Like a surprising number of classics, The Princess Bride didn’t do particularly well when first released in theaters. Audiences weren’t sure what to expect from the combination of gentle satire and straight-faced romance, and largely stayed away… only to discover it on video like so many other films of the era. Today, of course, it’s an indispensable part of the canon: one of those compulsively quotable joys that just gets better every time you see it. It opened today in 1987.
Jostling with The Princess Bride for the pole position today is The Hustler, Robert Rossen’s ode to low-down pool sharking and the men who live and die for it. Paul Newman was already a star when he appeared as “Fast Eddie” Felson, and the role earned him his second Oscar nomination. (He finally won a quarter century later, playing the same character in The Color of Money.) The film opened today in 1961.
Chariots of Fire is one of those head-scratching Best Picture winners that never quite lived up to its hype, and today is known more for its stirring Vangelis score than for the drama itself. But separated from its Oscar triumph and without the pressure of noting the various better films it beat, it’s actually a solid little period drama, depicting the religious convictions of two British runners in the 1924 Olympics, and the ways they weighed their faith against the challenges of running for their country. it opened today in 1981.
Director Michael Mann remains a singular voice in the canon, and while his films have had their ups and downs, the best of them can stand with anything ever put on film. That includes The Last of the Mohicans, a lush and irresistible adaptation of one of the stuffier novels in American literature. Daniel Day-Lewis and Madeline Stowe make a stirring pair of romantic leads, but it’s Cherokee actor Wes Studi who steals the show as their hate-filled nemesis. Add gorgeous cinematography from Dante Spinotti and a stunning soundtrack from Trevor Jones and Randy Edelman, and the film itself becomes an evergreen. It opened today in 1992.
We’ll close with Paranormal Activity, a throwaway horror quickie based on pure stimulus response that morphed into a monster hit. The series it spawned was no one’s idea of horror immortality, but they worked as cinematic haunted houses, and the original retains a reliably spooky atmosphere thanks to solid direction from Oren Peli. It opened today in 2009.