Tuesday, February 7, 2017
#27. Our national mania for lists, and mine
#27. Our national mania for Top Ten Lists, and mine.
I've had some requests about a Favorite Movie and TV list. With the availability of Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, On Demand, and your local library, you will have to go fishing. But it's worth it and that's why these lists are tons o'fun to read, make, and revise. So here is mine, not in any order except the first two, on this day and date.
Make yours. Tell your friends. Let's discuss. Can there ever be too much talk about movies and TV?
Driven by the outrageous talents of Orson Welles and Herman J. Mankiewicz, "CITIZEN KANE", 1941, is still The One. The mysterious skillionare Great Man dies and a reporter is tasked with finding out what his last spoken word meant: "Rosebud." Poor Charlie. He loved things and even some people but the only way he knew how to express it was to buy them and then slowly crush them. Although there's a lot of yelling from its mostly theatre actors, its big gulp narrative structure and inventive staging rings true for every generation. Even now, it could be the Donald Trump story with Melania as Susan Alexander Kane. And, standing right next to it, is
"THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS" that Welles made a year or so later. Ambersons was a rich story from Booth Tarkington's book about the multigenerational love and loss we all suffer as a down payment for living our lives. After Welles finshed principal photography, and full of Kane boy-genius success, Nelson Rockerfeller personally proposed a Brazilian 'important' diplomatic documentary adventure (only you can do this, Orson) Welles left the editing of Ambersons to others who promised they'd do it precisely as his detailed notes directed. Suuuure they would. Just as soon as they cut an hour out of it and butchered the ending. Yet, it's still the Two. Because even though he was three thousand miles away on a South American fishing boat, you can't kill Superman.
"BLADE RUNNER." 1982, Ridley Scott directing Harrison Ford, Rutger Hauer, and the exquisite Sean Young from a script by Hampton Fancher and David Peoples. The compleat noir dystopian Sci-fi film, the production design and music score are breathtaking. The story is a mission search for malfunctioning lethal replicant robots who are equally determined not to be "retired." It ends up being about who is a replicant and who isn't. So rich on so many levels, it's Death by Chocolate Upside Down Cake.
"LAWRENCE OF ARABIA." 1962, everyone's greatest work (including uncredited Black Listed screenwriter Michael Wilson); except for maybe the guy who did the putty nose on Anthony Quinn. I am a river to my people...goddamn it, stop looking at my nose! Noel Coward once said if O'Toole had been any more beautiful, they would've had to call it "Florence of Arabia." As you watch it, you will see the matrix of many of the problems in the mid-east. This movie is on nearly everyone's Top Ten...as are the next two.
"2001, A SPACE ODYSSEY" by Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke in 1968. Open the pod doors, Hal. No matter how many times you've seen it, it always sucks you in and it's still two steps ahead of you. Not many can say that. And thanks to Douglas Trumbull, mamma mia, that Stargate sequence. With his early films "The Killing," "Paths of Glory," "Spartacus," and "Dr. Strangelove" not many have ever gotten to the middle of their career with such walk-off home runs. And these were all before "2001."
"THE SEARCHERS." 1956. John Wayne and John Ford at their best from Frank Nugent's script of the Alan Le May western novel. Often listed by the top rank of Seventies directors as the movie that influenced them the most. This is the movie you finally understand why John Wayne was more than just John Wayne. And why John Ford is the Chesty Puller of the film world. Filled with great cinematic moments, some of them so sublime your heart will catch in your throat. Especially that last, lonely bookended shot...
"OPEN RANGE" 2003, with Kevin Costner, Robert Duvall, and Annette Benning. I also like Costner's "Dances With Wolves" but this one relies on sweep and characterization more than story tricks. And notice that director/producer Costner gives Duvall top billing. This is a great movie with a heart-felt ending.
"THE EXORCIST." 1973. My wife, the venerable Mrs. Puppy, will not see this movie and I don't blame her. But I still love it. When I got out of that theatre years ago, I had to go home and change my shorts. A real movie-movie by W.P. Blatty and William Friedkin and with wonderful performances from Ellen Burstyn, Jason Miller, Linda Blair, and Max von Sydow. When you are in such trouble you have to call in The Knight from "The Seventh Seal, you know what trouble is. And you can bet projectile pea soup will soon be involved.
"NIGHT CALL NURSES." 1972. Only kidding. Yet it's a list of movies; Roger Corman deserves to be on it someplace.
"THIEF" 1981, by Michael Mann with James Caan, Tuesday Weld, and Willy Nelson. This is a drop dead modern gangster film about a legendary professional safe-cracker with some truly indelible moments. It will remind you of what a great actor Caan could be. Relentless and dark as ten feet down.
"POINT BLANK" 1967, by John Boorman from a script by Alexander Jacobs and the Newhouse brothers starring Lee Marvin at his all time best. Count the times Marvin kills somebody in this one. You are likely to be wrong. And you will bless the day you found it, cheap, on Amazon. The younger salesman in the used car sequence is Lawrence Hauben who later co-wrote and won the Academy Award for "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," to my knowledge, his first and last produced screenplay. Ahhh, show biz.
"INSIDE MAN," 2006, a strong heist thriller with Denzel, Clive Owen, Christopher Plummer, and Jody Foster. It was directed by Spike Lee who, of course, got his possessive credit. But after I saw the movie, I read Russell Gurwitz's script which had EVERYTHING in it, all laid out for him. And I mean everything. Possess this, Spike. Even Woody Allen doesn't take a 'Film By' credit.
"THE GUNFIGHTER" 1950 (by Wm. Bowers and Nunnally Johnson) and "TWELVE O'CLOCK HIGH" 1949 (by Sy Bartlett and Bierne Lay, Jr.) both movies with Gregory Peck, both directed by Henry King. The first, a classic American Western with a different take: Fame kills. The second, a WW II bombers-over-Germany film with one of the greatest openings ever. The rest of the movie is about General Frank Savage himself becoming a casualty. How's that for a name?
"SINGIN' IN THE RAIN." 1952. As you may recall from earlier, I once told Gene Kelly I thought it was the musical "Citizen Kane." He turned that billion watt smile on me as he agreed and strode down the hall. Moses supposes his toeses are roses...
"BAD SANTA," 2003. My all-time favorite Christmas movie with Billy Bob Thornton and some pudgy little Canadian kid they couldn't have made the movie without. Completely outrageous on every level. Rated R but should be rated Z. No admission unless accompanied by a priest.
"MOON," a 2009 low budget, high intelligence clone sci-fi movie with Sam Rockwell, Sam Rockwell, and Sam Rockwell. It was directed and co-written by Duncan Jones, David Bowie's son. If this one doesn't make your heart pound, call the Neptunes: you're already dead.
"TRULY, MADLY, DEEPLY" 1990. By Anthony Minghella is the British "Ghost," but the better one that packs live ammo. Do not attempt this movie without a full box of Kleenex. The tragically underseen Juliet Stevenson has lost, to an early death, the love of her life Jamie played by Alan Rickman. Her world shattered, the scenes with her shrink are truly painful to see. She has, very tentatively started a relationship with Bill Patterson but it's not jelling. One day, she goes home from work to drink and cry...and finds dead Jamie waiting for her! Oh-oh. From here on out sunlight and humor begins to float her grief away as Jamie keeps turning up the furnace and inviting his dead friends over to watch videos. This is all beginning to irritate her. She just wants to be alone with him. He says tomorrow for sure but tonight they have a triple bill of "Five Easy Pieces," "Fitzcaraldo," and "The Wild Bunch!" Oh, really? With that voice, he probably has a goddamn list of movies...
"THE WILD BUNCH," a 1969 turn-of-the-century Western by Sam Peckinpah and Walon Green that is so well acted, designed, and cut, that pretty soon you can smell the road apples and gunpowder because you are actually there. The slow-mo blood ballet at the end is the stuff of legend. But more importantly, it is the movie that gave us Bo Hopkin's immortal line, "How'd you like to kiss my sister's black cat's ass?"
"DR. ZHIVAGO" 1965. Is the Russian revolution, WW I, with Julie Christie and Omar Sharif. Man, can that guy suffer. A true David Lean - Robert Bolt epic. I mostly remember the snow, the myriad heartbreaking stories winding together and the huge red star and whistle screaming on Strelnikov's on-coming locomotive at the intermission break.
"MAN ON FIRE" 2004. Denzel plays a mysterious broken warrior (his specialty) with the best leading lady of his career: a ten-year-old Dakota Fanning. Ridley's younger brother Tony Scott's hard core Mexican kidnap movie from Brian Helgeland's script has more moves than a monkey on a hundred yards of grapevine. Plus Christopher Walken! Its classic ending leaves not a dry eye in the house.
"GALAXY QUEST" 1999. Directed by Dean Parisot and written by David Howard and Robert Gordon is a loving parody of the world wide "Star Treck" phenomena. With Tim Allen, Sigourney Weaver, and Alan Rickman, this Sci-Fi comedy is about a group of has-been TV actors who troupe from convention to convention to scratch out a living. At the same time actual aliens land on earth to save their own civilization light years away because they think that the cheesy "Galaxy Quest" was a documentary! David Mamet, famous writer and Ur grump, called this a nearly perfect movie. In the end (spoiler alert), both Earth and the Alien world are saved by the show's fans... who are the only ones that actually know how to separate the science from the fiction. Thrills, spills, and laughs aplenty.
"SALVADOR" 1986. By Oliver Stone and Richard Boyle with James Woods and Jim Belushi. A truish story about the Washington sponsored terrorism and chaos in Central America. Woods brilliantly plays photo-journalist Boyle, a fast-talking weasel who finally finds a reluctant heart hidden in his double time brain. My favorite scene is Woods trying to make a salvation deal with a befuddled priest in the confessional. Both Stone and Woods were nominated for Oscars. You'll see why.
"LARCENY INC." Comedy 1942, from a play by S.J. Perelman starring Edward G. Robinson, Jane Wyman, Broderick Crawford, and Jack Carson. Tough guy Robinson as "Pressure" Maxwell gets out of prison with a plan. He has a Manhattan bank robbery in mind; right next to the bank is a tatty luggage store for sale. He will take over the failing business and drill sideways into the bank's enormous vault. Things he didn't count on: the savior soul of his beautiful daughter who wants him to go straight...and the sudden success of the luggage store, now full of customers who wonder what the annoying sounds of the jackhammers and drills are about. They save one of their best jokes for the last shot. Why Warners never remade this hilarious movie is a mystery.
"TRUE GRIT," 1969, the first version with John Wayne (for which he won his only Oscar), Kim Darby, Dennis Hopper, Robert Duvall, and Glen Campbell. This movie, written by Hollywood Leftie Marguerite Roberts from a once-in-a-generation book by Charles Portis, is a language dance of the highest order. "You will think a ton of brick have fell on you." Directed by tough old bird Henry Hathaway; the legend was that on the first day of shooting, Wayne came to the set and announced he had some script changes and he was not going to wear that goddamn stupid eyepatch. With that, Hathaway yelled out to the crew "All right, that's a wrap. Shut it down," and walked off the set. The next day, a very quiet Wayne showed up minus the script changes and wearing the eyepatch. Roll camera...
"ZULU," 1964, by blacklisted American Cy Enfield and John Prebble is an overlooked true story masterpiece of the 1879 Battle of Rorke's Drift in colonial Africa which pitted 150 fortified British soldiers against 4000 Zulu warriors. The epic sweep of this movie gives me goose bumps just to think about. It's Michael Caine's first film also starring Stanley Baker, Jack Hawkins, Suzanna York, and Nigel Green. The music score by John Barry is cripplingly beautiful. In a lull before the big battle, dried blood caking his face, a bewildered young fusilier turns to his Sergeant Major and ask "Why us?" The grizzled old vet simply says "Because we're here, lad. And no one else." The ensuing battle is a thing of horror and glory. They fear to make 'em like this any more.
And of course "Grapes of Wrath," "The Godfather" 1&2, "Saving Private Ryan," "Alexander Nevsky," "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," "Deliverance," "Seven Samurai," "Network," "Les Enfant du Paradis," "Touch of Evil," "Paths of Glory," "Psycho," "La Dolce Vita," "Alien" 1&2, "The Leopard," "8 1/2," "Tom Jones," "Casablanca," "Breathless," "The Conformist," "Shoot the Piano Player," "How Green Was My Valley," "Jeremiah Johnson," "The Philadelphia Story," "Sullivan's Travels," "Treasure of the Sierra Madre," "Face in the Crowd" "Once Upon A Time In America," and hundreds of others.
Oh, boy, we LOOOOVE movies! And of course
"SLINGS AND ARROWS" is a Canadian TV series about the misadventures of a down and out Shakespeare Rep company like Ontario's Stratford only broker and funnier. The hammy targets are easy but the sniping is brilliant. I once did two summers in a Shakespeare rep company (I played, criminally unheralded, half a Siamese twin with John Lithgow in a "Measure for Measure" crowd scene) and "Slings and Arrows" is so real, so funny, it gave me the willies. But the good ones. It was designed to run for only three short seasons; trust me, you will want more.
"THE WIRE" is always listed as one of the top shows in TV history. It was an HBO crime series about Baltimore: dealing with the criminal justice system, education, the port, and the press. Like all great TV, it relies on great casting and writing from David Simon, George Pelicanos, Dennis Lehane, Richard Price, and David Mills -- a typing Murderer's Row if there ever was one. It's a grim portrait of saints and sinners, just trying to make it through to the weekend...you know, when they can take a deep breath. And really fuck things up.
"LIFE" ran for only two seasons on NBC, created by Rand Ravitch and Far Shariat (why the hell didn't my mom name me 'Far Shariat?') It stars Damian Lewis as a disgraced former LAPD detective who went to prison for murder only to be found innocent. His lawsuit against the city settled leaving him a multi-millionaire. He's back on the job with the great Sarah Shahi as his new partner. This L.A. police procedural that is never quite what you think it is. Everybody has troubles, is on the make, running from their past, dealing with betrayal and an endless parade of people who want to destroy them. The whole story is shot through with sly humor and jaw-dropping surprises. Perfect hypnotizing TV.
"IN PLAIN SIGHT" was a five season crime show from the USA network about the U.S. Marshal Service working out of Albuquerque. Created by David Maples, starring Mary McCormack and Fredrick Weller, it was a odd view of mid-size city Feds running the witness-relocation program amid their TV turbulent lives. The acting is stellar, the writing exemplary. And nobody left their sense of humor back in L.A. I love this show.
"SAVING GRACE" was Nancy Miller's super highway of Holly Hunter. Another cop show, this one on TNT about Oklahoma City and the ultimate redemption of an out of control, driven detective (Hunter) trying to make sense out of the new man in her life: A sixty-year-old angel named Earl played by unforgettable Leon Rippy, wings and all.
"MY SO CALLED LIFE" 1994. This ABC show by Winnie Holzman with Claire Danes and Jered Leto was, during its nineteen episode run, was my favorite. A simple concept done well -- a realistic portrayal of high school kids dealing with love, betrayal, alcoholism, sex, homophobia, bullying, homelessness; you know, just the normal patchwork of teenaged fun. When I wasn't cheering, I was cringing. Once at a real life dinner party, I was seated next to Carolyn See, a well-known California novelist. I hadn't read any of her books yet and she hadn't seen any of my movies. So we spent the whole night talking about how much we both loved "My So-Called Life." All the way through desert.
"MAD MEN" was a brilliant, grueling look at who America was in the early Sixties as seen through the Madison Avenue advertising eyes in New York City. Created by Matthew Weiner, careers are made and ruined. Backs are stabbed. Cigarettes are smoked. Way too much booze is drunk. If it weren't so well done, I would've quit after the pilot. But it was and I bet you won't want to leave it either.
To me, Aaron Sorkin's "THE WEST WING" was the greatest political series of all time. Looking back, it was NBC's seven years of Camelot viewed through the smokey fires of what has happened to us since. Again, brilliant writing and casting wins the day; somehow its scope was both narrow and huge, its stories both personal and institutional. Just the best. To see more of Sorkin, check out his series "Sports Night" and especially "Newsroom."
"THE L WORD" was Ileen Chaiken's nighttime soap opera about lesbians that takes place in West Hollywood (my former home) so I'm in! But even with all the soap in these stories, I totally fell for the characters and the actresses who played them. Especially Katherine Moennig who was Shane. And, again, Sarah Shai. I felt like I was suddenly looking at a world I knew but not exactly. Not really. Maybe not at all. But it turns out there's all kinds of 'knowing.'
"JUSTIFIED." Love, hate, revenge and sometimes even justice comes to Harlan County. Created for FX network by Graham Yost from an Elmore Leonard short story, starring Timothy Olyphant and Walton Goggins. Who is Walton Goggins? Well, if Warren Oates had hooked up with Meryl Streep, their love-baby would've been Goggins. It was a six season series about the beleaguered U.S. Marshal Service in crime-ridden rural Kentucky. Wound tight with family, lovers, friends, and mortal enemies, this show has it all, including the most lethal Bad Guys ever. And the worst is a woman: Mags Bennett played by Margo Martindale who won an Emmy for it. Her gimlet-eyed weasel son Dickie, played by Jeremy Davies who also won the Emmy, is so horrific that, if he came to my front door at night, I believe I'd just go on and kill him. As my best friend used to say, "No judge in the world..." Especially one who'd been to Harlan County.
"THE GOOD WIFE" is the brain child of Robert and Michelle King. Taking place in Chicago, it is a brilliant, poisonous mix of law and Illinois politics where the phrase "vote early and vote often" came from. The good wife is Julianna Margulies and her sometimes less than good husband is Chris Noth. This is a soap for the brain while retaining (a lawyer pun, get it?) enough love and humor to keep the concentration headaches to a minimum. The casting is perfect, especially the law firm's beautiful, devious fixer Archie Punjabi.
"BRAIN DEAD" is a most unusual mix of horror creepy and hysterically funny, also by Robert and Michelle King, their off season CBS followup to "The Good Wife." I would've loved to hear this network pitch: an alien spaceship crash lands in Washington D.C. and is immediately covered up by the CIA because it was piloted by billions of tiny bugs which got loose and are crawling up the drain pipes and stone stairs all over D.C. and into people's ears while they sleep, rendering them (mostly politicians) brain dead! WHAT?! They only got one soaring season so watch it. But not over dinner.
Oh, sure, for six seasons PBS's "DOWNTON ABBEY" was gunnel deep in upper class British twits and their long-suffering staff, and sometimes it looked a little like "Upstairs Downstairs" or "Brideshead Revisited" but still it was better than all its elements, created as it was by Julian Fellowes who wrote nearly all the episodes, a Herculean feat. And they saved many of the best lines for the manor's dowager empress Maggie Smith. Of whom, let's face it, one can hardly ever get enough.
"NYPD BLUE" a classic cop show from the early 90s by Steven Bochco, David Milch, and former NYPD Detective First Grade Bill Clark. Many of its early episodes were either produced or written by Emmy winning Ted Mann (more about him later) and a nonpareil staff. It went for 12 seasons with many cast and writing staff changes, and all seemed to be as good or better than the ones "replaced." They found a brilliant whip-pan fast cut format and rode it to glory. Great binge watching but lay in the Cheetos, brother.
"MI-5" by David Wollstonecraft was called "Spooks" in its U.K. home. This epic (86 episodes) spy series had, to me, the greatest array of cast ever. An embarrassment of riches right down to the day-players. And you could never be sure of continued life either; even though their ratings fell off, some of the best characters disappeared into a deep foreign retirement or all manner of death. More than almost any other series, this one is like a drug; the only way out of it is through it. But it's a great journey when you have actors like Peter Firth and Nicola Walker with you.
"MAJOR CRIMES" started out to be a decent cop show called "The Closer" with Kyra Sedgwick. I never bought her "southern" accent. But it was okay and fairly successful. Then Sedgwick decided to move on to richer fields of service. Most of the cast remained but her honcho job was taken over by the wonderfully odd Mary McDonnell and that's when it really got good. On TNT, you can plug in anytime but I suggest going back to its changeover beginning because when Capt. Sharon Rader is cooking, you'll be eating.
"GOLIATH" is an Amazon eight episode series from 2016 starring Billy Bob Thornton and William Hurt as the creepiest villain in years. Wait for his cricket clicker. Eeww. It's a law show co-created by David E. Kelley who, years ago, did "L.A. Law," "Aly McBeal," "The Practice," "Chicago Hope," and many others. Brothers and sisters, he's back! When you see this kind of story telling you'll remember how much you miss him. Billy Bob alone is worth joining the Prime part of Amazon. Even though this series has a definite ending at episode 8, I pray they go on. Saddle back up Billy Bob -- you're not done yet!
And of course, "Hill St. Blues" "Maverick," "The Simpsons," "Seinfeld," "Breaking Bad," "Letterman," "The Sopranos," "Frontline," "Cheers," "Have Gun, Will Travel," "Your Show of Shows," "Sex in the City," "The X-files," "L.A. Law," "Howdy Doody" (I had a pre-teen crush on Princess Summer-Fall-Winter-Spring, sue me), and a hundred others.
Holy ranchero, we LOOOOVE television. And I'm sorry these lists have way more than ten items. But it's my list and I can have however many I want. The twin engines of my life, I've probably seen more movies and TV shows than you've had hot meals.
When I'm too old and in a home, come check on me. Please? Even though I will have forgotten your name, I probably love you. So make sure I have a tiny private room, lots of decaf, a small high-def TV and an idiot proof remote that will alternate me from Turner Classic Movies to Bravo to Home & Garden Network to Audience.
I'll find the football games.