No contest as to what we’re starting with today: The Big Sleep Howard Hawks’ adaptation of the famed Raymond Chandler novel, now widely regarded as one of the greatest detective movies ever made. Its status as a staple of film noir hides a few too many twists — who the hell did kill that chauffeur? — but with Humphrey Bogart at the height of his fame playing off of his lady love Lauren Bacall, it’s a slice of heaven for any film lover. It opened today in 1946.
Further down the noir ladder (but still with much to recommend it), there’s Dead Again, Kenneth Branagh’s sumptuous and delightful update on the genre. He plays a Los Angeles PI tracking down the history of an amnesic woman (Emma Thompson), only to realize that he may have met her, loved her and possibly murdered her in a previous life. The flashbacks make for a delicious throwback to the classic era of noir, and while Branagh’s detective is a bit hammy, his earlier incarnation as a stormy composer is positively chilling. All that and a fine dramatic performance form Robin Williams too… Dead Again opened today in 1991.
And because we just can’t say no to the stinky ones, there’s The Island of Dr. Moreau, the film that destroyed the dreams of director Richard Stanley, cemented Marlon Brando’s irrefutable Marlon Brando-ness, and ensured that Val Kilmer would never eat lunch in this town again. Yes, it’s objectively awful… but the kind of hypnotically fascinating awful that makes it impossible to look away. (And we’re gonna give a shout-out to Fairuza Balk, who kind of rocked her role in the midst of all the carnage.) It opened today in 1996.
The Western, as a genre, has supposedly been on death’s door since Heaven’s Gate, though it has continued in fits and starts, and still sees its share of memorable films crop up. None rose higher than Unforgiven, Clint Eastwood’s farewell to the genre that made him famous, and easily one of the greatest films on his impressive resume. It explores notions of violence and mythology by deconstructing the most cherished legends of the old West. The result is dark and uncompromising, yet strangely poetic in its vision of men who can’t escape their own brutal nature. It snagged four Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director for Eastwood and Best Supporting Actor for Gene Hackman, and opened 25 years ago today in 1992.
On an exponentially lighter note, there’s Real Genius, ostensibly one of a seemingly never-ending array of gross-out college comedies from the 80s that turned out to be something much, much more. It eschewed the boob-groping and bad-boy pranks of its ilk in favor of a very sweet story about smart kids still trying to figure out the world, topped by Val Kilmer at his most charming as an engineering genius who decides to stop playing by the rules midway through the game. It opened today in 1985 and remains as fresh and funny as it did back then.
Anytime a piece of animation breaks from the Disney mold, it’s usually worth a look. So it is with Heavy Metal, a decidedly adult anthology produced by Ivan Reitman and inspired by the classic sci-fi fantasy magazine that shares its name. It’s a mixed bag, as many anthology films can be, but the animation itself is a joy to behold and its unapologetic R-rated nature makes it a standout in a genre dominated by kid-friendly pastels. It opened today in 1981.
We’ll give Grease the nod for the pole position. It is the word after all, and while the film’s subtext remains troubling — basically saying that in order to get the man of your dreams, you have to change everything you are — it’s hard to stop the toes from tapping once those songs get going. And say what you will about John Travolta: the man knows how to dance. Grease opened today in 1978.
If that’s not your thing, there’s always Them! a better-than-average giant bug movie in which a colony of giant ants invades Los Angeles. The genre is, um, rather shabby, but if you’re in the mood, this one can be a lot of fun. It opened today in 1954.
Then there’s Batman Forever, a film regarded at the time as an effortless leap from Tim Burton’s vision to Joel Schumacher’s, but which stands today in only slightly higher regard than the maligned Batman and Robin. Overstuffed with too many characters, full of headache-inducing neon colors and eliciting the worst performance in Tommy Lee Jones’s career, it remains an embarrassing footnote in the long history of the character. It opened today — for better or worse — in 1995.
Finally, we’d be remiss is we did’t mention Finding Dory, Pixar’s delightful sequel to one of the most delightful movies they’ve ever made. It opened one year ago today, but we’re pretty high on its ability to stand the test of time…. provide its protagonist can remember.
We’ve been getting our 80s on recently, and today is a red letter date for that. We’ll start with the earliest: Trading Places, John Landis’s Wall Street retake on The Prince and the Pauper, remains a doggedly entertaining comedy provided you can accept that its heroes emerge triumphant via insider trading. Buoyed by Dan Aykroyd’s fantastic blue-blood buffoon and Eddie Murphy just hitting his stride as a fast-talking con man, it rides their chemistry all the way to the bank. It doesn’t hurt to have greats like Don Ameche, Ralph Bellamy and Denholm Elliott strutting this stuff, or Jamie Lee Curtis definitively breaking out of her scream queen typecasting as a deliciously self-assured leading lady. Trading Places opened today in 1983.
Just one year later, the #1 and #3 movie at the box office both opened on the same day. We doubt that will ever happen again, but what’s doubly interesting is how well both of them held up. At the top of the list, of course is Ghostbusters, another Dan Aykroyd flick that has justly earned its place as a comedy classic. Beyond the way he provides an 80s update to the old fashioned monster comedies like Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, director Ivan Reitman actually touches on some reasonably scary conceits — almost Lovecraftian at times — and never sacrifices the core of the scenario for the sake of cheap laughs.
That same day, another film in a similar vein opened, slightly closer to the horror end of the scale than the comedy end, but touching some of the same emotions nonetheless. Joe Dante’s Gremlins not only found a dark heart beneath a façade of Normal Rockwell America, but let us buy into the sheer anachronistic glee of watching it all burn down. I’s old-school effects hold up quite well, and it even managed a sequel that people think is pretty awesome too.
And here’s the catcher: a third movie opened that same day in 1984, and while it didn’t make nearly as much money as the other two, and it may never escape the shadow of its iconic predecessor Airplane!, Top Secret! may be the best film the trio of David Zucker, Jerry Zucker and Jim Abrahams ever produced. So before we sign off, ask yourself: how do we know he’s not Mel Torme
We start out the week on the highway…. to the danger zone! Top Gun, Tony’s Scott’s over-the-top ode to Reagan-era military worship and hunky guys with oily pecs exploded onto screens today in 1986. I still can’t quite take the movie seriously, and I’m not prepared to called it “good,” but we’ll never see anything like the extraordinary flight scenes that Scott captured in an era way before CGI made it all too easy. And as a relic of a specific time and place, it definitely holds its share of charms.
Further down the blockbuster scale, we find Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones. It’s generally regarded as the weakest entry in the Star Wars saga, and since we’ll be dealing with the prequels more formally later in the week, it’s best not to dwell on it. It opened today in 2002.
Finally, there’s Peeping Tom, Michael Powell’s unnerving thriller exploring sexual obsession and the power of the camera. The critics destroyed it on first release, but it has since risen in the canon and is now considered a genre masterpiece. It opened today in 1960, just a month of so ahead of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, which carried similar themes.