It was a good day for epics, starting with Edward Zwick’s classic Civil War tale Glory, which (among other things) gave Denzel Washington his first Oscar. You like your epics big, loud and featuring Charlton Heston? December 14 also saw the release of Anthony Mann’s minor classic El Cid back in 1961.
1984 saw three notable science fiction movies released today… well okay, two notable science fiction movies and Michael Crichton’s Runaway. David Lynch released is long-anticipated version of Dune, to the bafflement and dismay of many fans. The film has since developed a cult following, and while we acknowledge its flaws, we can’t help but admire its ambition. (Plus Patrick Stewart as Gurney Halleck; who doesn’t love that?) Far more successful — to the tune of an Oscar nomination for star Jeff Bridges — was Starman, John Carpenter’s marvelous move out of his horror movie comfort zone and into the realm of sci-fi romance.
But that’s not all! Carl Reiner’s The Jerk opened today in 1979: a film that really shouldn’t work but does thanks to its lead, Steve Martin. Martin scored another success nine years later with Frank Oz’s Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, which remains one of his best films to date.
Finally, there’s Saturday Night Fever, John Badham’s ode to disco and working-class Brooklyn that made a star out of John Travolta. It turns 40 years old today — released in 1977 — and it’s a lot better than you might think.
I’m not sure when or how it happened, but David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr. somehow turned into a go-to critics’ selection for the best film of the 21st century. I’m not complaining — considering that it began as a failed TV pilot, its power is staggering — though I think it indulges in weirdness for weirdness’s sake a little too often. On the other hand, if that’s not your thing, you’ve come to the wrong direction, and its vision of Los Angeles as a surreal, occasionally nightmare-laden dreamscape is one of a kind. It opened today in 2001.
Ben Affleck never seemed satisfied with working in front of the camera, and he scored a winner with Argo, the true story of how the CIA ferried a group of Americans safely out of Revolutionary Iran by posing as a movie crew. It established Affleck as a director of note and his failure to garner an Academy Award nomination — quite the kerfuffle at the time — was mitigated by its seemingly unanimous choice for the Best Picture Oscar. It opened today in 2012.
Finally, I’ll mention Sinister, which opened the same day, and which certainly isn’t in the same league. But it remains a solid horror film, with a terrific twist and a protagonist (Ethan Hawke) who manages to both have it coming and engender our sympathies at the same time. If you need a horror movie this Halloween season, you could do a whole lot worse.
David Lynch understands outsiders as few other filmmakers, and nowhere did he place us more heartbreakingly in their shoes than with The Elephant Man. John Hurt earned an Oscar nomination for his turn as John Merrick, the disfigured circus performer who escaped his brutal lot to find a life of dignity and acceptance in Victorian England. It opened today in 1980, and its lessons should not be forgotten.
We’re no fans of Jane Fonda around here — for a number of reasons — but it’s still hard to say no to Barbarella, Roger Vadim’s surreal (and very naughty) space opera that moved her away from the good-girl roles she had specialized in since her career began. Her 41st century sex kitten displays the perfect mixture of innocence, strength and curiosity as she explores an entire planet of erotic peril, and the film retains its PG façade while diving deep into a lot of serious kinks just under the surface. It opened today in 1968.
Quentin Tarantino isn’t afraid of a long running time, never morso than with the Kill Bill saga — a film so big they had to break it in half just to squeeze it all it. Turns out, it was a smart choice: Kill Bill, Vol. 1 ends with a suitably epic climax, while still leaving plenty of goodies for the second half of the saga to feast upon. It opened today in 2003, leaving us breathlessly awaiting the finale a few months later.
Finally, there’s Fitzcarraldo, Werner Herzog’s tender, compassionate story of an odd little man (Klaus Kinski) who decides to pull a ship over a jungle mountain as part of an elaborate scheme to build an opera house in his Peruvian town. The shoot proved even more arduous than the events it depicts and that Kinski/Herzog magic reached a crescendo one afternoon when a native extra offered to kill the actor for the common good. Herzog mulled it over before deciding that finishing the movie was more important. Fitzcarraldo opened today in the U.S. 1982.
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.
With the screenplays for Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Empire Strikes Back under his belt, Lawrence Kasdan was ready to try his hand at directing. His freshman effort proved to be a stunner: Body Heat, a super-steamy update of the classic Double Indemnity, in which a sleazy Florida lawyer (William Hurt) falls for a routinely naked woman (Kathleen Turner) who needs help in knocking off her husband. It’s a spectacular piece of neo-noir — honoring its predecessor while still finding its own energy — and it opened today in 1981.
The same day saw the release of Peter Weir’s Gallipoli, the tale of a pair of Australian runners who end up in the middle of the disastrous attempted invasion of the Ottoman Empire during World War I. Weir delivers a sobering meditation on the futility and waste of war, as well as a deeply personal story of the young men who paid the price for it. Not even the presence of Mel Gibson in an early role can distract from the power on display. The film also opened in 1981.
The 2017 update to Twin Peaks has brought renewed interest in the groundbreaking TV show…. which unfortunately includes David Lynch’s disastrous cinematic prequel, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me. After the show’s abrupt cancellation which left heroic FBI Agent Dale Cooper trapped in limbo and an evil doppelganger taking his place, fans showed up to the movie expecting some answers. The result, unfortunately, were ugly, depressing and weird for the wrong reasons, as Lynch explored the final 24 hours in the life of doomed prom queen Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee) and turned the whole thing into a giant mess. Fans felt so burned that most of us were relieved to be done with it all, and while the new series has done miracles for erasing all those bad vibes, that still doesn’t make the movie any less of a depressing experience. It opened today in 1992.