Travel and a heavy work schedule have kept me away for a week or two. That said, here is my latest entry as we get to my Top 40 and really enter in to movies I truly love and value.
#40 “Stop Making Sense”
Director: Jonathan Demme
Stars: The Talking Heads
Original Release Date: 16 Nov 1984
America’s best band in the best concert film ever made. I think its only fair to mention that Talking Heads are my all time favourite band. This however does not diminish how remarkable this film is. This is one of the only true concert films. It concentrates only on the music and the band, not the audience, interviews, back-story. This is a Talking Heads concert, filmed. It starts with the legendary empty stage, David Byrne and a boom box doing an acoustic version of Psycho Killer. Song by song, band members and set pieces are added until the stage is full. The end of the movie features “Girlfriend is Better” with Byrne in The Big Suit (the song which gives the movie it’s title), then Take me To the River and the incredible Cross-eyed and Painless, which captures this band at their creative yet accessible best.
#39 “Some Like it Hot”
Director: Billy Wilder
Stars: Jack Lemmon, Tony Curtis, Marilyn Monroe
Original Release Date: 29 March 1959
Oscars: 1 (Costume Design B&W), five other nominations.
In an interview with Graham Norton, Tony Curtis described the make-up test for Some Like it Hot. Curtis and Jack Lemmon dressed in drag, and then to see if they would pass as women, walked around the studio grounds, even into the women’s washroom. When no-one noticed them, they felt they were ready. In the ‘genre’ of cross dress movies, this is key. This is one of the funniest films ever made, but the performance of these brilliant actors as their female counterparts makes the film. Its Marilyn Monroe’s best film and has without a doubt the best last line of any film ever made!
#38 “Breaking Away”
Director: Peter Yates
Stars: Dennis Christopher, Dennis Quaid, Daniel Stern
Original Release Date: 20 Jul 1979
Oscars: 1 (Original Screenplay), 4 other nominations
Breaking Away is a film that transports me back to my youth. I clearly remember seeing it in the summer of 1979 at the Hyland Cinema in Kitchener with my girlfriend. I went to see a movie for the sake of seeing a movie and saw one of the most enduring heart-warming tales ever told. Breaking Away is a movie about four friends in a college town. They are known as Cutters, a dual insult because they don’t go to school and they the children of limestone quarry workers. One of four friends, Dave, is so obsessed with the Italian cycling team that he lives his life pretending to be Italian, much to the chagrin of his used car salesman father. Dave falls for a college student, crossing class lines, but worse, pretends to be an Italian exchange student. From this backdrop, plays out one of the most enduring, inspiring human comedies ever made. This is a delightful, overlooked film that you should seek out.
Trivia: In Bloomington Indiana, where the film takes place, there is an old limestone quarry and locals were known as stoners. The filmmakers used the term Cutters to avoid the drug reference.
#37 “Dog Day Afternoon”
Director: Sydney Lumet
Stars: Al Pacino, John Cazale
Original Release Date: 21 Sep 1975
Oscars: 1 (Original Screenplay), 5 other nominations
Two hapless would-be burglars. A hot August afternoon. More cops and SWAT members that you can count. Gawking on-lookers. A fascinated media. Watching Dog Day Afternoon today, where a media circus ensues over botched bank robbery and hostage taking, you realize that the film foreshadowed what we have today, where social media takes everything to its extreme almost immediately. Based on a true story, it tells the story of Sonny (Pacino) and his witless friend Sal (Cazale) that rob a Manhattan bank to get money to pay for Sonny’s lovers sex change operation. Everything that could go wrong, does and the film, which take place in a a single day, follows the cat and mouse game as Sonny tries to find a way out. Dog Day is an edgy hard to watch movie, it has a long fuse that burns slowly. It’s the opposite of a fee good film, but its excellent entertainment!
Trivia: Co-star John Cazale only ever appears in five films. The Godfather, The Godfather Part II (Fredo), The Conversation, Dog Day Afternoon and The Deer Hunter. All five were best picture nominess and three won. He was engaged to Meryl Streep during the filming of The Deer Hunter. He died of cancer at age 42 shortly after filming was completed.
#36 “The Searchers”
Director: John Ford
Stars: John Wayne, Natalie Wood
Original Release Date: 13 March 1956
John Ford’s The Searchers is the second of two westerns on my list. Made in 1956, it’s the last of the movies by the great John Ford to depict natives as wild savages and enemies. John Wayne plays Ethan Edwards, in one of his finest roles. He plays a man on a relentless search for his niece Debbie (Natalie Wood). Debbie’s family was killed by Comanche’s and she was was kidnapped and taken away. Ethan searches tirelessly for five years, driven by his own hatred. But he is not trying to rescue Debbie, he intends to kill her for living with the Comanche. Ethan was the inspiration for Taxi Driver’s Travis Brickle (a film you will see later on this list). Both men are on a quest to save a woman, both men brooding anti-heroes with demons and prejudice. I am not sure if that’s how Ethan was viewed in 1956, whether audiences shared his racism, identified with it or despised it. The Searchers has some of the most gorgeous images ever filmed. The Searchers is often considered the lesser brother of John Ford’s classic Stage Coach, which is of course a great film. I love this one because it devotes time to the characters more than the traditional western.
#35 “Being There”
Director: Hal Ashby
Stars: Peter Sellers, Shirley Maclaine, Melvyn Douglas
Original Release Date: 19 Dec 1979
Oscars: 1 (Supporting Actor – Melvyn Douglas), one other nomination
Being There is a work of quiet genius, a deeply fascinating film that I have seen over and over and love every time I do. In Peter Sellers’ best performance, it tells the story of Chaunce, a quiet, polite and dim-witted man, who lives in the house of an old man as his gardener. When the old man dies and the house is sold, Chaunce find himself on the street, having never experienced the outside world before. He has, however, impeccable manners and very nice suit. Through a series of events, he finds himself in Washington DC inner circles, befriending a wealthy businessman, his younger wife and even the President. Chaunce lived in seclusion and was known to no-one. He is a mystery to people and those he meets fill in the many blanks of his life. Forrest Gump owes a great nod to this film, both about men who stumble through life, armed only with innocence. Being There is one of the greatest movies you have never seen. Its perhaps one of my favourite movie endings, one I will not spoil but implore you to watch.
#34 “Midnight Express”
Director: Alan Parker
Stars: Brad Davis, Randy Quaid, John Hurt
Original Release Date: 06 Oct 1978
Oscars: 2 (Adapted Screenplay, Score), 4 other nominations
There are two Alan Parker films on my list, both in the 30s and both with some similarities. Both films are gritty and hard to watch, both are based on true stories and take significant liberties with the story. Billy Hayes is an American Tourist in Turkey who is caught trying to smuggle hash out of the country. He is sentenced to four years in prison, where life is dreary and the warden is a cruel and sadistic monster. Just prior to his release, Billy sentenced is changed to life. Midnight express becomes the story of hope and despair, family and survival. There is a real life Billy Hayes and he did spend horrible time in a Turkish prison for drugs. He told his story to bring attention to those living in hell hole conditions around the world. Midnight Express is not easy to watch, but it’s a great and compelling film.
Trivia: This was Oliver Stone’s first Oscar for the movie’s screenplay. It was also the first even Oscar for a score of a film that was entire synthesized.
#33 “The Color Purple”
Director: Steven Spielberg
Stars: Whoopi Goldberg, Danny Glover, Oprah Winfrey
Original Release 18 Dec 1985
Oscars: None, 11 nominations
Go ahead. Call me a wuss. I cry every time I see this film. The Color Purple has is detractors and I get it. But this long, emotionally trying tale of Miss Celie, a young black woman is simply great story telling. The reason The Color Purple works so well for me, the reason I respond to strongly, is Whoopi Goldberg’s performance. Celie touches feelings we all have, feeling unworthy, unattractive, fearful and abused. Spielberg is a skilled director and he pushes our buttons so strong in this film, we are almost grateful for the ride. Yes, many of the characters are almost cartoon characters and there are plot points that require extreme suspension of disbelief, but it’s a film with immense heart. Its one of the those movies I will watch at 3 am on TBS even though I have seen it dozens of times.
Trivia: The Color Purple was nominated for 11 Oscars, but not best director. It was shut out, it what is still considered one of Oscar’s greatest scandals to this day.
#32 “The Incredibles”
Director: Brad Bird
Stars: Voices of Holly Hunter, Craig T. Nelson
Original Release Date: 05 Nov 2004
Oscars: 2 (Animated Feature, Sound Editing), 2 other nominations
In the 10 years since its release, The Incredibles has not only stood the test of time as not only a great animated film but one of the best super-hero movies ever made. This movie does what Pixar does best, which is creates a plot so clever yet accessible that it’s a movie that adults and children can equally enjoy. Bob Parr is an overweight, disgruntled insurance company claims clerk with thinning hair and extreme boredom. Bob is the alter-ego of Mr. Incredible, the greatest of all Super-heroes. He saved a man who did not want to be saved, resulting in a lawsuit that triggered the Superhero Relocation Program. Bob cannot adjust to civilian life and scans police radios with his buddy from the old days “Frozone”. The Incredibles is a throwback and Valentine to old B-movies, but creates its own universe. By telling the story of a family of “Supers” trying to fit in, we see a side of these people that we have never seen before. The Incredibles was the longest animated film Disney had released at the time and the first that was PG rated. It loved it from the first viewing and it has easily held up over a decade.
Trivia: The character of super suit designer Edna Mode is based on legendary costume designer Edith Head, who had 8 oscar wins and over 20 nominations.
#31 “Mississippi Burning”
Director: Alan Parker
Stars: Willem DeFoe, Gene Hackman
Original Release Date: 27 Jan 1989
Oscars: 1 (Cinematography), 6 other nominations
Mississippi Burning takes some liberty with historical facts to create one of the best police procedurals ever made. Set in the back drop of Mississippi and the civil rights movement of 1960s, Mississippi Burning tells the story of the murder of three civil rights workers in the south. Two FBI agents (DeFoe and Hackman) are sent in to investigate (they are not friends, and only refer to each other as Mr. Anderson and Mr, Ward) and find a wall of corruption with local law, business and the clan. The locals are not happy to have them there. It’s a brilliantly filmed movie, showcasing some stunning camera work that adds to the story and the suspense. Hackman is at his best as Mr. Ward, the former southern sheriff whose approach is to lay low and smell things out. But the centre of this film is Frances McDormand. Her brilliant, understated performance as the deputy’s wife struggling with her own sense of right and wrong is the moral compass of the movie. If you are looking for history retold, look elsewhere. If you are looking for a great film, start here.