We top the pole position with one of the greatest movies of all time: Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai hit U.S. theaters today in 1956. The unparalleled Eastern-Western mash-up — entailing an impoverished village menaced by bandits who hire seven wandering ronin to save them — influenced everything from The Magnificent Seven to Star Wars to A Bug’s Life, and includes a bevvy of amazing performances topped by the great Toshiro Mifune.
For a more recent example of plucky underdogs facing overwhelming odds, there’s the first part of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Critics complained about a cash grab when it was announced that the final chapter in the Harry Potter saga would be divided into two films, but it turned out to be a canny choice: allowing the grand finale of J.K. Rowling’s beloved saga to breathe without cramming it into a single running time. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part One opened today in 2011.
It’s hard to say if Milos Foreman’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was the very best on his resume… and considering it’s one of the greatest movies ever made, that’s saying a lot. The tale of a small-time crook (Jack Nicholson) who finds himself in a mental ward run by a tyrannical nurse (Louise Fletcher) became one of just a tiny handful of films to win the Big Five Oscars (Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, Screenplay). It opened today in 1975.
Finally, there’s Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow, another of the director’s handsome baubles that struggled with a coherent story. When taken piecemeal, it’s an extraordinary piece of cinema, with Gothic visuals and a dark sense of the gruesome that fits Washington Irving’s famous ghost story like a glove. But turning the sparse Irving narrative into a feature-length plot is simply too great a challenge for the director, leaving it more notable misfire than genuine classic. Sleepy Hollow opened today in 1999.