Sisyphus was condemned to roll a rock up a hill for all eternity, only to see it roll back down each time he reached the top. Albert Camus said this is the lot of all men and women--a struggle without end--and the satisfaction must be in the struggle itself.
In that same way, drama is the depiction of man's struggle against various odds. Why do we watch the portrayal of the difficulties of others? Because there is satisfaction in it. The ancient Greeks understood.
"The Informer" (1935), directed by John Ford and based on Liam O'Flaherty's novel, is a simple tale of sin and redemption played out against the Irish Revolution. The ox-like Gypo Nolan betrays a wanted man, his friend, for cash and is consumed with guilt.
"Stella Dallas" (1937), directed by King Vidor, is Barbara Stanwyck's great moment. She is the mom who sacrifices everything so her daughter can have everything. Stanwyck's final scene is memorable.
"The Grapes of Wrath' (1940), directed by Ford, remains powerful because the story of Tom Joad and his family upstages the political lessons taken from John Steinbeck's novel. Henry Fonda has never been better.
"The Sea Wolf" (1940), directed by Michael Curtiz from Jack London's novel, probes the conflict between an intellectually fascist sea captain, Edward G. Robinson, and his freedom-loving passengers and seamen. London's ideas are oversimplified, but it still works.
"Citizen Kane" (1941), directed and co-written by Orson Welles, is the great dark myth of American capitalism, daring to suggest that success is not worth the price. One of the greatest movies ever made.
"Now, Voyager" (1942), starring Bette Davis and Paul Henreid, is Hollywood's great tribute to platonic love between man and woman. The two leads are destined to love each other all their lives, but circumstances and their own integrity conspire against them.
"Five Graves to Cairo" (1943), directed by Billy Wilder, is a taut but witty story of spies, refugees, and Field Marshall Erwin Rommel, all engaged in intrigue in a hotel in the middle of the Sahara during World War II.
"The Set-Up" (1949), directed by Robert Wise, is Robert Ryan's moment to shine as a a boxer at the end of his rope who will not bend no matter what crooked winds blow his way.
"All About Eve" (1950), written and directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, is one of the outstanding movies about New Yorkers and the theater. Bette Davis is the aging grand dame of the stage who discovers that her protege, who she regarded as a career adornment, has ambitions.
"Death of a Salesman" (1951), directed by Laslo Benedek from Arthur Miller's play, has Frederick March as Willie Loman, the go-getter as middle-aged blusterer who cannot fathom the emptiness that has taken over his life. Kevin McCarthy plays one of his embittered sons.
"The Big Carnival" (1951), as hard-bitten and cynical as American movies can get, is director Billy Wilder's baby all the way. Kirk Douglas is the newspaper reporter for whom a man trapped in a cave is the career break he's always wanted.
"Deadline U.S.A." (1952), directed by Richard Brooks, is the best drama about life inside a big city newspaper. Set on a single day, editor Humphrey Bogart holds the fort against a gangster's threats, a publisher's sell-out, and other crises.
"On the Waterfront" (1954), directed by Elia Kazan from a screenplay by Budd Schulberg, is a triumph for Marlon Brando as the lazy dockworker, washed-up boxer, and all-around stooge who discovers a fierce integrity inside himself when the chips are down.
"The Wild One" (1954), directed by Laslo Benedek, looks a tad dated now, but Marlon Brando still smolders compellingly when he blows into a huckburg with his motorcycle gang and begins looking for someone or something to rebel against.
"East of Eden" (1955), directed by Elia Kazan, pares away much of John Steinbeck's three-generation saga of good and evil on a California farm to put the story of Cal, James Dean, and conflict with his father, Raymond Massey, into bold relief. Dean, in almost every scene, dominates the movie.
"Giant" (1956), directed by George Stevens from Edna Ferber's novel, is the epic about rich Texans that is saved from Hollywood cornball-ness by James Dean's edgy performance and Stevens' sure directorial hand.
"A Face in the Crowd" (1957), directed by Elia Kazan and written by Budd Schulberg, offers Andy Griffith as a guitar- strumming drifter whose homespun charm on a radio show propels him to the stratosphere of celebrity, where he becomes a megalomaniac.
"The Sweet Smell of Success" (1957), directed by Alexander Mackendrick, captures the jittery cynicism of Broadway life perfectly in tale of gossip columnist Burt Lancaster, weaselly press agent Tony Curtis, and the people and careers they toy with. Snappy, quotable dialogue abounds.
"Suddenly, Last Summer" (1959), directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz from the Tennessee Williams play, is the overripe and histrionic--but still compelling--story of a woman getting psychiatric help after being traumatized during a vacation in Greece. Only Williams could think up a trauma like this one. Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift star.
"Anatomy of a Murder" (1959), directed by Otto Preminger, is the classic 1950s adult drama. Set mostly in the courtroom, James Stewart is the small town lawyer defending a soldier for killing a bar owner. The bar owner had raped the soldier's lubricious wife.
"Elmer Gantry" (1960), written and directed by Richard Brooks from Sinclair Lewis' novel, has Burt Lancaster feasting on the role of a boisterous salesman who becomes a rip-snorting tent evangelist, rising and falling spectacularly.
"Saturday Night and Sunday Morning" (1960), directed by Karel Reisz from Alan Sillitoe's novel, is the first and best of the kitchen sink dramas out of England. Albert Finney is indelible as the "angry young man."
"The Entertainer" (1960), directed by Tony Richardson from John Osborne's play, gives Laurence Olivier his memorable role as the aging British music hall performer who is too self-centered and arrogant to see how people around him are suffering.
"The Hustler" (1961), directed by Robert Rossen, is the story of Fast Eddie, Paul Newman, a pool shark ready for a showdown on the baize with Minnesota Fats, Jackie Gleason. It's cocky young turk against crafty old veteran and the stakes are high.
"The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner" (1962), directed by Tony Richardson from Alan Sillitoe's story, is one of the great dramas of alienation and the value of nonconformity. A budding track star chafes against the hypocritical authorities at the reform school where he is being rehabilitated.
"Requiem for a Heavyweight" (1962), directed by Ralph Nelson from a Rod Serling teleplay, has Anthony Quinn as a good-hearted but punchy boxer whose efforts to build a better life are torpedoed by the cynicism, corruption, and ignorance of the world he lives in. The ending delivers an emotional wallop.
"The Miracle Worker" (1962), directed by Arthur Penn from William Gibson's play, is a tour de force by teenage Patty Duke as the blind and deaf Helen Keller who was raised from a virtual animal state to personhood under the relentless, hands-on tutelage of Anne Sullivan.
"Hud" (1963), directed by Martin Ritt from a Larry McMurtry novel, is a character-driven tale of a disreputable young Texas rancher and the impact his callousness has on those around him. Paul Newman plays a heel to sarcastic perfection.
"Zorba the Greek" (1964), directed by Michael Cacoyannis from the novel by Nicholas Kazantzakis, gives Anthony Quinn free hammy rein as the bumptious Greek who takes the tweedy scholar Alan Bates in hand and teaches him to seize the day.
"Night of the Iguana" (1964), directed by John Huston from play by Tennessee Williams, is crammed with colorful characters posturing around a seedy Mexican resort and making long, drunken, angst-ridden speeches. Kind of hokey, but poetic too. Richard Burton and Ava Gardner are wonderfully watchable.
"The Pawnbroker" (1965), directed by Sidney Lumet, was the first serious treatment of the Holocaust by Hollywood and it's still emotional dynamite. Rod Steiger is the weary Jew who wears the number tattoo and now only wants to be left in peace in his Harlem pawnshop. But family and the 'hood won't leave him alone.
"The Hill" (1965), directed by Sidney Lumet, helped Sean Connery break free of typecasting as James Bond. He's a prisoner in a British military prison caught up in the unending power struggle between the disciplinarian guards and the resentful prisoners.
"Faces" (1965), written and directed by John Cassavetes, is his typical ensemble of people working through and failing at a variety of emotional and sexual relationships. This is the most accessible movie by a quirky auteur.
"Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" (1966), directed by Mike Nichols from Edward Albee's play, is the movie where Hollywood booted the production code right out of the ballpark. You practically come away with scars after watching Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor go at each other. Potent and mesmerizing.
"The Swimmer" (1968), directed by Frank Perry from a John Cheever short story, is an incisive take on suburban angst. Burt Lancaster cheerfully decides his trip home one Saturday afternoon will be a dip in the pool of people he knows along the way, allowing an incremental unveiling of his alienation and despair.
"Midnight Cowboy" (1969), directed by John Schlesinger from Leo Herlihy's novel, is the city mouse-country mouse tale plunked down in the depravity of Times Square. John Voight is the dim cowboy who blows into New York and is immediately fleeced by guttersnipe Dustin Hoffman. Their friendship takes off from there.
"Ryan's Daughter" (1970), directed by David Lean, is about love, betrayal, and revolution, all in a single Irish village. In its grand sweep, this is the "Doctor Zhivago" of Ireland. Julie Christie is memorable.
"Five Easy Pieces" (1970), directed by Bob Rafelson, gave Jack Nicholson one his finest roles as a pianist who has been slumming as an oil worker and must face up to his past. Nicholson is surrounded by a supporting cast to die for.
"Two-Lane Blacktop" (1971), directed by Monte Hellman, paved the way for the cinema of Alan Rudolph and Jim Jarmusch. Two cars are on a cross-country race with James Taylor and Dennis Wilson (yes, the rock musicians) in a '55 Chevy and Warren Oates in a GTO. Not much happens, but it doesn't happen in a very interesting way.
"The Last Picture Show" (1971), directed by Peter Bogdanovich from Larry McMurtry's novel, proves that "small town values" means more than the pious slogan would indicate. Rural Texans have never been portrayed so sympathetically.
"The Devils" (1971), directed by Ken Russell, is classic Russell-esque, in-your-face account about how some hysterial medieval French nuns trigger a murderous inquisition that literally brings down the walls of their city around their heads.
"The King of Marvin Gardens" (1972), directed by Bob Rafelson, gives Bruce Dern a chance to steal a movie from Jack Nicholson (they play brothers) as a man obsessed with strike-it- rich schemes and the people he harms. The setting is the dowdy, pre-gambling Atlantic City.
"Fat City" (1972), directed by John Huston from the novel by Leonard Gardner, is an unsentimental portrait of the hardscrabble lives of some small town prizefighters. It feels utterly authentic.
"The Paper Chase" (1973), directed by James Bridges, somehow makes going to Harvard Law School seem fraught with excitement and peril. John Houseman branded himself on our brains as the WASP ubermensch by his portrayal here of an imperious law professor.
"The Last Detail" (1973), directed by Hal Ashby from the Darryl Ponicsan novel, puts a shore patrol uniform on Jack Nicholson and gives him the task of escorting a dimbulb thief to a naval prison. There's enormous affection for these profane "swabbies" and their lives.
"A Woman Under the Influence" (1974), directed by John Cassavetes, is like eavesdropping on a family that is cracking up. Blue collar guy Peter Falk is at his wits' end when his wife, Gena Rowlands, begins displaying mental illness.
"Shampoo" (1975), directed by Hal Ashby, captures the zeitgeist of the 1970s with wit and panache. Warren Beatty is winning as the priapic hairdresser whose personal life, professional life, and love life are hopelessly mixed together.
"Barry Lyndon" (1975), directed by Stanley Kubrick from Thackeray's novel, has Ryan O'Neal as the 17th century Irish adventurer whose ambition and arrogance serve him well at first, but prove his undoing later. Sumptuously photographed.
"Rocky" (1976), directed by John G. Avildsen and written by Sylvester Stallone, has lost its luster only because of the he- man huffery that has come from Stallone since. Try to remember that time, before the Oscars and money piled up, when you discovered this movie for the first time.
"Norma Rae" (1979), directed by Martin Ritt, casts Sally Field in a career-making role as hillbilly trollop working in a mill who finds her life taking on meaning when she is recruited to start a union.
"Kramer vs. Kramer" (1979), directed by Robert Benton from Avery Corman's novel, is a terrific vehicle for Dustin Hoffman as a man floundering desperately to put his life together when his wife, Meryl Streep, abruptly walks out on him and their little son. This is one of the few dad-friendly divorce movies.
"The Great Santini" (1979), directed by Lewis Carlino from Pat Conroy's novel, gets deep inside the life of an American military family. Robert Duvall is riveting as the soldier whose Marine-ness is an obstacle between him and his family, especially his son.
"North Dallas Forty" (1979), directed by Ted Kotcheff from Peter Gent's novel, is the best movie about professional football. Nick Nolte is winning as the aging receiver who can't let go of the game even though it's wrecking his health, integrity, and love life.
"Elephant Man" (1980), directed by David Lynch, is an endearing portrait of the grotesquely disfigured Victorian man David Merrick and the doctor, played by Anthony Hopkins, who saved his humanity. Victoriana abounds.
"Out of the Blue" (1980), directed by Dennis Hopper, is about a girl, Linda Manz, who is trying to survive as a daughter in a dysfunctional family. Her father, Hopper, is a disreputable aging biker. Brace yourself for the ending of this one.
"My Dinner with Andre" (1981), directed by Louis Malle, is a one-of-a-kind movie about two men of the theater, played by a circumspect Wallace Shawn and flamboyant Andre Gregory, who meet for dinner and talk for two hours. Obviously, these men have interesting things to say.
"Ragtime" (1981), directed by Milos Forman from E.L. Doctorow's novel, uses a case of injustice against a proud black man to weave a tapestry of how the 20th century in all its hopes and fears began to unfold in New York City.
"The Verdict" (1982), directed by Sidney Lumet and scripted by David Mamet, is tough, incisive courtroom drama. Paul Newman is a pathetic ambulance-chaser who has the case of a lifetime, a medical malpractice suit, fall right into his lap. Is he lawyer enough for the job?
"The World According to Garp" (1982), directed by George Roy Hill, captures the eccentric spirit of John Irving's novel about a young writer, his firebrand feminist-nurse mother, his transsexual-football player best friend, and the absurd assortment of other characters, lovable and unlovable, in his life. Who else but Robin Williams could play Garp?
"El Norte" (1983), directed by Gregory Nava, is the emotionally devasting epic about a brother and sister who are forced for political reasons to flee their Guatemalan village and make a harrowing trek all the way to California, which to them is like Mars.
"Birdy" (1984), directed by Alan Parker from the novel by William Wharton, is about a young soldier, Matthew Modine, so traumatized by the Vietnam War he's in a Section 8 ward thinking he's a canary. His best friend, Nicholas Cage, is desperately trying to get him to snap out of it before it's too late. Shades of cuckoo's nest.
"Moscow on the Hudson" (1984), directed by Paul Mazursky, offers Robin Williams as a Russian circus musician who impetuously defects in New York City and learns, step by step, to live with the consequences of being an American.
"The Color Purple" (1985), directed by Steven Spielberg from Alice Walker's novel, is about the black experience in the Jim Crow South as seen from the perspective of one shy woman who blossoms magnificently over the decades. Whoopi Goldberg stars.
"Eight Men Out" (1988), written and directed by John Sayles, is a baseball film about an incident most baseball fans would rather forget. In 1919 almost an entire major league team in the World Series turned crooked and took cash to throw the game.
"My Left Foot" (1989), directed by Jim Sheridan, is the utterly unsentimental true account of an Irishman, Daniel Day- Lewis, so crippled with palsy he can barely function. He eventually learns to function, but he's no sweetheart and he does not suffer fools gladly.
"Field of Dreams" (1989), written and directed by Phil Alden Robinson, streamlines W.P. Kinsella's knotty novel about a baseball nut in Iowa who builds his own ball field in hopes of bringing back the ghosts of some legendary ball players. Against all odds it works, and so does the movie.
"Last Exit to Brooklyn" (1989), directed by Uli Edel, brings Hubert Selby Jr.'s "unfilmable" novel about Brooklyn lowlifes to the screen. Selby had to reach way, way down to find the humanity in these detestable and pathetic brutes, and the movie pulls off the same feat. Jennifer Jason Leigh plays the self- destructive whore Tralala.
"Thelma & Louise" (1991), directed by Ridley Scott, became a cultural touchstone in its story of two mousy women from Arkansas on vacation together who, after circumstances conspire against them, turn into gunslinging outlaws. Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon take turns stealing the movie.
"The Rapture" (1991), written and directed by Michael Tolkin, is an offbeat religious noir movie about a telephone operator, Mimi Rogers, who calls a halt to her nymphomaniac sex life when she is converted to charismatic Christianity. Eventually, she is convinced the world is about to end.
"Glengarry Glen Ross" (1992), directed by James Foley from the play by David Mamet, lets you swim with the sharks without getting eaten. These shady real estate salesmen live and die by the art of the deal.
"Impromptu" (1992), directed by James Lapine from Sarah Kernochan's script, imagines very convincingly what the circle of friends was like in 1830s France that included novelest George Sand, pianist Frederic Chopin, writer Alfred DeMusset, composer Franz Liszt and others. It's not "Amadeus," but it's an amusingly fizzy champagne.
"Naked" (1993), directed by Mike Leigh, follows a nihilistic young drifter, David Thewlis, around London, where he insists on snarling the truth to whomever will listen, asking no mercy and getting none in return. This movie burns with a hard blue flame.
"Fearless" (1993), directed by Peter Weir, is about a man, Jeff Bridges, who survives a plane crash and finds himself seemingly in a state of grace where no more harm can befall him. His ties to the other survivors are his only hope of coming back down to earth.
"Short Cuts" (1993), directed by Robert Altman from stories by Raymond Carver, audaciously fields 22 main characters whose lives play out in a series of interconnecting stories in and around Los Angeles. The verisimilitude of this tapestry of California life will have you thinking you can step right in.
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