As the boys from "High Fidelity" (2000) knew, some mediums insist on rankings. This page features some of mine - and they're not all top five (I can't be bothered with such limitations) - as well as a few from other sources I enjoyed.
One big happy family
Thanksgiving marks the official beginning of the holiday season for many of us, and for movie bloggers, that means an opportunity to wax poetic about our favorite holiday movies.
Christmas has a monopoly on holiday films, but don’t weep for Thanksgiving – a holiday that can rightfully claim most family movies, especially those involving big families with lots of “issues.” OK, so that’s essentially every family.
So here are some of my favorite films about families in all their dysfunctional glory along with one “outlier” that actually happens to be about Thanksgiving – or at least the extremes it could take to get home for it if you’re Steve Martin.
1. Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987)
Steve Martin at his exasperated best enduring a series of traveling fiascos while also enduring the clingy, talkative, adorably annoying John Candy. And John Hughes is the director. What’s not to love?
2. The Godfather (1972)
Because nothing says Thanksgiving like a megalomaniacal mob boss and the many pawns in his game. OK, so it’s really about family – empire building for family.
3. The Birdcage (1996)
One of the funniest movies about family ever made (based on the stage play “Le Cage aux Folles”). Robin Williams and Nathan Lane are perfect as a gay couple trying to play it straight for a conservative politician and his wife, played by Gene Hackman and Dianne Wiest. It’s sad to think that we lost Williams and director Mike Nichols this year, but this film is one of the joys of their legacy.
4. Pieces of April (2003)
Patricia Clarkson, one of my favorite actresses, was nominated for an Oscar for her performance as an ill matriarch traveling with her family to her estranged daughter’s apartment for Thanksgiving. And Katie Holmes does well playing the desperate-to-make-amends daughter. Tissues are indicated.
5. The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)
My favorite Wes Anderson film and easily one of my favorite movie families. Their fearless and mostly despised leader is Royal Tenenbaum (Gene Hackman), who showed little interest in his three brilliant but disturbed kids after he and their mother (Anjelica Huston) divorced. But after many years, just as his ex-wife is about to remarry, he wants to work his way back into their hearts. Ben Stiller, Gwyneth Paltrow and Luke Wilson are wonderfully hostile, detached and sweet, respectively, as the kids.
6. Summer Hours (2008)
An engrossing French film about three adult siblings who come to their childhood home to put their mother’s estate in order after her death and discover what their memories of the place and their family’s legacy really mean to them. The movie was directed by Olivier Assayas and stars Juliette Binoche as one of the siblings.
7. Shadow of a Doubt (1943)
One of Alfred Hitchcock's best and reportedly his favorite of all his films, "Shadow of a Doubt" is a remarkably unsettling thriller about an idyllic family in an idyllic California town. But things begin to look a lot less rosy when Uncle Charlie comes to town to visit, and his niece who used to idolize him begins to suspect him of being a murderer. Joseph Cotten is appropriately intimidating as Uncle Charlie, and Theresa Wright hits all the right notes as his suspicious niece.
8. The Color Purple (1985)
This deeply moving drama about a woman's struggle to find her self-worth while enduring abusive relationships and an abusive society draws out a range of emotions from disgust to wonder, anger to joy, despair to hope. The harsh scenes are really harsh, and the funny scenes are really funny. As usual, director Steven Spielberg delivers the total package. Whoopi Goldberg and Danny Glover are stunning, and Oprah Winfrey earned her first Oscar nomination for her performance as the no-nonsense Sophia.
9. Sixteen Candles (1984)
Nothing brings about chaotic family gatherings like a wedding. Unfortunately for Samantha, her sister’s wedding falls right around her 16th birthday, and no one in the family seems to notice. Bummer, but classic John Hughes entertainment.
10. The Philadelphia Story (1940)
Another comedy and another wedding, but this movie is all about the bride. It’s the second time down the aisle for the “rich and mighty” Tracy Lord (Katharine Hepburn) of the well-to-do Lord family of Philadelphia. The gossip magazines are dying to get the inside story, and Tracy’s ex-husband (Cary Grant), is dying to bust it up. Jimmy Stewart won an Oscar for his portrayal of a frustrated writer in this George Cukor-directed classic.
11. The Ice Storm (1997)
It’s the ‘70s, baby, and the relationships between two neighborhood families seem cordial and, in some cases, steamy, but ultimately they are colder than the winter weather the film is named after. A little seen and underappreciated drama directed by the great Ang Lee with an all-star cast including Kevin Kline, Sigourney Weaver, Joan Allen, Elijah Wood, Tobey Maguire, Christina Ricci and Katie Holmes.
Other faves that would make great Thanksgiving viewing –
"The Leopard" (1963)
Starring Burt Lancaster, Alain Delon and Claudia Cardinale | Directed by Luchino Visconti
Starring Kenneth Branagh, Julie Christie and Kate Winslet | Directed by Kenneth Branagh
"Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" (1958)
Starring Elizabeth Taylor, Paul Newman and Burl Ives | Directed by Richard Brooks
Starring Tobey Maguire, Reese Witherspoon, Joan Allen, William H. Macy and Jeff Daniels | Directed by Gary Ross
Starring Cher, Nicholas Cage, Danny Aiello, Olympia Dukakis and Vincent Gardenia | Directed by Norman Jewison
"Hannah and Her Sisters" (1986)
Starring Mia Farrow, Dianne Wiest, Barbara Hershey, Michael Caine and Woody Allen | Directed by Woody Allen
"Rachel Getting Married" (2008)
Starring Anne Hathaway and Debra Winger | Directed by Jonathan Demme
Top femme fatales
Indiewire recently released a top 10 list of the most dangerous leading ladies in film noir, and it inspired me to make a list of my own. The only movie on its list I haven’t seen is “Detour,” so I feel comfortable writing that while I agree with most of the choices, there are several I would remove and several others I would add. My criteria are that the film is legitimately a film noir (a tricky exercise) and the femme fatale is really a femme fatale. For example, there can’t be any trace of a heart of gold underneath as with Rita Hayworth’s iconic character in “Gilda.” They have to be unrepentantly dangerous, especially if the poor saps they are working on don’t know until it’s too late.
The elite eight
For the sake of an alliterative headline, I wanted to keep the list to five (“Top five femme fatales” – yes, I’m so clever and original). But then I kept remembering more movies, so I bumped it up to eight ... with three to grow on.
1. Brigid O’Shaugnessy, “The Maltese Falcon”
Mary Astor is treacherous from the word “go” in this polished thriller based on Dashiell Hammett’s classic potboiler detective novel. But Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade gives as good as he gets from her. I love how committed Brigid is to playing the innocent even as Spade keeps catching her in her lies. I also find it interesting that Spade asked his secretary and “Girl Friday” Effie (played by Lee Patrick) to give her opinion about dear Brigid based on her female intuition, and her opinion was totally off base. I don’t remember whether that was in the book, but I thought it was an uncalled for knock against a woman’s judgment of her own sex by screenwriter (and first-time director) John Huston. Or maybe Huston was just trying to say that Brigid was so good at cultivating her image of innocence that she was able to fool someone with no interest in taking her to bed. Quite an achievement.
2. Kathie, “Out of the Past”
I wasn’t familiar with Jane Greer’s work before I saw this movie, but she made a memorable impression. Her character, Kathie, is one you never really feel sorry for, even though she was in a rough situation with her gambler boyfriend Whit, played with callous slickness by Kirk Douglas. Obviously he wasn’t the nicest of men, but she wasn’t the nicest of girls either. Funny how often that happens in these movies. Robert Mitchum plays Jeff, a private eye Whit hires to find Kathie after she runs out on him. Jeff was one of those guys who was wise to the chick but still couldn’t help himself until it was too late. He managed to see her for what she was, but not until she got the drop on him. He never did anything underhanded, yet neither of them get away free and clear. It’s similar to “Double Indemnity” in that way, except Jeff was more like a bystander – like Burt Lancaster in “The Killers” where he’s just in love and trying to figure out a way to be with the woman he loves. This movie was directed by Jacques Tourneau, and Taylor Hackford remade it in 1984 as “Against All Odds.” See the original. Listen to the remake’s theme song by Phil Collins.
3. Elsa Bannister, “The Lady from Shanghai”
In one of her most memorable roles, Rita Hayworth stars as the ruthless title character, a.k.a., Elsa Bannister. At the time, audiences (especially Columbia studio head Harry Cohn) were outraged that director Orson Welles, who was married to Hayworth at the time and co-starred as her mark, had Hayworth's famous red hair cut short and colored blonde. But today it's hard to fault the look. She's as beautiful as ever, and, more importantly, it fits the character she was playing. Elsa was thoroughly rotten, but she seemed to be genuinely in trouble. She is the only one on my list who had a genuinely bad marriage – at least one that the audience was allowed to see was horrible. The other women on this list who were trying to get rid of their husbands or boyfriends didn’t seem to be in dire straits (well, maybe Kathie in “Out of the Past” a little bit); they were just selfish and greedy and all that. Elsa clearly didn’t want to be married to the vicious lawyer Arthur Bannister, played winningly by Everett Sloane, and her position is understandable because he was so manipulative and creepy. Elsa was clever and may have been able to pull off her schemes, but she was sloppy in her maneuverings and in who she trusted. What’s also interesting about this story is that she was exactly like her husband – just in a more attractive package. It was like they were one in the same inside, but she was young and beautiful, and he was a shriveled up old man. As screenwriter, Welles summed it up nicely in Arthur Bannister’s famous last words in the movie to his wife: “Of course, killing you is killing myself. It’s the same thing. But, you know, I’m pretty tired of both of us.”
4. Phyllis Dietrichson, “Double Indemnity”
Barbara Stanwyck fashioned a villainess for the ages in “Double Indemnity” – completely and wonderfully corrupted. Phyllis Dietrichson ranks highly as a femme fatale due to her strength of will getting her lustful insurance agent to agree to kill her wealthy husband, and she is remorseless to the end. The agent, played by Fred MacMurray, is another one of those guys who is wise to the femme fatale’s possible treachery but can’t seem to stop himself from following her lead. An important aside here is that Stanwyck’s wig in this movie was so awful it was distracting. I never understood why a genius director like Billy Wilder wanted to put such an unbecoming wig on her. It was tough for me to take her seriously with that hair, but Stanwyck is such a great actress, she made it work.
5. Matty Walker, “Body Heat”
Speaking of “Double Indemnity,” as Matty Walker in “Body Heat,” Kathleen Turner turned up the sex appeal to 11 in essentially the same story. Matty worked her co-conspirator, a doomed lawyer played by William Hurt, literally and figuratively from the time she spotted him spotting her on the street. She was similar to Phyllis in “Double Indemnity” in that she used her sex appeal to reel her lover in and really tried to make it seem like it was his own notion to kill her husband, enabling her to extricate herself from the whole thing as far as tangible culpability. But unlike the insurance agent in “Double Indemnity,” Hurt’s character never seemed to be fully wise to what was happening to him. He had moments of suspicion, but nothing concrete. Matty was ruthless and good at what she did – deception. She put it on Hurt’s character so badly he couldn’t see what was coming. And I’m happy to report director Lawrence Kasdan had better sense than to put a bad wig on Turner.
6. Kitty Collins, “The Killers”
With a name like “Kitty Collins,” you’d better be good at something. And this femme fatale was definitely good at being very bad to a relatively harmless guy they call “The Swede,” who happened have the bad luck of falling in love with her. Kitty is played to seductive perfection by Ava Gardner. This movie, directed by Robert Siodmak, was spun out of an Ernest Hemingway short story, and Hemingway said it was his favorite of all the films based on his work. His opinion probably had a lot to do with Gardner, whose character Hemingway adored even though she wasn’t in the original story. How deadly is the gorgeous Kitty? She double-crosses her mark, played by Burt Lancaster, twice.
7. Bridget Gregory, “The Last Seduction”
In her breakout role, Linda Fiorentino plays another one of those femme fatales who enjoyed being ruthless, relished being evil and really wasn’t even nice about it. She didn’t try to be nice about anything. Whereas these other women lured with sugar, Fiorentino’s character Bridget lured with spice. She used her sex appeal, but she was also a bitch. She knew she didn’t have to be sweet to get what she wanted from her mark – a co-worker with a severe crush played by Peter Berg. Bridget could behave any way she wanted, and he would still lap it up. So she was pretty fierce in that she could just be herself – mean and hateful – and still get what she wanted – using her feminine wiles as well as her brains. She and Matty from “Body Heat” were the only ones who got away with their dark deeds. That might have something to do with when the films were made, too, because in the days of “Double Indemnity” and “The Lady from Shanghai,” women weren’t allowed to get away with such crimes. They had to pay for their sins. The setup in “The Last Seduction,” directed by John Dahl, was a little different from the standard plot of these movies because Bridget wasn’t planning to use her lover for anything other than sex initially. He only became a convenient mark for her as developments unfolded with her estranged hubby, played by Bill Pullman.
8. Mrs. Helen Grayle, “Murder, My Sweet”
You could argue that private eye Philip Marlowe, played by Dick Powell in his post-musical phase, was never fully taken in by the nasty piece of work that is Mrs. Helen Grayle, played with smirking knowingness by Claire Trevor. But in this highly entertaining thriller directed by Edward Dmytryk, Mrs. Grayle is a smooth operator, and I like how she relished being a bad girl. She seemed to enjoy it almost to the point of taking pride in it, which made her somewhat endearing. It is refreshing to see her being proud of what she’d accomplished. Women in that day and age had limited options anyway, so why not celebrate what you're good at and your willingness to stop at nothing to get what you want. She was comfortable in her underhandedness and had fun with it.
These women are dangerous, but the movies they appear in don't fit squarely into the film noir genre.
Nicole Horner, “Diabolique”
[SPOILER ALERT] An unusual choice, but Simone Signoret’s character in “Diabolique” definitely qualifies as a femme fatale. In most cases, there’s a man in cahoots with a woman trying to get rid of her husband. Nicole Horner is unusual because instead of trying to get rid of an unwanted husband, her plot was with her lover to get rid of his wife. They switched it up so that’s what makes this one more interesting and different and a great big spoiler if you’ve never seen the movie. Director: Henri-Georges Clouzot
Florence Carala, “Elevator to the Gallows”
This movie could qualify as a film noir, but it is more definitively a product of the French New Wave movement. Jeanne Moreau’s character Mrs. Carala must have been bad because she plotted with her lover to kill her husband. The only problem is we don’t learn much about her in the movie because all she does is wander around the streets of Paris looking for her murderous lover when circumstances prevent him from meeting her after he does the deadly deed. Director: Louis Malle
Charlotte Inwood, “Stage Fright”
Marlene Dietrich is terrific in this early Alfred Hitchcock thriller. Even though I wouldn’t call it a film noir, the film does have film noir elements to it, and the character, Charlotte Inwood, was certainly quite the femme fatale. The qualifications are essentially the same as all the others: She seduced and manipulated some poor schlub who was happily willing to murder her husband. Director: Alfred Hitchcock
“I try to live my life in such a way that I don’t have profound regrets.”
- Philip Seymour Hoffman, New York Times Magazine, 2008
In the short space of about 23 years, Philip Seymour Hoffman made his mark as one of the most talented actors of his or any other generation. When I heard of his passing Feb. 2, since I didn’t know him, I could only respond as a fan would respond – selfishly bemoaning the loss of another brilliant talent to drugs. I think Lena Dunham said it well in her tweet about our loss of the joy he brought due to such a joyless act.
But I quickly moved from the sadness to thinking specifically about the joy – his many performances that touched me. Some of them were small parts, as in the 1994 comedy starring Paul Newman, “Nobody’s Fool,” and the 1998 romantic comedy, “Next Stop Wonderland,” with Hope Davis. And then there were his major roles in films like 2008’s “Doubt” and his best actor Oscar-winning turn in the 2005 biopic “Capote.”
Hoffman had a great collaboration going with director Paul Thomas Anderson over the years, starting with “Hard Eight” in 1996 and followed by “Boogie Nights” in 1997, “Magnolia” in 1999, “Punch-Drunk Love” in 2002, and ending with “The Master” in 2012. I can only assume they worked well together because of the frequency and fullness of their collaborations. My favorites in that bunch are his sadly sweet porno groupie Scotty J in “Boogie Nights” and his deeply sympathetic nurse Phil Parma in “Magnolia.”
What I look for most in a movie is to be drawn completely into the world on the screen, which requires believable characters. Hoffman was always believable. Sure, he teetered dangerously close to giving himself away as Truman Capote in “Capote,” but I grant him some leeway there because Capote was such an outsize character, a tremendous personality, to begin with, and Hoffman pulled it off anyway.
Fortunately, Hoffman was not one of those actors who is so famous it is impossible to see him as anyone other than himself. I knew little about his private life, so none of that baggage entered into his performances for me. He had the skill and the freedom to become the character, and he did so whether the role was big or small. And what an eclectic bunch of roles they were.
I regret I was never able to see his acclaimed performance in “Death of A Salesman” on Broadway. According to Steve Martin, “If you missed him as Willy Loman, you missed a Willy Loman for all time.” But I am thrilled to have experienced his work on the big screen. That’s the great thing about the cinematic arts – your work lives on long after your body calls it quits. Here’s my list of favorites starring PSH. If there are any you haven’t seen, do so immediately!
- “Synecdoche, New York” (2008)
- “Magnolia” (1999)
- “Doubt” (2008)
- “Capote” (2005)
- “Boogie Nights” (1997)
- “Next Stop Wonderland” (1998)
- “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” (2007)
- “The Master” (2012)
- “The Talented Mr. Ripley” (1999)
- “Nobody’s Fool” (1994)
I recognize Hoffman had many other marvelous performances, but my list is based on the ones I have seen (naturally) that made the biggest impression on me. I’ll wrap by repeating my initial Facebook post about his passing:
One of my favorite Philip Seymour Hoffman performances was in the deep, strange little Charlie Kaufman indie pic, "Synecdoche, New York," which features one of my favorite songs of all time, “Little Person" by Jon Brion. The song is especially poignant in light of Hoffman's passing. He was such a brilliant actor, but obviously we need more than brilliance to keep the demons at bay. RIP PSH.
A Christmas list
A friend asked me recently what my favorite Christmas movie is, and I was really surprised I didn’t have a quick answer. The first movie that came to mind was “Love Actually,” but even though it is easily one of my favorites, I didn’t think it could be my all-time favorite. Could it? It just came out five minutes ago, it seems. I guess that shouldn’t matter, but what can I say? Longevity counts.
So then I began thinking seriously about the question. Why was I having so much trouble with it? I tried to think of classics like “It’s A Wonderful Life,” but I was never a big fan of that movie. I love “The Man Who Came to Dinner,” but I can’t give it my top spot because I’m too annoyed by how Whiteside, played wonderfully by Monty Wooley, took over that poor family’s home – even if it was a complete riot from start to finish. And who doesn’t love “A Christmas Story”? Ralphie and the gang are forever etched into the Christmas movie pantheon. So I can't say I have a favorite Christmas movie, but I do have favorites. And here's my top five list - but in no particular order.
- Love Actually (2003)
- A Christmas Story (1983)
- Scrooged (1988)
- The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942)
- The Ref (1994)
Honorable and odd mentions include "Die Hard" (Yes - it happened at Christmas!), "The Holiday" (despite its cheesiness and mainly because of Kate Winslet, Jack Black and Eli Wallach), "The Family Stone, "A Christmas Tale," and "Beautiful Girls" (again, it happened at Christmas).
When AFI speaks ...
Celebrating the 100-year mark of moviemaking, back in 1998, the American Film Institute started compiling what many consider the definitive top 100 lists of various genres of movies. And I quite agree with them on many of their choices. Here is the link to what thus sayeth the lords of cinema.
Top 10 movies I'd co-host with Robert Osborne
Back in 2008, I was blessed with the opportunity to co-host a movie with Robert Osborne on Turner Classic Movies. I was one of 15 fans they selected to help celebrate the 15th anniversary of the network. How I came to be one of the 15 is a post for another day. OK, so I was a finalist in the network's guest programmer for one night contest back in 2006. ANYWAY, the producer asked each of us to submit a list of the top 10 movies we would like to co-host with Robert. There are SO many movies I could have listed, but when forced to narrow it down, here's what I came up with. (I ended up with "The Maltese Falcon" and had a blast.)
1. The Philadelphia Story (1940)
2. Laura (1944)
3. The Maltese Falcon (1931)
4. Top Hat (1935)
5. Elevator to the Gallows (1958)
6. All About Eve (1950)
7. Guys and Dolls (1955)
8. Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)
9. Brief Encounter (1945)
10. The Bad Sleep Well (1960)
Susan Sontag on lists
The fantastic site Brain Pickings posted an article that shares Susan Sontag's musings on why we're so enthralled by lists. My two cents is that lists are accessible -- easily digestible information that we can latch onto or dismiss according to our own tastes. Very helpful in our short-attention-span society.
Even though Sontag has little to do with filmmaking apart from Kevin Costner's misinformed rant in "Bull Durham" (Sontag didn't write novels), I wanted to share this because it made me think about why I felt compelled to include a tops page on this blog.