Merry Movie Mayhem: North Pole (Round 1)

Today we finish the first round of Merry Movie Mayhem. If you need to go back and catch up on the results thus far just click on the links to see what went down in the Candy Cane, Eggnog, & Mistletoe Divisions. I’m pleased with the pace we’ve set so I think we’ll take a break for a few days before moving on to Round 2. If you didn’t see your favorite holiday film in the competition don’t hesitate to leave me a comment asking “What up with that, dawg??”…or something to that effect. There is probably a perfectly reasonable explanation for its exclusion. Or maybe I just completely overlooked it. Who knows??

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s A Wonderful Life                             

Released                                           12/20/46

Starring                                              James Stewart, Donna Reed                                

Director                                              Frank Capra (It Happened One Night, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington)

Rotten Tomatoes                              94%

I feel like I’ve written just about everything there is to say about IAWL in the years since the inception of The Manofesto, but allow me to offer a brief refresher. The story was conceived by a Pennsylvania Civil War historian named Philip Van Doren Stern. The Greatest Gift was not accepted for publication for whatever reason, so Stern simply included it in his annual Christmas card mailings. Someone on his Christmas card list must have liked the short story, because it was subsequently published in 1944. A film producer saw the story and it eventually ended up in the hands of director Frank Capra. IAWL was nominated for multiple Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actor, & Best Director. A clerical error prevented the copyright from being renewed in 1974, so due to it being in the public domain the movie became a popular late night staple during the holidays on local TV stations throughout the 70’s & 80’s until 1993 when the copyright was restored to Republic Pictures, who then licensed it to NBC in 1996. For the past two decades NBC had shown it only a couple of times every December (early in the month & again on Christmas Eve), but starting in 2016 USA Network (which is owned by NBC/Universal) added a few additional airings. Of course with streaming & other home video options none of that really matters anymore.

 

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Love Actually

Released                                           11/14/03

Starring                                              Hugh Grant, Liam Neeson, Colin Firth. Laura Linney, Emma Thompson, Alan Rickman, Keira Knightley

Director                                              Richard Curtis (Four Weddings & a Funeral, Notting Hill, Bridget Jones’ Diary)

Rotten Tomatoes                              63%

Personally I am more unconvinced of Love Actually’s claim to being a Christmas film than I am Die Hard, but I’m feeling generous. This is one of those movies…like New Year’s Eve, He’s Just Not That Into You, & Valentine’s Day…with a huge, very British, very talented ensemble cast involved in multiple stories that all seem to intersect by the end. There are those who love Love Actually, and maybe they are right. Perhaps I’m missing something or just being obtuse.

 

The Verdict:       It’s A Wonderful Life. Believe it or not there are people that hate IAWL. Some people say “How can a movie about suicide be a heartwarming Christmas classic??”. Others remember when it used to be on TV a bazillion times every December and still hold a grudge, even though a) that hasn’t been the case for over twenty years, & b) there are other movies these days that are shown just as much as or more than IAWL used to be and those same people love those other movies. I guess folks just like what they like, and I happen to adore IAWL. If it’s not your cup o’ tea we’ll just have to agree to disagree. Love Actually is a perfectly delightful film, but not only is it severely overmatched here, it’s also a movie that I just haven’t watched often at all & can take or leave.

 

 

 

 

The Polar Express                                

Released                                           11/10/04

Starring                                              Tom Hanks                                 

Director                                              Robert Zemeckis (Cast Away)

Rotten Tomatoes                              55%

Zemeckis is back!! Actually this was his first foray into motion capture technology…and perhaps one of the earliest feature films utilizing it. The story is based on an award winning 1985 children’s book about a group of kids who ride a magical train to the North Pole on Christmas Eve. Tom Hanks plays a half dozen different characters. I’m totally into motion capture and think it’s cool, but I understand that others find the animation disturbing for whatever reason. I am far beyond the age of believing in Santa Claus, but I’ll be darned if this movie doesn’t make me REALLY want to believe once again.

 

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Deck the Halls

Released                                           11/22/06

Starring                                              Danny DeVito, Matthew Broderick

Director                                              John Whitesell (Big Momma’s House 2)

Rotten Tomatoes                              6%

The Rotten Tomatoes score seems harsh, but I get it. With a title borrowed from the beloved Christmas carol you’d expect this movie to be a bit more uplifting, but it’s not. The story follows two neighbors who end up going to war during the holiday season when one of them decides to put up an elaborate light display that “can be seen from space”. I have to assume that the plot is inspired by those shows you see on The Travel Channel this time of year called Crazy Christmas Lights or something like that, and I think those shows & those types of gaudy displays may have been inspired by National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. Personally I prefer elegant & tasteful Christmas lights and can do without the rock music accompaniment, but to each their own. Anyway, in my opinion this movie isn’t as bad as the critics might indicate, if only because of the talented cast.

 

The Verdict:       The Polar Express. I adore this movie. It is the very definition of holiday magic. Wouldn’t we all like to retain that childlike wonder that allowed us to believe in something as enchanting as Santa Claus?? Of course we would. Deck the Halls is better than a rotten 6% rating…but not much better.

 

 

 

 

 

Planes, Trains, & Automobiles 

Released                                           11/25/87

Starring                                              John Candy, Steve Martin            

Director                                              John Hughes           (Mr. Mom, Sixteen Candles, Uncle Buck)

Rotten Tomatoes                              92%

Here we go…back to Thanksgiving. However I think this is probably superior to any other Thanksgiving movie or show. It’s actually a road trip/buddy comedy that happens to be set at Thanksgiving. I’m a huge John Hughes fan. He wrote/produced/directed so many wonderful films. And the pairing of Candy & Martin?? Inspired. Brilliant. Comedy gold. I only wish they would have made more movies together. Thanksgiving is a unique holiday that is difficult to besmirch with commercialism. People don’t want gifts or candy or flowers. It’s not an excuse to party or blow things up. All that most folks want on Thanksgiving is to be at home with loved ones and enjoy a nice meal. This movie captures that desire in such a subtle & funny way that it kind of sneaks up on you.

 

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Arthur Christmas

Released                                           11/23/11

Starring                                              James McAvoy, Hugh Laurie

Director                                              Sarah Smith

Rotten Tomatoes                              92%

A lot of the movies & shows you’re reading about here have been around for awhile…25 years, 35 years, 50 years, 75 years. This is one of the new kids on the block. It hasn’t had time to really ingratiate itself into our pop culture consciousness. It may or may not ever achieve that goal, but does merit inclusion in this exercise. Arthur is Santa’s youngest son, and he’s kind of the black sheep of the family. The North Pole is depicted as a high tech command center, Santa’s sleigh is the sort of ultramodern vehicle that NASA dreams about, & the annual Christmas Eve flight around the world is an intricate operation that’d make the U.S. military envious. The mantle of Santa Claus is passed from father to son, with the current titleholder, Malcolm, on the verge of retirement and his eldest, Steve, preparing to take the reins soon. But this particular Christmas Eve something goes awry and it’s up to Arthur, inept but resolute, to save the day. Arthur Christmas takes familiar territory and adds a futuristic spin, but instead of being cynical itself it is more of a fun commentary on Christmas cynicism.

 

The Verdict:       Planes, Trains, & Automobiles. I like Arthur Christmas well enough. It’s fresh, creative, & entertaining. But the competition is just too much. It has become almost as much of a Thanksgiving tradition as turkey, football, & the Macy’s Parade.

 

 

 

 

 

Frosty the Snowman         

Released                                           12/7/69

Starring                                              Jimmy Durante, Jackie Vernon          

Director                                              Rankin/Bass

Rotten Tomatoes                              60%

“Singing Cowboy” Gene Autry recorded Frosty the Snowman in 1950, just one year after his Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer hit #1 on the charts. But it wasn’t until 1969 that CBS first broadcast the animated special based on the song. Nearly a half century later it is still a beloved annual tradition. While the song is a winter carol that has become tangentially associated with Christmas despite the holiday only being mentioned at the very end, saying “he waved goodbye saying ‘don’t you cry…I’ll be back on Christmas Day!’”, the special is set on Christmas Eve and features Santa Claus “resurrecting” Frosty after he’s been locked in a greenhouse by Professor Hinkle and melted.

 

 

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The Family Stone

Released                                           12/16/05

Starring                                              Diane Keaton, Craig T. Nelson, Sarah Jessica Parker, Luke Wilson, Rachel McAdams, Clare Danes

Director                                              Thomas Bezucha

Rotten Tomatoes                              52%

Dysfunctional family dramedy has become a common theme in holiday films. I really can’t relate because I’ve always gotten along with my family and look forward to visiting with them on holidays. At any rate, there are several subplots in The Family Stone, as everybody seems to have some kind of issue. They scream, they cry, they argue…but familial love wins in the end, as it should. The cast is phenomenal, from the sublime Diane Keaton & elegantly low-key Craig T. Nelson to the wittily charming Luke Wilson & radiant Rachel McAdams. The movie ends on a bit of a downer, which unfortunately impacts one’s lasting impression. The story stays with you for awhile, but not necessarily in a good way.

 

The Verdict:       Frosty. Come on…was there any doubt?? Look, I realize that Christmas can be very sad for many people, and Hollywood feels compelled to address that aspect. I get it…I really do. I will admit that…mostly because of the talented ensemble and nimble writing…The Family Stone has gotten its fair share of repeat views from me. However, at the end of the day I still choose for Christmas to be a joyous occasion despite the harsh realities of life. Maybe someday I’ll be the guy sitting alone in a dive bar on Christmas Eve nursing my whiskey and raging at the jolly masses while wondering why my life has gone so horribly wrong, but thankfully I’m not there yet. Frosty the Snowman is something I grew up with, and for a short time every December I get to bring my inner child out to play, which is awesome.

 

 

 

 

Holiday Inn                           

Released                                           8/4/42

Starring                                              Bing Crosby, Fred Astaire 

Director                                              Mark Sandrich (Top Hat, The Gay Divorcee)

Rotten Tomatoes                              100%

Did you know that the Holiday Inn chain of hotels got its name from this movie?? Well you do now!! Bing Crosby stars as a song & dance man who decides to escape the bright lights of New York and open a quaint Connecticut inn that will only be open on holidays. There is singing, dancing, romance, & hijinks, all centered around familiar celebrations on the calendar. Holiday Inn is mostly remembered for introducing the world to the song White Christmas, but there are memorable performances throughout. They don’t make movies like this anymore, which is a shame.

 

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All I Want For Christmas

Released                                           11/8/91

Starring                                              Ethan Embry, Kevin Nealon, Thora Birch

Director                                              Robert Lieberman (D3: The Mighty Ducks)

Rotten Tomatoes                              0%

1991 will be forever be remembered by the masses as the year that launched the fabled career of actor Ethan Embry. And while he went on to star in cinematic masterpieces like Vegas Vacation, That Thing You Do, and Can’t Hardly Wait, it is this little holiday gem that might outlast everything else. The basic gist of the story is that two kids whose parents are divorced hatch a scheme on Christmas Eve to get them back together (spoiler alert: it works). For such an overlooked film the cast is actually quite stellar, including Thora Birch (who would go on to more notorious roles in American Beauty and…well…American Beauty is pretty much it), Leslie Nielsen as Santa Claus, SNL funnyman Kevin Nealon, & the legendary Lauren Bacall. All I Want For Christmas was a box office bomb that the critics didn’t like, but found new life for awhile popping up on television, which is where I first discovered it. It’s not a great movie, but it is delightful enough.

 

The Verdict:       Holiday Inn. I am eternally indebted to my friend & brother The Owl for introducing me to this movie back in college. I pride myself on having good taste, and films like this display a level of class generally absent from the vast majority of modern entertainment. Would it even be possible to maintain a business that is open less than a dozen times per year?? I have no idea. But the concept sure does make a terrific foundation for this movie.

 

 

 

 

 

The Santa Clause

Released                                           11/11/94

Starring                                              Tim Allen                  

Director                                              John Pasquin (Miss Congeniality 2: Armed and Fabulous)

Rotten Tomatoes                              75%

There was a brief moment in 1994 when Tim Allen starred in the top rated show on TV (Home Improvement), authored the best-selling book in the country (Don’t Stand Too Close to a Naked Man), & played Santa in the #1 film at the box office. The Santa Clause was the first of a (unplanned…I assume) trilogy, and is indisputably the best of the three movies. It is an origin story suggesting that Santa is a character inhabited by different men at different times. In this case Scott Calvin…a divorced toy executive who has consistently disillusioned his young son…inherits the job when the current Santa falls off his roof and I guess dies…a morbid fact that is mercifully glossed over. Scott & his boy Charlie deliver gifts around the world and spend a night at The North Pole, but the real fun begins the next day when the new Santa thinks it was all a dream…until he slowly begins to morph into The Jolly Old Elf over the next few months. I’m a fan of Santa Claus origin stories, and this is one of the best.

 

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Mickey’s Christmas Carol                   

Released                               12/16/83

Starring                                   Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck                 

Director                                   Burny Mattinson (The Great Mouse Detective)

Rotten Tomatoes                            90% (a)

It’s difficult to tell the story of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol in a half hour, yet it’s been tried several times with varying degrees of success. Taken at face value the Mickey Mouse version is perfectly charming. Disney created the character of Scrooge McDuck in 1947 as a homage to Ebenezer Scrooge, and that tribute comes full circle in this show. Mickey Mouse as Bob Cratchit is perfect casting, and a few other cartoon favorites make an appearance (Jiminy Cricket, Daisy Dick, Goofy, The Three Little Pigs, Chip & Dale, Huey, Dewey, & Louie, Minnie Mouse). Television aficionados may be interested to know that Hal Smith (Otis Campbell from The Andy Griffith Show) and Alan Young (Wilbur from Mister Ed) provide the voices for Goofy/Jacob Marley and Scrooge McDuck / Ebenezer Scrooge, respectively.

 

The Verdict:       The Santa Clause. Mickey’s Christmas Carol is a great introduction to the story for small children, but at a running time of less than 30 minutes it only has time to hit the highlights, which is fine for short attention spans but not all that enticing to adults. There is also an issue with accessibility. I remember it being on TV when I was a kid, but I don’t think it has aired with any kind of regularity for a decade…maybe two. The Santa Clause instantly became a beloved classic twenty years ago. Sure it has some undertones emblematic of somber 90’s cynicism, but that is minimized in favor of Christmas magic. I love Santa origin stories, and though it has a modern spin at the beginning the outcome is decidedly vintage.

 

 

 

 

A Christmas Carol (1984)

Released                                           12/17/84

Starring                                              George C. Scott       

Director                                              Clive Donner            (The Thief of Baghdad)

Rotten Tomatoes                              74% (a)

I am a traditionalist in most aspects of life, and it has always been my belief that uniquely British characters from British novels should be portrayed by British actors in film adaptations. However, there are exceptions to most rules, and in this case I must admit that Virginia native George C. Scott is a worthy Ebenezer Scrooge. This version of Carol was a made-for-television production that aired on CBS here in America, but it was released in theaters in Britain and certainly has a big screen vibe. Like just about every other adaptation it takes certain liberties with the novel, adding & subtracting little things, but none are deal breakers. If you’re channel surfing and need your Scrooge fix you could definitely do worse.

 

 

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Miracle on 34th Street (1994)

Released                                           11/18/94

Starring                                              Richard Attenborough, Dylan McDermott, Elizabeth Perkins

Director                                              Les Mayfield (Encino Man, Flubber)

Rotten Tomatoes                              61%

There are no sacred cows in Hollywood. If they’ll remake Psycho, The Karate Kid, Footloose, Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, and The Pink Panther then apparently all bets are off. This was clear way back in 1994 when a remake of the 1947 classic Miracle on 34th Street was released. The thing is…it’s not that bad. Macy’s didn’t want to be involved and Gimbel’s was already out of business, so two fictional department stores fill in, but other than that and a few other modern updates the essence of the story remains. Alas, while the underrated Elizabeth Perkins as the jaded mother is luminous, the film itself lacks the innocent magic of the original, replacing it with subtle 90’s era cynicism.

 

The Verdict:       A Christmas Carol. I don’t HATE the Miracle remake and I don’t LOVE this version of Carol, but I am used to there being a plethora of A Christmas Carol adaptations and accept that each of them tries to put their own unique spin on the story. This one brings a lot of good stuff to the table. 1994 wasn’t the first time Miracle on 34th Street was remade, but the others were TV movies made in the 50’s & 70’s that are easily ignored. The 1994 movie can’t be ignored and I’m not suggesting it should be, but it just doesn’t measure up.

 

 

 

 

The Lemon Drop Kid

Released                                           3/8/51

Starring                                              Bob Hope

Director                                              Sidney Lanfield (The Hound of the Baskervilles)

Rotten Tomatoes                              73% (a)

My generation remembers Bob Hope as an aging comedian who frequently hosted variety show specials on NBC, including an annual show at Christmastime when he would introduce college football’s All-American Team, and also for regularly heading overseas to entertain American servicemen in places like Korea, Vietnam, & The Middle East. Hope always ended his shows with his signature song Thanks for the Memory, and the Christmas special traditionally featured him singing Silver Bells. But from the 1930’s thru the 60’s he was also a movie star, and Silver Bells became famous in part due to being sung in this film in which Hope plays a fast-talking racetrack hustler known as The Lemon Drop Kid because of his fondness for lemon drop candies. When The Kid inadvertently crosses a well-known gangster in Florida he is given until Christmas Eve to come up with the money he owes or else he’ll face…unpleasant…consequences. The Kid flees to New York, but when his gig as a street corner bell-ringing Santa Claus doesn’t work out he hatches a new scheme to raise donations for a phony old folks’ home. That plan is going alright until another mobster interferes. Hilarity & chaos ensue, but all’s well that ends well in a fun Christmas Eve climax.

 

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Trading Places

Released                                           6/10/83

Starring                                              Eddie Murphy, Dan Aykroyd

Director                                              John Landis (Animal House, The Blues Brothers)

Rotten Tomatoes                              86%

I wanted to avoid crossover with this project and 80’s Movie Mania, which necessitated a few difficult decisions. At the end of the day that means Trading Places & Die Hard were saved for this competition, while Lethal Weapon was a part of 80’s Movie Mania. At any rate, Murphy & Aykroyd are both SNL alums who went on to bigtime movie stardom in the 1980’s. Their stars have since faded significantly, although they still pop up now & again (Aykroyd has gracefully transitioned into supporting roles, while Murphy still labors under the delusion that he’s relevant). Hot off the success of 48 Hrs. and just before the box office triumph of Beverly Hills Cop, Murphy took this role as a smartass homeless bum who basically switches lives with an erudite stockbroker at Christmastime as part of a social experiment/wager between two wealthy old geezers. The key is that the two guys are set up and not in on the joke. It is essentially a modern take on Mark Twain’s 1881 novel The Prince & the Pauper, and the two leading men really deliver. It is a smart, funny, well-written movie with an immensely satisfying conclusion.

 

The Verdict:       The Lemon Drop Kid. This is a tough call. It’s a great example of what exactly defines a Christmas movie…or not. Both are set at Christmastime. Neither story is dependent on Christmas as a factor in the plot…they both could be set at any other time of the year with few changes needed. However, I think the Christmas timeline plays a slightly bigger role in The Lemon Drop Kid, and we cannot overlook the fact that the movie introduced the world to what has become a very popular Christmas carol. There is an accessibility issue. The Lemon Drop Kid is never shown on television…not even on AMC or TCM, and it’s not available on streaming services. The only way I know to watch it is on YouTube, which is a shame. Trading Places is a great movie…one of the best of its era. But it just doesn’t jump into my mind when pondering Christmas movies.

100 Favorite Movies…..41-45

At this point some patterns have started to develop. You will see my affections for certain types of films, certain actors, and particular film trilogies or series. I will do my best to not become repetitive in my comments, and apologize ahead of time if I do that anyway. In video stores they used to have a section of “If you liked this then check this out…”. I don’t really peruse video stores anymore. After all, with Netflix, DVR, Video On Demand, and Redbox who needs to pay Blockbuster $4/rental?? But if my dear readers have any suggestions based on the examples I write about here please don’t hesitate to let me know.


 

45 Sleepless In Seattle

I mentioned in a previous post that Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan made three movies together. We’ve discussed You’ve Got Mail. Another was Joe Versus the Volcano, which is okay but not one of my favorites. The third Hanks/Ryan pairing is, in my opinion, the best and, with apologies to When Harry Met Sally (which we also looked at previously), the greatest romantic comedy of all time. Hanks plays a widower whose wife has just succumbed to cancer. That doesn’t seem like the basis for a romantic comedy, but we don’t get to see much of the sad stuff. What we see is Sam taking his young son and beginning a new life in Seattle. He eventually gets back into the dating scene, but his little boy isn’t satisfied with Dad’s taste in women, so he calls a nationwide radio talk show on Christmas Eve and tells the host his father needs a new wife. Sam is goaded into spilling his heart to an enraptured listening public who apparently have nothing better to do on Christmas Eve. Listening intently all the way on the other side of the country in Baltimore is Annie, played by Ryan. Annie is engaged to an allergy-ridden milquetoast that she doesn’t really love and easily becomes mesmerized…and a bit obsessed…by Sam’s story. She is among the thousands of women who send Sam letters, which he somewhat cynically yet logically dismisses. She even has a background check done on him and goes to Seattle only to chicken out when their eyes lock ever so briefly. In a nod to the 1957 Cary Grant classic An Affair to Remember, the little boy (posing as his father) writes Annie and asks her to meet him at the top of the Empire State Building on Valentine’s Day. The little boy takes off for New York by himself unbeknownst to Dad, and Annie decides to throw caution to the wind and be there too. I won’t spoil the ending for those who haven’t seen the film (and if you haven’t shame on you), but suffice to say that the phrase “Shall we??” may be one of the best lines of dialogue ever. I need to point out that Rosie O’Donnell has a role as the perfunctory best friend, and I detest Rosie O’Donnell. That should tell you all you need to know – if I can get past Rosie’s unfortunate besmirching of this movie it must be pretty extraordinary.

 

44 Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home

We’ve established the fact…or atleast the commonly held opinion among Trekkies…that of the six films starring the original Enterprise crew the even-numbered ones are superior. This fourth installment is what I call “the one with the whales”. The crew travels back in time (and time travel is always cool) to 1980’s San Francisco to secure some humpback whales that will save Earth in the future. The details are too contrived to explain here, and they don’t really matter anyway. What matters is that the movie becomes a delightfully humorous fish-out-of water tale (pun unavoidable), with our heroes from the 23rd century trying to maneuver in the 20th. Spock and Kirk encounter an annoying punk rocker on a bus that refuses to turn down his music…Spock knocks him unconscious with the Vulcan nerve pinch. Spock doesn’t understand the concept of profanity but tries to fit it by using it…and fails miserably. Scotty tries to talk to a computer instead of using the keyboard. Kirk asks the crew to “remember where we parked” the Klingon Bird of Prey they’ve cloaked in an open field. Bones’ hilariously indignant take on “modern” medicine – “Dialysis?? What is this, the Dark Ages??”…” My God, man. Drilling holes in his head isn’t the answer!!”.  It’s a rather lighthearted Trek, and that’s okay. I suppose those that crave action, explosions, and battles to the death might not favor such a jocular story, and that is a perfectly understandable opinion. As for me, I feel it is a unique and memorable chapter in the Star Trek saga, and I will treasure it always.

 

43 Mrs. Doubtfire

I really like Robin Williams. I think he may be one of the two or three funniest men on the planet, and when he does dramatic roles he can be flat-out incredible. A few of his films are in this list and there are several more…Good Morning Vietnam, Aladdin, Good Will Hunting…that are more than fine but just not quite Top 100 worthy.  I do wonder about a lot of his choices in the 12 years since Good Will Hunting though. Patch Adams, Bicentennial Man, Death to Smoochy, Old Dogs…not a notable hit among them. But that’s a discussion for another time. Right now our topic of the moment is Mrs. Doubtfire, a very funny if a bit schmaltzy 1993 outing in which Williams dresses up as matronly old English nanny in order to spend time with his children, from whom his estranged wife is keeping him. Divorce and custody battles aren’t usually fodder for comedy, but somehow Mrs. Doubtfire pulls it off. The children are affable enough, and Sally Field is halfway sympathetic as a woman who has simply grown apart from her husband. But the heart & soul of the story is Williams in drag, a concept that is even funnier than it sounds. There is a scene near the end of the film where he is trying to have dinner in the same restaurant at the same time with his family as Mrs. Doubtfire and his boss as his normal male self. He almost pulls it off with impressive acumen, but unfortunately the boss is a drinker and he feels compelled to join in. Trying to lead a double life and keep up the ruse is difficult enough, but doing it while gooned on scotch proves to be too much. The hilarity that ensues before everything falls apart is more than enough to put a smile on one’s face though. The conclusion is a little sentimental, but I have to give the powers-that-be credit for not giving in to the temptation to go for the expected happy ending. This is one you can watch with the kids and not be embarrassed, and that is becoming something rare and valuable these days.

 

42 Rear Window

Jimmy Stewart is my very favorite actor of all time, and his range of roles was wide…everything from an affable lunatic that talks to an imaginary rabbit to a few turns as a tough cowboy and seemingly every nuance in between. He starred in four movies directed by Alfred Hitchcock, and I can’t think of an odder couple. I’m not a big Hitchcock guy. I generally prefer to laugh and lean heavily toward lighter fare, so his brand of suspense or thriller or however you want to classify his films just don’t usually pique my interest. But when Stewart is involved all the sudden I tend to take a look. 1954’s Rear Window is one of Hitchcock’s tamer offerings and deals with voyeurism taking a rather minimalist approach. Stewart plays a photographer who is housebound by a broken leg in the midst of a scorching hot summer. With nothing better to do (television was around, but I guess he’s not interested), Jeff spends his time checking up on the neighbors in his courtyard apartment complex with the aid of his binoculars. He has a girlfriend (played by Grace Kelly) and a home health nurse, but he still spends a good bit of time bored and alone. He can’t help but form opinions about his neighbors as he clandestinely peeks into their lives, and he even gives them nicknames like Miss Lonelyhearts and Miss Torso. One neighbor in particular grabs his attention, a man named Thorwald (played by the future Perry Mason, Raymond Burr). Jeff becomes convinced that Thorwald has murdered his wife and tries to persuade the girlfriend, the nurse, and a police buddy. They are dismissive at first, but eventually the girlfriend starts to believe Jeff is right and even starts nosing around since he can’t. Thorwald catches on to the fact that he is being watched, and the climax is a confrontation between the two men. By today’s standards the action is rather docile, and even in the world of Hitchcock it is somewhat unremarkable. But that is exactly what I like about it. It isn’t fancy or complex and doesn’t need to be. A good steak doesn’t need any kind of accompaniment to cover up the taste…its flavor is good enough to speak for itself. Rear Window is a well written story with good actors that takes a simple but appealing concept and turns it into a jolly good piece of entertainment.

 

41 Jerry Maguire

Unfortunately we live in a world where technology tends to shine a bright light on things that are none of our business and that we didn’t want to know in the first place. This type of “open book” situation is especially true of celebrities. No longer are they just actors and actresses playing roles on television or in movies. We know way too much about their personal life…all about their romances and sexual exploits, religious views, political affiliations, and opinions on everything from the environment & abortion to who they want to win the Super Bowl or World Series. This has been a legitimate issue for me, as so many Hollywood-ites are leftist, Godless, soul sucking ne’er-do-wells. It’s bad enough that  most of the “entertainment” produced nowadays is poorly written, dumbed down, sexually perverted, needlessly violent tripe…it is really frustrating when something decent comes about but stars some liberal America hating Jesus basher. What I finally had to do was learn to separate the two. I had to get to the point where I could admit that I liked a certain performer even if I disagree with their lifestyle. And so you will see movies on this list from the likes of Tom Hanks, Susan Sarandon, John Travolta, George Clooney, Brad Pitt, and Alec Baldwin. One of these assclowns is Tom Cruise, the king of some wackjob “religion” called Scientology. As a child of the 80’s I was a witness to the rise of Tom Cruise to superstardom, and I enjoyed most of his early films*- such as Taps, The Outsiders, Losin’ It, Cocktail, and of course Rain Man, Top Gun, & All the Right Moves. The past 10 years have been rather subpar though. Minority Report, Collateral, War of the Worlds, all those Mission: Impossible flicks?? I don’t think so. But back in 1996 Cruise got it exactly, 100%, so very right in what is at this point his last great movie.  Jerry Maguire is a sports agent who has an epiphany about the rampant dishonesty and slimeyness inherent in his job. He writes a missive about these feelings and hands it out. He gets fired. Oops. With no other choice he ventures out on his own, but none of his clients follow him…except one. That lone client is Arizona Cardinals’ wide receiver Rod Tidwell (in an Oscar winning performance by Cuba Gooding Jr.), an eccentric, cocky, dissatisfied talent who just wants someone to “show me the money”. Also along for the ride is a secretary from Jerry’s former agency who is inspired to follow him and develops an infatuation. Dorothy is a single Mom of an extremely cute little boy, and Jerry develops a relationship with them after his shallow girlfriend dumps him. Sports fans get a small glimpse into the underhanded world of agent-client relations as well as enjoy cameos by such luminaries as NFL draft guru Mel Kiper Jr., quarterbacks Warren Moon, Troy Aikman, & Drew Bledsoe, sportscasters Al Michaels, Frank Gifford, & Mike Tirico, and real life sports agents Drew Rosenhaus & Leigh Steinberg. But the heart of the film is the romance between Jerry and Dorothy, a business arrangement that turns into something much deeper. 14 years later people still quote Jerry Maguire, and it’s delicate balance of comedy, drama, romance, and even a wee bit of action is a rare feat. It is sweet but not too sweet, cynical but not overly so. Writer-director Cameron Crowe, who also did Say Anything and Almost Famous, has a knack for making his characters very relatable and human. Jerry Maguire proves that a great movie doesn’t require guns ablazing, blood & guts, or special effects to be  truly special.

 

 

100 Favorite Movies…..56-60

After a four month hiatus the time feels right to jump back into this series. Actually this little break was rather unintentional, or atleast I never meant for it to last this long…I just had other things I wanted to write about for awhile. There is still an eclectic mix of things in the pipeline, as I hope is always the case. Intellectual curiosity is a good thing. For now though, we’ll grab some popcorn (and chocolate covered peanuts) and head into the theater.

 

 


60 Hoosiers

It seems appropriate to be writing about Hoosiers on the cusp of NCAA basketball’s Final Four. I assure you the timing is purely coincidental though fitting. Hoosiers is a mid 80’s film set in the early 50’s, which right off the bat gives it a timeless quality. It stars Gene Hackman as a former college basketball coach who, it is eventually revealed, lost his job after hitting a student. Coach Norman Dale has been out of the game for over a decade when he is thrown a bone by an old friend, the principal of a small Indiana high school in need of a coach. Anyone who knows basketball knows that it is especially revered in Indiana, and that is reflected in the story. There’s the usual conflict between the coach and his players, who just don’t understand his methods. Throw in a budding romance between the coach and a fellow teacher (who can’t stand each other at first of course), a town drunk who also happens to be a basketball guru (played by Dennis Hopper in an Academy Award nominated performance), a gifted but troubled player who is reluctant to join the team, and townsfolk who are just a bit too passionate about their team (overcompensating for their empty and meaningless lives of course) and you’ve got yourself a nicely layered movie. Hoosiers has all the typical clichés that were originated in Rocky and have become staples in sports films like Rudy, Tin Cup, Remember the Titans, and Major League. Hackman and Hopper give nice performances and Hoosiers is a more than decent flick. It’s a bit predictable and the characters could be flushed out a bit more (it’s less than 2 hours long…another 20 minutes would have been peachy), but there’s no denying it has a place amongst the great sports movies. That place just may be a little lower in my opinion than many others’.

 

59 Vertigo

It should become apparent as one reads through these 100 movies that I am a Jimmy Stewart fan. By my count there are 6 of his movies on the list. It is ostensibly his Everyman quality…nice guy, small towner, “aw shucks” attitude that draws fans to Stewart, but the truth is much more complex. Jimmy’s talents had many facets, and in his career he played diverse roles…small town nice guy, hardscrabble cowboy, sophisticated man-about-town. Three directors guided Stewart through a large chunk of his 92 films – Frank Capra (3 films), Anthony Mann (8 films) Alfred Hitchcock (4 films). It is his work with Hitchcock that, in my opinion, is the most unique. Vertigo is much like that book that you were assigned to read in school and really resisted, but upon being forced to read it you rather enjoyed. I am not normally a huge fan of the suspense thriller genre, and years ago when I first made myself watch Vertigo (afterall, any self respecting Stewart fan just HAS to), I was fully prepared to not really like it all that much. However, much to my surprise I was sucked in by the singular story and the mesmerizing performances. The plot is far too intricate to describe here, but suffice to say it involves deception, dual identities, murder, obsession, and of course vertigo (i.e. paralyzing fear of heights). Jimmy strays about as far away from the “aw shucks” nice guy persona as he would ever get, but doesn’t cross too far into villainous territory. Vertigo demands repeat viewing so one can digest all of Hitchcock’s twisted goodness, but it is time well spent…although I do recommend following it up with a screwball comedy as a palate cleanser.

 

58 American Beauty

Speaking of screwball comedies…well, okay, maybe not so much. Any movie that climaxes with a person’s brains being spilled onto the kitchen floor probably can’t really be called a comedy. Actually this film is one of those that is rather difficult to categorize, but all things considered I must admit that American Beauty makes me laugh. Maybe it is the spot on accurate portrayal of the desperation and despair inherent in modern suburbia. Perhaps it is because it takes the average happy family myth and turns it on its ear. That’s a common theme nowadays. Numerous sitcoms portray families as dysfunctional trainwrecks of unhappiness. But that is a relatively new development in entertainment. Before American Beauty only two examples, both of them television shows…Roseanne and Dallas…stood out as having such a cynical approach to family life. I never particularly liked the Roseanne show, and Dallas was a soap opera. Kevin Spacey, who I enjoy in just about everything he is in, is brilliant in American Beauty as a man going through a mid-life crisis while dealing with a loveless marriage and a brooding & timid teenage daughter. As Lester Burnham, Spacey deals with his unhappiness like an NFL linebacker deals with a running back trying to bust up the middle for a big gain. Lester begins smoking pot with a voyeuristic teenage neighbor, starts working out in order to impress his daughter’s gorgeous cheerleader friend, and quits his suit and tie gig (blackmailing his young boss for a year’s salary on the way out) at an advertising firm in lieu of working the drive thru at a local burger joint. Meanwhile, Lester’s materialistic, oddly driven wife begins a torrid affair with a real estate rival and the daughter begins an eccentric romance/friendship with the pot smoking teenage neighbor. That kid has issues of his own, with a military man for as father and a quietly desperate mother who lets her husband run roughshod over the family. All the stories converge into a strangely violent climax. Kudos can certainly be given to Annette Bening as the wife, Carolyn, Wes Bentley as voyeuristic neighbor Ricky, and the always entertaining Chris Cooper as Colonel Fitts…but the engine that drives American Beauty is Spacey, who makes every movie he is in better than if he was not present.

 

57 This Is Spinal Tap

I am a big fan of “mockumentaries”, movies that present the story within the framework of a supposedly real documentary. The undisputed king of mockumentaries was made in 1984 by director Rob Reiner (fresh off his success as “Meathead” on All in the Family), and stars Michael McKean (Lenny from Laverne & Shirley), Christopher Guest, and Harry Shearer (known to 21st century audiences as the voice of Mr. Burns, Ned Flanders, Principal Skinner, and others on The Simpsons). Guest would go on to be a successful director of mockumentaries himself, as well as being the husband of 80’s scream queen and the still smokin’ hot Jamie Lee Curtis. This Is Spinal Tap follows a fictional British heavy metal band as they venture out on an American tour and includes flashbacks that tell the group’s backstory. Sharp eyed viewers will spot cameos or bit parts by now well known faces such as Paul Shaffer, Fred Willard, Fran Dresher, Dana Carvey, Anjelica Huston, and Billy Crystal, but it is the interaction of the three band members that makes the movie great. The band is…well…not that bright, which leads to hilarity. There are several iconic scenes that anyone who has ever seen the film will never forget…the amp that goes to 11, the spontaneous combustion and “unfortunate gardening accident “ (among other things) that continues to take the band’s revolving door of drummers, the Stonehenge set, the black album cover. And the songs – Spinal Tap produces songs with titles like Hell Hole, Sex Farm, Breakfast of Evil, and Swallow My Love. Basically This Is Spinal Tap takes everything we think we know about the awesomeness of the rock n’ roll lifestyle and throws it all out the window. You’ll never take rock music as seriously again, and that’s not a bad thing.

 

56 Batman

Sometime in late childhood I became fascinated with Batman. I am not sure when or why. I was never a comic book sort of kid, and the early 80’s were dominated by Superman, with the movie franchise starring Christopher Reeve. I suppose Batman’s backstory fascinates me, with him being just a normal guy who is psychologically scarred as a child after seeing his parents gunned down by street thugs. Batman is not from another planet and he has no superpowers. He is just a man who kicks ass and takes names. He does have a dual identity, and he does happen to be filthy rich, but I can forgive those indulgences. I really enjoy the old television show starring Adam West and Burt Ward. It only lasted for 2 seasons in the late 60’s (the almost identical timeframe as the original Star Trek series – who was in charge of TV shows in the 60’s and why did they keep cancelling great ones??) and was long gone before I was even born, but repeats were shown on some channel that I cannot recall when I was younger. Then in 1989, Tim Burton, who had achieved great success with Beetlejuice, decided to bring The Caped Crusader to the big screen. As I recall there was some trepidation with casting funnyman Michael Keaton in the titular role, but as it turns out he was perfect…much better than those who followed him – Val Kilmer and George Clooney. Of course the real star of this particular movie is Jack Nicholson as The Joker. I’ve never been a huge Nicholson fan…he’s more of a persona than a great actor…but he was the absolute best Joker. There are many that would say that the late Heath Ledger surpassed Nicholson’s achievement, but I feel like Ledger’s performance is too often looked at…subconsciously…through the prism of his untimely death. At any rate, all the stars aligned on this rendition of Batman on the big screen, and 20 years later it holds up quite nicely.

 

 

100 Favorite Movies…..66-70

70 The Glen Miller Story

I’m a big fan of Jimmy Stewart and I love big band & jazz music, so this movie provides an irresistible combo. Stewart is quite the Miller doppelganger, which I assume is a prime reason he was cast in the film. June Allyson provides perky support as Miller’s wife, and a pre-MASH Harry Morgan plays Miller’s best buddy. The story follows Glen Miller from his struggling musician days through his rise to fame to his untimely demise in a presumed plane crash during World War II. I decided to watch this movie years ago simply because I had become a fan of Stewart and wanted to see as many of his films as possible. But the movie made me a Glenn Miller fan and I continue to enjoy his music immensely.

 

69 The Shrek Trilogy

I have to admit…I didn’t see any Shrek films until all three were already out and available on video, so I’m fairly new to the Shrek universe. I didn’t bother with them at first because I assumed they were kiddie films. However, I decided to watch one on television a few years back and have since seen all three. I was both right and wrong in my original assessment. They are undoubtedly geared toward an demographic far younger than I, but on the other hand sometimes it’s okay to temporarily feel like a kid again. For anyone unfamiliar (which I assume would only be folks who, like me, are both single and childless because anyone with children is surely familiar with Shrek), this animated trilogy follows the adventures of a surly but loveable ogre, his talking donkey sidekick, and the ogre’s lady love. There are a host of other characters. Lending their considerable voice talents to the three films are an all star team of folks such as Mike Myers, Eddie Murphy, Antonio Banderas, Cameron Diaz, John Lithgow, Justin Timberlake, John Cleese, Rupert Everett, and many more. Most of the visual humor and jokes in the series parody well known fairy tales, which is a huge part of the charm for me…I love parodies and who doesn’t appreciate childhood fairy tales. The animation is computer generated, which far exceeds the animation most of us grew up with. These movies need to be viewed in high definition to really get the full effect.

 

68 The Greatest Show On Earth

Once again my favorite actor Jimmy Stewart is paired with something cool. This time it’s the circus. I think this is one of Stewart’s best performances. It is certainly low key and subtle, as he spends the entire film in clown makeup. The bigger draw for most people, I suppose, would be Charlton Heston in one of his finest performances as well. Heston kind of became a sad parody of himself in the latter part of his career, but this is one of his earlier movies and he shows why he was once one of the top box office attractions in the world. Directed by famed auteur Cecil B. Demille (I’m ready for my close-up…indeed), the story follows the Ringling Brothers/Barnum & Bailey Circus as it travels from town to town. We meet several of the performers and become involved in their lives behind the big top, so to speak. That behind the scenes view reveals a lot of romance, intrigue, drama, and tragedy. Basically it’s a soap opera set at the circus. Demille is known for his lavish, over-the-top, extravagant productions, and he doesn’t disappoint with The Greatest Show On Earth. Like so many beloved memories of yesteryear, the circus has almost slipped into being a remnant from a bygone era. Sure they are still around, but they are no longer an event. Even when I was a kid not that long ago it was a big deal when the circus came to town. Nowadays kids are into their video games and computers and iPods and couldn’t possibly care less about the circus. But watch this movie and you will be reminded of just how extraordinary it used to be.

 

67 Ocean’s 13

In 2001 George Clooney, Matt Damon, and Brad Pitt teamed up to remake the 1960 Rat Pack romp Ocean’s 11, about robbing a Vegas casino. The remake was a smashing success and unlike the original spawned sequels. The first movie will be dealt with later in this list. The second movie, Ocean’s 12, was poorly written and quite forgettable. The third movie was Ocean’s 13, and it’s a nice rebound from its disappointing predecessor. This time the gang returns to Las Vegas and they don’t actually rob a casino as much as they…turn the odds in their favor through uniquely nefarious means. The bad guy is played by Al Pacino, which automatically makes this a must see. As with the other Ocean’s films, don’t try to interject logic or make sense out of the proceedings. This is pure popcorn cinema, escapism at its best.

 

66 The Frat Pack Three Pak (Anchorman, The 40 Year Old Virgin, & Wedding Crashers)

Anyone who grew up in the 80’s is familiar with The Brat Pack (Molly Ringwald, Emilio Estevez, Judd Nelson, Andrew McCarthy, Rob Lowe, and a few others). And while imitation is the sincerest form of flattery I would not necessarily call the modern Frat Pack imitators. The only similarity is the name homage, which was itself a takeoff on the 1960’s Rat Pack of Frank Sinatra and his pallies. The Frat Pack is generally thought to be comprised of Vince Vaughn, Ben Stiller, Will Ferrell, Owen and Luke Wilson, Steve Carell, Jack Black, Paul Rudd, and Seth Rogen. Some combination of those actors has starred in a host of films together with a wide array of results. Zoolander and Starsky & Hutch…not so good. Old School and Blades of Glory…much better. But for me three Frat Pack films stand head and shoulders above the crowd and have stood up to numerous repeated viewings. Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy stars Ferrell with Carell and Rudd in very amusing supporting roles. Vaughn, Stiller, Black, Rogen and Luke Wilson all have brief cameos. Ferrell plays an over-the-top misogynistic 70’s news anchor whose world is turned upside down when he’s forced to share the anchor desk with a woman. Anchorman is among the most quotable movies of the past two decades and is just pointless yet harmless fun. The 40 Year Old Virgin stars Carell as the titular character, with Rogen and Rudd in vital supporting roles that really make this film work. It’s hilarious but sweet, with more quotable dialogue and a few really memorable scenes. I really like Rudd in this film. Wedding Crashers, starring Vaughn and Owen Wilson, is a movie I really like but probably not as much as some people. I don’t think it’s really any better than any other Frat Pack film, which doesn’t mean anything negative it just means my praise seems to not rise to outlandish and undeserved peaks of hyperbole. Will Ferrell makes possibly one of the best cameos of all time, and to say that Rachel McAdams (who I someday intend to make my bride) is quite fetching may be one of the biggest understatements I could conceive. Plus there’s Christopher Walken and that’s just the cherry on top.