100 Essential Films – September

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I’ve set a goal for 2018 to make my way through the movies represented on the Pop Chart Lab 100 Essential Films Scratch-Off Chart.  Learn what 100 movies they consider “essential,” follow my progress here in detail and listen to my reactions on Ka-Pow the Pop Cultured Podcast!

 

SEPTEMBER

September has come and gone, meaning the year is 75% over.  And since I seem stuck at only being able to finish nine movies every month, that brings my total to 72 for the year and means I’m basically still on pace.  (If you squint a little.)  Most of what I watched this time around were from DVDs I already owned, so there were no big surprises.  But it’s always nice to have a reason to go back and revisit a few of the greats.  A couple of these I find a little overrated and a couple are among my all-time favorites that I quote as often as possible, but each one is nevertheless… Essential!

 

011

Double Indemnity

Year: 1944

Director: Billy Wilder

Method: TCM

Times Viewed: ~5

This tale of a seemingly straight arrow insurance salesman and the alluring housewife who seduces him into killing her husband set the standards for every crime noir to follow.  From its gorgeous black and white photography, full of sharp venetian blind shadows, to its rat-a-tat Raymond Chandler dialogue and sardonic voiceover narration, its coldblooded femme fatale and downer ending, the film helped invent the rules of the genre.  Of course, to meet the strict moral standards of the motion picture code of the day, criminals had to pay for their crimes.  But it was the first mainstream movie to openly and unambiguously discuss the motives and means of committing murder.  Playing against type, good guy comedic actor and future Disney Legend, Fred MacMurray, and Barbara Stanwyck, then the highest-paid actress in Hollywood, have wonderful, believable chemistry, while Edward G. Robinson lends an extra helping of gravitas and wit.

012

 

013

Blade Runner

Year: 1982

Director: Ridley Scott

Method: Own DVD

Times Viewed: 3

This groundbreaking sci-fi thriller about an L.A. cop in 2019 tracking down synthetic Replicants trying to pass for human influenced countless artists and filmmakers by inventing a dingy, corrupt, corporately-controlled vision of the future with a multi-cultural flair where technology has advanced but society hasn’t.  I’ve never read the Philip K. Dick novel on which it’s based, but this movie has never wowed me the way it seems to do so many others.  We never see the off-world colonies, or what exactly has gone wrong with their man-made workforce, and are just told of the problems.  Plus, the robots’ four year lifespan seems like it would sort out the problem by itself, without Harrison Ford’s gloomy Deckard really playing much of a role.  Still, it’s an amazing film to look at, and even the heavy-handed symbolism of the scientist’s clockwork playthings or Roy Batty’s stigmata and dove are gratifying eccentricities.

014

 

015

American Graffiti

Year: 1973

Director: George Lucas

Method: Showtime

Times Viewed: 2

A lighthearted slice of baby boomer Americana, this coming-of-age comedy takes place during the final night of summer vacation for two college-bound young men played by Ron Howard and Richard Dreyfuss.  (Oh, and there’s also a handsome smart-mouthed drag-racer portrayed by some unknown carpenter named Harrison Ford.)  Inspired by his own teen years in Modesto, California, George Lucas documents the priorities and uncertainties of a generation raised before the Kennedy assassination sapped the nation’s innocence.  The 1970s were rife with 50s nostalgia like “Happy Days” on TV and “Grease” on Broadway, and the film rides that audience-friendly wave perfectly with its parade of vintage cars and a soundtrack featuring forty three rock ‘n roll golden oldies.  Incidentally, his share of the big box office returns allowed Lucas to beef up Lucasfilm and Industrial Light & Magic, paving the way for “Star Wars” to soon make movie history.

016

 

017

Taxi Driver

Year: 1976

Director: Martin Scorsese

Method: Own DVD

Times Viewed: >20

This dark drama stars Robert De Niro as Travis Bickle, a former Marine who starts driving a cab through the worst parts of New York City in an effort to stave off insomnia and loneliness.  Bickle fakes his way through most human interactions, desperate to make a connection and “become a person like other people,” so he speaks in clichés and fills a journal with phony feel-good aphorisms.  During this viewing, I made the connection with today’s internet trolls and “incels,” especially in the way the character consistently turns his feelings of self-hatred and inadequacy outward.  He is the “walking contradiction” mentioned in the Kristofferson song, full of desire, rage, anger and sadness, but with no idea where to aim them.  The inevitable violence is then followed by a cutting epilogue, where we realize how thin a line it sometimes is between the media’s labels of hero and villain.

018

 

019

There Will Be Blood

Year: 2007

Director: Paul Thomas Anderson

Method: Own DVD

Times Viewed: 2

I’ve seen this Paul Thomas Anderson period drama about a ruthless oilman and his single-minded quest for wealth and power during the early part of the 20th century twice now, and I’m still not sure what to make of it.  It’s not a “fun” movie to watch, as quiet and sparse as it is for long stretches, but it is engrossing.  The character of Daniel Plainview, as embodied by Oscar winner Daniel Day-Lewis, is the ugly face of American capitalism.  Sure, he and his ilk tamed the frontier and built a modern society full of undreamed-of wealth, but they did it by razing everything in their path and greedily drinking everyone else’s milkshake.  It’s also sadly relevant how the character intuitively co-opts religion for his own ends, spouting insincere Christian platitudes he doesn’t believe in order to cloak his monstrous actions behind a veil of righteousness.

020

 

021

Casablanca

Year: 1942

Director: Michael Curtiz

Method: Own DVD

Times Viewed: 3

Featuring a whopping six entries in the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 greatest movie quotes, this timeless romantic drama stars Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman as former lovers caught up in dangerous international intrigue during the still-raging Second World War.  Bogie’s Rick is an American expatriate running a nightclub in Vichy-controlled North Africa swarming with untrustworthy clientele.  He doesn’t stick his neck out for anybody until Bergman’s Ilsa walks into his gin joint, all longing glances and soft lighting.  To its credit, none of the characters, their motives or allegiances are all that cut and dried.  Right and wrong aren’t as simple as the heroic Allies and the evil Nazis.  Everyone is playing an angle, and the masterful way the story manipulates the audience’s hopes for nostalgic tenderness to win out over cynical self-preservation will keep us watching this classic for generations to come.

022

 

023

Good Will Hunting

Year: 1997

Director: Gus Van Sant

Method: HBO Go

Times Viewed: ~3

Probably not a movie I expected to see on this list of enduring classics, but I had kind of forgotten how excellent this tale of a genius janitor perpetually sabotaging himself to keep from outgrowing his blue-collar Boston roots really is.  Famous for providing baby-faced Matt Damon and Ben Affleck a Best Screenplay Academy Award, the more important win was the first and only Oscar for Robin Williams.  The manic comedian had done a bit of drama before, but his performance as a melancholy therapist with a warm heart and an angry streak is one of the all-time greats.  I liked the film’s insistence that laying brick is as noble a pursuit as theoretical mathematics, and how it managed to find class differences not only between lunkhead Southies and polo-shirted Harvard kids, but even between the two accomplished doctors, illustrating the long, inescapable shadow cast by ones upbringing.

024

 

025

Midnight Cowboy

Year: 1969

Director: John Schlesinger

Method: Own DVD

Times Viewed: 2

The first and only X-rated film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture is this candid drama about Joe Buck, a naïve Texan with visions of being a high-class male prostitute and his unlikely friendship with a streetwise New York hustler, “Ratso” Rizzo.  Slapped with that ignominious X due to its homosexual content, the movie’s self-loathing gays may be somewhat dated stereotypes, but it was a gutsy choice to represent this class of urban outcasts at all.  Poor, homeless and ignored by society with no support from family or the general public, they only have each other to rely on.  Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman are top notch as the leads, wringing pathos from every bad break and broken dream.  And there aren’t many songs more closely identified with a particular film – or parodied more often – than Harry Nilsson’s iconic version of “Everybody’s Talkin’.”

026

 

027

Rushmore

Year: 1998

Director: Wes Anderson

Method: Own DVD

Times Viewed: >25

Wes Anderson’s breakout feature is an idiosyncratic masterpiece of quiet comedy about an unlikely love triangle between a widowed teacher, a rich industrialist and a teenager at a prestigious private school.  An even younger riff on “The Graduate” formula, at its core it’s about three profoundly broken and lonely people and the solace they find in each other’s company.  A stunning Olivia Williams grounds a lot of the sillier stuff with a graceful air meant to deny her inner turmoil.  The legendary Bill Murray, who worked for scale, hauled equipment and offered to pay for a helicopter shot out of his own pocket was rewarded with a late-career resurgence starring in independent films.  But the movie succeeds squarely on the shoulders of Jason Schwartzman, making his film debut as Max Fischer, one of the unlikeliest romantic leads ever.  Then again, he saved Latin.  What did I ever do?

028

 

Progress:  72 / 100

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100 Essential Films – August

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I’ve set a goal for 2018 to make my way through the movies represented on the Pop Chart Lab 100 Essential Films Scratch-Off Chart.  Learn what 100 movies they consider “essential,” follow my progress here in detail and listen to my reactions on Ka-Pow the Pop Cultured Podcast!

 

AUGUST

I began the month a little over halfway through this list of 100 films and feeling somewhat daunted.  My DVR was completely empty and it seemed like there were fewer and fewer movies I still needed to see showing up on television.  I hated to dip into the reserve of DVDs I own with so much time still left to go, but I worried about slacking on the pace and falling any further behind.  The end of August means the year is two-thirds over, so the nine essential films I checked off the list puts me pretty close to 66% complete and within sight of actually pulling this off!

 

042

Network

 Year: 1976

Director: Sidney Lumet

Method: TCM

Times Viewed: 1

Even knowing its reputation for being remarkably prescient about the depths to which television networks would eventually stoop, I had somehow never seen this dark satire about ratings-starved executives weaponizing unhinged anchorman Howard Beale into an “angry prophet denouncing the hypocrisy of our times.”  The razor sharp screenplay by Paddy Chayefsky is as prophetic as advertised, envisioning the genesis of the media landscape where news morphs into entertainment and editorial opinion trumps objective facts that has led to blustery pundits like Glenn Beck, Keith Olbermann or Alex Jones performing aggrievement theater for an adrift audience Faye Dunaway’s amoral head of programming recognizes is desperate for “somebody to articulate their rage.”  There are a lot of long speeches and proselytizing, and the intervening decades of reality TV have dulled the more outlandish edges, but it remains a haunting, vital piece of filmmaking.

043

 

044

A Streetcar Named Desire

Year: 1951

Director: Elia Kazan

Method: TCM

Times Viewed: ~5

Adapted from the Pulitzer Prize-winning Tennessee Williams play, this marital drama about faded aristocratic southern belle, Blanche DuBois, intruding on the meager life of her sister and brother-in-law marks a clear turning point in American cinema.  Vivien Leigh, a prime representation of “Old Hollywood” with her perfect diction and stuffy British mannerisms passed the torch to Marlon Brando, who, in only his second film, made a Method acting splash by scratching his armpit and talking with his mouth full to completely embody the “unrefined” Stanley Kowalski.  There is a real magnetism between him and Kim Hunter’s Stella, and it’s heartbreaking to watch Blanche lie and manipulate everyone simply because she can’t understand that kind of reckless passion.  Her relationships have always been self-serving and transactional, a heart forever shielded by the vanity she disguises herself with like a cheap paper lantern fitted over a bare bulb.

045

 

046

The Best Years of Our Lives

Year: 1946

Director: William Wyler

Method: TCM

Times Viewed: 1

The film on this list I knew least about, I was so stunned by its frank scrutiny of post-war America that I hit the “info” button two different times to make sure it was really from 1946.  Following three servicemen returning to the same small town after World War II, the movie became a financial success and multiple-Oscar winner not with the blustery patriotic propaganda common at the time, but by peeling back the fake cheeriness for a raw view of the era’s nuclear nihilism, watching these men fail to fit back in with families that got along without them, struggling with physical injuries making them feel like a burden and going from highly-trained and highly-decorated to unqualified for jobs on the homefront.  The idea that coming home from war is scarier than leaving isn’t as modern as I thought, and much too familiar to veterans from any decade.

047

 

048

A Clockwork Orange

Year: 1972

Director: Stanley Kubrick

Method: Own DVD

Times Viewed: <5

It takes willpower to not be obnoxious and write this in the sing-songy near-future nadsat slang of Anthony Burgess’s novel, but Kubrick’s controversial sci-fi parable about a remorseless criminal “rehabilitated” by being stripped of free will and moral choice through aversion therapy is like no sinny I ever viddied before.  (Sorry.)  I never get much pleasure from this one, but it always leaves me with something to ponder.  There’s no sense of exactly what sort of government has so failed its citizens, so it never ends up being a screed of right versus left.  It’s all corrupt.  And in considering those eternal criminal justice burdens of “reform” versus “punishment,” we are asked to feel sympathy for a truly evil protagonist.  Malcolm McDowell is an irresistible mix of charming and horrifying, his intense blue eyes conveying an innocence his actions constantly betray.  The film refuses to provide any easy answers.

049

 

050

Goodfellas

Year: 1990

Director: Martin Scorsese

Method: Own DVD

Times Viewed: >10

Another Scorsese gangster classic and one of the definitive portrayals of the mafia ever put on screen, this true-life crime drama traces the rise and fall of mobster Henry Hill from the 50s to the 80s.  Even with heavyweights like Joe Pesci and Robert De Niro onboard, it was probably risky trusting the little-known Ray Liotta for the starring role.  Fortunately, he turns in a truly magnetic performance, and his chummy, conversational narration sells the intoxicating power and the camaraderie key to the appeal of this dangerous lifestyle.  Lorraine Bracco’s job as his longsuffering wife is a little more thankless, but no less important, as she authentically swings from affection to disgust and back again.  The movie never lets up, creating energy with its long tracking shots, quick cuts and freeze frames, effectively seducing viewers until they end up in the thrall of these witty wiseguys.

051

 

052

M*A*S*H

Year: 1970

Director: Robert Altman

Method: Sundance Channel

Times Viewed: 2

It’s an odd fate for a groundbreaking Oscar-nominated classic to be surpassed in stature by its television spinoff in the annals of pop culture, but such is the case with this subversive comedy about the medics stationed at a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital during the Korean War.  They are superb surgeons, but ignore orders, goof off, drink, chase women and bicker back and forth in Robert Altman’s trademark conversational style, all talking over each other, with multiple conversations often going on at once, applying a slapdash irreverence about warfare in general and a still-raging Vietnam in particular.  The operating room scenes are graphic, however, never letting you forget the toll of the battle happening off screen.  But I’m afraid the clubhouse humor hasn’t aged particularly well, most egregiously how Sally Kellerman’s head nurse “Hot Lips” Houlihan is villainized for being so dang uptight about all the sexual assaults.

053

 

054

The General

Year: 1926

Director: Clyde Bruckman

Method: YouTube

Times Viewed: 1

I had little exposure to Buster Keaton beyond one wonderful episode of “The Twilight Zone,” so I appreciated finding a nice clean print of this public domain silent comedy online.  Adapted from an actual event from the Civil War, Keaton was a big enough draw to warrant a huge budget, elaborate set pieces and a literal cast of thousands to tell the story of a Confederate railroad engineer trying to rescue his kidnapped fiancé and stop a surprise Union attack.  The critics at the time were not kind and it ended up being the star’s worst financial failure.  But if you can get over the idea of rooting for the South, you’ll be rewarded with a supremely charming movie featuring unreal feats of physicality from a master stuntman and comedian, as well as a lovingly crafted period romance with all the authenticity of detail expected from the best wartime dramas.

055

 

056

The Shawshank Redemption

Year: 1994

Director: Frank Darabont

Method: Own DVD

Times Viewed: <10

A box office dud with a funny-sounding name, this tale of the friendship and hope that helped an innocent man survive decades behind prison walls was initially overlooked by audiences and overshadowed by splashier films in 1994.  However, seven Academy Award nominations, effusive word of mouth, a robust video rental market and endless repeats across cable television eventually built it into one of the most beloved movies ever made and number one on IMDb’s Top 250 list since 2008.  As Andy Dufresne, Tim Robbins is a bit of a blank vessel, but Morgan Freeman gives an iconic, highly quotable performance, while Clancy Brown’s merciless guard and Bob Gunton’s bible-quoting warden embody the kind of entrenched evil of men with unchecked power.  The middle scenes with the elderly parolee Brooks may seem like filler in an already-long movie, but being “institutionalized” is a powerful concept I’ve since perceived in many contexts.

057

 

058

Chinatown

Year: 1974

Director: Roman Polanski

Method: Own DVD

Times Viewed: <5

Featuring a near-mythic screenplay by Robert Towne, this neo-noir is about low-level private investigator Jake Gittes trying to untangle a murder plot amidst shady real estate deals involving big money water rights in 1930s California.  Dense and complex, it succeeds in capturing the period feel, right from the old-timey opening credits to the fashion, the cars and the slang.  Faye Dunaway, for the third time out of these hundred films, is exceptional as the tragedy-stricken femme fatale Evelyn Mulwray.  The moviegoer never knows more than Jack Nicholson’s protagonist, so untangling the mystery along with him is a thrill, even when he is outmatched and stymied at every turn.  Souring the experience, though, is the knowledge that this story about a wealthy, powerful, celebrated man never held accountable for his actions was Roman Polanski’s final film before fleeing the country to evade a guilty plea for statutory rape.

059

 

Progress:  63 / 100

Mothman Festival Wrap-Up

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Welcome to Point Pleasant!

This year marked the 17th anniversary of the Mothman Festival in Point Pleasant, West Virginia.  The Mothman legend began with several mysterious sightings in 1966, and I’ve always been fascinated that one of the world’s most famous cryptids was born only an hour down the river from my hometown of Marietta, Ohio.  So being a vendor at this year’s show with my company So Pro Comics was an outstanding opportunity.  We’ve done several Bigfoot-themed events and comic book conventions, but nothing that’s even come close to the number of people small town Point Pleasant is able to attract.

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The “less crowded” end of town

We had two new all-ages titles to debut at the event.  “The Impossible Family,” a multi-generational superhero story about trying to live up to the legends of the past, is written and drawn by the Illustrious Michael K. Easton and colored by his wife, Kristy Easton.  “So Pro Showcase” is an activity book with a short standalone comic about sibling superheroes saving the day at a science fair written by me, with art by Derek R. Croston.

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Ready for a sunny, So Pro weekend

Talking to long-time attendees, the festival has really exploded in popularity in recent years.  Attendance this time around was certainly helped by a little upcoming video game called “Fallout 76,” whose open world format is modeled on this particular region of West Virginia and features famous landmarks and folklore like the Mothman and the Flatwoods monster.  The game’s publisher, Bethesda, had a booth with freebies and exclusive posters and tee-shirts that featured the longest lines of the weekend.

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Vault Boy, Mothman.  Mothman, Vault Boy.

The event ended up being our most successful show of all time.  We smashed our previous sales record, and met numerous parents who were happy to have an affordable, kid-friendly option for a souvenir.  Our bigfoot book “Bluff Creek” was the top seller, as expected with this cryptozoology-skewing crowd, but we had people pick up some of everything from the table, helping to prove we might just be on the right track with this comic book business!

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“Snap a few in case it comes out blurry”

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The height of post-apocalyptic fashion

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“Venus was at its peak brilliance last night. You probably thought you saw something up in the sky other than Venus, but I assure you, it was Venus.”

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Which way to the funnel cake stand?

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Teen Wolf, too!  (Not Teen Wolf 2.)

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Ain’t no party like a sasquatch party

100 Essential Films – July

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I’ve set a goal for 2018 to make my way through the movies represented on the Pop Chart Lab 100 Essential Films Scratch-Off Chart.  Learn what 100 movies they consider “essential,” follow my progress here in detail and listen to my reactions on Ka-Pow the Pop Cultured Podcast!

 

JULY

Knowing my year has officially passed the halfway point and is only moving faster, I hit July with a sense of urgency.  Thanks to another free weekend of HBO, the ever-helpful Turner Classic Movies and my own pretty decent DVD collection, nine more essential films got scratched off the list to begin the second half of 2018.  This month kicked off with a beachfront July Fourth film tradition, then before I was through headed to outer space, the frozen Midwest, the Japanese spirit world and even deep into the mind itself!

 

001

Jaws

Year: 1975

Director: Steven Spielberg

Method: Own DVD

Times Viewed: >20

The original summer blockbuster, one relentless great white shark terrorizing the crowded beaches of Amity Island during the Fourth of July changed the rules of Hollywood forever.  Along with “Star Wars” two years later, Spielberg’s masterpiece of seaside suspense ushered in high-concept, effects-driven spectacles as the goal for studios rather than the more personal auteur filmmaking that had arisen in the 1970s.  Far from brainless though, it’s a treat watching Richard Dreyfuss and Robert Shaw square off in a class struggle between long-haired rich-kid oceanographer and grizzled veteran fisherman until they both realize each has his share of scars.  While not necessarily a political film, Roy Scheider’s police chief confronts a small-town government too willing to put the lives of citizens at risk with a post-Watergate pessimism.  And a John Williams score has never been as vital, generating dread from the rarely-seen shark with just a few ominous notes.

002

 

003

North by Northwest

Year: 1959

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

Method: TCM

Times Viewed: 2

From the Saul Bass-designed and Bernard Herrmann-scored opening credits to that widescreen VistaVision finale atop Mount Rushmore, this high-tension tale about an innocent ad executive being pursued across the country by mysterious men paved the way for James Bond and all the Cold War spy films of the 1960s.  Cary Grant is suave in his iconic gray suit, unruffled by the intrigue he’s swept up in and the icy cool Eva Marie Saint might be my favorite “Hitchcock blonde.”  But this movie really didn’t hook me until about two-thirds of the way in after a plodding start.  Far be it from me to rewrite a classic, but it’s strange how early in the story they reveal the truth about the unseen target of the search, George Kaplan, and the secret Saint’s character Eve is hiding.  In a modern thriller, these would be huge final-act twists.

004

 

005

Alien

Year: 1979

Director: Ridley Scott

Method: HBO free weekend

Times Viewed: <5

One of the most influential films in the genre’s history begins with the simplest of sci-fi conceits.  When an alien killing machine makes its way onboard, the seven members of the commercial ship Nostromo are hunted one by one.  An extraterrestrial slasher flick, turning a spaceship into a haunted house with no escape, Ridley Scott combined the chocolate of horror with the peanut butter of sci-fi to create one indelible concept.  The sleek and silent monster, designed by Swiss artist H.R. Giger, is the stuff of nightmares.  Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley became the prototype for a new generation of fearless female hero, even if she still had to gratuitously strip down to her skivvies.  And though the franchise has gone into countless other iterations, the sweaty, bickering blue collar protagonists of the original provide a working class perspective too often ignored in big screen visions of the future.

006

 

007

Being John Malkovich

Year: 1999

Director: Spike Jonze

Method: HBO free weekend

Times Viewed: ~3

The feature film debut of both writer Charlie Kaufman and director Spike Jonze, this peculiar dark comedy about a sad-sack puppeteer who discovers a portal into the mind of actor John Malkovich was a surprise to see included on this list.  Making a huge splash in 1999, it hasn’t seemed to maintain the pop culture relevance of the other groundbreaking releases of that important year, so it was nice to revisit it.  At its core, it’s a story about fading love and the extraordinary lengths we will go searching for our place in the world.  John Cusack and Cameron Diaz play nicely against type, as the homely, lovelorn couple both pining over a wicked Catherine Keener.  But it’s Malkovich himself who gets to have the most fun, poking holes in his highbrow reputation and dancing like a puppet yanked by countless strings.

008

 

009

Unforgiven

Year: 1992

Director: Clint Eastwood

Method: Sundance Channel

Times Viewed: <5

Clint Eastwood’s final Western serves as not only a statement on his legendary career but on the cowboy genre as a whole.  The tale of past-his-prime gunslinger William Munny, called back to the outlaw life after years of trying to find peace as a farmer and family man, is a meditation on violence, aging and pop culture’s ever-exaggerated views of the Old West.  “It’s a hell of a thing, killing a man,” Eastwood famously says.  The weariness he carries isn’t just his creaky body, but his damaged soul.  This is one of the few films that calls attention to the heavy price a man like Munny pays after the bullets stop flying.  Plot-wise, the story probably isn’t as tight as it could be, but charismatic supporting performances from Morgan Freeman and Gene Hackman make up for any lag in the pace.

010

 

011

The French Connection

Year: 1971

Director: William Friedken

Method: Own DVD

Times Viewed: ~3

This gritty crime drama about New York detective Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle and his single-minded quest to stop a million dollar heroin smuggling operation was the first R-rated film to win the Oscar for Best Picture.  It’s an interesting mix of heady, pedigree filmmaking and bloody lowbrow action movie sensationalism.  The pace never slows down to make sure you’re keeping up, and the plot doesn’t go out of its way to explain what’s going on.  You really just strap in for the ride, as the cops and criminals circle each other in an ever-tightening net.  Gene Hackman imbues the heavily-flawed protagonist with outsized bravado and a hazy moral code, and like his unforgettable car chase through the streets of Brooklyn in pursuit of an elevated train, innocent people should stay far away from his path and the collateral damage he’s bound to cause.

012

 

013

Singing in the Rain

Year: 1952

Director: Stanley Donen

Method: TCM

Times Viewed: 1

Set in the Hollywood of the late 1920s, just as movies were transitioning from the silent era to “talkies,” Gene Kelly splashed around a lamppost and into one of the most legendary musicals ever made.  Several of the songs here have reached iconic status, and the choreography is complex and clever.  But for someone who’s not much of a fan of the genre, it wasn’t the spectacle that won me over here but the characters.  Donald O’Connor’s vaudevillian clowning as the goofy best friend grated my nerves, but the love triangle between Kelly and his two potential leading ladies more than carried the plot.  Debbie Reynolds is all girl-next-door sweetness, while Jean Hagen’s shrill and shallow starlet is what keeps his tumultuous career afloat and the interplay between them all led to some genuine laughs and those warm fluttery feelings films like this were made for.

014

 

015

Spirited Away

Year: 2001

Director: Hayao Miyazaki

Method: Own DVD

Times Viewed: <5

The only example of Japanese anime on the list, Miyazaki’s all-ages fantasy masterpiece broke box office records in its native country before crossing over to enchant Western audiences as well.  The film follows Chihiro, a ten-year-old girl accidentally stranded in a mystical world and put to work in a bathhouse that caters to spirits and deities.  While I’m sure I missed plenty of references to Japanese folklore or specific societal critiques, the story is too universal for the cultural details to matter much.  The allegorical journey from one world to another is a bedrock of world mythology, marking the transition away from childhood, while simultaneously weaving a modern environmental message throughout.  The character design is sensational, from Chihiro’s cutesy friends to the eeriness of the silent No-Face, and the distinctive Studio Ghibli animation flows like the vivid dream world that it is.

016

 

017

Fargo

Year: 1996

Director: Coen Brothers

Method: Own DVD

Times Viewed: >10

The Coen’s most revered drama is about a kidnap plot gone wrong in a snow-covered rural town.  The unconventional plot, cheekily said to be based on a true story, paints its criminals as greedy and just stupid enough to be believable, and it’s always a kick watching William H. Macy become more and more unglued as the plan crumbles around him.  But the standout star is Frances McDormand as Marge Gunderson, the very pregnant chief of police investigating the increasingly grisly crimes.  Her cheery “Minnesota nice” veneer isn’t a put-on, even if there are hidden layers of grit and shrewdness beneath.  And her Academy Award win wasn’t just for the distinctive yah, don’tcha know accent, but the way her heart breaks and she loses some innocence coming face to face with the kind of evil that would commit cold-blooded murder for a little bit of money.

018

 

Progress:  54 / 100

100 Essential Films – June

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I’ve set a goal for 2018 to make my way through the movies represented on the Pop Chart Lab 100 Essential Films Scratch-Off Chart.  Learn what 100 movies they consider “essential,” follow my progress here in detail and listen to my reactions on Ka-Pow the Pop Cultured Podcast!

 

JUNE

As we hit the halfway point of the year, I managed to squeeze in seven more classics to bring my total to a still-slightly-off-the-pace 45 films.  Like always, I tried to mix things up with a variety of genres and decades, but June may be my most randomly assorted selections yet, ranging from Munchkin Land to a post-apocalyptic wasteland, from the horrors of World War II to the San Fernando Valley of the 1970s and from method actors to weathermen and dudes in dresses.  But all seven have something important in common… each one is essential!

 

004

The Wizard of Oz

Year: 1939

Director: Victor Fleming

Method: TCM

Times Viewed: <5

The Library of Congress declares this musical adaptation of the beloved L. Frank Baum fantasy novel the most seen film in movie history.  Judy Garland’s trip over the rainbow, from the barren, sepia-toned fields of Kansas to the fanciful Technicolor Land of Oz has been a rite of passage for American children for generations now, and I was no different.  The Wicked Witch terrified me as a kid.  The Cowardly Lion made me laugh.  And Dorothy’s long (yellow brick) road to the realization that “there’s no place like home” is paved with the kind of gentle metaphors and universal life lessons about growing up that have remained utterly timeless.  Although I have to ask why everyone remembers and references the Lollipop Guild with regularity, but their equally-peculiar female counterparts in the Lullaby League were lost to pop culture obscurity?

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006

Mad Max: Fury Road

Year: 2015

Director: George Miller

Method: SyFy

Times Viewed: 1

I enjoy the original Mad Max trilogy for the ridiculous fun that it is, but hadn’t gotten around to this high octane reboot about a doomsday prison break and the epic car chase that ensues across the wasteland.  Tom Hardy’s new Max Rockatansky fades into the background, since it is Charlize Theron’s show as the ultra-capable warrior Furiosa.  The film got a ton of praise (and ten Academy Award nominations!) for its feminist viewpoint and one of the few glimpses of a matriarchal society in post-apocalyptic fiction, but I remain at a loss as to why THIS one clicked with critics when terrific action and genre movies are released every year that are completely ignored.  The stunt driving and practical effects were bonkers, but at its core, it’s still just a loud two hour thrill ride about a truck driver escorting supermodels past an army of paint-huffing Billy Corgans.

007

 

008

Schindler’s List

Year: 1993

Director: Steven Spielberg

Method: Own DVD

Times Viewed: ~3

While necessary, Steven Spielberg’s World War II drama about a German businessman and the thousand Jewish refugees he saved from the Holocaust is always emotionally difficult viewing.  This time around, I happened to watch it the week the United States instituted the policy of separating immigrant families at the Mexican border.  With images of those crying children still fresh in my mind, the scenes of families brutally ripped apart during the liquidation of the Krakow ghetto took on an immediacy, a scope and a sense of real human horror I hadn’t quite so viscerally connected to in the past.  The death toll is so staggering, to conceive of the victims as more than just an abstract statistic it is vital for art like this to attach a human face to the suffering.  Though an epilogue featuring 128 surviving Schindlerjuden manages to conclude the tale with a spark of hopeful positivity.

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010

Groundhog Day

Year: 1993

Director: Harold Ramis

Method: AMC

Times Viewed: >10

Bill Murray’s crowd-pleasing comedy about a self-centered weatherman trapped living the same day over and over again in wintry small town Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania seemingly took a long time to earn “essential” status.  It never broke box-office records or filled anyone’s shelves with trophies.  What it did do, was funnel feel-good optimism through a smart script and winning performances from Murray and co-star Andie MacDowell into a cult favorite that became a timeless cultural touchstone (and the de facto shorthand for any pop culture involving a time loop).  The way the film never explains how he got stuck in the first place, what the rules are for escaping or how long he ultimately spends there brilliantly allows us to project our own beliefs and draw our own conclusions.  And hey, I just noticed a teenage Michael Shannon shows up for two lines of dialogue!

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012

Raging Bull

Year: 1980

Director: Martin Scorsese

Method: Own DVD

Times Viewed: ~3

This black and white dramatization of self-destructive boxer Jake LaMotta’s life story is hailed as Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece, but it actually rates pretty far down on my list of his films.  I’ve never found it as compelling (or as rewatchable) as many of his others.  Robert De Niro’s method performance is the selling point here, along with his physical transformation of gaining 60 pounds to go from a well-muscled middleweight contender to a doughy, washed-up nightclub owner.  De Niro gives LaMotta a terrifying hair-trigger temper and relationship-ruining jealous streak, but also a pathetic sort of inferiority and impotence.  You never really root for him, but you can’t take your eyes off him.  I forgot the film concludes with LaMotta delivering Brando’s famous monologue from “On the Waterfront” into a mirror.  It works thematically, but relying on a different (better?) boxing movie to provide your final punch is a bit perplexing.

013

 

014

Some Like It Hot

Year: 1959

Director: Billy Wilder

Method: TCM

Times Viewed: 1

Watching this cross-dressing comedy classic about two down-on-their-luck male musicians who have to hide out with an all-female band to escape the mob made me realize I have never seen any of Marilyn Monroe’s movies.  It also made me realize she may not be the best actress ever born, but man is she a movie star.  She lights up the screen in every scene she’s in.  Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon provide plenty of quick-witted brotherly banter, and seem game to go all out for what I’m guessing was a risky career move, even if they did have to be shot in black and white to even remotely pass as girls.  Of course, no one learns any lessons even after seeing firsthand the shoddy way men treat women and numerous deceits are shrugged off in favor of a happy ending.  But as the man says, nobody’s perfect.

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016

Boogie Nights

Year: 1997

Director: Paul Thomas Anderson

Method: Own DVD

Times Viewed: >20

My appreciation for Paul Thomas Anderson’s masterful story about finding family and fame in the 1970s porn industry only seems to grow and grow and grow with each viewing.  The ensemble cast is one of the best ever assembled with Mark Wahlberg, Burt Reynolds, Heather Graham and Thomas Jane each giving the finest performances of their entire careers, and a bevy of brilliant co-stars like Julianne Moore, John C. Reilly, Don Cheadle, William H. Macy, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Luis Guzman, Ricky Jay, Philip Baker Hall and Alfred Molina.  First and foremost, it’s a drama about broken people on the search for belonging and dignity, but it also happens to be at times hilarious, harrowing and heartwarming.  The era-appropriate soundtrack is a joy, and what Anderson does with the camera – including long unbroken takes moving through dancefloors, parties or even a swimming pool – is endlessly inventive.

017

 

Progress:  45 / 100

100 Essential Films – May

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I’ve set a goal for 2018 to make my way through the movies represented on the Pop Chart Lab 100 Essential Films Scratch-Off Chart.  Learn what 100 movies they consider “essential,” follow my progress here in detail and listen to my reactions on Ka-Pow the Pop Cultured Podcast!

 

MAY

I began the month with hours and hours of movies saved on the DVR and big plans to get through them.  Then pneumonia knocked me on my back out of nowhere.  The silver lining, I assumed, would be plenty of time on the couch recovering.  But feeling miserable and having a head full of cotton didn’t end up being a great combination spurring me to revisit classic films.  The fact that I managed four can be considered a small victory, but there will be some ground to make up this summer.  What follows are the essential movies of May!

 

003

The Bridge on the River Kwai

Year: 1957

Director: David Lean

Method: TCM

Times Viewed: 1

I tackled this epic about British POWs at a Japanese prison camp in the jungles of Burma during World War II in about a dozen smaller bites, rather than a single 3-hour marathon.  Alec Guinness was flawless as the Lieutenant Colonel, personifying that “stiff upper lip” attitude we attribute to the Brits, while William Holden contrasted him nicely with telltale American traits like swagger and cynicism.  And while I’m not sure how authentic it was portraying the Japanese as too inept to build their own bridge without the help of the “superior” Western soldiers, the Colonel in charge of the camp was much more fully formed than I’d expect for the era, rather than just a cruel torturer.  Sessue Hayakawa imbued the character with steely dignity and inner uncertainty, and was rewarded with a Best Supporting Actor nomination for his efforts.

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005

Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back

Year: 1980

Director: Irvin Kershner

Method: Own DVD

Times Viewed: >25

I actually prefer “Return of the Jedi,” for reasons going back to childhood that can’t be argued logically, but the near-unanimous critical consensus is that “Empire” is the high point of George Lucas’s sci-fi trilogy.  It is better scripted, better acted, has better effects and just feels more confident than the original.  But for a sampling of Essential Films, I would think “Star Wars” should be the one on the poster, not its middle chapter.  In any case, it’s always hard to separate the three movies in my head.  Some details I noticed on this, my umpteenth viewing include how buff Mark Hamill was doing his swamp CrossFit, the range of emotion Frank Oz could exhibit with the Yoda puppet that the digital versions still don’t seem capable of (including a wicked side-eye when Luke gets pouty) and the unshakable chemistry between Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher.

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007

City of God

Year: 2002

Director: Fernando Meirelles

Method: Netflix

Times Viewed: 2

Taking place in the Brazilian slums surrounding Rio de Janeiro, this coming-of-age crime story was inspired by real events.  The author of the novel on which it’s based, Paulo Lins, grew up in the Cidade de Deus from the late 60s to the early 80s and watched as organized crime and the drug trade turned his home into a war zone and warped children into vicious lawbreakers, where the cops were corrupt and innocents had no means of escape from the constant crossfire.  The film has a slick, Tarantino-esque aesthetic, jumping around in time and portraying even the vilest criminals with style and personality.  This is a story that begs to be told from a part of the world we don’t often get to hear from in pop culture, made all the more authentic by casting most of its amateur actors from the city itself.

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009

West Side Story

Year: 1961

Director: Robert Wise & Jerome Robbins

Method: HBO Go

Times Viewed: 2

I have very little experience with (or tolerance for) musicals.  It’s just not my genre.  But something about this peppy update of “Romeo and Juliet” about star-crossed lovers Tony and Maria just works for me.  From the moment they start snapping their fingers, I’m just completely on board.  The soundtrack is full of legendary songs, the dancing is lively and the sets are iconic.  It also doesn’t sugarcoat the kind of immigrant experience so many are still facing today.  Lyrics like “life is all right in America, if you’re all white in America” couldn’t put it any more bluntly.  Though the amount of “brownface” on display is unfortunate.  (Literally, in the case of Rita Moreno, who is actually Puerto Rican but had to be “darkened up” with makeup for her role.)  And while it might be whitewashing by today’s standards, the star power of Natalie Wood remains undeniable.

010

 

Progress:  38 / 100

100 Essential Films – April

Standard

I’ve set a goal for 2018 to make my way through the movies represented on the Pop Chart Lab 100 Essential Films Scratch-Off Chart.  Learn what 100 movies they consider “essential,” follow my progress here in detail and listen to my reactions on Ka-Pow the Pop Cultured Podcast!

 

APRIL

Looking over my poster, it feels like I’ve made a sizable dent in the films I’ve already managed to watch this year.  But there are so many more to go, the enormity of this task is beginning to worry me for the first time.  Math is still on my side, though, and 2018 is only a third over, meaning this batch keeps me precisely on pace, bumping my total up to 34 by adding seven new movies to the list.  Find out what they were and some of my opinions on these classics right here!

 

029

Forrest Gump

Year: 1994

Director: Robert Zemeckis

Method: Freeform channel

Times Viewed: ~5

Criticizing this uplifting film about a slow-witted kid navigating the twentieth century feels like insulting a puppy who managed to charm its way to six Oscars.  But it plays everything so safe, so sanitized and so conservative.  I thought perhaps there would be more obscure historical moments I would recognize, watching it as a better educated adult than I did in the 90s, but every reference point is glaringly obvious, just like every song on the soundtrack is the most recognizable choice to represent a time period.  The movie isn’t bad by any stretch, and definitely tugs at the heart.  The performances from Robin Wright, Gary Sinise and Sally Field are all wonderful, even if something about Tom Hanks’ stilted drawl feels a tad cringe-y to me now.  Or maybe I just still have a chip on my shoulder over “Pulp Fiction” being robbed of Best Picture that year.

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031

Sunset Boulevard

Year: 1950

Director: Billy Wilder

Method: TCM

Times Viewed: 1

Delivering two of the most recognizable lines in the history of cinema, “I am big, it’s the pictures that got small” and “all right, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up,” Gloria Swanson’s portrayal of forgotten silent-film star Norma Desmond is as iconic as it gets in this Hollywood noir.  The performance has zero subtlety in it, with Swanson arching her eyebrows, baring her teeth and flailing her arms like a tyrannosaurus to punctuate every overdramatic word she says.  Grounding the story a bit is William Holden’s character, a failed screenwriter who feeds Norma’s delusions and reaps the material rewards.  He is pessimistic and bitter, and it was pretty stunning to see a movie this old so effectively destroying the illusions of the film industry and stardom.  It pulls no punches about show business, and how ruthlessly people are discarded, especially young women with stars in their eyes.

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033

Braveheart

Year: 1995

Director: Mel Gibson

Method: Own DVD

Times Viewed: >25

For a segment of my teen years I would have listed “Braveheart,” the tall tale of William Wallace and his fight for Scottish independence against England in the 13th century, as my favorite movie of all time.  I’d get home from school, hit play on the VCR and watch a section, picking up wherever I left off.  Then a lot of years passed, during which Mel Gibson did some gross things, so I was worried what my feelings would be this time around.  And I still can’t help but love this film.  The characters are easy to root for, the action is unrelenting, there’s humor and romance, betrayal and sacrifice.  It’s everything you want in an epic war story, plus kilts.  I also counted a dozen lines of dialogue I continue to pepper into everyday conversation, so there’s no doubt this one is helplessly lodged in my subconscious forever.

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035

Back to the Future

Year: 1985

Director: Robert Zemeckis

Method: HBO free weekend

Times Viewed: >25

There probably isn’t any such thing as a perfect movie.  I can find flaws in even the most beloved classics.  (Look back over these lists for proof.)  But Robert Zemeckis’ tale of a time traveling teen is one of the closest.  The script is a clinic on screenwriting.  Every piece matters and folds back around to be important later.  And the cast, led by Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd, sell the far-out situation with hidden vulnerabilities and amazing chemistry.  It doesn’t paint 1955 with too nostalgic of a brush, presenting teenagers as flawed and confused no matter the era.  Watching it this time around I was struck by how innocent it all is, debuting during an era when movies starring high schoolers were mostly raunchy R-rated affairs.  That goodness at its heart is surely a big part of its timelessness.

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037

Bonnie and Clyde

Year: 1967

Director: Arthur Penn

Method: TCM

Times Viewed: 2

It’s a bit odd that one of the defining films that helped usher in the auteur filmmaking of “New Hollywood” is a Depression-era period piece.  But the story of real life outlaws Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker is full of the kind of things a young generation creating the counterculture in the late sixties could rally behind.  Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway are like the poster children for disaffected youth, gorgeous and glamorous, with an anti-authoritarian streak, open about sex and sharing a sense of restlessness and moral ambiguity.  As their relationship escalates, so too do their crimes, from small-time bank robbery to murder.  But the tone remains light throughout, and the pair retain a sense of naiveté about them until the bitter end and one of the bloodiest climaxes to a movie ever seen up to that point, breaking yet another taboo about realistic screen violence.

038

 

039

The Silence of the Lambs

Year: 1991

Director: Jonathan Demme

Method: HBO free weekend

Times Viewed: 2

I didn’t like this movie at all when I first saw it, thinking it was a by-the-numbers serial killer flick where too much rides on improbable coincidences instead of police work, elevated only by the two mesmerizing, top-of-their-game performances from Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster, as the caged Dr. Hannibal Lecter and Clarice Starling, the FBI trainee seeking his advice on a case.  And my opinion didn’t really change this time around.  I realize it’s probably me, since everyone else on the planet adores the film and it swept the top five Oscar categories as the first and only Best Picture winner you could rightfully categorize as a horror movie.  But surely it’s okay to admit this is way more of a crowd-pleasing pulpy crime thriller than an award-caliber prestige drama?  (Remember, it stars a character named Hannibal who is a cannibal.)

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041

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

Year: 1939

Director: Frank Capra

Method: TCM

Times Viewed: 2

James Stewart plays a newly appointed Senator who uncovers corruption in this black and white Frank Capra classic.  All I remembered about this movie was the iconic filibuster scene that ends it, but there is much more here to enjoy.  Stewart, in a star-making role, is perfectly cast as the wide-eyed innocent Scoutmaster who still believes in America’s ideals.  And Jean Arthur, as his sarcastic, cynical secretary, Saunders, provides a counterpoint to his optimism and romantic sparks as the girl you know he should end up with.  It’s hard to believe the film was controversial in its day, worrying censors, critics and especially politicians it was unpatriotic for daring to suggest elected officials could be crooked.  Though it wraps up a little too neatly, Saunders teaching Smith the ropes is exhilarating to watch and the media’s role in framing a debate remains a contentious aspect of politics.

042

 

Progress:  34 / 100