Granted, The Godfather has a very big birthday this year – but let’s save a bit of cake for the likes of Contact and Con Air too.
An interesting film phenomenon is when great movies sit in limbo on their classic status. Citizen Kane, All About Eve, The Godfather, The Piano, Titanic, and The Matrix may be recognised as classics, but it is surprising how many brilliant films still seem taken for granted. Not forgotten, and often well-scored on IMdb, but unrecognised as classic movies. Perhaps this is because we are so awash with content, there is not time to look back and rediscover past releases.
Here are ten films celebrating key anniversaries this year we think worthy of that classic label.
Contact (25 years)
What’s the story: Dr. Ellie Arroway (Jodie Foster) is working on the search for intelligent extraterrestrial life. When she detects a transmission of unknown origin, the world mobilises to make first contact.
A classic because… Contact paved the way for Hollywood sci-fi with a brain in the 21st century. Robert Zemeckis’ film came a year after the gung-ho antics of Independence Day, and told a richer story of awe, hope and wonder. The way it marries cosmic wonder with big screen thrills sometimes seems quaint (Arroway radios the transmission discovery to her team while driving high speed through the desert), but Contact remains a film confident that ideas can excite audiences.
While displaying Zemeckis’ underrated directorial skill, the opening shot speeding away from Earth to the farthest reaches of the universe before pulling out from Jena Malone’s (digitally coloured) eye is breathtaking. As is an impossible shot when Malone, as the young Arroway, runs upstairs to grab her father’s heart medication, a shot then “revealed” as a reflection in the bathroom cabinet. Zemeckis understood that CGI was about more than spectacle, and allowed for the visual bravura Orson Welles and Hitchcock brought to cinema via matte paintings, optical inserts and mirror work.
The hysteria that greets signs of extraterrestrial life cannot help but remind us of the varied reactions to the current pandemic. The film’s positive view of opposing beliefs could act as a roadmap out of these divisive times. The atheist Arroway finds herself both clashing and finding common ground with Christian philosopher Palmer Joss (Matthew McConaughey). A notion that currently resembles science fiction more than anything else in the movie. The climactic journey to another dimension lacks the surrealism of 2001: A Space Odyssey, but Contact remains dazzling mainstream sci-fi. Interstellar, starring McConaughey, looked most to Kubrick, but trace elements of Zemeckis can be found in Nolan’s trip to the stars.
Gattaca (25 years)
What’s the story: The near future. In a world of genetically engineered people, the natural born Vincent (Ethan Hawke) must live as the ‘superior’ Jerome (Jude Law) to achieve his dream of space travel.
A classic because… Gattaca predicted how important body modification would become in the 21st century, and how space exploration would move into the corporate sphere. The Gattaca corporation, Vincent’s employer, mines planets and moons in the solar system, a business strategy SpaceX is likely exploring.
In depicting the future, writer-director Andrew Niccol took the same approach Jean–Luc Godard did for Alphaville, finding existing, often old structures, and making them look alien. The reliance on film noir tropes (a murder-mystery, fedora and trench coat wearing G-men, omnipresent cigarettes) now looks more arch than at time of release, but the understated performances foreshadow M Night. Shyamalan and Christopher Nolan’s approach. Plus, Niccol offers a sympathetic spin on the machinations of the traditional femme fatale, played here by a perfectly cast Uma Thurman.
Those worrying Gattaca has an anti-science bias, fear not. Like Contact, there is wonder and excitement here at what the future could hold. Along with a clear-eyed view that governments and corporations need regulation on how they employ science to control people.
Grosse Pointe Blank (25 years)
What’s the story: Hitman Martin Blank (John Cusack) returns home to carry out a job, and reluctantly attend his high school’s ten year reunion. While in town, he attempts to reconnect with ex-girlfriend Debi (Minnie Driver), and avoid various assassins gunning for him, including Mr. Grocer (Dan Aykroyd).
A classic because… at a time when cinema was awash with pale imitations of Tarantino, this mined the postmodern-thriller for fresh gold. The story of a hitman having an early midlife crisis would not work without the canny script by Tom Jankiewicz, D.V. DeVincentis, Steve Pink, and John Cusack. Or George Armitage’s bouncy direction, which often gave the actors free reign just to see what would happen. And, crucially, Cusack’s performance, his delicate features and general likeableness luring the audience into engaging with what happens to the anxiety-ridden hitman. Mixing comedy-drama with romcom wit and genuine thriller elements (Blank’s school smackdown with Benny Urquidez’s killer is a standout scene) keeps this as fresh now as upon release.
Grosse Pointe Blank also avoids the mawkish solipsism that blights many male driven movies from previous decades. Much of the heavy-lifting in this regard is done by Minnie Driver as acerbic local DJ, Debi. Easily matching her ex-paramour in wit and wits, Debi is a standout character, and a reminder to watch more Minnie Driver movies. A soundtrack of 80s classics complements the nostalgia and regret, while Dan Aykroyd’s darkly comic performance promised a new career direction that sadly never materialised.
Con Air (25 years)
What’s the story: Parolee Cameron Poe (Nicolas Cage) is flying home on a prison plane when it is hijacked by hardened criminals led by Cyrus The Virus (John Malkovich). Poe is aided on the ground by U.S. marshal Larkin (John Cusack).
A classic because… Okay, bear with us. We know Con Air is hi-octane noise from producer Jerry Bruckheimer. Yes, it could only have been made in 1997, when we enjoyed watching Nicolas Cage play action-Jesus. We will even admit that on the evidence of Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, The Expendables 2, and Skyfire, director Simon West and blockbusters don’t always mix. Yet, Con Air is the OnePlus Ultra of 1990s Hollywood action cinema, indulging the irony-free ridiculousness of the age, while delivering a postmodern commentary that acts as the film’s own “Get Out of Jail Free” card.
Nicolas Cage may “save the fucking day” as he puts it, but Scott Rosenberg is the true hero. His script is a masterclass in escalating obstacles the hero must overcome, hurling a laugh-out-loud number of challenges at Cage’s bemused Poe. Rosenberg also provides the cast with plenty of one-liners to chew on amidst the pyrotechnics, alongside an obligatory post-Tarantino moral queasiness, e.g. Steve Buscemi’s serial killer Garland Greene is played for uneasy laughs and gets a redemption. Although Dave Chappelle’s appearance as convict ‘Pinball’ is equally likely to rile some modern audiences. Johns Malkovich and Cusack have little love for the film, and its dazzling bonkersness may be part-accidental, but Con Air is a delirious high.
About Schmidt (20 years)
What’s the story: Retired widower Warren Schmidt (Jack Nicholson) embarks upon a road trip to attend his daughter’s wedding.
A classic because… its power creeps up on you over two perfectly played hours, climaxing with an emotional uppercut that leaves you smiling through the waterworks. Loosely based on Louis Begley’s novel of the same name, About Schmidt follows a man in the late autumn of his life, wondering what it has all been for. Forgotten by his company moments after retiring, Schmidt is confronted with other body blow life events, before hitting the road for his “little girl’s” wedding. On a whim, he sponsors a Tanzanian child, the unseen Ndugu Umbo, who becomes the unwitting recipient of Schmidt’s life grumbles via ongoing letters.
Hope Davis is great as the daughter whose relationship with her dad is not as rosy as Schmidt would like, while Dermot Mulroney and Kathy Bates shine as the goofball groom and his hippy mum. But, this is Jack Nicholson’s film, and is his best forgotten performance. Director Alexander Payne chased the Hollywood legend, wooing him with intriguing lines such as, “I want you to play a small man.” Jack does his director proud, forgoing trademark OTT tics or flourishes and delivering a performance up there with One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
Adaptation (20 years)
What’s the story: Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Nicolas Cage) endures a psychological maelstrom trying to adapt The Orchid Thief, a non-fiction book by Susan Orlean (Meryl Streep). Meanwhile, Charlie’s brother Donald (Cage) is busy working on a trite sounding psychological thriller.
A classic because… it manages to be a film about filmmaking that is not of interest only to filmmakers. Despite being utterly, self-confessedly, and gleefully navel gazing. Unable to find a route into an adaptation of The Orchid Thief, a book about radical horticulturalist John Laroche and Seminole Native Americans being investigated for orchid poaching, the real-life Charlie Kaufman went meta, back when that was still a novelty. So Adaptation becomes about an adaptation, blending fact and fancy by casting Nicolas Cage as Kaufman (and his fictional brother Donald, who receives a co-writing credit), Meryl Streep as Orlean, and Chris Cooper as Laroche. Beginning as a quirky indie drama hellbent on avoiding trite Hollywood conventions, the film slides into the darker, (literally) swampier waters of neo-noir. Real life screenwriting guru Robert McKee appears, played with fiery fun by Brian Cox, and Kaufman’s Being John Malkovich collaborator Spike Jonze is on hand as director to make sense of it all.
Okay, maybe Adaptation is of more interest to film fans than casual viewers. But, for anyone who has tried to write that thinking-person’s blockbuster they just know dwells within them, it is a thrilling, hilarious experience. And makes you yearn for that time when the idea of Nicolas Cage playing twins was truly exciting.
Road To Perdition (20 years)
What’s the story: 1930s mob enforcer Mike Sullivan (Tom Hanks) is forced to go on the run with his son, Michael Jr. (Tyler Hoechlin), when they are marked for death after the lad witnesses an unauthorised gangland hit.
A classic because… like The Godfather, this takes pulp source material and treats it as Renaissance art. Max Allan Collins and Richard Piers Rayner’s graphic novel is a spirited, action-packed read, but director Sam Mendes and writer David Self delve deeper into the numerous father-son relationships, and the effects of violence on the young. Collins based his graphic novel on the Lone Wolf and Cub manga series, and Mendes likewise looked to Japan for inspiration: namely the muscular, taciturn, yet emotional films of Akira Kurosawa. A stellar cast was assembled to stand alongside Hanks and Hoechlin. Paul Newman gave his last live action big screen performance, playing the mob boss reluctantly ordering the hit on his loyal enforcer, and was Oscar nominated for his efforts. Daniel Craig plays against Bond-type as Newman’s reckless, livewire son. Jude Law is a creepy delight as a photojournalist gunman hunting Sullivans senior and junior, while Jennifer Jason Leigh, Stanley Tucci, and Ciarán Hinds are among the supporting players.
To bring the rich story and themes to life, Mendes and his team created one of the most beautiful looking films of the decade. Legendary cinematographer Conrad L. Hall, who died shortly after filming was complete, won a posthumous Oscar for the sumptuous, evocative visuals. But, the art direction, costuming, and score also never set a foot wrong. Many were surprised Mendes chose to follow his smash hit American Beauty with a gangster movie. Sam’s choice resulted in his best film to date.
Zodiac (15 years)
What’s the story: When a serial killer calling himself Zodiac begins murdering people in Northern California, it becomes an obsession for lead detective David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo), San Francisco Chronicle journalist Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.), and Chronicle cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal).
A classic because… Parasite director Bong Joon-ho says so, naming it one of the greatest films of all time in Sight and Sound’s 2012 poll. Bong should know about classic crime films, having directed 2003’s Memories Of Murder. Five years after delivering mainstream thrills with Panic Room, David Fincher returned for a far darker exploration of the human soul. In doing so he delivered a stunning examination of guilt, madness and obsession. Not within the killer, who is off screen for most of the film, and played by different actors when he is seen. Rather, those hunting the elusive psychopath, and are thwarted at each turn. Moving between the three main characters, Zodiac captures society’s fascination with serial murderers. Be it the need to bring them to justice, the desire to grab some of that headline grabbing fame, or just to know what makes them tick... no matter how high the price. Small wonder James Ellroy is also a fan.
Working from Robert Graysmith’s non-fiction book, Se7en director Fincher also brings his own trademark obsession: exacting detail in every aspect of production and performance. Zodiac immerses you in the analog world of 1970s America, but no matter how quaint the technology the character impulses remain all too recognisable. The depicted violence is shattering, but kept to a minimum, while Fincher recognises Donovan’s ‘Hurdy Gurdy Man’ is, quietly, one of the most terrifying songs ever written.
The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford (15 years)
What’s the story: Famed outlaw Jesse James (Brad Pitt) takes young admirer Robert Ford (Casey Affleck) under his wing. But, problems soon emerge.
A classic because… the whole nature of celebrity worship is captured in this film. An unintended meta touch is that the beloved Brad Pitt plays the popular outlaw James, while the, erm, “problematic” Casey Affleck portrays the despised Robert Ford. Both are excellent, Pitt conveying wry bemusement at the legend sprouting up around him, and Affleck shifting from awe to disillusionment to opportunism as his idol proves himself all too human.
Writer-director Andrew Dominik wrestled a four hour cut to a more manageable 160 minutes, Pitt backing him when Warner Brothers cried for something more commercial. What they got was a stunning meditation on obsession, friendship and betrayal. But, like Zodiac, this was largely overlooked during awards season, with No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood absorbing all the oxygen. Amidst a glittering supporting cast, including Jeremy Renner and Zooey Deschanel, Sam Rockwell is the standout as Ford’s dimmer but warmer brother, the tragic Charley.
Remember we said Road to Perdition was one of the noughties most beautiful films? This is a strong contender for most beautiful, Roger Deakins’ cinematography capturing the feel of old time photos and paintings, while Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’ score is the sound of an elegy. Andrew Dominik makes movies with Kubrickian irregularity, his last being 2012’s Killing Them Softly. Meaning we cannot wait for his Marilyn Monroe biopic Blonde, starring Ana de Armas as the doomed icon.
Dredd (10 years)
What’s the story: In a post-apocalyptic, over-populated America, Judges rule with an iron fist to maintain order. When Judge Dredd (Karl Urban) and the rookie Judge Anderson (Olivia Thirlby) are called to a huge tenement block to investigate a multiple homicide, they find themselves trapped and must fight to stay alive.
A classic because… it did the impossible and nailed a big screen Judge Dredd. Forget Sylvester Stallone’s 1995 effort, this is the Dredd fans were waiting for – but seemingly not wider audiences, the film underperforming to the point where sequels were off the table. Theories abound as to why Dredd failed. A trailer emerged barely a month before the film was released, and most screenings were in 3D, which put off many cinemagoers from paying extra to see it. A troubled production saw director Pete Travis allegedly locked out of the editing room and backing away from doing any publicity. Very, very strong reports abound that writer Alex Garland edited the film and may have even directed it. Curiously, Dredd’s basic premise shares similarities with Gareth Evans’ The Raid, which went on wide release earlier in 2012.
But, while a shame that sequels were kept to comic book tie-ins and Netflix never commissioned a series based on this film, we still have a perfect Judge Dredd action movie. Karl Urban is Dredd not only because he never takes off his helmet, but because he conveys Dredd’s controlled fury that anyone would consider breaking the law on his watch. Olivia Thirlby does 2000AD’s Anderson proud, and Lena Headey is memorably monstrous as drug-dealing crime boss Ma-Ma. The action, humour and punk splatter make this strictly adults only, but kids sneaking a look are likely to be hooked on sci-fi action cinema as a result. The greatest overlooked comic book adaptation of all time.
What are other overlooked or taken for granted movies you deem classics for the ages? Let us know below…
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