“Ten (More) Nice Movies – Part 3”
In celebration of “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” (4/4 stars), the wonderful and sentimental Fred Rogers documentary, this is the final week of the Phoenix Film Festival’s three-part series to recognize nice films.
This article includes a few well-known domestic films and many international pictures as well, because nice movies are a universal art.
“Babe” (1995) – Narrated by Roscoe Lee Browne and three field mice, “Babe” is the story about a naïve, sensitive pig who tries to find a purpose on a quaint and beautiful sheep farm. One day, however, poor Babe (Christine Cavanaugh) discovers that a pig’s job is to eventually become bacon, sausage, pork chops, and/or ham, but this sweet little orphan might discover another date with destiny. James Cromwell stars as farmer Arthur H. Hoggett, and his animals – with speaking parts – act as his costars, including a border collie (Miriam Margolyes) who Babe calls Mom. Sure, director Chris Noonan’s film includes a few syrupy moments that will not work for all adults, but stay with the movie until the end, because this little piggy is a worthy equal to Wilbur from “Charlotte’s Web” (1973).
“Babette’s Feast” (1987) – Director Gabriel Axel’s picture – which won 1988’s Best Foreign Language Film Oscar – plays like a tranquil, but otherworldly, fable. In a tiny, Danish seaside village during the 19th century, overcast skies always loom over this community of gray homes, and the residents match their houses (and the weather) by sporting gray, green and black textiles. The locals hardly ever experience surprises. That includes two elderly sisters, Filippa (Bodil Kjer) and Martine (Birgitte Federspiel), with one exception. Despite their meager income, they employ a French maid named Babette (Stephane Audran) who also lives under their roof. Babette is a welcome outsider, but the sisters suddenly feel very uneasy, when she wishes to cook an elaborate French dinner. In turn, this subtle and quiet tale offers plenty of food for thought.
“Big” (1988) – Zoltar says, “Make your wish.” That’s all it takes for 12-year-old Josh Baskin, when he steps up to a Zoltar Speaks machine at a local fair and wishes to be big! The next morning, Josh wakes up with an adult body. Specifically, he becomes a 32-year-old Tom Hanks. With all the switcheroo/body swap movies (“Freaky Friday” (1976), “All of Me” (1984), “Like Father, Like Son” (1987), “13 Going on 30” (2004), and many more) out there in Movieland, director Penny Marshall’s “Big” probably stands the tallest. Hanks’s comedic gifts are on full display throughout the picture, but especially when he struggles to fit into his kid pants, eats Oreos while watching “The French Connection” (1971), nibbles on a miniature corn on the cob, and dances on large piano keys with Robert Loggia in the famous FAO Schwarz scene. While Hanks holds court as the most authentic corporate vice-president in MacMillan Toys history, Elizabeth Perkins plays his perfect cinematic partner, a jaded executive who lets down her guard around this playful and youthful adult. Will he stay big forever? It’s up to Zoltar.
“Children of Heaven” (1997) – Some women really love shoes, but a little girl named Zahra (Bahare Seddiqi) desperately needs a pair. Her brother Ali (Amir Farrokh Hashemian) took her damaged pink shoes to the cobbler but lost them afterwards. It was not his fault, but this misstep causes a chain reaction of problems inside and outside their home in Tehran. Nominated for a 1999 Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, writer/director Majid Majidi does not overcomplicate his movie. It centers around the siblings who share Ali’s sneakers, and they easily spur audience sympathy by exhibiting wide swings of emotion. Just when one becomes accustomed to the humble environment of twisty, urban sidewalks, Majidi sends his cameras into entirely different visual spaces and emotional tones. Hey, when a pair of shoes are a stake…
“Eat Drink Man Woman” (1994) – Master chef Chu (Sihung Lung) lost his sense of taste, but not his penchant for worrying about his three grown daughters - Jia-Chien (Chien-Lien Wu), Jia-Jen (Kuei-Mei Yang) and Jia-Ning (Yu-Wen Wang) - nor his talent for whipping up downright fabulous meals in the kitchen. Director/co-writer Ang Lee celebrates the art of cooking, but he mainly follows the women’s individual journeys and their collective relationship with their father. Lee’s movie – nominated for a 1995 Best Foreign Language Film Oscar - rarely features the sisters on-camera together, and instead, they each attempt to find love via separate and very distinct approaches. Lee and co-writers James Schamus and Hui-Ling Wang pen twists along the way, which will leave audiences guessing how family and Taiwanese cuisine will connect in the end.
“Father of the Bride” (1991) – Steve Martin is hilarious as George Banks, an infinitely stressed father whose little girl has grown to a 22-year-old woman (Kimberly Williams-Paisley)…and is now engaged! Engaged? How did 22 years fly by so quickly, and who is this guy? Amid coping with losing his daughter, George realizes that Annie’s (Williams-Paisley) wedding will cost a fortune. Director Charles Shyer’s film falls into familiar suburban clichés, but Martin’s performance – filled with constant trepidation - carries the picture from beginning to end. Fathers everywhere will relate to George’s frequent flashbacks, but no one will exactly sync up with an eccentric wedding coordinator played by Martin Short, Martin’s “Three Amigos” (1986) co-star. Coordinate your schedules to look back at this comical and gentle 90’s classic that fits into any era.
“Good Bye, Lenin!” (2003) – The time and place – 1989 Berlin – is absolutely essential for director Wolfgang Becker’s exceedingly inventive comedy/drama. The Berlin Wall came tumbling down on November 9, and it brought Germany together tangibly. Emotionally? Well, that came later. Early 20-something Alex (Daniel Bruhl) is truly hoping that his mother (Katrin Sab) refrains from emotions. Mutter (Sab) – an East German loyalist - does not know that the Wall fell (for reasons that will not be revealed in this article), and for her health, Alex dives into several schemes to keep her in the dark. Filled with several surprises and many mentions of Spreewald pickles, Becker’s picture will constantly entertain, act as a history lesson and prompt deep sentiment. With some scenes of brief nudity and more instances of cursing (in German, of course), “Good Bye, Lenin!” may not exactly be classified as a nice movie, but Alex’s heartfelt devotion to his mother is more than memorable.
“The Concert” (2009) – Sometimes, life presents opportunities for second chances, and director Radu Mihaileanu’s offbeat story features a most worthy one. In “The Concert”, Andrey Filipov (Aleksey Guskov) has been looking for a second chance for 30 years. Andrey currently works as a janitor for the famed Russian orchestra The Bolshoi, but he once led the company as a conductor. His career fell apart, but fate gives him the possibility to finish some personal business from three decades ago. Andrey and his best friend Sasha (Dmitriy Nazarov) attempt to recruit the old gang and a brilliant, young violinist (Melanie Laurent) to play for one night in Paris. Not every single visual gag or bit of slapstick comedy completely registers, but set aside this small quibble for a moving third act.
“Waking Ned Devine” (1998) – In the little Irish town of Tullymore (population: 52), someone won the national lottery! But who? Jackie (Ian Bannen) did not strike gold, but he hopes that the lucky ticket holder will share some of the winnings with him! Sure, why not? In writer/director Kirk Jones’s wonderful charmer, Jackie recruits his best friend Michael (David Kelly) to help acquire a portion of the money, but they step into knotty complications. Jones bathes the screen with Ireland’s cultural riches (even though he filmed his movie on the Isle of Man) and many notable characters, led by Jackie and Michael, naturally. Speaking of which, Jackie’s wife Annie (Fionnula Flanagan) ironically refers to these two 60-somethings as “the boys”, but this film does not drag on for 60 years. Quite the opposite, it zips by at 91 minutes, and in the end, you will feel like a million bucks!
“Winged Migration” (2001) – “For 80 million years, birds have ruled the skies, seas and earth. Each spring, they fly vast distances. Each fall, they fly the same routes back.” These words mark the opening of directors Jacques Perrin’s, Jacques Cluzaud’s and Michel Debats’s remarkable movie. The aforementioned filmmakers spent three years on all seven continents following the migratory paths of countless types of birds, and in the process, their work helps translate 80 million years of instinct into an 85-minute documentary. Perrin, Cluzaud and Debats capture closeups of greylag geese, sandhill cranes, bald eagles, and many, many more birds in flight that will send you into dreamlike trances of fanciful, majestic beauty and the realization of their incredible hardships. This Oscar-nominated doc should really be experienced in an IMAX theatre, but a big screen television will fly as well.
Jeff – a member of the Phoenix Critics Circle – has penned film reviews since 2008 and graduated from ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism. Follow Jeff and the Phoenix Film Festival on Twitter @MitchFilmCritic and @PhoenixFilmFest, respectively.