Terry Gilliam is a singular filmmaker, and like many singular filmmakers, some of his films are better than others. But not even the harshest critics would deny Time Bandits a spot on his Greatest Hits list. The story concerns a lonely young boy (Craig Warnock) who follows a six-pack of dwarves through a hole in space-time, sending them careening through the ages with a very irate Supreme Being on their heels. The fairy-tale aspects give Gilliam’s boundless imagination plenty of meaty concepts to develop, and the story’s episodic nature caters to his Python sketch proclivities (aided and abetted by fellow Pythons Michael Palin and John Cleese) without losing a strong central story (something his later films lack sometimes). And with the likes of Sean Connery, Shelley Duvall and David Warner adding to the fun, it serves as the perfect bridge between Gilliam’s Python years and his solo directing career.
Time Bandits opened today in 1981.
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.
Everything’s turning up Jesus today… though not quite in the way you might expect. We’ll start with Monty Python’s The Life of Brian, the legendary comedy troupe’s follow-up to Holy Grail that ignited the expected firestorm of controversy among those least able to appreciate what it was trying to say. It remains brilliant, of course, and while time has blunted the criticism against it, its message about the foolishness of fanaticism is as pertinent as ever… to say nothing of the general Python absurdity it all comes wrapped in. The Life of Brian opened today in 1979.
Those less accustomed to the heat of religious arguments can look to Jesus Christ Superstar, another one of those Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals that really has no business working, and yet somehow does. Director Norman Jewison finds the right post-hippie vibe for the entire affair, setting modern performers to actual Israeli locations for the — yes — toe-tappingly good reenactment of Christ’s crucifixion. It opened today in 1973.
The field of non-Jesus movies opening today starts with The Time Machine, George Pal’s excellent adaptation of the famous H.G. Wells novel that remains an indelible classic of science fiction cinema. Rod Taylor makes an eminently sympathetic lead and the top-notch effects still retain their sense of wonder. The Time Machine opened today in 1960.
Amid the current bumper crop of animated films, the comparatively modest ParaNorman got left behind a little bit. It’s one of the better ones out there, however, with a great outsider’s vibe and a terrific way of reminding us not to judge a book by its cover. If you missed it, it’s well worth a look, especially with Halloween slowly creeping up on us. It opened today in 2012.
Two brilliant comedic troupes hit high points today. We’ll start with the boys in Britain who, with a successful TV show behind them and absolutely zero money to back them up, put together a comic take on the Knights of the Round Table that we’re pretty sure you’re familiar with. Monty Python and the Holy Grail opened today in 1975.
The Marx Brothers didn’t need any funding in 1946 when they produced their classic A Night in Casablanca. The brothers play managers of a hotel where an escaped Nazi war criminal has murdered the managers who came before them. The film supposedly earned controversy when Warner Bros tried to sue them for copyright infringement of their film Casablanca. Groucho always claimed that he countersued, arguing that the Marxes used the term “brothers” before Warners did. It’s likely balderdash, but the controversy didn’t stop the film from joining the ranks of Marx Brothers classics.
Finally, we have the middle entry in Sergio Leone’s famous Dollars trilogy, For a Few Dollars More. Though not quite as compulsively watchable as the two films surrounding it, it retains its spaghetti western charm thanks to the pairing of Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name with Lee Van Cleef’s revenge-driven Colonel Mortimer. It opened today in 1967.
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.