Films about 'small lives' make lasting impression

Sunday, January 20, 2002

January's a good month to ponder movies.

John Tibbetts, associate professor of theater and film at Kansas University, is right now putting together his list of the best and worst films of 2001 for the Kansas City Film Critics Circle awards.

I called him because, frankly, "Harry Potter" and "Lord of the Rings" didn't do it for me. Enough of stern but kind wizards. Away with soft-faced, wide-eyed boys innocent of their powers and world-changing destinies.

I've also had enough of Hollywood's shoving down my throat physically beautiful upper-middle-class people living in trophy houses.

I like quiet movies about ordinary people struggling to make a life. You know, the kind where some reprobate wakes up flat broke in a motel room, has to work off a room charge and winds up marrying the motel keeper whose husband died in the Vietnam war. (That one's called "Tender Mercies," by the way, and it came out in 1984.)

So I asked Tibbetts to tick off the names of a few great small films about lesser lives released in 2001. You had to work to see them, he admitted, but then he gave me some names.

His list included "Bread and Roses," by an English filmmaker. It concerns a cleaning service and a labor strike. "One of the best films of the year, but who went to see it?" he says.

"Blue Moon" is about an old but still romantic couple on vacation. The two have a magical encounter with themselves as they were 30 years before.

A movie called "O" retells Shakespeare's "Othello." "O" is an African-American basketball player who falls in love with a dean's daughter. "Quite good," he says.

Tibbetts put forward "Session 9" as the year's best small horror movie. A team is clearing asbestos out of a vacant mental asylum. He says, "It was not a job they should have taken."

These movies, he says, don't get the full backing of the Hollywood publicity machines that "pat us on the head and assure us that a movie is OK � that it won't surprise, confront or agitate us."

"The blockbuster movies massage the public," Tibbetts says. "People come out not remembering anything they saw, yet somehow happy."

This statement led me to decide to be the Kaw Valley publicity machine for a few disturbing but memorable small films about small lives. Films like this aren't that common, so I'll reach back a few years in putting together my list.

My first pick, out last year, is "Wit." Emma Thompson plays a too-intellectual professor of 17th-century English poetry who's dying of ovarian cancer. Her disease teaches her compassion.

"You Can Count on Me," released in 2000, concerns a brother and sister orphaned in childhood by a car accident that kills their parents. Their reunion as grownups is uneasy but loving.

"Affliction," released in 1999, is about parental cruelty. James Coburn is a vicious drunk of a dad. You keep waiting for his now-grown-up son, played by Nick Nolte, to blow.

My final choice, "The Sweet Hereafter," released in 1997, reveals the strains and secrets of a small town as it copes with a school bus accident that killed 14 of its children.

Henry James, in his essay "The Art of Fiction," writes, "Humanity is immense and reality has myriad forms."

I wish Hollywood movies reflected that immense complexity.

� Roger Martin is a research writer and editor for the Kansas University Center for Research and editor of Explore, KU's research magazine Web site, which can be found at Martin's e-mail address is