Leonard Maltin's 151 Best Movies You've Never Seen
By Leonard Maltin
Hardcover, 352 pages
List price: $16.99
The Ballad of Little Jo
Directed by Maggie Greenwald
Screenplay by Maggie Greenwald
Actors: Suzy Amis, Bo Hopkins, Ian McKellen, Anthony Heald, David Chung, Heather Graham, Rene Auberjonois, Carrie Snodgress, Melissa Leo, Sam Robards, Ruth Maleczech
When I saw this film, prior to its release in 1993, I thought it would rise to the top on a wave of critical acclaim. I was wrong. It was ignored by pretty much everyone, yet it remains one of my favorite unsung movies of the 1990s. It also holds a special place in the heart of its leading actress, Suzy Amis, who appreciated what a rare opportunity it afforded her.
The Ballad of Little Jo was the brainchild of underappreciated writer-director Maggie Greenwald. Her inspiration was the obituary of a man who lived in the Old West; when it came time to lay him to rest, it was discovered that he was in fact a she.
Greenwald did further research, but once she understood the context of that obituary, the screen story unfolded in her mind: Amis plays a naive young woman who is seduced by a photographer in Boston. When she bears his child, she is ostracized by polite society and flees to the West where no one will know her. She quickly learns that there is no place for a single woman there unless she is a prostitute, so she decides to masquerade as a man. In time, she ingratiates herself within the community . . . and the plot thickens.
The excellent supporting cast includes Ian McKellen, Bo Hopkins, Heather Graham, Rene Auberjonois, Carrie Snodgress, Anthony Heald, David Chung, and Melissa Leo. Amis's real-life husband at the time, Sam Robards, plays the seducer who sets the story in motion.
A former fashion model, Amis had a decade-long career in films, and while she never became a household name, she appeared in a number of interesting movies including Rocket Gibraltar, The Usual Suspects, and Cadillac Ranch. Then James Cameron cast her in Titanic, as the granddaughter of "Old Rose" (Gloria Stuart) in the film's modern-day sequences. A short time later she married Cameron and retired to raise a large family. She was ideally suited for the role of Jo Monaghan because she grew up on a ranch in Oklahoma and already knew how to handle a gun. She worked with a coach to develop the proper body language for her male character and brought real conviction to her performance. She was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award, as was David Chung, who plays her unexpected love interest, but the film made little impact on critics or audiences. It deserves to be much better known.
Directed by Jean-Marc Vallee
Screenplay by Francois Boulay and Jean-Marc Vallee
Actors: Michel Cote, Marc-Andre Grondin, Danielle Proulx, Emile Vallee, Pierre-Luc Brillant, Maxime Tremblay, Alex Gravel, Johanne Lebrun
French-language films from Canada get little if any recognition here in the States, which seems to me a crime. A good film is a rare and precious thing and ought to be cherished — especially if it comes from a neighboring country.
C.R.A.Z.Y. is the saga of a dysfunctional family over twenty years' time. It opens on a whimsically amusing note but grows more serious as the story progresses. Veteran French-Canadian actor Michel Cote stars as the blustery patriarch of a Catholic family that grows to have five sons . . . but when the fourth, Zac, is born on Christmas Day 1960, his wife is convinced that it's a sign. Her eccentric ideas set Zac onto the road of life in oddball fashion, but it's only later in life, when the boy realizes that he isn't attracted to girls, that he begins to understand what "different" can mean in a tight-knit family with a macho father. (Zac is played as a young boy by the director's son Emile Vallee, and later by Marc-Andre Grondin.)
Director Jean-Marc Vallee (who wrote the expansive and emotionally charged screenplay with Francois Boulay) makes canny use of popular music — from David Bowie to the Rolling Stones — to signify the passage of time and the societal shifts of the late 1960s and '70s. He also establishes early on that the father is inordinately fond of Patsy Cline and Charles Aznavour, and insists on singing along with Aznavour records at almost every official family gathering. This seemingly tangential piece of business turns out to have surprising resonance in the film's later passages.
Although the setting is Montreal, the language is French, and the family is Catholic, the family dynamic in C.R.A.Z.Y. is so well developed that the story is universally relatable. That, and the touchstones of social change that audiences of a certain age will remember, give the film broad appeal.
Indeed, while C.R.A.Z.Y. swept the Canadian GENIE Awards and won Best Canadian Feature Film at the Toronto Film Festival, it is significant to note that it also won the Audience Award at the AFI Fest — in Los Angeles.
In the Shadow of the Moon
Directed by David Sington
With: Buzz Aldrin, Alan Bean, Eugene Cernan, Michael Collins, Charles Duke, James Lovell, Edgar Mitchell, Harrison Schmitt, David Scott, John Young
When I heard seemingly unanimous praise for In the Shadow of the Moon at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival, I wasn't surprised. After all, it's a documentary about the United States's Apollo space program, with NASA footage that hasn't been seen since it was shot in the late 1960s and early '70s, and interviews with ten surviving Apollo astronauts. How could it be bad? But until I saw it I couldn't have appreciated what a moving experience it would be. It turned out to be one of my favorite films of the year.
Some astronauts, like Buzz Aldrin, have remained in the public eye, but others who flew to the moon never sought the limelight, and it's their presence that helps make this film so special. Ten of the fifteen survivors agreed to appear on camera. As the film reminds us, these hand-picked space soldiers were the best and the brightest of their generation, groomed to be heroes. They remain also highly intelligent and articulate men today. Mike Collins comes off especially well.
Some of them spent their careers in the air force, while others moved on to other pursuits. Most of them are in their late seventies now and have a real sense of perspective about their experiences in space. They think about their place in the universe in a way no one else on earth possibly could.
They also speak with great feeling about their colleagues who died in the horrifying fire on a launchpad in Houston.
The one man who doesn't appear in the film is Neil Armstrong, who first set foot on the moon in 1969 . . . yet his absence also says something about the character of the man, who doesn't feel like a hero and shuns the limelight.
British director David Sington deserves our gratitude for persuading so many astronauts to sit for extensive, candid interviews. If the film relied solely on these conversations it would be worthwhile, but Sington discovered that while NASA shot miles of color movie footage documenting every aspect of the space program, only a fraction of it was ever seen by the public. (Generally speaking, the agency would prepare a half-hour film about each mission, and that's what news organizations and documentarians have drawn upon ever since.) He dug into the NASA vaults and came up with pure gold — incredible images in remarkable condition.
As the filmmaker told me, "It was one of those projects where everything miraculously seemed to come together."
I may be prejudiced, having lived through this era, but I'd like to think that even young people who don't know much about the U.S. space program would be impressed with these men, their missions, and what it all meant to Americans who'd been rocked by the Vietnam War and the social revolution of the time. Here was something we could all be proud of. Ron Howard captured those feelings beautifully in Apollo 13, as did the subsequent TV miniseries From the Earth to the Moon. But there is no substitute for the firsthand recollections of these amazing men.
In the Shadow of the Moon is an extraordinary — and hugely entertaining — film about an exceptional human endeavor.
The Mystery of Picasso
Directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot
With: Pablo Picasso, Claude Renoir, Henri-Georges Clouzot
Many great artists cannot explain how they do what they do, regardless of their medium. Asking a great sculptor how he achieves his results is akin to questioning a composer about his inspiration for the music that seemingly pours out of him.
In the 1950s, French filmmaker Henri-Georges Clouzot, best remembered for such thrillers as Diabolique and The Wages of Fear, convinced his friend Pablo Picasso to join him in an experiment. Clouzot set a camera on one side of a translucent canvas and had Picasso paint on the opposite side. The astonishing result allows us to watch the spontaneous creation of one picture after another, stroke by stroke. No questions are asked or answered, but we do have the rare privilege of witnessing a genius at work.
In the middle of the film, there's a break where we get to see the filmmaking setup, and watch the (shirtless) artist from the other side of the easel. Clouzot even reveals some of his trickery; although the creation of a painting seems continuous, in fact he would stop the camera from time to time and (seamlessly) pick up where he and the artist left off. Inspiration was not a free-flowing process even for a genius like Picasso.
Not so incidentally, the cinematographer, whom we see in behind-the-scenes footage, is Claude Renoir, nephew of the great filmmaker Jean Renoir — and great-nephew of the illustrious painter Pierre Auguste. Claude worked with his uncle on such films as Grand Illusion, The River, and Elena and Her Men. It isn't known whether Renoir or Clouzot came up with the idea of expanding the film from a standard frame to wide screen, but the transition is pleasing to the eye and must have been especially impressive in 1956 when CinemaScope was still fairly new.
The score for The Mystery of Picasso is by another formidable Frenchman, George Auric, who collaborated with Jean Cocteau for many years (on such classic films as Blood of a Poet, Beauty and the Beast, and The Testament of Orpheus) and whose other credits on both sides of the Atlantic include The Wages of Fear, Lola Montes, Roman Holiday, and The Innocents.
We don't necessarily come away from this film with a greater understanding of Pablo Picasso or the intangible thought process that produces great works of art. On the other hand, we do see how an artist can change his mind in the middle of a painting, and come to realize that the piece as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts, as unrelated brush strokes eventually coalesce into a finished work.
The Mystery of Picasso was awarded a Special Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 1956. More than half a century later, it remains a mesmerizing film.
The Whole Wide World
Directed by Dan Ireland
Screenplay by Michael Scott Myers
Based on the memoir One Who Walked Alone by Novalyne Price Ellis
Actors: Vincent D'Onofrio, Renee Zellweger, Ann Wedgeworth, Harve Presnell, Benjamin Mouton, Michael Corbett, Helen Cates
At the same time moviegoers were discovering Renee Zellweger in the smash hit Jerry Maguire, a distributor was attempting to generate interest in a much smaller-scale film featuring the young actress — but without the name value of Tom Cruise to help it along.
The Whole Wide World is a compelling drama about a most unusual relationship between a prim, unworldly Texas schoolteacher and aspiring writer named Novalyne Price and an eccentric but fascinating young man named Robert E. Howard. He lives with his mother, talks out loud as he clatters away on his typewriter, and has few if any social skills, but unlike Novalyne he is making a living through his words — as the creator of the pulp magazine heroes Conan the Barbarian and Kull the Conqueror!
Howard is played by the gifted Vincent D'Onofrio, whose attention-grabbing performance in Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket (1987) propelled him to the front ranks of young character actors. Subsequent films include Mystic Pizza, JFK, Ed Wood (in a memorable cameo as Orson Welles), and Men in Black. In recent years he's become a familiar face to television viewers on Law & Order: Criminal Intent.
Only an actor with the skill and range of D'Onofrio could pull off a role as peculiar as Robert E. Howard and help us understand what Novalyne Price saw in him. Michael Scott Myers based his expressive screenplay on her memoir One Who Walked Alone.
Zellweger is equally believable as the teacher who hasn't experienced much of life as yet but finds herself in the thrall of Howard's company — even though each time they get together, she doesn't know what to expect. They develop a deeply felt friendship even though it (apparently) never becomes a sexual partnership.
Incidentally — or not so incidentally — the film was made in Texas, where it takes place, and where Zellweger got her first film and television experience in locally made features like Dazed and Confused. Little did she dream that this modest film would finally reach theaters the same month as the Hollywood movie that would change her life. Yet the experience of making The Whole Wide World stayed with her: when she won her Best Supporting Actress Academy Award years later for Cold Mountain she thanked D'Onofrio for "teaching me how to work."
The Whole Wide World also changed the life and career of Dan Ireland. The cofounder of the Seattle International Film Festival, he was determined to parlay his lifelong love of film into a career behind the camera. He has shown great care in his choice of projects and while he's never had a boxoffice smash, he has made some excellent films. You'll find another one of them, Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont, elsewhere in this volume.
Excerpted from LEONARD MALTIN'S 151 BEST MOVIES YOU'VE NEVER SEEN. Copyright 2010 Leonard Maltin. Reprinted by permission of HarperStudio. All rights reserved.