Category Archives: Reviews

Apocalypse Now (1979)

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“My film isn’t about Vietnam. It is Vietnam. It’s what it was really like. It was crazy. And the way we made it was very much like the way the Americans were in Vietnam. We were in the jungle, there were too many of us, we had access to too much money, too much equipment and little by little we went insane.” (A)

No film is more linked to its “making of” story than Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. It should be required, like a Coppola wine pairing, to watch the film together with the fantastic behind-the-scenes documentary, Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse (1991), created by Coppola’s wife Eleanor, who recorded the director’s most personal fears throughout the “horror” of production.

It all started off innocent enough, with an acclaimed director bringing Hollywood’s biggest stars to the Philippines, where a young Sofia Coppola (future director of Lost in Translation) quipped, “It looks like the Disneyland jungle cruise.” (A) Then all hell broke loose. A massive typhoon named Olga wiped out the sets and shut down production for two months to rebuild. The Philippine government offered helicopters to use on set, but suddenly recalled them to fend off rebel forces. Martin Sheen suffered a near-fatal heart attack at the young age of 36, receiving last rites from a non-English speaking priest and being sidelined for five weeks.

If that wasn’t enough, Marlon Brando threatened to take his million dollars and run, annoyed at the production delays. While he ultimately agreed to stay, he showed up overweight without having read the film’s source novel, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899). Dennis Hopper was stoned out of his mind and unable to remember his lines, and supporting actors like Sam Bottoms dropped acid and speed throughout the production. Perhaps most problematic was Coppola himself, who was filled with enough hubris after the success of the two Godfather films that he tried to tackle material that had licked even the great Orson Welles, who wound up doing Citizen Kane instead. (A) Continue reading

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Jaws (1975)

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Call it the scariest horror flick ever made, a Moby Dick action adventure, a social commentary on beach towns and greedy mayors, a humanistic family story of science and wonder, one of the best film adaptations of a best-selling novel, one of the pioneering summer blockbusters and the winner of three Academy Awards (editing, sound, score). Or, if you’re GQ magazine, you can take a more cynical approach and call it the beginning of the end for the Hollywood Renaissance: “It’s now a movie-history commonplace that the late-’60s-to-mid-’70s creative resurgence of American moviemaking — the Coppola-Altman-Penn-Nichols-Bogdanovich-Ashby decade — was cut short by two movies, Jaws in 1975 and Star Wars in 1977, that lit the fuse for the summer-blockbuster era.”

Still, just because many of their starry-eyed followers went on to make effects-heavy garbage for short-attention spans, doesn’t mean that Spielberg and Lucas themselves made garbage. Young Spielberg (Jaws) and Young Lucas (American Graffiti) understood film history — which is more than many of their fanboys can say — with references to John Ford’s The Searchers (1956) in both Close Encounters and Star Wars, before teaming on Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). Scholar David Thomson put it best: “Like Coppola on The Godfather, Spielberg asserted his own role and deftly organized the elements of a rollercoaster entertainment without sacrificing inner meanings.”

This, my friends, is the essence of The Film Spectrum, a website that urges future filmmakers to find that “sweet spot” of riveting first-time experience, yet increasing depth on repeat viewings. If you won’t take it from me, take it from Billy Wilder: “When people try to belittle The Exorcist or Jaws, I just think these people are crazy. Mr. Spielberg knows exactly what he did, and he did it brilliantly.” And so, let’s all come to grips with a simple fact: Jaws is not only massive entertainment, it remains one of the best directed movies ever made. If you look at our website’s banner in this context, there are fins to the left, fins to the right, and it’s the only shark in town. Continue reading

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High Noon (1952)

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What’s in a name? Better yet, what’s in a song? The title and title song of “High Noon” tell us everything we need to know about Fred Zinnemann’s western masterpiece. Just 13 percent of American feature films used a “title song” between 1950-1954, but the number grew to 22 percent over the next five years, and reached 29 percent by the late ’60s. Sparking the trend was “The Ballad of High Noon,” an Oscar-winning song written by Dimitri Tiomkin and Ned Washington and sung by Tex Ritter (father of John Ritter). Not only would it become a popular country music record, it also allowed the film to both introduce the stakes of its plot and reinforce the moral of its story:

Do not forsake me O my darlin’ / On this our wedding day / Do not forsake me O my darlin’ / Wait, wait along. / The noon-day train will bring Frank Miller. / If I’m a man I must be brave / And I must face that deadly killer / Or lie a coward, a craven coward / Or lie a coward in my grave. / O to be torn ‘twixt love and duty! / Supposin’ I lose my fair-haired beauty! / Look at that big hand move along / Nearin’ high noon. / He made a vow while in State’s Prison / Vow’d it would be my life or his and / I’m not afraid of death, but O, / What will I do if you leave me? Continue reading

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Bonnie and Clyde (1967)

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1967 was the year that American cinema grew up. Hollywood’s Golden Age of the ’30s and ’40s had long since given way to the sword-and-sandal epics of the ’50s and ’60s. Meanwhile overseas, the French New Wave had shattered every convention known to man. When a crop of young American filmmakers saw these edgy French flicks, they were inspired to create their own period of maverick filmmaking known as the “Hollywood Renaissance,” marking the arrival daring new voices like Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman, John Cassavettes, Sam Peckinpah, George Roy Hill, Hal Ashby, John Boorman, John Schlesinger, William Friedkin, Roman Polanski, Peter Bogdanovich, Mike Nichols, Woody Allen, Brian DePalma, Terrence Malick, Steven Spielberg and Francis Ford Coppola.

Helping the cause was 1967′s removal of the Hays Code in favor of the MPAA rating system. That meant filmmakers could make sexier, more violent films, as long as they carried a particular rating. Out of this grew anti-establishment pieces that broke down barriers of race, religion and sexuality. And while the title of Peter Biskin’s controversial book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls sets the bookends at 1969-1980, the Hollywood Renaissance truly ran from 1967-1980.

October 1967 brought In the Heat of the Night (1967), November brought Cool Hand Luke (1967), and December brought both The Graduate (1967) and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967). But predating all of those films was a revolutionary picture that shocked audiences in August ’67, a film with unprecedented violence and simmering sexuality, film’s greatest indication that the times they were a changin’, the one and only Bonnie and Clyde (1967). Continue reading

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The Philadelphia Story (1940)

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Many great movies stick out by featuring one of the greatest actors of their generation. Rarely can a movie claim to feature three of the greatest actors of all time in one glorious cast. The Philadelphia Story is that rare exception, featuring a leading trio that will blow any other leading three out of the water — Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn and Jimmy Stewart, all at their very best.

For Stewart, The Philadelphia Story marked his first — and egregiously only — Academy Award for Best Actor. Many scholars think it was a make-up for the statue he should have won the previous year for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) when he most likely split the vote with favorite Clark Gable in Gone With the Wind (1939), allowing Richard Donat to score the upset for Goodbye Mr. Chips (1939). Even if Stewart’s Philadelphia Story victory was an Oscar penance, it doesn’t diminish the brilliance of his performance as Macaulay “Mike” Connor, a wise-cracking gossip columnist for Spy magazine, reluctantly sent by publisher Sidney Kidd (Henry Daniell) to get the snarky scoop on the lavish wedding of Philadelphia socialite Tracy Lord (Katharine Hepburn). Continue reading

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Breaking Away (1979)

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Of all the AFI’s Top 10 Most Inspirational Films — from Rocky (1976) to It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) — Breaking Away is easily the least known. What a shame. Peter Yates’ uplifting, and surprisingly funny, underdog cycling story is one of the very best of its kind, moving beyond the realm of sports and touching on such powerful issues as class struggle, self worth, familial relationships and rebellion against the norm. Perhaps this is why Breaking Away remains one of the few sports movies ever to be nominated for Best Picture and to win Best Screenplay. Pop it in the DVD player right now, but don’t expect a typical sports film. Expect more.

Set in Bloomington, Indiana, the film introduces us to four teens who each hail from a working class family. Having just graduated from high school, they put off growing up by spending the summer days taking high dives off a rock quarry and wondering what perks, if any, come from turning 19. There’s Mike (Dennis Quaid), a former quarterback who always keeps a pack of smokes in his shirtsleeve; Moocher (Jackie Earle Haley), a bullied shrimp who’s gradually getting more serious with his girlfriend Nancy (Amy Wright); and Cyril (Daniel Stern in his debut film), a lanky kid who missed out on a basketball scholarship and now must put up with the put downs of his father. Continue reading

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The Producers (1968)

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When you consider the career of Mel Brooks, it’s impossible not to crack a smile just thinking of his countless contributions — comedy routines like his “10,000 Year Old Man” with Carl Reiner, television sitcoms like the James Bond spoof Get Smart (1965) and hilarious movies like Blazing Saddles (1974), Young Frankenstein (1974), History of the World: Part I (1981), Spaceballs (1987) and Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993).

Yet of all these popular favorites, the only film to ever win Brooks an Oscar was his debut effort, The Producers, earning Best Original Screenplay over Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Brooks should be proud — even a single Oscar is better than most comedy filmmakers, as comedians are often unfairly overlooked by The Academy. What makes the feat all the more impressive is that Brooks is one of the few to have ever won an Oscar, Emmy, Grammy and Tony. The Producers remains a worthy heir to Ernst Lubtisch’s To Be or Not to Be (1942), the remake of which Brooks appeared in alongside wife Anne Bancroft in 1983. And while both films follow theater productions with Nazi overtones, The Producers offers one of the most genius movie premises in all of 20th century entertainment. Continue reading

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Say Anything (1989)

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For ’80s teenage girls, nothing was more iconic or more heart-melting than the image of John Cusack standing outside his ex-lover’s window with an anguished look on his face, hoisting a boombox over his head playing Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes.” The whole thing lasts all of 80 seconds, but it’s a scene that every teen movie has copied since, whether it’s Ashton Kutcher singing “I’ll Be There For You” to Amanda Peet on the guitar, or Heath Ledger singing “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” to Julia Styles on the high school bleachers.

While those films may lack in performance and in script, these are the exact areas where Say Anything shines, separating itself with believable performances by all involved and a knockout script from former Rolling Stone writer Cameron Crowe. Shortly after writing the source novel and screenplay for Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982), Crowe made his directorial debut with Say Anything. The result was a film full of warmth, charm and touching honesty, catipulting the film to the forefront of the genre and launching Crowe to an Oscar nomination for Jerry Maguire (1996) and an Oscar win for Almost Famous (2000).
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Wuthering Heights (1939)

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“The Greatest Actor in the World.” Such was the tag on Laurence Olivier, a man whom English playwright Charles C. Bennett once praised for his ability to speak the lines of Shakespeare as if he were “actually thinking them.” (A) Yes, Olivier was the king of Britain’s National Theatre, but his transition to the big screen was for a while a struggle.

First under contract at RKO in 1931, he was fired as Greta Garbo’s leading man in Queen Christina (1933) before returning to England to appear in Hamlet on stage in 1937. Two years later, he would receive his second chance at Hollywood stardom in William Wyler’s Wuthering Heights. This was the film that finally broke him into the business, projecting his talents to the masses worldwide. The material appealed to his British stage sensibility, and within a year had opened the door to similar roles, as Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice (1940) and Mr. De Winter in Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940).

For a while, Wuthering Heights often ranked among the best of the best, appearing #73 on AFI’s original Top 100 in 1997, but curiously fell off the list during its revised list in 2007. Had Wuthering Heights originally appeared solely as a means of getting Olivier on the list, a need satisfied by the new list’s addition of Spartacus (1960)? Perhaps. But even if Wuthering Heights is not AFI Top 100 material, it certainly belongs in the crust just beyond it, a sentimental favorite and a showcase of true acting talent. Continue reading

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Double Indemnity (1944)

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“I killed him for money and for a woman. I didn’t get the money, and I didn’t get the woman.” Never has a line better summed up its genre than Fred MacMurray’s classic film noir confession in Double Indemnity. The money is a $100,000 equity on an accident insurance policy. The woman is Barbara Stanwyck’s beautifully rotten Phyllis Dietrichson, the best example of a femme fatale that’s ever hit the screen.

Together, these elements of greed and lust fuel a complex murder scheme that fulfills the film’s fatalistic promise: “It’s a one-way trip and the last stop is the cemetery.” Film historian Eddie Muller put it best, “If I had one movie to explain to people what noir is, it’s Double Indemnity.” Continue reading

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White Heat (1949)

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“The greatest gangster film to me is not The Godfather. It’s White Heat,” legendary screenwriter William Goldman (Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid) told the American Film Institute.

White Heat remains James Cagney’s signature picture, and ironically, it was a homecoming to the studio that made him. Warner Brothers had turned Cagney into the archetypal movie gangster throughout the 1930s, from The Public Enemy (1931) to Angels With Dirty Faces (1938) to The Roaring Twenties (1939), as his “you dirty rat” persona overshadowed even Edward G. Robinson (Little Caesar), Paul Muni (Scarface) and Humphrey Bogart (The Petrified Forest).

But at the height of this gangster reputation, Cagney began seeking different roles to prove his versatility, appearing in war films, westerns, romantic comedies, even musicals, winning an Oscar for his fancy footwork in Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942). After a failed attempt at launching his own movie studio, Cagney returned to both Warner Brothers and the crime genre to deliver his masterpiece, White Heat, a film that remains the greatest gangster picture of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Continue reading

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M*A*S*H (1970)

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“This isn’t a hospital, it’s an insane asylum!” Ask any TV-loving adult about the experience of Feb. 28, 1983, and watch them fondly recount how city streets were emptied by the 105 million people tuning in to watch the finale of M*A*S*H, an episode that to this day remains the most-watched TV event of all time. Yet because of the show’s own phenomenon, it’s easy to forget that M*A*S*H actually started with Robert Altman’s 1970 movie, a film deemed strong enough to merit a TV spinoff two years later.

The gang’s all here, from Hawkeye to Hot Lips O’Houlihan, from Trapper John to Major Frank Burns. But before Alan Alda there was Donald Sutherland (Ordinary People). Before Loretta Swit there was Sally Kellerman (Brewster McCloud). Before Wayne Rogers there was Elliot Gould (Friends). And before Larry Linville there was that king of the supporting actors, Robert Duvall (The Godfather). If you prefer the film version, by all means keep it close to your heart as the definitive M*A*S*H. If you prefer the TV show, tip your cap to the film that made it all possible. Continue reading

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Love Story (1970)

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Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” Is there a more famous tearjerker line than that which Ali MacGraw says to Ryan O’Neal in quivering voice, visible breath and tear-streaked cheeks in Love Story? The quote’s widespread popularity is impossible to argue, recently voted the AFI’s #13 Greatest Movie Quote of All Time, right behind “I love the smell of Napalm in the morning.”

Perhaps the better question is how many of us still believe such a thing, that love is an excuse for unapologetic relationships, that the bond between two people removes all necessity to admit wrongdoing. It took just two years for us to call ourselves on the crap, taking a cue from Peter Bogdanovich’s What’s Up Doc? (1972) where Barbara Streisand repeats the line to O’Neal, only for him to look at her square in the eye and say, “That’s the dumbest thing I ever heard.” In this way, the quote is the epitome of Love Story itself: outdated, melodramatic, but quintessential in the evolution of the screen romance and our own cultural understanding of love. Continue reading

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The Natural (1984)

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Bottom of the ninth. Two outs. Two strikes. A baseball smashes through the glass bulbs of the outfield stadium lights. A short-circuit of electricity sends a shower of sparks pouring over the outfield grass. And Robert Redford, in slow motion to the triumphant horns of Randy Newman’s legendary score, rounds the bases to accept congratulations from his teammates. The iconic culmination of The Natural made movie myth out of America’s National Pastime, a myth that would become reality when Kirk Gibson gimped up to the plate as a pinch hitter in the ’88 World Series, belting a game-winning homer off the game’s best closer to set up Jack Buck’s famous call: “I don’t believe what I just saw!”

Some may say the same about The Natural, that its many mythic moments and overall story arc are too implausible of ever happening in the real world. After all, the film begins with a teenage farm boy, Roy Hobbs (Paul Sullivan Jr.), carving a magical bat out of wood from a lightening-struck tree, the same tree under which his father had died, and naming the bat “Wonderboy.” From the very beginning, the film is larger than life, but it ties in plenty of real life echoes. As Hobbs grows into a adult (Robert Redford), he presents a familiar Ted Williams aspiration: “When I walk down the street, people will look at me and say, ‘There goes Roy Hobbs, the best there ever was.’” Continue reading

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The Palm Beach Story (1942)

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If Sullivan’s Travels (1941) is Preston Sturges’ most personal work, and The Lady Eve (1941) his most character-driven, The Palm Beach Story may be his funniest. While Sullivan’s Travels makes the AFI’s Top 100 list, TV Guide ranks The Palm Beach Story in its Top 50 Movies of All Time, a list where Travels is nowhere to be seen. It also beats out Travels for a spot on the National Society of Film Critics’ Top 100 and The Village Voice Top 100 (#59), well ahead of such classics as Singin’ in the Rain (1952), Umbero D (1952) and Battelship Potemkin (1925).

Named after the mischievious cat and mouse cartoon Tom & Jerry, Tom and Gerry Jeffers (Joel McCrea and Claudette Colbert) are a loving New York couple barely making each month’s rent. Tom is an architect with a ludicrous idea for an airport suspended above the city, but he can’t find any takers. So it’s Gerry who decides that she will divorce Tom and take off for Palm Beach, in order to land a wealthy new husband and send the money back to Tom to finance his projects. Continue reading

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Paths of Glory (1957)

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“Patriotism may be old fashioned, but show me a patriot and I’ll show you an honest man.” “Samuel Johnson had something else to say about patriotism. … He said it was the last refuge of the scoundrels.” No matter where you fall on the “hawk and dove” spectrum, we all can recognize that, when you’re in battle, war is hell. We instantly recall the violent chaos and R. Lee Ermey soundbytes of Full Metal Jacket (1987). But Jacket was really just the last in Stanley Kubrick’s continued interest in the horrors of war, of which Paths of Glory was his first, and arguably better, effort. And yet, Paths of Glory remains somewhat a hidden treasure compared to Full Metal Jacket, one unknown to the general population, but one which, when finally seen, is ranked a whopping 8.5 on IMDB, higher than the 8.4 for Full Metal Jacket.

Such response earns Paths of Glory the title of “best war movie you haven’t seen,” a film that became the most powerful anti-war statement since Lewis Milestone’s All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), taking such battlefield horrors and infusing the genre of court drama, an original concept well before Judgment at Nuremberg (1961), in turn becoming the most stinging indictment of war crimes in the history of the movies. Continue reading

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The Way We Were (1973)

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More than anything in plot, script or music, The Way We Were created such memories due to the collaboration of three key figures: Robert Redford, Barbra Streisand and the late Sydney Pollack. While George Roy Hill gave Redford a career in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) and The Sting (1973), it was Pollack who molded him into the ultimate movie hunk, forging their careers alongside one another, from This Property is Condemned (1968) to Jeremiah Johnson (1972) to Three Days of the Condor (1975) to Out of Africa (1985). While Out of Africa won them Best Picture, The Way We Were remains their most enduring romance.

As for Streisand, the film earned her first Oscar nomination outside of a musical role (though she also sang the film’s memorable theme). As she and Redford both went on to their own directing careers in the ’80s — Redford with Ordinary People (1980), Streisand with Yentl (1983) — one can imagine them looking fondly back on Pollack as their pleasant memory of a true professional, pathos-packer. Continue reading

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Hoosiers (1986)

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In 2007, ESPN ran a commercial where the Boston Celtics “Big 3″ of Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and Paul Pierce watch Hoosiers during a long road trip. At the conclusion of the film, Garnett turns to his teammates and says, “Now that’s a great movie,” a claim immediately echoed by head coach Jeff Van Gundy. One problem: Van Gundy is supposed to be driving the RV, which has since begun swurving all over the road, all because Hoosiers is so damn captivating. Though a comic ad, the commercial reveals the deep admiration for this film throughout the sports community.

When ESPN celebrated its 25th Anniversary in 2004, the network released two separate lists of the greatest sports movies of all time. One was compiled by the so-called “experts” at ESPN (the critic side of the film spectrum). The other was compiled by ESPN’s SportsNation internet users (the public side of the film spectrum). And guess which film finished first on both lists? Hoosiers. It was a clean sweep for an uplifting underdog film from the same director, writer and musical composer who brought you Rudy (1993). Continue reading

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Sophie’s Choice (1982)

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There’s a reason Diane Keaton called Meryl Streep “my generation’s genius.” Streep demonstrates an obsessive dedication in preparing for her roles. Her record number of Oscar nominations can make the argument of greatest actress of all time. And for the seminal glimpse into this level of preparation and subsequent adulation, look no further than Sophie’s Choice, the film that won Streep her second Oscar and provided one of her most challenging, emotionally draining roles to date, that of a Holocaust survivor living a volatile immigrant life while hiding the darkest of secrets.

Streep famously spent three months learning the Polish language and additional time rehearsing a Polish accent in broken English. She also picked up some German, and dropped off pounds by cutting her fluid intake and eating only blended foods in order to achieve the frail look needed for her scenes in the concentration camp. No matter how you slice it — emotional range, challenge factor — it stands as one of the single greatest performances of all time. Continue reading

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West Side Story (1961)

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“How many can I kill, Chino? How many? And still have one bullet left for me?” By 1961, William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet had been the world’s most beloved tragic love story for nearly 400 years. Who could have guessed that with the addition of a few switchblades, syncopated finger snaps and a catchy songbook that an entirely new cultural landmark would be born?

This is exactly what happened with West Side Story, Arthur Laurents’ novel that became a 1957 Broadway production, debuting at New York’s Winter Garden Theater, before becoming a smash success of a movie that won 10 Oscars, including Best Picture. To say that it has surpassed the pop culture impact of Romeo and Juliet would be a leap, but it is the American Film Institute’s pick for the second greatest movie musical of all time, behind only Singin’ in the Rain (1952). Continue reading

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Boyz n the Hood (1991)

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Many experts have made strong cases that HBO’s The Wire (2002-2008) is arguably the greatest television drama of all time. Indeed, you won’t find another show that so brilliantly dissects an American city like this show did for my beloved Baltimore. Its influence was blatantly apparent in 2013 cinema, as Stringer Bell starred in Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, Wallace starred in Fruitvale Station, Bubbles starred in The Spectacular Now and Omar starred in Twelve Years a Slave.

In fact, it was Omar himself, actor Michael K. Williams, who made this admission during the 2014 SAG Awards: “I knew I wanted to become an actor the first time I saw Boyz n the Hood by John Singleton. I wanted to speak to, speak for and touch people in my community the way that movie touched me.” (A)

Boyz n the Hood is a spirited, realistic and surprisingly sentimental look at youth growing up in a world of violence in South Central Los Angeles. Looking back a quarter century later, the plot may feel predictable, where you can guess which characters are going to die. But this is only because it’s been repeated by countless imitators: Juice (1992), South Central (1992), Menace II Society (1993), Poetic Justice (1993), Dangerous Minds (1995), Friday (1995) and the Wayans Brothers’ spoof, Don’t Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood (1996). In order for something to be cliche, it must have been done time and again. Boyz n the Hood was the trend setter. Continue reading

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Do the Right Thing (1989)

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Is it a coincidence that Barack Obama took Michelle to see Do the Right Thing on their first movie date? Is it fate that exactly 20 years later, America swore in its first black president? Or does the moral arc of the universe not only bend toward justice, as Dr. King said, but also to cinematic influence?

No doubt, the entertainment industry led this shift from 1989 to 2009, with comedians from Bill Cosby to Dave Chappelle, actors from Will Smith to Denzel Washington, talk show hosts from Oprah Winfrey to Whoopi Goldberg, athletes from Jerry Rice to Michael Jordan, and musicians from Michael Jackson to Tupac Shakur. By the new millennium, the paradigm had shifted such that youngsters only knew a world where the best rapper was white (Eminem) and the best golfer was black (Tiger Woods). You want to achieve racial harmony? Mesh the “8 Mile” beatbox with the “8th Hole” tee box.

But this revolutionary period did not come without the divisive turmoil of Rodney King, the L.A. Riots, the O.J. Simpson trial, Hurricane Katrina, Reverend Jeremiah Wright and, on New Year’s Eve 2008, halfway between President Obama’s election and his inauguration, the shooting of Oscar Grant, which later became the Sundance winner Fruitvale Station (2013), released the same week as the Trayvon Martin verdict. As the dust settles from each, we’re reminded of how far we’ve come and how far we still have to go. Surely just because we’ve elected — and re-elected — a black president doesn’t mean racial inequality is over. Simply look at statistics of poverty, education and incarceration. But through each blood burning moon, we should all continue to find hope in the extraordinary progress made thus far. Continue reading

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Manhattan (1979)

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There’s a moment in Annie Hall where Woody Allen psycho-analyzes himself, penning Annie’s criticism of Alvy: “You’re incapable of enjoying life, you know that? I mean you’re like New York City. You’re just this person. You’re like this island unto yourself.” Two years later, Allen’s obsession with that island would become his most ambitious project, Manhattan, which Allen sculpts as “a metaphor for everything wrong with our culture” and a commentary on trying to live an ethical life while “desensitized by television, drugs, fast food chains, loud music and feelingless, mechanical sex.”

Manhattan was Woody’s answer to the Oscar success from Annie Hall, both starring he and Keaton, both set in his beloved New York City, both captured by legendary cinematographer Gordon Willis, both produced by the team of Jack Rollins and Charles H. Joffe, both featuring the same title credit font, both written by Allen and Marshall Brickman, both featuring the same sidewalk walk-and-talk convos, the same cultural references and the same place in film history by teaching late 20th century audiences the joys, pains and nuances of dating in the modern age.

There’s never been a better love note to the city, as Allen chooses to shoot in black and white to accent Allen’s own romanticized image of it (“He idolized it all out of proportion”). Perhaps this suggests a certain vain desire by Allen for artistic expression in his choice of B&W film stock lined with George Gershwin selections. But the result is a movie only Woody Allen could have done, existing more as a witty romance than a laugh-out-loud venture like Annie Hall, a romantic dramedy more than a romantic comedy. Continue reading

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Annie Hall (1977)

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Fans of Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm should thank their lucky stars every day for Woody Allen. The phenomenon of Larry David would not have existed without the Wood Man, who deserves full credit for making neurotic, balding, opinionated, Jewish intellectuals cool. This was in part thanks to his real-life fling with the gorgeous Diane Keaton and a black-rimmed persona developed in both stand-up comedy routines and early film farces like What’s Up, Tiger Lily? (1966), Take the Money and Run (1969), Bananas (1971), Play it Again, Sam (Herbert Ross, 1972), Sleeper (1973) and Love and Death (1975). Who can forget images like Woody playing a cello amid a marching band, having to pick up his chair and move forward every few seconds? This was the zany period he later spoofed in Stardust Memories (1980), as characters routinely came up to him and said, “We like your movies, particularly the early, funny ones.”

Yet beneath this early incarnation laid one of cinema’s strongest auteurs just waiting to break out. It finally did with Annie Hall, the birth of the modern romantic comedy, the high-brow Oscar answer to the year’s blockbuster smash Star Wars (1977), one of only a handful of comedies ever to win Best Picture. Annie Hall is his seminal work, his apotheosis, his shift from a series of slapstick gags to a fully realized comedy of manners. It marked his graduation into the realm of filmmaker, boasting an unrivaled synergy between Allen the director and Allen the screenwriter, beginning the very minute the film opens with Allen speaking directly to the camera. Continue reading

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Sunrise (1927)

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Question: What was the first film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture? Answer: It’s a trick question. During the first year of the Academy Awards (1927-1928), there were actually two Best Pictures. The first, called Best Production, went to William Wellman’s war romance Wings (1927), the film most often credited as the first Oscar-winner. But the second Best Picture category, Most Unique and Artistic Production, went to F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans in a title as poetic as the cinematic work itself. It was the first and only time such an award was given, so it’s only fitting that it went to Murnau’s “unique and artistic” masterpiece. It remains one of the finest love stories ever told, a watershed moment in direction and visual effects, and the very pinnacle of the silent era, arriving just weeks before The Jazz Singer (1927) ushered in talking pictures.

Based on a novella by German playwright Hermann Sudermann, Sunrise was adapted into a screenplay (or “photo-play” as it was called then) by Australian writer Carl Mayer, who had just finished work on Murnau’s The Last Laugh (1924). It would tell the story of two lovers, the handsome Anses (George O’Brien) and his wholesome blonde wife Indre (Janet Gaynor). Their countryside relationship soon becomes strained by the arrival of a dark-haired temptress from the city (Margaret Livingston), who begins a lakeside affair with Anses and suggests he drown his wife so they can run off together to the city. Continue reading

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Amadeus (1984)

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When one-hit-wonder Falco topped the pop charts with “Rock Me Amadeus” in 1985, it came just months after Milos Forman’s Amadeus won the Oscar for Best Picture. The film — and the song — were 20th century revivals of 18th-century genius, exploring the mind and work of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, perhaps the greatest musical influence in the history of Western culture. When it came time for Laurence Olivier to announce the Best Picture result, the acting legend shocked the Academy by skipping the nominees and immediately saying, “The winner is Amadeus.” Nothing more needed to be said.

The film dominated the night with eight Oscars, including Best Actor (F. Murray Abraham), Director (Forman) and Screenplay (Peter Shaffer from his own play). Even the least of movie buffs know this, thanks to Last Action Hero (1993), where a young boy warns Arnold Schwarzenegger that Abraham can not be trusted: “He killed Mozart! … Amadeus! It won eight Oscars!” Continue reading

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Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948)

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“By the time you read this letter, I may be dead.” So begins Max Ophuls’ masterpiece Letter from an Unknown Woman, instantly gripping audiences, but not by setting up a mystery thriller as some might guess. The letter’s recipient is not some private eye who must keep reading to find clues to a potential murder. Instead, it’s a suave playboy who must keep reading to see how his own selfish actions have led to the heartache of a woman he does not even remember.

This guy is Stefan Brand (Louis Jourdan), a former concert pianist in 1900 Vienna, who has developed a reputation for romancing more women than he can count. The unknown woman, and writer of the letter, is Lisa Berndle (Joan Fontaine), an ailing woman wanting to get a few important things off her chest. Just as intrigued as viewers, Stefan dives into the letter over some coffee and cognac, and the narrative shifts to Lisa’s story, signaled by a blurry flashback and Fontaine’s narration. Continue reading

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Some Like it Hot (1959)

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Naming the funniest film of all time is like naming your favorite sibling. While both are in the same room. Staring right at you. Eagerly awaiting your response. It’s just too damn hard to choose. Yet most academics, when faced with such a question, will turn to the film that’s become the default answer: Billy Wilder’s Some Like it Hot (1959). The film has all the ingredients to please the most strict of judges — witty jokes coming at break-neck speed, endless comic situations, memorable buddy comedy by Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis, the iconic gorgeousness of Marilyn Monroe, a keen director at the helm, and a real historical importance, shattering gender barriers by introducing cross-dressing to American film, paving the way for Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie (1982), Robin Williams in Mrs. Doubtfire (1993) and Martin Lawrence in Big Momma’s House (2000).

Still, it’s important to point out that while the film was named the AFI’s No. 1 Comedy of All Time, it did not even place on BRAVO’s 100 Funniest Films. The latter list appealed to a younger, more lowbrow audience, to which much of Some Like it Hot will soar over heads. Let’s face it, we as a people have sadly grown accustomed to comedy whacking us across the face, either with physical gags or gross-out intentions. We have become frighteningly unable to laugh at something this subtle, this clever, this refined. Hopefully, Wilder’s brand of comedy is something future generations will continue to appreciate, if not doubling over in laughter like so many have for decades. Some Like it Hot is a special little film. The more you see it, the funnier it gets. Most comedies work the other way around. Continue reading

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Sweet Smell of Success (1957)

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When director Alexander Mackendrick came over from Scotland to do his first American picture in 1957, he decided to break from the light, comedic expertise he brought to films like Whiskey Galore! (1949) and The Ladykillers (1955). He instead entered the dark world of film noir, a movement that effectively concluded the following year with Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil (1958). The project was Sweet Smell of Success, the first film produced by the legendary team of James Hill, Harold Hecht and Burt Lancaster (HHL) and a directorial job that only opened up when writer/director Ernest Lehman fell ill. Mackendrick stepped in gallantly, providing superb, atmospheric control over one of noir’s final masterpieces, bolstered by each crack of Lehman’s hardboiled script.

Building off such films as The Front Page (1931), His Girl Friday (1940), All About Eve (1950) and Ace in the Hole (1951), Sweet Smell of Success provides a satirical look at celebrity culture and the writers who themselves become celebrities simply by covering. The film explores two equally sleazy figures on opposite ends of the spectrum: (a) the big-shot newspaper columnists who control lives with their typewriters, and (b) the slimy press agents who dig up dirt in the trenches of New York City’s night life, where, as critic Kim Newman put it, “the desperate pay court to the demented and souls are sold for column inches.” Continue reading

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Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)

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“Truth and illusion. Who knows the difference?” So says Richard Burton’s character in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, summing up a film that is so thematically complex that one will likely need to see it more than once to experience the true extent of its power. Casual viewers may have a tough time grasping the depth that pervades the film’s every element, right down to a title that will cause them to say, “Hey, there’s no one in this film named Virginia Woolf…”

Such a question should force viewers to look into the meaning, but alas, most casual viewers will not. So here’s the quick answer: The title actually comes from a piece of graffiti that playwright Edward Albee saw on a bar mirror while he was trying to brainstorm a title for his upcoming play. To Albee, the graffiti was perfect, evoking the memory of famous writer Virginia Woolf, a psychologically-complex life that ended in suicide. He combined it with the Walt Disney song, “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf,” to create a catchy jingle that begs the question, “Who’s afraid of living life without false illusions?” Martha replies, “I am.” Continue reading

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The Last Picture Show (1971)

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In 2007, Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show finally cracked the AFI Top 100, overcoming its initial snubbing in 1997 to finally place Bogdanovich in that elite filmmaking class where he belongs. The film’s reception in AFI listology mirrors its mixed initial reaction with audiences, critically acclaimed with eight Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, while a turn-off to mainstream moviegoers as old-fashioned and obsolete, as the first film to be shot in black-and-white since the early ’60s.

Indisputable is the film’s reputation for launching the careers of unknown actors who would go on to do big things — Jeff Bridges (The Big Lebowski), Cybill Shepherd (Taxi Driver), Timothy Bottoms (The Man in the Iron Mask), Cloris Leachman (The Mary Tyler Moore Show), Randy Quaid (National Lampoon’s Vacation), Ellen Burstyn (The Exorcist), Sam Bottoms (Apocalypse Now) and Eileen Brennan (Private Benjamin). What a lasting legacy to this superb work of art. Continue reading

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Vacation (1983) / Christmas Vacation (1989)

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Most comedies will never show up on serious critics’ all-time best lists with the likes of Citizen Kane (1941), Vertigo (1958) or 8 1/2 (1963). Yet these same films remain seen, and beloved, by the majority of the population. National Lampoon’s Vacation (1983) and National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989) are two of those films. Perhaps comedies like this are so over the top that they’re deemed too ridiculous to be considered in a serious assessment of cinema’s greats. After all, there is no way that this many terrible things can occur on one family vacation, or one family Christmas get together.

But those who assess films in this myopic way are missing out on a key ingredient in the cinematic lexicon. You know, “fun.” If a genre film becomes a pop sensation and remains as such over time, some level of recognition is due. Vacation and Christmas Vacation are vulgar riots on their own — boasting the comic genius of Harold Ramis (Groundhog Day) and John Hughes (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off) — while their censored TV versions have played an integral part in the family comedy experience for the last 40 years. As the original 1983 fans have passed their admiration on to their children, it’s become an American right of passage for families to laugh at the ultimate doomed vacationers, the Griswolds, if only because it secretly makes their own dysfunctional family look that much more functional. Continue reading

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L.A. Confidential (1997)

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“Life is good in Los Angeles. It’s paradise on earth. He he he. That’s what they tell ya anyway. Because they’re selling an image. They’re sellin’ it through movies, radio and television. In the hit show, Badge of Honor, the L.A. cops walk on water as they keep the city clean of crooks. Yep, you’d think this place was the Garden of Eden. But there’s trouble in paradise. … Remember, dear readers, you heard it here first, off the record, on the QT and very hush-hush.”

If any film ever dared the impossible task of equaling Chinatown as a complex mystery of corruption in 20th Century Los Angeles, it was L.A. Confidential. Perhaps this is because Confidential gets its Oscar-nominated score from Jerry Goldsmith, who gave Chinatown so much of its atmosphere. Or, perhaps it’s because director Curtis Hanson, former editor of Cinema magazine, had directed his first major film, The Bedroom Window (1987), under Chinatown writer turned executive producer Robert Towne. The influences of Chinatown are all over Confidential — private dicks leading investigations at odds with the LAPD; dark-clad dames offering as much danger as they do delight; and an overarching shadow of high-end corruption, gorgeously rendered in Technicolor period visuals.

But like Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988) a decade before it, L.A. Confidential does enough to distinguish itself as its own animal, a formidable heir to the Chinatown throne, rather than an attempt at overthrowing the king altogether. And had it not arrived months before one of the most successful movie in history, James Cameron’s Titanic (1997), it would have probably won the title of Best Picture 1997, as many still believe it should have. Continue reading

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Trouble in Paradise (1932)

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Throughout film history, few directors have earned their own phraseology, be it “Hitchcockian” to denote Alfred Hitchcock’s penchant for character-driven suspense, “Fellinian” to define Federico Fellini’s bizarre surrealism, or “Capra-corn” to describe Frank Capra’s feel-good formula. Just as renowned among critics, yet lesser known to the mainstream public, is “The Lubitsch Touch,” classifying the genius of director Ernst Lubitsch, who single-handedly invented the romantic comedy, first in his native Germany, then during the dawn of the Hollywood sound era.

Legendary French director Jean Renoir (The Rules of the Game) goes as far as crediting Lubitsch with inventing modern Hollywood. (A) Equal credit belongs to Lubitsch’s first and favorite American collaborator, writer Samson Raphaelson, with whom he worked on nine occasions, most famously the two they adapted from Hungarian Laszlo plays, Trouble in Paradise (1932), Lubitsch’s first in America, and The Shop Around the Corner (1940), which would be remade by Nora Ephron as You’ve Got Mail (1998). Continue reading

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Mutiny on the Bounty (1935)

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While Errol Flynn may be considered the greatest of all high-seas swashbucklers, Mutiny on the Bounty has led its own mutiny against him. A remake of Flynn’s In the Wake of the Bounty two years earlier, director Frank Lloyd’s Mutiny on the Bounty was not only more successful — the highest grossing film of 1935 at $4.5 million — it was also the first remake to win Best Picture, beating Flynn’s famous pirate film Captain Blood. (A) Though both Blood and Bounty today carry strong support amongst scholars, Bounty’s brutal Captain Bligh is more acclaimed than Flynn’s Captain Blood. Likewise, Mutiny on the Bounty has assumed the role of the quintessential high-seas adventure, arriving a full two decades before Humphrey Bogart in The Caine Mutiny (1954).

Based on the 1932 novel The Bounty Trilogy by Charles Nordoff and James Norman Hall, Mutiny on the Bounty follows the infamous mutiny led by Fletcher Christian (Clark Gable) against Captain William Bligh (Charles Laughton) aboard the British Navy Ship, the H.M.S. Bounty. The film begins with the ship’s 1787 journey from Plymouth, England, to procure breadfruit trees from Tahiti. From the very beginning, the film builds a distinct dread for Captain Bligh, with one man trying to run when he hears that Bligh will be the ship’s captain. Continue reading

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Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982)

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If American Graffiti invented the “teen movie” in 1973, Fast Times at Ridgemont High brought the genre to what we recognize today, a smooth combination of touching and hilarious, heart and belly laughs. Three decades later, it’s amazing the range of influence that’s come from Fast Times: The Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Pretty in Pink, Dazed and Confused, American Pie, Mean Girls, Superbad.

Arriving the same year as Barry Levinson’s Diner and Bob Clark’s Porky’s, the film represented a new take on the transition from carefree youth into adulthood, documenting the fleeting wild times in between. It’s all covered here — teenage pregnancy, cafeteria convos, after-school jobs at the local mall, football games under Friday night lights, first cars, class clowns, pep rallies, school dances and the ever-present allure of driving your girl up to The Point. More than most contrived Hollywood fare, it all passes as real here, a credit to director Amy Heckerling, who juggles multiple plotlines without a hitch and shows the kind of comic sensibility she would later bring to Look Who’s Talking (1989) and Clueless (1995), another high school classic in debt to Fast Times. Continue reading

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Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942)

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“It seems it always happens. Whenever we get too high-hat and too sophisticated for flag-waving, some thug nation decides we’re a push-over all ready to be blackjacked. And it isn’t long before we’re looking up, mighty anxiously, to be sure the flag’s still waving over us.”

Released on Memorial Day, 1942, just months after America’s entrance into WWII, Yankee Doodle Dandy was at once a patriotic statement, rallying cry and steady reminder of a nation’s principles. This is precisely what Dandy did, providing the most red, white and blue the silver screen had ever seen, topping the year’s box office charts and winning three Oscars along the way (for the first time, the statues were made of plaster to aid the war effort). The film ultimately lost Best Picture to another flag-waver in Mrs. Miniver (1942), which was such a hit that FDR ordered its closing dialogue to be printed onto leaflets and dropped over Nazi-occupied Europe. Today, the significance of Miniver has faded, moving from declarations as the “Greatest Movie Ever Made” to dropping off many a best list all together. Such a fate might have been Yankee Doodle Dandy’s were it not for a magnificent, timeless lead performance from a one-of-a-kind James Cagney. Continue reading

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Saturday Night Fever (1977)

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There’s John Travolta, strutting down that Brooklyn street, camera starting at his shoes and tilting up to his unbuttoned red shirt, collar sticking out over his black leather jacket, met by a gold medalion around his neck, a dimpled chin, horse smile and slicked hair, a rare configuration of movie heartthrob bobbin’ to the Bee Gee’s catchy “Stayin’ Alive.”

There’s Travolta, on the wooden floor of that dance studio, layin’ down the tango hustle with a ballet dancer, drawing her close and sending her away in front of a wall of mirrors.

And there he is once more, in the middle of that disco crowd, tearing up the dancefloor in those platform shoes, tight pants and Qiana shirt, knees bent, body cocked to the side, hips thrusting and finger pointing from waist to sky in a movement that define a generation of music and dance. “Can you dig it? I knew that you could.” Continue reading

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Caddyshack (1980)

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“He’s the Cinderella boyyy, uh, tears in his eyes I guess, as he lines up this last shot. He’s got about 195 yards left and he’s gonna, looks like he’s got about an eight-iron. This crowd has gone deadly silent. Cinderella story, out of nowhere, a former greenskeeper, about to become the Masters champion. It looks like a mirac…It’s in the hole!”

Bill Murray’s Caddyshack rant is not only one of the AFI’s Top 100 Movie Quotes, the film itself has become an institution to anyone who came of age during its 1980 release. Each time this age group comes together to compile comedy best lists, Caddyshack is a given, ranking #71 on the AFI Top 100 Laughs and #2 on BRAVO’s 100 Funniest Films, behind only Animal House (1978). George Clooney goes beyond just the comedy genre and claims it to be his own favorite movie of all time. So what is the best way to convince today’s Happy Gilmore generation to appreciate Caddyshack? Continue reading

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The Night of the Hunter (1955)

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Allow me to introduce a term I like to call “the disclaimer film,” invented to classify the type of film where you need to give modern audiences a disclaimer before they watch it. To a certain extent, many classic films require some bit of a setup, but this is particularly so with The Night of the Hunter. For despite its critical acclaim — a 98% on Rotten Tomatoes and No. 34 on the AFI’s 100 Thrills — young viewers laughed it off the screen during a college film course of mine, particularly at Robert Mitchum’s animated howl after a gunshot by Lillian Gish. “Dated” and “corny” was their reaction, but there’s a difference between actual datedness and an intentionally stylized approach from the start.

It was the vision of one-time-only director Charles Laughton, the legendary actor who had already won an Oscar in The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933), earned another nomination as Captain Bligh in Mutiny on the Bounty (1935) and played history’s best Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939). When it came time to make his directorial debut, he proposed “a nightmarish sort of Mother Goose tale.” (A) Laughton wanted his film to appear exaggerated, over-the-top and incredibly dreamlike, as if a story told through the eyes of children. Thus, the film remains more a fable than it is a traditional work of realism, a visual allegory for good and evil, and a world where, as the haunting opening song suggests, “Fear is only a dream, so dream, little one, dream.” Continue reading

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The Pride of the Yankees (1942)

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“Is it three strikes, doc?” “It’s three strikes.” “Doc, I’ve learned one thing. All the arguing in the world can’t change the decision of the umpire. How much time have I got?”

That’s Gary Cooper’s Lou Gehrig in The Pride of the Yankees, using baseball metaphor to digest his diagnosis with an unknown disease. Today we know it as ALS — Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis — a tragic disease that atrophies muscles until the body shuts down. It’s a disease that’s affected many, including Stephen Hawking, but carries the name of only one. Lou Gehrig’s Disease came as a shock to 1940s America, a different time when baseball still had a firm grip on the title of National Pastime.

Try imagining today, a seven-time All-Star, six-time World Series Champion and two-time MVP, struck down and deteriorating right before our very eyes. That was Gehrig when he was diagnosed in 1939. He died two years later, and just like that, we were robbed of one of our great heroes. But oh, the quality of time we got to share: 37 years, 16 seasons and a then-record 2,130 consecutive games. Continue reading

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The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

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Based on Richard Condon’s best-selling novel, The Manchurian Candidate instantly became one of the most controversial films of all time. Before its release, Frank Sinatra had to ask President John F. Kennedy for permission to make a film about a political assassination. When that very president was assassinated in Dallas the following year, Sinatra pulled the film from circulation for the next 25 years, haunted at the similarities of life imitating art.

Indeed, it was a film for its time; an equal opportunity offender released during the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis. It was both banned in the Communist bloc for what the Soviet press called “the most vicious attempt yet made to cash in on Soviet-American tensions,” and condemned by a branch of the American Legion, who called it “a vivid example of an attempt to undermine Congressional committees.” Whatever your political take, the film is so entrancing that you will walk out with sweaty palms, a stunned face, haunted eyes and lips barely curling to state in monotone voice, “Raymond Shaw is the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being I’ve ever known in my life.” Continue reading

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Mary Poppins (1964)

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With a name so synonomous with animation, Walt Disney rarely receives the credit he deserves for his company’s mid-20th Century collection of live action classics — films like Davy Crockett (1955), Old Yeller (1957), The Shaggy Dog (1959), Swiss Family Robinson (1960), The Parent Trap (1961) and The Love Bug (1968). These are all well known and widely beloved films, but certainly none was better, or more successful, than Mary Poppins.

With five Oscars and a total 13 nominations, some critics, like Leonard Maltin, go as far as calling Poppins the high point of Disney’s entire career: “If he had made no other film in his lifetime, Mary Poppins would have earned Walt Disney the gratitude of the world — and the envy of his Hollywood colleagues. Instead, this was the pinnacle of an already fantastic career.” Continue reading

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Die Hard (1988)

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For action movie fans, Die Hard is a sacred textbook of the best the genre has to offer. It stands as the birth of the action film as we know it today, a dubious title to hold, considering all the junk that’s followed. But Die Hard did it first and did it better, a true credit to director John McTiernan, who cut his chops on the Schwarzenegger action flick Predator (1987) and went on to make The Hunt for Red October (1990) and The Thomas Crown Affair (1999).

Die Hard has it all — a trailer-made title, renegade cop spitting catchphrases and taking names, a pack of killer terrorists with fingers firmly on their triggers, dozens of hostages, a 40-floor skyscraper, SWAT teams, RVs, missles, machine guns and “enough plastic explosives to orbit Arnold Swarzenegger.” In 2007, Entertainment Weekly voted Die Hard the greatest action movie ever made. Continue reading

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Full Metal Jacket (1987)

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“How can you shoot women and children?” “Easy, you just don’t lead ‘em so much.” Few lines sum up a film better than those from Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket. It’s a stinging take on familiar territory, following a similar plot as Sidney Furie’s The Boys in Company C (1978) and borrowing much from Kubrick’s own work: the battle scenes of Paths of Glory (1957), the training sequence of Spartacus (1960), the absurd war commentary of Dr. Strangelove (1964), the evolution of man to machine of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), the brainwashing effect of A Clockwork Orange (1971) and the possessed death stare of The Shining (1980). By the time Full Metal Jacket arrived, audiences had seen a decade of anti-Vietnam films: Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter (1978), Hal Ashby’s Coming Home (1978), Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979) and Oliver Stone’s Platoon (1986). Still, Kubrick’s gem entered further into our pop culture with each passing reference, particularly the rifle creeds, blanket parties and night-burning fires of Sam Mendes’ Jarhead (2005). Continue reading

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A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)

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That mournful cry from Marlon Brando in his soaked, torn t-shirt, standing alone in the street, both hands on his head, wailing up to an upstairs apartment to his abused wife, stands as one of the most iconic moments in all of movie history. Ironically, the film A Streetcar Named Desire much more resembles a stage production than it does a film. This is due to Tennessee Williams’ transition from playwright to screenwriter and Elia Kazan’s ongoing shift from stage director to filmmaker. With him, Kazan brought his entire cast from the original Broadway production, save for Tony-winning lead Jessica Tandy (The Birds, Driving Miss Daisy), whom the studio replaced with Vivien Leigh, an actress of bigger box office potential just a decade after playing Scarlett O in Gone With the Wind (1939). This collection of players, both old and new, would combine for a dazzling display of ensemble acting, making Streetcar one of the best stage-to-film adaptations of all time with pop culture echoes for decades to come. Continue reading

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Witness (1985)

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So many Hollywood flicks are based in New York or Los Angeles, that it feels wonderfully refreshing when a film explores an unexplored American setting (i.e. “Fargo”). With “Witness,” two one-time-only screenwriters, William Kelley and Earl W. Wallace, wrote such a good script that they not only drew Harrison Ford and Kelly McGillis to Lancaster, Pa., they walked off with Oscars in the end.

This is the true legacy of Witness, as a textbook for budding screenwriters on how to balance atmosphere and action, story and theme, thriller and romance, unraveling plot with complex character development. If you want to learn how to write screenplays, check this one out, ranking No. 80 on the WGA’s Top 101 Screenplays of All Time. Continue reading

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Enter the Dragon (1973)

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“A good fight should be like a small play, but played seriously,” Bruce Lee once said. “A good martial artist does not become tense, but ready, not thinking, yet not dreaming, ready for whatever may come. When the opponent expands, I contract. When he contracts, I expand. And when there is an opportunity, I do not hit. [My fist] hits all by itself.”

Is there a performer more tied to a specific art form or athletic discipline than Bruce Lee and martial arts? Is he not equal to Pele, Ali, Jordan, Elvis, Mozart, Fosse, Pavarotti, Liberace, Picasso, Dickens and Houdini in this regard? And just like Jordan, hand hanging in mid-air after hitting the game winner in the NBA Finals, Lee’s last film was his greatest.

Enter the Dragon was billed as “the first American produced martial arts spectacular,” introducing The States to the “chop-sockie” phenomenon that made Lee a superstar in Hong Kong, starting at age six with The Birth of Mankind (1946) and exploding with action hits like Fists of Fury (1971). Continue reading

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Raging Bull (1980)

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Certain filmographies wouldn’t be the same if not in tandem. Capra and Stewart. Ford and Wayne. Fellini and Mastroianni. Bergman and Von Sydow. And for 22 glorious years, Martin Scorsese and Robert DeNiro. Mean Streets (1973) put them both on the map. Taxi Driver (1976) cemented them as geniuses. And GoodFellas (1990) made them legends. But of all of the Scorsese-De Niro collaborations, Raging Bull is, in the words of Steven Spielberg, “Marty’s masterpiece.” Not only is it the greatest sports biopic ever made, it quite literally saved Scorsese’s life.

In 1973, De Niro read the book Raging Bull: My Story, the autobiography of legendary middleweight boxer Jake LaMotta, while in Sicily playing Young Vito Corleone in The Godfather Part II (1974). (A) How fitting that when Adult Vito later arrived in New York’s Little Italy, he was shot at the fruit market with a sign of LaMotta in the background (talk about divine mise-en-scene). DeNiro immediately suggested the book to Scorsese, who like LaMotta, had seen success in his profession but was now battling personal demons. Not only was he depressed after the flop of New York, New York (1977), starring De Niro, Liza Minnelli and Sinatra’s legendary title song, he was also battling a cocaine addiction that hospitalized him after a near overdose. It was at this very rock bottom that De Niro visited him and insisted that he clean up his life and make Raging Bull. Upon reading the book, Scorsese felt a spiritual connection to LaMotta and decided he would make one last film. Continue reading

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GoodFellas (1990)

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The gangster picture has undergone quite the transformation in its storied place in American cinema. It was pioneered in the 1910s with Edwin S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery (1903) and D.W. Griffith’s The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1910). It exploded in the ’30s and early ’40s, as Edward G. Robinson, James Cagney, Paul Muni and Humphrey Bogart played rags-to-riches anti-heroes in Little Caesar (1930), The Public Enemy (1931), Scarface: The Shame of a Nation (1932) and High Sierra (1941). Over the next few decades, the genre turned more violent and sexy with Raoul Walsh’s White Heat (1949), Joseph Lewis’ Gun Crazy (1950) and Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967). By the ’70s, Francis Ford Coppola elevated it to the high-class opera of family dynasty in The Godfather (1972) and The Godfather Part II (1974). And by the ’80s, Brian De Palma made it both deliciously over-the-top in Scarface (1983) and nostalgically throwback in The Untouchables (1987).

By 1990, you may have thought the genre had been done to death, left lying in the gutter, riddled with bullet holes. But there emerged a film that, for the first time, let us in on the “inside baseball” of the mob, replacing operatic styles with a focus on gritty realism. Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas was a game changer, less a “gangster picture” and more a “how to be a gangster” picture. Rather than merely show the gangster life, the film narrates the details directly to the viewer, an approach adopted by countless subsequent films, from Scorsese’s own Casino (1995) to Johnny Depp’s Blow (2001), while inspiring arguably the greatest television show of all time in The Sopranos (1999). Continue reading

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Taxi Driver (1976)

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While Mean Streets (1973), Raging Bull (1980), GoodFellas (1990) and The Departed (2006) all dealt with some form of institutionalized American violence — organized by a community of mobsters and fight bookies — Martin Scrosese used Taxi Driver to explore the opposite: the violence made possible by the lack of community, extreme isolation and a dangerous loneliness. In this case, it’s a 1970s New York City cab driver, a man who gives rides to countless people each night, but who remains utterly alone.

The taxi proved a career vehicle for Robert DeNiro, who was fresh off a Supporting Actor Oscar win for The Godfather Part II (1974), the same year Scorsese directed Ellen Burstyn to her own Oscar for Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974) — a follow-up to her lead role in The Exorcist (1973). And so, three years after collaborating on Mean Streets, Scorsese and DeNiro reunited for DeNiro’s most harrowing performance: that of alienated Vietnam veteran Travis Bickle, whose cab meter might as well be a ticking time bomb.

In just four improvised words — “You talkin’ to me?” — DeNiro was an instant legend, inventing a standard phrase in the English language and capturing the feeling of isolation crucial to Scorsese’s film. As Bickle stares into his apartment wall mirror, mumbling to himself and whipping out a newly-purchased handgun, we get a look at just what this character has become — a lonely creature lost in his own mind and in the claustrophobia of his own cramped existence. Are his urban surroundings the root of the problem, or is it the social outcast status offered to many a military vet? One thing is for certain: Bickle is one mentally disturbed individual, and Scorsese’s two-hour investigation into his life is one of the most fascinating, most complex character studies ever done. Continue reading

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Mean Streets (1973)

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Throughout the arc of movie history, a certain few filmmakers step in with their own voice, telling their own personal tales, from the streets of their own neighborhoods, and enrich the rest of our culture in the process. Martin Scorsese’s flickering film projector is a flickering flame we long to touch, knowing we’ll get burnt, yet one that attracts us like movie moths, eternally mesmerized by its dancing flame.

Our fascination with film violence has never been in short supply, but without Scorsese, we could have never truly grasped crime’s contradiction with our better angels, the human quest for redemption in the face of immoral deeds and the eternal struggle between faith and doubt. We would never have learned the thrilling realization that traditional notions of plot could be cast aside in favor of compelling character studies. The streets of New York would seem a little darker, duller. The faces of DeNiro, Keitel and Pesci would be non-existent. And God knows The Rolling Stones wouldn’t sound the same.

Thankfully for us, the man’s brash new voice, his gift, could no longer be contained by the early ’70s. Cult director Roger Corman had noticed Scorsese’s NYU student films and agreed to produce Scorsese’s B-picture Boxcar Bertha (1972). The rest is history. Where would the movies be without Martin Scorsese? And where would he be without Mean Streets? Continue reading

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All That Jazz (1979)

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“To be on the wire is life. The rest is waiting.” Until Charlie Kaufman’s directorial debut Synecdoche, New York (2008), which Roger Ebert called the film of the decade, Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz was the only American film that even came close to matching the brilliance of Fellini’s 8 1/2 (1963). Fosse’s work mirrors Fellini’s masterpiece in premise — a struggling director trying to make a hit — and personal inspiration — Fellini was dealing with a crisis of creativity, while Fosse was just off open-heart surgery. (A)

Though Fellini’s masterpiece deals with a film director and Fosse’s a stage director, both feature the same driving force: an artist’s agonizing and potentially fatal journey of creating a perfectionist work of art. All That Jazz is a semi-autobiographical work for Fosse, with many of his own doubts, struggles, fears, highs and lows played out through his lead character. Continue reading

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The Maltese Falcon (1941)

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In examining the impact of Humphrey Bogart, scholar David Thomson looks to the French New Wave masterpiece Breathless (1959), directed by Jean-Luc Godard and co-written by Francois Truffaut, in which lead actor Jean-Paul Belmondo first sighs the name “Bogie.” (A) Such male fascination with Bogart is a telling time capsule of when the nostalgic romanticization of the actor first took effect. No doubt he was a superstar throughout the ’40s, from Casablanca (1942) to The Big Sleep (1946). But Bogart’s claim on legendary status took hold shortly after his death in 1957, when a whole new generation latched onto his work and has not yet let go.

That’s because “Bogie” is everything they want to be, a figure who demonstrates sure control and sound judgment in times of chaos, traits that would have come in handy in their own lives during the increasingly-chaotic ’60s and ’70s. Hence the adoration of guys like Woody Allen, who paid Bogart the ultimate respect in Play it Again, Sam (1972), where the protagonist has Bogart for an imaginary friend, one that gives him pointers on impressing the ladies with those classic hardboiled lines.

Of course, all of this had an origin, a moment when a streaking Hollywood comet could no longer be ignored, a moment that came in John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon (1941), when Bogart was cast as Dashiell Hammett’s famous detective Sam Spade. It’s important to remember that the source novel was written by Hammett in 1930, at the height of the Great Depression. Two screen adaptations pre-dated Bogie, first in 1931 with Bebe Daniels and Ricardo Cortez, then a looser-based version Satan Met a Lady (1936), starring Bette Davis and Warren William. But while Huston’s Maltese Falcon lacks an originality of story, it is entirely original in atmosphere, considered by many the birth of the film noir movement, establishing countless archetypes from the hard-boiled detective to the femme fatale. How fitting that the very term “noir” was coined by the same French that first sighed, “Ah, Bogie.” Continue reading

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Roman Holiday (1953)

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Aside from its stunning on-location visuals, fascinating love story and sharp William Wyler direction, Roman Holiday fills one true purpose in film history — the film that introduced the world to Audrey Hepburn. It offered the Belgium-born British actress her American debut, giving her the part over Elizabeth Taylor (A Place in the Sun) and Jean Simmons (Great Expectations). Ironically, Hepburn’s on-screen coronation into Hollywood royalty came the same year as Queen Elizabeth II’s actual coronation, not to mention a time when the public was fascinated with Princess Margaret’s much-publicized relationship with commoner Peter Townsend. (E) For all this, the timing was right, and the rest, as they say, is history. Continue reading

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Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961)

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On multiple debate fronts — greatest chick flicks, landmarks in fashion history, Hollywood’s most beloved leading ladies — all discussion must pass through one iconic actress in one equally iconic film: Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. This is the true test of a movie classic, to be deemed important in such a wide array of historical influence. Sure, Breakfast at Tiffany’s delves unashamedly into melodrama and suffers from certain stereotypes and censorship restraints of its time. But the film, drawing from a source novel by Truman Capote, struck a chord in 1961 that hasn’t let up since.

Partial credit must be given to Capote, whose childhood became the Dill character in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962); whose career novel became Richard Brooks’ courtroom drama In Cold Blood (1967); and whose life became an Oscar-winning performance by Philip Seymour Hoffman in Capote (2005). Still, you could argue that Breakfast at Tiffany’s remains his most popular screen adaptation. The rest of the credit belongs to the storied team of Hepburn and costume designer Hubert de Givenchy, who also crafted her outfits in Sabrina (1954), Funny Face (1957), Love in the Afternoon (1957), Paris – When it Sizzles (1964) and culminating in the Best Picture winner My Fair Lady (1964). Continue reading

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Ed Wood (1994)

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What is Tim Burton’s definitive work? AMC Filmsite chose The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) for its Top 300. A former professor of mine swore by Big Fish (2003). And the Academy has only ever nominated Burton for two Oscars, for Corpse Bride (2005) and Frankenweenie (2013). Perhaps such varied opinions come from the fact that most folks aren’t sure exactly what to do with Mr. Burton. Is he a groundbreaking genius of cinematic language? Or is he just a guy with a great imagination and a keen eye for commercial success?

I contend the answer lies in what I like to call Ed Wood Scissorhands. The two films teamed Burton with consistent collaborators — producer Denise Di Novi, star Johnny Depp, casting director Victoria Thomas, cinematographer Stefan Czapsky, art department guru Tom Duffield and costume designer Colleen Atwood — and both arrived after smash hit Batman films. It’s helpful to compare the two as inverses of each other, as Scissorhands was a commercial approach to a serious subject, while Ed Wood was a serious approach to a commercial subject: the business of Hollywood. At times, Burton has mastered both realms, and it seems historians are eagerly waiting to see which side wins out. Continue reading

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Edward Scissorhands (1990)

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Few directors in our history, let alone the last 25 years, have such a distinct style that you can look at any of their films and within seconds identify who must be directing it. But after just one opening credit sequence, one Danny Elfman musical note, one off-kilter Johnny Depp performance or one dark or candy-colored land of imagination, and you can instantly say, “This is a Tim Burton film.” In this way, Burton may be one of the few auteurs we have going today (along with Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese), whose visual cues seem backed by a consistent world view, in Burton’s case, that of the neglected child.

Scholar David Thomson asks us to consider all the tortured childhood souls in Burton’s pictures: his debut animated short Vincent (1982) shows the “nightmarish inner life of an outwardly ordinary child;” Pee Wee’s Big Adventure (1985) follows an immature man who never grew up; Beetlejuice (1988) is “a rogue sprite, a kind of Peter Pan;” Edward Scissorhands is left incomplete by his Inventor father figure; and Batman Returns (1992) features a Penguin who was born so ugly, his parents sent him adrift in a basket through the sewers, a regular “Moses in Harry Lime Land.” (A) To Thomson’s list, I will add Batman (1989), whose hero is orphaned by the smoking gun of Nicholson’s Joker; Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005), where Willy Wonka has created for himself a children’s fantasyland; and Sweeney Todd (2007), whose title character’s rough childhood has led to a life of London crime. Continue reading

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Planes, Trains & Automobiles (1987)

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Certain movies just surprise you, not simply in terms of plot, but in their sheer heart, their blinding truth, and how good they make you feel. Planes, Trains and Automobiles is one of those movies. Though it does feature its own special twist, the real surprise comes in what is left after the revelation — a movie with more perspective on life than anything viewers have come to expect is possible from a road trip buddy comedy of its kind. Then again, should we expect anything less from writer/director John Hughes?

Two days before Thanksgiving, over-stressed workaholic Neal Page (Steve Martin) tries to get from his business trip in New York City back home to Chicago so he can be with his family for the holidays. The trip can’t start soon enough, as Neal endures an excruciatingly slow day at the office, then loses a mad dash for a cab to Kevin Bacon. The rest of the film is six degrees of “are we there yet?” Continue reading

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Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986)

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“Bueller?…..Bueller?…..Bueller?….Bueller?” Ben Stein’s monotone teacher, calling roll for a title character not at his desk, is one of those instantly imitable moments from perhaps the best-loved of all John Hughes teen comedies. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off feels like the grand finale after Sixteen Candles (1984), Weird Science (1985), The Breakfast Club (1985) and Pretty in Pink (1986), marking the end of the teenage innocence before Hughes moved onto Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987), Christmas Vacation (1989) and Home Alone (1990). It also stands out from the Brat Pack crowd, casting fresh faces other than Molly Ringwald and Anthony Michael Hall, with the closest thing being Emilio Estevez’s brother, Charlie Sheen, in a bit role as a juvenile delinquent. But different is good, earning the title of #1 Teen Movie of All Time in a 2005 ranking by Empire magazine. Continue reading

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The Breakfast Club (1985)

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When it came to cranking out instant classics on the teenage scene, nobody did it better than John Hughes. In just 25 months between the summers of ’84 and ’86, Hughes wrote and directed an unrivaled string of teen movies — Sixteen Candles (1984), Weird Science (1985), The Breakfast Club (1985) and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986), not to mention writing Pretty in Pink (1986) for director Howard Deutch. Together, these films both captured and defined what it meant to be a youth in the 1980s. Invariably, everyone has a different personal favorite (mine is Ferris Bueller), but looking back a quarter-century later, the most important may just be The Breakfast Club.

Recently voted by Entertainment Weekly as the #1 Greatest High School Movie of All Time, The Breakfast Club explores a theme of popularity divides that rings all the more true in today’s Mean Girls world of cyber bullying. It does so with a simple, yet effective premise where five teenagers, each of a different social stereotype, must share a room for Saturday detention and spend time with peers they otherwise never would. Continue reading

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Memento (2000)

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“Memory is unreliable. Memory’s not perfect. It’s not even that good. Ask the police. Eye-witness testimony is unreliable. Cops don’t catch a killer by sitting around remembering stuff. They collect facts, make notes and draw conclusions. Facts, not memories. That’s how you investigate. Look, memory can change the shape of a room, it can change the color of a car. And memories can be distorted. They’re just an interpretation; they’re not a record. And they’re irrelevant if you have the facts.”

There’s a point in Memento where the lead character asks his wife why she enjoys reading a particular novel more than once. “I always thought the pleasure of a book was wanting to know what happens next,” he says. Such is the very secret of Christopher Nolan’s master puzzle of a film, its ability to have us guessing what’s coming next narratively while already knowing what’s coming chronologically. We are kept simultaneously informed and uninformed, at the mercy of a film that moves largely in reverse order, drawing suspense out of discovering the truth of the past, rather than revelations of the future. Continue reading

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The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

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Every Thanksgiving night, Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) airs on national television, deserving a place in our hearts as an American classic. Ironically, far fewer people have seen the movie that beat it for Best Picture, The Best Years of Our Lives. This fact would sadden the film’s sole producer, Samuel Goldwyn, who said, “I don’t care if it doesn’t make a nickel. I just want every man, woman and child in America to see it.”

Indeed, it was crucial for a nation to collectively watch this 1946 post-war epic after the shared experience of returning from World War II, as the flickering light of a film projector helped Americans work through their fears, memories and permanent life changes. It could provide the same therapy for today’s veterans — if more people knew about it.

So to borrow a phrase from today’s kiddies, Goldwyn was a “G.” In fact, he was the “G” in MGM, and Best Years was his last with director William Wyler (Ben-Hur, Roman Holiday), who often fought with him over whose name would be placed higher on the billing. It was also their most successful together, winning seven Oscars, including Best Director for Wyler and Best Picture for Goldwyn, who that same year accepted the Irving Thalberg Memorial Award, which Wyler would himself win 20 years later. Continue reading

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Deliverance (1972)

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Deliverance is a film that punches you in the gut early and doesn’t let the feeling go away. It’s the kind of movie that makes you want to take a shower afterward — unless you’re watching it as a Psycho double feature. Indeed, the cultural reaction to Deliverance in the early ’70s was similar to the reaction to Psycho in the early ’60s, only this time our squeamishness stemmed from a horrific “squeal like a pig” sodomy rape scene that, along with the film’s “Dueling Banjos” theme, entered straight into pop culture lore.

Yet for all the film’s cultural impact, I’ve showed it to younger folks who left scratching their heads. How can ’70s viewers deem it a masterpiece by British director John Boorman, while younger viewers deem it simply a “bore man?” This reaction only proves the point that most modern adventure films lack Boorman’s level of theme and craftsmanship. When you get down to it, Deliverance is really an art film disguised as an adventure flick. So for those who remember Deliverance as that cheap river movie with the weird redneck rape scene, look again. You’ll come to realize — from the opening voiceover to the final shot — that you missed a much more involved film than you first thought, a film that carries a depth of theme to match its pop culture reputation. Continue reading

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Mildred Pierce (1945)

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“Everybody has a mother.” Unfortunately for Joan Crawford, her most memorable image is now one that surfaced after her death, one played by Faye Dunaway in the biopic Mommie Dearest (1981). Based on the best-selling memoirs of Crawford’s adopted daughter, Christina, the film painted her mother as an abusive monster and soiled the reputation of one the legends of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Film buffs know Dunaway’s chilling role all too well, screaming “No wire hangers!” as one of the AFI’s 50 Greatest Villains.

These revelations, however accurate or exaggerated, only underscore the motherly obsession that Crawford brought to her career role in Mildred Pierce, playing a woman who will do anything for her children, perhaps even murder, in Michael Curtiz’s noir classic. Continue reading

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The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972)

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It’s safe to say that Luis Bunuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie is unlike any other film I’ve seen. Plotless, surreal and quite funny, the film ignores the bounds of a traditional narrative. If you thought “French cinema” was too highbrow or pretentious, pop this one in and watch Bunuel take his own culture down a peg. Except, Bunuel does so in a way that also champions his brand of intelligent French filmmaking. The characters and tone may mock the culture, but the form exemplifies it.

Financially, it was Bunuel’s most successful. Critically, it won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, as well as Best Film and Best Director by the National Society of Film Critics — a major feat in the year of Coppola’s The Godfather (1972). Continue reading

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Rome, Open City (1945)

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How can I take a negative and turn it into a positive? That’s the question that faced Roberto Rossellini in 1945 when he set out to make the anti-Fascist, anti-Nazi, pro-resistance film Rome, Open City. At the time, the titular city was still occupied by the Germans, who would certainly not approve of such a film. Even more problematic, raw film stock was scarce, actors were hard to find, money for building sets was almost non-existent and a polished product was impossible without controlled studio lighting. So, Rossellini did what any innovative filmmaker would do – he started a movement.

Italian Neorealism was founded on the ideal of urgent authenticity, taking a mobile camera out into the streets, trading phony sets for actual locations, making the most of natural lighting and casting real-life laborers instead of professional actors. The result was an entirely fresh filmmaking style that would later evolve into the Dogme 95 and cinema verite styles. Adding to the authenticity was the constant threat of German oppression. For this, the “making of” Rome, Open City became the stuff of movie legend, with Rossellini and crew hiding cameras and shooting their film undercover. Continue reading

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The Crowd (1928)

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After directing the highest grossing silent movie ever in The Big Parade (1925), King Vidor inked a long-term deal with MGM, where producer Irving Thalberg allowed him enormous artistic freedom for his next project. According to Vidor’s 1954 autobiography, Thalberg came to him asking what his big follow-up would be, and Vidor described a film about the common struggles of an ordinary man. Thalberg asked, “Well, what are you going to try next? It’s going to be hard to top The Big Parade.” Vidor replied, “Well, I suppose the average fellow walks through life and sees quite a lot of drama taking place around him. Objectively, life is like a battle isn’t it?”

Originally titled One of the Mob, the project eventually became The Crowd, a film detailing the lost promise of the American Dream that so many face, often in urban dwellings. In this atmosphere, it’s not man vs. nature, but man vs. man-made circumstances, both socially — with limited class mobility — and physically — trapped in the proverbial “concrete jungle.” It was his most personal work, far less successful at the box office, but far more renowned by academics decades later. Thus, The Crowd stands as the art masterpiece that got its chance off the success of The Big Parade blockbuster, the expression of the one after the cheers of the mob, epitomizing the very notion of The Film Spectrum. Continue reading

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The Big Parade (1925)

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The debate over history’s greatest silent film no doubt includes Griffith’s Intolerance (1915), Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925), Keaton’s The General (1927), Lang’s Metropolis (1927), Murnau’s Sunrise (1927) and Chaplin’s City Lights (1931). But in sheer box office dollars, King Vidor reigns supreme with The Big Parade, the highest grossing silent movie ever at $22 million, the equivalent of $285 million today.

It was this success that enabled Vidor’s most personal work, The Crowd, which remains his undisputed masterpiece. The two are tied together in movie history, the art film that got its chance off the success of the blockbuster, both filmed at MGM under the flexibility of producer Irving Thalberg, edited by Hugh Wynn, starring young leading men who tragically died within the next decade, and directed by the man who fittingly went by the name “King.” Continue reading

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Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)

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There’s a scene in Manhattan (1979) where Woody Allen’s character is embarrassed by a tell-all book by his ex-wife (Meryl Streep), detailing all his personal flaws. Since Allen was also the film’s writer, these critiques serve as Allen’s own honest admissions of his real-life insecurities, including, “In his most private moments, he spoke of his fear of death, which he elevated to tragic heights.”

It’s this idea that is expanded upon in Hannah and Her Sisters, as Allen focuses on his own existential crisis, a personal battle with the meaning of life and the prospect of death, and how our many relationships with others help to shape the time we are here. As such, Hannah and Her Sisters may simultaneously be the most profound and bare-boned of all of Allen’s films, taking the many themes he had built up to that point in his career and combining them in blatant self-expression in a 1986 Best Picture nominee that Roger Ebert called “the best movie [Woody Allen] has ever made.” Continue reading

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My Darling Clementine (1946)

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“That’s a sucker game, Doc. There’s probably 50 fellas around town just waitin’ to see you get liquored up so they can fill you full of holes, build themselves up a great reputation: the man that killed Doc Holliday.” Is there a more famous story of the Old West than that of Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday and their famous showdown with the Clanton Gang at the O.K. Corral?

It’s a story that’s graced Hollywood screens too many times to count, be it Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas in Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957), James Garner and Jason Robards in Hour of the Gun (1967), Harris Yulin and Stacy Keach in Doc (1971), Kurt Russell and Val Kilmer in Tombstone (1993) or Kevin Costner and Dennis Quaid in Wyatt Earp (1994). But ask any film historian to name the definitive version of the story and you will get a resounding cheer for Henry Fonda and Victor Mature in My Darling Clementine, which Roger Ebert called “John Ford’s greatest western.” I personally think that’s an overstatement, considering the brilliance of Stagecoach (1939), The Searchers (1956) and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). But fourth place in that wild bunch isn’t bad. Continue reading

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Written on the Wind (1956)

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When Douglas Sirk introduced his brand of “women’s weepies” in the ’50s, they were instantly regarded as trash, by critics and audiences alike. It wasn’t until the early ’70s that his work was rediscovered at various film festivals, and it wasn’t long until academics were citing his films as overlooked works of lyrical genius. Like Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter (1955), Sirk’s work was expressionistic, stylized, surreal. With such words, an instant red flag should jump up, warning that only a select group of viewers will enjoy this film. Many will find it corny, even laughable to a degree. But for each of these, there is a film professor somewhere, pleading audiences to give Sirk his due.

Along with Max Ophuls (Letter from an Unknown Woman), Sirk deserves full credit for pioneering melodrama and inventing the modern soap opera, through a string of films like All I Desire (1953), Magnificent Obsession (1954), All That Heaven Allows (1955), The Tarnished Angels (1957) and Imitation of Life (1959). Of all his work, I keep coming back to Written on the Wind. If you look closer at the lurid melodrama, you’ll find some real, serious filmmaking going on between the lines. Continue reading

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The Gold Diggers Trilogy (1933)

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“Money? You? Say, with all the hits you’ve had, you oughta be worth plenty.” “Yeah, I oughta be, but I’m not. Did you ever hear of Wall Street?” Six years into the era of talking pictures, the cold front of the Great Depression had swept all the way from Wall Street to Hollywood, with several studios teetering on the verge of bankruptcy. While King Kong (1933) proved the savior of RKO Pictures, Warner Bros. climbed out of financial ruin with a most unique creative process that produced the first landmark moment in the timeline of movie musicals.

Mervyn LeRoy, future studio head of MGM, was then a hot director for the Warners, helming such hits as Little Caesar (1930) and I’m a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932), when he developed the idea of a grand backstage musical, but upon falling ill, he would have to defer the project to fellow contract director Lloyd Bacon. That project was 42nd Street, such a huge spring success for Warner Bros. that the studio would rush to release two more by the fall, Gold Diggers of 1933, directed by LeRoy, and Bacon’s own follow-up Footlight Parade, forming the so-called Gold Diggers Trilogy. Continue reading

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McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971)

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“Altman has made a dozen films that can be called great in one way or another,” Roger Ebert wrote. “But only one can be called perfect, and that’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller.” In today’s aftermath of Eastwood’s Unforgiven (1992), the anti-western seems very much like a familiar friend. But imagine the freshness, the jolt, when Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller pioneered the idea 21 years earlier. This was the real west, with the myth stripped away. Gone was the moral John Wayne figure set against the spread of impressive frontier formations. In its place was a dreary world, full of wet browns and greens, gritty, dirty and covered in snow. Gone also was the adventure subject matter of Cowboys and Indians, and in its place stood a tale of greed and prostitution. Continue reading

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Psycho (1960)

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If you live long enough, you hope to have that rare experience of sitting in a theater when a movie comes along that changes everything. This may happen once or twice in a lifetime, if you’re lucky. After all, you never know when such a zeitgeist is going to strike. So wouldn’t I give anything to have been sitting there during that initial screening of Psycho. To stand in the long lines outside New York’s Radio City Music Hall, anticipating the new film from Hollywood’s most famous director and one of television’s most famous personalities. To see advertisements of Alfred Hitchcock forbidding us to arrive after the film’s start (a historical first), locking the doors after the projector rolled, and begging us not to share the film’s secret afterwards (a virtual impossibility in today’s internet age).

What I wouldn’t give to have been sitting there, watching one of Hollywood’s sexiest leading ladies, Janet Leigh, derobe and step into that shower. To share in her naivety as to how culturally significant that shower was about to become. To hold my breath as a shadowy figure approached that shower curtain. And to scream as those shower rings ripped open and a knife blade chopped to Bernard Herrmann’s screeching strings! Continue reading

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The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985)

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Woody Allen remains the most prolific writer/director of the last 30 years. When scholars sit down to examine his work, they cannot single out any one masterpiece. I dare you to choose between ’70s classics like Sleeper (1973), Annie Hall (1977) or Manhattan (1979); ’80s masterpieces like Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), Radio Days (1987) and Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989); ’90s gems like Bullets Over Broadway (1994) and Deconstructing Harry (1997); and new millennium hits like Match Point (2005), Midnight in Paris (2011) and Blue Jasmine (2013).

Yet of all his masterworks, Allen claims his own personal favorite is The Purple Rose of Cairo, probably because it represents everything he loves about the movies to begin with, the power of this “world of celluloid and flickering shadows” to give a necessary escape from the harshness of the real world. Because, after all, Allen is first and foremost a movie lover, finding his ultimate expression of that love here in this underrated gem. Continue reading

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To Have and Have Not (1944)

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The story behind To Have and Have Not — the legendary first pairing of on- and off-screen lovers Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall — is one of those stories that’s been told so many times, who cares how much of it is actually true? As the story goes, the whole thing began as a bet between two of history’s finest storytellers — director Howard Hawks and author Ernest Hemingway. Hawks says he bet his good friend Hemingway that he could make a successful picture out of his worst novel, 1937′s To Have and Have Not, which Hawks called a “piece of junk.” (A) Hawks felt the story about a boat captain smuggling goods between Cuba and Florida would be — aw, hell, it’s best to just let Hawks tell it:

“We were fishing and I said, ‘Ernest, why don’t you do some stories with me?’ He said, ‘Oh, I’m good at what I’m doing. I don’t want to go to Hollywood.’ I said, ‘You don’t have to go to Hollywood. We’ll go fishing and write a story while we’re fishing. Look, I can make a picture out of your worst story.’ He said, ‘What’s my worst story?’ I said, ‘That piece of junk called To Have and Have Not.’ ‘Well,’ he said, ‘I need some money. … But you can’t make a picture out of that.’ And for about ten days while we were fishing we sat around and talked, and we decided that the story was no good but the characters of the girl and Morgan … were good, and we started to think about how they met. So I went back and I bought the story for $80,000, and he got $10,000. I did awfully good by the making of the thing; I made close to a million. When I told him how much I got paid, he wouldn’t talk to me for six months.” Continue reading

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Stranger Than Paradise (1984)

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After John Cassavetes invented modern independent cinema in late the ’60s, there was no more important figure in the movement’s growth than Jim Jarmusch, a pioneer who rose to cult fame during the ’80s and the infancy of Sundance. Jarmusch got his start as an assistant under the invaluable mentors Nicholas Ray and Wim Wenders, at which point he decided to forgo his NYU film school graduation and put the rest of his scholarship money toward his first film, Permanent Vaction (1980). With great reviews, Jarmusch went onto his next project, taking leftover stock footage from Wenders’ Der Stand der Dinge (1982) and creating his own 30-minute short subject film, Stranger Than Paradise.

When the film hit the festival circuit, including the 1983 International Film Festival Rotterdam, Jarmusch used its warm reception to raise money to turn it into a full-length feature. The result was a piece of film history, playing at the first annual Sundance Film Festival, where it won the Special Jury Prize but lost the Grand Jury Prize to the Coen Brothers’ Blood Simple (1984). Jarmusch got a measure of retribution at the 1984 Cannes Film Festival, where Paradise won the Camera D’Or on the same night his mentor, Wenders, won the top prize, the Golden Palm, for Paris, Texas (1984). For the rest of the ’80s, there were few more internationally renowned “art” filmmakers than Wenders and Jarmusch. Continue reading

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Chinatown (1974)

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“In the middle of a drought and the water commissioner drowns! Only in L.A.” Movies don’t get much better, or better written, than Chinatown. Roman Polanski’s masterpiece joined Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye (1973) in reviving the Hollywood detective story for the next 25 years, bringing films like Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988), Dick Tracy (1990), L.A. Confidential (1997) and the Chinatown sequel The Two Jakes (1990).

This “neo noir” trend resurrected a genre that was left for dead after a stretch from 1941-1958, bringing us masterpieces like The Maltese Falcon, Double Indemnity, Laura, The Big Sleep, Out of the Past and Touch of Evil. Back were the the private dicks, femme fatales, venetian blinds and smoky silhouettes, but they were now infused with a modern style reflecting the corruption of the modern age.

If you like happy endings where the good guys triumph and the bad guys get their comeuppance, don’t enter Chinatown. But if you like the hand of fate leading twisted folks to tragic conclusions, Chinatown will snip your nose and wash you away. The film dominated the Golden Globes, winning Best Picture, Actor (Jack Nicholson), Director (Polanski) and Screenplay (Robert Towne), and it would have repeated at the Oscars if it weren’t for The Godfather: Part II (1974). Instead, the film’s only Oscar went to Towne’s script, which peels back its layers like a ripe onion voted the AFI’s No. 2 Mystery of All Time, behind only Vertigo (1958). Continue reading

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The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)

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In 1994, two students at the University of Texas at Austin got together and wrote a script. The students? Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson. The film? Bottle Rocket, a 13-minute comedy short, starring first-time actors Wilson (Wedding Crashers) and his younger brother Luke (Old School). The young filmmakers sent the film to a family friend, screenwriter L.M. Kit Carson, who forwarded it to producer Polly Platt, who forwarded it to James L. Brooks (Terms of Endearment), who offered them $5 million to turn it into a feature film. It was released by Columbia Pictures in 1996, recasting the Wilson brothers and scoring a casting coup with James Caan. Though a film with “rookie” written all over it, Bottle Rocket was their foot in the door, a foot we all owe a great deal, because it opened the door to these guys’ next two films, Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums, two masterpieces of modern cinema.

The quirky dramedies are both directed by Anderson, written by Anderson and Wilson, produced by Barry Mendel for American Empirical and Touchstone and feature music by Mark Mothersbaugh, photography by Robert D. Yeoman and performances by several repeat cast members, most notably Bill Murray. Continue reading

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The Hustler (1961)

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There’s something almost lyrical in the whole concept of pool: that crack of a clean break, balls clanking into the pockets and rumbling down the return chutes, the smell of chalk wafting into a cloud of smoke, rising above the low-hanging table lamps, a pile of cigarette butts collecting at the feet of an eager watcher with money on the line, and two tested sharks, with oil in their arms and nerves in their cues, matching eachother ball for ball, straddling that thin line between winner and loser, greatness and goat, the poolhall as both a quiet sanctuary and a gambler’s morgue where “those tables are the slabs they lay the stiffs on.” Director Robert Rossen had always liked the game as dramatic material, penning the play Corner Pocket. But when Walter Tevis published his novel The Hustler 20 years later, Rossen bought it right up and took it to Fox, where a young Paul Newman got his breakthrough in the type of role that used to go to Brando, the type that would have gone to James Dean if he were still living then, the role of a self-destructive, anti-hero pool hustler, “Fast” Eddie Felson. Continue reading

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In the Heat of the Night (1967)

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“They call me MISTER Tibbs!” With those five words, Sidney Poitier shook up the world, creating a watershed moment in racial commentary and showing just how powerful an impact that film could have on society, and vice versa. You know a film is cutting edge when its setting (Sparta, Mississippi) had to be shot further north (Sparta, Illinois) because its themes made it too dangerous to actually shoot in the Deep South.

Released during the height of the Civil Rights Movement — just two years after the Watts Riots and the murder of Malcom X, and only a year prior to the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy — In the Heat of the Night addressed the racial tensions that were already boiling over in a divided United States, and it did so with a simple premise — place two men together, one black and one white, and let them overcome their prejudices while striving for a common goal. Continue reading

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Apollo 13 (1995)

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“This could be the worst disaster NASA’s ever experienced.” “With all due respect, sir, I believe this is going to be our finest hour.” Is Apollo 13 the best movie on space ever done? Fans of Philip Kaufman’s The Right Stuff (1983) would disagree, citing that film’s heavy influences on Ron Howard’s film. The earth-based bios of real-life astronauts. The triumphant runway walk in space suits. A mission made possible (in vastly different ways) by Alan Shepard. The awe-inspiring shots of breaking into space. Ed Harris. If any film were to deserve a spot as a runner-up — a nice, shorter, less epic, more entertaining runner-up — Apollo 13 is that film. Like Titanic (1997) and United 93 (2006) after it, the film succeeds in pulling drama from story where we already know the ending. And as inspirational as it is seeing such an on-screen display of human will and ingenuity, it’s all that much more inspiring knowing that the “successful failure” of Apollo 13 actually happened. It’s in this vein of emotional effect that Apollo 13 succeeds most, placing #12 on AFI’s 100 Most Inspirational Films, a list where its father film, The Right Stuff, came in at #19. Continue reading

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Animal House (1978)

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“OK, don’t write this down, but I find Milton probably as boring as you find Milton,” says Donald Sutherland’s Prof. Jennings while teaching poet John Milton to his class. “He’s a little bit long-winded, he doesn’t translate very well into our generation and his jokes are terrible.”

Roughly the same thing could be said for many classic comedies, today’s youth finding them slow, unfunny and out of touch with their current generation. Thankfully, the exact opposite is true for Animal House, a comedy that remains as funny and relevant today as it was in 1978. Even in the 21st century, one can take a tour of any college and still find Animal House DVDs on the dorm shelves, John Belushi posters on the apartment walls and “C-O-L-L-E-G-E” sweatshirts parading around campus.

This kind of lasting appeal is largely because the film presents a timeless subject, in that as long as there is college, there will always be frat parties. And no party will ever compare to those thrown by the fictional Faber College’s 1962 Delta fraternity in John Landis’ beloved comedy. Continue reading

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A Woman Under the Influence (1974)

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In 1996, the staff of Filmmaker Magazine got together to vote on the Most Important Independent Films in history, of which there could only be one most important. No doubt the list-topper would require several criteria to take the title. It would have to be pioneering, influencing every aspect of the modern independent movement. It would have to be unconventional, using film techniques that break all the standard rules of Hollywood studio filmmaking. And it would have to have a sexy financing story, using shoe-string means of funding and the distribution. Considering all this, it seems Filmmaker Magazine got it right. John Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence deserves its spot atop that list.

In terms of influence, the film helped inspire the so-called “Dogme 95″ movement. It’s an ideology that argues for a more authentic form of filmmaking, claiming that “new video technology will democratize the filmmaking process and deliver the masses from their oppression by evil, formulaic, speical effects-laden studio fare.” Subscribers adhere to a “Vow of Chastity,” which includes such commandments as “The camera must be handheld” and “The film must not contain superficial action (murders, weapons, etc.).” (A) In other words, every part of the filmmaking process — the tools, the techniques, the story — should be organic and true to life. In this very way, Cassavetes turned the role of storytelling on its head, and thus redefined the rules of “acceptable” filmmaking. Continue reading

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A Night at the Opera (1935)

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On most every best list, the default Marx Brothers selection is Duck Soup (1933). And rightfully so; it’s hands down their funniest film. So when the AFI named its Top 100 Films of All Time in 1997, Duck Soup was an obvious shoe-in. Then, in 2007, when it came time for a 10th Anniversary List, the AFI again tapped Duck Soup for the list, only now there was an exciting new addition, yet another Marx Brothers film, the always entertaining and yet odd pairing of music and madcap, A Night at the Opera.

Made just two years after Duck Soup, it came at a rough time for the Marx Bros. Duck Soup had just flopped at the box office and, as a result, Paramount had just terminated their contract. On top of that, the fourth Marx Brother and youngest of the bunch, Zeppo, was out of the gang, leaving just Groucho, Harpo and Chico, which was OK by practically everyone. Enter producer Irving Thalberg, who approached Groucho with the idea of switching to MGM, telling him, “I can make a film with you that would have half as many laughs as your Paramount films, but they will be more effective because the audience will be in sympathy with you.” (A) And so A Night at the Opera was born, a comeback of sorts for history’s most talented group of comedians. Continue reading

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My Fair Lady (1964)

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In the decade between 1958 and 1968, five of the Academy Award winners for Best Picture were musicals, including Gigi (1958), West Side Story (1961), The Sound of Music (1965) and Oliver! (1968), a feat that will likely never happen again. This should give some indication as to the mindset of Jack L. Warner when he paid $5.5 million for the rights to My Fair Lady (A), material that had helped George Bernard Shaw become history’s only Nobel and Oscar winner, with the 1913 play and 1938 film Pygmalion, and that had been successfully adapted into a Tony-winning Broadway production in 1956. Producing the first movie musical version of the tale, Warner full expected to be next in line for the honors when the Academy showered his film with eight Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director (George Cukor). Continue reading

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A Star is Born (1954)

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I’ve always felt one of the great ironies in all of movie buff-dom was the fact that Judy Garland’s comeback came in A Star is Born. As we all know, her star had been born a full 15 years earlier with a pair of 1939 MGM hits, iconically as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz and across screen from favorite collaborator Mickey Rooney in Busby Berkley’s Babes in Arms. The irony thickens when you consider that such a comeback, featuring Garland’s greatest performance and one where she grasps an Oscar statuette mid-way through the picture, did not nab Garland the award in real life.

Historians write of her devastation at having lost to Grace Kelly for The Country Girl (1954), ending her last best chance at an Oscar — she was later nominated for Judgement at Nuremburg (1961), but the performance was hardly worthy. Tragically fitting, Garland’s life only last 15 years after A Star is Born, stamping the film as the midway point of a 30 year career that ended in showing off that powerful voice of hers in concert halls across the country. Not far off from the final scene of A Star is Born, Garland stepping out on stage for a benefit concert, and famously addressing the audience: “Hello, everybody. This is Mrs. Norman Maine.” Continue reading

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The Little Tramp (1914-1936)

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Legendary figures make for legendary trivia. And my favorite of all movie anecdotes will always be this: Charlie Chaplin once entered a Charlie Chaplin lookalike contest…and finished third. Not only is that great irony, but it’s a tribute to Chaplin’s iconic status. His “Little Tramp” creation, complete with bowler hat, cane and toothbrush mustache, was so well-known that countless people worldwide could do dead-on imitations. Even today, the character remains our most famous fictional human figure, and its most cherished silhoutte. Can you imagine a modern comedian, say, Will Ferrell, being so recognizable a century from now? No way. But that is exactly what Chaplin did. His comic ingenuity made his screen persona universally recognizable some 95 years after its creation. Continue reading

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Pickup on South Street (1953)

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“It’s been said that if you don’t like the Rolling Stones, then you just don’t like rock and roll. By the same token, I think that if you don’t like the films of Sam Fuller, then you just don’t like cinema. Or at least you don’t understand it.” So says Martin Scorsese, a filmmaker profoundly and admittedly influenced by Fuller since he first experienced his work at age seven. The in-your-face violence told with equally violent camera movements has become a renowned staple of the Scorsese style, but Scorsese will be the first to acknowledge Fuller as the patriarch of such an approach. Only recently has Fuller begun to receive the kind of adulation he deserves, yet still not enough due to the B-picture mask of his movies. Throughout his impressively authentic body of work, one masterpiece stands out above the rest: Pickup on South Street. Continue reading

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Blazing Saddles (1974)

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On the AFI’s 100 Years…100 Films: 10th Anniversary broadcast, Mel Brooks was asked to discuss the Marx Brothers, and he deservedly praised them as his idols. “They were genius,” Brooks says. “I’m honored to be someone in their shadow.” No doubt this was a heartfelt statement, but one can still detect an air of disappointment that this shadow looms so large. Not one of Brooks’ comedy classics made the same list. This is a listology travesty, to have a list of 100 American films without even one by Mel Brooks, who owned three of the Top 13 in AFI’s 100 Laughs. Perhaps this is why he was awarded the 2013 AFI Lifetime Achievement Award: to set the record straight.

Indeed, comedies unfairly struggle in such discussions of history’s greatest films. Due to varying comedic tastes and differing funny bones, it’s hard for people to agree on the greatness of a comedy, even near impossible to get one voted out of the 7-range on IMDB. Still, when the conversation narrows specifically to the realm of comedy, Brooks is a given, and Blazing Saddles is often the standard bearer. The film makes lists compiled by both high-brow (#6 on AFI’s 100 Laughs) and low-brow (#9 BRAVO’s 100 Funniest Movies). Can you imagine a comedy world without the contribution of Blazing Saddles? Continue reading

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Out of the Past (1947)

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“Is there a way to win?” “There’s a way to lose more slowly.” Chock-full of such lines, Out of the Past is a perfect example of fatalism, the idea that death is inevitable and that all one can hope for is to delay it as long as possible. As star Robert Mitchum says, “If I have to [die], I’m gonna die last.” This tone makes Out of the Past the epitome of film noir, and a must-see for viewers claiming at least slight interest in the genre. There’s the hardboiled detective in trenchcoast and voice-over, who despite claims that he is “time and weather proof” can’t seem to outrun the shadowy forces of nature and his past. There’s the knockout femme fetale, who sucks the hero into a doomed passion and almost willful self-destruction. And, of course, there’s that special brand of screenplay with enough biting one-liners you’ll have to order a new set of teeth. Continue reading

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Ben-Hur (1959)

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Perhaps the biggest surprise of the AFI’s 100 Movies: 10th Anniversary countdown came right out of the gate, the fact that Ben-Hur would open the show, having dropped from #72 all the way down to #100. Many could make a good case that the drastic drop was either (a) liberal Hollywood’s rebuttal of Charlton Heston’s NRA ties, or (b) AFI members’ denunciation of old-fashioned religious films. Either way, I think the AFI got this one wrong, as Ben-Hur is certainly a much more important film than #100.

While Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St. Matthew (France/Italy) may remain the greatest Christ film ever made, William Wyler’s Ben-Hur is certainly the most acclaimed, winning a record 11 Oscars, including Best Picture, beginning a reign of dominance that’s yet to be bested, equaled only recently by Titanic (1997) and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003). Continue reading

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The Sound of Music (1965)

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In 1965, famed film critic Pauline Kael was fired by McCall’s magazine for a single negative review. The movie: The Sound of Music. The reason: publications don’t like when their critics bash a movie which the market has deemed a phenomenon. After all, the film was nominated for a whopping 10 Academy Awards, winning five, including Best Picture. And at $158 million, it became history’s biggest box office draw (a title it held until The Godfather), with a modern equivolent of $979 million today, making it the third highest grossing (adjusted) movie all time, behind only Star Wars (1977) and Gone With the Wind (1939). One can see why such success would turn off a counter-culturist like Kael, who called the film “the sugar-coated lie people seem to want to eat.” She challenged the movie-going public’s intelligence, writing, “we have been turned into emotional and aesthetic imbeciles when we hear ourselves humming the sickly, goody-goody songs.” Continue reading

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Sullivan’s Travels (1941)

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Second to the king, Ernst Lubistch, there was only ever one man as skilled, tender, hilarious and influential in pioneering the romantic comedy — Preston Sturges. Few directors’ films are as joyous to watch, and every buff has his or her favorite, from The Lady Eve (1941), with Henry Fonda as the gullible doop for disgusied ex-lover Barbara Stanwyck, to The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944), where Betty Hutton wakes up after a WWII send-off party to find herself pregnant and married, with no memory of how it happened.

But for my money, there’s no finer stretch of the filmmaker’s career than the 11 months between Sullivan’s Travels and The Palm Beach Story, both written and directed by Sturges, produced by Paul Jones at Paramount, dangling Joel McCrea as the understated, likable lead and featuring Sturges’ usual cast of characters — Robert Warwick, William Demarest, Robert Greig, Torben Meyer, Victor Potel and the gang. The films are wonders to behold, masterfully directed, socially conscious, yet highly hilarious, and they’ve influenced countless filmmakers to follow, namely the Coen Brothers, who’ve homaged Sturges honorably throughout their careers, from Raising Arizona (1987) to Barton Fink (1991), and most obviously in their selecting a title for O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000). Continue reading

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Repulsion (1965)

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You could sense the menace lurking just beneath the surface in his debut film, Knife in the Water (1962). But Roman Polanski would elevate that ominous feeling to all-out horror in his next film, Repulsion, his first in English and his first collaboration with screenwriter Gerard Brach. If you think a $300,000 movie from 1965 can’t disturb the hell out of you, pop this one into the DVD player. It remains every bit the creeper it was back then and serves as a great introduction to the twisted mind of Polanski.

The film kicked off Polanski’s “apartment trilogy” about the dangers of urban dwelling, followed by Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and The Tenant (1976). In many ways, Repulsion is the organic, unpolished version of Rosemary’s Baby, planting the seed for many of its elements: peephole shots, voices through walls, raw meat, rape hallucinations and an unsettling Krzysztof Komeda score. Continue reading

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The 40-Year-Old Virgin (2005)

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In reviewing Knocked Up (2007), the second film from writer/director Judd Apatow, a Philly critic made a bold statement: “2007, the year Judd Apatow and Seth Rogen saved movie comedy.” The jist of the claim was true, as Apatow and Rogen had scored a huge hit, both with the critics (90% rottentomatoes) and the masses (grossing $148.7 million). But I prefer to think the genre was saved two years earlier, in the first film Apatow directed, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, arriving at a crucial time, the summer of 2005. The reigning kings of comedy, the so-called Frat Pack, had just released their last great effort, Wedding Crashers (2005), a comedy that swept the country. Exactly a month later, they would pass the torch to their heir apparents, the Apatow-Rogen crowd, using common links forged back on Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2003) — producer Apatow, bit actor Rogen and supporting actor Steve Carell. Continue reading

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The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)

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When most average movie fans thinks of the origin of color cinema, they probably think back to The Wizard of Oz (1939) and that glorious moment where a sepia Dorothy opens the door to a world of color. Few actually realize color existed from the very beginning. In fact, Thomas Edison used hand-painted frames on the first films ever shown to the public, The Strong Man (1894) and Annabelle Butterfly Dance (1894), while D.W. Griffith tinted scenes in The Birth of a Nation (1915). In 1920, Herbert and Natalie Kalmus founded Technicolor, shooting through red and green filters on two strips of film that were then glued together, and created the first color feature in Hollywood, Toll of the Sea (1922). When Douglas Fairbanks invested $1 million with them, they found their first succes in The Black Pirate (1926).

Jack Warner took the next big step by combining the novelties of color and sound in Show of Shows (1929), where two dyed strips were transfered onto a single piece of film. In 1932, Technicolor announced a new three-strip process (red, blue, green), ushering in the first feature length live action all color film, La Cucaracha (1934). Meanwhile, Walt Disney applied color to animation with his short Flowers and Trees (1932) and then the monster hit Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), which arrived the same year as Selznick’s color triumph A Star is Born (1937). By 1938, Technicolor had 25 films in production, and the process was becoming more and more viable. Continue reading

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The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)

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Internationally, 1957 may be remembered as the year of Federico Fellini’s The Nights of Cabria (It./Fr.) or the year Ingmar Bergman brought both The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries (Sw.). But in American film history, 1957 was the year of The Bridge on the River Kwai, British director David Lean’s second American collaboration and the smash hit that would prove the turning point in Lean’s career. It was the one that convinced him to think big and never look back, infecting him with what scholar David Thomson called “The Selznick Syndrome” and leading to such grand-scale pictures as Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Doctor Zhivago (1965) and Passage to India (1984). It was a formula for both a decade of dominance and a gradual slip into full-blown excess.

In Lean’s defense, the hardware Kwai received was more than enough to convince anyone that big was the way to go. The film totaled seven Oscars, including Best Picture (Sam Spiegel), Director (Lean), Actor (Sir Alec Guinness) and Screenplay (Carl Foreman, Michael Wilson), a sweep of all the major categories except Best Actress, and that only because there were no lead actresses in the film. Another convincer for Lean was the film’s extraordinary box office showing, to the tune of $30 million on initial release, the equivalent of $385 million today, making it the #1 film of the year. In fact, the film was so popular that its ABC television debut on Sept. 25, 1966, was dubbed “Black Sunday” because of all the lost business it created for movie theaters (A). An exceptional hit indeed. Continue reading

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Quiz Show (1994)

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In the wave of stud actors-turned-directors in the ’80s and ’90s, none hit the ball out of the park farther than Robert Redford in Quiz Show. Nominated for four Oscars, including Best Picture, Redford’s depiction of the 1950s quiz show scandals went under the radar in the year of Forrest Gump (1994), Pulp Fiction (1994) and The Shawshank Redemption (1994). But make no mistake about it: Quiz Show could very well be the best fourth-best-movie-of-the-year of all time, right up there with Ninotchka (1939) and All the President’s Men (1976). That is if it’s even fourth best. In many ways, it’s better directed than Pulp, with characters just as strong as Shawshank and with just as good an eye for history as Gump. Above all, it is undoubtedly Redford’s best from the director’s chair, a true forgotten gem of the last 25 years. Continue reading

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Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)

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“Walt Disney occupied his own space, both literally and figuratively in Hollywood,” film critic Leonard Maltin said. “I think of him as a visionary, truly a visionary, and I think of him more in a league with Thomas Edison than with Louis B. Mayer.” Indeed, Walt Disney’s legacy has become one of such nostalgia and family entertainment that we often forget just how important he was toward the overall advancement of the film medium. From the beginning, Walt relied on technological advancement as his niche claim to fame, carving a reputation for ambition and ingenuity that would sustain his considerable talents as a storyteller.

His first big break, the silent Alice pictures, played on the gimmick of combining live action with animation, long before Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988). His second, Mickey Mouse in Steamboat Willie (1928), marked another technological breakthrough as the first animated cartoon with sound. Always forward looking, Walt continued to push the limits of how he could make his product unique, signing an exclusive contract with Technicolor in 1932, and creating some of the first cartoons in color, from his Silly Symphony shorts, to his massive hit The Three Little Pigs (1933), which had Depression era Americans, young and old, defiantly humming “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?” Continue reading

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Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)

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In 1969, American moviegoers were shown plenty of dark, honest looks into American society — the tragedy of poverty and confused faith in Midnight Cowboy, the acid trips and failed freedom movement of Easy Rider, and the ultra-violence and threat of aging in The Wild Bunch. But somewhere in that mix, viewers needed something that was both aesthetically pleasing and a hell of a good time, and that’s precisely what Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid brought, with a tagline that read, “Just for the fun of it!”

Viewers flocked to theaters to make Butch and Sundance the #1 movie of 1969. The success, of course, rested upon the film’s freshness in creating the modern buddy flick, and to this day, it remains the best buddy picture of all time. I dare you to find better chemistry than that between Paul Newman and Robert Redford in their respective title roles, a chemistry so good that four years later director George Roy Hill reunited them for The Sting (1973) to win the Oscar for Best Picture. Continue reading

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Scarface: The Shame of a Nation (1932)

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Half a century separated Tony Camonte and Tony Montana; Paul Muni’s tommy gun and Al Pacino’s grenade launcher; “Get outta my way, Johnny, I’m gonna spit” and “Say hello to my little friend!” And in the time between the two Scarface films came ample room for debate, difference in taste, cinema knowledge, appreciation of history, and thus preference for one or the other.

Academics mostly favor the 1932 original, produced by Howard Hughes, written by Ben Hecht and directed by Howard Hawks. On the other hand, the hip hop generation unanimously prefers the 1983 remake, written by Oliver Stone and directed by Brian De Palma. No matter where you stand, it’s telling that both films were named to AFI’s Top 10 Gangster Films of All Time. Each was undoubtedly the most graphic film at its respective release date and faced tough censorship. Today it’s hard to imagine one without the other. DePalma and Stone owe their entire story to Hawks, Hughes and Hecht. And Hawks, Hughes and Hecht now owe their film’s entire pop culture recognition to De Palma and Stone. To know both is to love both. Continue reading

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Harold and Maude (1971)

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In the Farrelly Brothers’ hit comedy There’s Something About Mary (1998), the title character, played by Cameron Diaz, calls Hal Ashby’s Harold and Maude “the greatest love story of our time.” The line clearly shows how much Bobby and Peter Farrelly think of Ashby’s work. The irony, of course, is that most fans of the Farrelleys’ movies — Dumb and Dumber, Kingpin, Shallow Hal — will not know what to make of a beast like Harold and Maude. For while the Farrellys crank out fodder for the mainstream, Ashby does none of the sort. He lives in the cult, where films try to break the rules, and Harold and Maude is no exception. Storytelling conventions need not apply, as Ashby explores existential themes of life, love and death set to Cat Stevens’ carefree soundtrack in Entertainment Weekly’s choice for the #4 Cult Film of All Time. It’s easily one of the most unique films you’ll ever see. Continue reading

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It Happened One Night (1934)

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Romantic comedies don’t go around sweeping the Academy Awards. They just don’t. They usually carry the chick flick stigma and are lucky to get even one Oscar nomination. But in 1934, Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night got more than nominations. It got wins, and in all five major categories: Best Picture (Capra, Harry Cohn), Best Actor (Clark Gable), Best Actress (Claudette Colbert), Best Director (Capra) and Best Screenplay (Robert Riskin).

Such a Big Five Oscar sweep has only been matched twice, by One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) and The Silence of the Lambs (1991), proving it a tough task for any genre, let alone a comedy. But a comedy it was, making It Happened One Night a truly groundbreaking moment in cinema history and an underdog triumph that no one, except Capra and Riskin, saw coming. Continue reading

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The General (1927)

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Close your eyes. Picture a silent film. You’re probably imagining a mustached, bowling-hat-wearing, cane-wielding, penguin-waddling Little Tramp named Charlie Chaplin. That’s because for many years, Chaplin was the icon, the Golden Boy, the star of the history books. But sometime around 1960, a fascinating seachange happened in a large chunk of the academic community. Critical opinion began to shift away from Chaplin and toward another silent comedian. Oh, the scholars of the Hollywood Renaissance still admired Chaplin, sure. But slowly, one by one, they were increasingly drawn to his peer, the so-called “Great Stone Face,” the man who never once showed emotion, and in doing so, became the funniest of them all — Buster Keaton.

Like Chaplin, Keaton wrote, directed, produced and starred in his own films. He directed and starred in his first films in 1917, and was soon creating masterful shorts, like One Week (1920) and The Scarecrow (1920), before graduating to longer works, gems like Our Hospitality (1923), Sherlock Jr. (1924), The Navigator (1924) and Go West (1925). Throughout, he perfected his craft, his comic timing, his understanding of camera, until finally he was ready to make his masterpiece, The General. Continue reading

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Bringing Up Baby (1938)

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“Susan, when a man is wrestling a leopard in the middle of a pond, he’s in no position to run!” When it comes to the screwball comedy, Bringing Up Baby certainly cannot claim it invented it. In fact, it wasn’t even the first for director Howard Hawks, who had previously explored the territory with John Barrymore and Carole Lombard in Twentieth Century (1934). No, Baby was just another in a blooming trend of the new subgenre, following films like W.S. Van Dyke’s The Thin Man (1934), Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night (1934) and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936) and Leo McCarey’s The Awful Truth (1937).

Preston Sturges may have laid the genre’s biggest claim in the period immediately following Baby, in films like Sullivan’s Travels (1941), The Lady Eve (1941) and The Palm Beach Story (1942). But for if you’re looking for the genre’s definitive piece, look no further. There’s a reason the National Film Registry in Washington D.C. selected Bringing Up Baby as its first screwball comedy to archive forever (A). Does it honestly get any screwier than Katharine Hepburn with a pet leopard or Cary Grant as a paleontologist looking for his lost dinosaur bone? Continue reading

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Dracula (1931)

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“Karloff does not deserve to smell my shit! That limey cocksucker can rot in hell for all I care!” So says Martin Landau in his Oscar-winning portrayal of Dracula legend Bela Lugosi in Tim Burton’s Ed Wood (1994). Like the real Lugosi, the character cannot hide his jealousy over the success of Boris Karloff as Frankenstein: “You think it takes talent to play Frankenstein? It’s all makeup and grunting.”

Indeed, his jealousy is rooted in the pains of missed opportunity. For after the success of Dracula in 1931, its Universal producers E.M. Asher and Carl Laemmle Jr. offered Lugosi the title role in Frakenstein (1931). But he turned it down, saying the part was too degrading for a big star like him. The rest is history. Frankenstein became an even bigger success than Dracula, and Karloff launched to superstardom. Meanwhile, Lugosi settled for 103 lesser films, saw his work turn into parody, and ended his life a penniless drug-addict. Still, the fact that Lugosi never escaped Dracula underscores his effectiveness in the role. As Thomson writes of Lugosi, “‘I am Dracula’—his first words were less introduction than assertion.” (B) In the end, it’s better to be remembered for one thing than none at all. Continue reading

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The Grapes of Wrath (1940)

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Part of the power of movies is their ability to provide reference points to various historical events. Rather than read it in a textbook alone, one can forever relate pieces of history to a particular movie, recalling the film’s images and mood each time the historical subject comes up. As for the Great Depression, and the accompanying Dust Bowl of the 1930s, no film is more definitive, or more accurate, than The Grapes of Wrath.

The 1939 source novel by John Steinbeck was an enormous hit, as people read the plight of the Joad family as therapy for their own everyday hardship. When it came to the movies, though, lighter, escapist films were all the rage, and it wasn’t certain how the public would react to such a film about the salt of the earth. Famed producer Darryl F. Zanuck took a chance and bought the rights to the novel for $75,000, and 20th Century Fox released the film the same year the novel won the Pulitzer Prize. It would be Hollywood’s first real attempt to address the Great Depression, and Zanuck wanted to make sure he got it right. Continue reading

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Giant (1956)

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The look and feel of George Stevens’ Giant beckons instant comparisons to Gone With the Wind (1939). Like the latter, Giant was an epic tale of life in the deep south, based off a famous book by a female author, this time Edna Ferber instead of Margaret Mitchell. Its Texas homestead Reata is Tara reimagined, with Rock Hudson a sturdy Rhett Butler, Elizabeth Taylor a less bratty Scarlett, and the films’ scope just as big. Stevens admitted he hardly noticed GWTW’s four-hour length, saying, “I was caught up in it and could have watched even more.” (A) Thankfully, he spared audiences the “more” on Giant, but at some three hours and change, the film lives up to its title. It wasn’t nearly as successful as GWTW — how could it be? But it still was Warner Bros. most successful film up to that point, earning 10 Oscar nominations and correcting GWTW’s most glaring flaw — its racist undertones. Continue reading

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sex, lies & videotape (1989)

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No doubt tired of hearing how he was “the other Steven S-berg”, director Steven Soderbergh decided in the fall of 1987 to pack up and head for California, leaving Baton Rouge with only an LSU film degree, a few short films, TV commercials and a concert-doc to his name. Two weeks before the cross-country trip he devised the concept for sex, lies, and videotape, of which he wrote the final draft during the eight-day drive to L.A. Shooting on location in Baton Rouge for just five-weeks on a $1.2 million budget, the film scored exponentially, grossing $25 million domestically on its way to becoming one of the most successful independent films of all time.

Cracking the $100 million barrier worldwide, the film not only gave Miramax its first big financial success, but it more importantly revived the four-year-old annual Sundance Film Festival, which at the time was struggling to keep afloat. Soderbergh’s film came in and tore the roof off, winning the award for Most Popular Film and launching a period of prosperity for the festival to the point of entering the TV market in 1996 with The Sundance Channel, an outlet for sex, lies, and videotape to play in a loop for all channel surfers to see. Continue reading

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The Fly (1986)

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“Be afraid. Be very afraid.” Aside from being the most famous tagline in movie history, Geena Davis’s quote sums up everything one needs to know about The Fly, except for the much needed warning, “And also be ready to grab your vomit bag.” Indeed, David Cronenberg’s 1986 masterpiece is not for the faint of heart, nor the weak of stomach, living up to the director’s reputation for well-placed gore. It’s as if Cronenberg deserves the title of “gore auteur,” carrying his same fascination with mutated human minds and body parts throughout his work. Look at Rabid (1977), which cast porn star Marilyn Chambers as a vampire with an impaling device in her armpit; The Brood (1979), documenting the attacks of mutated children; Stephen King’s The Dead Zone (1983), on the subject of psychic powers; and the masterpiece Videodrome (1983), where a human body comes complete with a virtual reality outlet, not so different from The Matrix (1999). The Fly was a natural next step in this filmography, and lucky for us, it is so much more than its stomach-turning premise. Continue reading

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The Great Escape (1963)

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Pop in any MGM DVD these days and you’ll see a quick collection of some of history’s most famous movie images — Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lectar in a straight jacket, Sylvester Stallone running the Rocky steps, Marilyn Monroe blowing a kiss. And right there in their midst, catching your eye is a spectacular stunt in the most famous scene of The Great Escape — Steve McQueen jumping his motorcycle over a barbed wire fence.

Needless to say McQueen rode that bike into immortality. How fitting that Escape be directed by John Sturges, whose name evokes the famed Sturgis bike rally, for these are the people who love his movies. If George Cukor was the proud maker of women’s pictures, Sturges made them for men. Not that women don’t enjoy them (I know some who love them), but these are films about macho camaraderie — Gunfight at the OK Corral (1957), The Magnificent Seven (1960) and The Great Escape. All three are great pictures sporting the chiseled faces of Lancasters, Bronsons and McQueens. But if one were to choose the emblem of Sturges’ career, it’s gotta be Escape, ranking #40 on Men’s Journal’s 50 Best Guy Movies and #27 on Maxim Magazine’s 100 Greatest Guy Movies Ever Made. Continue reading

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The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)

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How is a piece of pop culture born? Man writes novel in 1927. Director adapts novel to film in 1948. A young Mel Brooks sees that film, considers it his favorite of all time, and homages it in Blazing Saddles (1974). All of a sudden, characters in everything from The Simpsons to Friends, UHF to the WWF, are all repeating the same defiant line: “Badges? We ain’t got no badges. We don’t need no badges! I don’t have to show you any stinkin’ badges!”

One of the most fun-to-quote lines in pop culture history, “badges” fittingly comes from one of the most fun-to-watch films in cinema history. With The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, director John Huston was able to take the monumental themes of Von Stroheim’s Greed (1924) and Chaplin’s The Gold Rush (1925) and create something that was both thrilling and profound. Few films have so successfully combined such adventure, humor and fable all into one. Even fewer have had such an impact on future filmmakers, like Paul Thomas Anderson, who watched it every night while writing There Will Be Blood (2007). The reclusive and mysterious novelist B. Travers, who wrote the source material, would have been proud to see the legacy of Huston’s faithful adaptation. Continue reading

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The Public Enemy (1931)

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1931 was the year of the “genre film” in American cinema. It was a time when the silent era was folding and in its place emerged a new studio system full of specialization. Just as studios broke down production into a series of categories (writers, editors, directors), so they also did their product, finding genre niches to appeal to very targeted audiences. The most famous of these were the horror film at Universal, riding the success of Dracula (1931) and Frankenstein (1931), and the gangster picture over at Warner Bros., building a brand of fast-talkers, dirty coppers and bullet-riddled set pieces.

It was in this environment that producer Daryl F. Zanuck brought us two gangster classics at roughly the same time, Little Caesar (1930) and The Public Enemy. Both were huge successes in their day and would become seminal films in the gangster canon, eventually placed back to back on AFI’s Top 10 Gangster Films. But The Public Enemy carries its own unique reputation, simply for its establishment of the studio most identified with the genre, and the man most synonymous with the genre, who with one smash of a grapefruit went from unknown to gangster superstar.
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Little Caesar (1930)

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It’s 1930. American morale has been crushed by the Great Depression. People are out of jobs, deflated, flat. Yet onto the movie screen walks this gangster — an ambitious, proactive, fast-talking son of a bitch, and he electrifies the viewing public. Edward G. Robinson in Little Caesar was more than just a fine performance. It marked a seachange in American film, making room for edgier presentations and defining a new genre in the gangster picture. From then on, American film culture would include the anti-hero, chasing an American Dream represented by a big desk and modern architecture, usurping the power of those who’ve come before but gone soft, and following a tragic career path “starting in the gutter and ending there.” Continue reading

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Doctor Zhivago (1965)

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“In a land of guns and ice, there is the great sound of battle and the greater silence of lovers.”

For a good thirty years, David Lean’s Doctor Zhivago was unanimously hailed as one of the biggest and best British productions ever made. Its box office release remains the No. 8 highest grossing in history (adjusted for inflation). At the 1988 People’s Choice Awards, its theme song, Maurice Jarre’s “My Love (Lara’s Theme),” was voted Favorite All-Time Motion Picture Score. And in 1997, the film ranked a powerful No. 39 on the AFI’s original Top 100 list.

But around the turn of the millennium, and interesting phenomenon occurred, as Warren Beatty’s Reds (1981), a similar romantic epic set against a Bolshevik Revolution backdrop, began swapping places with Zhivago on most every best list. Today, Zhivago has completely dropped off the AFI Top 100 and does not even place in the AFI’s Top 10 Epics, where Reds ranks No. 9. It does, however, still carry weight with the romantics out there, who voted the film No. 7 on AFI’s 100 Passions. And in that realm, the film will never go away. Continue reading

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Requiem for a Dream (2000)

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In that new crop of promising young filmmakers, from Christopher Nolan to David Fincher, Paul Thomas Anderson to Wes Anderson, there’s a special spot reserved for Darren Aronofsky. He broke onto the scene with his theological sci-fi thriller Pi (1998), baffled critics with his overly-ambitious The Fountain (2006), resurrected the career of Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler (2008) and, if you ask me, should have been awarded the Best Director Oscar for the harrowing Black Swan (2011). But no matter what else Aronofsky does from here, it’s going to be pretty hard to top Requiem for a Dream, a film so intense it hits you like a mack truck, wrecks you for days and makes you want to go curl up in the fetal position like so many of its tragic characters. Continue reading

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Rebel without a Cause (1955)

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“Dream as if you’ll live forever. Live as if you’ll die today.” Survey any college dorm and you’ll find those words written on a poster, superimposed over an image of James Dean, his red coat with popped collar, white t-shirt underneath, greased-up hair, cigarette in hand. The irony of this, of course, is that most of these people have probably never seen a James Dean movie. So how does such pop culture thrive?

Youth continue to follow Dean for what he stood for, this definition of teen angst, confusion and unbottled rebellion. He represented a new type of male, a guy who could pull off toughness with quirky, feminine mannerisms, who could be innately sexy but entirely mysterious. A man who just by gazing into his sad eyes, spoke volumes about a disenchanted youth. And yes, a man who would become a martyr for all this, dying in that tragic road accident at age 24, just five months after the release of his debut film. For that, Elia Kazan’s adaptation of John Steinbeck’s East of Eden (1955), Dean earned the first posthumous Oscar nomination in Academy Awards history. And the first Dean film to be released after his death, a month after his death actually, was Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause, the film that would become the most synonymous with Dean himself for its classic images — Dean writhing in anguish at a police station desk; making mischievous “moo” sounds during a class field trip; exploding in anger at his parents: “You’re tearin’ me apart!”; softly asking Natalie Wood if she wants to “explore the other rooms” and crying “no bullets” at the tragic conclusion. Continue reading

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Shane (1953)

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When people speak of heroes riding off into the sunset, Shane is exactly the stuff they’re talking about, the stuff icons are made of, that echoing, teary-eyed call of young Brandon de Wilde to his parting hero on horseback headed for the horizon: “Shaaaaaaane! Come baaaaaaack!” Beyond an unforgetatble quote of affection (voted #47 all-time by AFI), the call echoes a yearning within us viewers for the lost age of heroes, for the freedom and promise of the frontier, for those heroes who could ride into the picture, solve great moral problems in two hours, and then ride out again. George Stevens’ Shane represents the very best of its kind. It’s a fable of a film, embedding a strong moral message that “a gun is only as good or as bad as the man using it,” all the while shaping movie icon out of western myth. Continue reading

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The Big Lebowski (1998)

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The Coen Brothers wrote The Big Lebowski about the same time as their Golden Palm winner Barton Fink (1991), and though they wanted to film it before Fargo (1996), they had to hold off because Jeff Bridges was tied up in Walter Hill’s Wild Bill and John Goodman was busy taping episodes for TV’s Roseanne. Instead, they went ahead on Fargo, an ultimate Oscar-winning success that legitimized the Coens as Hollywood power players. As a result, Lebowski became their much anticipated follow-up, premiering at the Sundance Film Festival in Jan. 1998 to critics’ underwhelment. Peter Howell of the Toronto Star wrote, “It’s hard to believe that this is the work of a team that won an Oscar last year for the original screenplay of Fargo,” and true to such reviews, Lebowski earned not a single Oscar nomination.

To this day, it has not yet caught on in the scholarly community of “important” best lists, partly because it was released in 1998 when most of these lists just started coming out. But a changing of the guard is underway, and the next generation (voices like USA Today Pop Candy blogger Whitney Matheson) is beginning to claim this one as a classic. The Big Lebowski has been called “the first cult film of the internet era,” and rightfully so. Voters have voted the film into the IMDB Top 250, and ranked it as high as #25 in the Empire readers poll, exactly one spot ahead of Citizen Kane (1941). Further proof lies in The Lebowski Fest, which began in Louisville, Ky., in 2002, and has since expanded to other cities, where cult fanatics celebrate the film by dressing up like The Dude, The Jesus and the rest of the gang (a la Rocky Horror). In this light, the book by Bill Green, Ben Peskoe, Will Russell and Scott Shuffitt, I’m a Lebowski, You’re a Lebowski (2007), seems a must-own generational handbook. Continue reading

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Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

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When the fourth installment of Indiana Jones “nuked the fridge,” many claimed that Steven Spielberg had jumped his own Jaws shark. Then again, the Raiders films always walked that line. Look no further than The Temple of Doom (1984), where Harrison Ford, Spielberg’s future wife, and that shrimp from The Goonies safely parachuted thousands of feet in an inflatable raft. Yet the real trick of these films was always the ability to push that envelope just far enough, then rein it in with a popcorn concoction of compelling characters, self-deprecating humor, and action quests of childlike wonder.

The older I get, the more I realize how ridiculous the Raiders films are, but the more I’m convinced they work. Perhaps it’s just the kid in me who never got over his whip-cracking, boyhood desires. But the real reason is Spielberg’s own ability to view the world through a child’s eyes. Along with Star Wars and Back to the Future, Raiders is the ultimate franchise to watch as children — or with your children. For every dose of implausible action to dazzle the kids, there’s an equal bit of tongue-in-cheek humor to enthrall adults. The minute Indy stops a sword-wielding goon by casually shooting him, or a Nazi enforcer folds a potential weapon into a clothes hanger, we realize Spielberg is in on the joke. Action done straight is often unbelievable, but action with a twist of humor is a damn good time. Continue reading

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Nashville (1975)

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Picture a movie that runs nearly three hours, has no conventional plotline and 24 different major characters and you have Nashville. Robert Altman’s masterpiece may be the most ambitious movie ever made and it’s one that’s admittedly hard to “get,” and intentionally made that way. First viewings may bring calls of “rambling,” “pointless” or “boring,” mirroring quite accurately the initial reactions of many in 1975. Nashville was not a box office success by any means, making a measly $9 million, and even the most distinguished of critics admitted to falling asleep during it on the first go-round.

But the film always had its fighters — Siskel and Ebert both called it the best film of 1975 — and over the years Nashville’s reputation has grown thanks to the admiration of such supporters. Most telling is the film’s rise from no spot on the AFI’s original Top 100 in 1997, all the way to #59 in 2007. A similar phenomenon can be said about Altman himself, who did not receive a single Oscar until his Lifetime Achievement Award in 2006. Together, Altman and Nashville are made for eachother, by eachother, both initially off-putting, unashamedly maverick, and gradually more appreciated the more they are studied. Few films capture their era better, and even fewer have had the power to ring true over the years. Continue reading

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Notorious (1946)

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Alfred Hitchcock was the best of the best, a shoe-in for MovieMaker Magazine’s Most Influential Director of All Time. So it’s no wonder that Roger Ebert, in selecting his own All Time Top 10, would include a Hitchcock film. Contrary to what you might expect, it was not Psycho (1960). Nor was it Vertigo (1958), Rear Window (1954), North By Northwest (1959), Frenzy (1972), Rebecca (1940), or The Birds (1963). No, for Ebert it was Notorious, the very same film that Turner Classic Movies host Robert Osbourne calls his favorite Hitchcock.

What is it about the magic of this film? Is it because it’s the first time Hitch realized the benefit of major stars, bringing us the Oscar-nominated support of Claude Rains and the dream pairing of Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman? Is it because it’s the first time Hitch discovered the benefit of great dialogue, thanks to an Oscar-nominated script by Ben Hecht? Or is it because it marks the moment Hitchcock began financing his own pictures for the rest of his career? I say it’s all these at once, a perfect storm for Hitchcock’s first major masterpiece, building off his work in The 39 Steps (1939), Rebecca (1940) and his personal favorite, Shadow of a Doubt (1942), to assemble his first major flourish of auteur iconography (those elements which we recognize as undeniably Hitchcock). Continue reading

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Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989)

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Throughout history, the very greatest filmmakers, each of a different niche, always seem to attempt at least one master tragedy. For Alfred Hitchcock, it was Vertigo (1958). For Orson Welles, it was Citizen Kane (1941). And for Woody Allen, it was the unique Crimes and Misdemeanors. The film is tragedy in the real sense of the word, not its common use to describe a disaster or catastrophe. This is tragedy like the Greeks meant it, where a character has a choice between impulse (what he wants to do) and imperative (what he should do), and after that choice, realizes that all suffering caused is his own doing. And in each case, the tragedy provides the most frutiful ground for the filmmaker’s deepest dive into his own subconscious.

The fact that Allen is a far more comedic filmmaker than either of the aforementioned directors only adds to the mystique of Crimes and Misdemeanors. The film remains a comedy of manners in the truest Allen form, featuring themes consistent to his career, several afflicted relationships and a number of trademark one-liners — Cliff’s Statue of Liberty joke, or his sister describing a disgustingly-kinky encounter. But beneath the laughs lies Allen’s darkest movie, and also his deepest. If by the auteur theory, one can follow a filmmaker’s career with an almost narrative arc, Crimes and Misdemeanors would be Allen’s crescendo, achieving the height of his expression of his deepest concerns — the uncertain nature of relationships, the mind-body complex and its ability to warp morals, and the somewhat answerless quest for the meaning of life. Continue reading

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Swing Time (1936)

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When many of us think Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, we think of them dancing “Cheek to Cheek” across that Art Deco set in Top Hat (1935). But while that flick may be more famous, the only Astaire-Rogers picture to make the AFI’s Top 100 list is Swing Time. And upon further review, the latter may very well contain the best collection of dances in the entire series.

Released just a year after Top Hat, Swing Time follows a generally similar plotline. This time, talented “hoofer” Lucky Garnett (Astaire) is set to marry Margaret Watson (Betty Furness), but is deemed too poor by her father, Judge Watson (Landers Stevens, father of the film’s director, George Stevens). The father’s challenge: Lucky will go to New York City and, through a little tapdancing and a lot of gambling, win the necessary $25,000 to pay the dowry. Continue reading

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Top Hat (1935)

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He gave her class, she gave him sex appeal. He got most of the clout, and she did everything he did, only backwards in high heels. As long as there are movies, there will never be a better dancing duo than Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Of the nine films they did together between 1933-1949, two have risen to masterpiece status: Swing Time (1936), recently claiming a spot on the AFI’s Top 100 Films, and their most iconic of all, Top Hat, ranked #15 on the AFI’s 25 Greatest Musicals of All Time. Together, they are masterworks in the realm of romantic comedy musicals, released by RKO a year apart, produced by Pandro S. Berman, co-written by Allan Scott, photographed by David Abel and touched by the Oscar-nominated genius of Hermes Pan, choreographer on Top Hat and dance director on Swing Time. Even if you don’t like musicals or know a thing about dance, these are two pieces of American culture that you must experience in your short time on this earth. And if you’ve never seen any, start with Top Hat. Continue reading

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Touch of Evil (1958)

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When it comes to the history of film noir, most scholars will put the period roughly between 1941-1958. There is some discrepency as to the true start of noir — does a detective story like The Maltese Falcon (1941) immediately constitute noir? Or does it not have more to do with femme fatales, shadows and night journeys? Is Double Indemnity (1944) not a more accurate starting point? The debate can linger on the starting point, but there is no dispute about the other bookend — Orson Welles’ masterpiece Touch of Evil.

It’s fitting that Welles be the one to cap the movement, as it was he who pioneered many elements critical to noir expression. As Alain Silver and Elizabeth Ward write in Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style (2003), “The seminal impact of the Welles/Gregg Toland collaboration on Citizen Kane (1941) gave later directors, cinematographers, and designers access to a wide range of previously unproven visual methods.” Welles’ memorable performance in Carol Reed’s noir masterpiece The Third Man (1949) continued his hand in the movement, and nearly a decade later, he would close the era with his own, highly-stylized “touch of noir.” Continue reading

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Patton (1970)

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Many biopics are good (i.e. Ray; Walk the Line), but few become great (i.e. Lawrence of Arabia; Schindler’s List). The real-life human story is almost always spectacular — why else would Hollywood turn it into a movie? — but something usually lacks, either in a script that can’t keep up with the true story, or in a performance that can’t keep up with the real-life popular figure. In Patton, it’s safe to say that all these things are spot on, the screenplay masterfully co-written by Francis Ford Coppolla and the lead part played by a never-better George C. Scott, who in his career performance actually becomes four-star General George Patton, the “only Allied general truly feared by the Nazis” during WWII.

Producer Frank McCarthy, former Secretary of the War Department General Staff, actually knew Patton during the war, after which it took him 19 years to get the film made. He had first tried in 1951, six years after Patton’s freak car accident death in Germany, but Patton’s widow nixed the idea, carrying a grudge against the media, whom she felt was the cause of many of Patton’s career problems. Indeed, throughout the movie, newspapers are depicted as printing many controversial things Patton said “off the record.” After she died, the children also blocked the project, pushing it all the way until 1970 before the picture could be made. In the end, McCarthy’s production battle brought him complete vindication, earning seven Oscars, including one for himself — Best Picture. Continue reading

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American Beauty (1999)

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In the discussion of strong vs. transparent filmmakers, the conventional wisdom seems to be that the strong have become a relic of the past. Sam Mendes is one of those rare exceptions, or at least he thus far appears to be. With a string of efforts including Road to Perdition (2002), Jarhead (2005) and Revolutionary Road (2008), Mendes has made quite the name for himself. And yet, it’s hard to imagine how he will ever top his debut, American Beauty, which beckoned today’s audiences to “look closer” in a way they are not asked often enough.

As a result, the film dominated the Academy Awards in a way first-time directors can only dream, winning five — Best Actor (Kevin Spacey), Best Director (Mendes), Best Original Screenplay (Alan Ball), Best Cinematography (Conrad L. Hall) and Best Picture (Bruch Cohen, Dan Jinks). It was the first non-historical epic to win Best Picture in eight years, (A) and it’s easy to see why. Has there been another film in recent years that has inspired such simultaneous hope and lament for a self-critical America? Continue reading

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2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

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Stanley Kubrick was a wizard among men. He always sought to portray himself as larger-than-life, relocating to a secluded estate in Britain after 1961, and fancying himself as uniquely endowed, able to see life truths and spiritual connections that others could not. Maybe he could, and this would be his biggest asset. Or, maybe he couldn’t, his own pretentiousness ultimately becoming his fatal flaw. Most scholars want to believe the former, placing his crowning achievement, 2001: A Space Odyssey, as high as #15 on AFI’s Top 100 Films and #6 on BFI’s Sight & Sound Critics Poll, the mother of all “serious” lists. It’s these forces that wish to crown Kubrick as a visionary, who not only thought out of the box, but lived outside of it.

But there is a divide, even if a small one, in the scholarly community as to Kubrick’s merits. It’s unanimous that he has produced some of history’s biggest films, from The Killing (1956) to Paths of Glory (1957), Spartacus (1960) to Dr. Strangelove (1964), A Clockwork Orange (1971) to Barry Lyndon (1975), The Shining (1980) to Full Metal Jacket (1987). But some academics resent Kubrick’s self-righteous suggestion that he was himself levels above everyone else, that he could in two-plus hours explain to us not only the origins and destination of the human race, but indeed also the very meaning of life. Continue reading

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The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

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Forget the cultural staples, the straightjackets, the lotion in the basket, the fava beans and the nice Chianti. From a purely historical standpoint, The Silence of the Lambs will forever stand out for two amazing achievements.

The first is its place as one of only three films to ever sweep the “Big Five” Oscar categories — Best Actor (Anthony Hopkins), Best Actress (Jodie Foster), Best Screenplay (Ted Tally), Best Director (Jonathan Demme) and Best Picture (Edward Saxon, Kenneth Utt, Ronald Bozman). The only other two to have accomplished that feat are Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night (1934) and Milos Forman’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975). At the current rate, it won’t be repeated for another 20 years.

Still, Lambs’ other historical accomplishment may be the more impressive of the two — its place as the first and last horror film to win Best Picture. Okay, so you could argue that it’s not technically horror. Every so often, a scary crime thriller will come along like The Silence of the Lambs and Se7en (1995) that blurs the line. Is Halloween (1978) not also a crime thriller in its own way? Aren’t all slasher movies with a police component crime thrillers? Maybe the phrase should be that Lambs is the first and last horror-related film to win Best Picture. Just because it’s more well-rounded doesn’t mean it is any less of a horror film. Perhaps the true description should then be: a horror movie done right. Continue reading

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Days of Heaven (1978)

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After storming onto the scene with Badlands (1973), writer-director Terrence Malick made his second feature — Days of Heaven — and then disappeared for 20 years. The hiatus only served to heighten the myth behind the film and its mysterious director.

Imagine the buzz around a maverick filmmaker who makes two masterpieces then goes unheard of for decades. This was Malick’s elusive M.O. for the rest of the ’70s, the entire ’80s, and most of the ’90s — a master of his medium who answers to no one.

For a long time, Days of Heaven remained the only recent work his fans could turn to, and thus deserves much of the credit for Malick finally getting an Oscar nomination for The Thin Red Line (1998) and winning the Palme d’Or for The Tree of Life (2011). It was the build-up of respect. Continue reading

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Don’t Look Now (1973)

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How many movies can simultaneously turn you on, move you to tears and scare you to death? Don’t Look Now excels on all three fronts, featuring one of cinema’s most famous sex scenes, one of its most touching family tragedies and one of its most horrific climaxes. To juggle all three is the work of a master, Nicolas Roeg, a 23-year veteran of the British film industry by the time he made his debut film, the Mick Jagger vehicle Performance (1970).

In that time, Roeg trained under some of Britain’s best, working up from second unit photography for David Lean on Lawrence of Arabia (1962) to lead cinematographer for Roger Corman’s The Masque of the Red Death (1964), Francois Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451 (1966), John Schlesinger’s Far From the Maddening Crowd (1967) and Richard Lester’s Petulia (1968). It was all practice for the moment where he would leave his own mark on film history, Don’t Look Now, using his title to warn audiences not to look, yet creating a story so gripping we’re forced to watch through parted fingers. Continue reading

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Amelie (2001)

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“Luck is like the Tour de France. You wait, and it flashes past you. You have to catch it while you can.” So says Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s tour-de-force “Amelie,” a film for which the timing couldn’t have been better. The film was already a hit in Europe, but didn’t arrive in the U.S. until just after 9/11. Critic Joshua Klein called it, “The right movie at the right time” and the film’s quirky optimism was received “not as mindless escapism but as a fantastic and idealized respite from the horrors and rigors of the real world.” (A) As a result, every magazine went nuts over it, until nearly a decade later, Amelie ranked #2 in Empire’s 100 Best Films of World Cinema, nudging past Bicycle Thieves (1948) and Battleship Potemkin (1925), and landing behind only The Seven Samurai (1954). Continue reading

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Aguirre: The Wrath of God (1972)

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There may be no more fascinating personality in the history of movies than Werner Herzog. To watch an interview with him is to tilt your head to the side and grin in complete amusement. I am constantly amazed by the stuff he says and the stories he tells – shooting on a 35mm film camera he stole from his film school; directing actors at gunpoint behind the camera; hauling an actual ship up a mountainside because it looks more realistic than special effects; and getting shot at during an interview, only to continue the interview as if nothing happened.

For all of this, Herzog the personality may overshadow Herzog the filmmaker, but his body of work stands with the best of ‘em. Be it narratives like Woyzeck (1979) and Fitzcarraldo (1982) or documentaries like Grizzly Man (2005) and Encounters at the End of the World (2007), Herzog has proven one of history’s most prolific filmmakers with a career now in its sixth decade since founding his own production company in 1963. If you had to pick out one of his films as his most powerful, his most accomplished, his most important, it has to be Aguirre: The Wrath of God, his first international success and a landmark of the New German Cinema. Continue reading

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The Last Laugh (1924)

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After scholar Gerald Mast’s overwhelming praise in A Short History of the Movies, I decided to check out The Last Laugh (1924) for myself. I must say, it’s everything Mast said it was, and more. The film assembles the best filmmakers that ‘20s Germany had to offer – director F.W. Murnau (Nosferatu), producer Erich Pommer (Metropolis), screenwriter Carl Mayer (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari), cinematographer Karl Freund (Metropolis), production designers Walter Rohrig and Robert Herlth (Destiny) and lead actor Emil Jannings (The Blue Angel). It also comes just two years after Murnau’s first big success, Nosferatu (1922), so some might read the opening title card as Murnau’s own fear that his sudden fame could be temporary – “One day you are preeminent, respected by all. … But what will you be tomorrow?”

While these words provide the theme for the rest of the film, the title card itself is the last until the epilogue. What bravery by Murnau to make a silent film without title cards! The decision reflects his desire to show rather than tell, which should be the goal of all filmmakers. It was this decision that forced Murnau to push the limits of both the moving and subjective camera — techniques that fit perfectly into the Kammerspiel subset of the German Expressionist movement. Rather than the more visually expressionistic style often equated with the movement (hard shadows, distorted sets, exaggerated furniture), the Kammerspiel films were more psychologically expressionistic and geared toward fewer characters. Continue reading

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The Grand Illusion (1937)

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When it comes to American audiences embracing international cinema, Jean Renoir’s La Grand Illusion (1937) may have been more important than any other film to date. It was the first foreign film ever to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture — and should have won over Capra’s You Can’t Take It With You (1938). Even to this day, the film carries a certain allure, leaving traces in everything from The Great Escape (1963) to Hogan’s Heroes (1965) to The Shawshank Redemption (1994) and joining Fellini’s 8 ½ (1963) as the only foreign language films to make the WGA’s list of the 101 Greatest Screenplays (2005). Indeed, The Grand Illusion is a masterpiece most filmmakers be proud to hang their hats on as their crowning achievement. What a testament that for Renoir, who followed two years later with The Rules of the Game (1939), it’s just a close second. Continue reading

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Blow-Up (1966)

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We’ve all seen those segments in Austin Powers where Mike Myers holds swinging ‘60s photo sessions, spitting out “fab” instructions almost as fast as he snaps photos of his beautiful female subjects. If you’ve ever laughed at these scenes, or understand them as part of our collective culture, you’ve felt the long-lasting affect of Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up.

Already a respected auteur of masterpieces like L’Aventurra (1960), Antonioni was signed by producer Carlo Ponti to make three English-language films for MGM, the first of which would become an international classic. Made on a budget of $1.8 million, Blow-Up wound up grossing $20 million (about $120 million today), introducing the world to Antonioni’s signature style and helping open Hollywood’s bedroom door. As Time magazine wrote, Blow-Up “helped liberate Hollywood from its puritanical prurience” , becoming the first British feature film to show full frontal female nudity and containing Premiere magazine’s “sexiest cinematic moment in history.” Continue reading

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Man with a Movie Camera (1929)

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Dziga Vertov’s Man With a Movie Camera (1929) has got to be one of the most endlessly fascinating films ever made. Where else can you find such a textbook example of Soviet montage, experimental narrative and raw documentary all rolled into one? The combination forms the epitome of the “city symphony”, capturing the ongoing dance between the modern man and his machines. How fitting, then, that the film begins with a composite image of a man standing on top of a camera, as if to say mankind has finally achieved the ultimate in technology — the cinema –humanity’s most powerful instrument at capturing its own existence.

Vertov seems determined to strip down the film medium and show how it works from the inside out. From start to finish, the film casts a self-reflective eye on the cinematic process, making us entirely aware of its apparatus (the camera), while exposing a number of filmmaking elements in a sort of cinematic crash course. Continue reading

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Persona (1966)

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“Don’t you think I understand? The hopeless dream of being. Not seeming, but being. In every waking moment aware, alert. The tug of war — what you are with others and who you really are. A feeling of vertigo and a constant hunger to finally be exposed. To be seen through, cut down, even obliterated.”

Such is said of the protagonist in Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, yet it may also be said of the film itself. For while Bergman had been considered a “serious” filmmaker since his pair of 1957 classics The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries, those films were still entirely accessible. Allegorical, yes, but still fairly tidy.

It wasn’t until Persona that Bergman fully satisfied the “hunger to be exposed.” That is, to expose cinema in a self-reflexive way. He saw through it, cut it down, obliterated it. And as Bergman himself wrote in his book Images, “Today I feel that in Persona — and later in Cries and Whispers – I had gone as far as I could go. And that in these two instances when working in total freedom, I touched wordless secrets that only the cinema can discover.” Continue reading

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Sunset Blvd. (1950)

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Call it Billy Wilder’s best; a cautionary tale of celebrity’s dangerous price; and Hollywood’s most daring, cynical and honest look at itself. “Sunset Blvd.” held such a controversial mirror up to the film industry that the original script had to be printed under the code name “A Can of Beans.” When MGM chief Louis B. Mayer saw the picture, he stormed out of the screening and screamed at Wilder, “You bastard! You have disgraced the industry that made you and fed you! You should be tarred and feathered and run out of Hollywood!” (A)

Perhaps Wilder had bitten the hand that fed him, but they were necessary bite marks. So often we see a glorified Hollywood with glamorous red carpets, deep wallets and adoring fans. Rarely do we get a glimpse into the price of fame, until that price has tragically been paid, marked by blood and the flashbulbs of a media circus.

What lies between the glory and the fall? What happens mentally and emotionally to movie stars once they pass their prime and are rejected by the business that created them? What do they do as they’re relegated to spending day after day in the wide-open loneliness of their huge Beverly Hills mansions? This is precisely what Wilder captures in “Sunset Blvd.,” the quintessential Hollywood movie and the quintessential anti-Hollywood movie, poignantly arriving at the tail-end of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Continue reading

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King Kong (1933)

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In the entire history of movies, only a select few are so famous, so engrained in our culture, that we feel as if we’ve seen them, even if many of us haven’t. “King Kong,” directed by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, is one of those movies. Perhaps it’s because every one of us, somewhere or other, has seen a remake, like Peter Jackson’s in 2005, or heard a reference, like Jeff Goldblum’s comment as his car approaches the giant gate of “Jurassic Park” (1993): “What do they got in there, King Kong?”

There is no greater tribute to Kong than the fact that Spielberg paid homage as he rebuilt visual effects in “Jurassic Park” (1993) and Jackson chose it to follow his groundbreaking CGI in “The Lord of the Rings” (2001-2003). But “Kong” is more than just the origin of effects; it’s a cultural staple and legend of Hollywood; the godfather of blockbusters; the birthplace of movie scores; and the standard bearer of adventure, fantasy, horror and romance. Remove it, and movies veer in a vastly different direction.

“I think as a film, ["Kong"] inspired more people to become filmmakers than any other film ever made,” said Peter Jackson, no doubt speaking for himself. “I’m absolutely certain of that fact.” In this light, one can view “Kong” in one of two ways. It opened Pandora’s box to a special effects mindset of years of movie magic, but which, left in the wrong hands, has threatened to kill it. Continue reading

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The Graduate (1967)

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“I’ve had this feeling ever since I’ve graduated, this kind of compulsion that I have to be rude all the time, you know what I mean? It’s like I’ve been playing some kind of game but the rules don’t make any sense to me. They’re being made up by all the wrong people.”

The power of “The Graduate” can be summed up in two images. The first is Benjamin lying in the pool, post-graduation, trying to decide what to do in life. We’ve all been there, that coming-of-age feeling of a “quarter-life crisis,” uncertain about our future.

The second is the famous shot under Mrs. Robinson’s leg. In one shot, “The Graduate” opened Hollywood’s bedroom door, planting the seeds for phrases like “MILF” and “cougar” and paving the way for so many sex comedies to come, from “American Pie” to “Desperate Housewives.” If you think such material shocks audiences today, imagine the impact in 1967.

Together, this combo of coming-of-age politics and groundbreaking sexual revolution changed the course of movie — and American — history. “The Graduate” taught studio heads that great success could be had by making hipper films targeting younger audiences, marking a demarcation point from the “sword and sandal” epics of the ’50s and early ’60s. Director Mike Nichols played upon the generation gap, flattering youth by depicting adults as materialistic hypocrites, while leading Hollywood down a more socially-relevant path. Continue reading

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Casablanca (1942)

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Watch most any Warner Bros. movie, from “Blazing Saddles” (1974) to “The Shawshank Redemption” (1994), and you’ll see a golden “WB” logo over nostalgic piano notes. These are the notes of “As Time Goes By,” the recurring theme from the film that has made Warner Bros. and all of Hollywood the most proud after 70 years.

“Casablanca” not only won Best Picture upon release, it remains the undisputed champion of Hollywood’s Golden Age and, according to film critic Leonard Maltin, “The best Hollywood movie of all time.” What a magnificent feat for a film that was just one of dozens cranked out by Warner Bros. in 1942, and one of three shot by Warner director Michael Curtiz that year.

Amidst the height of this studio assembly line, somehow all the stars aligned – a powerful cast, an “exotic” soundstage locale, one of the great love songs in music history, the single greatest script ever written, and current-events subject matter pitting romance against the Nazi attempt to take over the world. Continue reading

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Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988)

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“I’m not bad. I’m just drawn that way.” Few lines sum up a movie better than this confession by Jessica Rabbit in “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” Not that the film is drawn poorly. Quite the contrary. The “bad” she speaks of is a delicious naughtiness, a cleverness that emanates from every pore of this wholly original film.

Its presentation may be safe for viewers of all ages, but the idea of combining live action with animation for an entire feature length film was just as dangerous as Jessica’s curves. The technique dates all the way back to the 1920s when it was popularized by Walt Disney’s “Alice” cartoons. Disney revisited it in films like “Song of the South” (1946), “Mary Poppins” (1964) and, after Walt’s death, “Bedknobs and Broomsticks” (1971). Aside from Disney, you may also remember a real-life boy befriending an animated dragon in the children’s favorite “Pete’s Dragon” (1977) and Gene Kelly dancing with Jerry (of Tom and Jerry) in the Oscar-winning “Anchors Aweigh” (1945). But it was Robert Zemeckis and company who redefined the idea with “Roger Rabbit.” Not only did they sustain the technique for the entire feature length, they also designed increasingly complex ways of showcasing their mastery of it, all the while supported by a solid story and noir style that amounts to more than just gimmick. Continue reading

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Laura (1944)

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If you’re a fan of film noir, you should get down on your knees and thank God every day for 1944. The year produced three staples of this most atmospheric of film styles — Billy Wilder’s “Double Indemnity” from a novel by James M. Cain, Edward Dmytryk’s “Murder, My Sweet (Farewell My Lovely)” from a novel by Raymond Chandler, and, of course, Otto Preminger’s haunting whodunit “Laura,” from a novel by Vera Caspary. Of the three, “Double Indemnity” clearly takes the title of “Best Noir of ‘44.” But Preminger’s “Laura” at least gives it a run for its murder-mystery money.

Voted the No. 4 Greatest Mystery of All Time by the AFI, “Laura” features all the classic elements of both the mystery genre and the noir style: shadows, mirrors, a murder investigation, a string of suspects insisting they’re innocence, competing hearts, muddled morality, the looming threat of a femme fatale and a smoking detective who lives by the motto: “Dames are always pulling a switch on you.” Continue reading

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Duck Soup (1933)

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Their careers began over a century ago, as a family vaudeville act in New York. Yet the very mention of the phrase “Marx Brothers” has become cultural shorthand for comic genius and a reminder that good comedy never stales. Yes, they were all actual brothers, and yes, there were as many as five: Groucho, Harpo, Chico, Zeppo and Gummo, though the lattermost left the act before the group started making films in 1926.

In all, the siblings made 16 pictures together through 1957, and as the wisecracking standout, Groucho enjoyed a solo career that stretched into the ’60s. But of all the films they made, none was more influential or more hilarious than their 1933 flop “Duck Soup,” their last at Paramount, and last with Zeppo, a film grossly under-appreciated in its day, but quite simply one of the finest comedies ever made. Continue reading

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A Place in the Sun (1951)

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I was 20 when I fell for Elizabeth Taylor. It was during one of my first internships at The Baltimore Sun, when we heard the actress was on her death bed. Film critic Michael Sragow and multimedia editor Jo Parker had me compile a tribute video, filled with the cheesy transitions of a first-time editor. Thus my first explorations of classic Hollywood came with my first explorations of Taylor. I was a sucker for those breathless lines and purple eyes, and I quickly realized there was so much more to Taylor than the diamonds and celebrity home-wrecking I’d heard about.

She wound up living for six more years, and it became a running joke at The Sun that my montage was still sitting on the shelf. By the time it finally ran in 2011, giving her “A Place in the (Baltimore) Sun,” I had hoped the day would never come. I had grown totally endeared to her work, such that her passing recalled her teary-eyed farewell to Monty Clift: “It seems like we always spend the best part of our time, just saying goodbye.” Continue reading

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There Will Be Blood (2007)

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In trying to pin down a masterwork by writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson, how does one choose between the crude originality of Boogie Nights (1997), the high-concept complexity of Magnolia (1999) or the lyrical power of There Will Be Blood? The answer: Daniel Day-Lewis.

All three deserve to go down as great films, but There Will Be Blood seems even greater, like the collision of two of modern cinema’s brightest forces, Anderson and Day-Lewis, the impact of which has left us with a sprawling masterpiece. The film is Anderson’s best attempt at social commentary, expanding upon his explorations of modern suburban Los Angeles in Boogie Nights and Magnolia to explore California’s frontier origins and what those roots say about American ideals.

The film is mind-blowingly unique. Time called it “one of the most wholly original American movies ever made.” And once you’ve taken the time to truly digest what you’ve just seen, there’s only one logical conclusion: that Anderson is one of the best, if not the best, young filmmaker out there today. Continue reading

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The Wild Bunch (1969)

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When “The Wild Bunch” arrived in 1969, even the most respected critics were torn over whether Sam Peckinpah had created a masterpiece or an abomination. I fondly recall a story Baltimore Sun critic Michael Sragow told me about the summer of ’69, when he saw “The Wild Bunch” six times in two weeks and wrote a piece to his teacher insisting it was the greatest film ever made. Impressed, the teacher helped Sragow get into NYU film school and become the first regular movie critic for Rolling Stone magazine. Thirty six years later, I discovered the film at Sragow’s behest in 2005, and my affection for it has only grown with multiple viewings.

On the one hand, I envy Sragow and others’ ability to experience “The Wild Bunch” in its full shocking debut, before the world became desensitized to violence. On the other hand, it’s been a privilege to bypass years of controversy over the film’s merits, and view it with the certainty that what I’m witnessing is a masterpiece. How lucky I am not to have seen the Oscar snubbing in 1969. Continue reading

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Gone with the Wind (1939)

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The tale of “Gone With the Wind” starts and ends with one man, producer David O. Selznick. From the very start, he set the highest of standards — to create the biggest, most expensive, most glamorous Hollywood production that history had ever seen. A toxic mixture of genius, megalomaniac, showman and perfectionist, Selznick followed the now controversial advice of his father, a jeweler who had failed at the movie business: “Live beyond your means. It gives you confidence.”

It paid off. Historians estimate that more people have seen “Gone With the Wind” than any other movie in history. That is not to say only living people, but overall people throughout the course of history. “‘Gone With the Wind’ is still the reigning champion as far as all-time most popular movie,” said box office analyst Paul Dergarabedian, who estimates the film has sold 200 million tickets throughout history. “In other words, there have been more butts in movies seats for that movie than any other film in history.” Continue reading

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It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

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For a film that’s become such a fixture in our homes each holiday season, it’s amazing how much Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life still has the ability to shock viewers with the same reaction: “I forgot how dark it is. How serious. How little it actually focuses on Christmas.” Indeed, Capra uses the holidays as a mere framing device for an in-depth character study into one man’s life of disappointment — a kind of film noir with a second chance, a human tragedy with revisionist fantasies.

“Happiness here was pursued by the hounds of living hell; the American Dream was so close to the nightmare,” critic David Thomson writes. “The film that had failed in 1947 had become a token of uplifting fellowship, yet it was a film noir full of regret, self-pity and the temptation of suicide. How could so many people convince themselves that it was cheery?” Continue reading

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The Godfather (1972) / The Godfather Part II (1974)

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Considering their spots atop just about every best list in existence, the idea that “The Godfather” and “The Godfather Part II” are the greatest films ever made may seem more like a sacred truth than something still up for debate. To this day, they remain the only original and sequel to both win the Oscar for Best Picture. And yet, I have still heard an unfortunate few say they don’t get the hype. Too long. Too slow. Too depressing. If you fall into this category, I beg you to reconsider. If you like movies, and their potential to explain the world around us, I promise this is a bandwagon worth joining.

How’s this for an offer you can’t refuse: my promise that by the end of this review, if you truly take the time to read the litany of Coppola’s genius directing techniques and powerful themes, you will finally understand why these movies are so famous, so beloved and so revered. As the late Sidney Lumet said, “They are as close to perfect movies as I think exists.” Continue reading

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All About Eve (1950)

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Bette Davis was Hollywood royalty, so respected that she was named the very first female president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. She was also so independent that she resigned when the Academy wouldn’t let her open the 1942 Oscars to the public and donate the proceeds to British war relief. After her resignation, studio head Darryl F. Zanuck said she would never work in Hollywood again. But there he was, eight years later, signing her to play the lead role of Margo Channing in All About Eve. It was a risky project, untouched for years by studios who were uneasy about its unflattering presentation of showbiz as a world of lying, opportunistic, backstabbing scum. No business like it, indeed.

The film was fittingly released the same year as Sunset Blvd., where Billy Wilder cast just as cynical a lens on the film industry. Thus 1950 will forever stand as the year that show business was its most self-reflexive and its most self-critical. While Sunset Blvd. usually ranks slightly higher on best lists today, it was All About Eve that dominated in 1950, garnering a record 14 Academy Award nominations (tied with Titanic for the most in history) and winning six, including Best Picture (Zanuck), Best Director (Joseph L. Mankiewicz), Best Screenplay (Mankiewicz) and Best Actor (George Sanders). Continue reading

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Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)

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How brilliant a writer is Charlie Kaufman? Brilliant enough to earn three Oscar nominations and contribute three scripts to the Writers Guilds’ 101 Greatest Screenplays of All-Time — all in a span of six years. From 1999-2004, Kaufman single-handedly gave us some of the most imaginative screenplays in the history of movies, from Being John Malkovich (1999), about a puppeteer finding a hidden doorway into the head of actor John Malkovich, to Adaptation. (2002), about twin-brother screenwriters.

Yet as good as those scripts are — and they are phenomenal — Kaufman’s most inventive and touching work has to be Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, a film about ex-lovers who undergo a procedure to erase eachother from their respective memories. If only Jimmy Stewart had that luxury in Vertigo. And yet, Eternal Sunshine is so much more than its original, bittersweet premise. Kaufman layers his gimmick with deep characterization, beautiful themes and wondrous science fiction. Of the three aformentioned scripts to land on the WGA list, Eternal Sunshine ranks the highest at #24, and while the other two did not win Kaufman Oscars, Eternal Sunshine finally did the trick. Continue reading

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Rocky (1976)

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To argue the merits of Rocky as a popular phenomenon seems almost unnecessary, and any plot summary is merely a formality. Everyone and his mother knows the story of Philadelphia down-and-outer Rocky Balboa and his miracle long-shot at boxing’s heavyweight crown. Few films can claim to have been seen, and beloved, by so many. Even those who haven’t seen the film feel as if they have, and everyone, fans and non-fans alike, can instantly call to mind the film’s characters, quotes, music and images. It’s a part of the American experience, an inspiration to millions and the blueprint for so many sports movies to follow.

Unfortunately, the film has become so diluted by pop culture references and endless sequels that watching it today almost feels like an exercise in self-parody. It’s so easy to forget that Rocky, the original, is actually a solid film, however calculated. It’s the source of all our subconscious training montages, an accessible commentary on the working class, the romanticized epitome of the American Dream, a record setter at the box office, the Best Picture of 1976, one of the finest love stories in movie history and the greatest underdog story ever told. Continue reading

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The Searchers (1956)

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“When I first saw The Searchers it was a terrific cowboy and Indian picture,” said Steven Spielberg. “But as I got older and saw The Searchers numerous times, I realized that it had much deeper meanings than that.”

I couldn’t agree more. For me, The Searchers was my “epiphany movie,” where the veil of “normal” movie-watching was lifted to reveal another way of “seeing.” I came to realize why director John Ford is so respected among filmmakers. Why in 2002, MovieMaker Magazine called him one of the Top 5 Most Influential Directors of All Time. Why Entertainment Weekly voted him the #3 greatest of all time. And why Orson Welles always maintained that his Top 3 favorite directors were “John Ford, John Ford, and John Ford.”

What better way for average folks to have their own film theory awakening than a deceptively simple John Wayne western, the type of “Cowboy and Indian” flick your grandfather watched many a Saturday, not knowing that an entirely different language — the language of cinema — was masterfully at work? Continue reading

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Rear Window (1954)

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By the late ’40s, Alfred Hitchcock had made roughly 40 films, and like many great artists, he had become restless in his work. Yearning to stretch the boundaries of a medium he had so clearly mastered, he began what some would call his “experimental phase,” a creative flourish that produced Rope (1948), a film shot in ten long “single takes” to create the illusion of one continuous shot; Dial M for Murder (1954), which dabbled in a 3D technology that allowed Grace Kelly to lift a pair of scissors off the screen; even The Man Who Knew Too Much (1955), where he inserted a Doris Day musical number.

The greatest in this experimental period was, of course, Rear Window. Here, Hitchcock concocted his most original, most challenging concept yet: to create an entire film from one vantage point, the rear window of a Greenwich Village apartment, and in turn, symbolize the very movie-watching experience and director-viewer relationship that made him a legend. Continue reading

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Vertigo (1958)

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There’s a reason Alfred Hitchcock is history’s most respected director among both the critics and the public. It’s because his career epitomizes the essence of this site. The rotund man nimbly walked the tightrope between the academic and the mainstream better than anyone — while so many others looked down and got the spins. He was both a showman and a visionary, making films that celebrate the nail-biting entertainment we love about the movies, yet ones that, upon closer inspection, reveal a deeper understanding of how cinesthetic techniques work wonders on the subconscious. That’s the mark of a true genius.

Now that the dust has settled from all the masterworks — from Psycho to The Birds, Rear Window to Notorious — Hitchcock’s cream has finally risen to the top. When Universal released its “Hitchcock Masterpiece DVD Collection,” Vertigo was the only film to feature the word “Masterpiece” on the cover. When the AFI updated its Top 100 list in 2007, Vertigo leaped 52 spots ahead to No. 9. And when Sight & Sound conducted its latest international critics poll in 2012, Vertigo finally ended Citizen Kane’s 50-year reign as the greatest film of all time. Continue reading

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Citizen Kane (1941)

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“['Citizen Kane'] may be more fun than any other great movie,” wrote Pauline Kael, godmother of all film critics. I have a hunch, however, that your average viewer will agree more with Peter Griffin of “Family Guy:” “It’s a sled. There, I just saved you two long, boobless hours.” Indeed, so many in the mainstream reflect Joey and Rachel in “Friends:” “Have you ever tried to sit through ‘Citizen Kane?’” “I know. It’s really boring, but it’s like a big deal.”

Trust me. “Citizen Kane” is the single most important film for you to understand, because it carries the very DNA required of every film critic, the blueprint for any serious filmmaker and the standard by which scholars judge the “great movies.” Understand this one, and you’ll have unlocked the most challenging end of the film spectrum. You’ll be well on your way to understanding the rest of the listology kings, the art masterpieces and the critical favorites that have mystified you for so long. Continue reading

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The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

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Only a select few films have been called “the most beloved of all time.” Annual TV airings earned the title for “The Wizard of Oz” (1939) and “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946), while box office receipts have made strong cases for “Gone With the Wind” (1939), “The Godfather” (1972) and “Star Wars” (1977). But in the internet age, a new generation of Millenials holds up a new contender: “The Shawshank Redemption.”

Only in today’s culture of rapid film consumption and instant web response could a film like “Shawshank” rise the ranks of reverence to do battle with the listology kings of academic glory. This is why I’m choosing to launch The Film Spectrum with “Shawshank” alongside “Citizen Kane.” In many ways, “Shawshank” has become the “Citizen Kane” of IMDb, with more than half a million viewers flocking to the site to rank the film No. 1. Continue reading

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