After several weeks of quiet days, we’ve got one filled with four of the greatest movies ever made. I agonized over which one to start with, but went with my heart. L.A. Confidential generated tons of critical buzz, but not much box office when it was first released, and while it scored a couple of Oscars (for Brian Helgeland’s script and Kim Basinger representing an extraordinary acting ensemble), it got swamped by the tidal wave that was Titanic. 19 years on, James Cameron’s epic looks decidedly creaky (if still seaworthy) while L.A. Confidential has become an indisputable masterpiece. (You also get to watch Russell Crowe brutalize people, and who doesn’t love that?) It opened 20 years ago today in 1997.
If neo noir is your thing, then we have a second classic for you: David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, a tale of voyeurism and monstrosity beneath the façade of an all-American town. Kyle MacLachan and Laura Dern turned in fine performances as a clean-cut young couple who stumble into a nightmare, but the film belongs to Dennis Hopper’s gas-huffing maniac: a character who never leaves your darkest dreams once he has a foothold. Blue Velvet opened today in 1986.
Hang on, did I just put Goodfellas at number three? That’s the kind of day this is: strictly cream. Martin Scorsese’s no-fairy-tales look at how organized crime really works served as an exquisite counterbalance to romanticized gangster epics like The Godfather. Robert De Niro, Ray Liotta and Joe Pesci all turn in career-best performances (Pesci scoring an Oscar in the process) as a tight-knit crew who do awful things in the name of money, only to happily turn on each other when then chips are down. It opened today in 1990.
The finale on today’s cavalcade of heavy hitters closes things out only because it’s the only one not quite of a kind with the others. But its insight into the darkness of the human soul is no less potent for its puckish nature, nor is its celebration of the greatest musician who ever lived any less worthy of note. It’s Amadeus, Milos Forman’s Oscar-winning classic about the nature of talent, the power of jealousy, and how the rules we live by have a funny way of changing over time. It remains one of the few Best Picture winners that may actually deserve the title. It opened today in 1984.
You wanna get nuts? Today’s got the hook-up. We’ll start with Fatal Attraction, Adrian Lyne’s lightning rod of gender politics that saw Michael Douglas’s loving family man stalked and threatened by the woman he slept around with (Glenn Close). The film scored not only as a sharp (if slightly overheated) thriller, but for its surprisingly sympathetic approach towards a character ostensibly pegged as the villainness. Close deserved the Oscar for her iconic performance, and while it might be the worst date movie ever, it definitely carries plenty of discussion fodder for those so inclined. It opened 30 years ago today in 1987.
For a equally overheated look at gender politics, there’s always A Streetcar Named Desire: the celebrated Tennessee Williams play given immortal life by director Elia Kazan. Kazan’s off-screen politics notwithstanding (we saw what you did Snitchy), it’s an impressive piece of work: capturing the Southern Gothic sensuality of Williams’ play and turning Marlon Brando into a international sex symbol overnight. It opened today in 1951.
On the other end of the quality scale sits Mommie Dearest, an adaptation of Christine Crawford’s tell-all expose about the abuse she suffered at the hands of her famous mother Joan. The lurid soap-opera quality of the material was always going to be a part of it, but not the uniquely awful results: single-handedly destroying the career of star Faye Dunaway and creating an instant camp classic that ensured no one would ever forget it. It opened today in 1981, and we’re pretty sure no wire hangers were involved.
Cameron Crowe has had his ups and downs as a filmmaker, but Almost Famous remains his most personal and heartfelt. Based loosely on his experiences as a (very young) rock journalist in the 70s, it follows a precocious teenager (Patrick Fugit) who finds himself in the inner circle of a successful band on the road. It’s sweet, funny and very wise — the epitome of the director at his best — as well as featuring great supporting performances from the likes of Frances McDormand, Billy Crudup and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman. It opened today in 2000.
When American Beauty first came out, it was hailed as a masterpiece of suburban angst and the hollow pursuits of consumer society. Time hasn’t been kind to it — it’s not the classic we thought at the time — but it still contains powerful moments, and Kevin Spacey’s performance as a father who gleefully embarks upon his own undoing is still breathtaking to behold. It opened today in 1999.
It’s hard to imagine now, but Al Pacino was seriously on the skids in the late 80s. A string of flops had dissipated his reputation as one of the best actors in the industry, and one wondered how much longer we’d see him onscreen. then he made Sea of Love, a slick little thriller that pitted his cop against a potential murderess (Ellen Barkin) who of course he’s dangerously attracted to. The movie was a hit with the critics and the public, and Big Al was back in the catbird seat. the movie opened today in 1989.
I’m going to go with the classy ones first today, though my pulpy little heart desperately years in another direction. But David Cronenberg scored a quietly amazing coup with Eastern Promises, a film that combines his creepy atmosphere, fascination with bio-mechanical fusion and a capacity for brutal violence into one of the best films he’s ever made. The power of his chilling look at the Russian mob displays the maturity of his later work without denying the unsettling strangeness that put him on the map. It opened ten years ago today in 2007.
While I find much of Robert Redford’s work as a director overrated, I can’t deny the power of Quiz Show, his earnest account of a real-life scandal in which the noted champion of a top-rate 1950s game show (Ralph Fiennes) turned out to be a big fat cheater. Its observations about how perception shapes reality are still relevant and the tender trap Fiennes’s polished intellectual walks into can quietly break the heart. Quiz Show opened today in 1994.
September is ninja month, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention my absolute favorite. Ninja III: The Domination posits the spirit of an ancient ninja possessing the body of an innocent aerobics instructor (column favorite Lucinda Dickey) in order to rule the universe from beyond the grave or something. No, I’m not making that up. And of course, who better to save her than Sho Kosugi, the man with whom no ninja movie would be complete? The film arrived in the middle of Cannon Pictures’ earnest attempt to make Dickey a star (along with Breakin’ and its immortal sequel Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo). It failed, but the effort carried the perfect mixture of sweetness and pathos to make it a source of amusement. (And Dickey is now happily married to one of the producers of Survivor.) Ninja III: The Domination opened today in 1984.
After the immortal Seven Samurai, the Akira Kurosawa movie that most influenced western filmmakers is probably Yojimbo: the story of a scruffy, amoral ronin (Toshiro Mifune, natch) who wanders into a town beset by rival gangs, and solves the problem by methodically pitting them against each other. Kurosawa was inspired by the Dashiell Hammett novel Red Harvest, and his work served as the basis for the likes of A Fistful of Dollars, Miller’s Crossing, Samurai Jack… and of course, John Belushi’s send-up on Saturday Night Live. Yojimbo opened in the U.S. today in 1961.
Terrence Malick is a filmmaker one tends to appreciate more than love, and Days of Heaven is a first-rate example of why. Gorgeously shot and engineered for meditation more than plot, it still struggles to engage us with its romantic leads (Richard Gere and Brooke Adams)… or indeed any of the characters onscreen. One wonders if he couldn’t have done better with a solely abstract piece instead of attempting to tell a story. Days of Heaven opened today in 1978.