. Marriage, divorce, parenting, personal freedoms, the pursuit of happiness, aging, settling for less or not settling for less, all these topics and more are sensitively, artfully explored.
One of the most successful and celebrated movies in the history of Hollywood, and the perhaps crowning achievement of Paddy Chayefsky, one of the most revered motion picture authors ever, Network is a dark satire of modern tech and media businesses and their profound effects on humanity. The winner of four Oscars, it’s not really a film about marriage and relationships per se, but, then again, it is. Chayefsky’s breathtaking, piercing talents as a writer can accomplish in one scene what other artists labor to communicate in entire careers. While I highly, highly recommend watching the entire film, in particular check out the scene (spoiler alert, sort of) where William Holden tells his wife of 25 years, Beatrice Straight, he’s leaving her for another woman. Straight won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress basically just for this scene (she’s not in the movie much otherwise) and it’s so well deserved. Somehow Chayefsky, brilliant director Sidney Lumet, Holden and Straight pack what feels like an entire story of a deep, long and complex marriage into one thrilling, excruciating scene. It’s a stunning centerpiece to a stunning film, an emotional volcano that instantly centers and humanizes an otherwise cool, cerebral movie. A caveat: Today, 40+ years later, some may criticize Chayefsky for a somewhat dated, male-centric view of midlife and marriage crises. What do you think?
The Parent Trap (1961; remake 1998)
A silly, cheerful, antique trifle that, in my opinion, in today’s world borders on being deeply offensive, this very-old-school 1961 Disney “family” movie should be banned from families, and homes experiencing divorce. Or, at least, if that’s you, probably best not to have your kids watch it. Or, if they do, figure out how to explain that it has about as much to do with reality as Peter Pan. Or as Stalinist propaganda. That aside, if you can turn off the thinking part of your brain and just focus on the popcorn and candy in your lap, the original version starring Hayley Mills, Brian Keith and Maureen O’Hara is a kind of distilled classic of the sort of ostensibly family-friendly, technicolor nonsense peddled with a patronizing smile by corporate America on young baby boomers, I guess to curdle their brains and keep them happily consuming. No wonder they all turned on, tuned in and dropped out. The 1998 remake blows my mind in so many ways: How truly awful a movie can be. How stupid producers, studios and even brilliant artists like writer-director Nancy Meyers can be in their choice of films to remake. How the managers and agents who supposedly were looking out for the amazingly talented, innocent child Lindsay Lohan were actually a bunch of sinister predators who should be flogged in public.
Stock up big-time on tissues and hankies for this one. Terminally ill divorcee Susan Sarandon has to somehow acclimate her kids and herself to the fact that the children are getting a new stepmother, their father and Sarandon’s former husband Ed Harris’s younger, inexperienced new partner, Julia Roberts. And the two kids just don’t love Dad’s new lover. And Sarandon is faltering, her mortal time rapidly running out. Granted, this is a very, by-the-book, manipulative, corny Hollywood tearjerker. Having Sarandon be terminally ill makes what would have been a really poignant, difficult, modern family tale—a divorced parent dealing with the fact that her kids now have more than two “parents”—into an at times maudlin, sudsy soap opera. But whatever: It’s just a really good Hollywood sob story movie that doesn’t pretend to be anything else. And its leads are all first rate performers, movie stars at the tops of their games. So despite it being a well-oiled weep-sucking machine, in it’s smaller, quieter moments, the film manages some worthwhile observations on modern relationships and parenting. And of course, a really, really good cry.
Unfortunately, this is a short review so I’m limited in how many bad things I can say about this turd. Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner are going through such a nasty divorce, they fight—literally, bite, claw and scratch each other and destroy everything and everyone—brawling over who gets their beautiful house. Maybe the Farrelly brothers could have turned this into some kind of looney slapstick fun, but director Danny DeVito and his august cast take themselves way too seriously, as if they’re making some dark, biting satire. They’re not. The script and the drama are thin, a fortune cookie masquerading as deep thoughts. Yes, some critics really liked this movie, but then again, some critics like individually wrapped cheese food slices. Maybe there was an embryo of a sensitive, decent idea at the outset—the film is based on a novel (that I haven’t read)—but the final result is just a self-aggrandizing mishmash spectacle, of Hollywood elite preening like they’re savvy social observers, while getting paid a ton just to gleefully smash expensive scenery. Some movies are so bad they’re good. This one? Just bad.
This movie stars Liam James, Steve Carell, Toni Collette, Allison Janney, AnnaSophia Robb, Sam Rockwell, Maya Rudolph, Rob Corddry and Amanda Peet. Do I even need to say more? The quirky, charming, sometimes melancholy story follows a 14 year old boy, Duncan, through his unlikely summer at Cape Cod with his distracted, partying mom, Pam, her dubious, wealthy boyfriend, Trent, and Trent’s condescending daughter, Steph. A motley quasi-family unit, if ever there was one. Largely ignored by everyone, Duncan stumbles into the small-time local water amusement park, Water Wizz, and there finds his home of sorts, as he’s befriended and mentored by the oddball characters who work in the park. For those not old enough to get the reference, the movie’s title refers to the far rear section of a station wagon, behind the back seats, where younger kids often rode, back in the good old days before anyone cared about things like safety belts. And that’s fitting, as this tender film shows us a child’s bumpy ride, and through his eyes, a strange, scary but still wonderful world, as Duncan settles into a different family life than he ever envisioned, while discovering an inner strength and wisdom he never imagined, either.