Blackberries Off: Ten Essential Movies For Easily Distracted Twenty-Somethings

Anyone who missed Matt Richtel's piece in last Sunday's New York Times ("Growing Up Digital, Wired for Distraction") should lay hands on it now.

It's a sobering if not downright frightening report on eroding attention-skills among today's high schoolers, who increasingly forsake their summer reading -- and sustained reading of any sort -- in favor of video games and sites like Facebook and YouTube, not to mention ongoing texting sessions.

The article suggests all this new technology may be acclimating young people to virtually continual multitasking and short bursts of insight and entertainment, while making them actively avoid and tune out more traditional, disciplined forms of learning that require sustained focus and follow-through.

Such endeavors might include reading a book, attending a play with an intermission, or watching a serious feature-length film that's not somehow modeled on a video game.

In short, while they may be way ahead of us in knowing how to leverage all the whiz-bang gifts of the digital age, today's late teens and early twenty-somethings may also be the most easily distracted generation on record.

This scares me mightily because I so prize books, theatre, and all sorts of great film, and want my kids to feel the same way- not just to share the enjoyment, but because great art and literature teach us so much about life-and about how to live.

Will this next generation derive comparable value and insight from all these Facebook interactions, video games, texting, and short-form YouTube content, as we all did from the books, plays, and movies that helped shape us?

I don't know the answer, but I feel distinctly uneasy about it. The idea of a world where educated people don't read great books or watch serious films feels profoundly alien to me, and I have to believe that the quality of our national discourse will suffer for it (if it's not suffering already). I hope I'm wrong.

Regardless, there is a fundamentally disturbing yet irrefutable subtext to the Richtel piece: all this technology is here to stay; the genie won't go back in the bottle. Therefore, it will be up to us (and our descendants) to figure out its greatest benefits-and most insidious pitfalls.

At this moment of giving thanks, I find myself profoundly grateful to be of my own time- in effect, a twentieth century man living in the twenty-first century.

I am grateful for all the experiences I had in my teens, twenties and thirties when I went out with a friend and spent hours with just that person, with never a thought of checking for messages.

I am grateful for all the books I loved and devoured: histories of great events, biographies of fascinating people that came before me; sweeping, epic novels that transported me to other times and places.

I am grateful for having seen Brian Dennehy in "Death Of A Salesman", George C. Scott in "Inherit The Wind", and Vanessa Redgrave in "Long Day's Journey Into Night".

And as for do I even begin?

Well, I conceived a (fairly absurd) doomsday scenario built around the following premise:

What if we only had a month in which to force our young adult offspring to see ten essential movies before they succumbed entirely to short-form digital content?

My own personal picks follow, any and all of them worthy selections for communal viewing before or after Turkey time.

Duck Soup (1933)- Only one man can lead country of Freedonia into fiscal ruin and a disastrous war with neighboring Sylvania: Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho Marx). He'd save the day if it weren't for the crazy machinations of Chico and Harpo, who constantly spoil his plans. Firefly's best prospects lie with rich widow Mrs. Teasdale (Margaret Dumont), whose large fortune could underwrite his plans, or whatever else might come up. Considered by many to be the Marx Brothers' greatest film, "Duck Soup" remains must viewing. Even if you don't catch all the rapid-fire dialogue the first time out, you're sure to enjoy the delirious physical humor and prevailing sense of anarchy. On one level a biting denunciation of war and fascism, the movie also stands as one of the screen's top comedies.

Modern Times (1936)- The immortal Chaplin plays a variation on his "little tramp" character as an industrial worker whose gentle nature is at odds with an increasingly mechanized, dehumanized workplace. In a star-making turn, future real-life spouse Paulette Goddard plays the waif Charlie befriends, protects and loves. Will these two struggling characters find their proper place in this ever-more complex, ever-less hospitable world? Chaplin first conceived this masterpiece as a talkie, but in an act of considerable courage, decided instead to make a silent film with sound, mostly special effects. To reinforce his central theme of technology's dehumanizing effect, we hear human voices only through mechanical devices like loudspeakers. This brilliant work is replete with Chaplin's signature visual gags and set pieces, most notably the sequence when Charlie himself gets caught up in the assembly line machinery. "Modern Times" still feels relevant today, and represents an ideal initial exposure to Chaplin for younger generations. And Paulette makes a truly beguiling foil. Don't miss that fade-out!

Sullivan's Travels (1941)- John L. Sullivan (Joel McCrea) is a successful director of Hollywood fluff who decides he wants to make a serious picture about "real world" suffering. Disguising himself as a tramp, the earnest but naive Sullivan hits the road with a ridiculous entourage provided by his cynical studio bosses. Eventually, he meets a down-on-her-luck actress (Veronica Lake) and learns the hard way how poverty dampens, but doesn't extinguish, the human spirit. Widely considered the greatest of Preston Sturges's classic 1940s films, "Sullivan's Travels" is a stunning hybrid, blending giddy slapstick and razor-sharp humor with grim, unblinking social realism. McCrea and Lake make a fun pair, comically and romantically, while Robert Greig is a hoot as Sullivan's droll butler. It's hard to imagine anyone but Sturges concocting this incisively scripted, beautifully directed Hollywood satire, which ultimately has a lot to say about the restorative power of laughter.

Bicycle Thieves (1948)- In a devastated Italy just after the Second World War, we meet Antonio (Lamberto Maggiorani), who just manages to scrounge a living for himself and his family putting up movie posters around town. Antonio's job depends entirely on his bicycle, however, and soon disaster strikes. Someone steals his bike right out from under him, and with his adoring son Bruno (Enzo Staiola) in tow, an increasingly desperate Antonio scours Rome to retrieve it. Finally, he resorts to the theft of another bike to put bread on his table. "Thieves" still packs a wallop, portraying poverty's heartless capacity to rob a father of the thing an impressionable son needs to see most --his basic dignity. Authentic location shooting all around war-scarred Rome also lends impact and authenticity. For his powerful work, director Vittorio De Sica was awarded a special Oscar in 1948 several years before the Academy established a category for best foreign film.

Rashomon (1950)- In medieval Japan, man and wife on horseback have a chance encounter with a thief in the woods. Ultimately, the man is murdered, the wife raped. Beyond the reality of these events, precise circumstances are more difficult to establish, since the various witnesses' recollections of the incident differ markedly. Director Akira Kurosawa's ingenious breakthrough feature examines the elusive nature of truth, and our ability to reshape it to suit what we want to believe. Brilliantly composed and shot, the film's dreamlike quality is positively hypnotic. "Rashomon", often the first Japanese film a post-War America was exposed to, remains an indelible cinematic triumph after more than sixty years, unlike most anything else you'll ever see. A work of pure cinematic genius.

All About Eve (1950)- The fabled Joseph L. Mankiewicz's directorial peak concerns aging stage actress Margo Channing (Bette Davis), wise in the ways of fame and the theatre, who's nevertheless blindsided by an adoring fan named Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter). Eve enters Margo's orbit as awed acolyte, then slowly usurps everything Margo has in one subtle, masterful act of manipulation. Don't miss this devastatingly sharp, caustic take on the theatre world, and the wide assortment of parasites, barracudas, and hangers-on that populate it. Eve is the wolf in sheep's clothing, a comer with just enough talent and cunning to penetrate Margo's inner circle and catch her when she's vulnerable and feeling her age. Davis gives the best performance of her long career, and young Baxter is also outstanding. But it's George Sanders-at once dry and oily- who nearly steals the picture as jaded critic Addison De Witt, the only soul wise enough to see what Eve is up to. (On his arm in one key scene is Marilyn Monroe, in a minor bit as a vacuous but decorative chorus girl.) Both Mankiewicz and Sanders took home Oscars, and a nominated Bette should have. A must-see.

On The Waterfront (1954)- Washed-up prizefighter Terry Molloy (Marlon Brando) is increasingly disillusioned, working for his mobster brother, Charley (Rod Steiger), who is the right-hand man to waterfront boss Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb). A budding relationship with Edie (Eva Marie-Saint) a pretty young woman whose brother was victimized by Friendly's men, inspires Terry to take a stand against the widespread corruption on the waterfront and thus regain his self-respect. Here, Brando teamed with director Elia Kazan for the third time on film, and the result is what many consider their best work together. Its gritty, almost claustrophobic on-location direction captures the human desperation and sense of danger emanating from the waterfront neighborhood, a world unto itself. The acting is absolutely top notch throughout, as a luminous Marie-Saint, Steiger, Cobb and Karl Malden (as a neighborhood priest) all perform at Marlon's level. The film's ending will leave you breathless. (Kazan himself later stated he considered Brando's work here the finest male performance he'd ever witnessed on-screen.)

12 Angry Men (1957)-
A young man is accused of murder, and as the jury deliberates on a verdict, only one juror (Henry Fonda) holds out for acquittal, causing frustration among the majority. The advocate for reasonable doubt gets under the skin of one particular juror (Lee J. Cobb), whose belief in the man's guilt is tinged with an underlying anger. As deliberations continue, the pendulum gradually begins to move in the other direction. Still, reaching a unanimous verdict will pose an enormous challenge. Sidney Lumet's first feature film is a spare, powerful human drama of the first order. Fonda has never been better as the voice of reason, and his fellow jurors are played by some of the best character actors of the day, including Jack Warden, E.G Marshall, Martin Balsam, and Jack Klugman. Finally, as Fonda's nemesis, Cobb projects the savage fury of a man too often wronged, a victim of his own blinding ignorance. Often imitated but never equaled, this was a big triumph made on a small budget.

The 400 Blows (1959)- Neglected by his parents and persecuted by an unfeeling disciplinarian (Guy Decomble) at school, troubled 12-year-old Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud) runs away from home, but a life of freedom on the streets soon turns bleak. Eventually, after his own father (Albert Remy) turns him in to the police for stealing a typewriter, Antoine finds himself locked up in a juvenile detention center. Will Antoine figure out how to get his life back on-track? Writer-director François Truffaut's first feature, "Blows" is an early, timeless classic of the French New Wave, released the same year as Godard's "Breathless." Drawing on his own life experience as a truant and petty thief, Truffaut created this lyrical, poignant story of innocence and injustice featuring the astonishingly expressive Léaud, who'd go on to play Truffaut's on-screen alter-ego Antoine in several more films. "Blows" not only helped change the face of film--especially with its documentary-like feel for Parisian street life and a wrenching, poetically ambivalent final image--it also became the gold standard for all tales of youthful misery.

To Kill A Mockingbird (1962)- In this much-anticipated screen adaptation of Harper Lee's Pulitzer Prize winning best-seller, Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck), a widower and small-town lawyer in the Depression-era South, bravely defends a black man accused of raping a white girl, causing resentment in the community and potential danger to Finch and his young family. Atticus's two children, Scout (Mary Badham) and Jem (Philip Alford), process all this while also trying to unravel the mystery of Boo Radley (Robert Duvall, in his film debut), the supposedly crazy man who lives nearby. One of those rare instances when a fabulous book makes for an equally fabulous movie, Robert Mulligan's immensely moving "Mockingbird" remains a powerful meditation on the wonders of memory and childhood, with much of the action seen through young Scout's eyes. Particularly affecting is the relationship between Scout and her widower Dad Atticus, whom she plainly adores. This landmark feature also sheds penetrating light on the racial intolerance in our country's recent past. Child actors Badham and Alford give affecting, natural performances, and Peck, in the role of his career, deservedly won an Oscar for this. Make this required viewing.

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