Movies - Lists postsSaturday December 31, 2016
The Five Worst Movies of 2016
Even the movies didn't help this shitty year.
My biggest concern with the year-end top 10 list is usually how I can pare it down to 10 because there's so many deserving movies; this year, I'm trying to build up to 10. I anticipate filler.
But the bottom five? Hey, that's the mother lode.
So here they are, from awful to horrible. Apologies to “Bad Moms,” (oh, Mila) “X-Men: Apocalypse,” (oh, Bryan) “Knight of Cups” (oh, Terrence) and “Ma Ma” (oh, Penelope): In a normal shitty year, you might've made the cut, too.
5. “The Girl on the Train” (Universal): It's called a tabloid film but even tabloids aren't this stupid. Anna (Rebecca Ferguson) steals the husband of Rachel (Emily Blunt), a lonely alcoholic, who becomes obsessed with and spies on Megan (Haley Bennett), the aloof sexpot. When Megan goes missing, Rachel gives false info about Megan’s affairs. After Megan is found murdered, Anna finds evidence implicating her husband (Rachel's ex) but does nothing about it. And the theme of this backstabbing movie? Sisterhood. Of course.
4. “Suicide Squad” (Warner Bros.): Marvel gives us continuity between movies but DC can’t manage it between scenes. It’s as if the filmmakers took chunks of story and lined them up without concern for what came before or after. The whole point of this squad, this government-run team of supercriminals, is to take on the next metahuman (read: Superman) in case he's not such a boy scout. Guess what? The next metahuman could take out the whole squad in a second. So there's no point to them. And the battles here? With Witchie-poo? In the rubble of Central City? It's sound and fury, signifying nothing. It's a tale told by an idiot. Right: Idiots. Yeah, I'm looking at you, Zack Snyder.
3. “Wiener-Dog” (IFC): A clueless boy in the first family that owns the title animal feeds it a granola bar. Cue writer-director Todd Solondz's 45-second tracking shot of shit on the sidewalk. Consider it a metaphor for the movie. “Wiener-Dog” lacks life, joy, meaning. The dog subsequently winds up with: 1) a vet assistant who's hung up on a meth-head; 2) a mentally challenged man who plays violent video games; 3) a lonely teacher/screenwriter who tries to blow up his university with explosives strapped to the dog; and 4) an old woman whose granddaughter visits with her idiot boyfriend to borrow money. Does the dog run across the street to kill itself? If so, it's the smartest one here. I saw it at the Seattle International Film Festival, where someone literally shouted, “This movie sucks!” near the end. With you, brother.
2. “Nocturnal Animals” (Focus Features): There are two storylines: one hopelessly dull, the other hopelessly horrific. In the former, a beautiful, red-haired art-gallery director in a beautiful glass house and a dying marriage reads a novel dedicated to her by her first husband. In it, a man (whom she imagines as her first husband), and his beautiful red-haired wife and daughter (whom she imagines as Isla Fisher and Ellie Bamber), are run off the road in the middle of the night in Bumfuck, West Texas by three yahoos, who slowly terrorize them and then kidnap the wife and daughter. They're later found naked, raped, murdered, artfully posed. For some reason, the novel piques the woman's interest in her first husband again. Focus Features marketed this pointless horror from writer-director Tom Ford as a “sexy thriller” but it's awful enough to kill sex.
1. “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice” (Warner Bros.): Superman's great enemy isn't Lex Luthor but writer-director Zack Snyder. Snyder let the Man of Steel keep his powers but he took away his joy and purpose. What does Superman want in this movie? Who knows? He seems to help people reluctantly. He flies to Africa to save Lois but when Lex kidnaps his mom he's lost. I get being suckered the first time Batman uses kryptonite on him (he'd never experienced it before). But a second time? How dumb is he? And Batman? Snyder turns the Caped Crusader into a hateful xenophobe, a Fox-News watcher, a literal murderer. He listens to the noise, not the signal. He doesn't see the good Superman does, he simply fears him. And he would've killed him if not for ... Yeah. I know. I shouldn't. But in the future whenever this movie is mentioned, fans can rightly shout, “WHY DID YOU SAY THAT NAME?!?!?” Because no one will want to remember it. Ever. It's the worst movie of the year because Snyder completely botched the first cinematic pairing of the most beloved superheroes in the world. Afterwards, I felt like Brando in “The Godfather”: “Look what they did to my boys.”
Here's other years, if you're interested:
Fingers crossed for the future. Please.
BBC's 100 Greatest Films of the 21st Century: Annotated
Cheer up, bro. All the critics love you at the Beeb.
We're 16/17 years into this thing, depending, so I guess it's expected. This list comes from the BBC, who asked 177 film critics around the world to name the greatest movies of the century. Then they tabulated. Voila. Or Eww, depending.
Links go to my reviews. Annotated thoughts in red. Your mileage will differ.
100. Toni Erdmann (Maren Ade, 2016)
100. Requiem for a Dream (Darren Aronofsky, 2000)
100. Carlos (Olivier Assayas, 2010) The only Assayas? It's like “Summer Hours” was never made. And wasn't this thing a mini-series anyway?
99. The Gleaners and I (Agnès Varda, 2000)
98. Ten (Abbas Kiarostami, 2002)
97. White Material (Claire Denis, 2009)
96. Finding Nemo (Andrew Stanton, 2003) A little Pixar action. There will be more.
95. Moonrise Kingdom (Wes Anderson, 2012) Wes is named three times on this list, tied for most with P.T. Anderson and Apichatpong Weerasethakul. More on him later.
94. Let the Right One In (Tomas Alfredson, 2008) Deserved.
93. Ratatouille (Brad Bird, 2007) This makes it but not “Up”? Huh.
92. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Andrew Dominik, 2007) Nice to see.
91. The Secret in Their Eyes (Juan José Campanella, 2009) Overrated.
90. The Pianist (Roman Polanski, 2002) Yes.
89. The Headless Woman (Lucrecia Martel, 2008)
88. Spotlight (Tom McCarthy, 2015) More screenwriter-driven than director-driven, and the critics love the latter; so probably won't be on here in another five years.
87. Amélie (Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 2001) So long ago. Seems like I saw this in another life.
86. Far From Heaven (Todd Haynes, 2002) Haynes has two. I get the appeal even if he doesn't appeal to me.
85. A Prophet (Jacques Audiard, 2009) This should be much, much higher. Top 10. Criminally, it's the only Audiard. That's right: No “Rust and Bone.”
84. Her (Spike Jonze, 2013) No....
83. A.I. Artificial Intelligence (Steven Spielberg, 2001) No...
82. A Serious Man (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2009) Higher
81. Shame (Steve McQueen, 2011) Hmm...
80. The Return (Andrey Zvyagintsev, 2003)
79. Almost Famous (Cameron Crowe, 2000) Kinda shocked to see it here, but I liked it well enough. Rest in peace, PSH.
78. The Wolf of Wall Street (Martin Scorsese, 2013) I'd like to see this again.
77. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (Julian Schnabel, 2007) Higher. Top 20.
76. Dogville (Lars von Trier, 2003) Did I watch the whole thing? We get one more von Trier.
75. Inherent Vice (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2014) Could see this again, too, but for now I'd leave off.
74. Spring Breakers (Harmony Korine, 2012) Good god, no. Awful.
73. Before Sunset (Richard Linklater, 2004) Meh. But at least it's not “Before Midnight”...
72. Only Lovers Left Alive (Jim Jarmusch, 2013) Huh. Liked it. But ahead of “Un Prophete”?
71. Tabu (Miguel Gomes, 2012) Good god, no.
70. Stories We Tell (Sarah Polley, 2012) Nice, but...
69. Carol (Todd Haynes, 2015) Dreamy. Soporific. Like most Haynes. I need coffee after his movies.
68. The Royal Tenenbaums (Wes Anderson, 2001) Rest in peace, Gene Hackman. Oh, he's just writing novels? Apologies.
67. The Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigelow, 2008)
66. Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter...and Spring (Kim Ki-duk, 2003) I hope more people see this underrated movie.
65. Fish Tank (Andrea Arnold, 2009)
64. The Great Beauty (Paolo Sorrentino, 2013) Good.
63. The Turin Horse (Béla Tarr and Ágnes Hranitzky, 2011) Never did get around to seeing this. Did I?
62. Inglourious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino, 2009) Too high. Should it even be on?
61. Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer, 2013) Not for me. Not close.
60. Syndromes and a Century (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2006)
59. A History of Violence (David Cronenberg, 2005) Could see again.
58. Moolaadé (Ousmane Sembène, 2004)
57. Zero Dark Thirty (Kathryn Bigelow, 2012) Iffy. Morally. I think. Need to see in 20 years to assess properly.
56. Werckmeister Harmonies (Béla Tarr, director; Ágnes Hranitzky, co-director, 2000)
55. Ida (Paweł Pawlikowski, 2013) Yep.
54. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, 2011)
53. Moulin Rouge! (Baz Luhrmann, 2001) Hmm...
52. Tropical Malady (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2004)
51. Inception (Christopher Nolan, 2010) I liked it, but...
50. The Assassin (Hou Hsiao-hsien, 2015) Wait, I DID see this, didn't I? Didn't stick.
49. Goodbye to Language (Jean-Luc Godard, 2014)
48. Brooklyn (John Crowley, 2015) Really? Ahead of “Carol”? Surprising, given critics.
47. Leviathan (Andrey Zvyagintsev, 2014) Saw it, didn't write about it. Came to me on waves of praise but didn't transcend or enlighten.
46. Certified Copy (Abbas Kiarostami, 2010) God, no.
45. Blue Is the Warmest Color (Abdellatif Kechiche, 2013) Went on too long.
44. 12 Years a Slave (Steve McQueen, 2013) Not as good as I wanted it to be. Yes, I'm a bad person.
43. Melancholia (Lars von Trier, 2011) Beautiful images; made me nauseous. Yes, I'm a bad critic.
42. Amour (Michael Haneke, 2012) Devastating.
41. Inside Out (Pete Docter, 2015) My friend Vinny is happy anyway. “Take her to the moon for me.”
40. Brokeback Mountain (Ang Lee, 2005) This was transformative just 11 years ago. We've come far.
39. The New World (Terrence Malick, 2005) I keep trying to grasp onto this movie to like it but I can't get any toeholds.
38. City of God (Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund, 2002) From another life.
37. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2010) One of the most miserable times I've had at the movies in the last 10 years. I'm still apologizing to Vinny for taking him to it.
36. Timbuktu (Abderrahmane Sissako, 2014) I could see this again.
35. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Ang Lee, 2000) Hypnotic
34. Son of Saul (László Nemes, 2015) Painful
33. The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan, 2008) Yeah, no. It saddens me that for most critics this is the pinnacle of superhero movies.
32. The Lives of Others (Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, 2006) Definitely
31. Margaret (Kenneth Lonergan, 2011)
30. Oldboy (Park Chan-wook, 2003) Not this high.
29. WALL-E (Andrew Stanton, 2008) So nice to see you! (But still no “Up”? The fuck?)
28. Talk to Her (Pedro Almodóvar, 2002) Yep.
27. The Social Network (David Fincher, 2010) Yep.
26. 25th Hour (Spike Lee, 2002) Probably not.
25. Memento (Christopher Nolan, 2000) Sure.
24. The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2012) Powerfully made, I'm still trying to wrestle meaning out of it.
23. Caché (Michael Haneke, 2005) One of my favorite from Haneke, who's not one of my favorite directors.
22. Lost in Translation (Sofia Coppola, 2003) Oh, Bill. Oh, Scarlett. Whither Sofia?
21. The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson, 2014) The highest Wes.
20. Synecdoche, New York (Charlie Kaufman, 2008) Again, worth a re-view.
19. Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller, 2015) Please. Get this shit off here. It's a two-hour chase movie.
18. The White Ribbon (Michael Haneke, 2009) I could see again. Even though it's Haneke.
17. Pan's Labyrinth (Guillermo Del Toro, 2006)
16. Holy Motors (Leos Carax, 2012)
15. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (Cristian Mungiu, 2007)
14. The Act of Killing (Joshua Oppenheimer, 2012) Highest doc? Yes.
13. Children of Men (Alfonso Cuarón, 2006)
12. Zodiac (David Fincher, 2007) I thought I was the only one.
11. Inside Llewyn Davis (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2013) Ditto.
10. No Country for Old Men (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2007)
9. A Separation (Asghar Farhadi, 2011) Of course.
8. Yi Yi: A One and a Two (Edward Yang, 2000) Good to see you on here. Taiwan in the house!
7. The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick, 2011) Great movie but mixed feelings.
6. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry, 2004)
5. Boyhood (Richard Linklater, 2014)
4. Spirited Away (Hayao Miyazaki, 2001)
3. There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007)
2. In the Mood for Love (Wong Kar-wai, 2000)
1. Mulholland Drive (David Lynch, 2001)
I stopped commenting near the end because I began to feel a little dispirited by the results. Is this the best we have? Shouldn't it be better? Of the top 25, I haven't seen “In the Mood for Love,” “Spirited Away,” “Holy Motors.” I still don't want to see “Holy Motors.”
Of the movies not on the list that would be on my top 100 of the century? “United 93,” “Kung Fu Hustle,” “The Drop,” “Le Passé,” “Theeb,” “Restrepo,” “No End in Sight,” “Summer Hours,” “Rust and Bone,” “Moneyball,” “Young Adult,” “Des hommes et des dieux,” “American Hustle,” “The Revenant,” “Birdman.” No love for Inarritu here. Odd.
The Least-Popular Box-Office Smash of All Time
Putting together a post on Steven Spielberg's ubiquity in the 100 highest-grossing domestic films of all time (adjusted for inflation), I often resorted to IMDb to check who directed which box office smash. “Twister,” for example. No clue. (Turns out: Jan de Bont. OK.)
Then I began to notice the IMDb ratings for these films.
Then I began to wonder which had the lowest rating.
In other words, what is the least popular (by IMDb rating) most popular (by adjusted $$) movie ever made? For which movie did we have the greatest buyer's remorse?
Most, to be sure, are still beloved by IMDb users. Two of the top 100 movies are in the nines (“The Godfather,” “Dark Knight”), 33 are in the eights, 51 in the sevens. The average is 7.66. Nothing to sneeze at.
But there are 14 movies with IMDb rankings lower than 7.0. Here they are, from least shitty to most shitty:
|$$ Rank||Movie||Adjusted Gross||Year||IMDb|
|56||The Towering Inferno||$526,603,200||1974||6.9|
|70||Smokey and the Bandit||$487,626,500||1977||6.9|
|97||Duel in the Sun||$437,755,100||1946||6.9|
|49||Around the World in 80 Days||$554,400,000||1956||6.8|
|60||The Greatest Show on Earth||$514,800,000||1952||6.7|
|91||Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones||$458,759,500||2002||6.7|
|18||Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace||$774,877,600||1999||6.5|
|84||Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen||$462,470,000||2009||6.0|
This makes me truly happy. I remember how I recoiled and thrashed around in the summer of '09 when that idiot “Transformers” movie was raking it in at the box office. How I wished revenge on its viewers. How one post was simply titled “Die, Die, Die!” Turns out many agree with me.
Which of these would you watch again? I don't think I've ever seen “Towering Inferno” so that would be on my list. Ditto “Duel in the Sun.” I have fond memories of “Smokey and the Bandit” but haven't seen it since it was in movie theaters. How quaint is “Airport” now? Has anyone put together an “Airport”/“Airplane” double feature? And if you could spoof one of the movies on this list, a la “Airplane,” which would you choose?
My Top 10 Movies of 2015
INTRO. Caveat: I haven't seen some contenders yet, such as “45 Years,” “The Hateful Eight,” “Son of Saul,” but you don't want to wait until February for this kind of thing. Mid-January is already a month behind. I thought it was a weak year, but it ended well, and I had to leave off some deserving candidates: “Ex Machina,” “It Follows,” “Going Clear,” “Of Miracles and Men,” “The Martian,” “Love & Mercy,” “Bridge of Spies,”Me and Earl and the Dying Girl,“ ”Creed.“ Here we go. Your mileage will differ.
10. STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS. Yes, it's derivative of itself; yes, Rey is a quick study; but my what fun. The torch has been passed to a new generation of Star Warsians, and they have—whaddaya know—personality.
9. CAROL. Not just a love story, not just a coming-of-age story, but a beautiful look back at a bygone era. Between this, ”Brooklyn,“ and ”Bridge of Spies,“ was there any 1950s memorabilia left in the second-hand shops in the New York Metro area?
8. SICARIO. Stunning visually, dramatically, ethically. How true is it? I’m sure liberties were taken. The larger truth is about how thin our veneer of civilization is. Both ways.
7. MEETING DR. SUN. A quirky joy from Taiwan and the Seattle International Film Festival. It's a heist film gone horribly amaterurish. The final, sad wrestling match on the Taipei streets, beneath the gaze of the titular statue, can be read as the two Chinas forever embroiled.
6. BROOKLYN. Something beautiful or unexpected happens in each scene. Watching, it was like I was being handed a rose. By the end of the movie, I felt like I was holding a bouquet.
5. INSIDE OUT. Sadness, and, particularly Bing Bong, take the movie to another level—a level that, in animated films, only Pixar seems to reach. ”Take her to the moon for me“ literally made me stifle a sob in the middle of a packed movie theater. It's the great cinematic sacrifice of 2015.
4. SPOTLIGHT. The best movie about investigative journalism since ”The Insider.“ What's shocking is how undramatic it is, how matter-of-fact. You could almost call it objective.
3. THE BIG SHORT. It's the eat-your-vegetables movie that goes down like an ice-cream sundae. It's a primer on Wall Street, and mortgage derivatives, and the global financial meltdown. You want them to get the bad guys, to prick their bloated self-assurance, even though you know we all fall down. It's tragic, yes, but also fucking hilarious.
2. THE REVENANT. You feel it as much as see it. It's palpable, and beautiful, and exhausting. When it was over I exhaled and thought, ”Great, but I doubt I'll want to see it again.“ The next day, I wanted to see it again.
1. THEEB. It's that rare beast: an art film that is also a harrowing adventure story. It's ”Lawrence of Arabia" from a Bedouin boy's perspective. It's not just about the loss of life but the loss of a way of life.
From the Archives: Top 10 Music Biopics
I wrote the following for MSN back in 2004 in anticipation of “Ray.” Some of it still works. I'll add my new top 10 at the end.
You say you’re a musician and someday you want Hollywood to tell your story? Here’s what you need to do:
- Tell friends and family there’s something “inside you” that needs to get out.
- If you're male, get a drug habit.
- If you’re female, get an abusive husband.
- Die young. Preferably by plane crash.
We don’t know how many of these scenarios are in the two music biopics opening this fall—Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles in “Ray,” and Kevin Spacey as Bobby Darin in “Beyond The Sea”—but we wouldn’t be surprised to see at least a few. In the meantime enjoy this list of our 10 best music biopics.
Guidelines. No romans a clef, such as “The Rose” or “Eight Mile.” Also no TV movies: “The David Cassidy Story” or “The John Denver Story.” Life’s too short. No documentaries or mockumentaries, either. Finally, the movie has to be about people famous for their music, not musicians famous for their biopic. This eliminates two great films—“The Pianist” and “Shine”—but opens things up to more traditional examples of the genre.
Now let’s rock n’ roll. To the toppermost of the poppermost!
10. “Bird” (1988)
Directed by Clint Eastwood. Written by Joel Oliansky.
Remember the “drug habit” scenario above? Here’s a caveat: If the drug habit is the focus of the film—like in “Lady Sings the Blues,” “Sid and Nancy,” and “The Doors”—it’ll probably kill the film. There's not much that's less dramatic than someone succumbing to addiction. So why is “Bird” on this list? Because Forest Whitaker’s tortured performance as Charlie Parker sticks. Some of the scenes, too, have a spark: traveling through the deep south with “Albino Red,” and in L.A. with Dizzy Gillespie. Too bad the rest of the film doesn’t. Too bad it’s 160 minutes.
Who plays?: Charlie Parker.
Obstacles to success: Cymbals flying through the air.
Problems with success: Drugs. Ulcers. Racism.
Memorable number: Buster Franklin being reintroduced to that kid who couldn’t play in Kansas City.
Academy Awards: Best Sound. Forest Whitaker won Best Actor at Cannes.
Quote: “Chan, comma. Help, period. Charlie Parker.”
9. “La Bamba” (1987)
Written and directed by Luis Valdez.
It’s a bit cartoony. A migrant labor camp never looked so idyllic, and the high school hallways are straight out of “Grease.” The adolescent romance between Ritchie Valens and Donna is, well, adolescent, and Lou Diamond Phillips doesn’t lip-synch particularly well. But the movie is what it sets out to be: a kind of Cain and Abel tale, with Cain carrying a bottle and Abel a guitar. Quick question: on that night in 1959 in Clear Lake, Iowa, three musicians went down in a chartered airplane, and two are on this list: Ritchie Valens (#9) and Buddy Holly (#6). So why is J.P. Richardson getting dissed? Where’s “Hello Baby: The Big Bopper Story”?
Genre: Rock n’ roll
Who sings: Los Lobos.
Obstacles to success: Not many. The kid was seventeen.
Problems with success: His brother. Airplanes.
Memorable number: Singing “Framed” at the American Legion Hall as Bob arrives drunk and ready to fight.
Music cameos: Los Lobos (in a Mexican brothel); Brian Setzer (as Eddie Cochrane); Marshall Crenshaw (as Buddy Holly).
Quote: “I’m gonna be a star. Because stars don’t fall out of the sky, do they?”
8. “Backbeat” (1994)
Directed by Iain Softley. Written by Iain Softley, Michael Thomas, Stephen Ward.
Search the world over and you won’t find anyone who can do a better John Lennon than Ian Hart. “Backbeat” was actually Hart’s second go at John—after the short film “The Hours at the Times”—and once more he’s amazing: looks, sounds, acts just like the former Beatle. Just doesn’t sing. The film focuses on John’s friendship with his art school mate Stuart Sutcliffe, who sold a painting, bought a bass guitar and joined the band. It’s about the Beatles’ Hamburg days, where they honed their talents, and about a love triangle: John, Stuart, and Astrid, the woman who gave the Beatles bangs. But who is John jealous of: Stuart or Astrid? John seems equally confused.
Genre: Rock n’ roll
Who sings: Greg Dulli (Afghan Whigs), Dave Pirner (Soul Asylum), Mike Mills (R.E.M.), Thurston Moore (Sonic Youth), Don Fleming (Gumball), and Dave Grohl (Nirvana) play the music for the early '60s Beatles. Nice! But let’s face it: If Pete Best pounded the drums the way Grohl does, we never would’ve heard of Ringo Starr.
Obstacles to success: The picture makes it seem the Beatles’ path to success was greased when it wasn’t. Remember “Three-guitar and one-drum groups are on the way out”? You know, as wrong as you’ve ever been in your life, you’ve never been that wrong.
Problems with success: Takes place before the success.
Memorable number: “Good Golly, Miss Molly,” “Twenty Flight Rock,” “Long Tall Sally”: Take your pick.
Academy Awards: Nope. But Hart recognized as Most Promising Newcomer at the BAFTAs.
Quote: “It’s all dick.”
7. “The Benny Goodman Story” (1955)
Written and directed by Valentine Davies.
“I must say Benny does have his own strange kind of integrity,” future wife Alice Hammond says of Goodman in the middle of this biopic, and the picture’s the same way. It’s one of three Hollywood jazz stories made in the 1950s (along with “The Glenn Miller Story” and “The Gene Krupa Story”), but it works better than the other two, in part, because of this integrity. Goodman has a nerd’s courage when confronting mobsters and bland band leaders but none with Hammond, who must take the lead in their relationship. Allen is understated as the jazz clarinetist. Donna Reed is charming as the classical music enthusiast won over to jazz. And the music swings.
Who plays: Benny Goodman. Steve Allen was an accomplished musician/composer, however.
Obstacle to success: The usual unimaginative promoters and businessmen.
Problem with success: She’s gentile, he’s Jewish.
Memorable number: Blowing away the stuffy society folks at Carnegie Hall with “Sing Sing Sing (with a Swing).”
Music cameos: Teddy Wilson, Lionel Hampton, Gene Krupa, Ben Pollack, Kid Ory, Harry James, Ziggy Elman, and Martha Tilton.
Quote: “So many things he wants to say. And no clarinet to say them.”
6. “The Buddy Holly Story” (1978)
Directed by Steve Rash. Written by Alan Swyer.
Rock n’ roll has a bit of a complex – it yearns for both street cred and art cred – and two scenes in “The Buddy Holly Story” exemplify this. At one point Holly and the Crickets show up at the Apollo Theater in Harlem and win over a startled black crowd who were expecting black performers. That’s the street cred. Later, a classical violinist compares Holly’s use of strings in “True Love Ways” to Beethoven. That’s the art cred. It helps, too, that Holly shakes his head over the violinist’s comments. You can’t be a true rock n’ roller if you’re seen vying for art cred. The film is a low-key account of rise and crash, with Gary Busey channeling his inner geek to earn an Oscar nom, and Don Stroud and Charles Martin Smith playing great back-up as the Crickets, the band that inspired the naming of the Beatles. Occasionally the 1970s seep through the seams of this period piece, but mostly it works the way Holly’s tunes work: without strain.
Genre: Rock n’ roll
Who sings: Gary Busey. Plays, too.
Obstacles to success: Sponsors and preachers who don’t dig rock n’ roll. Suits who won’t let him produce his own music, man.
Problems with success: The jealousy/homesickness of the Crickets.
Memorable number: Singing “Oh Boy” at the Apollo Theater.
Academy Awards: Best Music. Busey was nominated Best Actor.
Quote: “No white act has ever played the Apollo!”
5. “What’s Love Got to Do with It” (1993)
Directed by Brian Gibson. Written by Kate Lanier.
You watch this thing flinching from anticipated blows. When’s he going to strike? Here? Here? When the first punch lands you find out it’s not the first anyway, and then he rains them down and drags her through the house as friends stare in mute horror and the children scream. One boy holds his ears and cries – so heartbreakingly real you wonder what they did to the kid to get him to act that way. When the abuse continues, year after year, it almost drains your energy away. But when Tina finally fights back in the limousine, and she lands that first blow of her own? Oooh, that one feels good. Too much Buddhism at the end, and Ike keeps popping up like Jason in “Friday the 13th,” but still our most emotionally raw music biopic.
Genre: Rhythm and Blues.
Who sings: Tina Turner.
Obstacles to success: Not many. Well, race.
Problems with success: Ike.
Memorable number: Singing “I Wanna Be Made Over” as she is.
Music cameos: Tina shows up at the end.
Academy Awards: Both Bassett and Fishburne were nominated. Bassett’s so good we think she would’ve won if she’d been able to sing like Tina.
Quote: “Everything’s alright. Just me and your mama talking.”
4. “Yankee Doodle Dandy” (1942)
Directed by Michael Curtiz. Written by Robert Bucker and Edmund Joseph.
Yes, cornball, overly patriotic, and the Four Cohans in blackface is embarrassing. But few actors have embodied energy on the screen as well as Cagney, who shed his gangster image (for a New York minute) by quick-talking, tap-dancing, and charming his way through this biopic of George M. Cohan, creator of American myths, and composer of such rousing American standards as “The Yankee Doodle Boy,” “Grand Old Flag,” and “Over There.” We’re a cynical lot, but the scene where he tap-dances down the White House steps still makes us misty.
Genre: Tin Pan Alley
Who sings: Cagney, see?
Obstacles to success: Dietz and Goff.
Problems with success: Critics. Teenagers in jalopies.
Memorable number: “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” What else?
Music cameos: Eddie Foy, Jr. plays Eddie Foy.
Academy Awards: Best Actor (Cagney), Music and Sound. Nominated for five others, including Picture, Director, Script, Editing, and Supporting Actor (Huston)
Quote: “My mother thanks you, my father thanks you, my sister thanks you, and I thank you.”
3. “Bound for Glory” (1976)
Directed by Hal Ashby. Written by Robert Getchell.
Ironic title, given it’s one of the few music biopics where the lead character doesn’t seem bound for glory. In fact the young Woody Guthrie seems like a lazy, impractical dreamer. He paints signs, plays fiddle, tells fortunes, fools around. The movie picks up when he picks up and encounters bullying railroad men and uncaring church men on his way to California, the promised land, where things only get worse. The film is like its subject. It has an unhurried, rambling nature. Look for Ronny Cox, the epitome of corporate villainy in films like “Robocop,” as Woody’s mentor, Ozark Bule, the anti-corporate union organizer.
Who sings: David Carradine. Actors sang in the seventies.
Obstacles to success: The dust bowl. The California border patrol.
Problems with success: Sponsors, marketers, and packagers.Memorable number: A sing-along led by Ozark Bule in a migrant labor camp.
Academy Awards: Best Music and Cinematography (Haskell Wexler). Nominated for Film Editing, Costume Design, Writing and Picture. 1976 was a tough year at the Oscars.
Quote: “You sure as hell don’t look like much. How do you sing?” “Makes me happy.”
2. “Coal Miner’s Daughter” (1980)
Directed by Michael Apted. Written by Thomas Rickman.
For a film with abject poverty, a near-rape scene, and a whole lot of bickering and squallering, this movie is pure fun. It’s partly the writing and direction, of course, and it doesn’t hurt to have locals in speaking parts. (When did directors stop doing that?) But the movie really belongs to its two stars. Sissy Spacek plays Loretta Lynn from age 13 to, what, 40? She sings like Loretta. Hell, she should’ve gone to Nashville afterwards and cut herself some records. And with her in nearly every scene is one of the best actors in Hollywood. Tommy Lee Jones’ Doolittle Lynn is a flawed, fascinating man who literally drives his wife to stardom only to discover that by succeeding he’s failed. Her success – their success – has rendered him superfluous. How does he handle this? At first poorly; then like a man.
Who sings: Sissy Spacek. Perhaps the only thing more amazing than Spacek’s pitch-perfect Loretta Lynn is Beverly D’Angelo’s pitch-perfect Patsy Cline.
Obstacles to success: Poverty, obscurity, shyness.
Problems with success: Headaches. Doo.
Memorable number: Quieting a honky-tonk with “There He Goes.”
Music cameos: Ernest Tubb and Minnie Pearl. Levon Helm plays Loretta’s father.
Academy Awards: Best Actress for Spacek. The film was nominated for six others, including Picture, Writing, Art Direction, Cinematography, Editing and Sound. The fact that Tommy Lee Jones wasn’t even nominated discounts for all eternity every awards show everywhere. We’re serious.
Quote: “Stop making that noise! You sound like an old bear growling.”
1. “Amadeus” (1984)
Directed by Milos Foreman. Written by Peter Shaffer.
It’s more than a biopic; it’s a blueprint for how to deal with genius on screen. Simply view the extraordinary (Mozart) through the eyes of the ordinary (Salieri). There’s one glorious scene after another here: Salieri playing his and then Mozart’s music before the innocent priest; Mozart playing back the little march of welcome Salieri composed in his honor (“That doesn’t quite work, does it?”); Salieri looking through Mozart’s first – and only – drafts. And on and on, right up to the very end when Antonio Salieri, the Patron Saint of mediocrities, absolves us all. And the music? “Finished as no music is ever finished.”
Who plays: Neville Marriner
Obstacles to success: Too many notes.
Problems with success: Dead father. Carping wife. Jealous colleague. Not necessarily in that order.
Memorable number: Pick one.
Academy Awards: Best Picture, Director, Writer, Actor (Abraham), Art Direction, Costume Design, Make-up and Sound. Also nominated for Actor (Hulce), Cinematography, and Editing.
Quote: “I was staring through the cage of those meticulous ink strokes – at an absolute beauty.”
Not bad: “The Glenn Miller Story” (1953); “Lady Sings the Blues” (1972); “Sweet Dreams” (1985); “Sid & Nancy” (1986); “Immortal Beloved” (1994);
Not good: “The Gene Krupa Story” (1959); “Mahler” (1974); “Lisztomania (1976); “The Doors” (1991); “Selena” (1997)
Since then? The floodgates. We've gotten, among others, “Ray” (Ray Charles) “Beyond the Sea” (Bobby Darrin) “Walk the Line” (Johnny Cash) “La Vie en Rose” (Edit Piaf) “I'm Not There” (Bob Dylan) “Cadillac Records” (Chess Records) “Jersey Boys” (Frank Valli) “Get On Up” (James Brown) “Jimi: All Is By My Side” (Jimi Hendrix), “Love & Mercy” (Brian Wilson) and “Straight Outta Compton” (NWA).
Some I haven't seen yet. And with some of the top 10 above I'm like, really, Erik? “What's Love Got to Do With It?” at No. 5? I keep thinking that I gave “Bird” short shrift and movies like “La Bamba” too much shrift. I keep remembering being not overwhelmed by “Bound for Glory.” I remember exactly nothing about “The Benny Goodman Story.”
Given all that, here's my new Top 10. Your results will differ:
- Coal Miner's Daughter
- Yankee Doodle Dandy
- La Vie en Rose
- I'm Not There
- Love & Mercy
- Bound for Glory
- Jimi: All Is By My Side
- What's Love Got to Do With It?
- The Buddy Holly Story
Beyond the first two, it's really kind of a crapshoot.
Whose music biopic would you like to see on screen? Or maybe the better question, given the history of the genre, is: Whose story would you LEAST like to see Hollywood screw up?