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A Scene From the World’s First Motion Picture
Copyright Expired
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Movies

There are many wonderful movies.  I begin this list with those that occur to me first.  The list will grow and eventually will represent some of the best from the 1920s to the present. The list will also grow because great  movies come out all the time and as they do they will likely earn ‘kudos’.

Citizen Kane 
Orson Welles, Joseph Cotten 1941
Many believe this to be the best movie ever made.  And then again, there are many who do not have the patience to watch it. While Citizen Kane won 9 academy awards, some contemporary critics do not think very much of it at all.  Ingmar Bergman, for example, said the movie was a “bore”.


Orson Welles, Herman Mankiewicz, John Houseman writing Citizen Kane c. 1938
From Newspaper Article about the book Mank
Public Domain

The Mission  
Robert De Niro, Jeremy Irons 1986
Released in 1986, this film, starring Robert De Niro, was a Cannes winner.  It also garnered a number of other prestigious awards. The music score and cinematogrophy were particularly noted.  Certainly the scenery is breathtaking. The action takes place in colonial South America, much of it in a primordial jungle.  This backdrop emphasizes the sense of original sin which permeates the film as Rodrigo (De Niro) enslaves the indigenous people and slays his own brother.

The Mission
made a lasting impression on me and I consider it to be one of the best–that is most meaningful–films I have ever seen.

Iguazu Falls, where much of the action in Mission takes place
Photo by Reinhard, Jahn Mannheim
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons


The Blues Brothers 
John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd, 1980
One of my favorite movies of all time, The Blues Brothers is as rewarding to listen to as it is to watch. I’ve never been a Belushi fan, but his performance in this film helps to explain why so many people are. Belushi and Aykroyd are the headliners but there are unforgettable cameos by other legendary figures, such as Cab Calloway, Aretha  Franklin and Ray Charles.  Watch this movie for the comedy, for the music, for the characters.

21 Grams 
Sean Penn and Naomi Watts 2003
One of my favorite Sean Penn movies. Do not watch if you are feeling down–this film is not likely to cheer you up.   Benicio del Toro, Naomi Watts, Melissa Leo also turn in brilliant performances.   The plot involves a devastating car accident and a heart transplant.  Enough said.  If you like a really good film that makes you think for a few minutes, catch this one.

O Brother, Where Art Thou 

George Clooney and Holly Hunter 2000
The Coen Brothers deliver in ways I never would have expected.  But then, what do I expect from the Coen Brothers except originality?  Delightful turn by John Goodman (but, then, when is he not delightful?), John Turturro, Charles Durning and a host of other performers.

Great music.  Whacky story line.


Bottomland Hardwood Swamp, Holly Springs National Forest
This swamp looks very much like the one depicted in O Brother, Where are Thou

Photo by Gary Bridgman

Public Domain on Wikimedia Commons


Beetlejuice :
Michael Keaton, Geena Davis, Alec Baldwin, Winona Ryder 1988
It’s possible this movie wouldn’t be on the list if Michael Keaton hadn’t been so effective in the title role.  Michael Keaton is Beetlejuice and what a rip he is

East of Eden :
Julie Harris, James Dean 1955
Tragic characters of mythic proportion.  Father against son, brother against brother. This movie will never be dated. The movie was based on a Steinbeck novel by the same name.  According to Steinbeck’s wife, he considered this novel to be his best work.  It traces partly the history of his own family in Salinas Valley, California. The picture below is of a 15-year-old pea picker in Salinas Valley, 1940.

Photo by Rondal Partridge
From the National Archives Record Administration

Platoon 
Charlie Sheen, Tom Berenger 1986
I saw this film for the first time with a Viet Nam vet.  He said Oliver Stone did it right.  In my opinion, Oliver Stone doesn’t always get it right, but I don’t see how you can top this movie. Unforgettable.

G
odfather  
Marlon Brando, Al Pacino 1972
What do you say about a classic with flawless acting and an impeccable script? Parts of this movie have been permanently woven into our culture. The American Film Institute ranks The Godfather as the second greatest American film.  While it doesn’t tell us anything about the way most Italians live, it has volumes to say about conflict and motivation.  The story centers around the Corleone family, which carries the name of the town in Sicily from which Vito Corleone immigrated in the early twenties.  The picture below is of Corleone, Sicily.

Photo by Rocca Busambra; Uploaded by Dedda 71
On Wikimedia Commons

Godfather II 
Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Diane Keaton, Robert Duvall 1974
There had to be a Godfather II; the story wasn’t done.  Nothing about this movie says “sequel”. There is a necessary fleshing out of character and plot.  A gem.

The Deer Hunter  
Robert De Niro, Meryl Streep, Christopher Walken 1978
Another Vietnam classic.  Catches some of the best actors of the time when they are establishing their careers.  Perhaps most unforgettable in this film is Christopher Walken.

Taxi Driver  
Robert De Niro, Jodie Foster 1976
Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro at the top of their form.  A career-defining role for an adolescent Jodi Foster.  A movie that became a cultural reference point. Gripping.

The Hustler 
Paul Newman, Piper Laurie, George C. Scott 1961
This is the movie about pool But of course the movie is about more than pool.  It is about fatally flawed characters driven by ambition, greed and dark forces they do not understand.

Haskell County, Kansas. Sublette’s Pool Hall 1941
Photo by Irving Rusinow
In the Public Domain on Wikimedia Commons From the National Archives


Apocalypse Now 
Martin Sheen, Marlon Brando 1976
Another Francis Ford Coppola masterpiece.  Based on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, this film is a study not only on the moral implications of the War in Vietnam, but also on all war.  Martin Sheen, Marlon Brando, Robert Duvall (especially Robert Duvall) are unforgettable, as are other supporting actors in this gem of a movie.

While Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) and his crew make their way up the Nung River from Vietnam into Cambodia, there is in actuality no river by that name–though the indigenous Nung people live in the region.  However, the Mekong River does through Vietnam and Cambodia. From the look of it, the Mekong could very well be the Nung.

The Mekong River in Laos
Photo by Allie Caulfield
Creative Commons on Wikimedia Commons

Raising Arizona 
Nicolas Cage, Holly Hunter 1987
The Coen brothers strike gold once again.  I think these two film makers must have more fun at work than most people manage to have on vacation.  At least that’s the impression I get from watching Nicolas Cage, Holly Hunter and John Goodman go through their paces.  While there is never anything saccharine about a Coen brothers’ offering, this one ends on an almost idyllic note. Nicolas Cage is especially memorable; at no point is his performance marred by a display of ego. It has been reported that Cage had some artistic differences with the Coens while making the film, but acquiesced to their direction.  I think everyone who watches this movie will be glad he did.

Searching for Sugarman
 
Director  Malik Bendjelloul 2012
This is a lovely movie, about a lovely man.  I came across it on cable when I was surfing channels one night and was captivated from the very beginning.  Although this is a documentary, it doesn’t unfold like one.  This is a mystery and a cinematic ode to a musician named Rodriguez.  The film is haunted by Rodriguez, by his shadow suggested on the forlorn streets of Detroit, by stories witnesses tell and most of all by his music.

I’d never heard of Rodriguez before this film, or maybe I had but didn’t pay any attention.  By the time I met Rodriguez, though, I was riveted to my seat.  I was entranced by the story of this unpretentious living legend.

Apocalypto
 
Rudy Youngblood and Dalia Hernandez  2006

Mayan Ruins–Stairs look like those on which heads of the sacrificed were tossed in Apocalypto
Author: Webber Source on Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

I think this movie is brilliant. Mel Gibson is an instinctive film maker who has mastered the tools of his craft.  Watching Apolalypto–or Braveheart, for that matter–is like reading a poem by Coleridge or Longfellow.  Those two poets knew the technical aspects of their art, but it was instinct and inspiration which allowed them to transcend the merely skillful and become consummate artists.

I don’t know if Mel Gibson is a tortured soul or a misguided person.  All I can say for sure is that he creates visual masterpieces of mythic quality.  Long after many films of his era have fallen away and been forgotten, his two films, Apocalypto and BraveheartApocalypto especially–will be seen as accomplishments of the highest order.

The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada
  
Tommy Lee Jones and Barry Pepper  2005
Last night I caught this film once again on cable.  It was late at night and I needed sleep, but couldn’t resist watching at least the first part.  Where do I begin praise of this lovely, thoughtful movie?  The actors are at the top of their form.  Tommy Lee Jones and Melissa Leo are especially memorable.  But so are January Jones, Barry Pepper, Julio Cedillo and Dwight Oakam.

Like so many great stories, this movie follows one man’s search for redemption.   The man may not be a voluntary participant in the quest, but there is never any doubt in a viewer’s mind (in mine, anyway) that the odyssey is a moral imperative. I’d like to note here also that the cameo performance by Lecon Helm as the blind man is haunting.  The scenery is stunning–the beauty and brutality of the landscape reinforce the dramatic action.

If you haven’t see The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada  and you appreciate good cinema, do yourself a favor and make time for this one.

Aerial view of the border with Mexico–mountainous terrain very much like that traversed by travelers in the Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada
Photo source: U. S. Fish and Wildlife; on Wikimedia Commons; in the public domain

Marathon Man 
The movie was based on a novel by the same name. William Goldman authored the book and adapted it for film.  “Is it safe?”–uttered with cold blooded determination by Laurence Olivier in a famous torture scene, became an iconic phrase.  Olivier portrays Christian Szell, a former Nazi, who wanders the Diamond District in New York City trying to get an appraisal for gems he has hidden in his walking stick.

The plot of the movie is convoluted as supposed allies reveal themselves to be double agents.  Dustin Hoffman, as Babe Levy, becomes ensnared in a web of intrigue.  This Columbia University graduate student seems unlikely to survive the web of duplicity which ensnares him. However, he has one trait that serves him well.  He is a marathon runner, accustomed to pushing himself beyond what most would consider a reasonable limit.

The movie’s dramatic climax centers around two determined men.  Is the student a match for the practiced sadist?  Marathon Man, released in 1976, was a critical and box office success.  Olivier won a Golden Globe for his performance and was nominated for an Oscar.  Hoffman is convincing as a Columbia graduate student, though he was in his late thirties when the movie was made.

New York City’s Diamond District
Photo by Chris Ruvolo; Permission for reusing: GFDL/CC-BY-SA
From Wikimedia Commons under Creative Commons Share-alike license

The Dancer Upstairs 
Javier Bardem and Laura Morante, 2002
This thoughtful, somewhat perplexing film will not be to everyone’s liking.  The story is based on events that occurred in Peru, mostly during the 1980s.  In that decade the Shining Path became a significant revolutionary movement; it was characterized by an almost fanatical devotion to ideology.  The Dancer Upstairs is a study not only of the Shining Path and its charismatic leader; the movie looks further.  It raises questions about the environment in which a movement such as the Shining Path might arise; it raises questions about how a charismatic figure can motivate people to behave in ways that to others seem irrational.

The Dancer Upstairs is perplexing because it raises questions but does not provide easy answers.  It also does not wrap its story in a neat, digestible package.   I have watched this movie twice and would watch it again.  Not only does Javier Bardem turn in his usual stellar performance, but the other actors acquit themselves well also.  This movie was John Malkovich’s directorial debut and I think he handled the material with intelligence and appropriate subtlety.  What I did not realize until tonight was that Malkovich plays a significant (uncredited) role in the film; I find it remarkable that he was able to pull that off so well.

The Dancer Upstairs is not light entertainment but is definitely worth every moment you devote to watching it.

The Parallax View 
Warren Beatty and Paula Prentiss 1974
If you like sitting on the edge of your seat; if you tend to be a bit paranoid and entertain the possibility that there is a supra-national organization  directing world affairs; if a psychological drama is your idea of entertainment– then catch The Parallax View.  I have, at least twice, and I’m about to watch it again.  You’ll never forget Warren Beatty’s performance.  I know I haven’t.

The obvious inspiration for the film was three assassinations: President Kennedy’s,  Martin Luther King’s and Robert Kennedy’s. In each case the assassin was declared to be a lone actor and in each case the public was skeptical about this finding.  Hence, The Parallax View.

JFK’s 1963 speech in Berlin, “Ich Bin Ein Berliner”
Uploaded from Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain
Photo by an employee of the U. S. Government

Robocop
Peter Weller, Nancy Allen 1987
I watched this movie once again last night.  If you’re a Peter Weller fan, and I am, then you must catch his performance in Robocop.  I gave the movie 4 stars instead of 5 because the characters were so cartoonish–but maybe that’s the point.  Evil and good are clearly, very clearly, delineated.  The setting of the film is a crime-ridden Detroit, an almost prescient scenario given Detroit’s current bankrupt status.

Interesting issues are raised, issues that have been raised in other venues.  Robocop is a cyborg, part human, part machine.  How much latent humanity resides in the machine?  And does humanity, after all, have a right to meddle in the art of creation?  Does science aid humanity or threaten it?

Robocop
is science fiction for sure, and it is light entertainment with a heavy dose of gore on the side.  But the cartoonish profiles of the characters make the gore seem like something out of a comic book.  As a matter of fact, the Wikipedia entry for this film describes the inspiration as coming from two comic book heroes, Judge Dredd and Rom.  If you are a movie aficionado and at all interested in the evolution of science fiction in film, then Robocop is must viewing.

Moonstruck 
Cher and Nicolas Cage 1987
In this film Cher and Nicolas Cage acquit themselves well, but in my view Olympia Dukakis steals the show.  Both Cher and Dukakis picked up Oscars (Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress) and Cage picked up a Golden Globe (best actor) for their work.

The performers are all players in this perfectly orchestrated confection that plays out like an opera–and it is opera (La Boheme) which is instrumental to the realization of its outlandish romantic scheme.  If you insist on taking everything seriously, skip this movie.  But if you like to have a good time, enjoy a great soundtrack and want to be left with the illusion that happy endings are possible, then watch Moonstruck.  I have, several times, and invariably enjoyed the experience.

Kudos to all the actors in Moonstruck, but most especially, Kudos to Olympia Dukakis.

An 1896 poster of the opera La Boheme
By Adolfo Hohenstein
Public domain/expired copyright

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