Today in Movie History: December 19

It’s another big day for notable movies: December gets very crowded with event films in an effort to either rake in the box office while the kids are on break or make a play for an Oscar nod or two. One notable movie managed to do both. The Lord of the Rings: the Fellowship of the Ring was Peter Jackson’s opening foray into what became an indisputable cinematic masterpiece. It’s easy to forget how unprecedented his efforts to bring J.R.R. Tolkien’s celebrated fantasy novels to life, and how much was riding on its success. The prospect had a lot of old-school fantasy fans breathing into a paper bag before it opened. Turns out, we needn’t have worried. Jackson had the right touch, the film became a phenomenon, and along with the Harry Potter franchise, it finally gave the fantasy genre some long-overdue respect. The Fellowship of the Ring opened today in 2001.

Speaking of Oscar winners, Oliver Stone had already scored an Academy Award for penning Midnight Express when he helmed Platoon, a fictionalized account of his experiences in Vietnam. Not only did it walk away with the four Oscars (including Best Picture and Best Director for Stone), but it became the final cinematic word on Vietnam, and represented a national catharsis on that war after years of denial and evasion. It opened today in 1986.

I’m still not sure what I think of James Cameron’s Titanic, which became the biggest moneymaker in the world for a time and an absolute Oscar behemoth, with 11 wins under its belt (including Best Picture and Best Director for Cameron). It looks a lot creakier 20 years on, with the beloved romance between Kate Winslet’s rich girl and Leonardo DiCaprio’s poor boy feeling far more threadbare than it did at the time and Cameron’s turgid script bogging the film down at every turn. That said, it still finds moments of real magic to appreciate, and if nothing else, the film presents a chillingly plausible sense of what it might have felt like on the deck of that ship that fateful night. Titanic opened today in 1997.

Peter Sellers was best known for his role as Inspector Clouseau, and his best performance (or performances) likely came from Strangelove, but his late-inning turn in Hal Ashby’s Being There deserves a prominent spot among them both. It tells the story of a simple-minded gardener mistaken for a genius when he leaves his log-time employer’s home, a sort of reverse Forrest Gump that finds the wisdom and dark insight into human nature that Zemeckis’s movie lacked. It opened today in 1979.

Moving away from Oscar contenders, we find Frank Oz’s Little Shop of Horrors, based on the off-Broadway musical about a schlubby flower shop employee (Rick Moranis) who seems to find the answer to all his problems when he finds a carnivorous plant from outer space. It attains the properly camp tone quite well, aided by some fantastic songs for the legendary Alan Menken and Howard Ashman and puppet-work from one of the masters of the medium. It opened in 1986, and is as much fun today as it was 30 years ago.

Oh, hey, a Bond film opened today too! Okay, it was Tomorrow Never Dies, a badly dated relic from the less-than-immortal Pierce Brosnan era of 007, but still features a few highlights. Chief among them is Michelle Yeoh knocking it out of the park as a Chinese agent who joins forces with Bond, and Judi Dench’s always agreeable presence as M. The film opened today in 1997.

Today in Movie History: December 14

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… 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.

 

Today in Movie History: July 13

We’re giving the top spot today to The Dead Pool, the fifth and presumably the last of the Dirty Harry franchise. It actually ranks as one of the better ones, with a surprising sense of humor to go along with Clint Eastwood’s thundering political context. But that’s not why it tops the list. It tops the list because it contains one of those truly bizarre pop culture mash-ups that only makes sense in the rear-view mirror. A key scene involves a music video being filmed in a meat locker, whose doomed star pretty much kicks the whole plot off. The rock star was played by a then-unknown Jim Carrey, the music video director by a then-unknown Liam Neeson. Carrey lip-syncs Axl Rose while Neeson looks on during an Exorcist homage in the middle of a Dirty Harry flick. It has to be seen to be believed. The Dead Pool opened today in 1988.

That puts it ahead of the other heavy hitter today: The Spy Who Loved Me, one of the high points of the Roger Moore James Bond era that found him flashing his playboy spy routine to increasingly ridiculous ends. The villain’s a bit of a snoozer, and while Barbara Bach looks great in a slinky dress, she’s still too passive to make the strong impression required from the best Bond girls. On the other hand, Richard Kiel’s Jaws is a hoot and with Moore in fine form as 007’s most carefree incarnation, the film’s still a lot of fun. It opened today in 1977.

I’m not going to spend too much time on Ghost, a middling supernatural romance that somehow turned into a massive hit and won Whoopi Goldberg an Oscar. It’s not bad, certainly, but it’s also aged poorly and retains at best a little throwback nostalgia to counteract the general sense that its success owed more to the zeitgeist of the time than the film itself. It opened today in 1990.

The same can’t be said of The Muppets Take Manhattan the last straight-up Muppet Movie to be overseen by Jim Henson before his untimely death. Henson’s longtime partner Frank Oz handled directing duties and the film — which sends the gang to New York in an effort to start up a Broadway play — carries the goofy iconoclastic charm that the Muppets have struggled to find in the wake of Henson’s passing. The Muppets Take Manhattan opened today in 1984.

Finally, I’ll briefly mention The Frisco Kid, a strange and wonderful western about a rabbi (Gene Wilder) travelling across the frontier to San Francisco and the amiable outlaw (Harrison Ford) who helps him on his way. The pairing of those two should be enough to pique your interest, and the film itself is different enough to let its surprisingly sweet tone come through. It opened today in 1979.