Return of the Jedi (1983) Hmm? Yes, of course I watched the original 1983 version. I’m no philistine. (Or maybe I am: I still love the Ewoks. Yub nub.)
Dial M for Murder (1954) Hitchcock at his most Hitchcockian, although much of the credit belongs to Frederick Knott, who adapted his stage play into the script at the core of this cunning puzzler. Knott’s blueprint layers on the riddles, delivering what Hitch did best, letting the audience be one step ahead of the characters (or so they think), just enough to make us wonder how Ray Milland will work it all out. (Another Hitchcock trademark: tricking the viewer into nervously hoping the villain gets away with it.) Hitchcock, then, takes the tight script and gives it a loose, casual tone, putting us at ease with Milland’s scheming, which makes the sudden bursts of tension all the more effective. Even after a dozen or so viewings, its surprises long past surprising, Dial M still works because it’s not about the twists, but about the joy of watching characters struggle to put the pieces together.
The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) Often ranked among the worst Best Picture Oscar winners, Cecil B. DeMille’s circus melodrama isn’t a bad movie, not really. It’s not particularly good, of course, but I always find myself entertained by its antics, either intentionally (the finale is crackerjack, James Stewart is a delight, and the travelogue nature of the big top scenes lends a fascinating time capsule feel to things) or otherwise (awful process shots! unbearably overlong montages! Chuck Heston!). But yes, what fascinates most is its Best Picture status; how did this movie, so lightweight and corny and awkward, become a box office smash, let alone a surprise Academy Award winner?
So I Married an Axe Murderer (1993) It occurs to me how rarely Mike Myers has played a normal guy in the movies. Sure, he doubles as his insane dad here – an unofficial spin-off of his SNL Scottish shop owner character, but made much better thanks to great writing, some killer toss-off moments I assume he ad-libbed, and a large helping of heart – but that’s a character kept mostly on the sidelines. For the most part, Myers plays a genuine person, not a sketch character, and he’s aces in the role. He’s handsome, charming, witty, and sweet, and why didn’t we get more of this in his prime? (As for the movie itself: it’s still a kooky masterpiece, knowing when to dive head-first into comic weirdness and when to back off and deliver instead a gentle romcom. It’s a collage of ideas too thin to work on their own yet perfect when mixed together with such madcap verve.)
The Great Dictator (1940) Broad comedy, biting comedy, comedy horrific in its dark political honesty. Chaplin shows sharpened teeth when he spoofs Hitler as a bumbling schmuck (it’s probably as close as Chaplin got to a Marx Brothers style, but much, much darker), and he shows great care when he doubles as the Jewish barber who meets as much heartbreak as he does slapstick. Three quarters of a century later, The Great Dictator hasn’t lost its bite, even if the politics it discusses have long been buried. As middle fingers aimed at vile little men go, this one’s timeless.
The Big Clock (1948) Speaking of Ray Milland… A disappointingly lukewarm thriller from the golden age of noir, The Big Clock doesn’t bother with the sort of tension needed to carry this sort of picture. Milland does a fine job as a man who realizes too many murder clues lead his way, but the movie doesn’t give him enough to do; not even the manhunt finale can produce enough claustrophobia, or even plain ol’ tension. Instead, the script meanders through its plot, taking too much time with comic asides (the lone element that truly works is Elsa Lanchester as a batty artist – funny stuff, although totally out of place) and not enough with the necessary twists and turns to keep us engaged.
Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941) Endings don’t come much more sublime than the last five minutes of this one. Granted, the previous ninety are also a wonder, with great comedy and greater warmth, but it’s all groundwork, impeccable character notes delicately laid out for a gorgeous payoff. We’re swept away when everything finally falls into place for Joe and company. The goodness in people wins out.
Dumbo (1941) Speaking of circus movies… Is it just me, or does the ending of Dumbo just sorta come out of nowhere, like the filmmakers got to the singing crows, then realized “oh, crap, we only have five minutes left in the movie!”? Of course, despite the rush, it’s still one of Disney’s best movies. But you already knew that.