And Now, Our Feature Presentation, Part 1

It was over dinner at a local steakhouse that my wife and I began talking about movies. That’s not an odd topic of discussion; especially for us, particularly dinner. But the conversation turned to this question: What are the movies that we would list as the ones that could be watched ad infinitum, without ever becoming repetitious. Each of us offered up title after title; the final list was not very surprising to either of us. Naturally, I saw nascent blog material in that list, and so I share it with all of you, along with some commentary. There was no other criteria for inclusion to this list of 33 films, except that they each express a sufficient amount of timelessness in terms of the story and/or the characterization (both tend to run together, in my opinion). I’m sure everyone has their own list, which is what makes this so much fun. And many of the offerings here were suggested by my wife, to which I gladly assented. It’s nice to know we think pretty much alike when it come to cinematic fare! SPOILER ALERT!!! But, frankly, if you haven’t seen these films yet, then welcome to planet Earth! And so, without further adieu, here is the first of what will be a 3-part blog installment, and in no particular order, except that the further into the list I get, the more endearing the films will tend to be to me. Grab your popcorn!

The Ten Commandments (1956)

There’s something about the old Cecil B. DeMille “sword & sandal” epics, as they were called, and this is probably the granddaddy of them all. I know it’s overly dramatic at many points (“Behold God’s mighty hand!!!” thunders Moses), but at least the studio execs made an attempt to be faithful to the Biblical source material as the story of Moses leading the Israelites to freedom from Egypt is told with great attention to detail, if not unerring accuracy at every point along the way.. But honestly, can you resist a movie that has both Charleton Heston (Moses) and Yul Brynner (Ramses) trying to out-chew the scenery together? Mr. DeMille even narrated the darn thing!

Nitpick: Edward G. Robinson has never worked for me in this film. I guess I always see him as a gangster, as he played one with so much finality quite often. Years ago, Billy Crystal did a bit in his stand-up routine about the same gripe. It’s probably on YouTube, and it’s hilarious!

Lord Of The Rings Trilogy (2001-03)

Released a mere 3 months after 9/11, the first installment of this justly celebrated film series – The Fellowship of the Ring – proved to be more than a mere distraction from the despair and malaise that had gripped the US. The next two films in the trilogy – The Two Towers, and The Return of the King, were relased in successive Decembers in 2002 and 2003. What can I say about this rich panorama of drama, romance and even high comedy that hasn’t already been printed and/or said? After seeing the initial outing, I knew I had seen a spectacle that was ever so faithful to the source material (with minor exceptions). This juggernaut, of course, rang up nearly 3 Billion dollars in worldwide receipts, drawing from echt Catholic novels. If this were a list of literature, I would be also talking about Tolkien’s The Hobbit, which set the stage for the works under discussion now. The story of the lowly, unseeming Frodo and his hobbit companions set upon a quest to destroy the One Ring of power and destroy it, and thereby, destroying the Dark Lord Sauron, is a tale redolent with mystery and enchantment. The subplot of Aragorn, the exiled King of Gondor seeking to reclaim his throne serves as a needed distraction whilst our scrappy hobbit friends do their work. Howard Shore’s score is absolutely stunning and evokes all the majesty, whimsy, and foreboding needed at the required moments in this trilogy with 13 hours of music and over 100 leitmotifs. A gargantuan achievement in music.

The acting is superb all around. The always likeable Hugo Weaving was a noble and visceral Elven King Elrond, and Cate Blanchett shined in her portrayal of Queen Galadriel. Sir Ian McKellen soared (sometimes literally) as Gandalf, and Vigo Mortensen presented Aragorn with enough shadow throughout to give color and plenty of heft to his role as the exiled King of Gondor. There are really too many actors to complement here. Tolkien’s masterpiece is rightly exalted here; for the majesty and ardor of the heroic, and the ignominy and faithlessness of the evil, for evil is truly represented. Christopher Lee gave a chilling performance as Saruman. Finally, Andy Serkis as Gollum: Has goodness gone bad ever been so tragically represented as in this character? It is the littlest among us who, very often, may wind up saving the day. Isn’t that the message of this series? And that is a very catholic theme.

Nitpick: The romance between Eowyn and Faramir was an unnecessary element in an already crowded film series. Director Peter Jackson had his hands full managing other, much more critical parts of LOTR. Besides, Eowyn came across much better as the shield maiden she was. The fact that the romance is canon is irrelevant to me.

The Green Mile (1999)

Frank Darabont’s adaptation of Stephen King’s 1996 novel is a deftly told story of John Coffey, a black man wrongly accused of the murder of two young white girls in the 1930s American South. The late Michael Clarke Duncan shines as Coffey, a gentle soul with supernatural powers. It might be his best role. Throughout this film I was captivated by the realism of the settings and the characters. Tom Hanks, always delivering a brilliant performance, provides a strong emotional center as Paul Edgecomb, the correctional supervisor at the prison where John Coffey is transferred. Doug Hutchison, as Percy Wetmore, is a smarmy, oily and degenerate prison guard who receives cosmic justice from Coffey’s powers at the end of the film, but only after he shows us how low a person can sink in terms of sheer moral idiocy. The scene of Eduard Delacroix’s execution (Michael Jeter) remains a horrific insight into the abyss of human cruelty as perpetrated by Wetmore. And didn’t we all cry as John Coffey meekly yet courageously accepts his execution as a desired event? He who had the power to avoid such a fate instead, walks stoically toward it. If thee was ever a Christ-like figure in cinema, John Coffey would be it. 5 years earlier, Frank Darabont directed another King adaptation – The Shawshank Redemption. I did not include that film on my list, though it could easily have made it. That’s arbitrariness for you!

Nitpick: For all of its emotional impact in this film, the overall cooperativeness of the prison guards, including the warden seems to exist just to drive the plot forward. I haven’t read the book, but these guys are putting their careers on the line at one point – a fact that is brought up in the movie, itself – but all seems to move along effortlessly. A small gripe, admittedly.

Young Frankenstein (1974)

At 94, he shows no signs of slowing down, and good for those of us who have cherished his off kilter, 4th wall-demolishing humor, because Mel Brooks is one diminutive, creative dynamo, and has been for virtually his whole life. He really created a Frankenstein with this picture (cue the rolling fog and howls)! And his decision to shoot it entirely in B&W has enhanced the charm and seriocomic thrust, as well. There’s not a false note here; all the jokes are just as incisive and ruthless as they were 46 years ago. To this day, I can’t hear the song, “Puttin’ on the Ritz”, without the accompanying visual of Dr. Frankenstein (Gene Wilder) and the Monster (Peter Boyle) doing their buffoonish shtick. With Igor (Marty Feldman) and his mysteriously non-existent hump – “Hump? What hump”? – and Madeline Kahn vamping it up as Elizabeth, it’s a non-stop laugh fest. Does humor like this even exist anymore? No matter. Young Frankenstein, as a hilarious and rowdy parody of the Monster genre, can’t be beat.

Nitpick: I almost gave up trying to find something to carp about with this one, but I have to be consistent, so I’ll have to say that the movie loses a bit of steam after the brain reversal between the Doctor and the Monster. That was a stretch, I know, but one I feel is worthy of Frau Blucher – horse whinnying in the distance.

Spies Like Us (1985)

This comedic romp, starring Chevy Chase and Dan Akroyd as two CIA pencil pushers who are fast-tracked through combat training only to be used as decoys (unbeknownst to them), and sent to Afghanistan is full of what you would expect with these two in the mix. Bonus material: Fitz-Hume watches TV where Ronald Reagan and company sing, “I’ll Be Loving You”, in the immortal film, “She’s Working Her Way Through College.” You won’t find anything of considerable intellectual heft here, but it’s 102 minutes of comedy gold, albeit with plenty of lowbrow humor. I think it’s the easy laughs that keep me coming back to this one. Besides, if these two goofballs can thrive in the CIA, underachievers everywhere can rejoice! A John Landis directed film, this features Akroyd & Chase at the top of their games.

Nitpick: Where to begin? Hahaha! Just kidding! This flick is 35 years old and shows some of its age; plus, the Russians in it come across as a bunch of dummies. With adversaries like those, is it any wonder we won the Cold War?

Groundhog Day (1993)

In this comedic tour de force about misanthropic weatherman, Phil Connors reluctantly – and with his sarcasm setting turned up to 11 – finds himself sent to cover the Groundhog Day festivities in Punxsutawney, PA (for the fourth time running!), only to discover upon waking up the next day in his B&B that he’s actually reliving the same day. Of course this happens without respite for Phil, and fortunately for all of us, Murray is his usual wisecracking self even as he teeters toward the edge of despair as the same day repeats mercilessly (for him). Isn’t this the perfect vehicle to display how a person can be brought to themselves by virtue of the repetitiousness of circumstance? It’s positively purgatorial! This is one of two films my wife and I watch every year without fail (the other being Tombstone, also on this list). If we must grow in grace, why not do it with laughter? And we laugh until we realize that Phil’s torments are a kind, but impenetrably insistent way of wearing away his rough edges and softening of his heart. Andie MacDowell is Phil’s love interest, and their chemistry is pitch perfect. Somewhere, deep within this story are embedded several life and love lessons, and I never mind that I’m laughing under the tutelage of Murray & Company.

Nitpick: The setting of this movie has a charm all to itself (Woodstock, IL, home base of Director, Harold Ramis); it is every bit a character in this film, and the supporting characters were uniformly great, especially Stephen Tobolowsky, who played the obnoxious Ned Ryerson (“Phil?? Phil Connors???” How are ya??”). But for all that, the sameness can be somewhat stultifying. The mind longs for and needs some variety. The strength of this movie also becomes its biggest flaw. Imagine poor Phil if you will.

The Big Lebowski (1998)

There’s something about the deft manner in which Jeff Bridges assumes the role of a shiftless stoner as he does in this Coen brothers helmed work. He is positively mesmerizing as he lumbers across the screen, ever so careful about not spilling his ” beverage.” This film plays as if it were one long hallucinogenic trip, anyway, but it fires on all cylinders. However, it’s the characters who shine here because the plot is basic: Lebowski, who is mistaken for a millionaire, has his rug soiled by two thugs who invade his home, and, along with the aid of his bowling buddies, Walter and Donny (played with virtuosic flair by John Goodman and Steve Buscemi, respectively), seek closure. That’s it. But those characters. It’s as if the Coens told the actors to simply play outsized versions of themselves. Whatever. It works. And I must also add the excellent work of one of my favorite character actors, the brilliant John Turturro, who plays the wannabe suave sophisticate (and bowler), Jesus Quintana. Bridges has this everyman quality about him that clearly gives him instantaneous cachet with audiences, regardless of what role he’s playing. Dude, this one’s for the ages. Now, if y’all will excuse me, I need another beverage.

Nitpick: Donny should not have been killed off. I need me some Steve Buscemi, man, and when he’s in a film, MILK IT!

The Matrix (1999)

I saw the Matrix for the first time at a friend’s house, and I had no idea as to what I was watching. After a remove of 20+ years, the concept, though dizzying enough to contemplate, has by now become firmly entrenched in my psyche. Or has it? Are we all simply pawns in a huge computer simulation? I only ask the question that has been, in one way or another, been asked centuries before there were computers to beguile us.

The fight sequences still resonate with me even though I know how they will all turn out. But it’s the characters that make this movie. For all of the criticism that abounds about Keanu Reeve’s acting ability (or lack, thereof), he fits the shoes of the little guy against the powers-that-be very nicely. He’ll never win an Oscar for acting, but sometimes you just need to relax and let minor quibbles go. Again, Hugo Weaving practically steals the show for me as the unnerving and chilling Agent Smith. With every overly enunciated word he projects menace and icy ruthlessness. And he’s supposed to be a computer program! It’s hard to remember he’s Australian after watching his performance in this film.

Religious and philosophical overtones abound here: Neo relies on Trinity for support, direction, and eventually, love (Holy Trinity, anyone?); Neo, himself, once he “becomes” the One is basically a Superman-styled hero (Superman also a hero with loads of Messianic appeal). He is, by definition, the Savior of the world (Christ). Morpheus, named for the Greek god of dreams, leads Neo into a greater awareness of his destiny. I should point out that in the last installment of the Matrix Trilogy, Neo, of course, sacrifices his life to save the “real” world from the control of the machines.

Nitpick: What’s the deal with the blue pill, red pill, anyway? What kind of mind-altering drug is in those things? Seems like an ultra lowbrow way to access virtual reality; especially in a film that highlights such enterprising tech. Honestly, though, I’d choose the red pill every time.

Saving Private Ryan (1998)

From the blood soaked, 23 minute scene depicting the D-Day landing on Normandy Beach to the final frame where the aged James Ryan salutes the gravesite of Capt. John Miller who spearheaded a rescue to save him, this film is relentless in its ability to depict the heartbreak of war in all its jagged horror. Not just a “blood and guts” movie, Saving Private Ryan remains a grand testament to the fighting courage and will of those who looked death in the face and kept on fighting to the last man. I’ve long had a soft spot in my heart for war movies, and I think that’s because the good ones never cease to remind us of why we fight and why we should do all we can to avoid war before we fight. Tom Hanks as Capt. Miller (in civilian life, an English teacher) leads an impressive ensemble cast. There aren’t any cardboard characters here. And we are also reminded of the principle that “the needs of the one outweigh the needs of the many” (thank you, Mr. Spock). What price life? That’s a question we need to ask ourselves, and we’d better have a good answer. This movie informs us that the price can often be staggeringly high, and painful to pay. Overall, this film reveals a bleak, hard beauty, revealed in the characters of the men who made life and death decisions, and who had a lot riding on those same decisions.

Nitpick: Cpt. Miller dies at the end. Really?!?!? The English teacher?!?!? A part of me died at the same time when I watched this film.

The Princess Bride (1987)

It doesn’t seem as though this movie has been around for 33 years, but there it is. The wit, verve, and panache are just as sparkling as the day it was released, September 25, 1987. There are few movies who yield such a rich supply of quotes as Princess Bride, and because of its perennial freshness, it’s a safe bet to say that the rising generation will come to know it as well as we all do. One of this film’s strengths lies in its ensemble cast, as prodigiously gifted as any cadre. Carey Elwes, as Wesley/The Dread Pirate Roberts, who always appears ambiguously American in the pictures he’s in provides the slick bravado, but it’s Mandy Patinkin as Inigo Montoya, another swashbuckling adventurer, out to avenge the wrongful death of his father (I know what line is running through your heads) who puts the extra swash in the buckle here. The gargantuan Andre the Giant, at 7′ 4″, looms large as Vizzini as a pun-slinging ne’er do well alongside his partner in crime, Fezzik, played with smarmy charm by Wallace Shawn.

The narration by veteran actor Peter Falk, who reads the story to his unnamed grandson (Fred Savage), gives a folksy contour to the proceedings. The story does lag at times, but the one-liners manage to ferry things along. This movie wasn’t serious Oscar material, but it has stood the test of time. Besides, it’s good family fare, with humor that kid and adults can access with ease. Between Wallace Shawn, Billy Crystal, and Carol Kane, though, it’s a toss up as to who would get the award for the zaniest. My pick would be Shawn, but like this list, it’s highly subjective and idiosyncratic.

Nitpick: There are load of things to pick apart in this beloved film, but I’ll pick only two: What’s with the creepy mustache on Elwes’s face? First it’s short then long; then, it’s over on one side, then the other. I think it should have received a special acting Oscar. And in the scene where the Princess is falling down the hill – or rather, throws herself down the hill – it’s clearly a stuntman doing the rolling. How anyone, though, could not like this movie is…wait for it…inconceivable!

Avengers: Endgame (2019)

Those who know me might have expected me to insert a superhero flick by now. What you won’t know is that Endgame is the only entry on this list of that genre. Believe me, it was a Sisyphean task, one over which the Hulk would have broken a sweat, assuming he would have the patience and dexterity to engage in this task in the first place.

Ever since I could pick up a comic book, my heart and mind was swimming with the daring exploits of these and many other costumed super-beings. Ironically, my favorites have always been those heroes who weren’t too over-powered (Superman, Thor, to name a couple, though I like them), but ones who seemed to have more at stake when donning the spandex (Capt. America, Daredevil, and Batman). This movie was the culmination of a 10 year span of fanboy/fangirl eye candy that stunned moviegoers everywhere with its tale of the megalomaniacal Titan, Thanos, who with a literal snap of his finger wipes out half the population of the universe. Actually, Endgame is the aftermath of that act. It is an epic tale, depicting what our heroes – those who weren’t wiped out in the “snap” – do to reconcile themselves with the fallout of the apocalypse. If heroes were made to face immense odds, they couldn’t face more dire ones than in this film.

The pinnacle of sacrifice is revealed at the end where Tony Stark/Iron Man, after donning the gauntlet with the Infinity Stones, snaps things aright, killing Thanos, his hordes, and himself in the process. It was heartbreaking to witness the grief that abounded; particularly that of Spider-Man, played with perfect precision by Tom Holland (a young and very promising actor), who had developed a father/son relationship with Tony. What more can be said? You can pick out your own favorite scenes. Was it when Cap wielded Thor’s hammer? Didn’t you believe he could do it, though? Was it when the “dead” heroes all came back for the final comeuppance against Thanos and his army? Or how about the ending scene where a time-traveling Steve Rogers dances with the love of his life, Peggy Carter to Sammy Cahn’s, It’s been a Long Long Time?

Nitpick: I’m going to say it: For all of it’s movie ending magnificence, the reunion scene between Cap and Peggy doesn’t make sense. Yes, he loved her with an everlasting love, but he’s Captain America! What happened to his loyalty to his calling? It’s a tough call, no doubt, but I couldn’t buy it then, and I can’t now. It was literally part of Steve Roger’s DNA to carry out his mission as long as he lived and was viable.

And that’s the first 11! Two more parts to come! I hope you’ve enjoyed this. There’s much more to come, so keep checking back!

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