On this day in history, May 1st, 1941, Citizen Kane debuted in New York City. Widely considered among the greatest films of all time, it inspired us to shuffle through our own catalog to find some films that move us, make us think and keep us connected. Perhaps nothing is more important for a drama than being able to capture and transport the viewer, and to that end we’ve chosen five films that grab you by the lapels and spirit you away. From inspirational love stories to fighting international terrorism and right back down to suicide in the heartland, if you’re ready to hit those particular emotional octaves, and many more, there’s something for you to watch, for free, on Plex.
Let’s dive in, shall we?
1. The Illusionist
The Illusionist often gets lumped in with another magician movie, The Prestige, which also came out in 2006. They’re both great, both dark, both feature illusionists, both have excellent writing, directing and acting, and both have marvelous, jaw-dropping, holy shit endings. They’re so similar, in fact, that sometimes people assume they’ve seen both when they’ve only seen one.
- The Prestige is the one where the two illusionists vie for prestige in London.
- The Illusionist is about only one illusionist, in love with Jessica Biel, in Vienna.
Here’s what I know and adore about this movie: if you watch the first 15 minutes and you’re not absolutely hooked, check your pulse because homie: you dead. I rewatched this recently and I couldn’t get over how well-handled I felt as a viewer. Director Neil Burger takes great pains to lay out a rich, imaginative story, and before you know it, you’re fully invested. I love a film where I can relax because I know I’m in capable hands.
If you already love Edward Norton, congrats! Then you’re going to really click with this film.
If you’re more in the camp of thinking “Man, Ed Norton irritates me and he has such a punchable face.” Then it might take you a tad longer to settle in with The Illusionist. Even with a substantial barrier to entry like that, Norton’s talent is palpable and will likely overwhelm the part of you that just plain doesn’t cotton to him as an actor.
The Illusionist is visually striking, lovingly paced and enjoyable. Rufus Sewel is perfectly cast as Crown Prince Leopold, Norton holds center as the titular illusionist and Paul Giamatti plays chief inspector Walter Uhl in a role so good your Italian aunt will bite her knuckle in appreciation.
2. Children of a Lesser God
Marlee Matlin won the best actress Oscar for her portrayal of a deaf woman who chooses to remain speechless in a world that tries to push her to be vocal. This is a film from a different era, certainly, and the pace can sometimes prove daunting to a modern audience.
For example, when’s the last time you saw someone turn on a lamp in a movie? I counted no less than four times in Children of a Lesser God. That should give you some insight into the level of realism and the relative velocity of the script. Be warned: young William Hurt be lamping up in this bitch.
That said, I’m smitten with the understated beauty of the title- just think about the meaning of that: Children of a Lesser God. It’s magnificent. Then there’s the (late) always excellent Philip Bosco,
and the memorable and brave performance by Marlee Matlin. It’s a film that gives us a glimpse into a world too many of us pass right by, and the shared humanity we sometimes take for granted.
3. Patriot Games
I can’t say for sure how many times I’ve watched Patriot Games over the years but it’s enough that I can recite most of it by heart, and even anticipate some of the Harrison Ford trademark facial gestures. My friends would groan audibly if they could tell you how often I pick up the phone and yell “Get me Hostage Rescue out of Quantico, now!”
The story follows Ford’s Jack Ryan as he is targeted and attacked for foiling an assassination attempt on a member of the English royal family. When everything breaks down, Ryan, a career analyst, is forced to take matters into his own hands and play a deadly game of cat and mouse with an insane terrorist whose only mission in life is to kill Ryan and his family.
It’s tough to dislike boy scout Jack Ryan, and this exploration of terrorism and political expeditiousness is hot-primed with enough gunfights to keep you on the edge of your seat. While many people have a quiet mistrust of spooks, I think one of the reasons Jack Ryan resonates so much with people, and with me, specifically, is that we desperately want to believe that the intelligence services are full of people as noble and ethical as Jack Ryan.
Patriot Games is probably the best way (along with The Hunt for Red October) to see that play out, and it allows you to do the most universal thing in Western cinema: watch Sean Bean die on screen. Again. Come for the political intrigue, stay for the cultured loveliness of Anne Archer, who never, ever gets the credit she deserves.
In fact, Archer’s character of Cathy Ryan was sort of life-changing for me. I remember first seeing Patriot Games while married to my first wife, who was a passionate but volatile woman, and thinking “Really? Can you really have a partner who is loving and hyper-capable and whip-smart and also calm under pressure? Do women like that even exist?” Fast forward many years to now, past the indiscretions of youth, still friends with my ex, but now I’m partnered up with a vibrant, intelligent, wonderful, caring woman. A woman who, like Cathy Ryan, is calm, thoughtful and insightful. A woman who makes everyone better around her. You guys would love her. Are brilliant, amazing, cultured, evolved women real? Hell, yes they are! I can personally attest: they’re real, and they’re spectacular.
4. Dead Man Walking
Dead Man Walking is about as capable as a film can be, thanks in no small part to the outstanding script and direction of Tim Robbins. In only his second directing gig, Robbins gives you reason to resent him for talent that’s so staggering that it almost makes you forget what a gifted actor he is.
Powered incandescently by the Oscar-winning performance of Susan Sarandon as Sister Helen Prejean, a nun trying to help a convicted rapist and murderer find salvation before he is executed for his crimes, Dead Man Walking is one of those films that knocks you directly onto your ass. If you’re in the mood for a trip down humanity’s bleaker streets, put away the Instagram feed and get ready to cozy up to some death row drama. Bonus points for watching it with someone who differs with you on the topic of capital punishment!
It’s not a fast-paced movie, either, so you experience the plot reveals in conjunction with the characters, which makes the oncoming drumbeat of death that much more present. Basically, it’s a long road to hoe until about the last fifteen minutes where you really get to see Sean Penn’s acting chops. I once suspected he had none, after watching him and Madonna in Shanghai Surprise, but you can’t argue with the talent on display as the realization hits his character Matthew Poncelet, and he struggles to both cope with the inevitability of his own demise and to make amends for the pain his actions have caused.
I always like to call out the bit parts played by outstanding actors, and we get a glimpse of two here. In the flashback sequences where we see the teens Poncelet killed, the boy is played by a young Peter Sarsgaard and Poncelet’s younger brother Craig is played by Jack Black.
Shot beautifully by master DP Roger Deakins, it’s not only a joy to watch, but a clinic in narrative structure and character development, and a film that will leave an impression on you, long after it’s over.
5. The Virgin Suicides
I was admittedly late to the game on The Virgin Suicides, because the premise didn’t immediately grab me as a twenty-something, and now terrifies me as a forty-something with teenage daughters. The highly-regarded debut film from Sofia Coppola is an aspirational movie, which sets the stage for her film career, and is shot with an ethereal, almost dreamlike feel.
Based on the novel by Jeffrey Eugenides, The Virgin Suicides is an exploration of the upper middle class in the Detroit suburb of Grosse Pointe in the 1970s. The story focuses on the Lisbon girls, five teenage sisters from 13 to 17, all of whom take their own lives. It’s such a macabre story, but Coppola somehow manages to dull the edges of it, making it feel more like an epic poem. Still, if you’re anything like me, the loss of life at that age is nearly too sad to endure.
The cast is full of talent. Kirsten Dunst leads the way as Lux Lisbon, the most notable of the daughters.
Josh Hartnett plays super groovy love interest Trip Fontaine.
I wish I could comment on the relationship between the film and the Eugenides novel, but I fear I might have a Eugenides block. Friends have urged me to read his high watermark book, Middlesex, and I’ve started it and set it down on three different occasions. Not sure why.
The film has an unnamed, unseen narrator who did an excellent job and who turned out to be Giovanni Ribisi. Mostly, we see these girls as muses, observed in near reverence through the eyes of neighborhood boys, one of whom is played by an adolescent Hayden Christensen.
The Lisbon sisters represent the very pinnacle of desire for the neighborhood boys and yet remain, somehow, ultimately unknowable. Many critics rank The Virgin Suicides next to Lost in Translation as Coppola’s more profound successes, but I’ll be honest that I greatly preferred the latter. Still, if you’re anything like me, you’ll revel in the nostalgia and immediately add the soundtrack to your Plex playlist. It kicks all the ass.
Did you make it through? Are you okay? Anyone need a hug? The five films above are a real trip, and there are moments in each that are memorable. As we live through this bizarre time, did anything hit you as particularly powerful? Were you triggered at all? Did any of the films leave you flat? Don’t be shy! Hop on into the comments and tell us what you thought.