Today in Movie History: December 27

Releases during the last week of the year tend to have Oscar on their mind: a limited run in a theater or two to qualify, followed by a bigger roll-out in January. That’s borne out by the three films on our list today, all of which scored Oscar nominations or wins. The first (and best) is easily the strangest: 12 Monkeys, Terry Gilliam’s dystopian head trip about a convicted future criminal (Bruce Willis) sent back in time to the present to gather data about a coming apocalypse. It still ranks as a high point in Gilliam’s career and Brad Pitt — bursting on the scene just a few years earlier and supernova hot when this bad boy hit — scored a Best Supporting Actor nod as an asylum inmate who may hold the key to preventing Armageddon. The film opened today in 1995.

There’s been a lot of movies made about drug addiction (the line starts behind Requiem for a Dream), but few examining the scope and futility of America’s quixotic war on drugs. The biggest exception may be Traffic, Steven Soderbergh’s look at every corner of the drug trade and why our efforts to stem it have failed so completely. It remains no less relevant today than it did when first released, and along with Requiem (released just a few months earlier), makes for an indispensable cinematic comment on the issue. (It also won four well-deserved Oscars, including Best Director for Soderbergh and Best Supporting Actor for Benicio del Toro.) It opened today in 2000.

Finally, there’s Chicago, a film I loathe with every fiber of my being, but which nonetheless emerged as the big winner at the Oscars the year it was released (six statues, including Best Picture and Best Supporting Actress for Catherine Zeta-Jones’s). Rob Marshall’s feckless direction does nothing for the material; the editing (which inexplicably won one of those six Oscars) hacks the Bob Fosse choreography to bits; and tone-deaf performances from Renee Zellwger and Richard Gere turn the supposed satirical commentary into an ugly exercise in bad people getting away with it. (I confess, however, that Zeta-Jones’ performance is an absolute knock-out.) It opened today in 2002.


Today in Movie History: August 16

Film lovers often talk about the joy of being surprised: walking into a movie expecting nothing more than a couple of hours’ worth of entertainment, and delighted to discover a masterpiece in its place. So it was with The Usual Suspects, a seemingly by-the-numbers crime thriller than morphed into something extraordinary. Two Oscars later (one for Kevin Spacey and one for screenwriter Chris McQuarrie), it now stands as a modern classic, as well as launching the career of director Bryan Singer. The Usual Suspects opened today in 1995.

If you love zombie apocalypse  movies — and who doesn’t these days? — you should definitely hunt down Return of the Living Dead, a very tongue-in-cheek approach to the genre from the late, great Dan O’Bannon. It involves a group of 80s-era punks squaring off against the ubiquitous zombie hordes, and manages to evoke the more playful side of George A. Romero’s formula without stepping on the master’s toes. (Return isn’t a part of Romero’s Dead cycle, merely inspired by it.) It opened today in 1985.

And since we sometimes list really, really bad movies as well as really, really good ones, there’s The Adventures of Pluto Nash , a late-inning Eddie Murphy disasters that pretty much killed Murphy’s status as a dependable leading man. Or, as Jay Mohr said, “I turned it off after 20 minutes… and I’m in it!!!” Pluto Nash opened today in 2002.


Today in Movie History: July 14

I’m going to start with the X-Men, less because of what their debut onscreen adventure achieves in and of itself than what it heralded for the future of movies. Marvel Comics adaptations had been mired in direct-to-video mediocrity for decades, and while Wesley Snipes’ Blade was the first of their heroes to achieve mainstream movie success, he was more of an action-horror figure than a superhero. The X-Men, however, proved that spandex-clad do-gooders not named Batman or Superman could thrive in a cinematic environment. Their success paved the way for Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man series, and from there to the MCU currently dominating movie pop culture.

The first entry in the series isn’t a perfect movie, but under the care of director Bryan Singer, it treated these characters with respect and dared to examine the underlying message of prejudice and understanding from the comic book series instead of just focusing on mayhem and fight scenes. On a personal level, it proved supremely gratifying for those of us who grew up reading the comics and never imagined we’d see these characters properly delivered to the big screen. Last but not least, it launched the film career of one Hugh Michael Jackman, and though he’s had his share of missteps, the movies are a much better place for his presence. X-Men opened today in 2000.

I was heavily torn between Marvel’s Merry Mutants and When Harry Met Sally… indisputably one of the greatest romantic comedies of all time and a perennial favorite for anyone in need of a little true love. It succeeds for a number of reasons — Nora Ephron’s remarkable script, Ron Reiner’s sure-handed direction and the one-of-a-kind chemistry between stars Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal — but also because it deals with a more mature couple who have been kicked around a bit by love before finding each other (a far cry from the moony first-blush romances the genre usually depends on). The film opened today in 1989.

Going back a few decades, I can’t claim to be a fan of Easy Rider, which always felt heavy-handed and unduly frivolous with its notions of doomed freedom and the futility of sticking it to The Man. Nevertheless, it remains a cultural touchstone and helped catapult Jack Nicholson from Roger Corman’s go-to second banana to one of the biggest stars in the history of movies. Director co-star Dennis Hopper aned the always groovy Peter Fonda make fine impressions too. The film opened today in 1969.

Love them or hate them, the three movies above all attained a resonant cultural influence. For a while, it looked like The Blair Witch Project was going to do the same. But its star has fallen precipitously since its initial release, and what was once hailed as a game-changer in the horror field now looks like a reasonably successful one-note gimmick with nothing else to say. Besides starting the godawful found-footage trend — which continues to pop up in low-budget horror movies like a yapping little dog — its overall impact has been surprisingly minimal. It opened today in 1999.

Finally, there’s License to Kill, one of the low points in the James Bond franchise which perhaps came closest to killing off the 007 series for good. Blame for that was unfairly laid on star Timothy Dalton, in retrospect a fantastic Bond who was saddled with an ill-fitting drugs-and-corruption storyline that turns the character into just another cop. There’s little to recommend it besides the lead and an interesting supporting turn from a very young Benicio Del Toro. License to Kill opened today in 1989.