On Thanksgiving, 12 films I’m thankful for

These aren’t the best films ever made—or ones recommended for essential viewing. Few of them could even be called classics–and none is about to play at an art house. Instead, here’s a list of movies that simply give me pleasure whenever I return to them. They’re more like your mother’s stuffing. Somehow you don’t grow tired of it.

In no particular order:

The Big Sleep (1946)

From the moment Humphrey Bogart’s Philip Marlowe walks into the Sternwood mansion and meets Carmen Sternwood, played by the electric  Martha Vickers, Howard Hawks’ mystery takes us into a world of sharply drawn characters, all of whom  engage Marlowe with sharp-edged, tart dialogue, usually either challenging or flirtatious.

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BP Quick Hitter: In the Loop (2009)

Malcolm Tucker: Right. Was it you?
Simon Foster: No, it wasn’t. No. What?
Malcolm Tucker: You do know what I’m talking about, don’t you?
Simon Foster: No. And… And… whatever it was, I almost certainly didn’t do it.
Malcolm Tucker: Was it you, the baby from Eraserhead?
Toby Wright: No, no.
Malcolm Tucker: Then it must have been you, the woman from The Crying Game.
Judy: It wasn’t me

(from Imbd)

I don’t know if it’s because I work in Washington, or because I like well-done satire, or because I believe cursing is, indeed, an art form (especially in D.C. traffic), but I can’t remember the last time I laughed as often watching a movie.

Like the near-constant streams of profanity emitted from the mouth of British government flack Malcolm Tucker, I couldn’t stop smiling though this entire film, as the dialogue grew faster and faster and yes, meaner and meaner.  Whether you like depends on your tolerance for high-velocity verbal assault and whether you think calling someone a “Nazi Julie Andrews” is funny.

In the Loop is merciless. It’s is the movie that Burn After Reading (2008) should have been.

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BP Saturday Night Movie: Primal Fear (1996)

Laura Linney considers the better films that lie ahead.

Directed by Gregory Hoblit

Written by Steve Shagan (based on the William Diehl novel)

Starring Richard Gere, Laura Linney. Edward Norton

One of the more enjoyable aspects of this film blog is that, as my cinema aptitude grows, I can go back and view movies with which I thought I was familiar using, in a sense, new eyes.

I never considered Primal Fear as great art, but I have always enjoyed the performances and the plot, as tangled as it is. Now, however, its strengths, and especially its weaknesses, are clearer to me.

But first a word why movies like this are so appealing. As much as the Western or the heist film, courtroom thrillers are a genre staple. (See Anatomy of a Murder, below). So in one sense, Primal Fear isn’t very interesting at all–and at times it teeters close to the generic: the showy defense attorney, the needy client, the venomous prosecutor, the no-nonsense judge. They are all here.

Movies like these exploded onto the market during the 1990s, much of it fueled by the fiction market ruled by writers such as John Grisham. So beyond Primal Fear (based on a book by William Diehl), you had The Client (1994), the wretched A Time to Kill (1996), which makes Primal Fear feel like The Passion of Joan of Arc, and The Rainmaker (1997). You had A Few Good Men (1992) and A Civil Action (1998).

Most of these films provided some satisfaction, mainly in the sort of one-man-against-the-system drama that has always been a cinema hallmark, with a healthy dose of legal mumbo-jumbo, courtroom galleries that frequently gasp in unison, and a broad range of characters.

So where the hell have they gone? The courtroom movie and its cousin, the urban thriller, the likes of which were the province of directors such as Sidney Lumet, seem to have left us and largely have migrated to television.  Much of this has to do with the move toward spectacle films and an even fuller embrace of the youth market.

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BP Saturday Night Movie: Captain Horatio Hornblower (1951)

You’ll have to excuse me. I wasn’t expecting to find an American girl on a British ship in the middle of the South Pacific during the Napoleonic Wars.

Directed by Raoul Walsh

Based on the novels by C.S. Forester

Starring Gregory Peck, Virginia Mayo

I pretty much got what I wanted with this Warner Brothers historical actioner, a lot of cannonade and “clear for action.”  Using irrefutable Hollywood logic, a series of novels about a Royal Navy officer stars British actors in every role except the two leads. Oh well. Peck is at least stolid enough to make you think he’s was schooled across the pond. Warners apparently sought Peck after concluding that the young Burt Lancaster wasn’t right for the part.

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BP Quick Hitter: Anatomy of a Murder (1959)

You’re no Donna Reed–and that’s okay by me.

Directed by Otto Preminger

Written by Wendell Mayes

Starring James Stewart, Ben Gazzara, Lee Remick

It is said of the classic movie stars that they were people you liked spending time with. The knock on the Cary Grants and John Waynes, of course, is that they were just playing themselves, playing the same role again and again.

There’s much truth in that, but there’s also something to be said for consistency of performance–and for plain old personality. I was reminded of this recently while on an extended road trip. I had inserted a DVD of Anatomy of a Murder into my laptop so I could watch it whenever I had some down time. As it happened, I ended up watching a 160-minute movie over the course of a week.

That doesn’t sound like much of an endorsement for a film, but Anatomy felt more like a tightly-written thriller than you enjoy returning to again and again. (You also end up re-watching scenes repeatedly, as you might reread a page where you have a bookmark.) The main reason why I was in no hurry for the film to end was Jimmy Stewart.

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The New World: A Change is Gonna Come

“We shall make a new start. A fresh beginning. Here the blessings of the earth are bestowed upon all. None need grow poor. Here there is good ground for all, and no cost but one’s labor. We shall build a true common wealth, hard work and self reliance our virtues. We shall have no landlords to wreck us with high rents or extort the fruit of our labor.” — John Smith, paddling upriver in the New World.

Written and Directed by Terrence Malick

Starring Colin Ferrell, Q’orianka Kilcher, Christian Bale

The first time I saw Terrence Malick’s The New World, I denied it my full attention.  I had my computer in my lap, watching the film with one eye.

Then, about a half hour into the film, I felt myself choke up, out of nowhere. It was affecting me, even at a distance, for reasons I didn’t understand. From then, it held me. So much so that when it was over, I sat down and watched it again. I can’t remember the last time I did that with a DVD.

The New World is like no movie I’ve ever seen, I think. Not even like Malick’s own The Thin Red Line. It’s a towering achievement, a powerful experience, one that is felt on an almost unconscious level.  The film is one of the most gorgeous ever shot, delivering images of such concentrated beauty that they’ll take your breath away.

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