The Babadook (2014, Jennifer Kent) [hr]
Oppressively spooky Australian horror follows a single mom (Essie Davis) coping with a screeching and violent six year-old, her protracted grief from the death of her husband, and the unsolicited appearance of a grim Edward Gorey-style picture book on her kid’s shelf. Writer-director Kent expertly flaunts our fear of the unknown and makes resourceful use of jumpy sound design, beautiful compositions and art direction, and a general Repulsion-like atmosphere of palpable dread.
Babe (1995, Chris Noonan) [r]
Potentially adorable, beautifully shot fable about a farm pig discovering his hidden talents; though mostly a comedy, it comes equipped with some surprisingly dark messaging about social orders and ethical consumption… which is actually not the reason its maudlin, uneven tone nearly does it in. The delightful scenes involving Babe’s assimilation into his home, surrounded by strange new creatures brought to astounding life by Jim Henson’s Creature Shop and a busload of animal wranglers, are vastly more entertaining than those that either try to advance the rather trite, formulaic plot or fall back on easy sentimentality. The humans drag it down.
Babel (2006, Alejandro González Iñárritu)
Another overlong González Iñárritu festival of everything-is-(tenuously)-connected bleakness, this time with bonus chronological cheating. Vaguely, it’s an indictment of American exceptionalism: a random, stupid act of violence against a tourist inflicts far-reaching and grim consequences as far away as Japan, sort of. Relies heavily on ludicrous worst-case scenarios and much senseless behavior on the part of its thin characters. Three of the four stories are compelling if wholly unfinished, but all of the smash cuts and cross cutting in the world can’t give them the rhythm, purpose or completeness they seek.
Babes in Toyland (1934, Gus Meins & Charles R. Rogers) [c]
* My mom likes it.
Babette’s Feast (1987, Gabriel Axel) [r]
Secluded pair of sisters have their world thrown for a loop when their long-faithful servant comes into money and prepares an extraordinary dinner for a celebration of their father’s hundredth anniversary. Stuffy prestige cinema, but delightful in its manner.
The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer (1947, Irving Reis) [r]
Shirley Temple is brilliant as a teenager lusting after local layabout artiste-dreamboat Cary Grant, who delivers an inexplicable and somewhat endearingly surreal performance himself. Reis and writer Sidney Sheldon aren’t brave enough to let Temple’s lust be the subject of the film, so there’s a lot of meet-cute business with her sister, a judge played impeccably by Myrna Loy. We’re in condescending territory here, starting with the stupid title, but the film is still funny.
Bachelor Party (1984, Neal Israel) [NO]
* Any time I start going on about how much more interesting Tom Hanks was in the ’80s, just remind me of this and I’ll shut up.
Backbeat (1993, Iain Softley) [hr]
* Though it could be a masterpiece if it did more to debunk the romantic aspects of Stuart Sutcliffe’s legend, this film about the earliest days of the Beatles is gripping and fascinating.
Back to the Future (1985, Robert Zemeckis) [hr]
Capra-esque fantasy story tones down the hysteria and consumerism satire of prior Zemeckis/Gale projects without sacrificing their eye for detail and character. Their masterful script tracks a well-drawn everyman (beautifully played by Michael J. Fox) and his mysterious relationship with a crazed scientist who accidentally sends him to the 1950s, where he ruins his parents’ courtship. A brilliantly funny, sweet and sophisticated (sometimes in ways that may not have been apparent in 1985) night at the movies. Entire cast is remarkable, especially Crispin Glover and Lea Thompson. Whiz-bang special effects are largely confined to the last fifteen minutes. Only caveats: It has a very slow first act, and is now upstaged by its two endlessly amazing sequels.
Back to the Future Part II (1989, Robert Zemeckis) [A+]
This unexpectedly outstanding movie shares few of the central ideas of its predecessor, but does everything sequels ought to do and rarely bother with: It turns the conventions and expectations of the audience and of the prior film upside down. The dynamic duo of Fox and Lloyd shuttle off to the future, and that’s only the beginning. Zemeckis plays his cards with stunning expertise in what is certainly his most impressive achievement as a filmmaker; the ending is among the most delightful you’ll ever see.
Back to the Future Part III (1990, Robert Zemeckis) [A+]
Magical film toys with conventions of science fiction, westerns, comedy, and eventually romance, dismissing with genre and finally going for broke with genuinely touching characterization, and a bravura shootout finale. Hollywood perfection. Taken as a whole, the Back to the Future series ranks A+. Zemeckis’ last great film before he abandoned boldness for boredom.
The Bad and the Beautiful (1952, Vincente Minnelli) [r]
Breaking: Hollywood producers greedy, often poorly behaved and opportunistic. Despite the drabness, though, if you’re the sort of person who’s fascinated by old trade papers (and I’m not making fun, I am too), this movie will be a blast for you.
Bad Girl (1931, Frank Borzage) [A+]
Sad, funny slice of life about a working class couple in New York City — that’s really all there is to it, and that’s enough. One of the most moving Hollywood films of its period, with fully earned tears and pathos, and characters you will come to adore as though you knew them.
Badlands (1973, Terrence Malick) [A+]
Gut-wrenchingly beautiful film about a couple of kids on the lam has an edge over most others of its type thanks to lyrical dialogue and stunning photography. Malick’s emotional climax, the dance in the headlights, is a moment of cinematic perfection.
Bagdad Cafe (1987, Percy Adlon) [hr]
Low-key West German comedy about an isolated truck stop in the California desert has more feeling and compassion for its characters than almost any Hollywood film of our time, to a great enough extent that it won’t make you weep while it’s on but it probably will when the weight of its good-hearted humanism falls on you later.
Bambi (1942, David Hand) [A+]
Walt Disney’s revelatory, subtle, gloriously cinematic knockout is only disappointing in the sense that it was never properly followed up by the studio. The changing seasons counter the slow changes in life for a young deer. Rare charm and beauty place this on a higher plane.
Bananas (1971, Woody Allen) [A+]
To this day, it may be the foremost example of Allen’s supreme virtuosity. People can try all they want to tell you that it’s just a series of gags. Hell, they’re right. It’s a series of the most divine, rapid, perfectly constructed, uncontrollable, relentless, and undeniable gags in any American film. And he’s still right about dictatorships.
Barbara (2012, Christian Petzold) [r]
Low-key, low-dialogue period story of an East German doctor’s attempt to escape the country after she’s shunted into a ramshackle medical facility is visually sumptuous and enigmatic, with great location use and many beguiling moments. But it suffers from rote characterizations, and the story it’s telling just isn’t very unique despite its heartfelt center. Nina Hoss’ central performance is excellent, though, walking a fine line of cold professionalism and buried sentiment.
Barbarella (1968, Roger Vadim) [NO]
* Probably close to a real picture of the “swinging ’60s,” only full of dread and free of life and invention.
The Barefoot Contessa (1954, Joseph L. Mankiewicz) [hr]
In some ways Mankiewicz’s gorgeously photographed (by Jack Cardiff), cynical story of a Hollywood life derailed — that of the stunning Maria Vargas, played by a rattling Ava Gardner — is a retread of All About Eve with its dim view of showbiz and the romance within it intact, but it takes a much darker, sadder turn and stands up as one of the more soulful examples of the seen-it-all satirical studio pictures of this period. It’s fascinating to watch Humphrey Bogart take on the low-key role of a film director with a paternal instinct, demonstrating a range he seldom got to show off in his later years.
Barry Lyndon (1975, Stanley Kubrick) [A+]
Kubrick’s humanist epic more or less reprises the story of A Clockwork Orange, but takes it this time to Burgess’ conclusion — we will grow and wise up, but only after inflicting grave destruction on ourselves and others. Set in 18th century Europe, the film is rife with eye-popping, painterly visuals, but it’s breathtaking because of its shattering blend of deadpan humor and achingly felt crescendos. Perhaps not quite Kubrick’s best film — it’s hard to find your heart again after leaving it in the 2001 cosmos — but surely his most accomplished and emotionally devastating.
Bastards (2013, Claire Denis)
Seedy crime film partially inspired by the works of Michael Mann serves to prove two things: that Claire Denis is an incredible director, and that we don’t need any more seedy crime films partially inspired by the works of Michael Mann, even from incredible directors.
Batman (1966, Leslie Martinson) [hr]
Head and shoulders above any other Batman movie, this work of ingenious satire remains a stunning experience today, its silliness tempered only by its cynicism (culminating in an ending so perceptive and dark that critics must have intentionally ignored it to spare themselves the embarrassment of praising something called Batman: The Movie). There are so many brilliant jokes, so many unforgettable lines, that if I start talking about it I won’t stop.
Batman (1989, Tim Burton) [r]
A souffle of action/superhero power moves in high-octane form with the wild production design giving everything a demented Bauhaus sheen. Although it’s an often astonishingly superficial movie, this story of the hero’s battle with the Joker is fun for the most part, and certainly a treat to look at.
Batman and Robin (1997, Joel Schumacher) [NO]
* Schumacher’s nightmarish, campy cesspool is among the great cinematic crimes of our era. It has the camp of the ’60s series with no sense of irony and is so all-around incompetent one is hesitant to believe a major Hollywood studio funded it.
Batman Begins (2005, Christopher Nolan)
Nolan’s Batman is a fun improvement on Tim Burton’s and Joel Schumacher’s but it goes a bit farther overboard on taking itself seriously than any story of a guy in a bat suit deserves to, a tendency that would culminate with its dreary sequel The Dark Knight.
Batman Forever (1995, Joel Schumacher) [NO]
* The most straightforward Batman movie to date, and probably the most boring. Schumacher’s overly earnest treatment of the heroes and cartoonish vision of the villains makes for an unbalanced, tired, and unsatisfying movie, but it’s at least slightly better than Batman and Robin.
Batman Returns (1992, Tim Burton) [c]
Burton’s awful hodgepodge of comic book ethics, wretched and dated “comedy,” fake German expressionism, and a cynical sense of full-on dread makes this tough going for anybody, no matter how much they may love Burton or Batman. The material with Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman has at least some kitsch appeal, but Danny Devito’s Penguin is pointlessly nasty.
*batteries not included (1987, Matthew Robbins) [c]
* Cutesy-pie old people and robots story is at least a hell of a lot better than Cocoon and has the odd distinction of being cowritten by Brad Bird well ahead of The Simpsons and Family Dog.
Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973, J. Lee Thompson) [NO]
* How can anyone take a project with this title as seriously as these people obviously did?
Battleground (1949, William A. Wellman)
Meticulously realistic, dialogue-driven and unsentimental film of the 101st Airborne during the Battle of the Bulge will appeal only to those with a strong appreciation for the war genre, but is probably near the top of the line for its type, concentrating on taut tactical situations and relationships among the soldiers rather than big action scenes.
The Battle of Algiers (1966, Gillo Pontecorvo) [r]
Cinematically miraculous, hard-hitting narrative about the Algerian rebellion that feels uncannily like an act of risky photojournalism. To see it is to feel like you are not just witnessing but involved in the action. It’s a hard film to watch if you’re bothered by violent actions against innocent people, but it deserves credit for neither giving nor seeking easy answers. Because this is so political and of its time, with few traces of characterization, you can see its immense value without being actively moved.
Battle of the Bulge (1965, Ken Annakin) [c]
* Great cast in this slow-as-molasses war film that has more in common with the likes of Wings than the grittier battle-heavy epics of its own time.
Battleship Potemkin (1925, Sergei Eisenstein) [hr]
Unlike some film school staples, this still retains its power to enthrall, especially at its most iconic moments (is there a single scene in movie history more influential than Odessa?). It’s also weirdly erotic, which seems like a contradiction to its didactic origins. It can’t possibly retain all of its impact today but even if you just take it on board for its imagery and editing, it packs an undiluted wallop. A far more effective demonstration of the sheer power of cinema at its base level than Birth of a Nation.
The Beach Boys: An American Band (1985, Malcolm Leo)
A rather poor documentary about the great California band that’s almost completely lacking in depth, with some nightmarish staged interviews and some even scarier unstaged ones (Brian Wilson is interviewed from his bed). However, nearly all of the included performance footage is dynamite, so for fans at least, the film is essential.
The Beast of Yucca Flats (1961, Coleman Francis)
One of the masterpieces of bad cinema, Francis’ horrendous unseen-monster flick is full of strange voiceover philosophy (“Flag on the moon… how’d it get there?”) and grab-bag imagery. Simultaneously orgasmic and numbing, this is at least better than any bad movie made today.
Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012, Benh Zeitlin) [A+]
If it’s the duty of modern cinema to illuminate and humanize something beyond its audience’s experience, this ought to be a totem, rendering the squalor of southern Louisiana, post-Katrina, as something solemn, surreal, beautiful and dreamlike through the eyes of a child, brought to enchanting life by first-timer Quvenzhané Wallis. The director’s debut film, alarmingly enough, it nods as much to classic Hollywood crescendos as it does to the fearless independence of Malick and Wenders — the best combination of sentiment and eccentricity maybe since Dancer in the Dark — but there’s no question it’s an eye-popping, breathlessly original, achingly moving film.
Beatriz at Dinner (2017, Miguel Arteta) [r]
Salma Hayek completely embodies (down to the awkward haircut) the title character, an alt-medicine practitioner and masseuse whose general compassion and love of animals leads to uncomfortable conversations with a Trump-like tycoon and big game hunter played by John Lithgow, a consequence of her car breaking down outside a client’s house. Misleadingly billed as a comedy itself, this in fact is vastly more serious and melancholy than the earlier Miguel Arteta-Mike White collaborations. It’s not exactly profound, and it won’t brighten your evening, but it’s got soul.
A Beautiful Mind (2001, Ron Howard)
The life of mathematician and schizophrenic John Nash, filtered through Hollywood-colored glasses. If you can’t imagine how someone could make a story like Nash’s incredibly saccharine, please allow me to introduce you to Mr. Ron Howard. The lead performances of Russell Crowe and Jennifer Connelly are excellent, but Howard and screenwriter Akiva Goldsman are only interested in pushing every biopic platitude they can think of.
Beauty and the Beast (1946, Jean Cocteau) [hr]
A movie that grows more enrapturing in the mind than it could ever be on screen — looking back on it, you wonder how many of its scenes (the introductions of the castle, the flying, the particularly drunken wanderings of the characters) could really exist as tangible pieces of film; at times it’s among the most intoxicating of all narrative films, but it plays its fanciful cards sparingly. The indelible final shot is the most elegant possible rebuke to every advancement in visual effects technology made in the last seventy-odd years.
Beauty and the Beast (1991, Gary Trousdale & Kirk Wise) [r]
The most culturally beloved of the Katzenberg-era Disney Renaissance films primarily, one assumes, because it’s the slickest and most “adult,” very much in the vein of a Broadway musical, with a great atmosphere and charming songs. It’s not as moving or sweeping as you remember or want, but for the first two acts at least it’s more engaging than almost any other mainstream animated film of its era.
Beavis and Butt-Head Do America (1996, Mike Judge) [r]
Judge’s nogoodniks make an OK transition to the silver screen — the plotty stuff distracts from the sublime silliness. Like, I dunno, a Marx Brothers movie?
Becket (1964, Peter Glenville)
It’s impossible to know what to make of Peter O’Toole’s wildly bizarre, almost cartoonish performance as Henry II but one thing’s for sure: he renders Richard Burton’s somewhat bland interpretation of Thomas Becket as good as invisible. The first act of this slightly stagy but handsome production is oddly goofy, the rest leaden and serious (though clearly simplified from its historical context), the results in any case chilly and uninvolving despite good use of locations.
Bed and Board (1970, Francois Truffaut) [hr]
You don’t need to get married. You just need to watch this movie to learn all about the experience. Confident, hysterical Truffaut tomfoolery — the follow-up to Stolen Kisses — with a woefully acute understanding of human relationships, and the things that build and destroy them. Entirely warm and accessible.
Bed and Sofa (1927, Abram Room) [hr]
Remarkable Soviet comedy-drama about a working class couple in a cramped, dingy Moscow apartment who take in a friend and uneasily attempt maintaining a polyamorous household that’s thrown into disarray by an unwanted pregnancy. Subtlety and humor drawn from the three central performances is well matched to the sensitive, progressive screenplay, suggesting untapped depth in a film industry that would soon be repurposed strictly for propaganda. The three characters and their connection seem genuine, including the complicated affection between the two men, while the film delves sharply into the way women so often get roped into being mothers even to supposedly enlightened men.
Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971, Robert Stevenson) [hr]
* As a child, I actually preferred this to Mary Poppins, maybe because the concept of a flying bed is just that nifty. I’m not sure how it would play today but if it’s half as good as my memories of it, it’s a winner. Besides, it has Angela Lansbury.
Beethoven (1992, Brian Levant) [NO]
* John Hughes wrote this under a pseudonym. He didn’t even use a pseudonym for Baby’s Day Out.
Beetle Juice (1988, Tim Burton) [r]
* Though the title character played by Michael Keaton is rather irritating, this polite comedy is well-served by an enthusiastic cast, highlighted by Winona Ryder, Catherine O’Hara, and Sylvia Sidney. Only rings false at the end.
Before Midnight (2013, Richard Linklater) [r]
Baby, you are gonna miss that pain.
Before Sunrise (1995, Richard Linklater) [r]
You two will regret pouring your heart into this impossible situation in the morning, but maybe you shouldn’t.
Before Sunset (2004, Richard Linklater) [r]
As in the first film, Julie Delpy is wonderful, Ethan Hawke is there, some of the dialogue is cringe-inducing, and the whole thing has little to no cinematic quality. And this time around, the romance is less seductive, almost more obligatory in a sense; it’s about one-day lovers who meet again ten years later and that’s about what it feels like, tentative and awkward and nervous. But the ending, as ambiguous as that of Before Sunrise, saves it.
Beggars of Life (1928, William A. Wellman) [r]
Unusual late silent melodrama from Paramount throws a couple of young folks on the run into a sinister network of hobos. In one of her pre-Pabst appearances, Louise Brooks plays a girl who killed her pervy adoptive guardian after he repeatedly pawed at her; she meets and falls in love with a more seasoned drifter (Richard Arlen), but their freedom is short-lived when they run across headliner Wallace Beery as “Oklahoma Red,” leader of a gang that doesn’t necessarily like the idea of a wanted woman in their midst. Excellent photography and special effects.
Beginners (2010, Mike Mills) [r]
Achingly personal (autobiographical) story of a son coming to terms with the deaths of his parents and the new light cast on their marriage when his father comes out as gay late in life — contrasted with his own inability to sustain a relationship — will break your heart, though it’s pretty uneven. Christopher Plummer’s performance is luminous.
The Beguiled (2017, Sofia Coppola) [hr]
Bare, minimalistic narrative of a wounded soldier being protected by a group of Southern women and girls at a nearly deserted school in the waning days of the Civil War isn’t for all tastes, as none of Coppola’s films are; but its off-putting restraint, strange sensuality, lyrical beauty and nonchalant abruptness will find a kindred spirit in certain viewers, who will find it absorbing and weirdly hilarious.
Behind the Candelabra (2014, Steven Soderbergh) [hr]
Absorbing, complex character study of Liberace (Michael Douglas, towering) and his young “secretary” Scott (Matt Damon, subtle and brilliant) is more than just a black-comic depiction of obscene wealth; rather, it’s a moody exploration of how an unbalanced, dysfunctional relationship breaks down into resentment and numbness. Its depth might not be immediately apparent but it’s a fair bet that its pangs of loneliness will linger.
Being John Malkovich (1999, Spike Jonze) [hr]
Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman’s wonderful, haunting, sexy, head-spinning psycho-comedy is delightfully offbeat but just as delightfully touching and perceptive about the all-too-human desire to leave one’s own skin, couched in typically Kaufmanesque terms of a portal into the skull of the titular thespian. Even if this is clever in a way that finally grows overwhelming, it’s as obliquely fun as movies get.
Being There (1979, Hal Ashby) [A+]
Ashby’s best film manages to encompass both a deeply affecting character study and some wryly perceptive satire. Peter Sellers is Chance, a know-nothing sheltered gardener who becomes a Jesus figure named Chauncey Gardner and finds that everyone interprets him however the hell they want to; he is credited for changing lives without lifting a finger, without learning anything outside the sensibilities of his beloved TV set. Though it is perhaps largely a comment on theology (whether it’s an attack or not is up for debate), darker still is its complex perspective on the alienating effects of the media. A daring culmination of this fine director’s ’70s output, and one of Sellers’ finest hours.
Belle de Jour (1967, Luis Bunuel) [hr]
A warm, witty film about a woman whose unfulfillment in her marriage leads her to chase danger, danger which grows ever harder to manage until it seems to overtake her life and her mind… or does it? Mysterious, good-natured comedy with the ideal jab of surrealism.
Ben-Hur (1959, William Wyler) [r]
Overblown is putting it mildly, but this is a blast even if the performances and the story have nothing close to the appeal they should. Wyler lets the thing work in fits and starts but his infatuation with Charlton Heston’s bodily functions is as mystifying as his fixation on Gregory Peck’s eyes in Roman Holiday. Prepare to employ the fast forward button a few times, then dive in.
Benji (1974, Joe Camp) [r]
* Impeccably made kids’ thriller about a dog, some pudding, and some kidnapped children. This was one of Alfred Hitchcock’s favorite movies. It’s so satisfying you almost believe in its honesty for a little while.
Berberian Sound Studio (2012, Peter Strickland) [hr]
Ravishingly original film about a mild-mannered foley artist who normally works on staid, polite little documentaries being brought in to Italy as sound editor on a horrendously gory ’70s giallo picture — a commission that slowly drives him bonkers. Toby Jones is a hoot in this engaging, audacious curiosity.
Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (1927, Walter Ruttmann) [hr]
One of the best 1920s city symphonies and certainly the most exciting, particularly an opening train montage leading us into Berlin, which offers us a feeling of genuine propulsion. We get a long look at architecture, people, business, manufacturing, nightlife, and a more than mild sense of economic instability… but more than in most documentaries of this nature there’s a feeling of liberation and joy, that you are being shown every magical thing there is to experience within this city. The editing is immaculate, surreal and yes, symphonic.
Bernie (2011, Richard Linklater) [c]
What does Linklater want us to get from his vaguely condescending telling — with talking heads and crass deadpan — of a not-terribly-interesting small town Texas murder story? Are we supposed to just think it’s automatically funny because it involves churchgoing normals with funny mustaches? My definition of black comedy doesn’t incorporate mocking portrayals of dead women whose demises we’re supposed to see as ambiguously moral because, uh, they were “mean.” And what a waste it is to put the luminous master Shirley MacLaine on a screen with a couple of nincompoops like Jack Black and Matthew McConaughey.
Best Friends (1982, Norman Jewison) [NO]
* Unbearable Barry Levinson tripe about a couple who float between romantic and platonic involvement has no perspective whatsoever on the shades of gray in such relationships, maybe because it was written by people in one of them. A relic.
Best in Show (2000, Christopher Guest)
Guest’s followup to Waiting for Guffman has moments of true inspiration — Parker Posey is brilliant as a yuppie dog owner — but revolves around a subject so boring that even clever comedy can’t save it.
The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (1982, Colin Higgins) [NO]
* I’m still not sure I believe this is from 1982.
The Best Years of Our Lives (1946, William Wyler) [A+]
Lyrical, emotionally sweeping soaper about three men — a cocky young pilot, a resigned family man, and an engaged amputee – returning home after WWII to find their lives in various shambles. The film — in large part due to Gregg Toland’s shattering photography — is as visually rich as any from the ’40s and, thanks to its length, manages an impressive level of character involvement that will stick with the viewer. In a supporting role, Teresa Wright steals the movie. But everyone is great and if you’re not affected, start checking your pulse — we get so wrapped up in this it’s like the last eighty years didn’t even happen.
Better Off Dead (1985, Savage Steve Holland) [hr]
Holland shows a lot of potential in this wonderfully wild, cartoonish teen movie that’s one third John Hughes, two thirds Orson Welles. The surrealism and intelligence of the humor will be enhanced or undercut by the more dated aspects of the film, depending on your politics.
Beyond the Hills (2012, Cristian Mungiu) [r]
Subtle, visually sumptuous but overlong and troubling fictionalized dramatization of the Tanacu exorcism explores a formerly romantic relationship between two women — one now an Orthodox nun — that’s fractured by the dividing line between skepticism and deep, unquestioning faith, a disparity that finally has tragic consequences. Mungiu absorbs us in the enthrallingly vivid, crushingly limited world of the rural Romanian church to such an extent that each step outside of its bubble is uncomfortably and deliberately jarring.
Beyond the Lights (2014, Gina Prince-Bythewood) [r]
It doesn’t get much more old-fashioned than this Star Is Born-style, rapturously earnest saga of a suicidal R&B singer (Gugu Mbatha-Raw in a brilliant, galvanizing performance) ripped in half by her domineering stage mom and sensitive boyfriend, who appears to her at just the right time; it’s a drama steeped in modern pop but whose base elements could be anywhere anytime. The obvious big scenes and moments play out in the sequence you’d expect, but they’re given gusto thanks to the performances.
The Bible (1966, John Huston) [NO]
* Boy, that’s a modest title, isn’t it? Loud, annoying movie proves Michael Bay was not without precedent. WTF, Mr. Huston?
Bicycle Thieves (1948, Vittorio De Sica) [r]
Technically brilliant, beautifully performed, but distant and sometimes obvious classic Italian neorealist film is considered by some to be among the greatest in history. Even my film student friend who downplayed the importance of most classics adored it. I was sort of impressed but unmoved. Decide for yourself.
Big (1988, Penny Marshall) [hr]
Tom Hanks is at his absolute best as an adult child, literally; he is a boy whose wish to become a grown man is granted, leading to a series of outstanding comedic moments and sincerely moving points about the transition to adult life, its glories, pratfalls, nuances, and superficial disappointments.
Big Business (1988, Jim Abrahams) [NO]
* Irritating comedy vehicle for Bette Midler and Shelley Long doesn’t make any sense, has maybe one laugh for the duration.
The Big Country (1958, William Wyler) [r]
Epic, gorgeous-looking Cinemascope western has a whole lot of strange, ineffective casting: Gregory Peck is an outsider from the high seas too arrogant to let his girlfriend Carroll Baker know he can fight and ride horses; he buys land from schoolteacher Jean Simmons and finds himself caught in the middle of a hootin’ hollerin’ civil war between the two local patriarchs, Burl Ives and Charles Bickford; also Charlton Heston is around, for some unclear reason. Despite some salient class commentary, it’s very hard to stay involved in a film that ultimately pits two immensely unlikable men against one another and expects us to care who comes out on top.
Big Fish (2003, Tim Burton) [r]
Impeccably made, astonishingly sappy Burton distraction about the reconciliation of yarn-spinning father and yuppie son is simultaneously an affecting and maddening piece of work, its fantasy sequences well-rounded and strong, its mawkish tone nearly unforgivable. A surprisingly lazy film, considering all the imagination that clearly went into it.
The Big House (1930, George W. Hill) [hr]
The original prison picture — from MGM, of all places. Exciting, massive, scary, primal, with special credit to Frances Marion’s excellent script and Wallace Beery’s phenomenal performance as the tough guy Butch.
The Big Lebowski (1998, Joel Coen)
Jeff Bridges portrays a deadbeat stoner who’s mistaken for a rich man sharing his name, leading to much bumbling when he’s roped into a Raymond Chandler-like kidnapping case. None of this hangs together at all, though it’s occasionally very amusing for the first half before falling completely apart in an apparent bid for Blowup-esque sign o’ the times apathy. Beautifully filmed, annoyingly flippant, utterly facile, inexplicably popular.
The Big One (1998, Michael Moore) [c]
Extremely disappointing “documentary” has the promising conceit of following Moore on a tour of the country, but he is so pedantic and annoying that the film dies quickly. More modest, and therefore stronger, than his subsequent films, but just as condescending and ill-conceived. One wonders, as ever, what happened to the scrappily friendly and unpretentious narrator of Roger & Me.
The Big Parade (1925, King Vidor) [r]
MGM’s sentimental epic WWI melodrama — a flowery treatise on romance and camaraderie famous for its still-astounding battle scenes — suffers from a slow first act and brims with insincerity unworthy of Vidor. However, it boasts one of the greatest scenes in Hollywood silent cinema: through a flood of Americans moving into battle, the two lovers desperately try to find one another; when they do the way they hang on as long as they can communicates a pain in their separation so palpable it renders the film’s hoary conventions irrelevant.
The Big Short (2015, Adam McKay) [hr]
Adam McKay’s hyperkinetic, absurdist, celebrity-filled take on the financial crisis is, for all its energetic wit, an accurate reflection of the American culture of the era depicted. The ability displayed in the script to explain thorny and confusing concepts so clearly and quickly allows it to conquer the necessary roadblock to make this a slick, nearly unassailable true crime story, as gripping and risible as any chronicle of the white-collar hoodwink in print or on screen.
The Big Sleep (1946, Howard Hawks) [r]
Fun but incomprehensible Hawks/Chandler murder mystery coasts along via the presence of Bogart and Bacall. With other actors, it could very well be intolerable. Some of the finest dialogue about anal sex to be found in any classic Hollywood picture, though.
Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey (1991, Peter Hewitt) [r]
* A sequel that doesn’t really feel much like its predecessor; the comedy is wilder, funnier, and much more generalized. Rough going sometimes, but the highlights (in particular the godlike Seventh Seal parody) are worth it.
Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989, Stephen Herek) [r]
* Satire of ’80s teen culture sends two morons back in time for a history project. Sometimes funny but rather overbaked, with most of the good parts in the last half; Beethoven, Napoleon and Genghis Khan are amusing, but one wonders why they bothered with Joan of Arc and Abraham Lincoln.
Bingo (1991, Matthew Robbins) [NO]
* Makes Beethoven look like a suitable date movie. Don’t ask me why I’ve seen this, but it’s the kind of movie that was obviously crap even to my seven year-old self.
Birdman (2014, Alejandro González Iñárritu) [r]
Elaborately staged magical-realism comedy, shot by the great Emmanuel Lubezki to resemble one long take like Rope, about a washed up superhero actor (Michael Keaton as Michael Keaton) attempting to rejuvenate his own legitimacy with a Broadway show. Excessively clever and self-aware, with some very tin-eared dialogue, but it does have some genuine laughs and a couple of moments of winning lunacy, particularly Keaton’s dreamlike slog through Times Square clad only in briefs.
Birdman of Alcatraz (1962, John Frankenheimer) [hr]
Alcatraz movies are always fun; I don’t know why, but they are. This is probably the best of the lot, with excellent pacing and direction.
Bird on a Wire (1990, John Badham) [c]
* Failed comedy full of misplaced vitriol and hammy pseudo-relevance. A B-movie with enough money wrapped up in it to make us all wealthy.
The Birds (1963, Alfred Hitchcock) [A+]
Claustrophobic, visceral, bloody descent into supernatural horror is the stuff of genuine nightmares, and one of the few films in its genre that is truly cinematic. Evan Hunter’s exceptional script escapes some ill-considered dialogue early on to become enduring, fascinating stuff. Tippi Hedren and Rod Taylor are upstaged easily by supporting players Jessica Tandy and Suzanne Pleshette, but the characterization is first-rate all the way. The film contains perhaps the defining moment of Hitchcock’s career — a direct confrontation with the viewers: “I think you’re the cause of all this.” And we are.
The Birth of a Nation (1915, D.W. Griffith) [c]
Although it’s a must one-time viewing for anybody who wants a full awareness of Hollywood history, its content is rather hard to take. Those who can get around the film’s pure hatred and condescension and see the excitement and strength of its technique have far more distance and skill than I, and likely most modern viewers.
The Bishop’s Wife (1947, Henry Koster)
So Cary Grant is an angel who comes down from above to fuck around with a lady when her husband David Niven is too busy being a religious a-hole to pay attention to her. She goes skating with Grant and he abandons the finer things to get down and dirty and party on her pussy. Wait, we’re not allowed to do that, are we? Well, let’s just film the first half.
Biutiful (2010, Alejandro Gonzрlez Iñárritu) [c]
Misery porn claptrap from the king of the genre.
Black Beauty (1994, Caroline Thompson) [c]
Thompson is a fine screenwriter, and there are wonderful things in this movie, but its overall tone is so maudlin and cloying that whatever’s worth salvaging is tainted. “Oats… wonderful oats!” Yeah, yeah.
Blackboard Jungle (1955, Richard Brooks) [r]
Brooks’ Evan Hunter adaptation concerning a new teacher’s attempts to straighten out the troublemakers at an inner city high school invented all of the clichés in films of this type. As a result, it hasn’t aged very well, but its willingness to go all the way is something worth commending. Brooks’ much too earnest storytelling methods are not well-suited to this kind of material, but in over fifty years nobody’s figured that out yet, so I can’t blame him. This is a fine way to see the great Sidney Poitier in, unusually, a film with a script that isn’t too stupid and threadbare for his talents.
The Black Cat (1934, Edgar G. Ulmer) [r]
Staggering set design in this slick, strange, well-edited Universal horror film that pairs Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi for the first time; both are terrific here, particularly Lugosi as a revenge seeker tracking down a friend whom he believes stole away his wife and daughter during his time in prison. That’s Karloff, a creepy architect with a weird house and leader of a Satanic cult. It’s all a bit overstuffed but does maintain its eerie atmosphere well, defying the Code with some truly gruesome moments.
Blackfish (2013, Gabriela Cowperthwaite) [r]
Compelling, stark documentary about the plight of captive killer whales — one in particular, the legendarily dangerous Tilikum, star orca sire of sticky and terrible Orlando, Florida — isn’t very cinematic but certainly will give you second thoughts about your Sea World vacation.
The Black Hole (1979, Gary Nelson) [NO]
* This train wreck freakout is one of the most infamous in a long line of horrible ’70s live action flicks made by the Disney studio. It’s science fiction so engineered, so manufactured and homogenized that it will have virtually no appeal to anyone. That said, some of the special effects are good so watch a highlights reel.
Blackmail (1929, Alfred Hitchcock) [A+]
Splendidly evocative, ageless debut sound picture for Hitchcock is wildly ahead of its time. Story of raped woman enacting revenge, suffering for it is the foundation for an enormously suspenseful and elegantly minimalist movie, experimenting and excelling with sound, pacing, and intense character identification. The cast (especially Anny Ondra) is superb, the murder sequence and breakfast-table sound experiment the highest of film art.
Black Narcissus (1947, Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger) [A+]
Rumer Godden’s book about sexual mores invading the lives and minds of a group of nuns who set up a mission in the Himalayas is brought to screaming life by Powell and Pressburger. This film surprises and stings at every turn and is a real model of the possibilities of color, sound, and cinema itself — terrifying, erotic, and almost unbearably beautiful.
The Black Pirate (1926, Albert Parker) [r]
Douglas Fairbanks’ sheer charisma, agility and comic sensibility are all but ageless, such that it’s just fine this hackneyed two-strip Technicolor adventure story of a vengeful hero saving a princess from ruthless pirates is built around him and his outrageous, well-designed stunt sequences. The straightforward entertainment value of all this serves to prove that the popular films of the ’20s can sometimes translate as well to our time as the unquestioned artistic triumphs.
Black Sheep (1996, Penelope Spheeris) [NO]
* I really don’t think I ask for much.
Black Swan (2010, Darren Aronofsky) [r]
Dangers, desires, physical stress and coming of age in the guise of an elegantly creepy Red Shoes-derived story of a ballet dancer whose dual role in Swan Lake seems to be overtaking her entire life. Natalie Portman is terrific, the whole movie dark and outlandish without really advancing anything new in its story (or its sexual politics). There’s something deeply satisfying about a film this matter-of-fact about its own blunt oppressiveness.
Blade Runner (1982, Ridley Scott) [c]
The only thing worse than the paranoid, pseudo-intellectual Hollywood space movies of the ’50s is this kind of self-important, grim dystopian gruel.
The Blair Witch Project (1999, Daniel Myrick & Eduardo Sanchez) [hr]
The rare pop culture benchmark that is doubly interesting as an exceptional piece of moviemaking. Not only is it one of the few movies that can justifiably be called “scary,” it’s a revolutionary punch in the face of film conventions. The oodles of money this made are a testament to the fact that sheer ingenuity can occasionally sell movie tickets.
Blancanieves (2012, Pablo Berger) [r]
Imaginative revisionist silent retelling of Snow White is beautifully directed, with evocative visuals and editing, and an unusually accessible example of how nuanced, emotional and sophisticated storytelling can be without dialogue, though the story itself is ground so well-covered that it never becomes quite the sweeping, fresh modern fairy tale one hopes for. Maribel Verdu is great fun in the wicked-queen role.
Blazing Saddles (1974, Mel Brooks) [hr]
In part just a goofy and insane western, in part a passionate and angry outcry against hatred and racism. One can’t help but wish that there had been a way to go even farther with the social commentary, but the closing scenes are still a massive joy.
The Blind Side (2009, John Lee Hancock) [c]
Annoying family takes in football guy. Lots of football stuff. Bad writing. Half assed Americana. True story. I know nothing about this sort of thing but it all seemed pretty lazy and gross to me.
Blind Spot: Hitler’s Secretary (2003, Andre Heller & Osthmar Schmiderer) [hr]
A tiny, daring documentary that does little with its medium except force us to stay in our seats, which may be more than a little after all. The late Traudl Junge talks of her time with the Fuhrer and his consortium. To call the film “intense” does not begin to cover it; it covers more emotional ground than Schindler’s List or The Pianist. History lives, chillingly.
The Bling Ring (2013, Sofia Coppola) [hr]
I can’t get a license / to drive in my car / but I don’t really need it / if I’m a big star
Blonde Venus (1932, Josef von Sternberg) [hr]
In this festival of shadows and dread and sexual torment, Dietrich is a cabaret singer who marries and has a child with an American suitor of hers in Germany, who then falls ill, forcing her to find a way to scrounge up some extra cash. In time Dietrich and her husband (Herbert Marshall) will be at odds, with a surprisingly sympathetic politician played by Cary Grant coming between them, and that’s only the beginning; the story wanders down so many unexpected pathways you can either see it as schlocky or just unnervingly dark and realistic.
The Blood of a Poet (1932, Jean Cocteau) [hr]
Not dissimilar in intimacy and impact to L’Age d’Or, released by the same producer in the same year, but Cocteau — whose first feature this was — is a bit too much of a wordsmith, and too gregarious, to really fall down a rabbit hole of completely uncompromised, or confrontational, surrealism. Instead, this witty and unnerving work covers an artist’s ambivalent relationship with his own creation — ranging from lust to apprehension to disgust — and jumps off from there to a series of bizarre setpieces interrogating inspiration, art, poetry, youth, and cinema. It also has a relatively coherent message to impart, which is something many surrealists would probably rebuke, but it helps make the film feel human and clever while maintaining its darkened, disorienting edge.
Blowup (1966, Michelangelo Antonioni) [NO]
Horrendously dated So Bad It’s Art claptrap about a fashion photographer who (in the film’s one good scene) discovers that he has accidentally shot pictures of a murder in progress. I would tell you more, but there’s no more to tell. Antonioni’s film is enough to make you wish the very idea of avant garde cinema never existed.
The Blue Angel (1930, Josef von Sternberg) [r]
The oppressively bleak odyssey of a deeply insecure, lonely college professor (Emil Jannings, all but directly revising his role from The Last Laugh) who falls in love with a stripper and sees humiliation as his entire life is subsumed in the hell that results. As ever, Sternberg has an intoxicating feel for locations, and he makes the Blue Angel club feel like the seediest spot on earth just by lighting it correctly. Lurid and slow-moving, the film is superb as an introduction to Marlene Dietrich’s magnetism (she sings her signature, “Falling in Love Again”) but also dismaying in its weird moral conservatism.
Blue Hawaii (1961, Norman Taurog) [c]
* Typical Elvis Presley nonsense is a good frame of reference for those who need to be reminded of how relieving A Hard Day’s Night was.
Blue Is the Warmest Color (2013, Abdellatif Kechiche) [hr]
Heartbreaking, vivid, erotic coming of age chronicle based on Julie Maroh’s graphic novel, about a young woman (the astounding Adèle Exarchopoulos) on a grueling journey of self-discovery wrought in part by a particularly intense relationship with an older, more established artist (Léa Seydoux). Sad, moving, singular; a film that won’t leave you.
Blue Jasmine (2013, Woody Allen) [hr]
Even if you’re normally a fan, it’s kind of hard to believe that this deeply compassionate, fluid take on A Streetcar Named Desire is the work of Allen, who takes this material on with intense focus and a strong feel for character nuance. It serves overall as one of the best acting showcases Cate Blanchett has ever had as Jasmine, a once-rich woman brought down to earth after her husband is imprisoned — and is generally a thought-provoking portrait of our time (and the new economy).
The Blue Lagoon (1980, Randal Kleiser) [NO]
* Boy and girl are stranded on island, become Adam and Eve of sorts, in a film that’s pretty much an excuse for kinky love scenes and empty drive-in exploitation. Insulting, and too ugly and faintly horrible to be amusing.
Blue Ruin (2013, Jeremy Saulnier)
Middling, well-photographed exploration of a methodical revenge perpetuated by a vagrant that goes wildly awry in full literary-irony style. Gripping and mysterious at first but it all feels too familiar after a while, and the occasional extremely violent scenes are jarring and hard to take.
The Blues Brothers (1980, John Landis) [NO]
* Whitebread that disgraces all the things it’s meant to celebrate, and completely forgettable as a film to boot. The inaugural mistake in a decade of tired comedy.
Blue Sky (1994, Tony Richardson) [r]
Melodrama about an Army nuclear engineer (Tommy Lee Jones, stoic and brilliant) struggling with the very public promiscuity and mental illness of his bombshell wife (Jessica Lange, slightly over the top) is riveting for a time but goes completely off the rails when it suddenly loses its subtle thread of complicated, compromised domesticity and becomes concerned with the health consequences of nuclear testing and, uh, military cover ups. The film feels very tampered with and badly edited in the third act; maybe this has something to do with director Richardson dying just after he filmed it, or maybe with the studio going bankrupt and leaving it shelved for three years.
Blue Valentine (2010, Derek Cianfrance) [NO]
This sob story of an abusive romance falling apart resonated with a lot of people; for this viewer it was pure torture, seemingly flippant about the cruelty and emotional violence perpetrated by an angsty husband.
Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969, Paul Mazursky) [NO]
* This is the film equivalent of listening to Sonny & Cher records. Big copout that it indulges swinger fantasies then shames the audience for it, too.
The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990, Brian De Palma) [NO]
* Shamefully aloof attempt at black comedy, from Tom Wolfe’s celebrated book, makes one wonder where De Palma’s sure hand has gone.
Bonnie and Clyde (1967, Arthur Penn) [hr]
The lives and illegitimate careers of the bank-robbing title couple, recreated in this stylish, exciting crime drama that tackles a larger moral universe of emptiness and longing quite unforgettably. One of the few films that can be certifiably credited with Changing the Industry; lead actors (Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway) are fine but Gene Hackman and Estelle Parsons, as Clyde’s brother and sister-in-law, steal the film.
Bon Voyage, Charlie Brown (and Don’t Come Back!) (1980, Bill Melendez) [r]
* More of a “normal” animated feature than the other Peanuts flicks, this is still a fun film with some genuinely interesting setpieces revolving around the gang’s journey through France. Song interludes don’t work at all, but mostly this is bright and never condescending.
Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 (2000, Joe Berlinger) [NO]
Because the first film didn’t feel nearly enough like a watered-down Breakfast Club update.
Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (2006, Larry Charles) [r]
Borat is the funniest and most incisive character from Sacha Byron Cohen’s Da Ali G Show; this faux-documentary follows his adventures on a cultural tour of America, with many hilarious moments and a number of discomforting ones. The stretch to feature length is far from painless, and several sequences take the easy way out by substituting mean-spirited idiocy for mischief and insight, but if you’re breathing, you’ll have some fun with this.
Born on the Fourth of July (1989, Oliver Stone)
Stone’s not the guy I’d pick to dramatize any important historical moment, but the life story of Ron Kovic (improbably portrayed by a game and dead-eyed Tom Cruise, even in the teenage scenes) grapples more pointedly with the futile essence of America’s involvement in Vietnam than any other, and at its best this is riveting, at worst just glossy and sugared.
Born Yesterday (1950, George Cukor) [r]
Filmed version of the Garson Kanin play about the political awakening of a crooked lobbyist’s (Broderick Crawford) naive wife (Judy Holliday), prompted by sexy bespectacled journalist William Holden, overcomes its staginess in the performances — Holliday’s and Crawford’s, at least — but not George Cukor’s pedestrian direction. Holliday gives a singular, complex performance, though the purely comic scene that has her annoying Crawford during a card game is easily the highlight.
Bottle Rocket (1996, Wes Anderson) [hr]
Very, very low-key film takes more than one viewing to really sink in and has little in common with Anderson’s later films, but this humanistic, touching comedy about a group of bungling crooks is also unusually adventurous and emotionally complex. The very strong, observant script by Anderson and Owen Wilson has numerous wonderful lines and moments that come back to the viewer again and again.
Boudu Saved from Drowning (1932, Jean Renoir)
Another of Renoir’s mischievous attacks on class structure, with Michel Simon forecasting his free-spirit role in L’Atalante as a bum who gets taken in by a well-to-do bourgeois family who discover the limits of their own charity; the title character is often cited as the first cinematic treatment of a hippie, although my understanding is that committing rapes and spitting in books aren’t necessarily defining characteristics of peace-loving types. Despite its visual loveliness this is everything The Rules of the Game isn’t — didactic, unfunny and dull, belaboring its amusing but thin premise well past the point of tolerance.
The Bourne Identity (2002, Doug Liman) [c]
Inoffensive but midnumbingly boring American action film about an amnesiac spy. The premise of Robert Ludlum’s novel is engaging and Matt Damon is ideal in the lead role, a clever reversal of Roger Thornhill in North by Northwest — he isn’t an everyman, but he becomes one. But if, like me, you would rather stay awake in a movie than admire ideas in it, I suggest you look elsewhere. All diluted Hitchcock and Ian Fleming, lazily visualized, with no guts.
The Bourne Supremacy (2004, Paul Greengrass) [r]
John Buchan begat North by Northwest begat James Bond begat Robert Ludlum, but this is better than any Bond film, and is in fact the best time I can remember having watching an American action movie that did not involve archaeologists. This is 108 blissful minutes of the most balletic, relentless editing and handheld camerawork possible without sensory overload, but oddly enough it actually has more character, emotion, and intrigue than the cluelessly bland first film in the series. Terrific fun, even the parts it rather blatantly cribs from Torn Curtain and The Silence of the Lambs.
The Bourne Ultimatum (2007, Paul Greengrass) [r]
Despite exciting action sequences and long-awaited plot resolutions, the third film in the series isn’t much that you haven’t already seen. It works best toward the beginning during an interesting bit of business about a Guardian reporter, really stretches credibility with badly edited chase sequences later on. Overall, very entertaining, but anything past this is entirely unnecessary.
Bowling for Columbine (2002, Michael Moore) [c]
Moore swings around in the dark for a target in this aimless documentary about America and violence and the NRA. It’s occasionally interesting, sometimes even funny, but almost entirely pointless. What’s more disturbing is how openly manipulative Moore is, if not in terms of twisting the facts (and some say he does) then certainly in his treatment of his subjects. The film’s worst tendencies culminate in a closing interview with Charlton Heston, which amounts to a senile and stupid old man getting bugged needlessly by a smugly pandering “comedian.” I hate the NRA too, but there’s something suspicious about any documentary in which the director cries onscreen.
Boyhood (2014, Richard Linklater) [hr]
Putting childhood and growth the way they feel and live in memory on a movie screen is no mean feat whether you spend twelve years capturing it or not. Doing so this sensitively, with only a few missteps, takes some mastery — it’s a long way from School of Rock, and quite wonderful.
A Boy Named Charlie Brown (1969, Bill Melendez) [hr]
Lavish, startling animated feature debut for the Peanuts gang, with an exceptional script by Charles Schulz and wonderful Vince Guaraldi music. Episodic film is full of classic moments ranging from light slapstick to Bergmanesque emotion, never once talking down to the audience or somehow separating the children from the adults.
Boys Don’t Cry (1999, Kimberly Peirce) [hr]
This tragedy of Brandon Teena, a trans man from Lincoln, NE who suffered a violent death after drifting into what seemed an accepting group of friends, has the radical distinction of being a filmed version of a true story that humanizes all of its characters, thanks in part to incredible performances by Hilary Swank and Chloe Sevigny and in part to Peirce, for whom Brandon’s story is the catalyst for an undiluted glimpse at the promise of youth, the urgency of young love and the compulsive need to belong.
The Boys from Brazil (1978, Franklin J. Schaffner) [hr]
Schaffner’s over-the-top, marvelously infantile film of Ira Levin’s even crazier book about a bunch of Hitler clones grows better with each viewing, thanks to a massively pleasing sense of fun and a perfect cast. Gregory Peck is so much more believable as a diabolical villain than as Atticus Finch, Laurence Olivier so much more appealing as geriatric Nazi hunter than as the Prince of Denmark.
Boys Town (1938, Norman Taurog)
Syrupy, uninspired based-on-a-true-story MGM social problem picture escapes the proto-Going My Way doldrums strictly thanks to Spencer Tracy and Mickey Rooney’s gently emotional, compassionate performances — and Taurog’s surprisingly confident, agile direction. The film changes tone and direction too many times to really pursue any of its various utilities to completion, falling back on easy sentiment that its gritty background doesn’t warrant.
The Boy with Green Hair (1948, Joseph Losey) [NO]
* Strangely off-putting Disney boredom is knocked out by hamhanded performances and poor writing.
Brain Candy (1996, Kelly Makin) [A+]
The first (and to date, only) film by the Kids in the Hall is about a doctor who devises a drug to completely cure depression, causing total societal — and, crucially, commercial — revolution. Radically subtle but still engagingly nutty black comedy is among the most beautifully-executed works of satire to hit American screens. Too intelligent and incisive for widespread theatrical success, it was almost doomed to fail initially, but don’t miss it. It says more about people and life in America than nearly any Oscar winner.
Brave (2012, Mark Andrews & Brenda Chapman) [r]
Pixar fantasy involving a princess, a witch, a crow, transmogrified bears has moments of transcendence but was all too clearly yanked from its original director’s hands, with the result that the emotional points it ends up trying to score feel unearned, like the result of one too many studio-bigwig script meetings. Julie Fowlis’ songs are awful, but Randy Newman’s in Toy Story weren’t really that good either.
Braveheart (1995, Mel Gibson) [NO]
Hilariously bad Oscar winner contains bonus homophobia (although the director does find time to show his bare ass, continuing Kevin Costner’s illustrious tradition) and a Very Moving James Horner store. For bad movie night only; otherwise avoid at all costs. Teenage boys, however, will be interested to know that the film contains roughly ten seconds of female nudity. Set the Tivo!
The Brave One (1956, Irving Rapper) [r]
Cornball kid stuff about a boy’s bond with a fighting bull he rescues is inoffensive enough, and worth seeing for Jack Cardiff’s (unsurprisingly) gorgeous widescreen photography of the Mexican locations. Excellent performance by young Michel Ray.
Brazil (1985, Terry Gilliam) [A+]
Extremely dark science fiction in the tradition of Metropolis, fused as if in some alternate universe with the work of Douglas Adams. Jonathan Pryce is fabulous as a cog in a bureaucracy that has doomed a man’s life, in a convoluted series of events culminating in his sighting of (literally) the woman of his dreams. The film’s sense of wonder, cynicism, and the crumbling of its own wide-eyed convictions all create utterly commendable cinema that is wholly alive and prescient. A celebration of ugliness.
Breach (2007, Billy Ray) [hr]
As great as Shattered Glass was, Ray’s follow-up is better than anyone could possibly have expected. The story of FBI mole Robert Hanssen, a two-decade veteran selling secrets to the Soviets and Russians for much of his career, is illuminating and humanely told… and flawlessly acted, with Chris Cooper unforgettable in the lead. A remarkable real-life thriller with excruciating suspense and dark insight, not to be missed.
Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961, Blake Edwards) [r]
Edwards’ somewhat aloof, confused romantic comedy has a wonderful emotional center in the form of Audrey Hepburn and some exquisite scenes and visual invention, but the story is poorly mounted, the characters (George Peppard’s in particular) lack resonance, and the whole movie never seems to get started or finished. A lovely and highly watchable misfire. Let’s not talk about Mickey Rooney.
The Breakfast Club (1985, John Hughes) [r]
Hughes’ ultimate copout is a fun, well-written movie that is nevertheless agonizing. A teen movie that is openly stupid, like Porky’s or Hughes’ own Weird Science, is one thing. A teen movie that walks on the front porch of the complex, anti-conformity beauty of Rebel Without a Cause, knocks on the door, and runs away from considering the problems it presents is somehow a good deal more of a cheat. At the end of The Breakfast Club, nothing has changed, which makes the revelations — ranging from haunting and observant to outright laughable but at least honest — of the prior hour and a half all but moot.
Breaking Away (1979, Peter Yates)
Kiddie racing flick is primarily worthwhile because of excellent location work — shot very resourcefully in Bloomington. The script lurches violently between a calm naturalism and the unbearably goofball sequences with Paul Dooley as Dave’s macho red-blooded gay-panic father. Like Chariots of Fire, this film’s unflashy modesty probably works well if you’re interested in sports films.
Breaking the Waves (1996, Lars von Trier) [r]
Von Trier’s epic about a woman who has affairs in the belief that it will improve the condition of her hospitalized husband begins beautifully, presses on well enough, but is far too long and falls apart at the excruciatingly sentimental ending. A provocative story is anchored amazingly well by the incredible Emily Watson.
Breathless (1959, Jean-Luc Godard) [hr]
Godard’s debut and an early New Wave monument (cowritten by Francois Truffaut) is a romanticized macho story of a youthful crook — who’s just stolen a car and killed a cop — and the American woman he loves. Iconic, funny, ruthless.
Brewster’s Millions (1985, Walter Hill) [c]
* Fun to see Richard Pryor and John Candy together. I guess.
Brick (2006, Rian Johnson) [hr]
Superbly gripping, fast-paced, funny, and haunting film noir set in a high school is more than Bugsy Malone with teenagers. It is indescribably good, with Hammett parlance flying at the viewer too fast to savor but every detail branding itself on the brain anyway. Beautifully filmed like an Old West dream, and strangely in its heightened surrealism capturing something honest and truthful about high school and adolescence. In this sense, a perfect companion to Keith Gordon’s The Chocolate War; both films were, amazingly enough, feature debuts for their directors. The scene in which a drug kingpin’s mother serves apple juice in a container shaped like a rooster is the type of moment when one remembers how completely wonderful the movies can be.
Bride of Frankenstein (1935, James Whale) [hr]
A rare horror film that has it all, this easily surpasses the original. Innumerable classic scenes packed into less than eighty minutes of film. Playful and unforgettable.
Bridesmaids (2011, Paul Feig) [r]
Raunchy comedy about the strain between bride-to-be (Maya Rudolph) and her maid of honor (cowriter Kristen Wiig) isn’t much different from other Judd Apatow productions except that it’s written (and performed, almost exclusively) by women — and is funnier than his usual fare, despite its underdeveloped story. Meanwhile, Paul Feig would probably like you to believe this extremely likable film is his directorial debut.
Bridge of Spies (2015, Steven Spielberg) [r]
The fascinating story of U.S.S.R. spy Rudolf Abel — about a Cold War-era exchange of prisoners for which the CIA recruited a civilian negotiator — told almost seamlessly by one of the best purveyors of tension we’ve ever had, though it also plays to some of Spielberg’s tendencies toward pandering. Repeatedly casting Tom Hanks, playing in this case the lawyer James B. Donovan, as the world’s most morally upstanding human being has induced the laziest sort of Star System overfamiliarity at this point.
The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957, David Lean) [hr]
Sprawling story of British soldiers led by Alec Guinness and held captive by the Japanese, forced to build a bridge that quickly becomes a test of their morality and will. The thrills are infectious, the action and genuine sense of journey awe-inspiring, the actors are great, and the final explosion is to die for, even if it’s all a bit heartless in that peculiar David Lean fashion.
A Bridge Too Far (1977, Richard Attenborough) [c]
* Respectable but narratively distant war flick fails the first test of cinematic art: the audience is not part of it.
Brief Encounter (1945, David Lean) [r]
More emotionally bracing than any of Lean’s later films and just as pretty, this documents a housewife’s unexpected tryst with a doctor she happens to meet with keen observational power, helped tremendously by Celia Johnston’s stunning performance. But the characterization of her paramour (Trevor Howard) is wafer-thin, and Noel Coward’s script suffers from his usual priggishness about class, seemingly casting the storm in his heroine’s heart as some sort of morally reprehensible thing, love as “violence” and all that, and heavily implying that the cozy boredom of her day-to-day life is the right and proper thing.
A Brief History of Time (1992, Errol Morris) [hr]
* Not actually based on the classic Stephen Hawking tome of that title, but a chronicle of Hawking’s life and handicap. Odd territory for Morris, but an immaculate documentary.
Bright Lights, Big City (1988, James Bridges)
* Michael J. Fox is the only real reason to watch this effectively moody drug movie.
Brimstone & Treacle (1982, Richard Loncraine) [hr]
Disturbing psychological thriller about a stalkerish boarder sharing a home with an unsuspecting family rife with damaging secrets features excellent turns by Sting and Denholm Elliott, an oppressive atmosphere that will make it difficult viewing for some, sheer joy for others. Many jolts throughout in a genuinely unusual movie.
Bringing Up Baby (1938, Howard Hawks) [A+]
Wild chronicle of Katharine Hepburn hounding and chasing the man she wants (Cary Grant), landing him in a variety of bizarre situations involving leopards and dinosaurs, among other things. Now as in 1938, this film goes everywhere you don’t expect. It’s as alive as any of us.
Bring on the Night (1985, Michael Apted) [r]
* Sting’s post-Police music is hammy and overbearing, but even if you hate it, Apted’s documentary about the preparation for his first solo tour is excellent viewing, with plenty of insight into the business and a gripping story thrust.
Broadcast News (1987, James L. Brooks) [A+]
There is not nearly enough space here for me to adequately communicate my feelings about this believable, uncompromising comedy-drama of interpersonal conflict in the news department of a TV network. The film’s urgent richness of texture is unmatched. Holly Hunter, Albert Brooks and William Hurt are beyond wonderful, all playing fully realized three-dimensional characters. Also contains perhaps the most honest ending of any Hollywood feature.
Broadway Danny Rose (1984, Woody Allen) [r]
One of Woody’s weakest films, but it sticks with you; wonderfully engaging story of an enterprising agent is best remembered as a showcase for Mia Farrow (in her best role, ever) and Nick Apollo Forte. I at least enjoyed this more than The Godfather and Raging Bull, both of which have story elements that repeat here.
The Broadway Melody (1929, Harry Beaumont)
This Oscar winner was one of the first Hollywood musicals and marks the birth of both the musical as a significant genre and the Freed unit at MGM that would produce many of said genre’s brightest lights. It’s not nearly as bad as its reputation suggests, though it’s still pretty creaky, not so much because it’s dated (don’t all musicals take place in a quaintly heightened reality?) as because it was such an early experiment in synchronized picture and music that the pacing and presentation are awkward and uncertain. Historically, that makes it all the more interesting, though the central love story would be ridiculous in any context.
Brokeback Mountain (2005, Ang Lee) [hr]
Deeply affecting love story about two cowboys who fall for one another during the ’60s and how their lives intertwine, romantically and tragically, for the next couple of decades. A cry of tremendous pain and sorrow, beautifully filmed through a romantic haze, with truly magnetic performances — especially by Heath Ledger. Very much of its time, but this doesn’t detract.
Broken Blossoms (1919, D.W. Griffith) [r]
Griffith gets a chance to show genuine lyricism as he tells the atypically progressive story of a chance romantic encounter between Lillian Gish’s usual fragile waif and an opium-addled but kind Chinese immigrant portrayed in yellowface by Richard Barthelmess. Like much of Griffith’s work the story is full of hasty bold strokes, but there are some poetic moments and impressive shots, and Gish is of course excellent; the film is a slick enough affair that it’s hard to believe it dates from prior to 1920.
Broken Lance (1954, Edward Dmytryk)
There have to be more interesting things you can do with these glorious Technicolor / Cinemascope vistas than remake the Mankiewicz family-strife melodrama House of Strangers as a western, but welcome to Fox, land of the prettiest tedium in the studio system. Good performances by Spencer Tracy and Katy Jurado, ludicrous climax.
Brooklyn (2015, John Crowley) [hr]
Adapted from Colm Tóibín’s novel by Nick Hornby, of all people, this is a disarmingly sweet, touching dramedy in which Irish homebody Ellis (Saoirse Ronan), feeling malaise with her job and life, finds acceptance and love during a working holiday as a boarder in NYC in the early 1950s. Apart from its slightly probing exploration of what it means to form your own life away from family, this is light as a feather and might be totally innocuous if not for the sustained brilliance of Ronan’s performance, which is magnetic and takes this from polite literary prestige into the realm of tough, moving human reality.
The Brothers Grimm (2005, Terry Gilliam) [c]
Gilliam’s heartbreakingly bad, distressingly misguided reinterpretation of the Grimm stories begins with a wonderful concept and destroys its potential. Matt Damon and Heath Ledger are ridiculous, as is the script, as are the special effects, and the film is ultimately numbing. One can almost see the handprints of the two studios on the film stock, but maybe that’s just wishful thinking since it would exonerate Gilliam from being blamed for this disgusting mess.
B.S. I Love You (1971, Steven Hillard Stern) [NO]
Laughable attempt at duplicating the power of The Graduate replaces insecure twentysomething with dirty, scrawny womanizer; replaces emotion with obscure pop music, over and over and over again. Certainly a curio, and undeniably a snapshot of a pop culture period (but not by any means a genuine one; this is a major studio’s three-years-late interpretation of hippiedom). Worth seeing for an unintended laugh, but still terrible.
Bucking Broadway (1917, John Ford) [hr]
Many of the things that make Ford such a fascinating director are already in place in this early feature, a comedy-western about a broken engagement. It’s stirringly beautiful; the depth of the compositions renders it hard to notice the generally stationary camera. Ford lets his actors underplay and makes their emotions palpable through eyes and movements rather than trite title cards. It culminates in a poor climax exemplifying one of Ford’s less savory tendencies, of substituting violence for humor, but up to then this is mighty impressive.
The Bugs Bunny/Road Runner Movie (1979, Chuck Jones) [r]
* A lot of wonderful Warner Bros. shorts are thinly attached as a film using some rather awful new footage of Bugs going on about “chases.” Largely useless today.
Bugs Bunny’s 3rd Movie: 1001 Rabbit Tales (1982, David Detiege, Art Davis) [r]
* Package feature has good cartoons, OK linking material.
Bugs Bunny Superstar (1975, Larry Jackson) [hr]
Narrated by Orson Welles, this combination documentary/cartoon collection is a delightful introduction to and overview of the Warner Bros. animation studio.
a bug’s life (1998, John Lasseter) [hr]
Majestic CGI remake of Seven Samurai with a twist — bugs hired to protect a colony of ants from some grasshoppers are not warriors at all, they’re circus freaks masquerading as warriors — is a brilliant piece of moviemaking, playing admirably with its cinematic possibilities. Lasseter’s second film is as big an improvement on Toy Story as that film was on the early Pixar shorts.
Bugsy Malone (1976, Alan Parker) [c]
* Kids do Bugsy. I don’t get it either.
Bullets Over Broadway (1994, Woody Allen) [A+]
Allen himself is filled in by John Cusack in this divine twist on a morality play that puts the self-questioning themes of Crimes and Misdemeanors into practice by throwing us into the deep end of a more complex story of mob involvement in a playwright’s big moment. Superb ensemble work, and boasts an undeniably prescient message about the question of art versus life.
Bulworth (1998, Warren Beatty) [r]
Beatty’s parable about the inherent problems of the two-party system, wherein the title politician goes for broke on truth-telling after hiring a hitman to assassinate him in the near future, is an agreeable liberal screed despite uncomfortably weird sequences about him rapping and cavorting around with Halle Berry.
Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell (1969, Melvin Frank) [r]
Mrs. Campbell has been getting child support from various men she banged during the war… and now they’re all coming to see her at once. A lovely movie with engaging supporting performances, but it’s much too long.
Bushwhacked (1995, Greg Beeman) [NO]
* I was sitting behind an old lady in the theater who laughed a lot more than I did.
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969, George Roy Hill)
I’ve seen cooking shows that were livelier (and never once have they used Newman’s Own).
BUtterfield 8 (1960, Daniel Mann)
A few weeks in a the decadent, “promiscuous” (in 1960 parlance) lives of a fashion model and her married lover; this boasts three-dimensional characters, and the lead performance by Elizabeth Taylor is brilliant and believable, as is (surprisingly) Eddie Fisher in a supporting part as a lifelong platonic friend of hers, but it’s hard to align oneself with a redemption narrative when the protagonist has clearly done nothing wrong. This might be forgivable if not for Laurence Harvey’s terrible (or at least severely miscast) turn as the on-again off-again source of sexual satisfaction, and a tawdry, pointless finale that renders the entire film basically pointless.
Butterflies Are Free (1972, Milton Katselas)
A thin, dated dramedy about a young blind man (doe-eyed Edward Albert) hooking up with his free-spirited neighbor to his overprotective mom’s chagrin, this adaptation of a single-set play is redeemed slightly by Goldie Hawn’s easy naturalism as an actress, stuck playing one of the most blatant wish-fulfillment proto-MPDG characters in film history and spending much of the runtime in her underwear, but still perfectly credible in the part. Academy Award winner Eileen Heckart is freakishly believable as a meddling parent, but her hard work is let down by the crude, facile screenplay.