peter hanson's field guide to interesting film
Welcome to an intentionally myopic romp through cinema. While it may have practical applications through no fault of my own, this list has but one declared purpose—to catalog movies, movie people, and movie books I find interesting. Certain idiosyncrasies of this list are immediately evident, such as my proclivity for American films of the 1970s and my weakness for unremarkable action flicks released during my youth. On closer inspection, I hope this list reveals a consistent aesthetic of some sort; whether highbrow or lowbrow, I gravitate toward unique movies, individualistic directors, and consistently watchable actors. Many estimable figures will never be featured in this guide, and I blame their absence on my inability to appreciate the colors with which they paint—Fellini movies are distinctive, for instance, but I always feel like they're yelling at me. Also notably absent are the brand-name films I admire, from "Casablanca" to "The Silence of the Lambs," which are familiar to nearly all moviegoers. For the most part, I've chosen to focus on somewhat lesser-known topics. While I have no illusions that any one reader will share all of my likes and dislikes, I hope all readers will find things they agree are interesting. If not, there are pictures.
"Ace in the Hole" aka "The Big Carnival" (1951). The least seen of Billy Wilder's classics, this scalding satire of unscrupulous journalists features one of dimpled icon Kirk Douglas' most unflinching portrayals. Based loosely on real events, the film concerns a has-been reporter (Douglas) who chances upon the sensational story of a man trapped in a mine. Intent on milking the drama for a string of front-page bylines, the reporter manipulates the situation to delay the miner's rescue, along the way confronting the limits and costs of his questionable ethics. With merciless precision, Wilder juxtaposes the compellingly amoral reporter with opposite numbers caught up in the drama, namely the trapped man’s opportunistic wife and hapless but sincere father. The carnival metaphor of the film’s original title might be a little on the nose, but the muscle and prescience of Wilder’s take on mass media is almost overpowering. And that’s not even to mention details like Douglas’ habit of lighting matches off the platens of typewriters. Damned as cynical and preposterous upon its release, this expertly made parable now seems more depressingly accurate with each passing news cycle.
Adams, Brooke. Actor, b. 1949. With an unusually expressive face and the versatility to play both heavy drama and whimsical comedy, Adams enjoyed a brief flirtation with leading-lady status in the late '70s and early '80s before transitioning into character roles, predominantly on television. In several of her most striking performances, she plays women embroiled in love affairs that become complicated in extraordinary ways: She's Donald Sutherland's ill-fated love interest in "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" (1978), the hard-luck woman caught between Richard Gere and Sam Shepard in "Days of Heaven" (also 1978), the beauty who haunts mercenary Sean Connery's heart in "Cuba" (1979), and the love of Christopher Walken's tragic life in "The Dead Zone" (1983). In recent years, Adams has collaborated with her husband, actor/director Tony Shalhoub, on a variety of projects.
Adjani, Isabelle. The wild one, b. 1955. Fearless queen of the French screen whose occasional dalliances in American film are a footnote to her spectacular European work. First startling world audiences as Victor Hugo's disturbed daughter in Francois Truffaut's "The Story of Adele H." (1975), Adjani defined her niche as one of the cinema's great chroniclers of mental instability. Although certainly capable of handling less volatile material, Adjani is incandescent when playing characters whirling out of control. In "Possession" (1981), "One Deadly Summer" (1983), "Camille Claudel" (1988), and "Queen Margot" (1994), among many others, Adjani careens through scenes with superhuman energy, attacking edgy material with singular abandon. She's even memorable when featured in dryer roles more focused on her beauty than her talent, whether in Werner Herzog's stylish "Nosferatu the Vampyre" (1979) or James Ivory's soft-spoken "Quartet" (1981). And as for those appearances in Hollywood movies, the fact that she was the female lead in "Ishtar" (1987) demonstrates why Adjani has been wise to focus primarily on European endeavors.
“Adventures in the Screen Trade: A Personal View of Hollywood and Screenwriting.” Not every great book can be summarized in one pithy excerpt, but a simple three-word quote epitomizes everything that’s great about William Goldman’s nonfiction bestseller: “Nobody knows anything.” In a single terse remark, which is perfectly characteristic of his chatty writing style, Goldman says volumes about why writers get treated the way they do by stars and studios: Since no one in showbiz can say for certain what will or won’t succeed, everyone involved in making movies is subject to whims driven by ego and fear. With a winning combination of self-deprecating charm and withering criticism, Goldman shares everything from deep insights into the nature of storytelling to cranky recollections of how Robert Redford screwed him over on “All the President’s Men” (1976), despite the fact that Goldman’s script for “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” (1969) made Redford a star. (The entire “Butch” script is included in most editions of “Screen Trade,” and it’s a great read.) Part instruction manual and part tell-all, “Screen Trade” is among the few truly essential books ever written about the movies. The sequel, “Which Lie Did I Tell? More Adventures in the Screen Trade” (2000) is only slightly less fabulous—heavier on nuts-and-bolts insights, lighter on bitchcraft.
"Agee on Film, Vol. 1." Originally published in 1958 and subsequently reissued under the aegis of Martin Scorsese, this is among the most literary collections of film criticism. Whereas Pauline Kael's collected writings are shot through with her nasty streak, Agee's essays about movies exist on a plane far above mere reviews. Driven by their author's otherworldly skill and his obsessive need to articulate his points just so, Agee's raves are gossamer love letters, his pans regretful laments. More than any other critic who comes to mind, Agee makes the process of wrestling with a film's merit visceral, so reading one of his rhapsodic odes to a favorite filmmaker (Charlie Chaplin and John Huston among them) is like steaming open a love letter so passionate that the words embarrass with their intimacy. As with the best critics, what Agee actually likes or dislikes is probably immaterial, his appraisal secondary to his poetry. A cult literary figure who won a posthumous Pulitzer for his semiautobiographical novel "A Death in the Family" (1957), Agee has several screenwriting credits of dubious significance. Though he cowrote "The African Queen" (1951) and "The Night of the Hunter" (1955), it's widely held that directors John Huston and Charles Laughton did as much writing as Agee, if not more. For that reason, the scribe's book of collected scripts, "Agee on Film, Vol. 2" (1960), is to be approached with caution as well as curiosity.
"Aguirre, the Wrath of God" aka "Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes" (1972). German writer-director Werner Herzog's breakthrough movie is as extraordinary as it is bizarre. The story of a Spanish expedition through the Amazon in the 16th century, the disturbing allegory focuses on ambitious soldier Aguirre (Klaus Kinski), who starts off deranged and ends up insane. As Aguirre's group presses through the jungle, their European bodies sweltering in heavy armor and their native bearers leading them through unforgiving terrain, politics and paranoia coalesce into suffocating tension. Before long, Spaniards and natives start dying in gruesome ways, each tragedy somehow emboldening Aguirre in his mad quest to start an incestuous dynasty with his young daughter. Growing stranger with each scene, the picture benefits from Herzog's dispassionate shooting style, and from the chilling choral sounds of Popol Vuh's score. Kinski, never more in his natural element, projects a psychotic intensity that stabs through the screen, especially in the unforgettable final shot.
“Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” (1974). In many ways Martin Scorsese’s most appealing picture, this very ’70s dramedy about a single mom trying to make it in the Southwest captures the intensity of the moment at which the women’s movement took hold. In a bravura performance, Ellen Burstyn plays Alice, a middle-aged mom forced to strike out on her own following the death of her loutish husband. Seeking work as a nightclub singer, she endures sleazy proprietors, grab-ass patrons, and a doomed relationship with younger man (Harvey Keitel). Throughout her travails, she trades barbs with her precocious son (Alfred Lutter III), whose singular personality is among the film’s most vivid elements. Working from a sharp, unsentimental script by Robert Getchell, Scorsese lets loose in the scenes depicting domestic abuse, then employs effective lyricism for softer passages. In the movie’s final stretch, Alice settles into a job slinging hash at Mel’s Diner, the setting that was extrapolated for the spinoff TV series “Alice.” Funny and human and full of surprising moments that reveal, and revel in, the complexities of the female mind, “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” is easily one of its extraordinary decade’s essential films. It also features wall-to-wall great performances, including those by Jodie Foster, Kris Kristofferson, and Diane Ladd.
"All That Jazz" (1979). "It's show time, folks!" Director-choreographer Joe Gideon (Roy Scheider) starts his days with that optimistic announcement, and the fact that he needs a smoke and some speed to start the show gives an idea of where he's headed. Happily pillaging his own life for material, little of which reflects well on him, Bob Fosse presents one of the most unusual autobiographical movies in Hollywood history. Fictionalizing the period when he edited "Lenny" (1974) while prepping a Broadway show, Fosse depicts a close-knit New York over which Gideon holds tenuous sway. Gideon gets all the girls and adulation he can handle, but people ranging from his spurned ex (Leland Palmer) to a jealous competitor (John Lithgow) ache for him to get tripped up by hubris. A reckoning comes by way of an unflinchingly depicted heart ailment, and death courts Gideon in the beguiling form of an otherworldly seductress (Jessica Lange) encountered in surreal dream sequences. While the subject matter should be unbearably depressing, Fosse tells the story with his inimitable razzle-dazzle, employing deft comedy, taut drama, and, of course, spectacular dance. The erotic "Take Off With Us" number is a show-stopper that slyly advances the story, and the closing number, a jaw-dropping riff on "Bye Bye Love," is among the nerviest things Fosse ever created. Through it all, Scheider gives his career-best performance, singing, dancing, joking, smoking, seducing, lying, and deteriorating without ever losing his vulpine charisma.
“The American’ (2010). Ostensibly a thriller about a hit man who becomes a target, “The American” is really a minimalistic character piece in the European mode that just happens to feature a ginormous Hollywood star in the leading role. George Clooney stars as an enigmatic killer who has reached an age at which he can no longer suppress the desire for emotional attachments. Thus, as he treks through Europe for work, he tries to play the role of a coldly lethal machine but can’t help being drawn to women including a beguiling Italian prostitute (Violante Placido). In his directorial debut, celebrated rock and roll photographer Anton Corbijn (creator of U2’s most iconic album-cover shots) predictably focuses on arresting textures, from the Spartan white horizons of a wintry Swedish forest to the deeply textured stonework of ancient Italian buildings. His chilly approach suits the material perfectly, just as Clooney’s restrained style effectively suggests a vibrant soul trying to escape an armored shell.
"American Movie" (1999). Walking the fine line between examination and condescension, Chris Smith's sad/funny documentary tracks the endeavors of one Mark Borchardt, a hapless heartland filmmaker abetted by a coterie of peculiar types in the making of his no-budget horror opus "Coven"—which he pronounces "ko-ven," because the other way rhymes with "oven," and that's, like, stupid. Chief among Borchardt's accomplices is his profoundly stoned pal Mike Schank, with whom Borchardt shares an easy Wayne-and-Garth interplay, only without the ironic Dick Van Patten references. While on some level an unflinching look at the ways in which the downtrodden seek to escape their lot, the film works quite nicely as absurd entertainment, especially when Borchardt risks his and an actor's cranial integrity by rigging a stunt involving an uncooperative cupboard door.
Amsel, Richard. Artist, 1947-1985. Precise and playful, Amsel's signature illustration style brightened magazine covers and movie posters during the New Hollywood era and beyond. His hand crafted the smoke spiraling from Jack Nicholson's cigarette to Faye Dunaway's haunted eyes on a one-sheet for "Chinatown" (1974), and Amsel perfectly captured the Saturday-matinee fun of Indiana Jones' inaugural outing in his poster for "Raiders of the Lost Ark" (1981). With his gracefully overstuffed images for pictures as varied as "Murder on the Orient Express" (1974) and "Flash Gordon" (1980), Amsel promised movie-star glamour, high adventure, and constant excitement. That his posters were occasionally zippier than the movies they hawked is merely testament to his talent. He also illustrated scores of covers for "TV Guide," packing abundant visual excitement into that magazine's very small canvas.
"And Starring Pancho Villa as Himself" (2003). Comedy icon Larry Gelbart contributed one of his sharpest scripts to this impressively mounted telefilm about how Pancho Villa's revolution was partly subsidized by early American filmmakers. Presenting a string of scenes so outrageous they feel utterly credible—movie people convincing Villa to change his angle of attack so the lighting will be better, Villa angrily tossing a script into the air and literally shooting holes through it—Gelbart tells a very modern story about using the media to sell a war. Though the central character of John Reed (Matt Day) comes off more as a cipher than as an infamous political figure in the making, Gelbart probably made the right decision to treat Villa (Antonio Banderas) as a key supporting character. Though often inspiring and entertaining, he's also shown to be a ruthless son of a bitch. And if Gelbart can't quite wrap up the ending, that works just fine—the point he's making is that once the ethical waters get this muddy, it's awfully hard to see bottom.
Applause Screenplay Series. For an exciting stretch in the '90s, Manhattan outfit Applause Books complemented its many outstanding theater-themed publications with a terrific run of published screenplays. Eschewing the traditional model of polished transcriptions, Applause issued scripts in their original formats, giving an invaluable window into the screenwriting process. Pairing the scripts with generous illustrations (both stills and storyboards), the books also featured great bonus material such as the text of deleted scenes and informative essays about the writing process. My personal favorites in the series are the texts accompanying "The Fisher King," "Jacob's Ladder," and "Terminator 2." All three deliver visually rich experiences that dramatize the leap from page to screen, and all three delve deep into how even the best scripts undergo surgery. Bruce Joel Rubin's commentary about his relationship with director Adrian Lyne on "Jacob's Ladder" is especially memorable, with the writer describing how his director was dead-set against a particular special-effects sequence that Rubin thought crucial. Other highlights of the Applause series include several Monty Python-related books, and excellent collected volumes of William Goldman's screenplays.
"Arlington Road" (1999). Taut and provocative, this underseen thriller put screenwriter Ehren Kruger on the map as a whiz at twisty narrative. Jeff Bridges plays a professor whose field of expertise is terrorism, and Tim Robbins plays his mysterious new neighbor, whom Bridges suspects might be a terrorist. How Kruger dramatizes this tasty premise is a joy to behold, because Bridges wrestles with the very modern dilemma of differentiating alertness from paranoia. Bridges comes unglued in spectacular fashion, and Robbins' wholesome charm is used to great villainous effect. But the real surprise in the cast is Joan Cusack, who plays Robbins' wife; though widely beloved as a comedienne, Cusack reveals dramatic chops in a surprising, layered performance that culminates in a chilling moment outside a phone booth. Director Mark Pellington puts Kruger's ingenious story onscreen with a brisk pace and an ominous mood, and the ending packs quite a punch.
"Assault on Precinct 13" (1976). John Carpenter assumed his mantle as a manly-man director of bleak, modern, comic-book horror with this audacious urban thriller, his first solo feature. A stark narrative about an army of thugs laying siege to a decommissioned police station, the picture—an acknowledged retread of Howard Hawks' "Rio Bravo" (1959)—is powered by attitude, pervasive menace, and one of Carpenter's signature synthesizer scores. The characters are purely archetypal: a noble cop, a surprisingly honorable hood, and the tough women who admire them. Yet Carpenter infuses his broad storytelling strokes with flair, from quotable dialogue ("You can't argue with a confident man") to startling violence (brace yourself for the ice cream scene). Especially when Carpenter's throbbing music connects shots of nameless killers oozing out of the darkness, the picture has an irresistibly creepy feel.
“Atlantic City” (1980). An exquisite character piece that probably represents French filmmaker Louis Malle’s best endeavor in the English language, this poignant drama reveals the humanity pulsing inside the sorts of people whom society usually ignores. Burt Lancaster, in one of his most regal performances, plays Lou, small-time hood who pieces together a living by running numbers and servicing a mobster’s widow. Lou’s next-door neighbor is Sally, a beautiful waitress with dreams of becoming a world-class croupier. Fate throws them together during a crisis, and screenwriter John Guare weaves the narrative with grace and sympathy and humor. Malle takes in the pathos and unexpected eroticism from an effectively detached perspective, giving the film the flavor of an anthropological exploration. The filmmakers cleverly employ decaying real-life Atlantic City as a metaphor representing the characters’ avarice and loneliness, but it’s Lancaster’s performance that imbues the thing with dignity recalling a more elegant age.
"Au revoir les enfants" (1987). For more than three decades, I've named Louis Malle's semiautobiographical heartbreaker as my favorite movie, and though I find many other films more conducive to repeat viewings, I fall back in love with the poetic despair of this picture every time I think I've escaped its thrall. Fictionalized from a real-life incident Malle experienced in occupied France during World War II, the deceptively simple story takes place at a remote Catholic school. Brilliant student Julien (Gaspard Manesse) is more curious than alarmed when the school becomes a haven for mysterious new boys including Jean (Raphael Fejto). First seeing Jean as an intellectual rival, Julien slowly accepts the boy as a friend; along the way, he discovers that Jean is a Jew hiding from the Nazis. How Julien shares that forbidden knowledge occasions a quiet climax of shattering impact. Autographed with a voice-over coda that deepens the drama and also provides a window into how Malle evolved into a complicated artist, the movie is stark, poetic, and, in many important senses of the word, true.
“Away from Her” (2006). An elegant study of the effects of Alzheimer’s on a long marriage, Canadian actress Sarah Polley’s assured debut as a writer-director takes subject matter normally found in the saccharine confines of heartfelt TV movies and approaches the subject matter with artistry and restraint. Nominally illustrating the ravages of Alzheimer’s and the bleak options available even to affluent sufferers, the picture is actually more interested in the sad irony of a couple losing each other years after rebuilding a turbulent relationship. Sixties cinema icon Julie Christie, still very much a dazzling beauty, commands the film as Fiona, a woman whose life changes profoundly in ways she cannot grasp, and Gordon Pinset complements her as a man of letters whose vast intellect is useless in the face of his wife’s decline. Based on a short story by Alice Munro, the picture takes an unexpected turn once Christie’s character is institutionalized, illustrating yet another painful dimension of the disease: Fiona’s heart still longs for connection, but because he’s literally away from her, Fiona’s husband is not the person with whom she connects. The pacing of Polley’s picture could be faster, but the film’s emotional core is luminous.
"Baadasssss!" (2003). "Entertainment-wise, it's gotta be a motherfucker. That's a given." Sentiments like that one abound in Mario Van Peebles' wild docudrama about his father's efforts to make the one-of-a-kind flick "Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song" (1971). "Baadasssss!" casts the director as his dad, uncompromising provocateur Melvin Van Peebles, who begged, borrowed, and stole the resources needed to make his groundbreaking film, a revolutionary black-power statement disguised as exploitive entertainment. Providing great fun with its depictions of Melvin's ingenious schemes and sharp drama with its recounting of his unique parenting style, "Baadasssss!" goes down a lot smoother than Melvin's original, but still provides the necessary political and social context to advance the discussion begun by "Sweet Sweetback's." The alternate title of Mario's movie, "How to Get the Man's Foot Outta Your Ass," reflects the pugnacious character it shares with its subject matter.
"The Bad and the Beautiful" (1952). A tart love letter to Hollywood that steers just clear of cynicism and bitchery, Vincente Minnelli's breezy drama tells the fictional story of producer Jonathan Shields, an embittered Tinseltown scion who plays God with the lives of his collaborators, yet leaves them all asking for more. Employing a clever structure in which each of the main characters narrates a lengthy flashback about his or her relationship with Shields (Kirk Douglas), the movie is alternately melodramatic, exuberant, tragic, and inspiring. Douglas is at his most charismatic, beguiling everyone he meets with his smooth intensity, and the picture culls just enough real showbiz lore to add credibility and inside jokes. The bit about Shields using the power of suggestion to make better horror movies, for instance, is a nod to B-movie legend Val Lewton. The cast is loaded with reliable studio players, including Walter Pidgeon and Lana Turner, and Gloria Grahame scored an Oscar for her supporting role as a willful Southern belle.
"Badlands" (1973). Melding understated photography right out of the Dorothea Lange school, experimental music that still sounds utterly modern, plainspoken narration, and acting so naturalistic it seems pulled from a documentary, Terrence Malick found an almost perfect directorial style in his first movie. Telling the seemingly routine story of James Dean-fixated youth Kit (Martin Sheen) bringing his teen girlfriend (Sissy Spacek) along on a killing spree, Malick uncovers layer upon layer of surprising nuance, all without robbing his characters of their enigmatic qualities. And from the earliest bits of Kit making small talk on the job as a garbage collector, every scene feels fresh, present, and real. The whole package, assembling bits of fabricated life into a stylized whole, is remarkable—there's the mesmerizing sequence of a burning house, the weird passage involving a hideout in the woods, the haphazard quality of the violence. Though both Sheen and Spacek are compelling throughout, "Badlands" is more than anything a directorial tour de force. It's also quite close to being a flawless movie.
"Bad Lieutenant" (1992). Letting director Abel Ferrara beat the crap out of you for 96 minutes isn't much fun, but the energy he and leading man Harvey Keitel generate in this brutal drama is singularly powerful. Keitel, at the crest of his '90s breakthrough period, invests himself so passionately in the role of a corrupt New York City cop that it becomes hard to separate the actor from the character. So when he's flailing with rage after a gambling loss, jutting his hand down his pants while harassing a pair of women, or moaning in (literally) naked angst, it's as if we're watching Keitel implode. Ferrara, the grungy filmmaker behind several harrowing films, amplifies the audience identification by never giving the lieutenant a name. The director also takes his signature relentlessness to a perverse extreme, never once giving viewers a glimmer of hope or relief. "Bad Lieutenant" is the story of a lost soul speeding toward damnation, and by the time the movie ends with a pounding rap song built around a throbbing Led Zep sample, Ferrara has just about taken viewers to hell right along with his protagonist.
"The Bad News Bears" (1976). Featuring a scrappy gaggle of minorities, thugs, and losers who winningly gel into a mediocre Little League team, Michael Ritchie's expertly rendered comedy is the ultimate un-p.c. kids' flick, capturing the nastiness, glee, and heartbreak of childhood. Walter Matthau is at his disheveled best as the group's unwilling mentor, medicating himself with beer and berating his players whenever he bothers to pay attention. Tatum O'Neal summons her "Paper Moon" sass, cult-fave actor Jackie Earle Haley makes juvenile delinquency look cool and awkward at the same time, and the kids playing the rest of the team are perfectly cast. Behind the camera, Ritchie sets a smooth pace that's cleverly accelerated by snatches from Bizet's "Carmen." Much of the original cast returned for "The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training" (1977), which has a fair amount of charm, and "The Bad News Bears Go to Japan" (1978), which doesn't. Incidentally, the original movie was one of only two penned by Burt Lancaster's son, Bill Lancaster; the other was John Carpenter's gruesome but powerful "The Thing" (1982).
Baker, Kathy. Actor, b. 1950. First appearing onscreen amid the spectacular ensemble cast of "The Right Stuff" (1983), Baker entrenched herself in the top tier of American dramatic actors with tough, emotional performances in the seedy prostitution story "Street Smart" (1987) and the taut addiction tale "Clean and Sober" (1988). Outside of her leading role in the peculiar David E. Kelley melodrama "Picket Fences" (1992-1996), which cast her and grizzled Tom Skerritt as the heads of a Wisconsin family beset by surreal plot contrivances, Baker has mostly been relegated to supporting parts and ensemble appearances. Nontheless, she never fails to deliver heartfelt work that evades mawkishness; often appearing as maternal characters, Baker imbues even small parts with her admirable quality of compassionate gravitas.
Ballard, Carroll. Outdoorsman, b. 1937. One of the last figures to emerge from the SoCal film-school brain trust of the late '60s and early '70s—the collective that produced Coppola, Lucas, Milius, and others—Ballard has almost exclusively made animal-themed films of extraordinary beauty. "The Black Stallion" (1979), "Fly Away Home" (1996), and "Duma" (2005) all lovingly depict relationships between children and wild animals, their wondrous images reflecting Ballard's keen photographic eye and appreciation for the natural world. His most astonishing movie is 1983's "Never Cry Wolf," an elegant adaptation of Farley Mowat's book about studying wolves in the Canadian tundra. Galvanized by Charles Martin Smith's winning turn in the lead role, the picture integrates Hiro Narita's crisp photography and Mark Isham's evocative music into a majestic experience of great emotional power. Because of his sparse output, Ballard holds unchallenged status as the Terrence Malick of animal movies.
Balsam, Martin. Actor, 1919-1996. An indispensable character actor throughout four decades of movies and television, the stocky, rough-voiced Balsam enjoyed at least two exemplary runs, first as a versatile player in the '50s heyday of live television and then as one of the favorite rumpled middle-aged men in '70s movies. Equally adept at drama and comedy, and often indiscriminate in his choice of projects, Balsam's unmistakable persona can be found in everything from "12 Angry Men" (1957), as the even-tempered foreman of a combustible jury; to the original "Cape Fear" (1962), wherein he essays one of many gruff cops he portrayed; to "The Taking of Pelham One Two Three" (1974), in which he's a crook with a memorable cold; to "Death Wish 3" (1985), featuring Balsam as a stand-in for deceased franchise regular Vincent Gardenia. Balsam, who won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for 1965's "A Thousand Clouds," was also a member of the canny editorial staff in "All the President's Men (1976), and he fell victim to Norman Bates' butcher knife in "Psycho" (1960). Ever the movie buff, Martin Scorsese recruited Balsam to play a nostalgic cameo in his 1991 remake of "Cape Fear."
Bass, Saul. Designer/filmmaker, 1920-1996. One of the few designers ever to achieve name-brand notoriety for creating opening-credit sequences, Bass was equally beloved for his dynamic posters. He frequently created both elements for projects, including many movies directed by Alfred Hitchcock and Otto Preminger, thereby creating bold brand identifications. The crudely rendered limb featured in both the one-sheet and the credits sequence of Preminger's addiction story "The Man With the Golden Arm" (1955) is a key example of his vivid imagery, which boiled movie concepts down to a single iconic image. It follows, then, that Bass enjoyed spectacular success in advertising, creating such inescapable corporate logos as AT&T's bell, the United Way's hand-held rainbow, and the abstract "w" that adorned many Warner Bros. films of the '70s. Bass also directed a handful of movies, including "Phase IV" (1974), certainly the brainiest sci-fi screamer ever made about ants mounting an assault against humanity.
Beatty, Ned. Actor, 1937-2021. One of the essential character actors of American ’70s cinema, stocky Kentuckian Beatty made his unforgettable debut as an assault victim in “Deliverance” (1972). Roles of seemingly every ilk followed, with Beatty transforming into an icy corporate monster for “Network” (1976), incarnating an amusingly incompetent thug for “Superman” (1978), and portraying a dangerously patriotic dad for “1941” (1979). Pick a coloration somewhere between these extremes, and Beatty probably imbued it in some Me Decade flick now fallen into obscurity. His movies got notably smaller in the ’80s, but the wonderfully reliable performer rose back to the fore with 1992’s “Hear My Song,” a minor arthouse hit in which he played an Irish crooner. Beatty’s brief resurgence comprised a few better-than-usual movie roles and then a 1993-1995 run on the acclaimed crime series “Homicide: Life on the Street.” After leaving the show, Beatty brought his unaffected style to an eclectic slate of projects, notably the soft-spoken gem “Spring Forward” (1999). He also reprised his noteworthy TV role for “Homicide: The Movie” (2000).
Beatty, Warren. Perfectionist, b. 1937. Virginia native Beatty stormed onto the Hollywood scene in the late ’50s, quickly achieving leading-man status with “Splendor in the Grass” (1961) while earning offscreen notoriety for seducing a number of the world’s most beautiful women. Determined to undercut preconceptions stemming from his glorious looks, Beatty took control of his career by producing 1967’s “Bonnie and Clyde.” In addition to assembling an exquisite cast, Beatty oversaw the refinement of a near-perfect screenplay and contributed a vividly twitchy leading performance. Though only thirty, Beatty was well on his way to becoming a pop auteur of unusually sophisticated taste. A mercurial stretch followed wherein Beatty juggled popcorn flicks and tonier artistic endeavors: “$” (1971) and “Heaven Can Wait” (1978) were pure entertainment, while “The Parallax View” (1974) and “Shampoo” (1975) were rife with topical anger. By the end of the ’70s, Beatty had become as notorious for his indecisiveness as for his romantic conquests, so it was remarkable that he ever finished “Reds” (1981), his solo directorial debut. Expansive and challenging, the biopic of American communist John Reed was a ballsy statement at the dawn of the Reagan era. Then came the first long drought of his career, with Beatty surfacing only once more during the ’80s, in the legendary flop “Ishtar” (1987). By the time he reappeared with the comic-strip adaptation “Dick Tracy” (1990), the public seemed to have gotten over Beatty. He nudged the picture to nominal blockbuster status by dint of oppressive marketing and the participation of pop siren Madonna, but Beatty seemed weirdly incidental to the movie’s success; his performance as the title character was so slight that Al Pacino’s bad-guy turn stole the show. The fiery Beatty of old returned for the astonishing mob story “Bugsy” (1991), and again for the bizarre satire “Bulworth” (1998), in which he raps about economic and racial injustice. But then, after the rom-com debacle “Town & Country” (2001), came another long drought, during which reformed lothario Beatty focused on family life with spouse Annette Bening. His most recent return from the cinematic wilderness, "Rules Don't Apply" (2016), was deeply underwhelming, so hopes that Beatty will add further glory to his legacy have faded.
"Before Sunrise" (1995) and "Before Sunset" (2004) and "Before Midnight" (2013). When American slacker Jesse (Ethan Hawke) first spotted pretty young Frenchwoman Céline (Julie Delpy) on a train in 1995, who knew they were about to embark an epic romance with a uniquely modern arc? Richard Linklater's "Before Sunrise" audaciously tracked the young would-be lovers through a romantic 24 hours in Vienna, during which they talked about art and language and their dreams for the future. It was a daring experiment that worked because the gifted actors contributed their distinct personalities, Hawke the overeducated Gen Xer and Delpy the idealistic European. The movie ended with delicious ambiguity, so the idea of a sequel seemed impudent. Surprise, surprise. "Before Sunset" was a reunion and a continuation, more the next chapter in a novel than an arbitrary addendum. The second picture put Jesse and Céline together after a long separation, their sensibilities deepened by a taste of adult experience but their fascination with each other undiminished. Presenting the story in real time added intensity, and the actors seemed even more invested the second time around. Amazingly, the allure and integrity of this special series remained intact when the collaborators reunited for a third installment, raising the tantalyzing possibility that the key players will track their beguiling characters through middle age and beyond. Taken together, these movies comprise a world-class love story for the black-turtleneck crowd, examining the unique issues of perpetually immature individuals forced by circumstances and time to embrace the realities and rhythms of adulthood.
“Beginners” (2010). Writer-director Mike Mills’ offbeat dramedy fictionalizes a bizarre period in the filmmaker’s real life: His father came out as a gay man around the same time the patriarch announced his cancer was terminal. In the movie version of this strange tale, fatalistic cartoonist Oliver (Ewan McGregor) reels when his cultured father, Hal (Christopher Plummer), reveals his homosexuality; Oliver is flummoxed to learn about the complexities of his parents’ marriage, but at the same time he enjoys the new openness in his relationship with his father. Also thrown into the mix is Oliver’s courtship with Anna (Mélanie Laurent), a French actress living in the U.S. So while Oliver sorts out the impending loss of his newly liberated dad, he also must overcome the challenges of a romance spread over long geographical distances. Plummer’s humane performance dominates, but thanks to Mills’ eccentric style, viewers are treated to a broad spectrum of vivid sensations, ranging from bewilderment to heartbreak to jubilance to reverie.
Bell, Kristen. Actor, b. 1980. Sharing my identity as a Michigander who studied at NYU but easily outmatching me in ebullience and blondeness, Bell dazzled week after week in the titular role of "Veronica Mars" (2004-2007), creating the illusion of effortlessness as she realized Rob Thomas' outlandish vision of an adolescent supersleuth. The show let Bell swagger, emote, amuse, and even narrate with singular poise and surprising depth. She was just as impressive in other early projects, whether portraying a teen who becomes a surrogate mom in the telefim "Gracie's Choice" (2004), a naif with a hidden persona in the first season of the HBO Western "Deadwood," or a song-belting toker in the musical "Reefer Madness" (2005). Her first major push for a berth on the big screen came in 2008, when she appeared in the geek-friendly “Fanboys” and the Judd Apatow-produced comedy “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” though both projects gave Bell’s bikini-clad figure as much prominence as her sly line deliveries. Balance of a sort was achieved when comedy series “House of Lies” (2012-2016) allowed Bell to mesh sex appeal with dimensional character work. Soon after voicing a character in the animated blockbuster “Frozen” (2013), Bell helped score a massive crowd-sourcing success by aggregating $4 million to make a “Veronica Mars” reunion film, which was released in 2014. (Veronica surfaced yet again in 2019, when Hulu aired a respectable stand-alone season.) Starring in the ingenious existential sitcom "The Good Place" (2016-2020) provided yet another showcase for Bell’s gifts, because she infused her touching characterization with equal measures of pathos and whimsy.
Bening, Annette. The real deal, b. 1958. Though her ascent through the ranks of top American actors stalled when she took a break to start a family with Warren Beatty, Bening quickly reclaimed her position. Back in movies regularly since 2003, she’s delivered one powerhouse performance after another, dispelling any worries that her career had lost its momentum. A Midwesterner with pert features, a muscular voice, and the confidence of a queen, Bening broke big in 1990, when she played an insipid ingénue in “Postcards from the Edge” and a conniving crook in “The Grifters.” Three roles came the following year, the most important of which was that of gang moll Virginia Hill in “Bugsy.” Oozing sensuality, intelligence, and danger, Bening infused Hill with complicated magnetism. Her chemistry with costar Beatty continued offscreen, and the pair took a three-year hiatus before returning with the troubled remake “Love Affair” (1994). Thereafter, Bening dug into roles with startling ferocity, striking sparks as a political activist in “The American President” (1995), a CIA operative in “The Siege” (1998), and a repressed housewife in “American Beauty” (1999). More recently, she’s volleyed from elevating thankless roles (as a frontier love interest in the 2003 oater “Open Range”) to devouring meaty ones (as an aging actress in the 2004 dramedy “Being Julia”). Now deservedly a multiple Oscar nominee, Bening continues to dazzle in sophisticated comedies and topical dramas; recent triumphs include “Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool” (2017), featuring Bening’s poignant turn as real-life thesp Gloria Grahame, and “The Report” (2019), with Bening offering a fierce portrayal of another real person, Sen. Dianne Feinstein.
“The Best Man” (1964). While certain aspects of this story about two candidates vying for their party’s nomination may seem quaint in today’s no-holds-barred climate, the themes infusing the story are timeless. Adapted by witty provocateur Gore Vidal from his play, the picture concerns a high-minded liberal (Henry Fonda) whose principal competition is a crass Southerner (Cliff Robertson). The clever linchpin to the story is an ex-president-turned-kingmaker (Lee Tracy), whose endorsement might clinch the nomination. At first Vidal positions the ex-prez as an idealist, but then the character is revealed as a pure politician who loves the fight more than anything else. Vidal’s secret weapon is a scandal culled from the Robertson character’s past, which allows the story to satirize the means by which members of a certain minority were ostracized in the bad old days. It’s all quite erudite, but it’s also incredibly entertaining as filmed by director Franklin Shaffner and cinematographer Haskell Wexler (using the documentary tricks that made him famous). The performances are uniformly rich, with Fonda anchoring the piece via the quiet moral authority that defines his cinematic legacy.
Bieri, Ramon. Actor, 1929-2001. A stocky, menacing sort with a round face and perpetually squinting eyes, Bieri got typecast as varmints in Westerns and thugs in contemporary stories. I grew up watching him on junk shows such as “Charlie’s Angels” and “CHiPs,” but I’ve long since grown to appreciate his vital big-screen work. To name just two choice roles, he had the bad luck to befriend serial killer Martin Sheen in “Badlands” (1974), and the even worse luck to join a crew of swarthy guys transporting dynamite across a jungle in the underrated William Friedkin thriller “Sorcerer” (1977). Bieri was in many ways the archetypal character actor of his era, easily shifting from rugged amiability to truly frightening villainy, all the while approaching each performance with unwavering professionalism.
“Big Bosoms and Square Jaws: The Biography of Russ Meyer, the King of the Sex Film.” The title of this luridly entertaining cinema book is a good indication of what lurks inside, and indeed, Jimmy McDonough’s gossipy page-turner dredges up every trashy anecdote possible about the exploits of Meyer, the madman soft-core pornographer behind a string of energetic indies as well as the bizarro big-studio sexcapade “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls” (1970). Meyer’s movies arose from his fetish for women with abnormal abundance, and in fact abnormal abundance also defines his cinematic style: crazed characters, garish production design, kicky editing, rampant perversion, twisted storylines. McDonough sketches the unchecked ambition and deranged pseudo-artistry that ensured Meyer’s ascendance, while also gleefully depicting details of Meyer’s sex life—alongside the erotic adventures of his collaborators, many of whom share Meyer’s specialized fetishes. For instance, the image McDonough paints of a young, mammary-mad Roger Ebert getting serviced in a pool by one of Meyer’s amazons, around the time Ebert wrote “Dolls” for the director, is a tricky one to shake.
"The Big Picture: Money and Power in Hollywood." Edward Jay Epstein took on a massive task for this 2005 nonfiction book—he endeavored to synopsize the evolution of power in Hollywood from the industry's early days to the present corporate era. Notwithstanding his dry writing style, Epstein succeeded gloriously. Among other topics, he explores in meticulous detail how talent packaging shifted leverage to agents and stars after the decline of the studio system, how the digitizing of entertainment content upended the traditional Hollywood business model, and how the growing importance of the global marketplace led to the homogenization of movies. He also follows the paper trails of certain projects, notably "Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines" (2003), illuminating everything from how much the production had to pay Arnold Schwarzenegger for extra shooting days to how many foreign premieres the star was obliged to attend. Epstein's findings amplify the obvious, that the industry has given itself over to the aftermarket and the youth audience, but his investigation is so thorough that he almost makes sense of the madness that is the contemporary movie industry.
Billy Jack. Violent pacifist, introduced in 1967. The '70s had more than its share of cinematic vigilantism, with Dirty Harry and Charles Bronson's "Death Wish" character slaughtering hoodlums in bulk, and the strangest of these ersatz lawmen was Billy Jack. Played by Tom Laughlin in four films spanning 1967 to 1977, Billy was a half-breed in highwater denims and a bitchin' black hat who always slipped off his boots before dispensing ten-toed justice to assorted small-minded townies. The guardian of a hippie-dippie school run by his paramour, Jean (played by Laughlin's offscreen partner, Delores Taylor), Billy talked a good line about peace and love even as he roundhouse-kicked every antagonist in sight. He first appeared in a biker flick called "The Born Losers" (1967), then came into his own with the sizable hit "Billy Jack" (1971). That picture divided audiences because of its hypocritical mix of violence and pacifism. The series went seriously weird with "The Trial of Billy Jack" (1974), a three-hour freakout featuring everything from courtroom drama to Indian mysticism to "Afterschool Special" melodrama about a mutilated abuse victim expressing himself through touchy-feely folk music. After the jaw-dropping oddity of "Trial," the series petered out with "Billy Jack Goes to Washington" (1977), an almost unwatchable remake of "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington." Decades of threats that Billy Jack would return to the screen ended with Laughlin's death in 2013.
“Black Sunday” (1977). John Frankenheimer’s thriller about terrorists trying to fly a bomb-laden blimp into the Super Bowl is as gripping as it is outlandish. Much of the credit undoubtedly goes to Thomas Harris, upon whose novel the action epic is based; as proven by his subsequent creation of Hannibal Lecter, Harris knows his way around the criminal mind. The dynamic between Palestinian radical Dahlia (Marthe Keller) and her hapless pawn Michael (Bruce Dern) is convincingly tortured: Michael’s a strung-out ex-P.O.W. whose wife left him and whose government let him down, so he’s susceptible to the machinations of sultry but coldhearted Dahlia. Hot on their trail is Israeli operative David (Robert Shaw), whose ruthlessness rivals Dahlia’s. The methodical narrative puts these extreme characters on a collision course, and nearly everyone who gets between them ends up dead in some gruesome fashion. Frankenheimer’s no-frills camerawork meshes into a lush tableau when energized by John Williams’ exciting score, and the picture only drags during the protracted finale. Be warned that the expected climactic visuals never really materialize, because Paramount reportedly skimped on the effects budget. But since the unusually intuitive character work is what really distinguishes “Black Sunday,” the lack of whiz-bang spectacle is a comparatively minor shortcoming.
“Blue Thunder” (1983). Helmed with muscular efficiency by John Badham, “Blue Thunder” kicks off like a slick thriller in the Peter Hyams vein, then devolves into an extended chase sequence punctuated by dazzling but far-fetched aerial maneuvers. The wafer-thin plot is TV-grade silliness about how conspirators use unscrupulous means to introduce Blue Thunder, a heavily armed attack helicopter designed for police use in urban areas. Yet at least during the first half of the picture, in which edgy Vietnam vet Murphy (Roy Scheider) interacts with a green co-pilot (Daniel Stern) and an ornery boss (Warren Oates), the movie has texture and sass. When it shifts to mano-a-mano battle between Murphy and his evil counterpart (Malcolm McDowell), the movie gets carried away with fetishistic machinery shots and explosive whammies. Though not nearly what it could have been, the flick is a fine distraction bolstered by Scheider’s wry performance and Badham’s energetic camerawork. Oates is a crusty hoot, too, in one of his last appearances.
“Body Heat” (1981). While it ultimately sent the wrong message about what kind of filmmaker Lawrence Kasdan would become, “Body Heat” nonetheless remains one of the most impressive debut pictures of the Greed Decade. An undisguised attempt to emulate the noir style of the World War II era, the slick suspenser concerns a tacky Florida lawyer (William Hurt) who gets involved with a sultry femme fatale (Kathleen Turner) with designs on her husband’s money. All of the requisite genre stylings are prominent, from the wicked dialogue to the gorgeously constructed plot twists, and Kasdan has a ball with things like Venetian blinds, smoke trails, and seductive music. Yet there’s a bit more going on than just homage, because the piece also works as a character study of a man pushed from the iffy morality of small-time litigation into the hardcore damnation of murder. The film also contains one of Hurt’s most disciplined performances, because his signature offbeat colorations are grounded by the precision of the screenplay. Ted Danson’s a hoot as the lawyer’s fleet-footed sidekick, and the way the sweaty Florida locations permeate every facet of the picture are a textbook example of how to anchor a story in the physicality of a place.
Bogdanovich, Peter. Filmmaker/historian, b. 1939. While the sensational aspects of Bogdanovich's private life are as familiar as the story of his transformation from scholar to filmmaker, it's helpful to look beyond the melodramatic career arc and simply appreciate his best work, which is stellar by any standards. His first official movie was the nervy 1968 thriller "Targets," which famously incorporated footage from another Roger Corman production and a contract-fulfilling appearance by Boris Karloff into an ingenious tale about a sniper and a movie star. Bogdanovich also appeared in the film as a doppelganger for his ambitious young self, giving the movie an intriguing time-capsule quality when viewed today. "The Last Picture Show" (1971) remains his masterpiece, a graceful mood piece about small-town loneliness and the collision between youthful dreams and adult reality. Many subsequent pictures, whether the Depression-era comedy "Paper Moon" (1973) or the well-crafted tearjerker "Mask" (1985), display his inimitable skill with the camera and with actors. He also remains a compelling onscreen presence, playing characters in such projects as HBO's "The Sopranos" and playing himself (to the hilt) in documentaries. In 2001, Bogdanovich reasserted his filmmaking vigor with "The Cat's Meow," his delicious dramatization of a famous Hollywood scandal. While still periodically active in fiction films, Bogdanovich has also returned to his scholarly past with documentary projects, such as the four-hour epic "Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers: Runnin' Down a Dream" (2007) and "The Great Buster: A Celebration" (2018), about silent-era great Buster Keaton.
Boothe, Powers. Actor, 1949-2017. With his towering build, dark features, and menacing drawl, Texas-born Boothe was typecast as a heavy for the better part of his career. Undaunted, Boothe slipped unexpected flavors into bad-guy parts, and he made the most of opportunities to play outside his type. He was deeply sympathetic as the hero of 1984's "The Emerald Forest," and he hit a comfortable Eastwood groove as the antihero of 1981's "Southern Comfort." He also portrayed the laconic title character of "Philip Marlowe, Private Eye" in HBO's stylish 1984-1986 series. Then there are the odd bits and pieces on his resume. Boothe was the last guy you'd expect to see giving undercover cop Al Pacino advice on which bandanna corresponds with which sex act in "Cruising" (1980), for instance, but his sole scene was memorable. Much later in his career, Boothe blended comfortably into the remarkable ensemble of "Deadwood," the Western series in which his pitch-black humor leavens his role as cutthroat entrepreneur Cy Tolliver. Decades after it first aired, however, Boothe's most audacious accomplishment may well be his chilling, Emmy-winning performance in "Guyana Tragedy: The Story of Jim Jones" (1980). The sight of Boothe slumped in a chair, sweat dripping from under his sunglasses as he entreats the members of his cult to "hurry, hurry" and drink their poisoned Flavor-Aid, lingers like an image from a nightmare.
“The Border” (1982). Appearing at a peculiar time in Jack Nicholson’s career, between the New Hollywood highs of the mid-’70s and the cartoony excesses of the late ’80s, this bleak drama by British helmer Tony Richardson gives Nicholson one of the most credibly ordinary characters in his filmography. Playing a half-heartedly righteous border-patrol guard suffering the expensive whims of his shrill wife (Valerie Perrine), Nicholson effectively communicates the tension of a man caught between the allure of petty corruption and the more elusive appeal of self-respect. Drawn into sleazy immigration schemes by his partner (an effectively loathsome Harvey Keitel), Nicholson vividly communicates his character’s conflicted attitude toward the Mexicans he’s paid over the table to corral and under the table to exploit. Lushly photographed through clouds of dust and waves of desert heat by Ric Waite and Vilmos Zsigmond, Richardson’s picture is an unpretentious ballad about the ground-level manifestations of geopolitical tensions.
"The Boston Strangler" (1968). Sort of a companion piece to the previous year's "In Cold Blood," this odd psychological drama pits methodical cop Henry Fonda against twitchy psycho Tony Curtis. Using split-screens, arty cutting, and disorienting devices wherein Curtis is both inside and commenting on key scenes, the movie makes, by Hollywood standards, a valiant attempt to penetrate a psycho's psyche. Though the picture's first hour, in which Fonda oversees a dragnet of Boston homosexuals while seeking the mysterious strangler, isn't especially cohesive, the movie adopts an eerie calm when Curtis' Anthony DeSalvo is taken into custody. Eschewing the hammy rhythms and goony expressions that mar his worst performances, Curtis does some of his best-ever work. The faraway look in his eyes and the dreamy softness in his voice as he describes slaughtering women are frightening, because they reiterate that the most dangerous crazies are the ones who don't broadcast their abnormal tendencies.
Bottoms, Timothy. Actor, b. 1951. First appearing as a doomed soldier in the strange war story "Johnny Got His Gun" and then as a naïve young Texan in "The Last Picture Show" (both 1971), Bottoms seemed pigeonholed as an innocent because of his boyish face, sad eyes, and gentle manner. He added a certain degree of maturity to his image by playing a sharp law student in "The Paper Chase" (1973), then went in a completely different direction by playing a manipulative wacko in the fun popcorn thriller "Rollercoaster" (1977). Many wilderness years followed, during which Bottoms endured forgettable roles and forgettable movies; an exception was his leading turn in the well-received miniseries adaptation of John Steinbeck's "East of Eden" (1981). His resemblance to George W. Bush broadened his employment opportunities in the 2000s. Proof that his talent remains strong can be found in the dry telefilm "DC 9/11: Time of Crisis" (2003), wherein Bottoms forcefully sells the illusion that Bush had his wits about him during the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. Bottoms is also noteworthy as the oldest member of an acting fraternity: His siblings Joseph (b. 1954), Sam (1955-2008), and Ben (b. 1960) have all appeared in films and TV to varying degrees of success.
"Bound" (1996). Now that the Wachowski siblings have found their niche telling stories about futuristic revolutions, it's interesting to revisit their first movie, which in retrospect seems like an audition piece for bigger things. With all due respect to the mind-bending action of "The Matrix" (1999), "Bound" may well be the duo's most mature work, which is saying a lot given that the movie's a sensationalistic heist thriller about two hot lesbians. Drenched in classic noir stylings—slinky music, sly camera moves, smartass dialogue—the picture tells an enjoyably twisty story about how butch Corky (Gina Gershon) and luxe Violet (Jennifer Tilly) try to pull a fast one on Violet's gangster paramour, Caesar (Joe Panatalino). Things go awry, of course, and the path toward the movie's clever denouement is paved with startling violence, dark humor, and a generous helping of girl-on-girl action.
"Bowfinger" (1999). As charming as it is goofy, Steve Martin's broad satire of Hollywood finds a clever way of attacking its target. Instead of building the movie around a weasely Tinseltown player, the film concerns one Bobby Bowfinger, an enthusiastic wannabe in the Ed Wood mold. Grasping desperately at what he perceives to be his last chance for success, Bowfinger (Martin) convinces his collaborators that he's gotten A-list actor Kit Ramsey (Eddie Murphy) to star in his sci-fi epic "Chubby Rain." Since he hasn't actually secured Kit's participation, Bowfinger surreptitiously films the actor, ingeniously keeping his crew ignorant of the ruse. The farcical moments are breathlessly orchestrated by director Frank Oz, and the movie mines comic gold from the top-notch supporting cast—Christine Baranski, Robert Downey Jr., Heather Graham, and, in a wonderful second role, Murphy. Great gags abound, skewering such L.A. realities as the pervasiveness of screenwriters, the savviness of seemingly innocent starlets, the ubiquity of illegal immigrants, and the power of cultish religions.
Boyle, Peter. Different drummer, 1935-2006. Despite his bulky physique and those heavy brows that gave his face a dark mien, Boyle was by all reports a quiet man with the spirit of a peacenik. It’s therefore ironic that he achieved his greatest visibility not for some introspective performance in a character study or even for his pitch-perfect turn as the singin’-and-sufferin’ monster in “Young Frankenstein” (1974). Instead, he gained ubiquity by playing irascible TV dad Frank Barone, the bitter senior whose graceless catch phrase was “Holy crap!” At least costarring on “Everybody Loves Raymond” from 1996 to 2005 let Boyle go out on top. Sidelined in the ’80s when his style of everyman naturalism went out of favor, and then further derailed by a stroke in 1990, Boyle seemed destined for the slag heap of wonderful ’70s actors unable to sustain early notoriety. After cutting his teeth in theater, television, and commercials, he made an impact in the notorious counterculture flick “Joe” (1970), seething with rage as a blue-collar dad driven mad by the hippie dalliances of his free-spirited daughter. Throughout the ’70s, Boyle made unpredictable choices that led to uneven results. He blended seamlessly into the ensembles of gritty dramas including “The Friends of Eddie Coyle” (1973), “Taxi Driver” (1976), and “F.I.S.T.” (1978), while also adding sardonic nuances to his role as a sleazy campaign operative in the political satire “The Candidate” (1972) and of course incarnating the loveable monster in “Young Frankenstein.” His offscreen adventures were just as interesting; he met “Rolling Stone” reporter Loraine Alterman on the “Frankenstein” set, asking her for a date while in full makeup, and they married in 1977. His best man was John Lennon, whom he met through Alterman, and with whom Boyle remained close until Lennon’s death. Alas, Boyle’s screen career withered in ’80s Hollywood. Though his turn as a counterculture lawyer in the veiled Hunter S. Thompson biopic “Where the Buffalo Roam” (1980) was energetic, by the time Boyle played a golfing baddie in the sci-fi actioner “Outland” (1981), it was clear his offbeat colorations had become unfashionable. Nonetheless, he worked steadily, registering with some fans in the ensemble comedy romp “The Dream Team” (1989), though his resurgence didn’t really begin until several years after his stroke. Boyle picked up an Emmy for a 1995 guest shot on “The X-Files,” and “Raymond” debuted the same year he collected his trophy.
“Boy Wonder.” Fueled by a kind of mad genius, James Robert Baker’s novel about the rise and fall of a fictional Hollywood auteur touches on nearly every kind of creative and personal excess associated with the film industry, along the way telling a hell of a yarn. Written as a faux oral history (a brilliant contrivance that allows Baker to write in varied voices and deliver his narrative in bite-sized chunks), “Boy Wonder” tracks the career of Shark Trager, the arrogant genius who cuts a swath through film school, ’70s Hollywood, and assorted compliant starlets. Especially for fans of ’70s-cinema lore, the satirical highlight is the section of the book detailing Trager’s insane magnum opus, “Red Surf,” an homage to the super-productions that derailed filmmakers like Michael Cimino and Francis Ford Coppola in the early ’80s; hilarious details include Trager’s obsessive creation of 200 takes of a 20-minute tracking shot. Yet even though “Boy Wonder” includes vicious takes on the cretins who infect Hollywood, the book also explodes with movie love—Baker clearly adores even the worst and weirdest characters. A meticulously crafted epic that never runs out of gas in its 470 pages, “Boy Wonder” is the fake Hollywood story that tells the true Hollywood story.
"Brainstorm" (1983). Special-effects guru Douglas Trumbull helmed this intriguing sci-fi thriller that's as spiritually and intellectually provocative as it is visually arresting. Christopher Walken and Natalie Wood play researchers who create a tool for recording brain patterns, which allows users to experience other people's lives with immersive reality. As happens in movies of this ilk, nefarious government types sniff around their work when it seems the technology might have lethal applications. The plotting, and for that matter the characterizations, are perfunctory. What matters are the wide-ranging implications of the subject matter and the resourcefulness of Trumbull's direction. Especially vivid sequences involve a lonely man overdosing on a recording of sexual intercourse, and a tape of a dying man's last thoughts. Trumbull uses everything from fish-eyed point-of-view shots to, of course, a dazzling effects sequence, all of it framed in luxurious widescreen. Walken is unusually restrained, as is costar Louise Fletcher, and the movie has a somber air because it was Wood's last.
Braugher, Andre. Actor, b. 1962. Quietly charismatic, with a smooth confidence reflecting the abundant power he can unleash at a moment’s notice, Braugher first staked his cinematic claim in the 1990 telefilm “The Court Martial of Jackie Robinson,” incarnating the titular baseball legend. He then joined the celebrated ensemble of “Homicide: Life on the Street” (1993-1998), winning an Emmy and other accolades for his sure-handed portrayal of Det. Frank Pembleton. Trained on the stage, Braugher has split his time between TV and movies since “Homicide” ended, acting in subsequent series including the 2006 mini “Thief” and taking on behind-the-camera duties. Many of his screen appearances reflect a deep social consciousness, including the numerous documentaries to which Braugher has contributed his silky voice. He’s just as interesting in less ambitious projects, whether melding gravitas and naiveté to play an amiable seraphim in “City of Angels” (1998) or endearingly displaying his karaoke skills in “Duets” (2000). In 2009, Braugher locked into a new ongoing role when he took up residence as one of the leads of the smart cable series “Men of a Certain Age.” After that series folded, the versatile actor shifted to full-out comedy by joining the ensemble of the Fox (subsequently NBC) laffer “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” in 2013.
“Breach” (2007). Almost as interesting for what it doesn’t feature as for what actually appears on screen, Billy Ray’s subtly menacing spy story explores the banality of the espionage world while also presenting one of the most fascinatingly ambiguous characters in recent cinematic memory. A measured, smart drama about the exposure of FBI double agent Robert Hanssen (Chris Cooper), who spent decades feeding sensitive info to the Soviets, “Breach” delves deeply into the human costs of living a duplicitous existence. Adapted from a nonfiction book by the young FBI operative who helped topple Hanssen, the movie largely eschews chase scenes and standoffs in favor of tense duels of dishonesty, in which green but ambitious Eric O’Neill (Ryan Phillippe) tests his prevarication skills against Hanssen’s at great peril. The chilly approach suits the material but may test the patience of viewers expecting a more conventional thrill ride, and the piece certainly pushes Phillippe past the limits of his skills. But Cooper is mesmerizing, and the supporting players are exquisite: Gary Cole, Dennis Haysbert, Laura Linney, and Kathleen Quinlan all nail their expertly crafted roles.
"Breaking Away" (1979). Adroitly capturing a variety of behaviors, dilemmas, and dialects, this carefully observed coming-of-age dramedy concerns a titanic clash between haves and have-nots in Bloomington, Indiana. Dennis Christopher, Jackie Earle Haley, Dennis Quaid, and Daniel Stern play "Cutters," sons of the blue-collar workers who built the halls of Indiana University, and Hart Bochner leads a band of their opposite numbers, the blueblood cads who attend the school. Over the course of a humid summer, the Cutters mire through assorted subplots that bring them into conflict with the bluebloods and their own limitations; the climactic bicycle race becomes a potent metaphor for the Cutters' dreams of bettering their lots. Every level of character interplay in Steve Tesich's Oscar-winning script is funny and thoughtful, with the banter between comic pros Barbara Barrie and Paul Dooley often stealing the show. Moving, wistful, and smart without ever succumbing to gooey sentiment, the movie offers a master class in defining characters.
"The Break-Up" (2006). Deceptively marketed as a broad comedy, the much-hyped Vince Vaughn-Jennifer Aniston starrer actually is a thoughtful examination of a dying relationship. Though it boasts a number of yuks, the broadest and least germane of which come from John Michael Higgins' campy turn as Aniston's brother, the piece is mostly concerned with dramatizing the idea that couples who can't compromise don't stay couples. Vaughn's manly-man antics serve the story well, his prolonged adolescence blocking Aniston's attempts to drag him into a mature and lasting partnership. Aniston's singular style of caustic warmth works just as well when her character opts for mindgames over real communication. It's all as sad as it is amusing, with a melancholy score by Jon Brion fusing the disparate pieces together, and with a poignant supporting turn by Vincent D'Onofrio as Vaughn's frazzled sib adding extra emotional heft.
Bridges, Jeff. Actor, b. 1949. Though the temptation to ruminate about why Bridges has never achieved a greater level of stardom is strong, enough ink has been spilled about his perplexing career. Therefore it's sufficient to say that the lack of true marquee status has never impaired Bridges' ability to give spectacular leading performances—just watch "Starman" (1984) or "Arlington Road" (1999) or "The Door in the Floor" (2004) if you need a refresher on his commanding presence. Though Bridges has played his share of vapid he-men, from the shaggy egghead in "King Kong" (1976) to the overwrought explosives expert in "Blown Away" (1994), he's often at his best playing sons of bitches. He's a spineless narcissist in "Cutter's Way" (1981), a self-pitying shock jock in "The Fisher King" (1991), a wounded manipulator in "The Door in the Floor," and so on. And yet sometimes he's unexpectedly inspiring, whether as a wide-eyed auto innovator in "Tucker: The Man and His Dream" (1988) or as a slick racehorse owner in "Seabiscuit" (2003). That these examples only hint at the breadth of his performances offers ample evidence that Bridges is among the most mutable of American actors; that his transformations are more deeply rooted in behavior than in superficial adornments is proof that he's also among the very best of American actors. And, yeah, he’s the Dude, the put-upon stoner who gets mired in mystery throughout the cult-fave comedy “The Big Lebowski” (1998); for Johnny-come-lately fans too young to catch Bridges’ first run of starring roles, the entertainingly sozzled characterization of Jeff Lebowski is probably the defining Bridges moment. Long-overdue industry acclaim finally came Bridges’ way when he won an Academy Award for “Crazy Heart” (2009), a solid if somewhat pedestrian character piece boasting one of Bridges’ most relaxed performances, as a slovenly country singer in the midst of alcohol-fueled decline. Subsequent triumphs include the Coen Brothers’ Western remake “True Grit” (2010), in which Bridges outclasses no less a figure than John Wayne by reinterpreting one of the Duke’s most beloved roles, and the grim modern-day Western “Hell or High Water” (2016).
"Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia" (1974). Forget all that stuff about the passing of the West in "The Wild Bunch" (1969) and other Sam Peckinpah movies—more than any other, "Alfredo Garcia" captures the filmmaker's seedy worldview in its purest form. Ditching romanticism and diving headlong into the nihilistic muck, this modern dystopia depicts a small man whose shot at glory is so pathetic it borders on the profane. When the titular command is issued along with the promise of a reward, slovenly piano player Bennie (Warren Oates) decides he's the right guy for the job. After a number of unpleasant plot complications, Bennie eventually finds himself driving through sun-baked Mexico with Alfredo's decomposing noggin his only companion. And that's before things really go to hell. Presenting a truly hopeless story punctuated with bursts of foul violence, Peckinpah lays out his appraisal of the human condition for all to see. It's grimy and depressing, but it's also a uniquely personal statement.
“Brokeback Mountain” (2005). Not many movies lay me flat the way this one did, but the bittersweet journey of unlikely lovers Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) worked for me on every conceivable level. From the muted landscape shots to the soft lyricism of Gustavo Santaollala’s Oscar-winning score, director Ang Lee manipulates every miniscule element of the film to achieve a mood of repressed emotionalism, perfectly suiting the story of two sheepherders caught up in something they can’t, in the vernacular of the movie, “quit.” The key players deserved their acclaim: Larry McMurtry and Diana Osanna contribute a script filled with sparse poetry, Ledger anchors the movie with his agonizing depiction of inner conflict, Gyllenhaal offers appealing naiveté that complements Ledger’s brooding. More than any other movie romance in recent memory, the film puts obstacles in front of its characters that feel real instead of contrived, adding heft to each successive scene until the gut-punch impact of the last twenty minutes. The picture’s release created a significant cultural moment, with a surprising number of mainstream viewers embracing the story’s gay themes while even more people shunned “Brokeback” out of prejudice. The film’s success, and its excruciating loss in the Best Picture race, provided a vivid snapshot of how far we’ve come and how far we’ve yet to go.
Brooks, Louise. Siren, 1906-1985. Brooks remains one of the few truly peerless figures in cinema history. The Kansas-bred beauty transitioned from dancing in "The Ziegfeld Follies" to inconsequential acting in American films of the late silent era, then boldly teamed with a German auteur to create a pair of the greatest films of their time, perhaps even of all time. But then came another rut of pointless appearances in minor American movies, an indignity compounded by many bleak years once her screen career ended. The middle passage of her life, as described in various biographies and documentaries, was so sordid and depressing that it evoked the title of one of her European classics, "Diary of a Lost Girl" (1929). Yet once she entered her senior years, Brooks was embraced by the film-history crowd as a highly opinionated witness to a key moment in cinema's evolution. Her patrons created a platform for Brooks' provocative, incisive thoughts about the medium with which she had such a powerful love-hate relationship. So at the end of her life, Brooks was something of a grande dame on the repertory circuit, writing the bittersweet ending of her stormy personal narrative. There was never any risk of Brooks sliding completely into obscurity, however, because images of the actor in the bloom of youth are among the most enduring artifacts of the Roaring Twenties. With her challenging eyes peering out from beneath the sleek helmet of her signature black bob, Brooks cut a figure that was bold and seductive all at once. The filmmaker who best captured her uniquely insouciant allure was German master F.W. Murnau, who helmed "Diary of a Lost Girl" and the even more important "Pandora's Box" (also 1929). Vivid and daring morality tales about how beauty and ugliness collide in tragic ways, both films are startlingly frank and, owing largely to Brooks' incandescent presence, beautiful in an immediate sort of way. Perhaps the best way to understand the bizarre totality of Brooks' dramatic life is to devour Barry Paris' excellent biography "Louise Brooks," especially given that Brooks' own book of essays, "Lulu in Hollywood," is by all reports rife with inaccuracies despite the great readability of the prose and the force of the writer's ideas.
"Bubba Ho-Tep" (2002). Strange but very funny comedy/thriller about two residents of a rest home, one of whom believes he's an aged Elvis Presley (Bruce Campbell), the other of whom is a black man who thinks he's JFK (Ossie Davis). Inexplicably, the geriatric cohorts battle an evil mummy preying on their fellow seniors via all sorts of supernatural villainy. An absurd idea that never gains credibility, the story nonetheless gives writer-director Don Coscorelli ("Phantasm") room for ludicrous sequences that are alternately poignant, crude, and whimsical. The piece benefits from game performances by B-movie titan Campbell and regal civil-rights activist Davis, who explains his pigmentation thusly: "They dyed me this color!" Truly bizarre.
“Buck” (2011). When Nicholas Evans’ novel “The Horse Whisperer” was released in 1995, the world began to discover Buck Brannaman, the real-life inspiration for the book’s central character. Like his fictional counterpart, Brannaman is a soft-spoken cowboy with a gift for discerning the human causes behind equine behavioral issues. This doc shines a penetrating spotlight on Brannaman, revealing how he overcame childhood abuse and channeled his considerable anguish into something that’s very nearly magical. Brannaman’s incredible sensitivity allows him to pick up on tiny nuances of animal behavior and steer creatures toward cooperative comportment without using the torture-chamber techniques associated with traditional animal training. At the same time, Branamman identifies the people problems behind the horse problems, sometimes healing his clients and sometimes shaming them. Funny, insightful, and inspiring, “Buck” is a rousing tribute to a unique man.
"Bugsy" (1991). It's surprising how often movies that score Best Picture nominations slip into obscurity when they don't nab the big prize, and "Bugsy" is a case in point. A dazzling drama easily mistaken for a biopic, the piece was a labor of love for longtime cronies Warren Beatty, who stars as visionary Jewish gangster Bugsy Siegel, and James Toback, who penned the incendiary screenplay. Beatty brought his legendary charm to the table, and Toback brought his infamous grit; director Barry Levinson framed the whole thing with zippy pacing and the romantic splendor of Alan Daviau's intoxicating cinematography. Tracing how Siegel's dream of a casino in the desert led to the foundation of Las Vegas and the dissipation of his standing in the mob, the movie bursts with great performances and sparkling dialogue, particularly in the bold scene introducing Siegel to love interest Virginia Hill (Annette Bening). Harvey Keitel weighs in with an Oscar-nominated turn as brutish gangster Mickey Cohen, and Ennio Morricone elevates the picture with a mournful score.
Buono, Victor. Actor, 1938-1982. Corpulence personified, Buono spent the ’60s adding a distinctly camp flavor to the Sidney Greenstreet tradition of oversized villainy. An enormous physical presence who delivered dialogue in sing-song rhythms distinguished by absurdly rolled r’s and ironic asides, Buono had a grand old time playing such flamboyant villains as King Tut on “Batman” and Count Manzeppi on “The Wild, Wild West.” Given that he overacted like a maniac in his best-known roles, it’s easy to forget that Buono played it comparatively straight during the first few years of his career; he even scored an Oscar nomination for a supporting turn in 1962’s “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” Exceedingly enjoyable because he always seemed to be in on the joke, no matter how ridiculous his onscreen circumstances, Buono was a favorite on the talk-show circuit in the ’60s and ’70s, often reading his own poetry. This singular figure’s expansive existence caught up with him in 1982, when Buono suffered a fatal heart attack, but he left behind a terrific grace note in the form of a poignant 1980 appearance on “Taxi” as space case Jim Ignatowski’s dad.
Burstyn, Ellen. Seeker, b. 1932. The former Edna Rae Gilhooley is my idea of a perfect actor. She commits herself to the reality of whatever character she's playing; follows the natural flow of scenes and other actors' performances; helps directors achieve their visions, no matter how outlandish or mundane; and she does all this without forgetting to entertain. To put an even finer point on it, I can't think of an instance in which I've seen Burstyn strike a false note. Her performance as the world's most stressed-out mom gives "The Exorcist" (1973) much of its uncomfortable realism, she adds soul to Martin Scorsese's sensitive "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore" (1974), and her journey from life to death to something more than life in "Resurrection" (1980) is compelling. More recently, her celebrated turn as a lonely addict in "Requiem for a Dream" (2000) provided startling evidence that Burstyn had little interest in the unchallenging roles usually offered to women in their 60s. Yet Burstyn is so consistently good that her award-winning performances are just the most prominent examples of her craftsmanship. She's authentic, and often marvelous, in workaday telefilms, short-lived TV series, even maudlin features. Her six Oscar nominations, and her win for "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore," are ample reminders that I'm not alone in appreciating her expansive talent, but it's a measure of the intimacy Burstyn creates onscreen that I feel entitled to that particular illusion.
"Cape Fear" (1962). A gripping battle of wills between a quiet lawyer (Gregory Peck) and a savage thug (Robert Mitchum), J. Lee Thompson's muscular noir has the momentum of a pulpy B-picture, but it's executed with the skill of an A-list production. Oozing with malice and sex, sometimes artfully suggested and sometimes overtly dramatized, the sweaty thriller presents a nightmare situation in which a good man pays dearly for crossing the path of a bad man, then explores the tricky ways in which their respective claims of moral high ground are challenged. The lead casting is ingenious, playing weirdly sympathetic monster Mitchum against violently righteous everyman Peck. The movie's ominous mood is laid on thick by Sam Leavitt's shadowy cinematography and Bernard Herrmann's ballsy score, with the balmy Florida locations contributing to the oppressive vibe.
“Capote” (2005). Whereas most movies about artists externalize the creative process in such a way that complexity and nuance are mitigated, Bennett Miller’s astonishing look into a key period of Truman Capote’s artistic life takes a daringly different tack. Vividly dramatizing the relationship between fey intellectual Capote (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and the incarcerated killer (Clifton Collins Jr.) who is both his subject and muse, the picture illustrates the creative process by showing the impact of that process on the rest of Capote’s life: When the obsessive author gets lost in the creation of his groundbreaking nonfiction book “In Cold Blood,” he savages the lives of his few true intimates. “Capote” is a sobering story about the price paid for unfaltering devotion to one’s artistry; it examines a writer who makes so many sacrifices that his soul is irrevocably changed. Life is breathed into this heady material by staggering performances, from Hoffman’s Oscar-winning tour de force to Collins’ quiet interpretation of a dangerously fragile crook. Bruce Greenwood, Catherine Keener, and others powerfully abet the leads in nailing every subtle way that Dan Futterman’s meticulous script picks emotional scabs.
Carpenter, John. Stylish shocker, b. 1948. For ten glorious years, from 1974's "Dark Star" to 1984's "Starman," director/writer/composer Carpenter stamped movies with one of the most distinctive styles in all of genre filmmaking. Using long takes photographed in glorious widescreen, complete with signature lens flares and deep pockets of inky blackness, Carpenter captured nightmarish images which he brought to life with (mostly) self-penned electronic scores. His screenwriting, as piercingly minimalistic as his music, withers on close analysis but throbs with attitude and menace. "Assault on Precinct 13" (1976) and "Halloween" (1978) are profoundly inventive and influential, even if the former is a pseudo-remake and the latter launched a loathsome genre. Once Carpenter found his ideal onscreen foil in Kurt Russell, they made "Escape From New York" (1981) and "The Thing" (1982) into symphonies of macho nihilism. Carpenter lost the thread around the time of "Big Trouble in Little China" (1986), letting his style devolve into camp, but the movies from his glory period—even the atypically sweet "Starman"—vibrate with the energy of a unique vision.
Casey, Bernie. Actor, 1939-2017. Since fellow former football stars Jim Brown and Fred Williamson enjoyed greater notoriety during the same blaxploitation boom that gave Casey his first berth in the movies, it stood to reason that Casey might fade away once the boom ended. But unlike his peers, Casey evolved into an interesting screen presence above and beyond his impressive physique. Though appropriately fierce in "Hit Man" (1972) and other urban actioners, Casey quickly demonstrated a knack for comedy. Employing his singular gift for dismissive glances, he made a wonderful foil for Burt Reynolds in the 1981 cop thriller "Sharky's Machine." Three years later, he won big laughs as U.N. Jefferson, the flummoxed head of an all-black fraternity in "Revenge of the Nerds." In between those roles, he applied his tongue-in-cheek bravado to the deathless Felix Leiter role in the "unofficial" 007 outing "Never Say Never Again" (1983). Many years of solid journeyman work followed, and in 1997, Casey wrote, directed, and produced the race-themed drama "The Dinner," in which he starred.
"The Castle" (1997). The Kerrigan family loves their home, even though it's a ramshackle hodgepodge of tight rooms and incomplete additions, and even though it's right beneath the flight path of the Melbourne Airport. So when the Aussie government tries to force the Kerrigans out via eminent domain, they fight their case to the highest levels of their nation's court system. What ensues is a silly, heartfelt, often delightful comedy about how the Kerrigans take pride in a domicile about which most folks would be embarrassed. Director-cowriter Rob Sitch piles on absurdity after absurdity, with the standout element being the Kerrigan's overwhelmed lawyer, a nebbish who goes from cursing out his Xerox machine one day to explaining the "vibe" of a law to Austrialia's highest court the next. Incidentally, the Miramax version that hit American screens in 1997 is a truncated edition of the Aussie original, and it's slightly re-voiced for Yankee sensibilities; the untouched version is available down under.
“Catch a Fire” (2006). This Philip Noyce-helmed thriller set in apartheid-era South Africa is exquisitely made, even though it doesn't quite know what it wants to be when it grows up. Marketed as a tough political piece, it's both more simplistic and more complex than that. Narratively, it's a straight revenge story about a young black man (Derek Luke) who strikes back at the white power structure that oppresses his people. Emotionally, it's quite intricate and powerful, with the film exploring both the hero's spotty moral record and the banal evil of his chief antagonist (Tim Robbins). The story gets a little spongy in the middle, but the atmospheric stuff at the beginning is extraordinary, and the big action-movie beats are handled with great style and force by Noyce. The whole enterprise is exciting and provocative, but probably a little less resolute than it might have been.
“Catch Me If You Can” (2002). While ostensibly the kind of gossamer entertainment that Steven Spielberg rarely makes anymore, this zippy chase flick about a young con man and the Fed who trails him has nearly enough dimension and weight to justify its 141-minute sprawl. The trouble with criticizing the film’s expansiveness is that seemingly extraneous sequences are tremendous fun. The slinky seduction scene with Jennifer Garner as a playful call girl? The riveting passages with Christopher Walken as the protagonist’s slippery dad? The jocular vignettes with Martin Sheen as a sententious Southerner? Love ‘em! To the filmmakers’ immense credit, the central story of Frank Abagnale Jr. (Leonardo DiCaprio) trying on different identities as he eludes dogged Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks) never gets lost amid the distracting subplots. DiCaprio gives arguably his best performance as a damaged youth seeking validation through victimless crimes, and Spielberg seems blissful about being able to play with camera angles and editing without having to convey Deep Meaning.
"The Cat's Meow" (2001). It's fitting that Orson Welles' friend Peter Bogdanovich took a turn beating the tar out of Welles' most infamous satirical target, William Randolph Hearst. Yet while Welles veiled his Hearst assault as "Citizen Kane" (1941), Bogdanovich gets to name names in "The Cat's Meow," a vibrant fictionalized take on a legendary Tinseltown scandal that screenwriter Steven Peros adapted from his 1997 play. In 1924, movie director Thomas Ince was killed aboard Hearst's yacht. The persistent rumor was that Ince got caught in the romantic crossfire when Hearst mistress Marion Davies flirted with Charlie Chaplin. The kicker? Gossip queen Louella Parsons saw the whole thing, and the price of her silence was a lifetime contract with Hearst's newspaper empire. Stylishly capturing the wicked indulgence of the flapper era and the insatiable lusts of the showbiz set, Bogdanovich shrouds the movie with a sense of impending doom that colors even the most ebullient sequences. Eddie Izzard steals the show as lecherous Chaplin, but Kirsten Dunst twinkles as Davies and Edward Hermann thunders as Hearst. Joanna Lumley, as Parsons, watches their escapades with palpably bitchy disdain.
Channing, Stockard. Actor, b. 1944. Educated at tony schools and polished on the stages of Boston and New York, Channing got noticed as an actor of substance and comic ability in “The Fortune” (1975) and “Grease” (1978), the latter of which featured the thirtysomething Channing as a tough-talking adolescent. While her stage career continued steadily, Channing had bad luck onscreen, starring in a short-lived sitcom and headlining such flops as “The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh” (1979). By the time she reprised her stage role in the film adaptation of John Guare’s “Six Degrees of Separation” in 1993 (earning an Oscar nomination for her trouble), Channing enjoyed the tricky status of an actor’s actor, her notoriety among peers far more substantial than her public profile. But in 1999, she joined the ensemble cast of The West Wing,” playing a powerful First Lady who perfectly complemented Martin Sheen’s fictional president. The role reintroduced Channing to mass audiences, landing her six Emmy nominations (and one win) as the series blazed its singular path. During her “West Wing” run, Channing notched a second Emmy for playing a grieving mother in the bracing telepic “The Matthew Shepard Story” (2002).
Cheadle, Don. Actor, b. 1964. Ever since breaking out as a twitchy killer named Mouse in "Devil in a Blue Dress" (1995), Cheadle has rendered consistently energetic, imaginative, and soulful performances. Nonetheless, he's never quite achieved proper above-the-title stardom, and it's a bummer that "Hotel Rwanda" (2004) didn't win him the Oscar he deserved for his powerful leading performance. (Cue the "honor just to be nominated" song.) Lean and expressive, with vivid body language and an affinity for accents, Cheadle smartly jumps between popcorn fare and serious movies—his 1997 projects, for instance, included the scorching porn drama "Boogie Nights" and the goofy disaster flick "Volcano." Director Steven Soderbergh has found many imaginative uses for Cheadle's versatile talent, casting the actor as a pragmatic crook in "Out of Sight" (1998) and as a British explosives expert in "Ocean's Eleven" (2001) and its sequels. Cheadle gave his finest star turn to date in "Hotel Rwanda," wherein the deepening of his character's conscience takes on terrifying urgency. (The same year he starred in “Rwanda,” Cheadle costarred in and produced the Oscar-nominated ensemble drama “Crash.”) Of late, Cheadle has found a comfortable (and presumably lucrative) berth in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, lending his charm and wit to the recurring role of Iron Man sidekick/successor War Machine. Concurrently, he has flexed both his comedic and dramatic chops in such projects as the racy Showtime series "House of Lies" (2012-2016), for which he earned four (!) Emmy nominations, and the jazz biopic "Miles Ahead" (2016), which Cheadle also directed.
“Chronicle of the Cinema.” Introduced in 1995, DK Publishing’s irregularly updated shelf-buster is one of the most endlessly pleasurable movie books ever created. An oversized monster with nearly 1,000 pages, the staggeringly inclusive text is laid out like a bound edition of trade-paper clippings, with snappy little articles detailing key events in every year since 1894. Taking a broad view in which Hollywood is the focus but not the totality of movie history, the book lavishes as much attention on Pier Paolo Pasolini and Andrzej Wadja and as it does on Humphrey Bogart and Keanu Reeves. Retrospect is served by the editorial choices, so the articles are written with see-it-now vividness instead of musty scholarship. And the pictures! Almost every page boasts three or four remarkable images, and the spreads closing each year from 1930 to the present are explosions of vintage poster art. A rare instance of a reference book that’s as hard to put down as a novel, “Chronicle of the Cinema” is pure delight for its target audience.
“Cinema Paradiso” (1988). Shamelessly sentimental but adult enough that its sweet flavors have a tart aftertaste, writer-director Giuseppe Tornatore’s voluptuous love letter to his youth in small-town Italy and to the enveloping embrace of the movies is a tearjerker for cinephiles. When successful filmmaker Salvatore (Jacques Perrin) returns to his hometown for the funeral of the local theater’s projectionist, Alfredo (Philippe Noiret), Salvatore remembers a boyhood in which watching films with Alfredo saw him through the tumult of World War II, family strife, and young love. Apparently culled from Tornatore’s own formative years, the picture pulses with vividly remembered emotion. Noiret is as wise and kindly a father figure as any film fan would want to befriend, and the surprise he leaves for Salvatore after his passing provides an ending sure to draw joyous tears from all but the most callous of viewers. Despite the validation of a Best Foreign Film Oscar for the 1988 incarnation, nearly an hour of footage was restored for a 2002 re-release called “Cinema Paradiso: The New Version.”
"Cisco Pike" (1972). Kris Kristofferson played his first lead role in this offbeat crime picture about an ex-rock star whose expertise as a dope dealer gets him into a jam with a kooky cop. The story is fairly routine and the execution surprisingly uptight, but Kristofferson's charisma clashes colorfully with the eccentric performance Gene Hackman gives as his nemesis. Probably the most interesting aspect of the movie is the time-capsule glimpse it provides of the early '70s L.A. music scene, because Cisco (Kristofferson) prowls around his old rock-and-roll haunts to drum up business. Real-life rocker Doug Sahm is memorably annoying as one of Cisco's fair-weather friends, and Harry Dean Stanton rips it up as Cisco's former singing partner, now a pathetic junkie. The women in the piece fare quite poorly, befitting an era in which male singer-songwriters like Kristofferson sang about how their need to be free justified their wandering ways, and the ending is somewhat indifferent. But what the movie lacks in narrative power, it makes up for in period texture.
"Citizen Ruth" (1996). By far the blackest of Alexander Payne's dark comedies, his debut feature concerns one Ruth Stoops (Laura Dern), a glue-sniffing welfare mom so ill-suited to parenting that when the local cops who know her by name discover she's pregnant again, they advise her to abort. Ruth then finds herself the center of a high-profile battle between right-to-lifers and pro-choice activists. Attacking the most controversial of subjects head-on and sparing no one in his scathing portrayals of extremists on both sides of the debate, Payne and regular cowriter Jim Taylor don't quite hit the perfect pitch of "Election" (1999) or "Sideways" (2004), but the jokes and characterizations that connect are wickedly funny. Dern is ballsy and hilarious in the lead role, and Mary Kay Place stands out among the terrific cast as kindly but fanatical "Babysaver" Gail Stoney.
Cobbs, Bill. Actor, b. 1935. Perhaps because he didn't start appearing regularly in movies till he was in his early forties, a sense of hard-won wisdom infuses all of Cobbs' performances—he brings the experience of a life outside of Hollywood to his acting. With his calm demeanor, penetrating eyes, and kind face, he slips easily into paternal and avuncular roles, and he's equally proficient at comedy and drama. While his roles often hew to the cliché of a seen-it-all African-American imparting verities to younger characters, Cobbs often upends the cliché with humor and the intimacy of his persona. Though he frequently appears in big movies, from 1983's "Trading Places" to 2002's "Enough" and beyond, Cobbs has found some of his most interesting roles on television. He's been a regular on several series, and his numerous guest appearances include a memorable 2002 bit on "The West Wing" as a man whose White House visit ensues from a letter he wrote half a century previous to FDR. That same year, he played a vocal community leader in John Sayles' rich ensemble dramedy "Sunshine State."
Colantoni, Enrico. Actor, b. 1963. First catching widespread notice as a lecherous photog on the durable but uninspired sitcom “Just Shoot Me!” (1997-2003), moon-faced Canadian Colantoni blended impeccable comic timing with a winning manner of hiding sincerity behind caddishness. He further displayed his versatility as a desperate alien in “Galaxy Quest” (1999); watching him react to the story’s biggest betrayal is as touching as watching him speak the film’s dolphin-like outer-space language is riotous. When big-screen roles of equal dimension didn’t come Colantoni’s way often enough, he made the most of his downtime by thriving on one of the small screen’s best offerings of the early oughts: From 2004 to 2007, he personified everything from flummoxed to incensed to bemused as Keith Mars, the low-rent detective dad of a high-school sleuth on “Veronica Mars.” The familial bond portrayed by Colantoni and series star Kristen Bell anchored the alternately whimsical and wrenching show with unexpected warmth and expertly dispensed smartass humor. When “Mars” died a premature death, Colantoni went the action-hero route as the star of a more conventional crime series, “Flashpoint” (2007-2011). Happily, Colantoni has reprised the role of Keith Mars twice in recent years, first for the show’s 2014 feature-film installment, and then for its 2019 revival on Hulu; the actor’s enduring characterization remains as comforting as it is sly.
“Comedian” (2002). Ostensibly a travelogue about Jerry Seinfeld’s return to stand-up after the shuttering of his blockbuster sitcom, Christian Charles’ movie is actually a broad exploration of the stand-up psyche. The grungy, home-video-style cinematography puts viewers right beside Seinfeld as he tries out new material in clubs and wrestles with the fact that star-struck fans laugh at his every utterance before turning judgmental. It’s quite a trick to put viewers inside the experience of an artist trying to prove something to himself when he doesn’t really need to prove anything to anyone. On top of that, Charles follows the ascent of an arrogant young comic, in a sense depicting both ends of the comedy career spectrum. Some of the choicest bits involve Seinfeld interacting with other members of his very exclusive club, whether it’s tart-tongued “Saturday Night Live” vet Colin Quinn commiserating in a dark nightclub or lofty legend Bill Cosby holding court backstage at a theater.
“Conan the Barbarian” (1982). The movie wavers every time Arnold Schwarzenegger opens his mouth, because his painful line readings break the illusion that he’s a superman carved from legend. The women in the film are vapid sex fantasies come to life. Oh, and James Earl Jones plays one of the most embarrassing roles of his career, wearing a Cher-styled wig and morphing into a snake. But there’s something about the level of commitment with which director John Milius attacks his screen treatment of Robert E. Howard’s pulp character. Every sequence is meticulously imagined and executed, beginning with the ferocious assault on a barbarian village that’s set to music copped from Orff’s “Carmina Burana.” The stylistic climax is a sensually presented invasion of a tyrant’s palace, a sequence distinguished by striking body makeup, sure-handed editing, and slickly choreographed combat. Sometimes preposterously melodramatic (Conan gets crucified!) and sometimes wryly self-referential (listen for the “just another snake cult” joke), the movie is in every way the apex of its genre. The whole thing is silly and brutal, but every one of its 129 minutes ends with an exclamation point.
Connelly, Jennifer. Actor, b. 1970. Connelly travelled a circuitous path to her Oscar win for 2001's "A Beautiful Mind." Following a brief but noteworthy run as a juvenile player, a period that included starring in the cult-fave fantasy "Labyrinth" (1986), she experienced a difficult transition when the arrival of adult curves led to typecasting as a sex object in movies ranging from the neo-noir "The Hot Spot" (1990) to the superhero saga "The Rocketeer" (also 1990) to the youth romance "Career Opportunities" (1991) and beyond. (I freely confess that Connelly first caught my attention because of her dazzling looks, and that it took me way too long to appreciate more than just her beauty.) By the time she finally started notching more substantive roles in such projects as "Pollock," "Requiem for a Dream," and "Waking the Dead" (all released in 2000), Connelly bore the weight of cult fame bolstered by fans who kept the Internet humming with lascivious image searches. Lost amid the heavy breathing was her steady evolution as an actor of deep sensitivity and very particular tastes. So when her strong work elevated a vapid role in "A Beautiful Mind," Connelly was ready to seize the opportunity by steering her career in a downbeat new direction. Throughout such subsequent pictures as the comic-book oddity "Hulk" and the arty downer "House of Sand and Fog" (both 2003), as well as the extraordinarily bleak "Little Children" (2006), Connelly let her Sylvia Plath flag fly, tapping into deep veins of angst and longing to realize characters in various types of emotional crisis. While still primarily focused on serious-minded character pices, Connelly occasionally dabbles in lighter fare, notably "Top Gun: Maverick" (2020), and she stars in the heady sci-fi TV series "Snowpiercer" (also 2020), adapted from a 2013 movie by Bong Joon-ho.
"Contact" (1997). Though I found its third act crushingly disappointing the first time through, I've gone back to this thoughtful sci-fi adventure many times and been rewarded for the effort. Adapted by effects specialist Robert Zemeckis from Carl Sagan's book, the drama stars Jodie Foster as a driven scientist who spends her days listening for signals from outer space, then hits paydirt with a message containing instructions for building a mysterious device. The plot is laden with Hollywood contrivances, some of Zemeckis' showy camera moves slow down the storytelling, and the payoff to the biggest effects sequence still leaves a bad taste in my mouth. But Foster's performance is ferocious, and I'm a sucker for any movie that features both David Morse (as Foster's dad) and Tom Skeritt (as her nemesis). The movie's at its best when raising interesting questions about science and spirituality, fumbling somewhat when it feels compelled to provide answers. Still, the technology inherent to the piece is thought out to an impressive extent, and the scene in which Foster's character makes her key discovery is thrilling both on its narrative merits and for the way it rewards a character's cerebral nature.
Cox, Brian. Actor, b. 1946. Scottish actor Cox first earned widespread Stateside attention as that most diabolical of baddies, Dr. Hannibal Lecter, in Michael Mann's chilling "Manhunter" (1986). Whereas Anthony Hopkins plays the character with a heaping serving of campy fun, Cox portrayed the cannibalistic shrink as a bored genius who toys with lesser beings for amusement, rather than as the means to an end. It's quite understandable when fragile investigator Will Graham (William L. Petersen) feels he can't get away from Cox's thrall quickly enough. Prior to "Manhunter," Cox enjoyed a steady career in international film and television, as well as on the European stage. Afterward, it took him a few years to claim a berth among Hollywood's most versatile character players. He played a rascally freedom fighter in "Braveheart" (1995); a flummoxed school administrator in "Rushmore" (1998); a Nazi monster in the telefilm "Nuremberg" (2000), for which he won an Emmy; a duplicitous pedophile in "L.I.E." (2001); a pompous screenwriting guru in "Adaptation" (2002); and a devilish military man in "X2: X-Men United" (2003). Though primarily a dramatic actor of tremendous power, Cox has demonstrated his considerable comic skills in everything from the TV show "Frasier" to the lowbrow farce "Super Troopers" (2001). Given the number of oversized roles on his resume, it's a pleasure whenever Cox gets the chance to play a normal human being, a case in point being his effective turn as an oblivious patriarch in Woody Allen's "Match Point" (2005). Yet perhaps the actor's most visible role to date finds him playing another oversized nefarious type, the calculating paterfamilias of a media dynasty on the acclaimed TV series "Succession," which debuted in 2018.
“The Creature From the Black Lagoon” (1954). After the classic Universal horror cycle of the ’30s and ’40s devolved into self-parody, the studio slid comfortably back into its strong suit with this energetic creature feature. Hewing fairly close to the “Mummy” formula of reckless explorers antagonizing an ancient beastie, the picture chugs steadily from one iconic setpiece to another as square-jawed menfolk and amply lunged screamer Julie Adams run afoul of the reptile/fish/whatever that walks like a man. The “underwater ballet” sequence between Adams and the creature is justifiably beloved, but it’s really the no-nonsense drive of the piece that impresses. Under the sure hand of ’50s sci-fi pro Jack Arnold, the movie delivers unthreatening scares and exotic situations while wending toward a tragic climax typical of the best Universal horrors. The creature himself is the last great monster to emerge from the house that Karloff built, and the appeal of hubba-hubba Adams frolicking in the lagoon cannot be overstated. Sure, the concept is silly and the jolts are tame, but since “Creature” is really more of an adventure movie than an outright shocker, that’s just fine.
The Criterion Collection. Offering a high-tech complement to the arthouse theatrical circuit, the Criterion Collection emerged in the '80s as a distributor of laserdiscs and videotapes of esoteric cinema. Massive platters featuring letterboxed prints of "The 400 Blows" and "Blade Runner" accompanied by audiocommentaries and other features, Criterion discs provided the model for all extras-laden DVDs and Blu-Rays that followed. Relaunched to great success in the digital era, the collection features an alluring but vaguely elitist spine-numbering system. The numbers, which begin with "Grand Illusion" (Spine No. 1), aren't rankings, but rather a status symbol indicating that a particular movie has entered a rarefied club. "RoboCop" (Spine No. 23) seemed like a nervy concession to the mainstream, even though Paul Verhoeven's wry actioner is a wonder, but the arrival of "Armageddon" (Spine No. 40) prompted some head-scratching. In most instances, however, the Criterion brand assures an interesting piece of film presented in the best light possible, often with enlightening and/or eggheaded scholars providing context. I must admit that my long-held dream of watching the Criterion Collection in order seems less achievable now that the spine numbering exceeds 1,000. Even if the sheer volume weren't enough to defeat me, I might lose my stamina somewhere around Spine Nos. 124 through 128. A Carl Theodor Dreyer triple-feature plus a documentary? High as I like to believe my threshold is for painful Danish psychodramas, I have my limits. In 2019, the company entered the streaming world in a big way by launching CriterionChannel.com, which features lovingly curated selections from the whole history of world cinema.
Crothers, Scatman. Actor, 1910-1986. A veteran singer-dancer who lived in the outer edges of mainstream entertainment for years before the ’70s came along, Crothers became positively ubiquitous during that decade. A stooped, bald African-American with bowed legs and a giant smile, he was unmistakable whenever he appeared onscreen, especially when speaking in his distinctively raspy voice. Perhaps best known to modern audiences as the unfortunate mentor to a gifted child in “The Shining” (1981), Crothers worked seemingly nonstop during the blaxploitation era, balancing parts in movies of that genre with TV appearances and extensive audio work in animation. He was the voice of kitschy character Hong Kong Phooey on in the ’toon of the same name; he was a regular on the comedy series “Chico and the Man”; and he popped up in a number of Nicholson pictures preceding “The Shining,” including “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” (1975), which features Crothers as an orderly.
"The Crucible" (1996). Met with broad indifference from audiences and critics, this underseen adaptation of Arthur Miller's classic play about the Salem witch trials is remarkable on many levels. The screenplay, by Miller, opens up the geography of the play just enough to give a more physical sense of life in colonial Massachusetts; the direction, by theater vet Nicholas Hytner, is vibrant and focused; and the performances, especially Daniel Day Lewis' and Joan Allen's, are impassioned. It's true that Day Lewis does enough shouting to turn off those who don't groove with his style, and that costar Winona Ryder, though lovely and energetic, seems a bit outgunned, but their performances blend into a fabric of intense emotion and brilliant wordplay. In his review of the picture, Roger Ebert lamented that Miller undercut the whole play by adding an opening scene in which the accused Salem women are seen attempting witchcraft. I respectfully disagree—the play and the movie are less about guilt or innocence than they are about gossip, political opportunism, and mass hysteria. None of the shattering power of Miller's parable is diluted in Hytner's film.
“Cult Movies: The Classics, the Sleepers, the Weird, and the Wonderful.” An enjoyable romp through one film critic’s obsessions and, to a lesser degree, his perspective on other people’s obsessions, Danny Peary’s “Cult Movies” features full-length reviews, complete with behind-the-scenes tidbits, of slightly more than 100 movies that achieved their biggest notoriety through means other than successful initial theatrical releases. This wide net captures everything from bizarre pictures that everyone would consider cult fare, like the anti-marijuana melodrama “Reefer Madness” (1936) and David Lynch’s surreal fantasy “Eraserhead” (1978), to beloved pictures including “Casablanca” (1942) and “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968). Lumping all of these pictures together may seem dubious, but there’s no question that every film discussed in “Cult Movies” has a uniquely devoted fan base. Peary’s essays are generally rational and well-researched, though he sometimes gives too much space to personal gripes (“I have never liked the endings of their films,” he bitches about European filmmakers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressberger while otherwise praising their 1948 masterwork “The Red Shoes”). Still, the depth of reportage and the seriousness with which Peary engages every movie, even seemingly insignificant tripe like the Cheech and Chong comedy “Up in Smoke” (1978), is meritorious, and the book is an especially useful resource given the extensive apparatus of credits, photographs, and plot descriptions. Sequels followed, namely “Cult Movies 2” (1983) and “Cult Movies 3” (1989), as did a companion volume, “Cult Movie Stars” (1991), but the original is probably the closest thing the series offers to an essential volume.
“Custer of the West” (1967). A bizarre hybrid of studio-era bloat and New Hollywood revisionism, this biopic about the last years of Gen. George Armstrong Custer’s life is simultaneously robust and flaccid. The best stuff concerns the thorny relationship between Custer (Robert Shaw) and his superior, Gen. Philip Sheridan (Lawrence Tierney). Still hungry for battle after forging his legend in the Civil War, Custer accepts Sheridan’s distasteful assignment to battle Indians in the American West. We all know how that worked out. The script, cowritten by onetime blacklistee Bernard Gordon, probably credits the generals with too much introspection about their mission, but portraying them as noble warriors in a shameful time gives the piece a uniquely melancholy tone. Almost every scene drags on too long in the original 140-minute version, particularly the ridiculously extended comin’-at-ya bits filmed to showcase the spectacle of 70mm Cinerama. Still, there’s an interestingly politicized character study buried amid the bloat, and Shaw is just the right guy for the job. While he regularly succumbs to hammy showboating, Shaw exudes such ferocity that it’s easy to believe him as a soldier determined to embrace manifest destiny, no matter the cost to his soul.
“Cyrano de Bergerac” (1990). While calling this French delight the definitive screen version of Edmond Rostand’s fanciful play about a nasally over-endowed romantic discredits many fine predecessors, the convergence of two key players contributes to an adaptation of unusual elegance. Celebrated but unprolific director Jean-Paul Rappeneau films the piece in resplendent style, with locations and costumes as extravagant as the 137-minute running time, and star Gerard Depardieu taps into the guarded grace of the title character with special vigor. While watching Depardieu use his verbal prowess to smite those who scorn his looks, make what you will of the irony that Depardieu’s real-life proboscis might be one reason why his appeal has never really translated to U.S. audiences. The Gallic great’s impassioned turn anchors this flamboyant film, his torrents of sing-song French cascading through intoxicating settings to create a magical mood in which words are the ultimate expression of identity and love.
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