Actress Suzanne Vale (Meryl Streep) reluctantly moves in with her mother, Doris Mann (Shirley MacLaine), a star of musical comedies in the 1950s and 1960s, because studio executives demand she stay with a responsible party when she returns to work following a stint in a drug rehabilitation center.
Meryl Streep is very funny as the conflicted Suzanne, but she’s not as good as her costar Shirley MacLaine.
Suffering from the same fate as many older actresses, MacLaine’s star has faded as she’s aged, but this film reminds us: when given quality material, she’s a more than capable actress. Doris is torn in a million pieces: she wants to be a good mother, but she’s jealous of her daughter’s success; she’s nostalgic for the days when she was a big star, but doesn’t want to admit those days have passed.
I’m a sucker for an energetic musical number and this film delivers, in a scene which more or less encapsulates the whole movie.
Mike Nichols was a powerhouse director of famed Broadway musicals, including the original productions of Annie and Spamalot, and an accomplished film director, including Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), The Graduate (1967), The Birdcage (1996), and Closer (2004). Unusual among big name directors, he seemed content to let his work speak for itself, rarely going out of his way to seek the limelight.
In addition to Streep and MacLaine, this film features Dennis Quaid as a philandering producer, Gene Hackman as a kind director, Richard Dreyfuss as a doctor who takes an interest in Suzanne, and Annette Benning as a small time actress.
Streep and MacLaine are very good, but the movie is special because of its backstory. Carrie Fisher (of Princess Leia fame), wrote the novel on which the film was based and the screenplay for this film adaptation. It’s easy to see the relationship between Suzanne and Doris as a stand in for the relationship between Fisher and her famous mother, Debbie Reynolds.
This film skillfully combines a biting Hollywood satire, a touching movie about family jealousies, and a juicy tell-all memoir.
Barton Fink (John Turturro) is a celebrated Broadway playwright hired to write Hollywood scripts in the early 1940s. While in California, he stays at the rundown Hotel Earle to maintain his connection with “the common man,” where he meets Charlie (John Goodman), an insurance salesman hiding a dangerous past. Fink dreams of creating important, artistic films, but his boss at Capitol Studios, Jack Lipnick (Michael Lerner), is only interested in making money.
Few actors can boast of working with the Coens, Spike Lee, Adam Sandler, and Michael Bay; John Turturro has been in multiple projects with each of them. He’s an incredible versatile performer and very good as Barton, but this movie belongs to John Goodman’s Charlie. The Coens always bring out the best in him in films such as Raising Arizona (1987), The Big Lebowski (1998), and O Brother Where Art Thou (2000), but this, easily his darkest and most fearless work, is in a different league and leaves an indelible impression.
John Polito (an early Coen favorite), Steve Buscemi, John Mahoney, Tony Shalhoub, and Judy Davis round out the supporting cast.
In the past decade, the Coen brothers have worked to make their films more accessible and mainstream, but this film remains one of their most challenging; the last third of the movie descends into a dream-like Lynchian madness involving a serial killer, a huge fire, a severed head, and a postcard.
Nonetheless, this was immediately recognized as an important film and helped separate the brothers from the glut of quirky, independent filmmakers at the end of the twentieth century. At the 1991 Cannes Film Festival, this under appreciated and misunderstood film became the first to win the Best Picture, Best Actor, and Best Director awards at the festival.
It’s a funny, insightful parody of the Hollywood studio system at the beginning of World War II and a probing look at the nature of art. Fink is dismayed when he’s assigned to write a film about wrestling because he considers the subject beneath him, but four hundred years ago, Shakespeare’s plays were disdained as low culture entertainment; now, they’re the pinnacle of Western civilization. In five hundred years, will critics be studying the collected works of John Cheever or Full House?
This spiritual successor to Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisquati (1982) was directed by Ron Fricke, the cinematographer of the earlier film.
Containing no narrative, it’s a series of long tracking shots of people and places from around the world, often using time-lapse photography: the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, oil fields in Kuwait, Auschwitz, African tribal ceremonies, a crowded subway terminal. It’s National Geographic without interpretive voice overs.
A statement about the interconnectedness of humanity, it’s a breathtaking, beautiful film highlighting the diversity of the world and the wonder of creation.
When Pittsburgh weatherman Phil Connors is assigned to cover the Groundhog Day festival in Punxsutawney, he’s inexplicably forced to relive the same day over and over again.
As Ned Ryerson, Stephen Toblowsky straddles the line between annoying, over-eager salesman and pathetic everyman; Andie MacDowell’s Rita is the most genuine person in the film and its emotional anchor; Chris Elliot’s physical comedy serves as a counterbalance to the film’s cerebral aspirations, but this movie belongs to William James Murray.
Prior to this, everyone knew Bill Murray was funny, but no one knew if he could act. As Phil Connors, he runs the gamut from depressed loser to jaded cynic to self-centered asshole to altruistic boy scout. Caddyshack (1980) and Ghostbusters (1985) made him a star, Groundhog Day made him an actor.
This movie breaks countless storytelling rules, but no one walks away thinking about the gaping plot holes. Instead, viewers fill in the blanks with their own metaphysical and philosophical explanations, whether they be Buddhist, Christians, humanist, or conservative.
Director Harold Ramis is often compared to fellow Chicagoan John Hughes, another hugely influential comedic voices in the late twentieth century. I prefer Ramis, but the difference between the two is negligible.
On paper, this philosophical, romantic comedy about existential angst with an underdeveloped fantasy plot shouldn’t rank as one of the greatest films of all time, but it does.
1994 was a miracle year for movies, but while Forrest Gump was a technical marvel and transformed Tom Hanks into a national treasure and Pulp Fiction ushered in a new era of hyper violence, the cream of the crop was the story of the wrongfully convicted Andy Dufresne.
Its continuing power is due to the amazing cast of characters.
Thousands of people dream of Morgan Freeman narrating their lifestory, but what they really want is the comforting, soothing gravitas of prisoner Ellis “Red” Redding magnifying the minutiae of their lives.
Bob Gunton is one of the greatest screen villains as the hypocritical, Bible-thumping, slightly obtuse warden, Samuel Norton.
James Whitmore is heartbreaking as Brooks Hatlen, the lifelong prisoner unable to adjust to life on the outside.
Andy’s quiet quest to secure his freedom stands in contrast to the bitterness and defiant anger we expect, and the image of him emerging from the sewer a free man and looking up into the falling rain is a triumph of the human spirit.
Lenny Weinrib (Woody Allen), and his wife, Amanda (Helena Bonham Carter), can’t conceive, so they adopt a baby boy. When the child turns out to be a prodigy, a curious Lenny seeks out the birth mother: Linda Rush (Mira Sorvino), a porn star / aspiring actress.
A modern Greek tragedy, complete with a Greek chorus and a Deus ex machina ending, this is Woody Allen at his most playful, and Helena Bonham Carter at her most sane, but the reason this film is great begins and ends with Sorvino.
Linda Rush is one of my favorite characters, nonchalantly filthy and utterly charming. She’s completely at ease with her porn star career and naively believes quality work in pornography will result in better roles in the future.
Sorvino deservedly won an Oscar, but sadly it would appear she’s content working in independent films, avoiding the limelight attached to high-profile roles.
In this film inspired by the infamous Salem Witch Trials, John Proctor (Daniel Day-Lewis) love his wife Elizabeth (Joan Allen), but an earlier infidelity with Abigail Williams (Winona Ryder) causes a rift in their relationship which ends in violence and engulfs the whole town.
Daniel Day-Lewis rarely disappoints. His John Proctor is torn between protecting his reputation or his family. Ultimately, he chooses his family, but like The Gift of the Magi, his wife refuses to confirm his unfaithfulness.
Beginning in the mid 1990s, Joan Allen began an impressive decade long run of quality films including Nixon (1995), The Ice Storm (1997), Pleasantville (1998), The Contender (2001), and The Notebook (2004). She brings a quiet dignity to Elizabeth Proctor, who continues to love her husband despite his infidelity.
Winona Ryder is a versatile performer who can be goofy, sarcastic and mean, or quietly manipulative. Sadly, her career was derailed after her arrest for shoplifting. Since then, she’s been relegated to supporting roles in films like Star Trek (2009) and Black Swan (2010).
She’s still relatively young, but I fear we’re going to look back on her career and see it as a squandered opportunity.
Paul Scofield focused on the theater, but the few films he participated in were memorable including A Man for All Seasons (1966), Henry V (1989), and Quiz Show (1994). He’s excellent as Judge Thomas Danforth, the architect of the trials.
Jeffrey Jones who played Thomas Putnam is fondly remembered as the dad in Beetlejuice (1988) and the principal in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986), but those fond memories were tainted when he was arrested for child pornography in 2003.
I’d read Arthur Miller’s play in high school, so I knew the film used the witch trials as an allegory for McCarthyism, but I didn’t anticipate the film’s message about love and commitment which makes it a perfect companion piece to The Age of Innocence (1993), also starring Day-Lewis and Ryder. The earlier film shows what sacrifices must be made to maintain fidelity in a relationship, while this film shows the consequences of breaking this vow.
Kate (Helena Bonham Carter) is dependent on her Aunt Maude to support her and her drug addicted father (Michael Gambon). Maude wants her to marry for money, but Kate’s in love with a poor journalist, Merton Densher. She befriends a dying American heiress, Milly (Elizabeth McGovern), and schemes to have Merton woo Milly and inherit her fortune; heartbreak and anguish follow.
This film reminds us Helena Bonham Carter was a fine actress before Tim Burton turned her into a permanent weirdo.
Elizabeth McGovern is perfectly cast as the dying Milly. I’m happy to see her belatedly getting deserved recognition for her recent work in Downton Abbey,
Based on a Henry James novel, this is the sort of lush, morally complex, melodrama I imagine when I think of romance.
As he turns 30, a series of events leads Truman Burbank to suspect everything is not as it seems and begin an investigation which leads to an unsettling discovery: he’s the unwitting star of a reality television show. His entire life has been filmed by hidden cameras and broadcast on a dedicated network.
Every relationship, from his parents to his best friend, has been carefully choreographed. His father’s death was a ratings stunt. His wife was selected following an intense audition process.
For Jim Carey, this film was the inevitable dramatic turn attempted by every successful comedic performer. Despite some success, such as Man on the Moon (1999) and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), his dramatic career never materialized and twenty years later he’s making unwanted and unnecessary sequels to remain relevant.
Written by the director of Gattaca (1997), Andrew Niccol, this film asks important questions about the nature of entertainment, the power of individuality, and the evil of a world where everything is a commodity. It invites us to see the creators of the show within the movie as cruel manipulators and demands outrage at the use of people for entertainment purposes. Left unsaid is the parallel between the viewers watching Truman’s life unfold and the millions of people who watch similarly exploitative programs like Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.
The movie wisely ends ambiguously. Truman escapes, but without a camera following his every move, we have no idea what he does next, nor should we: it’s none of our damn business.
The lives of the characters in this film intertwine in a ridiculous labyrinth.
Phillip Baker Hall, perhaps best known as Lt. Bookman in an episode of Seinfeld, is Jimmy Gator, an aging, alcoholic host of a children’s quiz show who, because of his alcoholism, can’t remember if he sexually abused his daughter.
The underrated John C. Reilly is Jim Kurring, a dimwitted policeman in love with Gator’s daughter.
William H. Macy is Donnie, a former quiz show champion who believes dental work will solve his insecurities. After Fargo (1996), it seemed Macy was destined to become a major star, but he seems content with smaller character work.
Jason Robards is Earl Partridge, who wants to reconcile with his son before he dies. Robard’s death one year after the film’s release adds an urgent poignancy to his performance.
Julianne Moore is Linda Partridge, the morphine-addicted, much younger wife of Earl. In my opinion, Moore’s an overrated actress, but she’s compelling here.
Phillip Seymour Hoffman is Phil Parma, a hospice nurse who takes care of Earl.
Tom Cruise plays against type as Earl’s son, the misogynist / pick up artist Frank Mackey, whose fractured relationship with his father manifests in unexpected ways. His performance is a career highlight.
Just as we realize it will take a miracle to unravel the film’s ridiculous plot, the miracle happens: a storm carrying thousands of frogs descends on the city.
Near the end of the film, a succession of characters sing “Wise Up” by Aimee Mann. It’s an odd, haunting scene, forcing us to remove ourselves from the story and focus on the characters.
Director and screenwriter Paul Thomas Anderson understands films in a way few in Hollywood do: the details of the plot of a movie will be forgotten, but great characters such as Jack Horner, Daniel Plainview, and Lancaster Dodd will survive