The Top 10 Greatest Movies to Win the ‘Best Picture’ Oscar

A few weeks ago, I created a Top 10 List of what I think are the worst films to “win” the Academy Award for “Best Picture.” The terrific website ListVerse was kind enough to pick it up and what followed was a barrage of comments (over 400+ in less than 48 hours) that was great fun to read. Comments ranged from highly complimentary to others that were, well…not so nice and aimed at yours truly. No matter. That is what is such fun about these lists and what I was hoping for when I began my Magic Lantern Film Blog — a place for film lovers to speak passionately about the films that they love and hate, a place where people can have healthy debates with one another…quite simply, a place for movie geeks like me to communicate. A handful of those commenters suggested that rather than be so negative, that I create a Top 10 List of those “Best Picture” winners that I found to be the most deserving. I thought that was a fair point and that is what you see here – The Top 10 Greatest Movies to Win the “Best Picture” Oscar!

This list was a bit easier for me to compile, especially the Top 3. What I found to be most difficult was trying to squeeze in so many wonderful films that took home the award in just ten slots. Sadly, a few of them didn’t make the cut, though I wish there was more room. My criteria? Well, first it has to be a superb, timeless movie; a film that, looking back, you can still tell that it was the best in that respective year. A movie that if it didn’t win “Best Picture,” you’d say, “Really? That didn’t win?” Second, it had to be (in my opinion) the best of the films nominated in that year. If I thought another film was better, then it didn’t make the list (i.e. I think “JFK” is far superior to the victorious “Silence of the Lambs“). Finally, I looked at the competition each winning film faced and what the movie had to beat out (have you ever looked at all fantastic films battling it out in 1939?). When all was said and done, I came up with these 10 magnificent Oscar-winning films. I hope this brings just as much reaction and discussion as the prior list. 

10. The Best Years of Our Lives (dir. William Wyler, 1946)

Wyler made some truly unbelievable films (“Mrs. Miniver,” “The Heiress,” “Jezebel” and the Oscar-winning “Ben-Hur” which could have easily made this list), but for some reason, few cite this one as being one of his greatest. I first saw this film only three years ago and was completely blown away by it — and the war-film genre is not one of my favorites. Winner of 7 Academy Awards, this is the film that beat out “The Yearling” and the classic “It’s A Wonderful Life” and in my mind, deservedly so. The movie centers on three WW II veterans who come home to Smalltown, America from the war only to find that everything has drastically changed. Wyler and screenwriter Robert E. Sherwood aren’t concerned with showing us any scenes of the men in battle, but are wholly invested in showing us the crisis that each man faces upon his return. Sixty years later, the movie leaves a lasting impact on its audience and the cast is stellar. Frederic March won an Oscar for “Best Actor” here and Harold Russell, who plays Homer, a man who lost both hands during the war, won “Best Supporting Actor” — both great to watch. Teresa Wright and Myrna Loy also give heartfelt, riveting performances here. I was so impressed with how real everything seemed to feel and, like another film on this list, did such a beautiful and poetic job at showing the psyche of a post-war nation. All three stories blend so brilliantly together, I wish it had continued even longer than its 160+ minutes. For some reason, I am under the impression that many have not experienced this American classic. If you are one of those, you should put this in your queue right away.

9. Annie Hall (dir. Woody Allen, 1977)

You can count the number of comedic films to win “Best Picture” on two hands and this one is arguably the best of the lot (unless you want to debate “The Apartment,” which I could understand). I look at it like this – people bitch and complain that Stanley Kubrick, Charles Chaplin, Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hawks, & Robert Altman never won an Oscar. Fine. The same would be said for Woody Allen if one of his movies never took home the golden statue. “Really? How could that be possible?! He never one after all those great movies?” Now of course if you’re not a Woody fan, you won’t like this selection. I had to find room for it. It is one of the all-time greatest comedies and stands as the seminal turning point in the filmmaker’s career. Diane Keaton created one of film’s greatest screen characters here (“Lah-di-dah”) and the chemistry between the two is a marvel and tremendous fun to watch. A classic love story filled with some of Woody’s greatest one-liners (“I don’t want to move to a city where the only cultural advantage is being able to make a right turn on a red light”), there are also moments of great drama and depth. I know “Star Wars” nuts think that their film got robbed. I understand that it was a ground-breaking film and changed the way movies were made. When a comedy wins, most don’t find it deserving. I like “Star Wars” very much, but to me, it looks a bit dated now and perhaps that’s because special effects has grown by leaps and bounds. I just know “Annie Hall” (which I believe is his 2nd greatest movie) will be looked at as one of cinema’s greatest comedies decades from now. It also doesn’t sell out at the end and gives a realistic portrayal of a relationship gone sour. I can watch this anytime, anywhere…so it makes the list.

8. Terms of Endearment (dir. James L. Brooks, 1983)

I think James L. Brooks is one of the finest, most clever screenwriters we have and there are usually about 10 classic lines in each of his best works. Here, after years of writing successfully for television, he made his directorial debut and, after winning 5 Oscars, has become a modern-day classic. I know many poo-poo this movie, though I am not sure why. Perhaps because it is overly sentimental and falls under the genre of “tear-jerker,” but I think that’s just silly. It’s a beautifully woven story with rich and fascinating characters. I love that it always makes me cry when Emma (Debra Winger) has to say good-bye to her two sons or when her mother Aurora (Shirley MacLaine) is screaming for someone to help medicate her daughter. The chemistry between Jack Nicholson (as the vain ex-astronaut turned playboy, Garrett) and MacLaine is so strong and they are simply a delight to watch. Their first date is one of the great screen dates and Jack gets to do his thing throughout, which is enjoyable to watch. But even he goes through a maturation process that leaves the viewer quite moved. The core of this film however, rests in the mother-daughter relationship, which is funny, conflicting, heart-breaking…the stuff of real life. Brooks gets top supporting performances from a young Jeff Daniels (what a cad!), Danny DeVito, and John Lithgow. The movie strikes the ideal balance between comedy and drama and flows into one another so effortlessly. I find this to be such a charming, slice-of-life film. You’ve heard the old adage, “I laughed, I cried.” Each time I watch this movie, I find it to be the epitome of that very saying.

7. Schindler’s List (dir. Steven Spielberg, 1993)

Simply put, a glorious piece of filmmaking. Splendid cinematography by Janusz Kaminski, a stirring score by John Williams and Michael Kahn’s adept editing help create this engaging and important work of art. I have not read the Keneally book (though most of my students have), but Steven Zaillian’s screenplay brings this chilling and inspiring true story to life in such a skilled, crafted way. There are many films focused on the Holocaust, and though this may not be my favorite one, it is surely the one that most people point to as being the quintessential “Holocaust film.” Liam Neeson plays Oskar Schindler, who starts off as a vain and avaricious businessman who uses the Jews as cheap labor to start a factory in Poland during WW II. Slowly, he begins to see first-hand, the horrors endured by the Jews and begins a quest in trying to save as many lives as possible. In the end, he composes a list of over 1,100 Jewish people who he rescued from death. I know there is a lot of praise & glorification being thrown around throughout this list, but that is because these are 10 magnificent films that stand out among literally thousands. Here is one statement though that is in no way hyperbole — Ralph Fiennes, in bringing to life Amon Goeth, created (in my estimation) the most vile screen villain ever put on film. In Goeth, we witness the true evil a human being is capable of. He is terrifying, unpredictable and oh-so genuine. He wants so desperately to be admired and liked as Schindler is; the way he looks at himself in the mirror, the clumsy manner in which he tries to “pardon” a Jew that he so desperately wants to kill, the blunt manner in which he shoots another human being…Fiennes does it all with impeccable authenticity. The film didn’t have much competition that year, but I don’t think it really matters. No matter what movies were released that year, Spielberg’s movie (winner of 7 Oscars) was taking home the grand prize…it’s that remarkable an achievement.

6. The Deer Hunter (dir. Michael Cimino, 1978)

One of the great war films ever made, Cimino’s epic examines the lives of three close friends, all working-class factory workers in Pennsylvania, who decide to enlist in the Army during the Vietnam War. Before they go, Steven (John Savage) marries his pregnant girlfriend and the first act of the film shows us the wedding, which also serves as a farewell party for the bridegroom and his friends Michael (Robert DeNiro) and Nick (Christopher Walken). I know many people to find this part of the film to be a bit slow and lengthy, but I take the glass-half-full approach and say that Cimino and screenwriter Deric Washburn do an incredible job in developing their 3-dimensional characters. Plus, a lot of what is here is essential when you get further into the movie. The second act picks up and we are thrust into a prisoner-of-war camp where the three friends are detained in nightmarish conditions. The final act shows the horrific effects that war has on people and their surroundings. The film is graphic, daring, sincere and deeply affecting. Wonderful performances all around. A young Meryl Streep is so good here (a real shock, right?); sometimes she doesn’t even speak a line and we know exactly what she is thinking. This is also when DeNiro and Walken weren’t just cashing in checks and really immersed themselves in their craft — and both are spectacular here. A shell-shocked Walken in the hospital trying to answer what his name is — or those haunting Russian roulette scenes are images that I have yet to forget since I first watched this film. “The Deer Hunter” shows us a quaint small town in America, the merciless horrors of war and the daunting effects that it has on the people who served and those who are close to them. A 5-time Oscar winner (beating out “Midnight Express“), it remains one of the most powerful films ever made.

5. On the Waterfront (dir. Elia Kazan, 1954)

Winner of 8 Academy Awards, “On the Waterfront” is one of the great American film ever made. Having been nominated for “Best Actor” the previous three years, Marlon Brando finally won his first Oscar in his fourth consecutive year being nominated playing Terry Malloy, an ex-prizefighter turned longshoreman who witnesses a murder and struggles with himself to stand up to a corrupt union boss (a terrific Lee J. Cobb). Watching Brando’s transformation of this character is something to behold. Like something out of an Arthur Miller play, Budd Schulberg’s screenplay is authentic, powerful and enduring. On top of the flawless performance by Brando, Rod Steiger, Karl Malden and Eva Marie Saint turn in moving performances as well. The controversial film does not seem to have aged at all either, though the politics of the time may not be the same as today, especially in the aftermath of HUAC and Kazan’s highly publicized “naming of names. It has been said that Brando didn’t even want to work with Kazan after he named names of some of his close friends. Thank God he did do this. Close friends and collaborators, Miller and Kazan always wanted to do a film together covering the corruption on the docks – but never got to after HUAC. Miller did “The Crucible” and here, Kazan answers back with a statement of his own in this brilliant piece of filmmaking.

4. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (dir. Milos Forman, 1975)

Milos Forman’s powerful, disturbing and, at times, humorous film is a brilliant adaptation of the Ken Kesey novel.  Jack Nicholson has been outstanding in so many roles, but this may be his very best work to date. Here, he plays the rebellious Randle P. McMurphy who is serving time at a state mental hospital and instantly tries to challenge all authority. In doing so, he tries to recruit the other patients to take on the dictatorial rule of Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher) who is more despot than nurse. Every time he tries to have a little harmless fun (playing cards, watching the World Series), he is stopped by this oppressive woman. This film is a modern classic, featuring great supporting performances by Danny DeVito, Christopher Lloyd, Ted Markland, and Vincent Schiavelli. Brad Dourif is painful to watch as Billy Bibbit who is terrified of Nurse Ratched and the haunting image of his mother (who we never see). Fletcher is perfect in this role and creates one of cinema’s most despicable characters ever. Every note she hits is just right and her toe-to-toe scenes with Nicholson are akin to watching two heavyweights battle it out. McMurphy’s scenes with Chief Bromdom are also a treat to watch. The symbolism of McMurphy as a Christ-like figure, though more perceptible in the novel, are still quite evident here, albeit in more subtle fashion. What starts out as McMurphy trying to get out of work and prison by pretending to be insane, slowly morphs into something dark, perverse and terribly unsettling as he begins to win over the patients one by one. Forman manages to hit so many notes here, and just when things seem to be jubilant and hopeful, it all crashes down and your stomach is in knots. The film had pretty fierce competition for the “Best Picture” prize and was the first to win the 5 ‘major’ Oscar awards since 1934 and in viewing it, you can easily see why.

3. The Godfather (dir. Francis Ford Coppola, 1972)

This could just as easily be #1 on this list as I find it the second best film ever made. Coppola’s masterpiece lost out to “Cabaret” in a number of categories, but thankfully, it took home the one Oscar that mattered. Marlon Brando, back at the top of his game. Exceptional performances by Robert Duvall, Diane Keaton, James Caan, and Talia Shire. The coming out of Al Pacino, playing one of the most complex characters in movie history in Michael Corleone, the dutiful war-hero son turn immoral Don. I have seen this film more times than I care to mention and it never gets dull to me for a second. A young Coppola handles this film with such subtlety and such grace, showing audiences the inner workings of a mafia family before “The Sopranos” and others of its ilk romanticized it to the point of being cartoonish and false. The Corleone family, on the other hand, rings quite authentic. The transformation of Michael is mesmerizing to watch; Brando meeting with the heads of the five families after declaring that the war stops here; the infamous horse head under the sheets; Carlo finally paying for Sonny…I can go on and on with another thirty or forty moments and it won’t be enough. An iconic film score, a great screenplay adaptation and glorious cinematography by the legendary Gordon Willis help make this a film you simply can’t refuse.

2. Gone With the Wind (dir. Victor Fleming, 1939)

I watch this film and cannot believe that this was made 71 years ago. What a gorgeous piece of filmmaking this is – a grand achievement on such an epic scale. When you think of “classic” films, this must surely be one of them. And still, to this day, it remains the #1 box-office success when you adjust for inflation (besting “Star Wars,” “E.T.,” and “Titanic” among others). Here, we are given Vivien Leigh in one of film’s most iconic roles, doing a masterful job as Scarlett O’Hara. We witness her epic tale through one of the most turbulent periods in this nation’s history. She is truly one of cinema’s most enduring characters, as she goes through so many transformations in her life – and Leigh pulls it all off seamlessly. On top of her duties to the Tara plantation, we watch the love story between her and Rhett Butler (Clark Gable), an immortal story in itself. The film gives us so many classic lines that we all know by heart and never ceases to feel new and timely. Many would probably put this as #1, and I couldn’t call them crazy. On top of being such a fantastic film, look at the competition it beat out in 1939! I don’t think there has been a stronger list of nominees since: “Stagecoach,” “The Wizard of Oz,” “Dark Victory, “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” and “Of Mice and Men” are just a few and these are all unbelievably great movies. What do they say? “They don’t make ’em like they used to.” Sometimes I think they’re right.

1. The Godfather: Part II (dir. Francis Ford Coppola, 1974)

For my money, the finest American film ever made. How many sequels can you say are just-as-good if not better than the first? Not many at all. I believe this one actually outdoes the masterpiece released in 1972 (though by only a very slim margin). It also beat out stiff competition that year with terrific films such as “Chinatown,” “Lenny” and “The Conversation.” I love the backstory of young Vito Andolini coming to Ellis Island and his rise to becoming Don Corleone which includes the assassination of Don Fanucci. The Little Italy scenes showing us a mesmerizing Robert DeNiro (as the young Don) taking on all of the subtle nuances of Brando are a pleasure to watch. Meanwhile, we watch as the character of Michael (Al Pacino in perhaps his greatest performance) sinks deeper and deeper into the bowels of evil, while tightening the grip on his crime family in Las Vegas. Coppola had so much to lose here, but more than delivers and the performances again, are extraordinary. The late John Cazale gets more screen-time as Fredo (poor Fredo – “I know it was you, Fredo. You broke my heart”), the legendary acting teacher Lee Strasberg makes his screen debut as Hyman Roth, and we are also given terrific supporting performances from Michael Gazzo and Bruno Kirby. A wonderful job of storytelling here and I catch something new each time I watch it. This was a no-brainer #1 for me because I haven’t seen a better film so far and thankfully, it took home 6 Oscars, including “Best Picture.”

P.S. — My apologies to “Midnight Cowboy,” “All About Eve,” “Braveheart” and “From Here to Eternity” — all remarkable 4-star films in my book and all deserving of winning the coveted Best Picture Oscar. As I said in my intro, I wish there was room for all of them. I just couldn’t omit the ten that you see above.

Peter Eramo’s “Top 25 Comedies of the Decade”: The Finale!

              

OK, here it finally is…the last part of my “Top 25 Comedy Films of the Decade” (2000-2009) list!!! The final five films are as follows:

#5. Wonder Boys (dir. Curtis Hanson)

A chaotic mid-life crisis joy ride, if there ever was one. Carnegie Mellon professor Grady Tripp (Michael Douglas) is just one small crisis away from having a complete nervous breakdown. In the course of one weekend, we are introduced to all of the highly unusual characters that make up his harried life – his third wife leaves him, his girlfriend, the Chancellor (Frances McDormand, always so damned good) is pregnant, and his editor Terry (Robert Downey, Jr.) arrives on the scene, peeking and probing, waiting for Grady’s book that has been in the works for over seven years. Talk about writer’s block! Actually, the manuscript is over 2,600 pages long. Add to this the advancements of one of his female students and James Leer (Tobey Maguire), another of Grady’s students who is something of a literary prodigy on top of being a pathological liar and kleptomaniac. Oh yeah, James also shoots the Chancellor’s dog in the midst of all the confusion. It all looked so much easier seven years ago when Grady’s first novel was a sensation and he was, well, a “wonder boy.” What the hell happened to this guy? 

Wonder Boys” is not only one of the finest comedies of the decade, but one of the better films to come out period. Michael Douglas gives what I think may be his finest performance (not at all hyperbole). He is completely natural throughout. He doesn’t look for any laughs…he plays it straight and the laughs simply come. His chemistry with the impressive cast that surrounds him is pitch-perfect, creating a real-life character in this slice-of-life film – a character who we have great sympathy for and laugh at simultaneously. As his agent who is desperate for his client’s new work, Robert Downey, Jr. turns in yet another complex and quirky performance. Tobey Maguire is very funny too as the clearly troubled young writer. His pairing with Tripp makes for a nice father/son combination here. Steve Kloves does a masterful job at adapting from the Michael Chabon novel — very real characters caught in highly compromising situations. This movie is a true winner – smart, impulsive, sweet and really, really funny.

#4. The Invention of Lying (dir. Ricky Gervais & Matthew Robinson)

One of my Top films of 2009, without question — for its intelligent script, non-stop laughs, and terrific cast. Absolute entertainment. The film is set in an illusory world where no one has ever told a lie. That is, until Mark Bellison, a writer who is about to be fired (Ricky Gervais), creates one on the spur of the moment for personal gain. Mark is overweight, under-successful, short and comes from a poor gene pool. He is in love with Anna (Jennifer Garner) who is way out of his league as she is looking for the perfect mate with ideal genes to create perfect, good-looking children without snub noses. Of course Mark begins to take advantage of his discovery little by little until one day, the hospital staff overhear him speaking to his mother on her deathbed as he describes what Heaven is truly like. He’s just making it up as he goes along, but everyone within earshot believes him of course and Mark not only becomes famous, but a prophet of the people as well.

What Gervais and Robinson have created here is one of the better comedies I have seen in years. In its vision and scope, I was constantly reminded of the better films of Albert Brooks and Woody Allen throughout. Gervais gives an endearing, hilarious performance and manages to also include his own personal opinions on God, religion, love and the backwards priorities of our society. An entirely original film, I was blown away at how funny and clever it was. The film also features some great cameo appearances and excellent supporting work from Rob Lowe, Tina Fey, and Jonah Hill. Gervais is certainly making a name for himself here in the States (see “Ghost Town” too)— I only hope that people begin to recognize that this is a major force in comedy now. And not only is this one downright hilarious movie, but on top of that, it has a heart to match.

#3. Wedding Crashers (dir. David Dobkin)

John Beckwith (Owen Wilson) and Jeremy Grey (Vince Vaughn) are best of friends, business partners, and above all, self-confirmed womanizers. They make a habit out of crashing weddings and taking full advantage of all the romance in the air by bedding a gullible, beautiful hottie looking for her slice of the love pie. They even have their own long list of rules to abide by (Rule #1: Never Leave a Fellow Crasher Behind) and as the film begins, the anticipation is in the air because wedding season is just about here.

Chances are you’ve seen this movie already, if not once, then several times. All I know is that if I happen to catch it playing on TV, I can’t take it off. It’s too friggin’ funny and has some wonderful performances in it. Brash, sarcastic, foul, derisive, Vaughn is in top comedic form (“Tattoo on the lower back? Might as well be a bullseye”). His rapport with Wilson is a very strong one and we immediately buy into how close they are as well as when the two have their little break up. How the two scope out, then pounce on their prey is great fun to watch. They’re con men. But they’re not looking for money. They just want to get laid and never see the woman again. That is, until John meets Claire Cleary (Rachel McAdams) at a family wedding as the wedding season is drawing to a close. He is instantly smitten with Claire, who happens to be the daughter of the very influential Treasury Secretary William Cleary (Christopher Walken) and breaks every rule in his Crasher Rulebook in trying to win her heart by attending a weekend party at the Cleary family compound (and dragging his reluctant friend with him). The funny just gets funnier during the weekend with an incredible cast of characters. Walken plays it straight for the most part, but is still such a joy to watch and his relationship with his loving daughter Claire is a very endearing one. Who steals the show here is the dazzling Isla Fisher, who plays Claire’s seemingly unbalanced, sex-crazed sister who falls hard for Jeremy. How Vaughn reacts to and deals with the maniacal Fisher (“I’ll find you!”) makes for some of the funniest moments in the film. Keir O’Donnell plays the son of the renowned politician and is completely creepy, yet we just feel so bad for him. Again, the scenes he has with Vaughn are a riot. Bradley Cooper makes a great bad guy here who we simply cannot stand and Will Ferrell’s mythic Chazz is a great surprise (“hey Mom! Can we get some meatloaf??!!”).

Overall, the general plot is nothing so very new — but it somehow manages to feel fresh and original. It is certainly great entertainment and funny from start to finish. On top of all the laughs, there is also a sweet love story that, although fairly predictable, is still kind of nice to watch. But most of all, it’s a story about friendship — and that resonates throughout. It’s really very hard not to like this one. Without a doubt the funniest film of 2005, and among the funniest in years.

#2. In Bruges (dir. Martin McDonagh)

I am a tremendous fan of Martin McDonagh’s work as a writer for the stage and think he is one of the very best playwrights to come out in recent years. He already won an Oscar for his short film “Six Shooter” and with “In Bruges,” he makes a phenomenally impressive debut as a feature-length writer/director. McDonagh has a real knack for making violence and brutality outrageously funny and this one is quirky as hell, dark and funny…it simply blew me away.

What holds the film together is the friendship between Ray and Ken, two Irish hitmen. The chemistry between Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson is authentic and pleasing to watch as there’s so much going on between the two polar opposites. Farrell’s Ray is young, brash and wants to live it up, while Ken is much more reserved…he is a quiet philosopher and thinks with his upstairs head as opposed to his partner-in-crime, who thinks with the other. But Ray is suicidal and on edge, struggling to come to terms with a previous assignment that went terribly wrong.  They are stuck in the Belgium city of Bruges – sent their by their insane mob Harry Waters (played with delicious cartoon madness by Ralph Fiennes). Because Ray bungled the job, he orders Ken to kill his close associate. So why are they in Bruges? Because Harry, for some reason known only to him, thinks that Bruges is the most magical, heavenly place on earth and wants Ray to see it before he has him killed.

How Ray and Ken deal with being trapped in this city is great fun. Ken wants to see the sights and take it all in, while Ray is just bored to tears. He meets Chloe, who happens to be a thief and a drug dealer, selling drugs to a film crew that is shooting in the city. He then gets mixed up with a Canadian tourist and yes, Chloe’s boyfriend. The film has a terrific pace to it and never lets up. The comedy is in the situations that McDonagh places his characters in and their reactions to everything that goes on around them. McDonagh also has a wonderful ear for dialogue and comedic repartee. It gets pretty violent at times, but you are laughing the whole way through. I remember ranking this the 3rd best film of 2008 and I haven’t met one person who saw this movie that didn’t like it. It’s simply a great film with terrific comedic performances.

#1. Tropic Thunder (dir. Ben Stiller)

In creating this list, I continued to run through each of the comedies I had seen during 2000-2009, and there was not one film I could point out that I thought was funnier or more daring than Ben Stiller’s comedic triumph, “Tropic Thunder.” From its very opening (the hilarious phony movie trailers) til its closing credits (the classic dance sequence done by Tom Cruise as his wonderfully off-putting, foul-mouthed and somewhat nauseating Les Grossman), this film had me rolling. The casting is flawless, the performances all stellar, and the screenplay is satiric, smart and yes, thankfully politically incorrect.

The film follows 5 Hollywood actors as they set out to make the greatest war movie ever made. At the center of this eclectic group is Ben Stiller’s Tugg Speedman, who is  in desperate need of a comeback movie (especially after the joke of a movie that was “Simple Jack“). Robert Downey, Jr. plays multiple Oscar winner and master Australian Thespian (“I don’t drop character till I done the DVD commentary”), Kirk Lazarus who is notorious for always crawling in the skin of the characters he plays and, in playing an African-American soldier here, does so quite literally by undergoing a skin pigmentation process to turn his skin black. He is a wonderful foil to Stiller’s Speedman and their bonding throughout the film — from clashing on the set to true acting colleagues is a fine course to watch. Jack Black plays Jeff Portnoy, a modern-day Fatty Arbuckle who stars in toilet-humor comedies and has a severe drug problem. Jay Baruchel and Brandon T. Jackson round out the platoon, but both do not fall to wayside next to the more well-known comedians. A disheveled Nick Nolte (is there any other kind?) plays the man who wrote the book that the crew is set to film. An honored war veteran and American hero with a big secret, Nolte’s Four Leaf Tayback has hooks for arms and a no-bullshit code of conduct. Steve Coogan plays the man directing the “Tropic Thunder” project and is at a complete loss as to how to handle his star-laden cast. His inspired speech to his cast in the jungle as they set off for the unknown is a great one – before he happens to step on a landmine and his body is splayed across the fields in every which way. In two cameo supporting roles, Matthew McConaughey (who I normally cannot bear to watch) and Tom Cruise simply rock! McConaughey plays Tugg’s agent and closest friend who will do anything for his longtime client. His phone chats with a distant Speedman who is slowly losing his mind while imprisoned by natives are a riot as is his desperate search to get his man a damn Tivo! Cruise steals each scene he is in and I give him full credit for letting it all hang out and just committing to this vile character 100% (“Look, fuckstick, I’m incredibly busy. So why don’t you get the hell out of here before I snap your dick off and jam it into your ass!”). I can’t remember a funnier closing credits than right here. Those moves, those hips, that chest hair! PLAY-AAA!!!

I loved watching all the varied characters do their thing. I loved all of the racial jokes, actor jokes, drug jokes, and yes, the mentally challenged jokes and I credit Ben Stiller for not caving in to public pressure and keeping it all in. I had read that when Downey was offered the role and told what his role would entail, that he thought Stiller was absolutely insane. That usually means you are onto something, and after seeing this film a handful of times, he was. Watching Jack Black tied to a tree and bribing his cast members with oral sex in exchange for drugs is hilarious. On top of that, Downey’s ‘Full retard’ bit is complete insanity. The entire movie is peppered with truly funny lines. Stiller has created a complex, raunchy, intelligent comedy and his direction is spot on. This was a bold and challenging project to be sure, and could have easily gone wrong in so many ways. In Stiller’s capable hands though, he makes what I thought was the funniest damn movie of the decade. Here’s a little Les Grossman for ya:

HONORARY MENTIONS

As I stated in the previous part of this list, there were so many funny comedies that came out during 2000-2009 (much to my surprise). And I had initially started with a Top 10 List, but it just kept growing larger and larger….I finally had to draw the line at 25. In any case, here are some very funny, well-made movies that I truly enjoyed, but did not make the cut. I wish there was room for them all…

Year of the Dog                                                   
Thumbsucker                                                  
Lars & the Real Girl
State and Main
(500) Days of Summer                                 
Bad Santa
Baadasssss!
Team America: World Police                    
You Don’t Mess with the Zohan
Over the Hedge
Stranger Than Fiction                                   
The Hangover
O’ Brother, Where art Thou?
Keeping the Faith
I Love You, Man
Roger Dodger
Borat
Ghost World
Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle
Ghost Town

Peter Eramo’s “Top 25 Comedies of the Decade”: Part Uno

 

So I already composed & posted my “Top 10 Films” of the decade list (2000-2009), and I thought it would be fun to do the top comedy films in that same time frame, being that comedies usually play a backseat to the more dramatic films. I started by wanting to make a simple Top 10 List. The problem was…it was not so simple. Not at all. In doing extensive research on the many comedy films released throughout the decade, there were just too many good comedic films that would not crack the ten available slots. And I didn’t want to leave these films out. So I increased it to twenty slots, and finally, after much struggle and inner debate, settled on a final “Top 25 Comedy Film List” of 2000-2009” which you see right here. Many quality comedies are still (unfortunately) left out, but I had to draw the line somewhere. In creating the list (which I spent much more time than I really should have), I was amazed at how difficult the task was — not only in the selecting of films, but putting them in their respective order. Not an easy feat.

The only stipulation I feel I must add here is that many of the best films of the decade have both comedic and dramatic elements in them (for instance, I included “Sideways,” “Matchstick Men, ” “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” on my Top 10 List of the decade). I suppose it is up to each individual’s interpretation because though these movies certainly have very funny moments in them, I consider them to be more dramatic films. For this particular list, I went with funny…what made me laugh, what was original & unique, what was an overall entertaining and well-made movie. Some may not even be considered to be great movies by most, but again…I went with funny. And if I enjoyed it and it made me laugh, then I surely needed to consider it. Here’s the list. Enjoy!

#25. You Kill Me (dir. John Dahl)

Ben Kingsley plays Frank Falenczyk, a man who loves his job….which is odd since he’s a hit-man for the Polish mob and on top of this, happens to be an alcoholic who botches a critical assignment. He is then ordered to re-locate and clean up his act (against his will). He attends AA meetings, gets a sponsor and lands a job in a mortuary where he meets and falls for Laurel (Tea Leoni), a very intriguing woman with almost no boundaries. This movie has some great dark humor to it and what makes most of the film so funny is that it doesn’t go for the laughs — the script & direction play the entire story straight. Kingsley and Leoni make a wonderful pair here, though you wouldn’t think this to be the case going in. Kingsley is a remarkably gifted thespian and here, he gets to show off his comedic chops playing Frank who is not a touchy, sentimental guy. His transformation from beginning to end is an enjoyable one to watch. A great supporting cast includes Philip Baker HallLuke Wilson (as Frank’s gay sponsor), Bill Pullman and Dennis Farina.  A hidden gem that didn’t get a wide release at all, but absolutely worth seeing. The script is taut, inimitable and unpredictable and beneath the murders, dark themes and substance abuse, there is a heart to it all.

#24. intermission (dir. John Crowley)

An Irish comedy that doesn’t take itself too seriously at all. What we have here is a collection of numerous stories (11, I believe) set in Dublin that stem from one single circumstance: when John (Cillian Murphy) breaks up with Deirdre (Kelly Macdonald) to “give her a little test.” His plan backfires and sets off a constant stream of conflicts & stories concerning all the people around them. One of those people is Lehiff (Colin Farrell), a career criminal working on his next heist and the detective (a very loose and free Colm Meaney) who will stop at nothing to nab him. At its core, “intermission” is a love story, but it brilliantly portrays all of the repercussions surrounding its opening scene and cleverly illustrates how our lives intersect and relate to one another. You get a great sense of the Irish setting and the unique people who inhabit it — a great, diverse collection of characters to watch here. Though it may take some time to adapt to the very thick accents, the film is a non-stop rollercoaster ride, filled with great comedic performances that keeps you on your toes.

#23. Scotland, PA. (dir. Billy Morrissette)

I absolutely love this movie! A modern re-telling of Shakespeare’s classic tragedy, “Macbeth” set in the 1970’s in…you guessed it, Scotland, Pennsylvania. If you’re familiar with the classic play, you will surely get much more out of this ingenious adaptation. If you aren’t into the Bard, I think you’ll still enjoy the film on its own. Hard-working Joe McBeth (James LeGros) works at a hamburger stand with his much more ambitious wife, Pat (the gorgeous Maura Tierney). Pat is convinced that they can do a much better job at running the place than their kind, but short-sighted boss, Norm Duncan (James Rebhorn) and concocts a plan to do away with the owner (a very comedic & clever scene) and take over the establishment. Most of the elements of the “Macbeth” play are here and part of the fun is seeing how Morrissette modernizes it all. The three weird sisters are three pot-smokers who foresee the future with a magic 8-ball, Macduff is re-created into a vegetarian detective (Christopher Walken) investigating the murder, and the connections keep going and going. Maura Tierney is a fantastic Lady Macbeth here — she is smart, sexy and sinfully ambitious (“We’re not bad people, Mac…just underachievers”). Her chemistry with LeGross is terrific and the two have captured the essence of the relationship that was the Macbeths. But more importantly, the film is just downright funny. The soundtrack of 70’s Bad Company tunes throughout fits very well and adds the perfect mood. The eclectic mix of characters in this small town is great fun to watch and seeing how Morrissette gets the most out of the original story with his crazy, dark script and humble setting is pure pleasure.

#22. Zoolander (dir. Ben Stiller)

I am aware of how ridiculously absurd this movie is. That said, I can’t help but find this movie hilariously funny. Ben Stiller plays Derek Zoolander, an incredibly dim-witted fashion model who was once at the pinnacle of the industry and now finds himself fading and at the end of his career. He is brainwashed by the evil fashion guru Mugatu (Will Ferrell) to kill the Prime Minister of Malaysia – so no, the film doesn’t take itself seriously at all. Owen Wilson plays Hansel, Zoolander’s chief competition and the fashion industry’s next hot model, usurping Zoolander of his title. The rivalry here is great fun to watch and Stiller and Wilson, we know, work well together. Stiller has created a very engaging character here too — from his walk, to his speech to his contorted facial expressions…he truly does something entirely different. There are some amusing cameos and most of the laughs stem from a combination of Zoolander’s complete stupidity, his obscene vanity and childish vulnerability. His budding romance with Matilda (Christine Taylor) gives the movie its love story, which has its own unusual arc. His “Derek Zoolander Center For Kids Who Can’t Read Good And Wanna Learn To Do Other Stuff Good Too” always makes me laugh, as does the infamous “Walk Off” scene. The one-liners and outlandish, silly scenes are relentless — but in the end, it delivers what it sets out to do and that is make us laugh. For serious!

#21. Old School (dir. Todd Phillips)

Three men who aren’t feeling so great about their personal lives all try to recapture their youth and re-live their wild college days. The catalyst for the insanity that ensues is when Mitch discovers his nymphomaniac girlfriend cheating on him. He finds a new home and his friend Beanie thinks it would be a great idea if they turned it into a frat house. You probably know what happens next. Vince Vaughn, Luke Wilson and Will Ferrell make a riotous trio and all are great fun to watch. Ferrell is usually more effective in a supporting role and here, he makes the most out of playing “The Tank,” a man who was once considered a party animal and is now struggling with the obligations of marriage and the mundane life that sometimes comes with it. His “trust tree” scene with his wife while in therapy is hysterical. Jeremy Piven plays their nemesis well — the longtime nerd who is now Dean of the college and has it in for the popular threesome. This is all-out comedy with a slice of romantic subplot thrown in for good measure. Vince Vaughn is as sarcastic and dry as ever and the whole “ear muffs” thing gets me every time as does Kansas’ “Dust in the Wind” to Blue’s passing (“You’re my boy, Blue!”). Great, raunchy fun that doesn’t seem to tire on repeat viewings. Had to find room for this one some way.

#20. Superbad (dir. Greg Mottola)

A filthy, warped, and at times sweet coming-of-age movie in the same way as the original “American Pie” was in the previous decade as it focuses on a trio of male friends who are preparing to start their college careers come the end of summer. Well, they aren’t doing much preparing, to be honest. The main goal for these boys is to get laid. Half the teen dialogue here revolves around either booze or getting laid. Seth and Evan (Jonah Hill and Michael Cera) are best friends who have known each other their entire lives. They luck into getting an invite to a huge party and want to make sure to bring enough liquor to get the gals trashed, thereby having their first sexual experience. They bully their good friend Fogell (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) into using his new fake ID to purchase the booze and that’s when everything goes nutty. Fogell falls in with two completely inept cops (Seth Rogen and Bill Hader) while Seth and Evan get separated and map out their own routes to the big party. Mintz-Plasse steals the show here with his wonderfully dorky McLovin character. Some of the funniest scenes are when he gets his groove on, when he’s in bed with a good-looking girl (“I got a boner!”) and when he mimics his machismo. The friendship between Hill and Cera is a very believable one and the separation anxiety between the two continues to build throughout. On the surface, “Superbad” is a perverse, foul-mouthed movie with a lot of laughs. Beneath, there is an intelligence and warmth to it all, focusing on the close bonds between friendships that will not be forgotten.

#19. The Amateurs (dir. Michael Traeger)

Before “Zack & Miri Make A Porno” there was this movie. This one has the better cast, the more original script and most importantly, more laughs. Andy (the ever-talented Jeff Bridges) is a weekend dad who is experiencing a mid-life crisis and is tired of not getting ahead in life. He comes up with the most unconventional, most insane idea this small town has ever heard — he and any citizens who want to join his merry, independent production company are going to make their own full-length adult film! “The Amateurs” is a small film that not many have heard of, let alone seen and with the cast assembled, that is such a surprise to me. Ted Dansen (who gives an impressive comedic performance), William Fichtner, Tim Blake Nelson, Glenne Headly, Joe Pantoliano and the radiant Lauren Graham highlight this delightful film. Bridges is the core here…the ultimate dreamer and he’s the one who has to convince the others to invest their hard-earned money into this crazy scheme. From there, it’s all about who is going to play what role in the making of this movie (in front of or behind the camera). For instance Pantoliano’s ‘Some Idiot’ (that’s what everyone calls him) wants to write and direct the movie. Andy and his pals try to recruit as many village people as they can to help in the making of this adult film and much of the laughter stems from this. Overall, the film is very sweet and tremendously entertaining. Jeff Bridges can do just about anything and anyone who knows “The Dude” knows that comedy is surely one of those things. If you’re looking to rent a movie and in the mood to laugh, I would strongly suggest giving this little unknown movie a watch.

#18. Fantastic Mr. Fox (dir. Wes Anderson)

I’m not much of a fan of Anderson’s work & I didn’t expect much going in to this one, but I laughed out loud throughout this wonderfully written, and at times profound movie based on the Roald Dahl classic story. A terrific ensemble cast lend their vocal talents and is surely entertaining for kids & adults alike. To read my full review of this very witty film, click here.

#17. 50 First Dates (dir. Peter Segal)

Fearful of commitment, Henry Roth (Adam Sandler) is a veterinarian based in Hawaii who lusts after all of the beautiful tourists who come by for fun-in-the-sun, no-strings attachments. He suddenly meets Lucy (Drew Barrymore) and thinks he has finally found the woman of his dreams. The catch? She has short-term memory loss and forgets who the hell he is the very next day. A clever premise with some resemblances to “Groundhog Day,” but stands by itself quite admirably. A very sweet and endearing romantic comedy that actually does not insult the audience and, with Sandler at the center, is very amusing throughout. Henry must repeatedly make Lucy fall in love with him with each passing sunrise, which makes for some great comic moments in itself. Rob Schneider, Blake Clark, and Dan Aykroyd have some funny moments in supporting roles and the scenes with Henry’s foreign female co-worker are pretty hilarious too. Most romantic comedies I was thinking about for this list were more cute and sweet, with touches of comedy here and there (the very charming “Serendipity” comes to mind as a perfect example), but “50 First Dates” stands out because it never forgets that it is a comedy and the premise alone allows for some great opportunities for originality and humor. Sandler makes a charming leading man and Barrymore does her usual thing, but here she is stretched a bit more than usual. We like her character and her illness makes her all the more endearing. A truly original romantic comedy — with a lot of laughs.

#16. High Fidelity (dir. Stephen Frears)

What is it about John Cusack that we like him so much, especially as a romatic-comedy lead? He is charming, self-deprecating, sweet…just, you know, a nice guy! There always seems to be a little hint of Lloyd Dobler in each of his characters…the dreamer, the philosopher, the romantic; it’s as if we can still see him holding a radio atop his head blasting the tunes of Peter Gabriel. Based on the Nick Hornby novel, “High Fidelity” is another rare romantic comedy that makes this prestigious list. Cusack plays Rob Gordon, a 30’s-something record-store owner and compulsive list-maker (like me!). Here, he is recounting for us, the audience (the breaking of the fourth wall works extremely well here and Cusack is so damn good at it) his Top 5 break-ups, which includes the one in progress to Laura (Iben Hjejle), who he considers to be his all-time true love and tries desperately to get back together with. When we aren’t watching Rob’s fruitless attempts to win Laura back, we are at the record store watching Rob and his two socially inept co-workers (Jack Black and Todd Louiso). Black wasn’t the star he is at this time and here in a smaller role, he truly shines (especially in his rendition of “Try A Little Tenderness“). There are some very funny male bonding moments in the store (speaking to us, Rob says of his assistants, “I can’t fire them. I hired these guys for three days a week and they just started showing up every day. That was four years ago”). We also have Tim Robbins who is ridiculous (in a good way) as Laura’s new-age lover Ian, who Rob of course cannot stand. As always, we root for Cusack to win back the girl and we laugh at the way he over-analyzes himself and the situation at hand. The film shows a great appreciation for music and is a love story told from the guy’s point-of-view, which I can appreciate. Cusack is near perfect here and funny as hell. He opines to us:  “John Dillinger was killed behind that theater in a hail of FBI gunfire. And do you know who tipped them off? His fucking girlfriend. All he wanted to do was go to the movies.” It’s just a great screenplay. I know many have already seen this one, but do yourselves a favor if it has been awhile…see it again. Right away.

That’s the first 10 comedies to make the list. In the next few days, I will make sure to post the remaining films, (#15 – #1). As always, please feel free to leave me your comments – what you think should be included, which have no business being here, and those rare times when you feel that my thinking is actually right on.

The Top 10 Films of Woody Allen

He’s been directing films since 1969 (debuting with the hysterically funny “Take the Money & Run“) — about 40 in all. Some are modern-day classics, some very good, others not so great, and then there are those handful of films that were, well, just hard to stomach. I have remained a loyal, ardent fan of his short stories, plays and films for years. When there is a new Woody Allen film, I will most surely go out and pay my $10 to see it. Here is (for better or worse) my Top 10 Woody Allen Films of All-Time; a very difficult list to put together, I assure you. I desperately tried to squeak “Deconstructing Harry” or “Take the Money…” in there, but alas, ten spots goes pretty quickly. All ten films are outstanding in their own ways. Give it a read — and please make sure to let me know what you think…where you agree, where I was led astray and anything else you might like to add. Your comments are always welcome. Enjoy!

10. SWEET AND LOWDOWN (1999)

In my opinion, the last film of Woody’s that I can actually classify as “great.” A great mix of comedy and drama in this one with Sean Penn in the lead role as Emmet Ray, the world’s second greatest guitar player behind Django Reinhardt. Unlike most actors who take on the male lead when Woody takes a backseat, Penn does his own thing; not becoming the typical Woody-archetype (the perfect example being Kenneth Branagh basically mimicking Woody throughout the dreadful “Celebrity“) – and he is nothing less than sensational, giving one of his best performances in a career filled with so much strong work. In Emmet Ray, Penn creates a despicable, immature, conceited, narcissistic, rude human being who cares about nothing but his music – and Django Reinhardt. When he meets Hattie, a mute, simple gal, his life is turned upside down. As Hattie, Samantha Morton breaks your heart. She is simply adorable here and without saying one word through the entire film, earned a well-deserved Oscar nomination. She matches Penn in each scene they share merely with her body language and facial reactions. Two great actors here and it is so enjoyable (though at times painful because of how Ray treats her) to watch.

The music used throughout the film is sensational – one of Woody’s best compilations. I never get tired of the soundtrack. Another period piece, the look and feel (from art direction to costumes) is wholly authentic. A smart, insightful script by Allen. In the end, this comedic “biography” plays out like a tragedy. One of the definitions of the tragic hero is that he/she brings about his/her own downfall. Here, we watch as Emmet Ray does just that. And as miserable as he is, we still have compassion for him throughout – a testament to the work of Sean Penn here under Woody’s subtle direction. It is tough to make a top ten list of Woody’s films without trying to make a spot for this winning film.

9. INTERIORS (1978)

Following the phenomenal success that was “Annie Hall” came this film, Woody’s first entirely dramatic film, sans any humor really at all. In fact, during a dinner scene when the characters are all laughing at a joke, we never even get to hear the actual joke. Another note: this is the first film Allen directed in which he did not act in at all.

Of all his films, this is the one that most resembles that of Ingmar Bergman – in theme, story and how it is shot (by his longtime collaborator, Gordon Willis). The entire film takes on a very somber, pragmatic aura. Arthur (E.G. Marshall) decides to leave his overbearing wife (Geraldine Page). The three daughters must now come to terms with this as they also come to terms with their own lives and their own relationships with one another. The family is an artistic one: one daughter is an actress, the other a successful writer and the third, is trying desperately to find her artistic niche. Diane Keaton, Mary Beth Hurt and Kristin Griffith play the trio of sisters. Geraldine Page as Eve sparkles in this very demanding role of the matriarch of this dysfunctional family. She is the nucleus of this film. Maureen Stapleton is great comic relief (if you can call it that) and she brings great life and color to this otherwise bland, upper-class, eastern Long Island existence.

Though nominated for 5 Oscars, the film is not for everybody. In fact, I would only recommend this one to devout fans of Woody Allen. I surely wouldn’t cite this film for someone to watch if he/she was just starting to view his films. I look at this particular work and appreciate, admire and enjoy it. After churning out those “early, funny” movies, this was quite a daring move. And the performances here are bold and strong. I admit, I need to be in a certain mood to watch this one, but it does truly stand out as one of his finest, most mature efforts.

8. LOVE AND DEATH (1975)

Classic early Woody Allen comedy and one-liners here. Filmed mostly in Hungary, the film revolves around the ultimate coward, Boris Grushenko (Woody Allen) being forced to enlist to save his country from an invasion by Napoleon himself. Most improbably, Boris becomes a war hero and he may now finally make for an ideal partner for Sonja, the woman of his dreams (Diane Keaton), who always preferred his brother Ivan to him. The film is filled with timeless banter between Keaton and Allen here – such a pleasure to watch. When Sonja finally relents to Boris’s proposals, she convinces him to help her assassinate the French dictator.

In addition to some very clear references to Ingmar Bergman’s Persona” (the camera angles of various close-ups during the infamous “Wheat” scene) and Dostoyevsky’s works, Woody is his hilarious, incompetent, psycho-babble self. When the Countess tells him he is the greatest lover she has ever had, Boris deadpans, “Well, I practice a lot when I am alone.” Nothing cracks you up like a primo masturbation joke. The blithe music of Prokofiev works well here and the script harkens back to Allen’s earlier prose tackling such subjects as love, loyalty, fear of death, honor, and morality (“If it turns out that there IS a God, I don’t think that he’s evil. I think that the worst you can say about him is that basically he’s an underachiever”). Like his prose, Allen manages to face such profound themes by way of slapstick and comedy. A wonderful comedy and a pleasure to watch anytime.

7. THE PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO (1985)

Woody has said on a number of occasions that this was his personal favorite of all his movies. If nothing else, it may certainly be the most original and compelling, simply for the premise alone: Set in New Jersey during the Great Depression, Cecilia (Mia Farrow) needs an escape. An escape from her tedious job as a waitress and from her abusive husband, Monk (a nasty Danny Aiello). She goes to the movies. Here she sees the handsome and enchanting Tom Baxter (Jeff Daniels) in the film “The Purple Rose of Cairo.” She goes again and again until one day…Tom just walks off the screen – and into Cecilia’s life. There is a problem though: Tom is not…you know, real! While Cecilia and Tom begin their own fascinating relationship, Hollywood execs are furious as they discover that Tom Baxters across the country are leaving their own movie screens. This is amazing stuff — what more can you ask for?!

Woody’s period pieces always feel quite authentic and this one is no exception. He has always written wonderful, 3-dimensional dialogue for women – again, this film does not disappoint. Jeff Daniels plays the 1930’s movie star with pizzazz, dignity and good humor. Things really get interesting when he begins to realize that this very real world is different than the imaginary one he just escaped from. There is also some very funny banter between the characters on screen waiting to see if Tom will return to them so they can get on with their own (movie within a) movie. An ingenious screenplay with a tremendous heart, this one goes right at #7, though I can fully understand why Woody himself places it at the apex of all his work.

6. BROADWAY DANNY ROSE (1984)

There are the films known as Woody’s old, ridiculous comedies (“Sleeper,” “Bananas,” “Everything You Always wanted to Know About Sex…” etc.). Then he began getting a bit more dramatic. And then he went back to full-out comedy with this delightful and uproarious black-and-white film. Now for many, you either love Woody’s humor or you don’t. Not much room in between. He certainly is an “acquired taste” and has his own style/brand of humor. But if you like his comedy and haven’t seen this one yet – do yourself a favor and go rent it…now!

Woody plays Danny Rose, a very unsuccessful talent agent with a heart of gold. He goes above and beyond for his bizarre list of clientele. His one big client is Lou Canova (Nick Apollo Forte), who stays with Danny more out of loyalty than anything else. Canova hasn’t been big for quite some time, but now has a chance of making a tremendous comeback that would pay off for both. He asks Danny Rose to do him a huge favor…make sure his mistress Tina (Mia Farrow) is there to see him perform at a very important concert. Canova is married, so Danny and Tina must play off like they lovers. What happens from there is great comedy from Woody – original and warm…downright hilarious stuff. This makes the final scenes between Tina and Danny so effective…it really does hit you in the gut.

Woody’s comedic acting chops shine here. And Farrow, as the Italian broad is equal to the task. Woody has made a career out of playing the “loser” type who is down on his luck. Danny Rose is the epitome of this model, but we sympathize with this character 100%. The Thanksgiving Day dinner scene is a sad, tender one. His advice to his pathetic clients is classic Woody and him trying to get them work is even more hilarious. When trying to get a booking for an unimpressive client, Danny says, “My hand to God, she’s gonna be at Carnegie Hall. But you – I’ll let you have her now at the old price, OK? Which is anything you wanna give me. Anything at all.” Great stuff.

The film though belongs to the adventure that Tina and Danny go through. The helium balloon scene by itself is classic. In a new age of comedy films (either Judd Apatow, teen comedy flicks, Tyler Perry, et al), none of them measure up to this comedic classic…not to me at least. This stands as one of Woody’s best.

5. HUSBANDS AND WIVES (1992)

In the wake of Woody’s well-publicized scandal of a break-up with longtime companion Mia Farrow came this harsh, raw and wonderful film in 1992. Woody has admitted that he wanted to break the traditional rules of filmmaking here and he does so, using hand-held cameras, breaking up scenes in the middle of dialogue and not caring one way or another if the camera was on the front, side or back of the head of a particular character on screen. It does have the style and feel of a pseudo-documentary, complete with narration given by the film’s costume designer, Jeffrey Kurland.

The film opens with Sally and Jack (Judy Davis and Sydney Pollack) announcing to their best friends Gabe and Judy (Woody and Mia Farrow) that they are separating. Jack has taken a much younger lover who may be too much too handle for Jack – and yes, perhaps a little too dumb as well. Judy is way too highbrow for this sort of thing, but she does try to get back out in the dating world once again, even if her prime years are long behind her. Gabe and Judy have the seemingly perfect marriage at the film’s onset. But Allen here delves into and analyzes the long-term effects of being with the same person for years on end. And if you are aware of his works, you know that it won’t end well. Gabe is a college professor and he is soon tempted by a young, fawning, overly-sexed student (Juliette Lewis) that threatens to break up Gabe’s stable world.

I loved this film. I loved how Allen shot it, though many have told me that the constant camera movement made them somewhat nauseous. All of the actors are at the top of their games here. I am not a Mia Farrow fan at all and never thought she made much of an ingénue for Allen (unlike the ever-stronger Diane Keaton) throughout the course of their longtime collaboration, but here she does an admirable job. The wonderful filmmaker Sydney Pollack is very strong here and is quite natural in front of the camera, at odds with his wife and opening up to his close friend, Gabe. Juliette Lewis plays Rain with a very Lolita-like air and is a natural for the role (though she was not Allen’s initial choice). Liam Neeson has a great supporting role here too – he is low-key, polite, charming and stuck in the middle of the chaos that surrounds both Sally and Judy.

This film is unlike most in Allen’s canon of films and that is part of the reason I find it such a great watch. He doesn’t stray from familiar ground very often, so when he does, I am excited for the freshness of it all. Sometimes it doesn’t work. Sometimes, as in this instance, it certainly does.

4. HANNAH AND HER SISTERS (1986)

Woody has said that he was re-reading Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina” and was inspired to write this marvelous, enjoyable film. The film spans one full year, opening on Thanksgiving Day and closes at a dinner party on the very same day. I know Woody always manages to recruit an all-star cast, but of all his films, this one feels most like an ensemble film, with no one really taking the lead, but everyone playing an integral role in the story – and doing a damn fine job of it as well (including Michael Caine and Dianne Weist who each won a Supporting Actor Oscar for their respective roles here). Caine is amusing as the conflicted & unscrupulous Elliot, who cheats on his wife – with her sister Lee (Barabara Hershey) who he is absolutely crazy for and woos with the same gusto as a high school sophomore. Weist is out of control and steals every scene she is in – she is dangerous on the outside, but vulnerable and insecure beneath. Mia Farrow does a fine job as Hannah — the glue that holds the cast together. Max Von Sydow plays the reclusive Frederick and it is great to see him here working with Woody, who is an unabashed Ingmar Bergman fan, so that comes full circle. Von Sydow’s scene with his lover Lee is one of the films highlights. If any character is the outsider here, it is Woody himself. He plays Hannah’s (Mia Farrow) ex-husband, Mickey. They are on friendly terms. Mickey impulsively quits his job to find out what the meaning of life is after he realizes that he is not dying of a brain tumor – a theme that occurs repeatedly in the Allen oeuvre. Unlike most of Allen’s films, this one has a rather upbeat, optimistic ending that goes along with the Thanksgiving Day spirit that the film ends with. Allen explores the topics of religion/faith, love, family, and adultery (as always), but it doesn’t get very heavy as in some of his other films…this one seems more light, more airy – with great music and great one-liners (“And Nietzsche, with his theory of eternal recurrence. He said that the life we lived we’re gonna live over again the exact same way for eternity. Great. That means I’ll have to sit through the Ice Capades again.”) For someone who is not familiar with the work of Woody Allen or told me they weren’t crazy about him, this is the first film I would show him/her – it’s that much of a crowd pleaser.

3. MANHATTAN (1979)

Gorgeous to watch from the very beginning in its glorious black-and-white photography set to the music of George Gershwin. Woody is the consummate New York film director…always has been. The sights, sounds and beauty of New York City resonate in his films. This one may be the hallmark of all that. This was Woody’s first film shot using the widescreen anamorphic Panavision process and he disliked the work here so much that he offered to direct another picture for United Artists for free if they just shelved this one permanently. Thank God they didn’t listen to him, as this one ranks right up there with Woody’s best films. Made just two years after “Annie Hall,” we are again treated to the wonderful on-screen chemistry of Allen and Keaton. Isaac (Allen) is experiencing a mid-life crisis and has been dating Tracy (Mariel Hemingway), who is still in high school. He knows that the relationship can’t progress much further and he is embarrassed to take her out in the professional public. Perhaps she is the safe choice to roll around with after taking a beating from his ex-wife turned lesbian Jill (Meryl Streep) who is in the midst of writing a tell-all book about her marriage to the narcissistic Isaac (“I came here to strangle you!” Isaac barks at her). He meets Mary (Keaton) and is immediately smitten. Mary is dating Isaac’s best friend Yale (Michael Murphy). But Yale is married and is never going to leave his wife. Yale gives his Isaac permission to take his mistress out. Isaac does so and immediately falls head over heels in love with her, ditching the sweet-natured, lovable, and loyal Tracy. But – is this the right decision? Streep is terrific as the ex-wife – strong, quick-witted and bitter. Hemingway makes a perfect Tracey and we absolutely want to comfort her when Isaac gives her the bad news or when he patronizes her with her age throughout. Murphy is a great counterpart to Woody here and we can’t stand him for being such a bad friend. Diane Keaton sheds the Annie Hall aura and plays the cerebral, self-confident and urbane Mary. She does a marvelous job and as always, is a delight to watch. A classic Woody scene comes when he is sprawled out on the couch alone, speaking into his tape recorder and answering the question “Why is life worth living?” Uproariously funny, and at times, quite touching, this is a wonderful love letter to the city the filmmaker loves and a picture to relish in with each and every viewing.

2. ANNIE HALL (1977)

A staple in the annals of film history, “Annie Hall” is one of the great films in motion picture history. Period. Ironically, it is viewed as one of the greatest comedies ever made, but the film was indeed a major turning point for Allen as a filmmaker, as it instilled so much drama and serious themes that he had not yet delved into. Diane Keaton (as Annie Hall) created one of the silver screen’s most memorable and beloved characters ever here…she was without a doubt, the perfect yin to Woody’s yang. To this day, she remains one of my most favorite actresses simply because of her portrayal of Annie. What can I say? I love her! Here, she is flaky, quirky, lovable, sweet, innocent, strong and funny. The hat, the tie, that vest? Lah-di-Dah, Lah-di-Dah…She’s a dream. And I cannot get enough of Woody’s Alvy Singer. I love his reactions to things around him, his disgust at others, his paranoia, his egotism…and of course, his revulsion to any and all things on the West Coast. The chemistry between the two (dating back to “Sleeper” and “Love and Death”) is one of film’s greatest duos – not to be overlooked by other classic onscreen couples. And here, everything that happens (big and small) between the two is just so real – things every couple goes through (click on the poignant and comical “Spider in the Bathroom” scene below and you’ll understand exactly what I mean here). Again, some wonderful one-liners (“That’s ok…we can walk to the curb from here”), great characters, terrific performances (Colleen Dewhurst, a doting Carol Kane, a suicidal Christopher Walken, a pretentious Shelley Duvall)…winner of the Oscar for Best Picture of 1977, it deserves every bit of acclaim it has ever received. I can watch it anytime and have seen it more times than I care to admit. At its core, it is a typical New York love story: boy meets girl, boy and girl fall in love, boy and girl realize that they are “a dead shark” and break up. It doesn’t sound like much – but with the phenomenally woven script, the delicate direction and our two lead actors – it is one of cinema’s greatest films ever.

1. CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS (1989)

To date, this is Woody Allen’s masterpiece. A perfect fusion of old-style Woody comedy (Woody’s plot line) and Bergman-esque calamity (Martin Landau’s story). Obviously inspired by the seminal themes of Dostoyevsky’s “Crime and Punishment,” Woody would later re-visit these same themes in his latter films with much less of an impact. Here, it is done perfectly. Martin Landau is sensational as the married man (a highly respected opthalmologist) who gives in to temptation (Angelica Huston, who plays her character with such desperation, we can’t help but empathize with her) and then wants the easy out. Alan Alda is deliciously snooty and patronizing as Woody’s brother-in-law and Sam Waterston as the blind rabbi brings a “moral structure” to the narrative. There are some classic Woody one-liners here, some profound symbolism sprinkled throughout and it all is woven together so beautifully when Woody and Landau meet one another near the very end of the film.

Woody here plays his classic loser character making documentary films that no one wants to see – and his scenes with Joanna Gleason and Alda are filled with timeless dialogue. He agrees to make a documentary of Alda’s character in order to pay for the much smaller documentary on spirituality he is trying to make. In the process, he falls in love with the TV producer (Mia Farrow), but he’s already in a marriage with a wife who can’t stand him anymore — plus, Alda’s character wants her for himself! Woody has always grappled with the heavy themes of faith in God, truth, deception, love and betrayal, redemption and forgiveness — but he has never done so in such an intense and insightful manner than he does right here. Hysterical and haunting at the same time, “Crimes and Misdemeanors” is a modern-day classic film of the highest order. Woody truly outdid himself here.

THE BOTTOM FIVE (or “Ones To Stay Away From”)

1. Anything Else (2003)
2. Celebrity (1998)
3. The Curse of the Jade Scorpion (2001)
4. Scoop (2006)
5. Shadows and Fog (1991)

%d bloggers like this: