American Sniper, Selma, Unbroken: Three 'Important' Movies of 2014 for the Holidays

The idea of Important differs from Best: for American Sniper, Selma, and Unbroken, Best is beside the point. Each film is enormously engaging, highly recommended, and grounded in history on a large canvas. While many reviewers are concerned with the qualities that push films into the awards race, and all three deserve the Oscar nod for Best Picture, it is the aspect of Important that makes them must-see films, even when the subject may be difficult.

American Sniper is a quintessential Clint Eastwood film, remarkable in that it is at the level of the best he has ever made, like Unforgiven, a late stage coup in a stellar career. I saw the film last week, and can still hear the rat-a-tat of sniper fire, see a rooftop gunman training his eye on a boy wielding a weapon. Bradley Cooper stars as Chris Kyle, a characterization based on a real life hero, a veteran of four tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, who, if you know this story, meets an untoward fate. The war is the backdrop to the grand Shakespearean subject of what makes a man. Brave, strong, fearless, yes, but Cooper's Kyle is thoughtful and sensitive in his relationship to his wife Taya, played compellingly by Sienna Miller, and to the enormous difficulty of returning stateside to family after the drama in Faluja. Last week at a luncheon at the Four Seasons, Taya Kyle, represented the point of view of the wives of brave men as was her husband. The wives match their husbands' valor.

Ava DuVernay's Selma features Martin Luther King, Jr., a splendid David Oyelowo, in a brief, but hugely resonant episode in the history of civil rights, the 1965 march in Selma, which resulted in congress' passing the Voting Rights Act. Working the room at Philippe last week, the British actor, could tell you how long the debate about these matters has raged in American history long before the march in Selma. An actor in Steven Spielberg's Lincoln, Oyelowo observed that voting rights were under discussion too, more than one hundred years before. Oyelowo knew more about this history than the Americans at the dinner table. Oprah Winfrey plays Annie Lee Cooper, who was mentioned with pride in President Obama's first inaugural speech. Persistent, she was one woman who would not be turned away from her right to vote. Meantime, Ava DuVernay may make history too, as a black woman director, the first to be nominated for awards in her field.

Director Angelina Jolie focuses on another American hero in Unbroken, Louis Zamperini, in a way, the subject of three movies contained in one, the rise of an American Olympian athlete, the survival of a pilot after a crash 47 days in a raft in the Pacific, and patriotism of a prisoner of war in Japan. While many say the movie is about survival, the eh, unbreakable human spirit, as a follow up to Jolie's movie about the Bosnian War, In the Land of Blood and Honey, this movie is an anti-war movie, and features difficult scenes of inexplicable cruelty. Adapted from Laura Hillenbrand's book, the film is reminiscent of last year's Railway Man, particularly in its depiction of Zamperini (Jack O'Connell) singled out for torture by a young officer played with boyish, insecure whimsy by Japanese rock star Miyavi. A march out of the disbanded camp through urban Dresden-like ruins was a scene Jolie insisted upon, to make her antiwar point, said Matthew Baer, the film's producer, at last week's lunch at The Metropolitan Club. Unbroken is a gorgeously shot, tough movie. But, as in her Bosnia movie, the actors, including Garrett Hedlund and Finn Whitrock praised Jolie as an angel. Angelina Jolie looked prim as a schoolmarm at the lunch, as she spoke of her commitment to getting Zamperini's story right, bringing the unfinished film on her laptop to Louis Zamperini's hospital bed, so he could see it in his final days.

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