Category Archives: Masterpieces

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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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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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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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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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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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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