Kevin Spacey is masterful in his voicing of the equally masterful screenplay of American Beauty, written by Alan Ball. Spacey calibrates perfectly the voice of a middle age loser, who transforms into anything but, and at that climatic moment, when he simply says he’s feeling, “great,” when someone, a beautiful teenage girl, finally asks, “how are you?”, he loses his life to a point blank bullet in the head. Spacey’s spoken lines capture the pathos of a weary and beaten-down husband, father, and cubicle-based employee on the verge of being fired, and then charges up his speech as he begins his rise from the living dead, motivated by the urge to get between the loins of a Lolita-like high school girl, who is his daughter’s best friend. His language becomes more emphatic, the voicing of a man finally taking command of his life. He dies happy, as signified by the way, Ricky, his dope dealer, troubled boy next door, daughter’s boyfriend, and son of the man who murders him, smiles curiously at him, while his head lies in a pool of blood. What would come next for this character? Would he return to his wife, his once great love, or would he simply shove off, and continue his journey of breathing life into his former depleted soul? The screenwriter opted not to tie-up loose ends in such a way, the ends are knotted with a sudden termination. Spacey, in voiceover narration, describes poignantly how his life flashed through his eyes in his moment of death, and his memories are pleasant, including thoughts of his estranged daughter as a loving child, and his once beloved wife, laughing while on a carnival ride, who sadly forgot how to do it. Spacey deserved his Academy Award as Best Actor, the film itself for its Best Picture award, and Ball for Best Screenplay. The film lives on as a timeless classic.
- Godfather and Godfather II: Let’s take them as one. The best all-time movie with a sequel. Francis Ford Coppola, with a screenwriting assists from the Godfather author Mario Puzo and Robert Towne (talk about an “A team”) set the standard for good mob films, and many excellent ones followed, particularly by Scorsese (Goodfellas, Casino, which rank among my very top favorites).
- Apocalypse Now: So, I’m a Coppola fan (when he was in his prime). He was a screenwriter who became a director, and he blended his skills to create masterpieces. The beginning of the film to the trip down the river is a classic, and the film only starts to fade, remarkably, with Brando’s over the top depiction of Kurtz. Thank God for Dennis Hopper’s interjection in those final scenes.
- The Shawshank Redemption: This film was a good thing, maybe the best of things. Incomparable dialogue and narrative technique.
- Saving Private Ryan: The best war movie of all time. The murderous Omaha Beach landing scenes…no other war film can top the sense of realism and bloody chaos. It’s a director’s movie reflecting Spielberg’s mastery but the collaborative script was well-crafted, hitting all the numbers.
- Forrest Gump: Culturally influential, whenever it’s on TV, I will watch for the umpteenth time, and even suffer the commercials, though I could watch the film again without them! Who doesn’t use lines from that movie all the time? May the screenwriter Winston Groom bask in glory.
So many more but there is a top five! And a bottom five…
- Daddy Daycare: Eddie Murphy should have quit while he was ahead. Role reversal stereotype tropes, just unfunny.
- Shrek I and II: Not a fan of these crowd-pleasing Mike Myers vehicles in computer animation, sorry DreamWorks but Pixar just kicks your butt each and every time. And Eddie Murphy as the Donkey…as Donald Trump would say, “Sad.”
- The Cat in the Hat: I don’t think I laughed once when I took my kids to this bomb of a movie. Probably my too salty movie house popcorn with a Diet Coke was the best part.
- Any Adam Sandler movie fits into my bottom five. Insufferable, cannot bear to watch.
- Anchorman sequels: Will Ferrell should have quit while he was ahead, but we know he cannot. As you can see, I can be harsh on former Saturday Night Live stars when they misstep, and they have done so with frequency. For example, I did not pick on Chevy Chase, but I should have.
I watched “Hell or Highwater” while simultaneously reading the script. The director and/or the film editor cut a lot from the screenplay to shorten the film to 102 minutes, and I think some of the cut scenes might have enriched the film, nonetheless it succeeds, and it won considerable favor with both critics and audiences (97% and 88% respectively on Rotten Tomatoes). As a Texan, I loved the depiction of the dying oil towns in the barren, windswept prairies of Northwest Texas and bordering Oklahoma, and the characters as portrayed fit right in. The main actors, Chris Pine, Ben Foster, playing the bank robber brothers, Toby and Tanner, and Jeff Bridges, playing the Texas Ranger sheriff, Marcus, performed great characterizations of their assigned roles. The film captivates your attention from start to finish, a modern-day Bonnie and Clyde set in about the same place but with loving bank robbing brothers (sort of) instead of bank robbing lovers. We’ve seen the character of Marcus, the aging Texas Ranger sheriff on the cusp of retirement, before, and as fine a performance as Jeff Bridges delivered, Tommy Lee Jones, with a superior story, tops him as an aging Texas sheriff on the cusp of retirement in No Country for Old Men. Marcus is a curmudgeon, humorous, hard drinking racist who needles his “half-breed” Mexican/Native American deputy sheriff, but I didn’t feel much sympathy for him, so you end up rooting for the bank robbing brothers, who after all are robbing the bank chain that is stealing the land that their departed mother owned, and that land has oil on it, offering a solution for Toby’s desire to provide for his sons who live with his ex-wife. The evil bank stealing land from poor prairie folk takes a page from The Grapes of Wrath, but it delivers the reliable dramatic convention of the poor versus the corporate system, and a raison d’etre for all the bank robbing. The screenplay delivers faithfully on all points that a good screenplay must possess. We’re clear on what Toby wants, and the obstacles he faces, which include his risk-taking, once-jailed wild brother, Tanner; the Texas Rangers led by the wizened Marcus; and of course, the bank that wants to steal his dead mama’s land. I liked the film along with everybody else but here is what I noted that doesn’t work so well with the film. After Tanner dies at the sure-shot from Marcus, Toby escapes, and the subsequent lame explanation in the Texas Rangers’ office demonstrates that everyone is a dumbass except Marcus because they believed Toby had an alibi and no criminal record. And by the way, wouldn’t the Rangers have told Marcus they could not share case information with him now that he was retired and a private citizen? To reinforce the prior point, either the actor (Pine) or the director (David Mackenzie) decided (because it’s not in the script) that Toby would take a bullet in the Bonnie and Clyde shoot ‘em up as Toby and Tanner emerge from the last bank they rob (wow, the citizenry responded faster than the police!), but it was a great scene and Tanner’s crack during the getaway about the downside of “conceal and carry” for bank robbing was humorous, to which he adds poetic emphasis by scaring off the car chasin’ gun totin’ citizens with sprays from the assault rifle he probably bought from his friendly local gun show. Now, Toby probably would have had to treat that wound in a hospital, thus triggering suspicion, right? Well, charitably, we might conclude he treated it himself to evade capture. I could find other small quibbles but otherwise the film did not reach too far, and it provided great entertainment in a film landscape dominated with superheroes where super excessiveness is the new normal.