It’s our 12th anniversary today, which is supposed to be either silk (traditional) or pearls (modern). John would look pretty stupid in either, so I think we’ll just stick to our anniversary tradition: watching Die Hard, my all-time favorite movie, and drinking champagne, my all-time favorite drink, with my all-time favorite guy. Does it get any more romantic than that?
Speaking of movies: in the spirit of the Top Twenty movie lists at ymdb, here is my top 20. I consider each to be perfect in its own way. List is alphabetical, since this is still supposedly a democracy, but Die Hard is still my total favorite. We all know that a democracy does not mean no favoritism.
All of these are filmed beautifully, and have incredible casts. I see that I seem to have a more romantic turn of mind than I suspected. Who knew?
1. American Beauty: It’s no surprise that this gem was written by Alan Ball, who also gave us the groundbreaking HBO series, Six Feet Under. It has the same clear-eyed yet macabre point of view, and rarely has something so dark been filmed with such light. Owes a nod to Sunset Boulevard (see below), with its posthumous Everyguy narrator. Best moment: when Kevin Spacey’s character quits his job. Haven’t we all wanted to give that speech at one time or another? And isn’t it cathartic to watch Spacey do it?
2. Beautiful Girls: Great ensemble cast. Timothy Hutton plays the one who escaped the small town they all grew up in and comes back for a reunion, to find things are exactly the same, but different. Natalie Portman, in one of her first roles, is absolutely luminous, and you wish that somehow she and Hutton could overcome the obstacles between them (chiefly the fact that she is 13, which should be repugnant on every possible level, but isn’t). Best moment: Rosie O’Donnell’s brilliant rant on why skin mags have ruined men’s expectations of real women.
3. Boogie Nights: Given the subject matter, it should be a whole lot more vulgar. An amazing début for Paul Thomas Anderson. He has the 1970’s down perfectly, hair, make-up and clothes – check out the scene where Mark Wahlberg’s character goes shopping – and the sensibilities, too. The film follows its cast through a decade or so, and while, yes, they are all in the porn industry, it’s really about friendships, dreams, and even love, just like The People vs. Larry Flynt*. Best moment: There are plenty, including the beyond Freudian reversal of words in the scene where William H. Macy’s character says, “That’s my wife with an ass in her cock”. Did Anderson leave it in on purpose?
4. Braveheart: It took a lot of convincing to get me to watch this one (it’s really long! All those battle scenes! What’s with the blue face paint?), but I was immediately swept away by the inspiring, true story of the great Scottish patriot, William Wallace, and his fight for freedom. Granted, the bits with the French princess are silly, and it’s not entirely historically accurate, but who cares? It’s glorious. Interestingly enough, the English are still all messed up by him 700 years later. Just ask at the Tower of London where Wallace was executed and watch them squirm. It’s not marked anywhere, but they still can’t erase him. Factoid: Wallace was tried in Westminster Hall, as was Charles I with similar results. More recently, the Queen Mother lay in state there.
5. Casablanca: What can I say that hasn’t been said a million times and better? Brilliant dialogue (those Epstein twins were something), flawless cast (is anyone cooler than Bogie?), a great villain (the inimitable Claude Rains). Black and white film has never looked more beautiful or conveyed more emotion. Best moment: You already know. Fun factoid: Bogie never says, “Play it again, Sam”.
6. The Commitments: Written by Roddy Doyle and starring a cast of Irish unknowns, tells the story of a band composed of working class Dubliners with not much else to live for. The film shows you the bleakness of their lives and environment without comment, and it forms an effective background for the band’s struggles, their kaleidoscopic relationships with each other, the beauty of their voices and the joy of their performances. Both funny and heart-breaking. Best moment: pretty much all of them, but I’d have to say the outraged Colm Meaney screaming, “Elvis wasn’t a Cajun!” Fun factoid: Andrew Strong, the lead singer of the band, was 16 when the movie was filmed. Jaizus.
7. Die Hard: Still the one to beat, it changed the action movie genre forever. Many have tried, but none have been able to match, let alone surpass it. Alan Rickman is a fabulous villain, a worthy successor to Claude Rains and James Mason with his suave, European elegance and menace. There’s no dead space in this screenplay. The action zips along non-stop, peppered with witty, clever dialogue. May have the most great one-liners of any movie ever. Best moment: The classic is “Yippeekayay” (or however you spell that), but I’d have to go with Bonnie Bedelia’s line, “Only John can make someone that crazy.”
8. Fallen: People bitch about the ending, but in my opinion, it follows its own logic perfectly, from beginning to end, and it’s full of surprises. It does a great job of weaving together horror, mythology, and real life. Maybe demons really do walk among us unrecognized. Look for pre-Sopranos James Gandolfini and Aida Turturro. Best moment: watching Denzel’s character watch the evil nemesis being transferred from person to person on a busy street.
9. Fight Club: One of the best DVD’s, and the first one we ever bought. Love the packaging, love the movie. It’s brilliantly conceived and executed, and Brad Pitt and Edward Norton make a compelling pair. Still fun, even after you know the secret. Best moment: again, that’s a toughie. Given my fear of flying, I’ll say the replacement airline safety cards, showing little cartoon people freaking out in terror. Which is how it really would be. Close second is the kid bursting into tears after witnessing the split-second amendment of the kiddie movie she’s watching.
10. Gone with the Wind: Technicolor all the way, from the look of the film to its melodramatic story. The greatest of the sweeping epics from the Hollywood of the past, when stars were stars. Vivien Leigh never looked as beautiful as she did as Scarlett O’Hara. The furor caused by the English Leigh playing the quintessential American heroine was not unlike that caused by American Renée Zellweger playing the quintessential English heroine Bridget Jones. Best moment: once again, you already know. Fun factoid: Selznick started filming before the role of Scarlett was cast. And although Gable & Leigh light up the screen together, they didn’t like each other at all in real life. Leigh was reported to be completely repelled by Gable’s denture breath, and he in turn thought her an uptight priss.
11. Howard’s End: Best of the Merchant-Ivory/E.M. Forster ventures, and so beautifully filmed. Exquisite locations, especially the house of the title, and costumes. The story is essentially that of two well-meaning upper class sisters who get involved in a lower class clerk’s life with disastrous results, but it’s so much more than that. The entire cast is wonderful, including Vanessa Redgrave, who is lit from within despite (or because of) her illness; Anthony Hopkins, who is stuffy but not unlovable; and Helena Bonham Carter, about as different from her Fight Club role as humanly possible. Best moment: Anthony Hopkins saying calmly, “The poor are poor. One is sorry for them, but there it is.” Fun factoid: the house used in the film as Howard’s End is supposed to be the actual one that inspired Forster to write his novel.
12. Last Action Hero: Also directed by John McTiernan, who gave us Die Hard, this clever send-up of movies in general and action movies in particular has been mercilessly trashed by critics, who don’t seem to get the joke(s). Possibly the meshing of the real world and the film world confused them. Rarely has a star made fun of himself as well and as charmingly as Schwarzenegger in this film. Best moment: Charles Dance (yet another charming Euro-villain; I seem to have a real weakness for these guys) saying, “Police! I have just killed a man!” Bonus: the kid in the movie doesn’t have the ubiquitous bowl cut haircut favored in movies and television, for reasons that defy logic and taste.
13. Little Women: The perfect film incarnation of Louisa May Alcott’s beloved classic, the film is a visual poem, a painting that moves. Never has snow looked more beautiful. Pre-shoplifting Winona Ryder gives an Oscar worthy performance as the strong-willed and independent Jo, and Christian Bale is a wonderfully romantic and passionate Laurie. I still cry when Beth (played heartbreakingly by My So-Called Life’s Claire Danes) dies, no matter how many times I see the movie. Haunting soundtrack by Thomas Newman, who also gave us the American Beauty soundtrack and the theme for Six Feet Under.
14. Nobody’s Fool: Paul Newman should have won an Oscar for his brilliant, low-key performance as Sully, a small town ne’er-do-well who boards with his former school teacher, played by Jessica Tandy (in her last role, and a swan song that befits such an actress). Sully’s estranged son and his family come to town for Thanksgiving, giving the two men the chance to reconcile. Bruce Willis shows he is capable of more than action movies, as Sully’s employer, enemy, and friend. Best moment is hard to decide on in such a subtle film, but it might be Sully’s grandson “driving” his truck and saying, “It’s a nice truck,” in a reflective voice that suggests a lifetime of owning his own beat-up old pick-ups to come; or his bar crony airily wishing a friend farewell with, “Vaya con huevos.”
15. North by Northwest: It’s hard to choose just one of Hitchcock’s many masterpieces, but this one is so stylish and fast-paced and has such a great cast. Cary Grant is mistaken for an enemy agent by elegant bad guy James Mason, and the chase is on. Best moment: the scene where Grant is chased by a crop duster, of course. Fun factoids: the film’s original working title was “The Man on Lincoln’s Nose”. And Jessie Royce Landis, who plays Grant’s mother in the film, was actually almost a year younger than Grant!
16. Repo Man: Appropriately made in 1984, this dark comedic satire would have won Orwell’s approval. From the opening credits with Iggy Pop’s Repo Man theme to the eerie ending, nothing but fun. Kickass soundtrack. Best moment: Harry Dean Stanton saying quietly, yet vehemently, “Ordinary fuckin’ people. I hate ’em,” followed closely by his description of his enemies, rival repo men the Rodriguez brothers. Fun factoid: the film was shot in LA in six weeks, for $1.5 million, but still went over budget. Cast and crew worked for free for the last three days of filming.
17. Stand By Me: The most satisfying film ever made of a Stephen King story (why is it so hard to make good movies out of good stories? Why?). It perfectly captures the nuances of the story and its characters, and most of all, what I consider to be King’s greatest qualities: he is an excEt storyteller, and remembers what it’s like to be a child more vividly than any author I can think of. These are real kids, in a real place in time. You really feel the summer in Castle Rock. Still breaks my heart to see the radiantly beautiful and moving River Phoenix in this one, the tragedy of his character reflecting that of the boy who played him. Look for Kiefer Sutherland, long before 24, being a small town badass, and Wil Wheaton, before he got screwed over by those Star Trek idiots. Best moment: There are so many! But I’d have to say it’s Wheaton’s “biggest in four counties” moment with Phoenix. And, yeah, what the hell is Goofy anyway?
18. Sunset Boulevard: Gloria Swanson showed tremendous courage in taking on the role of Norma Desmond, the forgotten silent screen star who lives in her decaying mansion on Sunset Boulevard. It must have been painful for her to play what she more or less was in real life, and she uses that pain to create a work of art. She is tragic and magnificent. William Holden plays the hack writer who gets entangled in her web. Best moment: Swanson declaiming, “I am big! It’s the pictures that got small!” Fun factoid: the film originally started with Holden in the morgue instead of the swimming pool, and included other morgue residents explaining how they got there. But audiences of the day (more than half a century ago) were appalled by this, particularly the dead child, so the opening was re-shot. You can see the original opening on the DVD. Wonder if it inspired Alan Ball as much as Holden’s posthumous narration?
19. Titanic: Like Gone with the Wind, it’s a romance set against a historical background, and also shows how disaster and the end of an era affect ordinary people. The work director James Cameron did in reproducing the doomed luxury liner down to its smallest detail paid off. You feel as if you are really there, and it is sumptuously filmed. For example, the scene where the lifeboats are adrift under the starry skies (look for handsome Ioan Gruffudd, now the hero of the Hornblower series and the Forsyte Saga searching for survivors) is spectacular and deeply moving. Not to mention the “King of the World” scene with the leaping dolphins. Best moment: when Kate Winslet’s Rose tilts her stunning hat and we first see her beautiful face, a reminder of when Ingrid Bergman does the same thing in Casablanca, with the same breath-taking effect.
20. When Harry Met Sally: The romantic comedy to end all romantic comedies. Sparkling dialogue, wonderful cast (especially Bruno Kirby) – a fresh new take on the screwball comedies of the past. Best moment: well, yeah, I guess you have to go with the classic on this one and give it to the faked orgasm in the deli. I still think it would have been more effective if Ryan’s character had ended it with, “Sound familiar?”
Happy holidays, everyone!!
*Too similar to Boogie Nights for inclusion in this list, but it’s great. I really do think of it as a love story first and foremost. Courtney Love and Woody Harrelson are magnificent in their awfulness, as is the real Larry Flynt.