Gimme 5: Favorite Spielberg Movies!

Yesterday, I did a write-up on Steven Spielberg’s 2005 film, Munich, which I consider to be his most daring, most mature work to date. But that’s just me. Part of the reason I started this website is to have a dialogue with other movie lovers, getting your thoughts and opinions on the world of movies. So piggy-backing on yesterday’s post, I thought it would interesting to see what your favorite Spielberg films are. Next year will be his 40th year making feature-length films and though he seems to have done it all, I tend to dismiss him when I am speaking of our most accomplished directors. I really shouldn’t considering his tremendous canon of work…from worldwide special effects blockbusters such as Jurassic Park to the more intimate, “smaller” films like The Color Purple, he has done it all and his films will be remembered for as long as there are movies. If you need to refresh your memory on his extensive resume, just click here for his IMDb page and take a peek. You want to choose a film that he produced, that’s fine too…it’s up to you. Just join in, that’s all I ask! 

‘GIMME 5’ of Your Favorite Spielberg Movies!!!

Here’s My 5:

#1. Munich (click here for my reasoning)
#2. Schindler’s List
(I think I can watch this anytime – a colossal achievement)
#3. Raiders of the Lost Ark
(I still remember coming home from that movie at age 10, mesmerized)
#4. E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial
(Come on…who doesn’t love this film???)
#5. The Terminal
(I absolutely adore this little movie. And Tom Hanks rocks in it!)

Now It’s YOUR Turn!!!

Film Flashback: Spielberg’s Most Courageous Work?

I remember seeing the movie back in 2005, thinking it was perhaps his strongest work to date as a filmmaker. Screening it again this week only helped to cement my initial reaction of it as being a truly remarkable film. And although it may not be his “greatest” achievement (there is a little film called Schindler’s List that many have ranked among the greatest films ever made), the historical fiction film Munich is, in my estimation, Steven Spielberg’s most daring, most courageous work thus far.

Based on the book, Vengeance by journalist George Jonas, the film tells the story of the Israeli government’s secret retaliatory attacks after the massacre of 11 Israeli athletes by Black September militants at the 1972 Summer Olympics. The film focuses on Avner Kaufman (Eric Bana, in an extraordinary performance), an Israeli-born Mossad agent of German descent who leads a team of four other men to hunt down and assassinate 11 Palestinian men who are believed to have taken some part in the slaughters at the Olympic games. “Forget peace for now, ” says Israel’s Prime Minister Golda Meir. “We have to show them we’re strong.” Though Kaufman’s wife is 7 months pregnant with their first child, he takes on the mission and is prepped for the operation by his contact man, Ephraim (Geoffrey Rush). Kaufman’s squad operates with absolutely no ties to the government of Israel — everything they do, is done covertly…without any traces. It is as if Kaufman and his men don’t even exist. And…they don’t.

I know that Spielberg caught a bit of flack when this film was released for its approach to the controversial subject matter. But he wasn’t making a documentary — the beginning states “inspired” by true events and he and his creative team take full advantage of having creative license. Certain elements are based on fact — there’s no question about that and those events are indisputable. But of course there is no way to be completely accurate with all the who’s, how’s and where’s of it all and Spielberg tells the story of this particular Israeli vengeance squad in his own way. The first thing he nailed was getting the perfect writers to adapt the book in award-winning playwright Tony Kushner and Eric Roth. It is an astounding script filled with compelling characters, suspense and intelligent dialogue.  It forces us to consider profound questions on one’s morality, retaliation, family, patriotism and yes, our very souls. John Williams, who has been a long-time collaborator with Spielberg, composes a magnificently haunting score; one that sounds unlike anything he has previously done. Michael Kahn’s editing keeps the lengthy film moving at a quick pace; creating great suspense when needed and going back and forth in time to the night of the Olympic murders. Also, we are accustomed to how visually stunning Spielberg’s films are and one of the main reasons for this is his longtime cinematographer, Janusz Kaminski. His work on this film is no exception — one glorious image after another.

PARTICULAR THINGS I LOVE ABOUT THE FILM:

  • How Spielberg captures the chaos on the evening that the 11 Israeli athletes are killed.  The swarming media coverage of the hostage situation is so dramatically orchestrated here. In fact, Spielberg doesn’t even show us what happens until a bit later, when Kaufman (Bana) is aboard a plane and he looks out the window. A very nice touch indeed.
  • The intermittent moments of humor. Though heavy in subject matter, there are some tender and funny moments that allow us to breathe a bit in between all of the more difficult moments. The battle over the radio in the Safehouse that Steve (Daniel Craig) has, and in particular, some of the moments that Kaufman has with his wife are very playful. At one point, he opens up to her by telling her she is the only home he has ever known. She replies, “This is so corny,” leaving Kaufman wounded, telling her that it wasn’t easy for him to say in the first place. OK, it doesn’t read as funny, but it brought a smile to my face…you have to simply see it.
  • The level of humanity illustrated throughout, no matter if the character is Israeli or Arab. Like many of Spielberg’s films, Munich is dripping with humanity. It doesn’t preach to its viewer and doesn’t tell you how to think. Spielberg’s message is a more subtle one. He even makes sure to depict the people on Kaufman’s “hit list” with a sense of compassion before his team assassinates them — their first target, for example, they find in Rome. He is living a poor life as a poet, conducting a reading in the streets to a small, modest crowd. A bomb is planted inside the home telephone of their second target. Spielberg makes sure to show us the young daughter of the target running back inside the home, then answering the ringing phone. It is a beautifully filmed sequence that grows more tense with each passing shot as we are not sure if the bomb will go off with the daughter inside the house or not. Another striking moment is Kaufman’s own reaction on the telephone when he first hears his baby daughter speak. Bana’s immediate reaction breaks your heart as he tells her from thousands of miles away, “This is what I sound like. Don’t forget…” Another, more subtle example is when the team is deciding whether to leave the robe of a beautiful Dutch contract killer open, exposing her naked body, or not, as she lies in a chair, lifeless.
  • The cast is simply tremendous. Bana is really the only big star here (remember, Daniel Craig wasn’t as big at the time of filming as he surely is today) and he has never been stronger. Ciarán Hinds is especially impressive as a former Israeli soldier, now “cleaner.” Mathieu Kassovitz plays Robert, a toy maker who has been trained in explosives. After so many missions, Robert questions the morality of what they have been doing and cannot bring himself continue. Both Hinds and Kassovitz turn in powerhouse performances. Mathieu Amalric (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) is wonderfully engaging as Kaufman’s informant and the meetings that the two have together make for great drama. And Geoffrey Rush, as always, gives a solid performance. Here though, he seems like the only character without much humanity and we grow more frustrated with him every time he meets with Kaufman. The entire cast, as a whole, is remarkable — all fitting their parts in ideal fashion.
  • The wonderful scene with Prime Minister Golda Meir (Lynn Cohen) where they are deciding on how best to respond to the horrors at Munich. Cohen is sensational — strong and commands the attention of the men around her. She has one scene in the film, but you don’t forget it any time soon.

I love the questions this film raises. Near the end, when Avner Kaufman is home in New York with his family, he asks Ephraim, “Did I commit murder?” The killings have been haunting him and keeping him up at night. He wants tangible evidence that these 11 men that they targeted for killing had a hand in the Munich massacre. He needs to know that it was not all in vain — that it stood for something, meant something. But really, Spielberg does a brilliant job at hinting towards the notion that, in some ways, it is all fruitless, futile. That the killings will continue. One eye will be taken and another eye taken for the loss of that. And on and on it goes…years, decades, centuries. Spielberg opens up a tremendous dialogue here — he doesn’t give answers; he merely poses the questions.

And for a film that takes a long, hard look on terrorism and retaliatory terrorist attacks, how fitting it was for Spielberg’s last shot to show the New York City skyline, with the towers of the World Trade Center standing strong and proud in the distance. Nice touch. Brilliant film. His bravest so far to date.

“Films That Defined Us!” Blog Event

Marc — who writes for one of my favorite film blogs Go, See, Talk! — is hosting a Blog Event that will post on his site this Friday, August 13th and he was kind enough to invite me to participate. The event is called Films That Defined Us and film writers from all over are taking part to list those movies that we saw at a relatively young age and helped to define our movie tastes. These are movies that, to quote Marc, really “set the bar” for us and made a lasting impression in our lives.

I came up with my own personal list of 5 films (in no particular order here) that have surely been essential works of art for me as a movie lover and have certainly been proud staples of any movie collection I have ever had. For those who know me, I’m afraid none of these will come as much of a surprise to you. For my film blogging amigos, hopefully this will achieve Marc’s objective in letting us see what makes each of us tick. After much thought and deliberation, here are 5 Movies That Surely Have Defined Me:

#1. Annie Hall (dir. Woody Allen)

I didn’t get into Woody Allen until later on…around high school. Then I began to devour all of his prose with friends at a local diner, see all of his movies, read film analysis on him. In doing so, this film sadly became my life’s anthem, through no fault of my own. Whenever someone needs to “understand me” better, I tell them to just watch this classic dramedy and they always come back lamentably with, “Oh…now I get it.” This is the consummate Woody Allen film — the colossal turning point for him as a filmmaker. It features Diane Keaton who is heavenly in this movie; she created one of film’s most memorable characters here. It is a profound movie in terms of how it addresses relationships – it makes you laugh out loud one moment and feel sadness the next. I have seen this movie more times than I care to admit over the past 20 years and it never gets dull for me. As far as comedies go, this one stands the test of time and truly set the bar for all of the newer comedies being released this past decade — all films that pale in comparison to Woody when he was at his peak.

#2. The Godfather (dir. Francis Ford Coppola)

My family never really raised me on movies or got me into watching films, though I wish they had. But one film that I do remember watching with my parents when I was younger was Coppola’s seminal tour de force whenever it would play on TV. I come from an Italian-American family, so I think that certainly played a part in their excitement in watching this film and explaining it to me when I was too young to actually absorb it all. To this day, so many years later, the first two Godfather films are my two favorite films of all-time and I think my early memories of watching them with my parents play a small part in that. To me, this is a perfect film with unbelievable performances across the board. Knowing all of the background information on how Coppola set out to make this masterpiece and his many battles with Paramount make it all the more inspiring for me. As a result of watching this film at a young age, Marlon Brando quickly became my favorite actor (still is). Watching his towering performance here, I made sure to watch every one of his films as often as I could (even the many stinkers) and research as much as I could on the complex man. Throughout the trilogy, the character of Michael Corleone, I think, is one of the very best ever put on film and I can envision no one better to do it than Al Pacino. I just watched it a few weeks ago and it brought back a few memories for me from years ago — and I was still in awe with each passing scene.

#3. Rocky (dir. John G. Avildsen)

The original “Best Picture” winner, as well as the subsequent Rocky II and Rocky III (both directed by Sylvester Stallone). I was 5-years old when the first film came out and did not see the film in the theatres, but I do remember playing the old vinyl record that my parents bought and loving the entire soundtrack. Bill Conti’s score is truly one for the ages. I listened to it often back then, and a few years later was hooked on Rocky Balboa. To me, this is the quintessential underdog story — in more ways than just sports — though it is, for me, the very best of all the sports movies. He came from nowhere…and rose from the ghetto streets of Philly to become the heavyweight champion of the world! Again, I think the whole Italian thing comes into play here…fuggedaboutit! Isn’t it a law that every Italian guy has to love Rocky? Perhaps every Italian guy secretly wants to be Rocky. I know I did when I was a kid. I do recall seeing Rocky II a few years later and then my parents took me to see the third one in a drive-in movie theatre. Rocky Balboa was an inspirational figure to me then and still is today. He is a hero and positive role model that always does the right thing; he has a strict moral compass, he loves his woman, he has tremendous heart and fortitude — and he even ended the Cold war single-handedly in the dismal Rocky IV. Thankfully, he rebounded nicely in the last installment, but those first three films for me always get my heart pounding and my blood racing.

#4. A Clockwork Orange (dir. Stanley Kubrick)

I remember seeing this flick and the profound effect it had on me as a kid when I first watched it. In many ways, Kubrick’s ultra-violent futuristic film was the catalyst for me looking to re-define what my taste in movies was. I wanted to see more films like this one! I hadn’t seen many like it at all and looked into more works from this maverick filmmaker and others like him. I sought out films from other auteurs such as Malick, Forman, Cassavetes, Polanski, and Altman. I even remember having A Clockwork Orange T-shirt in my younger days. At the time, I didn’t consider myself much of a film buff, but I believe this film started that journey for me as I realized what film, as an art form, can do…the weighty impact it can make on a viewer. This film haunted me in the very best of ways and I loved Burgess’ overall message in the “rehabilitation” of the classic character, Alex DeLarge (wonderfully portrayed by Malcolm McDowell). When I think of movies that helped to sculpt my more refined palette in my latter teen years, this is the one that always comes to mind first.

#5. Raiders of the Lost Ark (dir. Steven Spielberg)

I was 10 years old when this film was released (when movies actually played for months at a time in the theatres) and remember coming home thinking I just watched the most awesome movie ever! I mean, really…what kid didn’t flip out over this movie?! To me, it seemed to have everything — amazing action sequences, terrific special effects, a love story, an intelligent and valiant hero, a malevolent villain, and humorous one-liners. I couldn’t wait to see it again. It was pure entertainment. For my money, it is still one of the very best blockbuster films ever made. Nowadays, with CGI and more high-tech special effects, everything seems possible and it takes away from the experience a bit. Of course, there are special effects in “Raiders”, but it’s not so unbelievable here where it removes you from the emotion of the scene. The hat, the whip, the classic gun scene, the snakes….it is all classic Spielberg in one of his finest efforts as a filmmaker. Sadly, the franchise has taken terrible blows in the years that followed (aliens — really??!!) with three sub-par sequels; none even come close to sniffing the boots of the original and I think its writer, Lawrence Kasdan, has a lot to do with that. This one always takes me back to 10 years old and the excitement I felt when I came home that day — the testament to a timeless movie.

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.

Best Films of the Decade (2000-2009)

The end of the decade is soon approaching and a number of my film-geek friends have been posting & sharing their lists of the decade’s best films, so as a self-proclaimed film-geek myself, I had to voice my own voluble opinion. This was much more difficult than I had anticipated (one of the reasons for including the long list of ‘Honorable Mentions’ that could have easily been twice as long). I started with about 25-30 and tried to chisel and reason bit by bit. I tried to stay away from what film critics would include just for the sake of showing off their (at times) pretentious “artiness.” I based my decisions on artistic merit, creativity/originality, and most of all, personal enjoyment. In any case, here they are….

10.    The Lookout (dir. Scott Frank)

This movie never really got its due when it was released in 2007. Part bank-heist film and part “Memento” (over-rated…sorry), this movie grabs you from the beginning and never lets up. Joseph Gordon-Levitt establishes himself nicely as a strong lead (as he did again in this year’s “(500) Days of Summer”) and Jeff Daniels is wonderful in a supporting role. If you haven’t seen it, it is great entertainment – smart and slick with great characters and a very tight script. We feel for Levitt’s character from his tragic beginning and empathize with his plight throughout. This is what Hollywood action films should be and probably why it never made much money – it’s actually pretty damn clever, expertly shot and high on entertainment.

9.  Little Children (dir. Todd Field)

When I think of the great filmmakers working in cinema today, the name ‘Todd Field’ doesn’t spring into my mind. However, with TWO films on this very difficult list, perhaps it is about time his name does start popping into the conversation of wonderful, artistic directors. This film is extraordinary. Very tough to watch at times, but for all the right reasons. Jackie Earle Haley got most of the press when the film debuted in 2006 and was rightfully nominated for an Oscar, however, all the actors are at the top of their game here. Phyllis Somerville (as Ronnie’s mother) was simply spectacular and was snubbed of her own nomination. The narration at first was awkward for me, but I quickly got used to it and in viewing the film again, fit nicely. This is a very daring film and Field makes some very strong choices throughout. Great details to each and every shot. Patrick Wilson and Kate Winslet are perfectly cast and have strong chemistry on the screen. It is Jackie Earle Haley though and his performance that haunts us long after the final credits roll. The scene in the car after his date is one of the most disturbing scenes in recent memory. Overall, a dark, yet sadly believable look at suburbia and the ‘little children’ who inhabit it.

8.  The Illusionist (dir. Neil Burger)

I know this film is probably on no one’s list, but I don’t care. I loved it! I distinctly remember walking out of the theatre exclaiming, “That’s the best film I’ve seen in a long time!” Edward Norton is surely one of the finest actors of his generation (“The Incredible Hulk” a rare poor choice) and he does not disappoint here. I am aware that the film is high in melodrama and a bit “schmaltzy” in the romance department, but I bought it from start to finish. At its heart, the film is a wonderful romantic picture. It contains classic good and evil characters, no matter how orthodox they may be. Is Rufus Sewell over the top? Yes! But we HATE him!!! And Paul Giamatti is terrific here, giving us more dimension to his antagonistic character. He is not a “Bad guy” – there is much more to him. And Jessica Biel??? She is absolutely gorgeous here and does a fine job opposite Norton. Beautifully shot period piece, set in turn-of-the-century Vienna. The cinematography here is wonderful and the score, ever effective. The story sucks you in and the magic here is much more entertaining than that of “The Prestige” which came out the same year. This is the better film for you romantics out there. A great final act too that I was not expecting and don’t think many viewers did expect.

7.  Crash (dir. Paul Haggis)

Again, high melodrama. Fine. I’m comfortable with that. Despite what many have said, this deserved its ‘Best Picture’ Oscar and I remember being so relieved that it beat out the even more melodramatic “Brokeback Mountain.” All I know is this – I was not bored for a minute, I was sucked into all of the ever-weaving subplots, I cried in a couple of scenes, and I was sorry to see it end. Haggis’ screenplay is spectacular. It could have easily been very manipulative, especially when it came to the theme of racial relations – and it never fell into that dangerous trap. Matt Dillon creates a wonderful character with many sides – we can understand where this man is coming from after his scene explaining his father’s predicament. The highlight of this powerful film is Michael Pena and the scenes he has with his daughter. The invisible cape stuff? Couldn’t stop crying! And Ryan Phillipe is fine here….for being one of the only ‘innocent’ characters in this collage of events, it makes the ending all the more ironic. I felt all the stories blended nicely and Haggis does a splendid job at knowing when to keep us at the edge of our seats and when to let us breathe. He also manages to make some very profound statements on racy subjects such as race, sex, politics, crime, parenthood, and bigotry without preaching to us. The film is set in Los Angeles, but it could take place in any city, any town in our society. A riveting and at times, magical film.

6.  Sideways (dir. Alexander Payne)

Being in my mid-thirties when this came out in 2004, I think I was able to relate to Miles more than if I was just a student in film school. A very sad statement in itself to be able to relate to Miles at all here, but I think most men in their 30’d and 40’s can certainly do just that and that makes the film even stronger. What can be said about the cast that hasn’t already been said? Paul Giamatti is perfect for this role – he was born to play Miles. His camaraderie with Thomas Haden Church is a pleasure to watch. Church of course is the dissolute and immoral character, but he is talented enough to make his character more than that – and to have us sympathize with him at times. In fact, we sympathize with all four main characters in different ways – a tough feat and a credit to Payne and his cast. Madsen is warm and endearing here – a perfect match for Giamatti’s role. Payne writes a near perfect script here (even stronger than his previous “Election” which was in itself a wonderful picture). Yes, the wine is used as metaphor throughout, but there is much more to it with each viewing. Giamatti’s scene in the fast-food restaurant with his vintage bottle of wine is like a knife to the heart and though the film analyzes two middle-aged men who believe they will never amount to anything – Payne gives us a believable and optimistic ending that is filled with hope. A lovely, intelligent, witty and heart-breaking film that, like a fine wine, will most likely go down better with age.

5.  Matchstick Men (dir. Ridley Scott)

Though I feel that David Mamet’s “House of Games” is the classic con film, “Matchstick Men” holds its own and is superb in its own right. It is, I would think, a very tough challenge to create a “con film” but the script here is so good and the actors so convincing, that we buy the con hook-line-and-sinker. I have problems with Nicolas Cage and his many silly choices, but when he picks the right role, he can do some great work (see “The Weather Man,” “Adaptation” and “Wild at Heart”). He is equally terrific here as the obsessive-compulsive Roy Waller. Cage usually does his best work playing quirky characters. Sam Rockwell is intense and strong as always and Alison Lohman, Bruce McGill, and Bruce Altman complete a very impressive supporting cast. The father-daughter relationship here works, the friendship relationship works – the con works. The film is funny, unpredictable, sweet and when it wants to hit you in the gut – it does so…and hard. Scott does a nice change of pace here from his epic films (“Gladiator” would be on a Top 30 list of the decade I am sure). This film is much more intimate, more delicate, more real. I was not sure why this film did not get the awards recognition I thought it deserved when it came out in 2003 and still can’t figure that one out. It’s hard not to love this picture. Though Waller is put through the wringer, we know that he is finally happy by the end of the ride – and so are we for taking it with him.

4.  There Will be Blood (dir. Paul Thomas Anderson)

You can perhaps count the list of masterpieces made from 2000-2009 on one hand, if that. This is undoubtedly one of them. A masterpiece in every sense of the word (amazingly, Anderson’s second, following the ever-daring “Magnolia”). And on this little list of mine, this may be the only one I can confidently use such a word (perhaps my #2 film can fall in that category, I’m not sure). So why is this not my number one film then? In creating this list I went with artistic merit, surely – but also other factors as well. This is not a film I can watch at any time. One needs to be ready for it…to brace themselves for the epic that follows. I do believe it to be the best piece of filmmaking of the decade. That said, this is the kind of film that will be studied by film students decades from now – extraordinary on every level. Based on Upton Sinclair’s novel, Anderson’s adaptation of the story that revolves around family, greed, religion and oil is an achievement of the highest quality. Anderson has always been a courageous filmmaker and continues here. He trusts his audience – always has. He lets us sit in a darkened theatre for 20 minutes, following Daniel Plainview in the mines without a word of dialogue. And we watch. The score (by Jonny Greenwood) is unforgettable and brilliant. Robert Elswit’s cinematography may be the best I have seen in years. This is the film that should have taken home the Oscar for ‘Best Picture,’ but I presume that voters thought the Coen Brothers were overdue and went in their direction (and I am not knocking the Coen Brothers at all – they’ve been making some of America’s finest films since their debut in 1985 and in my opinion, have only made one bad film). The nucleus of this wonder is of course the character of Daniel Plainview – it all revolves around him. And what better actor to be up for this mighty challenge and play him than Daniel Day-Lewis? With Brando’s passing – and Newman’s that followed, he may very well be our finest screen actor working today. 95% of actors are cast in roles and never immerse themselves into their characters – or “become” the character. Remember when DeNiro and Nicholson used to do that? Daniel Day-Lewis is one of the handful of actors that are chameleon-esque and become someone new – the definition of acting. In Daniel Plainview, he creates a character for the ages. As long as there is cinema, we will always remember Daniel Plainview – one of the greatest screen characters in the history of film. I know this mini-review seems to be littered in hyperbole, but it’s not at all. Every aspect of this motion picture deserves the highest of praise. Day-Lewis is terrifying – one of the most charismatic screen villains of all time. The performance goes up there with Brando’s Terry Malloy and Vito Corleone. I do think Anderson could have done better than casting Paul Dano opposite Day-Lewis…he is fine here and does an admirable job – but Daniel Day-Lewis is perhaps too much for him in their scenes together. There are many classic lines and scenes peppered throughout. Anderson has truly made a towering achievement that deserves its place alongside other American epic classics such as ‘Ben-Hur,’ ‘Gone With the Wind,’ ‘The Birth of A Nation,’ ‘Doctor Zhivago’ and ‘Reds.’

3.  Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (dir. Michel Gondry)

One of the most original and creative films to come out during the decade, for sure. Charlie Kaufman’s screenplay is as unique as they come and Gondry handles the story with deftness and care. Kate Winslet and Jim Carrey are wonderful here and both characters break your heart throughout their relationship. The premise is one that anyone who has had their heart broken can relate to – but it’s only through their process of loss do both characters realize what they had in the beginning. As bizarre and inimitable as the story seems, we can relate to much of this film and live vicariously through them. Is there someone in my past I’d like to wipe out of memory? Absolutely. This film though is a gentle reminder that even our most painful memories are ones that we should still hold close to heart – better to have a slice of the pie than never to have had none at all. Carrey gives a terrific, sincere performance and matches Winslet (no easy feat) throughout. The film has a bit of everything – but at its core is romantic a relationship that we root for. A strong supporting cast is led by Tom Wilkinson, David Cross, and Kirstin Dunst. This film is nothing short of a delightful gem – it tugs at your heart and, unlike the process the two characters go through – stays in your memory for a long, long time.

2.  In The Bedroom (dir. Todd Field)

A perfect, perfect motion picture. There is not a line spoken nor a shot taken that should be removed from this film. With “Little Children” and this tremendous achievement, Todd Field proves not only that he is a filmmaker to be reckoned with, but that he is a master at adapting written works. Here, it is a short story by Andre Dubus. It is one of the finest, strongest adaptations in recent film history. In fact, the first 70 or 80+ minutes of the film is all his creation based on what is given in the short piece by Dubus. He creates his own world founded on what is given to him in the short story “Killings” and it blends perfectly. Field gets the very most out of each actor while establishing the New England setting so vividly, so beautifully – you can almost smell the clam chowder coming off the screen. The cast is brilliant. Tom Wilkinson is extraordinary. One of the finest performances of the decade, for certain. Sometimes you don’t need to see someone play a psychotic, a mentally disturbed or challenged person, or someone larger than life to witness magnificence in the craft of performance. Wilkinson reminds us of this. He is our center here and keeps everything grounded around him. His scenes with his son are touching and genuine; the ones with Sissy Spacek are explosive. One in particular (when they are interrupted by a Girl Scout selling candy) is a remarkable watch that deserves additional viewings. Marisa Tomei is the ideal actor to take on the role of Natalie and she is a marvel to watch here, opposite Nick Stahl. Stahl may not be so very well known, but he is a fine actor (see the very powerful “Bully”) and gives his character exactly what it needs in order for the plot to follow through. Because it is, after all, a revenge film at heart. Though unlike any revenge film you have ever seen. This film is a constant reminder to me that the entire art of filmmaking begins with a story and a script. You get a great story and tight, creative and solid script, you are already ahead in the game. Big Hollywood blockbusters with CGI and special effects are all well and good – but it is films like “In the Bedroom” that remind me why I love film. I have seen this film numerous times and it never gets stale to me. There is humor sprinkled throughout, touching moments, moments when you just want to shake sense into the characters and moments when I can never stop the tears from coming. It is an experience to sit through Field’s wonderful work here and to witness the phenomenal cast at work – this includes great work by William Wise (as Wilkinson’s good friend who will do anything to help him in his time of need) and William Mapother who has his own challenging role. His Richard Strout is a great accomplishment. He is surely our villain here and is the reason for the Fowler family’s anguish – but in Strout, he gives reason (for lack of a better word), substance and a bit of empathy to his violent and reckless actions. I can watch this film anytime – to watch Wilkinson at work – he does not make a wrong move at any time here…every line spoken, every nuance, every expression is affecting and real. This film remains a testament to the idea that good works are based on great writing, skilled performances, and beautiful imagery – from the opening shots to its dark, startling last scene you are in this New England town and observing great art.

  •   Almost Famous (dir. Cameron Crowe)

I went with sheer pleasure in deciding this as my top pick of the decade…that, and the fact that it’s some pretty damn good filmmaking. I absolutely love this movie and am reminded of it each time I catch it. It is the ultimate coming-of-age story put on film and set to a glorious soundtrack. In just over two hours time, we watch William Miller, the young boy, become a man who has seen it all – and lived to tell about it. Patrick Fugit does a great job in the role as our naïve and besotted protagonist. Cameron Crowe’s dialogue reminds me of James L. Brooks in that he has so many ingenious and memorable lines in his films – and this one is no exception. His ear for screen dialogue is truly a gift – and he knows how to make his audience laugh or cry at his will. His ear for music is equally as impressive. Crowe has always incorporated music quite brilliantly in his films (with the exception of the highly disappointing “Elizabethtown”) and in this film it is used impeccably. The scene in the tour bus set to Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer” is one of the greatest uses of a song to film I have seen in recent memory (tied with how “Falling Slowly” is utilized in the brilliant little indie,“Once”). As for the performances, everyone shines. Philip Seymour Hoffman makes the most out of his small role, stealing every scene he is in. Frances McDormand is hysterically funny (“Rock stars have kidnapped my son!”) and though we may not agree with her ideas about rock-n-roll music or how she raises her two children, we can certainly empathize with and have compassion for her. As the two frontrunners of the  Stillwater band, Jason Lee and Billy Crudup are very well cast and dazzle us with their performances. Kate Hudson’s Penny Lane is a great creation – she is impetuous, romantic, reckless, loyal and heart-breaking. This semi-autobiographical film is an absolute joy and I believe Crowe’s strongest work. Every note is hit with precision and care. We experience all the highs and lows as William Miller experiences them – we go on tour with him and certainly root for him to achieve his ambitious goal. Crowe obviously loves his music and we are reminded of some true classics here. It is a rock-n-roll film – but so much more than that. If you haven’t seen it, do yourself a favor and watch it in one sitting. It’s contagious and a great example of why I go to the movies. Debuting in 2000, it still stands as my absolute favorite of the decade as we approach 2010…Thanks, Cameron!

16 Honorable Mentions – in no particular order, though all 4-Star Films:

The Dreamers (dir. Bernardo Bertolucci)
21 Grams (dir. Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu)
Swimming Pool (dir. Francois Ozon)
Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (dir. Sidney Lumet)
Into the Wild (dir. Sean Penn)
Away From Her (dir. Sarah Polley)
Munich (dir. Steven Spielberg)
Die Falscher (The Counterfeiters, dir. Stefan Ruzowitsky)
Dancer in the Dark (dir. Lars von Trier)
Les Invasions Barbares (The Barbarian Invasions, dir. Denys Arcand)
A History of Violence (dir. David Cronenberg)
Wonder Boys (dir. Curtis Hanson)
Requiem for A Dream (dir. Darren Aronofsky)
The Reader (dir. Stephen Daldry)
In Bruges (dir. Martin McDonagh)
District 9 (dir. Neill Blomkamp)

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