The Best Years of Our Lives

This week’s Scenes We Love goes out to the many men and women who have served in the military, whether in combat or not. Today is, of course, Veteran’s Day, with national observance tomorrow, and we have a mix of clips to honor the occasion. Of course, it hardly represents the numerous films since cinema began that deal specifically with the veteran experience or simply feature a character who is a veteran. They’re just some that we thought of and had something to say about. Hopefully they’re all considered as respectful as we intend. We welcome mention of additional favorites, regardless of whether or not the scene is streaming somewhere online, in the comments below.

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Your weekly fix of great movies made before you were born that you should check out before you die. Every February, I use this column to explore some Best Picture nominees that didn’t win. In fact, it’s a rare thing that we look at Oscar winners (often times they take care of their own publicity), but few are as fascinating as The Best Years of Our Lives. After a brief period of Hoorah American jingoism that shoved WWII through a processor with the violence turned down to something civilians could swallow in pill form (which either meant comedy or straight-ahead action), Best Years marked an attempt at telling the story of men returning from war to find that life had changed and so had they. It’s an honest look at what shocking violence can do (that doesn’t need to shock with violence), and it brought heroes back to a home front that simply re-framed the type of war they were fighting.

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Owning the Oscars that year, this brilliant war film from perfectionist William Wyler tells the story of three men returning from WWII to discover that the home front has changed and so have they. Alongside bigger stars like Myrna Loy and Virginia Mayo, Wyler also cast Harold Russell, a vet who had lost both hands. Samuel Goldwyn sent him to get acting lessons which infuriated Wyler (who wanted a completely naturalistic performance), but whichever method stuck, the performance was incredible. This was the first film (and one of the only) that Russell made, and he won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor that year. Not bad for a first timer.

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Culture Warrior

There will inevitably be a movie about the mission to kill Osama bin Laden – this much is certain. Recent news has established that Kathryn Bigelow might be the first to try to put into play one of several projects related to last week’s assassination amongst several that are being shopped around. The reasoning is clear, as the material lends itself inherently to cinematic expression. The mission itself, in short, feels like a movie. Whether or not this movie (or movies) will have anything to say beyond what we already know and think and feel is unknown and, in Cole Abaius’s terms, it will be difficult for such projects to escape an inherent potential to come across as a shameless “cash-in.” My personal prediction is that the first movie that arises from bin Laden’s death will, at best, be an exciting procedural that visualizes an incident we are currently so invested in and preoccupied with. But I doubt that anything released so soon will remotely approach a full understanding of bin Laden’s death as catharsis for American citizens, as a harbinger for change in the West’s relationship to the Middle East and the Muslim world, as a precedent for the possible fall of al Qaeda, etc. In short, we won’t be able to express cinematically (or in any other medium, for that matter) what the death of bin Laden means until the benefits of time and hindsight actually provide that meaning. This is why I think any movies about Osama […]

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