Filed under: Top Fives
"The children are our future." At least, that's what my bumper sticker says. So, whilst those kids are heading back to school, why not check out a list of movies written by a movie obsessed adult who actively dislikes children and goes out of his way to avoid them...? Is that enough words for this introduction? No? You want eleven more? And five need to be in brackets? Okay: Enjoy the Top Five Kids Movies (That Aren't Really for Kids).
Stand by Me is a sadly nostalgic look at the friendship of four kids over the final weekend of the summer of 1959. On Monday morning, they will be separated for the first time in their young lives. Gordie (Wil Wheaton) will begin advanced 'smart kid' classes, which he refers to as 'pussy classes'. He is a gifted writer, a fact that his friends know about and support. But it still worries him. His pals, Chris, Terry and Vern will be dumped into remedial shop classes, destined for the fast food joints and factories of the world for employment. In short: He knows that this could be the last time he'll ever really see his friends.
How about a little plot, courtesy of Wikipedia: "Meanwhile, Vern overhears his older brother talking about discovering the dead body of Ray Brower while dumping a stolen car. Brower was a boy whose disappearance and subsequent police search was a big news story. Gordie, Chris, Teddy, and Vern embark upon a journey to see if they can find Ray's body and become local heroes." Flawlessly adapted from Stephen King's novella The Body, director Rob Reiner feels wisely restrained here. He brings this tale -beat by beat- to the screen, allowing King's structure to speak for itself. With this project, Reiner found the perfect source material. Everything that works so beautifully in the film-- can be found in the short story.
Despite King's involvement, this might be Rob Reiner's most personal film. The themes pop up again years later in Good Will Hunting, the writing/ development of which Reiner was heavily involved. The connection-- and young Gordie Lachance's plight stems from the fact that he is much smarter than his friends. Gordie (like Damon's Will Hunting character) has opportunities to go on to do great and important things.
His friends on the other hand, are "wise guys with shit for brains" as River Phoenix describes them. Phoenix (like Ben Affleck's Chuckie) fears that the loutish ways of his cohorts (Cory Feldman and Jerry O'Connell in Stand By Me; Casey Affleck and Cole Hauser in Good Will Hunting) will drag their brainy pal down to their level, preventing him from blossoming creatively. Perhaps there really is a Chris Chambers in Mr. Reiner's past. But judging from the character's emotional weight -- I can't imagine things turned out well for him. Regardless, Stand by Me is one of the best portrayals of the emotional perils of childhood ever put on celluloid.
I hate to paraphrase a quote from the film's ad campaign but, every teenager should probably see Kids. Larry Clark's directorial debut opens a window into the world of a group of 90's New York street-kids, as they skate around-- gettin' high and gettin' laid. Clark and screenwriter Harmony Korine are not afraid to show the consequences of these actions. And yet, they somehow sidestep the cliché after-school-special trappings of this type of film-- by refraining from judging these characters. Clark isn't interested in condemning these kids. He just wants us to see what happens.
Jennie (Chloe Sevigny) is diagnosed with AIDS, after agreeing to accompany her nervous friend (Rosario Dawson) to the clinic for support. The remainder of the film's running time is dedicated to her struggle to find Telly, nicknamed the Virgin Surgeon (Leo Fitzpatrick), from whom she contracted the disease-- in a noble pursuit to inform him of his illness. But he is busy across town, trying to nail an even younger girl. The film (rated NC-17) was released under a cloud of controversy. The simulated sex scenes between very young looking actors became the unfortunate focus of all media attention.
But re-watching it, I found myself focusing on the genuinely honest performances of these Kids. Clark rounded up a group of real skate boarders and club rats, all genuinely the age they portray, to create a frank and naturalistic picture. Not one had ever acted before stepping on-set and yet every character feels remarkably realistic and true. Even screenwriter Korine admits that nearly 20% of the lines in the film were improvised on the spot. In fact, in many cases, these actors were actually the very same friends that inspired Korine's script in the first place. The result feels like a John Cassavettes flick, in its best moments.
But nearly 20 years later, the film now seems almost quaint. "You mean teenagers really have sex and do drugs?" That initial shock factor has worn off a bit. But that is hardly a criticism. These days, what is seen on your average reality show is far more intense than anything here. Compared to the off-camera implications of an atrocity like Toddlers and Tiaras -- today, the film seems rather subdued. Still, Larry Clark's Kids is one of the most stunningly crafted debuts of the last 20 years.
Before you say it, I'll cut ya off: This film was based on a book that was written long before Stephanie Meyer (the literary she-equivalent of Michael Bay) wrote Twilight. Tomas Alfredson's Let the Right One In is indeed the story of a teenage vampire. Her name is Eli and she has recently moved into a shabby apartment complex with her um, lets say... 'Father'. Another teen, Oskar, lives next door and soon, the two become slightly more than friends. Oskar develops deep feelings for Eli but, he grapples to understand what exactly she is. Being immortal, as vampires tend to be, Eli will never age. She is stuck as a teen girl forever. But Oskar will grow old and eventually die, as us humans tend to do. Now, does that sound like a promising relationship?
In a rare case, the American remake, titled Let Me In is actually a very good adaptation. Save for one specific thing: the reveal of Eli's secret. No, it's not that she is a vampire. It's too perverse to detail here but, perfectly blends that awkward, confused, messy feeling of teenage yearning with queasy, perverse, gruesome jabs of violence. Also: The subplot involving Oskar being bullied at school builds to one of the best payoffs in any horror film I've seen. But, despite the window dressing, this is not a movie with solely terror on its mind.
Fittingly, one of the film's most disturbing moments is also its most heartfelt. Her 'Father' is in the hospital. Eli flies up to his window. He knows he is about to be arrested. So, he surrenders his throat-- a heartfelt, final sacrifice in the face of their impending capture by police. This can be taken as an act of fatherly protection. Or, it can be taken in context. In context, we realize that this man was once a young boy. He once loved Eli like Oskar does, but grew into a pathetic, old servant. And eventually, so will Oskar.
Back to the scene: Then, Father falls from the hospital window, his head smacking against the building with a sickening thud as he drops. Why mention this? He dies, painfully and unpleasantly, before he hits the ground and Eli is left alive to watch. That moment is not ghoulish just for the sake of ghoulishness. It mournfully illustrates his creepily misguided yet undying love and devotion to her, even in his closing seconds of life. But, it also paints a very, very dark future for poor Oskar.
Okay then. It's not really a kid's movie, per se. Instead, Joel and Ethan Coen's Raising Arizona is about a loving couple who can never have a child of their own. I'll let H.I. McDonnough (Nicolas Cage, in his finest comedic performance) use his own imitable words: "The doctor explained that her insides were a rocky place, where my seed could find no purchase." (The movie is full of oddly perfect lines like that.) His wife, Ed -a maniacal and wonderfully over-the-top Holly Hunter- is a police officer who met her beau as she was taking his mug shot. (His arrest record is peppered with armed robbery charges but, he never uses a loaded gun.) They fell in love almost immediately. The details of their courtship dominate the film's opening 10 minutes-- in one of the funniest and most beautifully crafted sequences in film history.
But, fate conspires to keep them childless, so they are left with one option: Kidnap 'emselves a baby. The word kidnap seems too harsh to describe this crime. The word crime seems too harsh as well. There is an undeniable innocence to H.I. and Ed. Their predicament is a noble one but, kidnapping is kidnapping and, their wrongful deed unleashes hell. Literally. Enter the Lone Biker of the Apocalypse (the unforgettable Randall 'Tex' Cobb), a mythical baddie on a mission to obtain the child for sale on the black market. (Don't worry, its not as messed-up as it sounds.)
With its brilliant supporting cast of Coen regulars, (John Goodman, Frances McDormand and M. Emmet Walsh in a short but sweet cameo) the film builds to a surprisingly sincere climax, following the break-neck insanity of the preceding 90 minutes. H.I. and Ed feel there is too much love in the world to keep it all for them selves. They want to share that love. They want a family, yearning for a return of the "salad days". The surreal scenes involving the Biker function as a moral reminder that our protagonists are indeed in the wrong. Sure, Nathan Arizona (Trey Wilson) is a blow-hard and horse's ass but, that doesn't mean you can just steal his children. Yet, when both parties come face to face, we expect conflict. Instead, we find understanding.
I realize that I have conveyed the warmth of the film, but not the humor. It is without a doubt one of the funniest movies ever made. There is not a single piece of "set-up" in the entire film. Every line is a "punch line." Everything from Ed's mispronunciation of the word fiancé to the constant renaming of the baby... Ah, just trust me on this one: Raising Arizona is one of the best films of the 1980's. Okay then.
I can think of no other film that better captures the hope, pain and emotional vulnerability that is so unique to childhood, than Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in America. The film follows five poor Jewish kids growing up in Brooklyn in the 20's. We watch as they slowly drift into a life of crime, innocently --at first. But alas, with sin, comes punishment. This is, arguably, Leone's (The Good, The Bad and The Ugly; Once Upon a Time in the West) masterpiece.
But eventually, like all criminal enterprises, things change when blood is spilled. The film painstakingly (the running time reaches nearly 4 glorious hours) portrays not only their childhoods but, the entire lifespan of these men. As adults, played by Robert De Niro (Noodles), James Woods (Max), James Hayden (Patsy) and William Forsythe (Cockeye; his second appearance on this list, with Raising Arizona), crime has become a very lucrative business, whether it's bootlegging liquor or a daylight robbery.
Meanwhile, Noodles is madly in love with Deborah (played as a child by Jennifer Connelly; as an adult by Elizabeth McGovern) but, as she says at one point: "He will always be a two-bit punk... so he can never be my beloved." Noodles will spend the rest of his life trying to change her mind. But unfortunately, everything he ever needed to know was in those words. Never. The depths to which he will eventually sink to "get Deborah" prove that she was absolutely right. De Niro plays Noodles as -frankly- kind of a dumb, short-sighted guy. But that is precisely how the character should be played. So many films concentrate on puppet characters -- all of whom learn valuable moral lessons in the end. But, not Noodles.
He never learns anything. (At least, not until it is far too late.) He will always be merely a man of the streets. A two-bit punk. He is happy when his pockets are filled but, he is not greedy-- unlike his pal Max, who has big plans and even bigger ambitions. Throughout the years, the two friends will debate. "This is a lot of money to guys like us," argues Noodles. He believes there is no shame in being small time, if you're still maintaining a healthy living. But, all the money in the world wouldn't be enough for Max.
People expecting a grand violent epic on a Tarantino-scale may be disappointed. The film builds to a heart wrenching peak in which the charred remains of Noodles' life finally comes entirely into view. Once Upon a Time in America is an operatic tragedy about a life pitifully misspent. Early on, young Max says to Noodles: "You're gonna carry that stink of the streets your whole life!" He was right.
Honorable Mentions: Where the Wild Things Are (Spike Jonze), Hugo (Martin Scorsese), River's Edge (Tim Hunter), Pixote (Hector Babenco) and, obviously-- Summer School (Carl Reiner).
I have also included that brilliant opening 10 minutes of Raising Arizona in video-form below... Enjoy.
Tony Hinds is a Canadian writer who studied film at the University of Winnipeg. In addition to ShowbizMonkeys.com, Tony has reviewed films for Step On Magazine and The Uniter. You can find Tony on Twitter.