Betty Blue (1986 D: Jean-Jacques Beineix, W: Jean-Jacques Beineix)
Growing up in a small Minnesota town in the 1980s, you had to drive 45 minutes to find anything that didn’t resemble a hockey stick, a football or a stalk of corn. My friend Chris Becker and I discovered a mutual love for movies about this time, and we would drive to Minneapolis to see whatever was playing at the Uptown Theater. This was the first movie we drove to see, and I don’t know that I’d seen a foreign film in a theater before. I remember gorgeous Beatrice Dalle in the title role, a pretty intensely graphic 7-minute-long sex scene that started the movie (Hey, 16 year old me said, I guess French movies are pretty cool!), an equally graphic violent moment late in the film, and its passionate tone wavering from emotional extreme to extreme. I also remember that pretty quickly, I didn’t even notice the subtitles anymore, and heard the dialogue in my head. I never looked at movie listings — or the small town I was from — the same way again.
Three Days of the Condor (1975 D: Sydney Pollack, W: James Grady)
The rush of mid-’70s political thrillers is one of those great eras in American moviemaking. Films like The Parallax View (pretty much the ultimate conspiracy thriller) and All The President’s Men (not unsurprisingly, both by the same director, the late Alan Pakula) are still tightly wound, suspenseful stories about corruption at the highest levels, and absolute distrust of authority. I particularly love this one, Three Days of the Condor, in which a CIA researcher (“I just read books!”) returns from lunch to find his entire office murdered, and is on the lam from — who? A terrifying Alsatian assassin, played by Max von Sydow, or the CIA, embodied by creepily unreliable Cliff Robertson. This is probably a little more Hollywood-ed up than the others, but it’s engaging, suspenseful and fun.
The Apple Dumpling Gang (1975 D: Norman Tokar, W: Don Tait)
This one is pretty easy, since it’s factual. I don’t know that I’ve seen this film in 30+ years. Bill Bixby, Tim Conway, Don Knotts, Harry Morgan and Slim Pickens star. Director Norman Tokar also did childhood torture device Where The Red Fern Grows, Disney kids comedy The Boatniks with Phil Silver and Stefanie Powers, and, just before he passed away, The Cat From Outer Space with Ken Berry, Roddy McDowall and McLean Stevenson. I’m going to guess we saw this at the Sno-King Drive-In Theater in Lynnwood, Washington. Now enjoy Tim Conway lighting Don Knotts’ ass on fire.
The Saint (1997 D: Phillip Noyce, W: Jonathan Hensleigh, Wesley Strick)
There are terrible scripts everywhere. But this one stands out because I remember feeling, as we left the theater, that the movie was literally about nothing, a piece of air. Val Kilmer dons some disguises, some actions scenes happen, there are various confused twists, there’s a Roger Moore joke, and then… it’s over. It’s as if it didn’t exist. It’s in some ways the archetype of the late 20th century Hollywood movie: it’s a remake, nothing of value is said, no one is offended, and hardly anyone remembers it. See also: The Haunting (1999), Batman and Robin (1997), Charlie’s Angels (2000), etc. etc. etc.
Black Narcissus (1947 D: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger, W: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger)
It’s hard to pick one scene from Powell and Pressburger’s masterpiece, “Black Narcissus.” Every shot is gorgeous, rich in color and perfectly shot. “This is no place to put a nunnery,” says David Farrar’s Mr. Dean. “Everything here seems exaggerated.” He’s speaking about the Himalayan convent where Deborah Kerr’s Sister Clodagh holds out against her feelings for Dean. Sexual tension — of the controlled, British sort — runs his in this, for the time, daring film. Dean could be speaking about the film itself; it’s a powerful, vivid work. As for the most beautiful scene, the last one in the film, and the last shot of Mr. Dean, are pretty tough to beat. It might not be paced like a contemporary film, but it’s stronger stuff.
The Graduate (1967 D: Mike Nichols, W: Calder Willingham, Buck Henry)
OK. This one is going to open up some arguments. I was left absolutely cold by this film. Anne Bancroft is wonderful, of course, but I just was woefully unmoved by Hoffman’s character. He’s a drip. Also, reading about the movie, it’s pretty funny that Mrs. Robinson is “twice his age,” since Hoffman was 30 playing a 21 year old, and Bancroft was 36 at the time. Maybe I need to see it again, but I remember not enjoying or “getting” this movie at all. I do remember my film professor Rob Silberman at the U of Minn saying “Mike Nichols couldn’t direct his way out of a paper bag” about this movie.
The Haunting (1963 D: Robert Wise, W: Nelson Gidding)
I thought about this one long and hard. What about the great and terrifying “Texas Chainsaw Massacre?” How could I not pick the massively influential “Night of the Living Dead?” But in terms of absolute scary perfection, nothing beats “The Haunting,” Robert Wise’s adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s haunted house novel. Richard Johnson’s Dr. Markaway brings Claire Bloom, Russ Tamblyn and timid, unsure Julie Harris on an investigation of the haunted Hill House. Wise orchestrates vividly frightening atmosphere and brilliant scares with suggestion, sound and the barest of physical effects, like a door bowing in and out as if breathing. The ultimate haunted house movie, and still absoultely chilling to this day.
I wouldn’t say that I hate Pulp Fiction. But watching it recently, it feels a little like the bloom is off the rose. I wanted to catch up on Tarantino’s work after having a pretty confused take on Django Unchained. I watched Reservoir Dogs, Jackie Brown and Pulp Fiction, all in one day. And I can tell you, that’s too much Tarantino for anyone to take. He repeats the same lines from film to film, his arch dialogue hits too many off-notes (especially taken in bulk), and Samuel Jackson seems, at times, to be Tarantino’s own permission slip to use the N-word. I wish I liked this movie as much as I did when it came out. I don’t.
Freebie and the Bean (1974 D: Richard Rush, W: Robert Kaufman and Floyd Mutrux)
Alan Arkin can do no wrong in my book. In this comedy/thriller, directed by oddball Richard Rush (The Stunt Man, Psych Out), he’s a Mexican detective (yes, named “The Bean” — this movie has serious stereotype/race/gender politics problems, not the least of which was referenced in The Celluloid Closet, a great documentary about the depiction of gays and lesbians in film) paired with cop-on-the-take James Caan. Arkin’s simmering frustration, venting occasionally in that yelling-without-really-yelling thing he does contrasts with Caan’s smirking. Arkin’s just flat-out hilarious.There are gigantic stunt set-pieces, including a motorcycle chase in the Embarcadero in San Francisco and a car crash into the 5th floor of an apartment building. A subplot between Arkin and Valerie Harper playing, yes, “Bean’s Wife,” is less entertaining, but adds a slightly human touch to the overall cartoonish procedure. One of the first real buddy cop movies, and Arkin and Caan set the standard.