James L. Brooks
I remember watching this movie in the theater and not being able to hear lines because my older sister was laughing so hard. To me, Broadcast News is a romantic comedy, but the romance is not between a man and a woman. It’s between Holly Hunter and her work. Her portrayal has shaped how I write female characters who are game and ambitious—restless, competitive souls who crave an exciting professional life.
Gregory Nava’s film was shown at a Friday school assembly at the private Quaker school I attended from kindergarten to twelfth grade. It was International Day or some special Friday event, and we had the whole morning blocked off. I remember being floored by the rough-hewn portrayal of migrants who were my age, crawling through sewer tunnels as if they were in a Victor Hugo novel. In my twenties, I would go on to chronicle the journeys of Latin American and Caribbean migrants who crossed into the United States without documents. I would ride in the backs of trucks with them, interview them at U.S. Border Patrol processing stations, track their families, who had paid coyotes thousands of dollars. As a thirtysomething mother living in Houston, our Guatemalan babysitter borrowed $1,800 because her son was being held in a safe house in Northern Mexico. After his release, he was picked up by Border Patrol and held at a processing center in Houston. An editorial friend of mine from the Houston Chronicle visited him there and wrote about his journey. He was eventually released and was reunited with his mother. The impact of this movie cannot be understated. I was lucky enough to meet Gregory when I was a Los Angeles Times reporter covering the lack of diversity in Hollywood, and I remain a fan of his work.
This Is Spinal Tap
Before The Onion or memes or any of the other biting comedic content we take for granted now, This Is Spinal Tap showed me one thing: committing to the joke is everything. The film never breaks into self-consciousness. It’s comedy gold, and it holds up all these years later.
The Unbearable Lightness of Being
A testament to how sexy and personal a film about politics can be. Though the film could have been preachy or shrill, the story’s aperture stays tightly focused on the shifting feelings of its protagonists, how their understanding of the politics around them begins to change, how they feel about themselves and, in turn, how willing they are to love with abandon. And finally, it showed me how valuable a small gem of comedy is: Daniel Day-Lewis telling beautiful women to take off their clothes because he is a doctor (a lie) serves as a touchstone of rakish charm throughout the most dire moments of the movie.
The Ice Storm
In the same way This Is Spinal Tap won me over with its commitment to comedy, this film nailed the complexities of a relationship. It starkly showed couples who were on autopilot—shut down and unreachable. And Ang Lee holds fast to the point of view of children, who see their flawed elders and try to organize their situation in the best way they can.
I was living a little bit of this story in real time, because the film came out while I was living on the border, reporting on drug trafficking in Northern Mexico for the Associated Press. (I was also dating the journalist consultant to the film, a reporter for the New York Times.) The filmmakers got it right. They captured the resignation that countless families caught in the narco racket feel: plata o plomo. Benicio del Toro is magnificent as a doomed local cop, and his performance is as understated and sure-footed as anything I’ve ever seen him in since.
A few years ago, I read that Mike Nichols made sure there was always a window or door visible near Benjamin when he was with Mrs. Robinson. As if to say he could have left at any time. He wasn’t a victim. This movie endures for me because it keeps changing in significance. It began as a risqué and wild peek into a slightly nerdy guy’s life. Now, as a middle-aged mother, I see it differently. For starters, Anne Bancroft was only thirty-five years old during filming—she was hardly the crone or predator I had viewed her as when I was a girl. In fact, watching it now, I see a woman who is toying with a curious young man, a woman stepping off the grid for something that is entirely her own and not meant for public consumption. In my imagination, Mrs. Robinson has other lovers, and The Graduate is just a moment in her arc of disillusionment.
The Manchurian Candidate
A straight-up thriller that galvanized my interest in mind control and hypnosis. When I went on to cover national political campaigns, I clocked the influence that campaign advisors and chiefs of staff had over candidates. And if those staffers happen to be the candidates’ lovers or overbearing parents, all bets are off . . .
Tone, tone, tone. Even in the most touching moments, the movie never strays from the ridiculousness of Dustin Hoffman in panty hose, pancake makeup, a wig, and an exquisite Southern accent. And the heartfelt desperation of an out-of-work actor adds a perfectly acidic zing into what could have been a syrupy rom-com.
One of the first movies I saw on a date after my marriage fell apart. My date and I, both single parents, were glued to the performances of Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette–parents doing the best they can with the tools they have, all while the clock of their son’s childhood ticks on. I know other people were amazed at Richard Linklater’s feat of filming over twelve years. But I would have been sold on the story if there were twelve different actors: I loved the longitudinal look at how the decisions or mistakes that parents make can define their son’s childhood. And, like The Ice Storm, Boyhood never loses touch with our constituency: the boy.
Nathan Lee’s Top 10
Nathan Lee is a critic, curator, and unrepentant champion of Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle. A former film critic for the New York Times, the Village Voice, and NPR, he is a contributing editor of Film Comment and member of the National Society of…