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25 Must-See Movies About The Media

25 Must-See Movies About The Media

This week sees the arrival, after its much-lauded premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival last month, of Dan Gilroy‘s directorial debut “Nightcrawler.” The film, about an ambitious young drifter (Jake Gyllenhaal, in a brilliant performance) who finds his calling in the world of L.A. freelance crime reporting, is many things: a taut thriller, a complex character study, a stunningly-photographed portrait of Los Angeles at night, and a borderline horror picture. Along with all of that, it’s also a biting satire of the vulture-like behavior of the modern media.

As such, the film fits into a long history of Hollywood (and independent filmmakers) examining, attacking, and sometimes celebrating the fourth estate, a practice that’s been going on almost as long as films have contained dialogue. So, with “Nightcrawler” in theaters on Friday (and read our review to remind yourselves why it’s worth checking out this weekend) , we’ve picked out 25 of the most worthwhile movies about the media. Take a look below, let us know your favorites in the comments.

“Absence Of Malice” (1981)
A sober, grown-up drama of the kind that we’re so undernourished for these days, Sydney Pollack’s film isn’t quite some lost classic, but it’s a pretty solid look at corruption and press intrusion when it’s not descending into slightly unconvincing genre tropes. The plot sees ambitious prosecutor Elliot Rosen (Bob Balaban) leaking information to reporter Megan Carter (Sally Field) implicating local liquor magnate Michael Gallagher (Paul Newman) in the murder of  a local union figure. The story makes front page news, ruining his life, and with Carter’s aid, Gallagher sets out to wreak revenge on both the justice system and the press. Supposedly born out of a conflict between Newman and the New York Post, it’s an unashamedly dialectic work, targeting the unaccountability of the press and their shady relationship with figures like Balaban’s character, but Pollack at least keeps a note of ambiguity throughout: Newman in particular plays his character with a kind of moral ambivalence that never quite makes clear the extent of his character’s questionable connections or involvement (the whole cast, including an excellent cameo from Wilford Brimley and the Oscar-nominated Melinda Dillon, are strong). The ending is a little too neat, and Pollack’s direction a little too sober, but it’s otherwise an engaging and grown-up piece of entertainment. [B]

“Ace in the Hole” (1951)
The great Billy Wilder might have been at his best when he was in a caustic, damning mood. Exhibit A: the acidic, bitter, and deeply cynical “Ace in the Hole,” starring Kirk Douglas as an opportunistic and shiftless journalist covering a story about a local Albuquerque man trapped in a cave trying to excavate ancient Indian artifacts. Once a hotshot New York journalist, Douglas’ Chuck Tatum character (fierce and fantastic in one of his best performances) has disgraced himself; his egoistic, boozing and short-cut happy ways have landed him in two-bit New Mexico. Frustrated and resentful at his new station in life, Tatum lights up when he hears about the trapped-man story, believing it could be national news and his ticket back to the big leagues. But a blindly ambitious, innately unscrupulous Tatum begins to manipulate the local sheriffs into taking measures that will prolong the man’s rescue and therefore draw out the story out longer and build more “will-he or won’t-he?” survival intrigue. Tatum’s exploitation of the situation only worsens —and only escalates and gets uglier— and soon the journalist realizes he’s far in over his head and there’s no turning back. A savage condemnation of media impropriety, not to mention overall human immorality, “Ace in the Hole” is easily Wilder’s bleakest statement regarding humankind. Of course, it was considered far too tart and misanthropic by audiences, became his first major box-office bomb and Paramount was so unhappy with the picture they changed its title to the seemingly more benign “The Big Carnival” just prior to its release. [A]

“Anchorman: The Legend Of Ron Burgundy” (2004)
What more can be said about this already certified comedy classic that is still arguably the funniest and definitely the most balls out absurd Judd Apatow production to date? (It’s still the best Adam McKay/Will Ferrell picture hands down). Featuring a staggering array of comedic talent —Ferrell, Paul Rudd, Christina Applegate, David Koechner, Steve Carell, Vince Vaughn, not to mention the roster that shows up for the television news team royal tumble— at the height of their powers, firing off one liners as if they were going out of style (there was enough outtake footage to construct a crude companion film “Wake Up, Ron Burgundy: The Lost Movie”), “Anchorman” is an absurdist’s delight and a non-sequitur lover’s dream. But this isn’t just a bunch of random shit strung together (OK, sometimes it is); it works so well because Ferrell and his Channel 4 News Team perfectly jack up, exaggerate and mock the already ridiculous personas that populate locals news teams (seriously, hit YouTube or actually tune in to a few newscasts) and go for broke. And it works. Wonderfully. To the point where your ribcage will hate you. Compelling and rich, “Anchorman” smells of mahogany and gives viewers the hope that one day, you too will find something as deep and meaningful as Brick Tamland’s love for lamp. Shame about the much more hit-and-miss sequel, though… [A]

“All The President’s Men” (1976)
It’s hard to believe now, but there was a time when a newspaper could change history, when the printed word carried with it the weight of irrevocable truth, and a couple of dogged reporters, through sheer persistence and the application of a little intelligence, could bring down a government. The Watergate scandal and the fall of Nixon is truly one of the defining stories of the modern era, and in this, Alan J. Pakula’s finest hour, (though we do love “Klute” and are not averse to a little “The Parallax View” either) it gets the movie it deserves: talky, smart and never less than completely absorbing. It could so easily have been dull as there’s no real action, no sex, no particular life-or-limb peril, and for anyone not paying close attention, the blizzard of names, dates and other minutiae on which the whole thing turns, could have proven a chore to navigate. A good thing then, that it’s practically impossible not to pay full attention. And credit is due to Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman for their committed performances as reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein (how many journalists since have chosen their career based on these portrayals?), but surely, the lion’s share of kudos must go to the unparalleled screenwriting of William Goldman, and Pakula’s taut, inspired direction. It’s a fascinating snapshot of a working newsroom that just for a moment became pretty much the center of the universe, and a thrilling and very American example of how, armed with nothing but integrity, faith in public justice and a typewriter, a few good men can make all the difference in the world. [A+]

“Broadcast News” (1987)
A romantic comedy for the smart and cynical, James L. Brooks’s “Broadcast News” somehow seems even more relevant today than it was in 1987. Holly Hunter’s news producer Jane Craig laments fluff-as-news, but what would she think about the 24-hour-news cycle and editorials disguised as news in 2010? She’s a Sorkin-esque heroine, succeeding in her professional life while her relationships are an inversely proportional mess. Jane falls for the handsome but brainless anchor-in-training Tom Grunick (William Hurt), while her longtime friend Aaron Altman (Albert Brooks) pines away. Tom might have all the looks, but Aaron gets all the lines, and the scenes where he confesses his love and condemns his rival have some of the best dialogue this side of the stage —it’s almost Chekhovian in its heartbreaking quality. The characters in “Broadcast News” aren’t afraid to be downright mean, but they’re never anything less than watchable and likable thanks to their flaws, and all three actors, particularly the magnificent Hunter, give career-best performances. And the ending, still a bitter pill to swallow for some, is truthful in a way that’s hard to find in rom-coms these days. [A-]

“Call Northside 777” (1948)
An admirably smart and realistic semi-noir, “Call Northside 777” isn’t quite a lost classic, but it’s something that procedural fans should seek out as soon as possible, as it’s a sort of 1940s grandaddy to “All The President’s Men” or “Zodiac.Jimmy Stewart —in a typically but rewardingly straight-arrow turn— stars as reporter P.J. McNeal, who’s assigned by his editor (Lee J. Cobb) to investigate a decade-old Prohibition murder of a policeman for which two men were convicted, possibly on trumped-up charges. The film’s based on a real case, when Chicago Times reporter James McGuire helped exonerate Joseph Majczek and Theodore Marcinkiewicz of the murder of a traffic cop, and there’s an almost documentary-like realism to the way that Stewart follows the leads and interviews the witnesses, with little room for Hollywood embellishment in the telling. The sheer detail of the telling (up to and including getting expenses from the editor) could be dull, but there’s real energy to the way that Henry Hathaway (best known perhaps for the original “True Grit”) shoots the film, particularly when it comes to the use of Chicago locations —reportedly, it was the first studio film to actually shoot in the city. [B+]

“Citizen Kane” (1941)
The biggest daddy of them all: probably cinema’s best-known look inside the media, and the film named probably more than any other (including in five of the Sight & Sound polls of worldwide critics) as the greatest ever made. If you’ve never seen a film made before “Iron Man 2,” Orson Welles’ masterpiece tells the story, in flashback, of Charles Foster Kane: poverty-stricken child, newspaper magnate, politician, recluse and total shit. It’s the kind of existence-spanning scope that true-life biopics tend to stumble over, but Welles’ playful filmmaking and ingenious structure build up to a full portrait of a man who’s a very thinly veiled take on true-life media baron William Randolph Hearst (who set out to ruin Welles’ career as vengeance, and is believed by many to have succeeded). Time, or the infinite imitators and “Simpsons” gags, might have dulled its impact to a first-time viewer, but if you haven’t seen the film, you shouldn’t be intimidated by its reputation: it’s as entertaining, and in light of its famous Rosebud ending, even moving as it is form-defining. Other later films would land their blows on the press perhaps more savagely (though Kane’s manipulation of the public undoubtedly makes him a proto-Murdoch), but few would do it with as much flair. [A+]

“Deadline USA” (1952)
Somewhat forgotten these days, “Deadline U.S.A” is far from perfect, particularly after an ending that disappears somewhat up itself, more interested in telling you over and over again how important journalism is than in telling a story. But there’s enough here to make the film worth checking out, not least a typically sturdy central performance from Humphrey Bogart. Inspired by the now-defunct papers the New York Sun and the New York World, Bogie plays Ed Hutcheson, the idealistic editor of The Day, a paper on the verge of being sold and shut down. His personal life is a mess (he drinks too much, and is in love with his ex-wife who’s going to remarry), but in a last-ditch attempt to save the paper, he tries to boost circulation by bringing down mobster Thomas Rienzi (Martin Gabel). The film’s something of an oddity on this list, matched only by “All The President’s Men” and a few others, in that it shows the newspaper world as mostly a force for good. Perhaps in the hands of a more subtle filmmaker, it might be more convincing, but Richard Brooks (“In Cold Blood”) is determined to get the message across, mainly by repeating it over and over again. Still, Bogart’s colorful turn is worth the price of admission on its own. [C]

“Five Star Final” (1931)
The relationship between Hollywood and the tabloids has always been one of two mutually parasitic figures biting each other’s feeding hands, and 1931’s “Five Star Final” might be one of the earliest examples of filmmakers setting their targets on the savagery of the gutter press. Directed by Mervyn LeRoy (“Little Caesar”), the melodrama sees tabloid publisher Bernard Hinchecliffe (Oscar Apfel) forcing his editor (Edward G. Robinson) to dredge up a twenty-year-old scandal involving a secretary (Frances Starr) who murdered the man who got her pregnant. Years later, the woman’s daughter (Marian Marsh) is about to marry into high society, but the efforts of the paper soon threaten to ruin their lives all over again. There’s an admirable pre-Code murkiness to the morality on display here, but the film does feel a bit creaky these days with uninspired direction from LeRoy (“Little Caesar,” made the same year, is much better), and some flat, stagy performances from much of the supporting cast. There are some strong turns to look out for, though: Robinson is very good as the conflicted, compromised newsman, and a pre-”FrankensteinBoris Karloff walks away with the picture as a malevolent undercover reporter. [C]

“Good Night and Good Luck” (2005)
Truth can be stranger than fiction, which is why director George Clooney opted for archive footage of Senator Joseph McCarthy to serve as the boogeyman for this historical drama, which recounts journalist Edward R. Murrow standing up against the bullying from the House of Unamerican Activities Committee. David Strathairn gives a powerful performance as the driven Murrow, who understood that the truth was more powerful than any corporeal weapon against what was a leviathan of mistruth in the movement to witch-hunt perceived Communism. Coming from a television background, Clooney utilized several in-camera effects to illustrate the power dynamics and socialization of the broadcast news operations of an earlier era, creating a masterpiece that works even better as a teaching tool to help the youth of tomorrow better understand how we still seem to fall prey to the same scare tactics of yesterday. [A]

“His Girl Friday” (1940)
Much attention has (rightfully) been paid to the whiplash-inducing dialogue and the fizzy chemistry between leads Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell in this classic film from Howard Hawks. Breezing past the page-a-minute average of most screenplays, “His Girl Friday” is based on Ben Hecht’s stage play “The Front Page.” Charles Lederer’s adaptation got an injection of energy from switching the two main characters from a pair of male journalists to feuding exes, particularly since those exes are played by Grant and Russell, a pairing that matches Grant’s work with both Katherine and Audrey Hepburn and Irene Dunne for sheer fire. The romance is as fast-paced as the dialogue, but viewers shouldn’t overlook the contributions of the other room of journalists in the film who add character and a bit of authenticity. Though some of it feels decidedly dated (remember when newspapers mattered?), it manages to be as fresh and funny as it was 70 years ago. [A]

“The Insider” (1999)

Michael Mann’s name became synonymous with intelligent, impeccably crafted adult mainstream films after the incredible one-two punch of his epic crime film masterpiece “Heat” and “The Insider,” the latter being one of the many great films released in 1999 (seriously, go back and look, it was an insanely strong year for cinema). Though considered a minor financial failure at the time, “The Insider,” a film about the media that’s easily one of the best of this genre, attracted the Academy’s attention (receiving seven nominations), and proved Mann’s successive films were worth getting excited about. Telling the true, thoroughly researched tale (Mann and co-writer Eric Roth worked diligently to get as much right as possible, adapting the Vanity Fair article “The Man Who Knew Too Much“) of tobacco whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe, in one of his finest, schlubbiest performances) and his appearance on “60 Minutes” that was at first altered in 1995 and then aired proper in 1996, the film also showed, if it wasn’t already obvious, that Mann is the rare director capable of hitting that sweet spot between art and entertainment. He hasn’t quite followed through on the promise he showed from the mid-to-late ‘90s, though “Collateral” and “Public Enemies” were strong efforts, but any filmmaker capable of making “The Insider” is surely deserving of our anticipation for his next effort. [A]

“Natural Born Killers” (1994)
Six years after “Talk Radio” (see below), Oliver Stone returned to scrutinizing the media and shock jocks to far more controversial returns with his (heavily-rewritten) version of Quentin Tarantino’s original screenplay “Natural Born Killers.” The result is a sort of blunt-force satire, crass and obvious and in places as effective as hitting something with a hammer. The film centers on Mickey (Woody Harrelson) and Mallory (Juliette Lewis), a pair of murderous lovers-on-the-lam glorified by the media, and in particular Australian tabloid-TV reporter Wayne Gale (Robert Downey Jr). Even after their incarceration, their cult grows and grows, culminating in a live-TV prison riot that sees even Gale won over to their cause. As ever, Stone is never knowingly subtle, here exhibiting a manic, throw-everything-at-the-wall visual approach that gets exhausting long before the chaotic finale, and critics at the time who blamed him for glorifying his subjects made a pretty good point: the director tries to have it both ways, both pointing his finger at Mickey and Mallory while also secretly giving them the thumbs up. But the film is most alive when Downey Jr.’s on screen, and one doesn’t have to look far to see how the film’s take on the media’s view of killers wasn’t just accurate at the time, it’s only gotten more pronounced over the last two decades. [C+]

“Network” (1976)
Making a big-screen satire is always risky business —often, subject matter can seem stale by the time a film’s been through the multi-year process from inception to release, and that’s even if the film’s any good at all, and frequently they aren’t. For every “Dr. Strangelove,” there are a dozen efforts like “American Dreamz” or “Death to Smoochy.” So it’s especially rare to find an example of the genre that not only connected at the time (winning four Oscars), but actually seems more and more relevant as time goes on. In an age of outsized news personalities, this film is as vital now as the day it was released. And on every level, it is impeccably executed: Sidney Lumet and Paddy Chayefsky are such a symbiotic director/writer partnership, perfectly complementing each other’s strengths, that it’s easy to forget that this was their only collaboration. And the acting across the board is outstanding: Peter Finch, Faye Dunaway and Beatrice Straight all won Oscars (Finch’s was sadly posthumous), but Robert Duvall, the truly outstanding William Holden and, in an unforgettable, endlessly quotable one-scene cameo (“You have meddled with the primal forces of nature and YOU WILL ATONE!”), Ned Beatty are more than their matches. A capsule review is by no means enough to capture the film in full —we could go on for another few thousand words without drawing breath. Suffice to say, 35 years on,  it remains the definitive film about TV journalism. [A+]

“Newsfront” (1978)
The first full feature film from Australian director Phillip Noyce, who’d go on to make “Dead Calm,” “Clear And Present Danger” and “Salt,” among others, “Newsfront” is an impressively ambitious and novelistic picture for a debut, confidently handled by the then-28-year-old, but is perhaps too wrapped up in its own nostalgia to be anything more than pretty good. Noyce’s script follows a pair of brothers, Len (Bill Hunter) and Frank (Gerard Kennedy) Maguire, who are both Australian newsreel cameramen in the 1940s and 1950s, whose lives have their ups and downs across a tumultuous period in the nation’s history between 1948 and 1956, taking in immigration, floods and the arrival of film’s arch-nemesis, television. There’s an evident love for the old newsreels just bursting off the screen, and Noyce achieves an impressive amount on what had to be a limited budget (partly thanks to the use of archive footage), while the cast, which also includes Wendy Hughes and Bryan Brown, are all strong. It’s perhaps a little too restrained and understated to really make an emotional connection, at least for those of us who don’t recall the period, but it’s still a handsome and very watchable picture. [B]

“The Paper” (1994)

Ron Howard‘s comedy-drama, his second flop in a row after the Tom Cruise/Nicole Kidman disaster “Far & Away” (but admittedly far superior to that film), has plenty going for it. Its depiction of a faintly sleazy New York tabloid (basically The New York Post) has in places a ring of authenticity to it (David Koepp co-wrote the script with brother Stephen, a writer at the New York Times), and for a film over two decades old, it’s strangely prescient about the situations newspapers now find themselves in. There’s also a terrific central performance from Michael Keaton; one that displays his tremendous charm and comic timing. Randy Quaid‘s turn as a paranoid, gun-toting columnist also gave us a cheap laugh on re-watching it. But otherwise, it’s kind of a washout, and the principle problem is Howard; as usual, he gives a slick, sentimental Hollywood sheen to the picture that rids it of anything close to truthfulness. There’s also an odd dichotomy between the crusading semi-liberal sub-plot about a pair of black teenagers wrongly accused of murder (the filmmakers don’t even have the dramatic sense to hint at ambiguity, demonstrating their innocence from the off), and the oddly conservative worldview of the rest of the film —the depiction of the women in the film is, frankly, disgraceful. One for die-hard Keaton fans and newsroom picture obsessives only, to be honest. [C]

“Park Row” (1952)

This early effort from writer/director Sam Fuller, made one year before the solid “Pickup On South Street,” is probably most easily described as “Gangs Of New York” if it were about the newspaper biz of the era instead of turf warfare. Grimy and gritty, the film takes place in the 1880s and pits an idealistic young journalist, Phineas Mitchell (Gene Evans) who, tired of the dirty pool of the state of newsprint, launches his own paper but comes right up against Charity Hackett (Mary Welch), owner and publisher of the longstanding The Star. And things get ugly fast. Street fights, bar brawls, sabotage and even death come in the wake of the two papers battling for dominance and readership. However, most surprising is the streak of sentiment that runs throughout. Fuller (who’d worked in the newspaper industry since he was twelve) is no softie, but in “Park Row,” the director delivers what would be the closest thing to a Frank Capra film he would ever make, albeit in his own street-level, bare knuckled style. Immensely entertaining, this is one of the best and under-appreciated newspaper films. [B+]

“Shattered Glass” (2003)
“Are you mad at me?” Writer/director Billy Ray hinged the lead character of his film, a dramatic account of the former New Republic writer Stephen Glass’s rise and fall, on these words, taken from the September 1998 Vanity Fair article by H. G. Bissinger on which the film is based. That infuriating question is asked often by Glass in the film, here played by the young Darth Vader himself, Hayden Christensen, skillfully showing the manipulative nature of this fascinating character. Ray’s accomplishments are many in this real-life tale. The casting is aces, but getting the one and only good performance out of Christensen to date, who uses that grating, whiny voice to effectively portray the sociopathic Glass, is a marvel. The filmmaker also nails the sensation and excitement of chasing a story and working in a newsroom. When it’s discovered that many of Glass’ articles have been made up (he later admitted 27 of his 41 published pieces in the bi-monthly were at least partially or completely fabricated), we’re right there on the hunt with the reporters trying to take him, while also seeing the ramifications the investigation has on the staff of The New Republic. “Shattered Glass” is a confident work for a first-time director (though Ray has been writing scripts in Hollywood for almost two decades now), coming from someone so clearly enamored with journalism. Ray’s greatest achievement is how he deftly handles the transition of Glass from protagonist to antagonist, slowly revealing the film’s hero to be New Republic Editor Charles Lane, played by Peter Sarsgaard, who absolutely steals the movie in a fantastic performance. [B+]

“State of Play” (2009)

First off, Kevin Macdonald‘s “State of Play” isn’t a patch on the six-part BBC TV series that inspired it. It isn’t as funny, while the richness and depth of the supporting cast (which originally included familiar faces like Bill Nighy, James McAvoy, Kelly Macdonald, Philip Glenister and Marc Warren) isn’t matched, even with fine showings from the likes of Helen Mirren, Rachel McAdams and a particularly good, cast-against-type Jason Bateman. But that doesn’t mean that the film doesn’t have its charms. For one, the screenplay (by Matthew Michael Carnahan, Tony Gilroy and Billy Ray, with an uncredited polish by Peter Morgan) is a remarkable adaptation, condensing most of the dense plotting admirably, while trimming digressions and sensibly dumping the romance between journalist Cal (Russell Crowe) and politician Stephen Collins’ wife (Robin Wright Penn). Macdonald brings a ’70s-inflected zip to proceedings, and it’s expertly paced. But the film’s most notable as the first journalism-based movie to deal with the coming death of the printed newspaper, pitting Crowe’s veteran muckraker against McAdams’ new-school blogger, and it gives the picture a little extra fizz. But the film’s true pleasure comes in Crowe’s performance. He looks like he’s having a ball, and his languid, relaxed charm reminds you that, before the temper tantrums, he promised to be a once-in-a-generation movie star. [B]

“Sweet Smell Of Success” (1957)
It’s over 55 years old, and yet “Sweet Smell of Success” remains the most brutally enjoyable, acerbic and vicious media satire, bar none, ever made. The sole American picture by Ealing veteran Alexander Mackendrick (whose book, “On Filmmaking,” is one of the finest ever written about movies), the film focuses on the toxic pact between all-powerful columnist J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster) and press agent Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis), the latter of whom has promised to break up the relationship between Hunsecker’s sister (Susan Harrison) and her dope-smoking Commie jazz musician boyfriend (Martin Milner). Co-written by Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman (based on a novella by the latter), it’s like a smokey night-time noirish Macbeth, as Hunsecker and Falco plot against others and each other, trading gorgeously written barbs and never even remotely courting the audience’s sympathy (Lancaster in particular is more shark than man here). Mackendrick directs the picture immaculately, with the film proving one of the all-time great NYC pictures, despite, or because of, being made by an outsider. An absolute, stone-cold classic. [A+]

“Talk Radio” (1988)
A somewhat minor palate-cleanser made between his much-lauded “Wall Street” and “Born On The Fourth Of July,” “Talk Radio” saw Oliver Stone turn from the finance world to the media, adapting Eric Bogosian’s stage hit, itself inspired by the murder of talk radio host Alan Berg by white nationalists. Bogosian himself stars, as he did on Broadway, plays Barry Champlain, a Jewish liberal who takes great delight (egged on by his team, which includes Alec Baldwin and John C. McGinley) in winding up his listeners, to the point where he’s now getting death threats. Attempts by the screenplay to open things up from the stage are only semi-successful: the stuff about Champlain’s personal life is eminently fast-forwardable, and it still feels like a chamber piece. But when the film’s flying, such as Bogosian’s monologuing away with a profane fire, the film can be positively electric. Indeed, while some of Stone’s work from the period has aged quickly, “Talk Radio” only seems to have become more relevant over time, an early look at the fissure-deep divisions that make up our politics now. [B]

“To Die For” (1995)
Perhaps best remembered these days as the film that proved to everyone that Nicole Kidman was far more than just Mrs. Cruise, Gus Van Sant’s “To Die For” remains a savage and cutting satire on the quest for fame, another subject that’s only become more relevant in the years since the film opened. Based on the novel by Joyce Maynard (whose later work “Labor Day” was brought to the screen in rather more tepid form last year thanks to Jason Reitman) and adapted by “The Graduate” scribe Buck Henry, the film sees Kidman star as Suzanne Stone, an ambitious aspiring news reporter who marries a local man (Matt Dillon), only to enlist the help of a group of local high school kids (Joaquin Phoenix, Casey Affleck, Alison Folland) to kill him. In the best possible way, the film, like its subject, is a nasty piece of work, a wallow into a world of pure, naked ambition, but in Van Sant’s hands, there’s still a kind of humanism that dampens down the hatefulness of Kidman’s killer performance. The ending cops out a bit: a survivor like Suzanne should surely be someone who gets away with it. But even in the post-Kardashian era, it’s still as incisive a portrait of the pursuit of happiness, via public recognition, as we’ve seen on screen. [B+]

“The Truman Show” (1998)
With the media so often seeming stranger than fiction, movies on this list tend to stay well clear of the world of parody, but “The Truman Show” proves that you can say just as much about the mania of the press and the public with a “Twilight Zone”-ish premise. Penned by “Gattaca” helmer Andrew Niccol, and directed by the great Peter Weir, the film stars Jim Carrey, in his most restrained and dramatic role up to that point, as Truman Burbank, a man whose ordinary existence has been since his birth a reality TV show inside a massive dome, the most popular entertainment on the planet. Creator (in an almost literal sense) Ed Harris watches over all from a control room, but Truman’s gradually pulling down the facade around him and looking for a mistake. The film’s a tightrope walk of tone, and it could have so easily fallen off one side or the other, but Weir and Niccol somehow wrangle it into a cunning mix of “Network” and “It’s A Wonderful Life,” a genuinely sweet fable with some surprisingly dark undercurrents. At the time, it seemed like science-fiction: sixteen years on, with reality TV still dominating the airwaves, it’s anything but. [A]

“While The City Sleeps” (1956)
Fritz Lang’s penultimate Hollywood picture (shot and released almost simultaneously with “Beyond A Reasonable Doubt,” with which it makes a pretty coherent double-bill), “While The City Sleeps” also serves as an interesting bookend to the director’s “M,” once again returning to the subject of the hunt for a killer. Here, though, the battle to find the Lipstick Killer menacing New York takes a backseat to the power struggle after the death of media mogul Amos Kyne (the name a nod to Orson Welles), whose son Walter (Vincent Price) is forcing three higher-ups to compete to take over: whoever gets the exclusive and catches the murderer will take over as executive director. Lang’s much less interested in the thriller plotting than in the newsroom machinations, as the interconnected strand of Kyne’s empire show the extent of their ruthlessness, with even nominal hero Dana Andrews, playing a star TV reporter, using his fiance as bait to nearly fatal results. There’s a slightly reactionary tone to the picture in places (Lang pointing the finger to comic books for inspiring real murders), but it’s an admirably nasty and moody film, and one that proves remarkably prescient in predicting the dangers of Big Media. [B+]

“Zodiac” (2007)

To regular readers it will not be news that we almost unconditionally love David Fincher, and that we’ll take any opportunity to bang on about his underrated (in his oeuvre anyway) 2007 serial killer film. Granted, it’s not as showy or as sensationalist as 1995’s “Se7en” and lacks the punchy, pulpy, pop-culture feel of “Fight Club,” but as an absorbing and meticulous procedural, speckled with strong performances and elevated by pretty sublime camerawork (it’s his one collaboration with master cinematographer Harris Savides), “Zodiac” proves that the director can do depth and thoughtfulness in addition to his more obvious talents. But perhaps these are qualities that people didn’t want or expect of a serial killer movie, which is why its inclusion here makes sense. It may be based on a famous true unsolved case, but “Zodiac” isn’t about murder or the murderer —it’s about obsession and the long lonely hours that men in offices and at desks put in trying to catch him— these were the killer’s other, unheralded victims. The San Francisco Chronicle’s newsroom may not be the sole or even the primary setting of the film, but as a place of occasional revelation but more often of unending slog and unrewarded sacrifice (a lot like Playlist Towers), it is a perfect location for the film’s downbeat, ambiguous yet strangely nourishing themes. [A-]

Honorable Mentions: Among the others potentials that we didn’t think were quite right for the list are journalists-abroad dramas “The Year Of Living Dangerously,” “Salvador” “The Killing Fields,” and “Foreign Correspondent,” recent TV news rom-com “Morning Glory,” earlier versions of “The Front Page” (plus 80s remake “Switching Channels“), and thrillers “The Parallax View” and “Defence Of The Realm.” And moving further afield, there’s also “Almost Famous,” “The People Vs. Larry Flynt,” “Private Parts,” “Bulworth,” “A Face In The Crowd,” “Death To Smoochy,” “Nothing But The Truth” and “The Big Clock.” Any others we’ve missed? Let us know in the comments.

— Oliver Lyttelton, Kevin Jagernauth, Kimber Myers, Jessica Kiang, Drew Taylor, Rodrigo Perez

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