The Western, as a genre, has supposedly been on death’s door since Heaven’s Gate, though it has continued in fits and starts, and still sees its share of memorable films crop up. None rose higher than Unforgiven, Clint Eastwood’s farewell to the genre that made him famous, and easily one of the greatest films on his impressive resume. It explores notions of violence and mythology by deconstructing the most cherished legends of the old West. The result is dark and uncompromising, yet strangely poetic in its vision of men who can’t escape their own brutal nature. It snagged four Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director for Eastwood and Best Supporting Actor for Gene Hackman, and opened today in 1992.
On an exponentially lighter note, there’s Real Genius, ostensibly one of a seemingly never-ending array of gross-out college comedies from the 80s that turned out to be something much, much more. It eschewed the boob-groping and bad-boy pranks of its ilk in favor of a very sweet story about smart kids still trying to figure out the world, topped by Val Kilmer at his most charming as an engineering genius who decides to stop playing by the rules midway through the game. It opened today in 1985 and remains as fresh and funny as it did back then.
Anytime a piece of animation breaks from the Disney mold, it’s usually worth a look. So it is with Heavy Metal, a decidedly adult anthology produced by Ivan Reitman and inspired by the classic sci-fi fantasy magazine that shares its name. It’s a mixed bag, as many anthology films can be, but the animation itself is a joy to behold and its unapologetic R-rated nature makes it a standout in a genre dominated by kid-friendly pastels. It opened today in 1981.
It was easy to overlook The Birdcage when it was released. Based on the French film La Cage aux Folles, it did well at the box office, but felt at the time like more Robin Williams slapstick: soaking up Hollywood’s newfound tolerance for homosexuals and repeating trite observations about tolerance and understanding. In retrospect, however, it looks like a comedic masterpiece. The jokes hold water across multiple viewings and the skewering of right-wing homophobia feels more timely now than ever. More importantly, Williams and Nathan Lane play their characters — a Miami nightclub owner and his flamboyant main attraction — as more than just swishy stereotypes. They genuinely care about each other and — devoid of the preachiness of Philadelphia and its ilk — come across as authentic in ways its contemporaries couldn’t. Williams, in particular, delivers one of the better performances of his career: surprisingly disciplined and with a keen eye on the big picture. It opened today in 1996.
For those of you, like me, who were absolutely crushed by the wretched Will Smith version of I Am Legend, look to Vincent Price to save the day. He starred in an earlier version of the story, The Last Man on Earth, which suffered from a low budget but still managed to capture the core of the Richard Matheson source novel far better than Hollywood’s crass and noisy butchery. It opened today in 1964.
In the spirit of the season, we’re going to start with a light one: Clue, one of those comedies that nobody understood when it was first released, but has since gone on to become a classic. Based on the evergreen board game, it initially baffled critics and audiences with its vaudeville-style script and a gimmick that allowed for different endings depending on which theater you watched it in. The last bit may have been ill-conceived, but the inclusion of all three endings on the VHS release cut the Gordian Knot nicely. And with seven of the funniest people on the planet front and center, the film sparkles on the sheer power of good comic timing. It opened today in 1985.
Barry Levinson’s Bugsy got shoved aside a little bit in the stampede to honor The Silence of the Lambs, and with the shadow of Goodfellas breathing down its neck. But it’s a terrific gangster film, and Warren Beatty’s hypnotic portrayal of infamous gangster Bugsy Siegel ranks as one of the best performances he’s given. The film also introduced him to his eventual wife Annette Bening, and the chemistry between the two is scorching. Bugsy opened today in 1991.
Then there’s Jerry Maguire, Cameron Crowe’s romantic comedy about a sports agent (Tom Cruise) who loses everything and finds his soul. It’s funny and charming in equal measures, featuring a star-making turn from Renee Zellweger as yet another of Cameron’s winsome blonde muses. The real scene-stealer, however, was Cuba Gooding, Jr. who won an Oscar as the only one of Cruise’s clients who sticks with him. William H. Macy was robbed — at gunpoint — but it’s hard to deny Gooding’s onscreen charm. The film opened today in 1996.
Finally, we have The Poseidon Adventure, Irwin Allen’s typically ridiculous disaster saga about a cruise ship hit by a tidal wave and the brave passengers who have to fight their way clear of the sinking wreck. It’s awful, but an interesting sort of awful, and at the time, its particular kind of awfulness was all the rage. It opened 45 years ago today today in 1972.
The French Connection is justly celebrated for one of the most dynamic car chases of all time, though it wins no points for public endangerment: it was reportedly created simply by setting cameras up along uncleared streets in NYC, then telling star Gene Hackman to floor it. Nevertheless, it’s a harrowing, incredible sequence befitting the down-and-dirty police procedural that surrounds it. Director William Friedkin stripped policework of anything glamorous or romantic, presenting cops as hard-working Joes trudging their way through boring (though not always safe) details in their search for the bad guy du jour. It set the standard that cop movies have followed ever since and snagged 5 Academy Awards in the process, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor and Best Adapted Screenplay. It opened today in 1971.
We have a very diverse quartet to recognize today, starting with the earliest. Abel Gance’s passion project Napoleon, covering the early years of the French leader’s life, became one of the most innovative efforts of the silent era: pioneering numerous techniques such as multi-camera set-ups and multi-screen projection (making it one of the first truly widescreen movies) that influenced countless generations of filmmakers. It opened today in 1927.
Most people remember Francis Ford Coppola’s other movie released in 1974 — the one with Fredo in the boat — and end up overlooking The Conversation, his brilliant meditation of surveillance and paranoia that feels more pertinent than ever. Gene Hackman stars as a surveillance specialist who slowly becomes unhinged, and it marks one of that great actor’s highlights as well. (Also, look for a pre-Star Wars Harrison Ford in the mix.)
If you want to look at Hollywood’s problem in a nutshell, compare the original Bad News Bears — released today in 1976 — with the utterly gutless remake in 2005. The original version had real bite to its humor, including an overtly racist ten-year-old and a climax that involves a father physically striking his son. The remake tried to ease around all that without looking the Gorgon in the face. Big mistake. Sometimes funny movies have something important to say, and they can’t do that by backing off.
Finally, we’re going to end with Rob Roy, the 1995 movie about a Scottish legend that wasn’t directed by a raging anti-Semite. Besides the fetching sight of Liam Neeson in a kilt and John Hurt getting his villain on in a big way, there’s Tim Roth… who earned his only Oscar nomination to date for playing the scariest dandy in the whole wide world. (He lost to Kevin Spacey. It was a good year.)