“Citizen Ruth” (1996) dir. Alexander Payne, scr. Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor


Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor have emerged as America’s leading satirists of middle-class delusion. “Election,” “About Schmidt,” and “Sideways” were all critical (and sometimes) box-office hits roundly deserving of their universal acclaim. However, rarely mentioned is Payne and Taylor’s first film, the wonderfully acidic “Citizen Ruth.”

Ruth Stoops, the titular hero played by Laura Dern, is a drug-addict and petty criminal who finds out she is pregnant during one of her many stints in jail. Given the fact that she’s had four other children (all under foster care or under the care of ex-boyfriends/husbands), a judge offers leniency if she will abort her unborn child. This raises the attention of a local pro-life group called the Baby Savers who bail her out and try to use the judge’s offer as a call to arms for their cause. Through a series of circumstances, she then winds up under the care of a pro-choice group who want her to promote their cause.

Believe it or not, the degenerate Ruth winds up being the character you root for the most in the film. Dern pulls off the impossible in her characterization of Ruth. She manages to be sympathetic while still acting like someone you’d never even remotely think of inviting into your home.

No matter where you stand on the abortion issue, “Citizen Ruth” mercilessly attacks both sides. While I don’t think Payne and Taylor are saying that all pro-life or pro-choice people are like the characters in this film, they illustrate what happens when activists use people as symbols to “send messages” instead of actually doing something to help the people they’re exploiting.

In addition to Dern, the rest of the cast, which includes Kurtwood Smith, Burt Reynolds, Swoosie Kurtz, Kelly Preston, Mary Kay Place, M.C. Gainey, Tippi Hedren, Kenneth Mars, David Graf, and Diane Ladd (Dern’s real-life mom), all deliver terrific career-best performances.

A wonderfully brittle and nasty skewering of an extremely sensitive topic. If you have a brain, a heart, and a very dark sense of humor, you’ll hopefully find this film as hilarious as I did.

“Wild at Heart” (1990) dir. David Lynch


When you create a film that many people consider to be a masterpiece and a lasting contribution to the art of film (in director David Lynch’s case, it was 1986’s “Blue Velvet”), it’s a fool’s errand deciding what you’re going to do for an encore.

Some directors scale back and do something more modest (i.e. Quentin Tarantino’s “Jackie Brown,” Barry Levinson’s “Avalon”). Some directors create the epic they’ve always wanted to make, oftentimes with varying results: from great (Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now”, PT Anderson’s “Magnolia”) to severely flawed (Bernardo Bertolucci’s “1900”) to catastrophic (Michael Cimino’s “Heaven’s Gate”).

Still others decide to make a film that is a depository for every weird idea they’ve ever had, for every f–ked-up notion they’ve ever wanted to put into a film but couldn’t before, and are making this film because this is the one time they can possibly get away with it. These films are typically ones that you probably hate on first viewing, but may grow to like, even love. The best examples of this are Robert Altman’s “Brewster McCloud” (his follow-up to “MASH”), The Coen Brothers’ “The Big Lebowski” (their follow-up to “Fargo”), and David Lynch’s “Wild at Heart.”

“Wild at Heart” came with big expectations and actually won the Palme d’Or at 1990’s Cannes Film Festival (to a cavalcade of boos, allegedly led by Roger Ebert). I had huge expectations for “Wild at Heart,” not only because it was Lynch’s new film, but had Nicolas Cage (when he was only starring in cult movies), Harry Dean Stanton, Laura Dern, and Willem Dafoe, all favorite actors of mine.

My initial reaction? Supreme disappointment, almost anger. The film was as violent and disturbing as “Blue Velvet,” but I thought Lynch trying way too hard to live up to some reputation as some Fellini-esque boogeyman and was just being freaky and weird for the sake of being freaky and weird. I thought it was calculated and crass, a Troma film for art houses.

But … I couldn’t get the movie out of my head. I saw it again at college a few months later and liked it a little more. When I was home that summer, I rented it on video and grew to appreciate it even more. By the end of the summer, I was a fan, but still thought it was a much lesser work than “Blue Velvet” and “Eraserhead.”

Over the years, I’ve grown to like it a lot more and now see it as a transitional film for Lynch as an artist. Kind of a movie he had to get out of his system, before he really let his freak flag fly with “Lost Highway” and “Mulholland Dr.,” arguably his masterpiece even more than “Blue Velvet.” (I like “Blue Velvet” more, but think “Mulholland Dr.” is one of the most complex and brilliant films ever made).

This is not to belittle “Wild at Heart”. As I’ve said earlier, I’ve grown to appreciate and even love this film. Yes, it’s oftentimes weird for the sake of being weird. Yes, it’s patently (and I believe intentionally) ridiculous in many scenes, but if you’re in a mood to be rocked silly with graphic sex, violence, vulgarity, and insanity, it can be a lot of fun. Definitely not for prudes.

“Blue Velvet” (1986) dir. David Lynch


The esteemed British film journal “Sight and Sound” recently released their once-every-10-years international critics and directors poll of the greatest movies ever made. They have their idea of the greatest films ever made and I have mine. So, whether you like it or not, I will be including essays on my 10 favorite films of all time. These are not necessarily the 10 best films of all time, just the 10 that made the biggest impact on me personally. These are not necessarily in order:

10. “Blue Velvet” (1986) dir. David Lynch

I have an interesting history with David Lynch. Back when I was growing up, I heard about his first movie “Eraserhead” through the bi-monthly bulletin that the local arthouse put out and was consistently intrigued by the poster with Jack Nance with the weird hair. When “The Elephant Man” came out in 1980, it was the first movie I remember seeing that made me cry. I actually saw Lynch’s legendary big-budget sci-fi bomb “Dune” (1984) twice in the theater and loved it (even though, I was clearly in the minority at the time).

So, when I heard about “Blue Velvet” in the fall of 1986 and all the notoriety it had re: its dark violence and sexuality, I was very intrigued. Unfortunately, it didn’t come out in my hometown until November 1986 and it was likely only a fill-in feature until the Christmas blockbusters came out on Thanksgiving weekend. I was only one of three patrons in a theater that had a capacity for 500. And from the moment the curtains opened and the credits rolled over the blue velvet fabric, I was hooked. It was the perfect setting for seeing this film. I got completely sucked into Lynch’s nightmare that unfolded in front of me. I laughed in a few spots, but for the most part, I was positively frightened and mesmerized throughout. I walked out of the theater in a daze, convinced I had seen the greatest movie ever made.

I saw it a few months later at the local arthouse that used to show “Eraserhead.” Only this time, the place was packed, unfortunately with hipster d–kheads who laughed hysterically throughout the entire film. Yes, there are funny moments in the film and yes, because I was an insecure 17-year old, I laughed along with the audience. But I really cherish being able to see “Blue Velvet” that first time in a nearly empty audience and accept it non-ironically.

The scene I included here is one of the scenes I remember the hipsters losing their s–t over. And on the surface, you can see why because it totally seems completely dorky. However, as David Lynch noted to British film critic Mark Kermode when Kermode asked him about this scene.

“We all have this thing where we want to be very cool and when you see something like this, really kind of embarrassing, the tendency is to laugh, so that you are saying out loud that ‘This is embarrassing and not cool!’ and you’re hip to the scene. But we also always know that when we’re alone with this person that we’re falling in love with, we do say goofy things, but we don’t have a problem with it. It’s so beau-ti-ful. and the other person’s so forgiving of these beautiful, loving, goofy things. So there’s a lot of this swimming in this scene. A the same time, there’s something to that scene, a truth to it, in my book.”

I couldn’t have said it any better myself and I have to admit when I watched this scene in a nearly empty theater, I took this scene at face value and seriously got sucked into Laura Dern’s character’s description of her dream and, like Kyle MacLachlan’s character admitted, thought it was pretty “neat.”