Sleep with Me (1994)

A fabulously textured comedy that centers on how sensitive guy Frank (Craig Sheffer) deals with buddy Joe’s (Eric Stoltz) marriage to Frank’s secret true love, Sarah (Meg Tilly). Director Rory Kelly divvied up the screenplay of Sleep With Me into six chunks, to six different screenwriters (including himself), and as a result it’s the social whorl of characters around the tense triangle that sings: Dean Cameron’s testy paraplegic, Todd Field’s laconic screenwriter, and Thomas Gibson’s amused Brit are particularly memorable, plus there are fiery bits performances by Quentin Tarantino, Parker Posey, Joey Lauren Adams, June Lockhart, Susan Traylor, and Adrienne Shelly. Criminally overlooked.

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The Heartbreak Kid (1972)

Forget the nearly unbearable remake. Newlyweds Lenny (the peerlessly dry Charles Grodin) and Lila (the counteractively brash Jeannie Berlin) are honeymooning in Miami when Lenny meets blonde shiksa goddess Cybill Shepherd and decides that she’s the one he can’t live without. Director Elaine May keeps the farce in The Heartbreak Kid so deadpan it becomes chilling.

Barefoot in the Park (1967)

One of the first adaptations of a Neil Simon play, this dated bonbon features exuberant drama queen Jane Fonda and staid pragmatist Robert Redford as fresh-faced newlyweds who can’t keep their hands off each other (goosing bottoms in elevators, hanging ”do not disturb” signs on hotel doorknobs for days on end, and so on). But the honeymoon ends, and the comedy ostensibly begins, when they move into a tiny, five-flight Manhattan walk-up (which is refreshingly—and realistically—tiny compared to the bountiful dwellings shown in Friends and Seinfeld). Barefoot in the Park has no other relation at all to reality, but it’s cute as a button.

English: Robert Redford in Barefoot in the Park
English: Robert Redford in Barefoot in the Park (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Rebecca (1940)

A screenshot of Judith Anderson and Joan Fonta...
A screenshot of Judith Anderson and Joan Fontaine in Rebecca (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Alfred Hitchcock’s unassailable Gothic classic is merely the first of his many biopsies on marriage and the secret poisoning within them. Filled with superb set pieces and supporting performances, it all boils down to Joan Fontaine’s nameless heroine, nervously thrust into both an aristocratic milieu and an uncommunicative union she has no business occupying. Reportedly, Hitchcock (with the help of costar Laurence Olivier) subtly abused Fontaine on the set of Rebecca, a ploy that not only made her performance realer than real, but made the entire film, inside and out, a working metaphor for a dysfunctional marriage.

Calendar Girls (2003)

Calendar Girls
Calendar Girls (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In youth-obsessed America, where it’s entirely possible to start feeling over the hill at age twenty-five, this film is a refreshing, good-natured slap in the face: a comedy, based on a true story, in which a group of Yorkshire women nervily bare all for a yearly fund-raising calendar, which becomes, as we see, a sensation. These women aren’t making fitness videos on the side, either—these are real bodies, belonging to undoctored women (including Helen Mirren, Julie Walters, and Linda Bassett) who are willing to be judged by a shortsighted world. The script of Calendar Girls isn’t overly sweet, although the saucily affirmative tone and the wheezy tai chi coda are trying.

Wonder Boys (2000)

Middle-aged literature professor Grady Tripp (Michael Douglas) is having a bad day: his wife has just left him, he’s having an affair with his boss’s wife (she also happens to be the chancellor of the university), and his editor is coming to town expecting a finished manuscript—of which he’s written very little, although he’s already used up a full ream of paper in the attempt. His own “wonder boy” years as star author far behind him, he embarks on a snowy Pittsburgh weekend odyssey that ends up involving a stoned literary prodigy (Tobey Maguire), a transvestite, a dead dog hidden in a trunk, a manuscript more promising than his own, and the stolen jacket of Marilyn Monroe. Michael Chabon’s novel of midlife crisis is wisely centered in the academic milieu: is there any more constant reminder that you’re past your prime than being surrounded by the flush of youth 24/7? We could feel our own age lines expand as we watched, but that doesn’t mean the movie isn’t smart, quick, witty, and lovable—it is. With Frances McDormand.

Shirley Valentine (1989)

At long last, a midlife crisis movie about a woman who’s actually in the middle of her life. Manchester working-class housewife Shirley Valentine (Pauline Collins) addresses the camera as if she’s revenging all the ridiculed English women in Alfie (that 1966 Michael Caine–as–womanizer affront), venting her frustration and disappointment at who she’s become and how she lost herself along the way. She hitches a free trip to Greece to discover, thankfully, that being over forty doesn’t have to mean an end to skinny-dipping in the Aegean Sea and drinking retsina by sunset. Unembarrassed by the film’s staginess, Collins looks like a real middle-aged woman whose hips have borne children and whose chin hasn’t been lifted above her eyebrows.

Shirley Valentine (film)
Shirley Valentine (film) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Network (1976)

Featuring quite possibly the most thoughtfully written script in Hollywood history, Paddy Chayefsky’s torrential satire on the television industry wasn’t so far-fetched at the time, and it’s turned out to be so prophetic that today’s jaded high schooler might think it tame. Network is to be savored for many reasons, among them the autumnal crisis endured by aging network exec Max Schumacher (William Holden), who faces the business end of his career just as Faye Dunaway’s irresistibly amoral company hotshot lures him into an affair. He knows it’s all a soap opera cliche, and she hardly knows soap from real life, but in the meantime there’s real heartache here, with Holden and his wife (Oscar winner Beatrice Straight) bravely facing—in painful, human terms— the desperate confusions of fading love and angry devotion. It’s a notably sympathetic portrait because it’s so viciously honest, and 203 | dl fe Cr s s IV anyone in his or her fifties can find understanding company in Holden’s melancholy, hound-dog visage.

Murder by Death (1976)

Murder by Death
Murder by Death (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Generally given to writing sitcomish comedies that are sticky with bathos, Neil Simon uncorked his cellar of shtick for this murder-mystery parody, composed entirely of a character cast making easy hay of Sam Spade, Nick and Nora Charles, Miss Marple, Hercule Poirot, and Charlie Chan (not to mention blind butler Alec Guinness and deaf-mute maid Nancy Walker). The “world’s greatest detectives” are locked in a booby-trapped house in a rainstorm, of course (by host Truman Capote, which is the part of Murder By Death we still don’t get), but the cast (including Peter Falk, Eileen Brennan, David Niven, Elsa Lanchester, James Coco, and Peter Sellers) are savvy pros at the top of their game, and not a campy stitch is dropped.

Séance on a Wet Afternoon (1964)

This grim British chiller’s title says it all: the grainy black-and-white film allows not a shred of sunshine or color as we follow a guilt-ridden Richard Attenborough around London as he carries out unhinged wife Kim Stanley’s plan to “borrow” a rich little girl and make everyone believe their own long-dead son has revealed to her the girl’s whereabouts in an afternoon séance. Everything about Séance on a Wet Afternoon  is gray and gloomy; the boarded windows of the room where the girl is hidden, Stanley’s eerie hospital-nurse pretense as she ministers to the drugged child, Attenborough’s desperate unraveling as the little girl grows ill and remorse and shame overtake him. The rain dominates: windshield wipers on chauffeur-driven cars, umbrellas popping open, splashing puddles—even the music sounds like dripping water, and the raindrops on the camera lens will make you feel as if it’s your window you’re looking through, and that you’re damned thankful to be inside.

Key Largo (1948)

The John Huston film noir based on the Maxwell Anderson play and set, imperatively, on the titular Florida island in the off-season and during a typhoon. A gaggle of gangsters (led by Edward G. Robinson’s sadistic kingpin) find themselves trapped with a handful of honest victims, including Humphrey Bogart’s disillusioned war vet. Claire Trevor won an Oscar as a weepy lush, and though the film is filthy with hard-boiled dialogue and character, its hothouse atmosphere of Key Largo is irresistible. With Lauren Bacall.

Bogart and Bacall interviewed during World War II
Bogart and Bacall interviewed during World War II (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Rookie (2002)

The true tale of Jim Morris, a middle-aged high school science teacher who loses a bet with his students, tries out for the majors, and makes it. Though The Rookie was advertised as a kids’ movie, the script never condescends or collapses into silliness, and Morris’s tale is genuinely warming. Americans love the triumph of the underdog against all odds (and what’s more intimidating than growing old?), and The Rookie doesn’t disappoint in this regard: who would believe that a thirty-five-year-old rookie could throw a hundred miles per hour?

61* (2001)

There are a few years that mean only one thing to baseball fans; ask a true aficionado what historic event happened in 1941, and instead of talking about Pearl Harbor, he or she will tell you that that’s the year DiMaggio hit in fifty-six consecutive games, a feat that’s never been surpassed or even matched. Likewise, 1961 conjures immediately the home-run race between Yankees legends Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris, both chasing Babe Ruth’s record of sixty home runs in a single season. Still, 61*, an HBO movie, directed by Billy Crystal, is no idealized view—Mantle (Thomas Jane) is a tremendous talent, but also a womanizing drunk; the animosity toward Maris (Barry Pepper) is laid bare for us as well. It’s not a great movie, but c’mon, baseball movies aren’t about great cinema, they’re about baseball. Pepper and Jane are both fine in two pairs of big shoes, but who would have thought we’d ever see Anthony Michael Hall, the skinny nerd from Sixteen Candles, as Yankees pitching great Whitey Ford? Baseball fans will love the movie’s real footage of a time when athletes didn’t rely on artificial means to gain glory—just talent, dignity, hard work, and luck.

 

Fastpitch (2000)

Jeremy Spear and Juliet Weber’s documentary Fastpitch portrays a neglected subculture that inhabits the vast badlands between American cities: fast-pitch softball, a rough game that challenges the batter with shorter mount-to-plate pitch visibility than in pro baseball, and attracts a thriving regional fan base. An ex-Yale ballplayer and artist pursuing athletic glory for the last time, Spear encounters all manner of titans in his season in the sun, including a Ojibway pitching menace and a Maori home-run champ, both of whom, like all of the players, are not pros nor obsessives, just working stiffs with a passion.

Bull Durham (1988)

There’s no other sport that inspires more emotion, rumination, and heartfelt worship than baseball, and Ron Shelton’s signature Bull Durham embodies all of these in one perfect, life-loving swoop. This slice of minor-league life remains lovable because there are no big-headed major-league egos around—just the fervent hoping to get there. No underdog triumphs, no sentimental formulas, and no baloney to be found—from Tim Robbins’s talented jerk to Susan Sarandon’s small-town groupie who’s dizzy with big-city ideas to Kevin Costner’s career-anchoring performance as the aging catcher who shoulders the responsibility of molding the uncontrollable pitcher into a star even as his own dreams of the majors sail further out of reach. The script crackles with educated wit, the minor characters are just as funny and original as the main players, and the homage to baseball is everything it should be: heartbreaking in some ways, but crazy for the game, for summer evenings, and for retaining a fiery sliver of youth deep into the middle years.

Bang the Drum Slowly (1973)

Could this be the saddest baseball movie ever? Coming from a 1955 novel, this subdued, grown-up drama simply waits out the last season of a low-IQ MLB catcher (Robert De Niro), who learns at the outset that he has a fatal disease. Emphasis is placed less on mortality or the game, and more on the day-to-day traveling life of pro players in the days before bazillion-dollar contracts and steroids. Viewers who were moved when Bang the Drum Slowly came out—and it’s tough not to be when the catcher, in his last game, looks for a fly ball that’s no longer there—keep it close to their hearts.

 

The Pride of the Yankees (1942)

There may be people who love this weepiest of sports-legend biopics simply because they’re fans of Gary Cooper, or because they’re hardcore Yankee fans who’ll see any movie with the team’s name in the title, but let’s face it: most of us still get a lump in the throat at the sound of Lou Gehrig (or Cooper doing Gehrig), intoning into the ballpark’s vast echo, “Today-ay-ay, I consider myself-elf-elf the luckiest man-man-man on the face of the earth-earth-earth.” Most of us heard Cooper say it before we’d heard Gehrig (if we’ve heard Gehrig at all), and if the Iron Horse is still a universally beloved ballplayer, Pride of the Yankees has fostered that worship. Because it’s baseball, and it’s the movies, it’s not surprising that the legend supplants the original in the public consciousness. Cooper portrays Gehrig as a lovable, innocent bumbler: witness the earnest clumsiness as he wipes out on a pile of bats; the missed ball when wife-to-be Eleanor (the still underappreciated Teresa Wright) bestows a smile upon him; the aw-shucks waves to the roaring crowd. For millions of Americans, in the war years and after, this movie was a collective dream of baseball, in which a poor immigrant’s son can triumph and live a heroic life in the most democratic of sports. The movie leaves Gehrig at his final field appearance, sparing us the trial of his struggle with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. Who’d argue that this isn’t as it should be? Does the film depict Gehrig as he really was? Of course not. Baseball fans love the game’s stories, names, stats, and legacies, and this is their Achilles tale, their Greek tragedy. Those same fans know, too, that this film offers opportunities to witness once-living legends Babe Ruth, Bill Dickey, Mark Koenig, Bob Meusel, and announcer Bill Stern, playing themselves.

English: Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig at United St...
English: Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig at United States Military Academy, West Point, NY (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Bugsy (1991)

Not every American city has an origin myth like Las Vegas does, and if you love Sin City, you’ll dig Bugsy, a too-serious Barry LevinsonWarren Beatty tribute to Vegas-planning, psychopath gangster Bugsy Siegel. If you don’t agree that Vegas was worth all of the angst, the money, and the bodies in the desert, you’re not going there, anyway. With Annette Bening, who became Mrs. Beatty.

Bugsy
Bugsy (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Heat (1995)

Heat (1995 film)
Heat (1995 film) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Michael Mann’s epic tale of cops and robbers, Heat weaves multiple stories into its Robert De NiroAl Pacino “last of the hard men” struggle, but it is also very much an L.A. story; the city is captured in all its smoggy sprawl, glamour, economic disparity, freeway craziness, and industry. Likewise, Mann’s Collateral (2004) hits the same note (while driving around with Tom Cruise’s contract killer and Jamie Foxx’s cabbie), but with a difference: because it’s shot in digital video, you see the lit city at night, partially illuminated by smog-reflected neon, like never before. With Val Kilmer.

The Big Easy (1987)

The most New Orleans–ified film ever made, The Big Easy is tipsy on everything that made the pre-Katrina hub famous: sunlit bayous, dancing at Tipitina’s, voodoo in Storyville, Mardi Gras floats, institutional corruption, and an overall Cajun flavor so palpable you can taste the pepper in the gumbo. In addition to providing an authentic N’Awlins feel and foot-tapping creole-Cajun-zydeco soundtrack, this flavorful Jim McBride movie also offers Dennis Quaid’s irresistible grin (in its way as life-loving as the city’s reputation), and a foreplay scene (with Ellen Barkin) that just doesn’t quit, no matter how many repeated viewings (ahem) some of us may sneak.

The Big Easy (film)
The Big Easy (film) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Broadway Danny Rose (1984)

Was New York at its New Yorkest in the 1950s? Woody Allen’s painfully lovely small-time showbiz ballad, Broadway Danny Rose features Allen’s low-rung talent agent, Mia Farrow’s floozy, and Nick Apollo Forte’s comeback-kid lounge singer, all mixing it up in a 1950s-ish world of nightclubs, back offices, liaison flats, and very real spots 275 | us ness r p V like the Carnegie Deli. So flavorsome it makes most of Allen’s other New York movies seem generic

Atlantic City (1980)

A great American city—decaying tourist trap, haven for lowlife, repository of dreams, schizophrenic, gentrified-neglected mess—is the backdrop to Louis Malle’s Atlantic City, which largely involves a romance of sorts between dapper has-been septuagenarian Burt Lancaster and casino trainee Susan Sarandon.

Vertigo (1958)

 

 

English: Screenshot from the original 1958 the...
English: Screenshot from the original 1958 theatrical trailer for the film Vertigo Frame taken from MPEG4. Note: This version of the original 1958 theatrical trailer is of significantly lower quality than the 1996 restoration theatrical trailer. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 Vertigo is San Francisco’s house movie, so famously entangled in the city’s landmarks that for years now, tourists have easily found guided tours of the places featured in the film, in the order in which they’re seen. Of course, the substance of the film is something else—James Stewart, two Kim Novaks, a ghost, a fear of heights, and a psychosexual obsession so subtly but clearly delineated by director Alfred Hitchcock that this film remains one of the most perverse in Hollywood history.

The Devil Wears Prada (2006)

 

A vitriolic dig at the fashion-magazine industry—what could be better?—with Meryl Streep making an Oscar-nominated meal out of the megalomaniac queen bee modeled on Anna Wintour and Anne Hathaway as the eager young journalist whose naive eyes are opened. You’ll all get the fashion-label in-jokes and trendy digs without worrying about a nearby man scoffing or raising an eyebrow. Based on the bestseller by Lauren Weisberger.

English: Anne Hathaway during production of Th...
English: Anne Hathaway during production of The Devil Wears Prada (Photo credit: Wikipedia)