Animal House (1978)
I’m not sure if Animal House was an accurate portrayal of 1978 Dartmouth, but it is pretty clear that every college party since then has been trying to catch up. I certainly tried, with no success, to identify with Otter. Darker than Van Wilder and the other attempts to at a college movie- the scene of Katy cheating with Prof. Jennings is quite sad, and not only because it involves Donald Sutherland’s ass – and casually racist in a way that is jarring today – compare “mind if we dance with your dates” with the black fraternity scene in Road Trip – it manages to offer some fairly sage advice:
“Fat, drunk, and stupid is no way to go through life.”
Austin Powers (1997)
Tough to find a more consistently funny movie, and you will certainly never look at another James Bond movie the same way.
Wonderful small scenes, from the unfreezing visit to the bathroom to the flying shoe, the casino bathroom to Alotta Fagina’s hot tub, and of course the beautiful Dr. Evil soliloquy.
Too bad it is pretty much the only Elizabeth Hurley movie.
Bourne Identity (2002)
The lead installment of the best trilogy every made. The Star Wars series was doing wonderfully until all of a sudden a bunch of Muppets start dancing around. The Godfather series was glorious until Sofia Coppola wanders in. But from the Mediterranean to the East River, the Bourne series is extraordinary.
Moreover, its success is almost entirely on the back of Matt Damon. Harrison Ford had Alec Guinness and James Earl Jones, Al Pacino had James Caan and Marlon Brando and an all-star lineup of minor guys, Viggo Moretensen had Elijah Wood and Ian Mackellen for Lord of the Rings. Matt Damon is stuck with Franka Potente and the cinematic Hindenburg that is Julia Stiles.
Yes, it is ridiculously long, yes, the Battle of Stirling really took place on a bridge, and yes, I root for Edward Longshanks. It is the rare epic that feels hefty enough to hold its length, beautifully shot by John Toll and well-performed by everyone from Mel Gibson to the random Irish Army guys pressed into service as extras in the battle scenes.
Except Sophie Marceau, who is as terrible here as she is everywhere. Were there no other French actresses available?
So, I tell them I’m a pro jock, and who do you think they give me? The Dalai Lama, himself. Twelfth son of the Lama. The flowing robes, the grace, bald… striking. So, I’m on the first tee with him. I give him the driver. He hauls off and whacks one – big hitter, the Lama – long, into a ten-thousand foot crevice, right at the base of this glacier. And do you know what the Lama says? Gunga galunga…gunga – gunga galunga.
So we finish the eighteenth and he’s gonna stiff me. And I say, “Hey, Lama, hey, how about a little something, you know, for the effort, you know.” And he says, “Oh, uh, there won’t be any money, but when you die, on your deathbed, you will receive total consiousness.”
So I got that going for me. Which is nice.
Greatest movie ever made. Bogart and Rains at their best, a truly phenomenal script, a love story with characters you can believe and, perhaps more importantly, care about. It is very, very hard to believe the accepted wisdom that no one involved with the movie thought it would be anything special. Perhaps if they had, they would have asked themselves why letters of transit from General de Gaulle would be of any use in Occupied France…
For all the idealism of the movie – perhaps the most stirring version of La Marseillaise since blood ran in the Place de la Concorde – there is an incredible acknowledgement of human nature. Rick’s brief mention to Laszlo of the unsentimental way Ilsa tried to get the letters:
She did her best to convince me that she was still in love with me, but that was all over long ago. For your sake, she pretended it wasn’t, and I let her pretend.
Pluto Nash cost just under a hundred millions dollars to make, close to that to promote, and was an insult to the handful of people who had the misfortune of seeing it.
Clerks cost $28,000, give or take, and has some of the best dialogue in the history of film. No one understands the movie business, including people in the movie business.
Worth it for the sections on independent contractors working the Death Star construction project and the number 37 alone.
Die Hard (1988)
Very cool take on a heist movie; pretty much the opposite of the Oceans Eleven concept, with a small cast, a confined space, and an idea as plausible as it is crazy. Alan Rickman is a great villain and Bruce Willis graduates from “the guy on Moonlighting with Cybill Shepherd” to “Bruce Willis.”
How can you not love a movie with a Plutarch shoutout: “When Alexander saw the breadth of his domain, he wept, for there were no more worlds to conquer.”
Dr. Strangelove (1964)
Hard to tell what is crazier – the notion of a general unilaterally deciding to take his bomber wing into nuclear combat with the Soviet Union, or the fact that we actually had nuclear bombers in the air twenty-four hours a day for forty years and did not expect this to happen. The movie is hilarious because it is so uncomfortably true: a bunch of game theoreticians design these brilliant systems, forgetting not only that millions of lives hang in the balance but that the decisions will be made by tired men in late middle age with all the insecurities of men everywhere.
It is a great shame the folks who continue to insist on pouring billions of dollars into missile defense have not stopped to think about what a pipe dream it is to design a perfect system.
Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982)
The high school movie has been tried from pretty much every angle – Risky Business, The Girl Next Door, the entire John Hughes oevre – but everything that needed to be said is in this movie. The cast is an all-star team – three Oscar winners (Sean Penn, Forest Whitaker, Nic Cage) and four household names (Jennifer Jason Leigh, Judge Reinhold, Eric Stolz, Anthony Edwards) – it’s a Cameron Crowe script, and it is the rare high school movie that stays at its own scale; no proclamations of love, no ridiculous confrontations, just the thousand and one challenges of being a teenager. Hell, it is probably as close as an American movie has come to taking on abortion.
But who am I kidding; Phoebe Cates coming out of the pool is worth the price of the disk.
A canonical movie you have to own. The opening scene in Germania may be the best battle scene ever shot; Braveheart and the epics of the 50s have larger scenes, Saving Private Ryan is grittier, but none make you want to fight yourself. On my command, unleash hell indeed.
The Oscars were well-deserved, the performances great up and down the line – even Oliver Reed, who managed to exit the production Scarface-style during filming, is excellent – but there is one nagging flaw: the plot makes no sense.
Maximus is a Roman general. He is captured, sold into slavery, pressed into service as a gladiator. Got it. He is taught that the way out of being a gladiator – well, apart from dying, of course – is to fight beautifully and win the acclamation of the crowd. OK. So eventually Maximus is sent to Rome. He fights in the Colosseum. He is given a chance to announce himself, and makes the famous speech:
My name is Maximus Decimus Meridius, Commander of the Armies in the North, General of the Felix Legions, loyal servant to the true Emperor Marcus Aurelius. Father to a murdered son, husband to a murdered wife; and I will have my vengeance, in this life or the next.
The crowd roars its support. So why is he still a gladiator? Once he is acknowledged as a Roman citizen – indeed, a Roman war hero – that should end his career as a slave and gladiator. Makes no sense. Like a Wookie on Endor.
The Godfather (1972)
The cool answer is to prefer Godfather 2, with its endless scenes of early immigrant life in America, but the original sticks to one story arc and makes it matter. The transfer of power from one generation of mob rule to the next, not much more. But what a story it is, and everything from the wedding to the baptism, with a stop at a Long Island toll plaza for the ages.
I never did understand what Lucca is up to…
Leaving Las Vegas (1995)
Incredible performance, endearing, sad, Elisabeth Shue at her best…all the good stuff.
Real reason for the recommendation is that after I saw the movie on a cold January evening I headed outside to walk over to the train. At one point I looked down at my feet to discover that I was running.
I am pretty sure it is the only time in my life I have broken into run without knowing it (dance, well, that might be another subject). No movie has had as much of a physical effect. It isn’t the best way to pass a rainy day with some buddies and a few beers, but it is special.
The movie doesn’t have an ending and occasionally breaks into song, which should be disqualifying characteristics. It was made on such a shoestring budget that they could not afford actual horses. But the scenes are truly brilliant, from the Dark Knight who almost always wins to the Trojan Rabbit.
Probably more historically accurate than your standard “For King and Country” Knights of the Round Table fare. “How can you tell he’s a king? Because he hasn’t got shit on his shoes.”
The Princess Bride (1987)
I will almost certainly lose my Y chromosome for mentioning this, but it really is an amazing story. If you remember to fast forward during any scene involving Fred Savage, you have ninety minutes that combine some great comedy with an awfully touching story and a Mark Knopfler soundtrack. Robin Wright is far more convincing as Buttercup than as Sean Penn’s loving wife.
Just be certain to skip the Fred Savage bits.
Pulp Fiction (1994)
Damn this is good. The bit parts are wonderful – Christopher Walken talking about the watch, Ving Rames getting medieval – and Travolta and Jackson made their careers on the main story. Probably the best soundtrack in film – “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon” should get an acting credit – and a shuffled timeline that works fantastically.
Makes you forget that apart from this and Resevoir Dogs, Tarantino’s movies have been pretty lousy – Kill Bill is basically a two-movie homage to Japanese action scenes.
Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
The last effect with the Ark of the Covenant is terrible. Stowing away on a submarine after it has gotten underway challenges suspension of disbelief (Lucas and Spielberg were no Stanley Kubrick when it came to accuracy). I make it my business to avoid any movie with a visible spider. But this one is worth making exceptions. Not many movies are just so much damn fun. Lucky Tom Sellick and Nick Nolte and Steve Martin and Chevy Chase all turned down the role.
Who knows how it would have turned out if Jack Nicholson had accepted…
Star Wars (1977)
Some of the series did not age well. Mark Hamill, to begin with. Luke whines, C3-PO chirps, the escape from the Death Star and subsequent attack are cartoonish. But it is very hard to think of film history without it. The archetypal heroic pattern, the range of characters, John Williams’ score, the very 70s concept of the Force, Harrison Ford’s phenomenal performance (itself echoing Bogart in Casablanca) – every action/adventure movie since has borrowed heavily from it. Unfortunately, it is getting increasingly difficult to find the version with Solo shooting Greedo in cold blood; in his old age Lucas seems to have backed away from the one raw scene in the movie.
There is a strong argument Empire was the better movie – Empire is better-directed, has better effects, Yoda, and a simple-minded but loyal species called a TaunTaun – but the Luke:Solo ratio is better in A New Hope, and the introduction of the galaxy far, far away is still magical.
Trading Places (1983)
The best movie to come out of Saturday Night Live – sorry, Blues Brothers – it combines a raw Eddie Murphy with a great premise. And Billy Ray’s description of the pork belly market seems strangely appropriate today:
Okay, pork belly prices have been dropping all morning, which means that everybody is waiting for it to hit rock bottom, so they can buy low.
Which means that the people who own the pork belly contracts are saying, “Hey, we’re losing all our damn money, and Christmas is around the corner, and I ain’t gonna have no money to buy my son the G.I. Joe with the kung-fu grip! And my wife ain’t gonna f… my wife ain’t gonna make love to me if I got no money!”
So they’re panicking right now, they’re screaming “SELL! SELL!” to get out before the price keeps dropping.
They’re panicking out there right now, I can feel it.
Best Western ever made; apologies to Shane, but no other attempt has the pacing and the tenor of this one. You root for a hired gun to come to town and kill the law, and you don’t even feel conflicted.