Sabotage (1936, Alfred Hitchcock) [A+]
You must see this movie. In pre-WWII London, a terrorist/spy posing as a movie theater owner is worried he’s being watched; matters are complicated by his wife and her young brother, ignorant of his actual trade. It’s been argued that Hitchcock’s work became darker over time, through to the abyss of Marnie and Frenzy (and possibly Vertigo), but I’d argue that he was never bleaker than this; it’s as harshly disturbing as any movie of its era.
Saboteur (1942, Alfred Hitchcock) [hr]
A man goes on the run after getting the blame for a deadly act of sabotage. It’s sort of the diluted 39 Steps, with shades of war propaganda, but big cheers for the sense of journey, the very American populism, and the use of WWII as a background. Great, weird characters, a fine script, and a wonderful climax atop the Statue of Liberty.
Sabrina (1954, Billy Wilder) [r]
Humphrey Bogart is what makes this film work, playing a cold, isolated aristocrat who courts Audrey Hepburn strictly for business reasons. A wonderful setup unfortunately cops time and time again to the obvious; though occasionally amusing, the film is much too long.
The Saddest Music in the World (2003, Guy Maddin) [c]
A contest to find the country that can make the titular claim is documented with much out-of-sync talk and frenetically edited, deliberately damaged black & white film. Maddin’s stylistic conceits will either warm your heart or drive you nuts; unfortunately, despite evidently sharing his love of awkward, hazy early sound films, I felt like I was watching one of those crime reenactments on America’s Most Wanted, if Garrison Keillor hosted that. The story is not merely an idea stretched far past its ideal expiration but an in-joke that seems most likely funny only to Maddin himself.
A Safe Place (1971, Henry Jaglom) [NO]
Bland, empty abstraction is a struggle to watch; ostensibly it’s just dated avant garde but in fact it’s talk talk talk to the exclusion of almost everything else. The actors, including Tuesday Weld, Jack Nicholson and Orson Welles (kind enough to distract us periodically with magic tricks), give it a lot more gusto than it deserves but this feels like the sort of thing we wrote in creative writing class when we were 17 thinking it was deep and insightful.
Safety Last! (1923, Fred C. Newmeyer & Sam Taylor) [hr]
Harold Lloyd is a salesman faking success for the benefit of his girlfriend, and he’s got to bend over backwards to maintain the image when she visits him. A thrill and a delight; a series of gags and stunts adding up to one of the most fluid filmed comedies, silent or otherwise. Lloyd’s understated performance is both relatably clueless and impressively physical, but the indescribable feats of timing and chutzpah that constitute the filmmaking itself — setups, blocking, movement — are the real story.
Saludos Amigos (1942, various directors)
The first of an excruciating six package films from Disney to deal with budget compromises during World War II doesn’t wear well. The result of a Good Neighbor Policy trip to Latin America, the film strings silent documentary footage together with four awkwardly inserted cartoons; it’s all too obvious they were originally intended for separate release but weren’t up to the standard quality of even 1942-vintage Disney shorts.
The Sandlot (1993, David Mickey Evans) [c]
* Typical coming-of-age comedy with no respect for its young audience, this is what Stand by Me might have been like with Chris Columbus behind the camera.
The Sand Pebbles (1966, Robert Wise)
Psychologically heavy war film set on a Navy ship anchored in China in the 1920s begins and ends well; its initial premise of an outsider (Steve McQueen) rubbing uneasily with an established, informal order is gripping, and the bleak, chaotic conclusion is a welcome note against the usual cheerleading hysteria. But the whole enterprise pointlessly runs three hours and does little of value with its time, meandering through several dull subplots. It’s never particularly terrible, but it does demonstrate what a dead end the ’60s Hollywood obsession with gargantuan epic-sized running times was, even when paired with a small “human” story like this.
San Francisco (1936, W.S. Van Dyke) [hr]
Sansho the Bailiff (1954, Kenji Mizoguchi) [hr]
This eerie and emotionally wrenching melodrama, lifted from feudal Japanese folklore, restrains nothing in depicting the miseries of a wrongly disgraced family, and accumulates so many tragedies and acts of brutality it could easily be accused of being too much if its compositions weren’t so calmly beautiful or if the performances weren’t so genuinely stirring, right up to a finale in which the lid completely comes off and we’re permitted to see what feels like pure, undiluted grief and catharsis personified. The story has the sweep and weight of grand mythology, but the humane realism makes it deeply affecting on a personal level.
Sans Soleil (1983, Chris Marker)
Marker’s hodgepodge of travelogue footage and experimental editing techniques is usually listed as a documentary but is more of an essay film, centered on letters from a fictitious cameraman read by an unseeen female narrator. There are some strong moments — visual and verbal — but the unfocused, intricate theories and thoughts being delivered feel too much like a particularly impassioned college lecture, or like a very protracted conversation with an intellectual barfly.
Santa Claus: The Movie (1985, Jeannot Szware) [NO]
* Gooey story of origins of Santa Claus and how this relates to cynical greedy kid is rather alarming in its shunning of commercialism while pushing itself forward as nothing but a commercial product. L. Frank Baum it ain’t.
The Santa Clause (1994, John Pasquin) [NO]
* Stupid jokes, stupider sentiment prevail in this weak Disney-sanctioned comedy about a Tim Allen who becomes Santa because that’s what it says in Allen’s contract. If there is a good story in this idea, and I don’t think there is, Allen is not the actor to put it across.
Saps at Sea (1940, Gordon Douglas) [r]
* Laurel & Hardy features usually add in too much story to be as fun as they should be, but this one is only fifty-seven minutes and is all good stuff. Of course it is somewhat confined entertainment, but what can you do?
Saturday Night Fever (1977, John Badham) [c]
* Though surprisingly intelligent, this study of a teen escaping to a Brooklyn dance club is poorly acted and only competently directed, never getting inside the head of its lead character or really getting across the kind of release he achieves.
Saturn 3 (1980, Stanley Donen) [NO]
* Miserable sci-fi from Donen, who’s overstretching himself here, about a horny robot scaring people. I don’t know where to direct my anger, but I am angry.
Saved! (2004, Brian Dannelly)
The wry Catholic school setting for this teen comedy only momentarily distracts from its firm adherence to standard teen comedy characterization and structure.
Save the Tiger (1973, John G. Avildsen) [hr]
Thoughtful character study of a well-off apparel executive and WWII vet coping with displacement, unethical business practices and a longing to connect remains salient about wrongheaded masculinity and shady corporate culture despite the intervening decades. Jack Lemmon gives a magnificent performance as a bastard whose hypocrisy and ignorance are believable without preventing him from coming across as a wistful, lost human being.
Saving Private Ryan (1998, Steven Spielberg) [c]
One of Spielberg’s most curiously flat films, lifted up only slightly by a good, sophisticated performance in the lead from Tom Hanks. The relentless “war is hell” message is nice to see in a somewhat patriotic movie, but the film is hardly the reversal of war-show theatrics it was reputed to be at the time. Maybe there is something to admire in the director’s aggressive methods here, but the script is treacly, forced and easy, and that kills the whole enterprise.
Say Anything… (1989, Cameron Crowe) [hr]
Often miraculous teen film about the class brain getting courted by too-perfect lowly kickboxer John Cusack, while her faith in her beloved father begins to shake. More honest and restrained than almost any other comedy of the ’80s, this is a genuinely romantic, admirably open-ended story about adolescent ideologies.
Sayonara (1957, Joshua Logan)
Hokum romance based on a Michener novel about U.S. soldiers in Japan “fraternizing” with locals against the wishes of authorities is mostly remembered for Marlon Brando’s embarrassing southern accent in his role as a four-star general; the message is anti-bigotry insofar as such ideology benefits white men who want to make dutiful wives of their Japanese lovers. After 157 minutes, this often excruciatingly maudlin story completely fails to distinguish itself; Red Buttons’ stunt casting works well enough but Brando chews the screen and spits it out with his tiresome showboating.
Scanners (1981, David Cronenberg) [NO]
* Scanners are things that make people’s heads explode, but don’t worry! Scientists are on the case. Absolutely the stupidest, smarmiest load of self-satisfied bullshit I’ve ever seen, and just an excuse for lots of gross FX.
Scarface (1932, Howard Hawks) [hr]
Ferocious, mind-bogglingly wild entertainment, with Hawks (despite censorship problems) semi-celebrating a violent underworld without reducing us to bystanders of empty machimso. The shooting and killing is so endless it becomes almost comical, which in a film that takes pains to make its protagonist (Paul Muni) inordinately oafish is certainly intentional. None of the filmmakers who’d later try their hand at this sort of lurid escapism ever had the love of extremes that Hawks shows off in his many bloody confrontations and tense setpieces, which seem to emanate from an almost cartoonishly dangerous world.
Scarface (1983, Brian de Palma) [NO]
What a remarkably bad movie, one of the worst ever to become such a mass cultural phenomenon — trashy, obnoxious, heavy-handed, and excessive in every way. Across three hours it fails to provide even one worthwhile insight about its ludicrous characters and their relationships; its sole purpose is to wallow in its own fetish for violence, contempt and “power.” Even Giorgio Moroder’s score doesn’t redeem it — perhaps fine on its own, but it doesn’t belong here. No brains, no wisdom, no art.
The Scarlet Empress (1934, Josef von Sternberg) [A+]
The movie that rips the notion of the staid Hollywood biopic wide the fuck open predates nearly all of them; Sternberg’s Expressionistic masterpiece finds an unlikely habitat for his orgasmic, over-the-top style and palette of oddball influences: a star vehicle for Marlene Dietrich dramatizing the life of Catherine the Great. As ambitious and eye-popping as Citizen Kane, delivered with gusto by a flawless cast, this is one of the most uncompromising and relentless entertainments in the history of the American screen, bound to set the most weathered head on a spin.
Scarlet Street (1945, Fritz Lang) [hr]
Lang’s version of La Chienne (previously filmed, brilliantly, by Jean Renoir) is even bleaker despite being made for Walter Wanger in Hollywood. Edward G. Robinson is impeccably cast as Christopher Cross, the lonely middle-aged cashier and painter in a loveless marriage that has him trapped and abused; in a mindset of desperation and sexual obsession he falls for an “actress” named Kitty (Joan Bennett) who takes him for a ride along with her hidden boyfriend Johnny, Dan Duryea in one of the best slimy villain performances in film noir. Lang and Milton Krasner drench everything in darkness; even daytime scenes are oppressive. Apart from the handsome grit of the production, though, the major divergence from Renoir’s film is its sheer glee at its characters’ almost uniform sadism, with even mild-mannered Cross eventually crossing over into depravity. None of it’s pretty, but in its own cynical manner it’s a kind of delight.
Scenes from a Marriage (1973, Ingmar Bergman) [hr]
Bold and insightful, heavily involved story of the gradual disintegration of a marriage is a tour de force in writing and directing for Bergman, with the performances by Erland Josephson and Liv Ullmann beyond criticism. Nevertheless, this is identifiably a story meant to be seen at greater length; it was made as a six-hour miniseries and cut down to just three hours for theatrical release. The strain and loss of development shows; once you have seen the theatrical print, you will just want more.
Scent of a Woman (1992, Martin Brest) [NO]
Truly abysmal fusion of Rain Man and Dead Poets Society belongs in a special kind of early 1990s prestige-picture hell. A prep school kid acts as escort to a loudmouthed jackass (Al Pacino) who happens to be blind and a military veteran, and we are expected to eventually find the guy endearing in all his harassment and endangerment of people. At nearly 160 minutes, this is not merely ovelong but an act of war against the very concept of film editing.
Schindler’s List (1993, Steven Spielberg) [A+]
Spielberg returns to form with his best film since the ’70s, an engrossing epic about the man who sheltered thousands of Jews in his phony factory during the Holocaust. The film’s anchored by stunning, faultless performances from Liam Neeson, Ben Kingsley and Ralph Fiennes; Spielberg enlivens the story with the same breathless pacing and ruthlessly cutting identification he exhibited in masterworks like Jaws and Close Encounters. The result is a shattering, personal experience that never slows down or is anything less than fascinating.
Schizopolis (1996, Steven Soderbergh)
Soderbergh crafts a series of surreal skits in three segments dealing with… oh, fuck, I don’t know.
The School of Rock (2004, Richard Linklater)
Mike White wrote this pleasant but lightweight comedy about a gen-X slacker posing as a substitute teacher, instructing children on the act of “rocking.” The kids are delightful, but the film is basically free of the insight its high concept might have offered, and the satirical possibilities of the premise are better explored by Phil Morrison’s video for “Sugarcube” by Yo La Tengo.
The Science of Sleep (2006, Michel Gondry) [hr]
Winning, imaginatively subjective fever dream about an immature boy’s lucid reach for love and adulthood is a mile head of Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine and is really an individualistic experience to savor. The first seventy-five minutes in particular are outstanding in terms of writing, performance, and direction, lovelorn comedy on a level with Chaplin, conviction of Orson Welles magnitude, all wrapped up in Richard Lester surrealism.
Scoop (2006, Woody Allen) [hr]
Charming, deadpan, mildly surreal comedy with scattered thriller elements — about a reporter (Scarlett Johansson) and her magician pal (Woody) on the trail of a murderer — is lightweight by the director’s standards but full of life and quintessential Allen humor.
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010, Edgar Wright) [r]
Adaptation of the graphic novel series is as big on dorkiness as you’d expect a manga / video game tribute starring Michael Cera to be, but the thing’s undeniably full of life and quite funny. The premise itself of a man-child who must defeat a woman’s seven evil exes in order to date her is goofy enough alone to make the film worth seeing, and that’s before you discover the involvement of Jason Schwartzman as a conniving weirdo and the music of the title character’s awful wonderful rock band Sex Bob-Omb.
The Scoundrel (1935, Ben Hecht & Charles MacArthur) [hr]
Spellbinding chronicle of a merciless wit and publishing magnate (played by Noel Coward!) driving people away with his casual heartlessness — and ultimately discovering the prison in which he’s cornered himself. Stunningly realistic and unusual, with some of the best dialogue in any Hollywood film, and an unexpected third-act about-face that only strengthens its brilliance.
Scrooge (1970, Ronald Neame)
* Opulent but overblown musical version of A Christmas Carol; Albert Finney is excellent in the title role, but the songs and production design are grossly mismatched to the story.
Scrooged (1988, Richard Donner) [c]
* Cynical, smart-alecky take on Dickens, with Bill Murray scarcely credible and extremely annoying as a modern-day Ebenezer. Action director Donner doesn’t know what to do with this.
Seabiscuit (2003, Gary Ross) [NO]
Insipid studio product using the real story of the famous Depression-era racehorse as a springboard for generic emoting from the likes of Tobey Maguire and Jeff Bridges, both of whom betray so much phoniness it’s like watching a political convention, though neither is as bad as William H. Macy’s infuriating cutesy-pie cameo as a fast-talking radio announcer. The film has an overall feel of nauseating smugness, absolutely convinced of its own profundity (complete with David McCullough narration) like other dire “hopeful” sport pictures of the post-9/11 period such as Cinderella Man, with the same inauthentic prettiness to its period flavor. Randy Newman’s incredibly vapid score doesn’t help, aiding and abetting Ross in his refusal to let the audience fill in any kind of blank for themselves.
The Sea Inside (2004, Alejandro Amenabar) [c]
If this were an English language film, it would have been roundly panned; instead, this tale about the Right to Die in Spain won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film. It is basically one step above a Harlequin romance with softcore political subtext, so maddeningly clichéd is its sense of romance, so indulgent, showy, and unsubtle are its Big Dramatic Moments, so pretentious are its stabs at deeper themes, and so juvenile and lightweight is its approach to the true story it tells and the issues it touches.
The Search (1948, Fred Zinnemann) [r]
Pandering, obvious but effective heart-tugger about an apparent orphan boy wandering postwar Europe, attempting to find his mother with the aid of bored serviceman Montgomery Clift. Harrowing in its fashion, and very much a product of its time.
The Searchers (1956, John Ford) [hr]
The iconography, menace, and reluctant positivity of this celebrated piece of great American art — some scholars claim it’s a rejection of the western itself — has in the end little to do with its guttural impact on the viewer. John Wayne’s performance in the last fifteen minutes of the movie, that’s where it all is — it’s a life changing transformation that speaks volumes. There’s beautiful context, of course, in this splendidly rich and sprawling story about a demoralizing and obsessive quest to find a kidnapped girl, but that moment is everything.
Secret Agent (1936, Alfred Hitchcock) [hr]
John Gielgud is sent to assassinate a spy with the help of Madeleine Carroll, but complications arise. Darker and less lively than The 39 Steps but a worthy follow-up, capturing like all of the late ’30s Hitchcock Gaumonts the pervasive sense of looming dread across Europe. Peter Lorre is outstanding as a girl-crazy Mexican killing machine, and the film’s moral quandaries lend it an air of storytelling innovation, which would be carried over to the stark discomfort of Sabotage. Scenes in which Gielgud painfully questions his new profession encapsulate everything missing from the James Bond series.
Secretary (2002, Steven Shainberg)
Maggie Gyllenhaal plays a woman who attempts to rechannel her penchant for self-mutilation into a taste for BDSM kink, with the help of her new boss, an enjoyably sinister James Spader. A bit simplistic and overly stonefaced about its subject matter, but still provocative, erotic and ultimately positive in a sense rare for American films about sex.
The Secret Garden (1993, Agnieszka Holland)
Restraint is something typically foreign to anything that today is labeled a family film; this Frances Hodgson Burnett adaptation goes overboard with it, so polite and withdrawn there’s scarcely anything left.
The Secret in Their Eyes (2009, Juan Jose Campanella)
Slick, crowd-pleasing Argentine crime drama lurches back and forth between Dateline NBC brutality and the light-as-a-feather hijinks of an assistant D.A. and his hard-drinking associate. But see it for the jaw-dropping one-take chase scene inside a soccer arena, one of the most arresting shots in modern cinema.
The Secret Lives of Dentists (2003, Alan Rudolph) [hr]
Campbell Scott is wonderful as a put-upon dentist who begins hallucinating after he discovers that his wife (and work partner) is cheating on him; an irate patient appears in his head, commenting on his every move, as he begins to wonder what step to take next. Hope Davis’ characterization is rather shrill, but this movie’s humor, observations and uncompromising conclusion stick with you.
The Secret of NIMH (1982, Don Bluth)
* One of Bluth’s better films, this is still a one-note adaptation of the rather dull bestseller Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH by Robert C. O’Brien. Has an inexplicable following in the emo set, but for most of us it’s just too sugary. It is superior to most of Disney’s output of the period.
Secrets & Lies (1996, Mike Leigh) [r]
In this largely improvised, intimate and emotionally intense drama, a woman in London seeks out her birth family and becomes embroiled in the life of her frenetic, hypersensitive birth mother, whose family’s entire existence is ridden with uncomfortable secrets and old resentments. As usual Leigh’s actors get across some incredible depth in their characters, building to small moments and a low-key finale that are indescribably moving, but there are still limitations to Leigh’s methodology; you can’t always escape the feeling that you are watching a community theater rehearsal.
See No Evil, Hear No Evil (1989, Arthur Hiller) [c]
* Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder, as a blind and deaf man respectively, are as fun as ever but the movie is just a bunch of screaming and falling down.
Selena (1997, Gregory Nava)
* Alternately interesting and accidentally funny look at the life and death of celebrated Latino singer Selena, killed by a close associate. The performances are quite good, but there’s nothing to make this biopic unique or original.
Selma (2014, Ava DuVernay) [r]
Worthwhile drama of the events leading up to the Voting Rights Act suffers from unevenness; the scenes involving MLK (marvelously, believably brought to life by David Oyelowo) are nuanced, sophisticated and inspiring, while the stagy walk-ons by other historical figures (Malcolm X, LBJ, George Wallace, etc.) are broadly written and acted like scenes from a school play, or a Robert Zemeckis movie. Surely the most vivid film yet made about the Civil Rights movement, nevertheless.
Sense and Sensibility (1995, Ang Lee) [r]
Ang Lee’s first English-language film might be one of the most aesthetically beautiful movies ever made, evoking springtime as effortlessly as Emma Thompson’s script reframes Jane Austen’s characterizations for a ’90s audience. She and Kate Winslet are both wonderful and the film is quite funny, but it loses its bite as it goes on in part because of the miscasting of the three major male roles (especially a halting, badly dressed Hugh Grant).
Separate Tables (1958, Delbert Mann) [hr]
The closed-off world of a small hotel and its eccentric inhabitants is thrown into disarray when a celebrity with an ulterior motive comes for a visit, and when one of the regulars is convicted of a serious crime. Well-shot opening-up of a pair of Terrence Rattigan one-acts has dated elements but builds to a couple of emotional crescendos that are improbably and deeply moving.
A Separation (2011, Asghar Farhadi) [hr]
That’s the mutually agreed separation of a couple who both want the best life for their daughter, hampered by the husband’s need to remain in Iran and care for his weak father. That’s also the separation of “good” and “evil,” which is a folly; Farhadi’s film is about the rifts that arise between the good-hearted with only the best of intentions. You’ll turn it over in your head for weeks.
September (1987, Woody Allen) [r]
Allen’s take on Autumn Sonata — overbearing mother, meek daughter — is more polished than his earlier straight drama, Interiors: the acting and photography are superior, the mood is sustained with far more precision and assurance. But it also lacks the extra punch of raw emotion that Interiors enjoyed. There are beautiful scenes, but it never lunges out and bites you. And the complete recast and reshoot that occurred halfway through the production shows in the final rush job.
Sergeant York (1941, Howard Hawks) [r]
Not actually a war film, but rather coded propaganda about a good-hearted Christian pacifist (Gary Cooper, stoic and unpretentious as ever) coping with the inherent conflicts of killing “for country” in the WWI trenches and resisting the celebratory publicity that results. Despite intelligent dialogue and some bits of alarming violence it’s almost Rockwellian in its sentimentality, although the scene in which Cooper is lured away from seeking a murderous revenge and into a church instead is — for this wholly secular viewer — unexpectedly, deeply moving.
Serial Mom (1994, John Waters) [NO]
* Confused, stupid Waters satire ruins a great idea — a deeply conservative apple-pie mother knocks off those who disagree with her values — with cheap jokes and excess in place of good writing. Kathleen Turner is… interesting in the lead role.
A Serious Man (2009, Joel & Ethan Coen) [hr]
Very nearly the Coens’ best film, a haunting but funny character study of an unlucky college professor and his confused reaction to an upheaval in his life. Surreal and subtle, but with a conclusion as bold and beautiful as that of No Country for Old Men.
Session 9 (2001, Brad Anderson) [r]
Exceptionally tense, paranoid horror film about a team of workers removing asbestos from an abandoned mental hospital is impressively creepy… but for the kind of payoff it has, it goes on a little longer than it needs to.
Se7en (1995, David Fincher) [A+]
Moody, artful nightmare movie about the search for a serial killer with a deeply convicted moral agenda displays a young director at an unprecedented level of ingenuity. Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman are the detectives on the case and both turn in the performances of their lives, Pitt sprightly and eager, Freeman wise and resigned. Fincher’s plotting (with Andrew Kevin Walker) and visual execution are top drawer, and this is one of the finest thrillers of the ’90s.
Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954, Stanley Donen)
Oh for a simpler time when we could just tie up, blindfold, and kidnap the women we wanted, all with the dandiest of choreography.
Seven Chances (1925, Buster Keaton) [A+]
Primal, inventive and hilarious adaptation of an obscure stage play involving a man who’ll inherit a fortune if he marries “by 7pm today” provides a springboard for a wondrous, lively series of Keaton gags that advance the story without being overwhelmed by it, or vice versa. A great introduction to a great performer and filmmaker.
Seven Days in May (1964, John Frankenheimer) [r]
Frankenheimer’s inescapably dated Cold War follow-up to The Manchurian Candidate is armed with a screenplay by Rod Serling that brings out the best and worst of a fine writer. The sugary monologues are ridiculous but the situations and characterizations are believable, and the lack of a bravura climax is a welcome change from the other paranoid classics of the early ’60s (Fail-Safe in particular). All of the performances are outstanding — a subdued Kirk Douglas steals the movie — and the tight, frantic direction is superlative.
Seven Days to Noon (1950, John & Roy Boulting) [hr]
Tense, exciting British thriller about a rogue atomic scientist threatening the city of London with a nuclear weapon unfortunately walks away from its potential political subtext, but it still captures an eccentric and vital city at a crucial moment with rare zeal and intelligence.
Seven Samurai (1954, Akira Kurosawa) [hr]
Knockout movie about a group of samurai sent to protect a farm that is set to be plundered by sickos is hugely entertaining and visually remarkable. The expansive length of the battle sequences is justified by Kurosawa’s methodical development of character, setting and theme, and the result is as absorbing and tense a 207-minute film as can possibly exist.
7th Heaven (1927, Frank Borzage) [hr]
Secondarily a religious film, firstly a romantic picture of such realism and boundless charm amid all the grit of fake-Paris it could eradicate your sense of just how seasoned you are with this kind of thing. Taking no shortcuts, it manages to throttle with a series of overwhelming moments of revelatory feeling. Start with the sensation of walking out the window onto the plank, trusting that you needn’t be frightened any longer.
The Seventh Seal (1957, Ingmar Bergman) [hr]
Dazzling, poetic film sends a knight wandering through Black Plague-ravaged lands after being challenged by Death to a game of chess. Wry, humanistic movie — feeling like a literal plunge into oblivion — has too many beautiful images to count and guides the viewer through a dramatic range of emotions, especially at the stunning, dreamlike conclusion. There’s horror, sadness, existentialist dread, but also a sense of humor, absurdity, life.
The Seventh Veil (1945, Compton Bennett) [r]
Great concert pianist has to deal with an endless parade of idiocy from an obnoxious man who tries to run her life. Riveting in a soap opera sort of way, with some fun pop psychobabble, but ridiculously reductive of the woman havin’ the feelings and shit. Ann Todd is solid, James Mason is annoyingly perfect as the central asshole. Beware one of filmdom’s most irksome endings.
sex, lies, and videotape (1989, Steven Soderbergh) [hr]
Few chronicles of marital dysfunction are as lovably enigmatic and outright hilarious as this one, which is blessed with outstanding performances by Peter Gallagher, Andie Macdowell, James Spader and Laura San Giacomo. Spader is an old friend of Gallagher’s and a bit of a weirdo who takes strange videotapes of women making their sexual “confessions”; his attraction to Macdowell begins to complicate matters. This is a textbook example of the way character development ought to be delivered, with full conviction and not a series of pseudo-eccentric shortcuts.
Sgt. Bilko (1996, Jonathan Lynn) [NO]
* Feel for Steve Martin, locked away in a cell where he is doomed to hide his wit, intelligence, and insanity all for a harebrained update of an old sitcom. But remember, he did get paid.
Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1978, Michael Schultz) [NO]
* A strange and enormous put-on indeed, this bizarre Bee Gees movie attempts to form the songs of Beatles’ fake concept album into a “plot”; result is offensive, monstrous anti-rock & roll propaganda attempting to leech off the image of a great band in the name of the glory of corporate rock. A sickening time is guaranteed for all.
Shadow of a Doubt (1943, Alfred Hitchcock) [A+]
A girl (Teresa Wright) is suspicious of her shady uncle, played with menace and charm by the great Joseph Cotten, who is actually the Merry Widow Murderer. Stunning deconstruction of Americana small-town peace and family loyality is so perfectly executed it doesn’t seem possible that it was made under great stress during the height of WWII, so horrifying it doesn’t seem that it could be from so long ago, and so American it’s shocking that it comes from a British director. A homey, gothic, subtle masterpiece that haunts you permanently and never takes the easy way out.
Shadows (1959, John Cassavetes)
Hang out at a night acting class instead — you’ll be equally entertained by their improvisations, and you might make some friends.
Shadows and Fog (1992, Woody Allen) [hr]
Few titles in movie history are more apt, as shadows and fog are exactly what you get during the atmospheric, beautifully-photographed story of a European city terrorized by a psychopath on the loose. Like no one else, Allen succeeds in enhancing rather than deflating his serious themes with high comedy; most inspired of all is the fact that our hero is the part of a vigilante scheme about which he is never informed and to which is never even really introduced, but which he is expected to initiate! This movie dares to reveal its thesis in the last few seconds, but offers plenty of fun along the way.
The Shaggy Dog (1959, Charles Barton) [c]
* Early live action Disney farce is extremely disappointing, the jokes flat and the story uninvolving.
Shakespeare in Love (1998, John Madden) [r]
Good-natured, well-performed story of the Bard doing it with covert actor Gwyneth Paltrow, getting inspired by the subsequent romantic frustrations. Lightweight film overwhelms with cutesy humor and klutzy sensuality, lacks the range and intellect to be really strong or revealing, but even if too readily embraced by an overexcited media, it’s a perfectly fine romantic comedy. Just remember to brush your teeth afterward.
Shampoo (1975, Hal Ashby)
Warren Beatty and Robert Towne’s ostensibly satirical comedy, of class-conscious promiscuity set hamhandedly against election night 1968, is an empty-headed scold of “celebrity hairdresser” Jay Sebring and, uh, society; Beatty stars as a workaholic philanderer trying to start his own hair salon while crassly juggling four to seven women. His performance lacks depth despite strong work from his costars, and director Ashby’s usual sense of affinity toward outsiders is out of place here regardless of whether there’s any sincerity to what the screenwriters are trying to say (if anything).
Shane (1953, George Stevens) [r]
Extremely well-directed western is a visual marvel; the script is a bit muddier, though it does toy with the same ambiguous ideas as The Searchers only in more direct and less subtle ways, which may or may not be a negative. It’s easy to be caught up in this, so long as you can ignore that irritating kid.
Shanghai Express (1932, Josef von Sternberg) [r]
Fitfully engaging romantic melodrama aboard a train in which the sparks never quite fly, perhaps because Marlene Dietrich’s chemistry with her costar Clive Brook is mostly nonexistent, or at least it’s a very one-sided relationship in which she does all of the work. They are former lovers, she now an infamous courtesan, he a decorated military hero, and their renewed affections are tested when the train they’re on careens into the middle of a hostage situation during the Chinese Civil War. There’s intrigue, there’s a bit of action, there’s a dynamic, unforgettable and all too brief performance by Anna May Wong, but it all seems familiar and rote despite its very 1930s air of scrappy urgency.
The Shape of Water (2017, Guillermo del Toro) [c]
Fish sex is the least of the problems with this handsome but insipid Oscar winner, a Cold War story with the fine Sally Hawkins as a lonely mute woman whose attachment to a large amphibian being kept top-secret on a military base becomes a big exercise in phony, cornball compassion, overly reliant on lousy, one-dimensional writing and the hokey use of a lazily evil villain played by Michael Shannon. It’s meant to be a “fairy tale” but fails to probe at such conventions in any meaningful way, and its stroke of sentimentalism is deadly. (There’s even a shot of the monster in a the movie theater, in case you wanted it to be Cinema Paradiso!)
Shattered Glass (2003, Billy Ray) [hr]
Haunting story of modern journalism ethics, with dishonest reporter Stephen Glass wowing his peers with fabricated stories; Glass is brilliantly and sympathetically played by Hayden Christensen (!), who stands out in an extraordinary cast and manages to involve the viewer in his overgrown-child character’s ultimately claustrophobic plight.
Shaun of the Dead (2004, Edgar Wright)
British semi-parody of zombie films begins (very slowly) as a boisterous comedy, turns unexpectedly serious when it decides to get the story moving. A bit unprofessional in tone and direction, but not wholly without charm.
Shaun the Sheep Movie (2015, Mark Burton & Richard Starzack) [hr]
Shaun is a side character from one of the wonderful claymation Wallace & Gromit shorts; his feature debut — in which he causes chaos on the farm when attempting to slack off and then must travel to the city to correct it — is remarkable in its elegance. The 84-minute film is wholly free of actual dialogue and utterly fails to see this as a hindrance to uproarious, balletic humor and pathos. The characters are alive and endearing, nearly all of the jokes land, and the Rube Goldbergian stunt sequences are on a level with Our Hospitality and The General.
The Shawshank Redemption (1994, Frank Darabont) [r]
Well-plotted Stephen King short story about a wrongfully convicted man slowly crafting an escape from prison becomes an anemic but appealing (and unexpectedly celebrated) modern epic film; Darabont doesn’t do anything with the absorbing, inspiring story that isn’t obvious, but this is ultimately a satisfying experience even if much of its dialogue about hope and redemption rings hollow — which is likely because King based his story on vague memories of watching B-grade prison movies as a child and the film’s lofty aspirations aren’t such a good fit with that sensibility.
She Done Him Wrong (1933, Lowell Sherman) [r]
Mae West’s dynamic, unforgettable breakthrough performance — in a film based on her own 1928 play Diamond Lil — is accompanied by the star-making turn of one Cary Grant, but West dominates everything else that’s laid in front of us, hackneyed story included, during this brief crime-ridden comedy about the downfall of a corrupt barroom in 1890s New York and the many liaisons and conquests of West’s Lady Lou, from the dance hall to the prison cells. All of the best moments here hinge completely on the suggestive jokes West delivers; Grant, for all his handsomeness, makes no comparable impression here. The plot is rote and obvious, but Paramount recognizes why you’re here; even in comparison to other pre-Code Hollywood material, this is surprisingly amoral and sexy.
Sherlock, Jr. (1924, Buster Keaton) [hr]
Hilarious, elegant fantasy of a meandering, oafish projectionist’s dream of chases, detective work and cinema is endlessly delightful even though nearly all of its most memorable scenes have been plundered and excerpted relentlessly for 90+ years now. Keaton’s physicality is even more astounding than in The General. Like all of his films, it’s less a story than a threadbare series of excuses for incredible visual stunts and gags, but that only helps it spring to life.
She’s Gotta Have It (1986, Spike Lee) [hr]
* Charming, low-key comedy about an amorous girl and her many inadequate lovers is apparently quite uncharacteristic of director Lee, but it is in any case very funny and lovably unpretentious.
She’s the One (1996, Edward Burns) [NO]
* Tepid pseudo-sentimental junk with actor/writer/director Burns wasting a fairly good cast on touchy-feely male confessional.
Shine (1996, Scott Hicks) [c]
A mountain of overused tropes in this biopic of David Helfgott (Noah Taylor, then Geoffrey Rush), prodigy pianist who was institutionalized for years: Jazz Singer-style overbearing father, the Understanding Woman, performance prowess and anxiety and the usual mad-genius clichés. It’s a true story rendered as vapid crowd-pleasing entertainment. The script by Jan Sardi might be more credible if the antagonist — the angst-filled, manipulative father portrayed by Armin Mueller-Stahl — felt at all believable as a human being, even an abusive one.
The Shining (1980, Stanley Kubrick) [hr]
It may not be particularly scary, but this wildly unnerving Stephen King adaptation is still a thrill to watch, with dynamic Jack Nicholson performance and many scenes of explosive excitement. Its length may cause it to lose favor with some, but Kubrick asks in the first few minutes of the film for the audience to invest itself, and either you do or you don’t. If you do, you’ll find the feeling of isolation quite beautifully realized.
Shoah (1985, Claude Lanzmann) [hr]
An equally emotional but less visceral approach to the Holocaust than the other key filmed document of it, Resnais’ Night and Fog. Lanzmann inundates us with details from every conceivable angle for over nine hours, presenting evidence of the collective hole still left in humanity; as oral history it’s one of the most important records of a lived experience that we have, and as cinema it’s unimpeachable. The most fascinating motif is the examination of place. You can feel the lingering despair everywhere we’re taken, when the buildings are intact, when there’s mere rubble, when there’s nothing — which somehow is most distressing of all.
Shoot the Piano Player (1960, Francois Truffaut) [A+]
A million wonderful ideas jam-packed into 84 majestic minutes, Truffaut’s wild comic/tragic second film — about a formerly professional, now poor pianist finding himself suddenly targeted by gangsters — riffs articulately with the many steadfast cliches of American B-pictures and turns every one of them upside down, injecting real life into the movies and vice versa to create juxtapositions that are fascinating, scary, hilarious and distressing.
The Shop Around the Corner (1940, Ernst Lubitsch) [hr]
Of all Lubitsch’s romantic comedies, this may be the most joyous and tangibly human, at least for most of its duration; concluding at Christmastime, it’s ideal holiday atmosphere on top of the sheer earthy delights of its dialogue and lengthy but never stagy scenes (taken from a play by Miklós László). It’s most famous for its wry coupling of coworkers James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan (both outstanding, the latter especially), who are unaware that they are each other’s flirty pen pals as they simultaneously make life hell for each other on the job; but even more interesting is the film’s status as a workplace ensemble comedy about the comings and goings of the crew at a Hungarian leather shop. Lubitsch isn’t primarily thought of as a visual director, but the emotional power of the shot midway through this film in which Sullavan’s hand reaches in vain through the door to her PO box is overwhelming, saying so much without a word.
Shopgirl (2005, Anand Tucker) [r]
This comedy written by (and based on a novella by) Steve Martin provides a surprising contrast to his L.A. Story; the Los Angeles of Shopgirl is far more looming, cancerous. Tucker’s intriguing film is an oddly moving mixture of slick showboating and raw emotion, Martin’s time-tested ideas filtered very much through 2005 lenses. Claire Danes, in the title role of a sales clerk torn between two men, holds the whole thing together. A strange movie indeed.
Shortbus (2006, John Cameron Mitchell) [r]
It’s refreshing in and of itself that a film can be made that’s this sexually open without being juvenile about it. The stories — largely developed and improvised by the cast — of the characters inhabiting it are unfortunately a bit lacking, but still refreshingly adult and mature in nature. It can turn you on (without being actively erotic), it can make you laugh, and eventually it can break your heart.
Short Circuit (1986, John Badham) [NO]
* Ally Sheedy befriends a robot. I’m sure it’s not the first time.
Short Circuit 2 (1988, Kenneth Johnson) [NO]
* This is a big improvement over the original. Hey, the robot sounds like Big Bird.
Short Time (1990, Gregg Champion) [NO]
* Sloppy Regarding Henry-type story starring Dabney Coleman interjected with weird stunt sequences is nearly unwatchable when it bothers to make sense.
A Shot in the Dark (1964, Blake Edwards) [hr]
Wonderful sequel to The Pink Panther brings back Inspector Clouseau, this time investigating a murder in a big house, getting stuck in a nudist colony and tormenting his boss, among many other gross misdeeds. Masterfully done and completely winning; as good as slapstick comes.
Showgirls (1995, Paul Verhoeven) [c]
* Amusing sexploitation garbage is short on eye candy, long on trashy laughter. An infamous flop, of course, but the filmmakers undeniably achieved everything they set out to do. Except it’s not quite sexy enough to be good porn, though it does achieve the proper quotient of poor acting.
Shrek (2001, Andrew Adamson & Vicky Jensen) [c]
Unfunny, monotonous CGI feature about an ogre attempting to get peace and quiet and stumbling as a result on a kidnapped princess and lots of other recycled ideas wrapped in the illusion of smartass parody.
Shutter Island (2010, Martin Scorsese) [NO]
Outrageously dumb B-movie hodgepodge is meant to be Scorsese’s “homage” to the likes of Roger Corman and William Castle, but it adds no qualitative twist — it’s a carbon copy of a cinematic style well beneath Scorsese’s skill set, which is undeniable even if (like me) you don’t much care for his movies. So the big DiCaprio-addled tribute to the act of watching bad movies with awful acting and groan-worthy “twists” comes across like, well, you’re watching a bad movie. The point being?
Sicario (2015, Denis Villeneuve) [c]
A pointless, nihilistic bloodbath that, like the director’s other films, essentially exists to slickly flaunt its own cartoonishly bleak worldview. Emily Blunt is good as a fish-out-of-water FBI agent sent on a cartel-related wild goose chase, but the movie has no idea what to do with her and essentially barricades her from her own story. The ironies are forced and the journey we take to get to the various sophomoric “the world is straight FUCKED up, maaaan” messages is repetitive, sour and blunt-force.
Sid and Nancy (1986, Alex Cox)
* Who wants to watch a movie about jerkass Sid Vicious? Not me, but Cox does invest this project with appropriate detachment and stylish photography. It will mostly make you feel dirty.
Side Effects (2013, Steven Soderbergh) [NO]
Perfectly dreadful thriller starts out as a deceptive screed against SSRIs; Rooney Mara stars as the troubled patient, crudely pitched Jude Law and Catherine Zeta-Jones in full 1990s Skinemax regalia as her doctors. They all figure in an incredibly tone-deaf and smugly plotty variation on Diabolique with all the personality and modulation of a Ron Howard picture.
Sideways (2004, Alexander Payne) [c]
Disgusting wish fulfillment for middle-aged men follows two overgrown children — one (Thomas Haden Church) about to be married and out for a weeklong fuckfest, the other (Paul Giamatti) a morose, whiny Writer — on their consequence-free journey through metaphorically overwrought wine tastings and various kinds of cruel deception. Add an infuriating lite jazz score and this becomes almost a perfect analogy to being on an elevator with the two most annoying dudebros you’ve ever met.
Sightseers (2012, Ben Wheatley) [hr]
Mischievous black-comic road movie about a young woman vacationing with a boyfriend who turns out to harbor some unsavory tendencies. Functions as a rural British travelogue (gorgeously shot by Laurie Rose) as well as a diabolical combination of Badlands and Kind Hearts and Coronets whose humor is understated, making violence into a punchline without being flippant. As the sad-faced Tina, Alice Lowe gives a magnificently deadpan but somehow richly soulful performance.
Signs (2002, M. Night Shyamalan) [r]
The least interesting of Shyamalan’s box office juggernauts to date, this is still a solid suspense/sci-fi film, working off the premise that Spielberg initially envisioned for E.T.: a family is terrorized by the aliens outside. The religious subtext is unnecessary but well-rounded; the only real problems with the film are the feeling of routine and the lousy special effects; still, compared to Unbreakable and The Village this is nothing much.
The Silence of the Lambs (1991, Jonathan Demme) [A+]
As lurid and filthy as any trashy ’90s horror film except that Demme’s owns its Gothic beauty. It dares to throw out a conventional moral code in allowing us to fall into deep fascination with Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal, as a result indulging us in pure, unguarded cinematic storytelling. That it challenges so many traditional gender roles in American filmmaking — from dependent heroine to helpless victim — is merely a bonus.
Silent Movie (1976, Mel Brooks) [r]
Hilarious, richly entertaining but, in the end, disappointing Brooks comedy concerns a scheme by a Hollywood director to make a silent film in the ’70s. The various scenes here are consistently delightful, the unquestionable highlight being a dance scene that is basically a valentine to Brooks’ wife Anne Bancroft. (Imagine having something like that dedicated to you!) But there is no closure; the wonderful movie that is supposedly being worked on at the end is never seen, which makes this one suffer, like a long joke with no punchline.
Silver Linings Playbook (2012, David O. Russell) [r]
Funny and well-directed but quite conventional romantic comedy attempts to subvert itself with some commentary on mental illness, instead does so with the entrance of a tornado named Jennifer Lawrence, whose own upending of the MPDG stereotype puts fervor aplenty into the formula.
Sin City (2005, Robert Rodriguez & Frank Miller) [c]
A live action film that feels like an extremely static cartoon, this slick experiment by Rodriguez from Miller’s graphic novels is essentially an update of Heavy Metal — adolescent male fantasies with fancy mythological trimmings, the mythology in this case being film noir by way of comic books. It is what it is, and you’ve almost certainly outgrown it.
Singin’ in the Rain (1952, Stanley Donen & Gene Kelly) [A+]
This lovely, celebrated musical is everything you don’t expect: darkly funny, moving, as visually dazzling as anything Hollywood has crafted, and even erotic at times. It never once is cutesy or lightweight. The story of a pair of stars’ dealings with the transition to talkies in the late ’20s will delight you to no end, no matter what you think you’ll think.
Singles (1992, Cameron Crowe) [r]
* Sweet-natured generation X comedy is almost the exact opposite of Reality Bites, made two years later. The title more or less says it all, with various people drifting in and out of relationships in early ’90s Seattle. Terminally likable, but also a bit of an odd use of talent, particularly that of Campbell Scott.
The Sinister Urge (1960, Edward D. Wood Jr.) [c]
Hilarious premise — 1960s porn rings EXPOSED! by hypocrite Wood, later to become a trashy pornographer — unfortunately is the best thing about this dull film from everyone’s favorite bad director, a big disappointment that fails to deliver the perverse fun of his more popular efforts.
The Sin of Madelon Claudet (1931, Edgar Selwyn) [r]
Relentlessly bleak tearjerker from MGM wherein a woman (Helen Hayes) has a child out of wedlock then is abandoned by her boyfriend and spends the rest of her life suffering one indignity and setback after another while attempting to pay for her son’s education. So pessimistic and despairing you have to kind of admire its chutzpah, and it does have solid performances.
Sisters (1973, Brian De Palma)
Overexcited Psycho ripoff hesitates to attach itself to that film’s considerable psychological undercurrent, instead just makes a movie about a bunch of random, disconnected characters that revolves vaguely around a pair of twin sisters, one of them psychotic. Bloody and amusing occasionally, but mostly just a weird attempt at Hitchcockian theatrics.
Sisters of the Gion (1936, Kenji Mizoguchi) [A+]
Haunting, miraculous story of the despair and tragedy that ensue when a bankrupt shop owner is taken in by the Geisha he’s been seeing and her cynical sister. A truly remarkable film that transcends the social mores of its time, builds organically and slowly to probe at universal realities of the lives of women under capitalism and patriarchy. The cinematography and acting are marvelous, the story absorbingly told with a righteous sense of injustice and skepticism.
The Sixth Sense (1999, M. Night Shyamalan) [hr]
Immediately legendary ghost movie about a boy (brilliantly played by Haley Joel Osment) haunted by bizarre images — and the child psychologist (Bruce Willis, doing some of his best work since Moonlighting) who comes to his aid — is built on inventive visuals and an ingenious script that scores less on surprises than emotional power, undiminished the second time around.
The Skin Game (1931, Alfred Hitchcock)
Cranky British people bitch about land, their neighbors. One of the director’s least distinctive films, this follows in the footsteps of Juno and the Paycock, a play that Hitchcock filmed with a minimum of cinematic contrivance, resulting in a well-acted but bland early talkie. Fortunately, while the story is less subtle and intriguing, this reflects more care on the director’s part and is more entertaining. A big part of what makes it worthwhile is the delightful performance of Edmund Gwenn as a money-grubbing bastard. For those who are not fans of Gwenn or Hitchcock, there’s probably no reason to see this.
The Skin I Live In (2011, Pedro Almodóvar) [r]
Almodóvar ventures into Cronenberg territory with this pleasingly made-up B-horror about a mad scientist (Antonio Banderas, in splendidly Cary Grant-like deadpan) and his sexually perverse acts of Pygmalion revenge. Don’t read anything else about it before you see it, and prepare to be fiddled with mercilessly.
Skippy (1931, Norman Taurog)
Paramount’s noisy enlivening of a Depression-era childhood, based on the once celebrated Percy Crosby newspaper strip, tugs at the heartstrings with its puppies and class warfare (!!) and boasts a very good performance by Jackie Cooper in the lead, but its appeal is likely limited to younger kids (who are unlikely to get a chance to see it).
The Skydivers (1963, Coleman Francis) [NO]
Francis’ films are among the worst ever made, but the other two have strangely alluring eccentricities that make them great curiosity items. This one is just dull and disturbingly inept without the MST3K commentary.
Skyfall (2012, Sam Mendes) [r]
An aging spy recalls his childhood as a fan of the Home Alone movies, gets his friends into trouble, and most of London is destroyed. A dry and sobering historical account.
Sleeper (1973, Woody Allen) [A+]
Not just a great slapstick comedy but a great science fiction film, this treasure — Allen’s most narratively sophisticated effort up to this point, and his first movie to craft believable characters — concerns a future (witnessed by cryogenically frozen Woody A.) in which mankind is oppressed and at the mercy of a great leader’s nose. Great jokes and some visual gags on a par with Chaplin’s Modern Times. Best of all, this is one of the first teamings of Allen with Diane Keaton, as well as writer Marshall Brickman.
Sleeping Beauty (1959, Clyde Geronimi) [hr]
For once, a Disney feature that’s almost entirely a slave to a linear story, which offers this a sense of gravity that has led it to age incredibly well. The music is beautiful, the production design and effects animation truly grand, and the film impossibly gorgeous, made in Cinemascope.
Sleeping with the Enemy (1991, Joseph Ruben) [NO]
* Fake suspense film about cringe-worthy Julia Roberts escaping her abusive husband just pummels the viewer senseless, with no justification or payoff of any kind.
Sleepless in Seattle (1994, Nora Ephron) [NO]
* Mawkish romantic comedy is the result of years of product testing to bring you the most efficient Nora Ephron tearjerker imaginable. It has exactly what the people wanted: Tom Hanks looking cute, Meg Ryan trying to look cute, and lots of scenes ripping off other movies. If you don’t like it, you are unAmerican. Ephron’s visions of what women like to see when they go to the movies are as stereotypical as those of any studio head.
Sleepy Hollow (1999, Tim Burton) [r]
It won’t win any awards for restraint, but this goofy rendition of Washington Irving has a certain trashy appeal. Burton’s visuals are flawless; there’s very little storytelling power backing up the fine individual scenes, but the movie is undeniably enjoyable and very well-acted.
Sleuth (1972, Joseph L. Mankiewicz)
Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine torment each other with mind games while putting you to sleep.
Sliding Doors (1998, Peter Howitt) [r]
Decent comedy about alternate realities for Gwyneth Paltrow; the movie tracks parallel events that would occur if she catches or misses a crucial bus at the beginning. Howitt surprisingly makes this work, and you don’t worry too much about the one-dimensional supporting characters until after the movie’s over.
Sling Blade (1996, Billy Bob Thornton) [r]
Enjoyable, if slight, epic-sized film has considerable sweep and sincerity, a secret remake of Shane. It follows a disabled introvert who murdered his mother and her lover at a very young age; let out of an institution many years later, he befriends a young boy and his mother in his former hometown and becomes embroiled in their lives and their involvement with a violent hick played by Dwight Yoakam. Thornton’s performance in the lead is charming, believable, and warmly funny without being exploitative.
Sliver (1993, Philip Noyce) [c]
* Ira Levin gets diluted through the early ’90s tits & cash sheen, following in the footsteps of Lyne, Pakula, and Verhoeven; Sharon Stone is fun but she’s done in by the weak story and dull performances of fellow cast members.
Slumdog Millionaire (2008, Danny Boyle)
Boyle’s Oscar winner about a poor kid winning big on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, thanks to his many fraught and lovelorn experiences, attempts to put Dickens in India with mixed results. The movie reels you in with its charm and Boyle’s usual restlessness, but the story is so hollow — the conclusion especially — it’s hard to feel anything from it, despite overwrought stabs at crowd-pleasing triumph and romance.
Small Change (1976, Francois Truffaut) [A+]
Truffaut offers a grand and lively — and startlingly real — document of childhood in one of his greatest films. Following various children’s activities in a Paris neighborhood, it’s one of the essential depictions of life on film. Everyone wishes they could create something as poignant, funny, sumptuous and detailed as this, particularly while maintaining untainted realism.
Smiles of a Summer Night (1955, Ingmar Bergman) [A+]
Bergman wrote this in a period of grave depression and credited it with saving his life. Never one to apply such vast platitudes to any kind of creative work, I believe his romantic anecdote in this case. It’s one of the liveliest films ever made. The story of several couples mingling and intertwining during a vacation in the Swedish countryside leaves no stone unturned and confirms all of your suspicions but outdoes them. It’s simultaneously hilarious and heartbreaking and could make you thrill at being alive, even (especially?) at the sad parts.
The Smiling Lieutenant (1931, Ernst Lubitsch) [hr]
Monumentally funny, delightfully risque pre-code musical about a promiscuous French army man finding love after breakfast then getting caught up in a royal scandal. Lubitsch’s musical numbers are a bit static at times, and many modern audiences will find themselves immune to the charms of Maurice Chevalier, but there’s no escaping the pull of the adorable Claudette Colbert as a liberated violinist and the alluring Miriam Hopkins, whose performance is breathtaking as a feat of comic precision and timing, to say nothing of an airtight script full of huge, ecstatic laughs, harnessed to complete potential by this stellar cast.
Smilin’ Through (1932, Sidney Franklin) [hr]
Surprisingly touching, intense and ironically titled pre-Code melodrama about a well-off widower who raises his niece, their relationship sunny and ideal until as an adult she falls in love with the son of his mortal enemy. It may be a little goofy and over-the-top, lacking the sleaze of Josef von Sternberg’s similarly wild tales, but the romance herein is potent thanks to the performances (in dual roles) of Norma Shearer and Fredric March, both brilliant and stunning. Shearer’s acting is so naturalistic it’s almost eerie; she elevates this potentially workmanlike studio concoction to some kind of art.
Smokey and the Bandit (1977, Hal Needham)
* Stupid but fun chase movie is harmless, mysteriously popular, and a technical marvel.
the snake pit (1948, Anatole Litvak) [r]
Alternately harrowing and mildly silly chronicle of the disorienting, often diabolical treatment endured by a woman (Olivia de Havilland) after she’s committed for reasons she finds obscure. Using Mary Jane Ward’s semi-memoir as an inspiration, Litvak’s stroke of genius here is to drop us in the deep end with de Havilland without explanation; we piece the past together slowly along with her, so our identification is powerful. His surreal, almost horror-like interpretations of medical treatment and attendant fantasies and nightmares makes The Exorcist look dumber yet, and the institutional scenes, while dated, feel honestly unflinching in their chaos.
The Snapper (1993, Stephen Frears) [hr]
Roddy Doyle’s touching comedy about the effects of a pregnancy on a blue-collar Irish family is packed with wry observation and quietly poignant moments, most of them involving the father played with almost stressful accuracy by Colm Meaney. Simply wonderful.
Snatch (2000, Guy Ritchie) [c]
At least this tightly plotted but fatally empty Pulp Fiction imitation is better than Ritchie’s other work and has a mildly funny Brad Pitt performance. Style-flaunting wank all too convinced of its own badassery, otherwise, and inevitably unwatchable for most people older than 20.
Sneakers (1992, Phil Alden Robinson) [r]
You think a movie about hackers stopping a world takeover sounds boring? Fortunately, this is Hollywood, which means the hackers don’t look like hackers, they look like Sidney Poitier, Robert Redford, River Phoenix, etc. Which makes this a totally badass trash-film even though it stretches plenty of credibility toward the end. A worthy successor to Wargames (from the same writers).
Snoopy, Come Home (1972, Bill Melendez) [r]
The story isn’t as poignant as that of A Boy Named Charlie Brown and the animation is generally less impressive, but Snoopy and Woodstock rivet on their long, eventful journey, and the songs are explosive.
Snowpiercer (2013, Joon-ho Bong)
Science fiction-tinged actioner with George Romero-like sociopolitical commentary doesn’t lack for imagination despite its bloat and excessive violence; it’s about a train speeding eternally — through a post-apocalyptic, frozen Earth — that’s been segregated by class, and a revolt against its power structure. The premise and art direction are good, the shots of black comedy welcome; the plot itself is popcorn traditionalism fused with the easy “subversion” of V for Vendetta.
Snow White (1916, J. Searle Dawley) [r]
Not quite restored due to a few climactic scenes missing, this is the version of the Grimm tale that Walt Disney is said to have seen as a teenager and that he remembered when he began work on his first feature; you can draw a line from many of the dramatic beats and tropes of his masterpiece back to this film and presumably the 1912 play that inspired it. Despite the usual static camera, the early Paramount production boasts solid production values and rather good performances, especially by lovely Marguerite Clark in the title role, and some wonderful animal action. This story has been filmed so many times that it can be hard for any less iconic interpretation to stand out, but for historical significance alone this is worth seeing, and its bare, homespun nature is quite engaging.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937, David Hand) [A+]
Bruising and delicate cinematic masterpiece, told through song and color; this is no kiddie film. It’s an exotic, brooding innovator with unforgettable characters, all of them exceptionally believable, many genuinely horrifying scenes (the sequence of Snow White running from the woodsman would not be allowed in a so-called “family movie” today), and a haunting degree of ambiguous sympathy. The character animation, of course, remains some of the best ever seen in a feature film, and the songs are all classic for good reason. As stunning today as ever.
Soapdish (1991, Michael Hoffman) [c]
* Kevin Kline and a few amusing gags about the soap opera business can’t help this sinking ship of a comedy about heartaches and harmonies amid the cast of a trashy soap called Search for the Sun. Pretty dated.
S.O.B. (1981, Blake Edwards) [hr]
* One of the angriest films a major director has ever put out; acidic satire of the movie biz is cynical on a level with Billy Wilder, but gets more personal (and therefore draws more blood) than Wilder could’ve. Quite an interesting film, but your tolerance for vitriol may result in a variance of enjoyment.
The Social Network (2010, David Fincher) [hr]
Fincher’s painstakingly detailed film of a lyrical Aaron Sorkin script about Mark Zuckerberg’s creation and founding of Facebook is, in its effortless provocation of debate and discussion about its antihero’s personal merit, in its simultaneous distortion and mirroring of reality, and in its capturing of the hope, loss, and ache of its time, the closest our generation has thus far to a Citizen Kane.
So Dear to My Heart (1949, Harold Schuster) [c]
* A boy and his sheep. The live action is dull, the songs are okay, the animation is great as usual but what the hell is it doing here? Surprising miss from Disney before they began putting out full-on live action pictures.
Some Like it Hot (1959, Billy Wilder) [hr]
Desperate for employment, a pair of musicians dress as women in order to get a job as part of an all-female band. Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis are both amazing, in drag and out of it, and Marilyn Monroe is ideally cast as a naive draemer. From the androgynous innuendo to the playfully multilayered dialogue (the screenplay is almost Shakespearean), the movie rolls around in its own perversion yet stands as an intelligent and brutally grounded comedy. It finds time for everything from class status to romanticism to gender roles to mobsters.
Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983, Jack Clayton) [r]
Jason Robards is wonderful — and Jonathan Pryce a great villain — is this slow but rich adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s novel about a sinister carnival that comes to town. Creepy atmosphere comes off well, even if the narration is terrible and the climax is staged a bit too obviously.
Somewhere (2010, Sofia Coppola) [hr]
Malaise and inner crisis have never been presented with such beauty and empathy as by Coppola in this aching tone poem about a successful actor coping simultaneously with depression, the perpetual availability of sex, and an unexpected, lengthy visit from his estranged daughter. Slow-moving by nature, this film establishes and sustains its lovesick mood so effectively that its spell can remain cast for months in the viewer’s memory. Pretty much clinches my secret suspicion that Coppola is, gasp, an even better director than her father.
Songcatcher (2000, Maggie Greenwald) [NO]
A hell of a disappointing waste of a lot of great music and atmosphere, this Lifetime telefilm-like odyssey of a folklorist delving into the songs of Appalachia has no respect for its characters or its setting and ends up strongly suggesting that it was put together as an ironic screenwriting lesson on how to make something as hackneyed and tone-deaf as possible. By the way, if you ever are chased by a panther while traveling through time, don’t touch anything.
The Song of Bernadette (1943, Henry King) [r]
This overlong dramatization of the story of Bernadette Soubirous — whose claim of having witnessed a vision of the Virgin Mary ultimately led to her sainthood — is an uncharacteristically somber and explicitly religious film for the studio era, and it certainly beats the daylights out of the following year’s Going My Way as far as Hollywood films about spirituality go. Unfortunately Jennifer Jones’ Oscar-winning performance is a bit weak; she’s molded as an overly eager empty vessel and it’s sufficiently unreal to work against the otherwise engrossing story.
Song o’ My Heart (1930, Frank Borzage)
One of those circa-1930 films revolving entirely around the novelty of people talking (and singing) on film. Watchable now, but barely.
Son of the Pink Panther (1993, Blake Edwards) [NO]
* Roberto Benigni does himself no favors by trying to fill the shoes of Peter Sellers’. It is a crime that this is Edwards’ last film.
Sophie’s Choice (1982, Alan J. Pakula) [r]
One of the few films of Pakula’s that coasts on emotion instead of technique. It’s a soap opera, of course, and rather histrionic, but the movie sometimes suggests something wonderful all the same. Kevin Kline is brilliant in his screen debut, and the fusion of Holocaust drama with nostalgic coming-of-age haze is more seamless than it has any right to be. It could be a lot shorter, but it’s damned engrossing all the same.
Sounder (1972, Martin Ritt) [hr]
* Haunting film about Depression-era black family’s plight is brimming with subtleties resulting from Ritt’s incredible attention to detail. The performances are powerful, the story ideally paced and absorbing.
The Sound of Music (1965, Robert Wise) [r]
It’s like The Partridge Family except there are Nazis and parts of it will melt you.
The Southerner (1945, Jean Renoir) [r]
Renoir’s third American film is a much more successful variant on Louisiana Story, boasting that film’s undiluted glimpses of beauty and humanity with none of its aggressive corporate lobbying. It focuses on an impoverished family attempting to get a foothold in farming on an aged-out piece of property in Texas. Renoir and the cast resist melodrama, crafting a story in which small changes accumulate and attain emotional heft; the film’s realistic portrait of family life calls ahead to The River; yet the chief attraction here is Lucien Androit’s photography, helping Renoir capture this expansive world irresistibly.
South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut (1999, Trey Parker)
Parker and Stone may have been correct in their comment at the time this was released that Beavis and Butt-Head Do America didn’t do enough to distinguish itself from the TV show because the things they said and did were no stronger than what would have gotten onto MTV. What they seem to have missed is that mere bad words and outlandish ideas don’t make a great movie, especially when the show it’s going to be compared to is as wild as South Park. This film is fun, but one does feel that half an hour of this per week is quite enough.
Soylent Green (1973, Richard Fleischer) [c]
* Spoiler: It’s made from people in this silly sci-fi film worthy of MST3K.
Spaceballs (1987, Mel Brooks) [r]
* Brooks’ mostly on-target spoof of Star Wars and sci-fi in general is a bit too nice to its subject but does score big laughs all the way through. It’s spottier than any of his movies since The Twelve Chairs, but when it hits the ball, it’s usually a home run.
Spanglish (2004, James L. Brooks)
Adam Sandler plays a too-perfect husband, Tea Leoni his too-evil wife in this semi-serious, off-putting comedy about a restauranteur’s marriage and daughter problems as well as his hiring of a Spanish-speaking housemaid. Feels unfinished; relatively poor stuff from fine writer-director Brooks.
Spartacus (1960, Stanley Kubrick) [hr]
Some are fond of saying that this lacks Kubrick’s personal touch, and he did say many times that he felt distant from the material. There is undeniably a degree of moralizing in the script that Kubrick would not welcome were he in control, but this is still one of the greatest epic movies ever to come out of Hollywood, with rare literacy and restraint for the genre and excitement maintained from beginning to end, especially during the Roman sequences. Supporting cast is simply perfect, but Kirk Douglas does deliver in the title role.
The Spectacular Now (2013, James Ponsoldt) [hr]
The rare modern teen film that neither condescends to its arrogant protagonist nor makes him some kind of a stereotype, this heartfelt summer in the life of a winning but self-destructive adolescent boy discovering haunting patterns in his own life will ring painfully true for most viewers, even if it isn’t quite as even-handed with its female characters as you’d hope. Significant, among other things, for one of the sweetest, most realistic sex scenes in movie history.
Speed (1994, Jan De Bont)
* De Bont’s staging can hardly be faulted; this is as professional as action films get. But it is exactly like dozens of other movies, and if there is a certain intensity to the idea of a film in which a bus cannot stop, it’s also an idea that makes far too little sense to sustain a movie of this length.
Spellbound (1945, Alfred Hitchcock) [hr]
Gregory Peck is the new head of the psychological ward, but he’s actually not. Only Ingrid Bergman can help. Ambitious but flawed, this is the one with the Salvador Dali dream sequence. Peck is wrong for the role, the story takes its time to get rolling, and the stupefyingly awful Oscar-winning music score is easily the worst in any of the director’s films. Quite a curious hybrid of Hitchcock and Selznick sensibilities, not nearly as seamless as Rebecca but still absorbing.
Spellbound (2004, Jeffrey Blitz)
T-H-E-E-S N-U-R-D-Z A-R K-N-O-T E-N-N-T-U-R-T-A-N-I-N-G A-N T-H-E-Y-R-E P-A-R-R-E-N-T-S A-R S-H-A-L-L-O.
Spies (1928, Fritz Lang) [hr]
Fritz Lang’s follow-up to Metropolis bears as much responsibility for the cloak-and-dagger adventure genre as Underworld does for the gangster picture, even though it’s overly busy with plotty machinations, episodic and at times seemingly random in its structure. Lang’s wild choices are an asset throughout the picture, but they can’t fully overcome the unneeded and played-out hooey about love-is-all that arises from a forbidden relationship in the script.
Spies Like Us (1985, John Landis) [r]
* A fun globetrotting espionage comedy with several great nonsequitur gags. Mindless but good.
Spirited Away (2001, Hayao Miyazaki)
Well-designed, endlessly intriguing animated feature from Japan’s Studio Ghibli unfortunately matches its gentle empathy toward the introverted young girl, Sen, at its center with a ruthless determination to pile her on with irritatingly vapid fantasy-movie scenarios. The emotional pull and sense of wonder are there, but sacrificed by both overly busy plottiness and the rather dull character animation.
Splash (1984, Ron Howard) [r]
* Howard shows considerable promise in what remains one of his very best movies, all about Tom Hanks’ courtship of a mermaid. Delightfully bizarre debut from Disney’s then-brand new Touchstone arm delivers great work from all concerned, though of course it’s not anything with great depth.
Splendor in the Grass (1961, Elia Kazan) [hr]
Pain and the passage of time are the source of much of this film’s incisive, fiery lyricism — worthy undoubtedly of Nicholas Ray or Tennessee Williams in its potency — but the haunting that lingers most is in Natalie Wood’s documentation of the universal impossibility of adolescence, and specifically of the unfairness of being a woman in a world of shaming and repression. Its truths and insights are heart-stopping in their compassion but also their bleakness.
Spotlight (2015, Tom McCarthy) [hr]
This methodical play-by-play of the Boston Globe’s investigative team uncovering the scale of that city’s perception-altering, distressingly broad Catholic sex abuse scandal is one of the most exciting mainstream films in a long while. McCarthy imparts potentially confusing information expertly, and renders the researching and writing of newspaper articles into something as riveting as Indiana Jones escaping a snake pit.
Spring Breakers (2012, Harmony Korine) [r]
Funnier than John Hughes.
Spy (2015, Paul Feig) [r]
Funny vehicle for Melissa McCarthy, which features her as a CIA agent fighting hard on her first field assignment, functions well enough as a parody of action franchises, though its best moments come with its Get Smart-like depictions of mundane reality colliding with license-to-kill escapades. Miranda Hart nearly steals the film in her precious few scenes.
The Spy Who Loved Me (1977, Lewis Gilbert)
* Interesting Bond film includes Barbara Bach. Probably the best of the series for that reason, but the action sequences are also pretty good.
The Squid and the Whale (2005, Noah Baumbach) [hr]
Not quite on the same level with Ang Lee’s Ice Storm, this stark, intensely detailed autobiographical portrait of a broken American family in the ’70s — the children raised by aloof, self-involved intellectuals — is nevertheless powerful, personal and identifiably real.
Sssssss (1973, Bernard L. Kowalski)
* Hyped-up B-movie about a snake-obsessed doctor tormenting his summer intern, who’s fucking his daughter. Dumb but harmless, although the concluding images are a rather disgusting ripoff of Freaks.
Stagecoach (1939, John Ford) [hr]
Exciting black and white western is credited as a primary inspiration for Citizen Kane. It’s a cinematic marvel, with exquisite photography and editing, and the expert characterization adds immeasurably to its undeniable power.
Stage Door (1937, Gregory La Cava) [r]
Despite layers and layers of verbal barbs, this is a believable and insightful slice-of-life about a group of actresses in a boarding house — neither comedy nor drama, just funny and straightforward — lit up by a refreshing number of realistic interactions between women who are treated as fully realized people. The only disruption comes from an interjection of plot, about a disputed role and a depressed actress who’s desperate for it. Despite some barriers of attitude and convention, the same film could essentially be made now, only presumably without the likes of Ginger Rogers, Eve Arden, Katharine Hepburn, Lucille Ball and Constance Collier.
Stage Fright (1950, Alfred Hitchcock) [c]
A drama student runs around investigating a murder in Hitchcock’s first movie made in London since 1939. Bad acting, bad dialogue, a bad plot; the charm of the production can’t save it. This is Hitchcock’s worst U.S.-produced film; he seems completely distracted for the first time since the pre-1934 period.
Stalag 17 (1953, Billy Wilder) [hr]
Masterful comedy/drama follows the moral toll gradually taken on a group of POWs in a German camp in WWII — William Holden brilliantly plays the suspected leak causing all escape attempts to falter. A hard-nosed cynic, Holden sets out to prove his own innocence in a story masterfully built and expanded, the suspense sustained perfectly, all while goofball comedy and intense character-driven emotion rage on in the background. As so often with Wilder’s films, you get far, far more than you paid for.
Stalker (1979, Andrei Tarkovsky)
Monochromatic in appearance, trancelike and oppressive in its slowness, this celebrated Russian science fiction tells the story of three men attempting to enter the Zone, a fantastic place whose true nature is never properly explained. Watching this is similar to taking a ponderous walk around a nuclear test site with a couple of philosophy majors — its influence and seriousness are undeniable, but for someone not on its wavelength it’s merely a source of frustration.
Stand and Deliver (1987, Ramon Menendez) [r]
* A movie about inner-city kids learning calculus doesn’t sound like the most thrilling proposition, but this film’s low budget and remarkable sincerity keep it grounded and believable, with refreshingly little melodrama.
Stand by Me (1986, Rob Reiner) [hr]
Stephen King’s short story “The Body” about twelve year-olds going off to look for a dead body is brought to the screen in witty, bittersweet fashion by Reiner, who is helped a great deal by his four hugely impressive young actors, especially River Phoenix and Wil Wheaton. Despite withering glares at aloof parenting, this is a bit of a romanticized view of adolescence — regardless of time period (the late 1950s) — but at least they do get the amount of coarse language right.
Stardust Memories (1980, Woody Allen) [hr]
Surreal, narratively sophisticated movie about filmmaker confronting and conversing with his fans and former lovers is both confusing and delightful. Non-fans will just be disgusted, but those who don’t mind the indulgence will find plenty to love, with one sequence in particular a divine showcase of naked emotion.
A Star Is Born (1937, William A. Wellman) [r]
Ludicrous, albeit pleasantly of its time, but as good a reason as any to bask in Janet Gaynor’s Technicolor glow.
Starting Over (1979, Alan J. Pakula) [c]
James L. Brooks’ script does contain some scattered kernels of truth, and Burt Reynolds’ performance is honestly wonderful, too good for one to recommend skipping the movie. But this story of a divorced man dealing with two women in his life is half-baked and shrill much of the time, and far too long.
Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979, Robert Wise) [NO]
* A gargantuan bore, this attempt by the Trek people to try and capitalize on the bewildering success of Star Wars made money but is even more tepid than the staid TV show on which it’s based. It does, however, inherit the show’s poor acting and annoying scientific rambling.
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982, Nicholas Meyer) [c]
* While the fans would never admit it, this is more of the same, it just moves a little faster.
Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989, William Shatner) [NO]
* Extremely annoying film with all the usual tricks and gags and by-now-routine attempts at Wonder. Sadly, it was not the Final anything.
Star Wars (1977, George Lucas) [c]
Fresh off the urban mythmaking of American Graffiti, Lucas moves to space with technology-centric, infantile dreamweaving, entirely cold and calculated by a guy who’d do anything to avoid having to write about people. It’s laughable for Lucas to have suddenly decided — when his cornball Boomer fantasy, complete with a princess and a dark knight, became a smash hit — to try and convince people to take his Saturdary morning cardboard cutouts seriously by branding this “Episode IV.” Rarely has anything so empty, so nakedly and self-consciously dumb managed to gather up so much pretension.
State & Main (2000, David Mamet)
* Mamet slams Hollywood uniformity and calls this satire? There are good, funny performances here, but the writing is anything but incisive.
State Fair (1933, Henry King) [hr]
A warm slice of life that demonstrates completely unforced affection toward its characters without condescension, this is a remarkable portrait of farm folks taking a break from their routine long enough to enjoy the annual fair. It never forces the issue of their bond or affection, which makes it more persuasive than the modern gooey Hollywood process of reinforcing the Unbreakable Magic Power of Family, and sets forth no controversy when the two almost-grown progeny (Janet Gaynor, Norman Foster) step out on their own and enjoy life and flings with people they happen to meet. None of what happens corresponds to any sort of preordained structure, it’s just life flowing with a poignant sense of the weight of the varied speeds at which time seems to pass, all interspersed with amusing bits of business — hogs, shady merchants, roller-coasters. But what strikes you most is how love is palpably in the air.
Stations of the Cross (2014, Dietrich Brüggemann) [r]
Compelling, minimalist allegory about a pious teenage girl whose life begins to parallel the images of the title, as a result of her fantasies of sainthood and closeness with God, her desire for her autistic brother to be healed, and the temptations and frustrations of life in school and around her impossible mother. The performances are exquisite, especially Lea van Ackena’s as young Maria, as is Brüggemann’s choice to film each scene in one take, usually holding to a specific composition; this renders the story’s progression hypnotic. However, the screenplay lays on the metaphor a bit too thick, and while the characterizations are complex, the anti-fundamentalism message, however righteous, feels a bit too easy and smug. Several of the scenes do work as extraordinary drama even just as stand-alones, especially when outsiders look in on the tragic irony of it all, as in the gym class and doctor’s office sequences.
Stay Tuned (1992, Peter Hyams) [r]
* Over the top, ham-fisted comedy sucks John Ritter and Pam Dawber into their new TV set and forces them to participate in the shows on the air, caught in their own personal hell. Critically drubbed but quite adventurous and often funny, Hyams comes up with something pretty okay here, and it even has a message (turn off the damn TV!) that isn’t exactly irrelevant.
Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928, Charles Reisner) [hr]
Special effect and stunt-laden comedy with Buster Keaton as the bumbling son of a cranky steamboat captain, falling in love and courting disaster. Not particularly funny, apart from a few good moments, but lots of fun and a hell of a spectacle. The story material often just seems a thin springboard for Keaton’s awesome physicality.
St. Elmo’s Fire (1985, Joel Schumacher) [NO]
* “You’re tearing me apart,” James Dean whines in Rebel Without a Cause. It was the worst moment in that film, the only one that really stretched dramatic credibility, but it’s not entirely unrealistic. Schumacher basically spends two hours complaining about post-college existence and you know that every irritating, immature character is just him venting his petty frustrations and taking far more time to do it.
The Stepford Wives (1975, Bryan Forbes) [r]
* Solid adaptation of Ira Levin’s quick, rather silly novel has ample energy, some menace, and a good sense of humor.
Still Alice (2014, Richard Glatzer & Wash Westmoreland) [c]
Julianne Moore slumbers through a trite story about a woman with early-onset Alzheimer’s and how it affects her yuppie family, especially a daughter she won’t stop pestering for doing what she wants with her life. Shot like a Lifetime movie, this is genetic and implausible and there’s essentially no good reason why it exists.
The Sting (1973, George Roy Hill) [r]
Feel-good Oscar-winning gobbledygook is one big put-on about Depression-era crooks Butch Sundance and the Cassidy Kid running a scam on rich tightwad Robert Shaw. Better than you expect — with a number of great setpieces and solid moments of reflection, comedy and suspense — but not nearly as good as its collection of awards might suggest, and the ending is an annoying fuck-you to the viewer.
Stir Crazy (1980, Sidney Poitier) [r]
* Wilder and Pryor get shoved through the grinder in an unassuming comedy that is entirely successful on its own terms, irresistible for fans of the performers.
Stolen Kisses (1968, Francois Truffaut) [r]
Lively but somewhat slight sequel to The 400 Blows eschews that film’s heady drama in favor of laughs and some shreds of scattered poignance, most memorably in a seduction scene involving the wife of Antoine’s boss. Doinel takes a job as a detective, courts Claude Jade, bumbles through life post-Army. Truffaut’s comments about the hazy nature of love are a bit understated and broad, but the movie is entertaining all the same.
A Stolen Life (1946, Curtis Bernhardt) [r]
* Riveting but unoriginal film about twin sisters played by Bette Davis, one stealing the other’s identity. Ideally lightweight fun.
Stop Making Sense (1984, Jonathan Demme) [A+]
Powerhouse of cinematic and musical genius combined documents the final concerts played by Talking Heads, in head-spinning nine-piece form, in December 1983. The songs are brilliant, the physical and aural performances unforgettable, Demme’s direction astounding. Not only is it very nearly the best rock & roll movie ever made, it’s one of the best movies ever made, period, with the paranoia and often enrapturing dimension of the Heads’ music providing narrative threads and strength. You’ll dance your ass off, and it could save your fucking life.
Stories We Tell (2012, Sarah Polley) [r]
There is considerable ache and cinematic imagination to this deceptively straightforward documentary about the hidden realities of Polley’s own parentage, but as in so many films of its type, its navel-gazing intimacy seems like a smokescreen to hide the fact that the director betrays surprisingly little insight into herself here. That guardedness is likely deliberate, but it’s disappointing when the film is so unflinching in digging into the past and the nature of family.
The Story of Adele H (1975, Francois Truffaut) [c]
Isabelle Adjani gives the performance of a lifetime as Victor Hugo’s daughter, embroiled in unrequited love, but Truffaut is strangely aloof here, completely detached from the proceedings for once in his life. The movie is interesting but full of weaknesses.
A Story of Floating Weeds (1934, Yasujiro Ozu) [r]
An elegant and beautiful silent tale of domestic mores from Ozu, shot gorgeously with aching minimalism on the part of its actors, especially Takeshi Sakamoto as Kihachi, a well-loved actor who largely abandoned his son to continue working. Admirable but more emotionally distant than Ozu’s best work, though still absorbing and visually arresting.
The Story of Louis Pasteur (1936, William Dieterle)
Less of a fragmented mess than the subsequent Life of Emile Zola but also less cinematic, this straightforward biopic does a decent job of cataloging Pasteur’s accomplishments and, to that end, is an inspiring tribute to scientific curiosity and reason, but its dramatics are stilted, particularly the dialogue. Aside from Paul Muni’s typically larger than life performance, the film is basically artless. Breezy and fitfully interesting though it is, to classify it as an entertainment born of any kind of visible passion would be a stretch.
The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum (1939, Kenji Mizoguchi) [hr]
Sensitively presented, tragic tale of a Kabuki actor spurned by his family after he falls for his brother’s wet nurse, and a painfully accurate if partly accidental treatise on the way society punishes women. Mizoguchi’s use of long takes, master shots as opposed to close-ups, and complex dollys give the feel of life happening before our eyes despite the melodramatic intensity of the story being told; every scene is absorbing and richly detailed, made all the more touching by the fine, understated performances of Shôtarô Hanayagi and Kôkichi Takada in the two leading roles.
Storytelling (2002, Todd Solondz) [hr]
Two shorts dealing with the nature of storytelling are threaded together. “Fiction” explores how a real event portrayed in a short story by a naive college student leads to her being branded a racist. “Non-Fiction” goes so far as to question the motivations of filmmaking, with Paul Giamatti as a smarmy documentary filmmaker recording the life of an unmotivated teenaged boy, forming it into an unbalanced portrayal not of a human being but of a stereotype. Both sequences end with maddeningly wonderful kissoffs.
The Straight Story (1999, David Lynch) [hr]
This isn’t your run-of-the-mill David Lynch picture; rated G, produced for the Walt Disney studio, and free of bouts of camp or surrealism, it’s more Melvin and Howard than Twin Peaks, an Americana-drenched true tale of Alvin Straight (Richard Farnsworth, wonderful) as a man determined to reach his estranged brother, who’s just had a stroke, by mounting his riding lawn mower from Iowa to Wisconsin. Disarming and moving, the film becomes even more poignant given Farnsworth’s death shortly afterward. Should also make an interesting double bill with Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas.
The Strange Case of Angelica (2010, Manoel de Oliveira) [c]
Not to cast a cynical eye on the dramatic choices of a filmmaker past 100 but this is an extremely silly story, performed broadly — which is the only way the rather vague dialogue will allow. Any lyricism is drowned out by the mystical mumbo-jumbo of both the ghost story and the looking-off-into-the-distance-saying-profound-things mooniness.
The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears (2013, Hélène Cattet & Bruno Forzani)
Giallo burlesque is hypnotic, visually sumptuous and totally engaging for about thirty minutes then painfully repetitive. For genre fans only.
Strange Invaders (1983, Michael Laughlin) [r]
* Good, not great movie about aliens invading middle America has style to spare, is quite fascinating in the middle third, but begins slowly and ends pathetically.
The Strange Little Cat (2013, Ramon Zurcher)
Idle, slightly tense slice of life about a family’s comings and goings over a single day in a flat in Berlin; nothing much happens, just a few meaningful glances and some amusing exchanges, plus kids being kids, young adults being young adults, etc. Convincingly natural and well-performed but not for all or even most tastes; it’s just rambling with no payoff, quite deliberately.
Strange Powers: Stephin Merritt and the Magnetic Fields (2010, Kerthy Fix & Gail O’Hara) [r]
Passable documentary about the great oddball band features some lovely performances but suffers from extreme VH1 Behind the Music syndrome — the attempted interjection of drama and excitement where there isn’t any. Just music would’ve been preferable. Essential for fans, though.
The Stranger (1946, Orson Welles) [hr]
Welles’ biggest commercial hit is flawless entertainment, a gripping thriller about a detective on the trail of a Nazi hiding out in a small town, where he’s been embraced as a great teacher and top citizen. Edward G. Robinson and Welles both deliver bold performances in this exquisitely detailed, suspenseful adventure that maintains breakneck pace up to its conclusion. It may be conventional by Welles’ standards, but it’s still masterful.
Stranger by the Lake (2013, Alain Guiraudie) [r]
Evocative of Monet and Corot paintings as much as the thrillers that inspired it, this is a languid story of life by the water (at a cruising spot for gay men) as much as it’s a murder mystery — that it achieves both ends while remaining not just coherent but visually stunning justifies a story that sometimes seems to run at cross-purposes with itself. The characters are mysterious yet vivid, with many layers of humor and tragedy suggestive of film noir.
Strangers on a Train (1951, Alfred Hitchcock) [A+]
A nutcase meets a tennis player on a train, tries to get him involved in “exchange murder” scheme. Incredibly layered film with unforgettable performances all around, more character driven than usual and just as disturbing as Psycho. Robert Walker, stuck previously in typecast “best-pal” roles, gives one of the best performances in cinema as the conniving monster. The stage is here set for Hitchcock’s peak period; this film contains his best action sequence, the stunning merry-go-round climax, and what might be the best scene he ever shot, the horrifyingly erotic amusement park murder toward the beginning.
Stranger Than Fiction (2006, Marc Forster) [r]
Typically slick Forster product pits apparently fictional IRS employee Ferrell against his creator, bestselling author Emma Thompson. Wildly uneven film scores some level of heartfelt truth in the romantic scenes involving Maggie Gyllenhaal as a baker. There’s some visual imagination and eloquent wit here; it’s a pity the story ultimately rings hollow.
The Stratton Story (1949, Sam Wood)
Unremittingly jolly and slick baseball biopic shows Sam Wood succumbing to the MGM anonymity more than usual, but is watchable thanks to James Stewart and June Allyson’s unsurprisingly luminous lead performances, while Agnes Moorehead accidentally gets some comic mileage out of Stratton’s unflappably dour mother. But at nearly every turn, the film ignores its opportunities to do anything interesting, despite a story that encompasses hobos, dance lessons, amputations and slot machines.
Straw Dogs (1971, Sam Peckinpah) [hr]
A pacifist mathematician allergic to confrontation has grown terrified of life in America and relocates to the UK with his British wife, not counting on the horrifying brutes they are to encounter there. Stunning, oppressive thriller remains controversial but leaves the viewer to decide on the moral issue and simply presents its fascinating, often shocking story in visceral, involved fashion. Dustin Hoffman gives his best performance ever, and the atmosphere of threat is nearly as potent as in Deliverance. Peckinpah titillates and dismays at every turn in this completely arresting film.
Stray Dog (1949, Akira Kurosawa) [A+]
Prototypical buddy-cop movie from Japan is, unlike the numerous films that have taken all of their narrative cues from it, an actual masterpiece of rain-drenched paranoia and doubt in a city full of loathsome figures that manages to out-noir the film noir that influenced it. Riveting up to its hauntingly uncertain conclusion; improbably, this modern-day treatise is one of Kurosawa’s most powerful films.
Stray Dogs (2013, Tsai Ming-liang) [c]
“Slow cinema” + misery porn = not for me.
Street Angel (1928, Frank Borzage) [hr]
Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell essentially reprise their roles from 7th Heaven and the virtues are nearly uncountable: the astounding camerawork, the surreal sets, the phenomenal acting, and director Borzage’s endlessly striking ability to capture odd, eerily real little moments, especially moments between couples. To boot the tale has a sweep, scope and feminist streak that put it in the neighborhood less of Borzage’s other films than something like Pandora’s Box. But the finale sours it a bit; like Sjostrom’s The Wind, it would be better if it went all the way with its cynicism.
A Streetcar Named Desire (1951, Elia Kazan) [r]
See it tonight! Brando mumbles! Vivien fawns! Tennessee expounds! And Kazan delivers an interesting movie, to say the least, with at least one top-caliber sequence. On the whole, the transition from play to movie is never justified, particularly given the stagebound hamminess of the two leads.
Strike (1925, Sergei Eisenstein) [A+]
One of the apogees of silent film, this propaganda feature about a union dispute that coalesces into violence in czarist Russia is rife with bold compositions and masterful, frenetic editing that has an almost physical impact. Not a frame is wasted.
Stripes (1981, Ivan Reitman) [c]
* Incomprehensibly overrated comedy with more tired Bill Murray wisecracking. When most comedians Get Serious in film roles later in life, it’s common to lament their loss of individuality. In Murray’s case, I can’t say I miss material like this at all.
Striptease (1996, Andrew Bergman) [NO]
* Showgirls had personality, and was fun to watch; this miserable film of Carl Hiaasen’s witty, good-natured novel is just a showcase of vile decadence and crude class commentary.
The Subject Was Roses (1968, Ulu Grosbard) [r]
Though much too stagey, this take on the Frank Gilroy play — about a WWII veteran returning home to find that nothing’s changed in the bitter, angry, tense home of his parents — is well acted and unfussily made, amplifying the text’s sincere and perceptive view of a toxic marriage. Patricia Neal, not long after her stroke, transcends the Broadway origins to give another natural, robust, effortlessly felt and resigned performance.
Submarine (2010, Richard Ayoade) [r]
Charming comedy of adolescence about a Welsh boy dealing with a deep rift between his parents while (of course) pining for a young lady is quite funny at times but suffers from a copious case of Post-Wes Andersonitis.
The Sugarland Express (1974, Steven Spielberg) [hr]
A beautiful, provocative film based on an actual story of a Texan couple escaping jail and going on the run to take their child back from his adoptive parents. Spielberg’s first theatrical feature is breathlessly exciting and surprisingly moving as he documents overgrown kids a long way from home, living out a cartoon, and the nation’s sensationalistic reaction. Absolutely first-rate filmmaking, up to the wounding final shot.
Sullivan’s Travels (1941, Preston Sturges) [A+]
A complete, hilarious delight, ambitiously mocking Hollywood and America’s perceptions of it. A film director expresses a dire need to address the human condition instead of churning out more of his benign comedies. Told that he knows nothing about poverty and thus is in no position to make a movie about it, he decides to go out and live like a bum. This is a comedy that is not afraid to go to extremes, with chases and hysterically anticlimactic plot turns, always leading somehow back to Hollywood. Joel McCrea and Veronica Lake are both exceptional.
Summer Rental (1985, Carl Reiner) [c]
* Some great laughs (“I’m watchin’ the Smurfs”) in the first half of this John Candy comedy, but all virtue is forsaken in favor of a weird detour involving a sailing competition, of all things, with a Jimmy Buffett-heavy soundtrack. What happened!?
The Sundowners (1960, Fred Zinnemann) [c]
Tiresome, one-dimensional, well-photographed “epic” drama of a nomadic sheep-shearing family in Australia and their inept attempts at settling down, dramatized through a whole procession of wildly bad decisions. The various animals depicted along the way provide more entertainment and charm than the bloated human narrative; a steely Deborah Kerr tries to rein in Robert Mitchum’s wheezing excess but fails. Though it’s not a comedy, it’s the kind of film in which a mass fistfight is viewed as both automatically funny and as an ideal form of communication. The climax dealing with a horse and some bad financial planning is really kind of infuriating.
Sunrise (1927, F.W. Murnau) [A+]
This is it: all of the lyricism and romance film can give us, at its peak ninety years ago. A man plots to kill his wife and has a sudden revelation seconds before he begins to strangle her. German expressionist maverick Murnau came to Hollywood with this restrained, deceptively simple, impossibly moving silent masterpiece. Cinema of such high and assured caliber it feels like the peak of the form, and calls many of the time-tested transitions and techniques of the ensuing eighty years into question.
Sunset Blvd. (1950, Billy Wilder) [A+]
Peerless, intoxicating story of beached silent film star Norma Desmond (should-have-won-the-Oscar Gloria Swanson) attempting to relive her glories by hiring a down-on-luck screenwriter (William Holden) to help make Her Next Picture. Given a Gothic touch by director and cowriter Wilder, this is a disturbing and cynical Hollywood masterpiece.
The Sunshine Boys (1975, Herbert Ross) [NO]
Two hours of old men (Walter Matthau and George Burns, the latter winning an especially unjustified Oscar) yammering badly written (by Neil Simon, naturally) jokes back and forth, some of them horribly racist. This seems to position itself as a tribute to vaudeville comedy, showing a reunion of a famous team from the era that can’t get along even with a big paycheck attached, but never indicates anything about its characters or their work that would be worth anyone’s affection.
Super 8 (2011, J.J. Abrams) [r]
There’s so much to love in this Abrams valentine to the Amblin Entertainment chestnuts of his youth — brilliant acting, well-crafted characterization, engrossing effects work and warm humor — that you can almost entirely look past how ill-conceived and poor the science fiction story itself is. Almost. At least it’s backgrounded by a surprisingly believable young romance and the timeless tale of young teenagers trying to make a zombie movie.
Superman (1978, Richard Donner)
* Spectacular and well-cast but empty superhero flick is worth seeing once, hasn’t enough depth in the writing to warrant a second trip.
Superman III (1983, Richard Lester) [NO]
* Lester throws Pryor in, tries to let the formula work itself out. It does, basically, but who honestly cares?
Superman and the Mole Men (1951, Lee Sholem)
* Extended pilot film for the George Reeves TV series is silly and very low-budget but entertaining.
Super Mario Bros. (1993, Rocky Morton) [NO]
* Look, they’ve made movies from worse ideas. I can’t think of any at the moment, but I know they have. And this does have Bob Hoskins. But it’s disgusting in every sense of the word and really could put even the biggest Mario fan (there are such people) to sleep.
Super Size Me (2004, Morgan Spurlock) [NO]
Smug asshole Spurlock offers dietary advice, documentary evidence of his own cry-for-attention foolishness. Reprehensible.
Support the Girls (2018, Andrew Bujalski) [r]
For the first hour, this subtly pro-worker slice of life about the comings and goings among the young female staff at a sports bar and their long-suffering, kind-hearted manager (Regina Hall in a flawlessly judged, sensitive performance) is an absolute dream of natural, believable energy and understated emotional complexity. It goes off the rails near the end but the dialogue never flags, nor does the actors’ reading of it, and it does get eloquently at the ruthless wheel-spinning, futility and exploitation at the center of life under capitalism, but somehow its departure feels too abrupt to suggest the kind of meaning that its characterizations deserve.
Suspicion (1941, Alfred Hitchcock) [hr]
Joan Fontaine begins to suspect that her husband, Cary Grant, is a killer. A suffocating psychological thriller, nearly as unforgiving and oppressive as Sabotage and Rebecca. Fontaine, as usual, is brilliant, and Grant is solid as a rock in what amounts to a villainous role. Though Hitchcock wanted a darker ending, the one we’ve got is ambiguous enough to be unsettling. A surprisingly slick early U.S. Hitchcock, considering it’s not a Selznick production.
Swamp Thing (1982, Wes Craven) [c]
* Innocuous silliness about title Thing’s unrequited love is ridiculous but it’s not going to hurt anybody.
Sweeney Todd (2007, Tim Burton) [hr]
Before he started in on this Wonderland shit, there was a time when it seemed like Burton could do almost anything.
Sweet Bird of Youth (1962, Richard Brooks) [r]
One of the better filmed versions of a Tennessee Williams faux-sophisticated soap opera. Paul Newman is an eager cabana boy waiting on drunken actress Geraldine Page, whom he carts back to his hometown to catch up with an ex-lover, daughter of an all-powerful political boss (Ed Begley). The story is gripping in its portrayal of American corruption even though it constantly stops in its tracks to allow for the usual overwrought, stagey monologue scenes.
Sweet Smell of Success (1957, Alexander Mackendrick) [hr]
Can you take a class to learn to talk like this? Hard boiled almost to the point of silliness, this absorbing, cynical noir about a press agent (Tony Curtis, brilliant) who serves as lapdog for a conniving columnist sinks the knife in thanks to the sparkling dialogue courtesy Ernest Lehman and Clifford Odets. But it also looks glorious — when Burt Lancaster, all steely uncaring eyes behind smoky lenses, mutters “I love this dirty town,” you can’t help but agree in this New York as black & white, coldhearted, and lit up with red-hot secrets as it is in our dreams and nightmares.
Swimming with Sharks (1994, George Huang) [hr]
Very bitter ex-Hollywood assistant Huang sends poor Frank Whaley, a green stud with Tinseltown glamour in his eyes, to work for ferocious big-time producer Kevin Spacey, incredible and seemingly bordering on insanity in what remains possibly his greatest performance. Funny and harrowing, this the blackest of black comedy, and will please those so inclined right up to the unrepentant ending.
Swing Time (1936, George Stevens) [hr]
Years after its method of pop communication went out of style, this outstanding music still rings loud and true in its expressions of unrequited love, lust and even alienation. From the moment Astaire and Rogers first dance together, it’s all cathartic and beautiful but what really lingers is the moment after they first kiss and are accidentally discovered doing so. They gaze into one another’s eyes in exhilarated, curious, breathless wonder, completely unsure what’s just happened and what will happen next.
Switch (1991, Blake Edwards) [NO]
* One of Edwards’ last bids for box office success changes a man to a woman to little effect; it’s still nothing unusual that might warrant getting out of bed to seek out.
The Sword in the Stone (1963, Wolfgang Reitherman)
Underwhelming at best, this somewhat forgotten Disney feature suffers from a rough-hewn appearance and its near-total absence of a full-fledged storyline. Certainly Disney buffs shouldn’t think of missing it, however, and there are ardent defenders.
Synecdoche, New York (2008, Charlie Kaufman) [A+]
Philip Seymour Hoffman gives a mournfully selfless performance as a playwright whose most ambitious project grows larger and larger until it begins to take up all of the space in his life, and the world at large. After a decade of strong screenplays, Kaufman takes the helm for a complex, personal, heroically funny and sad masterpiece recasting 8 1/2 and Stardust Memories as surreal, desolate psychodrama. So full of life, detail, and loss it can haunt your dreams for months.
Syriana (2005, Stephen Gaghan) [r]
One of the better “hyperlink cinema” parallel-story dramas so common in the early 2000s, though like the others it lacks the time to flesh out its characters (save George Clooney as a flustered, weary CIA agent). This revolves around a heavily investigated merger between two U.S. oil companies and its consequences in the Middle East, with heavy emphasis on an assassination plot against the foreign minister of the kingdom holding the much-demanded supply. Less complicated than it seems, it has good moments of tension and a great visual sensibility, and has aged more gracefully than most political thrillers of its time.