My Essential Movies

Just bury at least one Blu-ray copy of each of these films in my casket, okay?

Close Encounters of the Third Kind

Theatrical and director’s cut:
1980 Special Edition:

What was it in the water in 1977 that directors of classic sci-fi movies couldn’t leave well enough alone? Long before George Lucas had turned the words “Han Shot First” into a fanboy battle cry, Steven Spielberg had already done a major facelift on his landmark UFO film. When Close Encounters was in production, Spielberg was aiming for a summer, 1978, release. Columbia Pictures, on the verge of bankruptcy, forced him to finish the movie for the fall of 1977, leaving unfilmed several of what he thought were key scenes.

Continue reading

Paths of Glory

[/types]]

Legendary French director François Truffaut famously said that it was impossible to make a truly anti-war film, because film inherently glamorizes everything it depicts. That quote is hard to reconcile, however, with the evidence of Stanley Kubrick’s first truly great movie. Continue reading

Das Boot

[/types]]

Wolfgang Petersen’s obsessively detailed World War II epic remains one of the most influential war movies and certainly continues to set a gold standard for submarine movies. Even the best of the rest, such as Hunt for Red October, run a distant second. If this all sounds like fanboy blather, well, it is, but it’s still hard to overstate the achievements of this film.

Continue reading

Taxi Driver

[/types]]

This story of a lonely man isolated from the millions of people around him could have been told in any city but Martin Scorcese’s movie could only have been made in New York City, and only in the city of the mid-seventies. Travis Bickle is as much a product of that time and place as he is a creation of screenwriter Paul Schrader’s imagination.

The New York City of Taxi Driver is definitely not today’s “Disney-fied” city. This is the pre-Giuliani Big Apple, the domain of pimps and drug dealers. Continue reading

Hamlet

[/types]]

When sorrows come, they come not single spies but in battalions.

One might call this the Spinal Tap adaptation of Shakespeare’s greatest play, because everything about it most definitely goes to eleven. The first film of the unabridged text of Hamlet and the last film shot in seventy millimeter as of today, Kenneth Branagh’s brazenly, foolishly ambitious project will be the shortest four hours you ever spent in front of one movie. A broad cast of both veteran Shakespearean actors and many who you would not expect in this kind of film wring both drama and raw emotion out of words often calcified under the dreary mantle of “literature.”

Continue reading

Jaws

[/types]]

I'm not going to waste my time arguing with a man who’s lining up to be a hot lunch.

Many of you might not be old enough to recall but Jaws effectively invented the concept of the summer movie as we know it today. Two years before Star Wars, it was the first film to really demonstrate the power of all those teenagers, recently freed from school, to generate an ass-load of money at the box office.

Of course, this was also before the modern marketing machine was fully geared up, so in order for a movie to become a mega-blockbuster, it depended on a lot of word-of-mouth to get people’s butts into the seats. In those days, it still required that the film not suck. Mission accomplished, I’d say.

Continue reading

The French Connection

[/types]]

William Friedkin’s The French Connection is a lean, uncompromising example of filmmaking without a single gram of fat on its bones. Nothing unnecessary to telling the story is on screen, allowing Friedkin to tell a fairly complex story within a surprisingly compact running time of 104 minutes. Gene Hackman’s balls-out performance as unconventional and obsessive narcotics cop Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle elevates what was already a superior film to the level of a classic.

Continue reading

Laura

[/types]]

As a teenager in the 1940s, my mother was a self-professed movie buff, spending a lot of her free time with her friends at the matinees and double features in Schenectady, New York, where she grew up. She probably lost count of the number of movies that she see saw back in the day, but one she remembered forty and fifty years later was Laura. When Fox finally came to their senses and released it on VHS some time ago, I was finally able to appreciate why.

Continue reading

Platoon

[/types]]

Oliver Stone’s Platoon remains the pinnacle of his directorial career and with good reason. Presenting the grunt’s eye view of the Vietnam War, this is definitely a movie that could only have been made by someone who had been there. Even if you disagree with Stone’s politics and find fault with his later work, it’s hard to dispute the sincerity and brutal honesty he brings to this film.

Continue reading

Sands of Iwo Jima

[/types]]

For those of you who are interested, this is the movie that cemented John Wayne’s image as Hollywood’s personification of the All-American war hero (despite his never serving a day in the military). The former Marion Michael Morrison had made a handful of war movies between 1941 and ’45, but it is Sgt. John Stryker that still forms the public’s perception of Wayne’s tough guy persona.

Continue reading

Saving Private Ryan

[/types]]

”[types
[/types]“]

Saving Private Ryan is almost two movies in one. The first is a short but intense 30-minute piece about the Omaha Beach landings while the second is a more traditional “unit” picture running about two-and-a-half hours. Only the presence of the same actors in both ties the two parts together. Each could probably stand separately but folded into the same film, the first part helps give the second, longer narrative layers of meaning and emotional weight that it wouldn’t otherwise carry.

Continue reading

This is Spinal Tap

[/types]]

After doing for heavy metal what Blazing Saddles did for westerns, This Is Spinal Tap also managed to spark a minor cottage industry known as the Christopher Guest mockumentary. Now, Tap was hardly the first fake rock documentary, since The Rutles had been around for several years. Eric Idle’s spoof of Beatlemania, however, never got near the National Film Registry as did Rob Reiner’s affectionate yet lacerating take on head-bangers.

Continue reading