Toren’s Guide to Cinemagic…
…being a brief introduction to the finest, underrated, overlooked and sometimes obscure films the history of cinema has to offer. Hey, I’ve seen a lot of movies. Let me take you on a tour of what I think are the movies that everyone should see. I will gloss over or omit entirely movies that I’m pretty sure everyone has seen and/or knows about, so as not to waste your precious internet surfing time. Nevertheless, get comfy, folks….
CAVEAT: I am an individual with specific tastes. Though I think myself open to any quality film, there are certain genres and styles that I have marked preference for, and this will become apparent pretty quickly. Not all of my favourite films will be yours, especially if you liked Coyote Ugly.
DRAMA: A CHRONOMOLOGICAL ODYSSEY
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest – 1975. A con gets out of prison by pretending to be insane, ending up at sanitarium instead where he forms several interesting relationships. Jack Nicholson, Danny DeVito and Christopher Lloyd at the top of their game.
Network – 1976. A brilliant and still very relevant commentary on “info-tainment,” i.e. how the news became an entertainment division. Great acting all ’round.
Dead Poet’s Society – 1989. It made water come out of my eye.
The Shawshank Redemption – 1994. Set in the 1940’s, a man is wrongfully sent to prison and has to endure much nastiness. Hard to believe this was adapted from a Stephen King novel!
The Madness of King George – 1994. The title summarizes this underrated pic with Nigel Hawthorne and Ian Holm.
The Big Kahuna – 1999. Adapted from a play and completely dialogue-driven, this film doesn’t get a great review from most but I found it quite sharp and thoughtful. But then, I’m an atheist. Danny Devito, Kevin Spacey. See also Glengarry Glen Ross.
The Cider House Rules – 1999. Adaptation of John Irving’s novel starring Tobey McGuire and Michael Caine. Special appearance by Charlize Theron’s bum dimples. Don’t delay on this one.
Snatch – 2000. If you like macho British romps involving guns, swearing and general shenanigans then this and 1998’s Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels are worth checking out.
American Splendor – 2003. A biopic of the underground comic artist Harvey Pekar shot in a very intriguing way. Some of the shots are actual Pekar, some are Paul Giamatti brilliantly playing the role.
THE COEN BROTHERS
One of the things about the Coen Brothers is that their films are usually very dense. Miller’s Crossing was my favourite movie for about ten years, and one of the reasons is that every time you watched it you picked up on an insight to the story and characters that you missed the previous time. So even if you’ve seen one of these films before, especially Miller’s Crossing, The Big Lebowski and No Country for Old Men, watch them again because unlike many movies they become better with each viewing.
Blood Simple – 1984. “Suspense/Crime” film
Raising Arizona – 1987. A comedy, more or less. A childless ex-con and ex-cop couple kidnap one of the Arizona quintuplets and things get more complicated from there. John Goodman, Holly Hunter, Nicolas Cage.
Miller’s Crossing – 1990. Prohibition era gang war, with some violence, yes, but really it is a character-driven story about loyalty. Everything about this film including the dialogue reads as authentic for the 1920’s. John Turturro, Jon Polito, Steve Buscemi and the inimitable Albert Finney. Gorgeous soundtrack by Carter Burwell.
Barton Fink – 1991. John Turturro, John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, Tony Shalhoub.
The Hudsucker Proxy – 1994, comedy. Steve Buscemi, Jon Polito, John Goodman, and did you know that Bruce Campbell is in this film?
Fargo – 1996. The most well known of the Coen’s films and you’ve no doubt seen it. Steve Buscemi, Peter Stormare.
The Big Lebowski – 1998, comedy. The best of the bunch. John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, John Turturro, Jon Polito, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Peter Stormare. Lots of swearing. Noticing a thread between these films yet?
Oh Brother Where Art Thou? – 2000, comedy. Three escaped cons journey through an adaptation of Homer’s “The Odyssey” set in the deep south of the 1930’s, with a wonderful soundtrack. John Turturro, John Goodman.
No Country for Old Men – 2007, decidedly NOT a comedy. And then they went back to their roots, which is to say I want to watch Blood Simple again.
Chances are you’ve seen either Spirited Away or Princess Mononoke or both, and if so welcome to the world of Hayao Miyazaki, often unfortunately referred to as the Walt Disney of Japan. Despite being a bit of a cartoon nut, I’m not really that much of an anime fan, as I find the over-stylization more of a distraction than a technique in service of the story. Of course, there are exceptions. Please, if you can, watch the subtitled versions rather than the dubbed ones.
Lupin the Third: Castle of Cagliostro – 1979. A charismatic thief and his companions break into a castle to rescue a girl and uncover a counterfeiting plot. You don’t really need to know the backstory of Lupin to enjoy this film.
Nausicaa of the Valley of the Winds -1984. My favourite Miyazaki film. There is an ecological message in this film about a post-apocalyptic kingdom and giant insects, but you don’t get beaten over the head with it. Like all of Miyazaki’s films they’re suitable for kids and adults alike.
Laputa: Castle in the Sky – 1986. A close second to Nausicaa, here’s another delightful fantasy, this time involving sky pirates, a lost civilization, robots and secret agents. Sweet sweet sweetness.
My Neighbor Totoro – 1988. Forest spirits as only the Japanese can envision. A great film for a quiet night at home and if your kid doesn’t love it there’s something wrong…with your kid.
Semi-comedic movies about failed relationships, familial and otherwise. Darjeeling Limited and The Life Aquatic were both great fun, but pay attention to these:
Bottle Rocket – 1996. Not the best film but not since it’s a little more obscure I’ll mention it. Seek it out if you have enjoyed the others listed here.
Rushmore – 1998. My favourite Anderson film. Put this at the top of your list if you haven’t seen it.
The Royal Tennenbaums – 2001. Great! Only Wes Anderson could make one of Ben Stiller trademark goof characters a working fixture.
The Thin Man – 1934. One can see why there were five sequels to this film featuring the team of William Powell and Myrna Loy as detective story author Dashiell Hammett’s wacky characters. Lots of subtle quips and physicality that had me laughing most heartily.
I Love You Again – 1940. Myrna Loy and William Powell again, but different.
The Ladykillers – 1955. The original with Alec Guinness and Peter Sellers as part of a gang of blundering criminals who plot to kill their landlady.
The Producers – 1968. Without question the best Mel Brooks film, starring Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder as a pair of theater producers trying to scam old ladies out of their money by producing “Springtime for Hitler” a play they are certain will flop.
Harold & Maude – 1971. Borderline cult film, I don’t want to spoil anything for you if you haven’t seen it but it’s a super fun treat of a film!
Schizopolis – 1996. This is a very quirky film so you have to be in the mood for something a little avant garde, but it is funny! I can’t summarize the film better than this.
God of Cookery – 1996. If you enjoyed Kung Fu Hustle and Shaolin Soccer, seek out this earlier Stephen Chow film. Ridiculous in a good way!
Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie (This Island Earth) – 1996. I’ve watched many an episode of MST3K and typically there are hilarious bits with an equal amount of waiting for hilarious bits, but for this “feature” episode lambasting 1954’s sci-fi turd This Island Earth it’s clear they took a lot longer to craft the jokes and it shows. I could watch this over and over.
The Impostors – 1998. One of my favourite films which you’ve probably never heard of, this underrated gem is an homage to the golden age of Hollywood. The story is about two out of work actors who accidentally stow away on a cruise ship and find themselves tangled up in several zany plots. Written, directed by and starring Stanley Tucci, also with Oliver Platt, Tony Shalhoub and Alfred Molina.
Ghostbusters – 1984. You’ve seen it, but how recently? Watch it again and this time note the dangling cigarettes.
Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure -1985, which I’m also sure you’ve seen but bears mentioning just in case.
Grosse Pointe Blank – 1997. A romantic comedy about a hitman going to his high school reunion. The Cusacks & Alan Arkin.
CLASSICS: THANK YOU TURNER CLASSIC MOVIES
Many people discount “classic” movies as outmoded, quaint, and, well, black and white. But there are a lot of great old films in every genre, not to mention the fact that sometimes it’s important to understand movies better by having a decent grasp of historical context. I’ll group old flicks with new by genre, rather than segregate films by age, but I will address some meat & potatoes “dramas” here:
Captain Blood – 1935. A Robin-Hoodesque pirate film as only Errol Flynn could provide. Quite educational, actually, especially if you want to know what a ‘rosary of pain’ is.
The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse – 1938. I found this Edward G. Robinson flick about a doctor who becomes part of a gang of thieves in an effort to scientifically study the criminal mind completely fascinating.
The Maltese Falcon – 1941. If you only see one film noir in your life, this would arguably be the one.
Casablanca – 1942. This was on my list of movies to see for, literally, years. I kept putting it off and when I finally watched it I kicked myself for waiting so long. It really is as good as they say and is a must see for anyone who wants to get the ton of references in pop culture from Bugs Bunny to The Muppets to The Simpsons. PS – if you like Casablanca also check out Bogey and Bacall in To Have and Have Not (1944).
The Magnificent Ambersons – 1942. A tale of a spoiled young heir who gets his comeuppance. The film itself has a rather incredible history if you want to research it.
The Best Years of Our Lives – 1946. Not quick-moving by any stretch, but an extremely poignant look at how WWII veterans deal with returning to their small town lives after being at war. One scene in particular will stand out and I will not spoil it for you. Myrna Loy.
The Third Man – 1949. Great early thriller with Orson Welles.
Roman Holiday – 1953. A nice light romantic comedy starring Audrey Hepburn.
Stalag 17 – 1953. In a Hogan’s Heroes/M.A.S.H. sort of way, POWs deal with serious times in amusing ways.
On the Waterfront – 1954. We all know the Brando quote “I coulda been a contender.” Now watch the film about longshoremen standing up to corrupt union bosses. Eight Oscars, folks.
12 Angry Men – 1957. Lee J Cobb, Henry Fonda. A film about prejudice, but the real draw is the acting. This should be a lesson to any filmmaker about how it’s possible to make a great film that happens in one room.
Paths of Glory – 1957. Stanley Kubrick. Kirk Douglas. True story. WWI. Mutiny. Not suitable for every mood.
Bridge on the River Kwai – 1957. Takes a while to get going but the time spent with the characters makes the ending that much more powerful. Alec Guinness and a gaggle of sexy Siamese girls.
The Apartment – 1960. Jack Lemmon and a surprisingly cute Shirley MacLaine. Suitable for everyone and anyone at any time.
Inherit the Wind – 1960. There are some things that irk me about this look at the 1925 trial on teaching evolution in school, but this is worth watching nonetheless.
Judgment at Nuremberg – 1961. Four German judges are on trial for using their offices to conduct Nazi policies during a political climate in which the governments are trying to reconcile. Not for the squeamish, especially since you’ll be watching a young William Shatner.
Seven Days in May – 1964. If you like films about military leaders plotting to overthrow the president because of his nuclear disarmament treaty, this is good deep stuff.
The Graduate – 1967. Another film I took forever to finally see, and I don’t want you to make the same mistake.
Wait Until Dark – 1967 was a good year for movies! Audrey Hepburn and Alan Arkin in this thriller about a recently blinded woman being terrorized by thugs searching for smuggled heroin.
In the Heat of the Night – 1967. Sydney Poitier stars as a black detective sent to investigate a murder in a racist town. You have to be in the right mood for this but when you are, wow.
SCIFI, SUPERHEROES, ETC
The Day the Earth Stood Still – 1951. The definitive cold-war era commentary on peace and xenophobia. A fine film and classic in every sense. Klaatu berata nikto.
War of the Worlds – 1953. Pretty campy by today’s standards but generally a good adaptation and definitely better than the Tom Cruise fiasco.
Forbidden Planet – 1956. A nice cerebral and generally classy (except for the zeitgeist sexism) film full of theremin. Leslie Nielsen as the rugged space captain.
Brazil – 1985. Just as much a comedy as a sci-fi, there is really nothing like this film. It’s Monty Python alum Terry Gilliam’s masterpiece. Actors include that Ian Holm guy again and a cameo by Robert De Niro.
Akira – 1988. Still the best non-Miyazaki anime.
Army of Darkness – 1992. Part fantasy, part horror, part comedy, part of a trilogy yet also viewable independently. One of those “cult” films you may have heard of. Lots of yucks.
City of Lost Children – 1995. Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Amelie, Delicatessen) brings us this surreal, dark fantasy about mad scientists, clones and cyclops.
The Iron Giant – 1999. The Simpsons’ Brad Bird brings us one of my all-time favourite animated films. Watch it soon and watch it often. Gets me right *here* every time.
Galaxy Quest – 1999. The only good Tim Allen film (he’s playing a douchebag so he suits the role), and mandatory for Star Trek fans. Also stars some great actors like Sam Rockwell, Tony Shalhoub, Sigourney Weaver and Alan Rickman.
Donnie Darko – 2001. Is it about time travel or mental illness? I don’t want to spoil anything for you but it’s set in the ’80s and is a rich and multi-layered film full of memorable yet realistic characters.
WaSanGo – 2001. Volcano High in English, a comedic Matrix-style Korean live-action anime, if you will, with lots of over-the-top kung fu. Akin to Stephen Chow films like Kung Fu Hustle and Shaolin Soccer.
The Incredibles – 2004. Brad Bird does it again in the be-all-and-end-all of superhero flicks and computer animated flicks.
See also my article on the four kinds of horror films: http://www.thickets.net/toren/2004/08/08/scare-tactics/
King Kong – 1933. The original really is amazing, especially for the time, and if you’ve only seen the Peter Jackson version this will give you a new perspective on some of the scenes and in-jokes.
Exorcist – 1973. If you haven’t, do.
Alien – 1979. I probably don’t have to tell you about this. Still holds up as both horror and scifi almost 30 years later, and one of the scariest films of all time. Why? Because we don’t see the monster. Many horror filmmakers can learn something from this technique. Pay close attention to Ian Holm’s performance throughout.
The Thing – 1982. Like Alien, this is about a small group of people trapped in one location with a horrible horrible monster. A remake of a 50’s B picture this one adds a hefty dose of paranoia and is also a classy testosterone fest with Kurt Russell and Wilford Brimley.
I don’t generally care for them but if you do, here are the ones I’ve seen and enjoyed which it may be conceivable you haven’t seen yet:
Singin’ in the Rain – 1952.
My Fair Lady – 1964.
Baraka – 1992. Only for those who enjoy rich visuals & music with no traditional plot or characters. See also Koyaanisqatsi.
Death by Design – 1997. A really boring ending, but otherwise this film about cell death is fascinating!
Spellbound – 2002. If you like spelling bees, “gifted” kids, and watching people’s awkward vulnerabilities, this is the film for you.
Comedian – 2002. This doc of Jerry Seinfeld’s post-sitcom life is quite touching.
Amazon Women on the Moon – 1987. Some hit, some miss in this offbeat segment comedy with the pretense that you’re watching an old scifi b-movie on late night TV, complete with commercials and other interruptions. Michelle Pfeiffer, Rosanna Arquette and Steve Guttenberg, if you can believe it. Sit through the dull bits because you won’t want to miss “Don ‘No Soul’ Simmons.”
Gandahar – 1988. Also titled Light Years, this French animation is both fantastical and creepy. Time travel, mutants, destiny – pretty cool stuff. Glenn Close, Christopher Plummer, Penn Jillette voice.
Tenacious D: The Pick of Destiny – 2006. This film did poorly at the box office, and it’s mostly because it’s geared towards a very niche market: The Tenacious D fan. I am one of those, so this movie kicked ass. If you’re NOT a D fan, and have no interest in becoming, skip it, knowing that you will miss a rock-off with the devil.
If you’re a Sam Rockwell fan like I’m a Sam Rockwell fan, you’ll want to check out the excellent The Green Mile (1999), the endearing Lawn Dogs (1997), the relaxing Box of Moonlight (1996) with John Turturro, and the quirky Safe Men (1998) with Paul Giamatti.
Comments? Disagreements? Outrage?