I’ve been writing this column in the Rhino Times since January of 2002, and I haven’t missed a week. In that time I’ve reviewed a lot of movies, old and new. But it came to me a few months ago that I wanted to compile a list of best or favorite movies, so that I’m on record concerning all the important movies in my life.
This is nearly impossible to do, just from my own memory, because I keep forgetting movies that I like better than many that come more easily to mind. It’s too easy for such a list to be skewed toward very recent films.
So I went to Ranker.com, a site where the Ranker Community upvotes or downvotes entries on all kinds of lists. The one I needed was “The Best Movies of All Time.” But if you go there and compare their list with mine, you’ll find that I have not included most of their entries.
Instead, I used their list as a reminder of movies I might have overlooked. I looked at the first 1200 entries – and was surprised at how far down the list were some of the movies that I think of as among the finest ever made. And, naturally, I’m used to finding movies that I despise listed very high on other people’s lists.
I made several decisions about my own list. First, these aren’t my “favorite movies” because who cares whether a particular film is a favorite of mine? That would be as inane as listing my favorite color, favorite number, and favorite Jolly Rancher flavor. So what?
By the way, I have no favorite color, number, or Jolly Rancher flavor. I don’t know how anybody else can possibly form an emotionally meaningful attachment to any such thing.
Instead, I created a list of movies that I think of as perfect. By “perfect,” I mean that they are complete and don’t have anything in them that annoys me or disappoints me. That means that the Lord of the Rings movies aren’t on there, even though they were beautifully filmed and, mostly, acted, because I really hate the scripts that Peter Jackson used.
Nor is The Sound of Music on my list, because some of the songs are offensively silly and much of the acting is appallingly bad.
Yeah, I know, a lot of people love that movie. But it isn’t going on my list of 120 or so perfect films.
If you compare my list to the Ranker.com list, you can be sure that I noticed all of the first 1200 titles, and any that aren’t on my list were omitted by my deliberate choice.
That’s right, Schindler’s List and Goodfellas didn’t make the cut. Nor did Saving Private Ryan or The Matrix or Back to the Future. Casablanca and Apocalypse Now and Citizen Kane aren’t on my list, either, though I’ve seen them and I know they’re much admired. Just not so much by me. Not perfect.
I thought of breaking my list into categories, like romantic comedy, action, thriller, drama, comedy, sci-fi, etc. But too many movies cross boundaries, and too many boundaries are impossible to define in the first place.
Nor did I want to spend six days flipping the order of preference. Which one is my favorite today? Instead, I’m simply listing them in alphabetical order. That will allow you to quickly find any movie you’re curious about and see whether I included it.
If I didn’t, so what? You liked it better than me, and didn’t mind the thing I thought was a fatal flaw. There’s no point in arguing with me about it – just make your own list! For all I know, the Ranker.com list will make you much happier than mine.
And for all I know, I’ve completely overlooked some truly wonderful movies because they weren’t in Ranker.com’s top 1200 movies and I couldn’t pull them out of my memory.
So here they are, in alphabetical order: Movies that I believe to be perfect, even though I know that some people really hate at least some of the movies I love and admire so much. De gustibus non disputandum est.
Uncle Orson’s List of Perfect Movies
About Time (2013)
The time travel stuff is the engine driving this story – but it’s a love story, and not just between the endearing Domhnall Gleeson and the luminous Rachel McAdams as Tim and Mary. When Tim learns he has inherited his father’s (Bill Nighy’s) secret ability to travel in time and “fix” things, he struggles to use his gift to make things better for everybody – including himself. It takes a lot of tries, but he finally is able to get married to Mary. But what he can’t do is prevent death from striking in his family. This joyful, sad, sweet, painful, glorious celebration of love and life is writer/director Richard Curtis at his best. The movie is occasionally stolen by Tom Hollander as a mad playwright, Joshua McGuire as well-meaning friend Rory, Lydia Wilson as troubled sister Kit Kat, and Richard Cordery as the slightly daft uncle Desmond. Basically, Richard Curtis knows how to create comedy in the midst of intensely real performances, and that requires brilliant casting. You will love everyone in this movie – even the little lost boy.
The Accountant (2016)
Ben Affleck is movingly good in this performance as a freelance accountant who also happens to be an extraordinarily effective hit man. He only loved a few people in his life, and all but one of them are dead when the movie opens. I was expecting a hit-man movie (like The Hitman’s Bodyguard), but instead what we’re given is a beautiful story of an autistic child who is taught by his military father to take care of himself – ruthlessly, when need be. But when he meets Anna Kendrick as a corporate accountant who honestly reported a discrepancy in her company’s books, he likes her; and when he learns that she is going to be murdered, he takes matters into his own hands. This platonic love story is layered deeply, and at the end we realize that a thriller plot has been rewoven as a beautiful tragedy.
Adam’s Rib (1949)
If you ever wonder why Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn became a legendary screen duo, don’t watch Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, which is an awful, on-the-nose, preachy, dated movie. Instead, Adam’s Rib is just as much about changing attitudes toward people of different sorts – but it manages to give equal points to both sides of the war between the sexes. It’s also very, very funny.
The African Queen (1951)
Released the year I was born, this pairing of Humphrey Bogart (romantically linked to Lauren Bacall) and Katharine Hepburn (linked to Spencer Tracy) was still a match made in Hollywood heaven. In a story based on a work by C.S. Forester (Horatio Hornblower), Hepburn, as the spinster sister of a missionary, is stranded in Africa just when the Nazis are trying to push out into British-held colonies. Bogart is a crusty old riverboat pilot who undertakes her rescue, and they fall in love in a heartbreakingly sweet love story. As far as I’m concerned, Casablanca is cold grits compared to this beautiful movie.
All of Me (1984)
Arguably, this is Steve Martin’s best acting performance, as he plays a man whose body is half-inhabited by a dead rich woman (Lily Tomlin) who is trying to transfer her soul into a new body so she can live on past death. It’s easy to forget that most of Lily Tomlin’s performance consists of Steve Martin acting as if Lily Tomlin were controlling half his body. It’s a hilarious comedy and a moving coming-of-age story, and Carl Reiner does a brilliant job of directing. And don’t overlook Richard Libertini as the magical Prahka Lasa, whose powers get the whole plotline rolling.
American Graffiti (1973)
It’s easy to forget that American Graffiti might look like a period piece today, but when George Lucas co-write and directed it, it was set only ten years or so in the past. Years of moronic Star Wars prequels have taught us to regard Lucas as a director with a knack for getting the worst performances ever out of his actors, but in American Graffiti he introduced a whole slew of wonderful actors who did great work for him in this warm and funny high school comedy years before John Hughes took over the genre. Richard Dreyfuss, Ron Howard, Cindy Williams, Mackenzie Phillips, Harrison Ford, Kathleen Quinlan, and even Suzanne Somers show up in this fairly balanced ensemble cast.
An Affair to Remember (1957)
Completely ignore the Warren Beatty/Annette Bening remake Love Affair (1994), because nothing they could do would give those actors the charisma and chemistry of Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr in this iconic love story. This is the movie that was being referenced in Sleepless in Seattle, because it’s the quintessential meet-at-the-top-of-the-Empire-State-Building story. But it’s not just the movie-star power of the leads that makes this story work: It’s the presence of Cathleen Nesbitt as Grandmother Janou that humanizes Cary Grant and gives a real grounding to the love of these famous-for-being-famous characters.
The Apartment (1960)
In case you’re ever wondering why Shirley MacLaine was such a beloved actress for so many years, this is the movie where it all started for her. Jack Lemmon plays C.C. Baxter, a put-upon schmuck who lets higher-ups in his company use his apartment for trysts with their mistresses, while he walks the streets to pass the hours until he can get back in. But when the young woman he has a crush on is jilted in Baxter’s apartment by a heartless Fred MacMurray, she tries to kill herself – and while Baxter tries to save her, his neighbors are sure he is the playboy who has broken her heart. It’s funny and heartbreaking and we fall in love with Shirley MacLaine as Fran Kubelik, right along with C.C. Baxter.
This is the best science fiction movie ever made. Aliens visit Earth, and Amy Adams plays the linguist who is drafted to try to understand their inscrutable “speech.” With Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker along for the ride, we are shown the most brilliantly invented alien species in the history of print and screen sci-fi. But what we are not prepared for, at least not at first, is how deeply personal this movie is, and we can be shattered by the realization that just because you love someone doesn’t mean you can’t lose them; and, more importantly, just because you know you’re going to lose them doesn’t mean you can’t or shouldn’t throw your whole self into loving them. Arrival is smart and it will break your heart.
Bell, Book, and Candle (1958)
This spooky love story about a modern witch who falls in love with a mortal man may have been the inspiration for the TV series Bewitched, but it is much more serious (though it still has plenty of funny moments). With James Stewart as the baffled mortal and Kim Novak as the witch Gillian, we are taken, with Stewart, into the world of modern witches living under the radar in New York City. Jack Lemmon and Ernie Kovacs are funny – and menacing – while Hermione Gingold and Elsa Lanchester feel they have a right to intervene in Gillian’s life.
Beverly Hills Cop (1984)
This isn’t just Eddie Murphy’s star turn as a Detroit cop who gets involved in trying to solve a murder in Beverly Hills – it’s also a great vehicle for Judge Reinhold and John Ashton as the hapless policemen assigned to keep tabs on him. Still funny after all these years – and the “Axel F” theme is still one of the best movie themes ever composed. This is where we first saw Bronson Pinchot as Serge, the funny foreign guy. He later parlayed his success here into the TV series Perfect Strangers (1986-1993).
Penny Marshall directed this amazingly good story of a prepubescent boy who wishes to be big – grownup enough that he can do what he wants. But when his wish is granted, and he grows up as a full-sized human who needs to shave, he is terrified – completely unprepared to cope with the adult world. David Moscow played Young Josh and, as he did in Forrest Gump, Tom Hanks was able to create an adult-sized version of the character created by an excellent child actor. Elizabeth Perkins as the woman trying to understand this naive and lovely man, and Jared Rushton as the only person who knows the truth about him, make this a wonderful ensemble movie that transcends its gimmick. My favorite quote: “What’s fun about that?”
The Breakfast Club (1985)
John Hughes took a quintet of kids stuck in Saturday detention and turned their stories into a social manifesto. When it ends with Simple Minds singing “Don’t You Forget About Me,” it makes you want to be kind to everybody forever.
Broadcast News (1987)
Holly Hunter is at her most delightful playing a neurotic TV news producer who has an obsessive need to control everything. William Hurt plays the not-too-bright newsman who finds her baffling but attractive, and even though she knows that Albert Brooks (as Aaron Altman) is exactly the kind of intellectual heavyweight that she should fall in love with, she ends up drawn to the overly handsome, vain studmuffin. Albert Brooks’s flop-sweat scene is one of the funniest things ever filmed, and if writer/director James L. Brooks thinks of this as his masterpiece, I’m not going to argue with him.
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)
A timeless western about two real-life bank- and train-robbers whose careers ran headlong into the 20th century, which pretty much ruined everything. Funny and moving, with a script by William Goldman and music by Burt Bacharach, everything about this movie is wonderful – including the main cast of Paul Newman, Robert Redford, and Katharine Ross.
The Canterville Ghost (1944)
World War II was still very much in progress when this movie, based on a story by Oscar Wilde, placed Robert Young as an American soldier quartered with his men in a haunted English castle. It turns out that he is descended from the family of the ghost (Charles Laughton), and only he has the power to end the curse by proving himself to be the first courageous offspring of a family of notorious cowards. Margaret O’Brien is on hand to show you what a great child actor looks like.
Captain Blood (1935)
Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland lead the cast of the original pirate movie. Based on the excellent novel by Rafael Sabatini, Captain Blood is the story of a physician enslaved as punishment for having given medical treatment to a rebel in Ireland. With a military past, he has the skills in combat and languages to hold his own with pirates, but his real challenge is to win the heart of the daughter of the tyrant who first owned him on the Caribbean island of Barbados.
Cast Away (2000)
There are other actors in this movie, most notably Helen Hunt at the beginning and end, but most of the movie consists of Tom Hanks and a rather taciturn volleyball named Wilson. Tom Hanks is one of the rare actors who is up to such a challenge, and I love this movie for its evocation of the power of hope to overcome loneliness.
Darkest Hour (2017)
Gary Oldman earned the Best Actor Oscar for his brilliant depiction of Winston Churchill, but writer Anthony McCarten should also have won for his true-to-character adaptation of real historical events into a largely trustworthy movie. He was able to make English politics reasonably intelligible to an American audience, which is an achievement indeed. Meanwhile, Gary Oldman is joined in brilliance by such actors as Kristin Scott Thomas as Churchill’s wife Clemmie, Ben Mendelsohn as King George VI, and above all Lily James as the typist Elizabeth Layton, through whose eyes we see many of the events of the movie.
Deep Impact (1998)
In the year of two comet-hitting-Earth movies, Armageddon won the box-office, but Deep Impact was, by an infinite margin, not only the better movie, but also a perfect one. Mimi Leder directed a powerful script by Bruce Joel Rubin and Michael Tolkin, in which the astronauts sent to blow up the comet win our hearts in their tragic-sacrifice portion of the movie, while Téa Leoni, Elijah Wood, Maximilian Schell, and Leelee Sobieski give us a full range of how Earthbound folks bear the certainty of the end of the world. Téa Leoni has a career full of wonderful work, but this may be her best performance; and Elijah Wood’s performance is far better – and better guided – than was his work in Lord of the Rings.
John Boorman has directed some movies that I love, even though they’re very imperfect; Deliverance, with a script by James Dickey, adapting his own novel, is in my opinion Boorman’s most perfect film. It’s also a film in which Burt Reynolds was finally able to share the screen with serious actors like Jon Voight and Ned Beatty, and show us that he really could act. This backwoods horror story has a great score, including “Dueling Banjos,” but the heart of the movie is facing death in a hostile wilderness.
Die Hard (1988)
Despite the decorations, this is not a Christmas movie. This lone-cop-in-a-captured-building thriller set the bar for its many imitators, and yet it remains the best of the genre it created. It’s also one of Bruce Willis’s finest moments – and the film that first brought Alan Rickman to a wide audience.
Donnie Darko (2001)
This strange movie ends up with a deeply satisfying if tragic ending, as Jake Gyllenhaal plays a kid who is troubled by terrible dreams – or are they? – of a freak accident that puts an airplane engine right on his bed. Writer/director Richard Kelly managed to be strange without being incoherent, but perhaps his ambition was to rid himself of conspiracy, because this is the only movie he’s made that I wanted to see. None of that matters – this story is as full of eccentrics as, say, Napoleon Dynamite, and yet we are carried farther into some pretty dark and scary places.
Driving Miss Daisy (1989)
Morgan Freeman, before he began playing presidents and God, made us understand the patience of pre-Civil Rights American blacks who had to maintain complete subservience to the whites who controlled their world. Despite endless insults, he bears all, and even learns compassion for his arrogant but frightened employer, played with fire and fragility by Jessica Tandy.
The Elephant Man (1980)
We never see John Hurt’s face, because the Elephant Man makeup covers all, but this is one of the finest performances in the history of film. It doesn’t hurt that he has Anthony Hopkins, Anne Bancroft, John Gielgud, and Wendy Hiller in the cast, as David Lynch intrudes (harmlessly) with extraneous images of thundering, trumpeting elephants and other extraneous matters. The tragic story gets told with compassion and depth, despite Lynch’s efforts to upstage his actors, so at the end we look at John Merrick’s hideously deformed face and find beauty and majesty there.
Empire of the Sun (1987)
I believe that even if Jaws remains Steven Spielberg’s most perfect movie, Empire of the Sun is his most honest film. Perhaps that’s because it is based on J.G. Ballard’s semi-autobiographical account of his time as a child in a Japanese internment camp in China; perhaps it’s because the screenplay was written by one of the best playwrights of our time, Tom Stoppard. In any event, this film has successfully resisted Spielberg’s tendency to cheapen his movies with false moves. It remains real and scary, with monsters we know existed; and yet Christian Bale, as the stranded young boy, manages to remain a child even on the borders of hell.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
This powerful sci-fi story of memory manipulation, written by Charlie Kaufman, is a beautiful movie that some people really, really hate. And those people are not wrong – this can be confusing and not many of the characters are likeable. But it’s Jim Carrey’s best performance, and Kate Winslet and Elijah Wood are wonderful in it. Just remember that even though someone caused you pain it’s not good to wipe them out of your memory. Because they might not stay gone.
Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986)
I don’t like people who don’t think the rules apply to them, so if I had ever known someone like Ferris Bueller (Matthew Broderick) in high school, we would not have been friends. But in the midst of this fantasy of adolescent freedom and power, we get the moving story of Ferris’s uptight sister, Jeanie (Jennifer Grey), and his anxiety-ridden friend Cameron (Alan Ruck). Add in Jeffrey Jones as vice-principal Ed Rooney, and you have a recipe for a genuinely funny movie with some good emotional payoff. This is John Hughes’s masterpiece.
First Blood (1982)
This movie marked the first appearance of the character John Rambo in film, and it moved Sylvester Stallone from Rocky to a genuine multi-franchise movie star. But most of us first saw it on television, and then became so obsessed with this story and this character – a vagrant Vietnam vet who is mistreated by law enforcement as he’s passing through a small town, provoking him to seek vengeance as he protects his freedom – that they were able to create a few sequels that made a lot of money. But this is the real Rambo movie, and it’s hard to see how it could be improved upon.
Forgetting Sarah Marshall (2008)
Jason Segel wrote it, and so in playing the leading role, he has no one to blame but himself for the misery his character lives in. He used to seem to be the luckiest guy in the world, because he was living with his girlfriend, the amazingly famous and beloved TV star Sarah Marshall (Kristen Bell). But she falls for rock star Aldous Snow (Russell Brand), a sleazy but not completely arrogant fellow who finds Segel ridiculous but also sympathetic. When Segel and Sarah Marshall end up at the same Hawaiian resort – and Segel is there without a reservation and without money – Mila Kunis plays the hotel clerk who has mercy and finds a room where he can stay for free, as long as he doesn’t expect maid service. What makes the movie bizarre is that Segel’s character is devoted to creating the story of Dracula as a puppet musical. And before the end of the movie, we get to see much of it in performance.
Forrest Gump (1994)
The Winston Groom novel is kind of bad, but screenwriter Eric Roth turned it into a story with a real heart that retains the jocular spirit of the book as well. Robert Zemeckis directed Tom Hanks, Sally Field, Robin Wright, and Gary Sinise in some of the best performances of their lives, but the whole movie is anchored on the performance of Michael Conner Humphreys as the child Forrest Gump, who falls in love with Jenny, the love of his life, and breaks free of his leg braces in order to become a runner. While Forrest himself never notices how brilliantly successful he becomes, because he’s kind of slow-witted, we get a tour of the 1960s and, more importantly, a sojourn in the land of hopeless love. There are two moments in Forrest Gump that raise it to perfection, in my mind: When Forrest first meets his son, and later, when he bids goodbye to him at the school bus. If you’ve seen it, you remember; if you haven’t, then correct that situation, please.
It’s devilishly hard to create a biographical movie about a figure who is a national icon in two great nations, South Africa and India. But director Richard Attenborough was blessed with a strong, clear script by John Briley, and the brilliant actor Ben Kingsley in the title role. Many other actors round out the superb cast, but it is Kingsley himself who makes us remember moments such as, “I know a way out of hell.” Just hearing that line brings back the whole scene to me, and reminds me why, after Winston Churchill, Gandhi is the historical figure I admire most.
The Godfather (1972)
The reason we care about Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) is that he’s the son of the Godfather (Marlon Brando) who is not involved with the family’s crime business. But as the movie goes on, Michael eventually comes to be the head of the family, while still trying to hold on to some aspects of the life he had back before he had killed anybody. Talia Shire, James Caan, Robert Duvall, Diane Keaton, and John Cazale all give brilliant performances, and The Godfather keeps getting quoted in other movies as if it were the source of all wisdom. Maybe it is.
The Godfather: Part II (1974)
The original The Godfather came out while I was living in Brazil, so what I read in Time magazine was an account of audiences in America leaping to their feet and cheering when a cascade of assassinations takes place at the end of the movie. The Godfather: Part II is like the antidote, in a way. Two parallel stories are told. First, Robert De Niro plays Brando’s character Vito Corleone as a young man, coming to America and then rising to the top of the local criminal ruling class. Second, we see how Michael Corleone does business, protecting himself from congressional investigation and rivals and enemies, relentlessly pursuing vengeance and shutting out the people whom he once relied on to keep him human. Vengeance was popular in the first movie; in this one it’s toxic. Both movies deserved, and got, the Best Picture Oscar.
Gone with the Wind (1939)
Margaret Mitchell’s book was read by pretty much every literate human, and then they made it into a movie. Screenwriter Sidney Howard did a superb job of cutting out a lot of extraneous, time-consuming matter – including Scarlett O’Hara’s first two children – in order to fit the sprawling story into a mere four hours of film. Casting Clark Gable as Rhett Butler was a no-brainer, but the Brit Vivien Leigh was not on anybody’s short list for Scarlett O’Hara; and many people still think casting Leslie Howard as Ashley Wilkes was a mistake (but they’re wrong). The master strokes in casting, however, were Hattie McDaniel as Mammy and Olivia de Havilland as Melanie.
Grand Canyon (1991)
This movie is, in a way, a duplicate of LA Story – with Steve Martin in both casts! But Lawrence Kasdan’s take on Los Angeles culture, especially the racial divides, makes this movie stand apart. Danny Glover, Kevin Kline, Mary McDonnell, Mary-Louise Parker, Alfre Woodard, and Jeremy Sisto give memorable performances in iconic roles.
Groundhog Day (1993)
Somehow Harold Ramis’s brilliant script and direction made me love a movie starring two of the most unwatchable actors ever to cast a shadow upon a screen: Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell. When you add Chris Elliott, it’s hard to believe that this may be the most re-watched movie in America. But I love it.
Heaven Can Wait (1978)
Warren Beatty and Julie Christie were superb – and so was everyone else – in this story of an athlete who was taken out of his body prematurely by an inexperienced angel of death (Buck Henry). While the bureaucracy of heaven (that’s right, heaven, not hell) works at setting things right, Warren Beatty tries to make the best of the temporary body they put him into. The plot is so extravagant it still amazes me how much I like the movie, and the people.
He’s Just Not That Into You (2009)
Based on a nonfiction book, this movie does an amazing job of focusing on a few relationships and showing how they do and don’t work. Bradley Cooper is powerful as the lying husband, while Justin Long is luminous as the advice-giving bartender who falls in love with someone he absolutely knows he should not. Jennifer Aniston, Jennifer Connelly, Scarlett Johansson, and Drew Barrymore are delightful, but my favorite character is Ben Affleck, who has long rejected the idea of marriage and yet proves himself to be the best husband in the movie. I love this film and watch it through to the end whenever I stumble upon it.
His Girl Friday (1940)
Back before bad screenwriting classes persuaded everybody in Hollywood that dialogue was evil, there used to be movies full of rapidfire dialogue that was so funny or moving (or both) that you didn’t need a lot of visual busy-ness in order to make the movie entertaining. In those days, actors had to be able to talk – crisply and cleanly, so that audiences could understand everything that was said, the first time around. That was a skill that Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell both had, and as a result, this adaptation of the play The Front Page sizzles with energy and sexual tension from beginning to end.
Howards End (1992)
Back in the days of the Merchant Ivory films, we came to expect moving period dramas from director James Ivory and producer Ismail Merchant. Based on an E.M. Forster novel, Howards End follows the story of socially active upperclass women of small means, who befriend an older woman who shocks them by leaving them a property they could not have hoped for. With Emma Thompson, Vanessa Redgrave, and Helena Bonham Carter joined by Anthony Hopkins and Samuel West, the stellar cast weaves its way through a tale of stolen inheritance, illegitimate pregnancies, and other soap opera staples from the turn of the century. It’s all so well written and acted that we can pretend it’s much more lofty than it really is – it’s the soap opera we really care about.
Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)
This adaptation of the wonderful Diana Wynne Jones novel wasn’t even supposed to be directed by Hayao Miyazaki, but when he was called out of retirement to write and direct it, he came to think of it as his best film. He certainly made it his own – it feels way more Japanese than English. But visually and orally, this is an unforgettable, beautiful work of art.
The Hudsucker Proxy (1994)
“You know, for kids.” That’s what Tim Robbins says each time his character’s identical sketches turn into the hula hoop or the frisbee or the pogo stick. The Coen brothers may have wanted this to be a screwball comedy, but it turned into a Coen brothers comedy, which is all to the better.
Immortal Beloved (1994)
Even if Gary Oldman had never played Winston Churchill, I would have loved him for this powerful portrayal of Ludwig Van Beethoven. The glory of this film is the score, because unlike most famous artists, Beethoven really was as good as his reputation suggests. The story is heartbreaking and plausible, giving the whole cast many opportunities to use their acting chops. But the movie belongs to Oldman, and he puts it to good use.
Yes, I crossed out this movie, because up until the missing last second of the film, it was perfect. A convoluted surrealistic sci-fi caper movie. But because the last second, in which we do not see the coin topple, does not appear in the film, Inception is not just imperfect, it is a crime against the audience. So many things can turn upon a single coin.
It Happened One Night (1934)
Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert were among the actors who inherited Hollywood stardom when the talkies wiped out so many former stars. Only a few years into the talking-picture era, Frank Capra’s story of a hungry reporter’s stalking of a bratty heiress who has run away from home takes place in a single 24-hour period, with great scenes on buses, in motels, and hitchhiking, during a time when all these things were still new. Do they fall in love? Hello, welcome to Earth. It’s how they fall in love, yet remain uncertain of the other’s feelings, that gives us the comedy and the very happy ending.
It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
This wasn’t a hit when it first came out, because audiences are often unprepared for the fact that the great Christmas movies are usually built on a tragic foundation. James Stewart and Donna Reed play their most iconic roles in this story of a man blessed by an angel to understand the value of his life just at the moment when he was about to end it. This is the ultimate Christmas movie – because it is about redemption and the gift of love.
This is Steven Spielberg’s finest film, even though he didn’t have the spunk to let Richard Dreyfuss’s character be dead at the end. Roy Scheider and Robert Shaw are amazing as Dreyfuss’s companions in the ultimate shark hunt, and after all the horrible problems in making the shark puppet believable, the film is completely convincing to a layperson like me. Still, the most powerful, memorable scene in the film doesn’t have a shark or even the ocean in it: It consists of the three of them in the galley of the boat, as Robert Shaw tells them the story of the sinking of the Indianapolis in World War II. The monologue was conceived by uncredited writer Howard Sackler and then expanded greatly – to ten pages! – by John Milius. Then Robert Shaw (himself a noted playwright) cut it down to the version we see in the movie. If you want to read every word of it, go here: https://neilchughes.com/2013/03/10/the-indianapolis-speech-by-robert-shaw-in-jaws-1975/
L.A. Story (1991)
Steve Martin plays a weatherman in Los Angeles, a city where the weather never changes; but his life blows hot and cold, with divine messages in the form of changing highway signs. Steve Martin and Sarah Jessica Parker bring very different kinds of humor and pain to their memorable roles in this love song to the city where Hollywood has its lair.
A Lion in Winter (1968)
Peter O’Toole and Katharine Hepburn are brilliant in James Goldman’s script about an imaginary Christmas court in Chinon for King Richard II of England and his wife (and prisoner), Eleanor of Aquitaine. The cast is amazing – Anthony Hopkins, John Castle, Nigel Terry, Timothy Dalton, Jane Merrow – because Henry and Eleanor are joined by their sons (including two future kings) and the young King Philip of France. The script sizzles as James Goldman (William Goldman’s brother) tries for the kind of sharp, acid dialogue that made Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? such a masterpiece. (Too bad the movie of that play was so awful.) (I wanted to sit through the movie twice when I first saw it, but the girl I was with was not as enthusiastic about it as I was. And since I didn’t have a driver’s license, we had to stick to our original plan.) It was this movie that made Peter O’Toole my favorite actor, and nothing I saw later made me change my mind. This is the performance where Katharine Hepburn won an Oscar – tied with Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl.
Love Actually (2003)
This is my favorite Christmas movie – and through this movie, joined with About Time, writer/director Richard Curtis got a lock on the title of “greatest creator of movie love stories ever.” A series of interlocking stories take us from #10 Downing Street to a children’s school Christmas pageant, and from an adulterous husband to a sister whose love life is blocked by the dependency of her schizophrenic brother. Every time this movie breaks my heart, it also heals it, as many kinds of love – romantic, married, filial, unrequited, and friendship, deep and shallow – are explored. The whole cast is amazing; I won’t list them because that would take longer than the movie, I fear. Keep in mind that there’s a bit of nudity and some fairly crude comments here and there, so don’t invite the little grandkids over for a Christmas movie and show this. But for grownups, this is the story of life.
Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
This is the movie in which the Mad Max franchise came of age. Mel Gibson was wonderful in the early films, but Tom Hardy nails the character, and Charlize Theron is unforgettable. Amazing Road-Warrior action goes along with a story both tragic and hopeful.
To be continued next week