Every Cineaste has a “pantheon”, a critical assessment of the directors and works that are unassailably the most significant films of all time. Some stick with the New Wave: Godard, Truffaut, Chabrol. For others, it’s Hitchcock, or Scorsese, or Kurosawa, or Bergman,or Welles, or Kubrick, or Fellini. What films are always at the top of the list? Citizen Kane, Vertigo, The Rules of the Game, 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Searchers, Battleship Potemkin, The Seventh Seal. All great films.
The same group confesses to what they call “Guilty Pleasures,” films so mainstream, so conventional, that no amount of critical jargon can elevate them beyond personal partiality as trivial entertainment. I’m quite fond of the films they nominate (Valley of the Dolls, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Barbarella, The Boys From Brazil, Willard, Point Break) but each has a critical point of connection in terms of auteur (Russ Meyer) or actor (Crispin Glover, Sir Lawrence Olivier) that the films can be seen, at the very least, as worthy of polite, demi-eyebrow-raised discussion. The Love Bug and Honey? Gator and Bullet to the Head? Eye of the beholder.
I studied with Jeanine Basinger at Wesleyan and had the good fortune at the same time to have a slight friendship with Pauline Kael. Both women helped to invent the language of film criticism, and both women held films to a very high standard. They were each capable of writing and speaking with crisp insight, holding directors responsible for failure to make a film that kept its promise; they believed that form and meaning were essentially bound together; a film better look and play to some purpose other than flash and sizzle.
Kael wrote, “Movies are so rarely great art, that if we can’t appreciate great trash, there is little reason for us to go.” In print and in private, Pauline Kael enjoyed steamy, sexy films, especially those with lots of sweating, well muscled, lithe, lightly clothed actors, as long as the film did not drop into pathos. She loved Paul Newman’s Hud in part because he is an unredeemed heel and did not jump on the bandwagon when Scorsese’s Raging Bull was the critics’ favorite because she felt the film was suffused with sentimentality and self-pity, despite occasional physical brutality. As a critic, Kael thought Hud was sloppy; at home, she though Newman was a hunk.
Jeanine Basinger has a very clear critical voice and is among the most widely published of academic film critics and historians. She is a remarkable teacher, in part because she combines a love and reverence for film and for its history with a sharp critical eye. One of the highlights of my work with film came in listening to Jeanine as she screened Johnny Guitar; she noted every decision Nicholas Ray had made, essentially allowing us to see how a director creates a universe of incredible density and intensity. That said, she treasures the films of Frank Capra, has written about Lana Turner, Shirley Temple, Gene Kelly, and a history of marriage in the movies. She is a curator, historian, critic, and above all, enthusiast. I owe my love of Preston Sturges to her, and it is with Sturges that I start the list of films that are pretty great.
The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek
Watching a Preston Sturges film is like being trapped UNDER a deeply cynical elder aunt maintaining scathing and wickedly funny patter as the thoroughly dysfunctional family moving through the room takes pratfall after pratfall. Sturges’ films are so tightly packed, both visually and with overlapping dialogue, that it may take more than one viewing to fully appreciate how cleverly ordinary exchanges become indelibly funny. Eddie Bracken frequently plays what I can only describe as an Everyman WASP nebbish/schlemiel, a nervous Charlie Brown, in this film Norval Jones, categorized as unfit for service, pining for blonde Betty Hutton,as Trudy Kockenlocker, a ditzy small town beauty who extends herself in every way to servicemen heading off to combat. Finding herself pregnant with no available husband, she enlists Jones as a stand-in, presenting himself as the father, although Trudy can’t remember the name of her one-night adventure. “It had a z in it. Like Ratzkywatzky or was it Zitzkywitzky?” Comedies about unwed mothers were verboten; censorship applied by the Hays Office (Motion Picture Production Code) prevented showing a married couple in the same bed and what they termed, “heavy kissing”. So, As Critic James Agee observed, “The Hays office must have been raped in its sleep” when Morgan’s Creek was released.
Ball Of Fire
I’m increasingly aware of the charm that seasoned character actors brought to the films their studios shot during the height of the studio system. A film programmer once asked me who my favorite actor was from that era, and my first thought was S.Z. Sakall, known to those who loved him as “Cuddles” Sakall. Casual filmgoers will know him as Carl, the headwaiter in Rick’s Club in Casablanca, or as Barbara Stanwyck’s chef, Felix Bassenak in Christmas in Connecticut. Sakall is one of seven professors living together as they compile an encyclopedic account of all things known. Think Snow White and seven brainy dwarves, one of whom is Gary Cooper, playing against type as a lanky academic, Professor Bertram Potts, untutored in affairs of the heart. Snow White in this case is anything but snow white; Barbara Stanwyck plays Sugarpuss O’Shea, a hip singer in a nightclub and a gangster’s moll on the lam, hiding out in the encyclopedists’ lair. Cooper and Stanwyck make a charming set of unlikely lovers, but the real texture of the film is in the various backstories of the remaining professors, each of which falls for Sugarpuss in his own gentle fashion. In addition to Sakall (eminently cuddly in this outing), the experts include Oskar Homolka (crusty uncle in I Remember Mama, frequently cast as dangerous spy from somewhere in Eastern Europe), Henry Travers (Guardian Angel, Clarence, in It’s A Wonderful Life), Tully Marshall (A Yank At Oxford), Leonid Kinskey (bartender, Sascha, in Casablanca), and Richard Haydn (Max Detweiler in Sound of Music). Gene Krupa puts in a cameo appearance as the star drummer in Sugarpuss’ nightclub, playing Drum Boogie on matchsticks, Allan Jenkins is a garbageman (voice of Officer Dibble in cartoon, Top Cat), and Elisha Wood is a waiter. Wood is a smarmy and ineffectual hoodlum in dozens of films, perhaps best known as the creep, Wilmer, in The Maltese Falcon, and is always a good bet to be the first to die in any film in which he appears. This great supporting cast bring out the best in Sugarpuss and Potts and makes this a thoroughly charming film.
Big Trouble In Little China
Big Trouble is as close to a successful self-aware pulp mash-up as you are likely to find. John Carpenter’s fondness for genre films has allowed him to turn out some dandies (Halloween, Starman, Escape From New York, Assault on Precinct 13, Prince of Darkness), each of which has the Carpenter touch, a mixture of genuine appreciation of the tropes of the genre and a wry admission of the silliness inherent in the genre. In writing Assault On Precinct 13, Carpenter challenged himself to meld together two films he much admired, Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo and George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. All for under $100,000.00. Genius! Similarly, when Carpenter was handed a project set in the American West in the 1880’s, it was but the work of a moment to transform it into a Chinese mysticism and martial arts film set in contemporary San Francisco. Kurt Russell plays a wisecracking truck driver, marvelously overconfident and monumentally ill equipped for the battles he will have to wage against The Lords of Death, a street gang set on kidnapping a young woman who will serve the needs of evil sorceror, Lo Pan (James Hong in a role that only he could play), and the Three Storms (Gigantic Chinese martial artists portraying the elemental forces of Thunder, Rain, and Lightning). There’s another war afoot between two competing ancient societies, Chang Sing and Wing Kong, allowing for widespread and almost constant mayhem (Carpenter had been dying to do a martial arts film) interrupted by two slight love stories. Russell’s macho posturing is a send-up of John Wayne at his most oblivious and, set against the creepily mythic forces with which he contends, truly memorable.
The Court Jester
Danny Kaye deserves his own tribute site, but The Court Jester may be the most enduringly accessible of the Kaye’s films (with the obvious exception of White Christmas). The premise is entirely familiar: Lumpish, greedy pretender (character actor Cecil Parker)has taken the throne abetted by a scheming advisor who wields a mean sword (Basil Rathbone, villainous Sheriff of Nottingham in Errol Flynn’s Robin Hood). A princess (Angela Lansbury well before her stint as Jessica Fletcher on Murder She Wrote) falls for Kaye’s character, an ineffectual hanger-on in the band of woodmen led by a ersatz Robin Hood, known in this pastiche, as The Black Fox. Through a series of misadventures, Kaye has to prevent the rotters from finding and eliminating the true heir. On the way to the castle, he falls for one of the Black Fox’s company, an extremely competent young woman (Stunningly young Glynis Johns, honey-voiced, most known now as the suffragette mom in Mary Poppins) and is forced to impersonate the most celebrated jester of his time in order to worm his way into the inner circle at court. There are many unexpected pleasures, but the best may be the extended duel between Rathbone and Danny Kaye, who slips in and out of hypnosis, alternately quivering wimp and contemptuous expert
This film is lavish in set and color, the most expensive comedy of its time, and a semi-musical romance as well. Kaye often performed the giddily goofy wordplay concocted by his wife, Sylvia Fine, a songwriter peculiarly gifted in the art of composing tongue-twisting novelty songs, done famously by Kaye, often in an assumed accent.
Tommy Lee Jones, Harvard roommate of Al Gore, All-Ivy football player, English major plays competent, tough, principled men with unfailing sensitivity. His performance in No Country For Old Men is heartbreaking, and his pursuit in The Fugitive set the bar for all bounty hunters. He’s on the hunt again in this film, but he is chasing a resourceful wronged wife, Ashley Judd this time. I don’t know if there is a badly-used-wife thriller genre (Sleeping with the Enemy, Enough), but this one has all the most disturbing of the elements, including injury, betrayal, and a contrived conviction for a murder. Both Jones and Judd are strong in their roles, and their adventure is filmed against some delicious backdrops. This is a clever edge of the seat chase film with balance and enough suspense to keep it moving well.
Point of No Return
Let’s start with Miguel Ferrer. He’s a good person. Really. He’s been kind to me. On the screen, however, he’s the best bad guy ever. His mom, Rosemary Clooney, probably never thought her little boy would turn out to be the oily villain in Robo Cop and the terrifying Shan Yu in Mulan. Happily, Ferrer is not the only horrible person in Point of No Return. How about Harvey Keitel as “the cleaner”, and this is 1993, well before Pulp Fiction. In fact, Bridget Fonda is wholeheartedly horrible at the outset, and increasingly dangerous from her point of no return as a highly trained assassin. I like the original, Nikita, directed by Luc Besson, and I like the John Badham version on its own merits, partly because the transformation Bridget Fonda undergoes as she is remade from skanked out drug addict to sleek human weapon and partly because Venice (California) looks fabulous. I don’t know that Joss Whedon absorbed the tone and shape of this film in conceiving the tv show, Dollhouse, but there are resonances that can’t be ignored. The soundtrack is remarkable; Nina Simone sings, “Here Comes the Sun”, “I Want a Little Sugar in My Bowl”, “Feeling Good,” Wild is the Wind,” and a soul-searing version of “Black is the Color of my True Love’s Hair.”
I know, the premise, putting a Playboy bunny in place as a sorority housemother, appears slight, and the weight of a thousand tasteless and almost routinely offensive Frat/College/Late Adolescent films is a profound burden, but The House Bunny is disarmingly sweet, essentially repurposing Ball of Fire by dropping good-hearted Anna Faris in the midst of the Nerd House, a collection of social misfits (Emma Stone, Katharine McPhee, Rumer Willis, Kat Denning among others), allowing each to bring out hidden capacities. Some of the charm is in seeing Emma Stone emerge from gawky, self-conscious goofiness to the hesitant beauty we have come to know. At the time, Stone had done a few television shows (Malcolm in the Middle), and had appeared in Judd Apatow’s Superbad, but was still a relative unknown. She’d hit it big in the next few years (Zombieland, Easy A), but was already unerringly effective in creating a character that was awkwardness personified. There are fairly conventional geek vs sorority queen sequences, but the abiding good heartedness of this film allows a conventional comedy to take on some surprising weight. A particular treat, I contend, is the trio (Stone, Rumer Willis, and Kat Dennings) backing Katharine McPhee’s take on the Waitresses song, “I Know What Boys Like.”
N.B. This is the opportunity to give credit to Kirsten Smth and Karen McCullah (formerly Karen McCullah Lutz) who wrote some of the most engaging of films in the genre that came to be called Girl Power. The two combined to write or co-write Ten Things I Hate About You, Legally Blonde, Ella Enchanted, She’s the Man, and The House Bunny. You can add any of these to yet another list of films that are pretty great.
What About Bob
Movies that bristle with animosity rarely appear in the ranks of most appreciated comedies, but the descent of a noted Psychiatrist (Richard Dreyfuss) into frenzied retaliatory madness provoked by an unrelentingly needy patient (Bill Murray) works because Dreyfuss is put upon to just the right degree of insult and Murray demolishes boundaries with the clumsiness of a charismatic narcissist. Dreyfus is pompous enough to deserve some of the misfortune he encounters, and Murray is intrusive enough to make Dreyfus’ fury reasonable. The psychiatrist’s family, which could have become collaterally damaged, has been waiting for the transparent vulnerability Murray’s character brings to their summe retreat. Julie Haggerty, often given the role as a flighty and over-nervous woman, is kind and competent in this film. Son, Siggy (Sigmund) is played by Charlie Korsmo, a terrific child actor, who also played Robin William’s son, Jack in Hook. Korsomo left acting behind, went to MIT and then to Yale Law School – film’s loss. Daughter, Anna, is played by Katherine Erbe, now a regular on Law and Order: Criminal Intent and also a death row inmate on HBO’s Oz. For many, young Erbe has one of the most memorable scenes, as a fully sentient teen forced to communicate with her psychiatrist father through the use of hand puppets. Pretty great.
Get Over It
I can’t watch Martin Short for too long; his mastery of character is so painfully compelling, and those characters are ALWAYS grotesque and unsettling, that I have to take ten minutes to breathe a bit.. His work on Saturday Night Live is well documented, but he has been equally disturbing on Canada’s SCTV , in a number of cameo roles (Plastic Surgeon on Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt!), as a host of various interview shows as an assumed persona, and in a series of impersonations that are devastatingly funny (Manic Jerry Lewis Telethon). All of which is to say that Short, a drama teacher in this teen romantic comedy mash up of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and any number of high school comedies (Clueless?) simply adds spice to a very strong cast. Ben Foster, Kirsten Dunst, and Shane West are the teens central to the romantic triangle, but older protective brother, Colin Hanks, rivals Short, essentially setting blind date Carmen Electra on fire in a Hibachi restaurant. The auditions for the musical version of Midsummer, a predictably terrible adaptation scripted by quintessentially narcissistic drama teacher (Short), may be entirely too close to the real thing.
State And Main
I’m a fan of ensemble films, movies that bring a great cast together and allow characters to bump up against each other in ways that drive the narrative but also reveal texture of relationships. Christopher Guest assembles ensembles in that fashion, bringing a cast from one film to the next, allowing actors to play differing sorts of roles, as in Best in Show, Waiting for Guffman, A Mighty Wind, For Your Consideration. Paul Thomas Anderson, Wes Anderson, and the Coen brothers also carry actors from script to script, maintaining a balance among actors, even when an A list star is in the cast. America’s Sweethearts brings an ensemble together as does Love Actually.
State and Main is an ensemble film (William H. Macey, Sarah Jessica Parker, Alec Baldwin, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Julia Stiles, Charles Durning, Rebecca Pidgeon, Patti LuPone, Clark Gregg, Ricky Jay, Jonathan Katz, and John Krasinski) set in a small New England town. This is a version of the backstage film written with wry good humor by David Mamet. Mamet also directed, as he did The Spanish Prisoner, with the sort of attention to dialogue that allows actors of this calibre to flex their comedic muscles. Baldwin’s engorged libido has forced the cast of a film in production to flee the small town in New Hampshire appropriate to their needs to an equally small town in Vermont that is little prepared for the havoc the production will bring. The leading lady, Sarah Jessica Parker, refuses to do a nude scene unless she is paid what amounts to the film’s entire shooting budget. The leading man, Baldwin, sets his sights on an under ages Julia Stiles. Philip Seymour Hoffman, the screenwriter asked to modify the script as accident and human failings change the circumstance of filming, is charming and vulnerable as he battles a severe case of panic/writer’s block. Any one of these actors could be singled out as remarkable; the ensemble is, well, pretty great.