With apologies to The Boy Who Lived, I think Officer McClane is taking the pole position on this one. The original Die Hard initially looked like a huge disaster. Star Bruce Willis was mainly known for light comedy and his attempt to segue into action hero mode smacked of the worst kind of hubris. As it turns out, it represented a sea change in action movies: breaking from the unstoppable ubermenschen of Schwarzenegger and Stallone flicks and presenting a very vulnerable hero in way over his head. (Indiana Jones had been performing the same trick for years, but it took Die Hard to prove that other movies could do it just as well.) His “yippie-kay-yay!” tag is justifiably celebrated, but the character’s most telling line is much more humble: “Oh God, please don’t let me die.” Add to that Alan Rickman’s star-making turn as a villain for the ages and you have a certified classic. Die Hard opened today in 1988.
As if that weren’t enough, we also get a double helping of Harry Potter today. The Deathly Hallows, Part II brought the eight-movie series to an immensely satisfying conclusion — thanks in no small part to another brilliant turn from Alan Rickman — while The Half-Blood Prince culminated in one of the saga’s more heart-breaking moments: the death of Harry’s mentor Albus Dumbledore. Both films were directed by David Yates, and both have done justice to the groundbreaking franchise to which they belong. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince was released today in 2009; Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part II opened today in 2011.
On a normal day, I’d have kicked this off with A Fish Called Wanda, one of the greatest comedies of all time and a resounding affirmation that the Monty Python crew didn’t need a Flying Circus to weave their magic. The wacky robbery subplot is good fun as it stands, though the film really earns its spurs as a send-up of the differences between American and British sensibilities. Jamie Lee Curtis knocks one out of the park as the sexy female lead, and John Cleese and Michael Palin are as amusing as always. At the end of the day, however, the movie belongs to Kevin Kline, whose turn as the ultimate ugly American scored his only Oscar to date (and one of the few acting Academy Awards given to a comedy). A Fish Called Wanda opened today in 1988.
All that, and still more? Sure, we’ll include a couple of other mentions to the list. There’s Something About Mary hasn’t aged hugely well, but it certainly made a splash when it first arrived and remains a high point of the Farrelly Brothers’ unique brand of comedy. It opened today in 1998.
Finally, there’s True Lies, one of the runts of the James Cameron litter about a superspy who hides his job from his wife with unexpectedly hilarious results. The film hits a sexist note that undoes the supposedly light tone and Cameron’s visual bombast eventually becomes more trouble than its worth, but the technical specs are second to none, and once again Bill Paxton demonstrates that he can steal the show out from under anyone’s nose. True Lies opened today in 1994.