Bon Jovi declared “We’re halfway there…we’re livin’ on a prayer”. Kenny Loggins asked us to “Meet me halfway, across the sky”. You get the point…we’re half done with this countdown and, in golf parlance, making the turn. Now, it’s not that the first 50 movies I’ve written about are irrelevant. I like them or they wouldn’t be on the list. But now we’re getting serious. The cream rises to the top and this process is starting to get creamy. I will try to avoid becoming too verbose and gushing over these next 50 films…but I cannot guarantee I will be able to comply with that edict. You’re going to see a lot of comedies and Christmas movies from here on in, so I hope you enjoy those as much as I do. And as always, feedback is always appreciated.
At the outset of this series I shared a bit about my thinking when deciding on the Top 100, and one of the things I said I take into consideration is longevity. People who say that their all time favorite movie is one that was just in the theater a year or two ago annoy me tremendously. However, there are exceptions to every rule, and this is about as close to an exception as we’ll get. Little Miss Sunshine was released in 2006 and stars Abigail Breslin, Alan Arkin, Greg Kinnear, and Steve Carell. Not exactly an all star cast, especially when one considers that at the time Carell was just hitting his stride with The 40 Year Old Virgin and The Office was a fairly new television show. However, a good movie should be based on good writing and not just the pop culture It Factor of its cast. After all, Will Smith is still considered one of the biggest movie stars in the world and hasn’t been in anything worth a damn for about a decade. Sunshine is a unique take on the road trip genre, made popular by such fare as Smokey & The Bandit, Rain Man, Tommy Boy, Sideways, Planes, Trains, & Automobiles, and National Lampoon’s Vacation ( two of which we’ll be giving some love to at some point along this path). A 9 year old girl fascinated by beauty pageants receives an opportunity to compete in one herself. The family treks 800 miles from Albuquerque, New Mexico to Southern California in an old Volkswagen van, and as per usual in road trip flicks, the adventure isn’t boring. Along for the ride is Dad, a down-on-his-luck motivational speaker who says things like “sarcasm is the refuge of losers”…Uncle Frank, a gay Proust scholar who recently attempted suicide…brother Dwayne, a teenager who gets inspiration from Nietzsche and has taken a vow of silence until he can successfully become a pilot…and Grandpa, who was kicked out of the old folks’ home for snorting heroine. Now before any action has taken place or a word of dialogue is spoken, one can see tremendous potential just from those undeniably singular characters. The glue holding it all together is the Mom, a comparatively sane person. I won’t spoil the fun for those who may have thus far overlooked Little Miss Sunshine, but let me say two things. First, Alan Arkin won a well deserved Oscar for his foul mouthed yet relatively brief role as the grandfather. His character makes this movie hands down. I am not sure why his real life son Adam Arkin was not cast as the Dad…it would have been perfect. The other note that needs mentioning is the ending. I suppose it’s not too big of a spoiler to say that, despite all the difficulties along the way the family does make it to the pageant just in the nick of time. Once there it quickly becomes apparent that the little girl is way out of her league, a plain Jane novice amongst little grizzled veterans with layers of makeup, fake eyelashes, and swimsuits the parents should be arrested for allowing them to wear. But she gets on stage and does her thing, and it is one of the funniest scenes you will see on film. You won’t see it coming, but you won’t forget it once you’ve watched.
49 Miracle on 34th Street
Every December our televisions are polluted with Christmas movies, and I love every second. Channels like Hallmark and ABC Family introduce new made-for-TV flicks each year, and some of them are halfway entertaining. The big studios usually come up with one or two holiday themed films, with fairly recent examples being stuff like Bad Santa, Christmas with the Kranks, Deck the Halls, and Four Christmases. Sometimes these are okay, but rarely do they have a real impact or any sustainable staying power. They entertain for a couple hours but ultimately are completely forgettable. But there are a handful of films that have become classics…Christmas traditions almost as important as twinkle lights, eggnog, and mistletoe. You’ll see several of those on this list, and one of the oldest is Miracle on 34th Street. Made in 1947, in a post-war era that wanted feel good stories and laughter, it’s the story of a department store Santa who is put on trial to prove whether or not he is real. In a bit of prescient marketing, the film opens with Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, which is now thought of as the official kickoff to the Christmas season. Santa charms most of his co-workers, but he sets his sights on a skeptical single Mom and her unbelieving, precocious young daughter. No details are ever given as to why Mom is single or the reasons for her cynicism, but one can assume that she was hurt badly by a man. Santa is joined by a friendly lawyer who has a thing for Mom, which comes in handy when Ol’ Saint Nick runs up against the legal system. I am quite sure that anyone over the age of 30 has seen Miracle on 34th Street. I do worry that younger generations may not fully embrace its greatness since it isn’t shown on TV as much these days. Not that long ago it was shown on NBC immediately following the Macy’s parade, which seemed appropriate. Now NBC airs a dog show. Movie channels like AMC and TCM still show Miracle, but not as much as one may think. In 1994 a remake was made, and it isn’t bad as far as remakes go. Macy’s refused to participate and Gimbel’s was already out of business, so two fictional stores are substituted. Other small changes are made to the plot, but overall it stays fairly faithful to the original and is rather likeable. Still though, it is almost always my stance that the original is better than a remake and I hope that in this case we never stop watching the 1947 classic…in black and white. There is a colorized version, but colorization of black and white films is just so wrong, plus they usually give me a headache.
48 You’ve Got Mail
Bogey and Bacall… Hepburn and Tracy…Astaire and Rogers. Classic screen pairings are exceptional. The chemistry has to be just right, and it cannot be forced or planned…the magic just happens. It is my personal opinion that Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan are one of those magical duos. 1998’s You’ve Got Mail was their third movie together, and is kind of a remake of the 1940 Jimmy Stewart vehicle The Shop Around the Corner. I wouldn’t consider it a true remake, as it is significantly updated to include modern technology…e-mail and chat rooms play a key role and the title itself is borrowed from AOL’s well known welcome to customers signing in to their account. But the basic premise is still there…two lonely people anonymously corresponding and falling in love in the process, all while they are totally unaware that they know each other in real life. This update folds in the concept of competing bookstores, which is likely a big factor in its likeability for me. Greg Kinnear, Parker Posey, Jean Stapleton, and John Randolph have amusing supporting roles, and that is a key ingredient in any great film. Like any tasty recipe the flavors have to maintain a delicate balance. You’ve Got Mail seems to pop up on television a lot, and I must confess that I will generally watch unless I am really busy, which is rare. Further Hanks/Ryan pairings seem unlikely…they are both getting older and Meg Ryan has paid a few too many visits to her friendly neighborhood Botox provider…but we shall savor the goodness they’ve provided for us for many years to come.
While Miracle on 34th Street has long been a bona fide Christmas classic, there are a few films that are growing into that role. One of those up and comers is 2003’s Elf, starring Will Ferrell. Ferrell seems to be one of those actors that you either love or hate…there doesn’t seem to be much middle ground amongst fans. That is largely a function of his sophomoric humor and childlike performances. But that irreverent immaturity works perfectly in this movie. As the story goes, an orphaned baby crawls into Santa’s sack on Christmas Eve and ends up living at the North Pole. After three decades of being raised as an elf, Buddy faces the harsh reality that he is actually not one at all and sets off… passing “through the seven levels of the Candy Cane Forest, through the sea of swirly twirly gum drops, and then through the Lincoln Tunnel”…for New York City to find his real Dad, a book publisher who is on Santa’s Naughty List. It’s a fun twist on the standard fish-out-of-water tale, as Buddy’s innocent elfish behavior befuddles those around him while at the same time making us, the audience, crack up laughing. Buddy does things like chew old gum that people have stuck under tables, eat pasta covered in syrup, and burst into a diner with the moniker “World’s Best Cup of Coffee” congratulating them enthusiastically on their accomplishment. He eventually finds his crusty Dad, played by James Caan, and somehow stumbles into Gimbel’s (which was actually defunct by 2003, but we won’t quibble) where he is mistaken for an employee. He eventually gets fired after hysterically attacking a faux Santa (“You stink. You smell like beef and cheese! You don’t smell like Santa.”), but not before becoming enamored with the lovely Jovie, with whom he develops a relationship. The climax involves the real Santa, Christmas caroling in Central Park, and Buddy’s family & friends uniting to save Christmas. It’s all very silly, very harmless, and a lot of fun. I don’t think it is farfetched to assume that Elf will undoubtedly take its rightful place alongside A Christmas Carol, It’s A Wonderful Life, A Christmas Story, and others in the pantheon of beloved holiday films…if it hasn’t already.
46 When Harry Met Sally
I am not afraid to admit that I, as a man, like romantic comedies. I would much rather see two people go about the meandering yet fun process of falling in love than watch a bunch of pointless explosions, shootings, and car chases. All that stuff can be entertaining on occasion, but I generally prefer something with an actual storyline. When Harry Met Sally is the gold standard of rom-coms, as they are known. It is the one that every film of its ilk is compared to. Released in 1989, the story covers about a decade and a half and stars Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal, who tackle the question “can men and women be just friends?”. While the pairing of Ryan and Crystal doesn’t have quite the enchanting luster of Ryan and Tom Hanks, the two do have a certain quirky chemistry. For guys like me seeing a schlub like Crystal charm his way into the life of a babe like Ryan (pre-Botox addiction) is encouraging even if it is fake and in no way reflects how the world works in reality. Our two lovebirds meet in college and instantly hate each other. This part of the film is the weakest only because it is laughable to see a 40 year old Crystal portray a character half his age, but the interaction and dialogue is so fun and snappy that one can forgive the infraction. As the relationship between Harry and Sally grows so does the film grow on the viewer as things progress. Carrie Fisher and Bruno Kirby provide amiable support as the obligatory best friends, and the music, done mostly by an at the time unknown Harry Connick Jr. seals the deal. The deli scene…you know what I’m talking about – “I’ll have what she’s having”…is legendary and just another memorable moment that makes the movie great.
- Take Three: Alan Arkin (filmexperience.blogspot.com)
- 25 of the Most Overrated Movies of All-Time (coedmagazine.com)
- 8 reviews of Little Miss Sunshine (rateitall.com)
- “Why did so few specialty films cross over this summer?” (gointothestory.com)