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Top 10 Favorite Movies of All-Time: #5 The Royal Tenenbaums

Depending on when you ask, I might say that The Royal Tenenbaums is my favorite movie ever.  The third feature directed by Wes Anderson and written by Anderson and Owen Wilson is about as perfect as a movie can get for me.

In case you’ve never seen The Royal Tenenbaums, here’s kind of how it breaks down (spoiler alert – skip ahead 10 paragraphs if you don’t want to know the plot):

The movie opens with an extended introduction to the characters.  It’s about a family from a place that looks like New York, but isn’t exactly New York.  Royal Tenenbaum (Gene Hackman) and Etheline Tenenbaum (Angelica Huston) had two sons – Richie (Luke Wilson) and Chas (Ben Stiller) – and adopted a daughter, Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow).  Royal abandoned the family and left Etheline to raise the children on her own.

The children, prodigies in tennis (Richie), playwriting (Margot), and business (Chas), all peaked shortly after Royal left the family, and have been stuck ever since.

The action of the movie takes place 22 years after Royal’s departure.  He’s just been kicked out of the fancy hotel where he’s lived for years.  He’s broke.  As this is taking place, Etheline gets a marriage proposal from her longtime accountant and bridge partner Henry Sherman (Danny Glover).

The family butler, Pagoda (Kumar Pallana), informs Royal of the proposal.  Royal doesn’t want her to get married, and cooks up a scheme to maintain the status quo.

Meanwhile, the children’s problems come to a head, one-by-one, and they move back into their old home with Etheline.  Chas, on the verge of a crack-up after the death of his wife in a plane crash, brings his two sons with him.  Margot leaves her husband, noted neurologist Raleigh St. Clair (Bill Murray), but is having an affair with family friend Eli Cash (Owen Wilson).  Richie is the last to arrive (he’s been avoiding Margot because he’s in love with her), and Royal quickly enlists him, his favorite, to convince Etheline to allow him to move back into the house.

Royal’s presence is a major disruption.  Royal sees no problem in offering unsolicited advice to his kids, whom he hasn’t seen in many years.  He also condescends to Henry in a borderline racist manner.  Henry suspects that he’s faking his illness and looks for clues to prove his point.  Royal seems to enjoy being back in the midst of his family, even if they don’t all reciprocate.

Finally, Henry finds the proof he’s looking for, and exposes Royal in front of the entire family, which gets him and Kumar kicked out of the house.

Instead of being defeated, Royal experiences the loss that his family must have felt at his leaving them all those years ago, and he becomes determined to win back their love.  Hackman’s performance is wildly underrated.  He’s marvelous as the scoundrel Royal, keeping us rooting for him even though we maybe shouldn’t.

The third act of the movie finds Royal mending fences and making attempts to reconcile himself to his children, ultimately succeeding in winning them back one-by-one and helping them to get on with their lives.  Royal does end up dying, but not before salvaging his family legacy, which is something we should all shoot for.

So, what’s so great about this movie?  I’ll restrict myself to just a few reasons.

First, there’s Wes Anderson.  His imagination and point-of-view are so seductive to me.  He has a child-like way of portraying the worlds of his movies without being childish or simplistic.  Far from it.  The Royal Tenenbaums, despite all the visual flourishes, is a knowing take on the fallout of broken homes and how important an intact, functioning family is, especially on children.  The movie was inspired by his own experiences in a broken home at the insistence of Owen Wilson, whom he met in college.

Anderson has a sophisticated grasp of the history of cinema.  He reminds me of Bob Dylan in that he’s this film geek who’s absorbed an encyclopedia’s worth of influences – in interviews, he’s always referencing movies he’s seen that have influenced his movies, and he points out how he’s quoted them in his own movies – but rather than being a copy-cat of his heroes, he actually transcends them by combining their influence with his own vision to make something completely original.

Anderson has cultivated a style that is so uniquely his as to be easily spoofed: the omnipresent Futura font in all of his films, the artful use of montage sequences, an obsessive fascination with the tiniest of details (take inventory of the inside of Richie’s tent for just one example), the fantastic soundtracks, and finally, the quirky characters.  I love it all.

Quick side-note:  Independent cinema has always been populated by quirky characters, but one might trace the current epidemic of quirkiness in even the most mainstream of movies to the success of Bottle Rocket (1996), Rushmore (1998), and The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), all directed by Anderson and co-written with Wilson.  It could be said that Anderson and Quentin Tarrantino are the most influential directors of the last 15 years, having spawned a plague of imitators.

In addition to his style, I love his creation of a kind of altnernate universe New York in The Royal Tenenbaums.  Anderson is from Texas, and I like to think that he fantasized about New York for years before actually moving and working there, and the version of the city we see in the movie is like the way a kid might have imagined the city having read about it in books and experienced it in movies and TV shows before actually seeing it in person.  No actual places are used, and even places that are familiar, like the Waldorf Astoria hotel, are given alternate names (The Lindbergh Palace Hotel).  When you take the stylized costuming of the characters, combined with alt.NewYork, you end up with a kind of fairytale story.  And it works.

Speaking of New York, another great thing about The Royal Tenenbaums are the literary trappings of the movie.  From the first frame, the movie is sold as a kind of adaptation of a book called “The Royal Tenebaums,” as the book is checked out of a library old-school style with the pocket and card and stamp.  The scenes are even set up with inserts that are designed to look like the chapter headings of the faux book – the sentence fragments we see are actually the scene headings from the script.  In addition to this, the precocity of the children, combined with the New York setting and their upper class interests, are reminiscent of J.D. Salinger’s Glass family.  They are similarly eccentric and jacked-up.

Finally, there’s the aforementioned use of montage.  Anderson has been compared to Martin Scorcese.  In fact, Scorcese himself has called Anderson the next Scorcese, which may strike some as weird.  I won’t get into that here, but I would like to compare Anderson’s use of music and montage with Scorcese, who has obviously influenced him (and a whole host of other film makers).

My second favorite moment in The Royal Tenenbaums is when Margot steps off the bus as she’s meeting Richie at the boat docks.  He sees her from where he sits, and as she steps down, the action goes to slow-motion and Nico’s “These Days” plays as she moves toward him.  Richie’s in love with Margot, and this device perfectly captures that sense of longing that Richie feels for his half-sister.

Compare that scene with a famous moment from Mean Streets, Scorcese’s explosive debut.  Johnny Boy’s (Robert DeNiro) entrance to the bar where he and his friends hang out is just as emblematic of Johnny Boy as Anderson’s scene is for what it does.  The action is also in slow motion as Johnny Boy enters with a girl on each arm and a silly grin on his face as the opening riff of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” plays.  His best friend and protector Charlie (Harvey Keitel) watches him approach (a la Richie Tenenbaum).  The lights in the bar bathe them all in blood red (foreshadowing?).

The scenes line up as though Anderson is tipping his cap to the maestro, something he freely admits to doing elsewhere with other directors and other movies.  And just as Scorcese has become the master of using motage sequences, juxtaposed with perfect music, to advance his stories, so too has Anderson (my favorite Anderson montage sequence is the opening of Rushmore, where we see all the clubs that Max belongs to).

From its perfect three-act structure to the perfect touch writing to the acting, and, at last, to the directing, The Royal Tenenbaums is a high-point of American movie-making, and it confirmed Wes Anderson’s place as an important director – not just in America, but on the international stage.


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Top 10 Favorite Movies of All-Time: #7 Radio Days

#7.  Radio Days (1987) In compiling a list of my favorite movies, I could have typed out Woody Allen’s filmography from Take the Money and Run up to Crimes and Misdemeanors and called it a day.  His movies have been with me as long as I can remember, and have been a major influence on what I like and don’t like.

As a kid, I cut my teeth on Allen’s early comedies, and could quote my favorite gags from Take the Money and Run or Bananas or Sleeper as easily as I could recite the Pledge of Allegiance.  Besides being laugh-out-loud funny, they also made me feel smart when I got some of the more subtle gags, like I’d figured out a secret handshake.  It was the same feeling I got as I started to pick up on the adult humor in the Warner Brothers cartoons.

When I was in college, I watched Annie Hall and Manhattan over-and-over again, feasting on the layers of comedy, philosophizing, references to foreign films, Allen’s horniness, and, in Annie Hall, the glimpses of his childhood in Brooklyn.  The bits of Annie Hall that included the young Alvy Singer/Woody Allen were brief but impactful for how accurately they captured a kid’s perspective, even though the scenes were highly stylized.  Part of the charm and genius of these scenes is in the casting.

Later, just before I dropped out of college, a wonderfully sour old English professor spent an entire class expounding on the pleasures to be had by feasting on Hannah and Her Sisters, which had just opened.  He compared it to a Hemmingway novel or the poetry of ee cummings, which is quoted in the movie.  Dr. Hagerman was right, of course, but my favorite moments were the dinner sequences where old standards played over a camera that moved through Hannah and Elliot’s apartment during holiday celebrations like one of the guests, capturing little moments, the way I do when I pay attention.  Those sequences demonstrated a great feel and affection for complex family dynamics.  With only pictures and mood music, Allen takes us on these brief detours that add layers of depth to an already great movie.

And so it is that Radio Days showcases these elements – the smartest writing you’ll find most years, laugh out loud moments, a story about kids and growing up and family – and woven together, they add up to a movie that is sweet and nostalgic, without giving way to sappy sentimentality.

Radio Days is a love letter to the New York of Allen’s youth (it starts in the late 30’s and ends on New Year’s Eve 1943), and he narrates the story himself, as a grown-up Joe, reflecting back on a slightly altered childhood spent in the Rockaways in Queens (rather than the Midwood section of Brooklyn where he actually grew up) with a large extended family living under one roof.  Allen introduces his family, then the songs and shows and celebrities from the era and connects them to moments from his and his family’s lives that they remind him of.  There was only one radio in the house and but a few channels, which forced a more communal experience than today, with so many devices and so much fragmentation.

The writing in Radio Days is economical and densely layered, with some gags set-up thirty minutes or more before they’re paid off.  For example, one of the minor characters, a teenaged cousin named Ruthie, is introduced as spending an inordinate amount of time listening in on the neighbors’ calls on the party-line.  She whispers to the family that the next-door neighbor, a Mrs. Waldbaum, is having an ovary removed.  Cut to the neighbors at the fence, yelling at Ruthie to get off the phone.  There’s a funny exchange, where half the family comes out on the porch to deny the snooping of Ruthie, with one of them finally saying, “What do we care if your wife has her ovary removed.”  Later, during a scene with some other family members, Ruthie interrupts the scene, much like the teenager she is, by popping into the room with her hand over the phone’s receiver and announcing that Mrs. Waldbaum has found a pocketbook on the subway…and doesn’t know if she’s going to turn it in.  She disappears and the scene continues.  It’s a throwaway moment, but the repetition of them adds up to greater texture and a deepening of the characters, as well as contributing a running gag-stream based on their quirks – Ruthie’s voyeurism, Uncle Abe’s obsession with fish, and more significantly, Aunt Bea’s rotten luck with men.

The real strength in the movie lies not with the stories of the glamorous celebrities, but in those of Joe’s family.  Though I was born in the 60’s, I come away from Radio Days feeling like I have a good picture of what it was like for families to band together, out of necessity, and cram three households into one modest home.  We feel the tensions of not having enough space, but mostly we see how the family makes it work – through a combination of humor and escapism, courtesy of the omnipresent radio.

One of the most touching scenes has no dialogue at all, but is a recollection of the Mills Brothers song “Paper Doll” and how it reminds Joe of an anniversary party for his parents – the only time he saw his parents kiss.  As the song plays, the camera moves through the house, like a stranger not wanting to interrupt.  There is no sound, just moving images, shot in a nostalgic amber light.  Everyone in the family is there, a glass of wine in hand, toasting Joe’s parents – a wedding cake in the middle of the table.  It’s a frozen moment in time, burnished by the passing of years to the point where all is pure and idealized, the way we often do with our own memories.

Of all the things I like about Radio Days, it’s Allen’s depiction of Joe and his friends that I like best.  Seth Green is wonderful as Woody Allen’s alter ego, a kid obsessed with the radio, especially “The Masked Avenger,” his favorite show.  Joe’s peers are a textbook example of how Woody Allen creates memorable characters, though they only have a line or two.  It seems there are two things he has his casting people look for – quirky looks and speech impediments.  Early on, we are introduced to Joe’s obsession with the Masked Avenger by way of a show-and-tell presentation by one of Joe’s classmates, a kid with sleepy, hound dog eyes, and a lispy impediment that is both funny and sweet.  He shows off his Masked Avenger Secret Compartment ring.

Joe’s buddies drive the point home even further.  We get snippets of them doing classic boy things, like swarming in the front door of Joe’s house, then swarming out the back door moments later, loaded down with food.

Another moment finds the boys on the beach, one-upping each other with their takes on the most beautiful women in the world.  Rita Hayworth and Betty Grable are thrown out.  These are ten year old voices, squeaky like mice.  Finally, one of them tosses out another name – Dana Andrews.  The others pounce and tell him Dana Andrews is a man.

“She is?” he asks, confused.

“Yeah.  Didn’t you see Crash Dive?”

“With a name like Dana?”  Dana is squeaked out with extra emphasis.

It’s a classic kid conversation.

Perhaps the funniest bit in the movie happens when Joe gets an idea for how he and his buddies can get the money to buy them each a Masked Avenger Secret Compartment Ring.  It involves stealing money from collection boxes they are given, in order to panhandle people on the streets of their neighborhood for the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine.  They are caught, of course, and the scene with Joe, his parents, and the Rabbi is priceless.  The Rabbi is aghast at the scheme to use this money for something so frivolous, and as he finishes his lecture, Joe pipes in, “You speak the truth, my faithful Indian companion,” a line from “The Lone Ranger.”  This sends the Rabbi and Joe’s parents into a comic fit of spanking, with each adult trying to outdo the others.

Instead of a tight plotline, Radio Days imitates life, surprising us with moments of love and grace and humor, found in the midst of the most mundane things.

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Top 10 Favorite Movies of All-Time: #9 Breaking Away

#9. Breaking Away (1979)  Breaking Away will always have a spot on my top 10 favorites list because of the influence it had on my life.  I saw it with my family when it came out in ’79, and it sparked a passion for cycling that has never burned out.

The story, set in Bloomington, Indiana, is about a group of four townies who are stuck in the no-man’s land between high school and adulthood.  They are referred to by the college kids as Cutters, a derogatory reference to their blue-collar fathers who work in the nearby quarries.  And so, in addition to being a coming-of-age story, it’s also a story about class, and more specifically, identity.

Dave Stoller is a Cutter.  He’s a dreamy, goofy kid with only one noticeable talent – cycling.  His backstory involves some undisclosed illness in which a bicycle aided in his recovery.  The bike has become an extension of his identity, and to his friends and family, he’s a harmless eccentric.  But he’s got real talent.  His obsession with cycling is manifested in his devotion to all things Italian.  His room is filled with posters.  He listens only to Italian opera.  He even speaks broken Italian with an exaggerated accent.  Did I say he was a bit goofy?

His friends include: Moocher (Jackie Earle Haley, who also played Kelly Leak in the Bad News Bears movies), a dirty, sweaty, dog-loyal redneck with a heart of gold, Cyril (Daniel Stern, from Diner and The Wonder Years), a lovable loser, and Mike (Dennis Quaid).

Mike is the former quarterback/captain of the football team who can’t come to grips with the fact that he no longer has a real team to lead.  He desperately tries to keep the four guys together, even insulting and badgering them as they start to feel out new directions in their lives.  He becomes the archetypal ex-jock – soon to be the old guy with the beer gut who was once the muscle-bound hero for the local team.

And so all of these boys struggle with identity as they grope their way into the next phase of their lives.

As a kid, I identified completely with Dave.  Untouched by the harsh realities of life – in contrast to his cynical, hard-working father (brilliantly played by Paul Dooley) – Dave lives in a dream world where he passes himself off as an Italian exchange student in order to escape his drab existence and possibly win the love of a beautiful coed at Indiana University.

This carefree, head-in-the-clouds existence is galling to Dave’s father, who resents his son’s optimism and worries about his future.  And there to mediate this generation gap is Evelyn/wife/mom (Barbara Barrie, in an Oscar nominated performance), who knows how to encourage her son’s dreams while soothing her husband’s frustration.  She’s a cross between June Cleaver and Henry Kissinger.

Dave gets his dose of real-life soon enough when two events come together at once.  First, he has a hand in his father’s heart attack in a comic scene where used-car salesman dad argues with a dissatisfied customer who tries to return a lemon.  The second, and perhaps more damaging, incident occurs when Dave finally gets to race against his heroes from Italy’s Team Cinzano, who are touring America in exhibition races.  When the Italian’s can’t out-ride pesky Dave, they resort to dirty tricks and cause him to wreck.  In the process, they rob him of his innocence.

From there, things start to unravel for Dave.  He confesses his true identity to his coed girlfriend, who rejects him.  In turn, Mike loses confidence in himself and just about gives up his struggle against the smug college boys.  Moocher threatens to break up the team by secretly getting married.  Cyril is…Cyril.

Potential redemption comes in the form of yet another bike race.  Because of the bickering between the college boys and the Cutters, the school decides to open their annual bike race – The Little 500 – to a team from the town, which sets the stage for either cathartic revenge or crushing humiliation.

If the story sounds conventional, well, it is.  But it’s in the telling of the story – Steve Tesich’s writing, the acting, Peter Yates’ directing – that it rises above cliche and becomes something special.  Breaking Away has lost none of its resonance or charm.  Even after 31 years.

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Top 10 Favorite Movies of All-Time: #10 The Incredibles

If I’ve learned nothing else from David Letterman, it’s that I like Top 10 lists, and what follows are my Top 10 favorite movies of all time…as of this writing.  Check back tomorrow, and it could be slightly different.

These are movies that I never tire of watching, that stir me as much today as they did when I first saw them.

#10.  The Incredibles (2004).  I love just about all of the Pixar movies (A Bug’s Life, not so much), but this one is easily my favorite.  Like the best Looney Tunes cartoons, The Incredibles has something for everyone: great animation, great action, funny gags, and at least a half-dozen fully formed characters.  But more than this, The Incredibles is great storytelling.

In addition to the super-hero-vs-super-villain-based plot that rivals the best of the James Bond movies, we get a sly bullseye of a critique of the way we in America both worship and destroy the extraordinary among us.  As the country takes the so-called Supers for granted, a backlash emerges, and the Supers are driven into what amounts as a witness protection program for the amazing.  As this happens, a super-villain emerges with the goal of distributing technology that promises to make everyone special – and when everyone is special, no one will be.

Finally, The Incredibles is a love letter to the nuclear family.  The Parrs – Bob, Helen, Violet, Dash, and baby Jack-Jack – have their problems, but their greatest strength comes not from their freakish talents, but from the synergy of coming together in moments of great need.

The Incredibles is the ultimate family film, the ultimate Pixar film, as well as a great film for anyone who likes more than just loud explosions and T&A.

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