Shakespearean adaptations have their ups and downs. The great ones define the Bard for a generation, while the less-than-great ones tend to live on in high school classrooms if nowhere else. But few can deny the standing of Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet in their ranks: a timeless take on the age-old story that still feels as pertinent as it did when it was released five decades ago. It opened 50 years ago today in 1968.
Only slightly further down on the list comes My Favorite Year, a fictionalized account of Errol Flynn’s infamous appearance on the Sid Caesar show in the 1950s. Peter O’Toole secured an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of an aging matinee idol terrified of live television, with Mark Linn Baker matching him step for step as his nebbish Sancho Panzo. My Favorite Year opened today in 1982.
On a completely different note, we have Demolition Man, the late-era Sly Stallone sci-fi actioner now best known for inspiring Dennis Rodman’s unfortunate hairstyles. truth be told, though, it holds up surprisingly well, with a sense of satire and comic-book fun that evaded Stallone’s later Judge Dredd adaptations. Wesley Snipes gets into the spirit of things quite nicely, but the real scene-stealer is a pre-star Sandra Bullock playing Stallone’s future-cop partner. Demolition Man opened 25 years ago today in 1993.
We’ve saved the best/worst for last: Attack of the Killer Tomatoes, one of the original so-bad-it’s-good cult classics, about the titular squishy fruit that grows to gigantic size and threatens life as we know it, or something. Featuring such oddities as a talking dog and an African-American master of disguise dressed as Adolf Hitler, it remains a singular oddity in the annals of cinema… and it was released 40 years ago today in 1978.
It didn’t land Sandra Bullock another Oscar, but it came darn close, and while watching it on your TV can’t quite match the white-knuckle terror of an IMAX screening, Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity rarely disappoints when it comes to sheer movie-making prowess. And while it’s only been three years, it’s not too early to start weighing its potential status as a sci-fi film for the ages. It opened today in 2013
As an attempt to recreate the D-Day invasions, The Longest Day has since been eclipsed by Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan. But with an all-star cast and advisors that included actual generals on both sides of the conflict, it still gives a comprehensive look at an event that literally and without hyperbole determined the future of the human race. It opened today in 1962.
Though heralded as a game-changer at the time, Jan de Bont’s Speed has since been hobbled by the director’s overall lack of quality output and overtaken by superhero movies as the action flavor of choice. It remains breakneck popcorn entertainment, however, and though hardly the most plausible scenario, it holds up to multiple screenings remarkably well. It also made Sandra Bullock a star as well as inexplicably establishing Keanu Reeves as a viable action hero. It opened today in 1994.
Most people view Octopussy as a decidedly second-tier Bond adventure, citing its ridiculous plot and Roger Moore’s advancing age as a reason to turn it off in favor of more enticing 007 fare. For me, the film represents the high point of the Moore era, as the outlandishness mixes with some surprising grit to deliver one of the most thoroughly entertaining entries in the franchise. An intriguing opening (in which a clown is killed dead in Berlin with a Faberge egg in his hands) gives way to a richly engaging central plot, marked by a number of series high points. Moore’s confrontation with baddie-du-jour Louis Jourdan over the backgammon table is one of the vaults (liberally cribbed from the Ian Fleming novel Moonraker), and watching Moore periodically shed his broad playboy routine for some real fear and ferocity is a rare treat. With Maude Adams, the series found a Bond girl more than capable of keeping up with 007, and while Moore clearly went a step too for with A View to a Kill, this entry feels like a well-deserved finale to an underrated era in the long-running franchise. It opened today in 1983.
And if we must, there’s Pocahontas, Disney’s well-meaning bit of bowdlerized history that showed the first real signs of bloom coming off of its Renaissance rose. The songs work and the message is well-meaning, but its heavy-handed delivery starts to great on the nerves, and the retrograde Mel Gibson unpleasantness leaves a sour taste in the mouth. Nevertheless, Disney classic, part of their canon, yadda-yadda. It opened today in 1995.