Life is Beautiful (1998)

Roberto Benigni is a contemporary Charlie Chaplin. An actor-director, he's created an everyman-type of clown who negotiates his way through potentially serious situations with slapstick jokes and gags. His most recent film, the Oscar-winning Life is Beautiful, is both a clever satire on World War II fascism and a heart-wrenching drama about a father's love for his son.

Guido Orefice (Benigni) is a Jewish waiter in a small Italian town. He and his 5-year-old son are arrested and sent to a concentration camp. To keep the child from being overwhelmed by the horror that surrounds them, Guido convinces him that the whole thing is only a game to see who can fool the guards. Camp officials are ridiculed, but we can see that things are heading to a climax which won't be a lot of laughs. Like Chaplin, Benigni understands that comedy and tragedy are closely related.

Persuasion (1995)

At first glance, the success of the recent screen adaptations of Jane Austen's novels (Emma and Sense and Sensibility) seems surprising. They're well-observed satires of a social class that no one cares about anymore, and their unmarried heroines are always searching for Mr. Right, a goal many contemporary feminists would like to discredit. But Austen's work detaches romantic love from its erotic component and highlights the importance of emotional compatibility in a way modern audiences find novel and instructive.

Although Anne Elliott (Amanda Root) is a model of prudence and compassion, she's still a spinster at 27. Her baronet father and social-climbing older sister are running through the family fortune. When a dashing naval officer (Ciaran Hinds) whom she'd once rejected comes back into Anne's life, circumstances conspire to keep them apart. Persuasion makes us laugh at the hypocrisies and pretensions of most of her peers and root for true love to win out.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin) is a psychotic, ultraviolent outlaw who preys off the citizens of the frontier town of Shinbone. Two men are determined to bring him down: an ambitious lawyer-school-teacher (James Stewart) and a gun-slinging homesteader (John Wayne). Both men are in love with the same woman (Vera Miles).

The film explores the larger question of who tamed the wild West — those who worked to establish law, education and commerce, or those who used brute force to serve the greater good. Director John Ford (Stagecoach) employs an imaginative flashback structure to present the ironic way the two opposing points of views were sometimes joined together. “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend,” declares a journalist when he learns that the truth of the situation differs considerably from the myths that have grown up about it. Ford shows how civilization requires freedom and responsibility to work in tandem.

All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)

Most good war films show the senseless destruction of combat while asserting that some things are worth fighting for. The Oscar-winning All Quiet on the Western Front is that rare thing — a true anti-war movie which makes us wonder if any cause is worth the price. Through a series of episodes about German schoolboy-recruits during World War I, it dramatizes how the unrelenting trench warfare forces them “to eat and sleep with death.” All the false, romantic notions of battle gradually give way to disillusionment and loss.

In a memorable, gut-wrenching scene which sets the movie's tone, a young German named Paul (Lew Ayres) is trapped in a foxhole with a wounded French soldier and must watch him die. The experience teaches him to look for the common humanity that binds him to his enemy rather than their political differences. His conscience and moral sensibility struggle to survive despite the mounting carnage around him.

Arts & Culture correspondent John

Prizer writes from Los Angeles.