As mentioned earlier (see “My Filmic Valentine”), this will kick off the explication of my hundred favorite films, listed on the B100 page accessible above. And now, let the games begin…
The Abyss: I regard this as writer/director James (The Terminator, Aliens, Titanic, Avatar) Cameron’s greatest achievement, although admittedly I have an unreasoning bias in favor of films set underwater. I also consider it a tear-duct-stimulating love story, although it is more obviously an SF action-adventure movie. Its only flaw, in my opinion, is that the benign nature of its aliens makes this more like Close Encounters of the Third Kind underwater than Alien underwater, which took some of the edge off it for me. Estranged spouses Ed Harris and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio are uncomfortably brought back together aboard an underwater oil-drilling rig when something brings down a nuclear sub nearby. Turns out to be extraterrestrial visitors, which makes the military team led by Michael Biehn and sent down to check out the sub more than a mite nervous. A hurricane cuts the rig off from the surface, leaving the cast in various types of peril. As usual, Cameron went all-out to ensure that the underwater scenes were state of the art, and created some groundbreaking CGI effects for the scene in which the aliens manifest themselves in a tentacle made of seawater. I find the story and characters much more satisfying than those in his later films, and actually prefer the original theatrical version to the director’s cut that was later made available.
The Adventures of Robin Hood: For my money, this is not only Errol Flynn’s best film, but also the best swashbuckler, and the best sword fight, in Hollywood history. Flynn is backed up by one of the greatest casts Warner Brothers could assemble, with Basil Rathbone enjoying one of his best roles as Sir Guy of Gisbourne, Claude Rains deliciously duplicitous as King John, and even Olivia de Havilland, whom I normally loathe, luminous as Maid Marian. That’s to say nothing of such supporting cast members as Alan Hale, Patric Knowles, Eugene Pallette (among the funniest men on the screen), and Ian Hunter; absolutely stunning color photography, which doubtless helped make this Warner’s most expensive film to date; and a rousing Erich Wolfgang Korngold score. Michael Curtiz (Casablanca) co-directed with William Keighley, reportedly to beef up the action.
Alien: This might have been Ridley Scott’s masterpiece if he hadn’t outdone himself completely with Blade Runner just three years later. When the mining spacecraft Nostromo is diverted from its course by the computer, “Mother,” the crew is prematurely awakened from hypersleep and ordered to investigate a distress call from a storm-swept planet. There they pick up an unwanted passenger that systematically destroys most of the crew until Sigourney Weaver, in her star-making role of Ripley, dukes it out in the tense climax. Still packs a punch after many repeated viewings; superb special effects and a stellar, as it were, cast: Tom Skerritt, Veronica Cartwright, Harry Dean Stanton, the especially ill-fated John Hurt, Ian Holm, and Yaphet Kotto. Spawned three sequels (not counting those Alien vs. Predator spinoffs), all of which I enjoyed in their own right, not least because each film in the tetralogy has a distinctly different flavor. Not to be viewed while eating!
The Andromeda Strain (1971): This faithful adaptation of Michael Crichton’s early bestseller is another one-two punch from The Haunting’s knockout writer-director team, Nelson Gidding and Robert Wise. A satellite containing an incredibly lethal space germ lands in a New Mexico town and the fun begins, with most of the action set inside a mammoth underground lab with a nuclear-destruct device. Taut and absorbing, with rare lead roles for Arthur Hill, James Olson, David Wayne, and Kate Reid, whose character was a man in the novel. In an interview, Wise told me he deliberately did not cast major stars (or Raquel Welch-style babes) in their roles, so that the audience would more readily accept their characters as scientists. In 2008, A&E remade this as a bloated, totally superfluous miniseries. “Have a look at his buttocks.” “That’s not funny.”
Apocalypse Now: For me, this and Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket are the only Vietnam films worth having. I hated The Deer Hunter, and although I enjoyed Platoon, I didn’t go nuts over it the way some people did. While filming in the Philippines, director Francis Ford Coppola entered his own “Heart of Darkness” with this modernized version of the Joseph Conrad tale, with Marlon Brando as the renegade Colonel Kurtz (“…the horror, the horror…”) and Martin Sheen, replacing Harvey Keitel, as the assassin sent to terminate him. I love Keitel, but Sheen seems perfect in this part. Robert Duvall has a memorable role as a surfing-enthusiast colonel, as does Dennis Hopper as an eccentric photojournalist, and even Harrison Ford pops up in a supporting role in the opening scenes. Songs by The Doors, including “The End” (heard, ironically, at the beginning); Wagner’s “The Ride of the Valkyries” is used to brilliant effect during a helicopter attack. Again, I prefer the original version to the expanded Apocalypse Now Redux cut, although that has its points of interest.
Arsenic and Old Lace: A great movie in its own right, and also a sentimental favorite, for my wife and I co-starred in this venerable Broadway comedy in high school, although she played my aunt, so forget any passionate clinches. (Actually, we were just friends at the time, but never mind.) Cary Grant—who, let’s face it, is the guy every guy wants to be (and, yes, I had his role)—is Mortimer Brewster, a marriage-hating dramatic critic whose conversion by new bride Priscilla Lane (an effective proselytizer, I might add) is interrupted by the revelation that his two eccentric aunts have poisoned eleven lonely old men, and had them buried in the cellar by a second nephew who thinks he’s Teddy Roosevelt. Further complicating things is the arrival of a third and final nephew, the villainous Jonathan (Raymond Massey, standing in for Boris Karloff, who was still performing in the play; alas, this takes some of the bite out of the in-joke about his character resembling Karloff), with his cringeing assistant (Peter Lorre) and another body in tow. Frank Capra directed, and as always has filled his cast with memorable character actors, including James Gleason in one of his innumerable police detective roles, Jack Carson as a beat cop and aspiring playwright, and the inimitable Edward Everett Horton (another of the funniest men ever to appear on the screen, in my opinion) as the emissary of Happy Dale, the rest home to which Mortimer hopes to commit Teddy. Just a delight.
The Big Chill: Writer-director Lawrence Kasdan’s hilarious yet often touching film boasts a stellar cast and a superb Motown score. The use of Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” over the main titles sets the tone, as it were, perfectly. Out-of-touch college chums Tom Berenger (“Look out for the stick shift—ohhhh!”), Glenn Close, Jeff Goldblum (“Just good investigative journalism.”), William Hurt, Kevin Kline (“Be right back, baby!”), Mary Kay Place, and JoBeth Williams gather over a weekend to mourn their suicidal friend, and end up renewing their old ties (and values). Sure, it rips off John Sayles’s The Return of the Secaucus Seven. So what? It’s great!
The Big Lebowski: I’d like to think that my friends and I were in the vanguard of those who have made this hilarious and endlessly quotable Coen Brothers film a cult favorite. Jeff Bridges stars as The Dude (aka Jeff Lebowski), a mysteriously well-off unemployed stoner whose home is invaded and his rug defiled by thugs trying to collect on a debt run up by the wife of a rich man also named Lebowski. When the other Lebowski refuses to make good on The Dude’s losses, he and his bowling buddies (John Goodman, in a role reportedly modeled on John Milius, and Steve Buscemi) embark upon an increasingly outré quest to achieve some sort of justice. (“Dude, he peed on your rug?”) Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman, John Turturro, Sam Elliott, and Ben Gazarra are along for the ride. The characters, the interplay among them, and the dialogue are all priceless here.
The Big Sleep (1946): Sublime, with Humphrey Bogart as the best of the screen’s Philip Marlowes (although the competition is admittedly a mixed bag, at best). Very few liberties are taken with Raymond Chandler’s complex first novel; most involve tailoring it to the team of Bogie and soon-to-be fourth and final wife Lauren Bacall, which had been introduced by Howard Hawks in To Have and Have Not. In fact, reshooting before this film’s general release was done to add some of that unique chemistry, and to offset Lauren Bacall’s poor reviews for Confidential Agent. (The earlier preview version of The Big Sleep is available, and makes for a fascinating comparison.) Hawks directs at the epitome of his noirish yet wisecracking style; Dorothy Malone’s few minutes as an antiquarian bookseller are probably the best in her career; Max Steiner scored it—and some guy named Faulkner (one of my all-time favorite authors) co-wrote it! What’s not to like? In 1978, after Robert Mitchum had starred in one of the best Marlowe movies, Dick Richards’s moody period-set Farewell, My Lovely, the aptly named Michael Winner remade this with Mitchum, but inexplicably reset it in contemporary London. Even a supporting cast that included Jimmy Stewart and Oliver Reed couldn’t salvage that mess…
Black Sunday (1960; aka La Maschera del Demonio [The Mask of the Demon]): This is the first film Mario Bava directed single-handed—after “assisting” Riccardo Freda uncredited on I Vampiri (The Vampires, aka The Devil’s Commandment) and Caltiki, il Mostro Immortale (Caltiki, the Immortal Monster), both of which he photographed—and the first horror film of Italy’s venerated scream queen, the ironically British-born Barbara Steele. Sadly, neither ever equaled, let alone surpassed, this classic, and they never collaborated again. Babs has a dual role as a vampire witch executed in 1630, with a spiked mask hammered onto her face, and her lookalike descendant, whom she possesses when a careless doctor accidentally revives her 200 years later. One of Bava’s few directorial efforts in black and white, this movie simply oozes atmosphere and is a cult favorite.