Category Archives: Director

Friends with Money (2006)

Writer-director Nicole Holofcener’s film Friends with Money analyzes a very particular dynamic—that of being a luckless and careerless lonely girl (Jennifer Aniston) in an L.A. circle of friends (Catherine Keener, Frances McDormand, and Joan Cusack) who are all married and rich. Seems preposterous, given the casting, but nobody in this country uses as sympathetic a microscope as Holofcener when examining the conundrums of modern women, and Aniston is convincing and sad. With Jason Isaacs.

Friends with Money
Friends with Money (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
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Erin Brockovich (2000)

A film designed to win its star an Oscar if there ever was one, Steven Soderbergh’s Erin Brockovich sets up Julia Roberts as a working-class single-mom heroine for the oppressed, legally battling corporate giant Pacific Gas and Electric on behalf of the scores of poor locals who have endured decades of tumors and other illnesses thanks to the illegal use and dumping of poisonous chemicals. Filthy with character details and robust righteousness, the film is also notable for its dismissal of love and even parenthood in favor of doing justice, fighting the good fight, and working your ass off at something you believe in.

Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974)

Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore
Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Ellen Burstyn snagged an Oscar for Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, an unpredictable, somewhat odd tale, in which the heroine—a single mother who works as a diner waitress and dreams of becoming a club singer—tries to keep the future looking bright in the Arizona flatlands for her smart-mouthed son (Alfred Lutter), even as patient hunk Kris Kristofferson waits out the brawls. Martin Scorsese directed, clearly without having ever met a midwesterner. With Harvey Keitel and Diane Ladd.

Saving Private Ryan (1998)

The first and more orthodox World War II war film of 1998, Steven Spielberg’s heroic yarn Saving Private Ryan follows a troop of assorted all-American types through the European theater on what seems to them to be a fool’s mission: retrieving a soldier (Matt Damon) from battle after his brothers are killed elsewhere. Tom Hanks rings true as an unlikely macho commander, and the opening D-Day sequence is justly famous for being gut-twisting. With Edward Burns and Tom Sizemore.

Saving Private Ryan
Saving Private Ryan (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Paths of Glory (1957)

Stanley Kubrick’s bare-knuckle screed about war and military injustice, set during World War I and amid the French; Kirk Douglas plays a colonel ordered to shove his men into a hopeless slaughter; when they eventually refuse, he’s compelled to court-martial a handful of random infantrymen for cowardice. Paths of Glory is muscular storytelling and unremitting moral outrage.

The Shining (1980)

Jack Nicholson, a telepathic boy, an empty hotel, an axe. And oh, so much more—Stanley Kubrick’s landmark boo-fest rewards repeat viewings like a slot machine, from the awful sound of the kid’s Big Wheel on those silent corridor carpets to the beautiful naked ghost in the bathtub to Lloyd the saturnine bartender, fueling the animal for a night of mad havoc. The Shining is as much a hair-raising exploration of writer’s block, wintertime claustrophobia, and paternal impatience as it is a whacked-out horror flick—and it does run amuck in its own ozone. If little else, it’ll surely cure you of the notion that getting genuinely snowed in within a cavernous resort hotel might be fun or restorative, but being trapped at home with this dilly can electrify a cold, dull afternoon. If you can’t already quote at least half a dozen lines (“Give me the bat, Wendy . . .”), you need to catch up with the rest of America. All work and no play, indeed. With Shelley Duvall, Joe Turkell, and Scatman Crothers.

Jack Nicholson in the famous “Here’s Johnny” scene
Jack Nicholson in the famous “Here’s Johnny” scene (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Fearless (1993)

A great, overlooked film of the American 1990s, this throat-grabber from director Peter Weir begins with a catastrophic airliner crash, then follows the dazed path of a survivor (Jeff Bridges), with a post-traumatic sense of invulnerability. Fearless‘s second story thread is where it leaves its bruises: a young mom (Rosie Perez) is ruined by grief after she fails to hold onto her baby son during the crash. The two them enact a dubious, free-for-all self-cure, and the fallout—particularly when Perez dares to smell someone else’s baby in a mall, or faces off against the dubious condolences offered by airline company grief therapy—is brutal and beautiful both. Be careful; it plays for keeps.

Fearless (1993 film)
Fearless (1993 film) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989)

One of Woody Allen’s richest films, and one that dares to take on the weightiest of moral dilemmas, as Martin Landau’s tortured Manhattan ophthalmologist is confronted with saving himself, his wife, and his lifestyle from the destructive forces of Anjelica Huston’s unstable girlfriend. Crimes and Misdemeanors asks: what can we live with? What price can we, and others, pay for peace and happiness? With Mia Farrow and Alan Alda.

Crimes and Misdemeanors
Crimes and Misdemeanors (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Mr. & Mrs. Smith (1941)

Every pair of married lovebirds has to ask: if you had to do it all over, would you get married again? The luminescent Carole Lombard asks Robert Montgomery that very question and he responds “no,” leaving us all to wonder if his eyes, brain, and loins are still in functioning order. It turns out that a paperwork glitch grants him his wish—they’re not legally wed after all, and Carole hands him his hat in high dudgeon, giving him no choice but to woo her back. It certainly seems improbable that this marital conundrum is brought to you by cynical master Alfred Hitchcock, but we should be so lucky as to still have romantic comedies like this: you haven’t seen anything until you’ve seen Montgomery try to punch himself in the nose, or Lombard handle acres of prime slapstick dialogue with the fierce energy of a tornado. A caveat: Mr. & Mrs. Smith is an anniversary movie only for those who would answer that question—“Would you marry me all over again?”—with an emphatic yes. Otherwise, your yearly celebration of conjugal bliss might end in separate bedroom assignments.

Cropped screenshot of Robert Montgomery and Ca...
Cropped screenshot of Robert Montgomery and Carole Lombard from the trailer for the film Mr. & Mrs. Smith (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Tin Cup (1996)

Ron Shelton’s making his incisive way through the major sports (let’s hope he hasn’t given up before getting to boccie), and here he rampages across the green with Kevin Costner’s gone-to-seed golf rogue, who’s trying to qualify for the U.S. Open in order to impress Rene Russo. Because it’s Shelton, Tin Cup is probably the most faithful movie ever made about the game, even if it’s too long and Costner’s aging rapscallion pales after a while.

Cover of "Tin Cup"
Cover of Tin Cup

Pat and Mike (1952)

Cover of "The Hepburn & Tracy Signature C...
Cover via Amazon

Katharine Hepburn is a pro golfer, Spencer Tracy is her promoter, and Garson Kanin and Ruth Gordon’s screenplay gives them helping after helping of gender-combat banter, on and off the course (we’re treated to the sight of Hepburn herself, in a championship game, hitting against legendary real-life pro Babe Didrikson Zaharias, who was the subject of the 1975 TV movie Babe). Pat and Mike is perhaps the best of the Hepburn-Tracy comedies—because here, Tracy doesn’t always get the upper hand.

Raising Arizona (1987)

Joel and Ethan Coen’s second film, and a wild-eyed, Rube Goldberg riot, as Southern-fool marrieds Nicolas Cage and Holly Hunter, unable to have babies of their own (“Her insides were a rocky place,” Cage’s dopey felon bemoans in an unforgettable narration, “where my seed could find no purchase.”), kidnap one from a set of quintuplets. From there, Raising Arizona is a veritable Road Runner cartoon revolving around the infant’s essentially irresistible baby-ness, and there are enough character-rich hee-haws for ten movies. The urgent matter of getting your hands on some Huggies in the worst of circumstances was never made so thrilling.

JFK (1991)

Maybe this Oliver Stone blitz should be listed under “Election Day” (although that may depend on your political predilections), but it’s also one of our modern era’s most convincing paranoiac screeds. Much of JFK —which revolves primarily around actors like Kevin Costner acting out one of several semi-possible conspiracy scenarios regarding the events that occurred in Dealey Plaza on November 22, 1963—is questionable, but just as much is not. At least credit Stone for having the cajones to have Costner’s Jim Garrison, unraveling a plot that reaches straight to Lyndon Johnson, spit the word “facism” during his in-court summation. With Gary Oldman, Tommy Lee Jones, Kevin Bacon, Joe Pesci, and Sissy Spacek.

The Conversation (1974)

Between the Godfathers, Francis Ford Coppola crafted The Conversation, a nerve-racking essay on privacy and surveillance; Gene Hackman is a bugging expert who’s so good at his job that he’s emptied his life rather than be bugged himself. Murder might result from one assignment, sending him on a guilty, destabilized tear—which in turn makes him the subject of the surveillance he’s always dreaded. Indelible. With Harrison Ford.

Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)

Wes Anderson‘s stop-motion terrarium-movie, loosely based on an old Roald Dahl story, is a fast-talking, zesty riot, in which the eponymouse George Clooney-voiced egomaniac hero jeopardizes his tabletop country’s animal denizens by stepping outside of his tamed middle-class life and succumbing to his essential fox-ness. Kids will be dazzled in an analogue kind of way – it’s made of handheld toys more convincingly than the sheeny Toy Story films – and parents will be struck be its grown-up comic timing and the fact that, unlike other films of its kind, Fantastic Mr. Fox is a film that remembers but does not mourn childhood, in all of its cobbled-together, dirt-digging, plan-hatching dizziness. With Meryl Streep.

Fantastic Mr. Fox (film)
Fantastic Mr. Fox (film) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Mosquito Coast (1986)

Well, this’ll take the cake: if your dad is Harrison Ford, and he strands you and your family on a Central American jungle coastline so you can create paradise away from the evils of society, then you’ve won the Worst Vacation Ever sweepstakes handily. In The Mosquito Coast, Ford is fascinatingly out of character as a deluded utopian, and director Peter Weir knows how to turn the screws.

The Mosquito Coast
The Mosquito Coast (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Lost in America (1985)

Is Lost in America the worst vacation on film? Don’t throw down an extreme-scenario gauntlet if you don’t want Albert Brooks to step up and take the gold. Here, he’s a fired ad exec who leaves L.A. with wife Julie Hagerty and a head full of road movie cliches and Easy Rider memories. He doesn’t get far, and the comedy of discomfort that ensues is peerless.

Lost in America
Lost in America (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.

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)

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.

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)

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

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.

Out of Sight (1998)

A girls’ club natural, Out of Sight is better watched once the chatter fades, because there’s not a iota of novelist Elmore Leonard’s snappy banter you can afford to miss. A great, comical neo-noir on one hand, this Steven Soderbergh gift also proves the theory that sex starts in the brain. The pas de deux here, amid a cast of supporting eccentrics, is between Jennifer Lopez’s federal marshal and inveterate bank robber George Clooney; Clooney’s fast-thinking, humane crook knows what he wants from the get-go, but Lopez’s savvy fed—the pop-culture star’s best role by far—struggles mightily between her cop instincts to catch him and haul him back to prison and her desire to ride him like a pony (a yearning every woman in the room will be sharing). Absolutely the best sotto voce flirt talk heard in a movie since, well, maybe ever, and that’s what counts for grown-ups.

 

English: George Clooney at the 2009 Venice Fil...
English: George Clooney at the 2009 Venice Film Festival (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

Walking and Talking (1996)

Nicole Holofcener’s chick flick depends absolutely and generously on the verve and candor of Catherine Keener and Anne Heche, as lifelong buddies negotiating their own mutating friendship as one faces marriage and the other faces loneliness. The film has the easy rhythm of a three-hour girl talk phone call, and all the actors run like linebackers with their unpredictable and witty (but not too witty) characters, including Liev Schreiber. Keener is particularly radiant and raw in a way that justifies the whole movie—a dozen emotions can register on her face all at once. Watching her come up with something to say in an embarrassing situation is like watching a Japanese table-tennis pro play himself.