Among the wondrous things the movies can do is capture some aspect of life without intending to. Between gunfights, a gangster picture makes you appreciate fruits and vegetables. A Polish drama about religious faith conveys the power of jazz better than a bunch of musicals. Here are a dozen examples, those two and 10 others, of how a movie can take an oblique approach to something and get it just right.
Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood (2019) The movies love cars almost as much as they love physical beauty and guns, and the movies really love physical beauty and guns. Cars are incidental to Quentin Tarantino’s reimagining of the Manson murders. So the scenes featuring driving are a bonus —and pure exhilaration. Tach up, top down, radio on: Tarantino and cinematographer Robert Richardson ravishingly convey the glory of internal-combustion motion in its capital, Los Angeles, the city of our lady of the automobile. Available on Amazon Prime, Google Play, Hulu, Starz, Vudu, YouTube.
The Godfather (1972) The obvious food association is that indelible wisdom offered by Clemenza (Richard Castellano): “Leave the gun, take the cannoli.” It’s a great line, sure. But also recall the unexpected beauty of the toppled oranges during the assassination attempt on Don Vito (Marlon Brando) or the moving incongruity of his death among the tomato plants in his garden. Amazon Prime, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube.
Unforgiven (1992) There are more moments of un-Clint-like behavior in Clint Eastwood’s filmography than you might think: announcing “I abhor violence,” in “City Heat” (1984); wearing sandals, in “The Bridges of Madison County” (1995); reading Yeats’s poetry, in “Million Dollar Baby” (2004). None quite matches his being a widower with two young children, in “Unforgiven.” On the one hand, the idea of him leaving them alone so he can go off to collect a bounty is, basically, unthinkable (not even Clint is that single-minded and unfeeling). On the other, being alone on the High Plains, having to work a pig farm, and care for his offspring by himself — well, any parent, let alone an unpartnered one, can see how heading off to make a big score, let alone doing so in the company of Morgan Freeman, might have a powerful appeal. Available on Amazon Prime, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube.
Wings of Desire (1987) Wim Wenders’s astonishing movie about overcoat-wearing angels in modern Germany has a long sequence set in the Berlin State Library. Its cavernous open-plan space is very different from the book-lined coziness usually associated with a library. But what Wenders understands is how libraries are as much about imagining as reading, society as solitude, dreams as books. Have you ever noticed how much the rustle of a turning page sounds like the flutter of an angel’s wing? Available on Amazon Prime, Google Play, iTunes, YouTube.
Ida (2013) You may well wonder what jazz has to do with a drama set in Cold War-era Poland about a young woman studying to be a nun (she’s the title character) who discovers that she’s Jewish. Well, hearing John Coltrane’s “Equinox” — so exotic, even otherworldly in such a context — helps Ida make a momentous decision. Pawel Pawlikowski, who wrote and directed, has a rare talent for using music onscreen: as with Mozart and Beethoven, also in “Ida,” or Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock,” in “Cold War” (2018). If you’re a jazz fan, you’ve likely heard “Equinox” many times. After “Ida,” you’ll never hear it the same way again. And if you’ve never heard “Equinox” before? You’ll want to hear it again and again. Available on Amazon Prime, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube.
State of Play (2003) I have had dealings with four demonstrably great newspaper editors. Two I worked for at the Globe: Tom Winship and Marty Baron. One handed me my head in a job interview — The New York Times’s Abe Rosenthal — though he did it so masterfully I left his office more admiring than angry. As for The Washington Post’s Ben Bradlee, I sat in front of him at a memorial service. All right, that’s a tenuous connection, but the eavesdropping was fabulous. None of them compares to Bill Nighy in this British limited series. It later became a good, not great, 2009 movie, with Helen Mirren as the editor. Nighy is smart, funny, flip, caring, sarcastic, charismatic, ruthless, and, in the best possible sense, a complete bastard. Available on Amazon Prime.
Dunkirk (2017) Christopher Nolan’s epic isn’t a horror movie out to scare you. What it cares about is survival — and national filial piety. But that makes the bit of indirection that is its opening all the more frightening. A squad of bewildered British soldiers trudge down a street. There’s a war going on, but not right here. All is quiet. Leaflets fall from the sky, the sight of them as soothing as snowflakes. Then gunfire erupts, German gunfire, and the men who don’t immediately die flee for their lives. “Be afraid. Be very afraid” is the famous tagline for “The Fly” (1986). It applies even more here.
Up (2009) Being a Pixar movie, “Up” is about great visuals, antic humor, chase scenes, and, in this case, how various, wonderful, and useful balloons can be. Which makes all the more miraculous that early on it includes a four-minute montage showing the course of a couple’s life together. We follow Carl and Ellie from their wedding day to her death and his grief. The sequence is humorous, touching, true to life, and a marvel of storytelling economy. Available on Amazon Prime, Disney+, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube.
Beatles über alles
Jojo Rabbit (2019) Taika Waititi’s wildly uneven phantasmagoria about Adolf Hitler as a young boy’s imaginary friend can be very funny — and very not. Nothing in it is funnier than hearing on the soundtrack the Beatles singing “I Want to Hold Your Hand” in German. It’s not as if Waititi intends to underscore the universal appeal of the Fab Four, but that’s what he does. Available on Amazon Prime, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube.
Bob le Flambeur (1956) Jean-Pierre Melville loved America the way a high roller loves Vegas. Which makes it so odd, yet no less pleasing, that the opening of this caper movie about a classy French crook (Roger Duchesne) should be as pluperfect an evocation of the City of Light as there is. It’s a panoramic view at dawn, looking down from Montmartre, softened by morning mist and Melville’s unashamed romanticism. No actual visit could produce a comparably beautiful or rapturous image.
The Great Escape (1963) There have been lots of motorcycle movies. This is a POW movie. So how does it manage not only to include a motorcycle scene but have it be probably the most famous motorcycle scene in movie history? Two words: “Steve” and “McQueen.” What “The Great Escape” (note the title) gets so right about motorcycles is the combination of velocity and possibility and agency — or, in other words, Steve McQueen.
Fresh produce II
The Shining (1980) Sometimes the issue is absence rather than presence. You know the plot. Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall play a couple with a young son who are hired to winter over as caretakers in a remote resort hotel. Among the many striking images Stanley Kubrick offers up is the sight of an immense supply of canned goods and dried foods in the pantry. Right, no fresh produce all winter. That Indian burial ground the hotel’s built on may not be the only reason Jack goes nuts.
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.