The pole position today unquestionably goes to Saving Private Ryan, Steven Spielberg’s ode to the Greatest Generation with a permanent spot on the short list of his absolute masterpieces. The bravura opening sequence remains one of the most harrowing depictions of combat ever put on film (emulated by fellow directors for decades), and the story that unfolds afterwards depicts the grunt’s eye view of World War II in a way that may never be topped. It earned Spielberg his second Best Director Oscar, and would have nabbed Best Picture too had Harvey Weinstein been less of an evil toad (and YES we’re taking that injustice to our graves). It opened 20 tears ago today in 1998 and made cinema a more vibrant art form in the process.
I’m not sure anyone would legitimately call Wolfen the best of the amazing bumper crop of werewolf movies from 1981, but it’s certainly earned a spot in elite company: positing a pack of supernatural wolves thriving in the steel canyons of Manhattan. What is lacks in elegance it makes up for in originality of concept, and with Albert Finney’s dogged cop as our guide, it’s still worth popping in and taking a look.
We’ve got a brief bevy of minor films of note for Black Friday, starting with King Solomon’s Mines, a fine adventure saga based on the 19th century novel of the same name. The film is notable for shooting in authentic African locations, and also for its surprisingly sensitive portrayal of the local Masai tribes, including renditions of their traditional dances and songs. It opened today in 1950.
Elvis has been on the menu a lot this week, and there’s no reason to stop now. Harum Scarum definitely belongs in the WTF File, sending the King to 1960s-era Baghdad to have some fun with a fistful of horrifying Arabian stereotypes. It’s offensive in so many, many ways… and yet in so bizarrely over-the-top that you can’t help but stare at it in wide-eyed fascination. As the trailer says, “in your wildest nightmares, you’ve never imagined such goings-on.” They’re not kidding. Harum Scarum opened today in 1965.
We’ll close with Murder on the Orient Express a rather stodgy adaptation of the Agatha Christa classic that does a solid-though-unexceptional job with a very well-known story. (The recent Kenneth Branagh version is an improvement.) The all-star cast is a genuine plus, though Albert Finney is quite hammy as Hercule Poirot. The film also netted Ingrid Bergman her third and final Oscar. It opened today in 1974.
I go back and forth on Seven, David Fincher’s stunning neo-noir that remains a favorite for dark-minded cinephiles of all stripes. Twenty years on, I can’t quite shake the notion that it’s all just a handsomely paced gimmick, but there’s no denying how tightly it can grip you once you start watching. It also deserves credit for following its scenario to its brutally logical conclusion, instead of the various flavors of cop-out that came closer than anyone liked to derailing it. Seven opened today in 1995.
I’ll concede Seven’s place as a modern classic, but frankly I’ll go with the Coen Brothers’ Miller’s Crossing over it any day of the week. In fact, I’d say it’s the brothers’ best work: a riveting, puckish gangster saga, loosely based on Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, about a tough Irish mob lieutenant (Gabriel Byrne) cut loose by his longtime boss and trying to stay alive in the midst of an escalating gang war. Dark, bloody, and surprisingly funny, it opened today in 1990.
You’d think that St. Patrick’s Day would invite a flood of Irish-themed movies into cinemas but no. The Quiet Man opened in August, Michael Collins in September, Darby O’Gill and the Little People in June… even Leprechaun dropped the ball on this one.
Instead, we get Breathless, Jean-Luc Godard’s seminal masterpiece of the French New Wave: incredible, but decidedly not Irish. Shot chronologically in a documentary style and with a lot of emphasis on improvisation, it became an international sensation and today enjoys a semi-permanent place at the top of the movie canon. It opened in its native France today in 1960.
Elsewhere… we’re not the biggest fans of Julia Roberts around here, but we have to admit that — if you’re going to give her an Oscar — then you probably ought to do it for her brassy (and frankly irresistible) performance as a legal clerk turned environmental activist in Erin Brockovich, which opened today in 2000. It was the right role for the right actress, and we won’t begrudge her the immense success she enjoyed because of it.