By Alan Hurst
On a long commute home I often go to my “happy place” which usually involves movies and conjuring all sorts of lists – ten best of this, ten worst of that – you get the idea. Because we’re in a new decade, I’ve decided to pick one movie from each of the last 10 decades that I can easily sit down and watch at any time. These aren’t necessarily the best movie of the decade, although a couple of them may be close. Instead these are movies that I connect with on a variety of levels – and they just happen to all be wildly entertaining.
As I scrolled through the lists of films by each decade the ones that popped to the top for me really didn’t have a connecting thread – some could be considered escapist fare, some based on real life, some dark, some magical. The one common theme is the fact they were well reviewed box-office hits that have stood the test of time.
1920’s: The Gold Rush
I readily admit my exposure to the great silent films of the 1920’s is limited, but this 1925 classic from Charles Chaplin is a treat that can induce laughs with every viewing. Even though it’s now 95 years old, you can still watch in amazement at the technical wizardry of the set design and special effects and the meticulously choreographed comedy routines devised by Chaplin. The story sees Chaplin’s Little Tramp travel to the Klondike during the gold rush in the late 1800’s. The Little Tramp is an unlikely prospector and he gets tangled up with an escaped fugitive, an amnesiac prospector, and an enticing dance hall girl. Along with The Kid (1921) and The Circus (1928), this is Chaplin’s most iconic film of the decade and easily the funniest. It’s filled with sequences that people still know today – a starving Chaplin trying to eat his boiled boots, Chaplin being mistaken for a chicken by his starving and delusional cabin mate, and the dance of the rolls – a brilliant segment with just Chaplin, two bread rolls and two forks. Pick up the Criterion Collection restoration of The Gold Rush – you get both the 1925 release and the 1942 re-release with sound effects, narration and music.
1930’s: It Happened One Night
A favourite of many, It Happened One Night (1934) still dazzles with a pair of expert and sexy comic performances form stars Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert. The movie is, quite simply, one of the best comedies of all time, and the gold standard of the tried and true romantic comedy device of “opposites attract”. It’s also very easy to sit down at watch at any time. The Oscar winning screenplay by Robert Riskin sets most of the action on the road where the brash, charming reporter played by Gable meets a spoiled socialite (Colbert) on the run from her father, determined to stay married to someone her father considers a gold digger. Gable senses a scoop and agrees not to turn her in if she will give him the exclusive story about her run from her father back to her husband. Both Gable and Colbert were reluctant participants in the film, in roles that now seem perfect for them. They have a relaxed, playful chemistry that still feels very contemporary, despite the fact the movie is now 86 years old. The antagonism turning to love is beautifully done thanks to their expert playing, the well constructed script, and director Frank Capra’s well modulated direction. Capra allows gags and scenes to build to perfect climaxes, each one bringing the two leads closer together. Highlights are the famous “Wall’s of Jericho” scene when Gable uses a blanket and rope to separate their twin beds, and the scene with Colbert hiking up her skirt while hitchhiking, ensuring the pair get a ride. We also get a genuine sense of what it was like to be on the road during the depression thanks to the location shooting and the well cast supporting players. This was the first film to sweep the Oscars, winning Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay and Best Actor and Actress for Gable and Colbert. All of those awards were deserved.
1940’s: Mildred Pierce
This was a big one in Joan Crawford’s career, as she moved from MGM to Warner Brothers. One of the best films of the decade, Mildred Pierce (1945) is an engrossing, tense and sometimes humorous melodrama that gets better with each viewing. The film opens with a shooting at a beautiful Malibu Beach house and we’re then at a Los Angeles police station where we meet the suspects and hear Mildred’s story told in flashback. The story begins with Mildred Pierce (Joan Crawford) leaving her out-of-work husband when she discovers he’s seeing another woman. With two daughters to raise, she gets a job in a café where she learns the restaurant business and very soon she has her own chain of restaurants and a ne’er do well boyfriend (Zachary Scott). With the sudden death of one daughter, Mildred focuses all her attention and money on Veda (Ann Blyth), the spoiled, older daughter who resents her mother. It doesn’t end well. Mildred Pierce is expertly cast and performed right down the line. Standouts include Jack Carson, Ann Blyth and Eve Arden who all give the film energy and spark. But ultimately this is Joan Crawford’s movie and director Michael Curtiz achieved a small miracle here in getting Crawford to scale it back – it’s a surprisingly natural performance in heightened surroundings. It’s also a terrific looking film – beautiful and moody photography and perfect sets. Warner Brothers pulled all the stops out for this one and it shows. Crawford knew she was very fortunate to have this opportunity and she delivers, winning her only Oscar.
1950’s: Rear Window
I waffle as to what I consider to be Alfred Hitchcock’s best film, but I think Rear Window (1954) is as close to perfect as he ever achieved. It’s basically a one-set film where photographer James Steward is recuperating from a broken leg. Stewart overlooks the courtyard of the neighbouring apartments and has a front row seat to all the goings on of the various tenants – an ideal perch for suspicion and voyeurism. It’s a spectacular set and one that’s the perfect backdrop for murder. Hitchcock was known for planning a film out shot by shot before he shot a single frame and, in this instance, that level of precision works beautifully. Panning from apartment to apartment, allowing Stewart and the audience to put the mystery together, there’s a continuous build-up of suspense. This is one of Stewart’s best performances – irascible, frustrated, anxious, intense – not a typical Stewart role. Also good are Grace Kelly as his girlfriend and especially Thelma Ritter as his nurse. Ritter was one of the best things in many films of the fifties and early sixties – and she’s a special treat here.
1960’s: Bonnie and Clyde
Ripped to shreds by some mainstream reviewers upon it’s release because it seemed to glorify violence, Bonnie and Clyde (1967) quickly became one of the watershed movies of the era thanks to audience reaction, a reassessment by film critics and the fact that it’s an entirely original, fast-paced, shocking, funny and moving look at the mythology surrounding gangsters as folk heroes. Producer and star Warren Beatty was the key in pulling this project together and it was his perseverance that ensured success after the initial stumble out of the gate. But the success is shared by everyone down the line. Director Arthur Penn’s vision, David Newman and Robert Benton’s screenplay and Burnett Guffey’s Oscar winning cinematography created a beautiful and bleak landscape with recognizable characters carried away by their own greed, fear and circumstance. The cast could not be better. Along with Bugsy (1991), this is Beatty’s best performance (gangsters seem to bring out the best in him). Dunaway is equally good as Bonnie – on par with her work in Chinatown a few years later (1930’s period pieces seem to bring out the best in her). Also making a major impact are Estelle Parsons (Oscar winner for supporting actress), Gene Hackman, Michael J. Pollard and Gene Wilder. Everything works together seamlessly and, 53 years after it’s initial release, the impact is still as powerful.
Of all the movies on this list, Chinatown (1974) is one that absolutely requires multiple viewings. Not because its overly complicated, but so you can truly appreciate the layers of Robert Towne’s script and how director Roman Polanski weaves them all together. The film opens with a beautiful art deco influenced credit sequence and Jerry Goldsmith’s haunting score. We then meet J.J. Gittes, an L.A. based private detective played by Jack Nicholson. Gittes is hired by a Mrs. Mulwray who suspects her husband of infidelity. But things aren’t what they seem as he discovers when he meets the real Mrs. Mulwray (Faye Dunaway). Towne’s script then veers to murder, political corruption, greed and devastating family secrets. The film is set in 1937 (it’s a visual treat), but with a 1970’s sensibility, particularly in the relationship between Nicholson and Dunaway and with the political undertones (this was released at the height of Watergate). This is probably my favorite Nicholson performance – he’s funny, cynical, sexy and complicated. He isn’t a two-dimensional gumshoe. Dunaway is also excellent – brittle, fragile, duplicitous. This is a complicated woman and Dunaway misses nothing. From all accounts the actress was a challenge on the set, but what shows on screen is perfection.
This is one of my favourite Julie Andrews performances and, outside of Tootsie (1982), probably the best comedy of the decade. Victor/Victoria (1982), directed and written by her husband Blake Edwards, represents the peak of the second phase of Andrews’ Hollywood career and it’s probably the best role that Edwards ever wrote for her. She’s able to combine her skills as a vocalist with her cool, sexy, comedic side. As a woman pretending to be a man so she/he can pretend to be a woman to get a job, Andrews is a delight. Her official debut in a Parisian night club as that gender bending triangle all hinges on whether Andrews can make her audience believe it. And she does. She pitches her vocals lower to sound both husky and mysterious, her wide and heavily made up face is just androgynous enough, and she’s wearing a perfect drag costume. But it’s the performance that matters and this number (“Le Jazz Hot”) puts this near perfect comedy into high gear – it’s sexy, rousing, jazzy, and builds to a terrific climax where Andrews can show off her still perfect voice. Andrews also works beautifully with her co-stars – James Garner and especially Robert Preston. The scenes with Preston are the highlight of the film as he flamboyantly becomes Victoria’s confidant and drag instructor. Lesley Ann Warren is also terrific as the dumb blonde girlfriend of James Garner – we’ve seen a lot of actresses tackle this type of character, but very few were able to get the laughs that Warren does.
1990’s: Out of Sight
Sexy, smart and stylish. These are the three adjectives that immediately come to mind when writing about Steven Soderberg’s 1998 modern day film noir. It stars George Clooney at the moment his star was ascending, establishing him as a combination Cary Grant and Clark Gable for the millennium. Starring alongside Clooney is Jennifer Lopez, fresh off her success with Selena (1997), and in this film she gets to turn on the full Lopez artillery, exuding a smoky, movie star confidence. Clooney plays a bank robber who ends up in jail when a robbery goes sour. Lopez plays a federal marshal who ends up in the trunk of a car with Clooney after a prison break. Sparks fly but it’s ultimately her job to arrest him and the games begin. The intricate and savvy screenplay was adapted from an Elmore Leonard novel and Soderbergh has a wonderful time by not adhering to a linear structure to tell the story. The film has a dark, sleek glow that is perfect and there’s also a terrific supporting cast that includes Don Cheadle and Albert Brooks. But most of all Soderbergh lets his two stars drive the action and increase the pulse of the audience. The witty, smooth carnality of their work is magical. I’m not sure bangable is a word (and it probably shouldn’t be), but if it is, these two exemplify it.
2000’s: The Queen
Writer Peter Morgan has done a smashing job of both honouring the British Royal family and giving us a peek behind the protocol. He’s the man responsible for the fascinating Netflix series The Crown, now in its third season. He is also the author of the West End and Broadway success The Audience which dramatized Queen Elizabeth’s interactions and relationships with all the Prime Ministers who have formed governments during her reign, which started in 1952. But it was in 2006 that Morgan first brought his fascination with Queen Elizabeth to audiences in Stephen Frears’ excellent The Queen. The film opens with the death of Princess Diana and follows the events of that tragic week leading up to her funeral. The film depicts the Queen’s desire for private mourning for the Princess’ sons, the public’s growing frustration with the seeming lack of emotion and respect from the Queen and the Royal Family for the memory of Diana, and the role that newly elected Prime Minister Tony Blair plays in stickhandling his own team and the Royals. We all knew this was going on at the time, but the drama and tension that Morgan and Frears are able to bring to the screen is still a marvel. And that’s probably why at any given time I can watch this. I knew the outcome the first time I saw it, but the fun was getting there and watching an actress like Helen Mirren so perfectly inhabit such a recognizable figure. Mirren deservedly won that year’s Best Actress Oscar (and she subsequently won a Tony for playing Queen Elizabeth on stage in The Audience).
2010’s: Midnight in Paris
This is Woody Allen’s love letter to a specific era in Paris and I think it’s one of his best films. He hasn’t done much to rave about in the last 10 years, but Midnight in Paris is enough. With the simplest of effects, Allen explores what it would be like if we were able to go back and visit an era for which we have a fascination. For Gil (Owen Wilson) it’s Paris in the 1920’s (I would probably be heading to Hollywood in the 1950’s). Gil is a screenwriter and he’s travelling in Paris with his fiancée (Rachel McAdams) and her family while on vacation, but we can see right from the start that these two are not going to make it to the alter. His artistic and romantic side clashes with her more pragmatic and impatient approach. One night while wandering the streets of Paris on his own the clock strikes midnight. Suddenly a vintage car drives up with F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald inside and he’s whisked off to a party with Cole Porter. Each night it’s a different event and a different group of storied characters from the early part of the last century – Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Picasso, Josephine Baker. Allen’s very funny script presents a thoughtful meditation on romanticized memory and nostalgia and his direction is perfectly paced, allowing each member of the cast – both present day and in the recent past – their moment. This is one of the few times I’ve truly enjoyed Owen Wilson on screen, a credit to the script and the fact that Owen turned out to be an enjoyable stand-in for what would have been Allen’s role 30 years earlier. And needless to say, Paris is photographed and art directed perfectly.
Hooked from a first viewing of Mary Poppins at four and after school reruns of I Love Lucy, Alan has been a movie and TV enthusiast ever since. A particular aficionado of films from the late thirties through the seventies, he enjoys helping others discover the joys of those films, directors and stars. His career has careened from journalism to public relations to marketing, always with one foot in the arts and with a unique ability to relate all work and life experiences back to a movie. Alan’s top five desert island films are Bonnie and Clyde, Sunset Boulevard, Cabaret, Mildred Pierce and, with no apologies, Mary Poppins. Alan’s focus will be on films from Hollywood’s first golden era (and a little beyond) as well as TV.