John Grisham books make entertaining films

I ranked all of the films based on John Grisham books. All are worth watching.

The Pelican Brief — One of my favorite films ever, this partners Denzel Washington and Julia Roberts as a reporter and young law student who unravel the mystery of the killings of two Supreme Court justices. A riveting book and an excellent adaptation, the story starts with the murders, runs through the murder of Roberts’ professor lover (Sam Shepard) who had clerked for one of the dead judges; a chase and a killing in New Orleans; and a dangerous investigation in Washington. The supporting cast includes John Lithgow as Washington’s editor; James B. Sikking as the FBI director; Robert Culp as the President; Tony Goldwyn as the evil chief-of-staff; Stanley Tucci (then unknown) as the assassin; and an actor nobody knows named Anthony Heald, who is in several Grisham-adapted films (look it up).

Runaway Jury – Another of my favorites, this one also Gene Hackman along with his former roommate, Dustin Hoffman, as lawyers on opposite sides of a gun case set in New Orleans. John Cusack and Rachel Weisz star as the couple that is trying to manipulate a guilty verdict against the gun company.

The Client – A cocky, young boy, Mark Sway, who witnesses the suicide of a mob lawyer, becomes the target of both the bad guys and the cops. Showing gumption and smarts, the kid hires a struggling lawyer (Susan Sarandon) to represent and protect him and his family. Tommy Lee Jones plays the ambitious, sanctimonious prosecutor who badgers the kid; Mary-Louise Parker plays Mark’s mother; and Anthony LaPaglia plays the hit man. As good as the stars are, the movie belongs to Brad Renfro, the kid who plays Mark Sway, who died of a drug overdose at age 25.

A Time to Kill – The first Grisham novel but not the first movie adapted (that was The Firm), this one stars Matthew McConaughey (then unknown) as Jake, a young, struggling, small-town lawyer in Mississippi who finds himself in the middle of a controversial case. A couple of drunk brothers kidnap a 9-year-old black girl, rape her and throw her off a bridge. After the guys get arrested, the girl’s father (played by Samuel L. Jackson) kills the brothers and is on trial for murder. Sandra Bullock plays Jake’s unpaid investigator with help from Oliver Platt as another local ambulance chaser.  The supporting cast includes Kevin Spacey as the ambitious prosecutor, Donald Sutherland as Jake’s discredited mentor, Chris Cooper (then unknown) as a cop who lost a leg in the shooting, and Ashley Judd as Jake’s wife.

The Rainmaker – Matt Damon plays a recent law school graduate who lands at a small firm with a bad reputation, taking on a client (Mary Kay Place) whose son died of cancer after being denied experimental treatment from the evil insurance company. This is a completely different story from the book which (if I remember it correctly) was about lung cancer, smoking, and taking on the evil tobacco company. With Claire Danes as the love interest, Jon Voight as the obnoxious counsel for the insurer, and Danny DeVito as the ambulance chaser who helps Rudy Baylor (Damon) make the case.

The Firm — Not nearly as good as the book that made Grisham famous, this blockbuster starred Tom Cruise as Mitch, a recent Harvard law school graduate who lands at a law firm in Memphis. Unknown to him, the firm is shady and represents a Chicago mob family. The FBI targets him to get the goods on his new firm. It all breaks up his marriage to Jeanne Tripplehorn. It’s a race to justice as Mitch tries to juggle his oath, his freedom, and his safety. The movie changes the ending of the book (which is too bad), and it’s all very tense. The supporting cast includes Gene Hackman (notice a pattern here?) as Mitch’s boss; Ed Harris as the FBI agent; David Strathairn as Mitch’s convict brother; Holly Hunter as the gum-chewing secretary to a dead investigator (Gary Busey); Wilford Brimley as the firm’s head of security; and Hal Holbrook as the head of the sleazy law firm.

The Chamber – Chris O’Donnell, fresh out of law school, decides to try to keep his grandfather (Gene Hackman) from the electric chair for killing several members of a family in a anti-Semitic and racially-inspired bombing in the South. It’s a race against the clock as new evidence comes to light. There’s a nifty performance from Faye Dunaway as Hackman’s long-estranged daughter.

Finishing out my Top 100(104) Films

Check out my recent posts, My Top 40 Favorite Movies and Another 50 of My Favorite Movies. That’s 90. So to round out my Top 100, here are more reviews. Yes, 10 more would make 100. But since the Big 10 has 14 teams, I figured that I could give you 15 to round out my final 10.

Heist — David Mamet crafted and directed this outstanding snatch-and-grab film about master thieves who con their way to big scores. Gene Hackman plays the mastermind and Rebecca Pidgeon his wife in this serious inside look at planning heists. Like all of Mamet’s scripts, the dialog is snappy and clipped, delivered in staccato fashion by a skilled cast that includes Sam Rockwell, Danny DeVito, Delroy Lindo, and Mamet regulars Patty Lupone and Ricky Jay.  There are twists and turns at every corner, and you can try to out-think Mamet, but I doubt you will. 

Defending Your Life — Somewhere between death and the afterlife is a way station where your life is examined and a decision is made about whether you go onward or are returned to Earth. That is the premise behind this really clever, funny film directed, written and starring Albert Brooks. How good was this premise and this script? Well, it attracted Meryl Streep to co-star as a recently deceased housewife who tripped over the pool furniture and drowned. Brooks plays the advertising executive who buys a new car and gets hit by a bus as he is singing to Barbara Streisand. They both go to the idyllic Judgment City where their lives are examined. What follows is a love story that jousts your perceptions about fear, reincarnation, and the afterlife.


Sneakers — Martin Bryce (Robert Redford) leads a ragtag bunch of security consultantshired by government agents to steal the ultimate encryption device. But nothing is what it seems. Bryce has a secret that reunites him with his old college buddy (played by Ben Kingsley) who just happens to be planning to bring down the world’s financial systems. The movie combines intrigue, comedy, and adventure to provide a totally enjoyable movie experience.  Co-starring an incredible cast that includes Sidney Poitier, Dan Aykroyd, River Phoenix, David Strathairn, Mary McDonnell, Timothy Busfield, Steven Tobolowsky, and even James Earl Jones. It was so much fun that I hoped for a sequel.


The American President — Rob Reiner expertly takes a superb Aaron Sorkin script and turns it into a movie version of The West Wing.  With Michael Douglas as Andrew Shepherd, the popular, widowed President who falls in love with a lobbyist (Annette Bening), the film takes us into the inner workings of the White House. Speaking of The West Wing, Martin Sheen plays the chief of staff and the President’s best friend. Michael J. Fox plays the (George Stephanopoulos-like) domestic policy advisor. Richard Dreyfuss plays the loathsome Republican senator out to beat Shepherd in the next election. The score from uber-composer Marc Shaiman is soaring.

Finding Forrester — If J.D. Salinger lived in an apartment overlooking a schoolyard in the Bronx, he would be William Forrester, the character portrayed by Sean Connery in this coming-of-age film about a black high school student with brilliant prospects as a writer.  Rob Brown plays the genius who hides his talent from the world as he goes about being an average student with excellent basketball skills. Forrester, the Pulitzer Prize winner and recluse who only wrote one book,…  meets the savant and becomes his mentor. Meanwhile, the kid gets a scholarship to a private school to play hoops but never really fits in.  It’s a wonderful, engrossing tale of bigotry, kinship, growth, resentment, rebirth, and promise.  Plus, look for the cameo by Matt Damon in this film directed by Gus Van Sant, who also directed Good Will Hunting.


Mrs. Doubtfire — Everyone has seen this heartwarming comedy starring Robin Williams as the cross-dressing, immature father who loses almost all access to his kids after his divorce. Williams needs his kids, needs a job, and needs to grow up. Sally Field plays Miranda, his ex-wife and mother of his three ultra-adorable kids, who love and need their dad. While Williams eats the camera and plays his funniest character since Mork, it is his earnest performance that makes Mrs. Doubtfire a classic.  The good news: Pierce Brosnan, who plays Miranda’s handsome, new suitor, doesn’t sing. 

Let It Ride — I couldn’t help myself.  As a horse racing fan, I love this stupid movie about a degenerate gambler who has “a very good day” at the races. Richard Dreyfuss is perfect as Jay Trotter, the good-hearted, Damon Runyon-like character who can’t catch a break. While riding in a cab, though, he gets a tip on a horse. Next thing you know, he’s having the day of his life. With character actors like Teri Garr, David Johansen, Meg Tilly, and a very young Cynthia Nixon, Let It Ride is a winner!


In & Out — Talk about movies before their time, In & Out is a comedy about the outing of a small-town teacher in Indiana by his former student who just won an Academy Award. Kevin Kline plays Howard Brackett, the popular, civic-minded English teacher who coaches the boys’ sports teams and is engaged to marry one of his fellow teachers. But now that he is has been labeled as gay, everyone’s attitudes have changed. Will Howard get married? Will his students deny their hero? With a superb ensemble cast that includes scene stealers like Tom Selleck, Bob Newhart, Debbie Reynolds, Wilford Brimley, and Matt Dillon, this film earned an Oscar nomination for Joan Cusack.


Bottle Shock — This small, independent film about the emergence of California wines as legitimate competitors to the French stars Alan Rickman as the British owner of a small wine shop in Paris. For the American bicentennial in 1976, he sponsors a competition for the top connoisseurs in France to judge the wines from both countries. He travels to Napa to choose the American wines and meet the growers. Bill Pullman portrays a successful lawyer pursuing his dream to make the perfect Chardonnay at his Chateau Montelena winery. This movie launched soon-to-be-superstar Chris Pine as Pullman’s son and also stars Dennis Farina and Freddie Rodriguez.


Crash — An unexpected winner of Best Picture, Crash tells the intersecting stories of totally different Los Angelenos. While this film may not have invented this genre, it provides compelling stories of the complexity of flawed humans, bigotry, ambition, fear, emptiness, and emotion.  This is a very serious look at the rich and poor and the commonalities of the human condition. The ensemble cast includes Sandra Bullock, Don Cheadle, Ryan Phillippe, Matt Dillon, Thandie Newton, Terrence Howard, Michael Pena, Tony Danza, Brendon Fraser and more. It won three Oscars.


Oh God! — I am guessing that, if/when you picture God, you don’t see George Burns in your mind … unless you saw Oh God! And if you have seen it, you now probably can’t see anyone else as the divine being. Carl Reiner took a Larry Gelbart screenplay and turned it into a humorous but terrifically surprising look at faith and religion.  Somehow, the film delights without being offensive. Burns is wonderful as God. And John Denver is a revelation as an assistant grocery store manager who God chooses to publicize his message to people everywhere.

Runaway Jury – In the first movie to pair former roommates Gene Hackman and Dustin Hoffman, Runaway Jury is an adaptation of a John Grisham book about the trial following a mass shooting that kills a young husband and father in New Orleans. John Cusack and Rachel Weisz star as the couple trying to manipulate the verdict while playing the two warring attorneys against each other in a bidding war. We go inside the war room to select the jury; observe the jury dynamics; see the collusion of the sleazy gun company CEOs; and watch the intimidation on all sides. It’s tense and riveting.

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off Matthew Broderick had already rocketed to stardom in Matt Dugan Returns and Wargames when he got the call to play Ferris Bueller. With perfect casting and the best director of kid films ever in John Hughes (The Breakfast Club, Home Alone, Uncle Buck, Sixteen Candles), Ferris Bueller’s Day Off was a massive hit despite middling reviews. Ferris is a lovable schemer and manipulator. He’s got the cutest girl in the school. He is wise beyond his years and completely popular. His best friend is an insecure introvert. His parents are doting and self-possessed. His sister is repressed and envious. Ferris decides that, before he graduates, he is going to tempt all fate and plan the greatest day ever. Chicago will never be the same. With Dirty Dancing‘s Jennifer Grey, Jeffrey Jones, Mia Sara, Cindy Pickett, and Alan Ruck.

Outbreak — The pandemic list cannot be complete without Outbreak, the scary story of a renegade virus that goes airborne in a California town. It’s a race against the clock as an Army general (Donald Sutherland) advocates vaporizing the town rather than disclosing that the virus was actually discovered years ago. Dustin Hoffman plays a relentless Army infectious disease doctor who traces the outbreak to the jungle, follows it aboard a freighter, uncovers the cover-up, and tracks down the host animal. With the help of his expert team, played by Rene Russo, Kevin Spacey, and Cuba Gooding, Jr., they try to develop a serum before the town is incinerated.  Morgan Freeman plays Hoffman’s boss, a general who is conflicted between saving the town and keeping the secret. (If you look closely, you’ll see Patrick Dempsey – McDeamy himself – in a small role.)

Another 50 of my Favorite Movies

The Shawshank Redemption – The highest rated movie on imdb.com ever, this prison story is both intelligent and clever. Starring Morgan Freeman and Tim Robbins, the adaptation of the Stephen King short story has become an absolute classic.

Whiplash – One the lowest grossing ($13 million) Best Picture nominees in history, this exceptional film from the youngest director to win an Oscar (Damien Chazelle for La La Land) tells the story of a verbally abusive music teacher at an elite school in New York. Lifelong character actor J. K. Simmons won Best Supporting Actor as the teacher who drives a talented drummer (Miles Teller) into submission in a film that won a total of three Oscars. Fun fact: Chazelle produced this as a short film first. Its success at Sundance led to a deal to produce the feature-length film.

A Few Good Men – “You can’t handle the truth.” Jack Nicholson, Tom Cruise, Demi Moore, Kevin Bacon, Kevin Pollack in a courtroom drama for the ages.  Directed by Rob Reiner, this 1992 film featured an exceptional script by Aaron Sorkin.

Broadcast News – Legendary director James L. Brooks crafted a perfect look into the world of TV network news.  Holly Hunter is the neurotic producer; Albert Brooks plays the brilliant and obnoxious reporter; and William Hurt plays the well-meaning airhead anchor.  Add a supporting cast that includes Joan Cusack and Robert Prosky with a cameo by Jack Nicholson and you have a wonderfully luscious film.

All the President’s Men – A stunning adaptation of the book about Watergate by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, this is the definitive piece on investigative journalism. Two young reporters keep chipping away on a story nobody knows until they bust it open, only to blow it in their quest to get Richard Nixon. The leads are played by Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman but the lasting performances are provided by Jason Robards (Oscar winner as Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee) and Hal Holbrook as Deep Throat.

State and Main – You either love David Mamet films or you don’t.  I do. State and Main tells the story of shooting a movie in a small New England town on a shoestring budget. There isn’t a stereotype about moviemakers that isn’t played to the hilt by an ensemble cast that includes William H. Macy, Alec Baldwin, Sarah Jessica Parker, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Rebecca Pidgeon, Charles Durning, Patti LuPone, Julia Stiles and David Paymer. Crisp Mamet dialogue punctuates this funny, sarcastic film.

Heist – David Mamet wrote and directed this tremendously entertaining tale of a master thief (Gene Hackman) whose expert crew hatches a plan to steal gold ingots. With twists and turns you won’t see coming, Mamet’s film introduces us to fascinating characters that include his scheming wife (Rebecca Pidgeon), a smart-ass upstart (Sam Rockwell), a loyal consigliere (Delroy Lindo), and more. There’s a great cameo from Danny DeVito, too.

Doubt – Do I need to say more than Meryl Streep, Viola Davis, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams? This adaptation of the play by the same name is an electric character study. It focuses on a priest (Hoffman) who takes a special interest in the only black student in a Catholic school run by a strict, uncompromising disciplinarian (Streep). Adams plays an impressionable, naïve teacher while Davis portrays the mother of the boy. Every actor got nominated for an Academy Award and so did the writer/director John Patrick Shanley for his adapted screenplay.

Absence of Malice – Another journalism movie, Sally Field plays an enterprising newspaper reporter who is duped into running a story about an investigation into a relative of a crime boss.  Her subject is played by Paul Newman, who portrays the streetwise owner of a construction company whose life is made miserable by the revelation of the investigation. Sydney Pollack directed, and Newman was nominated for Best Actor.

(500) Days of Summer – A cute little film about love found and lost over 500 days, it stars Zooey Deschanel (of New Girl) and Joseph Gordon-Levitt as two people working in a company that creates greeting cards. She’s a free spirit; he believes in fate. The film jumps around the 500 days and includes some hysterical and some heartbreaking scenes. You’ll love it.

Notting Hill – Along with When Harry Met Sally and Sleepless in Seattle, Notting Hill is the definition of a romantic comedy (aka “chick flick”). Julia Roberts plays a movie star (not a big stretch) who, by happenstance, meets the owner of a travel book shop (Hugh Grant at his stumbling best) in the Notting Hill section of London.  He’s a nice guy coming off a divorce; she’s a mercurial star with a cheating boyfriend actor (Alec Baldwin in a cameo). The supporting cast is hilarious.

About a Boy – Hugh Grant shines in this adaptation of the Nick Hornby book about a solitary man-child who never worked a day in his life because he lives off the royalties of a popular Christmas song written by his deceased father. Through misunderstandings and lies, he meets a kid who just keeps on coming to his house and exposes the fact that he doesn’t have the kid he professes to have. But this isn’t a true comedy. It’s a story about loneliness, depression, and misfits. Co-starring Toni Collette and a young Nicholas Hoult.

Django Unchained – Among Quentin Tarantino’s best films, Django Unchained pairs Jamie Foxx and Christoph Waltz in a Western like you have never seen before.  Add Leo DiCaprio as an obnoxious plantation owner plus Samuel L. Jackson and Kerry Washington and you have a delicious, sometimes violent and funny antebellum story that is as implausible as it is funny.

Fences – Denzel Washington and Viola Davis starred on Broadway as Troy and Rose Maxon in one of August Wilson’s “Pittsburgh Cycle” of plays.  Set in the Hill District of my hometown, Fences was Washington’s passion project. Troy is a garbage man who had dreams of being a baseball star.  Now he is coming to terms with life’s reality and a life unfulfilled.  His wife had dreams of her own but sublimated them for the family. It is in Act II that Rose finally asserts herself. Nominated for four Oscars, Davis won for Best Supporting Actress.

Remember the Titans – Denzel Washington plays the first football coach of a forced integrated high school in Virginia displacing its previous popular coach (Will Patton). He faces a hostile community, a team torn apart by racial tensions, and unreasonable expectations. It’s a great football movie but also a still-relevant story of reconciliation and hope. Based on a true story.

Jerry McGuire – Speaking of football movies, this is the film that introduced both Renee Zellweger and Cuba Gooding, Jr. to general audiences.  Tom Cruise plays Jerry, a super-agent who, in a fit of morality, writes a “mission statement” about the need to serve the interests of his clients, not his agency. He gets fired, outmaneuvered, and struggles to stay afloat. Only Dorothy Boyd (Zellweger) goes with him when he starts his own firm.  And only cocky wide receiver Rod Tidwell (Gooding) stays with him as a client.  The rest is fun and soulful. Nominated for five Oscars, including Best Picture and writing (for director Cameron Crowe), Gooding won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.

Forrest Gump – Robert Zemeckis directed Tom Hanks, Sally Field, Robin Wright, Mykelti Williamson and Gary Sinise in this acclaimed film that won six Oscars from 13 nominations. It follows the life of dimwitted, well-meaning, physically challenged Forrest, who has a penchant for being at almost all of the most important events of the mid-1960s and on. He is befriended by Jenny; runs like the wind; gets a football scholarship at Alabama; wins the Heisman Trophy; is drafted in the Army; becomes a war hero; meets Bubba and Captain Dan; and starts the “Bubba Gump” shrimping company. It’s as heartwarming as it gets.

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid – This period Western about two amazingly adept bank robbers and their schoolteacher lover won the hearts of moviegoers and the Academy. Director George Roy Hill teamed Paul Newman and Robert Redford along with Katherine Ross (nominated for an Oscar for The Graduate) as the trio with the easy banter, warm hearts, and thirst for larceny. Featuring an Oscar-nominated song about “Raindrops” by Burt Bacharach, the film won four Academy Awards from seven nominations.

Dog Day Afternoon – Al Pacino plays Sonny, one of his most memorable characters, who robs a bank with his friend Sal (John Cazale) in New York.  (Pacino and Cazale played brothers in The Godfather).  These are lovable losers who become cult heroes in a stand-off with the police. Sonny isn’t very smart; he’s married to both a man (Chris Sarandon) and a woman (Susan Peretz); and he has no idea about robbing a bank. As the stand-off becomes more tense, Sonny hatches a plan destined for failure. Sidney Lumet directed this six-time Oscar-nominated film that won for best original screenplay.

Crimes & Misdemeanors – Woody Allen may be the most controversial director this side of Roman Polanski. Crimes and Misdemeanors is probably my favorite Woody film because it is not formulaic in any sense of the word. It’s a real murder mystery except we know who the killer is. Starring a fantastic cast that includes Martin Landau (Oscar nominated for this), Anjelica Huston (whose dad was a pretty good director, too), Woody (nominated for best director and for original screenplay), Alan Alda and Sam Waterston, this is not about neuroses; it’s about guilt and murder.

Midnight in Paris – Woody Allen was still at his best in 2011 when he wrote this very clever tale about a would-be writer (Owen Wilson) who, while on a trip with his fiancée’s family in Paris, is transported back to 1920s Paris where he meets some of the most famous artists and writers of that glorious time. F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, Cole Porter, Salvador Dali, and Ernest Hemingway are among the legends he meets, and it is just a hoot. As with most Woody movies, it was nominated for multiple Oscars and won Woody an Academy Award for original screenplay.

School Ties – This is the film that launched Matt Damon to stardom. Set at a haughty New England prep school in the 1950s, this story of prejudice and privilege features a bevy of soon-to-be stars, including Brendan Fraser, Ben Affleck, Chris O’Donnell, Anthony Rapp, and Cole Hauser.  Damon, Affleck and Hauser make up three-quarters of the Good Will Hunting best friends (along with Affleck’s brother Casey) five years later.

Good Will Hunting – Matt Damon and Ben Affleck won an Oscar for original screenplay for this story of a working-class kid who is a math savant. Surrounded by his lifelong best friends from South Boston, Will (Damon) is discovered by a renowned professor (Stellan Skarsgård) after being jailed for hitting a policeman. He proves to be a genius and has his first love affair with a Harvard co-ed (Minnie Driver). But Will is deeply troubled.  As part of his probation, he is introduced to an underachieving therapist (Robin Williams), who probes the depths of his wounded psyche. Williams won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, and the film was nominated for Best Picture but lost to Titanic.

Saving Private Ryan – The third Matt Damon movie in a row on my list, this extraordinary Steven Spielberg film follows a band of soldiers, led by Captain Miller (Tom Hanks) searching for the last surviving son of a family who has lost their other boys almost simultaneously during World War II. From the opening scenes of the carnage of D-Day through the invasion of France, Miller & Company find Private Ryan (Damon) and try to hold off the Nazis. The final words: “Earn this.” The final scene brings tears.

The Post – The film that brought Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep together, The Post tells the story of the publishing of The Pentagon Papers, the unvarnished history of the Vietnam War and the deception of multiple Administrations to hide it. Hanks plays legendary Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee while Streep portrays Katherine Graham, the Post’s publisher who inherited the paper when her husband died. While the New York Times revealed the existence of the Papers, it is The Post that defied the court order to keep them secret. Directed by Steven Spielberg, The Post was nominated for Best Picture and Best Actress, Streep’s most recent of her 21 nominations (with three wins).

Moneyball Moneyball is an adaptation of the Michael Lewis book about the reluctant acceptance of “advanced metrics” into the deeply tradition-laden game of baseball.  Brad Pitt plays Billy Beane, the general manager of the cash-strapped Oakland As, whose team just can’t compete with the large-market juggernauts. He meets a young Yale economics major working for the Cleveland Indians (Jonah Hill in a serious role) whose theories of using statistics rather than scouts to grade players is both revolutionary and radical. Together, they go “all in” and change America’s pastime forever. Nominated for six Oscars, including for Pitt and Hill, there is also a delicious performance by Philip Seymour Hoffman as A’s manager Art Howe.

The Firm – Yes, they changed the ending from the best-selling book by John Grisham, but The Firm is still a gripping story about a recent Harvard-educated law school graduate who takes his first job with a law firm in Memphis. The offer is too good to believe. Soon, the dark secrets are revealed, and he finds himself in too deep.  The FBI is after the firm, and he is the bait. With a cast led by Tom Cruise and including Gene Hackman, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Holly Hunter, David Strathairn, Ed Harris, Hal Holbrook, Paul Sorvino and Wilford Brimley, The Firm is wall-to-wall tension directed expertly by Sydney Pollack.

The Last Castle – Your basic prison film, Robert Redford plays disgraced General Irwin, who disobeyed a presidential order during his last assignment, resulting in the deaths of eight soldiers.  Now he is in a military prison under the command of Colonel Winter, a wannabe played by James Gandolfini. All he wants to do is live out his sentence and go home. But upon seeing the abuses of Winter and his guards, Irwin leads an insurrection of mythic proportions.

Philadelphia – Tom Hanks won consecutive Oscars for Forrest Gump and Philadelphia. The two films couldn’t have been more different. In this, he plays an up-and-coming lawyer in a prestigious firm who hides his homosexuality because the senior partners he admires often tell homophobic jokes.  But when he starts getting lesions and is diagnosed with AIDS, suddenly the wunderkind is persona non grata and is fired. As his condition deteriorates, he hires an ambitious lawyer, played by Denzel Washington, to prosecute a wrongful termination suit and get his reputation back. One of the most heart-wrenching movies you will ever see, Hanks and Washington eat the scenery in Jonathan Demme’s five-time Academy Award-nominated film that also won Bruce Springsteen an Oscar for original song.

The Great Escape – This 1963 film about prisoners in a World War II German prison camp was an all-star extravaganza.  Steve McQueen, Richard Attenborough, James Garner, Charles Bronson, James Coburn, Donald Pleasence, and David McCallum plot to build a tunnel out of the camp and disperse throughout Europe. It’s a chilling tale with suspense throughout. McQueen is clearly the star of stars as the cocky Hilts, the “Cooler King,” who is cool in so many ways. At almost three hours, it is a character study and a chase film all in one.

The Cincinnati Kid – The best poker movie ever, The Cincinnati Kid pits a cocky up-and-comer (Steve McQueen) against “The Man,” Lancey Howard (Edward G. Robinson), in a New Orleans showdown for king of the poker world. With a cast that includes Karl Malden, Ann-Margret, Rip Torn (you won’t recognize him), Tuesday Weld, Joan Blondell, and Jack Weston, it all comes down to one fateful hand.  It is riveting!

Spotlight – A deserved Best Picture, Spotlight is another journalism story about the relentless pursuit of truth about the Catholic Church’s cover-up of sexual abuse by priests. A team of investigative reporters from the Boston Globe dug deep to uncover the misdeeds and the cover-up in a city overwhelmingly Catholic. Starring Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery, Stanley Tucci, and Brian d’Arcy James and directed by Tom McCarthy.  It also won an Oscar for screenplay for McCarthy and Josh Singer.

The Big Chill – The soundtrack alone is worth the price of admission. The Big Chill almost defined the ensemble cast. Reunited by the death of their college friend, Alex (who was supposed to be played by Kevin Costner in flashbacks but who got cut out except for serving as the corpse), a group of old college friends from the University of Michigan grieve, reminisce, fight, love, and re-bond over a weekend in South Carolina. Kevin Kline, Glenn Close, Jeff Goldblum, William Hurt, Mary Kay Place, Tom Berenger, JoBeth Williams, and Meg Tilly star in a film directed by one of the best, Lawrence Kasdan.  My favorite line: “I was just trying to keep the conversation lively.”

Awakenings – Robert DeNiro and Robin Williams play patient and doctor in this true story of about catatonic patients in a hospital in New York. Williams, donning the beard he wears in almost all of his serious movies, plays the anti-social physician who never gives up on these patients and discovers a drug that might bring them out of the stupor. DeNiro plays the first patient to “come alive.” Both are amazing.  Penny Marshall directed this film about hope, second chances, love, and the fragility of life.  Nominated for three Oscars, including Best Actor for DeNiro.

Scent of a Woman – Al Pacino and Chris O’Donnell co-star (as they did in School Ties) in this character study of a blind, proud, scared, obnoxious former Army colonel, Frank Slade, out to have one hell of a weekend in New York before killing himself.  With a high school senior from preppy Bard College as his less-than-willing escort, he checks into The Plaza, dances the tango with a beautiful woman, drives a Ferrari, and buys a new suit while the kid suddenly realizes the plan. Pacino won his only Oscar out of nine nominations for truly one of the best performances ever.

Seabiscuit – It may be hard to believe that a horse could be the most popular athlete in America, but it is arguably true about Seabiscuit. This little, unheralded horse rivaled Babe Ruth in popularity during the Depression.  Slow to develop and trained by an unknown, Seabiscuit overcame the odds to win races across the country, including a match race with Kentucky Derby winner War Admiral.  Owned by Charles Howard (Jeff Bridges), a car dealer; trained by Tom Smith (Chris Cooper); and ridden by temperamental jockey Red Pollard (Tobey McGuire), Seabiscuit rivals Man of War, Secretariat, and (now) American Pharoah as the most popular racehorses in history. The film, directed by Gary Ross from the popular Laura Hillebrand novel, was nominated for seven Oscars.

Sideways – A wine-tasting and golf trip for two college buddies on the eve of one of their weddings turns into a hilarious romp through the California vineyards near Solvang. Paul Giamatti as Miles and Thomas Haden Church as Jack are an odd couple. Miles is a middle school teacher who can’t get his latest book published. Jack is an actor whose most famous part was on a soap opera. Jack wants to get laid before his wedding; Miles just wants to drink pinot and golf. They meet Maya (Virginia Madsen) and Stephanie (Sandra Oh), fall in love, and get into all kinds of trouble. Totally delightful.

The Truman Show – A comedy. A drama. A cautionary tale. A heartbreaker. The Truman Show was declared by Time magazine as the movie of the decade in the ‘90s. It tells the story of Truman Burbank (Jim Carrey), who was born to be a TV character living in a fantasy town, living a fantasy life for the benefit of a worldwide TV audience. The Svengali is Christof (Ed Harris), who created and direct the show from his control room outside this all-too-real make-believe world. If you look deep, you will see the hands of the manipulative media and its impact on the lives of millions of people as the audience roots for Truman to escape while providing out-of-this-world ratings. Co-starring Laura Linney, Noah Emmerich, Paul Giamatti, Natascha McElhone and Holland Taylor, it won Carrey a Golden Globe in the Drama category and was nominated for three Oscars.

Field of Dreams – “Is this heaven. It’s Iowa. Maybe this is Heaven.” Having lived in Iowa for 41 years and having married an Iowa girl, it is hard not to love this mystical film about Shoeless Joe Jackson (Ray Liotta) and one man’s quest for redemption. Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner) follows the voice he hears and builds a major league-sized ballpark in his cornfield. Then, he travels to Boston to find his favorite author, Terence Mann (James Earl Jones) to “ease his pain.” And, finally, the two men travel to Minnesota to meet up with Doc Graham (Burt Lancaster).  It all culminates on the field near Dyersville, Iowa, where Ray realizes that “if he builds it, He will come.” Three Oscar nominations and still a destination for baseball fans everywhere. (And the outside of my old office at the University of Dubuque is shown; so is Julie’s dorm; the University library; and my friend, Paul Hemmer, who plays “Beulah’s” husband.)

Shakespeare in Love – The most clever Elizabethan period piece I have ever seen, Shakespeare in Love won seven Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Actress for Gwyneth Paltrow, Best Supporting Actress for Judi Dench and on and on.  With a script that is hilarious, the film follows Will Shakespeare (Joseph Fiennes) as he struggles to write a love story about Ethel (this becomes Juliet) under a deadline. Meanwhile Viola loves the theater, but women are not allowed to act. Desperate, she disguises herself as a boy, lower her voice and gets cast, only to be outed when she and Will fall in love. It is all great fun and overwrought … as Romeo and Juliet must be. Even Ben Affleck isn’t terrible.

Lincoln – Forever, the mental picture many of us will have of Abraham Lincoln is Daniel Day-Lewis in Steven Spielberg’s epic Lincoln. This film is massive in scope yet feels like an intimate portrait of a complex man who, by all accounts, was our greatest president. Committed to passing the Constitutional amendment that would outlaw slavery, Lincoln risked the fate of the country over a social and moral issue that still rips at the heart of the union. Sally Field practically begged for the part of Mary Todd Lincoln and wouldn’t give up until she was cast.  She was perfect and nominated for an Oscar.  But the film belongs to Day-Lewis, who won Best Actor for the third time in six nominations.  Overall, it got 12 Academy Award nods.

Heat – Never before had Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro appeared in a scene together before Heat, Michael Mann’s film about a gang of thieves and the cops out to get them. DeNiro heads the bad guys; Pacino the cops. They are the same – relentless hunters.  Their compatriots are the same – out to win at all costs. Who will win the epic battle? The grand scheme meets the immovable objects on the streets of L.A. in a shootout for the ages. Does DeNiro escape? With or without the girl (Amy Brenneman)? Does Pacino lose his wife (Diane Venora)? Does his step-daughter (Rachel Portman) commit suicide? Who betrays the bad guys? Does DeNiro get revenge on Waingro? The questions never end before the final scene at the airport.

Trumbo – Dalton Trumbo (Bryan Cranston) was blackballed by Hollywood in the McCarthy era.  He was also one of the greatest screenwriter of his time.  Director Jay Roach tells the story of the man who, despite being shunned, simply had to write. He never compromised and never gave in to McCarthy but, instead, he wrote for peanuts under various aliases to keep working.  He even won two Oscars, for The Brave One and Roman Holiday, under other names. And afterwards, he resumed his career, writing Exodus, Spartacus, Papillon and more.  Trumbo is one of the best character studies in recent years made joyously sublime by Cranston’s performance.

Sophie’s Choice – Alan J. Pakula, who directed All the President’s Men, Klute, Presumed Innocent, The Devil’s Own and more, helmed Sophie’s Choice, a complex tale of two damaged people.  Sophie (Meryl Streep) is a Holocaust survivor with a haunting backstory. Nathan (Kevin Kline) is a dazzling show-off with a compulsion about the Holocaust. They share nothing … and everything. They befriend Stingo (Peter MacNichol), an aspiring writer, who essentially tells the story of these people, who avoid reality to escape their pain. Haunting, painful, playful and sobering, this film won Streep the second of her three Oscars (she would have to wait another 28 years to win again).

Rounders – Matt Damon and Edward Norton portray “rounders,” guys who make their living playing poker, grinding from game to game. In the story, Damon is Mike McDermott, a law student who, having lost his entire bankroll on a single hand, decides to give up the game and dedicates himself to the law. Norton plays Worm, his childhood buddy who went to jail instead of giving up his friend. Worm gets out of jail and resumes his habitual lying, cheating, and scamming rather than just playing at a game he is good at. Mike vouches for him and goes deep in debt. To get out, he has to face Teddy KGB (John Malkovich), the ruthless Russian who runs the biggest game in town. As in The Cincinnati Kid, it all comes down to one hand.

They Shoot Horses, Don’t They – Director Sidney Pollack got his first Oscar nomination for this agonizing, slow-moving, character-rich story of dance marathons during the Depression.  Hard as it is to believe, people were so desperate during that era that dance marathon contests were held with prize money attached. There is nothing glorious about those contests.  But there is glorious acting and storytelling in this film.  With nine Academy Award nominations, this 1969 film stars Jane Fonda, Red Buttons, Gig Young, Michael Sarrazin (who won for Best Supporting Actor), Bruce Dern, Bonnie Bedalia, and Susannah York.

While You Were Sleeping – As implausible as it is, While You Were Sleeping is the ultimate guilty pleasure. Sandra Bullock, the working man’s Meg Ryan, stars as Lucy, the token taker in the Chicago train station where Peter (Peter Gallagher) boards the train every day.  She dreams of Florence, Italy, while he leads his upscale life oblivious to Lucy. When he falls onto the tracks, Lucy saves him, goes with him to the hospital, and is mistaken for his fiancé. The family arrives, falls in love with Lucy, and the mix-ups just keep happening. Eventually, Lucy falls for Peter’s brother, Jack (Bill Pullman). It’s just your basic, extraordinary chick flick with a happy ending.  And who doesn’t love that?

Shattered Glass – In a true story, Stephen Glass was a journalist for The New Republic, an influential magazine sometimes referred to as the official magazine of Air Force One.  In his early ‘20s and enrolled in law school, Glass was popular with his workmates and his editors while managing to land some of the most interesting and offbeat stories.  But the truth is, most of them were fabricated. Shattered Glass is a fascinating pseudo-documentary telling the story of the man who later wrote The Fabulist, a great word to describe what he did.  Starring Hayden Christenson (who played young Anakin Skywalker in Star Wars II & III) as Glass, it boasts a wonderful supporting cast of Hank Azaria, Chloë Sevigny, Peter Sarsgaard, Steve Zahn, Melanie Lynskey, Caroline Goodall, and Rosario Dawson, this independent film, which barely registered at the box office, is a sleeper.

Transsiberian – On a train ride from China to Russia, two couples meet and ignite a thrilling adventure of murder, intrigue, and politics. Roy (Woody Harrelson) and Jessie (Emily Mortimer) head east following a volunteer stint in China.  Roy loves trains and always wanted to ride on Trans-Siberian Express. There is much bubbling underneath their relationship when they meet Carlos (Eduardo Noriega), a handsome, young Spaniard and his beautiful American girlfriend, Abby (Kate Mara), a seemingly happy-go-lucky couple traversing across Eurasia. Carlos invites Jessie on an excursion to see a beautiful church while Roy stays back to explore the trains. The rest is all intrigue with a little passion thrown in.  And when a Russian detective (Ben Kingsley) arrives, you just know something is amiss.

Kramer vs. Kramer – Two of the best actors of their generation, Meryl Streep and Dustin Hoffman, were still relatively early in their careers when they starred in this family drama about a couple torn apart by divorce.  She leaves him, determined to find herself and believing she is incapable of caring for their son.  He is a career-driven advertising executive who has neglected his son but suddenly finds himself thrust into the role of father and breadwinner. He is coping when suddenly she decides to return and seek custody.  The court battle threatens to shatter everyone, especially their son, Billy (Justin Henry, who became the youngest actor to date to be nominated for an Academy Award). Gut-wrenching and poignant, this film won five Oscars (from nine nominations) and swept most of the major categories (Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Director (for Robert Benton) and Best Adapted Screenplay (for Benton).

My Top 40 Favorite Movies

There are so many movies and so much time now to watch them. My Top 40 is skewed toward films released in my lifetime though I have included several others.  To be among my favorites, my rule of thumb is: If I see them on my cable stations or steaming services, I just have to watch them.  So here are my favorites in no particular order although the first 10 are pretty much my Top 10.

12 Angry Men – Originally a tele-play in the early days of TV, 12 Angry Men writer Reginald Rose and director Sidney Lumet created the greatest courtroom drama of all time.  Released in 1957, it was nominated for 3 Oscars, including Best Picture. An all-star cast led by Henry Fonda, this story about discrimination takes place exclusively in the jury room. Jack Klugman, Jack Warden, Lee J. Cobb, Ed Begley Sr., Martin Balsam, Edward Binns, and E.G. Marshall are among the other jurors in Lumet’s feature debut.

The Sting – The Best Picture of 1974 and winner of 7 Oscars (nominated for 3 others), this period piece about grifters, con men, horse racing, and poker stars Robert Redford, Paul Newman and a score by Marvin Hamlisch.  Ultimately, it’s not just the gangster “mark” who gets “stung.”

Casablanca – Maybe the most celebrated film of all time, this wartime drama is the most quoted movie of all time.  Humphrey Bogart runs the most popular “gin joint” in Morocco.  He is apolitical but that doesn’t mean he likes the Nazis.  His world changes when his old love shows up with her activist husband.  Does Rick help them? Does he get the girl back? Does he conspire with Louis, the local police chief?  In the end,  “… this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”


La La Land – Whether you hate musicals or not, La La Land broke the mold and yet rocketed us back in time with an incredible score, likeable actors, a love story for the ages, and the best single-shot opening in movie history. Among its many Oscars, the film won Best Director for Damien Chazelle, Best Actress for Emma Stone, Best Score and Song for Jason Hurwitz, and more. It’s my favorite movie of this century.  It should have won Best Picture but lost to Moonlight.


Fail Safe – Director Sidney Lumet re-teamed with Henry Fonda to present this riveting cold war tale about an American bomber that gets the signal to nuke Moscow.  Released in 1964 at the height of the Cold War, Fail Safe was not a commercial success because the parody, Dr. Strangelove, was released about the same time. People flocked to see Peter Sellers’ over-the-top performance and  Slim Pickens riding a nuclear bomb rather than a serious, black-and-white cautionary tale about nuclear confrontation.

Tootsie – A tour-de-force for Dustin Hoffman, Tootsie is one of the funniest films ever. Sydney Pollack directed and co-starred in this story of a difficult actor who lands a part in a soap opera playing the female administrator of a hospital. The cross-dressing Hoffman creates a memorable character while simultaneously striking a blow for feminism in Hollywood 35 years before #MeToo. Add Jessica Lange, Bill Murray, Teri Garr, Dabney Coleman and Charles Durning, and you have an endearing film with a message.


The Godfather – Francis Ford Coppola’s epic about a MAFIA family focuses on aging patriarch Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando), his sons, and his closest advisors.  Based on Mario Puzo’s book, the cast includes Al Pacino, Robert Duvall, Diane Keaton, James Caan, John Cazale, and many more.  It’s the definitive mob films with plenty of violence and a dead horse. A deserved Best Picture.


The Godfather II – The only sequel to win Best Picture, Godfather II is perhaps better than the original.  Robert De Niro won Best Supporting Actor as he joins the staff as the young Vito Corleone in flashbacks.  Al Pacino didn’t win Best Actor as Michael Corleone, who becomes the new family patriarch, turning from insecure youngest sibling to ruthless MAFIA don.


The Verdict – My third Sidney Lumet film in my top ten, The Verdict is another courtroom drama about a down-on-his-luck ambulance chasing lawyer (Paul Newman) who inherits a case he can’t win against two distinguished doctors and a Catholic hospital in Boston.  With a script by David Mamet and co-starring James Mason, Charlotte Rampling, and Jack Warden (who was also in Lumet’s 12 Angry Men), this is a character study of an alcoholic lawyer struggling with his conscience.


The Longest Day – One of the first films on wide screen, The Longest Day (1962) was one of the longest films of its time and the definitive movie about D-Day. Almost every star of the day, from John Wayne, Henry Fonda, and Richard Burton to Red Buttons and Sean Connery play in this ensemble that runs up to and through June 6, 1944, from both the Allied and Nazi sides.

The Sound of Music – While musicals have always been a movie staple, The Sound of Music tops them all. Everyone knows the story of the restless novice who becomes the nanny for the kids of an Austrian officer and aristocrat during the run-up to World War II. Julie Andrews followed up her Mary Poppins nanny with this singing nun nanny.  With a Rodgers and Hammerstein score, The Sound of Music won 5 Oscars, including Best Picture, and gave us a handful of songs we are still singing 55 years later.

Close Encounters of the First Kind – Special effects have always been part of the movies but, by the 1970s, the technology had come far enough to move them front and center. Steven Spielberg and George Lucas were the two most innovative directors of this age. Close Encounters tells the story of the first visit by aliens to Earth as envisioned by Spielberg. A fly-by by an alien ship imprints a vision of a mountain in Wyoming in several people, including Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) and Jillian Guiler (Melinda Dillon). They become obsessed with the image and go to extraordinary measures to follow the signs to the alien landing site.

Star Wars – George Lucas’ first film in a franchise that endures today, Star Wars takes place entirely in space.  Luke Skywalker, Hans Solo, and Princess Leia created a trillion-dollar industry that has lasted through nine expansive films and countless spin-offs.  The original, Episode IV – A New Hope, introduces these characters as they battle the Galactic Empire as an insurgent force. It brings together a would-be pilot-warrior, a cocky mercenary, and a saucy princess to restore freedom and defeat their common enemy.  It’s a future day cowboys and Indians with the forces of good battling the Empire and its sinister Darth Vader.


Crimson Tide When two stars square off on the screen, it can create movie magic. Most often, this is known as “chemistry.” In Crimson Tide, Denzel Washington and Gene Hackman face off from the moment of their first meeting in Captain Ramsey’s (Hackman) office. This is one of the best in the genre of submarine movies.  The two officers have nothing in common and neither is willing to relent, even if Washington plays the subordinate officer. When Hackman decides to launch the nuclear missiles, Washington’s Commander Hunter says “Hell no you won’t.” The rest is movie magic.


Airport – A nominee for Best Picture, Airport was the original disaster movie.  Based on an epic Arthur Hailey novel, it serves up Burt Lancaster as the airport manager, Dean Martin as the cocky pilot, Iowa’s Jean Seberg as the airline’s customer service rep, George Kennedy as Patroni, Jacqueline Bisset as the pregnant flight attendant and, above all, Helen Hayes as the stowaway Ada Quonsett.  Terror at 30,000 feet with Van Heflin as the desperate explosives expert who is intent on blowing up the plane to get his wife (Maureen Stapleton) the insurance money. I can hear the theme song as I write this.


Schindler’s List – Guaranteed to make you mad and make you cry, Schindler’s List is Spielberg’s most personal movie and a tribute to the Holocaust. It is absolutely brilliant.  Liam Neeson, Ben Kingsley and Ralph Fiennes star in this story of a man who saved hundreds of Jews from the death camps.  Can you just see the scene with the little girl in the red coat?  I can.

Ordinary People – Robert Redford’s directorial debut,Ordinary People won four Oscars — for Best Picture, Redford, Timothy Hutton, and Screenplay (Alvin Sargent). It tells the story of a family on the brink.  The cast makes the movie: Donald Sutherland as the supportive husband/father with a heart; Mary Tyler Moore as the repressed mother whose own heart is deeply broken; Hutton as the son who survived a boating accident while his big brother drowned; and Judd Hirsch as the therapist trying to draw out the troubled son.  These are far from ordinary people but the lesson is that this can happen to anyone.

Sleepless in Seattle – The movie that almost defined the term “chick flick,” it teams Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan in the second … and best … of three movies they did together. Hanks plays Sam Baldwin, a young widower who moves with his son to Seattle to start his life over again.  She plays Annie, a newspaper reporter in Baltimore who hears how lonely Sam is and falls in love before she even meets him.  While I hate the “merry mix-ups” that keep them apart, the last scene on the observation deck at the Empire State Building reveals an affair to remember.


When Harry Met Sally – Almost everyone’s favorite “chick’s movie” (a line from Sleepless in Seattle) is When Harry Met Sally. Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal barely endure each other on their shared car trip from college in Chicago to New York. By the time they meet again on a plane, they are older but no wiser.  Then, they meet a fateful third time and become friends.  By the end, they have to decide just what they are.  With great dialogue from Nora Ephron, When Harry Met Sally tells the age-old story of boy meets girl, boy meets girl, boy likes girl, boy loves girl.

Taps – Talk about foundational films, Taps introduced Tom Cruise and Sean Penn to the world. Paired with Timothy Hutton, who won an Academy Award the previous year for Ordinary People, they formed a perfect ensemble in the story of an uprising by the young cadets at a military academy.  These three future superstars carry the entire story, whose ending is both frightening if somewhat predictable.


American Graffiti – Four years before George Lucas brought the world Star Wars, he wrote and directed (for the first time) American Graffiti, the ultimate coming-of-age film.  Set in the early ’60s, it featured the movie debut of consequence for Richard Dreyfuss as the nerdy high school student who chases the blonde in the T-bird (Suzanne Somers) and ends up with a night to remember with a gang (led by Bo Hopkins) and a visit to Wolfman Jack. Ronny Howard plays Steve, Cindy Williams (pre-Laverneand Shirley) plays Laurie, Candy Clark is Debbie, and an unknown Harrison Ford plays Bob Falfa.  It’s all very memorable and even sensational.


The Goodbye Girl – Neil Simon, the prolific writer of Broadway plays and numerous films, wrote The Goodbye Girl, a breezy film about a temperamental and enigmatic actor seeking fame and fortune in New York.  When he shows up at his friend’s apartment to live, he finds a chorus line dancer and her daughter.  If this sounds like a set-up for a chick-flick, it is.  But this one is special. Richard Dreyfuss won the Oscar for Best Actor at age 30 for his role as Elliot Garfield. Simon’s then-wife Marsha Mason plays Paula McFadden, whose salty tone and classic one-liners are only rivaled by her daughter’s, played by Quinn Cummings.  Both were nominated for Academy Awards.  Yes it’s a love story but it’s a really good one.


The Departed – When this film won Best Picture in 2007, a lot of people were surprised.  Not me. Martin Scorsese has always been known for his mob movies and this is no exception.  Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson, Mark Wahlberg, Vera Farmiga, and Martin Sheen, The Departed can best be described as absurd.  Leo plays an undercover detective with a questionable past. Damon plays a conniving suck-up who was corrupted as a kid.  Nicholson plays the most despicable, connected, over-the-top gangster ever.  Martin Sheen plays the police commissioner whose fall from grace is literal.  Fantastic.


Jackie Brown – Quentin Tarantino is legendary and notorious.  Most of his movies are too graphic for most viewers.  But Jackie Brown is wickedly good.  The lead characters are stars of a different age: Pam Grier, known mostly for the black exploitation movies of the ’70s, and Robert Forster, largely a ’70s-80s TV actor. Add Samuel L. Jackson as the baddest ass in town; Bridget Fonda as the slutty girlfriend of Jackson’s; Robert De Niro as a dimwitted ex-con; and Michael Keaton as a DEA agent and you have the ingredients for a classic bait-and-switch film.  Yes, it has some blood, as all Tarantino movies do, but this is all about plot and a killer soundtrack featuring the smooth Delfonics.


Oceans 11 – No, not the George Clooney/Brad Pitt/Matt Damon one.  We’re talking about the 1960 original Rat Pack film starring Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Peter Lawford, Sammy Davis Jr., and more. You know the story: a bunch of ex-Army buddies decide to rob a bunch of casinos in Las Vegas. It is all played for fun — a heist story with a twist of an ending.  The story of shooting this film is almost as good as the movie. Sinatra and the boys shot the film by day, performed by night, and drank until dawn.  Watch for the billboard of the Sands at the end of the film.

Gandhi – Tootsie lost Best Picture toGandhi, the beautifully filmed biopic about Mahatma Gandhi, the pacifist leader who became president of India. Ben Kingsley won one of eight Oscars, including Best Picture.  His performance is so perfect that most people, when they think of Gandhi, picture Kingsley.The Wizard of Oz – Who doesn’t love this classic?  It is the film that introduced color into mainstream films.  Perhaps the most popular film in history, The Wizard of Oz created a whole new standard for breath of film.  Plus, underneath it all, it tells a fantasy story with startling human implications – inner confidence, individualism, and equality.  But mostly, it made Judy Garland a star, took us down the yellow brick road, let us meet a couple of memorable witches, and took us over the rainbow.


The Graduate – Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio? Here’s to you, Mrs. Robinson.  The score by Simon and Garfunkel was written specifically for this movie about a recent college graduate, Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) who moves home, gets advice from his parents’ rich friends, has an affair with a married woman (Anne Bancroft), and falls in love with his paramour’s engaged daughter (played by Katherine Ross). Brilliant director Mike Nichols won the Oscar while the actors were all nominated as was the writing crew, which included Buck Henry.  The movie is capped off by the final scene on the bus, a long take where our characters suddenly realize they have no idea what comes next. 

Rain Man – Dustin Hoffman may be all you need to know to realize that Rain Man is special.  He plays an autistic, institutionalized man who is kidnapped by his long-lost brother, Charlie Babbitt (played by Tom Cruise).  Quickly, the movie turns into a buddy film as the duo travels by car form Cincinnati to Los Angeles with a memorable stop in Las Vegas.  Charlie, a conniving con man, gets to know the brother he never knew he had and becomes redeemed.  Both actors are pitch perfect.  Barry Levinson won an Oscar for Best Director and also appears as a psychiatrist.  The movie won Best Picture; Hoffman won Best Actor; and the screenplay won, too.  How could we forget: “Ah oh. 5 minutes to Wapner.”


The Natural – Roy Hobbs (Robert Redford) would have been the best there ever was.  But alas, his baseball career was cut short by a suicidal vixen (Barbara Hershey).  Sixteen years after his mishap, he shows up in the dugout of the New York Knights, vying for a spot on this failing baseball team. When he finally convinces his doubting coach, Pop Fisher (Wilford Brimley), to play, he proves himself a phenom.  As if touched by God, he hits prodigious home runs and the team starts to win.  But like the biblical Samson, he has a weakness for attractive women — the girl on the train and Pop’s niece, Memo (Kim Basinger). Then, his old high school girlfriend, Iris (Glenn Close), shows up and the old Roy Hobbs returns.  And I promise, sparks fly.


The French Lieutenant’s Woman – Meryl Streep is the greatest actress ever.  No doubt.  Of all of her roles, the French Lieutenant’s Woman is my favorite.  In the first film I remember with parallel story lines, she plays an actress (Anna) playing a scorned Victorian woman (Sarah) who has a short, intense love affair with Charles (Jeremy Irons), an engaged biologist.  Irons plays Anna’s co-star, and the two begin an intense love affair, too.  Do the stories end the same way or differently? Don’t be confused; this is no chick-flick.  It’s two actors at the top of their games. Nominated for five Oscars.  Speaking of …


Sliding Doors – A tale of two parallel stories, both in current day.  Gwyneth Paltrow plays Helen, a British PR executive who gets fired on this fateful day. In the first story, she decides to go home to her live-in boyfriend.  She finds him in bed with another woman.  In the second story, she just misses the train.  By the time she gets home, everything seems quite normal.  Each story continues on a natural course, coming together near the end as the stories intersect.  It is really quite clever and entertaining.  As a viewer, you have to pay close attention to ensure that you are following the right story, aided as you are by Helen’s different hairstyles.  While the stories diverge, will the endings diverge, too, or come together?  A great film you haven’t seen.


Psycho – Alfred Hitchcock directed some great films.  Psycho is the most iconic Hitchcock film. What a guilty pleasure with no redeeming characters.  Janet Leigh stars as Marion Crane but she hardly survives the first reel.  She steals cash from her company rather than depositing the money and heads off through a rainy night to places unknown.  Sleeping in her car, she is awakened by a suspicious police officer, who follows her into town, where she trades her car as he looks on.  As she heads out again she eventually finds her way to the Bates Motel where she meets Norman Bates.  He is strangely reserved and a little weird but she engages him anyway.  Next thing we know, she is stabbed to death in the shower in the best murder scene in the history of film.  Janet Leigh never showered again. Marion’s paramour, Sam (John Gavin) and her sister, Lila (Vera Miles), go looking for her and meet Norman.  The rest of the movie is the search for the killer and the great reveal. Suspense at its best. Speaking of Hitchcock …


The Man Who Knew Too Much – This is my favorite Hitchcock film.  Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day play a doctor, Ben McKenna, and his wife, a famous singer, named Jo.  Traveling through Morocco with their son, Hank, they witness a murder.  The dying man, Louis Bernard, whispers a name to Ben: Ambrose Chapel.  The rest of the movie includes the kidnapping of Hank, a trip back to London, a visit to Ambrose Chapel, a concert attended by a visiting dignitary, an assassination attempt, and Doris Day singing “Que Sera Sera,” not necessarily in that order.  This is a taut, suspenseful thriller as only Hitchcock can make them.

Rocky – Yo, Adrian! The film that came out of nowhere from a marginal actor with no writing credits and a speech impediment.  Sylvester Stallone crafted the story of a no-name, no talent boxer from Philadelphia who gets a title shot.  Based on a dream he had, Stallone managed to hit all the right notes about an underdog with no shot.  A cast-off and enforcer, Rocky has a heart and a will to win.  He courts the ugly duckling sister (Talia Shire’s Adrian) of his demeaning best friend, Paulie (Burt Young).  He spars with Mickey (Burgess Meredith, the best known actor in the cast), the aging owner of the local gym.  And he fights Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) for the Heavyweight Championship of the World.  This movie established an entire genre of films about the lovable underdog.  And it spawned more than half dozen more Rocky movies.  Anyone remember if he wins?


Three Days of the Condor – Based on the book Six Days of the Condor, this political thriller follow the exploits of a low-level CIA investigator who uncovers a rogue outfit in his own agency.  After all of the members of his small, disguised unit are killed in a well-coordinated attack, Joseph Turner (Robert Redford) can’t trust anyone.  He kidnaps an unwitting photographer (Faye Dunaway), who helps him uncover the plot and find the bad guys.  With a great supporting cast, including Max von Sydow as an assassin, Cliff Robertson as the CIA station chief in New York, and John Houseman as the head of the CIA, Three Days is directed by Sydney Pollack with a haunting score by Dave Grusin.

The Pelican Brief – Following the assassination of two Supreme Court Justices, an investigative reporter (Denzel Washington) and an enterprising law school student (Julia Roberts) uncover the conspiracy.  Using the legal brief she wrote that identified the possible mastermind, they dodge attempts to kill them both while they uncover the truth.  It’s perhaps the best adaptation of the many John Grisham novels that were turned into films.  Alan J. Pakula, who wrote Presumed Innocent and Sophie’s Choice, directed All the President’s Men, and produced To Kill A Mockingbird, adapted the screenplaywith Grisham.

The Hunt for Red October – Tom Clancy’s hugely popular novel was adapted to the big screen in one of the best submarine movies ever.  Sean Connery plays the brilliant sub captain who decides to defect with Russia’s newest, ultra-quiet submarine.  Alec Baldwin plays the first of many Jack Ryans, a CIA analyst who figures out the scheme.  With a crucial plot twist, The Hunt for Red October is an almost perfect political thriller with brilliant performances by both lead actors and a supporting cast that includes James Earl Jones, Scott Glenn, Courtney B. Vance, James Gandolfini, Sam Neill, and a pre-Good Will Hunting Stellan Skarsgard.


War Games – For fun, two high school students (Matthew Broderick, Ally Sheedy) play what they think is a soon-to-be-released video game and inadvertently almost start a thermonuclear war.  In a surprisingly tense race to stop the War Operations Plan Response (WOPR) computer from launching the missiles, the kids have to convince the brilliant computer scientist who wrote the program to go to NORAD and save the world.


The Karate Kid- If this feels like Rocky, that’s because both films are directed by John G. Avildsen and the plots are almost identical.  Daniel (Ralph Macchio), a 17-year-old New Jersey kid, bullied by the karate students at his new high school in California, is taken under the wing of Mr. Miyagi (Pat Morita) to compete in a tournament against the bad boys and to learn life lessons. The Miyagi character is one of the most beloved in cinema history, and it earned Morita an Academy Award nomination. A surprise mega-hit, The Karate Kid keeps you in suspense right to the end.  Does the kid win or lose?

Irresistible

Irresistible (Steve Carell, Rose Byrne, Chris Cooper, Mackenzie Davis) – The first big theatrical release since the pandemic began, Irresistible is supposedly a comedy from The Daily Shoiw’s Jon Stewart. I can confirm that it is definitely Jon Stewart’s film, but it is, marginally, a comedy. It is certainly a skewering of politics in the Trump age (and before) where money “trumps” everything, political consultants play a manipulation game, the media milks the ugly cow, and the American electorate is reduced to a series of demographics.

Stewart can’t help but make this movie a commentary rather than a comedy. He disguises his cynicism in a marginally amusing story about a local farmer, Jack Hastings (Chris Cooper in a role way below his talent), in a fictitious Wisconsin town who challenges the local mayor. Aided by the high-powered political consultant, Gary Zimmer (Steve Carell), that engineered the Hillary Clinton loss to Donald Trump, Hastings appears to be the real deal. But when the existing mayor hires Zimmer’s archenemy, Republican strategist Faith Brewster (Rose Byrne), supposedly the fun begins.

There are some funny scenes, but mostly the kind that make you smile but not laugh. The other characters are essentially your basic one-dimensional, small-town hicks.  Or so it seems. In Stewart’s world, consumers are not quite as dumb and helpless as they seem; political operatives are slimy scumbags; and everything is about money. He is screaming THE SYSTEM IS BROKEN as if we didn’t already know that already.

The main problem here is that Stewart tried to do too much.  He lures us in with trailers promising a relevant, roaring comedy while delivering a social commentary that is just not convincing enough. He should have made a documentary worthy of wide distribution. Even the actors seem restrained, knowing that the film is meant to be more commentary than entertainment.  Finally, make sure you stick around for the credits since there are several “cookies,” both about the story and about our political system.

“The Way Back”” is way bad

The Way Back (Ben Affleck) – The director of Miracle, Gavin O’Connor, reconnects with Ben Affleck, who he directed in The Accountant, in this stunningly predictable tale of an alcoholic whose life is spiraling into the depths of hell.  Affleck, a two-time Academy Award winner (for Good Will Hunting and Argo) but never, ever for acting, plays Jack Cunningham, a former high school basketball star who is asked to come back and coach his alma mater.

But Jack is in no condition to coach a bunch of Hoosiers/Mighty Ducks/Bad News Bears/Pride-like kids.  He is barely functional for reasons we find out too late in the film.  Nonetheless, he tries.  He is often late for practice.  He swears up a storm, which doesn’t go over so well with the team chaplain of this Catholic school.  But somehow, the team starts to win.  We even begin to see the decent human being underneath Jack’s sad, mad demeanor.

But stories like this never end that easily. Just as Jack’s team reaches the cusp of success, the man regresses.  He gets fired; he gets drunk; he makes bad mistakes and lands in the hospital.  The rest is … well, who cares?

While They Way Back is being promoted as the basketball movie equivalent of The Karate Kid, Rocky, and the rest of the movies mentioned earlier, it is actually a film about loss, depression, alcoholism, and abandonment.  And it carries an awful piano-laden soundtrack and depressingly dark tones.   Happy times!  Not.

Maybe because Affleck’s private life mirrors some of this story, you might be inclined to see it.  Don’t.  It really isn’t very good.  Even Affleck fans may want to wait until it reaches Netflix or the other streaming services … which shouldn’t take very long.

Did we need another movie about “Emma”?

Emma. (Anya Taylor-Joy, Johnny Flynn, Bill Nighy, Mia Goth) – I admit to not being a big fan of Jane Austen.  The prolific author wrote Emma in 1815, and they have been making movies of her book since movies could talk.  The latest iteration is a fun romp with an unknown cast, beautiful costumes, a whimsical score, exceptional sets and production design.

Okay, it is not as fun as Clueless, which was a modern take on Austen’s story.  But, for a British comedy, it is practically uproarious.  Emma Woodhouse (Anna Taylor-Joy) is a pampered princess who fashions herself a matchmaker and prom queen.  She is an easy character to dislike except that she is so darned cute and expressive.  Her eccentric father (Bill Nighy) adores her, needs her and coddles her, which is not true of George Knightley, trusted family friend who manages Donwell Abbey.  He keeps her somewhat grounded and doesn’t let her get away with much.  From the moment we meet him, we know that he and Emma are destined to be together.  How we get there is the story of Emma.

Who knew that Jane Austen invented the “chick flick” more than 200 years ago?

For sure, there are sub-plots.  Emma convinces her friend, Harriet Smith (Mia Goth), to turn down a marriage proposal by telling her that the local preening preacher, Mr. Elton (a positively prissy Josh O’Connor), fancies her.  In truth, Elton has his sights set elsewhere.  Then there is Jane Fairfax (Amber Anderson), the smart and talented favorite of commoner/busy-body Miss Bates (Miranda Hart), who is both sweet and insufferable.  Jane is a rival.  Eventually, Mr. Elton finds a wife (Tanya Reynolds), whose confident and frank demeanor renders her husband socially impotent.

Emma is a vehicle for a fine ensemble of young actors.  Veteran Bill Nighy, who you’ll recognize from a slew of British films, including Love Actually, steals every scene he is in.  Of course, that is true in every movie in which he appears.  He allows the audience the comfortable grounding of recognizing someone in this film.  But even Nighy doesn’t answer the inevitable question: Why did someone think we needed yet another movie version of this story?

Wasn’t the Gwyneth Paltrow 1996 Emma good enough?  That film, written and directed by Michael McGrath, won an Oscar for music, was nominated for Best Costumes, and included a well-regarded cast that included Jeremy Northam, Alan Cumming, Toni Collette, and Greta Scacchi.

This version, by first-time feature director, Autumn de Wilde, is very entertaining if you like period chick flicks. Like Little Women, it comes from a 19th century female author who is beloved.  If you liked the latter, you will like Emma.

Academy Awards Preview: Fearless Predictions

And finally we come to the end of movie awards season with the ever-endless presentation of the Academy Awards by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which isn’t really an academy at all.
Once again this year there is no host, just a procession of presenters wearing some of the ugliest and most expensive outfits and hairdos ever invented.  The best part is the jewelry that the women wear, which is largely borrowed from major jewelry distributors as part of the award for Best Publicity Scheme.
Now, on to the awards:
Best Picture: Let’s get right to the big one.  Nine movies made the finals this year, which is probably too many.  But it serves the purpose of getting people to the theaters (or to the streaming services) to see movies they missed the first time around.
The films with no chance include Ford v Ferrari, Jojo Rabbit, Marriage Story or Little Women. FvF features Christian Bale leaning left and right in the cockpit of race cars while Matt Damon adopts a southern accent and lets Bale steal their scenes.  Jojo was a man who thought he was a loner – whoops, that was a Beatles song.  The movie is a parody of Nazis, always a fun topic.  It’s better than you think … but not as good as I had hoped.  Marriage Story is a made-for-TV depress-a-thon about two show business people divorcing, another fun topic.  Fine performances by Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver can’t overcome a very “talky” script.  Little Women was made by women for women and is the seventh iteration of Louisa May Alcott’s story of four sisters and their family.  It’s a well done period piece with good acting but it is pretty boring.
That leaves the five that would have been nominated had this been the old days when only a handful were nominated:
Joker Talk about “dark” stories, Joker is a comic book movie with no comic.  Joaquin Phoenix is fabulous as the man who evolved into a psychotic killer.  This isn’t the Caesar Romero Joker of the TV Batman series or even the Jack Nicholson movie version.  The movie is the back story of how a misfit was mistreated by society and became the scourge of Gotham.  Directed expertly and with fantastic production value, Joker probably won’t win but Phoenix will.
Parasite – The hardest movie to describe, Korea’s Parasite is a horror film, a class story, a comedy, and a thriller all in one. A poor family slowly infiltrates a rich family, which results in twists and turns where no one is all good or all bad.  All you have to do is figure out who is the parasite. This is a foreign language film, which probably excludes it from serious consideration as Best Picture.  But it is the “IT” picture of this past year.
The Irishman – A really good gangster film, The Irishman is Martin Scorsese’s long-form story about a mobster, a mob boss, and Jimmy Hoffa.  Starring three legends — Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, and Al Pacino — The Irishman is a deep dive into the underworld.  At 3 1/2 hours and developed for Netflix, this film is very long but expertly crafted.  As the audience, you get to see the Director’s Cut and not a studio’s abbreviated version.  It won’t win Best Picture but it is great to see these legends of film.
 
1917  – I think it will win.  It is a massive war story that feels very personal as two soldiers are sent to the front lines to warn their brethren that they are headed into a trap.  With amazing technical wizardry and a story that sucks you in and takes you to war, it is shot in a single action style that feels oh so real.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood – This was my favorite film of the year.  Quentin Tarantino produced a brilliant, realistic period piece about Hollywood at the time of the Manson murders.  Leonardo DeCaprio and Brad Pitt highlight this fantastic buddy film about a has-been movie star and his stunt double that rewrites the history of its time in an entertaining and surprisingly not violent (for Tarantino) way.  Nothing Hollywood likes better than a movie about itself.  So it has a shot at winning.
Best Actress: Renee Zellweger has won this competition everywhere so she should win the Best Actress Oscar for her uncanny portrayal of Judy Garland in the disappointing Judy. Everything about her performance seemed genuine.  There is no denying that she is perfect for the part. I, for one, couldn’t see any other actress playing Garland once I saw Zellweger.
For my money, Charlize Theron deserves to win this award for her portrayal of Megyn Kelly in Bombshell.  Zellweger plays Garland; Theron IS Kelly.  Amazing.
It is impossible not to be impressed with Cynthia Erivo’s performance as Harriet Tubman in Harriet.  She is positively fantastic in chronicling this brave, pioneering abolitionist.  But no one saw the film. Saoirse Ronan never gives a bad performance, and she is memorable as Jo March, the central character in Little Women. While she is only 25 years old, this is her fourth Oscar nomination.  Wow, but she will lose again.
Finally, Scarlett Johansson is double nominated this year for Marriage Story and in the Supporting Actress category for Jojo Rabbit.  That puts her in rare company.  In Marriage Story, her performance is memorable but not much of a stretch.  She plays an actress caught in a deteriorating marriage.  But there is one monologue she delivers that is absolutely amazing.  That alone might have gotten her this nomination.
Best Actor: Case closed.  Joaquin Phoenix may be weird, enigmatic, and reclusive but he also is positively amazing in Joker.  He has won every other award, and he will win here.  He shows amazing range, a flair for craziness, and a willingness to be both solitary and flamboyant.
Leo is great in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood but he is eclipsed by Brad Pitt and he has won this award before. Tarantino didn’t have to coax an excellent performance out of him, and his performance is more subtle than Phoenix.
Adam Driver wasn’t particularly special in Marriage Story compared to his performance in BlacKkKlansman.  He plays a theatrical director whose goal is getting to Broadway while his favorite actress and wife seeks greater fame in Hollywood.  He takes a backseat to Lady Scarlett here but is very deft and could surprise.
Jonathan Price was hand-selected by the studio to play Pope Francis in The Two Popes. He is almost perfect as the reluctant choice to follow the retiring Pope Benedict.  This is a wonderful performance by a dedicated veteran who deserves his first Oscar nomination.
Finally, Antonio Banderas really shows off his acting chops in Pain and Glory, the Spanish film about an aging movie director who is asked to reunite with his former star to present a remastered version of one of his most famous films.  His journey of rediscovery will either lead him to total destruction or rejuvenation.  It is a nice nomination for a fine actor.
Best Supporting Actor – What a category this is: Tom Hanks, Anthony Hopkins, Joe Pesci, Al Pacino and Brad Pitt.  Every one of these performances is worthy.
Al Pacino has only won one Oscar out of his nine nominations.  That’s a sin.  As Jimmy Hoffa in The Irishman, he is more restrained than usual, which is a good thing.  But he won’t win because this film hasn’t won much of anything.  Likewise, Joe Pesci’s mob boss is memorable but this is not Goodfellas where he won the Oscar in his only other nomination.  Both were Scorsese films.  He won’t win for the same reason as Pacino plus they will split the votes for lovers of this movie.
Anthony Hopkins plays Pope Benedict in The Two Popes opposite Jonathan Pryce.  As usual, he is excellent, a touch understated, and reverential.  The conversations they have are invented but the story is quite interesting, and these two actors pull it off beautifully.  No Oscar but a fitting tribute to a five-time nominee with one previous win (for Silence of the Lambs).  Hello Clarice.
That brings us down to Tom Hanks and Brad Pitt.  Hanks, everyone’s favorite, is amazing as Fred Rogers in Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.  He has the mannerisms and speech cadence down cold.  It is a wonderful performance for a two-time Oscar winner who hadn’t been nominated in 19 years.  The nomination is recognition enough.
That leaves Brad Pitt as the winner.  He is so laid back and perfect in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood that you couldn’t see any other actor playing this part.  Part sage, part airhead, Pitt is the perfect complement to DeCaprio in a Tarantino film.  Bravo!
Best Supporting Actress – This is the category that has provided the most surprises over the years.  This year, it seems that all of the other awards organizations have anointed Laura Dern the hands-down winner.  Her performance in Marriage Story plays a bit against type as she portrays the ruthless lawyer handling Scarlett Johansson’s character’s divorce. You will hate her almost from the moment you meet her.  She deserves the Oscar.
Kathy Bates was riveting as Richard Jewell’s mother in … wait for it … Richard Jewell.  She is supportive, loving, and destroyed by the accusations about her coddled son.  Margot Robbie played a fictional character in Bombshell, which took away from her performance from my perspective.  As a cunning accomplice who became a victim, she was quite believable but just wasn’t in the same league as Charlize Theron and Nicole Kidman.
Scarlett Johansson was flighty and smart in Jojo Rabbit, a character I haven’t seen her play before.  While teaching her Nazi-loving son the realities of the world while harboring a Jewish girl inside the walls of her house, Rosie (her character) isn’t on screen much but made a bigger impression on me than Johansson’s self-absorbed character in Marriage Story.  She could sneak up in this category in this consolation prize for not getting Best Actress.
Florence Pugh is the prototypical upsetter in this category this year.  She played Amy March in Little Women in what I thought was a forgettable performance. Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson and Laura Dern outperformed her by a large margin, in my opinion.
Best Director – Talk about wide open categories.  I can make a case for each of the nominees. Todd Phillips won the Director’s Guild award for his stunning work on Joker.  This acknowledges his exceptional blend of character and dark Gotham setting plus his ability to coax a performance of a lifetime out of Joaquin Phoenix.  He is the favorite in this category but not my first choice.
Martin Scorsese is the dean of Hollywood directors. The Irishman is a big achievement for Marty, getting the chance to produce a 3 1/2 hour epic.  But what he gains in character development by going that long, he loses in audience entrancement.  Everyone will bow to Marty’s expertise but not give him the Best Director award, which he has won only once (for The Departed) before in eight previous nominations.
I am pulling for Quentin Tarantino for his amazing recreation of Hollywood in the late 1960s. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is so creative and so nostalgic that it makes you care about the characters and the times.  Tarantino dialed his own violent instincts back yet made the movie so absurd (see: flamethrower) and enjoyable that I just marveled.  It may hurt that Tarantino seems so lacking in humility but he has been nominated three times for the directing Oscar but has not won.  His two Oscars are for writing Django Unchained and Pulp Fiction.
For director Bong Joon-ho, Parasite was considered a comeback after his well-reviewed 2013 film Snowpiercer.  The story is very complex and (perhaps) socially relevant.  But the direction moves from comedy to drama to mystery to horror, creating a riveting character study.  It is not unusual for foreign language film directors to win this category without the movie winning Best Picture.  Thus, Bong Joon-ho may pull off the upset here.
Sam Mendes created the most complex technical film of the year: 1917.  With legendary director of photography Roger Deakins, he created a movie that puts the audience on the battleground while making this “big” film feel very personal.  It isn’t the best war film you have ever seen but it is a technical triumph.  This is a great period piece that keeps you on the edge of your chair, which is no small task for a movie set in World War I.
Other categories — I already sent out my thoughts on Live Action Short Films.  I really liked four of the five nominated movies.  While I would choose the only English-speaking film, The Neighbors’ Window, I think the winner will be the highly relevant film, Saria, the story of girls in an orphanage in Guatemala.
I haven’t seen all of the Foreign Language films nominated.  But that doesn’t matter because Parasite will win.
Even though I spent much of my career writing and have seen all of the nominated films, I rarely try to guess the winners of Original Screenplay or Adapted Screenplay.  The original screenplays include Parasite, Marriage Story, Knives Out, 1917, and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.  I am hoping that Tarantino wins in this category.  Noah Baumbach wrote a dialog-heavy film in Marriage Story so he could win.  But this is a logical place for the Academy to reward Parasite writer/director Bong Joon-ho, who won the Writers Guild Award.
In the adapted film category is Jojo Rabbit, Little Women, The Irishman, Joker, and The Two Popes. Jojo Rabbit writer Taika Waititi won the Writers Guild award and he should win here, too.  It certainly was the most creative script of the year.  My long shot would be Two Popes’ writer Anthony McCarten but he wasn’t even nominated by the Writers Guild.

International flair to Oscar-nominated Best Live Action Shorts

BROTHERHOOD — When a young Tunisian man comes home with a new bride in tow after fighting in Syria for ISIS his family has mixed reactions.  His father, who is not enamored with his son’s choices, faces an unfathomable choice — turn his son in or accept him back into the family with his new wife. There is plenty of tension here.  This was my least favorite among the five films.

NEFTA FOOTBALL CLUB — The only comedy among the films, this follows two brothers out for a ride on a motorbike near the Algerian border.  The younger one comes upon a donkey wandering alone with earphones over his ears and a cargo that includes several bags of white powder. The older brother realizes what he has and, when they get back to town, contacts the local drug dealers about his haul.  Meanwhile, the younger brother has other ideas. Funny and ironic, this short film has little to do with soccer and nothing to do with American football.

THE NEIGHBORS’ WINDOW — The only English-speaking film among the nominees, this film focuses on a family of five living in an apartment directly across the street from a young couple whose marital exploits are easy … and irresistible … to follow. The parents struggle meeting their own needs and those of their three young kids and pine for the days when they, too, were young and carefree.  But after more than a year, much changes.  This is a lesson in appreciating what you have.

SARIA — Girls in an orphanage in Guatemala live practically as slaves under abominable circumstances.  When they escape from the guards, they head out in search of America and a better life.  Things do not go well for the girls.  Based on a true story, Saria will prove that many of those seeking asylum in the U.S. are not rapists and murderers.  This is a powerful film and the one I think is most likely to win the Oscar in this category.

A SISTER — Also based on a true story, this film is a 20-minute thriller about an emergency (911) operator taking a call from a woman trapped in a car with the man who only minutes before assaulted her.  Thinking that the woman is calling her sister, the man is equally agitated and suspicious.  The operator must solve the puzzle from the cryptic clues of the caller.  It is suspenseful right up to the end.

Cynthia Erivo embraces abolitionist “Harriet”

Harriet (Cynthia Erivo, Leslie Odom, Jr.) – There have been several movies about abolitionist Harriet Tubman, the escaped slave who became one of the most famous “conductors” of the Underground Railroad.  The latest version features the talented Cynthia Erivo, who starred in Broadway’s revival of The Color Purple. Erivo’s performance is transformative and is worthy of the Best Actress nomination she received.

Tubman grew up as Minty, a woman of uncommon conviction and substance.  Having witnessed unconscionable violence against her family and friends, Minty ultimately left her husband and her home and escaped from Maryland to freedom in Philadelphia.  Adopting the “free” name of Harriet Tubman, she could have lived a safe life in the North.  Rather, she returned home 13 times to lead slaves to freedom.  Braving death, she considered her quest a calling, becoming an unquestioned leader prior to the Civil War in liberating slaves.  During the war, she became a spy for the Union and led the largest battle specifically designed to free slaves.

As a movie, Harriet is a compelling re-telling of the story.  It is beautifully filmed and well-acted.  It is not, however, a deep psychological profile; it is an homage.  This isn’t unusual for movies, of course.  Heroes are often presented as flawless.  The film would have been better if the dive were deeper.  What made her such a brave and relentless woman?  Was there anything in her childhood that drove her to become such as leader?  Why did she feel that she heard messages from God that kept her safe and helped her predict and evade danger?  Curious people want to know.

Nonetheless, Harriet is a very good movie and a fine history lesson.  Erivo is extraordinary.  The supporting cast is convincing and earnest.  Plus, Erivo sings the haunting, uplifting Stand Up, the song played over the closing credits that has been nominated for Best Original Song.  Harriet is difficult to find in theaters; it is available on Amazon for rent or purchase.