These are films about the issues real men face: coupling, parenthood, growing up, getting old. These are movies about the men we want to be, the men we actually are, and the men we’re glad we aren’t.
Before you ask, this is not a list of the best “guy” movies of all time. These are not the movies that you put on when all your best bros are over, the movies whose posters adorn the walls of 90 percent of male undergraduates’ dorm rooms, or the collected works of Van Damme/Schwarzenegger/Seagal. (Say what you will about the ponytailed one, but the dude was harsh in Under Siege.)
One of the “projects” of this site is to get men to talk about things they might not normally feel comfortable talking about—and movies can make excellent stimuli for such talk. I remember vividly an intense conversation some guy friends and I had after watching Noah Baumbach’s divorce tragicomedy The Squid and the Whale. It started as an argument over whether the mom (Laura Linney) or the dad (Jeff Daniels) was more of a scumbag. It ended up a frank discussion of the ethics of divorce, and how men and women can perceive them differently.
So these are the movies that (we hope) get you talking about the issues that real men face. These are movies about the men we want to be, the men we actually are, and the men we’re glad we aren’t. The men in these movies don’t necessarily carry guns, and they aren’t all ladykillers. In fact, some of them can barely talk to girls.
These are the top 10 “Good Men” movies.
“Blasphemy,” you cry? I know, how could I put a Paul Newman movie on a list of “Good Men” movies that isn’t Cool Hand Luke? Or Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Or Slapshot. Or The Hustler.
Thing is, you could fill up an entire top-10 list like this one with the the films of Mr. Newman. The actor rarely played men we wanted to be, but the legendary schmucks he portrayed did make us reflect on the ideals of manliness and the long-term consequences of the things that make one “badass” in the short term. Nowhere is that bargain more clearly illuminated than in Robert Benton’s 1994 film Nobody’s Fool.
Newman plays Donald “Sully” Sullivan, an aging troublemaker living in a quiet village in western New York. Sully ekes out a living as a mediocre carpenter and spends most of his days trying to get his boss (a wonderfully insufferable Bruce Willis) to compensate him for a job that busted his knee. Sully ends up giving a job to his son (Nip/Tuck‘s Dylan Walsh) who’s lost his job as a college professor. Peter Sullivan doesn’t think much of his father, who abandoned his family when Peter was young. Peter’s young son, though, seems quite taken with his grandfather. Sully realizes that his poor fathering doesn’t preclude him from having a relationship with Peter’s son. His journey from deadbeat to family man is one of the most affecting in all of Newman’s filmography.
The quintessential romantic comedy for guys. Moving the setting of Nick Hornby’s novel about a heartbroken record-store owner (John Cusack) from London to Chicago seemed like a bone-headed move, but giving a Brit (Stephen Frears) control of the proceedings was a stroke of genius. He maintains the original’s nervy British wit while successfully translating the setting across the Atlantic. And, after all, a music snob’s a music snob no matter where he’s from.
The top-five lists of the movie (and the book) are classic (“Top five musical crimes perpetuated by Stevie Wonder in the ’80s and ’90s”), but the story of Rob Gordon’s attempts to reconcile with recent ex Laura (Iben Hjejle) is what makes High Fidelity the movie about relationships that doesn’t make men vomit. There’s not much of a plot to speak of, other than Rob looking up old girlfriends in an effort to understand what makes him so wretched at relationships and the staff at his record store (filled out by Todd Louiso and Jack Black at his Jack Black-iest) being assholes to customers. But it contains such simple, timeless observations about love and coupling (don’t date outside your station, don’t pin your hopes on a rebound) that it has become staple viewing for a certain type of neurotic, pop-culture-obsessed guy. It’s the romantic comedy your girlfriend might not get.
The only thing people seem to remember about It’s a Wonderful Life is the out-of-body experience George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) has towards the end of the film. That accounts for only a fraction of the film’s two-hour-and-10-minute running time, though, and the rest of the film is a rather grim journey through the frustrated ambitions of Bailey, a small-town guy with a Springsteen-esque dream to break out of his one-horse hometown and see the world. But he again and again sacrifices his own happiness for those around him and ends up stuck in Bedford Falls running his family’s bank and living in his dream house, which turns out to be a decrepit piece of junk.
It’s a Wonderful Life is a lot of things: a plea for fiscal sanity, an optimistic fable about the power of a single person, a classic Christmas movie. But at its core, it’s about a man who realizes that life doesn’t necessarily turn out well for the noble. George strives above all to be a good man, to see his family and community survive and succeed. But the burden of being his town’s savior begins to crush him, turning him into a wretched, hateful drunk who lashes out at his wife and children. Things turn out well for George in the end, but the film makes you wonder whether there will be a happy ending for the men around the world leading lives of quiet desperation.
“C’mon, what. What?”
“Always do the right thing.”
“I got it, I’m gone.”
Spike Lee’s masterful 1989 film Do the Right Thing did such a good job of encapsulating the roiling ethnic tensions of modern urban America that it pretty much makes every other social problem film irrelevant (I’m looking at you, Crash). Lee directs and stars in the film, which chronicles one ungodly hot day in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn. Spike Lee transforms what could be a preachy movie version of a sociology paper into an evocative, multi-sensory masterpiece. Cinematographer Ernest Dickerson’s exquisite, painterly compositions practically ooze off the screen, and the soundtrack complements the on-screen turmoil with a hodgepodge of jazz, gospel, and hip-hop.
The brilliance of the title and the above dialogue between Lee’s Mookie and Da Mayor (Ossie Davis) is that it’s hard not only to actually do the right thing but, indeed, to figure out what that right thing might be. Lee gives us a cast of subtly drawn characters, one that lacks clear heroes and villains. Most of these people, even the foolish Pino (John Turturro), basically want to do good. Did restaurant owner Sal (a world-class Danny Aiello) do the right thing when he destroyed the jukebox belonging to Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn)? What about Mookie, when he threw the trash can through the window of Sal’s Pizzeria? Or the cops that (spoiler alert) strangle Raheem to death? Do the Right Thing forces us to discern right from wrong when all we’ve got is stimuli.
A friend referred to Ang Lee’s elegiac western romance Brokeback Mountain as a movie about “a series of failings of manhood.” That, I think, nicely encapsulates the story of a forbidden romance between two cowboys (Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger) who meet while herding sheep on the fictional Brokeback Mountain in Wyoming. The two fall in love, not without some hesitation, and manage to see each other a few times a year as they go through their own lives of, what else, quiet desperation (seems to be a recurring theme on this list). Jack Twist (Gyllenhaal) tries again and again to get Ennis (Heath Ledger) to leave his sham of a normal life behind and buy a ranch with Jack out in the boonies. Ennis declines.
Sure, Ennis is right that two cowboys living wifeless together would attract unwanted attention. But he refuses Jack’s offer more because he’s unwilling to admit what who he really is. Critics have apparently debated whether or not Ennis can really be called “gay,” but it’s obvious that he feels little affection for either his wife (Michelle Williams) or the bar waitress (Linda Cardellini) he shacks up with for a spell.
It’s hard to overstate just how verboten Jack and Ennis’ affair would have been in that place at that time. America is still fairly queasy about homosexuality (although getting less so), and the rural West and South would have been practically rabid at the time. But the two could have transplanted themselves to a friendly area if they really wanted to. (I’m envisioning an alternate-universe Brokeback with the two moving to Castro Street.) But Ennis wants so badly to maintain the appearance of the life he thinks he wants that he’s willing to see that life crumble around him. As the years scrape by, the already impassive Ennis becomes virtually bloodless, until we finally see a (tragic) sign of life as he goes to retrieve Jake’s ashes from his boyhood home. The question is, who’s really alive at that point?