You’ll see right away that this is not all BBC and Jane Austen. Once I started constructing this list, I realized that there’s no material difference between The Godfather, Parts I and II and The Forsyte Saga. They’re usually literary adaptations (which range from cynical to gritty to romantic to eminently silly). They almost always tell intense, character-driven tales of families or communities to throw the reader into a moment in the past — not just for history geeks or people with weird corset fetishes. Period drama ultimately addresses issues of love and power, adventures and domestic lives, self-understanding and self-delusion, and the institutions or cultural expectations of the past that condition people’s lives. Class boundaries, sexism, political institutions, and (less often) race — seeing those things at work in the past helps illuminate their work in our own time.

Most of all, it makes no sense that period dramas are so strongly associated with “women’s” viewing. Okay, it does make sense: PBS is dribbling Downton Abbey to us every Sunday, and my female Facebook friends twitter delightedly afterward. But that’s just because all those dudes refuse to admit that Deadwood is a costume drama, too. This is a working draft, so please tell me what I’ve missed — or argue with me. I love arguments and recommendations.

  1. American Graffiti (1973), which isn’t a literary adaptation but was probably the first film that wove together pop songs with the leisurely yearning of high school kids into something that feels literary. Who knew George Lucas could write dialogue like this? An amazing document about one night in the early 60s that Roger Ebert calls “not only a great movie but a brilliant work of historical fiction; no sociological treatise could duplicate the movie’s success in remembering exactly how it was to be alive at that cultural instant.”
  2. Cold Comfort Farm (1995), which functions for me as true comfort on a regular basis. This supremely silly film, based on the Stella Gibbons novel and directed by John Schlesinger, tells of a young society girl (Kate Beckinsale) in the 1920s who arrives at her cousins’ miserably awful farm and sets to work tidying things up. I can’t even speak about the total wonderfulness of how she solves the problem of her oversexed cousin Seth (Rufus Sewell); suffice it to say that this film only gets better on frequent re-viewings. (Right, Nan F.?)
  3. Days of Heaven (1973), the lyrical film by Terrence Malick about migrant farm workers in the 1910s and narrated by the froggy-voiced, New York-accented, cynical and tiny teenager Linda Manz. Beautiful and elegant, and one of my favorite films ever — and a lesson about how a simple, familiar, even clichéd story can be enough to shape a film and still permit viewers to be surprised. (The scene with the locusts rests right up there as a great horror scene in film history, if you ask me.)
  4. Deadwood (2004-06), the great HBO series about Deadwood, South Dakota in its very earliest days of existence — a place with no law, only raw power. Fantastic: and David Milch’s Shakespearean dialogue somehow renders that world ever more weird and awful. Excessively dude-heavy, yes; but hey, by all accounts that was accurate for the American West in the 1860s. And let’s not forget about Trixie.
  5. The Forsyte Saga (2002-03), the Granada/ITV series based on the John Galsworthy novel which I wrote about with love here. Those turn-of-the-century clothes! The miseries of marriage! The lustful glances while in the ballroom! The many, many episodes! 
  6. The Godfather Parts I and II (1972, 1974). I still think Al Pacino’s work in these films is just extraordinary, considering what a newbie he was to film acting; and the street scenes with Robert De Niro from turn-of-the-century New York in Part II! spectacular! Directed by Francis Ford Coppola and based on the Mario Puzo novel, of course, with political intrigues and family in-fighting that matches anything the 19th-century novel could possibly produce.
  7. Jane Eyre (2011), again, a film I’ve raved about numerous times. I’ve got piles of reasons to believe this is the best version ever, so don’t even try to fight it. ‘Nuff said.
  8. L.A. Confidential (1997), a film by Curtis Hanson I’ve only given glancing attention to considering how much I love it. At some point I’ve got to fix this. It won’t pass the Bechdel Test, but by all accounts the sprawling James Ellroy novel about postwar Los Angeles was far more offending in that regard; and despite all that, Kim Basinger’s terrific role as the elusive Veronica Lake lookalike is always the first person I think of when looking back on it. She lashes into Edmund Exley (Guy Pearce) mercilessly, and he wants her all the more. Of course.
  9. Little Dorrit (2008), which saved me from one of the worst semesters of my life — shortly to be followed by two more terrible semesters. This was a magic tonic at just the right time. Charles Dickens at his twisting, turning best; and screenwriter Andrew Davies doing what he does best in taking a long novel and transforming it for a joint BBC/PBS production. Oodles of episodes, all of which are awesome.
  10. Lust, Caution (2007), which I only saw this month. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen such a sensual, dangerous, beautifully-acted period film. And that Tang Wei! I’m still marveling over her performance. Ang Lee directed this WWII resistance thriller, based on a novel by Eileen Chang.
  11. Mad Men (2007-present). It’s been a while since Season 4, which I loved; they tell me the long-awaited fifth season is coming back to AMC this March. Oh Peggy, oh Joan, oh Betty, and little Sally Draper…whither goes the women in Season 5? I’m not sure there’s a modern director amongst us who cares so much for both the historical minutiae (a woman’s watch, the design of a clock on the wall) and the feeling of the early- to mid-60s as Matthew Weiner.
  12. Marie Antoinette (2006), surely the most controversial choice on this list. Director Sofia Coppola creates a mood film about a young woman plopped into a lonely, miserable world of luxury and excess. The back of the film throbs with the quasi-dark, quasi-pop rhythms of 80s music — such an unexpected pairing, and one that really just worked. Kirsten Dunst’s characteristic openness of face, together with her slight wickedness, made her the perfect star.
  13. Middlemarch (1994). Can you believe how many of these films & series I’ve already written about? Juliet Aubrey, Patrick Malahide, Rufus Sewell et als. just bring it with this adaptation of George Eliot’s sprawling (and best) novel. Marriage never looked so foolish, except until Galsworthy wrote The Forsyte Saga. It’s yet another BBC production and yet another terrific screenplay by Andrew Davies.
  14. My Brilliant Career (1979), the film that initated me into costume drama love, and which gave me a lasting affection for Australians. Judy Davis, with those freckles and that unmanageable hair, was such a model for me as a kid that I think of her as one of my favorite actresses. Directed by the great Gillian Armstrong and based on the novel by Miles Franklin about the early 20th century outback, this still stands up — and it makes me cry a little to think that Davis has gotten such a relatively small amount of attention in the US over the years.
  15. North and South (2004). The piece I wrote on this brilliant BBC series is very much for the already-initiated; at some point soon I’m going to write about how many times I’ve shown this little-known series to my friends practically as a form of evangelism. “The industrial revolution has never been so sexy,” I was told when I first watched it. You’ll never forget the scenes of the 1850s cotton mill and the workers’ tenements; and your romantic feelings about trains will forever been confirmed.
  16. Our Mutual Friend (1998), which I absorbed in an unholy moment of costume-drama overload while on an overseas research trip. You’ll never look at actor Stephen Mackintosh again without a little pang of longing for his plain, unadorned face and quiet pining. Another crazy mishmash of Dickensian characters, creatively named and weirdly motivated by the BBC by screenwriter Sandy Welch for our viewing pleasure.
  17. The Painted Veil (2006). Now, the writer Somerset Maugham usually only had one trick up his sleeve; he loved poetic justice with only the slightest twist of agony. Maugham fans won’t get a lot of surprises in this John Curran film, but this adaptation set in 1930s China is just beautifully rendered, and features spectacular images from the mountain region of Guanxi Province. It also features terrific performances by Naomi Watts, Liev Shreiber (slurp!), and especially Edward Norton, who’s just stunningly good. 
  18. The Piano (1993), written and directed by the superlative Jane Campion about a mute woman (Holly Hunter) and her small daughter (Anna Paquin) arriving at the home of her new husband, a lonely 1850s New Zealand frontiersman (Harvey Keitel) who has essentially purchased them from the woman’s father. As with Lust, Caution you’d be surprised how sexy sex in past decades can be. And the music!
  19. Pride and Prejudice (1995). Is it a cliché to include this? Or would it be wrong to snub the costume drama to end all costume drama? Considering this series logged in at a full 6 hours, it’s impressive I’ve watched it as many times as I have. Jennifer Ehle, Colin Firth, and a cracklingly faithful script by Andrew Davies — now this is what one needs on a grim winter weekend if one is saddles with the sniffles.
  20. The Remains of the Day (1993). I still think the Kazuo Ishiguro novel is one of his best, almost as breathtaking as An Artist of the Floating World (why hasn’t that great novel been made into a film, by the way?). This adaptation by Ismail Merchant and James Ivory gets the social stultification of prewar Britain and the class system absolutely. Antony Hopkins, Emma Thompson, and that Ruth Prawer Jhabvala script!
  21. A Room With a View (1985), which I include for sentimental reasons — because I saw it at that precise moment in my teens when I was utterly and completely swept away by the late 19th century romance. In retrospect, even though that final makeout scene in the Florentine window still gets my engines runnin’, I’m more impressed by the whole Merchant/Ivory/Jhabvala production of the E. M. Forster novel — its humor, the dialogue, the amazing cast. Maggie Smith and Daniel Day Lewis alone are enough to steal the show.
  22. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1996). This novel runs a pretty close second to Jane Eyre in my list of favorite Brontë Sisters Power Novels (FYI: Villette comes next) due to the absolute fury Anne Brontë directed at the institution of marriage. And this BBC series, featuring Tara Fitzgerald, Toby Stephens, and the darkest of all dark villains Rupert Graves, is gorgeous and stark. I haven’t seen much of Fitzgerald lately, but this series makes you love her outspoken sharpness.
  23. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (2011), Tomas Alfredson’s terrific condensation of a labyrinthine John Le Carré novel into a 2-hour film. Whereas the earlier version — a terrific 7-part miniseries featuring the incomparable Alec Guinness as Smiley — was made shortly after the book’s publication, Alfredson’s version reads as a grim period drama of the 1970s. I dare you to imagine a more bleak set of institutional interiors than those inhabited by The Circus.
  24. True Grit (2010), the Coen Brothers’ very funny, wordy retelling of the Charles Portis novel that has the most pleasurable dialogue of any film in my recent imagination. The rapid-fire legalities that 14-year-old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) fires during the film’s earliest scenes; the banter between Ross, Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), and La Boeuf (Matt Damon) as they sit around campfires or leisurely make their way across hardscrabble landscapes — now, that’s a 19th century I like imagining.
  25. A Very Long Engagement (2004), Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s sole historical film and one that combines his penchant for great gee-whiz stuff and physical humor with a full-hearted romanticism. Maybe not the most accurate portrayal of immediate period after WWI, but what a terrific world to fall into for a couple of hours. 

A few final notes: I’ve never seen a few classics, including I, Claudius; Brideshead Revisited; Upstairs/Downstairs; Maurice; and The Duchess of Duke Street. (They’re on my queue, I promise!)

I included Pride and Prejudice rather than Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility and I’m still not certain I’m comfortable without it. But secretly, I think I liked Lee’s Lust, Caution a little bit better.

There are no samurai films here, despite the fact that I’m on record for loving them. Why not? I’m not sure. Maybe it’s because I have no grasp whatsoever of Japanese history, and the films I know and love seem to see history less as something to recapture than to exploit. I’m certain I’m wrong about that — tell me why.

I reluctantly left off 2009’s A Single Man because it’s just not as good a film as I would have liked, no matter how good Colin Firth was, and no matter how gorgeous those early ’60s Los Angeles homes.

That said, you need to tell me: what do you say?

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Do you remember how it felt as a child to misbehave — to behave so badly that you wondered if your soul had turned permanently bad? For me it was sometime around age 11. I became a horrible person, and I couldn’t stop being that person. I was mean to my sister on a new level, outdoing my previous triumphs at cruelty. Worse, I could not stand my mother. We entered a short period in which I was unbearable to her in a way that I still cannot quite understand, intellectually or otherwise.

If I had been Terrence Malick and had grown up in 1950s Waco, Texas, I’m quite certain I would have understood this part of my life through a biblical framework. How could you not? The bible is full of tales of fathers and rebellious sons, brothers who battle one another — and distinctions between those who are chosen and those who are fallen. Good and evil; choices; fateful acts. In that context would I have seen myself as evil? Would I have asked whether one be saved from evil, or regain grace? Instead, I grew up female, later in history, and without religion. Thus I wonder, are these questions of Malick’s, so beautifully captured in The Tree of Life, not just Christian but male ways of seeing the world?

I loved, loved The Tree of Life — and because none of you needs yet another critical assessment of the film as a whole, let me don my gender hat instead. I do so in part because Malick’s work always struck me as painfully, extraordinarily sensitive to women and the strange, dark, inexpressible relations between women and men. Even just thinking of the voiceovers by Sissy Spacek in Badlands (1973) and Linda Manz in Days of Heaven (1978) breaks my heart. Tree of Life seems different, male. This is the most amazing film about childhood I’ve ever seen; but it seems to me not a universal story but one about boys.

This film is deeply, profoundly concerned with manliness and patriarchs. “There are two ways through life,” his mother (Jessica Chastain) tells Jack (Hunter McCracken), “the way of nature, and the way of grace.” So close to grace that she’s nearly angelic, she infuses her young son with close attention to the wonder of nature and protects him from the world’s terrors. In one scene she dances with a monarch butterfly, which lands on her hand; in another short clip, she spirits her son away from the disturbing sight of a man having a seizure on their front lawn. Yet ultimately her way of grace can’t protect them from the husband/father (Brad Pitt) whose dissatisfied, striving character makes the “way of nature” so impossible to ignore, and so interchangeable with “feet of clay.” Surrounded by brothers and those neighborhood boys who run in packs, Jack is utterly focused on his father’s quickly changing moods, on the project of being male.

Pitt’s jaw juts out just a little bit more than usual in this role — it’s so subtle, so evocative of the resentment and cussedness always simmering below his steely surface. (This is the best acting I’ve ever seen from Pitt; it’s crazy good, and he’s absolutely found his match in the exceptional Hunter McCracken as the young Jack.) He can be such a loving father, but the love is overshadowed by terrifying moments in which he educates his sons in manliness. “Hit me!” he says to his sons when he tries to teach them how to box, simultaneously glaring and smacking his own jaw to indicate where to aim. In another, rare confessional moment he admits his mistakes to Jack: “Don’t do what I did.” He rules the dinner table with an iron fist; it’s tricky even to know how to pass the mashed potatoes, so Jack watches his father closely. Everything about his father’s physical presence — those heavy glasses that serve as a mask, the military-trim crew cut, the beefy hand with which he grabs his son by the neck in an expression of simultaneous affection and control — bespeaks a man constantly wrestling with himself. Kartina Richardson puts it most succinctly: the film shows that “to be white and male is not only to be in a prison, but to be the prison itself,” over at her elegant blog, Mirror.

Malick spins outward from this personal story — especially the tale of the older Jack (Sean Penn) still disturbed by the death of his brother at age 19, a moment we only see via a telegram arriving at his aged parents’ house — to the biggest questions we have. In breathy voiceovers, we hear Jack at various ages asking, “Where are you?” “Why am I here?”, that universal set of questions about existence we keep asking over and over. Is he asking God these questions? Is he asking his dead brother? “Mother. Father. Always you wrestle inside me. Always you will,” the younger Jack whispers to us. But it’s really Father, isn’t it? And beyond that, isn’t Malick really wrestling with a Christian god?

Thus, as much as I loved, loved, loved the film, I ultimately found it oddly disconcerting that for him, the universal questions have that Christian overlay with its oppressive, problematic manliness. As important as my father is to me and was to my childhood, his role was so non-patriarchal that I feel all my own hard questions were inflected by different problematics than Malick’s. I knew when I walked into the theater that Malick infused his story with some of those piercing, unanswerable questions; but when I walked out I felt a little bit farther away from my own questions, those which troubled me so deeply and which still occasionally wake me at 3 a.m.

The Tree of Life seems ultimately to tell a story of a particular kind of man looking backward. But whether or not it portrays something universal, it produces a sense of wonder in the viewer — by means of those amazing shots of nature, astronomy, bubbling volcanic magma, mysterious fires — such that I spent all afternoon today hiking in those beautiful rare wild parts of New Jersey with all five senses heightened. Sometimes the beauty of a bird flying, light shining through a canyon, or a shot underwater of waves crashing up above is enough to humble you to the core, to break your heart at the passage of time.

Oh, the back and forth between the divine and the specific. Most of all, the scene that stays with me is that of the boys racing out to greet the DDT truck that wandered the streets in the 1950s to eliminate mosquitoes with a delicious cloud of fog. My mother tells an identical story from a different 1950s childhood (indeed, she and Malick are nearly the same age). Somehow the specificity of this scene creates the same delight as the waves and canyons and cathedrals. It’s in that cloud of whispered questions, lost innocence, half-remembered moments, and that fog of shots that you lose yourself. All of it, including the autobiographical parts, seem to show the world from a child’s height, as the camera looks up at Jack’s parents or at the dome of a beautiful building: spectacular. This film may be the story only of one boy’s life, his own patriarchal Christian questions, but you won’t leave the theater quite the same.