- Dog Day Afternoon (1975)
Sal, Wyoming’s not a country.
Director Sidney Lumet takes the true story of one of the most inept bank robberies in history and makes it better, much better, into something sublime and urgent and hilarious and unforgettable. Lumet makes you feel like a fly on the wall as a bizarrely entertaining life-moment unfurls in early-seventies Brooklyn.
No one famous is involved. Nothing of any consequence happened.
Life happened, and life is always so much more fascinating than anything else.
- Dazed and Confused (1993)
Let me tell you this, the older you do get the more rules they’re gonna try to get you to follow.
The best movies transport you someplace else, into deep space or medieval times or Kypton. In Dazed and Confused, writer/director Richard Linklater transports you to a simpler place: a small Texas town in 1976 where we join a group of suburban high school kids on their last day of school.
Without breaking the spell with intrusive nostalgia or sentiment, Linklater effortlessly follows 20 different characters and a half-dozen subplots over 24 hours. There is sex and beer and weed, but still an innocence to it all; to those magic high school years when what seemed like life and death decisions are now a quaint memory of anything but; to that day when you said goodbye to the previous school year, hello to summer, and were unsettled by how quickly time had passed even as you still felt immortal.
The cherries on top include the best soundtrack in film history, and Matthew McConaughey’s Wooderson, that twenty-something loser we all knew — the guy who refused to let go of high school and still seemed to have all the answers.
And you know what? I think he did.
See also: Fast Times at Ridgemont High, The Breakfast Club, Heathers, Cooley High, Risky Business, My Bodyguard, The River’s Edge, Rushmore, Thirteen, Bully, Rock ‘n Roll High School, Napoleon Dynamite.
- Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)
I’ll bet you 105,000 dollars that you go to sleep before I do.
As Fred C. Dobbs, and after 8 years as a leading man, Humphrey Bogart once again reminded the world that he was as much an actor as movie star. Walter Huston is unrecognizable as the old prospector Howard, and won a well-deserved Oscar for it. His son, John Huston, topped the old man with two wins: one for his direction, the other for one of the best adapted screenplays ever written.
The dark magic of Huston’s masterwork is that no matter how many times you see it, watching the hard-earned dreams of three men unravel is still as excruciating as it was the first time.
See also: Wall Street, A Simple Plan, Boiler Room, Glengarry Glen Ross.
- Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989)
God is a luxury I can’t afford.
Writer/director Woody Allen combines two completely different films into one. First there is the Woody Allen romantic comedy, the story of an unhappily married New York documentary filmmaker (Allen) who falls in love with Mia Farrow. They bond over a shared contempt for Alan Alda’s smarmy, self-satisfied, but very successful television producer.
The other movie is a dark Woody Allen morality tale. Martin Landau plays a respected eye doctor involved in an extramarital affair with an increasingly unstable Angelica Huston. She is threatening to blow up his life by making the affair public.
Is holding on to his privileged world and the good opinion of those he loves worth living with murder?
Themes of faith and conscience and nihilism abound, as do some remarkable insights into the fascinating abyss of the human condition.
Then, at the very end, after it already seems too late, the two stories collide and take your breath away.
Woody Allen presents a world without God, but has the decency to admit he wishes that were not so.
See also: Match Point, Husbands and Wives, Deconstructing Harry, Another Woman, Cassandra’s Dream.
- Mutiny On the Bounty (1935)
We’ll be men again if we hang for it!
The movie works because like the crew of the Bounty we don’t want to leave Tahiti. Ever. We certainly don’t want to return to life under Captain Bligh (a superb Charles Laughton), nor do we want to go home to face English justice or that annoying place we call real life.
1935 Warner Home Video
Beautifully acted, beautifully shot, production values that stand up 80 years later… Clark Gable’s slow burn, the sadistic Laughton’s complicated motives… This is storytelling at its finest, and a story that emotionally grabs you and makes you part of the adventure. As our hero’s best laid plans fall apart, you feel as though you are being pulled out of a hammock, and you resent it to your core.
See also: Sexy Beast.
- In Cold Blood (1967)
No one’s gonna remember us because we’re leaving no witnesses.
Thanks in equal parts to the crime itself and Truman Capote’s brilliant and shameless exploitation of it in his seminal non-fiction book, a piece of America’s innocence was forever lost on one terrible Kansas night in 1959 when Richard Hickock and Perry Smith slaughtered Herbert Clutter and his family … just because. Throughout rural America, and for the first time, doors locked at night.
Pax Enterprises Inc.
Because it was not a whodunit or a procedural, Tom Wolfe famously described Capote’s masterwork as “Pornoviolence.”
“[T]he book’s suspense is based largely on a totally new idea in detective stories: the promise of gory details, and the withholding of them until the end,” Wolfe wrote, as though that is a bad thing.
In Cold Blood is a harrowing, stunningly edited and filmed (by the great Conrad Hall) docudrama that builds an unbearable sense of dread that inevitably explodes into the most senseless and shocking violence imaginable. Wolfe, however, wants us to believe there is no point to it, other than the climax of “gory details.” The truth is that the shock does not come from the violence, but instead from the young men who commit it.
One-dimensional villains stroking a cat while twisting a mustache only live in movies. In the real world, it is real people responsible for the unspeakable, and more often than not they are people with aspirations, regrets, emotions, hopes, fears, anger, love, and a terrible something bottled up inside none of that can conquer.
There might be no point to In Cold Blood. And maybe it is a tad trite to claim that no point is the point. But as tragic and senseless as it was, the horror of In Cold Blood is not the murder of the Clutter family. The horror comes from the undeniable humanity found in the two men who butchered them.
As Smith and Hickock, Robert Blake and the always underrated Scott Wilson are revelations of emotionally damaged, sympathetic killers who never would have committed such an evil without the other.
See also: Capote, Downfall.
- Blazing Saddles (1974)
If you shoot him, you’ll just make him mad.
The key to fully enjoying this comedic masterpiece is to wait about five years between screenings, because it is vital that you give yourself time to forget the audacity of it all.
At the time, in 1974, Blazing Saddles was without question an edgy comedy that pushed all kinds of boundaries. The studio suits were nervous and co-writer/director Mel Brooks had to fight for his vision. Nevertheless, the movie was still made. But in-between laughs and gasps for air, audiences were shocked, not surprised. This was after all the era of Norman Lear, the era of All In the Family and Sanford and Son, that small window in our culture between the Production Code of old and the incoming Production Code of political correctness.
So wait five years. Then watch this canary in the freedom mine again, and what you will discover is that we have a little less freedom than we did the year before.
In 1974 Blazing Saddles was a classic comedy. Thanks to the left’s fascist war on speech, and a cowardly and feckless community of film writers who refuse to push back, Blazing Saddles is something even better today — deliciously, joyously, deliriously subversive.
See also: Tropic Thunder, Team America: World Police, Young Frankenstein.
- Dirty Harry (1971)
Yeah, well, when an adult male is chasing a female with intent to commit rape, I shoot the bastard — that’s my policy.
Rawhide made him a TV star, Sergio Leone made him a movie star, Dirty Harry made Clint Eastwood a cultural icon and superstar; a position he holds to this day some 46 years later.
The year was 1971 and soft-on-crime leftism was on the rise. The idea of justice and paying for your crime was being brushed aside in favor of rehabilitation (which is fine, but you still must pay for your crimes). The bad guys were getting off on stupid technicalities and the victims had no rights…
And then along came Harry Callahan with his mighty .44.
Famously, movie critic Pauline Kael, no doubt speaking for many in the spineless, foo foo film community, railed against director Don Siegel’s urban masterpiece as “fascist,” which of course is a criticism every bit as reactionary as the film itself.
Whatever your politics, urban action movies do not get any more exciting or, more importantly, satisfying. Eastwood and Siegel, of course, deserve a lion’s share of the credit, as do the screenwriters. But let’s not forget that every hero needs a worthy villain, and Andrew Robinson’s squealing, slithering Scorpio is an extraordinary creation.
Because so much is so good about Dirty Harry, it is easy to forget just how loathsomely perfect Robinson is. If you think about it, I mean honestly think about, Scorpio (we are never told his real name) is one of the top four or five screen villains of all time. I think Robinson is unfairly short-changed in this regard, but for all the right reasons: you don’t see the acting — he just is.
The same is true of Carl Pigatore’s editing. You don’t see it. It just is. And Pigatore is the true star of Dirty Harry.
See also: Magnum Force, The Enforcer, Sudden Impact, The Gauntlet, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, Charley Varrick.
- A Place In the Sun (1951)
If he is guilty, I won’t spend a single cent to save him from the electric chair!
Under the Production Code, Theodore Dreiser’s 1925 novel An American Tragedy was considered unfilmable in 1951. The protagonist was a sympathetic, social-climbing liar and murderer who gets his girlfriend pregnant and then seeks out an illegal abortion.
A point I will never stop making is that the Production Code resulted in better art, and George Stevens’ A Place In the Sun is Exhibit A.
Montgomery Clift delivers one of the top five performances in film history as George Eastman, the aforementioned social climber. On paper Eastman is a mercenary monster, but through Clift’s extraordinary instrument, we are with him every step of the way, hoping against hope the movie gods will intervene with the miracle of a different outcome.
Limits are essential to art and without the subtlety and subtext that came with the limits of censorship, even in the same hands, A Place In the Sun would be so much less.
Oh, and then there is 19-year-old Elizabeth Taylor, whose ethereal presence makes you believe a seemingly decent man would be driven to do such terrible things.
- MGM’s Tarzan Franchise (1932 – 1942)
Like the stars over the night. Like the air to breathe. Tarzan makes me alive.
For ten glorious years, Johnny Weissmueller, the breathtakingly beautiful Maureen O’Sullivan, MGM, and a chimpanzee named Cheetah, teamed up for what is still — yes, even in the age of Marvel and Star Wars and The Fast and the Furious — the greatest and most exciting adventure franchise ever.
It all began in 1932 with Tarzan the Ape Man, which along with its 1934 sequel, Tarzan and His Mate, is a pre-code entry. This allowed the franchise to establish the sexual chemistry between the two leads, which explodes further in the latter’s beautiful, tasteful, and erotic nude-swimming sequence.
Only in this respect are the four films that followed tamer (and tragically force O’Sullivan to wear more clothes), but the ongoing adventure in what is really a six chapter movie, continue to soar and delight.
Before the shaky-cammed, edited-in-a-blender (mostly) garbage that passes for entertainment today rewires your child’s brain into something that resembles a cocaine monkey, please love them enough to introduce them to the wonders of ju-ju, the Elephant Graveyard, and the irresistible adventures to be discovered in a mysterious African jungle ambiance manifested by unsurpassed artists in a magical place called Hollywood.
- Blue Collar (1978)
They’ll do anything to keep you on their line. They pit the lifers against the new boys, the old against the young, the black against the white — to keep us in our place.
In his directorial debut, Paul Schrader (who co-wrote the screenplay) does an incomparable job examining the working class despair of three autoworkers played to perfection by Richard Pryor, Yaphet Kotto, and Harvey Keitel.
It’s a working class comedy! No, it’s a heist film! No, it’s an uplifting Norma Rae remake with guys!
By keeping us guessing with dramatic tonal shifts that somehow avoid melodrama, Blue Collar is so much more.
Without laying blame anywhere but where it belongs, Schrader examines how justifiable rage at the System can turn even decent men into monsters.
Schrader’s greatest feat is world building. Blue Collar isn’t some Hollywoodized version of urban working class life. The physical texture of every scene stands apart like a separate character.
This is also the best performance of Pryor’s tragically short career.
I think you’re rotten.
One look at the ankle bracelet on Phylilis (it helps that the ankle is connected to Barbara Stanwyck) and insurance man Walter Neff (a deliciously nasty Fred MacMurray) is ready to sign up for a fairly ingenious cold-blooded murder in exchange for sex and money (but mostly sex). Gorgeous actors, gorgeous dialogue, unforgettable scenes, and one of the all-time great character turnarounds.
There are endless pleasures in Billy Wilder’s beautifully cynical noir masterpiece, but once you realize that Phyllis is only letting Neff believe he’s in charge, the movie is even better the second time; especially as you wait for that moment where Neff realizes he’s been played all along.
You got fifty ways you’re gonna fuck up. If you think of twenty-five of them, then you’re a genius… and you ain’t no genius.
In 1981, writer/director Lawrence Kasdan essentially remade Double Indemnity (in spirit) but with a ton of steamy sex, a Florida locale, and a sad sack patsy in the form of William Hurt’s beautifully-named Ned Racine — a none-too-bright, bottom-feeding attorney.
The femme-fatale is Matty Walker, who’s played by 26 year-old Kathleen Turner. On top of a supremely intelligent neo-noir thriller that is every bit the equal of Double Indemnity, there is the breathtaking Turner.
As I’ve said before, in these films you need to believe the man would kill for the woman or it is all just a silly melodrama, which is why Turner is the real find: an angelic cobra with a whiskey-soaked voice and a body to kill for — literally.
Kasdan cast Turner in the prime of her blooming womanhood, captured one of God’s perfect creations in a way Turner would never be seen again — not even in her next movie.
You have probably noticed that I spend a lot of time pointing out the beauty of female movie stars. Obviously, in these fascist PC times, that makes me a pig, but truth is truth. In the movies — at least decent movies — these things matter, or at least they used to. Whether it is an attraction, an erotic charge, a desire to see her cherished or protected — when the presence of an actress can make a man see stars, what this adds to the movie-going experience is incalculable. And the same is true for women when it comes to male actors.
As Hollywood becomes more and more enamored with the hollow idiocy of social justice, as women on film become more and more sexless (ugh), the movie itself becomes more and more forgettable. Great art evokes great feelings — among them: passion, love, an innocent crush, infatuation, desire, and yes, even lust. But as I have mentioned before, the ability to generate an emotion that lasts beyond a Whoa! — the talent required for an actress to stand out from the crowd and burrow into a man’s psyche, does not come naturally, but rather through commitment, intelligence, and very hard work.
It is not just about a pretty girl showing up, it is about poise, movement, voice inflection, where you put your hands, how you hold your head… A million different things that separate a legend from a million other hotties. Simply put, Turner and Stanwyck and Maureen O’Sullivan had it going on, they make you feel something, and the movies we cherish most are the ones that make us feel something.
As today’s female stars become scolds, shrews, humorless drones With Something To Say, as they prove just how insecure they truly are by turning themselves into men, into joyless harpies with a chip on their shoulder and afraid of a good time, as they confuse equality with becoming every bit as slutty as the men who see them only as meat… Well, let me put it this way…
Sitting in the dark and falling in love, if only for a couple of hours — I miss that.
- Sorcerer (1977)
It’s the kind of place nobody wants to go looking.
Way over-budget and battered by bad press, a terrible title, the lack of a marquee name (director William Friedkin wanted Steve McQueen), and nothing less than the release of Star Wars, a conspiracy of fate doomed Sorcerer before it ever had a chance.
The critics at the time were also part of the problem. For whatever reason, too many of them dismissed this stunning remake of Wages of Fear as an overpriced, auteur ego trip.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Sorcerer is a stunner. Four characters from four completely different parts of the globe — including a terrorist, an assassin, an embezzler, and a low-level Mafioso (Roy Scheider) — are all on the run and end up in the same shit-hole Latin American village of Porvenir, where corrupt officials make life intolerable.
A freak oil fire brings opportunity. The only way to put it out is to transport unstable cases of dynamite across the jungle. The hope is that just one of the four trucks will make it through without exploding. Guess who’s desperate enough to take the job?
Friedkin’s obvious theme is that the world can either work together or blow up. The subtler theme is picked up from a portion of a memoir read aloud in the first act, “No one is just anything.”
These characters start out as nothing to us, the very dregs of mankind, and without ever betraying who they really are, we begin to the see glimmers of humanity. This is an extraordinary achievement on Friedkin’s part, second only to two bridge-crossing sequences that are two of the most jaw-dropping moments ever caught on film. Nothing Indiana Jones did even comes close.
See also: To Live and Die In L.A.
- The Outfit (1973)
Lady, after a while… a fella learns things… Some women are trouble.
The neo-noir films of the late sixties and early seventies are criminally overlooked by most critics as lowbrow genre flicks. What I see, though, are expertly crafted films that capture their time and place like few others. No other genre so consistently manufactures a world as believable, or one that feels so real.
Director John Flynn’s The Outfit (my full-length review is here) is the best of a very impressive bunch that includes Charley Varrick, White Lightning, The Silent Partner, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, Point Blank, and The Getaway, just to name a few.
Based on a Donald Westlake novel, Robert Duvall plays Macklin, an ex-con seeking vengeance for the murder of his brother. This pits him directly against the mob, which only makes him more determined. He is not being unreasonable. The Syndicate can either pay him $250,000 or he and his partner (Joe Don Baker) will just keeping hitting them until they do.
Stark, spare, with understated acting, and explosive scenes… Hard-boiled revenge at its finest.
- White Heat (1949)
Oh, stuffy, huh? I’ll give ya a little air.
Almost twenty years after he helped launch it, the great Jimmy Cagney bid farewell forever to the gangster genre as Cody Jarrett, a stone-cold psychopath with an unhealthy mother obsession, On top of Cagney’s career-best performance, there’s a crackerjack script and a surprising amount (for its time) of on-location shooting.
As Cody’s Ma’, Margaret Wycherley will give you nightmares forever. Any questions you might have about what exactly warped Cody is answered within moments of her arrival.
The “Top of the world, Ma!” climax is now so famous it is spoiled for everyone. I promise you, though, that knowing how the story ends in no way diminishes a tense, compelling, exciting, fast-moving narrative that is part character study, part shoot-em-up, part black comedy, and part police procedural. The technology might be old school, but somehow that makes it even more impressive.
See also: Public Enemy.
Rooms seemed hotter when he was in them. Rains fell straighter. Clocks slowed. Sounds were amplified
In just his second feature film, writer/director Andrew Dominik delivered what is still the best movie of this new century. For 160 lusciously photographed minutes you feel as though you have been dropped into a beautiful tone poem that penetrates and explores everything from myth to fame to envy to those who collapse under the weight of all three.
And it is a Western.
As the charismatic, doomed sociopath Jesse James, Brad Pitt evolves before our eyes from movie star to actor. And in the best performance of the decade, there is Casey Affleck as the coward Robert Ford, whose craving for fame mixed with his own crippling inadequacies poison everything and everyone, including, ultimately himself.
Many of the titles ranked higher on this list did not achieve what Dominik did: The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford is the rarest thing of all — a perfect movie. Every element, from the acting, the cinematography, the sound design, score, and even the melancholy beauty of the narration, could in no way be improved upon.
- North By Northwest (1959)
War is hell, Mr. Thornhill. Even when it’s a cold one.
In 1956, with The Wrong Man, director Alfred Hitchcock pared down his favorite Innocent Man theme into a tight little black and white docudrama starring Henry Fonda. Just three years later, and needing a hit after the disappointing (and wildly overrated) Vertigo, Hitchcock and his screenwriter Ernest Lehman exploded the Innocent Man concept into one of the big screen’s all time great adventures.
At 55, Cary Grant never looked better as an ad man who, through one quirk of fate, is thrust into a dangerous world of international espionage, the arms of Eva Marie Saint, and another Hitchcock standby — the McGuffin, in this case Some Very Important Microfilm.
North By Northwest has it all: sex, action, comedy, at least a half-dozen iconic scenes, beautiful people in beautiful locales, and a joie de vivre that would later come to define the Bond franchise (at least until Daniel Crag ushered in Bond’s metrosexual period of pretentious self-exploration).
Hitchcock’s creative streak of genius in the 1950’s remains unsurpassed: Strangers on a Train, Rear Window, Dial M for Murder, To Catch a Thief, The Wrong Man, Vertigo, and finally North by Northwest… Starting in 1955, he was also overseeing Alfred Hitchcock Presents, which might not be as famous as Rod Serling’s classic Twilight Zone, but deserves to be.
Another extraordinary talent who never won a competitive Oscar.
- Electra Glide In Blue (1973)
I’ll give you some information. You’re standing in pigshit.
The first time I saw director James William Guercio’s answer to Easy Rider, I wasn’t sure it was real. Until a decade ago, I had never even heard of Electra Glide In Blue. Thankfully, for years, I DVR’d every unknown and unseen title that played on Turner Classic Movies. That’s how I finally came across this highly original and beautifully filmed (interiors by Conrad Hall, exteriors by the director) morality tale about a good man (a brilliant Robert Blake) caught between America’s Easy Riders and wannabe Dirty Harrys.
From my 2015 review:
“As much as I love Dirty Harry and Easy Rider, both are reactionary films (and brilliant and moral ones) that take a side and ask us to join. Harry represents the establishment of law and order. Billy and Wyatt represent the counterculture; the anti-establishment-establishment that demands its own kind of conformity.
“John Wintergreen [Blake] represents John Wintergreen, an uncommonly decent man who learns you lose a piece of yourself by joining … anything, and that the price of being your own man is calluses and isolation.
“Wintergreen’s not dumb, he is just guileless — a man of humanity, character, and integrity, who very much wants to be a part of the establishment until he gets what he wishes for. Caught between corrupt cops warring with dangerous, drug dealing hippies, Wintergreen eventually realizes there is no place for a good man in such a world — and as you will see, the director agrees.”
That closing shot accompanied by that perfect song. Damn.
The director is named James William Guercio, and Electra Glide in Blue would be his first movie, and his last.
- Rio Bravo (1959)
A game-legged old man and a drunk. That’s all you got?
Director Howard Hawks and star John Wayne hated Fred Zinneman’s High Noon. Both felt, and rightly so, that the story of a sheriff begging a community full of cowards for help unfairly smeared small town America. So they decided to do something about it.
In Rio Bravo, Hawks doesn’t just create a world where everyone in town wants to help and does help, in the end it is a “useless old cripple” (Walter Brennan) who saves the day.
Rio Bravo isn’t just a wonderful message about the common decency and dignity of the everyday American, there is also my all-time favorite moment in all of filmdom. Only Hawks could create a 141 minute Western where this out-of-nowhere moment is the highlight…