Dave’s 5 Films He Would Choose if He Were Asked by Robert Osborne to Program a Selection on Turner Classic Movies

The scenario … You have been selected by Robert Osborne at Turner Classic Movies to program 5 movies and introduce your selections before they begin on TCM. You could obviously choose your 5 favorite films of all-time. Or … you could see this as an opportunity to showcase 5 favorite films that not many people know about but should. I am providing my 5 choices below. Again, while they rank among my favorite films, they are not necessarily my all-time 5 favorite movies. They’re just the ones that people need to know more about. Feel free to discuss, debate … or even better … present your 5 in the comments section. I’m curious to hear what you have to say.

1. “Nobody’s Fool” (1994) dir. Robert Benton
My favorite film of 1994 (aside from “Ed Wood” and “Pulp Fiction”), based on Pulitzer Prize winning author Richard Russo’s 1993 novel. Paul Newman plays Donald Sullivan, a sometime-construction worker who has a lifetime of mistakes and screw-ups in his history. When his son and grandson come back into his life, he has a chance at redemption. It’s a movie I always put on when I’m in a foul or depressed mood, because all of the characters (with one or two exceptions) are fundamentally decent people, deeply flawed as they are. This is one of Newman’s five best performances and the supporting cast, from Bruce Willis to Melanie Griffith to Jessica Tandy to even Philip Seymour Hoffman in an early role, are terrific.

I loved this movie when I saw it in January of 1995, but “Nobody’s Fool” has gained special resonance for me over the years, because I wound up living in the village where this movie took place (renamed North Bath for the film) for 8 years. I didn’t even realize this until a year after I moved there, but everything about the look of this film and town positively nails the quirky, but memorable upstate NY place I once called home.

2. “Auto Focus” (2002) dir. Paul Schrader

One of the funniest and creepiest movies of the 2000s is Paul Schrader’s corrosive biopic of the late “Hogan’s Heroes” star Bob Crane. Crane was what we would now describe as a “sex addict,” whose obsession and weird friendship with a man who shared that lifestyle with him (as the film alleges) ultimately killed Crane. What’s interesting about “Auto Focus” is how director Schrader so accurately depicts a man with absolutely zero self-awareness. As Schrader put it in a terrific interview with Uju Asika on Salon.com when the movie was released: “… when I’ve dealt with characters like this before, these existential loners, they tend to be introspective. They don’t get it, but they’re trying to figure out how to get it. The interesting thing to me about Crane was that he was not only clueless, he was clueless about being clueless. And I think his greatest flaw wasn’t sex, it was selfishness. Hence the title. I don’t think he understood or appreciated how his actions affected other people. It was just sort of blithe egoism. So the challenge then was to try to make a film about a superficial character that wasn’t a superficial film.” He also described Crane and his partner-in-crime John Carpenter: “You take these kind of Rat Pack guys who have to trade in their narrow ties for beads and bell bottoms in order to score chicks. But of course they remain the same sexist jerks they always were. It’s a fascinating period in American male sexual identity.” In my opinion, Schrader’s best film as a director, slightly edging out 1978’s “Blue Collar” and 1979’s “Hardcore.”

3. “The Falcon and the Snowman” (1985) dir. John Schlesinger

One of my favorite films from the 1980s (and one of the most sadly forgotten/neglected) is John Schlesinger’s nail-biting account of two young American friends during the 1970s (one an idealistic communications worker, the other a drug dealer) who decide to sell information to the KGB. Based on the true story about Christopher Boyce and Daulton Lee’s descent into treason, it’s extremely well-acted, well-written, well-directed. This is the kind of film that would have won multiple Oscars during the 1970s, but was dumped into theaters January 1985, the traditional no-man’s land for films studios are looking to give a token release to before writing them off as losses on their annual reports. It’s a real shame, because this deserved much better. Timothy Hutton and Sean Penn are incredible in this film as Boyce and Lee.

4. “Hopscotch” (1980) dir. Ronald Neame

Is there any cooler actor than Walter Matthau? OK, maybe there a few that are cooler … or maybe several. Who cares, allright? As one gets older, one begins to appreciate the laconic, laid-back, sardonic charm of the ultimate intelligent curmudgeon. It’s hard to pick a favorite Matthau film, but “Hopscotch” is my favorite. This is completely fun from start to finish, and if you’re a fan of “Fletch,” “Hopscotch” is one of the best smart-ass dialogue films of all time. Many people thought this was an odd choice for The Criterion Collection, but I don’t. It’s been a favorite of mine ever since my Mom took me to see it when I was 10, which was especially cool due its R-rating and multiple “F-bombs” throughout.

5. “Last Night at the Alamo” (1984) dir. Eagle Pennell

Before “Eastbound and Down” and the rest of Jody Hill’s brilliantly dark and funny oeuvre of delusional losers, there was Eagle Pennell’s funny and sad “Last Night at the Alamo.” Written by Kim Henkel, the man who wrote the original screenplay for “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” and one of the best truly indie movies of all time, “Last Night at the Alamo” tells the tale of the Alamo (a Houston dive bar) last night in business. The regulars are an interesting bunch: William (aka Ichabod) is a hot-headed, but dim young man in his early 20s; Claude is a man whose blue collar world is threatened when his wife insists they move the suburbs and she subsequently throws him out for drinking too much; and then there’s Cowboy, the legendary BMOC at the bar, who has a big plan to save the bar … or go to Hollywood to become a cowboy actor. There’s other regulars too, as well as assorted bartenders, girlfriends, wives, and former lovers, who fade in and out of the scenery, as the night continues.

The Alamo’s closing represents more than the closing of their favorite watering hole. This is a place where all the men go to be big shots after difficult days on the job or in their lives. It’s obvious the men feel small outside the Alamo, because they strut around and pathetically act like badasses within its confines. The Alamo’s closing means that these men will now be reduced the lives they lead … with their favorite escape hatch closing behind them.

The film has some serious moments, but it’s also hysterically and profanely funny. One of the best scenes in the film is the very first one, where William drives to the Alamo after work with his girlfriend and he rants and screams about everything from having to borrow an undesirable vehicle because his regular ride needs repair to his girlfriend complaining about his cursing and drinking, etc. If the opening scene doesn’t grab you, the rest of the film won’t.

If you’re at all a fan of Jody Hill or Danny McBride, “Last Night at the Alamo” is an absolute must-see.

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“Pulp Fiction” (1994) dir. /scr. Quentin Tarantino

In honor of this year’s Cannes Film Festival (taking place as we speak), here’s one of the best-known and most beloved of all the Palme D’Or winners, 1994’s “Pulp Fiction.” There’s not much more I can say about the “Star Wars” of the 1990s that hasn’t already been said. I had seen Quentin Tarantino’s first film “Reservoir Dogs” on its opening weekend at an upscale Arlington, VA art theater in the fall of 1992, after reading about it nearly a year before in the magazine “Film Threat.”  After seeing “Dogs,” I obnoxiously demanded that everyone I knew at the time see this film, carrying a VHS copy of the film to practically every gathering I went to for the next year and a half.  A year later, I saw the Tarantino-scripted “True Romance” twice on its opening weekend in 1993 and became an even more annoying (and mouth-breathing) Tarantino disciple.  Needless to say, by the fall of 1994, especially after it won the Palme D’Or at Cannes and had so many major critics vehemently raving about it (or condemning it), I could barely contain my excitement when “Pulp Fiction” finally made its US debut.  This time, I saw it at a Tuscaloosa, AL mall multiplex, which was a real sign that the underground planets had aligned and Tarantino’s blend of violence and comedy had become VERY chic by this point.

Mark Seal recently composed a very lengthy, but immensely entertaining article about the making of “Pulp Fiction” for Vanity Fair’s March 2013 Hollywood issue, which you can read at the link below:

http://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2013/03/making-of-pulp-fiction-oral-history

Nearly 20 years later, “Pulp Fiction” still packs a wallop.

“The Last Boy Scout” (1991) dir. Tony Scott, scr. Shane Black

Arguably the best … and darkest … of the high-octane Joel Silver-produced action films from the period between 1982 and 1993 (and that includes “Die Hard” and “Lethal Weapon,” which Black also wrote), “The Last Boy Scout” is a film noir on steroids.  Yes, it has Bruce Willis and Damon Wayans.  Yes, it has lots of over-the-top violence and rat-a-tat dialogue.  But … Willis and Wayans play SEVERELY flawed characters.  Willis is a former celebrated Secret Service agent who lost his job, is drowning in booze and low self-esteem, and has a wife who throws her affair with his best friend in his face.  Wayans is a former professional football player whose promising career was ruined by drug problems.  As you can predict, both characters are thrown together by chance to solve the murder of Wayans’ stripper girlfriend (an early role by future-Oscar winner Halle Berry) and their efforts may lead to a shot at redemption … maybe.  Unlike nowadays, you don’t get the sense there’s been a complete redemption of either character, but you do get the sense that things will go better.

The best scene in the film is featured here.  Unfortunately, it doesn’t include the next minute of the scene which makes the previous two minutes even funnier, but what’s here is damn good:

As much as Quentin Tarantino is celebrated for his mix of humor and darkness, Shane Black is sometimes unfairly underrated for doing a similar thing.  Black is one of the most financially successful screenwriters of all time (“Boy Scout”‘s script set a then-record of a $1.75 million sale to a studio), but because Black didn’t start off in the art-film world, some people have condemned him as a hack.  To those who think this, you really should read Black’s original script, which is way darker than the resulting film:

http://www.imsdb.com/scripts/Last-Boy-Scout,-The.html

Much of the original script made it into the final film, but the last third is WAY different, is much more violent and dark (including a snuff film subplot), and had the original script been shot as is, would have rated an NC-99.  If you’re a fan of Shane Black’s (or even Tarantino), it’s well worth reading.   And of course, the film Scott made after “The Last Boy Scout” was Tarantino’s “True Romance.”  But, that’s another story …

“Color of Night” (1994) dir. Richard Rush

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“Color of Night” has a very bad reputation. In fact, it won Worst Picture of the Year at the 1994 Razzies (it’s only win … it lost in its other 8 categories). Roger Ebert said at the time: “I was, frankly, stupefied. To call it absurd would be missing the point, since any shred of credibility was obviously the first thing thrown overboard. It’s so lurid in its melodrama and so goofy in its plotting that with just a bit more trouble, it could have been a comedy.”

I agree with everything Ebert said, except for his last assertion. I would counter that “Color of Night” IS a comedy … a gleefully wild, bats–t crazy comedy that does for erotic thrillers what the Ebert-scripted and Russ Meyer-directed “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls” did for Hollywood soap operas.

If you don’t agree, consider the pedigree of its creators. Director Richard Rush made the brilliantly demented “The Stuntman” in 1980, a labor of love that took many years to film and resulted in an Academy Award nomination for Best Director that year. One of the writers was Billy Ray who later wrote and directed the superior “Shattered Glass” and “Breach.” I’m not saying that talented people can’t make a bad movie. But when you create something this completely insane, it can’t be by accident.

I won’t rehash the plot because the less you know the better. Yes, you will probably see the big plot twists coming a mile away. But I would argue that’s part of the fun. To accuse this film of containing gratuitous sex and graphic violence is missing the point. Gratuitous sex and graphic violence IS the point. It pushes its R-rating beyond the breaking point. If you’re a prude or have no sense of humor, stay away. But if you let it, “Color of Night” will take you on a crazy, surreal trip … and leave you with a big idiotic grin.

“Nobody’s Fool” (1994) dir. Robert Benton

My favorite film of 1994 (aside from “Ed Wood” and “Pulp Fiction”) is Robert Benton’s comedy-drama “Nobody’s Fool,” based on Pulitzer Prize winning author Richard Russo’s 1993 novel.  Paul Newman plays Donald Sullivan, a sometime-construction worker who has a lifetime of mistakes and screw-ups in his history.  When his son and grandson come back into his life, he has a chance at redemption.  Despite the sitcom-like nature of the trailer, the movie is actually much deeper and more resonant, without being heavy.  It’s a movie I always put on when I’m in a foul or depressed mood, because all of the characters (with one or two exceptions) are fundamentally decent people, deeply flawed as they are.   This is one of Newman’s five best performances and the supporting cast, from Bruce Willis to Melanie Griffith to Jessica Tandy to even Philip Seymour Hoffman in an early role, are terrific.

I loved this movie when I saw it in January of 1995, but “Nobody’s Fool” has gained special resonance for me over the years, because I wound up living in the village where this movie took place (renamed North Bath for the film) for 8 years.  I didn’t even realize this until a year after I moved there, but everything about the look of this film and town positively nails the quirky, but memorable upstate NY place I once called home.