The 10 Best Movie Themes By John Williams – With Biographical Notes

Midway through The Holiday (2006), Jack Black and Kate Winslet are roaming through a video store when Black begins grabbing movies and doing a running commentary on their themes. One DVD case he selects is Jaws. “BA-BAM! Two notes and you’ve got a villain. I don’t know what to say about it. Totally brill.”

John Williams has composed totally brill movie and television themes for 60 years – long enough that his original credits listed him as “Johnny Williams.” He’s done over 150 scores in those years, and it’s not surprising he has the second most Oscar nominations, and the most for anyone alive, with 50 nominations and 5 wins. (The most nominations belong to Walt Disney, with 59.) Along with the Oscars, Williams has collected 7 BAFTAs, 4 Golden Globes, 5 Emmys, 22 Grammys, plus numerous gold and platinum records. Now midway through his 80s, he continues to work with Steven Spielberg, a partnership that has made Williams’s themes the soundtracks of our lives.

As often happens, Williams worked for 20 years to become an overnight success. Born in Flushing, Queens, in 1932, his father was a percussionist for CBS radio who also played with a jazz quartet. Williams was drawn to a different type of percussion instrument – the piano – and by 15 he determined he’d be a concert pianist. In 1948, when Williams was 16, his family relocated to Southern California. Soon he was leading his own jazz band and trying his hand at arranging, in addition to composing original music. He wrote a piano sonata at age 19.

Williams trained at Los Angeles City College and UCLA along with private studies under Robert Van Epps, who’d begun his career in the music department at MGM working on the orchestrations for The Wizard of Oz. He was also tutored by Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, an Italian who was the foremost composer of guitar pieces and who scored more than 200 films after coming to Hollywood just before WWII, including Gaslight and And Then There Were None. After a stint in the Air Force, Williams headed east to attend Julliard to study piano. He also worked as a jazz pianist in clubs and for recording sessions. After he completed his studies, Williams returned to California to work in the film and television industry.

In 1956, Williams composed his first theme for “Playhouse 90,” a popular anthology series, though most of his work in the 1950s was playing the piano for the theme music of TV shows. Williams played for “Peter Gunn” and “Mr. Lucky,” both scored by another great, Henry Mancini, and he even appeared as a piano player on the show “Johnny Staccato,’ a series about a jazz pianist/private detective that starred John Cassavetes.

At first his movie work was mostly uncredited, and included playing piano or orchestrating movies like Carousel, South Pacific, and Some Like It Hot. He worked with Mancini again on Charade and The Great Race. At the same time, he compose TV scores for “M Squad,” “Bachelor Father,” “Wagon Train,” “Kraft Theater,” and even “Lost In Space.” (He also did the music for Delbert Mann’s TV adaptation of “Heidi” that notoriously cut into a playoff football game just before Joe Namath staged a stunning comeback.)

By the mid-1960s, he’d worked his way up to scoring major pictures and adapting musicals for the screen, leading to his first Oscar nominations. Today there are only two musical Oscars, Best Original Theme and Best Original Song, but over the course of the Academy’s history there have been different breakdowns. In the 1960s there were two score Oscars, one of Original Theme, the other for Adaptation of the Score.  The long run of Oscar nominations and wins for Williams began in the Adaption category, first for adapting the score for Valley of the Dolls in 1968. His first win for adapting Fiddler on the Roof in 1971. More high-profile productions came his way in the 1970s, when he scored The Poseidon Adventure, Cinderella Liberty, The Paper Chase, The Towering Inferno, and The Eiger Sanction. But mixed in was the score he did for The Sugarland Express, Spielberg’s first feature film. That was the beginning of a partnership that’s lasted for forty years and made cinematic music history.

Following are my choices for the 10 best themes Williams has composed for the movies. Rather than make any quantitative judgment on which is best, they are listed simply in chronological order. Click on “Listen to the theme” to hear the music:

1) Jaws (1975)

It was a production-plagued by problems, most notably with Bruce, the animatronic shark that rarely worked. But you didn’t need to see the shark; all you needed was to hear those two notes…da-dum, da-dum, da-dum-da-dum. While the actual theme contained echoes of Aaron Copeland Americana, the string bass line was like a saw against the base of your skull. After the film’s explosive climax, Williams provides a glistening relief from the tension. You knew it was over, that you were safe – until Jaws 2 came out three years later. “Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the water…” (Listen to the Theme)

2) Star Wars (1977)

Can you even imagine Star Wars without the music? Or more to the point, when you hear the music, do you see the film again in your mind? It has provided a point of cohesion even as the story has expanded, with the stirring main theme, the threat inherent in the Imperial march, and the gracefulness of the love theme. A particular favorite piece for me is the score for the lightsaber battle between Luke and Darth Vader in Return of the Jedi. When Luke realized Vader knows about Leia, he attacks with all his power until he beats Vader to the ground and lobs off his hand. For that scene Williams adds a choral element to the music that lifts it to a religious climax of good against evil. (Listen to the Theme)

3) Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

This time it was 5 notes, but they became one of the most identifiable themes ever. Even 32 years later, the Dreamworks feature Monsters vs. Aliens could use the theme for a funny moment when the President (voiced by Stephen Colbert) plays the theme to make contact with an alien robot – and gets the last note wrong, as so many people did when they tried to plunk it out on a piano or keyboard. But it also leads to a thrilling scene at the base of Devil’s Tower as the alien mothership and the humans learn to communicate through a tone poem blitz. (Listen to the Theme)

NOTE: In 1980, Williams became the 19th music director for the Boston Pops Orchestra, succeeding the legendary Arthur Fielder. Williams held the baton for 14 seasons, until his retirement in 1993 when he became Laureate Conductor, a title he still holds.

4) Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

When Spielberg and Lucas worked together, there could be no question who would score their collaboration. With its soaring horns laid over a breathless beat, Williams captured the thrill of a 1930s movie serial updated for the modern viewer. What was most effective, though, was how Williams held the theme back. During the opening sequence in South America, the music is somewhat muted while it conveys foreboding. It’s only when Indiana Jones swings on a vine out to the biplane on the river that you hear the iconic theme for the first time, and then only for a short time. It teases you, promising more to come – and you’re hooked. (Listen to the Theme) and check out a short documentary at the end of this post on Williams scoring Raiders.

5) E.T. The Extraterrestrial (1982)

It’s a theme that makes you feel you can fly, for a very specific reason. You only get to hear the full, joyous theme when E.T. makes Elliot’s bicycle fly in front of the moon (one of the most iconic shots in the history of cinema), and again when the five bikes go airborne at the roadblock. (Listen to the Theme)

6) Jurassic Park (1993)

For this box office record setter, Williams used three main themes. There’s the regal, sublime wonder of the main theme, heard when the visitors see the brontosauruses for the first time. Before that, as the helicopter brings them to the island, you hear the thrilling fanfare with brass. And then there’s the third, a menacing 4-note theme that’s similar to Jaws. It’s used with great effect when Dr. Grant, Ellie, and the two children are menaced by the raptors in the main building. Then the T-Rex arrives to fight the raptors and the music switches to the fanfare. Williams could have won the Oscar for the score – he was nominated – but 1993 was a very good year for him. (Listen to the Theme)

7) Schindler’s List (1993)

Williams won the Oscar instead for Spielberg’s other film that year. It was his last statue, though he’s continued to be nominated, including this year with The Post. The haunting Schindler’s List theme, featuring Itzhak Perlman’s plaintive violin, manages to be a requiem that also holds out hope for life in the midst of the Holocaust. When Spielberg first showed Williams a cut of the movie, Williams had to excuse himself after it finished and go outside for several minutes to compose himself. When he came back in, Williams told Spielberg that he deserved a better composer for the project. Spielberg responded, “I know, but they’re all dead.” (Listen to the Theme)

8) Saving Private Ryan (1998)

The director Sam Fuller, who was at Normandy during the invasion, was asked why he never made a movie about the attack. He response was, who’d want to see a beach covered in guts and blood? But Spielberg didn’t shy away from an accurate depiction of the battle that blew away all the cinema heroism that had enshrouded WWII movies since the actual war. Williams’s score layers a melancholic melody over an underlying martial beat. It underlines the cost of war in sacrificed lives, and drives home Captain Miller’s final line: “Earn this.” (Listen to the Theme)

9) Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001)

While other composers would work on later entries in in the series, Williams set the theme for all the movies with his whimsical, twinkly music box waltz. It put a new generation under Williams’s spell and was featured in one form or another in all eight movies. To this day, you could say “Harry Potter” to someone under 25, and they would likely hear that music. (Listen to the Theme)

10) Catch Me If You Can (2002)

This theme is special to me because it’s a bit of a tribute to Williams’s old mentor, Henry Mancini. It has the quirky jazz feel that Mancini used, with syncopation that holds an echo of “Charade.” Yet it’s fully original and a perfect fit for the film. The theme music plays during the opening title sequence that is in itself a tribute to the iconic work of Saul Bass, who did the titles for movies such as Vertigo, The Man with The Golden Arm, and North by Northwest. (Listen to the Theme – and watch the credit sequence)

These are my choices, but if you have a particular Williams theme that you love that I haven’t mentioned, please feel free to note it in the comments.

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10 Natural Disasters – And the Best Movies Depicting Them

Movies have been showing disasters almost from the inception of the film camera. Thomas Edison had a team that managed to get onto Galveston Island and record the devastation following the 1900 Cat 4 hurricane that destroyed much of the city. For narrative films, in 1913 there was a depiction of the last days of Pompeii, and a comet causes widespread destruction in 1916’s The End of the World. With the increasing sophistication of special effects, and now digital effects, filmmakers can convincingly show disasters as part of their movies. Below are listed ten natural disasters, and my choice for the best movies to depict them. (I’ll include some honorable mentions as well.) Please feel free to add your suggestions in the comments.

1) Flood: The Wave (2015)

According to the Bible, God promised Noah never to destroy the whole world again in a flood. But that hasn’t stopped parts from being washed away. The Wave is a Norwegian film about the collapse of the side of a fjord that sends a massive wall of water down the inlet towards a city. As the preamble of the film states, the movie’s based on past events that will likely again happen in the future. Click here to read my full review of this film. (Honorable Mention: The Impossible)

2) Hurricane: The Hurricane (1937)

This is the oldest movie to make this list, but there are reasons for its inclusion. Foremost, it was directed by a Hollywood legend, John Ford. Also, special effects probably became an Academy Award category because of this film along with San Francisco a year earlier. (The award was added for 1938.) While the main story of a Polynesian native and his wife (Jon Hall and Dorothy Lamour, slipping into a sarong for the first time) being persecuted by the island’s governor (Raymond Massey) is pretty standard, the climatic storm is intense even viewed with today’s eyes, as you can see in this clip. (Honorable Mention: The Perfect Storm)

3) Plague: Contagion (2011)

Plagues have had devastating impacts on humans. The Black Death in the 14th Century killed 50 million, or 60% of Europe’s population, and the 1918 Influenza pandemic killed between 20-40 million worldwide, more than died in the four years of World War 1 leading up to the outbreak. For Contagion, Steven Soderbergh assembled a huge cast to populate this story of another worldwide pandemic. Along with depicting the plague and its effects, the movie is also a mystery story that slowly reveals the origin of the disease and its spread. My full review. (Honorable Mention: Outbreak)

4) Tornado: Into The Storm (2014)

In the age of storm chasers and compact video cameras, it’s hard to remember that tornadoes were once the rarest weather event caught on film. Now you can watch hours of them on YouTube. Likewise, visual effect twisters have come a long way from the 35 foot muslin tube around a chicken-wire frame used for the twister in The Wizard of Oz. While most people might choose my Honorable Mention, for me the best Tornado movie is Into The Storm. The film uses (for the most part) the found footage motif to assemble the story of an outbreak of storms that decimates a Midwestern city over the course of a few hours. Click here to read my full review. (Honorable Mention: Twister)

5) Earthquake: San Andreas (2015)

I could have selected San Francisco, another granddaddy of the disaster genre, with its depiction of the 1906 earthquake and fire. However, I chose San Andreas because, different from many disaster movies, it gives its main characters intelligence. While it’s thrilling, it could also be used as a public service announcement of what to do during a quake. Much of the action is over the top, especially with the number of high rise buildings that fall like dominos, though that’s not completely out of the question. The Millenium Tower in San Francisco has sunk a foot and a half since it opened 8 years ago, and it has tilted 2 inches to the northwest. It’s located in an area where the ground could liquefy during a major quake, so San Andreas might be prescient. My full review. (Honorable Mention: 1936’s San Francisco)

6) Volcano: Volcano (1997)

This disaster has an overabundance of dishonorable mention movies, including the geographically-challenged Krakatoa, East of Java, the Irwin Allen disaster of a disaster movie, When Time Ran Out, and the 2014 embarrassment Pompeii. 1997 saw two volcanic movies released, Dante’s Peak (with Pierce Brosnan and Linda Hamilton) and Volcano (with Tommy Lee Jones and Anne Heche). Neither are great, but I’m choosing Volcano because it has a cockeyed comic edge that helps you forgive the stereotypical characters and ham-fisted directing. Dante’s Peak, on the other hand, is deadly serious. Neither film erupted at the box office, but Volcano did have the one of the best movie poster tag lines ever: “The Coast Is Toast.” (Honorable Mention: 1961’s The Devil at 4 O’Clock)

7) Famine: Distant Thunder  aka Ashani Sanket (1973)

Famine is not a theme that is dealt with often in movies in North America or Europe. About the only time its possibility is faced is in science fiction, as seen in the honorable mentions. But in other places on the globe, famine is an immediate concern. Distant Thunder was made in 1973 by one of the greats of the Indian film industry, Satyajit Ray. Set in the middle of World War II, it focuses on the newly installed leader of a village in India, and on his wife. A famine grips the area and reaches catastrophic proportions. While the leader seeks to maintain his privileged position, his wife seeks to help the victims of the famine. (Honorable mentions: Interstellar, Soylent Green)

8) Climate Change: The Day After Tomorrow (2004)

One problem with depicting climate change is that it happens gradually. Yet the effects are there to be seen in warmer average temperatures, more intense weather events, and changes in water levels. The best movie on this subject would be An Inconvenient Truth (2006), which has a sequel being released later this year: An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power. But we’re not dealing with documentaries here. So while climate change is referenced in movies like Interstellar and Into the Storm, the narrative film that focused on climate change was The Day After Tomorrow. Disaster specialist Roland Emmerich put climate change on fast forward and postulated what would happen if the change, leading to a new ice age, occurred in weeks instead of gradually. While it’s a popcorn movie entertainment, it’s worth remembering that it came out the year before Hurricane Katrina and 8 years before Hurricane Sandy. Where we used to talk about the storm of the century, we’re now down to the storm of the decade. (Another reason for choosing it: Al Gore used a clip from the opening sequence of Day After Tomorrow in his film)

9) Asteroid/Meteor Impact: tie – Seeking A Friend For The End of the World (2012) and These Final Hours (2013)

There have been extinction-level events caused by asteroids or meteors, but not since man came on the scene. The Tunguska Event in Siberia in 1908 was the largest in recorded history, caused by an object estimated to have been 200 to 600 feet in size. Rather than impact, it blew up in the air with the force of 10-15 megatons – about 1000 times more powerful than the Hiroshima A-bomb – and flattened 830 square miles of trees in an uninhabited area of Siberia. That’s large enough to destroy New York City and much of the surrounding area. But there are objects out there that are measured in miles. If they hit us, that would be the end. Two movies in 1998 – Armageddon and Deep Impact – had astronauts saving the world by breaking up the asteroid, but the fallacy of both movies is that there’d be a lengthy warning of the approaching object that would allow a mission to be launched. Instead, it’s likely we’d only have a short time to prepare for the end. Seeking a Friend… and These Final Hours both deal with that eventuality, though from different perspectives. Seeking a Friend… is pre-impact and follows Steve Carell trying to help Kiera Knightly get home to England before the end. It treats the situation as black comedy. These Final Hours is an Australian film set after the impact with a firestorm wave sweeping around the world. In the twelve hours before destruction reaches Australia, a ne’er-do-well discovers his humanity by helping a young girl separated from her parents. (Both films are currently available on Netflix.)

10) Miscellaneous Catastrophe: The Children of Men (2003)

Films have presented disaster in many massive ways: a solar flare microwaving the Earth (Knowing); the disruption of the magnetic field (The Core); the liquefaction of the center of the earth causing catastrophic movement of the continents (2012). But Alfonso Cuaron’s 2006 film Children of Men, based on the P.D. James novel, has the world thrown into apocalyptic disarray because no children have been born in over two decades. England has become a dystopia where immigrants are herded into ghettos while society slides towards oblivion. But then a man (Clive Owen) is recruited by his estranged wife (Julianne Moore) to shepherd a young African woman out of England to meet a ship filled with scientists. The catch is the young woman is pregnant. This movie was sabotaged in the theaters by one of the worse trailers ever, but it’s a powerful film with scenes that stay with you long after the movie ends. (Semi-honorable mention: If you haven’t seen The Core, it’s worth a shot. While the premise is ridiculous, its cast is filled with exceptionally good actors and it has a gonzo sense of humor that serves it well.)

10 Best Movies That Touch On The Afterlife

It’s a theme that has occupied man from the dawn of civilization: what comes next? And if there is a “next” what’s it like. In fiction, the afterlife has appeared in stories for almost as long as there have been stories, such as Orpheus descending into the netherworld to rescue his love Eurydice. Dante tried to envision the Medieval Catholic view of judgment and the three-tiered afterlife in his Divine Comedy. Charles Dickens touched on it in his popular “A Christmas Carol” with its story of a second chance to change fate. There have been plenty of movies with afterlife themes since the creation of the cinema. Many of them have been bad or mediocre, but a few have handled the subject with insight or humor or heart-tugging drama. The following, in no particular order, are my choices for the best of the genre.

Warning: It’s unavoidable to have spoilers here since with some of these films the afterlife aspect is tied in with the climax of the film.

Heaven Is For Real (2014)

 

Sadly, the words “Christian” and “Movie” rarely are combined with “Good.” Too many are painfully simplistic with stick characters while some try to scare people into belief, such as the “Left Behind” series. Heaven Is For Real avoids those pitfalls and does a decent job communicating honest faith. Greg Kinnear and Kelly Reilly play the parents of a young boy who goes through a serious illness. When he recovers, he begins to describe visiting Jesus in Heaven during the illness. The movie doesn’t gloss over the struggles the family has, especially for Kinnear’s character who’s a minister having a crisis of faith. It likely helped that the movie was directed and co-written by Randall Wallace (Braveheart, The Man in the Iron Mask).

Field Of Dreams (1989)

 

“Is this Heaven?” “No, it’s Iowa.” “Iowa? I could have sworn this was Heaven.” Existential philosophy meets baseball, and magic is made. Through the filter of baseball the movie deals with the connections between our lives and the lives of those who have gone before us. Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner) spends the movie thinking he’s helping others, only to discover at the end he’s helped himself reconcile with his father. One interesting side note: Doc Archibald “Moonlight” Graham (played by Burt Lancaster and Frank Whaley) was a real person. There were some minor changes made – his lone game was in 1905, rather than the end of the 1922 season as stated in the film – but the stories about Doc Graham in the movie are based on interviews with people who actually knew him.

The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947)

 

What if you meet your soul mate after he’s dead? That’s the conundrum at the heart of The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. In 1900, the young widow Mrs. Muir (Gene Tierney) rents an oceanfront cottage only to discover it’s haunted by the previous owner, Captain Daniel Gregg (Rex Harrison). At first they’re antagonistic, but then it becomes growing respect and interdependent. Then a mistake drives them apart. But years later, when she’s old and frail, the Captain returns. When Mrs. Muir passes from this life, she’s freed from her broken-down body and we see her spirit, young and beautiful again. The afterlife is where they can experience together the joy that was denied them on Earth. That’s a decent description of Heaven.

Between Two Worlds (1944)

 

The play “Outward Bound” premiered on Broadway in 1925 and ran for 144 performances. It was filmed in 1930 with much of the original cast, including Leslie Howard in the lead role. The remake in 1944 was retitled Between Two Worlds and it incorporated WWII into the story. The main role went to John Garfield, though the supporting cast featured many outstanding Warner Brothers contract players, including Paul Henreid, Sydney Greenstreet, and Edmund Gwen. The story deals with several Londoners who are killed in an air raid and then awaken on an ocean liner on their way to either Heaven or Hell. Their stories are told in flashback. It is a product of its age, with the emphasis on judgment and fear of damnation. One interesting sidenote: the original version’s star Leslie Howard had volunteered for the British Army after the war started. It’s believed he was on an assignment for British Intelligence when a plane he was on, bound for Lisbon, was shot down by the Luftwaffe. Howard along with everyone else on board was killed, the year before Between Two Worlds came out.

What Dreams May Come (1998)

 

Like Between Two Worlds there’s an element of judgment and damnation in What Dreams May Come, but it also incorporates an element of grace and reconciliation. With the death of Robin Williams, this movie has become quite poignant. It’s based on a novel by Richard Matheson, who’d had a hand in 16 episodes of the classic “Twilight Zone” as well as numerous novels and short stories that were adapted as movies (including Duel, I Am Legend, and Stir of Echoes). Williams plays a doctor whose two children die in an accident. Later the doctor also dies and awakens in a Heaven that’s created from his favorite painting done by his artist wife. He meets two helpers as he adapts to Heaven, Albert (Cuba Gooding Jr.) and Leona (Rosalind Chao). Later he discovers that they are the spirits of his two children. They chose how he’d see them based on offhand comments he’d made to them. But in an echo of Orpheus, Williams must leave Heaven and negotiate his way through Hell to save his wife (Annabella Sciorra) who has committed suicide in despair after losing her entire family and been condemned to Hell. The movie won an Oscar for its special effects including the painted Heaven (with wet paint), other visions of paradise that look like Maxfield Parish paintings, and a Hell straight out of Hieronymus Bosch.

Ghost (1990)

 

Ghost could be viewed as Dante lite. When you die, you go towards the light, get dragged to the depths, or get stuck in between for a while. Screenwriter Bruce Joel Rubin gave the audience a powerful love story – one that turned pottery making into an erotic exercise. But when Sam (Patrick Swayze) is shot in a robbery, he forgoes going to the light to stay close to his love Molly (Demi Moore). The life-and-death drama and some truly scary scenes are balanced by Whoopi Goldberg’s Oscar-winning comedic turn as a medium who discovers she’s not as fake as she thought. Ghost became the worldwide box office champ of 1990, and such success guaranteed it would be parodied. However, it retains its power, and the ending gives an affirming and deeper view of Heaven than most movies. As Sam finally walks toward the light, his last words to his love Molly are, “It’s amazing, Molly. The love inside, you take it with you.” That’s a desire for many people.

Heaven Can Wait (1978)

 

1941’s Here Comes Mr. Jordan was a good movie in its own right and could have qualified for this list, except that this remake which is superior. You have a script co-written by Elaine May (with Warren Beatty) along with an uncredited polish by the legendary Robert Towne. It became the 5th highest grossing movie of 1978. Along with co-writing the film, Beatty also produced, co-directed (with Buck Henry) and starred in this comedic fantasy about a saxophone-playing pro-football quarterback for the LA Rams who’s spirit gets pulled out of his body just before a serious accident by an overzealous angel (Henry). After an extended and hilarious search the head angel, Mr. Jordan, finds a millionaire who’s just died who’s body becomes a temporary vessel for Beatty’s soul until Jordan can find a suitable athletic body as a permanent placement. The cast is incredible, with Julie Christie, Jack Warden, Dyan Cannon, Charles Grodin, and James Mason as Mr. Jordan. Like Ghost, the movie turns on Beatty’s connection with his love Christie that transcends his move to other bodies. Is love a glimpse of the eternity of Heaven?

Always (1989)

 

Steven Spielberg remade one of his favorite movies, the Spencer Tracy film A Guy Named Joe, but switched the story from World War II to a contemporary setting with aviators battling forest fires. Richard Dreyfus’ hotshot pilot dies while making a water drop. He meets a Heavenly messenger who gives him an assignment – help the pilot who has replaced him to succeed. It turns out he also has to help his beloved (Holly Hunter) move on as well. The movie was noteworthy as the final film appearance by Audrey Hepburn as the Heavenly Hap. Always is the opposite of Ghost and Heaven Can Wait because rather than undying love, the lesson here is you must let go of what was in order to be ready for the eternal. As Dreyfus’ character says near the end, “I know now, that the love we hold back is the only pain that follows us here.” In Always, holding onto what was corrupts and ruins our good memories.

The Sixth Sense (1999)

 

“I see dead people…They don’t see each other. They only see what they want to see. They don’t know they’re dead.” M. Night Shyamalan created a sensation with his first movie – unfortunately it was downhill from there. But The Sixth Sense remains a fascinating story of spirits caught in limbo and the young boy who can see them. It’s one of Bruce Willis’ best performances, and one of the best twist endings ever put on film, though when you know the see the movie again you see the clues salted through the script. It actually expands on the lesson of Always. To break free and move on, the dead must stop seeing only what they want to see. Their holding on creates a delusion in which they remain – they are truly haunted. The Sixth Sense would have been the top grossing movie of 1999 except for a certain movie called Star Wars: Episode 1 – The Phantom Menace.

Jacob’s Ladder (1990)

 

This is the second Bruce Joel Ruben screenplay on this list, and it’s quite different – and much more powerful – than Ghost. Strangely enough, both films were release in the same year. However it took 10 years for Ladder to get made, even though it was acclaimed as the best screenplay in Hollywood that hadn’t been filmed. That changed when Adrian Lyne chose to direct it after doing the hits Flashdance, 9½ Weeks, and Fatal Attraction. In Ladder Jacob Singer is a soldier wounded in Vietnam. Fast-forward to 1975 and he’s now a postal carrier in New York who’s separated from his first wife and family. Haunted by the death of his youngest son, Jacob finds his grasp of reality threatened by increasingly bizarre experiences and horrifying visions that revolve around his experience in the war. The movie wasn’t very successful when it was released, different from Ghost, but it became a cult hit and was a major influence on other movies. The cast was headed by Tim Robbins as Jacob, and also starred Danny Aiello and Elizabeth Pena, but it had several supporting actors in the cast whose careers took off after the movie, including Ving Rhames, Eriq La Salle, Jason Alexander, Patricia Kalember and S. Epatha Merkerson. If you’ve seen this movie, it stays with you forever. After increasingly horrific experiences, in the end Jacob becomes reconciled to what happened to him in Vietnam. When that happens his youngest son appears and leads his father by the hand up a staircase toward a brilliant light. We then discover that Jacob’s wounds in Vietnam were mortal and the years of life he seemed to experience was all in his mind as he fought to live – the years took place in days. Life will end for us all, but rather than viewing it as an enemy, it may come as a loved one to release us from pain and let us enter the afterlife with joy.

Honorable Mentions: Defending Your Life, The Others, Heaven Can Wait (1943)

 

10 Movies I’m Eager to See This Fall (Plus One Given)

We are now officially in the season for the release of prestige pictures, as opposed to the blockbusters of the summer. It’s hard for a summer movie to have the legs to make it to the Oscars or the Golden Globes, unless it’s for a technical award or it’s an animated film. (You could write in Inside Out right now as the Best Animated Film, since it was a stunning accomplishment.) Of last year’s non-technical Oscar winners, only The Grand Budapest Hotel and Boyhood were released before September. So I always get excited about what’s coming in the Fall movie season. I’ll give you the ten films I’m most looking forward to in ascending order, but first there’s a given.

(Given) Star Wars: The Force Awakens

With JJ Abrams in the director’s chair and Lawrence Kasdan co-writing the episode with him, hopes have to be high that the new Star Wars film will be more A New Hope that The Phantom Menace. If the reboot of Star Trek that Abrams did is any indicator, the Force will be strong in this one. It also had me when Harrison Ford said, “Chewy, we’re home” in the second trailer. I still remember attending a midnight showing of Star Wars in Westwood before it became a phenomena and being completely stunned when the Battle Cruiser first comes onto the screen – and keeps on going for what seems like a year. It was a seminal moment for science fiction films and for movies in general, and I’ve been hooked on the series ever since. (Release date: December 18th – an early Christmas present)

#10: By The Sea

Angelina Jolie Pitt was pretty much overlooked for Unbroken in spite of the movie’s power and excellent performances. Here she’s not only directoring but also acting with her real-life husband Brad Pitt for the first time since they met on Mr and Mrs Smith. The couple made this film about a husband and wife dealing with grief while they were on their honeymoon. Not your usual getaway. (Release date: November 13th)

#9: The Revenant

Last year’s Best Director winner, Alejandro Inarritu, is back with a story that seems unusual for him to tackle – a fur trapper (Leonardo DiCaprio) is mauled by a bear and left for dead by his friends, but instead he wills himself to travel hundreds of miles to survive.  That the story’s true only makes it more unusual.  However, before Birdman would you have picked Inarritu to do a mesmerizing movie about putting on a Broadway play? (Release date: Christmas Day)

#8: Black Mass

Johnny Depp has had a run of inferior films, but this may make us forget them. Depp plays real life gangster Whitey Bulger who ran the rackets in Boston while serving as a snitch for the FBI at the same time. Bulger was part of the inspiration for Jack Nicholson’s character in The Departed, though it appears Depp’s intensity will blow that performance away. The film also stars Benedict Cumberbatch, Dakota Johnson, Joel Edgerton, and Kevin Bacon. (Release Date: September 18th)

#7: Secret In Their Eyes

This is the remake of an Argentinian thriller that won the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar in 2010. Julia Roberts plays an investigator for a District Attorney who must relive the rape and murder of her teenaged daughter when a colleague (Chiwetel Ejiofor) uncovers new evidence. The film was written and directed by Billy Ray (Captain Philips, Breach) and also stars Nicole Kidman. (Release date: November 20th)

#6: Sicario

Canadian director Denis Villeneuve made Prisoners, one of the darkest crime dramas in recent memory. Now he’s taking on the Mexican drug cartels, and it will likely be as dark as a smuggler’s tunnel. The film stars Emily Blunt – who proved in Edge of Tomorrow she could kick butt with the best of them – as an FBI agent assigned to a special task force, along with Benicio Del Toro as a Mexican policeman with questionable allegiances.  (Release date: September 18th)

#5: The Martian

Based on the bestselling book, The Martian stars Matt Damon as an astronaut marooned on Mars who must use all his scientific knowhow to survive until a rescue mission can reach him. The film was directed by Ridley Scott, and boasts the best cast of the fall: Jessica Chastain, Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kristen Wigg, Kate Mara, Michael Pena, and Sean Bean. (Release date: October 2nd)

#4: Legend

What’s better than Tom Hardy in a movie? Two Tom Hardys in a movie. In Legend, Hardy plays real-life twin gangsters Reggie and Ron Kray who ruled over London’s underworld in the 1960s. Writer-Director Brian Helgeland had originally planned for Hardy to play Reggie, but Hardy was more interested in Ron. They compromised. The supporting cast includes Emily Browning, Paul Bettany, David Thewlis, and Christopher Eccleston. (Release date: October 2nd)

#3: Carol

This movie is based on a novel by the outstanding mystery writer Patricia Highsmith (The Talented Mr. Ripley) and is directed by Todd Haynes who did the exceptional Far From Heaven in 2002. The 1950s-set story stars Cate Blanchett as an older woman and Rooney Mara as a clerk who falls in love with her. The movie was one of the hits of the Cannes Film Festival this year. (Release date: November 20th)

#2: Trumbo

I’ve been fascinated with the Hollywood Blacklist, and with Dalton Trumbo, since the 1960s when I picked up a reissue of his anti-war novel “Johnny Got His Gun.” Trumbo wrote Roman Holiday during his blacklisting and used a front man, Ian McLellan Hunter, on the credits. It won the Oscar for best screenplay. Trumbo finally got his name back thanks to Kirk Douglas and Spartacus. The trailer for this film, starring Bryan Cranston as Trumbo and Diane Lane as his wife Cleo, looks wonderful. It was directed by Jay Roach and also stars Elle Fanning, John Goodman, Alan Tudyk, Helen Mirren, and Louie C.K. (Release date: November 6th)

#1 Joy

David O. Russell is one writer/director that I’ll watch simply because he made the movie. With The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook, and American Hustle, he created unique visions of unexpected stories. For the third time, he’s working with Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, and Robert DeNiro, and the rest of the supporting cast includes Edgar Ramirez, Diane Ladd, Virginia Madsen, and Isabella Rossellini. (Release date: Christmas Day)

Honorable Mentions (That I Still Plan to See): Bridge of Spys, Spectre; Truth; Freeheld; Suffragette; The Intern; Sisters; The Danish Girl; The Walk; Creed; Steve Jobs

10 Remakes that Blow Away the Originals*

Love is lovelier the second time around, as Frank Sinatra used to sing, and sometimes that goes for movies as well. Remakes are the rage in Hollywood these days. While they can make money, the new movies are often pale imitations of the originals. However, there have been a few that have bucked the trend, and here are the ten best of that bunch. For this list, I’ve eliminated English-language versions of foreign-language films since it’s subjective to compare the two. For instance, the Swedish vampire film Let The Right One In and its American version Let Me In are both exceptionally creepy horror films. That the one in English might be seen as more accessible does not necessarily make it better. Instead I’ve stuck with films where both versions were in English.

(*Note: with a couple the newer movies the wind is just a mile or two stronger than the original)

Ocean’s Eleven (Original 1960; Remake 2001)

It’s appropriate, considering the lyric quoted above, to start with one of Ol’ Blue Eyes movies. Also, the inspiration to write this post was the passing of Jerry Weintraub, the producer of the remake. The 1960 original was basically the Rat Pack having a fun time together paid for by Warner Brothers. The caper itself was laughably unrealistic, though the movie did do well at the box office. Warner Brothers, though, had the last laugh. The only parts of the original that screenwriter Ted Griffin kept were some character names, that the gang had eleven members, and the heist is set in Las Vegas. Director Steven Soderburgh created one of the most stylish caper movies ever, and populated it with a dream cast. It wasn’t just having Clooney, Pitt, Roberts, and Damon in the same film, but also Don Cheadle, Elliot Gould, Carl Reiner and the rest of the crew that made this a worldwide hit. Unfortunately, the sequels followed the rule of diminishing returns.

Casino Royale (Original 1967: Remake 2006)

This is a case of comparing rotten apples with prized oranges. Albert “Cubby” Broccoli locked up the rights to all the Ian Fleming Bond books except for the first one, which was actually produced on TV in 1954 with Barry Nelson as American spy James Bond. After the Bond movies became hits, Columbia decided to make Casino Royale as a spoof. It was a classic case of Hollywood excess. There were five directors, including John Huston, three screenwriters, seven uncredited contributors to the dialogue including Woody Allen, Billy Wilder, Ben Hecht and novelist Joseph Heller, and an all-star cast including Allen, David Niven, and Peter Sellers. The only success it had was for Herb Albert, who recorded the Burt Bacharach/Hal David theme song. In 2006, for the launch of Daniel Craig as Bond, Cubby’s daughter Barbara finally had the rights and went back to the original story, while giving it an overdose of adrenalin. It gave the over-40-year-old series its biggest hit with a $600 million worldwide box office and cemented Craig as this century’s Bond.

Heaven Can Wait (Original “Here Comes Mr. Jordan” 1941, Remake 1978)

This time it’s a close call. Here Comes Mr. Jordan starred Robert Montgomery as Joe Pendleton, a pugilist who dies too soon, and Claude Rains as the titular Mr. Jordan, a head angel who tries to repair the mistake by placing Joe’s consciousness into the body of a banker who’s just been murdered by his wife and his personal secretary. It was based on a play entitled “Heaven Can Wait,” and the film was a hit. In 1978, Warren Beatty and Buck Henry decided to remake the story under the original title. They changed Joe’s character from a fighter to the quarterback of the L.A. Rams, with Beatty playing Joe, James Mason as Mr. Jordan, and Julie Christie as Joe’s love interest. Also in the cast were Dyan Cannon, Charles Grodin, Jack Warden, as well as Henry as the angel who grabs Joe too fast. They did keep that Joe had a lucky saxophone, though they changed it from an alto sax to a soprano. The soundtrack was done by jazz great Dave Grusin. The film was number five at the box office in 1978 (behind Grease, Superman, Animal House, and Every Which Way but Loose) and was nominated for 9 Oscars including Best Picture, though this was the year that The Deer Hunter and Coming Home dominated the major awards. Note: Just to be confusing, there is a 1943 Don Ameche film entitled Heaven Can Wait, but it’s a completely different story.

3:10 to Yuma  (Original 1957; Remake 2007)

Based on a story by Elmore Leonard, the original 3:10 starred Glenn Ford as the outlaw and Van Heflin as the farmer who must get him on the titular train to collect a reward. It focused more on the battle of wits and will between Ford and Heflin, and it was one of the better westerns during a time when dozens of them were made every year. The remake was done in a much different atmosphere, when westerns are a rarity, and this time it expands the story so the outlaw’s capture and the journey to the town to meet the train takes up 2/3rds of the movie. The story also makes the farmer’s son a major character. Having Russell Crowe and Christian Bale as the main characters ups the intensity all by itself, though the show is almost stolen by Ben Foster as Crowe’s second-in-command, a role played by Richard Jaeckel in the original.

The Man Who Knew Too Much (Original 1934; Remake 1956)

The only person who can safely remake Alfred Hitchcock is Alfred Hitchcock (see – or rather don’t see – 1998’s remake of Psycho, and you can already discount Michael Bay’s upcoming remake of The Birds). Hitchcock’s original was partly inspired by an actual event in England, the Sidney Street Siege in 1911when Home Secretary Winston Churchill sent in the Scots Guards to clear out an anarchist gang, turning Sidney Street into a battleground. In both movies, a family vacation is interrupted by a dying man giving the husband and wife information about a pending assassination. For 1956, Hitchcock completely eliminated the Sidney Street reference and created a wonderfully suspenseful story that starred Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day.

Cape Fear (Original 1962; Remake 1991)

Once again, this is a close call. Based on a John D. MacDonald story, the original had Gregory Peck as lawyer Sam Bowden and Robert Mitchum as Max Cady, the criminal that Bowden helped convict 8 years earlier and who has now come back for revenge. It’s a good thriller, but then Martin Scorsese decided to remake it with Nick Nolte as Bowden and Robert De Niro as Cady. The new version is much darker and deeper: instead of testifying against Cady, Bowden was Cady’s lawyer and threw the defense to get Cady off the streets. De Niro’s Cady is mesmerizing, and the film benefits from an exceptionally strong supporting cast with Jessica Lange, Juliette Lewis (an amazing performance), and Joe Don Baker. Scorsese also gives honor to the original by having both Peck and Mitchum take supporting roles, and reusing Bernard Herrmann’s iconic original score.

The Thing (Original “The Thing From Another World” 1951; Remake 1982)

Producer Howard Hawks’ original The Thing From Another World is one of the classic 1950s sci-fi films. It benefited from the paranoia about the Soviet Union at that time, with its final warning to “Watch the skies.” In 1982, another time of worry about the Soviet Union, John Carpenter took the story and wrenched up the paranoia. Instead of just doing battle with an alien (played by James Arness in the original film), Carpenter went back to the original novella by John W. Campbell where the alien is able to absorb the image and memories of anyone it consumes.  The body count is much higher, and Carpenter eschews the upbeat ending of the novella and the original movie for a much darker one. Long-time Carpenter collaborator Kurt Russell is excellent as MacReady, the helicopter pilot who leads the fight against the alien.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Original 1956; Remake 1978)

Don Siegel’s original is a great sci-fi film, and can also be viewed as a commentary on McCarthyism with normal people being replaced by emotionless aliens. The final sequence of Kevin McCarthy (no relation to Joe) running down the highway yelling at drivers “You’re next!” rightly freaked out the 1950s movie goer. Philip Kaufman’s remake turns a black-and-white thriller into a richly-colored work of art. The special effects are exceptional, and the cast is excellent (Donald Sutherland, Brooke Adams, Jeff Goldblum, Leonard Nimoy). Kaufman also included a scene with Kevin McCarthy that echoed the end of the first film, and had Don Siegel make a cameo as a taxi driver.

True Grit (Original 1969; Remake 2010)

While the original had John Wayne and Robert Duvall as bad guy Ned Pepper, the Coen Brothers remake stuck closer to the original Charles Portis novel. The Duke may have gotten the Oscar for his role as Rooster Cogburn, but Jeff Bridges out-acted him in the remake and Hailee Steinfeld was more believable as Mattie Ross, in addition to being closer to Mattie’s age in the book. The Coens give the film a more rustic and rough feeling while the scene in the snake pit is the stuff of nightmares. While the 1969 movie had to have an upbeat ending with Wayne triumphant, the Coen’s gave the viewer a more satisfying and poignant one.

The Maltese Falcon (Original 1931; Remake 1941)

This had to be a remake, because there was no other way that Jack Warner would give untried writer/director John Huston a new movie. The 1931 original is entirely forgettable, with Ricardo Cortez as Sam Spade and Bebe Daniels as Ruth. Warner wanted a B movie, and had cast George Raft as Spade. Raft though considered the production beneath him and pulled out, opening the way for Bogart. Huston did something almost unheard of in the movie industry – his script followed the book almost exactly. Huston had accidentally sent a copy of the completed script to Warner, but he was pleasantly surprised when Warner loved the script and gave him the green light to shoot. The cast was fantastic. Bogie, Sydney Greenstreet (in his first film role), Peter Lorre, Mary Astor, Elisha Cook Jr., Barton MacLane, and Ward Bond were perfect for Hammett’s hard-boiled classic. It made the finished film the stuff that dreams are made of. Interesting note: three of the black bird statuettes from the film still exist, and are the most valuable props in the world, each valued at a cool million. That means each of them could pay for the production of the original film – three times over.

Honorable Mentions: King Kong, Scarface, The Parent Trap, No Way Out

The 10 Best Movies About Making Movies

For my 200th post, I thought I’d look at my favorite movies that deal with making movies, so you could subtitled it “Incest is best.” In a broader sense, though, it’s a way to both explain how the magic trick is done on the screen, as well as make magic at the same time. For this list I’ve ruled out movies that deal with simply watching films, even though that eliminates one of my all-time favorites, Cinema Paradiso. Instead the films below all feature some aspect of creating a movie, be it the actual filming or the creative process before the first camera shot. There are quite a few films that fit that criteria, and I’ve included a couple of Honorable Mentions that have similarities to the films on this list. If I’ve left off a favorite movie-making film of yours, please feel free to mention it in the comments. So, in no particular order, here are my choices.

Singing in the Rain (1952)

Okay, so I went with an obvious choice to start, but this not only is a great movie about the early days of the talkies, it’s also one of the – if not THE – greatest musical films. The songs by Arthur Freed (who also produced the film) and Herb Brown blend perfectly with the sparkling script by Betty Compton and Adolph Green. Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor were at the top of their game, and they were matched by Debbie Reynolds even though she wasn’t a trained dancer. Outstanding, too, was Jean Hagen as the silent star with a fingernails-on-a-chalkboard voice. Sadly, this movie was the high point of her career, and she worked mostly in television after it (including a 4 year stint as Danny Thomas’ wife on “Make Room for Daddy”). She died in 1977 at age 54.  Honorable Mention: The Artist (2011), which looks with the same time period from the opposite perspective.

The Bad and the Beautiful (1952)

Jean Hagen should have won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for Singing in the Rain, but instead she lost out to Gloria Grahame in this movie. Kirk Douglas plays an unscrupulous but talented producer who’s trying to make a comeback. He turns to three people whose careers he built up but who were each hurt by him – an actress (Lana Turner), a writer (Dick Powell) and a director (Barry Sullivan). Grahame played the writer’s wife who interferes with Douglas’ plans until he maneuvers her into an affair with an actor, with tragic results. The script by Charles Schnee could be viewed as a prototype for the Hollywood tell-all novels of Jackie Collins, but the acting and Vincente Minnelli’s direction transcend the material. Honorable Mention: Two Weeks in Another Town (1962), which was also written by Schnee and starred Kirk Douglas.

Hugo (2011)

While movie-making isn’t central in Martin Scorsese’s film, the sections dealing with Georges Melies (Ben Kingsley) and the fantastic cinema world he created when film was in its infancy capture the wonder of the magic lantern days. Scorsese has been at the forefront of film preservation efforts, and this film is his dissertation on why it’s important. On the technical side, it also demonstrates how 3D can be used to augment the power of a film.

Super 8 (2011)

2011 was a banner year for movies about movies. Here you have a group of six kids who are making a zombie movie, but are interrupted when an alien invades their Ohio town. Written and directed by J.J. Abrams and produced by Steven Spielberg, the movie harkens back to their preteen years when they made their own films. Abrams let his young actors actually film a Super-8 movie that plays during the credits, so we get to see the footage that we watched being shot. It turns out to be a pretty good film, too.

Shadow of the Vampire (2000)

What if your vampire movie actually stars a real vampire? The movie tells a legend about Nosferatu, the classic 1922 film by F.W. Murnau. We watch the filming of that movie, including the recreation of many of the scenes, while we’re also watching a horror movie. John Malkovich and Willem Dafoe (who was nominated for an Oscar) are excellent as Murnau and his star, Max Schreck. Nosferatu qualifies as the first movie adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. It follows the plot of the book, but Murnau didn’t have the rights to film the story so he changed the names to protect the guilty.

Day For Night (1973)

Francois Truffaut made many of the classics of French cinema before his untimely death in 1984 at the age of 52. This film, about a director struggling to complete his movie while dealing with a host of personal crises, won the Best Foreign Language Oscar. The title refers to a direction in the shooting script for the cinematographer to film a scene during the day but make it look like it takes place at night. You can often tell when this was done in old films because of the strong shadows in outdoor shots.

Bowfinger (1999)

Written by Steve Martin and directed by Frank Oz, this is a film for movie wannabes. Martin plays a low-rent producer/director who fails to get a major action star, played by Eddie Murphy, to appear in his movie. So instead he stalks the actor to get the needed footage and uses a hapless lookalike (also played by Murphy) for other scenes. While it’s played for laughs, hidden camera filming has been used in films, and it resulted in one of the all-time classic lines. Dustin Hoffman ad-libbed the “I’m walkin’ here” line in Midnight Cowboy when a taxi tried to roll through a scene they were filming with a hidden camera.

Boogie Nights (1997)

Writer/Director Paul Thomas Anderson usually makes movies that are fascinating character studies, such as There Will Be Blood, Magnolia, and The Master. His first big success was this film that looked at people involved in porn films in the 1970s, when Deep Throat’s success made them think that porn could become a legitimate filmmaking endeavor. The cast is incredible, with Julianne Moore, William H. Macy, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, John C. Reilly, Don Cheadle, Heather Graham, Mark Walberg, and Burt Reynolds. An interesting piece of trivia: Anderson made a short version of this story as his first film in 1988, after dropping out of NYU Film School.

Sunset Boulevard (1950)

Billy Wilder’s poison pen love letter to Hollywood has to be on the list. Silent star Gloria Swanson’s over-the-top performance as Norma Desmond was balanced by William Holden’s sardonic turn as the hack screenwriter she drags into writing her comeback. The film features appearances by Cecil B. DeMille, H.B. Warner, Buster Keaton and others, playing themselves. It was nominated for 11 Academy awards, including in every acting category, but in the end it won for writing, score and art direction. Honorable Mention: The Stunt Man (1980), which featured another maniacal performance that led to a comeback, this time for Peter O’Toole.

Argo (2012)

While it’s a based-on-a-true-story thriller, Argo makes this list because of how the fantasy world of movie making was used to ex-filtrate six US hostages from Iran. Alan Arkin and John Goodman are wonderful as the Hollywood insiders who help Ben Affleck’s character pull off the rescue mission. One aspect of filmmaking featured in the movie is storyboarding, where the film’s shots are drawn out to give the filmmakers a visual for the shots. Affleck uses reproductions of the actual storyboards that were done for the original script before it went into turnaround, the Hollywood term for purgatory. Those storyboards were done by Jack Kirby, a legendary cartoonist whose work goes back to the first Captain America comic book in the 1940s and worked with Marvel during its Silver Age (1958-1970).

10 Best Robin Williams Films

Sometimes the Mask of Comedy hides the Mask of Tragedy beneath it. The news of Robin Williams’ death by suicide at age 63 came as a shock to his multitude of fans. He was beloved for the laughter he brought with his rapid-fire, stream of consciousness delivery, beginning with the alien Mork on “Mork and Mindy.” He was a Tony away from winning all of the major awards, though three out of four is still quite an accomplishment. (It didn’t win a Tony, but his one-man Broadway Show, which was broadcast live by HBO, won a Grammy as the best comedy album in 2002.) On the big screen, the projects he appeared in didn’t always match his talent. Movies like Bicentenial Man, RV, License to Wed and Old Dogs will be forgotten, but he also amassed credits of which any actor would be proud. Below are my choices of his ten best movies, in chronological order.

The World According to Garp (1982)

Williams’ first foray into the movies, Robert Altman’s 1980 live-action version of Popeye was savaged by critics, but he had better luck the second time around. George Roy Hill (The Sting, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) directed this adaptation of the John Irving bestseller. The film is also known as a launching point for the career of another very funny actor, John Lithgow.

Good Morning Vietnam (1987)

It wouldn’t be until this film that Williams’ wild comedy style was set free in a film role. Playing real-life DJ Adrian Cronauer, Williams got to shake up the radio air waves during the Vietnam War. All of the radio broadcast material was improvised by Williams. The real Cronauer, who was a life-long Republican, was not pleased by the anti-war message of the film, but fans flocked to see the movie and it was the 4th highest grossing movie that year. The role led to Williams’ first Oscar nomination, and the movie also brought notice to Forest Whitaker, in one of his first major roles. (They’d work together again last year, when Williams played Dwight Eisenhower in Lee Daniel’s The Butler.)

Dead Poets Society (1989)

Peter Weir’s film continues to gather fans 25 years after its release. It is one of those movies that, once you’ve seen it, it will stay with you forever, especially the climax. Williams plays John Keating, an English teacher who encourages his students not to conform and to find inspiration in poetry. The movie was blessed with a cast of young actors who went on to success, including Ethan Hawke and Josh Charles. The movie added “Captain, my Captain” and “Carpe diem – sieze the day” to the litany of famous movie quotes. Williams’ second Oscar nomination came for this film, though he lost out to Daniel Day Lewis for My Left Foot.

Awakenings (1990)

In Penny Marshall’s movie, Williams plays it straight as Dr. Malcolm Sayer, a fictionalized version of Psychiatrist Oliver Sacks who wrote the non-fiction book on which the movie is based. He holds his own with Robert De Niro, who portrays one of the patients who awakens from a catatonic state thanks to an experimental drug. One bit of trivia – another of the patients is played by famed jazz saxophonist Dexter Gordon, who passed away before the movie was released.

The Fisher King (1991)

Terry Gillam’s film takes a much different tack on Arthurian mythology than did Gillam’s other directing project, Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Jeff Bridges plays Jack, a former DJ who seeks redemption by helping a homeless man, played by Williams. Williams’ character, Parry, is a former college professor who’s become unhinged after witnessing his wife’s murder in a bar shooting – an act unwittingly inspired by Jack. They play out the Fisher King legend in modern New York City, in a powerful tale of loss and redemption. Williams received his third Oscar nomination for this film, but this was also the year that Silence of the Lambs was released.

Aladdin (1992)

Once again Williams’ incredible improvisational comedic skills are on display, and it takes this animated film to a whole different level. When the Genie appears, the energy of the film goes into hyper-drive. It seems unbelievable that Williams hadn’t done an animated film before Aladdin, since the medium is perfect for illustrating his wild flights of comedy fancy.

Mrs. Doubtfire (1993)

Director Chris Columbus’ high concept comedy stars Williams as Daniel Hillard, an actor who has gone through a bitter divorce. In order to stay close to his children, he has his gay makeup artist brother Frank, played by Harvey Fierstein, help him become Mrs. Doubtfire, a Scottish nanny. The movie was the greatest financial success of Williams’ career, breaking the $200 million mark at the box office. (It was number 2 that year, behind the juggernaut Jurassic Park.)

The Birdcage (1996)

This was definitely not playing it straight. Mike Nichols’ adaptation of the French film La Cage aux Folles has Williams and Nathan Lane as a gay couple whose son informs them that he’s marrying the daughter of a conservative US Congressman, portrayed by Gene Hackman. The film was a solid hit – #9 at the box office that year – and launched Broadway actor Lane as a film star. Originally, though, Williams was cast in Lane’s role, with Steve Martin in the role Williams eventually played. A scheduling conflict kept Martin out of the film, and opened the door for Lane.

Good Will Hunting (1997)

The fourth time was the charm for Williams, as he won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his role as the South Boston psychologist who’s brought in to help Matt Damon’s damaged genius. The film was written by Damon and Ben Affleck, but Williams was able to insert several ad libs, including the final line of the film, “Son of a bitch, he stole my line.”

Insomnia (2002)

This was Christopher Nolan’s follow-up film to his classic debut, Memento, and it’s the only film Nolan’s directed that he didn’t write. Instead it’s an adaptation of a 1997 Norwegian film that starred Stellan Skarsgard (who worked with Williams in Good Will Hunting). Williams plays a killer who is at first hunted by Al Pacino’s LAPD Detective, who’s been imported to Alaska to help solve a murder. Things get strange when Pacino accidentally kills his partner and covers it up, leading to a truce between the two men. Hillary Swank portrays a local officer who throws a wrench in their plans. It’s a cat-and-mouse thriller, where you’re never sure who’s the mouse and who’s the cat.

Robin Williams (1951-2014). “Goodnight, sweet prince, and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.”