Casablanca. What doesn’t this film have, in addition to Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Claude Rains, Paul Heinreid, Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet? How about love and emotion so exquisite you can taste it? How about mythic WWII settings in Paris and Morocco? How about the unexpected at every turn? Not to mention some of the most memorable lines in
The Sopranos. Tony Soprano. Carmela. Silvio. Paulie. Junior. Christopher. Meadow. Dr. Jennifer Melfi, psychiatrist. ‘Nuff said.
Raging Bull. “The greatest boxing movie of all time” does not say enough about this film by Martin Scorcese, starring Robert De Niro. Jake La Motta’s brutally honest memoir is brought to the screen by Scorsese with a flourish of brilliant techniques. De Niro, who gained 60 pounds to play the older LaMotta, is a haunted middleweight who rages through his marriage and personal life as if he’s in the ring. Joe Pesci’s portrait of La Motta’s brother is nearly as searing as De Niro’s. Watching it again reveals a whole cascade of uncannily familiar expressions on the troubled Italian-American boxer’s face – until I realize I am watching none other than Tony Soprano.
The Wire. Never has so rich a cast of gritty and believable characters been created for television. The drug war in Baltimore brings four worlds alive: the stratified world of drug-dealers; the backroom deals at city hall; the newsroom; and of course, the world of street cops and their ever-frustrating superiors. A rich group of new African-American stars reflecting the real-life makeup of Baltimore, an appealing overall ensemble, and brilliant writing by a police reporter working with a former homicide detective equals top of the TV class.
Jules and Jim. France’s greatest filmmaker Francois Truffaut follows a trio of friends and lovers as they explore the outer limits of their relationships. The story, based on a real one, finds two friends – Jules (Oskar Werner) and Jim (Henri Serre) – called off to war on opposite sides (Austria and France). They fear they may accidentally kill each other. While that doesn’t happen, an emotional struggle begins when Jim comes to visit Jules and his volatile wife Catherine in their Black Forest home after the conflict is over. Jeanne Moreau is nothing less than bewitching.
Breaking Bad. If you missed this (and how could that happen?), get ready for one of the most intense and bizarre rides ever created for television. When a high school chemistry teacher is diagnosed with lung cancer, the hospital bills start coming in, and he realizes this is going to ruin his wife and son’s future. What happens next defies anything you’ve ever thought about those “quiet professor types.” And just when you think it can get no crazier or more intense, it does! The dazzling mood-setting scenery in and around Albuquerque, N.M., is absolutely perfect.
To Live. Chinese actress Gong Li has never been more radiant than in this heart-wrenching saga set in the midst of the travesty known as the Cultural Revolution. Zhang Yimou (who created the Beijing Olympics opening ceremony) tracks one family’s journey from respectability to shame and poverty – and then to a measure of triumph. Some great films are pure entertainment; some great films are important, and this is both.
Comedy Tie: I Love Lucy and The Cosby Show. Two of the very funniest, pioneering series. Lucy and Desi Arnaz developed a groundbreaking sitcom on a series of fronts: using a live audience instead of canned laughter; using three cameras, instead of one; and birthing the idea of reruns when Lucy became pregnant. Cosby’s universal appeal brought middle-class African-Americans to life in a way no TV series had done before. OK, those are the landmark notes; but more importantly, these people and their writers and casts were super funny. Lucy and Ricky and their pratfalls, and Bill Cosby and his parenting quips, should play non-stop in hospital rooms –
to promote healing.
Wings of Desire by Wim Wenders. What happens when angels get bored with just sitting over our shoulders in stuffy libraries? They hover down and try to experience vicariously how good a cup of coffee tastes one cold morning, through “Columbo,” of all people. Peter Falk is here, sipping his brew ever so gingerly at an outdoor stand, near his movie set in Berlin. He seems to know an angel is near but can’t see him. Another angel is fascinated by a beautiful but troubled young trapeze artist, but can only send her invisible vibes. German director Wim Wenders has created a journey that is inventive, probing and endlessly fascinating.
Late Autumn. Step into the black-and-white cinematic world of 1950s Japan, as created by Yasujiro Uzo, and be mesmerized. (Roger Ebert has this director’s Tokyo Story on his all-time best list, but I’m choosing this.) Japan is in transition: The men wear suits and ties and the young women wear poodle skirts. All the various subtexts in the men’s clubbiness and their wives’ complaints are fascinating as the men decide to find a husband for their late friend’s daughter. But the older generation is no match for the alluring daughter and her ingenious friends. This story unfolds ever so subtly, but your patience will be