Today in Movie History: December 8

We’re going to start with Ang Lee, the only non-white to win more than one Best Director Oscar and whose vision continues to expand with every film he makes. Among his very best is Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, a love letter to the wuxia films of his youth that manages to elevate the genre to masterpiece status. A sumptuous adventure, a tragic love story and an ode to the ways that the movies can move us, you won’t see a better kung fu movie ever. Crouching Tiger arrived on U.S. screens today in 2000.

Staying in the realm of foreign language films, we find Costa-Gavras’s Z, a semi-satirical political thriller loosely based on the real-life assassination of Greek politician Grigoris Labrakis. Among its other achievements, it was the first movie to be nominated for both Best Foreign Language Film and Best Picture. (A number of others have come along since then… including Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.) Z opened today in 1969.

Closer to home, there’s On the Town, based on the successful stage musical about a trio of sailors in New York on shore leave. Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra star as two of the three (Broadway actor Jules Munshin served as their third musketeer). Kelly himself directed the dance sequences, and with music by Leonard Bernstein, among others, it’s a fine treat from a day when musicals were Hollywood’s bread and butter. It opened today in 1949.

For old-school movie stars at the top of their game, check out Paul Newman putting the justice system on trial in The Verdict. It marks another high point in his amazing career — playing a washed-up lawyer given a shot at redemption by a singular case — and under the sharp direction of Sidney Lumet, earned him an Academy Award nomination in the process. (He lost to Ben Kingsley in Gandhi, and we’re not too bend out of shape by that one.) It opened today in 1982.

Newman was an established legend by the time he made The Verdict. Another big star, Eddie Murphy, hadn’t even made a motion picture before appearing in 48 HRS, which partnered him with Nick Nolte solely on the strength of his phenomenal presence of Saturday Night Live. The move was a huge smash, establishing the parameters of the buddy-cop movie and turning Murphy into a superstar almost overnight. It also opened today in 1982.

Finally, today saw the release of the underrated WWII romp Force 10 from Navarone, featuring Robert Shaw, Carl Weathers and a post-Han, pre-Indy Harrison Ford kicking some Nazi ass. It’s pulp, to be sure, but certainly fun pulp… and Shaw’s final speech is not to be missed. Force 10 opened today in 1979.


Today in Movie History: November 24

Happy Thanksgiving everyone! We’ve got a brief bevy of minor films of note for your Turkey Day, starting with King Solomon’s Mines, a fine adventure saga based on the 19th century novel of the same name. The film is notable for shooting in authentic African locations, and also for its surprisingly sensitive portrayal of the local Masai tribes, including renditions of their traditional dances and songs. It opened today in 1950.

Elvis has been on the menu a lot this week, and there’s no reason to stop now. Harum Scarum definitely belongs in the WTF File, sending the King to 1960s-era Baghdad to have some fun with a fistful of horrifying Arabian stereotypes. It’s offensive in so many, many ways… and yet in so bizarrely over-the-top that you can’t help but stare at it in wide-eyed fascination. As the trailer says, “in your wildest nightmares, you’ve never imagined such goings-on.” They’re not kidding. Harum Scarum opened today in 1965.

We’ll close with Murder on the Orient Express a stodgy adaptation of the Agatha Christa classic that does a solid-though-unexceptional job with a very well-known story. The all-star cast is a genuine plus, though Albert Finney is quite hammy as Hercule Poirot. The film also netted Ingrid Bergman her third and final Oscar. It opened today in 1974.


Today in Movie History: October 24

The 1960s saw a slow revision of the western as a genre, as the likes of Sergio Leone took it in a different, darker direction and even stalwarts like John Ford found undercurrents more in keeping with the time than their previous work. That came to a head with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid a breezy, almost comedic romp marked by a growing sense of doom as the two title outlaws (Paul Newman and Robert Redford at their very best) search for frontiers that may no longer exist. The film opened today in 1969 and is still considered one of the best Westerns ever made.

The original version of The Manchurian Candidate set the standards for eerily plausible Cold War paranoia, involving brainwashed U.S. soldiers unwittingly doing the bidding of their communist masters in the heat of a presidential campaign. It was pulled from release following the assassination of JFK, and it’s not hard to see why: its power is absolutely terrifying. It opened today in 1962, and in light of our current political situation, it may pay to give it another look.

Despite a stellar run on the stage, the 1978 film adaptation of The Wiz is generally regarded as a dud. It’s too long, too slow and takes too much time to get its concept across: though a great director in his own right, Sidney Lumet may not have been the right man for the job here. But the songs remain a hoot and some sure-fire casting keeps it from being a complete disaster. It opened today in 1978.

Today in Movie History: September 21

Based on a real-life botched bank robbery, Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon now stands as a landmark of 70s cinema. Its anti-authoritarian tone shines through in every scene, thanks to Al Pacino’s iconic turn as an amateur criminal whose master plan goes straight out the window, and the overall sense of doom was much in keeping with the time. Special note goes to actor Chris Sarandon, however, who earned an Oscar nomination as Pacino’s trans lover, and whose sensitive, heartfelt performance lent humanity to a demographic largely relegated to cheap punch lines… when they were shown at all. Dog Day Afternoon opened today in 1975.

Carl Reiner’s All of Me doesn’t have nearly the same heft, but as old-fashioned pratfall comedies go, it has few comparative peers. Steve Martin stars as a lawyer forced to surrender half of his body to a dying heiress (Lily Tomlin) trying to buy her way into reincarnation, and besides the brilliant comic chemistry between the two stars, it stands as a terrific showcase for Martin’s physical comedy. Oh, and the orgasm gag in When Harry Met Sally? You saw it here first. All of Me opened today in 1984.