For Your Consideration: Nov. 21, 2014

Celebrated director Mike Nichols died on Wednesday in Manhattan at the age of 83. Nichols, known for his wit, comedic timing, and ability to bring out the best in actors, enjoyed a storied career that spanned the stage, screen, and radio. He is one of only a handful of people ever to win an Oscar, a Tony, an Emmy, and a Grammy, and his work ranged from “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” to the Monty Python musical “Spamalot.” The list of luminaries who have worked with Nichols over the decades is long: He discovered Whoopi Goldberg and Dustin Hoffman, made his cinematic directorial debut overseeing Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, and in 2012, directed Andrew Garfield and Philip Seymour Hoffman in the award-winning revival “Death of a Salesman.”

But of all the stars Nichols worked with, the one who paid perhaps the best tribute to him was Elaine May, the other half of the comedy team that first made Nichols famous: “So he’s witty, he’s brilliant, he’s articulate, he’s on time, he’s prepared and he writes. But is he perfect? He knows you can’t really be liked or loved if you’re perfect. You have to have just enough flaws. And he does. Just the right, perfect flaws to be absolutely endearing.”

– Elaine

“The Graduate” (1967)

Cast: Dustin Hoffman, Anne Bancroft, Katharine Ross, William Daniels, Murray Hamilton, Elizabeth Wilson, Buck Henry

Available streaming on Netflix, to rent or purchase from Vudu, Amazon Instant, iTunes

The obvious choice, perhaps, but “The Graduate” is an unimpeachable piece of film canon for a reason. There aren’t many films that remain so persistently entertaining and so dramatically restless – every time I watch it I find some new delight in Hoffman and Bancroft’s masterful performances, and some new existential dread behind the laughs. This is what happens when the American Dream turns into American Ennui. I can’t even think of much else to say except that it’s essential cinema, and if you haven’t seen it yet, why are you still here?

Ethan

“Working Girl” (1988)

Cast: Melanie Griffith, Harrison Ford, Sigourney Weaver, Joan Cusack, Alec Baldwin, Philip Bosco, Nora Dunn, Oliver Platt, Kevin Spacey

Available to rent or purchase on Amazon Instant and Vudu; on disc from Netflix

The paradox of Mike Nichols was the way his career was defined by undefinability – he bounded between projects from frivolous (“The Birdcage”) to profound (HBO’s mini-series of “Angels in America”), never with any particular consistency. He was capable of both bombing or firing on all cylinders, and there was no particular pattern in genre or theme to predict when he might hit which. Small matter – when it worked, it worked, and “Working Girl”…err….succeeded. Anchored by a charming cast (remember when Harrison Ford seemed to enjoy being in movies?), and a zippy, if blunt, script, Nichols’ rom-com benefits from his generally invisible, clockwork craftsmanship. And I mean really, anyone who recognized that Sigourney Weaver and Joan Cusack needed to be in the same movie deserves some sort of recognition.

– Ethan

“Closer” (2004)

Cast: Julia Roberts, Clive Owen, Natalie Portman, Jude Law

Available to rent or purchase on Amazon Instant, iTunes and Vudu, on disc from Netflix

Film adaptations of plays are often accused of being too “talky” – sort of a ridiculous in a world where we all fawn over Tarantino – but “Closer” is a great example of how being cinematic doesn’t exclude being eloquent. If there’s anything consistent about Nichols’ directing career, it was that he gravitated toward characters that were articulate, whether they were cracking jokes, breaking down, or, in the case of this film, just being kind of generally desperate and lonely. Between his aesthetically appealing quartet of actors and some of the most beautiful, woozy cinematography (photographed by Stephen Goldblatt) of his career, “Closer” is certainly attractive as well; as engaging a film to look at as it is to listen to, even when its messy web of romance and deceit gets most ugly.

– Ethan

For Your Consideration: April 18, 2014

On Monday, the Pulitzer Prize Board announced its list of nominees and winners in journalism and letters. The reporting winners in particular seemed to strike a particular chord this year – from The Washington Post and The Guardian‘s publication of the Edward Snowden documents to The Boston Globe‘s coverage of the Boston Marathon bombings, it felt like there was something urgently earnest about the Pulitzers this year, a reminder that we can still seek out and find great journalism amidst the media blitz.

I don’t aspire to be as earnest about it, but here at The Best Films of Our Lives we thought we’d do our little part in paying tribute to the golden days of journalism, when “newspaperman” was actually a profession boys and girls might aspire to. For your weekend viewing pleasure, here are some recommendations for great films about those fast-talking, gung-ho hacks of the yellow press.

– Ethan

“His Girl Friday” (1940)
Cast: Rosalind Russell, Cary Grant, Ralph Bellamy, John Qualen, Helen Mack
“His Girl Friday” is in the public domain. Watch it in full on YouTube, stream it for free on Hulu, download it, remix it, go crazy!
This is the ultimate newspapermen movie for newspapermen (and women). With his best reporter (and ex-wife), Hildy (Rosalind Russell) determined to quit the business and get married (to someone else), Walter (Cary Grant), a fast-talking, too smooth editor, has just one evening to win her back personally and professionally. This is screwball comedy at its finest–witty, cruel, sweet, and romantic. Hildy and Walter talk their way in and out of trouble, fall in and out of love, and plumb all kinds of depths (moral or otherwise) to get the best story. Because in the end, if there’s anything Hildy and Walter love more than each other, it’s the story.
– Elaine
“Roman Holiday” (1953)

Cast: Gregory Peck, Audrey Hepburn, Eddie Albert, Hartley Power
Available streaming on Netflix and Amazon Prime, for rent on Amazon Instant or iTunes
If “His Girl Friday” is about the lengths a reporter will go to for a story, “Roman Holiday” is about the things even greater than the story. Audrey Hepburn makes her acting debut as a young European princess aching for freedom–to dance with the common folk, eat gelato in the sun, and wear pajamas to bed. She runs into Joe (Gregory Peck), and after an argument about Keats and Shelley, accepts his offer for a brief stint of liberation in Rome. Little does she know that Joe is actually a journalist looking to profit from the secret princess–the scoop to end all scoops. From this premise came the role that most suited Hepburn in her long and storied career, as well as Peck’s chance to prove that Cary Grant wasn’t the funniest leading man in town. The city of Rome co-stars in all its wonder, adding irrepressible energy and ancient charm to an endearing, energetic film. But beyond Hepburn’s grace and Peck’s charisma, it is the writing that elevates this film. Dalton Trumbo was never recognized during his lifetime for his Oscar-winning work, having been blacklisted by HUAC, but his dialogue, clever but natural, and the film’s poignant last scene ensure that “Roman Holiday” remains one of the classiest films to date.
– Elaine

“All the President’s Men” (1976)

Cast: Robert Redford, Dustin Hoffman, Jack Warden, Martin Balsam, Hal Holbrook, Jason Robards, Jane Alexander, Meredith Baxter, Ned Beatty

Available to rent from Amazon Instant and iTunes, on disc from Netflix

All those making positive comparisons between “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” and the classic conspiracy thrillers of the 1970’s might want to go back and remind themselves what real paranoia looks like. The Watergate scandal, and Woodward and Bernstein’s uncovering of it, has long since passed into the banality of historical myth; and while Alan J. Pakula’s film was, to a large degree, part of crafting that legend, it’s remarkable to revisit it today and see the tangible cloud of fear that hangs over its protagonists’ dogged and desperate search for the truth. The ultimate triumph of an idealistic, skeptical journalism can not totally erase Redford’s sweaty, barely repressed panic, as, alone in a dingy and cavernous parking lot, he is left to ponder whether he’s gotten in over his head – and what the consequences may be if so.

– Ethan