So here I was, peacefully navigating through the benign streams of the World Wide Internets, when I was tagged (in a very general way by old pal Larry Aydlette, and more specifically by Bill R.) for the A to Z Film List meme currently coursing through the arteries of the blogosphere. (Is it a mixed metaphor if you have to imagine the corporeality of one of the metaphor’s elements? I’m just curious…) Anyway, the general idea of the meme is that the respondent name 26 films, one for each letter of the alphabet, which somehow represents the author in some way-- Larry constructed his entirely of films noir, thrillers and detective movies; Bill, on the other hand, went for a more generalized representation of his tastes in films, and wondered out loud what it meant that there were so few horror movies on his list.
But I am taking Larry’s notion that the list be constructed in any way and to represent anything that the author sees fit, as long as it adheres to the one hard and fast rule-- the one that insists entries that start with “The” be classified not as “T” entries but instead by the letter that begins the second word of the title, per classical alphabetization standards—therefore, The Green Slime is a “G” entry. I decided, rather than trot out another version of my top 100 (or in this case top 26) movies, I’d try something a little different-- it was apparent this would be a necessity when I saw Bill’s list and realized that if I stayed in a generalized arena I could probably just cut and paste 80% of his list and call it my own. So, in a hopefully not too annoying attempt to cut a slightly different trail through the brush, I decided that I would make my list entirely out of movies that were either much better than their reputations, or movies that were less likely to be on the tops of many readers’ minds, especially when it comes to favorites-oriented projects like this. The fact that I am far less well-rounded and esoterically experienced than potential players like Girish, Filmbrain or Brian Darr may cast this second part of my classification in a possibly unintentionally humorous light (“He thinks no one’s heard of that?!”). But forward I sally nonetheless, never being one to actively resist the opportunity to appear foolish. What follows is an A to Z list undeniably and primarily populated by mainstream films, many of which have the reputation of being dogs of various breeds, many of which may not be as familiar to some readers as others, but all of which are, in one form or other, available to view online or on DVD. The intent, really, is simply to jog memories and, of course, to cast a light on some favorites of mine, the titles of which usually don’t get bandied about in a discussion of what makes a good film. That is the one thing these films, the disreputable, the disavowed, the financially disappointing, all have in common—they are genuine pleasures, not at all guilty ones, and they all carry my most sincere recommendation.
(David Fincher; 1992) It may never be fashionable to appreciate David Fincher's feature film debut, this much-maligned chapter (held in none-too-high regard by the director himself) in the apparently ongoing (as long as there's a Predator to smack down) Alien saga. But there's awful beauty in Fincher's relentlessly downbeat, religiously tinged film, and as an intellectual extension of the original film's hushed B-movie moodiness, Alien 3's bleak existential inevitability has it all over James Cameron's more immediately entertaining gung-ho militaristic revisionism of the series' powerful maternal obsessions. Ripley's sacrifice at the end of this film is the chillingly resonant punctuation mark this series truly deserved. (Too bad the allure of potential further profits couldn't leave a good thing, even a relative box-office flop like this one, alone for long.)
Robert Altman; 1976) Altman's Bicentennial celebration took the country's celebratory tendency toward self-mythologizing (never more exuberantly on display than during this 200th-year party) and turned it on its sow's ear, exposing the spirit of determination colored by the paranoia and fear jangling around inside the American Dreamscape. As I wrote recently on the occasion of the death of Paul Newman, "(The actor's) Buffalo Bill is a fool haunted by the demons of his own insecurity, his own knowledge of his inability to even come close, as a man, to the epic shadow he has already begun to cast over the nation’s view of itself. The actor’s piercing blue eyes have never seemed as haunted as they do peering out from the bewigged leonine visage of Bill Cody in full performance regalia, as he simultaneously embodies the full bluster of American manifest destiny and cocks an ear toward the voices echoing in his head that will constantly remind him, in the night, of the bitter truth behind that bluster." Here is a rendering of coarse, vital Americana that, while not as as vibrant and rich as Nashville, can stand with that landmark film as an important part of a great American director's great national portrait.
(Ron Shelton; 1994) Here is one of the best movies about baseball, albeit one with the least actual baseball played in it. Shelton's subject is the elusive nature of heroism, and what better avenue to examine that subject than through the dark glass of the life of one of the sport's greatest competitors and most reviled figures. (Shelton's next movie will be an adaptation of the book revolving around the BALCO-Barry Bonds investigation, Game of Shadows.) Tommy Lee Jones' performance as Cobb is at times hard to bear, so raw and unmerciful is its tenor and aggression. But that was the real-life Cobb too, a man who played hard, hated perhaps harder, and embodied a strain of heroism combining respect, dedication and unbridled fury that seems more inextricable from our national character with each passing year.
(Brian De Palma; 1980) I had to include this brilliant movie as a prime example of a title that hardly deserves the reputation it has in some quarters, as the most egregious example of artistic cannibalism by a director who would be nothing were it not for his ability to subsist off the collected works of Alfred Hitchcock. De Palma is merely the most open of directors about his influences. But how many willing to level this age-old charge have noticed how dissimilar the movies are from their supposed sources of inspiration? Does Dressed to Kill feel anything like Psycho? No, it is, whether you like it or not, its own beast, a creation forged in the feverish imagination of a director who has a lot more on his mind-- certainly in this movie-- than just empty homage. De Palma uses Hitchcock-- and Antonoini, and Powell, and many others-- as jumping-off points toward fulfilling an artistic geography that, at its most potent (as it is here), mixes fear and sex and comedy like no other director ever has. A De Palma movie is as easily recognizable as a Hitchcock film, yes, but not just because they share some of the same elements. In modern Hollywood, it's a sick joke, one worthy of one of his own movies, that this director should be held up as an example of someone bereft of an original thought.
(Robert Aldrich; 1973) A great, underrated masterpiece of spectral existentialist machismo from an vastly underrated director. The movie, about a symbolic battle for primacy between a seasoned hobo (Lee Marvin) and a psychotic railroad conductor (Ernest Borgnine), avoids easy sentimentalism like the plague. (Not for nothing did the movie's initial ad campaign show Lee Marvin as king of a garbage heap.) As I wrote here two years ago, "Emperor of the North looks, to these eyes, like the director’s most sustained, well-paced, crisply edited and viscerally imagined film, surely the zenith of his career as an 'action director.'”
(Errol Morris; 1997) Morris may have made more socially significant documentaries, but he's never made one that taps into the human soul as deeply as this one does. A quadtych of portraits, of a lion tamer, a topiary gardener, a robotics engineer and a man obsessed with mole rats, that eloquently illustrate the desire/need for man to impose control upon the essentially uncontrollable. FC&OOC emerges as a superbly sympathetic symphony of eccentricity, a moody and stylistically eclectic tone poem in the guise of a standard talking-heads piece that quickly shreds all allegiance to that form as it takes flight and defines itself as something entirely unique. Just like its four subjects.
(Sidney Gilliatt; 1947) A stark and subtly creepy British murder mystery set in a military hospital during World War II, Green for Danger is captivating and dryly, mordbidly funny throughout. The movie is shot through with the fresh devastation England was still processing in the shadow of the war's conclusion and manages to make that devastation part of the framework of the picture without ever becoming turgid and heavy-handed. Alastair Sim's performance as Inspector Cockrill is a gem, heading a peerless cast that includes Trevor Howard, Rosamund John, Leo Genn and the profoundly sexy Sally Gray, all gorgeous eyes, insinuating looks and smoky tones as one of the nurses both in danger and under suspicion as a murderer continues his deadly work.
(Stephen Herek; 1998) A strange little comedy that deserves a closer look, and far less bile than it has managed to generate amongst those who even remember it exists. Murphy is an evangelist of sorts who is nearly run over by a shopping network marketing genius (Jeff Goldblum). The marketing whiz the saves his own job by turning Murphy into a bizarre basic-cable phenomenon, grafting the preacher's religious fervor onto the materialistic compulsions of an overly eager TV audience. Neither as sharp or as spare as the movie with which it shares its essence- Being There-- but it is gentle and funny and pointed in its own way, and far better than the other dreck baring Murphy's name (Metro, Dr. Dolittle, The Distinguished Gentleman, et al.) that was being released at the time.
(Harold Ramis; 2006) My one direct steal from Bill R.'s list-- it's just too good a movie to let slide by. Cusack and Thornton orchestrate a robbery from Mob middle management on the night that Wichita, Kansas does a 15-degree freeze-over, making a clean getaway next to impossible. The hooks that femme fatale Connie Neilsen and besotted, cuckolded old pal Oliver Platt have planted in Cusack's cynical, but empathetic hide don't exactly ease the process along either. Bill contends that The Ice Harvest is the grim flipside of Ramis' Groundhog Day; together the two movies constitute as complete a directorial vision of the fickle, cackling comedy of fate and the (slim) possibility of redemption as any in the movies. And remember: As falls Wichita, so falls Wichita Falls.
(Josef von Sternberg; 1957) Delirious seems a woefully insufficient way to describe this genuinely odd, yet affecting action-romance. John Wayne is an Air Force colonel in charge of escorting a Soviet pilot (the entrancing but none-too-Siberian-looking Janet Leigh) during her defection. The two fall in love, and Leigh may be trying to coerce Wayne into changing affiliations himself, but if the will-he-or-won't-he suspense is less than compelling, there are always those long, dreamy flight sequences in which Wayne and Leigh (and their stunt pilots) censor-bait their way through some of the most thinly disguised coital reveries in movie history.
(Barbet Schroeder; 1978) The second of Schroeder's great documentaries of the '70s (the first being 1974's General Idi Amin Dada-- Self-Portrait) has at its center a far more benign protagonist, a primate being taught to communicate with humans by American Sign Language. Schroeder and cinematographer Nestor Almendros craft a wondrous and disturbing work that frames a fascinating, none-too-easily delineated debate about nature, animal rights and the primacy of humanity, all through the searching eyes (and prehensile manipulation) of the title character.
(Tay Garnett; 1937) Tyrone Power, Loretta Young and Don Ameche (never funnier, even in the T's below) are terrific in this swift screwball comedy about a crafty reporter who hounds a heiress and eventually gets the tables turned on him when she announces to the world, without it being factual, their impending engagement. As the reporter's world, including his sterling reputation, begins to crumble around him, true love ways start their sneaky march toward the end credits, and along the way the audience is treated to an exemplary comedy often lost in the shadows of mightier members of the species such as Nothing Sacred and His Girl Friday.
(Charles Barton, Charles Lamont(4), Edward Sedgwick, Lee Sholem; 1949-1955) Not one picture, but a seven-film series that virtually defines low-brow, audience-friendly un-art comedy and will never, ever gain a measure of critical respect. But damned if the gloriously gravel-voiced Marjorie Main and her main squeeze, Percy Kilbride (the only Pa), don't consistently appeal to this ex-farm boy's sense of nostalgia not only for growing up rural but also for the people I knew who adored as much as I do the arcane antics of this cornpone couple.
(Elaine May; 1972) Disavowed by its writer-director-star after it was re-edited at Paramount's insistence, there's still enough of May's singular comic cadences and wit on display here to rank this as one of the movies' most charming largely-unknown quantities. While Matthau's murderous gold-digger matches up with May's deceptively mousy heiress for some hilarious, often tonally odd moments down the path toward True Love, one comes to understand that even if May's version might not have been a masterpiece, the bowdlerized version (the only one we'll probably ever see) shines brightly enough to create a very special, morbidly emotional vibe all its own.
(Sam Peckinpah; 1983) The great director's last film is widely viewed as a for-hire hack job by a man desperate to prove he still had it. And anything but a cursory look at the movie ought to prove that he did. Ragged around the edges, this adaptation of the Robert Ludlum novel may feature now-dated technology, but that in no way diminishes its critique of a surveilled and self-conscious society that bears mention beside those of Brian De Palma. It's a messy, frustrating, compelling movie, both as social commentary and as an action piece.
(David Butler; 1936) Most notable historically as 14-year-old Judy Garland's film debut, this is a typical college comedy of the 1930s-- lots of musical numbers, clean-cut fraternities, star-crossed romance and, of course, the big game. But with a cast this fat and sassy-- everyone from Stuart Erwin to Patsy Kelly, Jack Haley, Betty Grable, Grady Sutton and Elisha Cook, Jr. are given room to shine-- the result is almost an embarassment of good-natured, giddily entertaining riches.
(Howard Franklin, Bill Murray; 1990) It covers the same basic ground as The Ice Harvest-- bank robbers can't quite swiftly flee the city where the crime took place. But this picture is more rooted in in exploration of the fascinations and fruistrations of its locale-- New York City-- than Ramis' film was in discovering Wichita as a true character. It is, in its fashion, no less bitter and barbed than The Ice Harvest, however, with an undercurent of off-kilter sadness that makes the movie more difficult to shake than your average crooks-dressed-as-clowns comedy.
(Antonia Bird; 1999) A skittish studio marketing department and dismissive reviewers put off by excessive gore and gristle doomed this cannibalistic vampire thriller, set in the Sierra Nevada Mountains during the mid-1800s, to bad box-office and an undeserved rep as a stinker. In reality, it's an exceptionally weird, funny, scary and grueling satire of rampant U.S. manifest destiny embodied by a westward-bound military force headed up by flesh-eaters in Union uniforms. Robert Carlyle stands out in a brilliant cast as a mysterious man who may not be telling all he knows about surviving a Donner Party-style disaster. And by the time this movie finishes, you may share Guy Pearce's brittle disposition as he creeps toward insanity while battling the hungry (and the hunger), as well as his repulsion from a juicy steak.
(James Landis; 1963) A bare-bones, white-knuckle scenario-- three folks on their way to a Dodger game have auto trouble that leaves them at the mercy of a murderous psychopath (Arch Hall, Jr.) and his weirdo girlfriend-- is packed to bursting with suspense and visual intelligence (courtesy of young cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond). If I'd seen this as a young movie fan, it probably would've driven me crazy with pleasure. As an adult, it merely shook me to my core.
(Allan Dwan; 1939) I'm not exactly the most likely audience for a musical version of Alexandre Dumas' classic novel starring Don Ameche, Binnie Barnes, Gloria Stuart and the Ritz Brothers. But damned if this happy-go-lucky take on The Three Musketeers isn't, in its own way, as entertaining as Richard Lester's revered 1973 version, as well as compelling evidence that the Ritz Brothers, in the right context, were indeed a terrific comedy team.
(Malcolm D. Lee; 2002) Anyone who doesn't get at least a baker's dozen solid laughs out of this cheerful blaxploitation send-up ought to have their Curtis Mayfield records taken away. You probably thought Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy was a dud too, didn't you? Eddie Griffin, Chi McBride, Dave Chappelle, even Chris Kattan and Denise Richards, they all earn the yuks and a Super Big Gulp's worth of good cheer in this most improbably keen of comedies.
(Roy Ward Baker; 1970) Ingrid Pitt and Kate O'Mara head a delicious cast (that also includes the stalwart and always-welcome Peter Cushing) in Hammer's typically lurid vampire tale, for which tantalizing dollops of nudity and lesbian suggestion were stirred into the stage blood-heavy proceedings. The result was one of the studio's most memorable efforts, one that actually came close to living up to the trangressive promise of the advertising campaign. (Do heed the warning, however: NOT FOR THE MENTALLY IMMATURE!)
(Werner Herzog; 2005) I couldn't resist a double feature for the W's: Herzog's dreamy, zany terra-space nature documentary, in which cavernous and claustrophobic under-ice Antarctic seascapes are wedded to the director's conceit of a Man Who Fell to Earth-type character (Brad Dourif) achingly accounting his heartfelt longing for another world.
(Les Blank; 1980) In which Herzog makes good on a bet to marinate and eat his own shoe in front of a Berkeley audience. The occasion turns into a cracked, grandly Herzogian meditation on the passion of cinema, as well as the weirdest cooking show ever recorded.
(Chris Carter; 2008) The year's first great dread-of-winter chiller. (Here's the other one.) Curiously, I Want to Believe took heat for hewing closer to the self-enclosed intimacy of the series than did the more blockbuster-oriented (not to mention mythology-driven) Fight the Future. Take another look on DVD and see if the crisis of faith that anchors the film (Gillian Anderson has rarely been so moving as Scully) doesn't seem like one of the year's most compelling, not to mention frightening, dramas.
(Lewis Gilbert, 1967) The movie that ushered out the original wave of Sean Connery Bonds (the Scot would return for one more Broccoli pic, Diamonds are Forever, after George Lazenby's one-off in the terrific On Her Majesty's Secret Service). The one-sheet says it all-- wild, overscaled, silly and proud of it, yet muscular and kinetic. This is Connery as his loosest as 007, in a movie (scripted by Roald Dahl) that holds up extremely well in the Bond canon-- it's my all-time favorite from any era.
(Peter Medak, 1981) Made in the fading glow of the far less genial (not to mention considerably less funny) Love at First Bite, this is Exhibit A in the case for the zippy and endearing quality of George Hamilton's self-deprecating sense of humor. A laff riot, as they used to say, especially if you know your Don Diego de la Vegas from your Sgt. Demetrio Garcia Lopezes.