Driven by my participation in the “2021 Movie Draft” organized by fellow blogger hanspostcard, as the draft progresses, here are 12 movies I love by category. You can follow the draft at slicethelife.com.
FAVE DRAMA – Paterson (2016)
Only filmmaker Jim Jarmusch could write and direct a movie about a bus driving poet and make it fascinating. Such was the subject of his 2016 movie, Paterson. While not a whole hell of a lot happens in its 118 minutes, the film is an insightful look into the satisfyingly simple life of its main character played by Adam Driver.
As odd as the actor’s last name being the same as his role’s occupation, the film’s title has three distinct references. It’s the name of the film’s focus, a poetry-writing local bus driver who also lives and drives in the New Jersey town of the same name. There is also a book-length poem by New Jersey’s William Carlos Williams entitled Paterson that works its way into the story line.
Without much dialog, most of what we learn about Paterson is through observing his daily routine of waking, working and walking the dog. He peacefully follows a regular daily discipline that begins with rising before the alarm clock rings and ends with drinking a single beer at the neighborhood bar while walking the dog. (The recurring shot of the dog on a leash waiting outside the bar is priceless.) But in between, the story gets its foundation through the introspective glimpses found in the poetry he scribbles into a notebook when time permits.
In their small home, he is in a loving and caring relationship with the offbeat and creative Laura. We discover her character through her yearning to be discovered for her artistic skills of design. She also has high hopes to become a famous Nashville musician, not until of course she first learns how to play her mail order guitar. The yin and yang in the storyline develop through the contrast of Laura’s dreams with Paterson’s lack of any. He simply has no aspirations regarding the creative product of his beautiful poems. In fact, they never get any further than Laura’s ears.
Without giving the plot away, there are a few incidents that disrupt Paterson’s routine. For the most impactful one, Jarmusch brings the distress to a head in a brilliant ending that is as intellectually encapsulating as it is beautifully cinematic. The scene takes place at the Great Falls of the Passaic River which oddly sit in the middle of the city of Paterson. It’s a tranquil and peaceful setting within an otherwise dismal urban environment where Paterson gets to find rest with his predicament.
Jim Jarmusch is a remarkable filmmaker with one of the most unique movie catalogs in cinematic history. Each is brilliantly offbeat and simple in its own peculiar way. Paterson is no exception and is full of memorable scenes and side characters that Paterson meets in casual encounters. It may not be a film for everyone. Nothing blows up, no one gets killed and there’s no sex. It’s just one of the best character studies I’ve ever enjoyed on the screen.
I have watched this film several times with family and friends who are seeing it for the first time. While no one has come away totally disappointed, on the other hand, I don’t think any of them felt led like I did to make a pilgrimage to Paterson, NJ to see the Falls and some of the other locale used in the film. One of them did however put a box of Ohio Blue Tip Matches (one of Paterson’s poetic muses) in my Christmas stocking.
After seeing Paterson, I have never looked at creativity the same. While I may look at the number of “likes” I get on a blog post, the real satisfaction is taking something out of myself and putting it into words. But I will remember to back up my files.
FAVE SERIES – Barry Levinson’s “Baltimore Series”: Diner (1982) / Tin Men (1987) / Avalon (1990) / Liberty Heights (1999)
It didn’t take long to choose Diner as a film I wanted to write about. However, having already selected another movie as my Fave Drama, I was reluctant to cheapen it by labeling it as my Fave Comedy. While it sure has its funny moments, I got more out of Diner than just its laughs.
Then, a simple solution came to me. Never much one for episodic adventure series like Harry Potter, Star Wars, etc., my struggle to have to pick my Fave Series became a no brainer. Without a doubt, it would be the series of four semi-autographical films, of which Diner was the first, that Barry Levinson wrote and directed primarily about his late 50s and early 60’s childhood days in the city of Baltimore.
Levinson’s film and television resume is one of the most impressive you’ll ever find. And while these four films were not among his most commercially successful, to me they are his crowning achievement. There were 17 years between the making of the first and last films in the set, including a nine-year gap between the third and fourth. In fact, at one time the first three were prematurely released in a VHS box set labelled “The Baltimore Trilogy.”
Although Levinson is about 15 years older than me, our East Coast upbringings as a member of a European immigrant family had enough in common for his stories to resonate so well with my own youth. Most memories from these days are joyous. These times that seemed so much simpler and more family-centric than life today and these films are just chock full of heartfelt sentimental nostalgia. Even the bad things that happened in these films don’t seems so bad since we also all seemed to be more resilient back then.
Diner, likely the most popular film of the four, set the series in motion with a look at a group of young men just out of high school struggling to grow up and become adults. The connection that I have to this movie is strong for two reasons. First, visiting the local diner at 2am was a common thing to do and second, each of the yokels in this gaggle reminds me of someone I knew in real life.
Although I know you could look it up, I will spare you the wait by telling you how impressive the collection of young, then mostly unknown, actors Levinson assembled was. Get this: Steve Gutenberg, Daniel Stern, Mickey Rourke, Kevin Bacon, Timothy Daly, Ellen Barkin and Paul Reiser. Wow!
Then there are those classic scenes that always found a way to be somehow relevant to something going on in the last 38 years. The young husband-wife spat about misfiling his record albums. The football quiz about the Baltimore Colts that the young bride-to-be had to pass for the wedding to take place. The popcorn box trick with your date at the moves. And by far the best one, eating the whole left side of the diner menu at a single sitting. (“Even the chicken platter?”)
Loved by critics, Diner earned Levinson an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay.
Tin Men was next and came with the strong twin billing of Richard Dreyfuss and Danny DeVito as competing door-to-door aluminum-siding salesmen. I remember as a kid that this business had a rather sleazy reputation which Levinson works well into his storyline. These guys didn’t earn their dollars in the most honest of ways and will do just about anything to close a sale. Levinson does a great job of showing what prosperity looked like back in the late 50s with their flashy clothes and shiny cars with long tail fins.
When these two characters meet in a fender bender of their prized Cadillacs, the incident leads to an exacerbated rivalry that even goes so far as one of them messing around with the others’ wife. It was just the kind of scandalous small-town gossip that the early 60s thrived upon and woman discussed at the hairdressers. Troubles of all kinds start to happen and eventually both fall prey to justice and become friends in the end.
Music fans will get a kick out of the 80’s band Fine Young Cannibals appearing in the film and contributing to the soundtrack.
Next up was the gorgeous Avalon. Of these four films, this epic is the most cinematically majestic with memorable spectacular scenes of celebratory fireworks and tragic fires. Its story is built firmly on the importance of family and how as immigrants, they together sought to assimilate into this land called America.
Avalon looks back on a time when families kept their hometown loyalties and three generations comfortably lived under the same roof, even when success provided the opportunity for the young flock to spread their wings and leave home. And while there is so much depth to the family’s story, I find its most memorable moments are found in the simple dialog amongst the family members during the times they spent all together.
Music fans will enjoy Avalon’s Randy Newman score and Aidan Quinn and Elizabeth Perkins are brilliant in their roles as first-generation Americans. Again, Levinson received an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay in addition to the film also getting a much-deserved nod for Best Cinematography.
The final, and perhaps least recognized film in the saga, is Liberty Heights. Among the family issues its deals with is one involving a young interracial high school romance. Considering where our world is right now, we are sadly reminded of a time when racial prejudice was much more blatant and systematic. There was an implied set of rules that you were expected to follow, and a white boy simply was not supposed to date a black girl (and vice versa).
Apart from this heavy subject matter, like Diner, Liberty Heights is lightheartedly chockfull of fun moments of kids growing up in the post-war 50s. Adrien Brody, Joe Mantegna and Bebe Neuwirth lead the cast in this one.
If there is anything that I desire to communicate through this writing, it is for each reader to be sure to watch these films. They are a brilliant collection of work that together document a precious time in American history. Like any era, there were both times good and bad. But regardless, these were the times as they were, and Levinson has preserved them beautifully. If only I could write screenplays like this about growing up in New Jersey in the 60s!
PS – Levinson later took one more look at his Baltimore days in his 2003 novel Sixty-Six. This book comes highly recommended as well.
FAVE COMEDY – Neighbors (1981)
I can deal with the fact that we all won’t like the same movies. But it’s a bit more difficult when you pay good money and go to the movie theater with your wife and another couple, and they all totally hate a movie that you absolutely love.
Such was the case in 1981 when I first saw the black comedy, Neighbors, starring John Belushi and Dan Ackroyd. This Larry Gelbart (of M*A*S*H television fame) screenplay was derived from a novel by Thomas Berger and sadly was the last time these two pals would be together on screen since it was also Belushi’s last film before his tragic untimely death. At the time it was filmed, John apparently wasn’t in a good place and it’s remarkable that it even got completed, let along deserve a mention as my all-time favorite comedy.
As far as my wife and friends’ reaction, it’s obvious that black comedy, in which humor is derived from things not normally expected to induce laughter, does not appeal to everyone. In Neighbors, most of the chuckles come from the frustrations of Belushi’s Earl Keese character’s inability to understand what in the world is going on and dealing with why everyone seems working against him.
Neighbors is not terribly dark, although there is some grief, pain, and damage. But to me, watching Keese suffer the consequences of the bizarre and mysterious behavior of his new neighbors, Vic and Ramona, played by Ackroyd and a very sexy Cathy Moriarty, was at times hysterical. And on top of that, the casual acceptance of all this oddness by his wife and daughter is anything but normal.
It’s of course unusual to see Belushi play the straight man to Ackroyd’s weirdo character, but both are just great in their parts. John looks perfectly dull and boring in his glasses and cheap three-piece suit while Dan looks quite freaky with bleach-blond hair, contacts-induced bright blue eyes and a “Born to Party” tattoo on his forearm.
What drives Neighbors is the unexplained nature of Vic and Ramona’s strange doings, how they fail to trigger his wife (played by an overly unemotional Kathryn Walker) and comically, how Earl’s reactions get him in trouble making him look like the bad guy. And of course, there is the continual sexual frustration he faces in dealing with Ramona’s surprising innuendos and advances towards him.
Most of Vic’s actions over the span of one long evening and the following day are suspect and devious. But despite destroying Earl’s safe but dull world, we find Earl on an emotional roller coaster of contempt and kinship with his new neighbor. It’s this aspect of Earls’ character that can make the viewer question whether Earl’s experience is in fact meant to be reality.
After almost 40 years, I was encouraged to finally read Berger’s novel upon which the screenplay was based. It’s a fine read and made me want to watch the film again. Gelbart remarkably stayed quite close to the original storyline although his ending is completely different. To me, the book’s ending makes a stronger case as to whether this was reality as opposed to the whole strange trip being a dream or fantasy existing only in Keese’s mind. Thankfully, both the film and book leave that for us to decide.
Watch Neighbors if you dare! Like I said, it’s not for everyone.
FAVE SPORTS FILM – Bull Durham (1988)
I love baseball, and I love baseball movies. In picking my favorite, there were six great ones that came to mind: The Natural¸ Field of Dreams, Major League, A League of Their Own, Moneyball and my eventual pick, Bull Durham. Coming from the business world, I became intrigued with writing about Moneyball since it’s a rare look behind the scenes in the money and thinking behind how a team gets assembled. After going so far as re-watching it, before I started to write about it, I checked and saw that someone else in this movie draft beat me to it. I guess that the inside joke is that I’m a lousy GM (“general manager”).
I have no regrets in writing about Bull Durham, a brilliantly funny fictional tale of minor league baseball. It was written and directed by Ron Shelton, a former minor league player himself, who received an Academy Award nomination for the screenplay. Bull Durham is just one of those films so good that you are sure to get stuck for a while if you catch it while channel surfing. It also boasts several iconic scenes that contained some everlasting catch phrases. (Watch for the words “candlesticks,” “lollygaggers” and “wooly.”)
The title of the movie is a twist on the Durham Bulls, a real North Carolina team that is used as the films’ focus. Like many baseball fans, I love going to minor league games and Bull Durham captures the fun of that experience so right. While not the majors, the playing is professional, and it’s fun to be up close watching possible future stars for a lot cheaper ticket price while drinking beer and eating hot dogs.
One thing about Bull Durham, and perhaps the reason I picked it, is that it lacks the dramatic, and often cliched, come from behind victory that seems to drive many great sports films. Instead, this film just does a fabulous job of showing the lighter side of the day-to-day drudgery these players face, knowing that if just one of them on the team made the big leagues that would be a lot. They get paid peanuts, but all share a deep love for the greatest game ever invented by mankind while dreaming of someday maybe playing in the big leagues.
Bull Durham also has a great back story to its main characters that is brilliantly developed and magnificently acted by three great Hollywood stars.
The main focus in Bull Durham is Kevin Costner, the experienced and wise (in both the game and in life) but nearly washed up, career minor leaguer who earns the dubious record of most lifetime homers in the minors. He did get to play in the “show” once when the majors expanded their rosters as they do at the end of every season. There’s a great moment on the bus when he modestly tells his young teammates about “the best 21 days of his life.” By their reaction, you would have thought that he walked on the moon.
Costner as “Crash,” is contrasted with a young pitching phenom “Nuke” played by Tim Robbins. (Don’t you just love baseball nicknames?) Nuke is an immature kid with a “million-dollar arm and a five-cent head.” Having aged by baseball standards, Crash gets the job of mentoring Nuke whose foolish youth is reluctant to accept his help. They also find themselves entangled with a local legendary and eccentric baseball groupie named “Annie” played by Susan Sarandon.
The rest of the cast is top notch and comedian Robert Wuhl deserves a nod for the great role he plays as one of the coaches in contributing much to the film’s funny side.
While Bull Durham is full of enough baseball to satisfy any fan of the game, it’s also hilarious and the character development of its three stars is worthy in itself alone. And, while I hate giving stuff away, it’s nice that the movie has a happy ending for all three!
PS – Pitchers and catchers report tomorrow! Have a happy baseball season.
FAVE MUSIC MOVIE – The Last Waltz (1978)
“THIS FILM SHOULD BE PLAYED LOUD”
This film opens with those six words in white on a black screen. They were simple instructions possibly coming from its director, Martin Scorsese. The Last Waltz is a remarkable concert film interspersed with fresh interview segments that documents the planned final performance of The Band. And yes, it certainly deserves to be played loud. In fact, I’ve been known to make the walls in my study rattle when I crank up the volume while watching it on DVD.
It’s now been over 40 years since The Band called it quits after this historic star-studded show at San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom. And sadly, the three magnificent voices of The Band, Richard Manuel, Rick Danko and Levon Helm are no longer with us. Only guitarist-songwriter Robbie Robertson and multi-instrumentalist extraordinaire Garth Hudson remain. So, what makes this movie extra-special is that it serves as the definitive document of one of the greatest live rock bands of all time.
After six studio LPs and a long history of playing together, the guys decided to pack it in and do a special farewell Thanksgiving Day performance (November 25, 1976) and their manager, Jonathan Taplin, got Marty to make a movie about it which he shot in 35 mm film.
To this day, it surprises me about that this show didn’t sell out. Come on! The Band was still at the top of their playing form and was it really a surprise that Bob Dylan was going to be there? The price of the ticket even included a turkey dinner. I guess in those pre-internet lagging economy days, concert news wasn’t as easy to come by and folks also weren’t as likely to hop on a plane to see a show like they would today.
The guest stars for the evening included all the important folks in The Band’s history such as Dylan, Ronnie Hawkins, Paul Butterfield and Van Morrison as well as fellow Canadian contemporaries like Neil Young and Joni Mitchell. It was also cool to see Eric Clapton play with The Band since after the breakup of Cream, he sincerely asked if he could become a band member (pun intended). There was also both a Beatle (Ringo) and a Stone (Ronnie Wood) joining in on the fun. The only guest who seemed out of place was Neil Diamond whose presence was the only result of Robbie Robertson having just produced his Beautiful Noise LP.
The performances were all brilliantly filmed, and the sound quality is spectacular. Immediately, from the opening licks of their cover of Marvin Gaye’s “Baby Don’t You Do It,” you know you are in for something special and will have trouble sitting still. Yes, the guest spots are great, but to me the importance of The Last Waltz is reminding me just how great The Band was live. (Yours truly got to see the original line-up a total of seven times.)
The between-song interview bits are fun and rather than distract, they serve as nice transitions, especially when going between special guests. There are also a few special songs filmed on a soundstage which in my opinion, break the flow, and if at the time they knew what was to come, would have been better left for DVD bonus tracks instead.
There is quite a bit of legend around the filming of The Last Waltz such as squabbles among The Band members and guests, everyone having to deal with Robertson’s controlling nature and whether that really was a cocaine booger in Neil Young’s nose. I guess I could really care less, and all I have to say is if it is ever re-run in a local theater near you, go! Otherwise, buy the DVD or Blu-Ray and crank it up. Live music on film just doesn’t get any better than this.
FAVE FANTASY – The Princess Bride (1987)
My love for fantasy films in general is best summed up by the fact that one of the best naps I ever took cost me about $12 when my family and I went to see one of the Lord of the Rings films at the movie theater. I guess I just prefer reality rather than trying to comprehend the nuances of the figments of some writer’s imagination applied to an alternative universe. And outside of my unexplained love for Star Trek, the only other fantasy film I’ve ever taken a like to, and surprisingly in a very big way, was director Rob Reiner’s delightful The Princess Bride.
If I try to put my finger on why I truly love this film, I’d chalk it up to how there is just a combination of several different devices that when put together make it work for me. Not just a fantasy, it’s also a charming love story that is also full of action, suspense and most importantly, clever humor. There are also just too many brilliant cameo roles to mention although I can’t resist dropping the hysterical contributions from Bill Crystal, Carol Kane, and Peter Cook. The Princess Bride is also chockful of so many great memorable catch phrases that it’s just inconceivable!
And for me the music fan, it was such a thrill to see one of my unsung heroes get some long overdue recognition from the title track that plays over the closing credits. The song, “Storybook Love”, written and performed by the late Willy DeVille of Mink DeVille fame, was arranged by Dire Strait’s Mark Knopfler and received an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Song. (However, in keeping with the tradition of crappy songs winning this award, it lost to the dreadful one from “Dirty Dancing.”) Overall. Knopfler’s soundtrack to the film ain’t too shabby either.
Faithful to the 1973 novel it was based on, we have a true storybook love with the film’s vehicle taking the form of a loving grandpa played by Peter Falk reading a bedtime story to his endearing young grandson played by a pre-Wonder Years Fred Savage. The kid’s skeptical behavior about having to listen to a love story and how his grandpa keeps him hanging in there for the action is just too sweet for words.
The “princess” was played by a young Robin Wright in her screen debut. Her gracefully beautiful and innocent character is far from the scrupulous one she would play some 30 years later in the House of Cards television series. Her love interest was played by actor Cary Elwes who has since had a much less notable Hollywood career than Ms. Wright. He did later get to reprise the swashbuckling swordplay he learned for this film by later playing Robin Hood in the Mel Brooks spoof of this legendary hero.
I’ve also got to give a thumbs up to the great roles played by Mandy Patinkin and his on-screen nemesis, the “six-fingered” Christopher Guest. And how could you not love a film that features the cuddly Andre the Giant!
Just like the story within its story, The Princess Bride is a timeless tale that I believe will be loved by generations to come. Watch it and play it for you kids and your grandkids. It’s one of those great films that has something for everybody. A classic for the ages indeed!
As you wish.
FAVE CRIME FILM – Pulp Fiction (1994)
An antihero or antiheroine is a main character in a story who lacks conventional heroic qualities and attributes such as idealism, courage, and morality.
Why do we all, me included, love crime movies where we find ourselves on the side of the bad guys? Quentin Tarantino’s films serve as prime examples, especially his 1994 classic Pulp Fiction. The closing scene of this film even finds us rooting for the Bible-quoting bad guy played by Samuel Jackson over the hapless bad guy played by Tim Roth.
The film takes its title from the cheap (in both price and content) fiction magazines that were popular in the first half of the last century. Written and directed by Tarantino, it’s a dark comedic crime film composed of three interrelated stories that certainly is not for the weak. (Although it is tame when compared to Q’s previous flick, Reservoir Dogs.) In fact, I got a flavor for Pulp Fiction’s effect on viewers when I saw it on its first run in the movie theater.
I was in Chicago on business and went to see it at a theater with an actual place in crime history, the Biograph. It was there where the notorious John Dillinger was shot dead by the FBI after being tipped off by the “Lady in Red” after he ironically watched a gangster movie. On my night there, it didn’t take long for about a dozen or so patrons to abruptly walk out of the theater after Pulp Fiction’s first violent scene.
But it seems that with Tarantino’s work, most of us are willing to put up with some gruesomeness in exchange for savoring some classic black humor and clever witty dialog from his usual all-star cast.
The Samuel Jackson part is brilliant in contrasting his God-fearing righteousness with his profession as a hitman. His partner-in-crime is played by John Travolta whose career-rebounding role presents as interesting a contrast through his self-perceived worldliness. I’d give this pair the award for the best antihero duo since Bonnie and Clyde. Their conversations with one another are perhaps the movie’s most memorable feature.
The segment featuring Bruce Willis (at the time, a big Hollywood calling card) as a devious low-class boxer is also classic. And as far as outstanding cameo roles, there are just far too many to mention although the top prize must go to Harvey Keitel’s “Winston Wolfe” character with Uma Thurman’s mobster girlfriend role in a close second place.
Another attraction to Tarantino’s films is of course the musical soundtrack and he once again puts together a fine assortment of somewhat obscure older Rock songs, some of which, like Dick Dale’s rendition of “Misirlou” which plays during the opening credits, becoming forever linked to the film.
Like I said, there are some violent parts that are tough to take. But in the end, there’s so much great acting and clever scenes to enjoy, that after seeing this film, you will forever find yourself revisiting your favorites on YouTube. For me, it will always be watching the “problem-solving” Winston Wolfe in action.
For their efforts on the film, Tarantino and his co-writer Roger Avary shared the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. I guess I will always be somewhat perplexed about how Hollywood portrays violence and antiheroes. Nonetheless, I find myself watching and stand guilty as charged.