I know, how do you possibly choose? Home of the Hollywood musicals, the best gangster films, some of the best war films, and many of the most memorable moments ever filmed, anywhere. Disney, MGM, Spielberg, RKO, Paramount, and the whole studio system. It may not have been the first place where films were made, but it has the most prolific, and arguably the most varied Cinema Industry, anywhere on Earth. It is impossible to offer five suggestions from all that isn’t it? Well maybe not. If I ignore all the usual suspects (and The Usual Suspects), forget everything before about 1980, and leave out every epic, I can just about come up with some that may give you pause for thought; and that you may have never seen.
Ghost World. This film from 2001, sees Steve Buscemi, well known from many later roles, as a geeky, middle aged man, alone in small-town America. He encounters two teenage girls, themselves social outcasts, unaccepted by their peers. The girls are played by Scarlett Johansson, before she could claim superstar status, and the underused and brilliant young actress, Thora Birch. They are listless, unhappy at home, disenchanted by their small lives, in a small place. They tease Buscemi’s character at first, though later become much more involved in his life, which brings about a change in their relationship. A great little coming-of-age drama, flawlessly acted and scripted, dealing with a subject that we can all recognise, wherever we are. A little gem. These clips are called the ‘funniest’ scenes. I don’t know about that, but they show off the talent in the film.
Hard Eight. A personal favourite again, from 1996, and starring the wonderfully hangdog looks of Philip Baker Hall, one of the the best actors in America, who rarely gets the recognition he deserves. Add to this Gwyneth Paltrow on sparkling form, and the always reliable John C. Reilly, and you have the basic ingredients of a great film, with a snappy, smart script, and wonderful performances from all involved. And there’s more! Samuel L. Jackson and Philip Seymour Hoffman also have parts, so the pedigree is guaranteed. If you need to know more, and you really don’t, it involves the relationship between the world-weary gambler, (played by Hall), and the young man he takes under his wing. (Reilly) Throw in Ms. Paltrow, as a scheming prostitute, plus Jackson’s shady character, and the whole thing just crackles along. Brilliantly directed, set in the shady world of casinos and motels, con-men, and petty criminals, just watch it. Please. Here is an early scene, where the two main characters meet.
The Thin Red Line. I like war films, and I admire the directing talents of Terrence Malick, so this 1998 remake of the 1964 original, is a must for my list. I would need a whole post just to describe this film, and why I like it so much, so forgive the necessary brevity. The cast list reads like a who’s who of modern American Cinema. Nick Nolte, Woody Harrelson, John Cusack, John Travolta, George Clooney, Sean Penn, Adrian Brody, and on and on. The central performance comes from Jim Caviezel, as the reluctant soldier, caught up in the brutal battle for the island of Guadalcanal, during the campaign against the Japanese in 1942. The main characters give standout performances; Nick Nolte’s speech before the attack still rings in my mind, and Caviezel drifts through the action, like a man in a dream, or a drug-induced state. Despite frighteningly authentic action sequences, this is an anti-war film in every sense. Even the company commander, played by the excellent Elias Koteas, is reluctant to send his men into the attack, feeling personally responsible for every casualty. Unusually, we also see a human side to the Japanese enemy, who are portrayed as brave adversaries, with the same terrors and fears as their American counterparts. This film has often been shown on TV, but merits a viewing without breaks, so please try to watch it on DVD. Simply one of the best war films ever made. Here is an excellent widescreen trailer.
Jackie Brown. I really like the films of Quentin Tarantino, and though this is probably his least famous, I believe it to be his best. Casting Pam Grier, only known for some best forgotten films more than ten years earlier, was a master stroke. Given her first big break, she raises her game, and gives the performance of her life. Robert de Niro, playing against type, as a moronic thug, proves just what a good actor he is, and though we see a familiar side of Samuel L. Jackson, as a gun-running criminal, nobody does it better. Even the erratic Bridget Fonda (yes, one of The Fondas), as the slutty girlfriend of Jackson’s character, takes a tiny part, and runs with it, making it into something to remember. I would have bought this film for the opening sequence alone, as Jackie Brown walks around the local airport, to the soundtrack playing ‘Across 110th Street’. Genius is a word often used to describe Mr. Tarantino, and sometimes, it just fits him. He is an obviously intelligent man, displaying a lifelong love of film, and an eye for tiny detail, and it shows. And then there is the co-star. Robert Forster, playing the wonderfully named Max Cherry, the cynical bail-bondsman, who becomes overwhelmingly attracted to Jackie. He is simply a consummate actor, a craft professional, also giving what is probably his best ever performance as well. The plot, involving lots of money owed to the gun-runner, is almost secondary to the smart script, and captivating acting skills. If you want modern crime drama, it doesn’t get any better than this. Here is the wonderful Pam Grier driving to a meet: the audience are listening to ‘Street Life’ in the background.
Drugstore Cowboy. This 1998 film, directed by the now famous Gus Van Sant, follows a group of drug users, on their road trip around the North-West states of America, during the 1970’s. It stars Matt Dillon, getting his first grown up role, after years spent playing a teenage renegade. He does not disappoint, never overplaying his part, and holding the film together. There is nothing judgemental about the plot either. Despite robbing shops, breaking into places, and living outside the law, the four leads are not treated as either heroes, or criminals. They are just doing what they do, until their luck runs out. Much is made of Dillon’s character being obsessively superstitious, and there is a sense that the four regard themselves as a family, more so than their own real families can offer. This is not a perfect film, far from it. It is an unusual film though, and it is refreshing to see locations other than the all-too familiar streets of New York, Los Angeles, or Las Vegas, for a change. This is a clip of a distraction robbery at a pharmacy.
That’s the American selection. I have no doubt that you may have seen some of them before. If you have, perhaps you can revisit them with a fresh approach? If you have seen them all, then you are probably writing your own blog. If you have never seen any of them, please give them a try. It isn’t ‘Star Wars’, or ‘The Hobbit’, just a lot more intelligent, and thought-provoking.