Favorite Movies and Special Scenes

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

Godfather Pic

 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”

City Lights Pic

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”

Right Stuff Pic

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.

“Summertime”

Summertime Pic

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”

Sound of Music Pic

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”

A Summer Story Pic

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!

12 thoughts on “Favorite Movies and Special Scenes

  1. A test of a good movie, I feel, comes with watching it again and again and enjoying it each and every time. The Sound of Music passes that test for me. No matter how many times I have watched it (and the number is huge), The Sound of Music remains as fresh, delightful, and charming as the first time I watched it, about 47 years ago.

  2. I totally agree with your choices! I especially loved The God Father, Summertime (that was the first DVD that we had, given by you and Linda, before we even had a DVD player) and The Sound of Music, with the latter being my favorite. I’ve seen it so many times and enjoy it every time. I am going to rent, if Netflix has it, a Summer Story. I have to add one of my very favorite movies, To Kill a Mockingbird. The courtroom scene and his understated performance are without parallel. I just watched it a few days ago and am about to read the book for the third time for my book club selection. I read an article by a man who was a poor student and was assigned this book to read. He grew up in the South and was the same age as Scout when he was forced to read it. It changed his life and he eventually became a professor of literature. He said that every time he reads it he gets more out of it. I’m anxious to read it again! For sheer fun, another of my favorites is The Philadelphia Story with Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant. It’s another movie I’ve watched many times and never tire of seeing. For some suspense and romance, in my book, you can’t beat Charade! Another Cary Grant with Audrey Hepburn. I loved it.

    • I believe I’ll order a DVD of “To Kill a Mockingbird” since you are the second comment to this post which mentions it and Gregory Peck’s performance. I’ve seen it once or twice and really liked it, but it is one of those classics one should have and should probably watch several times. Funny you should mention “Charade,” one of the really good films and one of my Linda’s favorites. I just bought a second copy from the Criterion Collection. While cruising around Amazon’s DVDs a couple of weeks ago, I noticed reviewers claiming how much better the color is in Criterion’s version than in the one I had bought much earlier. I am going to do a color-comparison test soon and will let you know the results!”Summertime” is perhaps the finest example of an extraordinary color-restoration job by Criterion. I hope “Charade” is as good!

      • My sister went through a phase of being completely obsessed with Audrey Hepburn for awhile in her late teens; we watched <Breakfast at Tiffany's at least once a day every day for at least a year. I know all of her films and love Roman Holiday a bit better than Charade, the banter in that one grates on my nerves if I’m in the wrong mood.

        Wait Until Dark has to be one if the scariest movies ever.

        In the twisted genre: Gaslight with Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer, and Spellbound with Ingrid Bergman and Gregory Peck — both work on multi-layered levels of deception.

        John Huston’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is one of the best screenpkays ever written…ever.

        Incidentally, Truman Capote was Nell Harper Lee’s girlhood neighbor, and the character of Dill is based on him.

  3. Godfather lost me at the scene with the horse’s head in the bed. A lot too intense for me. I definitely second your picks of Summertime, City Lights, Summer Story and Sound of Music. The latter having very special meaning as after a special date in 1965 including dinner in S.F., a screening of the Sound of Music, and singer Jack Jones appearing at the Venetian Room of the Fairmont Hotel, I was asked by my husband of almost 47 years now to marry him. How could I not!

    • Definitely an intense scene – not for everyone. Jon probably liked “The Right Stuff” more than you did; much of it has a distinctly male appeal. Well, four out of six is not bad at all, Karen! Also, that was quite a day those 46+ years ago.

  4. I would have to put Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch in there somewhere too with Pacino and Andrews. There is something to be said for embodying a role to depth and degree of being able to fully sell it.

    • To the best of my recall, he was very good in that role. The next time I watch “Mockingbird,” I will pay closer attention now that you have mentioned his performance. Thanks for contributing!

      • Well it’s one of my favorite books, but the thing I remember most is that the first time I saw the film adaptation I missed the first five minutes and had no idea what I was watching…yet was so riveted by it I couldn’t and wouldn’t move. It is a story well told, a film well made, with a haunting score. I don’t care what the story is, tell me a story, make me believe it, and do it in a way thst makes me believe this story matters because it speaks to some deeper human truth. It would have been easy for that particular film to fall down either on the side of overly-sentimental or preachy, but Peck’s performance so embodies the character in a way so true to the story that he is able to walk that line.

        I suppose a good example of the the opposite (literary adaptation of a character gone wrong) would be the endless adaptations of Jane Eyre (just because there are so many of them. Some are beautiful, others are dismal. It’s really hard to get the characters right without erring in a campy direction of overdramatic. Mr. Rochester is especially difficult, and many film adaptations have failed to catch his character’s complexity — and why we sympathize with him — because they slip him (falsely) into the characterization of Humbert Humbert’s literary twin as a creeper with designs on his governess, or else as an unapproachable ogre no longer capable of love.

        Sherlock Holmes is another one often badly done.

        And really, The Godfather films are a perfect example of a tale well-told, well-sold as far as performances go, and done in a way that draws you into the lives of characters we love who are not easily dismissed as evil, but merely characterized as flawed people doing terrible things. It doesn’t excuse what they do, but it brings humanity to it.

        • Want to let you know that I am buying the DVD of “To Kill a Mockingbird” based on your comments and Linda’s comments to this post. It seems everyone I have talked with recently has the film near the top of their list; time to put it in my library!

      • If you have Netflix streaming (not sure about Hulu or Amazon Prime, but maybe) there is or was a documentary about the notoriously reclusive Nell Harper Lee that was released summer of 2011 calked Hey Boo that may or may not be of interest. It’s one of my favorite books, so that it was of interest was without question in my case. 😉

        And To Kill A Mockingbird really is that good. And what I love is that even though it deals with insanely difficult and controvesial themes, there is nothing “wrong” with it. I wouldn’t be horrified to find out that, say, a middle schooler had accidentally found it. Considering that rape, racism, murder, and poverty are major themes? That’s a rare thing indeed these days.

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