People were still trying to figure out Tim Burton in the winter of 1990. Having watched him direct an unexpected hit with Beetlejuice and then taken the world by storm with Batman, everyone wondered whether he was for real or just some quirky hiccup. He responded with Edward Scissorhands, a modern fairy tale that cemented his distinctive style, evinced a gentle shift away from the darkness of the Caped Crusader, and — oh yeah — made a giant pile of money. The director was here to stay and “Burtonesque” was officially a word. Edward Scissorhands opened today in 1990.
We also have a pair of less-than-brilliant-but-still-somewhat-notable science fiction movies that opened today. The first was Star Trek: The Motion Picture, hoping to capitalize on all that Star Wars moola by throwing the crew of the Enterprise against a baffling array of enormous concept art. Seriously, it took them 40 minutes to get out of space dock. Galaxy’s not gonna save itself guys! Get the lead out! (They did a little better with their second effort.) It hit theaters today in 1979.
Exactly 5 years later, Peter Hyams’ 2010 hit theaters. On its own, it’s actually a decent piece of sci-fi. There’s just the matter of the film it’s following up… the little one that Stanley Kubrick did. It’s not a bad bit of escapism, but watching it really makes you wish you were watching the first film instead. It opened today in 1984.
We top the pole position with one of the greatest movies of all time: Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai hit U.S. theaters today in 1956. The unparalleled Eastern-Western mash-up — entailing an impoverished village menaced by bandits who hire seven wandering ronin to save them — influenced everything from The Magnificent Seven to Star Wars to A Bug’s Life, and includes a bevvy of amazing performances topped by the great Toshiro Mifune.
For a more recent example of plucky underdogs facing overwhelming odds, there’s the first part of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Critics complained about a cash grab when it was announced that the final chapter in the Harry Potter saga would be divided into two films, but it turned out to be a canny choice: allowing the grand finale of J.K. Rowling’s beloved saga to breathe without cramming it into a single running time. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part One opened today in 2011.
It’s hard to say if Milos Foreman’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was the very best on his resume… and considering it’s one of the greatest movies ever made, that’s saying a lot. The tale of a small-time crook (Jack Nicholson) who finds himself in a mental ward run by a tyrannical nurse (Louise Fletcher) became one of just a tiny handful of films to win the Big Five Oscars (Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, Screenplay). It opened today in 1975.
Finally, there’s Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow, another of the director’s handsome baubles that struggled with a coherent story. When taken piecemeal, it’s an extraordinary piece of cinema, with Gothic visuals and a dark sense of the gruesome that fits Washington Irving’s famous ghost story like a glove. But turning the sparse Irving narrative into a feature-length plot is simply too great a challenge for the director, leaving it more notable misfire than genuine classic. Sleepy Hollow opened today in 1999.
The Pirates of the Caribbean franchise became a victim of its own success, making it easy to forget what a revelation Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow was when he first capered onto movie screens. Combined with Gore Verbinski’s acrobatic direction, what started out as a decidedly dodgy prospect somehow became the go-to movie for modern swashbuckling. (And if we’re totally honest, a great deal of credit also belongs to Geoffrey Rush, whose delicious Captain Barbossa never wore out his welcome.) Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl opened 15 years ago today in 2003.
The glorious summer of 1982 produced its share of unique films, few more so than the original TRON. The story is a bit of a mess, but the visuals were stunning — something never seen before — and the fascinating way it grappled with the growing reality of the computer age made it strangely prescient in many ways. Like it or not, we’re all on the Gird these days… and TRON saw it coming. It opened today in 1982.
Finally, there’s Anchorman, a film that didn’t look like much more than a goof when it first opened. It has aged like fine wine since then, and not only stands at the apex of Will Ferrell’s career, but had some things to say about gender status that remain all-too pertinent today. Ron Burgundy first told San Diego to stay classy today in 2004.
We’re starting with the suddenly very problematic Kill Bill, Vol. 2 today. It remains one of the better efforts in Quentin Tarantino’s unique canon, and provided a career topping turn for Uma Thurman (as well as her amazing then-stunt double Zoe Bell, among others). But Thurman’s recent revelations regarding the director’s cavalier attitude towards her safety have given it a chilling undercurrent… and Harvey Weinstein’s prominent involvement makes it doubly troubling. The movie is terrific, but what’s come to light has tempered that more than a little. It opened today in 2004.
On a lighter note, there’s Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, about a kind soul (Gary Cooper) who inherits a lot of money and has to deal with all manner of hustlers and con artists in the process. It’s one of Cooper’s better films, and served as the source for the not-great-but-better-than-you’d-expect Adam Sandler version from a few years ago. It opened today in 1993.
We’ll close with a personal favorite: Benny & Joon, a lovely romance about an Autistic young woman (Mary Stuart Masterson) who falls for an acrobatic silent comic enthusiast (Johnny Depp, when he could still charm our socks off with a glance), and the consternation it causes her caregiver brother (Aidan Quinn). It’s marvelous, it has aged like find wine, and it celebrates love among the world’s oddballs and outsiders as few romances ever could. It opened 25 years ago today in 1993.
It’s a quiet day post Oscars, with a couple of interesting (but not necessarily great) films to note. The first is Alice in Wonderland, Tim Burton’s wildly profitable “sequel” to the original Lewis Carroll story. It is, to put it mildly, a mixed bag. Stand-out performances and Burton’s wild imagination (to say nothing of a fantastic theme from Danny Elfman) clash badly with the dopey story and the sense that Burton himself was sitting on a beach while a computer called the BurtonTron 5000 actually put it together. As a novelty, it’s very interesting. As a movie… there are better versions of the story out there. It opened today in 2010.
Guy Ritchie possesses a similarly unique vision, along with a hit-and-miss track record for expressing it. It’s hard to find fault in Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels however. The seeming cockney riff on cinema’s then-raging Tarantino fixation actually transformed into a glorious crime caper on its own, as well as helping to launch the career of Jason Statham. It opened in the U.S. today in 1999.