The Terminal Man (1974) An early Michael Crichton adaptation, and one that makes the error – in this case – of a too-clinical account of its title character’s malaise, such that there’s little way in to feel for his plight. George Segal’s unnuanced performance doesn’t help at times either, but The Terminal Man veers too close to The Andromeda Strain’s stark lesson in the perils of science taking up the tools of God, when it could have better done with dosing itself up with a little more humanity. By the final act, you feel you’ve strayed into something closer
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966) Peak Leone? Some will present Once Upon a Time in the West as Exhibit A, but as seductive as that film is, it has to make do with implacable, chihuahua-faced Charles Bronson rather than Clint (or subsequently James Coburn; you’d have thought Clint getting 10 percent of the North American profits for this stung Leone, but Sergio nevertheless pursued him once again. However, Clint had had enough by this point, and would mostly work with mediocre directors from then on, himself most of all). The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
Metropolis (1927) Fritz Lang’s defining SF classic is a damned weird brew in places, and in its least-expurgated form, only occasionally a bit of a slog. That’s the 148-minute version – as opposed to the entirely lost 153 of the original – which does rather go on a bit during the “third act” of rioting proles. Mostly, though, it’s extraordinary how well Metropolis stands up. Lang’s inventive and crisp direction makes up for the creakier elements of his wife Thea von Harbou’s plotting (from her 1925 novel; they collaborated on the screenplay) and the dafter signatures of silent-era filmmaking.
The Time Machine (1960) Perhaps having a weekly time-travel TV show readily available was the root of finding The Time Machine merely so-so when I first saw it. I can’t say I was that blown away by the source novella either; in all honesty, Stephen Baxter’s officially-authorised centenary sequel The Time Ships was more impressive, probably because we’ve all been spoiled with increasingly intricate, multiversular explorations of the concept since 1895. HG Wells’ first temporal stirrings now seem rather quaint and rudimentary. Revisiting George Pal’s picture is rewarding in one sense, then, as it’s much more serviceable than I
The Big Sleep (1946) I hadn’t seen The Big Sleep in many years; of the two most famous Humphrey Bogart detective movies, I immediately preferred The Maltese Falcon. It seemed sharper and wittier, with more engaging supporting characters. I recalled The Big Sleep as guilty of charges of being convoluted, making it a slightly lesser beast, to my mind, than its acclaim warranted. Well, this revisit has redressed that balance; it’s a blast. Yes, the plot is involved to the point of density, but it is followable, and it’s buoyed throughout by Bogie at his most appealing. Carmen: Not
Out of the Past (1947) One of the preeminent film noirs, but I have to admit, I was a little cool on Out of the Past. Perhaps it’s the resolutely unflustered Robert Mitchum, stoned out of his gourd, or perhaps it’s down to horror maestro Jacques Tourneur, creating very pretty pictures with DP Nicholas Musuraca but not really a whole lot of tension. Certainly, a labyrinthine plot is no barrier to these movies emerging with honours – The Big Sleep wears its resistance to attempts at interrogation as a badge of pride – and this one’s, while it demands
Libeled Lady (1936) Or rather, Libelled Lady. The fifth screen pairing of William Powell and Mryna Loy – the sixth, After the Thin Man, opened just a couple of months after this – was greeted sufficiently warmly that it earned a Best Picture Oscar nomination. The Great Ziegfeld, also starring Powell and Loy, won. If you liked the pair, you were quids in that year! Libeled Lady is frequently effective in its screwball antics, but perhaps not quite as proficient as their very best collaborations. There’s a sense of strain in the plotting, of marrying/ juggling too many elements
Heaven Can Wait (1978) Warren Beatty’s (and Buck Henry’s, kind of) remake of Here Comes Mr. Jordan is very clear about the limitations of its walk-in conceit. This is not a common practice. Rather, it’s one called upon on those rare occasions when heaven makes a mistake, snatching someone away from the earthly sojourn too soon. Thus, Heaven Can Wait’s mechanics revolve entirely around death – of Joe, and of whomever he is to inhabit next – which means even its cachet as a spin on reincarnation can only be taken as an analogous; much like its dry-ice-infused waystation,
The Untouchables (1987) The Untouchables is illustrative of the career Brian De Palma might have had, had he been a filmmaker intent on commercial glory rather than following his own idiosyncratically voyeuristic muse. Certainly, there are examples before (Scarface) and since (Mission: Impossible), but it’s here that he marries his often-astonishing stylistic acumen with durably strong material to most striking effect. The Untouchables is the very opposite of the seedy, grubby, oversoaked Scarface in texture, painting with light and dark and still in no doubt of their delineation, even when its hero gets his hands dirty. From someone else,
Citizen Kane (1941) No, I don’t think Citizen Kane’s the greatest film ever made, any more than I do The Godfather. I can entirely appreciate why it has been regarded as a peak achievement in cinema for more than eighty years, though. In numerous ways, it remains a quite extraordinary work, an almost wholly successful dive into experimentation with the artform by a young debutant, with results he’d never be able to equal. Which was, alas for him, most likely the hubristic consequence of believing he could get away with the subject matter. The real stunner with Citizen Kane
Paths of Glory (1957) While they’re genres apart, Kubrick’s first classic shares with his previous film The Killing a sense of intractability and inevitability with regard to the system. There’s no escaping its grip, and all one can do is moderate how one responds to it. In the case of Sterling Hayden’s Johnny, he arguably brings fate down upon his own head, whereas the accused in Paths of Glory are the victims of arbitrary (or, in one case, malignant) “justice”. The film shares a bleak cynicism in common with much of Kubrick’s work, and the sliver of light/hope found
The Killing (1956) And the moral is: don’t shoot horses. Johnny Clay being none too bright doesn’t help matters either, of course, but it’s abundantly clear his ultimate failure is down to the animal kingdom exacting revenge for the wanton destruction of one of their kind. Stanley Kubrick was not, however, an ardent vegetarian (indeed, it seems his preferred dish while making The Shining was – human-rich – Big Macs). The Killing finds the director’s talents coming together, after a couple of very variable try-outs, and it remains a gripping, no-nonsense heist movie, one with a particularly caustic sense
Apocalypse Now (1979) It’s curious to look back at Apocalypse Now and note that its reception wasn’t nearly as rapturous as the regard in which it is now held. Indeed, from critics’ views, one might mistake Francis Ford Coppola for the kind of guy who had slapped together a makeshift epic with Band-Aids and sticky tape. The kind of guy who would subsequently unleash several variations of his opus, on the basis that his unexpurgated vision had never quite made it to screen. That, alas, is the consequence of a slew of subsequent failures, hindsight and too much time
The Thing from Another World (1951) If other remakes of ’50s movies – The Day the Earth Stood Still, Invasion of the Body Snatchers – failed to eclipse the originals, however well (or not) regarded, John Carpenter’s 1982 adaptation of Who Goes There? has well and truly supplanted Christopher Nye’s (Howard Hawks produced, some say surrogated, despite Nye’s denials) The Thing from Another World. There’s good reason for that, since its skill in exerting the uncanny is remarkable by any standards. Nevertheless, The Thing from Another World remains rightly recognised on its own terms, regardless of its reactionary credentials. Plus,
All About Eve (1950) Joseph L Mankiewicz’s Best Picture Oscar winner commonly finds itself in the upper echelons of all-time great lists (it was 37 on the Time Out cinema centennial poll) Such lofty status is richly deserved. Mankiewicz’s directorial career didn’t always strike gold – he would eventually be assailed by the 1963 Cleopatra, before even more eventually recovering with Sleuth – but All About Eve stands resplendently unalloyed on all fronts and every bit as trenchant as ever it was. There’s been some suggestion that, however conniving Anne Baxter is as Eve, she’s no match for the
The Godfather Part II (1974) The popular consensus is that The Godfather Part II is the only sequel to eclipse the original in quality. Indeed, a sequel that didn’t, Scream 2, laid this out amongst its various pithy rules. Albeit, it played fast and loose with its definitions. While I’d agree that several of those proposed (Aliens, Terminator 2: Judgement Day) couldn’t equal the first instalment, disqualifying The Empire Strikes Back – “Not a sequel, part of a trilogy, completely planned” – is nonsense, and there are a number of others besides that immediately spring to mind (Star Trek
The Wild Bunch (1969) One of the classic, if not the classic, revisionist westerns, The Wild Bunch has never quite carried the same hallowed status for me it evidently has for others. I wouldn’t even call it Peckinpah’s best western. The director’s martialling of stirring, visceral tornadoes of slow-mo violence is as effective as ever it was, but his etching of his characters is crude and unsympathetic, such that, during the movie’s longueurs, he leaves me struggling some. Not helping matters is Jerry Fielding’s score, in the finest tradition of telegraphed western jauntiness, encouraging us to believe all this
Glory (1989) I tend to forget Ed Zwick was the mastermind behind thirtysomething, but it may go some way to explain his resolutely middlebrow, social-conscience-driven movies, the sort that lay a low-calorie morsel in front of an audience under the false pretences that it’s truly nutritious. This is your prerequisite Hollywood war movie; it’s a rotten deal, you know, the fighting, but look, there’s an important theme here, somewhere amid the resolutely clichéd characters and hackneyed tropes. Just forget about any of the personality of a Stone or the stylistic acumen of a Spielberg. Glory proved popular with critics
Body Double (1984) De Palma, backed into a corner, comes out biting. Or drilling. Pilloried for the excesses of Scarface, not least by the ratings board, he decided, very maturely, to go for broke. He’d double down on everything he’d been called out for. Violence? He’d give them violence. How about power drills, giallo style? Sex? He’d give them porn! With an actual porn star as his leading lady (he’d ultimately reconsider). Perversion? He’d make his hero a panty sniffer! Hitchcock homages? How about Rear Window and Vertigo! Body Double is his equivalent of a schoolboy dare. You’d hardly
Lenny (1974) Not being a hipster or a Lenny Bruce devotee, I can only respond to Lenny as a movie. But even without bags of insight into the stand-up’s life, act and general milieu, I can tell there’s something wrong with Hoffman’s performance. While he’s more convincing playing a comedian than he is playing a woman in Tootsie, he’s night-and-day funnier playing a woman in Tootsie than he is playing a comedian in Lenny. And there’s also the problem that, as perfectly precise as Bob Fosse’s direction of this movie is, it seems entirely misconceived, trapping the stand-up in
Scandal (1989) Scandal at least has a point of view; Dr Stephen Ward, as played by John Hurt, was done a terrible wrong when he was scapegoated and hung out to dry. Unfortunately, like most of debut-director Michael Caton-Jones’ subsequent films, it desperately lacks dramatic tension. The picture, an early collaboration between Palace and Miramax, had all the makings of a major hit, and the publicity and controversy surrounding it suggested such success would be a fait accompli. Scandal did decent business, but not event movie business; this was no Chariots of Fire or even the same year’s Shirley
Top Gun: Maverick (2022) I’m a long way from the effusive responses of – seemingly – the preponderance of Top Gun: Maverick’s audience. Nevertheless, it’s undoubtedly possible, as some have attested, to appreciate this sequel while in no way having any partiality toward the original. Indeed, in some respects, Maverick even manages to cast a certain lustre on that movie’s iconographic elements (the soundtrack, the visual acumen), even as it also rehearses its essential emptiness of character and emotion in tandem with its rousing militarism. That’s principally because Joseph Kosinski’s movie is a technical marvel, and every time it takes to the
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is beloved by so many of the cinematic firmament’s luminaries – Stanley Kubrick, Sam Raimi, , Paul Thomas Anderson and who knows maybe also WS, Vince Gilligan, Spike Lee, Daniel Day Lewis; Oliver Stone was going to remake it – not to mention those anteriorly influential Stone Roses, that it seems foolhardy to suggest it isn’t quite all that. There’s no faulting the performances – a career best Humphrey Bogart, with director John Huston’s dad Walter stealing the movie from under him – but the greed-is-bad theme
The Exorcist (1973) Vast swathes have been written on The Exorcist, duly reflective of its cultural impact. In a significant respect, it’s the first blockbuster – forget Jaws – and also the first of a new kind of special-effects movie. It provoked controversy across all levels of the socio-political spectrum, for explicit content and religious content, both hailed and denounced for the same. William Friedkin, director of William Peter Blatty’s screenplay based on Blatty’s 1971 novel, would have us believe The Exorcist is “a film about the mystery of faith”, but it’s evidently much more – and less – than that. There’s
Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1969) Goodbye, Mr. Chips really oughtn’t to be as agreeable as it is. More still, it ought to stink. Its raison d’être is, after all, a complete bust: James Hilton’s novella reconceived as a musical. Perhaps the manner in which the songs entirely fail to take centre stage – unless the songs are diegetically taking place ona stage – saves this element; by and large, they’re solo soliloquies utilising montage or controlled choreography, rather than flamboyant budget busters. It would still have been preferable had they’d been entirely absent – and easy to see why a number of them
I work for the guys that pay me to watch the guys that pay you. And then there are, I imagine, some guys that are paid to watch me.
The Day of the Dolphin (1973) Perhaps the most bizarre thing out of all the bizarre things about The Day of the Dolphin is that one of its posters scrupulously sets out its entire dastardly plot, something the movie itself doesn’t outline until fifteen minutes before the end. Mike Nichols reputedly made this – formerly earmarked for Roman Polanski, Jack Nicholson and Sharon Tate, although I’m dubious a specific link can be construed between its conspiracy content and the Manson murders – to fulfil a contract with The Graduate producer Joseph Levine. It would explain the, for him, atypical science-fiction element, something he seems as
Easy Rider (1969) There are probably ramshackle movies that can be considered masterpieces, but Easy Rider isn’t one of them. Culturally iconic – that part is uncontested – but also spliced together from raging ineptitude and ego on the part of its director. Reputedly, once he’d shot the thing, Dennis Hopper spent months failing to edit the film together coherently. It reached the point where he was ejected from the cutting room, and four hours was hewn down to the slender ninety-odd minutes we know. There are still longueurs in there, but the Easy Rider we finished up with actually remains largely compelling. Perhaps despite
Anatomy of a Murder (1959) The most striking aspect of Anatomy of a Murder on revisit is how atypical it is of the courtroom drama/thriller, even six-decades-plus after it broke new ground. Studio wisdom would dictate you can’t have such an incendiary case and not include whodunnit; it would be anathema to audience expectations. And yet, for Otto Preminger’s picture, the ambiguity of motive, perspective and moral judgement are precisely the point – “the apparent fallibility of the human factor in jurisprudence” as Wiki puts it – occasionally to the extent that one feels one is being lectured, rather than watching a dramatisation. Indeed, Nick
Goodfellas (1990) Scorsese’s gangsters-at-street-level masterpiece is near the top of most lists for “It wuz robbed” when looking back at Best Picture Oscar winners. Kev’s Dances with Wolves is a decent-enough movie and a decent-ish revisionist western, put together with care, craft and what appears to be genuine feeling on its maker’s part; there are certainly far worse Best Picture winners out there. But co-contender Goodfellas is in a class all its own. It also reminds the viewer that, in the first rank of filmmakers as Scorsese is, it’s become relatively rare for him to tackle material with which he visibly (and palpably)
The Right Stuff (1983) While it certainly more than fulfils the function of a NASA-propaganda picture – as in, it affirms the legitimacy of their activities – The Right Stuff escapes the designation of rote testament reserved for Ron Howard’s later Apollo 13. Partly because it has such a distinctive personality and attitude. Partly too because of the way it has found its through line. Which isn’t so much the “wow” of the Space Race and those picked to be a part of it, as it is the personification of that titular quality in someone who wasn’t even in the Mercury programme: Chuck Yaeger
They got a buildin’ down in New York City called Whitehall Street where you get injected, inspected, detected, infected, neglected and selected.
Alice’s Restaurant (1969) Arthur Penn’s picture “dramatisation” (comedisation?) of Arlo Guthrie’s classic song Alice’s Restaurant Massacre, and the actual events contributing to it, is intentionally ambling, unhurried and episodic, much like the song itself. Unlike the song, however, it’s far from a classic, regardless of the affection many may (understandably) hold for it. Penn was no master of comedy, and Guthrie is no actor, one with even less screen presence (he bears a slight resemblance to Jerry Seinfeld, also no actor, but more of one than Guthrie. And tangibly better at comedy too). Consequently, Alice’s Restaurant is rather shapeless and inert – you could
Lawrence of Arabia (1962) Sometimes, just sometimes, Oscar gets it right. Lawrence of Arabia isn’t only on a whole other level to its fellow Best Picture nominees that year, but also to most films – of that or any year. As a piece of mesmerising, wholly immersive filmmaking, it’s the zenith of the artform. If Oscar got it wrong in any conspicuous categories that year, it was rewarding Gregory Peck over Peter O’Toole – who would remain ever the bridesmaid, or Florence of Arabia, as Noël Coward wittily described him – and Horton Foote over Robert Bolt and Michael Wilson for
The Russians are Coming, the Russians are Coming (1966) Ah, for the heady days of the Cold War. Where, even if you weren’t conscious of the comprehensive Hegelianism at work, it was perfectly acceptable to hold moderate views of East-West relations. Sadly, though, the best thing about The Russians are Coming, the Russians are Coming is its title. Pete: Don’t tell them anything! He hasn’t even tortured you yet! Pauline Kael, perhaps surprisingly, gave the movie the free pass of “warmly rambunctious entertainment”. Alas, this Best Picture Oscar nominee’s less than illustrious forbears are revealed in the choice of screenwriter, who adapted
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) The premise of Don Siegel’s anti-McCarthy – or is it anti-Commie? – SF paranoia movie is an evergreen. Hence it having been remade three times (so far). One of those came during a period when – whisper it – those refashioning ’50s B-movies were coming up with takes that were more resonant and richer than the originals. So much so, they have invariably supplanted them in first-port-of-call stakes. Over the course of less than a decade, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Thing and The Fly all succeeded in justifying and validating a cash-in process that has, generally,
Z (1969) It’s easy to see why Z received the attention it did, including a rare Best Picture nomination for a non-English language film. Quite apart from being a compelling if rather dry conspiracy thriller, its fictionalised events preceded the then-current military junta in Greece, and if there’s one thing Hollywood can be relied on for – providing of course they have retired to a safe distance, brave Sean Penn aside – it’s sticking it to the fascists. Ultimately, Z is framed against one great Hegelian conflagration of left vs right and military juntas vs democracy; when all is said and done, the
The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) Something of a surprise, in that a movie made immediately subsequent to the concerted propaganda onslaught of WWII should be as open as it is to the lasting effects of conflict on those involved. There’s undoubtedly a degree of rhetoric in The Best Years of Our Lives, both in terms of boosting the prospects for veterans and extolling a “just” war, but William Wyler’s film (yet another Sam Goldwyn awards darling) treads its terrain with frequent care and attention, and it’s easy to see why this appeared on Oliver Stone’s All-Time Top 10
Chinatown (1974) One of the most poured-over classics, with even a recent book (The Big Goodbye: Chinatown and the Last Years of Hollywood by Sam Wasson) devoted to its undiminished lustre. Consequently, it can be more interesting to trawl rare divergent takes on such hallowed pictures. Not that Chinatown doesn’t deserve its rep, but the chorus of approval can drown out any other consideration, yielding a wash of rather vanilla views (look at The Godfathers I & II, and III – uniform in their yay, yay, nay consensus). Those who did offer an objection, did so on the basis of execution rather than content. Gene Siskel complained about Polanski’s direction: “The opening
Mildred Pierce (1945) Is Mildred Pierce really a film noir? Sure, its framing device revolves around murder, and there’s crime – it’s adapted from a 1941 James Cain novel, after all – and requisite black-and-white cinematography, but at its core, this is really melodrama. The picture’s genre specifics are evidently a well-thumbed subject for discussion, so I’m rather late to the table on that score. All I know for certain is, there’s only so much of Veda (Ann Blyth) being a right little spoiled cow to pushover mum Mildred (Joan Crawford) I can take before I’m longing for Bogey to show up and
Body Heat (1981) In retrospect, perhaps the most notable aspect of Body Heat is how stylistically distinctive it is from Lawrence Kasdan’s subsequent pictures. Admittedly, he was operating elsewhere in the drama or dramedy sphere most of the time – and occasionally in the “shit weasel” one: avoid Dreamcatcher – but even his westerns display little in the way of verve. Body Heat is precise and studied in its neo-noir flair, matching the screenplay’s studied dialogue and John Barry’s woozy jazz score with a hermetically oppressive mis-en-scène. Which makes it a curiosity, palpable in mood and atmosphere yet eccentrically heightened in sensibility. Kasdan
My Left Foot (1989) It probably shouldn’t be a surprise that My Left Foot loads the dice in its triumph-over-adversity tale; to have done otherwise would surely have kept the Oscar from Deserving Daniel, and would almost certainly have forestalled its Best Picture nod. Nevertheless, I’d remembered it to be much less beholden to such savvy stirring of the emotions, less pressed into the service of aspirational highlights and rousing vignettes, perhaps because its working-class Dublin milieu is a far cry from The Theory of Everything’s rarefied Oxbridge atmosphere. They’re very much on the same page, though, delivering smooth, palatable disability dramatics,
Born on the Fourth of July (1989) Revisiting the oeuvre of Oliver, I’m reaching the realisation that the degree of qualitive consistency I credited to his earlier directorial efforts (up to around the point he concluded his Vietnam trilogy) isn’t actually there. Or rather, they’re blessed with the wrong kind of qualitative consistency. Watching Born on the Fourth of July is like being beaten about the head with a block hammer. There’s zero room for subtlety or nuance in Stone’s long-in-development adaptation of Ron Kovic’s story. The inability to convey such tones may, in certain of his pictures, actually be a plus –
The Princess and the Pirate (1944) As I suggested when revisiting The Lemon Drop Kid, you’re unlikely to find many confessing to liking Bob Hope movies these days. Even Chevy Chase gets higher approval ratings. If asked to attest to the excruciating stand-up comedy guy Hope, the presenter and host, I doubt even diehards would proffer an endorsement. Probably even fewer would admit to having a hankering for Hope, were they aware of, or further still gave credence to, alleged MKUltra activities. But the movie comedy Hope, the fourth-wall breaking, Road-travelling quipster-coward of (loosely) 1939-1952? That Hope’s a funny guy, mostly, and many
Driving Miss Daisy (1989) The meticulous slightness of Driving Miss Daisy is precisely the reason it proved so lauded, and also why it presented a prime Best Picture Oscar pick: a feel-good, social-conscience-led flick for audiences who might not normally spare your standard Hollywood dross a glance. One for those who appreciate the typical Judi Dench feature, basically. While I’m hesitant to get behind anything Spike Lee, as Hollywood’s self-appointed race-relations arbiter, spouts, this was a year when he actually did deliver the goods, a genuinely decent movie – definitely a rarity for Lee – addressing the issues head-on that Driving Miss Daisy approaches in
Coma (1978) Michael Crichton’s sophomore big-screen feature, an adaptation of colleague Robin Cook’s novel, and by some distance his best. Perhaps it’s simply that this a milieu known to him, or perhaps it’s that it’s very much aligned to the there-and-then and the present, but Coma, despite the occasional lapse, is an effective, creepy, resonant thriller and then some. Crichton knows his subject, and it shows – the picture is confident and verisimilitudinous in a way none of his other directorial efforts are – and his low-key – some might say clinical – approach pays dividends. You might also call it prescient,
The Color of Money (1986) I tend to think it’s evident when Scorsese isn’t truly exercised by material. He can still invest every ounce of the technical acumen at his fingertips, and the results can dazzle on that level, but you don’t really feel the filmmaker in the film. Which, for one of his pictures to truly carry a wallop, you need to do. We’ve seen quite a few in such deficit in recent years, most often teaming with Leo. The Color of Money, however, is the first where it was out-and-out evident the subject matter wasn’t Marty’s bag. He
After Hours (1985) Scorsese’s finest? Definitely his most underrated picture, even given it has found its own loyal niche. After Hours is atypical in the sense of embracing a broader comic flair, broader even than the satirical swipe of The Wolf of Wall Street. It also manages to be one of his most human movies, in spite of a technical engagement suggestive of early Coen Brothers or Sam Raimi, where exaggerated camera movement and impactive editing are as – or more – foregrounded as performance. An early entry in the “Yuppie nightmare” subgenre (see also Something Wild), After Hours is also party to urban terrors
The Little Foxes (1941) A handsomely mounted Southern melodrama that competed for Best Picture Oscar with such luminaries as Citizen Kane, The Maltese Falcon, Sergeant York and How Green Was My Valley, The Little Foxes has rather faded from view over the years, yet it still has much to offer… if you can get past the godawful wall-to-wall soundtrack (I’m hesitant to call it a score, as that would suggest some kind of legitimate intent). This is yet another of the extraordinarily prolific, awards-piquing combinations of William Wyler and Sam Goldwyn that included Dodsworth (1936), Dead End (1937) and The Best Years of Our Lives (1946); without Goldwyn, Wyler also had The Letter (1940), with
The Apartment (1960) Billy Wilder’s romcom delivered the genre that rare Best Picture Oscar winner. Albeit, The Apartment amounts to a rather grim (now) PG-rated scenario, one rife with adultery, attempted suicide, prostitution of the soul and subjective thereof of the body. And yet, it’s also, finally, rather sweet, so salving the darker passages and evidencing the director’s expertly judged balancing act. Time Out’s Tom Milne suggested the ending was a cop out (“boy forgives girl and all’s well”). But really, what other ending did the audience or central characters deserve? Dobisch: Listen, Baxter. We made you, we can break you. That soft
The Shop Around the Corner (1940) Utterly charming Ernst Lubitsch movie. Although, I do find it difficult – nay, nigh-on impossible – to countenance the idea that it’s supposed to be set in Budapest, and that Jimmy Stewart is Hungarian. Obviously, remake You’ve Got Mail with Meg Ryan and Guantanamo Hanks has now eclipsed this picture, but The Shop Around the Corner is superior in almost every respect, and isn’t trying too hard to please in the way Nora Ephron was prone. Of course, it’s also another Christmas movie where the rich man makes bank (and that’s a good thing). But this is Hollywood. Hollywood,
The Lion in Winter (1968) Depraved royals’ festivities. Of course, depraved royalty aren’t just for Christmas, and certainly not confined to the twelfth century. If you’re a fan of Succession, The Lion in Winter has basically the same plot, only with no central heating, an added matriarch and a penchant for sub-Shakespearian dialogue. It is also conspicuously unable to open out a theatre piece for the filmic realm. Naturally, The Lion in Winter was nominated for all the Oscars, but it rarely justifies itself as a piece of cinema in its own right. The internecine scheming, feuding and machinations of this Christmas 1183 –
The Getaway (1972) Sam Peckinpah at his most mainstream – The Getaway was a big hit – but he’s still decidedly on the untameable side. Although, in contrast to Alec Baldwin’s intimations, it seems screenwriter Walter Hill was entirely pleased with the way the director interpreted, and collaborated on, his material (take a look at how little the 1994 remake differs, and you’ll be left wondering what exactly Walter was paid for second time round). The Getaway’s a good movie, but it isn’t a great one; Hill excised the more outré aspects of Jim Thompson’s 1958 novel, so yes, there’s still infidelity and mistrust,
Dodsworth (1936) Prestige Samuel Goldwyn production – signifiers being attaching a reputable director, often William Wyler, to then-popular plays or classical literature, see also Dead End, Wuthering Heights, The Little Foxes, The Best Years of Our Lives, and earning a Best Picture nomination as a matter of course – that manages to be both engrossing and irritating. Which is to say that, in terms of characterisation, Dodsworth rather shows its years, expecting a level of engagement in the relationship between Sam Dodsworth (Walter Huston) and his wayward, fun-loving wife Fran (Ruth Chatterton) at odds with their unsympathetic behaviour. Fran: I’m fighting for my life! You can’t
Point Blank (1967) The Cliff’s Notes for Point Blank require one to note its nouvelle vague influence (fractured time lines and the ilk), but the likelihood is that anyone coming fresh to the film now will be fully au fait with its various stylistic and narrative devices, so assimilated are they into the mainstream. Still striking, however, is John Boorman’s stylistic sensibility, coming on like a noir comic strip brought to life, yet shot through with Technicolor purpose. It’s an existential mood piece, yes, but it’s translated into the language of an action spectacle, one with a particularly dark sense of humour. Steven
Beverly Hills Cop (1984) You could reasonably argue Eddie Murphy was a phenomenon before Beverly Hills Cop, but following the release of Martin Brest’s 1984 box-office champ, the entire world now knew it. At about the same time, Bill Murray was making similar waves in Ghostbusters (no one was quoting Aykroyd and Ramis from that movie), so it must have been a particular rue to studios that both then dropped off the screen for a couple of years. With 1980s stars, in particular, there’s often a dissonance between the size of their hits and the actual quality (look no further than Tom Cruise).
Dead End (1937) In case you doubted it, there was never a monopoly on Denzel making all the painfully stagey movie adaptations of plays. Less still their getting rafts of Oscar nominations. It’s impossible to watch a certain kind of movie – or play, at any rate – without the Coen Brothers’ classic Barton Fink coming to mind, and its title character waxing “lyrical” about a tenement building on the Lower East Side, and the smell of fish, amid copious earnest moralising and an overwhelming air of self-importance. Which is Dead End all over. Like Barton Fink’s fish, it stinks. Drina: I know that house
Working Girl (1988) There’s something insidious and repellent at the heart of Mike Nichol’s big business Cinderella story, a How to Succeed at Business by Reading the Rags. Wall Street, for all that Gordon Gekko became a bad boys’ hero, had the good grace to say outright that greed was bad. Working Girl tells you it’s only bad when there isn’t a level gender playing field. And that, if there are only two women in the room, one of them has to go. But because it’s accompanied by that so-damn-aspirant, surging, uplifting Oscar-winning Carly Simon tune (Let the River Run), Working Girl encourages any objections to lapse
American Graffiti (1973) George Lucas’ massively influential and hugely successful nostalgia-fest, set in an America just far enough away and not really so long ago at all but increasingly heading that way with every passing year. I’ve never really cared too much for American Graffiti, even as I can appreciate Lucas’ instinctive ability to tap a rich seam (generational yearning for yesteryear, million-dollar soundtrack of bygone hits, new/old through combining then-current filmmaking acumen and social attitudes with classical tropes). Many of the similarly themed – nostalgic or otherwise – period pieces or navel gazing it spawned were superior: The Wanderers; Diner; The Big
Broadcast News (1987) I enjoyed Broadcast News when I first saw it in the 1980s. I think the things I enjoyed about it then – the well-drawn characters, in particular the dry, superior tone of Albert Brooks – are the things I still enjoy about it. And yet, there’s a lingering negative quality I was also vaguely conscious of at the time, one that carries through, of something shapeless about the picture in style and plotting, almost like a TV show (even the title is almost wilfully vanilla, nondescript). Which is perhaps appropriate for its setting. But there’s also something else.
The Sound of Music (1965) One of the most successful movies ever made – and the most successful musical – The Sound of Music has earned probably quite enough unfiltered adulation over the years to drown out the dissenting voices, those that denounce it as an inveterately saccharine, hollow confection warranting no truck. It’s certainly true that there are impossibly nice and wholesome elements here, from Julie Andrews’ career-dooming stereotype governess to the seven sonorous children more than willing to dress up in old curtains and join her gallivanting troupe. Whether the consequence is something insidious in its infectious spirit is debatable, but
Hello, Dolly! (1969) Well, I guess Wall•E liked it, so it must have something going for it. Although, that might be to rate Pixar’s prevailing tastes a tad too high. Hello, Dolly! has, so it says here, become one of the most enduring musical theatre hits evah in its stage form. Perhaps its appeal is all in the live experience, then, because, as a movie, it’s a bust. And not even A, Bust! The origins of Jerry Herman and Michael Stewart’s musical date back to John Oxenford’s 1835 English play A Day Well Spent, then turned into a play by Johann Nestroy and then
The Color Purple (1985) In which the ’berg attempts to prove he’s a grownup. In a sense, this is the equivalent of the fourteen-year-old taking up smoking cigarettes and drinking beer to impress the older kids. The New Republic reports the view expressed by Salamishah Tillet in In Search of The Color Purple that the protests and criticisms of the film furthering “an image of Black men as violent and sexually aggressive” ultimately scuppered its chances at the Oscars, where it received eleven nominations but won not a single statuette. That may well have been a factor, the Academy being nothing if not
Oliver! (1968) I couldn’t say for certain, not being a staunch devotee of the genre, but I suspect a key ingredient of a great movie musical isn’t only the quality of the songs, but also their presentation. If the latter is distinctive and captivating, the chances surely increase for the movie as a whole to be too. Oliver! has more than its fair share of memorable songs, but what it lacks is their memorable presentation or performance. It arrived towards the end of a glut of 1960s adaptations, during which time studios were keen to milk every last potential property for
I’m All Right Jack (1959) I don’t think I previously recognised quite what an incredible performance Peter Sellers gives in I’m All Right Jack. There are others for which he is better known – Clouseau, Strangelove, maybe Chancey Gardner – but none are as wholly immersive as this transformation. You can’t see Sellers in Fred Kite, waiting to corpse, even though, being Sellers at his best, the performance is very funny. Perhaps he rose to the challenge so immaculately because the Boulting Brothers’ satire is so perfectly sculpted. Every character, plot development and pointed barb is acutely judged; it remains
Halloween (1978) John Carpenter’s original slasher. Or at least, the movie that began the seemingly endless cycle. I have to admit, however, that while I recognise Halloween’s stripped-down effectiveness and visual elegance, its persuasively insistent score and the engagingly antic presence of Donald Pleasance’s prophet of doom – representing scientific reason! – I don’t rate it as highly as some of the director’s lesser known or regarded pictures. It’s worth noting some of the different takes on the picture, both in terms of praise and refutation, and how they actually end up saying many of the same things. Carpenter and
The Boys from Brazil (1978) Nazis, Nazis everywhere! The Boys from Brazil has one distinct advantage over its fascist-antagonist predecessor Marathon Man; it has no delusions that it is anything other than crass, garish pulp fiction. John Schlesinger attempted to dress his Dustin Hoffman-starrer up with an art-house veneer and in so doing succeeded in emphasising how ridiculous it was in the wrong way. On the other hand, Schlesinger at least brought a demonstrable skill set to the table. For all its faults, Marathon Man moves, and is highly entertaining. The Boys from Brazil is hampered by Franklin J Schaffner’s sluggish literalism. Where that was fine for an
Top Gun (1986) I wasn’t a fan of this Navy recruitment reel at the time. If anything, I’m even less so now. I well recall how insanely popular Top Gun was, but I doubt if I’d have found it palatable even without the insistent effrontery of Tom Cruise’s shit-eating grin bookending each scene. This Simpson and Bruckheimer production is a studiously hollow, vacuous picture, one that attempted to make a virtue of its empty-headed machismo and consequently landed in the most zeitgeisty fashion. It’s this, rather than Wall Street, that really sums up the ’80s, because it’s this that really reflects uncomprehending
Marathon Man (1976) Marathon Man’s one of those movies where the deficiencies become less easy to ignore the more times you see it. On first viewing, it’s an absorbing, visceral thriller with smart twists and occasionally surprising turns, lent a degree of conviction somewhat at odds with its Nazi war criminal on-the-loose mythos (for more of that, see The Boys from Brazil a couple of years later). There are various disagreements on record with regard to the better course of key production decisions, mostly based on screenwriter William Goldman being unimpressed with changes made by director John Schlesinger in concert with
On the Waterfront (1954) Commonly celebrated for one of the all-time great performances in one of the all-time great films, On the Waterfront has never done a whole lot for me. It’s never been a contender for my all-time Top 100, let alone Top 10. It may have heralded a magnificent new wave of realist cinema at the time, a harbinger for the beating down of taboos to come, but Eli Kazan’s tale of a noble informant exposing waterfront racketeering is extraordinary creaky in its theatricality, especially so for a picture made almost entirely on location. And Brando’s wow performance is
Love Story (1970) There are some movies you studiously avoid but sense that, in the fulness of time, you owe it to yourself to see, just to confirm the uninformed opinion you already have on them. Mamma Mia’s one, and someday, perhaps when the world has awoken anew as a transhumanist paradise, I may brave those infernal waters. Love Story’s another, a movie that has become the very cliché of the woefully clichéd chick flick. It’s everything I expected and less, but it has the undeniable redeeming quality of being mercifully short. That may be because there’s miniscule plot to speak
From Here to Eternity (1953) Which is more famous, Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr making out in the surf in From Here to Eternity or Airplane! spoofing the same? It’s an iconic scene – both of them – in a Best Picture Oscar winner – only one of them – stuffed to the rafters with iconic actors. But Academy acclaim is no guarantee of quality. Just ask A Beautiful Mind. From Here to Eternity is both frustrating and fascinating for what it can and cannot do per the restrictive codes of the 1950s, creaky at times but never less than compelling. There are many movies of
The Mouse that Roared (1959) I’d quite forgotten Peter Sellers essayed multiple roles in a movie satirising the nuclear option prior to Dr. Strangelove. Possibly because, while its premise is memorable, The Mouse that Roared isn’t, very. I was never overly impressed, much preferring the sequel that landed (or took off) four years later – sans Sellers – and this revisit confirms that take. The movie appears to pride itself on faux-Passport to Pimlico Ealing eccentricity, but forgets to bring the requisite laughs along too, or the indelible characters. It isn’t objectionable, just faintly dull. US Defence Secretary: Do you want it recorded in history that
The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension (1984) Maybe you had to see The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension at the time to appreciate its charms fully. And maybe you needed to be appropriately fuelled to boot. I didn’t catch it until years later, and while I could readily appreciate its cult status was earned, it resisted, and still resists, revealing itself to me as an unjustly neglected classic. It’s difficult to put a finger on why, but if pushed, I’d suggest WD Richter lacks an nth of the creative energy as a director that Earl
The Green Man (1956) The Green movie from Launder and Gilliat starring Alastair Sim that isn’t Green for Danger. Which is to say, The Green Man can’t quite scale the heady heights of that decade-earlier murder mystery triumph, but neither is it any slouch. Sim is the antagonist this time – albeit a very affable, Sim-ish one – and his sometime protégée, a young George Cole, the hero. If the plot is entirely absurd, Robert Day’s movie wastes no time probing such insufficiencies, ensuring it is very funny, lively and beautifully performed. Hawkins: In fact, I was wondering, that after that perfect andantino, I might offer u a
The Naked Truth aka Your Past is Showing (1957) We’re all – or should be – familiar with the idea that the Elite/TPTB have their claws embedded in the great and not so good via that old favourite of “the goods”, or dirt. For the most part, their goods, or dirt, are sure to make anything Dennis Price – himself rumoured to have been the victim of blackmail at various points – has his mitts on in The Naked Truth look positively innocuous. But what Mario Zampi’s movie may lack in authentic grimness, it more than makes up for by being very, very
Candy (1968) There’s no way anyone could get away with making it today. I’ll wager that’s the immediate reaction of anyone seeing Candy for the first time. Which, much as I’m adverse to outrage culture, is probably a positive. There’s something inherently suspect about satirising a subject through embracing it wholeheartedly, as this adaptation of the 1958 novel’s trawl through a pornographic America rather bears out. It’s tantamount to suggesting the oeuvre of Eli Roth is actually a commentary on violence. Nevertheless, while Candy isn’t a good movie, attempting as it does to filter its satirical subjects through a Confessions of a Window Cleaner-style level of
Topaz (1969) Torn Curtain was rocky going, a mostly-at-sea Hitchcock vehicle despite inhabiting the spy/thriller genre that made him famous. His follow up, Topaz, however, proved so deficient, it makes Torn Curtain resemble classic-era Hitch by comparison. An interminably dull thriller based around the Cuban Missile Crisis, it finding the director returning to a propaganda picture arena not really seen since his World War II features. The difference with Topaz being, it’s fairly difficult to feed audiences views if they’ve fallen asleep. Deveraux: I’ve got to see what the Russians are up to in Cuba! Hitchcock was adapting Leon Uris’ best-selling 1967 novel of the same
Casablanca (1942) I’m not sure, way back when, that I went away from my first viewing of Casablanca recognising it as the all-time classic for which it is so acclaimed. Perhaps it was just too hallowed to be viewed with unprejudiced eyes. I enjoyed it well enough, but my reaction wasn’t comparable to first sight of the similarly lauded Citizen Kane. And as Humphrey Bogart movies went, I was much more persuaded by The Maltese Falcon. Nevertheless, subsequent visits have served only to elevate its status and confirm the hype was right. You can see very clearly that Casablanca was just another studio picture
Marnie (1964) Hitch in a creative ditch. If you’ve read my Vertigo review, you’ll know I admired rather than really liked the picture many fete as his greatest work. Marnie is, in many ways, a redux, in the way De Palma kept repeating himself in the early-80s. Only significantly less delirious and… well, compelling. While Marnie succeeds in commanding the attention fitfully, it’s usually for the wrong reasons. And Hitch, digging his heels in as he strives to fashion a star against public disinterest – he failed to persuade Grace Kelly out of retirement for Marnie Rutland – comes entirely adrift with his leads.
Jeremiah Johnson (1972) Hitherto, I was most familiar with Jeremiah Johnson in the form of a popular animated gif of beardy Robert Redford smiling and nodding in slow zoom close up (a moment that is every bit as cheesy in the film as it is in the gif). For whatever reason, I hadn’t mustered the enthusiasm to check out the 1970s’ The Revenant – well, beard-wise, at any rate – until now. It’s easy to distinguish the different personalities at work in the movie. The John Milius one – the (mythic) man against the mythic landscape; the likeably accentuated, semi-poetic dialogue – versus
The Ladykillers (1955) Alexander Mackendrick’s ghoulish black comedy, with the emphasis on ghoulish, as five crooks pull off a daring robbery, a key component in the success of their plan being the co-opting of a dear, sweet, oblivious little old lady. Unfortunately for them, she turns out to be the Terminator. Obviously, if The Ladykillers were a modern take – of the sort John Hughes’ might have fashioned, perhaps – she would be delivering literal blows, Home Alone style (the Coen Brothers’ 2004 remake has its moments, but it fails to come up with a distinctive reason for existing, aside from transatlantic relocation
The Birds (1963) Perhaps the most impressive thing about The Birds is how palpably it succeeds in spite of itself. Other Hitchcocks have been beleaguered by a lead not quite delivering the goods, such that the overall piece has suffered (for example, Foreign Correspondent). Often with the consequence of drawing attention to supporting characters (the aforementioned, and also Stage Fright). Here, Hitch has two so-so leading players, and yet you could almost believe he was deliberately making that work in the material’s favour. Certainly, the horror movie where the setting and the horror is the star, and the players neither here nor there,
The Loved One (1965) Tony Richardson’s follow up to Tom Jones rather suggests his success with that film was an accident (I’m an unabashed fan, and regard it as a rare Best Picture Oscar winner the Academy got right). More likely, it was a case of the very things that worked for Jones… didn’t so much for The Loved One. The movie entertains consistently – it couldn’t really not with that cast – but it never feels quite as incisive or as effective as it should, Waugh’s eviscerating satire ending up rather too broad and scattershot. Pauline Kael labelled The Loved One “a triumphant
The Andromeda Strain (1971) Robert Wise’s adaptation of Michael Crichton’s alien-invasion fantasy plays things entirely straight, which undoubtedly helps to sell its mile-high absurdities. But then, Crichton was a master of legitimising official science under the guise of airport fiction, boosted as his novels were by his authoritative status as qualified doctor. All that’s really proof of, of course, is that he’s able to parrot what he’s been taught. Which is very handy when you’re making a living from selling the excitingly plausible. The Andromeda Strain relates and celebrates the wonders of modern science with diligent, unquestioning, reverent awe, and Wise’s
The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) Hitchcock’s two-decades-later remake of his British original. It’s undoubtedly the better-known version, but as I noted in my review of the 1934 film, this The Man Who Knew Too Much is very far from the “far superior” production Truffaut tried to sell the director on during their interviews. Hitchcock would only be drawn – in typically quotable style – that “the first version is the work of a talented amateur and the second was made by a professional”. For which, read a young, creatively fired director versus one clinically going through the motions,
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) I’m by no means a die-hard Frank Capryte. His particular taste in earnestly extolled values can easily rub one up the wrong way, and when that blends with his later more cynical tack, the results are sometimes alarming (It’s A Wonderful Life is justifiably esteemed as a classic, yet it’s also a deeply warped picture that finds cause for celebration in a man being resoundingly shat upon and manipulated by everyone he knows). Mr. Smith Goes to Washington saw the inception of this modified approach in the director’s work, where impossible goodness is pressed into service
Shalako (1968) Sean Connery starring in a western sounds like the kind of lame idea a Bond star grabbing any options available would choose, just to keep working and see where he might land (see also Harrison Ford in The Frisco Kid). The result, then, is a particularly lame movie. Not in the sense of Shalako being awful, but rather entirely redundant, dull and outmoded. Aside from some content signifying the era (the rape of Honor Blackman’s character, usually cut for TV showings), this could easily have been made a decade prior. It’s only really Connery’s presence that announces otherwise. Wikipedia makes the –
Mank (2020) David Fincher probably deserves due credit for doing right by dad and getting Jack’s screenplay into production. Even if it rather waywardly took him more than two decades. Perhaps the length of time is a clue, because for all the meticulousness of Mank’s production, there’s negligible sense that Fincher’s fired up by the material. Indeed, you’re likely to come away from this rather flaccid picture convinced that what Citizen Kane needed wasn’t so much a nostalgically positioned sled as a headless corpse. Or any tell-tale Fincherian sign of murderous despair. Because Mank isn’t really very good. If you’re going to
My Man Godfrey (1936) William Powell deserves more credit than he gets as one of the all-time most watchable movie stars. My Man Godfrey garnered him his second of three Best Actor nominations, teaming him (at his own behest) with ex-wife Carole Lombard. A hugely entertaining screwball comedy, it duly achieved the singular feat of being nominated for all four acting Oscars (of which it was the first), and writing and directing. But not Best Picture. Notable, as this was a year with ten Best Picture nominees, many of which have faded into obscurity; Mr Deeds Goes to Town (which didn’t win), is probably the highest profile
Strangers on a Train (1951) Watching a run of lesser Hitchcock films is apt to mislead one into thinking he was merely a highly competent, supremely professional stylist. It takes a picture where, to use a not inappropriate gourmand analogy, his juices were really flowing to remind oneself just how peerless he was when inspired. Strangers on a Train is one of his very, very best works, one he may have a few issues with but really deserves nary a word said against it, even in “compromised” form. It’s also a picture with more than enough written about it already. It
Your reality, sir, is lies and balderdash, and I’m delighted to say I have no grasp of it whatsoever!
The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988) Wondrous. Gilliam’s colossal misfire is, in fact, his masterpiece. Although, it might be even more so in its unedited form; the director, in response to pressure from Columbia, under new management and loathing his David Puttnam-initiated project, attempted to hone it closer to their favoured two-hour duration. In doing so, he felt it lost something of its assured pacing; “an extra five minutes would make a big difference” (albeit, Gilliam is also on record as saying “our first cut ran three hours and I thought it was just perfect”). When interviewed by Ian
THX 1138 (1971) Curious George’s debut is the antithesis of his later Star Wars (A New Hope), and it’s interesting that he should have invested himself in something so austere, “adult” and joyless given his later escapist veneer. One half senses, like Spielberg with Sugarland Express, that this was a self-consciously serious piece, intended to garner respect, rather than being something he was entirely invested in. But in contrast to the ’berg, Lucas was always a thoughtful young man – the prequel trilogy is deadly serious in theme – and it’s as likely that basic pragmatism took over when it came to
Time Bandits (1981) Terry Gilliam had co-directed previously, and his solo debut had visual flourish on its side, but it was with Time Bandits that Gilliam the auteur was born. The first part of his Trilogy of Imagination, it remains a dazzling work – as well as being one of his most successful – rich in theme and overflowing with ideas while resolutely aimed at a wide (family, if you like) audience. Indeed, most impressive about Time Bandits is that there’s no evidence of self-censoring here, of attempting to make it fit a certain formula, format or palatable template. Gilliam came up with
The Paradine Case (1947) Hitchcock wasn’t very positive about The Paradine Case, his second collaboration with Gregory Peck, but I think he’s a little harsh on a picture that, if it doesn’t quite come together dramatically, nevertheless maintains interest on the basis of its skewed take on the courtroom drama. Peck’s defence counsel falls for his client, Alida Valli’s accused (of murder), while wife Ann Todd wilts dependably and masochistically on the side-lines. Hitch seemed hung up on his ideal version, understandably so, since he suffered so many mandates from producer David O Selznick, not least screenplay rewrites (having been
Brazil (1985) Terry Gilliam didn’t consider Brazil the very embodiment of a totalitarian nightmare, as it is often labelled. His 1984½ (one of the film’s Fellini-riffing working titles) was “the Nineteen Eighty-Four for 1984”, in contrast to Michael Anderson’s Nineteen Eighty-Four from 1948. This despite Gilliam famously boasting never to have read the Orwell’s novel: “The thing that intrigues me about certain books is that you know them even though you’ve never read them. I guess the images are archetypal”. Or as Pauline Kael observed, Brazil is to Nineteen Eighty-Four as “if you’d just heard about it over the years and it had seeped into your visual
The Party (1968) Blake Edwards’ semi-improvisational reunion with Peter Sellers is now probably best known for – I was going to use an elephant-in-the-room gag, but at least one person already went there – Sellers’ “brown face”. And it isn’t a decision one can really defend, even by citing The Party’s influence on Bollywood. Satyajit Ray had reportedly been considering working with Sellers… and then he saw the film. One can only assume he’d missed similar performances in The Millionairess and The Road to Hong Kong; in the latter case, entirely understandable, if not advisable. Nevertheless, for all the flagrant stereotyping, Sellers’ bungling Hrundi V
Get Carter (1971) Inspiration to a generation of pretenders, the likes of the Ritchies and Vaughns. It’s curious to see Get Carter’s Wiki-page suggesting its reappraisal as a classic was down to the likes of these two and Tarantino, as I recall it being held in esteem before that. I think the real distinction comes via the shift in its appreciation; before their input, it was regarded as respectable but nasty, and the latter took the most emphasis. After the revellers in nu-gangster violence were through, Get Carter became nasty but cool, the latter taking the most emphasis. And there is a
Sabotage aka The Woman Alone (1936) Hitchcock adapts Joseph Conrad (The Secret Agent) in another fruitful collaboration with playwright and screenwriter Charles Bennett. The result is shorn of any overt political leanings – Oscar Homolka’s cinema owner is acting for an unknown foreign power with undefined goals – thus making all the more room for the director to crank up Sabotage‘s suspense of suspicion, concealed identity and, in the shocking centrepiece, whether and where and when a bomb will go off. Hitch claimed to be dissatisfied with the result, although one might argue he was prepped to be negative by
The Anderson Tapes (1971) A cult curio. Simultaneously ahead of its time in its pre-Watergate grasp of all-pervading surveillance and behind it in its quirky technique, this second collaboration between Sean Connery and Sidney Lumet succeeds in both engaging and being vaguely dissatisfying. The essential problem is that Lumet probably wasn’t the ideal guy for the job. The Anderson Tapes needed someone with a much tighter control of the frame; indeed, this would probably be the Brian De Palma picture, if only it hadn’t been another half decade before he had the clout to command this sort of budget. Lumet commented of the
We aren’t hunting a fox. We’re hunting a man. He’s an oldish man with a wife. Oh, I know it’s war. It’s our job to do it. But that doesn’t prevent it being murder, does it? It’s simple murder.
Secret Agent (1936) John Gielgud, dashing (romantic) leading man? I’m unclear how many times Gielgud took the main protagonist role in earlier pictures – four, maybe? – but from the 1950s onwards, he’s chiefly known for his supporting turns. Which makes Secret Agent something of a rarity. As for Hitchcock, this finds him settling comfortably into the standard thriller format and is, relatively speaking, a lesser picture. Hitchcock pointed to a series of what he saw as failings in Secret Agent, although at least some of those make it a more interesting picture than it otherwise would have been: “in an adventure
The 39 Steps (1935) Hitch’s gamechanger and still one of the most purely enjoyable pictures in his oeuvre. Much of that, beyond simply telling a breathless narrative with endless invention and style, is The 39 Steps‘ pitch-perfect casting; he’d rarely be quite as lucky again with both his leads. Of course, The 39 Steps gets all the attention, despite honing the elements established by the previous year’s The Man Who Knew Too Much; that’s probably because it does so in a yet lighter and frothier manner. Consequently, it cemented the thriller as the director’s synonymous genre, along with all the ingredients – mostly in the
The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) The 39 Steps gets all the credit, but this year-prior Hitchcock is probably the true forbear of the action movie, delivering set piece after set piece while barely pausing for breath. If it isn’t quite as assured or satisfying in construction as the film that followed, it’s nevertheless the first of the director’s pictures that feels like a Hitchcock “production”, hatched with the assuredness of a master talent delivering precision-timed thrills and mischief to an expectant audience. The story was based on a Bulldog Drummond (Sapper) by Charles Bennett, who previously provided the
Murder! (1930) To say the motivation for the titular (and exclamatory!) act in Hitchcock’s third film comes out of nowhere is an understatement. Or rather, the stated motivation. The subtext makes sense, but you have to be sufficiently informed to be able to read it as subtext. Without that, the explanation, which is transposed from the crime fiction Enter Sir John by Clemence Dane and Helen Simpson, is so distracting that my first response to Murder! was to wonder if I had missed something. The amateur detective protagonist Sir John (played by Herbert Marshall, who became a successful movie actor despite losing a
The Last Valley (1971) The received wisdom on this more obscure Michael Caine film is pretty much “unusual setting but dull”. I didn’t find The Last Valley so. Dull that is. But then, I didn’t think the highlight was Caine’s studious German accent (per biographer Christopher Bray in A Class Act), which sounds to me exactly what you’d expect of Sir Michael attempting a German accent. Not that Caine isn’t very good in the role of pragmatic mercenary the Captain (he demurs from giving any other name). Indeed, he rather steals the show from co-star Omar Sharif. And Pauline Kael was probably
Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) (The Collector’s Edition) Interviewed on the set of Saving Private Ryan for Close Encounters of the Third Kind’s twentieth anniversary, Steven Spielberg expressed the view that it was the only film of his he looked back at that “dates me”, that falls victim to the “privileges of youth”. He alluded, in part, to this being down to his then passion for the UFO subject and possible interpretations thereof (“Now, I grew up”), but chiefly because of the fate of protagonist Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss), who leaves his family for a flight across the universe with
I know enough to know that that great big, dumb cowboy crap of yours don’t appeal to nobody except every jockey on 42nd Street.
Midnight Cowboy (1969) Midnight Cowboy waltzed off with a Best Picture Oscar, and John Schlesinger and Waldo Salt with Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay respectively, but this is a film that was and remains mystifyingly overvalued (there have been plenty of bad choices for the top prize since, but often with a degree of groundswell surrounding their lack of merit). That’s likely because it does suggest an end-of-an-era starkness – misery porn, one might call it – that, with Easy Rider (rightly) not in the running for the main award, made it an easy pick. Previously, I’d been more charitable towards the film,
Phantom of the Opera (1943) I can’t say I’ve ever been especially au fait with Phantom of the Opera lore, such that I wasn’t even aware this version (included on the Universal Monsters Box Set) was the remake of the original featuring Lon Chaney’s deliriously unsettling visage. Arthur Lubin’s colour production is an altogether lusher affair, one that backpedals on the horror in favour of melodrama and extended musical – well, operatic – interludes. And, surely rather defeating the point of the exercise, it’s a more engrossing picture before Claude Rains’ Erique Claudin suffers an excruciating facial disfigurement. In part, that’s because the
At the Circus (1939) This is where the brothers sink into their stretch of middling MGM movies, now absent the presence of their major supporter Irving Thalberg; it’s probably for the best this wasn’t called A Day at the Circus, as it would instantly have drawn unflattering comparisons with the earlier MGM pair that gave them their biggest hits. Nevertheless, there’s enough decent material to keep At the Circus fairly sprightly (rather than “fairly ponderous”, as Pauline Kael put it). Pauline: They tell me you’re a great lawyer. Loophole: Who do? Certainly not my clients. Certainly not the ones who were hung last week.
We three would make an ideal couple. Why, you’ve got beauty, charm, money! You have got money, haven’t you? Because if you haven’t, we can quit right now.
Animal Crackers (1930) The Marx Brothers’ second feature, and like The Cocoanuts, adapted from their stage musical. Also like its predecessor, Animal Crackers very much wears its origins, unadorned, on its sleeve, but that barely matters when the japes, wit and reigning anarchy are as unfettered and firing on all cylinders as they are here. Spaulding: One morning I shot an elephant in my pyjamas. How he got in my pyjamas, I don’t know. The musical was written by George S Kaufman, Morrie Ryskind, Bert Kalmar, Harry Ruby, the former two also credited for The Cocoanuts, with Ryskind adapting both for the screen; all
The Sugarland Express (1974) The Sugarland Express is caught between two stools: the kind of movie Steven Spielberg wanted to make, one that was informed by his sensibilities, and the kind of movie his “New Hollywood” peer group were turning out. In some respect, you might see it as an attempt to replicate the human drama of George Lucas’ American Graffiti from the previous year, but that picture had nostalgia on its side. All Spielberg really had was Goldie Hawn. Spielberg gains a story credit on his feature debut, itself based on an actual incident, if inevitably embellished. The screenplay comes courtesy
Mr Denby, I’m not ignorant, and I’m not selling my land. And I’m not giving my children over to anyone else to raise.
Places in the Heart (1984) The one that’s more famous for Sally Field’s Oscar acceptance speech than the film itself. Which is to say, despite its Best Picture Oscar nomination, I suspect few really loved Places in the Heart, they didn’t really love Places in the Heart. It’s a slight, pleasant American period (Great Depression era) picture that contrives to put forward an “It’ll be alright” homespun, righteous quality, despite the horrors going on at its fringes. Which can be affecting when done well (The Shawshank Redemption), but here, it tends to wither in the face of a lack of real
Trading Places (1983) It’s incredible to recall that Eddie Murphy was only in his early twenties during his first flush of success (48 Hrs, Trading Places, Beverly Hills Cop). And not, like contemporary Tom Cruise, playing teenagers, but rather adult roles, roles where age wasn’t an identifier. Here, he co-stars with the decade-senior Dan Aykroyd, but let’s not pretend Eddie isn’t the lead and main attraction. Director John Landis’ retro treatment of Trading Places, which Pauline Kael unflattering described as “a time warp… with its stodgy look, suggesting no period of the past or the present”, adds to the sense that the
The Nightmare Before Christmas (1994) The Nightmare Before Christmas is one of the steadily dwindling number of Tim Burton films – yes, I know it’s really directed by Henry Selick, but it’s Burton’s story and sensibility, and he’s always taken all the credit, probably quite rudely – that are upheld as unalloyed classics. And yet, I’ve never felt especially partial to it. Like Edward Scissorhands, also scripted by Caroline Thompson, it’s a tonally one-note affair: fine as far as it goes, but it doesn’t actually go that far. Pauline Kael complained of Edward Scissorhands that “Beetlejuice would have spit in this movie’s eye”
It’s their place, Mac. They have a right to make of it what they can. Besides, you can’t eat scenery!
Local Hero (1983) With the space of thirty-five years, Bill Forsyth’s gentle eco-parable feels more seductive than ever. Whimsical is a word often applied to Local Hero, but one shouldn’t mistake that description for its being soft in the head, excessively sentimental or nostalgic. Tonally, in terms of painting a Scottish idyll where the locals are no slouches in the face of more cultured foreigners, the film hearkens to both Powell and Pressburger (I Know Where I’m Going!) and Ealing (Whisky Galore!), but it is very much its own beast. Indeed, a more direct inheritor of the tradition of Whisky Galore! might
Witness for the Prosecution (1957) Was Joe Eszterhas a big fan of Witness for the Prosecution? He was surely a big fan of any courtroom drama turning on a “Did the accused actually do it?” only for it to turn out they did, since he repeatedly used it as a template. Interviewed about his Agatha Christie adaptation (of the 1925 play), writer-director Billy Wilder said of the author that “She constructs like an angel, but her language is flat; no dialogue, no people”. It isn’t an uncommon charge, one her devotees may take issue with, that her characters are mere pieces
Marty (1955) It might be the very unexceptional good-naturedness of Marty that explains its Best Picture Oscar success. Ernest Borgnine’s Best Actor win is perhaps more immediately understandable, a badge of recognition for versatility, having previously attracted attention for playing iron-wrought bastards. But Marty also took the Palme d’Or, and it’s curious that its artistically-inclined jury fell so heavily for its charms (it was the first American picture to win the award; Lost Weekend previously won the Grand Prix when that was still the top award). Perhaps it was the way Marty carried with it an upfront-ness, and unabashed sense of honesty, as epitomised by its title
The Haunting (1963) Is it bad that, as far as the haunted-house subgenre goes, I prefer The Legend of Hell House to Robert Wise’s very respectable, mature adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s then-recent novel? Both are based on a team of investigators setting up shop in a famously haunted abode – Nigel Kneale’s The Stone Tape does something similar – but John Hough’s film of Richard Matheson’s novel simply wants to have unapologetic fun with the premise. The Haunting goes for a less tangible vibe – night and day compared to the recent Netflix incarnation – but I’m not sure it quite pulls it off. It
Dead Poets Society (1989) I’ve been up and down on Dead Poets Society over the years, initially impressed by the picture and subsequently finding it rather lacking. As such, I hadn’t been minded to revisit it in a good while, but this occasion found me resolved somewhere between those two positions. On the one hand, Tom Schulman’s screenplay is often simplistic in its character and thematic content while sporting a veneer of substance and maturity. On the other, director Peter Weir imbues the proceedings with an immersive, tangible flavour of time, setting and atmosphere. It’s Witness all over again, basically, just slightly less
Ghostbusters II (1989) Columbia doubtless saw a Ghostbusters sequel as a licence to print money. Well, they did after David Puttnam, who disdained the overt commercialism of blockbusters – as you might guess, he didn’t last very long; just over a year – was replaced as chairman by Dawn Steel. Troubled waters were smoothed over – he’d effectively insulted Bill Murray, as well as claiming a sequel was going ahead; Ivan Reitman’s office responded that it was “The first we’ve heard of it” – and development put into high gear. But the studio ended up with a box office also-ran, thoroughly eclipsed by the summer
The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990) It’s often the case that industry-shaking flops aren’t nearly the travesties they appeared to be before the dust had settled, and so it is with The Bonfire of the Vanities. The adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s ultra-cynical bestseller is still the largely toothless, apologetically broad-brush comedy – I’d hesitate to call it a satire in its reconfigured form – it was when first savaged by critics nearly thirty years ago, but taken for what it is, that is, removed from the long shadow of Wolfe’s novel, it’s actually fairly serviceable star-stuffed affair. Certainly, one that
Platoon (1986) Oliver Stone won his first of two directing Oscars for Platoon, but it was one of three nominations at the 59thAcademy Awards; dual Best Original Screenplay nods for Platoon and Salvador were also forthcoming (Woody won for Hannah and Her Sisters). Now, I think Salvador’s a fine piece of work, near-peak Stone operating at the height of his powers, and it’s worth remembering that he had previously won in the screenplay category for Midnight Express. However, his writing for Platoon is by some distance the least of its virtues. As Pauline Kael noted, it’s like “a young man’s first autobiographical – and inflated – work” (Stone wrote
West Side Story (1961) Why the hell is Spielberg remaking this? Does he somehow think that, from on high in his Hollywood ivory tower, he has the keen insight to imbue some of the realism lacking in the Robert Wise/ Jerome Robbins Best Picture Oscar winner (I mean, it is a musical)? Or that, with today’s marginally keener eye for ethnicity-appropriate casting – if you aren’t Ridley Scott – this alone is good enough reason to retread ground where there’s no earthly justification (this at least appears to be part of it; that and he loved it as a teen, the soft-headed
He made me look the wrong way and I cut off my hand. He could make you look the wrong way and you could lose your whole head.
Moonstruck (1987) Moonstruck has the dubious honour of making it to the ninth spot in Premiere magazine’s 2006 list of the 20 Most Overrated Movies of all Time. There are certainly some valid entries (Number One is, however, absurd), but I’m not sure that, despite its box-office success and Oscar recognition, the picture has a sufficient profile to be labelled with that adjective. It’s a likeable, lightweight romantic comedy that can boast idiosyncratic casting in a key role, but it simply doesn’t endure quotably or as a classic couple matchup the way the titans of the genre (Annie Hall, When Harry Met Sally) do.
In England, Colonel, the historic mission of the proletariat consists almost entirely of momentary interest.
Billion Dollar Brain (1967) A reluctant Ken Russell at least ensures this final Harry Palmer assignment – well, until the ’90s anyway, if we really must go there – looks good. Crucially, however, it’s all but devoid of internal tension, except momentarily when Harry experiences an altercation or two with a couple of heavies. Which invariably leads to a ream of exposition from his captor; this is about as far from an espionage investigation or mystery begging to be solved as it gets; while the Bond comparisons batted its way are slightly unfair, Billion Dollar Brain does support a similarly incidental
Funeral in Berlin (1966) A serviceable follow-up to The Ipcress File, but conclusive evidence that it wasn’t Michael Caine’s insolent performance as Harry Palmer alone – “You really work on the insubordinate bit, don’t you?” – that made it special. With Sydney J Furie conspicuously absent (Harry Salzman very much did not ask him to return), the directorial reins were passed to reliable go-to-Guy Hamilton (Goldfinger). While Otto Heller returns as cinematographer, painting a suitably drab, austere Berlin, Bond editor Peter Hunt is absent, and so is the indelible score (Konrad Efers replaces John Barry). Gone too are the pep and verve.
The Ipcress File (1965) It’s ironic that Harry Palmer is seen as the down-at-heel, scruffy sibling of James Bond (from then Bond co-producer Harry Saltzman) – the anti-Bond as Variety put it. Because, in The Ipcress File at least, the drab London scenery and non-descript interiors may offer none of the opulence that comes with grand sets and villainous lairs, but it’s visually more stylish than any Bond movie (legendary Bond designer Ken Adam was nevertheless on hand to offer verisimilitude – he won the BAFTA over the also-nominated Goldfinger and “Cubby wouldn’t talk to me for the rest of the day”). Michael Caine’s career-making
Witness (1985) Witness saw the advent of a relatively brief period – just over half a decade – during which Harrison Ford was willing to use his star power in an attempt to branch out. The results were mixed, and abruptly concluded with his typically too-late attempt to go where Daniel Day-Lewis, Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro had gone before (with Oscar-nominated results at bare minimum). That’s right, he did a disability turn – not quite “full retard” – in the much-derided Regarding Henry. And so, he retreated to the world of Tom Clancy, the point where his cachet began
Lost Horizon (1937) Frank Capra’s adaptation of James Goodbye, Mr Chips Hilton’s novel has a potent legacy, not least through helping to popularise the name Shangri-La (Roosevelt named the later renamed Camp David retreat after it) and a wholly lambasted musical remake in the ’70s. The Lost Horizon production spiralled out of control and took some time to make its money back, but it still ultimately continued Capra’s hot streak, duly garnering a Best Picture nomination. With hindsight, while one wouldn’t call it a folly, it does betray the unvarnished privilege that has given form to its utopian vision, and one can even muster a
The Mummy (1932) Even though retellings of Dracula and Frankenstein have been more ubiquitous over the years, it feels as if The Mummy has been granted the most prolific attention of late, probably because the Brendan Fraser Indiana Jones version, while mostly not very good, was very successful. And the recent Tom Cruise edition, while also not very good, wasn’t nearly successful enough, bringing Universal’s “Dark Universe” crashing down around its ears. This original iteration is very modest in both ambition and intent, but boasts craftsmanship in key areas that ensures it stands the test of time rather better than some of its Universal Horror stablemates. Director Karl Freund,
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) I’m doubtful Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid could have been made in the form it was a few years earlier, but you won’t find it identified with the “New Hollywood” that was percolating at the time of its release (it merits a mere three mentions in Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders and Raging Bulls). Elements – trendy, “cool” nihilism – were, if not informed, then fanned by the likes of Bonnie and Clyde, but this was very much a big Hollywood production, with a then bank-busting sum commanded by William Goldman’s screenplay and the studio martialling
It Happened One Night (1934) In any romantic comedy worth its salt, you need to be rooting for both leads to end up together. That’s why, while each has its individual pleasures – and one is an unchallenged classic in every other department – the triptych of Andie McDowell ’90s romcoms (Green Card, Groundhog Day and Four Weddings and a Funeral) falter on that score; she doesn’t elicit any degree of investment (ironically, she’s much better as a knockabout nun doing a dolphin impression in Hudson Hawk). Even Hanks and Ryan in Sleepless in Seattle are merely likeable; you can’t get that caught up if
Dances with Wolves (1990) Kevin Costner’s Oscar glory has become something of a punching bag for a certain brand of “white saviour” storytelling, so much so that it’s even crossed over seamlessly into the SF genre (Avatar). It’s also destined to be forever scorned for having the temerity to beat out Goodfellas for Best Picture at the 63rd Academy Awards. I’m not going to buck the trend and suggest it was actually the right choice – I’d also have voted Ghost above Dances, maybe even The Godfather Part III – but it’s certainly the most “Oscar-friendly” one. The funny thing, on revisit, is that the aspect
The Sting (1973) In any given list of the best things – not just movies – ever, Mark Kermode would include The Exorcist, so it wasn’t a surprise when William Friedkin’s film made an appearance in his Nine films that should have won Best Picture at the Oscars list last month. Of the nominees that year, I suspect he’s correct in his assessment (I don’t think I’ve seen A Touch of Class, so it would be unfair of me to dismiss it outright. If we’re simply talking best film of that year, though, The Exorcist isn’t even 1973’s best horror; that would be Don’t Look Now).
Kramer vs. Kramer (1979) The zeitgeist Best Picture Oscar winner is prone to falling from grace like no other. Often, they’re films with notable acting performances but themes that tend to appear antiquated or even slightly offensive in hindsight. Few extol the virtues of American Beauty the way they did twenty years ago, and Kramer vs. Kramer isn’t quite seen as exemplifying a sensitive and balanced examination of the fallout of divorce on children and their parents the way it was in 1980. It remains a compelling film for the performances, but it’s difficult not to view it, despite the ameliorating effect of
The Other Side of the Wind (2018) Sometimes it may be better not to get what you want and to carry on dreaming about how splendid it would be if you had it. The Other Side of the Wind has been one of those elusive grail items; “Wouldn’t it be amazing if we finally got to see Orson Welles’ great uncompleted masterpiece?” The critical response to getting it at last has been generally kind, but generally kind in the sense of considering it would be churlish to rip it to shreds after all the effort that has gone in to getting
He’s going to emasculate our nuclear deterrent and bring the whole damn country to its knees… because of his dreams.
Dreamscape (1984) I wasn’t hugely au fait with movies’ box office performance until the end of the ’80s, so I think I had an idea that Dennis Quaid (along with Jeff Bridges) was a much bigger star than he was, just on the basis of the procession of cool movies he showed up in (The Right Stuff, Enemy Mine, Innerspace, D.O.A. etc) The truth was, the public resisted all attempts to make him The Next Big Thing, not that his sly-grinned, cocky persona throughout the decade would lead you to believe his dogged lack of success had any adverse effect on his
The Lady Vanishes (1938) Alfred Hitchcock’s penultimate UK-based picture, The Lady Vanishes can be comfortably paired with The 39 Steps as a co-progenitor of his larkier suspense formula (watch these two and then jump to North by Northwest, and the through line is immediately obvious). Part of its great blessing is Hitchcock being handed a screenplay by Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat, latterly directors themselves, and knowing to make the most of the very funny dialogue, including arguably the picture’s greatest gift (well, other than Hitch himself): Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne as ultimate English cricket enthusiasts – to the exclusion of all else
What’s Christmas but a time for finding yourself a year older and not a day richer? There’s nothing merry in that.
Scrooge (1970) The most charitable thing one can say about Scrooge the musical is that it was bound to happen at some point. It isn’t even necessarily a bad idea. It could work. Indeed, it did work two decades later when the Muppets tried it. Which rather highlights the big problem with this picture: it’s no fun. As taglines go, “What the dickens have they done to Scrooge?” is laying yourself open for invective, but the film was an easy sell to awards ceremonies, inclined as a matter of course towards sumptuous musicals. It was nominated for a BAFTA, gathered a handful of Golden Globes
Heathers (1988) Michael Lehmann’s opening trio of movies – Heathers, Meet the Applegates, and, yes, Hudson Hawk – marked him out as a bright talent in the realm of absurdist humour, one to rival Joe Dante and Tim Burton. And then what became of him? A retreat from the mauling Bruno’s vanity vehicle received, into likeable but indifferent fare, and now a jobbing career on TV. It seems so unfair. As for his collaborator in Heathers’ pitch-black comedy, Daniel Waters, the man who wrote the screenplay with Kubrick in mind as director, no less, he’s the classic example of starting on a giddy high
I freely chose my response to this absurd world. If given the opportunity, I would have been more vigorous.
The Falcon and the Snowman (1985) I suspect, if I hadn’t been ignorant of the story of Christopher Boyce and Andrew Daulton Lee selling secrets to the Soviets during the ’70s, I’d have found The Falcon and the Snowman less engaging than I did. Which is to say that John Schlesinger’s film has all the right ingredients to be riveting, including a particularly camera-hogging performance from Sean Penn (as Lee), but it’s curiously lacking in narrative drive. Only fitfully does it channel the motives of its protagonists and their ensuing paranoia. As such, the movie makes a decent primer on the
Full Metal Jacket (1987) If there’s a problem with appreciating the oeuvre of Stanley Kubrick, it’s that the true zealots will claim every single one of his pictures as a goddam masterpiece (well, maybe not Killer’s Kiss). I can’t quite get behind that. Every single one may be meticulously crafted, but there are rocky patches and suspect decisions made in at least a handful of them. Full Metal Jacket is something of a masterpiece when set against the other Nam flick released in a similar time frame, certainly. Or rather, its first half is. The first half of Full Metal Jacket can stand proud against anything
Blade Runner (1982) There seems to be an increasing temperament of late that it’s okay not to like Blade Runner really all that much. Which is fine; no motion picture cow should be taken as sacrosanct. Not even Citizen Kane. I can’t say I remotely agree, though. Blade Runner’s a rare picture that only improves with each viewing, even given the best attempts of Sir Ridders to undermine its ambiguities and greatest strengths. But that’s the philosophical subtext, never Scott’s strongest suit, and given the rest of his filmography, it’s almost as if he tripped into it here. Where Blade Runner truly excels, exhibiting its
G.I. Jane (1997) In the late ’60s, Pauline Kael wrote a piece bemoaning (she was quite good at bemoaning) the state of US movie companies with regard to how they were turning to England for directors. She commented, “The English can write and they can act… but they can’t direct movies”. She proceeded with a list of examples, honourably exempting Hitchcock and Carol Reed (but unforgivably omitting Michael Powell). It admittedly included a string of fair comments, but also rather unjustly picked on several lights of the comedy genre, as if that was ever, anywhere, with very rare exceptions,
Dune (1984) Dune was (still is?) one of those movies that seemed to be a fixture in student houses of “a certain disposition”, frequently played and part of the furniture, but not really absorbed. Easier to stare at rather than fully engage with. Unless, I presume, you were already an aficionado of Frank Herbert’s gargantuan novels. I’ve seen it said of the Harry Potter movieverse that you really need to have read the books to get all you can from them, but the only one where I really felt that was the case was The Prisoner of Azkaban, which seemed to have some
The Elephant Man (1980) It seems to be the current curse of the fledgling talented director that a much-feted indie debut leads to wooing by Hollywood and subsequent, if not dissipation, then diluting of talent, as distinctiveness and individuality are drained away and homogenised. Four decades ago, David Lynch was someone who took exactly that path, transiting from one of the all-time cult movies to the most darling of respected genres, the period piece. And then he went and made a hugely-budgeted sci-fi blockbuster. Clearly, it was career curtains for the one-time auteur. I won’t come on to Dune just yet,
Eraserhead (1977) Long, long ago, when I was but a student, having an Eraserhead poster on the wall represented an attempt to garner instant cachet. It was that or Betty Blue. Which was not to say those displaying it secretly nursed the opinion that perhaps it wasn’t really all that, but it was in such proliferation, like Pulp Fiction a few years later, that it ceased to hold much evidence of anything personality-wise on the part of the bedroom decorator. Lynch’s film is a cult classic of the mainstream, in that it has long since ceased being a hidden picture awaiting discovery; it’s fully
Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984) It’s a somewhat over-optimistic suggestion by defenders of the third big screen Star Trek that it doesn’t deserve to be lumped in with the curse of the odd-numbered Trek movies. What they’re getting at is that The Search for Spock isn’t actually bad. Which it isn’t, but it is blighted by being so non-descript in its ambition that it rather gets lost between the surrounding sequels that actually do vie for attention, in whatever manner. The truth is, there’s a more than solid – even maybe really good – picture lurking within The Search for Spock, but it’s flattened into the
Ghostbusters (1984) I was never an uber-Ghostbusters fan. I liked it alright, Bill Murray was really funny in it, but Bill Murray was really funny in everything at that point (well, except The Razor’s Edge), so that didn’t explain its enormous success. I think part of it is that, even now, that theme, and the images of those guys, used to maximum montage effect in the movie itself, suggest a popular classic of folk memory even to me, knowing otherwise. Much as Harold Faltermeyer’s Axel F, and the presence of Eddie Murphy, mask how thin Beverly Hills Cop essentially is. Although, Beverly Hills Cop is at least well directed, and
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) I don’t love Star Trek, but I do love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. That probably isn’t just me, but a common refrain of many a non-devotee of the series. Although, it used to apply to The Voyage Home (the funny one, with the whales, the Star Trek even the target audience for Three Men and a Baby could enjoy). Unfortunately, its high regard has also become the desperate, self-destructive, song-and-verse, be-all-and-end-all of the overlords of the franchise itself, in whichever iteration, it seems. This is understandable to an extent, as Khan is that rare movie sequel made to
You’re going out there to destroy them, right? Not to study. Not to bring back. But to wipe them out.
Aliens (1986) (Special Edition) Aliens immediately became my favourite movie when I first saw it. It was a heart stopping roller coaster ride, and I didn’t want to get off. So much so, when it was over I instantly rewound the video tape and watched it again. James Cameron transformed the slow-burn atmospherics of Ridley Scott’s haunting original into an all-out attack/slaughter by/of xenomorphs; as the tagline announced, “This Time It’s War”. I can’t really apologise for having preferred it to Alien; it was simply a more accessible, adrenalised, edge-of-the-seat, air-punching experience. Time, hindsight and repeat viewings can change a lot;
Tootsie (1982) Tootsie’s that rare hit comedy that almost entirely justifies its high profile, which is probably why it’s that rare hit comedy that was also nominated for Best Picture Oscar. It’s also an ’80s comedy that stands the test of time – the odds of which are stacked against– even if its askance reactions to both and gender identification and equality (“Don’t you find being a woman in the ’80s so complicated?”) might now occasionally seem a little antiquated. About the only thing that really shows wear is Dave Grusin’s relentlessly tone-deaf score, but even that Go, Tootsie Go! song – and it’s
Missing (1982) After seeing The Verdict a couple of months ago, and musing that it might be my personal choice for the Best Picture Oscar out of the 1982 nominees, I thought it might be interesting to revisit the lot. One of which, Missing, I hadn’t seen before. I was aware of the regard in which it was held, of course, as a feature of genuine political content that even elicited angry denials from the US State Department over its allegations of US involvement in the 1973 Chilean coup that saw General Pinochet topple the (democratically-elected, but socialist, so fair game) President
Coming Home (1978) Coming Home arrived at the tail end of a remarkably prolific decade for director Hal Ashby, one now better remembered for birthing the careers of renowned wunderkinds like Spielberg, Lucas and De Palma (like Robert Altman, Ashby was a good decade older than many of his ’70s peers). The film received considerable Oscar attention, winning Jane Fonda her second Oscar and Jon Voight his first (unlikely to be repeated, unless he experiences some kind of political epiphany and recants his outspoken Republican ways). But, unlike competing and ultimately victorious fellow ‘Nam picture The Deer Hunter, it has sunk
F for Fake (1973) Orson Welles’ F for Fake is in some ways be the obverse of Citizen Kane; so shoestring, much of it comprises re-edited footage from Francois Reichenbach’s documentary about Elmyr de Hory, it hardly compares to the opulence and majesty of his most famous picture. Yet those who know it well tend to set it on high as one of his greatest works, fit to share the same podium with the popularly proclaimed “greatest film of all-time”. That’s likely partly because it’s a “pure” piece, untampered with and thus thoroughly Welles. It’s also the director at his most cheerful
Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977) While I’ve seen instalments the original and III a number of times, I hadn’t got round to checking out the near-universally reviled first Exorcist sequel until now. Going in, I had lofty notions Exorcist II: The Heretic would reveal itself as not nearly the travesty everyone said it was. Rather, that it would be deserving of some degree of praise, if only it was approached in the right manner. Well, there is something to that; as a sequel to The Exorcist, it sneers at preconceptions right off the bat by wholly failing to terrify, so its determined existence within the fabric of that film
Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi (1983) And so George Lucas lets the walls come tumbling down. Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi isn’t a disaster, as it at least ties up the Luke/Vader arc with some degree of responsibility, but it plays safe in almost every other respect, undoing the intricacy, character-building, magic-making and general sense of majesty Irvin Kershner invested in The Empire Strikes Back. Jedi, for the most part, is just another fantasy movie, of which there was an abundance in the six years following Star Wars, and Richard Marquand’s workmanlike, functional approach does nothing to augment
Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980) Perhaps the strangest take away from Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back is that its director created something so artful, so captivating and impressive, yet the rest of his filmography goes virtually unnoticed. Irvin Kershner even helmed entries in three other movie series (The Return of a Man Called Horse, unofficial Connery Bond return Never Say Never Again and Robocop 2, as well as attempted M*A*S*H cash-in S*P*Y*S), all of which were mediocre to disappointing. Lucas himself recognised that The Empire Strikes Back (just consider the lack of finesse of that title for a moment, and how the picture’s actual
Batman (1989) There’s Jaws, there’s Star Wars, and then there’s Batman in terms of defining the modern blockbuster. Jaws’ success was so profound, it changed the way movies were made and marketed. Batman’s marketing was so profound, it changed the way tentpoles would be perceived: as cash cows. Disney tried to reproduce the effect the following year with Dick Tracy, to markedly less enthusiastic response. None of this places Batman in the company of Jaws as a classic movie sold well, far from it. It just so happened to hit the spot. As Tim Burton put it, it was “more of a cultural phenomenon than a great movie”. It’s
The Last Wave (1977) Peter Weir’s perception- and reality-bending third feature may not hold quite the same level of foreboding or uncanny resonance as Picnic at Hanging Rock, but it is very much kindred. The Last Wave comes at a point when Weir’s cinematic explorations were neither bound nor fully-informed by the strictures of the traditional Hollywood narrative, at liberty to take his tales wherever he felt they needed to go. In terms of premise, you might be forgiven for regarding The Last Wave as one-part cautionary eco-parable and one-part white man’s guilt espoused over the treatment of Australian Aboriginals. Certainly, Pauline Kael tore the picture
The Next Man aka The Arab Conspiracy aka Double Hit (1976) In which Sean Connery plays an Arab. For the second time. His versatility when confronted by the challenge of portraying different nationalities and ethnicities is renowned, of course. Russians (The Hunt for Red October), Irish (The Untouchables), Greeks (Time Bandits), even Japanese (You Only Live Twice); they’re no problem for one of Sean’s calibre, all arriving fully bestowed with a recognisable Scottish burr. For some reason, this rarely matters (well, You Only Live Twice features an egregiously ridiculous makeover); Connery forces the world to reform around him by sheer dint
Mad Max 2 (1981) Much has been written in praise of Mad Max 2/The Road Warrior over the years, rightly noting its enormous influence (albeit in tandem with a number of other science fiction opuses in the surrounding five years), but mostly concentrating on its abiding status as a remarkably executed, fantastically taut, kinetic thrill ride. This sequel sees George Miller coax and expand the kernel of the original, teasing out the mythical elements therein and producing a big, bold, super-charged action engine. Mad Max 2 is an economical picture in storytelling, terms, just as its director recognises that grand spectacle is
Cocoon (1985) Anyone coming across Cocoon cold might reasonably assume the involvement of Steven Spielberg in some capacity. This is a sugary, well-meaning tale of age triumphing over adversity. All thanks to the power of aliens. Substitute the elderly for children and you pretty much have the manner and Spielberg for Ron Howard and you pretty much have the approach taken to Cocoon. Howard is so damn nice, he ends up pulling his punches even on the few occasions where he attempts to introduce conflict to up the stakes. Pauline Kael began her review by expressing the view that consciously life-affirming movies
Innerspace (1987) There’s no doubt that Innerspace is a flawed movie. Joe Dante finds himself pulling in different directions, his instincts for comic subversion tempered by the need to play the romance plot straight. He tacitly acknowledges this on the DVD commentary for the film, where he notes Pauline Kael’s criticism that he was attempting to make a mainstream movie; and he was. But, as ever with Dante, it never quite turns out that way. Whereas his kids’ movies treat their protagonists earnestly, this doesn’t come so naturally with adults. I’m a bona fide devotee of Innerspace, but I can’t help but
Dirty Harry (1971) Right-wing tract or a more ambivalent study of two extreme characters (as the tagline said, “Dirty Harry and the homicidal maniac. Harry’s the one with the badge“)? There is evidently an element of wish-fulfillment in terms of identification with the Callahan character; he is pro-active in a world where bureaucracy and injustice are endemic. As such he is presented, initially at least, with situations in which it is easy to be u unperturbed by his casual dispensation of violent justice (recounting how he shot a would-be rapist) or setting up iconic scenes of coolness (dealing with
It’s funny how the colours of the real world only seem really real when you viddy them on the screen.
A Clockwork Orange (1971) It would be reasonable to ask whether there’s anything left to be said about A Clockwork Orange, so embedded in cult film consciousness is it. And so raked over in debates on sex, violence, censorship, and whether the media is culpable in cases of alleged imitations of fictional events in the real world. A Clockwork Orange is not a film I particularly venerate, but I most certainly recognise its enduring power (perhaps for reasons both positive and negative). The documentary Revisiting A Clockwork Orange, produced at the time of the film’s re-release in Britain after nearly thirty years
De Palma (2015) If nothing else, De Palma, Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow’s documentary on the visionary director – “visionary” is an over-worn adjective to daub on auteur-related movie posters, but if there’s one director who’s all about vision, it’s Brian De Palma – is a reminder of how few cinematic craftsmen today possess a truly distinctive style. More than that, who embrace a distinctive filmic language; De Palma openly acknowledges his debt to Hitchcock, but quite rightly has a different take to those who accuse him of being little more than a copycat; the real surprise should be that
Willow (1988) There’s a reason most ’80s fantasy films, Willow included, were failures at the box office; they weren’t very good. Sure, a nostalgic hue envelops many a Krull, or Labyrinth, or Dark Crystal, and they have their redeeming aspects, sporadically, but they fall far short of the storytelling drive, ambition or filmmaking flourish of the movie that inspired the trend they were a part of. That picture, Star Wars, was, of course, formulated by George Lucas over the course of a period when he had considered various options before pinning down the ideas for his family sci-fi/fantasy effort, among them reviving Flash Gordon; it is