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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“Ordinary People” (1980) dir. Robert Redford

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“Ordinary People” winning the Best Picture Oscar over “Raging Bull” in 1980 is considered one of the biggest cinematic crimes of all time by many. I’m not one of those people. “Raging Bull” is, indeed, the better film, but “Ordinary People” is a really good movie and much better than its reputation would have you believe. (Funny, but no one complains that “Coal Miner’s Daughter” got robbed that year … which is one of THE best biopics of all time … but I digress).

“Ordinary People” is often dismissed as the type of middlebrow melodrama that philistines give points to because it displays such “good taste.” That’s not entirely unfair, but “Ordinary People” has a lot of virtues. It contains a great script by Alvin Sargent, admirable (albeit non-flashy) directing by Redford, and best of all, solid acting performances by Donald Sutherland (arguably his best performance … and one that is severely underrated), Mary Tyler Moore, Judd Hirsch, Elizabeth McGovern (who is receiving a well-deserved career resurgence on “Downton Abbey,”) … and Timothy Hutton.

Timothy Hutton won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor that year for this film, but he’s actually the lead. He should have been a contender for Best Actor, but considering his competition that year included Robert DeNiro for “Raging Bull,” Peter O’Toole for “The Stuntman,” John Hurt for “The Elephant Man,” and Robert Duvall for “The Great Santini,” putting Hutton in the Supporting Actor category was probably a shrewder move. His character is the center of the film and Hutton’s extremely rich performance is the emotional core.

Hutton’s performance is so raw, so wounded, so ferocious, it’s one of the best performances I’ve ever seen by any actor. It is the equivalent of James Dean’s performance in “Rebel Without a Cause,” only without the method actor baggage that Dean brings to “Rebel.” It’s an incredibly intense performance that’s neither mannered or pretentious. As much as I love Sean Penn, many of his performances ultimately seem like acting. Hutton’s portrayal of a teenager trying to come to grips with his brother’s death, his own suicide attempt (due to guilt over his brother’s death), and the fact that his mother may not love him seems heartbreakingly real.

Hutton seemed poised to become one of the best and most successful actors of his generation. But fate had a different idea in mind. What’s sad is that Hutton didn’t piss away his talent with bad choices or bad movies … at least not in the beginning. With the exception of “Taps” (which was a hit), none of his follow-up performances achieved the popular or critical success of “Ordinary People.” And all of these follow-up performances were perfectly admirable choices: “Taps,” Sidney Lumet’s “Daniel,” John Schlesinger’s “The Falcon and the Snowman,” and Fred Schepisi’s “Iceman.”  All of these films were among the best, if not underrated films, of the first half of the 1980s.  This was an era before young actors were seeking out their “franchise” to bank $100 million before they got relegated to character roles.  Hutton has stayed employed over the years and it’s always a joy to see him on screen. But Hutton should have had the career Sean Penn had (though please note, I am in no way saying Penn doesn’t richly deserve the great success he’s obtained). If anyone deserves a Robert Downey Jr.-style comeback, it’s Hutton. He’s the real deal.

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

Video

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. I wish the quality of this trailer were better, but this is what we have to work with.