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The Quintessential American Movie of Every Decade, 1920s-Present

BAMcinématek’s A Pryor Engagement retrospective, which we told you about a couple of weeks back, is unfortunately coming to an end this week — but not before tonight’s screening of a film that most consider not only lesser Pryor, but a fairly middling and forgettable effort in general. Your film editor disagrees. The picture is called Brewster’s Millions, a 1985 comedy that pairs up Richard Pryor and John Candy, and it’s not just a funny kick of a buddy movie (though it is that); it is, we contend, nothing less than the quintessential American 1980s motion picture. We’ll explain why in due course. In the meantime, inspired by this particular take on Millions, we decided to comb through the annals of cinema history and determine which films were most specifically of their decades. We’re not saying that these are the very best films of their time (though some were); rather, we feel that each is specific to their time, and summed it up in a unique way. We’ll go from the 1920s to the 2000s, and explain our choices along the way.

The 1920s: Sunrise

F.W. Murnau’s 1927 drama (occasionally given the subtitle A Song of Two Humans) is the story of a farmer tempted to murder his wife and flee his life by a sinful woman from the big city — a dramatization of the pull between simplicity and urbanization that split the nation in the “Roaring ‘20s.” As David Thomson wrote in his recent (and excellent) study The Big Screen, “What is most penetrating in Sunrise is leading it past the guidelines of a prim scenario. The film says ‘come to the city’ and ‘stay in love’ at a time when Hollywood was in confusion over both the town/ country split in America and the condition of marriage.” Murnau examines the split of the American psyche (as perhaps only a foreign artist could) with a complexity and nuance far from typical in cinema of the period.

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