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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“25th Hour” (2002) dir. Spike Lee / scr. David Benioff

One of the best films of the 2000s, one of director Spike Lee’s best films, and one that is … sadly … almost completely forgotten these days, “25th Hour” is a tremendously powerful drama about the last day of freedom for a drug dealer, played by Edward Norton, before going to prison for 7 years.  Based on David Benioff’s novel (who also wrote the screenplay), “25th Hour” is an incredibly complex look at family, friendship, morals, the legal system, and culture … specifically a post-9/11 New York City. The performances by Norton, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Barry Pepper, Rosario Dawson, Brian Cox, and Anna Paquin are all extraordinary and Oscar-worthy.  The editing is superb, the script is intense, and the ominous music composed by Terrence Blanchard is one of the finest scores I’ve ever heard for a dramatic film.

Despite how great this movie is, I can understand why it’s not that popular.  Despite many moments of dark humor, it’s an extremely troubling and depressing film.  Because it’s about guilt … it’s about regret … its about that feeling where you wish life had a rewind button for actions or inactions.   But this is truly an amazing film and worthy of your attention.

Probably the best scene in the film is when Norton’s character delivers an angry, beyond politically incorrect 5-minute diatribe about every social, ethnic, and economic groups in New York City.  It was part of the original novel, and ironically, Benioff said it was inspired by a similar rant from Lee’s “Do the Right Thing.”  However, when he wrote the original draft of the script, he sheepishly left it out because he was afraid of what Lee would say.  However, Lee loved it and insisted it be put back in.  The rant may be considered highly offensive, but you must watch it until the end when Norton’s character turns the anger back on himself and realizes he’s the one responsible for his fate.  Again, powerful stuff.

“Tusk” – Fleetwood Mac … as depicted in a deleted scene from P.T. Anderson’s “Boogie Nights” (1997)

There’s a brilliant and crucial, nearly 6-minute scene from “Boogie Nights” that was deleted before its theatrical release set to Fleetwood Mac’s “Tusk” that should be seen by any fan of the film.  In it, Becky Barnett (played by Nicole Ari Parker), the porn actress that got married to a Pep Boys manager, finds her new life outside the industry to be a nightmare of domestic violence, a scene all-too-common when a porn star marries a “civilian.”  The civilian, in question, is turned on by the notion of being with a porn star, but paradoxically, can’t handle that person’s past.  It’s the Madonna-whore complex at its ugliest.  Becky calls on Dirk Diggler (played by Mark Wahlberg) to rescue her, but he’s so far gone on cocaine to be an effective savior for Becky, wrecking his car on the way to saving her.

It’s likely Anderson deleted the scene from the final film because of the film’s overall length (already at over 2.5 hours), but he also mentioned (in the DVD commentary) he thought this was too depressing a scene for a film that has enough dark moments in its last third and that by deleting it, he wanted to give at least one of his characters a happy ending (Becky’s wedding earlier in the film).  While I don’t think the scene’s deletion detracts from the film, its inclusion would have made the final third more powerful, albeit more depressing.  Still, at the end of the scene, there’s no clue what happens to Becky after she confronts her husband.  So … as much as I admire this scene … Anderson probably made the best choice in deleting it.  Given that, it’s still worth seeing.  Please note that this is a very unpleasant scene to watch and is not safe for work or delicate sensibilities.

RIP, Philip Seymour Hoffman

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One of the best actors of our generation. Very very sad news.

Picking my favorite Philip Seymour Hoffman scene from a film is difficult since the man positively rocked the screen in every movie he was in. Hoffman specialized in playing characters who were untrustworthy, weak, pathetic, or duplicitous. While he won the Oscar for “Capote” and was brilliant in “The Master, his role as the hospice nurse in “Magnolia” is perhaps his most heroic and the one that I feel is his most underrated. In a film full of characters who are experiencing life at its worst, his efforts to fulfill the dying wish of Jason Robards’s character to reunite with his estranged son are a wonder to behold.

Honorable mention: Hoffman’s portrayal of Lester Bangs in “Almost Famous”. It’s too bad he never got the chance to play him in a feature-length Bangs biopic.

“The Big Lebowski” (1998) dir. Joel and Ethan Coen

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I’m a day late, but not a buck short on this 15th anniversary greeting for one of the greatest cult movies of the last 25 years. “The Big Lebowski” was the Coen Brothers’ follow-up to the the critically-acclaimed, multiple-award winning “Fargo” from 1996. Having loved “Fargo,” I went to see “The Big Lebowski” on its opening weekend in 1998.

My initial reaction? I enjoyed some parts of it, but ultimately thought this was a kind of “f–k you” film they made after the success of “Fargo.” There were just so many weird parts that (at first) didn’t seem to fit together that I concluded that this was a film that was going to be repository of every weird and cool idea that the Coen Brothers had, but weren’t able to put into their other movies.

It wasn’t until I watched it again a few years later that I (finally) got what made “The Big Lebowski” one of the best films the Coens ever had any involvement with. The film is not a mere depository for strange ideas. It’s a wonderful take on Raymond Chandler L.A. detective noir, only instead of a a cynical detective with a secret heart of gold as the hero, we get an aging, overweight stoner who just wants his damn rug back, man. I don’t know why this second viewing struck me more funny than the first, but it did. And I laugh more and more each time I see it. This would make a great double-bill with Robert Altman’s piss-take on Raymond Chandler “The Long Goodbye.”

“The Big Lebowski” arguably contains Jeff Bridges’ best-ever performance as Jeff “The Dude” Lebowski, John Goodman’s best-ever performance as Jeff’s gun-crazed bowling partner Walter, and a host of other stellar supporting performances by Steve Buscemi, David Huddleston, Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Tara Reid.

The scene here is Jeff “The Dude” Lebowski’s porno film fantasy based on his love of bowling and his general dudeness. Nothing too salacious here, but probably not safe for work. The Dude abides!

“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.

“Wise Up” – From “Magnolia” dir. PT Anderson (1999)

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From PT Anderson’s 1999 film “Magnolia,” the audacious scene where all of the lead characters (who are experiencing incredible emotional trauma) sing along to Aimee Mann’s tremendously emotional song “Wise Up.” A brilliant and artistically ballsy scene and one of the reasons PT Anderson is our generation’s greatest filmmaker.