We all know the feeling. You’re riding a train, deep in the throng of rush hour, surrounded by smelly idiots and on track to arrive home 45 minutes later than you expected just because every corner of this thrumming metropolis is packed with smelly, slow-moving idiots. And you try perch your sunglasses just-so on your face, to lean all cool against the door of the train as if to send a message to the smelly idiots around you that you are very very cool and in control and live in a city like a cool person. Then the train pulls unexpectedly out of the stop and you careen into the elderly couple standing behind you (because the punk as fuck kids in the handicapped seats couldn’t be bothered to stand up) and you’re pretty sure you’ve just severely crippled at least three human people as you try to collect yourself and hop off the train five stops early because you can’t bear to be seen for another instant.
Living in a city can be hard. It can be super rewarding and exciting and fun, be let’s be honest and admit that it can just fucking suck sometimes. It’s crowded and it’s dirty and it’s difficult and noisy and people make a big point about how much there is to do and how many people there are to meet, but still somehow every single person in the super market is someone you’ve left swiped on Tinder. Sometimes you want to escape. Sometimes you want to be surrounded by trees and mountains. Sometimes you ache for quiet and birds and simplicity. I fulfilled this urge once by working on a farm where I was asked to slice the head off a chicken with a knife (everyone knows where their meat comes from, right?) You, my lucky friends, can reap the fruits of my wisdom from your couch. I present to you: Things for When You Have the Big City Blues.
Forgive the length of that trailer—it was made in the days when people had attention spans and no one knew how to make a movie look good. I figured we should start with a movie that, while cheery and full of complex dance numbers, emphasizes the grime and exhaustion that come part and parcel with living in a city (Victorian London). You think your commute is hectic? At least you don’t have a pack of starving orphan boys picking your pockets around every corner. You think you’re having trouble making ends meet? At least you’re not a STARVING ORPHAN BOY WHO HAS TO PICK POCKETS IN THE STREET IN ORDER TO SURVIVE.
Oliver! can be applied to most travails of modern city living. Can’t find a solid man? Look to Nancy, the slum-bound hooker with a heart of gold who’s stuck in an abusive relationship and yet still finds the wherewithal to lead an entire saloon full of neer-do-wells in several rousing songs and save the titular street orphan from certain doom. If she can do it, ladies, so can we!
Feel marginalized? At least you’re not Fagin, a character who is mostly made to look like a swamp monster because he is a scheming Jew (Dickens had yet to recognize that Jews were pretty okay at this point in his career.) Whining about how you can only afford lentils and ketchup? WATCH THE MOST FAMOUS SCENE OF THE ENTIRE FUCKING MOVIE, YA DUMMY. The list goes on, my darling. This film is a classic: beautifully filmed, perfectly cast, darkly funny in all the right ways, and punctuated with musical numbers that even I, a veteran eye-roller at musicals, think are sort of catchy and intricately lovely. Go watch it, and feel reassured in your assessment of cities as beds of sin.
Bonus Oliver/ Billy Joel cameo:
To get you in the mood for things a little smaller, a little more open, a little less metropolitan…
It always confuses me that more people haven’t seen this movie. For all its weirdnesses (and because of them), it’s essentially perfect. Yes, they give away the ending in the title. Yes, it’s an old west heist movie that moves at a molasses slow pace and in which the silent scenes where characters mostly just look at each other are way more intense than the gunfight scenes. Yes, it’s a Brad Pitt movie you probably haven’t heard of. Yes, Zooey Deschanel is in like the last five minutes, exclusively. BUT LISTEN TO ME WHEN I SAY THIS IS A PERFECT FILM.
It’s basically a slow-moving dual character study of Jesse James (Brad Pitt) and his apprentice/murderer, Robert Ford (Casey Affleck). Brad Pitt does his usual wizard magic as the larger than life Jesse James, giving everyone the crazy eye and somehow making everything he says sound both sexy and alarming. Casey Affleck, though. WHO KNEW ABOUT CASEY AFFLECK AND WHY DIDN’T THEY TELL ME SOONER?! He is, as it turns out, a really fantastic actor. His performance as Robert Ford is sympathetic, frustrating, twirpy, nervous, enigmatic, frenetic, and subtle. He loves Jesse, he hates Jesse, he wants to be Jesse, he thinks he is Jesse. Every line he delivers is packed with more confusion and self loathing than a middle school dance. I’m way into it. Super into it.
To top it all off, the dialogue and narration are some of the best written I’ve ever heard, and the movie is gorgeously filmed and full of lingering, big-skyed landscapes that look as comforting as they do menacing. It doesn’t necessary make folksy rural life look glamorous (people literally have sex in an outhouse), but it does make it look totally effing beautiful. I have never been in a mood where I didn’t want to watch this movie.
My roommate David insisted I include this one, because “it goes to show that no one has fun in the city, except babies. And especially not criminals.” Questions:
– Wouldn’t that baby get super grimy crawling around on the ground like that?
– Who convinced Joe Mantegna to be in this movie?
– Why are criminals chasing this baby?
– How did this baby get away from his family so easily, crawling at baby speed?
– What did the script for this movie look like?
– Is this based on a true story?
– Why did my roommate David have the instrumental theme music from this movie memorized?
– Why do babies have so much more fun in cities?
Imagine my delight, getting to write about two PERFECT MOVIES in one post.
If you don’t recall this cinematic classic from your childhood then I hardly know what to say to you, other than GO WATCH THIS FUCKING MOVIE RIGHT NOW, YOU PHILISTINE. It’s got a polite pig who wants to herd sheep. It’s got singing mice. It’s got unlikely friendships. It’s got action and excitement. It’s got complex family dynamics. It has beautiful countryside scenery. It has an evil bitch of a cat. What more do you want, America? For what more could you possibly ask? Oh right: this AMAZING SEQUENCE.
I won’t lie to you—I listened to the version of “If I Had Words” sung by the mice during the end credits at least ten times on repeat while writing this article. My very words are imbued with the madcap energy of this delightful family film about finding one’s place in the world and also not eating pork. As with everything else in this column, go watch it right now, and fantasize about your place in the world, starting a new life for yourself in the country, far away from all this noise.