Today in Movie History: September 20

We’re starting today with The Battle of Algiers, a searing semi-documentary — commissioned by the Algerian government — about their fight for independence from the French. It weighs both sides of the conflict in surprisingly even-handed terms, as well as providing stunning insight into the nature and fallout of insurgent violence to enact political change. It opened in the U.S. today in 1967, and God help us, but it remains just as pertinent today is it did when it was first released.

Terry Gilliam is a unique filmmaker whose best movies are treasures. When they don’t work, of course, they go straight off the rails, but few people would deny that The Fisher King ranks among the high points. It works in part because the story stays grounded in reality without diminishing the fantastical elements that Gilliam excels at. Robin Williams earned an Oscar nomination for his turned as a homeless lunatic (he lost to Anthony Hopkins) while Mercedes Ruehl nabbed the statue for her supporting turn. The best of them may have been Jeff Bridges, however: anchoring the madness as a shock jock paying the piper for his misdeeds. The Fisher King opened today in 1991.

Gilliam, of course, merely marches to a different drummer. When it comes to Oliver Stone, we edge delicately into the realm of “barking mad.” He won an Oscar for writing the screenplay to Midnight Express, the tender, heartfelt story of an American drug smuggler caught and imprisoned in Turkey. I won’t go too deeply into the details except to say that you should never ever ever get caught smuggling drugs in Turkey. Midnight Express opened today in 1978.

I wouldn’t call Stanley Tucci a filmmaking eccentric, but a passion project like Big Night doesn’t come along every day. He co-wrote, co-directed (with fellow thespian Campbell Scott) and co-starred in the film, about a failing restaurant run by two brothers whose devotion to great food can’t drum up the customers they need.  If you’re looking for culinary porn, this is the movie for you. It opened today in 1996.

We’ll close with Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, the ubiquitous Tennessee Williams play sbrought to the screen by director Richard Brooks. Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor play a feuding couple who arrive in Mississippi to celebrate the birthday of her father “Big Daddy” (Burl Ives). The usual cocktail of psychological torment and overheated Southern Gothic ensues. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof opened today in 1958.


Today in Movie History: July 22

And behold, the worst shall be first, and all the base and discarded of the cinematic universe will draw sustenance from its example. We’re talking about Ed Wood’s Plan 9 from Outer Space, justly celebrated as the worst movie ever made. Creaky sets, terrible acting, a plot that has to be seen to be believed, and the final onscreen appearance of Bela Lugosi (who died and was replaced by chiropractor Tom Mason holding a cape over his head)… all of which made this the stuff of cinematic legend for all the right/wrong reasons. Plan 9 from Outer Space opened today in 1959.

On a much, much, much higher level, we find Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, the seminal 1950s musical about a nice young lady (Jane Powell) who marries a strapping young Oregonian (Howard Keel), only to find out he has a whole passel of sibling mountain men in dire need of caring for. The subtext is appalling, but the songs, performances and terrific choreography can’t be denied. It opened today in 1954.

In celebration of Comic Con this week, we’ll close with a pair of four-color superheroes… though only one of them actually shows up in a superhero film. The other one is Mr. Mom, the 1983 comedy that attempted to address the then-novel notion that women could actually be the breadwinners and men could be the homemakers. The now-quaint notion is bolstered by a funny, sympathetic script, and a winning performance from future Batman Michael Keaton, who scored a huge career boost with the film’s success. It opened today in 1983.

Finally, we have Captain America: The First Avenger, part of the calculated risk undertaken by Marvel Studios that ended up transforming comic book movies as we know them. It’s far from a perfect film: the center section sags a great deal, and at times it feels like it’s too busy setting up The Avengers to generate its own energy. But it cracks the code on how to deliver an interesting hero who’s also morally unimpeachable, thanks in no small part to the terrific turn from Chris Evans as Steve Rogers. Bolstered by a strong supporting cast — particularly Hugo Weaving’s Red Skull and Tommy Lee Jones’ Tommy Lee Jones clone — and the fine period sensibilities of director Joe Johnson, it makes for a winning entry in Marvel’s increasingly impressive movie franchise. (And Alan Menken and David Zippel’s USO theme song is pure bliss.) It opened today in 2011.