The Apostle (1997)
Written and directed by Oscar-winning actor Robert Duvall, The Apostle dares to explore the thriving evangelical Protestant subculture without the usual one-dimensional prejudices. Euliss “Sonny” Dewey (Duvall) runs a large, prosperous church in Texas with his wife, Jessie (Farrah Fawcett). Sonny correctly suspects that Jessie is having an affair and takes revenge on his wife's lover with a baseball bat. He then does a fast disappearing act and — after re-baptizing himself in a river and anointing himself “an apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ” — slips off to rural Louisiana, where he takes a new name and transforms a small, abandoned church into a thriving place of worship. His starting over results in a deeply compromised, but earnest, spiritual rebirth. He becomes a suffering servant, devoting himself to his congregation's needs until his past catches up with him.
Though it doesn't succeed as a fully developed drama, The Apostle is a brilliant character study. Duvall succeeds in creating a multi-dimensional, believable personality — a sinner who aspires to sainthood in his heart even as he lets his emotions and behavior get in the way. The movie deliberately leaves unresolved the question of whether the good Sonny does as a minister can atone for the evil he previously perpetrated.
Nobody likes a busybody, and the heroine of Jane Austen's novel, Emma, is one of literature's most annoying meddlers. Fortunately, she gets her come-uppance before receiving some unexpected rewards.
Emma (Gwyneth Paltrow) is a matchmaker in Victorian England who is seriously deluded about her talents. The movie's comedy springs from her errors in judgment about the ways of love and her inability to learn from her mistakes. Observing Emma's Byzantine scheming is an older friend of the family, Mr. Knightley (Jeremy Northern) who at first treats her like a sister. He's tolerant of her excesses and perceives the essential goodness underneath. But then the sparks start to fly.
Emma‘s romantic battlefields seem light years away from the gross-out humor of most films today covering similar situations in a contemporary setting. Austin's early 19th-century world is based on good manners and a strict moral code. Her heroines must learn to distinguish virtue from self-righteousness and good intentions. Their lessons along the way are difficult and funny, with an occasional tug at the heart strings.
Driving Miss Daisy (1990)
Friendship is one of life's treasures, and the relationship becomes an added gift when its passages change people for the better. Driving Miss Daisy, which won Oscars for Best Picture, Best Actress and Best Screenplay, is set in Georgia during the final years of racial segregation. Miss Daisy Werthan (Jessica Tandy) is a wealthy, elderly, Jewish widow. Hoke Colburn (Morgan Freeman) is a middle-aged black man who's hired to be her driver. A more unlikely pair of friends is difficult to imagine.
The action unfolds over a 25-year period, featuring real events like the 1958 bombing of Atlanta's Temple and the 1965 dinner salute to Martin Luther King, Jr. The personal story includes a backyard garden tended by the two and a chilling encounter with the Alabama highway patrol. Eventually, Miss Daisy and Hoke come to regard each other as equals. The movie is a testament to the generosity of the human spirit.
High Sierra (1941)
Unlike their contemporary equivalents, the classic Warner Brothers gangster films emphasize character over action. Their most memorable personalities are colorful bad guys whom you get to understand and sometimes like. But behind the well-constructed, inventive plotting, there's always a firmly anchored moral universe. Crime never pays.
Roy Earle (Humphrey Bogart) is a tough-guy robber who's sprung from jail by an old-time associate for a California-hotel heist. But Roy is a gangster with a heart. During his cross-country escape he meets Velma (Joan Leslie), a club-footed girl who wins his sympathy. He somehow finds the money for an operation that cures her. The young woman then gives him the cold shoulder, jeopardizing his safety at a crucial moment.
High Sierra finishes with a breath-taking chase through the California mountains. Roy reflects on his own mortality and place in the universe. Earth seems like nothing more than “a little ball turning through the night, with us hanging onto it.” He dreams of “crashing out” and finding freedom away from the gangster life. But the sins of his past can't be ignored. Some might say he's dogged by cruel twists of fate. Others would call it the hand of providence. But you care about Roy until the end.
Arts & Culture correspondent John Prizer writes from Los Angeles.