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.