I'll warn you, not many of them are happy ones. I'm drawn to pathos and tragedies for some reason. Director, if you're going to make a movie, really make one... Actually, as I look over this list, I'm struck by how many of them deal with the risks and losses and tragedies associated with obsessive loves. It must say something about me...
Cal Adapted from Bernard MacLaverty's novel, Cal is a story about the bleakness and desperation of living within the sectarian tensions of Northern Ireland. The film opens with young Cal (John Lynch), serving as the getaway driver for an IRA hit-man who kills an off-duty R.U.C. policeman at his father's farmhouse. As for Cal and his father, they live in constantly-harassed isolation within a staunchly Unionist neighborhood. Cal's father tries to get him a job where he himself works at a Belfast abattoir, but the sensitive Cal has a weak stomach and can't endure the smell. All he wants is for the IRA to leave him out of their schemes, to have a job that will put enough money in his pocket to buy cigarettes, and to be left alone to practice playing blues guitar. Racked with guilt about his role in the murder, Cal finds out that the policeman's widow, Marcella (Helen Mirren), works at the local library. Marcella is a Catholic who still lives with her Protestant in-laws at the farmhouse. Almost completely debilitated by guilt, Cal becomes obsessed with Marcella, and drawn like a moth to a flame, he manages to land a job doing menial labor at the farm where she lives (the scene of the murder). Not knowing of Cal's involvement in her husband's killing (a man she did not love), Marcella and Cal are increasingly drawn together in their loneliness and pain, and become lovers. Just when things look like they might start looking up for Cal, his father suffers a nervous breakdown, and the IRA comes back into the picture. They will not let him out. While in a car with his pyschotic school-chum Crilly (the gunman at the begining of the film), they try to run an army roadblock, and Crilly is captured while Cal gets away. Cal knows, of course, that Crilly will give him up, and has just enough time to say goodbye to Marcella before the R.U.C. comes to pick him up and haul him off to Long Kesh under Marcella's eyes. A hauntingly beautiful soundtrack of Irish music was composed for the film by Mark Knoplfer.
Raging Bull This is Robert DeNiro at the top of his craft. It's one of director Martin Scorcese's masterpieces, about the life of one of the greatest middleweight boxers of the 1940s and 1950s, Jake LaMotta. For anyone interested in method acting, this is probably the finest example of it ever shown, where DeNiro got into tip-top fighting form for the boxing scenes (good enough to be a ranked fighter, according to Jake LaMotta himself), and then gained over 50 pounds to play the bloated, dissolute LaMotta after the end of his career. Filmed in black-and-white, it's a great timepiece about the Little Italy section of New York in the 1940s. Although there are many meticulously filmed boxing scenes, it's not really a movie about sports. It's a film about how an insecure man, a man with a good heart who is nonetheless barely able to express himself other than through his rage, allows jealousy over his own wife to complete consume and destroy him, even to the point of turning on his own brother. A 19-year old Cathy Moriarty plays Vicki LaMotta, the object of his obsession and suspicion. She gives a great performance, and it is surprising that her career never took off from this role the way that it should have. This movie was also the vehicle that launched Joe Pesci's career (as Jake's brother Joey), with his trademark combination of humor mixed with a barely controlled fury right under the surface. The first of a Scorcese trilogy teaming up DeNiro and Pesci, which also included Goodfellas and Casino.
Dr. Strangelove, Or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb This one, directed by Stanley Kubrick, has to rank as one of the funniest movies ever made, even though it is a dark comedy. Released at the begining of 1964, it captures the madness inherent in the "mine is bigger than yours" aspect of the Cold War and the nuclear arms race. General Jack D. Ripper, commander of Burpelson Air Force Base, has sent on his own initiative a wing of B-52 bombers to launch a nuclear stike on the Soviet Union because he considers himself to be the victim if a Communist-inspired plot to flouridate our water; a plot that is "undermining our precious bodily fluids". Once the Pentagon and the White House find out what's going on, the powers that be all gather around "the Big Board" and debate whether they should avert the crisis or accelerate it. Comic genius Peter Sellers plays three roles in the movie, President Merkin Muffley, RAF Group Captain Lionel Mandrake, and ex-Nazi scientist Dr. Strangelove. As funny as Sellers is, whether as President Muffley trying to calm down Soviet Premier Dmitri Kissoff, or as Mandrake trying to calm down General Ripper, or as the wheelchair-bound Strangelove struggling to keep his Nazi-saluting arm under control, the movie is actually stolen by George C. Scott, who plays the hawkish Air Force General Buck Turgidson, uttering military-industrial complex inanities and often freezing mid-sentence in horrifed tableaus. Terrific supporting perfomances by Keenan Wynn as commando Bat Guano, and Slim Pickens as B52 Captain T. J. Kong, riding the bomb down to Siberia waving his stetson hat and hollering like a rodeo rider.
Angels With Dirty Faces This movie was made in 1938. and even though it's corny and schmaltzy by today's standards, it reminds me of why I love the morality plays of the 1930s so much. "We'll glamorize the hoodlums a little bit, but Crime Doesn't Pay!" It features young and energetic perfomances by Jimmy Cagney and Humphrey Bogart, just before Bogart broke out and became a big star in his own right. The film opens in Hell's Kitchen New York, with young look-alike actors filling is as the teen-aged Rocky Sullivan (Jimmy Cagney) and Jerry Connolly (Pat O'Brien). While attempting to steal some pens out of a railroad boxcar, they are chased by the police. They try to hop a fence. Jerry gets away, but Rocky is caught and is sent away to reform school. From there, Rocky wallows in a life of crime, getting hooked up with the mob and the speakeasies, sometimes doing hard time in prison while his crooked lawyer Jim Frazier (Humphrey Bogart) is holding positions and money for him. The film truly gets started when Rocky gets out of prison and heads back to the old Hell's Kitchen neighborhood. He catches up with Fr. Jerry Connolly who has straightened out his life and gone on to become the neighborhood priest. On his way across town, Rocky notices that his wallet has been lifted by a gang of teenagers. They remind him of himself. He tracks them down easily to a hideout that was once his own, frightens them a bit, but decides to take them under his wing and really show them the ropes in a life of crime. The teenagers are wonderfully played by the "Dead End Kids" (Billy Hallop, Leo Gorcey, Huntz Hall, etc...) who later will become well-known as the "Bowery Boys". At the same time this is going on, Fr. Jerry has been struggling to reform these boys, and he tries to reform Rocky too, urging him to be a positive influence on the boys rather than a negative one. He 's joined in this by Laury Ferguson ( Ann Sheridan), who becomes a minor love interest. Rocky, however, can't stay out of trouble. The conniving Frazier tries to stiff Rocky out of the money that he owes him, and Rocky shoots him down (nobody dies as well as Bogie in the movies). Following an epic gunfight with the police in a warehouse, Fr. Jerry and Laury talk him into surrendering. He gets sent to prison again, but this time he's sentenced to the electric chair, and Rocky couldn't care less. Just before his execution, Fr. Jerry visits the calm and collected Rocky. He urges him to die as a coward, in order to discredit himself in the eyes of the boys who idolize him. Rocky becomes indignant and refuses, not wanting to give up the one thing he has left. Fr. Jerry pleads and urges him all along the last mile walk. Rocky is having none of it. At the very last second, he breaks down and begs for mercy before he is electrocuted. It hits the front page of the newspapers, and the boys are all disillusioned that Rocky broke down and "died like a rat." Fr. Connolly invites them all to the Church, "where they can pray for a boy who couldn't run as fast as I could."
El Norte Outside of this one, I can't think of another movie that actually brought such tears into my eyes, except for West Side Story when I was very young. In this Mexican-produced film, Enrique (David Villalpando) and his sister Rosa (Zide Silvia Gutierrez) are Indians fleeing from poverty and the repressive military violence that the Rios Montt regime has brought down upon them in their tiny mountain village in Guatemala. When their parents are killed in a military raid, Enrique and Rosa know that they must leave the country, and they begin the long, ardous, harrowing trek from Guatemala, up through Mexico, and across the border in to "El Norte" - the United States. After the numerous ordeals they suffer through, they finally get into the U.S., and start taking English lessons while they take jobs under the table, Enrique working in a restaurant, and Rosa working as a maid in Beverly Hills. Though suffering ups and downs with jealous co-workers and immigation authorities, Enrique has a lot on the ball. Finally a big break arrives for him. An American woman has arrived from the Midwest, having heard a bit about him. She is looking for someone of management material to work as an English/Spanish translator in a Midwest meat-packing plant. He and Rosa can go together if he takes this job, with a possibility towards eventually gaining their legal status. The hitch is, Enrique must leave by plane right away, or the opportunity vanishes... and right at this time, Rosa has been brought to the hospital, suffering from a serious infection she suffered from being bitten by rats when they had crawled into the U.S through a sewerpipe. Enrique is torn. Should he get on the plane, or should he be with Rosa while she desperately needs him? Of course he doesn't go. Rosa passes away with Enrique by her side, while he is tearfully telling her how hopeful he is about their bright future, and how all will turn out well for them.
Like Cowboyangel, I'm not exactly sure what "Guilty Pleasures" is supposed to mean... Does it mean movies that are sexually frank and provocative, violent, or just frivolous? I'm guessing it means something you might be embarrased by if your mother knew you were watching it... Maybe something you need to go to Confession over?
Betty Blue (37°2 Le Matin) My favorite French film. When Zorg ( Jean Hugues Anglade) and Betty (Beatrice Dalle) meet and begin their passionate relationship, Zorg is an aspiring writer who is currently earning his keep painting beach cottages while he lives in one of them. When the emotional and impetuous Betty learns that he (and by association, she) have to paint all of the beach cottages that season, she throws a fit and paints the boss's car and burns their beach cottage down. From there it is off to the races... With Betty, things are always going to be wild and unpredictable, and in their adventures, Zorg and Betty meet many interesting characters along the way. Betty believes in Zorg as a writer, but when his manuscript is turned down, she goes into a rage and deep depression. The loss of a baby deepens it. The movie is largely about Zorg's desperate love for Betty and his fight to keep Betty from slipping further and further into her descent into madness. The ending is heartbreaking. I've never seen an actress quite like Beatrice Dalle before or since, in her quirky, dark, loopy, oddly beautiful statuesque beauty and volatility. A warning; this movie is very explicit. Immediately.
A couple of other French favorites of mine worth listing here both feature Gérard Depardieu, one being The Woman Next Door with the great Fanny Ardant, and the other being The Return of Martin Guerre.
Something Wild Another mid-1980s adventure. To me, this film was unique in that it started out as a madcap comical farce and unexpectedly and increasingly turned into a dark thriller... Charlie (Jeff Daniels) is an uptight Wall Street Vice-President who stiffs a waitress on a meal check and gets noticed doing it by the unemployed, gothy, punky-looking Lulu (Melanie Griffith). She confronts him, they have an intense conversation, and she offers to give him a ride back to work. Instead she "kidnaps" him in a wild ride through the city, takes him out of town despite his mild objections that he "needs to get back to his meetings at work and to his wife and family". She takes him all the way to her rural home to meet her parents, introduces him as her husband, and has him escort her to her High School reunion. Here is where the trouble begins... Lulu's ex-husband, and ex-con name Ray (Ray Liotta) has just been released from prison, and he wants Lulu back. We start to learn here that everything is not quite what it seemed. We soon learn that Lulu's real name is Audrey. We learn that Charlie has no wife and family. The wild Audrey/Lulu longs for domesticity, and Charlie has up to now been somewhat of a liar and a rebel. The menacing and dangerous Ray tries to scare Charlie off, but Charlie decides that Audrey is worth fighting over, and away we go... Charlie wins out in the end, but the film ends on a discordant note in that you don't quite know what the two of them are supposed to do next.
Last of the Mohicans This really isn't a great film, but I wanted to throw in a nod to one of my favorite actors, Daniel Day-Lewis, even though his best film is one that I almost put in my top five, The Age of Innocence. I threw this one in because he really did a great job in the leading role as Hawkeye, and it is a fun action film with cool hand-to-hand combat sequences that really make you want to see the bad guys get it. They took a really tedious and boring book by James Fenimore Cooper and made it into something interesting, even though it dragged a bit in the middle with some weird editing. Besides, Madeline Stowe looked great in it as Cora. I know he's Daniel Day-Lewis and all, but it must be really nice to have Madeline Stowe plant a kiss on you like she did on him. Native American actor Wes Studl was especially good as the revenge-and-seed-obsessed Huron chief Magua. Fantastic musical soundtrack by Randy Edelman and Trevor Jones, and the track I Will Find You by Clannad.
Eréndira This is another Mexican made movie. I would have called it a surrealistic fantasy, but I guess the right term for it is "magical realism." The script was written in that style by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, based upon a short story vignette from his book 100 Years of Solitude. Eréndira (Claudia Ohana) is a young woman who accidentally starts a fire that burns down the decrepit old mansion of her spooky old "abuela" - her grandmother (Irene Pappas). In order to pay off the damages, Abuela takes Eréndira out on the road with a photographer, selling her into prostitution, and becomes wealthy off of Eréndira's unexpectedly popular talents. Many people try to rescue Eréndira, from Franciscan friars to itinerant travellers, but Abuela always hangs onto her prize. Finally, a callow young man name Ulysses (Oliver Whele) who is in love with Eréndira works out a plan with her to poison Abuela and gain Eréndira's freedom. Irene Pappas is great in this witchy role, singing chanson songs and cackling maniacally as she messily eats her huge birthday cake filled with rat poison. I have a hard time explaining what this thing is about, 'cause I really don't know, so check the words from the director from the review on the title link.
"This is a story about the liberation of a human being. What is left open at the end of the film is what she will do with it. There are subsidiary themes--the refusal of love, because love can be repressive if it is not exercised responsibly. The grandmother is simply selfish in her love.
Their relationship also reflects the terms of underdevelopment. The girl only has her sex and the grandmother uses that asset cynically. She, the grandmother, believes that the ends justify the means, that the conquest of power is enough. Ulysses is a 'prince charming,' but he's really empty. His love is about three oranges and a pistol. The photographer is someone who is limited to seeing what
is happening in front of him. And he ends up getting eliminated. It's not safe
on the margins. He doesn't want to get his hands dirty, but an artist has to get
his hands dirty, more than anyone else."
Annie Hall I need to list Woody Allen here, because he's one of my favorite directors, even though it turned out that his life disturbingly imitates his art, or vice-versa... This movie is my favorite of his, along with Hannah and Her Sisters. Alvy (Woody Allen) constantly has disatrous relationships, and his one with Annie (Diane Keaton) is not entirely different in that respect, in that a woman he meets who is initially vulnerable and lacking in confidence eventually outgrows him. Good contrasts, as always, between Alvy's New York Jewish roots and Annie's Midwest WASP roots. This film is also noteworthy as the world's comic introduction to Christopher Walken, playing Annie's deeply disturbed brother.