“Amost Famous” (2000) dir. Cameron Crowe

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Watching this film just made me smile from ear to ear the first time I saw it back in 2000. The reason is that, for all intents and purposes, I was the lead character, William Miller, back in middle and high school … albeit with much much much less ambition … as evidenced by the fact that I didn’t pursue a career in journalism or filmmaking.

With the exception of “Say Anything,” “Almost Famous” is writer/director Cameron Crowe’s best film. It’s his autobiography disguised as fiction. What’s particularly amazing is that he really did live most of the antics in the film at the age of 15 and not only did Crowe not become a drug casualty or bitter hack as he got older, he transcended all of it and became a successful filmmaker.

Yes, there’s a lot of this film that may seem corny. But the lead character (as well as the person the lead character is based on) is only 15 … and is a decent person. His way of navigating this sometimes very dark world and maintaining his integrity is what makes this film particularly inspiring. It’s clear that Crowe has a genuine love for humanity and for people. As flawed as many of the characters are in this film, he doesn’t make any of them completely unlikable. His ability to see the humanity in a very debauched world is what makes this film such a joy to behold.

The performances, from Patrick Fugit as Miller, to Kate Hudson, Billy Crudup, Frances McDormand, Jason Lee, and Phillip Seymour Hoffman are all terrific. Hell, even Zooey Deschanel is charming in this film (which trust me, is extremely hard to admit).

A lot of rock critic types rolled their eyes at this film when it came out and you can sense the jealousy in their attacks for obvious reasons. While This is not a perfect film, denying its charms is to deny the film’s audacious optimism and humanity. This is a great, great movie and is a film that always makes me feel better about the world.

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“Fast Times at Ridgemont High” (1982) dir. Amy Heckerling, scr. Cameron Crowe

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One of the best films about teenagers ever made, “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” was based on screenwriter Cameron Crowe’s real-life attempt to go back to high school undercover and write about what high school life was really like. The results are very funny, though they’re also sometimes extremely painful and awkward. Director Heckerling was especially sensitive in viewing how these kids were experiencing life. The characters are young, but they also face many things we tend to regard as adult issues (i.e. employment issues, unplanned pregnancies). I don’t know if things these days are better or worse for teenagers … especially given how nasty things have gotten with bullying, the internet, etc., but also with helicopter parenting being accepted as normal.

This scene between Sean Penn’s stoner character and Ray Walston’s teacher is a comedy classic. Walston’s character may be a “dick,” but he also deals with Penn’s character in a very calm, non-hysterical way … that’s also funny as hell. Seriously, what would YOU do, if you had Penn’s character as a student?  I think it speaks volumes for Heckerling’s and Crowe’s instincts to have them at least come to a meeting of the minds at the end of the film. They’ll never be buddies, but you get the sense that there is a mutual respect there.