My Desert Island Comedies:
I decided to just include the ones that immediately popped in my head. There are films that I may have had more laughs in but for whatever reason I don’t really go back to them. These are the essentials.
Quick Change (1989) Bill Murray’s best comedy before he met Wes Anderson. So many moments. Certainly the whole opening scene is worth the price of admission but other scenes are just as good (e.g. trying to get change at a small market, getting lost and seeing a jousting contest). Here is the first part of the opening scene:
After Hours (1985) Manic and truly strange from start to finish, Scorsese’s post Raging Bull comedy (of all things) is a New York fever dream that drags poor Griffin Dunn to hell and back. Multiple viewings are a must. In this scene, Rosanna Arquette gives you an idea of the kind of characters Dunn encounters during his overnight odyssey.
The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer (1947) Cary Grant, Myrna Loy, Shirley Temple and a host of great character actors breeze right through famed writer Sidney Sheldon’s screenplay which is full of wit and charm. Grant pulls most of the laughs as a middle-aged, high society, bachelor who pretends (with great enthusiasm) to be interested in a high school girl (Temple) to hopefully persuade her to lose the crush she has on him. Great fun
The Blues Brothers (1980) John Landis’ large scale, musical comedy takes the kitchen sink approach and just piles the gags on one after another knowing that if something doesn’t necessarily work it will quickly be forgotten. My favorite gag in the whole movie is when the neo-nazi’s car suddenly takes flight and then drops (inexplicably above the Sears tower!).
It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963) The Ben-Hur of comedies. A personal favorite of all time. It is a literal who’s-who of comedy. Just about every big name comedian (of the day) is present and accounted for and they are all given material that played to their strengths (I would argue that Phil Silvers is not even acting). Though it is an all-out tribute to physical comedies of the silent era it also happens to have a smart script by Bill & Tanya Rose that jabs endlessly at the American condition. My Dad loves this movie and shared it with our family when I was young. Every time I watch it I can hear my Dad laughing.
Movies that cause inflammation of my tear glands:
This is also made up of films that I am always willing to return to. Certainly there are films that probably generated more tears or left me in an unshakable state of depression. I picked these because I like where they take me emotionally.
1. How Green Was My Valley (1941) John Ford’s loving, lyrical tribute to the powerful bond of family; vividly showing the role each family member plays in maintaining and edifying that bond. It’s hard not to get completely caught up in a turn of the century, coal mine-working, family that face brutal hardships and derive their happiness from each other.
2. Running On Empty (1988) One of the best films of the 80’s that I find a lot of people have never seen. This film also focuses on the inner workings of a family; this one happens to also be on the run from the FBI. Poignant and rewarding all the way through. I saw this film for the first time at a girlfriend’s house and the profoundly emotional ending of this film caught me off guard; I sat on the couch awkwardly trying to suppress the water works with no success. A must see.
3. The Color Purple (1986) Spielberg’s style sometimes clashes with the material here resulting in scenes that are tonally uneven. But there is no denying that when the film reaches its finale, the emotional payoff is joyous and overwhelming. There are a number of other scenes that will have you grabbing at the Kleenex box as well, like this one..
4. Fearless (1993) One of the most underrated films of the 90’s and, again, one that I find few people have seen. Amazing film. Director Peter Weir’s strong suit is extended, highly visual, non-verbal scenes that evoke an emotional response. Fearless has a number of these which play out like intimate, emotional dreams.
5. These moments from children’s films:
The Iron Giant (1999) ….”Superman”
Up (2009) The Mr. and Mrs. Fredricksen montage
Monsters Inc (2001) The very last moment (luckily the credits are long so you have time to recover)
Dumbo (1941) The “Baby Mine” scene. I re-watched this movie when my son was a baby. I sat on the end of my bed with him in my arms and as that song played I fell apart.
E.T. (1982) The last 5 minutes of course
Movies that encourage me to embrace the mystery:
There aren’t a whole lot of these kind of movies around. I am always appreciative when a filmmaker takes on the big questions. Whether they are a success or not is always arguable but I admire that they take a stab at it anyway.
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) I didn’t see this film until the late 80’s and even though it was made in the late 60’s; somehow it looked and sounded like the future to me and it still does. Director Kubrick pulled off the impossible and made a film that looked to the future (something that almost always immediately dates it) and somehow it has not lost it’s ability to work the same way it did in 1968. A huge movie that only translates correctly on a huge screen. Also, the special effects are just impressive now as they ever were. In some ways, more so. The ultimate trip.
Tree of Life (2011) For me, the best films are the ones that are purely visual. Movies like Network and Annie Hall are great, primarily, because of the writing. Movies like Tree of Life rely almost exclusively on the visual experience. And what a poetic, hypnotic experience Terrence Malick’s film is. He boldly commits to using imagery that puts some of the responsibility of narrative structure back on the viewer. In many ways Tree of Life is a companion piece to Kubrick’s 2001. In this scene, Brad Pitt’s character has lost his job. Instead of filling the scene with dialogue that explains everything we are just given snippets of conversation and thoughts; the rest is conveyed with Malick’s gliding visuals.
A Serious Man (2009) The Coen Brothers’ ode to their 60’s, Jewish, Middle class upbringing is a darkly funny look at one man’s life unraveling around him with no clear reason in sight. Who’s running things? God? Fate? Nothing? The Coens ask but they won’t answer and it doesn’t matter anyway. It’s more fun to ponder why we are here and why bad things happen when the cosmic joke is on someone else.
Bad Movies That Have Great Things In Them:
The truth is there a lot of these to choose from. I picked the first two that came to mind.
Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) Coppola’s busy, operatic stab at Dracula has serious problems starting with Keanu Reeves and Winoda Ryder who have seemingly wondered on to the wrong movie set and are forced to apply non-convincing accents. They are so clearly miscast that one wonders how this decision was made in the first place. Unfortunately, thespian Anthony Hopkins seems to think that the people in the back of the balcony aren’t able to see or hear him so he cranks up the volume and gestures. Only Gary Oldman gets it right as the Count. Coppola clearly loves working in old school artifice but the end result is hugely uneven. Still, I love certain scenes for their bombastic energy (the opening prologue with the puppets and the blood), genuine scariness (feeding the baby to the female vampires, the standing, bat Dracula), and beautiful visuals (the train ride of Jonathon Harker, the shadow play at the castle). Also, as much as I hate how Dracula looks later in the film (channeling John Lennon), his old incarnation early in the film, with flowing, grey hair meticulously piled upon his head, his body draped in red silk is the best kind of movie imagery. Ultimately, the wrong-headed idea of trying to inject a love story where one didn’t exist fails as does a strong narrative. Everything just gets bogged down by Coppola’s excesses.
Mars Attacks! (1996) A long time ago, Tim Burton made a handful of solid, entertaining movies (Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, Beetlejuice, Batman and Ed Wood). Since then, it has been a steady decline into the world of mediocre/bad/awful. Mars Attacks! was the beginning of this period. It ultimately fails as a movie but it has become a channel-surfing-stop-and-watch favorite for me ever since it was released. What works: Anything with the aliens. What doesn’t: most (but not all) of what the actors are doing. It’s one long joke which is this: it’s funny when aliens disintegrate humans. And that works for me when I am on the couch on a rainy Sunday afternoon.
Stay tuned for part two..