At the top of today’s list Danny Kaye’s The Court Jester, released in 1956. It stands as a high point of Kaye’s career, both for the marvelous way he sends up Errol Flynn-style swashbuckling (complete with Basil Rathbone as the villain) and for the marvelous wordplay of the script (“the pellet with the poison’s in the flagon with the dragon; the vessel with the pestle has the brew that is true”).
Speaking up sending up previous images, Pierce Brosnan scored a winner with The Matador, one of my favorite films of recent years and released today in 2006. He plays a hitman coming apart at the seams whose chance encounter with a grieving salesman (Greg Kinnear) in a Mexico City hotel provides him with the human connection he so desperately needs. Writer-director Richard Shepard hit this one out of the park, and helped Brosnan turn a middling stint as James Bond into a quietly impressive post-Bond career.
Finally, four years ago Joe Carnahan’s The Grey was released in theaters. It earned a fair amount of heat at the time for its portrayal of wolves: a charge I failed to see in the movie itself, which makes for a brilliant (if reasonably brutal) variation on Jack London-style survival stories. Also, Liam Neeson fights a wolf with a smashed mini-liquor bottle. Tell me you wouldn’t pay money to see that.
The word “game changer” gets thrown around a lot with flavor-of-the-month movies that tend to fade with time. But the phrase has rarely applied more aptly than it has to Pulp Fiction, which cemented the rise of indie cinema in the 1990s, altered the face of crime drama forever, and permanently put Quentin Tarantino on the map. It’s perfection incarnate, and on top of everything else, it even featured one of the greatest trailers ever produced. It opened today in 1994.
Twenty years earlier, Martin Scorsese made a similar splash with Mean Streets, a far more serious look at crime and the underworld that (among other things) made stars out of Harvey Keitel and Robert De Niro. Both actors found fertile creative ground with the director in subsequent films, but their turn as small-time punks here never ceases to amaze. (Keitel went on to anchor Tarantino’s debut, Reservoir Dogs, and played a prominent role in Pulp Fiction as well. It’s safe to say the man knows talent when he sees it.) Mean Streets opened today in 1973.
After fleeing the Nazis for greener pastures in Hollywood, Fritz Lang struggled to recapture the creative power that made him such a force in the 1920s. He came very close with The Big Heat, an exquisite piece of film noir setting one tough cop (Glenn Ford) against the local underworld. Lang doesn’t shy away from his protagonist’s uglier side (the man has a temper), and with Gloria Grahame stealing the show as a gun moll for the ages, he had the onscreen wattage to create something truly special. The Big Heat opened today in 1953.
As we’ve noted before, it may seem surprising to open a holiday movie like White Christmas in October, but back in the day, movies stuck around for a long time, and Michael Curtiz’s fluffy adaptation of the Irving Berlin songbook did just that. With Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye and Rosemary Clooney playing a trio of entertainers books in a Vermont Inn over the holidays, it eschews anything pressing or scary in favor lots of pretty music. It opened today in 1954.
We’ll close with another horror movie: Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, which marked the celebrated director’s return to the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise that he started. Craven was never shy about his ambiguity towards Freddy Krueger, a character he created as the ultimate monster only to watch morph into some kind of demented theme-park mascot. New Nightmare was a surprising sophisticated effort to grapple with that legacy, as well as a more thoughtful take on horror movies than the smug Scream franchises which he launched just a few years later. New Nightmare opened today in 1994.