You’d think that St. Patrick’s Day would invite a flood of Irish-themed movies into cinemas but no. The Quiet Man opened in August, Michael Collins in September, Darby O’Gill and the Little People in June… even Leprechaun dropped the ball on this one.
Instead, we get Breathless, Jean-Luc Godard’s seminal masterpiece of the French New Wave: incredible, but decidedly not Irish. Shot chronologically in a documentary style and with a lot of emphasis on improvisation, it became an international sensation and today enjoys a semi-permanent place at the top of the movie canon. It opened in its native France today in 1960.
Elsewhere… we’re not the biggest fans of Julia Roberts around here, but we have to admit that — if you’re going to give her an Oscar — then you probably ought to do it for her brassy (and frankly irresistible) performance as a legal clerk turned environmental activist in Erin Brockovich, which opened today in 2000. It was the right role for the right actress, and we won’t begrudge her the immense success she enjoyed because of it.
Releases during the last week of the year tend to have Oscar on their mind: a limited run in a theater or two to qualify, followed by a bigger roll-out in January. That’s borne out by the three films on our list today, all of which scored Oscar nominations or wins. The first (and best) is easily the strangest: 12 Monkeys, Terry Gilliam’s dystopian head trip about a convicted future criminal (Bruce Willis) sent back in time to the present to gather data about a coming apocalypse. It still ranks as a high point in Gilliam’s career and Brad Pitt — bursting on the scene just a few years earlier and supernova hot when this bad boy hit — scored a Best Supporting Actor nod as an asylum inmate who may hold the key to preventing Armageddon. The film opened today in 1995.
There’s been a lot of movies made about drug addiction (the line starts behind Requiem for a Dream), but few examining the scope and futility of America’s quixotic war on drugs. The biggest exception may be Traffic, Steven Soderbergh’s look at every corner of the drug trade and why our efforts to stem it have failed so completely. It remains no less relevant today than it did when first released, and along with Requiem (released just a few months earlier), makes for an indispensable cinematic comment on the issue. (It also won four well-deserved Oscars, including Best Director for Soderbergh and Best Supporting Actor for Benicio del Toro.) It opened today in 2000.
Finally, there’s Chicago, a film I loathe with every fiber of my being, but which nonetheless emerged as the big winner at the Oscars the year it was released (six statues, including Best Picture and Best Supporting Actress for Catherine Zeta-Jones’s). Rob Marshall’s feckless direction does nothing for the material; the editing (which inexplicably won one of those six Oscars) hacks the Bob Fosse choreography to bits; and tone-deaf performances from Renee Zellwger and Richard Gere turn the supposed satirical commentary into an ugly exercise in bad people getting away with it. (I confess, however, that Zeta-Jones’ performance is an absolute knock-out.) It opened today in 2002.