Tag Archives: Top 10 Lists

Another year for me and you: 10 essential albums of 1969

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 2, 2019)

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Well, this is it. 2019-last chance to celebrate a “50th anniversary” from the 60s (did I just detect a mass sigh of relief from all the Generation X and Millennial readers out there?).

2019 also marks the 50th anniversary of Woodstock…so you eye-rolling hipsters best batten down the hatches and prepare for a surge of tie-tied, acid-fried, and dewy-eyed peace love ‘n’ dope c’mon people now smile on your brother everybody get together try to love one another right now dirty filthy hippies wallowing in the mud nostalgia…MAN.

In my 2009 review of the Ang Lee film Taking Woodstock, I wrote:

“If you can remember anything about the sixties, you weren’t really there”. Don’t you hate it when some lazy-ass critic/wannabe sociopolitical commentator trots out that old chestnut to preface some pompous “think piece” about the Woodstock Generation?

God, I hate that.

But I think it was Paul Kantner of the Jefferson Airplane who once said: “If you remember anything about the sixties, you weren’t really there.” Or it could have been Robin Williams, or Timothy Leary. Of course, the irony is that whoever did say it originally, probably can’t really remember if they were in fact the person who said it first.

You see, memory is a funny thing. Let’s take the summer of 1969, for example. Here’s how Bryan Adams remembers it:

That summer seemed to last forever
And if I had the choice
Yeah, I’d always wanna be there
Those were the best days of my life.

Best days of his life. OK, cool. Of course, he wrote that song in 1984. He’d had a little time to sentimentalize events. Now, here’s how Iggy Stooge describes that magic time:

Well it’s 1969 okay.
We’ve got a war across the USA.
There’s nothing here for me and you.
We’re just sitting here with nothing to do.

Iggy actually wrote and released that song in the year 1969. So which of these two gentlemen were really “there”, so to speak?

“Well Dennis,” you may be thinking (while glancing at your watch) “…that’s all fine and dandy, but doesn’t the title of this review indicate that the subject at hand is Ang Lee’s new film, Taking Woodstock? Shouldn’t you be quoting Joni Mitchell instead?”

Patience, Grasshopper. Here’s how Joni Mitchell “remembers” Woodstock:

By the time we got to Woodstock
We were half a million strong
And everywhere there was song and celebration.

She wrote that in 1969. But here’s the rub: she wasn’t really there.

There was a point in there, somewhere. Somehow it made sense when I was peaking on the ‘shrooms about an hour ago. Oh, I’m supposed to be writing a movie review. Far out, man.

Now it’s been 10 years since I wrote that piece regarding Woodstock’s 40th anniversary, so I’ve had some additional time to smoke a couple of bowls and further reflect on what my point was. After careful consideration, I believe it was: “You had to BE there, man!”

Am I getting through to you, Mr. Beale?

Anyhoo, going on the assumption that the next best thing to “being there” would be immersing yourself in the music of the era, I thought I’d mosey over to my record closet-where I hope to pluck some dusty jewels for your consideration. To wit-my picks for the top 10 most essential albums of 1969. As usual, my list is alphabetical-not ranking order.

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Abbey Road – The Beatles

Let it Be (1970) may have officially been the Beatles’ “final” studio album, but as it was recorded several months before the band’s penultimate 1969 release, it is Abbey Road that truly represents John, Paul, George and Ringo’s swan song as creative collaborators.

Are there any other recording artists who have ever matched the creative growth that transpired over the scant six years that it took to evolve from the simplicity of Meet the Beatles to the sophistication of Abbey Road?

After a momentary lapse of reason to allow gifted but increasingly manic enfant terrible Phil Spector to (infamously) botch production for Let it Be, the Fabs wisely brought George Martin back on board. Martin, the band, and recording engineers Geoff Emerick, Phil McDonald and Alan Parsons are at the top of their game here (if you decide to pack it in, you might as well go out on top).

Choice cuts: “Come Together”, “Something”, “I Want You (She’s so Heavy)”, “Here Comes the Sun”, “Because” (my god, those harmonies), “You Never Give Me Your Money”, “Sun King”, and (of course) the remainder of that magnificent Side 2 “suite”.

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Chicago Transit Authority – Chicago

While I’m not fond of their schmaltzy (if chart-topping) descent into “adult contemporary” territory from the 80s onward, there is no denying the groundbreaking nature of Chicago’s incredible first three double albums, beginning with this 1969 gem. The formula established here, which would continue through Chicago II and Chicago III (or what I like to call their “Roman Numeral Period”) was (for its time) a bold fusion of hard rock, blues, soul, jazz, and Latin styles, fueled by the late Terry Kath’s fiery guitar and accentuated by a tight horn section (and I’m not normally a big fan of horn sections).

Choice cuts: “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?”, “Beginnings”, “Questions 67 and 68”, “Poem 58” (great Kath solo) and a cover of Steve Winwood’s “I’m a Man”.

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Crosby, Still, & Nash – Crosby, Stills and Nash

One of rock’s most enduring “supergroups” sort of fell together (as the story goes) after an informal jam at a house party in 1968. The trio may have never agreed as to who’s house this seminal event occurred at (it vacillates between Joni Mitchell’s and Cass Elliot’s place), but millions of fans have since concurred that something truly sublime and greater than the sum of its parts occurs when David Crosby (originally from The Byrds), Stephen Stills (The Buffalo Springfield) and Graham Nash (The Hollies) sing three-part harmonies (occasionally joined by Neil Young…when they’re not all fighting). Their flawless debut LP has stood the test of time.

Choice cuts: All of them!

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Five Leaves Left – Nick Drake

Look in the dictionary under “melancholy” and you’ll likely find a picture of Nick Drake.

When the day is done, when the night is cold
Some get by but some get old
Just to show life’s not made of gold
When the night is cold

When the night is cold, I like to cozy up with a good pair of headphones, a cup of chamomile, and a Nick Drake album. Yes, his music was melancholy (and likely to blame for inspiring “emo”) but it was also beautiful; spare, haunting, unforgettable. He died much too young. If you’ve never had the pleasure, this debut is a fine place to start.

Choice cuts: “Time Has Told Me”, “Three Hours”, “River Man”, “Day Is Done”, “The Thoughts of Mary Jane”, “Fruit Tree”, and “Man in a Shed”.

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Hot Buttered Soul – Isaac Hayes

Singer-songwriter-musician-producer-arranger extraordinaire Isaac Hayes’ second album is, in a word, epic. Containing only 4 songs, it blew a lot of minds and set a new bar for soul music.

Before recording sessions commenced, Hayes demanded, and received full creative control from Stax Records (who I’d speculate were chagrined that there were no potential singles to mine from 4 tracks…at least not without extensive editing). I suspect Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye were paying close attention, as they would make a similar push for creative independence with execs at Motown several years later.

Choice cuts: Hayes’ impeccably produced cover of Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s “Walk on By” is a 12-minute master class in song arranging and may very well be the inception of the “slow jam” that artists like Barry White would later build their entire careers on.

But the truly groundbreaking cut here is Hayes’ 18-minute deconstruction of Jimmy Webb’s “By The Time I Get To Phoenix”. He takes Webb’s 2-minute pop song and turns it into a cinematic tone poem, with a 9-minute spoken word preface that adds poignant backstory to the protagonist’s already heartbreaking narrative.

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In the Court of the Crimson King – King Crimson

It’s safe to say there was nothing else that sounded quite like this seminal prog-rock masterpiece in 1969.

Led by avant-garde guitarist/producer Robert Fripp, the group featured vocalist/bassist Greg Lake (who would later hook up with Keith Emerson and Carl Palmer to form you-know-who), keyboardist/woodwind/sax player Ian McDonald (later of Foreigner), percussionist Michael Giles, and lyricist Peter Sinfield (also cryptically credited for “illumination”…their dealer, maybe?).

Many iterations of the band have followed over the years (with Fripp as the mainstay), but this remains my favorite conglomeration of personnel. Lake (with his cathedral pipes) was their finest vocalist.

Choice cuts: Pretty much all of them…from  the startling  proto-metal/jazz fusion opener “21st Century Schizoid Man” to the dreamy “I Talk to the Wind”,  the melancholic cautionary tale “Epitaph”, ethereally beautiful “Moonchild”, to the album’s appropriately magisterial closer “In The Court of the Crimson King.”

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Led Zeppelin II – Led Zeppelin

Despite legions of loyal fans (the author of this post among them) and the countless musicians they have inspired and influenced over the past 50 years, there’s just something about these seminal English rockers what really pisses off snooty music critics.

As an out and proud middlebrow, I’ll call this a “classic” without reservation. It was tough choosing this or their very strong debut album, which was also released in 1969. I could have cheated and just counted them both as one choice (which would have made my list “go to eleven”) but I’ve got principles (stop snickering).

Led Zeppelin’s unique blend of Delta blues, English folk, heavy metal riffing and (on subsequent albums, beginning with Led Zeppelin III) Eastern music has been oft-imitated but seldom matched… inviting us to tune in, buckle up, and ride a sonic roller coaster that takes you (as Jimmy Page described it) “from the whisper…to the thunder”.

Choice cuts: “Whole Lotta Love”, “What is and What Never Should Be”, “Thank You”, “Heartbreaker”, “Livin’ Lovin’ Maid” and “Ramble On” (best “wanderlust” song ever).

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The Stooges – The Stooges

Well it’s 1969 okay
All across the USA
It’s another year for me and you
Another year with nothing to do

Last year I was 21
I didn’t have a lot of fun
And now I’m gonna be 22
I say oh my and a boo hoo

They sure don’t write ‘em like that anymore. The composer is one Mr. James Osterberg, best known by his show biz nom de plume, Iggy Pop. Did you know that this economical lyric style was inspired by Buffalo Bob…who used to encourage Howdy Doody’s followers to limit fan letters and postcards to “25 words or less”? True story.

The peace ‘n’ love ethos was still lingering when Iggy and the Stooges stormed straight outta Detroit with their aggressive proto-punk sound, undoubtedly scaring the shit out of a lot of hippies.

While this debut album didn’t exactly go storming up the charts upon initial release, it is now acknowledged as a profound influence on punk’s first wave (the Sex Pistols paid homage on Never Mind the Bollocks with their sneering cover of “No Fun”).

Choice cuts: “1969”, “I Wanna Be Your Dog”, “No Fun”, and “Real Cool Time”.

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Then Play On – Fleetwood Mac

I’ve got nothing personal against Stevie Nicks and Lindsay Buckingham; they are obviously very talented folks in their own write, but…as far as I’m concerned, Fleetwood Mac “Classic” died the day they joined up with Christine McVie and stalwart founding members Mick Fleetwood and John McVie. This 1969 release is my favorite Mac album.

Guitarist and lead vocalist Peter Green would depart the band following this release (briefly rejoining later for a few live dates), but it features some of his finest work. The bulk of the songs for this outing were written by Green and newly acquired guitarist/vocalist Danny Kirwin (a gifted player and songwriter who would stay on board until some unfortunate personal issues forced him out in 1972). Very bluesy; those who prefer the more pop-oriented Buckingham-Nicks iteration may not find much to relate to.

Choice cuts: “Coming Your Way”, “Closing My Eyes”, “Underway”, “Although the Sun is Shining”, “My Dream” (gorgeous Kirwin instrumental),“Before the Beginning” and the classic “Oh Well”.

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Tommy – The Who

There was a time (a long, long, time ago) when some of my friends insisted that the best way to appreciate The Who’s legendary rock opera was to turn off the lamps, light a candle, drop a tab of acid and listen to all four sides with a good pair of cans. I never got around to making those precise arrangements, but I’m always up for spinning all four sides. Not only one of 1969’s finest offerings, but one of the best rock albums of all time.

Choice cuts: “1921”, “Amazing Journey”, “Acid Queen”, “Pinball Wizard”, “Tommy Can You Hear Me?”, “I’m Free”, and “We’re Not Gonna Take It”.

Bonus tracks!

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10 more 1969 releases worth a spin:

Beck-Ola – Jeff Beck
Blind Faith – Blind Faith
Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere – Neil Young & Crazyhorse
It’s a Beautiful Day – It’s a Beautiful Day
Kick Out the Jams – The MC5
Santana – Santana
Stand Up – Jethro Tull
Stand! – Sly & the Family Stone
Tons of Sobs – Free
Trout Mask Replica – Captain Beefheart

Pre-Oscar marathon: The top 10 “Best Picture” winners

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 23, 2019)

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I’m sure you are aware that the (host-challenged) Academy Awards ceremonies are coming up this Sunday (broadcasting on ABC). As an alleged “movie critic”, I will sheepishly admit that I have only seen 3 of the 8 nominees for 2018’s Best Picture. Then again, it’s been years since Academy voters and I have seen eye to eye as to what constitutes a “best picture”. Either my aesthetic has changed, or the Academy has lowered its standards. And I don’t think my aesthetic has changed, if you catch my drift.

At any rate, this is my way of explaining in advance why you may notice only one “Best Picture” winner from the last several decades made my list, which I have culled from the previous 90 Academy Awards. Perhaps it’s just my long-winded way of saying “they don’t make ‘em like they used to”. And I wish you kids would stay the hell off my lawn.

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You Can’t Take it With You (Best Picture of 1938) – 81 years on, Frank Capra’s movie version of George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart’s stage play (adapted for the screen by Robert Riskin, who was nominated) still resonates in light of our current economic woes.

A Wall Street fat cat (Edward Arnold) comes up with various nefarious machinations to force a stubborn but happy-go-lucky homeowner (Lionel Barrymore) and his eccentric and free-spirited family to sell him his property, in order to make way for a new factory he wants to build in a prime metropolitan location.

Complications ensue when Barrymore’s granddaughter (Jean Arthur) falls in love with Arnold’s son (James Stewart). Hilarity abounds, fueled by contrasting worldviews of Arnold’s uptight, greedy capitalist and Barrymore’s fun-loving non-conformist. There’s tons of slapstick, and in accordance with the rules of screwball comedy, nearly the entire cast eventually ends up standing before a judge (en masse) with a lot of explaining to do.

Although this is one of Capra’s more lightweight films, he still folds in social commentary about the disparity between the haves vs. the have-nots; in some respects it seems like a warm-up for It’s a Wonderful Life. Capra also picked up a Best Director win.

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Casablanca (Best Picture of 1943)-Romance, exotic intrigue, Bogie, Ingrid Bergman, evil Nazis, selfless acts of quiet heroism, Paul Henreid, Peter Lorre, Sidney Greenstreet, Rick’s Café, Claude Rains rounding up the usual suspects, Dooley singing “As Time Goes By”, the beginning of a beautiful friendship, the most rousing rendition of “La Marseille” you’ve ever heard, that goodbye scene at the airfield, and a timeless message (if you love someone, set them free). What’s not to love about this movie-lover’s movie?

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From Here to Eternity (Best Picture of 1953) – Even though James Jones’ salty and steamy source novel about restless GIs stationed at Pearl Harbor was sanitized for the screen, Fred Zinnemann’s film was still fairly risqué and heady adult fare for its time.

Monty Clift was born to play the complex, angst-ridden company bugler (and sometime pugilist) Pvt. Robert E. Lee Prewitt, a classic “hard case” at constant loggerheads with his superiors (and his personal demons).

And what a cast-outstanding performances abound from Burt Lancaster, Deborah Kerr, Frank Sinatra (he won Best Actor in a Supporting Role), Jack Warden, Ernest Borgnine, and Donna Reed. At that point of Reed’s career, it was considered casting against type to have her playing a prostitute, but it paid off with a Best Actress in a Supporting Role win.

Zinnemann won Best Director, screenwriter Daniel Taradash picked up a Best Writing (Screenplay) for his adaptation, Burnett Guffey won for Cinematography (Black and White), and William A. Lyon took home a statue for Best Film Editing. A true classic.

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West Side Story (Best Picture of 1961)-You know, there are so many Deep Thoughts that I have gleaned as a result of my many, many viewings of this fine film over the years; and since I am holding the Talking Stick, I wish to share a few of them with you now:

  1. When you’re a Jet, you stay a Jet.
  2. Something’s coming; don’t know when…but it’s soon.
  3. I like the island Manhattan.
  4. Breeze it, buzz it, easy does it.
  5. It’s alarming, how charming I feel.
  6. Deep down inside us, there is good.

You’re welcome.

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Lawrence of Arabia (Best Picture of 1962) – Until you have viewed David Lean’s masterpiece on a theater screen, you can’t really comprehend how big the desert is. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly hugely mind-bogglingly big it is. Or how commanding and charismatic 29 year-old Peter O’Toole was in his first starring role.

O’Toole delivers a larger-than-life performance as T.E. Lawrence, a flamboyant and outspoken British army officer who reinvented himself as a guerilla leader, gathering up warring Arab tribes and uniting them in a common cause to oust the Turks during WW I.

Robert Bolt and Michael Wilson based their literate screenplay on Lawrence’s memoirs, sustaining a sense of intimacy throughout. This was no small feat, considering the film’s overall epic sweep and visual splendor (DP Freddie Young and editor Anne V. Coates more than earned their Oscars).

Omar Sharif, Anthony Quinn, Alec Guinness, Jack Hawkins, Claude Rains and Jose Ferrer round off a fine cast, and you can’t discuss this film without acknowledging Maurice Jarre’s magnificent “Best Score”.

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In the Heat of the Night (Best Picture of 1967) – “They call me Mister Tibbs!” In this classic film Sidney Poitier plays a cosmopolitan police detective from Philly who gets waylaid in a torpid Mississippi backwater, where he is reluctantly recruited into helping the bigoted sheriff (Rod Steiger) solve a local murder.

Poitier nails his performance; you can feel Virgil Tibb’s pain as he tries to maintain his professional cool amidst a brace of surly rednecks, who throw up roadblocks at every turn.

While Steiger is outstanding as well, I find it ironic that he was the one who won “Best Actor in a leading role”, when Poitier was the star of the film (it seems Hollywood didn’t get the film’s message).

Sterling Silliphant’s brilliant screenplay (another Oscar) works as a crime thriller and a “fish out of water” story. Director Norman Jewison was nominated but didn’t score a win. Future director Hal Ashby won for Best Editing. Quincy Jones composed the soundtrack, and Ray Charles sings the sultry theme.

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Midnight Cowboy (Best Picture of 1969) – “I’m WALKIN’ heah!” Aside from its distinction as being the only X-rated film to ever win Oscars, John Schlesinger’s groundbreaking character study also helped usher in a new era of mature, gritty neo-realism in American film that would reach its apex in 1976 with Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (one year before Star Wars ushered that era to a full dead stop).

Dustin Hoffman has seldom matched his character work here as the Fagin-esque Ratso Rizzo, a homeless New York City con artist who adopts country bumpkin/aspiring male hustler Joe Buck (Jon Voight) as his “protégé”. The two leads are outstanding, as is the supporting cast, which includes John McGiver, Brenda Vaccaro, Barnard Hughes and a teenage Bob Balaban. Also look for cameos from several of Andy Warhol’s “Factory” regulars, who can be spotted milling about here and there in a memorable party scene.

In hindsight, the location filming provides us with a fascinating historical document of the seedy milieu that was “classic” Times Square (New York “plays itself” very well here). Schlesinger won an Oscar for Best Director, as did Waldo Salt for his screenplay.

In hindsight, the location filming provides us with a fascinating historical document of the seedy milieu that was “classic” Times Square (New York “plays itself” very well here). Schlesinger won an Oscar for Best Director, as did Waldo Salt for his screenplay.

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The Godfather (Best Picture of 1972) and The Godfather, Part II (Best Picture of 1974)-Yes, I’m counting them as one; because in a narrative and artistic sense, they are. Got a problem with that? Tell it to Luca Brasi. Taken as a whole, Francis Ford Coppola’s two-part masterpiece is best summed up thusly: Brando, Pacino, and De Niro.

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Annie Hall (Best Picture of 1977) – As far as his “earlier, funny films” go, this semi-autobiographical entry ranks as one of Woody Allen’s finest, and represents the moment he truly found his voice as a filmmaker. The Academy concurred, awarding three additional Oscars as well-for Best Actress (leading lady Diane Keaton, in her career-defining role), for Director (Allen) and for Best Original Screenplay (Allen again, along with co-writer Marshall Brickman).

Part 1 of a triptych (or so the theory goes) that continued with Manhattan and Hannah and Her Sisters, it is also the film that neatly divides the history of the romantic comedy in half. So many of the narrative framing techniques and comic inventions that Allen utilized have become so de rigueur for the genre (a relatively recent example would be The 500 Days of Summer) that it’s easy to forget how wonderfully innovative and fresh this film felt back in 1977. A funny, bittersweet, and perceptive look at modern romance.

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No Country for Old Men (Best Picture of 2007) – The bodies pile up faster than you can say Blood Simple in Joel and Ethan Coen’s masterfully made neo-noir (which also earned them a shared Best Director trophy). The brothers’ Oscar-winning screenplay (adapted from the Cormac McCarthy novel) is rich in characterization and thankfully devoid of the self-conscious quirkiness that has left some of their latter-day films teetering on self-parody.

The story is set among the sagebrush and desert heat of the Tex-Mex border, where the deer and the antelope play. One day, pickup-drivin’ good ol’ boy Llewelyn (Josh Brolin) is shootin’ at some food (the playful antelope) when he encounters a grievously wounded pit bull. The blood trail leads to discovery of the grisly aftermath of a shootout. And yes, being that this is Coen country…that twisty trail does lead to a twisty tale.

Tommy Lee Jones gives a wonderful low-key performance as an old-school, Gary Cooper-ish lawman who (you guessed it) comes from a long line of lawmen. Jones’ face is a craggy, world-weary road map of someone who has reluctantly borne witness to every inhumanity man is capable of, and is counting down the days to his imminent retirement (‘cos it’s becoming no country for old men…).

The entire cast is outstanding. Javier Bardem picked up a Best Supporting Actor statue for his unforgettable turn as a psychotic hit man. His performance is understated, but menacing, made all the more creepy by his benign Peter Tork haircut. Kelly McDonald and Woody Harrelson are both excellent as well.

Curiously, Roger Deakins wasn’t even nominated for his outstanding cinematography, but his work on this film easily ranks among his best.

Stop that train: R.I.P. Albert Finney

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 9, 2019)

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Albert Finney died yesterday, and more people should have cared. I almost missed it myself, which is odd considering how much time I fritter and waste in an offhand way online these days. It didn’t even trend on Twitter, for fuck’s sake. No, I learned of his passing the old-fashioned way: a perfunctory mention on a nightly network TV newscast.

A file photo of Finney popped up (rarely a good sign), and the blow-dried anchor mustered all the teleprompter-fed solemnity extant in his soul to sadly inform me that “the actor who played Daddy Warbucks in the movie version of Annie has died” before moving on to “a video you have got to see”. The actor who played Daddy Warbucks in the film version of Annie? Really? That’s all you got? I wouldn’t call that his most memorable performance; I wouldn’t even consider Annie to be a particularly good movie.

The Royal Shakespeare Theatre-trained Finney’s film career spanned over 50 years, and in the course of that time he proved over and over that he had chops to spare for both drama and comedy. Innately charismatic onscreen, he could effortlessly hold your attention as the dashing leading man, or just as easily embed himself into a character role.

Finney never strayed too far from his working-class roots in his off-screen demeanor. He shunned interviews and the trappings of stardom; he was all about the work. He declined the offer of a CBE (as well as a knighthood) and once compared an actor’s job to that of a bricklayer. So let’s get to work here, shall we? My picks for Finney’s top 10 film roles…

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The Dresser– Peter Yates directed this tale of a fiercely devoted “dresser” (Tom Courtenay) who tends to the mercurial lead player (Finney) of a traveling company’s production of King Lear. The story is set against the backdrop of London during the blitz, but it’s a tossup as to who is producing more Sturm and Drang…the German bombers, the raging king, or the backstage terror who portrays him and is to be addressed by all as “Sir”. Courtenay and Finney deliver brilliant performances. Ronald Harwood adapted the script from his own play. In the most memorable scene, Sir literally halts a locomotive in its tracks at a noisy railway station with his commanding bellow to “STOP. That. Train!”

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Gumshoe– This relatively obscure U.K. gem from 1971 was produced by Finney and marked the feature film directing debut for Stephen Frears (My Beautiful Laundrette, Prick Up Your Ears, The Grifters, High Fidelity, et. al.). Finney is wonderful as an emcee who works in a seedy Liverpool nightclub and models himself after Philip Marlowe. He decides to indulge his long-time fantasy of becoming a private detective by placing a newspaper ad offering his services-and gets more than he bargains for with his first case.

Screenwriter Neville Smith’s clever dialog is infused with just enough shadings of Chandler and Hammet to deflect suspicion of plagiarism (and Finney thankfully doesn’t overdo his Bogey impression-which isn’t half-bad). Nice supporting turn from Billie Whitelaw, and Frears’ use of the gritty Liverpool milieu lends an appropriate “noir” vibe.

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Miller’s Crossing– This 1990 gangster flick could only come from the unique mind-meld of Joel and Ethan Coen. Finney is excellent as an Irish mob boss engaging in a power struggle with the local Italian mob during the Prohibition era. Gabriel Byrne (who is the central character of the film) portrays his advisor, who attempts to broker peace by playing both sides against the middle. This form of diplomacy does carry a certain degree of personal risk (don’t try this at home).

You do have to pay attention in order to keep up with the constantly shifting alliances and betrayals and such; but as with most Coen Brothers movies, if you lose track of the narrative you always have plenty of twisty performances, stylish flourishes, and mordant humor to chew on until you catch up again.

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Orphans– There is sometimes a fine line between “intense drama” and “overcooked ham”, and while I will admit that this 1987 Alan J. Pakula adaptation of Lyle Kessler’s stage play toddles dangerously close to that line, it is still well worth your time.

Matthew Modine and Kevin Anderson are two fringe-dwelling brothers who live on their own in a decrepit house. Finney is a low-rent Chicago gangster who gets blotto at a New Jersey bar, and upon waking up discovers he’s been “kidnapped” by Modine, who has a hold over his brother reminiscent of the dynamic between the sisters in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? The story becomes even stranger when Finney decides then and there to move in and impose himself as a father figure. It’s a bit ‘stagey’, but the acting is superb.


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Saturday Night and Sunday Morning– This 1960 Karel Reisz drama gave the 24-year-old Finney his first major starring role and is one of the seminal entries of the “British New Wave” film movement. Finney delivers an explosive Brando-esque performance as a womanizing young man stuck in a dreary factory job. Allen Sillitoe adapted the screenplay from his own novel. A gritty slice of life steeped in “kitchen sink” realism.

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Shoot the Moon– Be forewarned: Alan Parker’s 1982 drama about the deterioration of a marriage pulls no punches (it is right out as a “date night” movie). Finney co-stars with Diane Keaton as a couple with four kids whose marriage is about to go kaput. As in Kramer vs. Kramer, the film essentially opens with the split, and then focuses on the immediate emotional aftershocks and its profound impact on all family members.

Absolutely heartbreaking, but beautifully acted by a skilled cast that includes Karen Allen, Peter Weller, and Dana Hill. Bo Goldman scripted, and Michael Seresin’s cinematography is lovely (the Marin County environs almost becomes a character itself).

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Tom Jones– The film that made Finney an international star, Tony Richardson’s 1963 romantic comedy-drama is based on the Henry Fielding novel about the eponymous character’s amorous exploits in 18th-Century England.

Tom (Finney) is raised as the bastard son of a prosperous squire. He is a bit on the rakish side, but wholly lovable and possesses a good heart. It’s the “lovable” part that gets him in trouble time and again, and fate and circumstance put young Tom on the road, where various duplicitous parties await to prey upon his naivety. Will he triumph? Of course, he will…the entertainment lies in how he gets there.

John Osborne adapted the Oscar-winning script; the film also won for Best Picture, Director, and Music Score (Finney was nominated for Best Actor).

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Two For the Road– Director Stanley Donen’s 1967 romantic comedy is a cinematic soufflé; folding in a sophisticated script by Frederick Raphael, a generous helping of Albert Finney and Audrey Hepburn, a dash of colorful European locales, and topping it with a cherry of a score by Henry Mancini.

Donen follows the travails of a married couple over the years of their relationship, by constructing a series of non-linear flashbacks and flash-forwards (a structural device that has been utilized since by other filmmakers, but rarely as effectively). While there are a lot of laughs, Two For the Road is, at its heart, a thoughtful meditation on the nature of love and true commitment. Finney and Hepburn (both at the peak of their sex appeal) exude an electric on-screen chemistry.

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Under the Volcano– John Huston’s masterful 1984 adaptation of Michael Lowry’s novel stars Finney as a self-destructive British consul stationed in Mexico on the eve of WW2. The story tracks the consul on the last day of his life, as it unfolds during Dia de los Muertas celebrations (the irony is strong in this tale). Very dark and steeped in dread. Superb performances all round from a cast that includes Jacqueline Bisset, Anthony Andrews and Katy Jurado. Guy Gallo wrote the script. My favorite Finney performance.

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Wolfen– This 1981 supernatural thriller from director Michael Wadleigh generated mixed reviews, but I think it has held up rather well. Sort of a thinking person’s horror film, it follows a NYPD homicide detective (Finney) and his partner (Gregory Hines) as they investigate a series of grisly murders. The victims’ wounds indicate something much akin to a wild animal attack. Add elements of ancient Native American legends regarding “shapeshifters” and things get…interesting. Granted, some of the early 80s visual effects haven’t aged well, but overall Wolfen is a smart, absorbing, and genuinely creepy chiller.

Put me in, coach: A top 10 mixtape

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 2, 2019)

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Did you know “snack stadiums” were a thing? I just learned that. I’m sure they’ve been a thing since asparagus and fig “snack coliseums” were all the rage in Rome, but I wouldn’t know, as I don’t follow football. Or basketball. Or baseball, soccer, hockey, boxing, bowling, racing, tennis, polo, curling, or shuffleboard. I have nothing against anyone who does-I’m just not a sports guy. However, I do look forward to Super Bowl Sundays for one reason: a “private screening” at the mid-afternoon matinee of my choice.

That said…while I don’t know much about sports, I can still hum a few bars. So I’ve curated my “top 10” favorite songs about my least-favorite pastime. In alphabetical order:

“Basketball Jones” (Cheech & Chong) – While this 1973 Top 40 hit by the premiere stoner comedy duo has taken on a life of its own, some of us are old enough (ahem) to remember the original “smooth groove” song that it parodies… “Love Jones” by Brighter Side of Darkness (which makes it even funnier). “Cheech” Marin took on the persona of one “Tyrone Shoelaces” for lead vocals. An all-star backing track lineup includes George Harrison (!), Carole King, Tom Scott, Billy Preston, Nicky Hopkins, and Ronnie Spector.

“Centerfield” (John Fogerty) – After kicking off with a riff suspiciously close to Richie Valens’ “La Bamba”, the former Creedence Clearwater Revival front man is “a-roundin’ third, and headed for home” with this popular 1985 song (actually released as a “B” side).

“Eye of the Tiger” (Survivor) – This rousing theme song for Rocky III was co-written by band members Frankie Sullivan and Jim Peterik (former lead vocalist for The Ides of March). A #1 hit that has become everyone and your grandma’s favorite workout anthem.

“Gonna Fly Now” (Bill Conti) – That distinctive opening brass salvo from the theme originally composed for Rocky in 1976 has become the trademark for a movie franchise now 43 years in the running (2018’s Creed II was the 8th installment, if you’re counting).

“Hit Somebody! (The Hockey Song)” (Warren Zevon) – The late singer-songwriter’s droll paean to the joys of high sticking. “What else can a farm boy from Canada do?”

 “Take the Skinheads Bowling” (Camper Van Beethoven) – Some people say that bowling alleys got big lanes. Now you! (“Got big lanes. Got big lanes.”). Two and a half minutes of pure genius. Lead singer David Lowery later formed Cracker (“Teen Angst”).

“Tell the Coach” (The Bus Boys) – I always felt this unique and talented L.A. band should have been a bigger deal, but the music business is nothing if not fickle. Here’s a great tongue-in-cheek song from their 1980 debut album, Minimum Wage Rock and Roll.

“Tour de France” (Kraftwerk) – The German electro-pop pioneers leave you breathless.

“We Are the Champions” (Queen) – You may have heard this at one or two sporting events. Originally on their 1977 News of the World album, it’s Queen’s ultimate anthem.

“When an Old Cricketer Leaves the Crease” (Roy Harper) – Despite his huge catalog, folk-rock troubadour Roy Harper remains one of England’s best-guarded musical secrets, even after 50+ years in the business. The talented singer-songwriter has had an acknowledged influence on a number of higher-profile artists, including Kate Bush, Pete Townshend, Ian Anderson, Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin (Page and Plant even name-checked him in their homage song “Hats Off to Roy Harper”). This wistful and enigmatic tune from his 1974 album HQ is one of my faves. All I can tell you is-cricket is involved.

The fierce urgency of now: 10 films for MLK Day

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 19, 2019)

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In honor of Martin Luther King Day, I’ve combed my review archives and curated 10 films that reflect on race relations in America; some that look back at where we’ve been, some that give us a reality check on where we’re at now and maybe even one or two that offer hope for the future. We still may not have quite reached that “promised land” of colorblind equality, but each of us doing whatever we can in our own small way to help keep Dr. King’s legacy alive will surely help light the way-especially in these dark times.

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Black KkKlansman (2018)So what do you get if you cross Cyrano de Bergerac with Blazing Saddles? You might get Spike Lee’s Black KkKlansman. That is not to say that Lee’s film is a knee-slapping comedy; far from it. Lee takes the true story of Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), an African-American undercover cop who managed to infiltrate the KKK in Colorado in the early 70s and runs with it, in his inimitable fashion.

I think this is Lee’s most affecting and hard-hitting film since Do the Right Thing (1989). The screenplay (adapted by Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, Kevin Willmott and Lee from Stallworth’s eponymous memoir) is equal parts biopic, docudrama, police procedural and social commentary, finding a nice balance of drama, humor and suspense. (Full review)

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The Black Power Mixtape (2011)–The Black Power movement of the mid-60s to mid-70s has historically been somewhat misrepresented, due to an emphasis on its more sensationalist elements. The time is ripe to re-examine the movement, which despite its failures and flaws, still emerges as one of the last truly progressive grass roots political awakenings that we’ve had in this country (if you’re expecting bandolier-wearing, pistol-waving interviewees spouting fiery Marxist-tinged rhetoric-dispense with that hoary stereotype now).

Director Goran Olsson was given access to a treasure trove of pristine, unedited 16mm footage from the era. The footage, recently discovered tucked away in the basement of Swedish Television, represents nearly a decade of candid interviews with key movement leaders, as well as meticulous documentation of Black Panther Party activities and African-American inner city life. Olsson presents the clips in a historically chronological timeline, with minimal present-day commentary. While not perfect, it is an important historical document, and one of the more eye-opening films I have seen on this subject. (Full review)

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The Boys of Baraka (2005) – Co-directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady have fashioned a fresh and inspiring take on a well-worn cause celebre: the sad, shameful state of America’s inner-city school system. Eschewing the usual hand-wringing about the underfunded, over-crowded, glorified daycare centers that many of these institutions have become for poor, disenfranchised urban youth, the filmmakers chose to showcase one program that strove to make a real difference.

The story follows a group of 12-year-old boys from Baltimore who attended a boarding school in Kenya, staffed by American teachers and social workers. In addition to more personalized tutoring, there was emphasis on conflict resolution through communication, tempered by a “tough love” approach. The events that unfold from this bold social experiment (filmed over a three year period) are alternately inspiring and heartbreaking. (Full review)

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The Force (2017) – Peter Nicks’ documentary examines the rocky relationship between Oakland’s police department and its communities of color. The force has been under federal oversight since 2002, due to myriad misconduct cases. Nicks utilizes the same cinema verite techniques that made his film The Waiting Room so compelling. It’s like a real-life Joseph Wambaugh novel (The Choirboys comes to mind). The film offers no easy answers-but delivers an intimate, insightful glimpse at both sides. (Full review)

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The Girls in the Band (2011)– Contextual to a curiously overlooked component within the annals of American jazz music, it’s tempting to extrapolate on Dr. King’s dream. Wouldn’t it be great to live in a nation where one is not only primarily judged by content of character, but can also be judged on the merits of creativity, or the pure aesthetics of artistic expression, as opposed to being judged solely by the color of one’s skin…or perhaps gender? At the end of the day, what is a “black”, or a “female” jazz musician? Why is it that a Dave Brubeck is never referred to as a “white” or “male” jazz musician?

In her film, director Judy Chaikin chronicles the largely unsung contributions that female jazz musicians (a large portion of them African-American) have made (and continue to make) to this highly influential American art form. Utilizing rare archival footage and interviews with veteran and contemporary players, Chaikin has assembled an absorbing, poignant, and celebratory piece. (Full review)

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I Am Not Your Negro (2016)– The late writer and social observer James Baldwin once said that “Whatever white people do not know about Negroes reveals, precisely and inexorably, what they do not know about themselves.” Sadly, thanks to the emboldening of certain elements within American society that have been drawn from the shadows by the openly racist rhetoric spouting from our nation’s current leader, truer words have never been spoken. Indeed, anyone who watches Raoul Peck’s documentary will recognize not only the beauty of Baldwin’s prose, but the prescience of such observations.

Both are on full display throughout Peck’s timely treatise on race relations in America, in which he mixes archival news footage, movie clips, and excerpts from Baldwin’s TV appearances with narration by an uncharacteristically subdued Samuel L. Jackson, reading excerpts from Baldwin’s unfinished book, Remember This House. An excellent and enlightening film. (Full review)

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In the Heat of the Night (1967)– “They call me Mister Tibbs!” In this classic (which won 1967’s Best Picture Oscar) Sidney Poitier plays a cosmopolitan police detective from Philly who gets waylaid in a torpid Mississippi backwater, where he is reluctantly recruited into helping the bigoted sheriff (Rod Steiger) solve a local murder. Poitier nails his performance; you can feel Virgil Tibb’s pain as he tries to maintain his professional cool amidst a brace of surly rednecks, who throw up roadblocks at every turn.

While Steiger is outstanding as well, I find it ironic that he was the one who won “Best Actor in a leading role”, when Poitier was the star of the film (it seems Hollywood didn’t get the film’s message). Sterling Silliphant’s brilliant screenplay (another Oscar) works as a crime thriller and a “fish out of water” story. Director Norman Jewison was nominated but didn’t score a win. Future director Hal Ashby won for Best Editing. Quincy Jones composed the soundtrack, and Ray Charles sings the sultry theme. (Full review)

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The Landlord (1970)– The late great Hal Ashby only directed a relative handful of films, but most, especially his 70’s output, were built to last (Harold and Maude, The Last Detail, Bound for Glory, Shampoo, Being There). In The Landlord, Beau Bridges is a spoiled rich kid who worries his parents with his “liberal views”, especially when he buys a run-down inner-city tenement, with intentions to renovate. His subsequent involvement with the various black tenants is played sometimes for laughs, other times for intense drama, but always for real. The social satire and observations about race relations are dead-on, but never preachy or condescending.

Top-notch ensemble work, featuring a young Lou Gossett (with hair!) giving a memorable turn. The lovely Susan Anspach is hilarious as Bridge’s perpetually stoned and bemused sister. A scene featuring Pearl Bailey and Lee Grant getting drunk and bonding over a bottle of “sparkling” wine is a minor classic all on its own. They don’t make ‘em like this anymore-honest, bold, uncompromising, socially and politically meaningful, yet (lest we forget) entertaining. (Full review)

Let the Fire Burn (2013)– While obscured in public memory by the (relatively) more “recent” 1993 Branch Davidian siege in Waco, the eerily similar demise of the Philadelphia-based MOVE organization 8 years earlier was no less tragic on a human level, nor any less disconcerting in its ominous sociopolitical implications.

In this compelling documentary, director Jason Osder has parsed a trove of archival “live-at-the-scene” TV reports, deposition videos, law enforcement surveillance footage, and other sundry “found” footage (much of it previously unseen by the general public) and created a tight narrative that plays like an edge-of-your-seat political thriller.         

Let the Fire Burn is not only an essential document of an American tragedy, but a cautionary tale and vital reminder of how far we have yet to go to completely purge the vestiges of institutional racism in this country. (Full review)

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The Trials of Muhammad Ali (2013)– There have been a number of films documenting and dramatizing the extraordinary life of Muhammad Ali, but they all share a curious anomaly. Most have tended to gloss over Ali’s politically volatile “exile years” (1967-1970), during which the American sports icon was officially stripped of his heavyweight crown and essentially “banned” from professional boxing after his very public refusal to be inducted into the Army on the grounds of conscientious objection to the Vietnam War.

Director Bill Siegel (The Weather Underground) fills in those blanks in his documentary. As you watch the film, you begin to understand how Ali the sports icon transmogrified into an influential sociopolitical figure, even if he didn’t set out to become the latter. It was more an accident of history; Ali’s affiliation with the Nation of Islam and stance against the Vietnam War put him at the confluence of both the burgeoning Black Power and anti-war movements. How it all transpired makes an absorbing watch. (Full review)

If you really must pry: Top 10 films of 2018

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 29, 2018)

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As 2018 closes, it’s time to share my picks for the top 10 feature films out of the 50 or so I reviewed this year. As per usual my list is presented alphabetically, not in ranking order.

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Big Sonia – There is a scene in Leah Warshawski and Todd Soliday’s documentary where you witness something just short of a miracle: a group of junior high students sitting in wide-eyed attentiveness; clearly riveted by a personal story emitting not from a cell phone or a laptop, but rather from a diminutive octogenarian woman. By the end of the talk, many of the students are brought to tears (as is the viewer).

But this is no pity party; in fact, many of them now seem genuinely inspired to go make a difference in the world. Her name is Sonia, and her story is much larger and more impactful than her 4 foot, 8-inch frame might suggest. You think you’ve had problems in your life? Let me put it this way…I’ll be thinking twice before I kvetch about my “issues” from here on in. (Full review)

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Black KkKlansman – So what do you get if you cross Cyrano de Bergerac with Blazing Saddles? You might get Spike Lee’s Black KkKlansman. That is not to say that Lee’s film is a knee-slapping comedy; far from it. Lee takes the true story of Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), an African-American undercover cop who managed to infiltrate the KKK in Colorado in the early 70s and runs with it, in his inimitable fashion.

I think this is Lee’s most affecting and hard-hitting film since Do the Right Thing (1989). The screenplay (adapted by Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, Kevin Willmott and Lee from Stallworth’s eponymous memoir) is equal parts biopic, docudrama, police procedural and social commentary, finding a nice balance of drama, humor and suspense.  (Full review)

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Fahrenheit 11/9 – Let’s dispense with this first. Yes, Michael Moore goes “there” in his latest documentary Fahrenheit 11/9…at one point in the film, he deigns to compare Trump’s America to Nazi Germany. However, he’s not engaging in merit-less trolling. Following a brief (and painful to relive) recap of what “happened” on 11/9/16, Moore’s film accordingly speeds off in multiple directions

As he has always managed to do in the past, he connects the dots and pulls it together by the end. In a nutshell, Moore’s central thesis is that Trump is a symptom, not the cause. And the “cause” here is complacency-which Moore equates with complicity. If you’re a Moore fan, you won’t be disappointed (though you may be a bit depressed). If you’re a Moore hater, you won’t be disappointed. (Full review)

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The Guilty –Considering that nearly all of the “action” in Gustav Möller’s low-budget gem is limited to the confines of a police station and largely dependent on a leading man who must find 101 interesting ways to emote while yakking on a phone for 80 minutes, Möller and his star Jakob Cedergren perform nothing short of a minor miracle turning this scenario into anything but another dull night at the movies.

Packed with nail-biting tension, Rashomon-style twists, and completely bereft of explosions, CGI effects or elaborate stunts, this terrific thriller renews your faith in the power of a story well-told. (Full review)

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Let the Sunshine In – The best actors are…nothing; a blank canvas. But give them a character and some proper lighting-and they’ll give back something that becomes part of us, and does us good: a reflection of our own shared humanity. Nature that looks like nature.

Consider Julilette Binoche, an actor of such subtlety and depth that she could infuse a cold reading of McDonald’s $1 $2 $3 menu with the existential ennui of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 123. She isn’t required to recite any sonnets in this film (co-written by director Claire Denis and Christine Angot), but her character speaks copiously about love…in all of its guises. And you may think you know how this tale of a divorcee on the rebound will play out, but Denis’ film, like love itself, is at once seductive and flighty. (Full review)

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Little Tito and the Aliens – I avoid using phrases like “heartwarming family dramedy”, but in the case of Paola Randi’s, erm, heartwarming family dramedy…it can’t be helped. An eccentric Italian scientist, a widower living alone in a shipping container near Area 51 (long story), suddenly finds himself guardian to his teenage niece and young nephew after his brother dies. Blending family melodrama with a touch of magical realism, it’s a sweet and gentle tale about second chances-and following your bliss. (Full review)

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Outside In – The rain-washed town of Granite Falls, Washington (population 3400) is a palpable character in Lynn Shelton’s drama about a newly-released felon named Chris (Jay Duplass) struggling to keep heart and soul together after serving 20 years for a wrongful conviction. Only 18 when he got sent up, he has a textbook case of arrested development to overcome. Complicating his re-entry into society is his long-time platonic relationship with the only person who gave him moral support over the years. Her name is Carol (Edie Falco), his high school teacher.

Shelton has a knack for creating characters that you really care about, helped in no small part here by Falco, who can say more with a glance, a furrow of the brow, or a purse of the lips than many actors convey with a page of dialog. Duplass (who co-scripted) also delivers a sensitive and nuanced performance. (Full review)

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Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda – There’s a moment of Zen in Stephen Nomura Schible’s documentary where Japanese composer Ryuichi Sakamoto, after much experimentation with “found” sounds, finally gets the “perfect” tonality for one note of a work in progress. “It’s strangely bright,” he observes, with the delighted face of a child on Christmas morning, “but also…melancholic.”

One could say the same about Schible’s film; it’s strangely bright, but also melancholic. You could call it a series of Zen moments; a reflective and meditative glimpse at the intimate workings of the creative process. It also documents Sakamoto’s quiet fortitude, as he returns to the studio after a hiatus to engage in anti-nuke activism and to battle his cancer. A truly remarkable film. (Full review)

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Wild, Wild Country – On one level, co-directors Chapman and Maclain Way’s binge-worthy Netflix documentary series is a two-character study about a leader and a follower; namely the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, and his head disciple/chief of staff/lieutenant Ma Anand Sheela. In this case, the one-on-one relationship is not a metaphor; because the India-born philosophy professor-turned-guru did (and still does) have scores of faithful followers from all over the world.

This tale is so multi-layered crazy pants as to boggle the mind. It’s like Dostoevsky meets Carl Hiaasen by way of Thomas McGuane and Ken Kesey…except none of it is made up. It’s almost shocking that no one thought to tackle this juicy subject as fodder for an epic documentary until now (eat your genteel heart out, Ken Burns). The Ways mix in present-day recollections from various participants with a wealth of archival news footage. Oddly, with its proliferation of jumpy videotape, big hair and skinny ties, the series serves double duty as a wistful wallow in 1980s nostalgia. (Full review)

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Won’t You Be My Neighbor? – In his affable portrait of the publicly sweet, gentle, and compassionate TV host Fred Rogers, director Morgan Neville serves up a mélange of archival footage and present-day comments by friends, family, and colleagues to reveal (wait for it) a privately sweet, gentle, compassionate man. In other words, don’t expect revelations about drunken rages, aberrant behavior, or rap sheets (sorry to disappoint anyone who feels life’s greatest pleasure is speaking ill of the dead).

That is not to deny that Rogers did have a few…eccentricities; some are mentioned, and others are implied. The bulk of the film focuses on the long-running PBS children’s show, Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, which debuted in 1968. With apologies to Howard Beale, I don’t have to tell you things are bad. I think this documentary may be what the doctor ordered, just as a reminder people like Fred Rogers once strode the Earth (and hopefully still do). I wasn’t one of your kids, Mr. Rogers, but (pardon my French) we sure as shit could use you now. (Full review)

Stick a fork in it: Top 10 foodie films

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 17, 2018)

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As we are but several days away from Thanksgiving, that most venerable of American holidays which enables families to come together once a year to count their blessings, stuff their faces, and endeavor mightily to not bring politics into the conversation, I thought I might mosey on over to the movie pantry and hand-select my top 10 food films:

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Big Night– I have repeatedly foisted this film on friends and relatives, because after all, it’s important to “…take a bite out of the ass of life!” (as one of the characters demonstrates with voracious aplomb). Two brothers, enterprising businessman Secondo (Stanley Tucci, who also co-wrote and co-directed) and his older sibling Primo (Tony Shalhoub), a gifted chef, open an Italian restaurant but quickly run into financial trouble.

Possible salvation arrives via a dubious proposal from a more successful competitor (played by a hammy Ian Holm). The fate of their business hinges on Primo’s ability to conjure up the ultimate feast. And what a meal he prepares-especially the timpano (you’d better have  pasta and ragu handy-or your appestat will be writing checks your duodenum will not be able to cash, if you know what I’m saying). The wonderful cast includes Isabella Rossellini, Minnie Driver, Liev Schreiber, Allison Janney, Campbell Scott (who co-directed with Tucci), and that’s Latin pop superstar Marc Anthony as the prep cook.

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Comfort and Joy– A quirky trifle from Scottish writer-director Bill Forsyth (Gregory’s Girl, Local Hero). An amiable Glasgow radio DJ (Bill Paterson) is dumped by his girlfriend on Christmas Eve, throwing him into existential crisis and causing him to take urgent inventory of his personal and professional life. Soon after lamenting to his GM that he yearns to produce something more “important” than his chirpy morning show, serendipity lands him a hot scoop-a brewing “war” between two rival ice-cream dairies.

The film is chockablock with Forsyth’s patented low-key anarchy, wry one-liners and subtle visual gags. As a former morning DJ, I can attest the scenes depicting “Dickie Bird” running his show are authentic (a rarity on the screen). One warning: it might take several days for you to purge that ice cream van’s loopy theme music out of your head.

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The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover– A gamey, visceral and perverse fable about food, as it relates to love, sex, violence, revenge, and Thatcherism from writer-director Peter Greenaway (who I like to call “the thinking person’s Ken Russell”).

Michael Gambon chews up the scenery as a vile and vituperative British underworld kingpin who holds nightly court at a gourmet eatery. When his bored trophy wife (Helen Mirren) becomes attracted to one of the regular diners, an unassuming bookish fellow (Alan Howard), the wheels are set in motion for a twisty tale, culminating in one of the most memorable scenes of “just desserts” ever served up on film (not for the squeamish).

The opulent set design and cinematographer Sacha Vierny’s extraordinary use of color lend the film a rich Jacobean texture. Richard Bohringer is “the cook”, and look for the late pub rocker Ian Dury as one of Gambon’s associates. It’s unique…if not for all tastes.

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Diner– This slice-of-life dramedy marked writer-director Barry Levinson’s debut in 1982, and remains his best. A group of 20-something pals converge for Christmas week in 1959 Baltimore. One is recently married, another is about to get hitched, and the rest playing the field and deciding what to do with their lives as they slog fitfully toward adulthood.

The most entertaining scenes are at the group’s favorite diner, where the comfort food of choice is French fries with gravy. Levinson has a knack for writing sharp dialog, and it’s the little details that make the difference; like a cranky appliance store customer who will settle for nothing less than a B&W Emerson (he refuses to upgrade to color TV because he saw Bonanza in color at a friend’s house, and thought “…the Ponderosa looked fake”).

This film was more influential than it gets credit for; Tarantino owes a debt, as do the creators of Seinfeld. It’s hard to believe that Kevin Bacon, Mickey Rourke, Ellen Barkin, Daniel Stern, Timothy Daly, Steve Guttenberg and Paul Reiser were all relative unknowns at the time!

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Eat Drink Man Woman– Or as I call it: “I Never Stir-Fried for My Father”. This was director Ang Lee’s follow-up to his crowd pleaser The Wedding Banquet (another good food flick). It’s a well-acted dramedy about traditional Chinese values clashing with the mores of modern society. An aging master chef (losing his sense of taste) fastidiously prepares an elaborate weekly meal which he requires his three adult, single daughters to attend. As the narrative unfolds, Lee subtly reveals something we’ve suspected all along: when it comes to family dysfunction, we are a world without borders.

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My Dinner with Andre– This one is a tough sell for the uninitiated. “An entire film that nearly all takes place at one restaurant table, with two self-absorbed New York intellectuals pontificating for the entire running time of the film-this is entertaining?!” Yes, it is. Director Louis Malle took a chance that pays off in spades. Although essentially a work of fiction, the two stars, theater director Andre Gregory and actor-playwright Wallace Shawn are playing themselves (they co-wrote the screenplay). A rumination on art, life, love, the universe and everything, the film is not so much about dinner, as a love letter to the lost art of erudite dinner conversation.

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Pulp Fiction– Although the universal popularity of this Quentin Tarantino opus is owed chiefly to its hyper-stylized mayhem and the iambic pentameter of its salty dialogue, I think it is underappreciated as a foodie film. The hell you say? Think about it.

The opening and closing scenes take place in a diner, with characters having lively discussions over heaping plates of food. In Mia and Vincent’s scene at the theme restaurant, the camera zooms to fetishistic close-ups of the “Douglas Sirk steak, and a vanilla coke.”. Mia offers Jules a sip of her 5 Dollar Milkshake.

Vincent and Jules ponder why the French refer to Big Macs as “Royales with cheese” and why the Dutch insist on drowning their French fries in mayonnaise. Jules voraciously hijacks the doomed Brett’s “Big Kahuna” burger, then precedes to wash it down with a sip of his “tasty beverage”. Pouty Fabienne pines wistfully for blueberry pancakes.

Even super-efficient Mr. Wolfe takes a couple seconds out of his precisely mapped schedule to reflect on the pleasures of a hot, fresh-brewed cup of coffee. And “Don’t you just love it when you come back from the bathroom and find your food waiting for you?”

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Tampopo– Self billed as “The first Japanese noodle western”, this 1987 entry from writer-director Juzo Itami is all that and more. Nobuko Niyamoto is superb as the title character, a widow who has inherited her late husband’s noodle house. Despite her dedication and effort to please customers, Tampopo struggles to keep the business afloat, until a deux ex machina arrives-a truck driver named Goro (Tsutomo Yamazaki).

After one taste, Goro pinpoints the problem-bland noodles. No worries-like the magnanimous stranger who blows into an old western town (think Shane), Goro takes Tampopo on as a personal project, mentoring her on the Zen of creating the perfect noodle bowl. A delight from start to finish, offering keen insight on the relationship between food, sex and love.

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The Trip– Pared down into feature film length from the BBC series of the same name, Michael Winterbottom’s film is essentially a highlight reel of that show-which is not to denigrate; as it is the most genuinely hilarious comedy I’ve seen in many a moon. The levity is due in no small part to Winterbottom’s two stars-Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, basically playing themselves in this mashup of Sideways and My Dinner with Andre.

Coogan is asked by a British newspaper to take a “restaurant tour” of England’s bucolic Lake District, and review the eateries. He initially plans to take his girlfriend along, but since their relationship is going through a rocky period, he asks his pal, fellow actor Brydon, to accompany him. This simple setup is an excuse to sit back and enjoy Coogan and Brydon’s brilliant comic riffing (much of it improvised) on everything from relationships to the “proper” way to do Michael Caine impressions. There’s some unexpected poignancy-but for the most part, it’s pure comedy gold. It was followed by two equally entertaining sequels, The Trip to Italy (2014) and The Trip to Spain (2017).

Tom Jones– Hah…you thought I’d forgotten, didn’t you? Nobody forgets this scene:

Dirty movies: a top X list

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 3, 2018)

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(Now that I have your attention) 50 years ago this month, Hollywood submitted to a new voluntary film rating system developed by the Motion Picture Association of America. Films were classified based on their “suitability” for young viewers: ‘G’ for general audiences, ‘M’ for mature audiences, ‘R’ for no one under 16 admitted without a parent or guardian (later raised to 17), and an ‘X’ indicated no one under 17 would be admitted.

It’s interesting that these guidelines (the brainchild of then-association head Jack Valenti, who had resigned his special assistant post with LBJ’s White House two years earlier to take the job) were devised on the cusp of a liberated and boldly creative period of American film-making; one that ushered in the golden era of the 1970s “mavericks” (Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Hal Ashby, John Cassavetes, Brian De Palma, Robert Altman, Terrence Malick, Peter Bogdanovich, and Bob Rafelson, to name a few).

Early on, a fair number of adult-themed Hollywood releases, as well as foreign films distributed here, were slapped with an ‘X’ for “explicit” content. By the mid-70s, the MPAA was reserving most of its X’s for straight-up porn, which due to crossover success of films like Deep Throat, Behind the Green Door and The Devil in Miss Jones had broken free of the underground to enjoy wider distribution and more public interest. This loosened the reins a bit as to what defined “X-rated” in a mainstream Hollywood release.

By the early 80s, you could count the annual number of ‘X’ certifications for mainstream releases on one hand, and by the end of the decade, a newly modified system was set in place. ‘M’ eventually morphed into ‘PG-13’, ‘R’ pretty much stayed the course, and ‘X’ became ‘NC-17’ (no one under 17 admitted). Then there is the sometimes confounding ‘NR’ (not rated) which indicates either a film that has not yet been submitted for a rating, or that it is an uncut version of a film that’s already been submitted. Get it? Got it? Good.

The current iteration of the MPAA ratings system (G, PG, PG-13, R, & NC-17) has been in place since 1990, with sporadic additions of content qualifiers (e.g. “violence”, “language”, “substance abuse”, “nudity”, “sexual content”, and since 2007, “smoking”). The intent of these qualifiers (one assumes) is to help parents make informed decisions.

But is there a limit? One has to wonder if there is a point at which such guidelines become so finicky and specific that they cross the fine line between self-policing and creative suppression (e.g. to this day, an ‘NC-17’ rating is considered box office poison by studio execs, which sometimes puts pressure on the filmmakers to compromise their original vision and re-cut for a more fiscally viable ‘R’). Or perhaps it’s a question of whether the MPAA has remained in lockstep with changing mores. In 1990, which was the year ‘NC-17’ ostensibly became the new ‘X’ (and all it implies) Roger Ebert wrote:

As a category, I think [the “NC-17” rating] may not have entirely solved the problem. The title “NC-17” is so innocuous that it is unlikely to develop the kinds of lurid associations that X had. […] NC-17 is low profile and places the emphasis not on adult content but simply on the fact that such movies are not intended for children. […]

Ratings reformers such as myself thought the new rating should come between the R and the X, instead of replacing the X. That way, you’d have a clear-cut category for movies that were adult in content but did not deserve to be lumped with hard-core. […]

Just as some directors get the right of final cut on their movies and others do not, some directors may be able to float NC-17 projects and others will not. Much will depend on how the rating is accepted in the marketplace. […]

Strangely, sex itself is no longer considered a strong selling point in the movie industry, and even R-rated movies are not as sexy as they used to be. Today’s audiences seem to prefer action and violence. There may be a lesson there somewhere.

20 years later, in a Chicago Tribune piece, film critic Michael Philips didn’t hold back:

I’ve had it with the Motion Picture Association of America’s ratings and classifications board. It has become foolish and irrelevant, and its members do not have my interests at heart, or yours. They’re too easy on violence yet bizarrely reactionary when it comes to nudity and language. Especially language. […]

In 1976 “All the President’s Men” won a PG rating on appeal, despite its 11 uses of the f-word. That was a lifetime ago in pop culture terms. More recently the documentaries “The Hip-Hop Project” (17 uses of the f-word and its multifaceted variations) and “Gunner Palace” (42 f-words) secured PG-13 ratings. Even more recently a politically pointed (and very good) documentary, “The Tillman Story,” had 16 uses of the f-word, yet its makers’ appeal for a PG-13 rating was denied.

Here’s the paradox among these inconsistencies: Context and tone, those purely subjective notions, are routinely ignored by the MPAA’s ratings decisions. […]

I don’t care if MPAA head Graves frets about perceived language sensitivities in the South and the Midwest compared to the coasts, which amounts to a generalization even the coasts might find patronizing. I do care about the increasing coarseness and sadism in our mass entertainment. I care about the messages the American movie rating system sends to all of us.

If “The King’s Speech” and “Saw 3D” warrant the same rating, then the system underneath leaves me speechless.

Or, as Jack Nicholson once famously (or infamously) put it (albeit in a more succinct and less film-scholarly fashion). “If you suck on a [breast] the movie gets an ‘R’ rating. If you hack the [breast] off with an axe, it will be a ‘PG’.”

The MPAA doesn’t see a scintilla of a hint of even the tiniest most infinitesimal possibility that their ratings system smacks of censorship. From the MPAA 2018 report:

The MPAA has resisted government censorship since its early days, and the rating system was developed as a voluntary, industry-led alternative to government censorship boards. The focus on providing information to parents about what’s in a film, rather than dictating what can and cannot go into films, serves the dual purpose of providing information to parents to help them make suitable viewing choices for their children and protecting the free speech rights of filmmakers from government intervention. […]

Filmmakers are free to put whatever content they want into their films. The rating board reviews each film on a case-by-case basis and reacts just as parents would, assigning a rating that corresponds with the level of content in each film. The rating board does not take into account the artistic merit of the films it rates. A rating is not a judgment of whether a film is good or bad.

 Fair enough (and you’ll note that I have steered clear of the “c” word until now). But what about “context and tone”, as Michael Philips pointed out in his piece? If members of the board are in fact ignoring those factors (as Philips implies) …doesn’t that make its decisions arbitrary, therefore a form of censorship? Most importantly, who ARE these folks who judge what your kids should or shouldn’t see? From the same MPAA report:

The rating board is comprised of eight to 13 raters who are themselves parents. Raters must have children between the ages of five and 15 when they join the rating board and must leave when all of their children have reached the age of twenty-one. Raters can serve for up to seven years, at the discretion of the Chair. With the exception of the senior raters, the identities of raters are kept confidential to avoid outside pressure or influence.

Look on the bright side. At least it isn’t a lifetime appointment, like the Supreme Court.

Anyway, on this 50th anniversary of the MPAA ratings we all either love or loathe, I thought it would be fun to mosey over to the media room and curate a top 10 collection of vintage ‘X’-rated movies that may not seem quite so ‘X-rated’ by today’s standards. That said, I strongly caution parents that none of these should be considered “family-friendly”!

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Beyond the Valley of the Dolls – In spite of the title, Russ Meyer’s campy, over-the-top 1970 backstage satire has little in common with Valley of the Dolls (1967). For one thing, the 1967 film had something resembling a coherent narrative. But if you’re familiar with the Russ Meyer oeuvre, you know that “story” is an afterthought. Meyer’s brand was more synonymous with a bevy of buxom babes who beckoned from lurid movie posters; we’ll just say he had a fetish for certain attributes in his leading ladies and leave it there.

It’s not difficult to glean how this entry has built a sizable cult audience over the decades. An all-female band (“The Carrie Nations”) makes the time-honored trek to La-La Land to become rock ‘n’ roll stars. They do make it “big”, but along the way, there’s enough back-stabbing, drug-taking, lovemaking, and heartbreaking to circle the Earth three times.

Roger Ebert (yes, the film critic) co-wrote with Meyer. There are some great lines, like “You’re a groovy boy. I’d like to strap you on sometime” and “You will drink the black sperm of my vengeance!” Ebert also co-wrote Meyer’s 1979 tongue-in-cheek sexploitation cheapie Beyond the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens (using a pseudonym, wisely).

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A Clockwork Orange – A nightmarish vision of a dystopian England in the near-future. Malcolm McDowell leads an excellent cast as “Alex”, a charismatic psychopath who leads an ultraviolent youth gang. Alex and his “droogs” get their jollies terrorizing the citizenry and mixing it up with rivals. Alex ends up in prison, where he volunteers as a test subject for an experimental “cure” for antisocial behavior. After completing the program, a now docile Alex is let back into society, only to suffer much karmic payback.

Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 adaptation of Anthony Burgess’ eponymous novel still lives up to its “ultra”-violent reputation, but one hopes that its intended anti-violence message is more obvious to modern audiences (who may also puzzle over its ‘X’-rating). Like many of Kubrick’s films, A Clockwork Orange becomes more prescient by the day. Watching the nightly news will tell you that we are currently living in the “dystopian near-future”.

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The Groove Tube – While many of its pop culture references are now arcane, Ken Shapiro’s 1974 omnibus of irreverent comedy sketches still tickles the funny bone. Loosely framed as a programming sampler from an imagined TV channel, Shapiro and his most *definitely* not ready for prime-time players utilize this platform to skewer sitcoms, talk shows, local newscasts and commercials.

It’s lewd, crude, and guaranteed to offend just about everybody (especially now…oy), but in the fullness of time it’s been acknowledged as a tangible influence on Saturday Night Live (which went on the air the following year). Chevy Chase appears in several sketches, and even more tellingly, a news anchorman character signs off with “Good night…and have a pleasant tomorrow”, which later became a signature SNL catchphrase. Not for all tastes, but I think it’s a hoot.

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Henry and June – Fred Ward delivers his best performance to date as gruff, libidinous literary icon Henry Miller. The story takes place during the period Miller was living in Paris and working on his infamous novel Tropic of Cancer. The film concentrates on the complicated love triangle between Miller, his wife June (Uma Thurman) and erotic novelist Anais Nin (Maria de Medeiros). Despite the frequent nudity and eroticism, the film is curiously un-sexy, but still a well-acted character study. Richard E. Grant portrays Nin’s husband. Adapted from Nin’s writings.

Even though it wasn’t officially rated ‘X’, I feel this underrated 1990 effort from the late writer-director Philip Kaufman warrants inclusion because it was the first film to earn the newly-minted ‘NC-17’ rating.

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If…. – In this 1968 class struggle allegory, director Lindsay Anderson depicts the British public-school system as a microcosm of England’s sociopolitical upheaval at the time. It was also the star-making debut for a young Malcolm McDowall, who plays Mick Travis, one of the “lower sixth form” students at a boarding school (McDowall would return as the Travis character in Anderson’s two loose “sequels” O Lucky Man! and Britannia Hospital). Travis forms the nucleus of a trio of mates who foment armed insurrection against the abusive upperclassmen and oppressive headmasters (i.e. the “System”).

Some critical reappraisals have drawn parallels with Columbine, but the film really has little to do with that and nearly everything to do with the revolutionary zeitgeist of 1968 (the uprisings in Czechoslovakia, France, Germany, etc.). That said, you can see how Anderson’s film could be read outside of original context as a pre-cursor to Massacre at Central High, Rock ’n’ Roll High School, Heathers, The Chocolate War and Rushmore. David Sherwin and John Howlett co-wrote the screenplay.

The film was eventually granted an ‘R’ but ran with an ‘X’ rating for its initial theatrical engagements in the U.S. (there are scenes featuring views of male and female genitalia).

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Inserts – If I told you that Richard Dreyfuss, Veronica Cartwright, Bob Hoskins and Jessica Harper once co-starred in an “X” rated movie, would you believe me? This largely forgotten 1976 film from director John Byrum was dismissed as pretentious dreck by many critics at the time, but 42 years on, it begs reappraisal as a fascinating curio in the careers of those involved.

Dreyfuss plays “Wonder Boy”, a Hollywood whiz kid director who peaked early; now he’s a “has-been”, living in his bathrobe, drinking heavily and casting junkies and wannabe-starlets for pornos he produces on the cheap in his crumbling mansion. Hoskins steals all his scenes as Wonder Boy’s sleazy producer, Big Mac (who is aptly named; as he has plans to open a chain of hamburger joints!). Set in 30s Hollywood, this decadent wallow in the squalid side of show biz is a perfect companion for The Day of the Locust.

While I wouldn’t consider the sex scenes in the film overly explicit (especially compared to what you now routinely encounter in any HBO or Showtime original series), my DVD copy (released in 2005 by MGM) indicates it earns contemporary assignation of ‘NC-17’.

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Last Summer – This underrated 1969 gem (later re-cut to earn an R rating) is from husband-and-wife team Frank Perry (director) and Eleanor Perry (writer). Adapted from Evan Hunter’s novel, it is tough to summarize without possible spoilers. Initially, it’s a standard character study about three friends on the cusp of adulthood (Bruce Davison, Barbara Hershey and Richard Thomas) who develop a Jules and Jim-style relationship during an idyllic summer vacation on Fire Island. When a socially awkward stranger (Catherine Burns) enters this simmering cauldron of raging hormones and burgeoning sexuality, the lid blows off the pressure cooker, leading to unexpected twists. Think Summer of ’42 meets Lord of the Flies; I’ll leave it there. Beautifully acted and directed.

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Last Tango in Paris –Bernardo Bertolucci’s dark and polarizing 1972-character study about a doomed affair between a middle-aged American ex-pat (Marlon Brando) and a young Parisian woman (Maria Schneider) sparked controversy with audiences, critics and censors from day one (although by today’s standards, it seems much ado about nothing).

Brando is grieving over the suicide of his wife; he and Schneider meet by pure chance when they both show up at the same time to view an apartment for rent. Minimal exposition leads to wild, spontaneous sex between the two strangers. “Well, this is going to be intense,” you find yourself thinking…and you would be right. Whether the ensuing psychodrama ultimately makes a bold and uncompromising statement about life, death, social isolation, and the unfathomable mystery of sexual attraction, or plunges the hapless viewer into 2 long hours of histrionics, navel-gazing, and pretentious dreck is up to you.

For me, the film has become more fascinating over time (which may have everything to do with being older and presumably wiser). I appreciate Brando’s performance more now. There is an honesty and a vulnerability I never saw in his other roles. Maybe it’s me, but what he shows me in his other films is craft. What I observe here is his humanity.

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Medium Cool – What Haskell Wexler’s unique 1969 drama may lack in narrative cohesion is more than made up for by its importance as a sociopolitical document. Robert Forster stars as a TV news cameraman who is fired after he complains to station brass about their willingness to help the FBI build files on political agitators via access to raw news film footage and reporter’s notes.

He drifts into a relationship with a Vietnam War widow (Verna Bloom) and her 12-year-old son. They eventually find themselves embroiled in the mayhem surrounding the 1968 Democratic Convention (in the film’s most memorable scene, the actors were sent in to improvise amidst one of the infamous “police riots” as it was happening). Many of the issues Wexler touches on (especially regarding media integrity and journalistic responsibility) would be extrapolated further in films like Network and Broadcast News.

The film was originally rated ‘X’; however, Paramount later appealed the ruling. In 1970 the MPAA overturned its initial ruling and granted the film an ‘R’ rating (with no cuts).

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Midnight Cowboy – Aside from its distinction as being the only X-rated film to ever win Oscars, John Schlesinger’s groundbreaking character study also helped usher in a new era of mature, gritty neo-realism in American film that would reach its apex in 1976 with Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (one year before Star Wars ushered that era to a full dead stop).

Dustin Hoffman has seldom matched his character work here as the Fagin-esque Ratso Rizzo, a homeless New York City con artist who adopts country bumpkin/aspiring male hustler Joe Buck (Jon Voight) as his “protégé”. The two leads are outstanding, as is the supporting cast, which includes John McGiver, Brenda Vaccaro, Barnard Hughes and a teenage Bob Balaban. Also look for cameos from several of Andy Warhol’s “Factory” regulars, who can be spotted milling about here and there in a memorable party scene.

In hindsight, the location filming provides us with a fascinating historical document of the seedy milieu that was “classic” Times Square (New York “plays itself” very well here). Schlesinger won an Oscar for Best Director, as did Waldo Salt for his screenplay.

The big heat: The 10 sweatiest film noirs

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 7, 2018)

With the mercury continuing to soar in many parts of the country, I thought I would cobble together a selection of “hot” film noirs. Hot-as in sweaty, steamy, dripping, sticky, sudoriferous cinema (get your mind out of the gutter). If you’re like me (and isn’t everyone?) there’s nothing more satisfying than gathering up an armload of DVDs (along with a 12-pack of Diet Dr. Pepper) and happily spending hot days ensconced in my dark, cool media room (actually, I don’t have a “media room” nor any A/C in my studio apartment…but I can always dream). So here are my Top Ten (in alphabetical order)…

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Body Heat– A bucket of ice cubes in the bath is simply not enough to cool down this steamy noir. Writer-director Lawrence Kasdan’s 1981 Double Indemnity homage blows the mercury right out the top of the thermometer. Kathleen Turner is the sultry femme fatale who plays William Hurt’s hapless pushover like a Stradivarius (“You aren’t too smart. I like that in a man.”) The combination of the Florida heat with Turner and Hurt’s sexual chemistry will light your socks on fire. Outstanding support from Richard Crenna, Ted Danson, J.A. Preston and an up-and-coming character actor named Mickey Rourke.

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Cool Hand Luke– “Still shakin’ the bush, boss!” Paul Newman shines (and sweats buckets) in his iconic role as the eponymous character in this 1967 drama, a ne’er do well from a southern burg who ends up on a chain gang. He gets busted for cutting the heads off of parking meters while on a drunken spree, but by the end of this sly allegory, astute viewers will glean that his real crime is being a non-conformist.

Highlights include Strother Martin’s “failure to communicate” speech, Harry Dean Stanton singing “The Midnight Special”, that (ahem) car wash scene and George Kennedy’s Best Supporting Actor turn. Also in the cast: Ralph Waite, Dennis Hopper, Wayne Rogers, Anthony Zerbe, and Joy Harmon as the (seriously-is it hot in here?) “car wash girl”. Oh… and did I mention the car wash scene? Stuart Rosenberg directs; sharp script by Donn Pearce and Frank Pierson.

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Dog Day Afternoon– As far as oppressively humid hostage dramas go, this 1975 “true crime” classic from the late Sidney Lumet easily out-sops the competition. The air conditioning may be off, but Al Pacino is definitely “on” in his absolutely brilliant portrayal of John Wojtowicz (“Sonny Wortzik” in the film), whose botched attempt to rob a Brooklyn bank turned into a dangerous hostage crisis and a twisted media circus (the desperate Wojtowicz was trying to finance his lover’s sex-change operation).

Even though he had already done the first two Godfather films, this was the performance that put Pacino on the map. John Cazale is both scary and heartbreaking in his role as Sonny’s dim-witted “muscle”. Keep an eye out for Chris Sarandon’s memorable cameo. Frank Pierson’s tight screenplay was based on articles by P.F. Kluge and Thomas Moore.

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High and Low–Akira Kurosawa’s 1963 noir, adapted from Ed McBain’s crime thriller King’s Ransom, is so multi-leveled that it almost boggles the mind. Toshiro Mifune is excellent as a CEO who, at the possible risk of losing controlling shares of his own company, takes responsibility for helping to assure the safe return of his chauffeur’s son, who has been mistaken as his own child by kidnappers.

As the film progresses, the backdrop transitions subtly, and literally, from the executive’s comfortable, air-conditioned mansion “high” above the city, to the “low”, sweltering back alleys where desperate souls will do anything to survive; a veritable descent into Hell.

On the surface, the film plays as a straightforward police procedural; it’s engrossing entertainment on that level. However, upon repeat viewings, it reveals itself as more than a genre piece. It’s about class struggle, corporate culture, and the socioeconomic complexities of modern society (for a 53 year old film, it feels very contemporary).

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The Hot Spot– Considering he accumulated 100+ credits as an actor in feature films and a relatively scant 7 as a director of same over the course of a 55-year career, it’s not surprising that the late Dennis Hopper is mostly remembered for the work he did as the former, as opposed to the latter. Still, it’s worth noting that those 7 films he directed include Easy Rider, The Last Movie, Colors, and this compelling 1990 neo-noir.

Don Johnson delivers one of his better performances as an opportunistic drifter who wanders into a one-horse Texas burg. The smooth-talking hustler quickly snags a gig as a used car salesman, and faster than you can say “only one previous owner!” he’s closed the deal on bedding the boss’s all-too-willing wife (Virginia Madsen), and starts putting the moves on the hot young bookkeeper (Jennifer Connelly). You know what they say, though…you can’t have your cake and eat it too. Toss in some avarice, blackmail, and incestuous small-town corruption, and our boy finds he is in way over his head.

And damn, it’s hot.

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In the Heat of the Night– “They call me Mister Tibbs!” In this classic (which won 1967’s Best Picture Oscar) Sidney Poitier plays a cosmopolitan police detective from Philly who gets waylaid in a torpid Mississippi backwater, where he is reluctantly recruited into helping the bigoted sheriff (Rod Steiger) solve a local murder. Poitier nails his performance; you can feel Virgil Tibb’s pain as he tries to maintain his professional cool amidst a brace of surly rednecks, who throw up roadblocks at every turn.

While Steiger is outstanding here as well, I always found it ironic that he was the one who won “Best Actor in a leading role”, when Poitier was the star of the film (it seems Hollywood didn’t get the film’s message). Sterling Silliphant’s brilliant screenplay (another Oscar) works as a crime thriller and a “fish out of water” story. Director Norman Jewison was nominated but didn’t score a win. Future director Hal Ashby won for Best Editing. Quincy Jones composed the soundtrack, and Ray Charles sings the sultry theme.

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The Night of the Hunter-Is it a film noir? A horror movie? A black comedy? A haunting American folk tale? The answer would be yes. The man responsible for this tough-to-categorize 1957 film was one of the greatest acting hams of the 20th century, Charles Laughton, who began and ended his directorial career with this effort. Like many films now regarded as “cult classics”, it was savaged by critics and tanked at the box office upon initial release (enough to spook Laughton from ever returning to the director’s chair).

Robert Mitchum is brilliant (and genuinely scary) as a knife-wielding religious zealot who does considerably more “preying” than “praying”. Before Mitchum’s condemned cell mate (Peter Graves) meets the hangman, he talks in his sleep about $10,000 in loot money stashed somewhere on his property. When the “preacher” gets out of the slam, he makes a beeline for the widow (Shelly Winters) and her two young’uns. A very disturbing (and muggy) tale unfolds. The great Lillian Gish is on board as well. Artfully directed by Laughton and beautifully shot by DP Stanley Cortez.

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The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) -A grimy (but strapping) itinerant (John Garfield) drifts into a hot and dusty California truck stop and” last chance” gas station run by an old codger (Cecil Kellaway) and his hot young wife (Lana Turner). Sign outside reads: “Man Wanted”. Garfield wants a job. Turner wants a man. Guess what happens. An iconic noir and the blueprint for ensuing entries in the “That was good for me too, baby…now how do we lose the husband?” genre. Tay Garnett directs with a wonderfully lurid flourish. Harry Ruskin and Niven Busch adapted their screenplay from the James M. Cain novel. Bob Rafelson’s 1981 remake that starred Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange as the illicit lovers was more “uncensored” …yet not as deliciously sordid.

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Touch of Evil– Yes, this is Orson Welles’ classic 1958 sleaze-noir with that celebrated (and oft-imitated) opening tracking shot, Charlton Heston as a Mexican police detective, and Janet Leigh in various stages of undress. Welles casts himself as Hank Quinlan, a morally bankrupt police captain who lords over a corrupt border town. Quinlan is the most singularly grotesque character Welles ever created as an actor and one of the most offbeat heavies in film noir.

This is also one of the last great roles for Marlene Dietrich (I love the way she deadpans “You should lay off those candy bars.”). The scene where Leigh is terrorized in an abandoned motel by a group of thugs led by a creepy, leather-jacketed Mercedes McCambridge could have been dreamed up by David Lynch; there are numerous such stylistic flourishes throughout that are light-years ahead of anything else going on in American cinema at the time. Welles famously despised the studio’s original 96-minute theatrical cut; there have been nearly half a dozen re-edited versions released since 1975.

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The Wages of Fear-The primeval jungles of South America have served as a backdrop for a plethora of sweat-streaked tales (Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and Aguirre: The Wrath of God come to mind), but this 1953 “existential noir” from director Henri-Georges Clouzot sits atop that list.

Four societal outcasts, who for one reason or another find themselves figuratively and literally at the “end of the road”, hire themselves out for an apparently suicidal job…transporting two truckloads of touchy nitro over several hundred miles of bumpy jungle terrain for delivery to a distant oilfield.

It does take some time for the “action” to really get going; once it does, you won’t let out your breath until the final frame. Yves Montand leads the fine international cast. Clouzot co-scripted with Jerome Geronimi, adapting from the original Georges Anaud novel. The 1977 William Friedkin remake Sorcerer has its detractors, but I recommend a peek.

’68 was ’68, pt. deux: 10 essential films

By Dennis Hartley

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Have you had it up to “here” yet with all the 1968 retrospectives? Yes, I know. Hang in there; we’re halfway through the year, so you should not have to weather too many more.

It can’t be helped…there’s something sexy about “50th” anniversaries And, there was something special about 1968. As Jon Meacham noted in a Time article earlier this year:

The watershed of 1968 was that kind of year: one of surprises and reversals, of blasted hopes and rising fears, of scuttled plans and unexpected new realities. We have embarked on the 50th anniversary of a year that stands with 1776, 1861 and 1941 as points in time when everything in American history changed. As with the Declaration of Independence, the firing on Fort Sumter and the attack on Pearl Harbor, the events of ’68 were intensely dramatic and lastingly consequential. From the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in April and of Robert F. Kennedy in June to the violence at the Democratic National Convention in August to the election of Richard Nixon in November, we live even now in the long shadow of the cascading crises of that year.

It was also a year when cinema came face-to-face with “scuttled plans and unexpected new realities.” The eclecticism of 1968’s top 10 grossing films indicates a medium (and an audience) in cultural flux; from cerebral art-house (2001: A Space Odyssey, Rosemary’s Baby), low-budget horror (Night of the Living Dead), and star-powered adult drama (Bullitt, Planet of the Apes), to traditional stage-to-screen adaptations (The Odd Couple, Romeo and Juliet, Funny Girl) and standard family fare (The Love Bug, Oliver!).

Just for perspective, here were the top 10 domestic grossing films of 2017: The Last Jedi, Beauty and the Beast, Wonder Woman, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, Guardians of the Galaxy (Vol. 2), Spiderman: Homecoming, It, Thor: Ragnarok, Despicable Me 3, and Justice League. Is it me-or is there a depressing, mind-numbing homogeneity to that list?

Oh, well…I’ll leave it to whomever is writing a retrospective in 2067 to sort that mess. If you will indulge me one more 1968 retrospective, here are my personal picks for the 10 best films of that year (plus 10 more I heartily recommend, if you want to delve deeper!).

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If…. – In this 1968 class struggle allegory, director Lindsay Anderson depicts the British public-school system as a microcosm of England’s sociopolitical upheaval at the time. It was also the star-making debut for a young Malcolm McDowall, who plays Mick Travis, one of the “lower sixth form” students at a boarding school (McDowall would return as the Travis character in Anderson’s two loose “sequels” O Lucky Man! and Britannia Hospital). Travis forms the nucleus of a trio of mates who foment armed insurrection against the abusive upperclassmen and oppressive headmasters (i.e. the “System”).

Some critical reappraisals have drawn parallels with Columbine, but the film really has little to do with that and nearly everything to do with the revolutionary zeitgeist of 1968 (the uprisings in Czechoslovakia, France, Germany, etc.). That said, you can see how Anderson’s film could be read outside of original context as a pre-cursor to Massacre at Central High, Rock ’n’ Roll High School, Heathers, The Chocolate War and Rushmore. David Sherwin and John Howlett co-wrote the screenplay.

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Hell in the Pacific – This 1968 offering from the eclectic John Boorman (Point Blank, Deliverance, Excalibur, Hope and Glory) is essentially a chamber drama, set on a small uninhabited Pacific Island in the closing days of WW2. It’s a two-character tale about a pair of stranded soldiers; one Japanese (Toshiro Mifune) and the other American (Lee Marvin).

The first third, a virtually dialog-free cat-and-mouse game between the sworn enemies, is a master class in physical acting by Mifune and Marvin. Eventually, necessity precipitates an uneasy truce, and the film becomes a fascinating study of the human need to connect (the adage “no man is an island” is figuratively and literally in play). The final act suggests an anti-war sentiment. It’s interesting that a film with such minimal dialog needed three screenwriters (Reuben Bercovitch, Alexander Jacobs, and Eric Bercovici).

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The Lion in Winter – Anyone who has delved into the history of royal family dynasties in the Middle Ages will attest that if you take away the dragons, witches, zombies and trolls…the rather nasty behavior on display in Game of Thrones isn’t that far removed from reality. After all, as Eleanor of Aquitane (Katherine Hepburn) deadpans in director Anthony Harvey’s historical drama, “What family doesn’t have its ups and downs?”

Adapted for the screen by James Goldman from his own 1966 stage play, the story centers on a tempestuous family Christmas gathering in 1183, at the chateau of King Henry II (Peter O’Toole). All the scheming members of this family want for Christmas is each other’s head on a platter (ho ho ho!). Joining the merry festivities are Anthony Hopkins, Timothy Dalton, John Castle, Nigel Terry, and Jane Merrow. Goldman’s beautifully crafted dialog sings (and stings) and the acting is superb. The film was nominated for 7 Oscars and earned 3 (for Hepburn, Goldman, and composer John Barry).

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No Way to Treat a Lady – Directed by Jack Smight (Harper, Kaleidoscope, The Illustrated Man) and adapted from William Goldman’s eponymous novel by John Gay, this terrific black comedy pits a neurotic NYC homicide detective (George Segal) against an evil genius serial killer (Rod Steiger).

While there is nothing inherently “funny” about a killer on the loose who targets middle-age women, there’s a surprising number of laughs; thanks to an overall New Yorker “attitude” and Segal’s harried interactions with his leading ladies-Eileen Heckart (as his doting Jewish mother), and Lee Remick (as his love interest). Steiger is typically over the top, but this is one of his roles where the water finds its own level…he was perfectly cast for this part. Comedy elements aside, the film is genuinely creepy and suspenseful; in some ways a forerunner to Silence of the Lambs.

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Once Upon a Time in the West – This is a textbook “movie for movie lovers” …cinema at its purest level, distilled to a perfect crystalline cocktail of mood, atmosphere and narrative. Although it is chockablock with “western” tropes, director Sergio Leone manages to honor, parody, and transcend the genre all at once with this 1968 masterpiece.

At its heart, it’s a simple revenge tale, involving a headstrong widow (Claudia Cardinale) and an enigmatic “harmonica man” (Charles Bronson) who both have a bone to pick with a gun for hire (Henry Fonda, cast against type as one of the most execrable villains in film). But big doings are afoot-like building a railroad and winning the (mythic) American West. Also with Jason Robards, Jack Elam, Woody Strode and Keenan Wynn.

Dario Argento and Bernardo Bertolucci helped develop the story, and it wouldn’t be classic Leone without a rousing soundtrack by his longtime musical collaborator, Ennio Morricone (you won’t be able to get that “Harmonica Man Theme” out of your head).

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Petulia – An underappreciated, uncharacteristically “serious” character study/social commentary from director Richard Lester (A Hard Day’s Night, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, The Three Musketeers). On the surface, it’s about a star-crossed affair between a young, flighty newlywed (Julie Christie) and a middle-aged physician with a crumbling marriage (George C. Scott).

In hindsight, one can also enjoy it as a “trapped in amber” wallow in the counter-cultural zeitgeist of the late 60s (filmed in San Francisco at the height of the Summer of Love, no less). Look for cameos from Big Brother and the Holding Company, The Grateful Dead, and comedy troupe The Committee. Beautifully acted and directed. One caveat: Lester’s non-linear approach is challenging (but rewarding). The screenplay was adapted by Lawrence B. Marcus and Barbara Turner from John Haase’s novel. Nicholas Roeg did the lovely cinematography.

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Planet of the Apes – The original 1968 version of The Planet of the Apes had a lot going for it. It was based on an acclaimed sci-fi novel by Pierre Boulle (whose semi-autobiographical debut, The Bridge on the River Kwai, had been adapted into a blockbuster film). It was helmed by Franklin J. Schaffner (Patton, Papillon, The Boys from Brazil). It had an intelligent script by Michael Wilson and Rod Serling. And, of course, it had Charlton Heston, at his hammy apex (“God DAMN you ALL to HELL!!”).

Most notably, it opened the same month as Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Both Kubrick’s and Schaffner’s films not only blew minds but raised the bar on film-goers’ expectations for science-fiction movies; each was groundbreaking in its own way.

*SPOILER AHEAD* The 1968 film also ended with a classic Big Reveal (drenched in Serling’s signature irony) that still delivers chills. “They” could have left it there. Granted, the end also had Charlton Heston riding off into the proverbial sunset with a hot brunette, implying it wasn’t over yet, but lots of films end with the hero riding into the sunset; not all beg for a sequel. But Planet of the Apes turned out to be a surprise box office smash, and once Hollywood studio execs smell the money…I needn’t tell you that “they” are still churning out sequels to this day. But the progenitor remains the best entry.

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Rosemary’s Baby – “He has his father’s eyes!” Roman Polanski put the “goth” back in “gothic” in this truly unsettling metropolitan horror classic.  A New York actor (John Cassavetes) and his young, socially phobic wife Rosemary (Mia Farrow) move into a somewhat dark and foreboding Manhattan apartment building (the famed Dakota, John Lennon’s final residence), hoping to start a family. A busybody neighbor (Ruth Gordon) quickly gloms onto Rosemary with an unhealthy zest (to her chagrin). Rosemary’s nightmare is only beginning. No axe murders, no gore, and barely a drop of blood…but thanks to Polanski’s impeccable craft, this will scare the bejesus out of you and continue to creep you out after credits roll. Polanski adapted the screenplay from Ira Levin’s novel.

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The Swimmer – A riveting performance from Burt Lancaster fuels this 1968 drama from Frank Perry (and a non-credited Sydney Pollack, who took over direction after Perry dropped out of the project). It was adapted for the screen by Eleanor Perry, from a typically dark and satirical John Cheever story. Lancaster’s character is on a Homeric journey; working his way home via a network of backyard swimming pools. Each encounter with friends and neighbors (who apparently have not seen him in some time) fits another piece into the puzzle of a troubled, troubled man. It’s an existential suburban nightmare that can count American Beauty and The Ice Storm among its descendants.

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2001: A Space Odyssey – The mathematician/cryptologist I.J. Good (an Alan Turing associate) once famously postulated:

Let an ultra-intelligent machine be defined as a machine that can far surpass all the intellectual activities of any man…however clever. Since the design of machines is one of these intellectual activities, an ultra-intelligent machine could design even better machines; there would then unquestionably be an ‘intelligence explosion’, and the intelligence of man would be left far behind. Thus, the first ultra-intelligent machine is the last invention that man need ever make, provided that the machine is docile enough to tell us how to keep it under control.

Good raised this warning in 1965, about the same time director Stanley Kubrick and sci-fi writer Arthur C. Clarke were formulating the narrative that would evolve into both the novel and film versions of 2001: a Space Odyssey. And it’s no coincidence that the “heavy” in 2001 was an ultra-intelligent machine that wreaks havoc once its human overseers lose “control” …Good was a consultant on the film.

Good was but one of the experts that Kubrick consulted, before and during production of this meticulously constructed masterpiece. Not only did he pick the brains of top futurists and NASA engineers, but enlisted some of the best primatologists, anthropologists, and uh, mimes of his day, to ensure that every detail, from the physicality of pre-historic humans living on the plains of Africa to the design of a moon base, passed with veracity.

Transcendent, mind-blowing, and timeless doesn’t begin to do justice. I don’t personally know too many people who haven’t seen this film…but I know there’s a few of you out there, in the dark (you know who you are). I envy you, because you may have a rare chance to see it on the big screen. Earlier this year, in honor of the 50th anniversary of the film’s first run, Christopher Nolan supervised a 70mm re-release of the “unrestored” version that presents it as audiences originally experienced it in 1968 (fussy collectors needn’t worry, Warner Brothers is readying a sparkling 4K restoration for later this year).

Encore! Here’s 10 more recommendations:

The Battle of Algiers

The Bride Wore Black

Bullitt

Candy

Charly

Head

One Plus One

The Party

Targets

Yellow Submarine