Wednesday, January 11, 2012

"35 at 35": My Favorite Films

I love movies.  In honor of 35 years of life, I have selected my 35 favorite films.  These are not necessarily the best 35 movies of all time, though many of them are classics and could appear on such a list.  Instead, they are the movies that I love to watch again and again.

I have somewhat varied tastes in movies.  I do have tendencies for drama (9 of the films), comedy (7), historical films (7), epics (5), and musicals (5).  There are no traditional horror movies, but there are westerns, romances, film noirs, action, fantasy, and family movies.

Unlike some my age, I do not find older movies boring – 2/3 of these movies were released before I was born.  Ten are black and white, and one is even from the silent era.  10 were released in the 1990s (the most represented decade), but 7 are from the 1940s (the second-most).

I have many favorite actors and directors, so it should not be surprising that there are very few of either who appear multiple times on this list.  Billy Wilder wrote and directed two of the films, and Victor Fleming’s two most famous movies are also on this list.  The most represented actors are stars Jimmy Stewart and Orson Welles (each in 3 movies) and supporting actors Charles Durning and, surprisingly, Bill Paxton (also each in 3 movies).

Perhaps I should join the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences because I have a fondness for Academy Award-recognized movies.  The 35 films have received 85 Oscars and 192 nominations between them.  More obviously, only 4 got no recognition from the Oscars, and one of those predates the annual awards.  Eight movies won Best Picture, while another 10 were nominated for that award.  Six won awards for Best Screenplay, while 11 received writing nominations.  (There also are a couple of significant Oscar oversights on this list, which will be noted.)

For each film, I’ve included links to their listings on the Internet Movie Database, in case you’d like to learn more about them.  Where possible, I’ve also linked to reviews and essays by Roger Ebert, who I believe is the best popular film critic because he understands why most people go to movies – so he doesn’t just like pretentious stuff – and because he is consistent in what he mostly looks for in a movie: solid script, engaging acting, solid pacing, interesting visuals.  I usually agree with him, but I also almost always know from reading his reviews whether I will like a certain movie or not.  Also, I’ve added some YouTube clips of movies too.

Without further ado…

This adaptation of Bob Woodward’s and Carl Bernstein’s book about uncovering the Watergate story seems an unlikely movie.  Much of the action takes place in a newspaper office, and some of the tensest scenes occur during telephone calls (notoriously difficult to film effectively).  But the combination of a great screenplay and great cinematography, plus solid performances from the cast, turns what could be a boring movie into a fascinating historical thriller.

Over the years, Robert Redford’s efforts to get the movie made have been told many times.  Certainly that was a great achievement.  But I really think that the surprising cinematography, especially of the near-iconic shots taken in the Washington Post bullpen, is what makes this movie special.  The visuals consistently amplify the story, whether in the shadowy Deep Throat meetings or in Woodward and Bernstein working at their desks in the midst of the newsroom (in contrast to so many TV shows and movies where characters have offices far beyond their job titles).

Read Roger Ebert’s original review here.

#34 – “Les enfants du paradis (Children of Paradise)” (1945)

I don’t remember what led me to watch this movie for the first time, but I remember being amazed.  It is an audacious story of love, particularly the compromises of love that are made for reasons of physical or financial security.  In this film set in the world of the theatre, everyone wears masks on stage and in life, concealing true emotions.

Told in two parts, the movie introduces us to the main characters and then, progressing forward several years, shows what has happened in their lives due to the decisions they have made, particularly in the relationships – both romantic and professional – that they have pursued.  Elegant, heart-breaking, at times funny with an overwhelming sense of melancholy, this movie about love is also a meditation on the state of the world near the end of World War II. 

I imagine that this is not a movie for everyone – it is foreign, long, and in some ways dated.  But if you love epic romances, this is a film that you should try to see.

Roger Ebert, in one of his “Great Movies” essays, gives some of the amazing background of this movie, including the challenges of shooting it during wartime in Nazi-occupied France.

This is a great, big-budget Cold War thriller, with a fantastic cast led by the incomparable Sean Connery.  In some ways formulaic, it is consistently stylish and smart, expertly paced (which is essential in a thriller) and features a wonderful soundtrack.  In some ways, it is everything you would want a modern movie to be.

I’ve lost count how many times I’ve seen this film.  I just enjoy it.  In fact, it is one of the few movies that I believe is better than the book on which it is based.  (Clancy’s novel is a bit dry at several points and frequently tedious; the movie never is.)

Read Roger Ebert’s original review here.

Here is a great scene where the secret of the new Russian submarine, its silent propulsion system, is revealed.

Bonus clip: this is the wonderful opening music for the credits, the “Hymn for Red October.”

#32 – “The Muppet Movie” (1979)

The secret of the Muppets, at least for me, is that they are adults (Elmo and Big Bird, excepted).  Unlike most puppets, which are juvenile or at least child-like, the Muppets are G-rated adults who have jobs, can drive, fall in love, and feel guilt and loss.  (By the way, the studio even lost sight of this fact, as is clear from the miscalculated “Muppets in Space,” where the Muppets have regressed to being teenagers.)

As such, the Muppets have always had a greater emotional range, which is on full display in their first big-screen effort, “The Muppet Movie.”  Filled with a solid (if often-told) story of seeking fame in Hollywood, it features wonderful songs, lots of silly gags, and several cameos (including nearly perfect ones by Edgar Bergen and Orson Welles).  It’s a story of growing up, but unlike stories that just point to the magic of childhood, it believes in the wonder of life itself for all ages.

In my heart, I also put the third Muppet movie, “The Muppets Take Manhattan” here too.  Some say that it’s not as good as the first movie, but I think it’s close.  Plus, the finale, with a screen full of singing Muppets on Broadway, is amazing (and a sign of how skilled the people behind the movies had become).

Read Roger Ebert’s original review here.

Most people remember “The Rainbow Connection” from the movie, but my favorite song is Gonzo’s.

I still can’t forget her eyes.  Based on the surviving transcripts of the heresy trial of Joan of Arc, this amazing silent film is the study of one girl’s perseverance in the face of overwhelming opposition.  Visually told almost exclusively with close-ups on individual faces, you can see the wide range of emotions in Maria Falconetti’s haunting eyes.

And, in an example of successfully putting new wine in old wineskins, most DVDs feature a score written over a half century later, Richard Einhorn’s “Voices of Light,” composed to be performed live by chorus and orchestra.  (I’ve even been lucky enough to attend a screening featuring this live musical score.)  Taken together, the silent film and Einhorn’s score are breathtaking.  As Norma Desmond says of the great silent movies in “Sunset Blvd.”: “We didn’t need words; we had faces.”  If ever a silent film proves that true, it is this one.

Here is Roger Ebert’s “Great Movies” essay on the film, where he also talks about Falconetti’s unforgettable presence.

This is a representative clip of the movie, with Einhorn’s music (and Portuguese subtitles, I think).

#30 – “The Rock” (1996)

There are good Jerry Bruckheimer movies and bad ones (and few in between).  This is, by far, the best, featuring over the top special effects, action sequences and explosions at least every 10 minutes, and catty one-liners in the middle of chase scenes.  Unlike his recent attempts to provide entertainment for all ages, this one is a well-deserved Rated R.  (This is why I won’t post clips for this movie; all of the good ones have several four-letter words in them.)

It probably will never be a classic, in the sense of many other movies on this list.  But it is an action blockbuster gem, with excellent performances (such as they are), wonderful action sequences (in the midst of a ridiculous storyline), and a few really good jokes (or maybe just that one).

Read Roger Ebert’s original review here.  (Yes, he really likes it too.)

In some ways, this is a perfect romantic comedy.  It has a clever (if rather ridiculous) “meet-cute” between the couple.  It has an excellent cast, led by Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, but also filled with wonderful supporting performances (sometimes in single scenes).  Unlike some unintentionally bad romantic comedies, it has a certain self-awareness that I find endearing.  It has Meg Ryan driving in a car singing about “harses, harses, harses, harses” (which I still find funny, so much so that I sometimes reference “harses” and people look at me like I’m crazy).

As the years go by and the talk radio craze of the 80s and 90s fades, perhaps the movie will seem dated.  Still, I think the script is solid and will endure (maybe even better than Nora Ephron’s screenplay for her earlier “When Harry Met Sally” – a suggestion that may horrify many people). 

Read Roger Ebert’s review here.

Here is a particularly funny scene about how people get emotional over movies.

#28 – “Tootsie” (1982)

A part of me dislikes the legacy of this movie.  It used to be that a wig and some lipstick were all that it took for a man to play a woman, but it was still obvious they were men; after Dustin Hoffman’s performance as Dorothy Michaels, it takes lots of makeup and prosthetic work for any man to play a woman in a movie anymore (like Robin Williams in “Mrs. Doubtfire” and, disturbingly, the Wayans brothers in “White Chicks”).

But it’s hard not to like “Tootsie.”  It is funny, very funny, and it blends styles effortlessly.  It is cynical and sweet, edgy and old fashioned.  It has a great cast, filled with people that you want to succeed (with the exception of the villainous Dabney Coleman, again playing a womanizing boss).

Read Roger Ebert’s enthusiastic review here.

Director Sydney Pollack also plays Hoffman’s agent in the movie.  Together, they have a couple of great scenes, including this first one that establishes the movie’s gender-bending story.

#27 – “Double Indemnity” (1944)

The greatest of the traditional film noirs, this masterpiece from Billy Wilder has a great story and three fantastic leading performances from Fred MacMurray (playing against type), Barbara Stanwyck, and Edward G. Robinson.  I love the overall mood of the movie, the great tension in many of the scenes, and the fact that the main characters are softer (except for the femme fatale) because they are insurance agents, rather than cops or hard-boiled private investigators.

The story is completely understandable, but almost every motivation and ethical dimension is blurred.  Who is using whom?  How much does love motivate the main characters, if in unexpected ways?  (Quite a bit, I think for the three main characters, and Stanwyck’s step-daughter, and maybe others.)  Something new intrigues me every time I watch this wonderful movie.

Roger Ebert, in a “Great Movies” essay, talks about the shadowed motivations of the main characters.

Here is one of the original trailers (because showing any clip of the movie would give too much away or wouldn’t make much sense).

In many ways, it is impossible not to like this uplifting story that celebrates the positive impact one man’s life can have on so many other people.  But the more I see this film, the more amazed I am by the character of George Bailey, who is only slightly different from “Old Man Potter.”  They are both economic realists, both frustrated dreamers, both a little stand-offish with people who disagree with them.  Deep down, George Bailey has a moral compass that refuses to allow him to sell out everyone else for only his own benefit (a compass that Potter evidently lacks); other than this, he’s not a typical nice guy.

But we forgive him his shortcomings, maybe because we see the personal sacrifices that have hardened his heart, maybe because we see him through his wife Mary’s adoring eyes, but mostly because it’s Jimmy Stewart, who just seems an inherently good guy.  Perhaps the story is more emotionally powerful because George Bailey is not a perfect guy, and still he’s lived a life worth celebrating.

Roger Ebert writes in this "Great Movies" essay about how slipping into the public domain saved the movie from slipping into oblivion.

Here is a clip of the first confrontation between Old Man Potter and George Bailey.

#25 – “My Fair Lady” (1964)

There is no doubt in my mind that this is the greatest Broadway musical of all time, and the reason is simple: unlike almost every other show, it has a perfect Act II.  Countless successful musicals do a wonderful job establishing themselves in Act I, but then parts of the second act feel like filler (a common problem) or are harmed by unsatisfying conclusions to certain subplots.  Not so in “My Fair Lady”: there is not an extra scene or song, and all of the storylines reach coherent conclusions.

The movie is great because, with the exception of the addition of one short scene of Eliza being forced into the bathtub and the removal of a smattering of curse words, it follows the stage production exactly.  Jack Warner spared no expense in bringing the hugely popular musical to the big screen, with lavish production values.  And despite an effort to replace the original Higgins, Rex Harrison, with a bigger name star (Cary Grant), Warner finally allowed Harrison to have his signature role and let him perform his songs live rather than prerecording them (the microphone bump is sometimes noticeable on his ties), which is still unheard of.  It led to a brilliant performance.

Roger Ebert talks about how the film avoided many Hollywood traps in this “Great Movies” essay.

The original trailer (5 minutes long!) serves to defend producer Jack Warner from criticism he received by replacing the original Eliza Doolittle, Julie Andrews, with Audrey Hepburn.  (Like the millionaire in “Jurassic Park,” he ‘spared no expense,’ which justifies his decisions, I guess.)

Bonus: Julie Andrews, in some ways, got the last laugh on Warner’s casting decision.

#24 – “Pollyanna” (1960)

This is an old-fashioned movie, an adaptation of a novel with terrific production design and a cast filled with strong character actors.  The acting carries the movie, making it work much better than it probably should.  Hayley Mills received a special Oscar for her performance, which may not seem special until you consider how amazing it is that her Pollyanna seems real and likable, not some sickening “goody two shoes.”  The entire ensemble gives great performances, especially Karl Malden as the Calvinistic preacher.

It holds a special place in my heart.  Whenever I watch it, I smile, except for the sad part.  How many movies can you say that about?

Here is a clip from the movie showing how Hayley Mills manages (with help from the rest of the cast) to keep from becoming cloyingly sweet.

#23 – “The Blues Brothers” (1980)

This is, rather incredibly, a musical comedy for men.  It has car chase ballets, a pumped-up soundtrack with lots of great R&B (backed up by one of the greatest blues bands ever assembled), and relationships where affection is shown through one-liners or extravagant violence.  Usually, it’s just called a comedy (just imagine how large an audience could you attract with “a musical comedy for men”).

The movie is outlandish farce from start to finish, with a car chase inside a mall, militant Illinois Nazis, and a jilted girlfriend who will stop at nothing to extract revenge.  It has great music, with a “who’s who” lineup of performers, including Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, James Brown, and Cab Calloway.  There are a number of cameos, including Steven Spielberg.  And the movie, largely shot around Chicago, is as much a love letter to the city as any of John Hughes’ movies.  (I can report, sadly, that they did finally tear down the abandoned mall where they filmed the chase scene, though I drove by it many times while it still stood when I lived in Chicago.)

Read Roger Ebert’s original review here.  (I imagine that if he wrote about it today, he’d be much more affectionate.)

I suppose, if you only pick one short clip, this should be it.

#22 – “Life with Father” (1947)

Here is a movie that I imagine no one really remembers, if they’ve heard of it at all.  The film version of the longest-running play in Broadway history (over 7 ½ years) is dated in almost every way.  Still, I enjoy the humor, particularly the religious humor, throughout.  In many ways, the movie is almost about nothing, just everyday happenings (of a sort) in a large family.  There’s an unexpected visit from an aunt, who brings a young woman who becomes smitten with the oldest son; the unfortunate sales job taken by the second son; the difficulty in hiring a suitable maid; and the discovery by the father that he’s never been baptized (much more problematic a century ago than today).

The comedy, though, is character-driven, which sustains it even after all of these years.  Father’s disdain for religious hypocrisy, a theme of the original stories from which the play was adapted, is still particularly funny.  And the scene where Clarence Jr. cannot let a girl playfully sit on his lap because he’s wearing his father’s hand-me-down trousers (and he finds he cannot do anything while wearing them that his father wouldn’t do) makes me laugh even when I just think about it.

#21 – “Scarface” (1932)

Some people prefer more recent gangster movies, even the 1983 remake of “Scarface.”  I like many of them too, but I still don’t think they hold a candle to the short, violent movie released just before the Hays Code sharply curtailed what could be seen in films for about 35 years.  Based somewhat on the life and career of Al Capone, Paul Muni’s gangster is charismatic and shrewd, but he is also merciless in his pursuit of power.  (There’s no chance that this guy would end up in therapy like Tony Soprano.)

Fast-paced, purposely violent, with a great visual style and strong performances, this movie takes the territory explored by the solid 1931 gangster film “Little Caesar” and outclasses it in every way (except that Edward G. Robinson’s career-making performance was probably as good as Muni’s in “Scarface”).  It took over a half century for another gangster movie to come close to this kind of gruesome storytelling, which is amazing given the method acting revolution of the 50s and 60s.

This is, in many ways, the last western, a movie about how the Wild West was civilized by law and order.  The subtle story is a meditation on the violence, mythmaking, and personal sacrifice that was necessary for that transition to occur (and, one wonders, given that John Ford’s movies tend to be about democracy, perhaps about the formation of the United States in general).

And it is the story that fascinates me, more than anything else about this movie.  In fact, John Wayne’s performance irritates me at points, wooden even by his standards.  Jimmy Stewart is good as always, but not particularly great; the best performance is probably Lee Marvin as the soulless villain Liberty Valance.  But the acting seems beside the point as the movie considers the nature of violence in history – it is a movie about something wrapped up in audience-friendly packaging.

Here is Roger Ebert’s recent “Great Movies” essay.

Here’s the original trailer.

#19 – “The Wizard of Oz” (1939)

In many ways, this is one of the most magical movies, capable of capturing the imagination of almost everyone who sees it.  Even over 70 years later, the colorful land of Oz seems supernaturally vivid and beautiful.  The characters are memorable and the songs are simple and catchy.

In the years since, studios have made countless family films trying to capture the same lightning in a bottle.  Perhaps a couple of Disney films come close, but I don’t think any have surpassed this gem from Hollywood’s greatest year.  We watch it as children and never forget it, possibly because it comes so close to many of our dreams and nightmares. 

Roger Ebert, in this “Great Movies” essay, writes of many of the behind-the-scenes problems, now well-known.

Here is a bit of Dorothy’s introduction to the strange world of Oz.

Even now, I am amazed this movie was ever made.  In my mind, I can imagine the studio pitch, from the untested writer-director, of the basic storyline of the movie (which I won’t give away in case readers have not seen the movie).  Even with its pedigree, based on a story by Stephen King, the basic premise sounds thin even for a silly TV movie of the week, let alone a feature film.

Instead, this is a movie about the great and redemptive, but fragile, power of hope.  Against the backdrop of prison, with inmates guilty of murder and other violent crimes, comes the story of one man who refuses to be crushed by the monotony of prison life and the impact that has on a few others around him.  It’s a long movie, but it doesn’t feel that long; it has brutal scenes, but seems anything but depressing.

Read Roger Ebert’s original review here.

Just five years later, Ebert wrote a “Great Movies” essay about this movie, in which he tries to pinpoint the reason for its eventual popular reception.

I can’t bear to give anything away in the movie, so here is the original trailer.

#17 – “To Be or Not To Be” (1942)

This wartime comedy is funny, poignant, and surprisingly topical.  It is very funny, from the first big Hitler joke (which Mel Brooks appropriated more famously in “The Producers”) to the zany conclusion.  Jack Benny is brilliant as the self-absorbed actor turned patriot.  Carole Lombard, in her last performance before dying in an airplane crash, is beautiful and funny.  The zany storyline is a farcical send-up of the Nazi blitzkrieg and occupation of Poland.

It is a largely forgotten gem, which may explain the entirely unnecessary Mel Brooks/Anne Bancroft remake in 1983; it certainly explains how Quentin Tarantino thought he could steal the last quarter of the movie and package it as the ‘surprising’ climax of “Inglorious Basterds.”  Director Ernst Lubitsch also manages to make a very funny movie with mostly gentle humor, a testament to what film students often call “The Lubitsch Touch.”

Here is a random clip from early in the movie with the two stars.

#16 – “Vertigo” (1958)

Alfred Hitchcock famously talked about “macguffins,” the plot device that moves a story forward but ultimately has little importance.  In his greatest film, he puts his most audacious macguffin in full view even before you start the movie – it’s the “vertigo” mentioned in the title.  While Jimmy Stewart’s character suffers from debilitating acrophobia, the main story is about his descent into madness over lost love.  In exploring this, Hitchcock approaches his most terrifying subject – worse than international intrigue, murders in showers, or even attacking birds – a human mind losing its grip on reality.

In some ways, I worry that it might be Hitchcock’s most autobiographical movie, at least in some respects.  (Certainly there are stories about how he ‘molded’ every aspect of his leading ladies’ appearances and performances in his films, much like Stewart attempts to do in “Vertigo.”)  This might explain some of its attraction, despite its distasteful storyline.  More likely it is the combination of an actor and a director each at the top of their crafts, rising to the challenging material.

Evidently, Roger Ebert, in his “Great Movies” essay, thinks that it is Hitchcock’s most autobiographical movie too.  (I wrote the above synopsis before I read his essay – really.)

I could not find a good clip from the movie – the original trailer is pretty awful – but here is Martin Scorcese talking about the film.

#15 – “Some Like It Hot” (1959)

These days, sex comedies usually revolve around teenagers (being played by 20-somethings), like the “American Pie” franchise.  How different it was when Billy Wilder directed such movies like “The Apartment” and “The Seven Year Itch”!  But Wilder even outdid himself when he devised this farce that begins with the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre and then puts Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis in drag (as two of the homeliest women you’ll ever see) to fight it out for the attentions of Marilyn Monroe’s slightly self-aware ditzy blonde. 

Consistently funny, with sight-gags, great one-liners (famously, the best final line of any movie), and lots of sexual entendres, the movie is a comedy treasure.  In fact, after watching it a few times, just seeing a few minutes of the movie is almost as much of a treat as sitting down to watch the whole thing (which is a testament to how good it really is).

Roger Ebert, in his “Great Movies” essay, only has eyes for Marilyn.

The first animated movie to be nominated for Best Picture (in the days when there were only five nominees instead of ten, making that a significant honor) is also the greatest one of all time.  The Disney Company still points to the landmark “Snow White” and Walt Disney reportedly though it was “Sleeping Beauty,” but even they pale in comparison to this film, which is gorgeous to watch, has excellent voice work, and the best complete list of original songs for any movie since “The Wizard of Oz.”

It also features the first significant computer animation sequence in an animated film, the classic marble ballroom scene where the couple dances while Angela Lansbury sings the title song.  It was a huge risk – it took longer than expected to achieve the necessary results – but it paid off; the resulting scene was the emotional center of the film, and in many ways the pinnacle of traditional Disney animation since the rise of Pixar.

Here is Roger Ebert’s original review, where he talks about to complete quality of the movie.

And here is the special scene, with the title song.

#13 – “Tombstone” (1993)

This is a great modern western, gritty, violent, based on some significant historical research, and filmed with great style.  It has a wonderful visual look, particularly the sequence leading up to the famous gunfight at the OK Corral, fantastic performances, and a great musical score.  At times, the wonderful packaging can make you forget that the movie is almost entirely about revenge.

This movie is also a case study in why a studio should not give up on a film just because of test screenings.  For reasons passing all understanding, this prestige picture (which opened on Christmas Day) was not screened for critics and was completely overlooked during awards season.  By my count, it should have received about seven nominations, with at least one almost certain win, Val Kilmer as Best Supporting Actor.

Here is the establishing scene for Doc Holliday.

#12 – “Apollo 13” (1995)

In any movie based on a historic event, some liberties are taken to ensure the compact storytelling we’ve come to expect in movies.  There are a few such liberties in Apollo 13, but more impressive is not just how accurate the movie is (going so far as to film some of the zero-gravity scenes in NASA’s “Vomit Comet”), but how this true dramatic story is used to highlight less appreciated stories of the space program.  Here, we not only experience the dramatic rescue of a crew stranded by an explosion in space, but learn how amazing and perilous it was to land astronauts on the moon and how much of a team effort the space program was.  [Not coincidentally, this is the same basic theme of the later HBO miniseries “From the Earth to the Moon,” a labor of love from executive producer Tom Hanks.]

The entire film, which boasts wonderful performances, an excellent script, and solid technical work, is a testament to director Ron Howard.  This remains, by far, his best film, with perfect pacing, evident in the breath-holding climax.  I walked out of the theatre on opening weekend convinced that Howard would win an Oscar for Best Director (an opinion confirmed by his colleagues in the Directors Guild of American, who awarded him prize for Best Motion Picture Director that year); inexplicably, he wasn’t even nominated by the Academy – the worst such oversight in my lifetime.

Read Roger Ebert’s original review here.

Here is the original trailer.

#11 – “Star Wars” (1977)

I think people sometimes underestimate the “cool” factor in turning some films into landmarks (for example, this was the overwhelming key to the success of “Avatar” in my mind).  This movie reached a broad audience because it had lots of cool elements, from the opening trumpet fanfare and prologue scroll, it has lasers, lightsabers, Darth Vader, imaginative space vehicles, and Harrison Ford as a misplaced loner from classic Westerns whose weapon is not a six-shooter but a hulking ship called the Millennium Falcon.  The original “Star Wars” is undeniably cool.

This is the first movie that I remember watching the whole way through.  I’m sure I’d seen many before this one, but I’ve never forget that first viewing.  That is part of the reason why I love this movie, but mostly it is because it was worth remembering, warts and all.

Read Roger Ebert’s original review here.

Here is Ebert’s “Great Movies” essay written after seeing the re-release, which made him nostalgic.

See the cool factor from the very first frame.

#10 – “Gone with the Wind” (1939)

The sweeping epic is true to the spirit, if not all of the plot twists, of Margaret Mitchell’s runaway bestseller.  While the film is ultimately a tribute to the determination of producer David Selznick, its success hinges on the almost perfect casting of the four leads, including the risky selection of a young British actress to play the fiery Southern belle Scarlett O’Hara.  The result is a melodrama of the highest order.

There’s no question that it is dated in many ways, with old-fashioned acting telling an old-fashioned story.  Still, like its heroine, it has a vibrant, even audacious, spirit, almost daring the audience not to like it.  I’m sure that some don’t.  But I, like many before me, love it for its swagger, its romance, and its era.

The often Freudian Roger Ebert sees sex everywhere in his “Great Movies” essay.

See the romantic tension between Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable.

This was only the third film ever to sweep all of the top Academy Awards: Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, and Screenplay (after “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and “It Happened One Night”), a recognition of how incredible this powerful film is.  Without all of these superb elements – for example with a weaker script (see the later sequel “Hannibal”) – the movie would have been an interesting, but not great, thriller.  Instead, it is probably the most influential horror movie since “Nosferatu,” due to Anthony Hopkins unforgettable portrayal of cold, calculating evil.

The initial premise of the film – a rookie FBI agent charged with investigating a serial killer – is interesting on its face.  Once Hopkins appears on screen, though, you cannot turn away because something fascinating, though horrible, is appearing before your eyes.  If I flip past the movie, I have a moment to turn it off if it’s during the first few minutes; otherwise, I’m hooked again.

On first watching, Roger Ebert found the ending implausible, though still loved the movie.

In this “Great Movies” essay, released around the time so many of us were disappointed by “Hannibal,” he appreciates how special the movie is.

#8 – “The Third Man” (1949)

The movie is so distinctive that it is difficult to describe, from its unique score – all zither music – to its being a male-dominated film noir set in the European ruins of World War II.  It features Orson Welles in the greatest role of his life, Harry Lime, playing a charismatic rogue, who admits to some awful crimes, but who never seems unlikeable.  The second biggest star, perhaps, is not Joseph Cotton, but the scarred and occupied city of Vienna, still with lots of rubble four years after the war’s end.

As a whole, the movie is a gripping thriller, still one of the greatest ever.  It creates a shadowy world of large numbers of suspect characters visualized in a film shot darkly at weird angles.  Given the significant part that historic political intrigue plays, it is likely that fewer and fewer people will appreciate the genius of this movie in the years ahead, which is an understandable shame.

Here is Roger Ebert’s “Great Movies” essay.

Here is the opening, which perfectly sets the mood, with its theme and the start of the narration.

In a day when we demonize our opponents, their words and intentions, it is difficult to imagine that a variety of people of various ideologies would enjoy entertainment about a President of the United States and his administration full of people who are imperfect but motivated almost always by noble ideals.  Yet Aaron Sorkin, with this film “The American President” and the subsequent TV series “The West Wing,” offered audiences just that.  This is a movie with ideas and ideals, which respects both the institution of the presidency and the intellect of the viewing audience.

Against this backdrop, a fairly normal romantic comedy plays out (the meet cute, a second meet cute, an obstacle to the relationship, a happy ending), except that nothing’s normal when it’s about the President of the United States (which is the real obstacle to the romance).  The writing is smart and funny; the acting and directing sells it all; the result is wonderful.  As Roger Ebert said of the film (I guess on his TV show, it’s not in the written review, but used to be on the back of all the VHS tape boxes), “When I wasn’t laughing, I was smiling.”  I couldn’t agree more.

Read Roger Ebert’s original glowing review here.

#6 – “Patton” (1970)

This is not simply a great war movie, but it is one of the greatest film biographies of all time.  I am not enough of a World War II expert to know what liberties, if any, were taken with historical facts.  I have read enough to believe that the script, coupled with George C. Scott’s brilliant performance, captures much of Patton’s complexity – his military prowess, his impolitic ideas, his belief in his own reincarnation many times over.

I loved this movie the first time I saw it on television, but I did not fully appreciate it until I saw a restored 70mm print on the big screen.  In the iconic opening scene, it looked as if Patton physically walked into the theater to speak to the audience.  After that pre-battle pep talk, though, he quickly grew to be a larger than life figure, with considerable flaws to go along with his dominating presence.  When it ended, I wanted to watch it again; one day it will play on a nearby big screen, until then I settle for my well-used DVD.

Here is Roger Ebert’s “Great Movies” essay.

Here is one of many times when the movie digs into Patton’s psyche, with amazing and disturbing results.

#5 – “Titanic” (1997)

More than the movie-making aspect, which is the rare example of a bloated Hollywood budget where the money was well spent, this movie is an amazing recreation of a historic event.  The original plans to the ship still exist, so lots of effort went into reproducing all sorts of things exactly as they were on Titanic, including building a 90% scale set on the water of the ship itself.  Beyond this, the script heavily relied on lots of historical evidence, including eyewitness testimony of the survivors offered at the government hearings about the tragedy and in other interviews and memoirs.  There is such detail in the script that I could identify several people who had non-speaking parts, including Charles Joughin, who is visible clinging to the rail near Rose and Jack as the ship sinks and whose remembrance in a letter to Walter Lord accounts for what happens to the main characters in that scene.

As someone who had read several books about Titanic before this movie was released, I was amazed by what I saw.  In fact, the most emotional part of the movie for me was seeing the great ship sail from port; I knew it was CGI and James Horner’s fantastic music, but a part of me believed each time that the great ship was setting sail again.  In three months, I will see it again (probably more than once).  Some people are excited because it will be in 3-D; that interests me hardly at all (though I trust Cameron will ensure that the process doesn’t ruin the visual quality).  The other new aspect of the release makes me almost giddy with excitement: IMAX.

Here is Roger Ebert’s original rave review for the movie, in which he rightly observes that it is enormously difficult to make such a movie well.

And here is the trailer for the upcoming April re-release.

This too is a movie that demands to be seen on the big screen to appreciate it.  I was fortunate to see a restored 70mm print in a grand old Chicago movie house – The Music Box – and it was a visual feast to behold.  Over four hours long, the movie tells the story of the complex and enigmatic Lawrence, played by young Peter O’Toole in the performance that made him a star. 

It is, I am confident, the most beautiful movie ever filmed, visually speaking.  The desert, as shown by director David Lean, is a wondrous and even subtly changing place, but one must take the time to watch it to see such changes (which is one reason why the movie is so long, it is filled with scenes that unfold slowly in this desert landscape).  Coupled with Maurice Jarre’s intoxicating score, the film is a masterpiece.

Here is Roger Ebert’s “Great Movies” essay, in which he describes the 5 minute shot of a rider approaching the camera from a speck in the distance to the foreground.

Here is a scene that shows a bit of the desert.

#3 – “Ben-Hur” (1959)

Like the novel on which it is based, the movie is a story about the life of Christ told from the perspective of a Jewish prince whose life intersects with Jesus’ on a few occasions.  Although not as prominent in the film as in the novel, it is still the overarching theme of the movie, particularly the ideas of redemptions and forgiveness.  If some of the special effects look dated (like the models of the ships in the sea battle), many of them are still good.  Even better are the massive scenes, shot before CGI, where there really are hundreds, or even thousands, of extras.

The chariot race is the centerpiece of the movie, and it is extremely well done.  (Coincidentally, it is the climax of the novel too, taking multiple chapters to tell; it also was the highlight of a popular stage version of the book and the earlier 1925 movie, which is a classic in its own right.)  I never tire of watching it.  But I also never fail to be moved by the portrayal of Christ in the movie, which I find particularly meaningful.

Here is an old trailer for the big-budget movie.

#2 – “The Sting” (1973)

Watching this movie now, it seems nearly flawless, from the reteaming of Newman and Redford to the precise screenplay to the inspired decision to use Scott Joplin rags for the soundtrack.  Like all movies, though, many of these elements were lucked into, including the reteaming of Newman, Redford, and director George Roy Hill.  Reportedly, Redford didn’t think that the movie would be all that popular even after he reluctantly agreed to participate in it.

Somehow the movie they made is seductive, drawing in and keeping attention in ways that aren’t entirely clear (sort of the opposite approach as a Jerry Bruckheimer movie, with its scheduled explosions and chase sequences).  It is so good, that it is as beguiling on TV as it is on the big screen.  It’s simply delightful.

Here is Roger Ebert’s original review, still written when Ebert was still developing his own style.

#1 – “Citizen Kane” (1941)

Often identified as the greatest movie of all time, the film is amazing for the way that its central figure is slowly revealed after many viewings of the movie.  For some reason, the personal character of the fictional Charles Foster Kane seems worthy of discovery; “Rosebud” is merely the tip of the iceberg.  The story is circular and repetitive, slowly revealing glimpses of the man (a narrative device hinted at visually in some of the film’s opening sequence).  This process continues, I can attest, if you watch the movie several times.  As yet, though, I still don’t think I’m much closer to the heart of the mystery than the first time I saw it.

It’s not entirely clear why the movie is worth such effort, but there is something special about it.  Perhaps it’s the acting, which is superb and a wonderful example of a true ensemble cast.  Perhaps it is the outstanding technical work done in this film, whether the extensive use of “deep focus” by cinematographer Gregg Toland, the excellent makeup work (except for one scene with Joseph Cotton), or the perfect editing by Robert Wise (who eventually became a famous movie director, winning Oscars for “The Sound of Music” and “West Side Story”).  In the end, though, one must admit there’s also something magnetic about the boy genius at the center of the production, Orson Welles, who directed, co-wrote, and starred in it.  Sometime this month, as I do each January, I will watch it again and still be amazed.

Here is Roger Ebert’s “Great Movies” essay, in which he gives some of the background of the production.  (He also provides a superb feature-length commentary track on the DVD.)

Sunday, February 1, 2009

New Lincoln Blog

It's February, and that can only mean one thing -- it's Lincoln time. (What? You thought I was going to write something sappy about Valentine's Day?) Next Sunday, we will celebrate Lincoln Sunday, and I will offer this year's Lincoln Sermon, which I hope many of you are looking forward to.

In the meantime, let me give you something to tide you over. For a couple of years, some of my friends have encouraged me to start a Lincoln blog. During that time, I have decided not to, partially because I didn't know if I was up to it, but mostly because there already is one outstanding Lincoln blog (Brian Dirck's excellent A. Lincoln Blog) among lots of other Lincoln blogs and sites (which run the gamut from really good to not).

With the approach of the bicentennial celebration, though, I just couldn't resist any longer. I reserved the address months ago and started developing some search strategies to look for interesting current stories to cover. I also carefully considered the look and content of the blog. While I'm still tinkering a little, I've started posting and invite you to the grand opening of my Lincoln blog: (Lest you think that this is some combination of Lincoln and Indiana, you should know that Lincolniana is a technical term in the Lincoln field.)

If you're interested, stop by for a visit. If you know others who might be interested, pass the link information along.

Friday, December 12, 2008

My New Nephew

So, I've been very behind in my blogging (maybe you've noticed) and I am long overdue in posting pictures of my new nephew. Just today, my sister reminded me (again) of this fact. So let me fix that with some pictures of Sean Raymond.

Meet Sean. He's strong. And evidently, he's coming to see you.

Here's a tired Sean with his mom, my sister Emily.

And here is Sean with his proud papa Dan.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

for Bill; a memoriam

I learned Monday morning that my teacher and friend Bill Placher died unexpectedly over the weekend. It was a shock, to say the least, as Bill was only 60.

In one of the ironies of life, I was thinking about Bill on my drive from Indianapolis to West Virginia last weekend and planned to write him an email this week. Instead, I'll be driving for much of Saturday to attend his memorial service in the Wabash College chapel in Crawfordsville, Indiana.

I expect that many others will be making the drive. Bill was an exemplary teacher at our college (from which he graduated in 1970 and to which he returned to teach full-time in 1975) for almost 35 years, touching countless lives with his intelligence, his graciousness, his humor, and his compassion. In announcing his death, the Wabash College website unabashedly says "Legend Lost."

Bill was a real-life legend. In part, this was because Bill was one of the most prolific authors on our college faculty, which we as students took to mean that he was the college's most influential scholar in the larger academic world. (In hindsight, I think that we failed to recognize, or even realize, the influences of others on the faculty within their academic disciplines, and we almost certainly over-imagined Bill's influence. At least, I know Bill would say we over-imagined his influence.)

But Bill's legend came mostly from his interactions in the classroom. In a college filled with scholars who were passionate about teaching, Bill was the ideal. He had the uncanny ability to lead classroom discussions that explored topics with depth and sophistication, guided by his well-timed questions and answers and by Bill's almost singular ability to take the most convoluted student question or comment and highlight its particular philosophical relevance to the discussion at hand. (Click here for another Wabash reflection on Bill's teaching.) And Bill always did this with great warmth and affection for his students and no small amount of humor.

After leaving Wabash, I unconsciously compared my teachers to Bill for quite a while (and almost always with disappointment). That was foolish on my part, and Bill almost certainly would have been disappointed to hear it (I don't believe I ever told him). But those comparisons grow out of my own quite conscious self-image that I am primarily, even as a pastor, a teacher, and I often compare myself to Bill. I know I do not meet his high standards, but I always strive to be more like him -- to be more approachable, more gracious, more thoughtful, more receptive to the great nuggets of wisdom lying behind other peoples questions and answers -- even as I know that I will never match him because I do not have his unique combination of gifts. As I write this, I can hear Bill lightly contradicting me, telling me (probably in an off-handed, joking way) that he simply did what he could in the classroom, and that I should do the same and not worry about it. But I know he cared passionately about his teaching, as I know he knew I care passionately about mine, and passionate people never really stop worrying about such things, even though we grow more comfortable with our own strengths and weaknesses.

I cannot remember the first time I met Bill. I know that I knew him long before I ever took a class with him, and I already trusted his council and advice. We had too many conversations to remember when I was at Wabash on a whole range of issues. But like many of Bill's students, it was my conversations after I graduated that I value most. Bill never forgot his students, and he always wanted to know what we were up to. More than that, he was always available for advice, and I trusted Bill's advice highly.

After I graduated, we had a series of frank conversations about my future. At that time, I expected to immediately work toward a Ph.D. and pursue teaching in a college. He offered me lots of good advice, including some books to read about what I might be getting myself into. He offered me his unvarnished opinion of my prospects, during which he was equally candid about his own career. And he suggested (more than once) that I should also consider becoming a minister (not instead, but perhaps alongside an academic career); eventually I even listed to him. So for those who think that my being a minister is a good thing, one of the main people you have to thank is Bill.

Selfishly, I will miss Bill's advice in the future. For a long time I have anticipated asking Bill how to do certain things when I got closer to actually doing them, like trying to earn a Ph.D. while pastoring or trying to write and publish a book. Like many others, I always assumed that he would be there.

And I will miss Bill's continued teaching. I was fortunate to spend some time with Bill when he was on sabbatical in Chicago while I was studying there. We talked about countless things, and he heard some of my earliest sermons -- including my first effort to preach on Ecclesiastes, which is unquestionably the worst sermon I've ever given. When I said that to Bill after the service, he laughed, and then said, matter-of-factly, "The gospel was preached," which I think was his way of saying that I took the Biblical text seriously and faithfully, if not necessarily competently. Since then, I've always set that as my goal, and taken comfort that "the gospel was preached" regardless of how "well" the preacher preached.

But more than that, I will miss my conversations with Bill, which ranged through all sorts of topics. Over time we discovered that we were both students of Abraham Lincoln, and we talked about the new books being published. We talked about sports and the news. We talked about our beloved alma mater, its goods and its bads. During one visit, he proudly took me on an impromptu tour of the nearly completed athletic facility and science building, and we marveled at the positive changes at Wabash -- an early experience for me of how Wabash will change during the rest of my life, and yet another one for him who had seen thirty years of change at his Wabash.

In death, Bill becomes one of Wabash's ever-present ghosts, a giant whom many future students will hear stories about, just as I heard stories of ghosts who preceded my time as a student there, just as Bill surely heard stories of ghosts who preceded his time. Bill, as the acknowledged, if unofficial, historian of Wabash knew more about those ghosts than anyone else. I just wish that future students could experience Bill at his best, in conversation in the classroom, rather than through his writing or through countless stories about him.

In Narratives of a Vulnerable God, which is probably Bill's most influential book, Bill wrote at the end of the Acknowledgments:

I have dedicated the book to my students at Wabash. Their interest and friendship has been one of the joys of my life for nearly twenty years now. One of those students, Steve Webb, has become my friend and colleague, and an ongoing conversation with him has been one of the two principal influences on this book -- the other being an ongoing conversation with the memory of Hans Frei.

I immediately connected with this passage, not so much for the dedication to the students -- after all the book was published before I met Bill and was one of his students -- but for Bill's description of his ongoing relationship with his advisor from Yale, the noted narrative theologian Hans Frei. I thought at the time that it was a graceful way to describe my intellectual debt to Abraham Lincoln. In many ways, even though I never met Lincoln, I have an ongoing conversation with his memory.

Now, sadly, I imagine that I will experience a relationship more akin to the one Bill alludes to with his teacher. I know Bill has had a tremendous impact on my life and my thinking. In the past year, in my sermons I have mentioned Lincoln several times, and made a few references to Reinhold and H. Richard Niebuhr, who also have greatly influenced me. But it is no accident that I have mentioned Bill more often than anyone else (and have probably thought of him and his teaching more than I've mentioned him). I will miss my friend, Bill. In the years ahead, I must content myself with the gift of his legacy to me and others, an ongoing conversation with the memory of Bill Placher.

Monday, August 4, 2008

New Book Reviews: Six New Reviews

I've been behind in posting reviews of books that I've finished over the past few months. With these six, I've now posted reviews of all the books I finished by the beginning of July. Today, there are reviews of:
  • Signs and Wonders by Philip Gulley
  • Running Along: Presidential Leadership JFK to Bush II: Why It Has Failed and How We Can Fix It by James MacGregor Burns
  • Just One More Thing: Stories from My Life by Peter Falk
  • Life Goes On by Philip Gulley
  • Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years 1963-65 by Taylor Branch
  • First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong by James R. Hansen

Click here to see the reviews.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Lincoln: The Musical

I'm a little behind in my Lincoln in popular culture news. My favorite Lincoln blog shuttered in March, and I haven't found a superb one yet (though I also haven't had much time to look). But words cannot express my utter shock when I read the following headline this week:

Celebrating Lincoln's Bicentennial, Musical Abe Will Premiere in Illinois in 2009

To prove I'm not making this up, here's a link to the story, courtesy of

But if words failed me when I read this theater story, my shock was complete after I foolishly conducted a simple Google search.

Here's result #1:

And if you go to the site, you'll discover that it features the current draft of the script and sheet music to several of the songs, plus some links to audio demo files of the songs performed by the composer.

If you'd like, I'll save you the trouble -- it's absolutely AWFUL. And I don't just mean that it is historically inaccurate (so were the Pulitzer-Prize winning Abraham Lincoln in Illinois and the much-beloved John Ford film Young Mr. Lincoln at points). It's bad theater. The music is awful, poor lyrics coupled with fairly horrendous music -- and often about truly bizarre things.

Perhaps Act II is better, I didn't make it that far. If you want to know how bad it is, I simply suggest you open the script to Act I, Scene 4 and listen to the song "Corn" which is supposed to be a rousing ensemble bar song. The sheet music contains the priceless notation "a bit majestic," which of course describes the feeling of all of the great musical bar songs. And never mind the fact that the Rutledge Tavern, which our intrepid playwright and composer have branded a saloon, was more a restaurant than bar.

There is a possibility that in the hands of a specific director, who played the entire thing as farce, that it might be tolerable -- otherwise it's just best ignored.

Saturday, May 31, 2008

New Book Reviews: Lincoln: The Presidential Archives and Shopgirl

I have been slow in writing and posting book reviews, but I've been playing catch-up and will post them a couple at a time until I've caught up.

The new reviews today are Lincoln: The Presidential Archives by Chuck Wills and Shopgirl by Steve Martin. The Lincoln book is mediocre and not really recommended; the Martin novel is lots of fun, but perhaps not quite as funny as people might expect.

Click here to see the reviews.