#2. Comedy -- Defending Your Life
For those of you who may know Albert Brooks only as the bad guy in Drive, you might be surprised to learn that he has written and directed some great comedies. You might also be surprised to learn that he's your real dad, but I'm not sure that one's actually true.
Can you see a resemblance?
Defending Your Life takes place in kind of a weigh station on the route to heaven where the recently dead are evaluated. Those who have conquered their fears and led a good life proceed on to heaven; those who are still evolving toward that point are sent back to Earth in a new form to try again.
Albert Brooks plays Daniel Miller, a well-meaning but utterly frightened man who has let fear prevent him from living a better life. As the movie progresses, we see his review panel watch one miserable experience from his life after another. Conversely, Meryl Streep, another recently dead person, watches clips from her life like a montage reel at an awards show. She has conquered the fear that would prevent a lesser person from rushing into a burning building to save a cat. (Which indeed she does.)
If Defending Your Life were like most romances (or CBS sitcoms about wives who are far too hot and smart for their screw-up husbands), Meryl would begrudgingly show him the way, but she doesn't do that. She just starts to fall in love with him for who he is -- just a smart funny guy who's crazy about her. And it's kind of heartbreaking at the end of the movie when one bus takes her away to heaven and another bus transports him back to Earth. In that moment, however, Brooks faces his fear, jumps off a moving bus and earns his right to spend eternity with the woman he loves. By making it a story about personal growth and not a plucky romantic comedy, Brooks created a movie with more laughs and a more compelling love story than every film Jennifer Aniston or Julia Roberts has ever been in.
#1. Western: Unforgiven
There's been no shortage of talk about Clint Eastwood's 1992 Oscar-winning Western, Unforgiven, and that's as it should be. It's actually not an exaggeration to say that the film deconstructs and rebuilds the entire genre. For those of you who haven't seen it, kill yourself. Are you dead now? Good. You had that coming. Now go watch Unforgiven and you'll see it's the story of a once-notorious gun-slinging criminal who comes out of retirement to collect the bounty on two men who were responsible for cruelly disfiguring a prostitute.
Most of the movie is designed to debunk the notion of the badass superman cowboy, but ultimately, it's just a long con. In the final scene we learn, despite everything we've just been taught, that outlaw heroes are real.
Early on, Richard Harris' character, English Bob, falsely claims to be such a man. He even travels with his own biographer. But Bob is reduced to nothing by Sheriff "Little Bill," played by Gene Hackman. Little Bill is a no-frills authority figure: smart and tough, but also not a hero. He seems to relish his authority too much. He delights in Bob's beating in a way that only a true bully could, and he exists in a town where guns are banned. He seems to perpetually have the upper hand. More than anyone, Little Bill wants people to know that cowboy legends aren't real.
He also wants to make sure you never watch The Quick and the Dead.
Then there's Eastwood's character, Will Munny -- reformed alcoholic, widower and struggling farmer trying to raise his kids. We hear he was a notorious outlaw, but there's no trace of it in his demeanor. He travels the movie fairly unimpressively, showing no particular talent for killing until his friend Ned is murdered and displayed outside the saloon/brothel where the prostitute was brutalized. Munny enters the hostile room of Little Bill and approximately 20 others with his gun drawn and ... wins. He does everything the movie spent two hours explaining couldn't be done. He kills five men, clears the room and remains unscathed.
"So where's the love story, Gladstone?" you ask, and for a moment I'm confused, because I assume you're my wife. But anyone watching the movie has to notice that despite it being all about Munny and cowboys and killing, it starts and ends with narration about Munny's now deceased wife:
She was a comely young woman and not without prospects. Therefore it was heartbreaking to her mother that she would enter into marriage with William Munny, a known thief and murderer, a man of notoriously vicious and intemperate disposition.
And at the close of the movie:
Some years later, Mrs. Ansonia Feathers made the arduous journey to Hodgeman County, Kansas, to visit the last resting place of her only daughter. William Munny had long since disappeared with the children ... some said to San Francisco where it was rumored he prospered in dry goods. And there was nothing on the marker to explain to Mrs. Feathers why her only daughter had married a known thief and murderer, a man of notoriously vicious and intemperate disposition.
That's the whole love story right there. Nothing more, but it takes Unforgiven from a good movie to a great movie for me. Even in the midst of 21st century instant gratification, those seemingly irrelevant and ambiguous details make us wonder. What did she see in him? And the answer isn't as important as the fact that she did see something. Something made her fall in love, and it was a love so strong that despite other prospects, she had to be with this man and his dark past. And for that, her love was rewarded. He put down his gun, he gave up the drink and he thought only of providing for their children when she passed.
We also know that Munny must have loved her, too. After all, giving up all his evil ways was no big deal when we thought he was just some thug with a gun. By the end of the movie, however, we see that he is the stranger from A Fistful of Dollars. He is the outlaw Josie Wales. He is the living embodiment of every natural born killer cowboy myth we've ever heard, and he put it all away for love.
One of the greatest love stories ever, with not one scene of the couple together, and barely any words explaining their love.
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For more from Gladstone, check out The 4 Kinds of People (And What You Can Learn From Them) and The 9 Most Likely Reasons You've Been Unfollowed on Twitter.