We’re going to start with one of our favorite romances of all time: Amelie, Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s masterpiece of dreamlike whimsy that reminded us to embrace love with the same gusto with which we embrace life. It opened in its native France today in 2001.
For a grande romance a little closer to home, there’s Woody Allen’s Manhattan. Though drenched in the creepy overtones of the director’s actual love life, it remains weirdly endearing despite that. The real romance, of course, is between Allen and the city that he loves, and as an ode to the City that Never Sleeps, the movies have rarely seen better. It opened today in 1979.
Finally, we shall endeavor to never let a Vincent Price movie pass by unnoticed, especially one so beloved. House of Wax — the Paris-Hilton-free version — opened today in 1953. Not only did it establish Price’s reputation as the king of horror, but it made glorious use of both Technicolor and 3D, which was all the rage with genre filmmaking of the era.
It was easy to overlook The Birdcage when it was released. Based on the French film La Cage aux Folles, it did well at the box office, but felt at the time like more Robin Williams slapstick: soaking up Hollywood’s newfound tolerance for homosexuals and repeating trite observations about tolerance and understanding. In retrospect, however, it looks like a comedic masterpiece. The jokes hold water across multiple viewings and the skewering of right-wing homophobia feels more timely now than ever. More importantly, Williams and Nathan Lane play their characters — a Miami nightclub owner and his flamboyant main attraction — as more than just swishy stereotypes. They genuinely care about each other and — devoid of the preachiness of Philadelphia and its ilk — come across as authentic in ways its contemporaries couldn’t. Williams, in particular, delivers one of the better performances of his career: surprisingly disciplined and with a keen eye on the big picture. It opened today in 1996.
For those of you, like me, who were absolutely crushed by the wretched Will Smith version of I Am Legend, look to Vincent Price to save the day. He starred in an earlier version of the story, The Last Man on Earth, which suffered from a low budget but still managed to capture the core of the Richard Matheson source novel far better than Hollywood’s crass and noisy butchery. It opened today in 1964.
We’re looking at quite a few notable films with release dates today. We’ll start with a triumph from the Silver Age of Walt Disney pictures. 101 Dalmatians remains one of the Mouse’s biggest hits (#2 behind Snow White if you adjust for inflation) and — amid the studio’s bevvy of memorable villains — delivering one Cruella de Vil, who just might take the cake. It opened today in 1961.
Nine years later, Hollywood was attempting to sort out the cultural hash of Vietnam with heavy hitters like Catch-22 and Patton making obliquely comments (both fer and agin) on the conflict. But the one that’s best stood the test of time is Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H, an anti-war comedy for the ages and the inspiration for one of the most successful TV shows in history. If your only exposure to it comes from Alan Alda, you owe it to yourself to hunt this one down. It opened today in 1970.
The other releases of the day are given over to horror movies. B-movie maestro Roger Corman found a winning combination by casting Vincent Price in a series of Edgar Allan Poe adaptations. His first four were as serious as a heart attack, but for his fifth, he decided to have a little fun. The result was The Raven, starring Price, Peter Lorre and Boris Karloff as rival sorcerers in a comic tale based loosely on Poe’s most famous poem. (The film also features an early performance from a very hammy Jack Nicholson.) It opened today in 1963.
On a more recent note… attempting to unravel the convoluted history of the Ju-On franchise can bring one to the brink of madness. Instead, we’re going to make the Japanese release date of the original film — January 25, 2003 — then go hide under the covers until that creepy little kid comes for us. Possibly wearing a coat made out of puppies. Sleep tight everyone!
We have some old-school classics to save us from the glut of January crappola today. It starts with one of the very best: Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, released today in 1943. Having made a splash in Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons, Joseph Cotton turned his talents to playing a villain: a killer who arrives in an idyllic small town to hide from authorities amid his sister’s family. Hitchcock filmed it all in the town of Santa Rosa, CA — one of many times that Northern California would serve as the setting for his movies — and it stands today alongside the likes of Vertigo and Psycho as one of his very best.
Also released today were Lewis Milestone’s 1940 version of Of Mice and Men, starring Burgess Meredith as George and Lon Chaney, Jr. as Lennie; and The Invisible Man Returns, also in 1940, with Vincent Price taking over for Claude Raines as a falsely accused man who uses the infamous invisibility formula to evade the authorities.
There are times when you want to revel in the artistry of cinema as an art form, when the possibilities of the medium greet you in an overwhelming rush, when the combination of a brilliant director, a perfect script and a talented team of hard-working artists creates a masterpiece for the ages. Then there’s times when you just want George Carlin to help you pass your history test with a time-travelling phone booth. Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure opened today in 1989.
If 80s icons are your thing, there’s also Footloose, the tale of Kevin Bacon and a bunch of feelgood teens sticking it to John Lithgow’s stuffy preacher who wants to outlaw dancing. DANCING. It opened today in 1984.
Director William Castle didn’t quite have the brutal efficiency of Roger Corman or the strangely beautiful incompetence of Ed Wood. What he did have was gimmicks — tons and tons of gimmicks — designed to get boomer kids into the theater just to watch skeletons come at them on strings or nurses take their blood pressure in the lobby to ensure that they were physically fit enough to endure whatever schlock was waiting for them on screen. One of his better efforts, the original House on Haunted Hill, first hit screens today in 1959.