Drama – First 15 Update

Drama has it all.  Biopics, period pieces, family stories and so much more.  These films tend to be the big winners come award season.  Movies in this genre have yielded Academy Awards for screen legends like Brando, DeNiro and Peck.  So far, I’ve seen 15 of the 50 selected for the “501 Must-See Movies” and I will be recapping those 15 below.

Seen to date: 15 out of 50

It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

Director: Frank Capra

Starring: James Stewart, Donna Reed and Henry Travers

AFI Top 100 – #11 (1998) and #20 (2007)

George Bailey (Stewart) always dreamt of being an explorer, but when his father died he was forced to put his own dreams on hold and take over the family business.  Eventually misfortune strikes and George contemplates suicide.  In hopes of finally gaining his wings George’s guardian angel (Travers) intervenes to take George on a tour of his life as if he had never existed.

The concept of Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, where a down-on-his-luck protagonist meets an angel who shows him life if he had never been born, has been adapted countless times for other movies or TV episodes.  It is an unequaled holiday classic.  For both of those reasons and so many more, this is one movie that everyone should see at some point.  I will say that it starts slow.  But, everything in the opening act is purposeful and meaningful as the story progresses.

My Rating – 4 Ticket Stubs (Out of 5)

Rotten Tomatoes Score – 95% (56 Reviews)

On the Waterfront (1933)

Director: Elia Kazan

Starring: Marlon Brando, Karl Malden and Eva Marie Saint                      

Academy Award Wins – Best Picture, Best Director (Kazan), Best Actor (Brando), Best Story and Screenplay, Best Supporting Actress (Marie Saint), Best Art Direction – Set Direction Black and White, Best Cinematography Black and White and Best Film Editing

AFI Top 100 – #8 (1998) #19 (2007)

Terry Malloy (Brando), a once promising boxer, is an errand boy for a local Mob-connected Union Boss.  When he’s involved in a murder, he re-evaluates his principles and is urged to testify against the union boss by the sister of the deceased (Marie Saint).

Even if you haven’t seen this movie, you’ve likely heard its most famous piece of dialog, “You don’t understand!  I coulda had class.  I coulda been a contender.  I could’ve been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am” (considered the third best movie quote of all-time by the American Film Institute).  Brando gives a legendary performance that you won’t soon forget and was rewarded with his first Academy Award for Best Actor after three consecutive years of being nominated and leaving empty handed.

My Rating – 3.5 Ticket Stubs

Rotten Tomatoes Score – 100% (50 Reviews)

Rebel Without a Cause (1936)

Director: Nicholas Ray

Starring: James Dean, Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo

AFI Top 100 – #59 (1998)

17 year old Jim Stark (Dean) arrives at a new school and immediately finds himself at odds with local bullies and eventually meets one in a deadly game a chicken.  Meanwhile, he repeatedly disobeys his parents, falls for a girl and makes a good friend.

Rebel Without a Cause was a groundbreaking film in the way that it portrayed the decay of American youth’s morals.  It also critiqued parenting style and explored generational differences.  In part, Rebel Without a Cause has become such a classic in that it was released after the death of its iconic star.

My Rating – 3.5 Ticket Stubs

Rotten Tomatoes Score – 95% (41 Reviews)

To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)

Director: Robert Mulligan

Starring: Gregory Peck, Mary Badham and Robert Duvall

Academy Award Wins – Best Actor (Peck), Best Art Direction – Set Decoration Black and White and Best Adapted Screenplay

AFI Top 100 – #34 (1998) and #25 (2007)

Atticus Finch (Peck) takes on the case of a black man wrongfully accused of raping a white woman in the racially intolerant deep south of America in the 1930s.  The story is told from the perspective of Finch’s precocious daughter, Scout (Bedham).

To Kill a Mockingbird is a wonderful adaptation of an outstanding novel.  This is a story of prejudice and injustice during a tainted period of American history and absolutely feels like one that needed to be told in the hopes of avoiding a repeated history.  Peck is excellent as Atticus Finch, the moral center of the film who represents decency and provides hope in a society that is seemingly without.

My Rating – 4.5 Ticket Stubs

Rotten Tomatoes Score – 95% (41 Reviews)

The Graduate (1967)

Director: Mike Nichols

Starring: Dustin Hoffman, Anne Bancroft and Katharine Ross

Academy Award Wins – Best Director (Nichols)

AFI Top 100 – #7 (1998) and #17 (2007)

Benjamin Braddock (Hoffman) returns home after graduating from college with seemingly no direction and anxiety about his future.  Complicating things is Mrs. Robinson (Bancroft), the wife of his father’s business partner who attempts to seduce Benjamin.  He spurns her advances at first, but eventually begins an affair with her.  Despite the promise he made to Mrs. Robinson, Benjamin is strong-armed into taking out her daughter (Ross) and falls in love with her.

In my opinion, The Graduate is a prime example of a film that outdoes the novel that it was adapted from.  This feat can be credited to the on-screen performances of Hoffman and Bancroft, as well as the timeless soundtrack provided by Simon & Garfunkel.  In both versions of their list, the American Film Institute considers The Graduate to be one of the top 20 films of all-time. 

My Rating – 3.5 Ticket Stubs

Rotten Tomatoes Score – 87% (46 Reviews)

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)

Director: Milos Forman

Starring: Jack Nicholson and Louise Fletcher

Academy Award Wins – Best Picture, Best Director (Forman), Best Actor (Nicholson), Best Actress (Fletcher) and Best Adapted Screenplay

AFI Top 100 – #20 (1998) and #33 (2007)

Mentally fit criminal, R.P. McMurphy (Nicholson) thinks he’s getting off easy by spending the rest of his prison sentence in a psychiatric hospital.  But, it’s not long before his care free spirit is being tested by the staff and he begins to rebel against hospital authority in the form of the severe Head Nurse Ratched (Fletcher).

Jack Nicholson is a top shelf actor and to me his performance in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, as an individual struggling as society attempts to conform him, is easily one of the finest of his career.  A testament to the quality of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is one of just three movies to win each of the “Big Five” Academy Awards (Actor, Actress, Director, Picture, Screenplay).

My Rating – 4.5 Ticket Stubs

Rotten Tomatoes Score – 96% (52 Reviews)

All the President’s Men (1976)

Director: Alan Pakula

Starring: Dustin Hoffman, Robert Redford and Jason Robards

Academy Award Wins – Best Art Direction, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Sound and Best Supporting Actor (Robards)

AFI Top 100 – #77 (2007)

The true story of reporters Woodward (Redford) and Bernstein (Hoffman) are assigned to cover the seemingly unimportant story of the trial of the burglary of the National Democratic Headquarters.  Thanks in part to the discovery of a valuable anonymous source, “Deep Throat” the reporting duo unravels one of the most explosive scandals in the history of our country.

All the President’s Men is built on the perseverance of reporters performing the watchdog duty of the Fourth Estate.  Hoffman and Redford is an outstanding pairing.  But, all in all this isn’t a movie that will likely stay with you like some of its contemporaries on this list.

My Rating – 2.5 Ticket Stubs

Rotten Tomatoes Score – 100% (41 Reviews)

Rocky (1976)

Director: John Avildsen

Starring: Sylvester Stallone, Talia Shire and Burgess Meredith

Academy Award Wins – Best Picture, Best Director (Avildsen) and Best Film Editing

AFI Top 100 – #78 (1998) and #57 (2007)

Rocky (Stallone) is a part-time club boxer and full-time loan shark enforcer who gets the chance of a lifetime when his nickname “The Italian Stallion” helps him get randomly selected for a title match with the Heavyweight Champion of the World.  Finally having his shot, forces the ultimate underdog to give his all for the chance to “go the distance.”

Rocky is America’s prototypical underdog story and one of my personal all-time favorite movies.  Rocky’s rise to prominence mirrors Stallone’s who was down on his own luck before he wrote the script and fought for the opportunity to portray the lead.

My Rating – 5 Ticket Stubs

Rotten Tomatoes Score – 93% (44 Reviews)

Raging Bull (1980)

Director: Martin Scorsese

Starring: Robert DeNiro, Cathy Moriarty and Joe Pesci

Academy Award Wins – Best Actor (DeNiro) and Best Film Editing

AFI Top 100 – #24 (1998) and #4 (2007)

Raging Bull is the story of former middleweight champion boxer, Jack LaMotta.  His life and career both experience highs and lows as he fights his own personal demons.  Inside the ring, he eventually gets his title shot as a reward for throwing a fight that he obviously could have won.  Outside the ring, he alienates his brother/manager (Pesci) and wife (Moriarty) with his jealous attitude and violent behavior.

Robert DeNiro is widely considered the best actor of his generation.  He is known for his method approach, which for Raging Bull had him training as a boxer and gaining 60 pounds to portray an older LaMotta.  Some fans think that Raging Bull represented the best performance of DeNiro’s career and the best film of Scorsese’s.  To support this claim, DeNiro won his only Best Actor Academy Award (he won Best Supporting Actor for Godfather Part II) for his portrayal of the troubled champ.  And, Scorsese earned his first Best Director nomination.  He employed, what he called, a Kamikaze method of film-making and used such tactics as slow motion, complex tracking, and changing the size of boxing rings from fight to fight. 

My Rating – 4.5 Ticket Stubs

Rotten Tomatoes Score – 98% (58 Reviews)

Do the Right Thing (1989)

Director: Spike Lee

Starring: Danny Aiello, Spike Lee and John Turturro

AFI Top 100 – #96 (2007)

Sal’s Pizzera represents one of just a couple of white owned businesses in a predominantly black area of New York.  After a local activist berates the fact that Sal’s wall of fame has only photos of famous Italians and no African Americans, tensions begin to boil over.  Like so many times in American history, this small incident ignites a rash of racial violence.

Do the Right Thing represented an open discussion of the African American perspective of race relations in the late 1980s and propelled its director, writer and supporting actor Spike Lee to national recognition.  Part of this film’s brilliance is that it tells the story and leaves the viewer to form his/her own opinions and it does so in a way that makes the audience stand up and pay attention.

My Rating – 3 Ticket Stubs

Rotten Tomatoes Score – 96% (50 Reviews)

Forest Gump (1994)

Director: Robert Zemeckis

Starring: Tom Hanks, Robin Wright Penn and Gary Sinise

Academy Award Wins – Best Actor (Hanks), Best Director (Zemeckis), Best Film Editing, Best Picture, Best Visual Effects and Best Adapted Screenplay

AFI Top 100 – #71 (1998) and #76 (2007)

Forrest Gump (Hanks) is a simple guy from Alabama with one amazing gift, his ability to run.  He embarks on a whirlwind tour of highs and lows during the 1960s and 1970s.  Along the way he becomes a college football All-American, meets U.S. Presidents and celebrities, witnesses attempts to prevent integration, fights in the Vietnam War, competes internationally in Ping Pong, and exposes the Watergate Scandal.

Forrest Gump is an amazing portrait of 20th Century America.  Thanks to award winning special effects, Forrest is placed right in the middle of everything.  We see numerous watershed cultural moments that Forrest has a profound impact on.  Forrest represents the ordinary American and shows that we can all do our bit to change the world.  But, beyond all of this the heart of the movie lies in Forrest’s devotion to his loved ones which has him running coast-to-coast.

My Rating – 4 Ticket Stubs

Rotten Tomatoes Score – 71% (55 Reviews)

The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

Director: Frank Darabont

Starring: Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman

AFI Top 100 – #72 (2007)

Andy Dufresne (Robbins) is a banker who spends nearly 20 years in Shawshank State prison.  He was convicted of the murder or his wife and lover, despite being innocent.  Andy befriends fellow inmate Red (Freeman) and helps the warden in a money laundering scam. 

I was late to the party with The Shawshank Redemption.  I just recently saw it and that’s a shame, because this film is absolutely brilliant.  It deals with issues like hope, despair and friendships in times of adversity all as the story unfolds with the perfect narration of Freeman’s long-time inmate Red.  Nominated for seven Academy Awards in 1994, it left empty handed but has emerged as one of the year’s true classics (with Forrest Gump and Pulp Fiction).

My Rating – 5 Ticket Stubs

Rotten Tomatoes Score – 89% (62 Reviews)

Shakespeare in Love (1998)

Director: John Madden

Starring: Gwyneth Paltrow, Joseph Fiennes and Geoffrey Rush

Academy Award Wins – Best Picture, Best Actress (Paltrow), Best Supporting Actress (Judi Dench), Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design, Best Original Score and Best Original Screenplay

William Shakespeare (Fiennes) starts out as a poor playwright for the Rose Theatre.  After finding out that his lover is cheating on him, he rewrites his latest comedy (Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter) as a tragedy (Romeo and Juliet).  Despite being unable to finish the play, he starts to cast for Romeo and gives the part to a woman secretly dressed as a man who desires to act (Paltrow).  After finding out the truth about his lead, the pair starts a secret affair.

The charm of this film is that despite being set in England in the 1500s, it is able to speak to modern day audiences.  Even though Shakespeare in Love fell into the ‘Drama’ section, it could easily be considered a feel good comedy.

My Rating – 3 Ticket Stubs

Rotten Tomatoes Score – 93% (101 Reviews)

American Beauty (1999)

Director: Sam Mendis

Starring: Kevin Spacey, Annette Bening and Mena Suvari

Academy Award Wins – Best Picture, Best Actor (Spacey), Best Director, Best Original Screenplay and Best Cinematography

A middle-aged writer (Spacey) goes through a mid-life crisis and becomes infatuated with his teenage daughter’s best friend (Suvari), who seemingly welcomes the admiration. 

Critics seem to be divided about their interpretation of the film.  But seemingly it is about leading a more meaningful life and the dangers of conformity despite the societal tendency to conform.  Mendis made his directorial debut with American Beauty and was rewarded with a Best Director Academy Award.

My Rating – 3.5 Ticket Stubs

Rotten Tomatoes Score – 88% (152 Reviews)

Volver (2006)

Director: Pedro Almodovar

Starring: Penelope Cruz, Carmen Maura and Lola Duenas

Rainmunda (Cruz) comes home to find her husband dead after being stabbed in self-defense by their daughter.  While trying to cover up the murder, Rainmunda finds out that her Aunt has died which kicks off even more strange challenges.

Cruz received an Academy Award nomination for her performance.  At its heart, this is a family drama about generations of women, secrets and lies.  While this is certainly a good movie, I’m surprised that it was chosen as the cover for the “501 Must-See Movies” book.

My Rating – 2.5 Ticket Stubs

Rotten Tomatoes Score – 92% (160 Reviews)

@D_C_Evans

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About DC Evans

I’m a long time film lover. For as long as I can remember, I’ve spent my free time going to multiplexs; renting tapes and building my own DVD/Blu-ray collection. I'll be blogging about my efforts as I watch my way through the history of film. For starters, I’ll be focusing on watching each movie in the book “501 Must-See Movies.” Follow me on twitter: @D_C_Evans
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