Here goes my daunting attempt to name a few all-time favorite movies. This is difficult in so many ways. For instance, what criteria of the many involved will be applied in the selection? One could choose “best story” (or screen-play), “best acting,” “best directing,” “best musical score,” and so-on. My favorites involve these tangible metrics, for sure, but they inevitably qualify based on certain intangibles, qualities that are difficult to “get one’s arms around” in words without digging too deeply and losing the joy or satisfaction that the films offer.
“The Godfather” : Part One and Part Two
Because this film brings so much to the table, I have long ceded first place to Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpiece, “The Godfather.” Choose either part one or part two, it makes no difference; they are equally fine. The subject matter may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but Coppola and cast weave so many memorable character portrayals into this intriguing study of the Italian Mafia that the screen literally comes to life.
For me, Al Pacino’s Michael Corleone is the finest character portrayal in all of film – so powerful and consistently believable. Every one of the characters in these two films, from the “extras” to the main protagonists, was beautifully acted. The story line, with its psychological underscoring of the Mafia’s conflicting “loyalties” and “codes of honor,” was the perfect vehicle for these fine performances. Great direction too, and then there was the music – that haunting theme and the mesmerizing, uber-Italian Godfather’s Waltz! Beautifully photographed, the film taken as a whole is the cinematic equivalent of a Rembrandt masterpiece on canvas. Finally, how often is a sequel as good (perhaps better) than the five-star original?
Chaplin’s “City Lights”
I recall my mother, long ago, remarking about Charlie Chaplin’s 1931 masterpiece, “City Lights.” Although seeing much of Chaplin in his comic sketches throughout my early and adult years, I had never seen his movies with the exception of “Limelight” in the 1950’s. Linda and I have regularly attended the Stanford Theatre in nearby Palo Alto for many years. It is a beautifully restored 1925 downtown movie house which shows old, classic films exclusively. Often, we take a “flyer” on certain old films unfamiliar to us, and rarely have we come away disappointed. It was in that perfect venue that we first saw “City Lights” several years ago when it came for a rare, one-night showing.
Directing and starring in a 1931 silent film (except for the enchanting musical score) after talkies were already in vogue for more than three years was a big gamble on Chaplin’s part. Yet, his genius in the form of the always recognizable “little tramp” in the bowler hat made it so endearing that it stands as a masterpiece of comedy and pathos. Chaplin even did much of the hands-on film editing in the cutting room himself. The house was full that night at the Stanford Theatre, and, when the lights came back on, I understood why.
“The Right Stuff”
Number one on my list for pure entertainment! A larger-than-life sweep of two important sagas in our country’s history. The film opens with the relatively unknown story of the anonymous test pilots who risked their necks flying new aircraft designs at a God-forsaken place in the high California desert called Edwards Air Force Base. Soon, we encounter the nation’s highly-publicized Mercury space program complete with our original seven “rocket jockeys,” AKA astronauts. The highly successful Mercury program begun in the late 1950’s paved the way for Apollo Eleven’s ultimate moon landing in 1969.
Fantastic performances pepper this highly entertaining and epic sweep of those critical times in the history of aviation and the United of America. Dennis Quaid as the Mercury astronaut Gordon “Gordo” Cooper made me laugh throughout and has left an indelible imprint upon my mind even after all these years. Often do I recall his mugging and his quips in the various scenes, and they never fail to produce a smile or a snicker, even now. Sam Shepard does a great job portraying the now- legendary test pilot from Edwards AFB, Chuck Yeager. Yeager was the first man to fly faster than the speed of sound in 1948 at Edwards in a rocket plane, the Bell Aircraft X-1.
The film highlights tensions that existed in the late 1950’s between the faceless, nameless hands-on pilots at Edwards who really flew their test aircraft and the new breed of astronauts who, by necessarily relinquishing much of their capsule control to on-board computers, were derogatively viewed as “spam in a can” by some of the old-school test pilots. The primary impetus for such competition was, of course, publicity/recognition/ego and the attendant moneys such public awareness – or lack thereof – brought to the respective programs. The Mercury program, in stark contrast to the heroic efforts at Edwards AFB, was constantly before the eyes of the general public and the budget-boys in Washington. The credo became, “No bucks, no Buck Rogers!”
Who’s the Best Pilot You Ever Saw?
In the film, Gordo Cooper is fond of asking anyone who will pay heed, “Who’s the best pilot you ever saw?” Recall that all the astronauts were trained fighter pilots in their respective services before being chosen for the space program. The answer in Gordo’s mind is obvious to anyone in earshot who can also see his broad grin. In case the listener doesn’t get it, Gordo cheerfully informs, “You’re looking at him!”
In one of my favorite scenes, well into the movie, Gordo, by now well aware of Chuck Yeager’s test pilot skills at Edwards, is asked by a circle of un-initiated reporters, “Who’s the best pilot you ever saw, Gordo?” His ever-present broad grin surprisingly melts into serious contemplation as he starts to say in a slow, subdued voice, “Who’s the best pilot I ever saw? Well….there is this pilot …” at which point someone interrupts the quiet air of expectation surrounding Cooper and the circle of reporters, prompting the sudden return of Cooper’s smug smile and the blurted-out rejoinder, “Who’s the best pilot I ever saw? Why, you’re looking at him!” Yeager, himself, has a very brief cameo role in the film – a nice touch! Many aspects of the film reflect his presence on the set.
If you have not seen “The Right Stuff,” I heartily recommend it for its overall entertainment value and its historical significance – a great real-life adventure, perhaps the greatest ever.
Filmed in 1955 on location in Venice, Italy, and starring Katherine Hepburn. The color-restored DVD from the Criterion Collection offers the most beautiful, engaging scenes of magical Venice ever filmed. No travelogue can match it. Hepburn plays an uptight spinster-teacher on the mid-life vacation trip of a lifetime. It takes her a while to shed her mid-west prejudices and inhibitions before she begins to really “feel” Venice in the company of the thoroughly Italian Rosanno Brazzi.
The screenplay, direction (David Lean) and acting offer a wonderful depiction of human emotions as she initially feels alone and unconnected amidst the age-old splendor of Venice even though immersed in bustling crowds of tourists. Yes, it is very possible to feel all alone in a crowd, and the film displays this beautifully. Brazzi’s character notices her dining alone among the throngs at Piazza San Marco one sunny afternoon and, despite a clumsy first encounter, everything changes.
As events unfold, the viewer, too, begins to “feel” Venice thanks to the magnificent photography and the beautiful and breezy theme, aptly titled “Summertime,” which beautifully entwines the story.
The music and the photography alone are worth the price of admission. Only the second Hollywood film to be shot on a European location, the unique magic of “Summertime” literally transports you to the Venice of the 1950’s – a place and a time when such a trip might truly be the experience of a lifetime and not just a stop on one’s world itinerary.
“The Sound of Music”
Most of you have seen it; what more can I say? I will say this: First rate throughout! It will be a long time before we again see the likes of a Julie Andrews, an admirable real-life persona combining an unbelievable voice with formidable acting skills. Her “Maria” challenges Al Pacino’s “Michael” for top characterization honors in my book. No one else comes to mind who could have carried that role as she did.
Linda and I made a special effort to watch this film with our two young granddaughters – with a very distinct agenda in mind! We wanted them to see and appreciate the truly fine art and talent this film represents. Most of today’s “music stars” who are so highly publicized and popular with youngsters are minor league talents compared to the likes of Ms. Andrews. And where are the songwriters? Will we ever again see the likes of Rodgers and Hammerstein who composed the music in the film?
The girls were totally immersed in the movie – they loved it; we like to think they were beginning to understand the meaning of true talent and excellence.
“A Summer Story”
Winner of my “greatest emotional impact” award: A little-known British film from 1989. Linda and I saw it at a small local arts theatre years ago. When we left the theatre, we were uncharacteristically silent for some time afterward. Finally, we both began to discuss the film and we agreed that we had never felt such an emotional impact after seeing a movie.
The story is one of lost love and opportunity. Beautifully filmed in color, with a fine musical score, this film has to be in a class by itself – so powerful a movie, yet so underpublicized at the time. After many years, I recently found it available on DVD – from Korea, but in English. I ordered it through Amazon and found it to be of fine quality, with the original brilliant colors. We are planning to watch it again after all these years during the next available movie “time-slot” here at home.
Postscript: I noticed at the time that Amazon’s user-review of the film posted 24 entries, and every single one gave it five stars and rave reviews. I have never seen such a unanimous endorsement of any product before on Amazon! I am not surprised, but I think many who recently saw the film for the first time were.
My Favorite Movie Scene of All Time?
Check next week’s post to find out! The subject will not be movies, but my favorite movie scene perfectly illuminates next week’s more serious theme.
To My Readers: What are your favorite movies and movie scenes? Please comment and share them with the rest of us!