Avalon (1990)

Every American family has an immigration experience behind it, whether the journey occurred within the past decade or 300 years ago. At its core is usually a drama about the American dream as tempered by the reality of assimilation. Avalon is the best of writer-director Barry Levinson's four Baltimore films inspired by his own family's background (including the current R-rated release Liberty Heights). The story opens on July 4, 1914, with the arrival of Sam Krichinsky (Michael Krauss) from Eastern Europe and spans several generations, chronicling their evolution from ghetto immigrants to suburban Americans. Key to their emotional survival are certain homespun rituals like the annual Thanksgiving dinner.

The affluence of the family's later years is balanced by a sense of loss at the gradual erosion of their traditional values. The replacement of lively, dinner-table conversation with couch-potato tube-watching is symptomatic of the process. Those of the younger generation must figure out what to preserve from their heritage.

Empire of the Sun (1987)

Jim Graham (Christian Bale) is a soloist in a boys choir in Shanghai in 1941 where life was sweet if you were British and rich. The 9-year-old is obsessed with the beauty of airplanes. But the flying machines turn sinister when the Japanese bomb the city and, in the ensuing mayhem, the boy is separated from his parents and incarcerated for four years in a prison camp.

Empire of the Sun, based on J.G. Ballard's autobiographical novel, sets this vivid coming-of-age story against a background of World War II carnage and social disintegration. Protected in the camp by a seedy American wheeler-dealer (John Malkovich), Jim must develop survival skills not taught in the privileged enclave where he grew up. Director Steven Spielberg (Schindler's List) dramatizes the importance of human connections and an indomitable spirit. The boy holds on to his love of airplanes and dreams of God even as he begins to forget what his parents look like.

Bang the Drum Slowly (1973)

Professional baseball is about winning. Losers are quickly cast aside. Bruce Pearson (Robert De Niro) is a not-too-bright catcher for the New York Mammoths who lives only for the game. His roommate Henry Wiggen (Michael Moriarty) is everything he's not. A quick-witted, league-leading pitcher, he writes books and sells insurance on the side. When Bruce is diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease, he makes Henry promise to hide the truth from team manager Dutch Schnell (Vincent Gardenia) who'll do anything to win the pennant. The illness is incurable but not yet debilitating, and Bruce wants to play until he drops.

Bang the Drum Slowly, adapted from Mark Harris’ novel, treats its life-and-death story about the meaning of friendship with a deft comic touch. The clever, calculating Henry must take some risks to help Bruce keep his secret, and Dutch must learn that there's more to life than victory. This is a warmhearted tale that doesn't pull its punches.

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)

Greed is a sin that consumes rich and poor alike. Even people of great integrity can fall apart when the temptation is too great. Dobbs (Humphrey Bogart), Howard (Walter Huston) and Curtin (Tim Holt) are Americans down on their luck in Mexico. Each lives by his own rough-hewn set of moral values. When the three pool their meager resources to search for gold in the mountains, their mettle is put to the test.

The desolate environment and marauding banditos force them to fight for their survival. But ironically, it's the against-all-odds discovery of gold that becomes their undoing. The Oscar-winning The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, adapted by writer-director John Huston from B. Traven's novel, is above all a suspenseful adventure yarn. The drama springs from the contrasting ways its characters respond to good fortune. Dobbs becomes avaricious and paranoid, ready to kill to protect his stash. He meets his match in the old-timer Howard, who exudes a fatalistic wisdom.

Arts & Culture correspondent John Prizer writes from Los