Disaster or masterpiece? That distinction can hinge on the razor’s edge sometimes, especially when an ambitious, talented and possibly crazy filmmaker is involved. Case in point: Apocalypse Now, Francis Ford Coppola’s effort to encapsulate the war in Vietnam as seen through a variation of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. The shoot was infamous for its delays, debacles and outright danger, including a heart attack from star Martin Sheen, a hurricane that destroyed the set and Marlon Brando in full-bore Marlon Brando mode. Despite that, and despite a shoot that apparently brought Coppola himself to the brink of madness, the film remains one of the definitive statements on Vietnam and the insanity of war in general. It opened today in 1979.
If you asked me which David Cronenberg film I would hold above all others, I’d probably end up choosing his most commercial: The Fly, a reimagined version of the 1950s classic (itself based on a chilling short story by George Langelaan). It focuses on Cronenberg’s obsessive infusion on flesh and technology, wrapped in — of all things — a surprisingly good romantic comedy that absolutely disarms us just in time for the horror show to begin. The Fly opened today in 1986 and hasn’t lost a single ounce of its power.
While Silence of the Lambs made Hannibal Lecter a household name, he actually first appeared five years earlier in Michael Mann’s superb thriller Manhunter. Drenched in the director’s Miami Vice style, it nonetheless found the same intense connections between hunter and prey that Silence did, and Bryan Cox’s turn as Lecter, while distinct from Anthony Hopkins (to whom the character will always belong), is enough to cause some sleepless nights. Manhunter opened today in 1986.
Finally, there’s Event Horizon. Okay, yeah, forget I mentioned it. Except… Event Horizon… the most awesomely awful movie ever! It opened today in 1997, making it the second-best Laurence Fishburne movie to be released today.
It’s blockbuster season, so I’ll start with the biggest. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade — widely regarded as the best of the series after the original — benefited from the genius pairing of Harrison Ford’s redoubtable archaeologist with Sean Connery as his fussy, disapproving father. It opened today in 1989.
Slightly further down the sequel list, we find Back to the Future III, which opened exactly one year after The Last Crusade and — unlike Indy — had the good sense to bring its story to an elegant conclusion. Though overly plotted and breathlessly paced, it maintained the charming relationship between Michel J. Fox’s twitchy teen and Christopher Lloyd’s eccentric inventor, and plopping them down in the Old West provided plenty of gags to throw at them.
And since we’re being thorough today, we should mention A View to a Kill, Roger Moore’s ignominious final outing as James Bond. Embarrassingly old for the part, he sleepwalked through a movie that features one or two interesting moments (topped by a base jump off of the Eiffel Tower), but otherwise wastes countless how-could-they-blow-it assets like Christopher Walken as the villain and Grace Jones as his sinister right arm. At least there’s the Duran Duran song. A View to a Kill opened today in 1985.
Straying away from blockbusters, we find Belle du Jour, Luis Buunel’s surreal masterpiece about a sexually distant housewife (Catherine Deneuve) who begins moonlighting as a prostitute. In anyone else’s hands, it might have been sleazy and degrading. In Bunuel’s, it’s haunting, surreal and surprisingly pro-woman. It opened in France today in 1967.
Speaking of pro-women, we’ll close today with Ridley Scott’s Thelma and Louise, hailed as a groundbreaker for its depiction of a pair of good friends (Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon) who go on the lam to escape… well… everything to do with men. It opened today in 1991, and we’ve never looked at the Grand Canyon the same way again.
And I will note for the record that those last two pro-women movies were actually directed by men. Might be nice to let a few more women take a shot at directing movies like that…
It’s all about the 80s today with a trio of iconic films from that era. No one expected a movie like Beetlejuice to do anything when it first opened. Indeed, the question remains how the darn thing got made in the first place: a second-time director with a truly strange point of view given free rein to pursue his vision, and a star widely perceived to be on his way down. How could this possibly work? It not only worked, but it worked spectacularly well: turning into a big hit based on its uniquely weird charms, and making stars out of Alec Baldwin, Geena Davis and Winona Ryder in the process. Michael Keaton’s career got a shot in the arm, Danny Elfman continued his development as a one-of-a-kind composer, and the director — some guy named Burton — is now a household name. It opened 30 years ago today in 1988.
Four years earlier, another journeyman director hit one out of the park to launch a career of some note. He shaded his Indiana Jones-style adventure with a gentle-yet-witty satire of Harlequin romance novels, aided by the nuclear chemistry between stars Kathleen Turner and Michael Douglas. The film was Romancing the Stone, the director was Robert Zemeckis, and the movie is just as breezy and charming today as it was three decades ago. It opened today in 1984.
Though technically released in the 90s, we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention the first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles as another signpost of that bygone era. Though more pop culture artifact than good (or even watchable) movie, its turtle costumes (courtesy of the Jim Henson Company) are still pretty darn spectacular. It opened today in 1990.