The fourth of July means only one thing to all right-thinking Americans—endless articles listing “The Most Patriotic Movies Ever!,” most which involve Mel Gibson ramming an American flag through an unfortunate foreigner’s chest cavity. Well, I’m taking things in another direction this year with my admittedly eccentric list of films which embody the spirit of America in their own unique ways. Strangely, very few of them involve shooting foreign people.
One thing America isn’t good at is being an underdog. For one thing, we’re impatient with the thought that anyone imagines we’re not the best at everything. For another, America’s cultural hegemony means we’re usually the big bully that real underdogs are inspirationally triumphing over. How to fix that? Movies about sports America’s traditionally terrible at! In both of these undeniably stirring sports flicks, it’s the rag-tag group of loveable American misfits (the 1980 Olympic hockey team and the 500-1 longshot US soccer team that actually managed to win a game at the 1950 World Cup) who overcome impossible odds against big bully world powers the Soviet Union and England, respectively. USA! USA!
As much as certain people/political parties would like to claim otherwise, the immigrant experience is integral to what America truly is, and Paul Mazursky’s 1984 comedy is an especially clear-eyed yet warm-hearted exploration of that fact. Robin Williams (of all people) delivers a lovely, understated performance as Vladimir, a Russian circus clown who impulsively defects in the middle of Bloomingdale’s. Treated like a feel-good story for a day, Vladimir journeys from his initial, naïve dreams of life in the land of the free, to the disillusionment of the disenfranchised, and finally to genuine citizenship, with all its attendant compromises.
Leave it to maverick independent director John Sayles to make Texas the site of one of the movies’ most eloquent, subtle cases for racial understanding. In a border town where the white minority chafes at the growing Mexican-American influence, two former lovers (the great Chris Cooper and underrated Elizabeth Peña) gradually realize how inexorably they embody the town’s often ugly racial history, and yet find the strength and understanding to overcome it. A complex, multi-generational mystery—whose only solution is to blend.
Robert Altman’s sprawling July 4th epic begins with a massive traffic jam and ends with a senseless act of violence. In between, it introduces a huge, disparate cast of characters, each in their own way looking desperately for their specific portion of the American dream in the flag-strewn country music Mecca of Nashville. It’s a glorious, heartbreaking, uniquely American mess, but even noted cynic Altman generously allows most of them some measure of grace and comfort on the most patriotic day of the year.
Sure, Humphrey Bogart’s expatriate Rick makes the ultimate sacrifice for his country, letting luminous Ingrid Bergman go so she can inspire her noble but boring freedom fighter husband Paul Henreid to fight the Nazis. But it’s the little scene after Bergman first appears at his Casablanca bar that shows what’s coming, when Rick muses, obviously for the first time in a long time, about the America he left behind. “I bet they’re asleep in New York. I bet they’re asleep all over America.” Bogart’s eyes as he speaks speak volumes—even the toughest guy in the world can’t escape the country he loves.
NICKELODEON CINEMA | www.patriotcinemas.com
Friday: “Snowpiercer.” Any new film from brilliant Korean director Bong Joon-ho (“The Host,” “Mother”) is a must-see, but this apocalyptic sci-fi tale about huddled humanity racing around the globe in a massive, class-stratified train looks weird and fantastic. Plus, Harvey Weinstein keeps trying to dumb it down, which can only mean it’s great. Co-presented by SPACE Gallery.
SPACE GALLERY | www.space538.org
Tuesday: “Return To Homs.” The goalie for the Syrian national soccer team and a pacifist documentarian team up to try to bring peace to war-torn Syria, but find that the country’s ingrained violence has other plans in this documentary that proves that everything is awful.