By Matt Singer | Criticwire May 27, 2013 at 9:59AM
Q: What movie should people watch today in honor of Memorial Day?
The critics' answers:
"Honestly, I'm not sure that there is a good answer to this question. Memorial Day is so often described with words like 'sacrifice' and 'heroism,' but so few films confront those subjects head-on -- probably because challenging the nature of heroism and sacrifice is not very crowd-pleasing. Consider 'Saving Private Ryan,' which jabs in that direction (Jeremy Davies using line 'Ours is not to reason why, ours is but to do or die' and being roundly mocked for it) but ultimately comes down with a heroic victory to justify the unit's losses. Vietnam films often go in the other direction, using dishonorable soldiers to justify the undesirable result of the war. One movie that I would like more critics to re-consider this Memorial Day is 'In the Valley of Elah,' Paul Haggis' take on the Iraq War. It's not a perfect film -- Haggis has a tin ear for Charlize Theron's character -- but I found Tommy Lee Jones' performance to be masterful, and the ultimate theme of the film (that even those who make it home alive and intact can be war casualties) is an important one that must be remembered anew every time soldiers are sent into conflict."
"'The Tillman Story.'"
"Jean Renoir's 1937 'La Grande Illusion.' One of the best anti-war films in history, Jean Gabin, Erich von Stroheim, and Dita Parlo show humanity beyond national cliches."
"Honestly, I think that's a stupid question. If you want to honor Memorial Day in the traditional sense, spend time with people who've lost loved ones to war, and take them to see whatever they'd like. If you want to celebrate it as the beginning of summer and a holiday weekend, the tradition is seeing whatever big action movie just opened, in this case 'Furious 6.' But watching 'Saving Private Ryan' or something like that just because it's Memorial Day does not make you a better person."
"I'm going to cheat and offer three documentaries that will give you a more complete picture of the importance of Memorial Day than a fictional piece ever could. Start with 'The Fog of War,' Errol Morris's brilliant dissection of the history of combat, for a better understanding of why modern wars happen in the first place. Move on to one of the best on-the-ground documents of war, the harrowing 'Restrepo.' End with the too-little-seen 'Hell and Back Again' for a look at what our veterans go through when they get home."
"Samuel Fuller's 'The Big Red One.'"
"It may not be the most uplifting choice, but I'm going with 'Paths of Glory,' one of Stanley Kubrick's many grim and cynical classics. This story, about a French colonel during World War I who defends a group of soldiers hand-picked as scapegoats for refusing to continue a suicidal attack, does not particularly endorse the institutionalization of the military. However, in its lead character, portrayed masterfully by Kirk Douglas, it champions the goodness of honesty, morals, and ethics. Of course, as much as Colonel Dax embodies those traits, he's not victorious, but that moral defeat is a powerful, if disturbing lesson to take heart on such an important day."
"For Memorial Day, the perfect film to watch is the best film about America -- Robert Altman's 'Nashville.' Accept no substitutes."
"I view Memorial Day as the unofficial start to summer, so you should watch one of the best movies about that feeling, 'The Sandlot.' It captures a lot about what is great about summer as a kid and takes you through all of those experiences quite effectively. Plus, who doesn't love The Beast, 'For-ev-er' and Wendy Peffercorn?"
"'Saving Private Ryan' is a great war film, and one that respects the veteran perspective. Group this with the 'Band of Brothers' and 'Pacific' series' Spielberg and Hanks produced for HBO and you have a fairly complete picture of what soldiers went through during WWII. All of these have a unique angle of showing and using veteran testimonials in a way that is both respectful and insightful."
"Memorial Day began after the American Civil War and was originally meant to honor the Union and Confederate soldiers who had died during their military service. For that reason, I feel people should watch the 1989 American drama 'Glory.' Directed by Edward Zwick, the movie starred Matthew Broderick, Denzel Washington, Cary Elwes and Morgan Freeman. The movie was based on the personal letters of Robert Gould Shaw, Lincoln Kirstein's novel 'Lay This Laurel' and Peter Burchard's historical book 'One Gallant Rush.' The movie is a fictional account of the formation of the 54th Massachusette Volunteer Infantry, one of the first formal African American units, and its gallant and suicidal rush. The 54th is led by Colonel Robert Gould Shaw (Broderick), who came from prominent abolitionist family. Although the movie is about a black experience seen through white eyes, we are able to see the innocent and doubt of Shaw transforms as he comes to know the men better. Washington won a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award. Soon after the movie came out, I read Burchard's book and I visited the Robert Gould Shaw Memorial that is on Beacon and Park streets (since 1897) in Boston. I would later think about Shaw and the 54th as Los Angeles uneasily resettled into a community divided by race and economics after the 1992 Los Angeles Riots. During the Los Angeles Riots, an African American man named Gregory Alan-Williams (currently a recurring character on the TV series 'Necessary Roughness') saved a Japanese American man (Takao Hirata) from being beaten to death. Like Lei and Pierre Yuille, Titus Murphy, Terri Barnett, and Bobby Green Jr. who saved Reginald Oliver Denny, Alan Williams stepped forward and endangered his own live in order to save a complete stranger, crossing the racial divide. Alan Williams told reporters: 'I said to myself, 'If I don't help this man, when the mob comes for me. there will be nobody there for me.' If I stood there and watched this man be murdered, then what sort of justice could I ask for myself?' By crossing the lines of economic class, race and even religion, these people gave us the road signs toward peace. The movie 'Glory' reminds us that this country was once divided over the issue of slavery and how too often wars both large and small were fought because of prejudice. How many wars could have been prevented and how many men and women would have lived long and productive lives if people weren't so easily seduced into thinking they are superior to the imaginary other instead of realizing that the human race is a collective we. We stand on the same side of the fence as we head toward an uncertain future and we all want and deserved justice in our live on this earth."
"Going with the meaning behind the holiday -- as a moment to honor the men and women who died serving in the American Armed Forces -- my choice would actually be the 2010 documentary 'Restrepo.' The documentary dares to tell its tale from the point of view of the soldiers who served at its titular forward operating base. No additional perspective or opinion is offered from commanding officers or analysts. The fact that the voices of these men are the only voices we hear is what makes this film so essential, as it's men and women like them that America honors on this day. Thankfully, the faces we see in this film all made it out to tell the tale, but it gives you a clear picture of the people who fight in our name, and the people who die in those fights."
"I guess the obvious response is to pick a war movie of some sort, but in the interest of being a little different, I'll pick Jim Sheridan's 'In America.' This touching story of an Irish family moving to New York to seek a better way of life celebrates the American dream that our troops, past and present, fought so valiantly to protect."
"I'll try and be different and suggest a double feature of 'Zero Dark Thirty' and the documentary 'Manhunt,' which feels like it belongs on the Blu-ray of Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal's film. The former is just a fantastic film and never sensationalizes, while the latter shows you the work that our service men and women put into keeping us safe. Also, I just saw it on HBO today while I was thinking of this question, so it just made sense."
"'Abner, the Invisible Dog.'"
"Preston Sturges' 'Hail the Conquering Hero' is the greatest movie Hollywood has ever made about war on the home front -- and a hilarious comedy in the bargain. It manages at once to lampoon patriotism, civic pride and mother-love and to honor them all. That it was made in the midst of the 20th century's most horrifying war is absolutely astonishing. It is perfection, and it is still too-little seen. Remedy that."
"'Full Metal Jacket.' Perhaps not the most traditionally respectful film about the military, but its depiction of the horrors of war -- both the psychological impact and the physical sacrifice -- is devastating. Plus it's just shot so exquisitely."
"It's not a film about Americans at war, so, technically, Jean Renoir's 'Grand Illusion' may not be an ideal fit for this very American day of remembrance. But, to me, this glorious wallop of an anti-war (any war) movie is grand viewing just about any day. While the story may be set in World War I, it's humanitarian lessons ring remarkably true today, reminding us that we may, indeed, not be as different from our enemy as we might like to think."
"Having just recently discovered it thanks to a Delmer Daves retro in New York, I have to go with his 1945 masterpiece, 'Pride of the Marines.' Also a Kent Jones favorite, so that has to count for something too."
"I'll be a wiseacre and see 'Memento' is a good Memorial Day film. It's a film about memory, and the first film I could recall when you asked."
"Strangely, 'Independence Day.'"
"My best bet would be the Kubrick double feature, 'Paths of Glory' and 'Full Metal Jacket.' But to be fair, my Memorial Day BBQs are kind of a downer."
"I think 'The Best Years of Our Lives' does the best job at conveying the disconnect that most if not all veterans feel when they return to life back home. It's not a movie about the horrors of combat in a direct way, but it shows the physical and mental scars that fighting men (and women) bring back to their old lives. For a movie that's now more than 60 years old, it still packs a punch."
"Since Roland Emmerich hasn't made 'Memorial Day,' his sequel to 'Independence Day' yet I'm going to go with Michael Bay's 'Pearl Harbor' just to break all the snobbish film critic answers you're bound to get. But only watch the 45 minute battle sequence."
"My first inclination is to go with an introspective film like Terrence Malick's 'The Thin Red Line,' which expertly pulls off the difficult task of bringing out the soulfulness in each individual soldier of a fairly large platoon. But I have a soft spot for Sam Fuller's war movies. They feel genuine due to the fact that he actually served during WWII. In that case, my strongest recommendation is for 'The Steel Helmet' featuring a strong central performance by Fuller regular Gene Evans as a burnt out platoon leader likely suffering the as yet undefined condition we'd come to know as Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome."
"Few films exemplify the experience and cost of the fallen than Steven Spielberg's 'Saving Private Ryan.' Despite popular opinion that the wraparound segment is atypical Spielberg sentimental hokum, has there ever been a more appropriate moment for it? Looking upon all the graves with the immortal words 'Earn this' still echoing in our ears, to watch one man come to terms with whether or not he deserved to not lie alongside 'the only brothers I had left' is a necessary emotional capper on a bravura film that makes us remember all of their sacrifices."
"'Gallipoli.' Different country, but still."
"Too many TV stations seem to think that Memorial Day is the perfect time to watch war movies. For me, I suspect that a better approach would be to focus on movies about coming home from the war, and adjusting to the impact that such harrowing experiences then have on the lives of veterans and their loved ones. To that end, I suspect there is no better film to watch on Memorial Day than William Wyler's still-stunning post-World War II drama 'The Best Years of Our Lives,' but if that's a little too 'old school' for someone reading this, then you may want to consider the Hughes Brothers' 'Dead Presidents' instead. It's essentially the badass bank robbing version."
"Malick's 'The Thin Red Line.' Puts the futility of war right in your lap."
"I usually take advantage of a bank holiday to binge on lengthy epics. This weekend I'm planning on spending much of my time with Jacques Rivette's 'La Belle Noiseuse,' in both it's 230-minute theatrical cut, and in its alternative 125-minute form 'Divertimento,' which is comprised of radically different takes that alter the perspective of the film in a really interesting way. We don't mark Memorial Day in the UK, so it's not really a case of marking anything as such, so much as it is the opportunity to dwell on a film that I might ordinarily struggle to find the time for."
"'Saving Private Ryan' immediately comes to mind, but considering the precious few films that honor today's servicemen, I'm going with 'Restrepo.' Watching real people my age sacrifice themselves for their fellow soldiers and for their county is both harrowing and inspirational, arguably more so than even the best dramatization."
The Best Movie Currently In Theaters on May 27th, 2013: