ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN
(1976) D: Alan J. Pakula. Starring Robert Redford, Dustin Hoffman, Jason Robards, Jack Warden, Martin Balsam, Hal Holbrook, Jane Alexander.
Possibly the best political thriller of all time, but I love it for more than the amazing performances, taut direction and killer screenplay. This film feeds the journalism junkie in me like no other, and you just can’t beat the fact that it’s based on a true story—possibly the most intriguing story in American political history. You just can’t make this stuff up.
BET YOU DIDN’T KNOW: Frank Wills, the security guard who discovered the break-in at the Watergate complex, plays himself.
(1984) D: Milos Forman. Starring F. Murray Abraham, Tom Hulce.
My favorite drama of all time. Perfect. F. Murray Abraham and Tom Hulce deliver performances so good that neither of their careers have been able to match that standard since.
BET YOU DIDN’T KNOW: The entire film was shot in natural light.
AN OFFICER AND A GENTLEMAN
(1982) D: Taylor Hackford. Starring Richard Gere, Debra Winger, Louis Gossett Jr., David Keith.
No matter how many times Hollywood tries to re-tell this story, nothing can be as good as the original.
BET YOU DIDN’T KNOW: OK, I can understand John Travolta having been offered the role (and turned it down), but did you know that John Denver turned the role down? What a different film it would have been…
(1991) D: Joel Coen. Starring John Turturro, John Goodman, Judy Davis, Michael Lerner, John Mahoney.
My first foray into the Coens’ dark, twisted, surreal world. Haven’t been able to get enough since. I still think this is their best work, artistically.
BET YOU DIDN’T KNOW: The first film to win all three major awards (Palme D’or, Best Director, and Best Actor) at the Cannes Film Festival. Also, it was unanimously chosen for the Palme D’or.
(1997) D: Paul Thomas Anderson. Starring Mark Wahlberg, Julianne Moore, Burt Reynolds, Don Cheadle, William H. Macy, John C. Reilly, Philip Seymour Hoffman.
It took me a couple viewings to come around on this one, but I finally learned to appreciate the genius of the tone, atmosphere, and mood—yes, they are three different things and Anderson creates each of them perfectly. The style of this film is so singular, it really has to be appreciated. And the acting…well. That goes without saying. You probably won’t see a better performance by Philip Seymour Hoffman. Ever.
BET YOU DIDN’T KNOW: Burt Reynolds did research by hanging around real porn sets. He said all the porn actors asked him the same question: how to get a Screen Actors Guild card.
BOYS DON’T CRY
(1999) D: Kimberly Peirce. Starring Hilary Swank, Chloe Sevigny, Peter Sarsgaard, Brendan Sexton III.
This is one of those films I can only see once, it is so powerful, so disturbing and so haunting. Kudos to Hilary Swank for delivering one of the most arresting performances I have ever seen on film. Not for the feint of heart or the closed-minded.
BET YOU DIDN’T KNOW: To prepare for her role, Hilary Swank lived as a man for more than a month, so believably that she even fooled her neighbors.
(2005) D: Ang Lee. Starring Heath Ledger, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Williams, Anne Hathaway.
Gorgeous. Moving. Heartbreaking. And unbelievably well-done. This one gets me every time. Was supremely robbed of the Best Picture Oscar.
BET YOU DIDN’T KNOW: According to producer James Schamus, the movie cost so little to make that it recouped its cost during its first week of limited release.
(1991) D: Barry Levinson. Starring Warren Beatty, Annette Bening, Ben Kingsley.
So much more interesting than your standard bio-pic, and Warren Beatty’s performance is electrifying as the mobster who dreamt up Las Vegas.
BET YOU DIDN’T KNOW: Was nominated for 10 Academy Awards, winning 2 (Art Direction and Costumes)
(1995) D: Martin Scorsese. Starring Robert DeNiro, Sharon Stone, Joe Pesci.
Anyone who’s ever laid a bet down at a casino will enjoy this behind-the-scenes gangster drama set in Vegas. Not as complex as Goodfellas, but much more entertaining.
BET YOU DIDN’T KNOW: The word “fuck” is said 422 times.
(1941) D: Orson Welles. Starring Orson Welles, Joseph Cotten.
The best film of all time. But maybe that’s just the film student in me talking.
BET YOU DIDN’T KNOW: Despite all the publicity, the film was a box office flop and was quickly consigned to the RKO vaults. At 1941’s Academy Awards the film was booed every time one of its nine nominations was announced. It was only re-released for the public in the mid-1950s.
DEAD POETS SOCIETY
(1989) D: Peter Weir. Starring Robin Williams, Robert Sean Leonard, Ethan Hawke, Josh Charles.
Watching brainy, handsome, privileged boys feeling sorry for themselves has never been so rewarding. The film itself is pretty standard and Robin Williams is Robin Williams, but it pulls at my heartstrings just enough to be appealing.
BET YOU DIDN’T KNOW: Frequently shown to fraternity members during leadership seminars because of the striking similarities between the film’s plot and the historical events that led to the creation of fraternal organizations at universities in the United States 200 years ago.
EMPIRE OF THE SUN
(1987) D: Steven Spielberg. Starring Christian Bale, John Malkovich, Joe Pantoliano.
Virtually ignored at the box office, this was another film that stayed with me when I first saw it. It is epic and hard to sit through, but, like a good novel, is worth it if you commit to it.
BET YOU DIDN’T KNOW: This was Christian Bale’s big screen debut.
(1996) D: Joel Coen. Starring Frances McDormand, William H. Macy, Steve Buscemi, Peter Stormare.
The Coens’s best work, courtesy of focused direction and career-making performances from Frances McDormand and William H. Macy. To be the best film in a catalog that includes masterworks such as Raising Arizona and Barton Fink, you know it must be good.
BET YOU DIDN’T KNOW: None of the scenes were actually filmed in Fargo.
(1993) D: Sydney Pollack. Starring Tom Cruise, Gene Hackman, Jeanne Tripplehorn.
I know, I know….I hate Tom Cruise and I hate Jeanne Tripplehorn. So why do I love this movie? Well, because of all the John Grisham novels that have been turned into movies, this book was my favorite and this was the one they got right.
BET YOU DIDN’T KNOW: The first of—count ‘em—ten John Grisham novels that have been made into major motion pictures.
(1982) D: Graeme Clifford. Starring Jessica Lange, Kim Stanley, Sam Shepard.
Without Jessica Lange’s performance, this film might never have been seen. But it deserves to be seen for the most haunting, powerful, textured, riveting and gut-wrenching performance captured on film in the last thirty years.
BET YOU DIDN’T KNOW: Jessica Lange and Sam Shepard met and fell in love while filming and are still together.
(1997) D: Andrew Niccol. Starring Ethan Hawke, Uma Thurman, Jude Law.
Truly a film ahead of its time. Is it science fiction or a glimpse into the near future? Beautiful cinematography, art direction and great performances from Ethan Hawke, Uma Thurman and a still relatively unknown Jude Law are the main ingredients, but it is the story that will stay with you—and if it doesn’t, you should worry.
BET YOU DIDN’T KNOW: The directorial debut of Andrew Niccol, who has only directed three films.
(1972) D: Francis Ford Coppola. Starring Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, James Caan, Robert Duvall.
They just don’t make ‘em like this anymore.
BET YOU DIDN’T KNOW: Paramount senior management, dissatisfied with the early rushes, considered replacing Francis Ford Coppola with Elia Kazan with the hope that Kazan would be able to work with the notoriously difficult Marlon Brando. Brando announced that he would quit the film if Coppola was fired and the studio backed down. Paramount brass apparently did not know of Brando’s dismay with Kazan over his testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee in the 1950s.
THE GODFATHER, PART II
(1974) D: Francis Ford Coppola. Starring Al Pacino, Robert Duvall, Diane Keaton, Robert DeNiro.
Better than the original.
BET YOU DIDN’T KNOW: The presence of oranges in all three Godfather movies indicates that a death or a close call will soon happen.
(1990) D: Martin Scorsese. Starring Ray Liotta, Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, Lorraine Bracco.
I hated Goodfellas at first, but it has really grown on me. While Casino is my favorite of the Scorsese mob collection, you can’t beat Goodfellas for its style, substance and, well,—-Pesci.
BET YOU DIDN’T KNOW: After the premiere of the movie, the real Henry Hill was kicked out of the Witness Protection Program. Due to the movie’s popularity, Hill went around telling everyone his true identity, causing the government to remove him from the program.
THE GOOD GIRL
(2002) D: Miguel Arteta. Starring Jennifer Aniston, Jake Gyllenhaal, John C. Reilly, Tim Blake Nelson.
Nobody gave Jennifer Aniston much credit for being an actress until she popped up in this independent, low-budget drama about unhappy people living in small-town America. A bold (and potentially career-threatening) choice for America’s sweetheart, but she not only gives a great performance, but the movie is darkly comic and exceptional in a lot of ways, especially Jake Gyllenhaal’s performance. Good for you, Jen.
BET YOU DIDN’T KNOW: Director Arteta has only directed television since.
THE ICE STORM
(1997) D: Ang Lee. Starring Kevin Kline, Sigourney Weaver, Joan Allen, Henry Czerny, Christina Ricci, Tobey Maguire, Elijah Wood, Adam Hann-Byrd.
Familial dysfunction is given a whole new meaning in this amazingly brilliant film from the equally amazing Ang Lee. This is also one of those films where the time and place are characters in their own right. The ‘70s never looked so creepy.
BET YOU DIDN’T’ KNOW: Amazingly, Director Ang Lee has only directed 10 films since 1992, and the variety is staggering, from the period romance of Sense and Sensibility to the modern gay film The Wedding Banquet, to the mainstream action film The Hulk to this year’s word-of-mouth sensation Brokeback Mountain.
IN THE NAME OF THE FATHER
(1993) D: Jim Sheridan. Starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Pete Postlethwaite, Emma Thompson.
Even though this film was nominated for seven Oscars, including all the major ones (Picture, Director, Writing, Actor and Actress), it seems nobody remembers it. I feel that once you see it, it’s impossible to ever forget it.
BET YOU DIDN’T KNOW: Gabriel Byrne had purchased the rights to Gerry Conlon’s book “Proved Innocent” and had intended to play Gerry himself but decided to let Daniel Day-Lewis play the part and just serve as executive producer instead.
IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE
(1946) D: Frank Capra. Starring James Stewart, Donna Reed, Henry Travers.
It’s a classic for a reason.
BET YOU DIDN’T KNOW: This was supposedly Jim Henson’s favorite movie, and he named Bert and Ernie after the taxi driver and cop in the film.
(1997) D: Curtis Hanson. Starring Russell Crowe, Guy Pearce, Kim Basinger, Kevin Spacey, James Cromwell.
Tied with The Shawshank Redemption, which lost to Forrest Gump, and Brokeback Mountain, which lost to Crash, as the biggest Best Picture Oscar blunder of all time, this film losing the golden guy to the monumental ego trip Titanic broke my heart. And can anyone else do what Guy Pearce can do from movie to movie?
BET YOU DIDN’T KNOW: A pilot was shot to be a 13-part mini-series for HBO starring Kiefer Sutherland as Det. Jack Vincennes in 2003. But negotiations broke down and HBO passed on the project. The pilot was then produced for the Fox Network. But Fox did not pick up the show.
THE MAN WHO WASN’T THERE
(2001) D: Joel Coen. Starring Billy Bob Thornton, Frances McDormand, Michael Badalucco, Tony Shalhoub.
No one should ever ignore this entry in the Coen catalog. Billy Bob Thornton, Frances McDormand and Tony Shalhoub are all fantastic in the Coen’s stylized tribute to film noir. It seems there’s nothing they can’t do.
BET YOU DIDN’T KNOW: Billy Bob Thornton agreed to make the film without even reading the script.
(1976) D: Sidney Lumet. Starring Faye Dunaway, William Holden, Peter Finch.
For someone raised on movies of the 80s, this film resonated with an importance I’d never seen. And the performances! Wow.
BET YOU DIDN’T KNOW: One of only two films in history to win three Academy awards for acting (Peter Finch, Faye Dunaway, Beatrice Straight). The other is A Streetcar Named Desire (1951). Peter Finch and Heath Ledger (The Dark Knight) are the only posthumous acting winners in Oscar history.
(1980) D: Robert Redford. Starring Timothy Hutton, Mary Tyler Moore, Donald Sutherland, Judd Hirsch.
Family dysfunction has never been so powerfully captured. Everyone is amazing in this film, particularly Mary Tyler Moore, playing against type as a cold and closed-off mother and wife.
BET YOU DIDN’T KNOW: Elizabeth McGovern was a student at Juilliard during filming. The school permitted her to do the film on the condition that she leave for Chicago each Friday night and return on Sunday, filming only on Saturdays. It was the first time Juilliard had ever permitted a student to make a film during a school term
(1994) D: Quentin Tarantino. Starring John Travolta, Samuel L. Jackson, Bruce Willis, Ving Rhames, Uma Thurman.
Quentin Tarantino rejuvenated the art of narrative structure with this piece-it-together ensemble drama that draws you in and hooks you, whether you like it or not. Thanks, Quentin, but did you have to resurrect John Travolta’s career too?
BET YOU DIDN’T KNOW: Quentin Tarantino wrote the script in Amsterdam over a span of several months. He did the majority of his writing in a hotel room and in a hash bar called Betty Boop. This explains the references to Dutch culture and customs at the beginning of the movie.
THE REMAINS OF THE DAY
(1993) D: James Ivory. Starring Anthony Hopkins, Emma Thompson, Christopher Reeve.
English repression at its finest and most painful, delivered by the magnificent Emma Thompson and Anthony Hopkins.
BET YOU DIDN’T KNOW: For how innantely British the Merchant/Ivory films seem, did you know that James Ivory is American? Born in Berkeley, California, and educated at the University of Orgeon and USC.
THE RIGHT STUFF
(1983) D: Philip Kaufman. Starring Sam Shepard, Scott Glenn, Ed Harris, Dennis Quaid, Fred Ward.
A captivating portrait of what we expect our heroes to be and what they expect of themselves.
BET YOU DIDN’T KNOW: During the weekend of 4 April 1999, Gus Grissom’s lost Liberty Bell 7 capsule was located and recovered on the ocean floor 90 miles northeast of the Great Acabo Island near the Bahamas. It underwent a restoration and went on a national tour before being placed in a permanent exhibit. The hatch, which many thought would have proved or disproved Grissom’s contention that it blew open on its own, was recovered, intact, just as Grissom said. The craft was pretty much intact, considering it had been in the ocean for 38 years.
(1976) D: John Avildsen. Starring Sylvester Stallone, Talia Shire, Burt Young, Carl Weathers, Burgess Meredith.
Back before Sylvester Stallone became annoying, he did deliver a monumentally moving story of the ultimate underdog.
BET YOU DIDN’T KNOW: Sylvester Stallone really did punch the frozen meat in the training scene in the movie. In fact he did it so many times in many different takes that after filming was finished, he noticed the shape of his hands was different. His knuckles were left completely flattened and they remain that way to this day.
(1992) D: Robert Mandel. Starring Brendan Fraser, Matt Damon, Chris O’Donnell, Amy Locane.
An outstanding performance by Brendan Fraser lifts this film out of your standard boys-boarding-school fare.
BET YOU DIDN’T KNOW: The movie is based on the personal experiences of writer and TV producer Dick Wolf (Law & Order).
THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION
(1994) D: Frank Darabont. Starring Tim Robbins, Morgan Freeman.
The best film of the 90s.
BET YOU DIDN’T KNOW: Stephen King has said that his original novella, which the film very faithfully adapts, was a culmination of all the memories he had from watching prison movies when he was a child.
THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS
(1991) D: Jonathan Demme. Starring Jodie Foster, Anthony Hopkins.
It took me a couple of years to get up the nerve to watch it, but it was worth it in the end. Anthony Hopkins gives a new definition to the word chilling.
BET YOU DIDN’T KNOW: With a little over 16 minutes of screen time, Anthony Hopkins’s performance was the shortest ever to win a leading acting Oscar.
SOME KIND OF WONDERFUL
(1987) D: Howard Deutch. Starring Eric Stoltz, Mary Stuart Masterson.
My favorite of all the John Hughes movies and certainly the most underappreciated. There’s a reason why Eric Stoltz, Mary Stuart Masterson and Lea Thompson actually had careers after this film, unlike other Hughes alumni.
BET YOU DIDN’T KNOW: The three main characters have names relating to The Rolling Stones: Amanda Jones, named after a song of the same name (which is played in the film); a drummer called Watts; and a character called Keith.
THELMA & LOUISE
(1991) D: Ridley Scott. Starring Susan Sarandon, Geena Davis.
Even Geena Davis can’t ruin this magnificent road movie for the rest of us.
BET YOU DIDN’T KNOW: Michelle Pfeiffer and Jodie Foster were to play Thelma and Louise, but by the time production started, neither were available. It took producers so long to find someone for the role of Louise that Geena Davis had to sign a contract stating that the producers could cast her in either role if need be.
THE TRUMAN SHOW
(1998) D: Peter Weir. Starring Jim Carrey, Laura Linney, Ed Harris.
Jim Carrey moves away from talking out of his ass to show real acting chops in this touching film from Peter Weir. Carrey may not be an Oscar winner, but bravo for his performance in this very human story.
BET YOU DIDN’T KNOW: Dennis Hopper was originally cast as Christof, but walked off the set after his first day. Ed Harris replaced him and went on to win the Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actor and an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor.
(1987) D: Brian DePalma. Starring Kevin Costner, Sean Connery, Charles Martin Smith, Andy Garcia, Robert De Niro.
It’s the score (Ennio Morricone) and the direction (Brian de Palma) that raises this film above the other gangster pics of the post-Godfather era.
BET YOU DIDN’T KNOW: Director De Palma met actor Bob Hoskins over a drink in Los Angeles to discuss playing Al Capone if De Palma’s first choice Robert De Niro were to pass on the role. Since De Niro didn’t say yes, Hoskins told De Palma he would do it if he were available. When De Niro took the role after all, Hoskins received a Thank You note from De Palma and a check for $200,000. Hoskins subsequently called up De Palma and asked if there were any more movies the director didn’t want him to be in.
(1981) D: John Huston. Starring Sylvester Stallone, Michael Caine, Bobby Moore, Pele.
This World War II POW-camp soccer film isn’t as strange as it sounds. Of course, it’s probably not as good as I remember it from my childhood, but it had a profound effect on me and that memory lands it on this list. And where else can you see Pele play a military officer?
BET YOU DIDN’T KNOW: Reportedly, Sylvester Stallone insisted that his character score the game-winning goal in the film, as he felt he was the biggest star in the film. The non-American crew was finally able to convince him of the absurdity of the goalkeeper scoring the winning goal, and the penalty shot was specifically written to placate his ego.
WALK THE LINE
(2005) D: James Mangold. Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Reese Witherspoon.
Call me a sucker, but I fall for a good love story, especially when it’s based on real life. I genuinely liked the characters and rooted for them, and the fact that I honestly am not a fan of either Joaquin Phoenix or Reese Witherspoon means that something special was really happening. Great music, too.
BET YOU DIDN’T KNOW: Joaquin Phoenix was hospitalized after completing the filming of this movie, in order to deal with the similarities between his life and Johnny Cash’s
(1997) D: Brian Gilbert. Starring Stephen Fry, Jude Law, Jennifer Ehle, Vanessa Redgrave, Tom Wilkinson.
Stephen Fry should have become a household name with this stellar performance as the genius playwright who dared to speak love’s name. Instead, he remains only appreciated in his native Britain—for now. If that doesn’t make you go out and rent it, maybe if I tell you that Jude Law is young and hot in this film will.
BET YOU DIDN’T KNOW: Orlando Bloom’s film debut.
THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP
(1982) D: George Roy Hill. Starring Robin Williams, Glenn Close, John Lithgow, Mary Beth Hurt.
Stirring, complex and multi-layered film version of the popular John Irving novel. Glenn Close is amazing in her big screen debut! Robin Williams shows what he can do as an actor—too bad he doesn’t do more without the schtick.
BET YOU DIDN’T KNOW: Director George Roy Hill also directed the classic films The Sting and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.