of Under-Appreciated Films
I'm critical of many modern stories, so people naturally ask what stories I do like. Many of my favorite movies, like Ray or It Happened One Night, are on nearly everyone’s list of favorites. But I believe the ones I’ve listed here either were never properly recognized or have since been largely forgotten.
This hugely subjective, ever-growing collection reflects my peculiar tastes. I’m old-fashioned; more interested in pure storytelling than special effects or other technical aspects of filmmaking. I generally don’t like movies in which we’re supposed to be knocked out by how cool everyone is. I’m interested, rather, in what is human. I prefer the timeless to the fashionable.
The list is anything but definitive. It’s simply a place to start. A lot of movies that probably belong on this list I have yet to see. In any case, I hope it's useful to you. Suggestions are much appreciated.
The Abyss (1989) – This is the film for which director James Cameron should have won an Oscar. It’s stuffed with edge-of-your seat action, but I remember mostly the small things – like how hero Virgil Brigman walks around with a blue hand after fetching his wedding ring out of the toilet. The climactic scene is purely mythic, as Virgil freefalls into icy blackness with only his wife’s fading radio voice for company.
The Accidental Tourist (1988) – You wouldn’t think a story featuring a brace of tragically anal dullards would be all that interesting. But this faithful adaptation of Anne Tyler’s deep and warm-hearted novel compellingly explicates the human condition. The actors – especially Geena Davis – are pitch perfect, and director Lawrence Kasdan does not waste a frame. But the real stars are Ms. Tyler’s imagination and sense of humor.
Adam (2009) – How does someone with Asperger's Syndrome (high funcitoning autism) have a romantic relationship? Is it even possible? This is an engrossing explication, featuring the brilliant Hugh Dancy. Not once did I doubt the story or performances. Heartful, but realistic. A Sundance favorite.
The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai (1984) – This comic-book movie isn’t exactly subtle, but it’s incredibly nuanced compared to the pro wrestling-style FX-fests that now dominate the genre. There’s more wry wit than shock-and-awe here. John Lithgow is pure manic genius as Dr. Emillio Lizardo. "Laugh while you can, monkey boy!"
All Of Me (1984) – Steve Martin is a hoot as a man playing a woman playing a man. Lily Tomlin is equally hilarious as a dying heiress who leverages her fortune to ensure that her soul lives on. Thanks to inept gold diggers, her soul ends up condo-hopping -- residing for a time in a bucket of water. "Bockenbowl!"
The American President (1995) – Some might say Aaron Sorkin was just warming up for West Wing when he wrote this script, but the story stands on its own. It’s light and charming as it deals with a fictional President falling in love, then profound and moving as it works through the personal attacks that ensue. Ultimately, it defines leadership. Every liberal politician should memorize the climactic speech.
The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) – Kirk Douglas is incandescent as the film producer (allegedly modeled after David O. Selznick) that everyone loves to hate. Lana Turner turns in a comparable performance as the beauty he pulls out of the gutter. This film won five Oscars, but tends to be overlooked today. Great script.
Belle (2013) – This magnificent film presents the true story of Dido Elizabeth Belle, a black woman brought up in a white, aristocratic family in 18th-century England. Gugu Mbatha-Raw centers it all with poise and passion, but the entire cast and crew also deserve much credit. A bit thin in the beginning, but stick with it. Every scene past the midpoint is riveting.
Butterflies Are Free (1972) – Edward Albert is epic as a blind man trying to make it on his own. In perhaps her greatest performace, Goldie Hawn matches him every step of the way. And Eileen Heckart, as the domineering mother, is wonderfully authentic. Very much a play, beautifully written by Leonard Gershe. Director Milton Katselas paces it perfectly.
Chaplin (1992) – A gifted actor who has done his homework is a joy to behold. In this case, Robert Downey, Jr. must have tackled every possible extra credit assignment in learning to mimic the Little Tramp. There are lots of other reasons to see or reacquaint yourself with this intelligent explication of the quirks of creativity. Here's just one: Sven Nykvist's cinematography.
The Corn is Green (1945) – Bette Davis probably starred in more great films than any American actress, but this vivid drama is my favorite. It’s an adaptation of Emlyn Williams’ play about the teacher who discovered and nurtured his literary talents while he was working in a Welsh coalmine. The characters and situations are unforgettable.
The Counterfeit Traitor (1962) – This is the astounding true story of a Swedish-American industrialist who was pressured by the Allies into spying on Nazi Germany. The low-key absurdities feel very real, as does the escalating danger. A tragic love story bolsters, but does not dominate, this gritty, must-see thriller.
Dark Blue World (2001) – This long-overdue telling of the heroic role of Czech pilots in the Battle of Britain matches the eponymous film of the battle in period detail. In contrast with many other war movies, the romance is credible and seamlessly integrated. Even more compelling is the bracketing of the story with glimpses of the brutal post-war fate these heros endured – how they were imprisoned and abused by the soviets for years, then, if released, confronted with a disfigured, oppressed culture. Don't miss this one.
Dawn Patrol (1938) –Errol Flynn was a much better actor than generally supposed, and he's in top form here. This tight story of WW I pilots is packed with lighter moments of esprit de corps, yet it still drives home the bleak reality of war. Flynn and David Niven are great together, and you can see how they became close friends. Some scenes from later war films were lifted directly from this classic. It's mostly a man's movie, but many women will also find it compelling.
The Dead (1987) – John Huston’s last film perfectly caps a brilliant career. James Joyce’s story documents a charming holiday party in Edwardian Dublin. But as the revelry winds down, the story expands into a world of bittersweet memories, culminating in a stirring rumination on mortality. The pivotal moment comes when a tenor, Mr. D’Arcy (Frank Patterson), sweetly sings “The Lass of Aughrim.” Angelica Huston is great.
Design For Living (1933) – Noel Coward's ménage à trois comedy was necessarily sanitized for film, but not as much as you might expect. Director Ernst Lubitsch and writer Ben Hecht preserved much of the cheek, if not much of the dialog. Miriam Hopkins is terrific as a wry and enigmatic muse who tries in vain to choose between Gary Cooper and Frederick March. The opening train scene sets a high standard of wit and charm.
Dinner With Friends (2001) – Playwright Donald Margulies deserves most of the credit for this taut and witty explication of love and marriage. It would be nearly impossible to watch this film and avoid having a conversation about it afterwards. The dialog is direct and courageous. All of the actors are a joy to watch, but Dennis Quaid really carries the story.
Dolores Claiborne (1995) – Stephen King stories translate well to the screen, and this is perhaps the best. Kathy Bates gives one of her finest performances as a spirited woman with a dark past who spitefully, wittily, holds off a persistent detective (Christopher Plummer) as long as she can. Jennifer Jason Leigh is great as her damaged, selfish daughter. There's an inevitablity to the story, yet, like all great tragedies, it is riveting.
Double Wedding (1937) – If you love William Powell and Myrna Loy in the Thin Man series, you'll want to see them in this more offbeat story. Here, they play polar opposites, which occasionally swerves the typically deft verbal sparring well into the realm of the nonverbal. Powell plays an eccentric artist, which suits his comedic talents to a tee. The movie is short and the ending weak, but you'll be glad you watched all the same.
Dumbo (1941) – Dumbo provides a satisfying peek into the innocent soul of a bygone era. Sure, the crows are racial stereotypes, but they're likable, funny, and essential. This is a charming story of faith and motherhood, in which everyday objects and occurrences are infused with whimsy. A real Mother's Day treat.
Easter Parade (1948) – A smash when released, this film teaming Judy Garland and Fred Astaire is now undeservedly overshadowed by the great films the stars made separately. The opening drum store scene is a creative reminder that Fred's dancing was just one aspect of his amazing physicality. And Judy is great throughout, especially in the hobo number, "A Couple of Swells."
The Electric Horseman (1979) – Some consider this tale of a cowboy's redemption insubstantial, but there's a lot here, in great scenery, sharp dialog, and subtle characterization. Robert Redford is superb as the rodeo star who kidnaps an exploited horse, and Jane Fonda his equal as an ambitious reporter. The romantic chemistry is perfect. Director Syndey Pollack was great at sidestepping hype and easy resolutions.
Enchanted April (1992)– Ready for an escape? Two Georgian women in Elizabeth von Arnim's charming story are. Surprising themselves with their boldness, they lease an Italian Villa, which allows them to slip away from tedious husbands and rainy London. They end up being not so alone, but with just the right amount of solitude, as the villa weaves its magic. Spectacular cinematography and solid performances ably animate the real star of the show: unconditional love.
Fearless (1993) – One of the more overlooked of Peter Weir’s stellar productions. Jeff Bridges plays a man who feels invincible and godlike after surviving a plane crash. He drifts away from his family and toys with the therapist sent to counsel him. It’s only when he starts trying to help another survivor that the full effects of his own trauma become apparent. A great film.
Fun With Dick and Jane (2005) – It was a stroke of genius to remake this comedy of middle-class revenge in the midst of our millenial economic distress. Jim Carrey has witty dialog to work with, which tempers his inspired splapstick. Tea Leoni shows surprising comic talent while still managing to look poised throughout. Alec Baldwin is the perfect greedy, good-old-boy boss, and Richard Jenkins nearly steals the show as an alcoholic, turncoat henchman.
Galaxy Quest (1999) – I'm amazed how many people haven't seen this perfect parody of Trekish TV schlock. You don't have to be a sci fi fan to appreciate the antics of desperate actors who've had their careers hijacked by a hit series. Writers David Howard and Robert Gordon deliver a starship-load of generous-spirited wit. Tim Allen, Enrico Colantoni, Robin Sachs, and their respective crews are fabulous.
Glory (1989) – This gritty depiction of one of the first black regiments in the Civil war rates as a classic in every category: history, war, drama, and social justice. The history is slurred a bit, to include experiences from other regiments, but that just makes for a richer story. Densel Washington, Morgan Freeman, and a strong supporting cast unerringly convey the innocence and compexity of these unsing heroes. It's jarring to see the men led by a white stripling (well-played by Matthew Broderick), but that was the reality.
Good Night and Good Luck (2005) – David Strathairn is phenomenal as the beacon of ethical journalism, Edward R. Murrow, as he takes on "Tailgunner" Joe McCarthy. Kudos to Director George Clooney for having the cajones to film in black and white, which may have reduced the audience considerably. But the film really delivers on atmosphere, and the visual contrasts highlight razor's-edge choices and great acting.
Grave of the Fireflies (1988) – This immense tragedy could change your life. But it may well trigger an emotional tsunami, as it documents the starvation of two young children in Japan at the end of World War II. Anime seems a strange choice of medium for this moving story, but, as Roger Ebert astutely points out, stark realism can't convey such profound symbolism. Brace yourself.
The Great Debaters (2007) – How Oscar managed to stiff this film is beyond me. I'd have nominated many involved in its production, beginning with director Denzel Washington. The story of how a squad of principled, creative thinkers from a small black college managed to out-debate teams all across the country in the 1930s will have you on your feet, cheering. Who cares what the Academy thought? Every American should see this movie.
Green Dolphin Street (1947) – I came away from this romantic spectacle with a lot of respect for Lana Tuner and Donna Reed, who play strong, resourceful sisters vying for the love of globe-trotting adventurers. The Oscar-winning special effects are secondary to two superbly rendered love triangles. The ending is surprising and transcendent.
Heart and Souls (1993) – The title says it all. This is an evocative, hilarious, imaginative story that moves like gangbusters. The spirits of four people killed in a 1959 bus accident find themselves tethered to a boy born at the scene, and the boy must help them resolve their lives. That may sound like the film is all plot, but it's all character -- and heart. Kudos to the creative cast, and especially to the writer, Gregory Hansen.
Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (1957) – Here's a WWII story for both men and women. Amazingly ignored, this bit of John Huston magic is more adventure-romance than action. A shipwrecked marine (Robert Mitchum) and a marooned nun (Deborah Kerr) find themselves sharing an island paradise, until the Japanese try to crash the party. Despite huge differences, the protagonists bond spiritually, giving each other the strength to do what must be done. Allegedly Mitchum's favorite film – certainly his favorite co-star.
Holiday (1938) – It’s too bad Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant only costarred in four movies, because they were great together. Holiday was written by Philip Barry and Donald Ogden Stewart, who also wrote The Philadelphia Story, and it shows. Wit, depth, Hepburn, Grant, Lew Ayers, and Edward Everett Horton: fun.
The Holiday (2006) – An enjoyable romcom, with good conflict, great scenery, and perfectly realized characters. Everyone's stalwart, but Kate Winslet deserves special mention as a martyr to unrequited love who's desperately in need of a holiday. Cameron Diaz is quite funny, and the filmmakers do a wonderful job of presenting Jude Law as a modern Cary Grant.
Holiday Affair (1949) – A short but charming antidote to holiday schlock. Janet Leigh plays a war widow who costs Robert Mitchum his job just before Christmas, and tries to make it up to him. Isobel Lennert's mature, insightful dialog makes all the difference here. Wendell Corey is exceptional in a supporting role.
The Horseman on the Roof (1995) – This adventure-romance won several French C
Holiday Inn (1942) – During the holidays, a lot of people who love the song "White Christmas" naturally rent the movie with the same name. But this is the film to watch. Not only did it introduce the song twelve years earlier than the eponymous Technicolor extravaganza, it features a far more imaginative story, better songs, and – especially – Fred Astaire.
ésars, but didn't get much attention in the US. Based on a novel by Jean Giono (The Man Who Planted Trees), it's about two brave and honorable people (Juliette Binoche and Olivier Martinez) thrown together during a Provencal cholera epidemic in 1832. A study of contrasts; a visual and spiritual feast.
HouseSitter (1992) – Goldie Hawn and Steve Martin mine carloads of inspired silliness out of this story of a compulsive liar who moves into an architect's house and pretends to be his wife. The scene where Steve asks Goldie not to wear certain clothes because she looks too hot in them is a hoot. Kudos to the supporting cast, too. Give your nitpicker the night off, and tone up your laugh muscles.
I Know Where I'm Going! (1945) – Lots of film buffs make a point of seeing Powell-Pressburger films, but if this one slipped by you, queue it up soon. Dame Wendy Hiller plays a headstrong young woman determined to live her life as planned, even when Celtic mischief conspires to present her less practical but richer options. Just as the filmmakers drew an entertaining portrait of Canada in The Invaders (49th Parallel), this affectionately depicts Scottish culture and scenery.
I Remember Mama (1948) – The phenomenal Irene Dunne anchors this story, portraying a Norwegian immigrant mother who looks out for her colorful kin with endearing subtlety and persistence. Oscar Homolka's portrayal of Uncle Chris adds a good deal of spice. There are no earth-shaking events here – just those that arise naturally as children mature and their parents grow old in San Francisco 100 years ago. But they're absolutely compelling.
The Incredible Shrinking Woman (1981) – Lily Tomlin is stellar in this garish, outrageous send-up of 1970's consumerism. This film and All Of Me alone should secure Lily a place in the pantheon of American film comedians. Clearly, many who presumed to judge the movie on IMDB have no understanding of satire. That's unfortunate, because Lily and Jane Wagner produced a perfectly hilarious 90-minute escape. This one could be nicely enhanced with brownies, BTW.
In Her Shoes (2005) – Toni Collette and Cameron Diaz work well together as unlike, feuding sisters who find themselves on parallel quests. While the former extricates herself from a high-profile career, the latter tracks down and hangs out hilariously with a long-lost grandmother (the inimitable Shirley MacLaine). When reunited, the sisters are finally able to help each other come to terms with their mother's mental illness. This dramedy merits more than one look.
An Ideal Husband (1997) – Rupert Everett seems made for the role of charming, shiftless Lord Goring in this elegant production of the Oscar Wilde Play. He and Minnie Driver have a wonderful time with the rich material in the climax. All the actors skillfully dole out the droll, but Julianne Moore stands out as a wicked seductress. Nice attention to detail – lots of handsome people and costumes and sets.
The Illusionist (2006) – This movie was somewhat overshadowed by The Prestige, a higher profile film released at nearly the same time. Both stories feature a 19th-century magician as protagonist. This is the one to see. In contrast to its pretzel-logic competitor, this sumptuous set piece works by placing compelling characters at the service of true love.
Islands in the Stream (1977) – Though hardly perfect, and considered a disappointment when released, this movie is vividly memorable. The exquisite scenery and score help a great deal, but the narrative - a rare and gentle expression of Hemingway's vulnerabilities - makes the film. I found myself wondering if i'd be so interested had the protagonist not been so obiviously Hemingway. No matter. If you enjoyed Paula McLain's novel The Paris Wife, and/or Hem's own memoir, A Moveable Feast, this film (also a posthumous novel) provides a satisfying and moving coda.
Jeremiah Johnson (1972) – This adventure hugely upgraded my hobbledehoy world when it was released. It's one of those films that tends to be unfairly dismissed as "episodic" by formula-bound mavens. But language, energy, and scope count for a great deal in my book. Director Sydney Pollack artfully blends the subtle and profound.
Joni Mitchell: Woman of Heart and Mind (2003) – This is a fine example of genius inspiring genius. You can't very well do a slap-dash profile of a phenomenal artist like Joni. Stephanie Bennett, Susan Lacy, and crew prove themselves equal to the task. Even if you're not a fan of Joni's music, you will be inspired by her evocative journey. Loaded with rare performance footage and insights. Clearly a labor of love.
Joyeux Noel (2005) – This French film fictionalizes a seminal moment in western culture - Christmas Eve, 1914, when common soldiers pulled back from unprecedented slaughter to gauge their humanity. That the carnage goes on afterward is a big part of the story. German, French, and Scottish perspectives are nicely presented here. An inspired score elevates all.
Just Like Heaven (2005) – There's nothing like a light ghost-story romance, and this is one of the most imaginative. Mark Ruffalo plays a withdrawn couch potato who has a hard time figuring out whether his flat is actually haunted. That's okay, because Reese Witherspoon can't figure out whether she's actually a ghost. Hilarity ensues.
Kate and Leopold (2001) – Steven Rogers and James Mangold conjure some old-fashioned movie magic with this wonderfully imaginative, hilarious and romantic time-travel yarn. The script is loaded with delicious cultural cross-references and subtext. Hugh Jackman deservedly won a Golden Globe for his performance as an inventive studmuffin, but all the actors are great – especially Liev Schreiber and Breckin Meyer.
The Key (1958) – William Holden plays Captain David Ross, a tugboat skipper assigned to salvage war-damaged ships in WW II. These tugboat men are in such constant danger from U-boat attack that crack-up or death seems inevitable. Sophia Loren perfectly portrays an enigmatic woman who seems to go with the apartment Ross inherits from a slain colleague (Trevor Howard). A haunting story.
Kitty Foyle (1940) – Ginger Rogers won an Oscar for her portrayal of a spunky working class girl who endures and matures into a strong woman. The hard choices she makes compellingly reveal not just her character, but the difficulties women of the era faced. The talking-to she gives her snooty in-laws is worth the price of admission.
A Letter to Three Wives (1949) – A must-see character study. Addie Ross has run off with the husband of one of her three friends. But which one? The women get the cryptic bad news just as they are embarking on an outing with an army of underprivileged children. As they tend to the kids, they consider via creative flashback which husband will not be waiting at home that evening. Wonderfully written, with a stellar cast.
Lonely Are The Brave (1962) – Kirk Douglas's favorite film is a bracing ode to friendship and indivdualism. He wanted to call it The Last Cowboy, as it has to do with a horseman who will do almost anything in the name of freedom, but cannot adjust to societal strictures in the changing West. Scripted to perfection by Dalton Trumbo, based on a novel by then-unknown Edward Abbey. It's hard to beat those three innovators in collaboration.
The Long Walk Home (1990) – Much was made of The Help (2011), but this deeper, slower explication of the struggle for civil rights in the south is more satisfying. Whoopi Goldberg gives a soulful performance as a maid faced with a long commute during the Montgomery bus boycott. Sissy Spacek is perfect as her employer, who is drawn into and transformed by the experience. The understated authenticity of this film is exceptional. The contrast in Christmases is moving, as are the gospel scenes, and the actual words of Dr. Martin Luther King. Bravo!
Love Affair (1939) – An Affair to Remember, with Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr, is plenty romantic, but this original B&W version of the story is more subtle and profound. Directory Leo McCarey deserves some of the credit, but not as much as Charles Boyer and Irene Dunne.
The Man Who Planted Trees (1987) – After this exquisitely animated short came out, I expected to see other films copying its shimmering style. But it still seems to be in a class by itself. It's like watching a master painter continually create and recreate symbolic imagery. The effect would be merely interesting if the story were not such a timeless, organic study of perseverance.
Magic in the Moonlight (2014) – Colin Firth's portrayal of a stubbornly rational magician lends gravitass to a Woody Allen romantic comedy that might have been dismissed as silly. A few of the early situations seem stiff, but the strong dialog and intricate dilemmas build quickly. Thanks to Firth and Woody's typical elan, you soon find yourself contemplating the wonder and meaning of life. "I have irrational positive feelings for Sophie Baker."
Meet Joe Black (1998) – The idea of living with death for weeks before actually dying is riveting. But rendering such a thing believable requires a high degree of film-making virtuosity. Though a bit over the top, this production hits all the right notes. The story is beautifully expanded well beyond its inspiration, Death Takes a Holiday (1934). The acting is uniformly brilliant. Filmmakers who take this kind of risk deserve all the recognition they didn't quite receive when the film was released.
Meet the Robinsons (2007) – Though strangely overlooked, this is one of the best Disney animated features ever. The story is particularly strong. A budding inventor is propelled into the future, where an assortment of hilarious characters help him shore up his leaky self-esteem and redefine success. This one zips right along, so hold on to your hat, and Keep Moving Forward.
Monte Walsh (1970) – Lee Marvin and Jack Palance are perfect as old cowboys trying to change with the times in this understated homage to the old West. Authenticity makes all the difference here; the remake looks sanitized in comparison. Though the story is touching, there's good humor in the way these guys live – the recreational fist fight, for example. A definitive Western. (Thanks, Scott Deyo!)
Mr. & Mrs. Smith (1941) – Many Hitchcock fans loathe the thrillmaster's lone foray into screwball comedy. Many fans of the genre, however, love this solid, Lubitsch-like production. Robert Montgomery and Carole Lombard are great together as battling love birds, but Gene Raymond delivers some of the funniest bits. The story reminds me a lot of Noel Coward's Private Lives.
Mrs. Miniver (1942) – This old standard is on the list primarily because it's extremely well made, but also because a surprisingly small number of people actually noticed when a scene from the film was unapologetically stolen by the writer of the TV series, Downton Abbey. This Greer Garson showcase was largely a propaganda film, but there's only one scene that really demonizes the enemy. There's a depth and resonance to every other scene and character in the film.
My Father's Glory / My Mother's Castle (1990) – Director Yves Robert pays heartfelt tribute to Marcel Pagnol in these films based on the great director's memoirs. Their portrayal of French provincial life in the early 1900's are touching celebrations of innocence and beauty. The score and cinematography of both are as refreshing as a trip to the spa.
Once Upon a Honeymoon (1942) – Cary Grant and Ginger Rogers shuffle charmingly through a bizarre travelogue, but the real story here is how the filmmakers seem to be trying to warn the world about Nazi atrocities before anyone really understood what was going on. The hapless couple even spend time in a "concentration camp." Unfotunately, it's not nearly grim enough. Interesting cultural landmark.
One Fine Day (1996) – A witty romance that perfectly captures the neuroses and manic pace of single parenthood. The premise is great: two single parents (Michelle Pfeiffer and George Clooney) and their kids are thrown together for a single day. The time constraint works well, lending urgency and immediacy to each scene. Subtle and adult, yet with lots of touching kid stuff.
Only Angels Have Wings (1939) – Cary Grant, Rita Hayworth, and Jean Arthur in an exotic adventure-romance? You bet. Great fare for serious cocooning. Tough-as-nails Cary and fellow fliers tempt fate daily while delivering mail in the Andes. The unexpected arrival of the women triggers hard lessons for all about duty, camaraderie, and love. Perhaps Howard Hawks's best film.
Penthouse (1933) – This is a well-crafted story about a defense lawyer who's dumped by a girlfriend who doesn't approve of his mug clients. Then the dumpee agrees to defend the dumper's new boyfriend from a murder rap. It all chugs along entertainingly, but really picks up when Myrna Loy appears. Her wit and unflappable presence prefigure Nora Charles in the Thin Man series.
Persuasion (1995) – Jane Austen’s other stories have been so beautifully filmed in recent years that it’s easy to overlook this gem. Amanda Root gives an understated but soulful performance as Anne Elliot, who was persuaded years earlier to break off a marriage engagement for social considerations. Ciarán Hinds is stalwart as the jiltee who returns as a successful ship captain. Corin Redgrave is magnificent as Anne’s foppish father.
Picnic (1955) – We are fortunate that so many of William Inge's plays were beautifully filmed. This is one of the best. William Holden's sexual energy upsets the careful plans of many in a sleepy, Midwestern town. Rosalind Russel is exceptional as a desperate, disillusioned spinster. Holden's character cannot help releasing long-repressed desires, even within himself.
The Point (1972) – This cartoon gets less attention as it recedes into the past, but all animators should study it. For one thing, the story is the point. Harry Nilsson and Carole Beers created an imaginative set of probable impossibilities that hang together with wisdom and love. The Rock Man is my personal hero. You'll be humming the melodies forever. Thanks, Harry.
Racing with the Moon (1984) – What do you do in a small California town in 1942 while waiting to join the army? You smoke, drink, race the train, try to get a tattoo, work in a bowling alley, and fight. You savor a sweet summer you will never know again. You fall in love. I wonder if this film could be made today, as there's nothing over-the-top about it. It's simply resonant.
A Raisin in the Sun (1961 and 2008) – Sidney Poitier’s performances tend to stand out, but the whole cast is up to his brilliance in this raw and exuberant drama. The remake is also worth seeing, particularly for the performance of Phylicia Rashad. An extended family shares a cramped apartment with little hope for betterment when a windfall sets them all dreaming again. Larraine Hansberry wrote a great American drama, and all Americans should see it.
A River Runs Through It (1992) – Sometimes it takes a few viewings to realize a film is a classic. I’m fond of nearly all stories in which landscape is a major character, but this production is exceptional in the patient way it links breathtaking scenery to complex relationships. The final words are as evocative as those penned by James Joyce in The Dead.
Roughly Speaking (1945) – Winston Churchill once defined success as the ability to move from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm. In this beautifully produced film, Rosalind Russell heads up a large, jolly family that never seems to tire of proving the point. Their adventures are animated by good writing and lots of charming Americana. Watch this one when the world's getting you down.
The Russia House (1990) – The best spy romance since Notorious. Tom Stoppard's dialog actually makes the film superior to the le Carré novel. Great acting and cinematography. The Jerry Goldsmith – Branford Marsalis score is phenomenal. An overlooked masterpiece, probably because of its subtlety. It's about the power of truth. Replay often.
Sabrina (1995) – Director Sydney Pollack showed a lot of guts in remaking the 1954 classic. It's like begging to be nitpicked to death. But if you can avoid strict comparisons to the original, you might really enjoy this satisfying comedy. The script is witty and the players appealing. Sure, Julia Ormand isn't Audrey Hepburn, but who is? Being Julia is plenty, especially when she's Sabrina.
Salt of the Earth (1954) – This riveting exposé of the exploitation of Latino mineworkers is especially relevant today. It’s a must-see, not just because it was a blacklisted film made by blacklisted artists, but because it is a moving study of hard-working people fighting for basic human rights. Amazingly, the wives of the miners eventually lead the fight in defiance of their husbands.
Separate Tables (1954) – If you only know David Niven for his lighter work, do yourself a favor and see how he earned an Oscar. He plays a bluff military man devoted to impressing others at an off-season resort hotel, when his weakness is publicly revealed. This is actually an ensemble film with a phenomenal cast, including Burt Lancaster, Rita Hayworth, and Deborah Kerr. As Peter Pan creator James Barrie said, life is a long lesson in humility. The troubled souls gathered here learn it well, yet they learn other useful things too. Surprisingly evocative.
Shanghai Triad (1995) – Director Yimou Zhang's overlooked tragedy is drop-dead gorgeous. The story is told from the perspective of a boy drawn by awakening love into a vortex of violence and cruelty. We Americans expect things to get better when the setting shifts from urban to rural, but no such luck. The innocence and stark imagery are haunting.
Sliding Doors (1998) – A bold and witty look at what might have been. The story splits immediately, tracing two alternative worlds -- one in which Helen (Gwyneth Paltrow) makes a train and meets James (John Hannah), and another in which she misses the train and stays in a rut with hapless Gerry (hilariously played by John Lynch). Much to admire here, but I especially liked the inspired dialog.
Stage Door (1937) – Katharine Hepburn and Ginger Rogers are great in this adaptation of the Edna Ferber-George S. Kaufman play about a boardinghouse full of actresses hoping for a break on Broadway. It’s a revealing yet sympathetic portrayal of theater life. The lively repartee is bolstered by a supporting cast that includes Lucille Ball, Eve Arden and Ann Miller.
Stars in My Crown (1950) – In his favorite role, Joel McCrae plays a strong-willed frontier parson who, through a series of trials and comic episodes, becomes the glue that holds a community together. The story is told with imagination and verisimiitude through the eyes of the parson's young nephew. The early going is a bit desultory, but stick with it – it builds to a powerful climax.
Summmertime (1955) – Venice is a radiant star in this story of a middle-aged American woman trying to make the most of her dream vacation. Katharine Hepburn's character is so self-reliant that she's surprised to find herself stalked by loneliness. Her affair with a kind Italian businessman seems beautifully inevitable. The story is not momentous, but true.
The Strawberry Blonde (1941) – James Cagney, Olivia de Havilland, and Rita Hayworth in a period comedy? It's classic. Cagney plays a hapless dentist who requires many years and escapades to figure out he's not so hapless after all. The tooth extraction scenes are hilarious. Everyone's great, but Olivia steals the show as a witty suffragette ("What did we come here for, if not to be trifled with?")
Sullivan's Travels (1941) – Preston Sturges never got credit for the title of the movie Oh Brother, Where Art Thou. He coined it in this entertaining yarn about a film director convinced of the evils of escapism, but learning otherwise the hard way. In contrast to many modern efforts, there's a lot of heart in this story – especially in the climactic church scene. The early dialog featuring producers and butlers is brilliant.
The Sundowners (1960) – Author Jon Cleary wanted to write about people who "weren't troubled by neuroses and didn't blame the world for their shortcomings." The film is faithful to Cleary's purpose. It's so full of rough, likable characters and open country that you hardly mind the episodic structure. Robert Mitchum and Deborah Kerr are great, but freedom and beauty are the real stars.
The Talk of the Town (1942) – Jean Arthur, Ronald Colman, and Cary Grant have some rich material to work with in this insightful exploration of the sometimes exasperating contrast between academic law and real-world justice. George Stevens directed a bold and artful film, well oiled with sweet romance and humor. The climax and denouement are exceptional.
Test Pilot (1938) – This is typical of the hugely melodramatic films of the 1930's, but its romantic energy and sharp dialog overcome much silliness. Myrna Loy does a great job of taking hotshot Clark Gable's ego down a notch or three, Spencer Tracy is the perfect buddy to both, and Lionel Barrymore dispenses fatherly wisdom on cue.
That Thing You Do! (1996) – One of the most purely creative and entertaining movies ever. Tom Hanks, Gary Goetzman, and friends created a vibrant alternate sixties universe to document the meteoric rise and implosion of a likeable one-hit-wonder band. The film is crammed with spot-on pseudo hit songs. A sweet homage to the era, and clearly a labor of love. Great soundtrack.
Trumbo (2015) – This film deserved a much longer run on the big screen. Everyone should watch it -- especially those who believe that the US was some sort of utopia back in the '50s and '60s. Coloradan Dalton Trumbo was not just a great writer (SPARTACUS, ROMAN HOLIDAY, etc.), but a cultural hero, who endured and eventually defeated insidious McCarthyism. Inspiring.
Truth (2015) – If you don't believe corporations control nearly all American media, watch this film. You'll see that the manipulation was apparent even in 2004, when CBS News's revelations about George W. Bush's laughable military service record were quashed by corporate suits -- even costing anchorman Dan Rather his job. Excellent piece of work, with Robert Redford surprisingly convincing as Rather.
Wait Until Dark (1967) – Roger Ebert was wrong to quibble about the plot of this twisty thriller. There may be a questionable moment or two, but you hardly notice or care. Alan Arkin is wonderfully creepy as a knife-wielding intruder, and Audrey Hepburn is phenomenal as his blind prey. Kudos to the writer, Frederick Knott, who also wrote Dial M for Murder. (Thanks, Thomas Bugg!)
The Way We Were (1973) – Not overlooked, but clearly under-appreciated, considering the ratings it gets saddled with. This is a deeply personal, moving, and well-crafted film. I've seen its sharp dialog ripped off several times, and it always makes me want to see the original again. "People ARE their principles!"
The Whole Wide World (1996) – Renée Zellweger and Vincent D’Onofrio jump off the screen in the heartbreaking story of schoolteacher Novalyne Price and pulp fiction writer Robert Howard. The creator of the "Conan the Barbarian" series is drawn to love, but can't escape an overbearing mother and vivid fantasy world. Get out the hankies.
The Women (2008) – It was a mistake for marketers of this film to compare it to the successful TV series, Sex and the City. Fans of that show went out of their way to savage the gentler movie. That's too bad, because this is a witty remake of the 1939 Norma Shearer classic. The negativity just reinforced this man's opinion that women are often incredibly hard on each other.
The Women on the Sixth Floor (2010) – A sweet, subtle French film about a conservative Parisian in the 1960s who is captivated and transformed by a group of Spanish maids who live just above him. His childlike guilelessness is fascinating, and drives the story. Spot-on cultural touches - especially the Spanish music - keep the tone warm and believeable.
Wonder Boys (2000) – Impeccable timing enlivens this chronicle of cascading absurdities triggered by a talented but hosed-up writer waffling about his future. Michael Chabon’s novel is hilarious, but this perfectly cast film manages to make the story even more satisfying. Michael Douglas, Frances McDormand, Robert Downey Jr., Tobey Maguire, and Katie Homes are deft and appealing.
The Young in Heart (1938) – Meet the Carletons, a family of lovable rogues who strike gold when an elderly matron invites them to stay at her mansion. Morally and hilariously opposed to any work, they're aghast when they find themselves going straight. Janet Gaynor anchors a great cast, including laconic Roland Young, who's Hell on wheels in his Flying Wombat. Fluffy and short, but a real hoot.
Zelig (1983) – It's easy to pass over this quirky gem when you need a Woody fix. But if you take the time for this one, and pay attention, it's as if the man's delicious and subtle imagination lies quivering before you. From the seamless merging of new and old footage, to contrived hit songs and the running down of all illogical conclusions, this is Woody at his most entertaining.