Today in Movie History: December 8

We’re going to start with Ang Lee, the only non-white to win more than one Best Director Oscar and whose vision continues to expand with every film he makes. Among his very best is Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, a love letter to the wuxia films of his youth that manages to elevate the genre to masterpiece status. A sumptuous adventure, a tragic love story and an ode to the ways that the movies can move us, you won’t see a better kung fu movie ever. Crouching Tiger arrived on U.S. screens today in 2000.

Staying in the realm of foreign language films, we find Costa-Gavras’s Z, a semi-satirical political thriller loosely based on the real-life assassination of Greek politician Grigoris Labrakis. Among its other achievements, it was the first movie to be nominated for both Best Foreign Language Film and Best Picture. (A number of others have come along since then… including Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.) Z opened today in 1969.

Closer to home, there’s On the Town, based on the successful stage musical about a trio of sailors in New York on shore leave. Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra star as two of the three (Broadway actor Jules Munshin served as their third musketeer). Kelly himself directed the dance sequences, and with music by Leonard Bernstein, among others, it’s a fine treat from a day when musicals were Hollywood’s bread and butter. It opened today in 1949.

For old-school movie stars at the top of their game, check out Paul Newman putting the justice system on trial in The Verdict. It marks another high point in his amazing career — playing a washed-up lawyer given a shot at redemption by a singular case — and under the sharp direction of Sidney Lumet, earned him an Academy Award nomination in the process. (He lost to Ben Kingsley in Gandhi, and we’re not too bent out of shape by that one.) It opened 35 years ago today in 1982.

Newman was an established legend by the time he made The Verdict. Another big star, Eddie Murphy, hadn’t even made a motion picture before appearing in 48 HRS, which partnered him with Nick Nolte solely on the strength of his phenomenal presence of Saturday Night Live. The move was a huge smash, establishing the parameters of the buddy-cop movie and turning Murphy into a superstar almost overnight. It also opened 35 years ago today in 1982.

Finally, today saw the release of the underrated WWII romp Force 10 from Navarone, featuring Robert Shaw, Carl Weathers and a post-Han, pre-Indy Harrison Ford kicking some Nazi ass. It’s pulp, to be sure, but certainly fun pulp… and Shaw’s final speech is not to be missed. (Plus, all the cool kids are punching Nazis these days.) Force 10 opened today in 1979.

 

Today in Movie History: November 3

Stephen King understands bullies as few others before him, which is one of the reasons why his terror tales hold so much power. His first novel, Carrie — inspired by experiences in high school — taps into the fear, alienation and rage of being the constant target of abuse, and in the hands of director Brian De Palma, it became one of the greatest horror films of all time. Sissy Spacek is perfect as the terrified young woman whose burgeoning telekinesis gives her the perfect instrument of revenge, and made the character an icon for anyone who ever got stuffed into a locker or wedgied behind the bleachers. It opened today in 1976.

The original Pete’s Dragon came along at a low point for Walt Disney Pictures, with their founder ten years gone and the company searching for a creative direction. But it holds a great deal of charm in the story of another picked-on child, this time with someone much more positive in his corner. It rambles a bit, and packs a few plot threads too many into its frame, but it also finds some measure of the magic that made the House of Mouse so beloved. It opened 40 years ago today in 1977.

Guys and Dolls decided to make a musical out of the magical subject of compulsive gambling and — let’s face it — preserved some of the less savory aspects of 50s culture. But watching Marlon Brando sing “Luck Be a Lady” is all kinds of awesome, and who if not Frank Sinatra should play the definitive Nathan Detroit? The film opened 60 years ago today in 1957.

Finally, there’s Fiddler on the Roof, an ambitious and uniformly admirable adaptation of the famous stage play. Director Norman Jewison stuck to the basics — letting the marvelous songs and fine performances speak for themselves — and while it was a crime to keep Zero Mostel from the part he was born to play, Topol makes a perfectly serviceable fill-in as the Jewish dairy farmer dealing with life in a changing world. The film also won three Oscars, including the first of many for composer John Williams. It opened today in 1971.

 

 

Today in Movie History: October 24

The 1960s saw a slow revision of the western as a genre, as the likes of Sergio Leone took it in a different, darker direction and even stalwarts like John Ford found undercurrents more in keeping with the time than their previous work. That came to a head with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid a breezy, almost comedic romp marked by a growing sense of doom as the two title outlaws (Paul Newman and Robert Redford at their very best) search for frontiers that may no longer exist. The film opened today in 1969 and is still considered one of the best Westerns ever made.

The original version of The Manchurian Candidate set the standards for eerily plausible Cold War paranoia, involving brainwashed U.S. soldiers unwittingly doing the bidding of their communist masters in the heat of a presidential campaign. It was pulled from release following the assassination of JFK, and it’s not hard to see why: its power is absolutely terrifying. It opened 55 years ago today in 1962, and in light of our current political situation, it may pay to give it another look.

Despite a stellar run on the stage, the 1978 film adaptation of The Wiz is generally regarded as a dud. It’s too long, too slow and takes too much time to get its concept across: though a great director in his own right, Sidney Lumet may not have been the right man for the job here. But the songs remain a hoot and some sure-fire casting keeps it from being a complete disaster. It opened today in 1978.

Today in Movie History: August 5

For countless millions of couples, From Here to Eternity represented the epitome of passion and romance. Many of them also found out the hard way that making out on the beach while the tide comes in is a lot less sexy than it looks. The movie opened today in 1953.

Exactly thirty years later, we were treated to an interesting, dark and surprisingly complex teen comedy about a young man who hires a prostitute while his parents are out of town. And oh, did we mention that said young man was played by a hungry young actor named Tom Cruise? The long road to Oprah’s couch and beyond started with Risky Business, opening today in 1983.

Frankly, To Catch a Thief doesn’t rank among the best Hitchcock movies, though as a lark it’s loads of fun. But it is notable as the last film Hitch made with his favorite leading lady, Grace Kelly, before she went off to be Princess of Monaco. It opened today in 1955.

Finally, we have Rise of the Planet of the Apes, a movie that looked for all the world like a disastrous attempt to reboot a long-dead franchise. But thanks to a crackerjack script and a truly amazing performance from Andy Serkis, it not only rejuvenated the Apes property, but it gave us the best entry in the franchise since the immortal original. It opened 5 years ago in 2011.