When I ask myself what films in recent years have been my favorites, I find that the answers all seem to have a few things in common.  One, the movie must tell a compelling story; two, it must rise above its genre to make a larger statement about life or some universal idea; and three, it must be technically well made.  All great art—including film—can serve as a vehicle for the presentation of ideas, and the promotion of a certain virtue.  Although the mainstream American film industry has become more and more a sad repository of feminist cant and lowest-common-denominator commercial pandering, the foreign film world has undergone something of a renaissance in the past fifteen years.

The best films of France, Germany, Spain, and the UK are edgier, more intelligent, and more masculine than anything found in the US.  It was not always so.  But the work of great European directors like Jacques Audiard, Gaspar Noe, Nicolas Winding Refn, and Shane Meadows leaves little room for doubt that the true cutting-edge work is being done in Europe.  (Argentina deserves honorable mention here as having an excellent film industry).  The mainstream, corporate-driven US film industry has effectively smothered independent voices under an avalanche of political correctness, girl-power horseshit, chick-flickism, and mind-numbing CGI escapist dreck.

Movies that deal with masculine themes in a compelling way are not easy to come by these days.  Honest explorations of masculine virtues are repressed, marginalized, or trivialized.  One needs to scour the globe to cherry-pick the best here and there, and in some cases you have to go back decades in time.  Luckily, the availability of Netflix and other subscription services has made this task much easier than it used to be.  Access to the best cinema of Europe, South America, and Asia can be a great way for us to catch as glimpse at a foreign culture, as well as reflect on serious ideas.

I want to offer my recommendations on some films that I believe are an important part of the modern masculine experience, in all its wide variety and expression.  Out of the scores of possible choices, I decided to pick the handful of films that are perhaps not as well known to readers.  My opinions will not be shared by all.  I encourage readers to draw up their own lists of films dealing with masculine themes, and hope they will reflect on the reasons behind their choices.  Below are mine, in no particular order.  In italics is a brief plot synopsis, followed by my own comments.

1.  Straw Dogs (1971).

A mild-mannered American academic (Dustin Hoffman) living in rural Cornwall with his beautiful wife becomes the target of harassment by the local toughs.  Things escalate to a sexual assault on his wife, and eventually to a brutal and protracted fight to the death when a local man takes refuge on their property.

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Dustin Hoffman reaches his breaking point in “Straw Dogs”

This is a classic example of the type of movie that could never be made today.  Arguably Sam Peckinpah’s most daring film, it contains a controversial rape scene that seems to leave open the question whether Hoffman’s wife (played by Susan George) was a victim or a willing participant.  Faced with his wife’s betrayal, and continuing harassment from local miscreants, Hoffman’s character finds himself completely isolated and must learn to stand his ground and fight.

A chance incident later in the film sets the stage for a blood-soaked confrontation which is as inevitable as it is necessary. Peckinpah presents a compelling case for the cathartic power of violence, and the achievement of masculine identity through man-on-man combat.  It is a theme I find myself strongly drawn to. Controversial, powerful, and unforgettable, Peckinpah proves himself an unapologetic and strident advocate of old-school martial virtue.  We would do well to listen.  His voice is sorely missed today.  (Note:  avoid the pathetic recent remake of this movie).  Honorable mention:  Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969) and Bring Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974).

2.  Sorcerer (1977).

A group of international renegades find themselves down and out in Nicaragua, and volunteer for a job transporting unstable dynamite across the country to quell an oil rig fire.

Due to inept marketing when this movie was first released, it never achieved the credit it so fully deserved.  A motley group of international riff-raff (including the always appealing Roy Scheider) seeks redemption through a harrowing trial.  But will they get it?  Is it even desirable to escape one’s dark past?  The answers are complex, and director William Friedkin refuses to supply easy ones.  The characters in this film are doomed, and they know it, but they still hold true to their own code.  Which is itself honorable.  Consequences must be paid for everything we do in life, and often the price comes in a way never expect.  Dark, brooding, and humming with a pulse-pounding electronic score by Tangerine Dream, this film has deservedly become a cult classic.  The ending is a shocker you’ll never see coming.

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Roy Scheider undertakes the most perilous journey of his life in William Friedkin’s 1977 masterpiece “Sorcerer”

3.  The Lives of Others (2006).

A coldly efficient Stasi (East German security service) officer (Ulrich Muhe) is enlisted by a Communist party hack in a surveillance program against a supposed subversive writer and his girlfriend.  But monitoring the writer’s life awakens sparks of nascent humanity in the Stasi man, and he eventually must decide whether to follow orders and destroy the writer, or to sacrifice himself to save him. 

This German masterpiece was made with great fidelity to the look and feel of 1980s East Germany, and the results are evident in every frame.  It belongs on any list of the greatest films ever made.  The masculine virtue here is of a different type than viewers may be used to:  it is a quiet, understated heroism, the type of heroism that probably happens every day but is hardly noticed.  There is no bragging here, no chest-beating, no big-mouthed bravado.  (In short, none of the wooden-headed caricatures that pass for masculinity in the US).  The ethic here is about love and self-sacrifice, the noblest and greatest virtues of all.

The ethos of self-sacrifice is now considered old-fashioned and almost a punch-line, but historically it was valued very highly.  It features in nearly all the old literary epics and dramas of Europe and Asia.  Actor Ulrich Muhe pulls off a minor miracle of characterization here with his portrayal of a Stasi man named Weisler, whose special wiretapping assignment against a playwright transforms him from heartless automaton into awe-inspiring hero.  The movie made me wonder just how many quiet, unassuming men there must be out there, whose toil, heroism, and sacrifice has never been, and never will be, acknowledged.  The ending is transcendently beautiful, and moving beyond words.

4.  Homicide  (1991).

A police detective (Joe Mantegna) is assigned to investigate a murder case.  The case awakens in him stirrings of his long-suppressed ethnic identity.  Unfortunately, he will eventually be forced to choose between conflicting loyalties.  And the consequences will be devastating. 

No modern American director has probed the meaning of masculine identity more than David Mamet, and all of his films are meditations on themes related to illusion, reality, masculinity, and struggle.  Homicide, a nearly unknown gem from the early 1990s, is perhaps his profoundest.  Mamet knows that a man must make choices in his life, and for those choices, consequences must be paid.  And very often, we find ourselves derailed by the mental edifices we construct for ourselves.  The Mantegna character is led through a complex and increasingly ambiguous chain of events, only to find that at the heart of one mystery lies an even more inscrutable one.  Beware the things you seek.  You may not like what you find.

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Joe Mantegna deals with the fatal consequences of his decisions in David Mamet’s “Homicide” 

5.  A Prophet (2009).

An Algerian Arab is incarcerated in a French jail, and is drawn into the savage world of Corsican gangsters.  Forced to kill or be killed, he is drawn into a pitiless world that recognizes only cunning and brutality.  He finds himself straddling two realities:  the world of his own nationality, and that of the Corsicans.  And to survive and emerge triumphant, he must learn to play all sides against each other.

This film must be counted among the greatest crime dramas ever made.  You simply can’t take your eyes off the screen.  The lesson here is that a man must learn to survive on his wits, and do whatever is necessary to stay alive.  The Corsican boss whom Al Djebena (Tahar Rahim) works for is just about the most malevolent presence in recent screen memory.  Part of France’s continuing internal dialogue about its immigrant population, A Prophet is not to be missed.

Tahar Rahim learns a thing or two about Corsica in “A Prophet”

6.  The Beat That My Heart Skipped (2005).

An intense young man (Romain Duris) works for his father as a real estate shark in urban Paris.  His “job” consists of intimidating deadbeat immigrant tenants, vandalizing apartments, and forcibly collecting loans.  He also plays the piano.  Eventually, he is forced to decide which life he wants:  the path laid out by his shady father, or the idealistic path of his own choosing.  He’s seeking redemption, but will he find it?  And at what cost?

Again, we have here the themes of redemption and moral choice.  Romain Duris has a screen presence and intensity that rivals anything done by Pacino in his prime, and some of the scenes here are fantastic.  (His seduction of his friend’s wife, Aure Atika, is one of many great scenes).  All men will be confronted and tested by crises and situations beyond their control.  How they respond to those situations will define who they are as men.  Duris’s character proves that redemption can be achieved, if wanted badly enough.

Romain Duris embodying screen intensity

7.  Red Belt (2008).

Martial arts instructor Mike Terry is forced, against his principles, to consider entering a prize bout.  He is abandoned and betrayed by his wife and friends, and must confront his challenges alone with only his code and his pride.

Another great meditation on masculine virtue and individualism by David Mamet.  In his own unique dialogue style, Mamet showcases his belief that, in the end, all men stand alone.  At the moment of truth, it is you, and only you, who will be staring into the abyss.  Our trials by fire will not come in the time and at the place of our own choosing.  But when they do come, a man must be prepared to hold his ground and fight his corner.  Watch for Brazilian actress Alice Braga in a supporting role here.  We hope to see more of her on American screens in the future.

8.  Fear X  (2003).

A repressed security guard (John Turturro) is searching for answers to who killed his wife.  His strange behavior and ticking time-bomb manner begin to alarm friends and co-workers.  One day he finds some information that may be a lead to solving the mystery.  This discovery sets him on the path to realization. Or does it?

I am a big fan of the films of Nicolas Winding Refn (The Pusher trilogy, and Valhalla Rising), and this one is perhaps his most penetrating examination of a wounded psyche.  It failed commercially when it first appeared, as many viewers were put off by his artistic flourishes and opaque ending.  For me, this film is the deepest study of grief and repressed rage ever committed to film.  All men will be confronted by tragedy, grief, and inexplicable loss during their lives.  How we handle it will define who we are.  The greatness of this film is that it explores Turturro’s claustrophobic, neurotic world in a deeply personal way, and at the same time suggests that he may actually be on to something.  This film covers the same philosophical ground as Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation, in that it hints at the ultimate ambiguity of all things.

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John Turturro confronts the unrelenting darkness of his own psyche in “Fear X”

If you are a Netflix subscriber and watch movies frequently, as I do, you may find it useful to keep a notebook near your television and jot down the titles of movies you see, and a few notes about what you liked or didn’t like.  You’d be surprised how much you can learn from movies.  There are just so many good and bad ones out there that having some system for keeping track of them will be time well spent.

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