There are good movies, there are great movies, and then there are movies that have become indispensable parts of the pop culture language. We didn’t think The Big Lebowski would join them, at least initially. It felt like a goofy one-off from the Coen Brothers: blowing off steam after the triumph of Fargo. Turns out, their shaggy-dog take on Raymond Chandler mysteries — filtered through the inexhaustible weirdness of L.A. at its most L.A.-like — may be the most beloved film in their canon. It opened today in 1998, and as you are probably already aware, the Dude abides.
In a much darker corner of the noir tapestry, we find Alan Parker’s Angel Heart, an elegant combination of detective thriller, horror story and surreal nightmare. Mickey Rourke’s rumpled PI is sent after a missing man by an infernal Robert De Niro, only to find himself the target of a murderous set-up by his frustratingly elusive quarry. The film generated a great deal of controversy upon release thanks to a steamy sex scene between Rourke and then-wholesome-sit-com-queen Lisa Bonet. (They had to cut ten seconds out of the scene to avoid an X rating.) The controversy died, but the movie itself survives. Good filmmaking has a way of doing that. Angel Heart opened today in 1987.
We’ll close with Watchmen, Zack Snyder’s ambitious attempt to deliver the celebrated Alan Moore/Dave Gibbons graphic novel. He stuck very close to the source material, which many people feel made it inert, and the film never caught fire at the box office. But I maintain that it’s the best film in Snyder’s canon, and with the likes of Jackie Earle Haley just knocking it out of the park, it remains surprisingly worthwhile. It opened today in 2009.
Petrified Forest (1936)
A big day for movies starts with the one of the most problematic. D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation opened today in 1915, marking a seismic advance in motion pictures as a technical art form while simultaneously pushing a narrative so grotesque it causes one to despair for humanity. Film students are obligated to watch it. Once. Everyone else can probably skip it, and make Griffith’s technical prowess an afterthought to the fact that he may have been single-handedly responsible for the resurrection of the KKK.
If you’re looking for a masterpiece that won’t make you want to punch the wall, there’s Martin Scorsese’s celebrated Taxi Driver, a tale of urban despair that feels more relevant now than ever. Anyone struggling to get the nasty taste of latter-day Robert De Niro movies out of their mouth can revel in his performance here — one of the most unforgettable ever put on screen — along with equally stunning turns from the likes of Harvey Keitel, Jodie Foster and Cybil Shepherd.
Five years later, Taxi Driver’s screenwriter Paul Schrader helmed another urban thriller, American Gigolo, which opened today in 1980. Though not in the same league as Taxi Driver, it found an agreeably creepy vibe for its murder mystery and succeeded in turning Richard Gere into a big star.
Speaking of big stars…. for all his career longevity (and despite a late-inning slump disturbingly similar to De Niro’s), Harrison Ford never received an excessive amount of critical respect. The lone exception was Witness, Peter Weir’s police thriller about a good cop hiding among the Pennsylvania Amish that netted Ford his first (and to date only) Academy Award nomination. He lost to William Hurt, and it was the right call, but it’s hard not to be entranced by his layered, surprisingly nuanced performance of a man in a violent job picking his way through a community that rejects all violence.
Finally, there’s John Carpenter’s The Fog, which opened the same say as American Gigolo in 1980. It’s minor Carpenter at best — he never could get the film’s multiple plot threads to come together and a fine atmosphere sometimes overcomes actual scares — but still demonstrates why the man became a legend in genre filmmaking. (And check out John Houseman’s incredible ghost story to kick the whole thing off.)
Man, there are some big movies released today. We’re going to start with the grim one: one of the most important movies of all time, a chilling testament to the Holocaust, and demonstrative artistic validation for one of the greatest directors ever. Schindler’s List opened today in 1993. Above and beyond its merits as cinema, its success led to the founding of the Shoah Foundation, dedicated to preserving the testament of Holocaust survivors.
On a much lighter front: we love comic book movies here, and the last few years have seen some great ones from the MCU to Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies to the resurgent X-Men. At the end of the day, however, they’re still chasing the original. Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie opened today in 1978: a gold standard for superhero movies that may never be passed.
A big lug of an entirely different kind also arrived today in 1974: Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein delivered the final word on horror parodies and may be the greatest movie in Mr. Brooks’ formidable canon. For safety’s sake, don’t humiliate him!
Other notable releases on this day include the rousing Jimmy Stewart adventure film Flight of the Phoenix in 1965; The Pink Panther Strikes Again in 1976 (which remains our favorite of the Pink Panther films); and Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s surreal fantasy masterpiece The City of Lost Children in 1995.
The City of Lost Children shares a release date with Michael Mann’s Heat, the story of a career bank robber (Robert De Niro) after one last score and the dedicated cop (Al Pacino) trying to hunt him down. Much has been made — rightfully so — of the coffee shop scene between the two actors, but the entire ensemble is incredible (including Val Kilmer, Danny Terjo, Ashley Judd, Natalie Portman and Wes Studi), and the film itself is one of the greatest police thrillers ever made. it opened today in 1995.
Oh yeah, and one other little film opened today in 1939. Southern epic, most popular movie of all time, “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn,” something, something…
We’re back after a couple of days off to process the murder-suicide pact my nation signed last Tuesday. We’ll start with Raging Bull, a movie which not only marks the high point of Martin Scorsese’s longtime collaboration with Robert De Niro, but pretty much fits with the national mood right now. De Niro won his second Oscar for his portrayal of the indomitable and psychologically damaged Jake La Motta, and when you say an actor of his stature has never been better, that means a lot. It opened today in 1980.
Elsewhere, we find Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring, the story of a medieval peasant (Max Von Sydow) who discovers that his daughter’s killers have unknowingly taken shelter in his home. One guess what happens next. Besides its amazing qualities in and of itself, it also served as the inspiration for Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left. It opened today in the United States in 1960.
The word “game changer” gets thrown around a lot with flavor-of-the-month movies that tend to fade with time. But the phrase has rarely applied more aptly than it has to Pulp Fiction, which cemented the rise of indie cinema in the 1990s, altered the face of crime drama forever, and permanently put Quentin Tarantino on the map. It’s perfection incarnate, and on top of everything else, it even featured one of the greatest trailers ever produced. It opened today in 1994.
Twenty years earlier, Martin Scorsese made a similar splash with Mean Streets, a far more serious look at crime and the underworld that (among other things) made stars out of Harvey Keitel and Robert De Niro. Both actors found fertile creative ground with the director in subsequent films, but their turn as small-time punks here never ceases to amaze. (Keitel went on to anchor Tarantino’s debut, Reservoir Dogs, and played a prominent role in Pulp Fiction as well. It’s safe to say the man knows talent when he sees it.) Mean Streets opened today in 1973.
After fleeing the Nazis for greener pastures in Hollywood, Fritz Lang struggled to recapture the creative power that made him such a force in the 1920s. He came very close with The Big Heat, an exquisite piece of film noir setting one tough cop (Glenn Ford) against the local underworld. Lang doesn’t shy away from his protagonist’s uglier side (the man has a temper), and with Gloria Grahame stealing the show as a gun moll for the ages, he had the onscreen wattage to create something truly special. The Big Heat opened today in 1953.
As we’ve noted before, it may seem surprising to open a holiday movie like White Christmas in October, but back in the day, movies stuck around for a long time, and Michael Curtiz’s fluffy adaptation of the Irving Berlin songbook did just that. With Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye and Rosemary Clooney playing a trio of entertainers books in a Vermont Inn over the holidays, it eschews anything pressing or scary in favor lots of pretty music. It opened today in 1954.
We’ll close with another horror movie: Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, which marked the celebrated director’s return to the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise that he started. Craven was never shy about his ambiguity towards Freddy Krueger, a character he created as the ultimate monster only to watch morph into some kind of demented theme-park mascot. New Nightmare was a surprising sophisticated effort to grapple with that legacy, as well as a more thoughtful take on horror movies than the smug Scream franchises which he launched just a few years later. New Nightmare opened today in 1994.