My Ten Favorite Films of all time (there’s more than ten)

I keep a fairly rigorous and unchanging list of Top 10 films, which I’ve never bothered quantifying, but which bears describing in some form or fashion, if only as a means of keeping score. We all keep Top 10 lists — books, bands, albums, abstract artists, portrait photographers, US presidents, favorite restaurants (or, more fun, least favorite restaurants) — and I have others in addition to movies. But movies are perhaps the most interesting to analyze, and I KNOW that everyone has ten favorite films.

There’s no real standard that these movies had to satisfy in order to score a place in my Top Ten, nor am I able to rationalize, explain, or justify my criteria. A good movie must first of all do its primary task of entertaining, and these ten are nothing if not entertaining. They must also be well-written and well-acted — in so far as the acting satisfies the requirements of the story. I also require a movie to be visually appealing and not just tell a good-to-great story. Finally, it must be about something larger than itself — it must speak to some essential truth or contribute something to society or the greater conversation about film. It must stake something out, take a stand, be brave, change the form, point out new possibilities. It must also withstand the test of time. There’s nothing more depressing than a 10-year-old movie that might as well have come out sometime in the early 1950s.

There shouldn’t be any surprises on here. These are not esoteric films that no one can find. Most of them met with insane popular success, but for a reason — they are good films that people wanted to see. If no one wants to see your movie, I probably won’t want to, either. Obscurity is not, in and of itself, reason for reward. And so, in alphabetical order, because trying to figure out a No. 1 is too damn hard:

American Beauty (1999): This came out in the greatest year for film ever and remains my favorite, and never mind the fact that it won Best Picture — that’s just a coincidence. The movie knows a lot about growing up in the suburbs in the late 1990s, and what it is like at all times to be father to a teenaged daughter. Kevin Spacey might be a real-life piece of shit, but there are so many other beautiful performances here — from everyone in the whole movie. The music is hauntingly engaging, and the cinematography is peerless. But it’s the dialogue that makes this movie so great, and the mournful tone of it all. You feel like something is ending, and in a way, it is: The Nineties.

Blade Runner (1982): The greatest science fiction movie ever made, asking hard questions about the differences (if any) between artificial and human life — questions that will come to bear in our own immediate future. It’s also the most stunningly beautiful film ever shot. There are several different versions out there with different endings. I prefer the original, 1982 release, complete with Harrison Ford’s characteristically bored but somehow-just-right V.O. narration. As to the sequel, Blade Runner 2049? It’s nice fan fiction, but that’s about it.

The Godfather and The Godfather II (1972, 1974): I’m not going to burn a lot of space extoling the virtues of these great films. To leave them off a list like this would be to devalue the list. Suffice to say, they belong here, and share equal ranking — one is just as good (or great) as the other.

GoodFellas (1990): Martin Scorsese’s best film is a hilarious black comedy about what it’s like to be a gangster. The movie itself is gangster, with all-time-career-best performances from Joe Pesci and Ray Liotta (was he ever in anything else?), and enough great scenes and scorching dialogue (all involving the F-bomb) to put Tarantino to shame. Sure, Scorsese made other great films, but this one tops them all.

James Bond 2006-2020. Or, in other words, the Craig years. Yes, this listing constitutes five different films, but given Daniel Craig’s magnificently masculine portrayal of 007, I’m including them all, as I wouldn’t want to be without one of them. (Okay, Quantum of Solace isn’t great, but it benefits from the other four.) Oh, and, yes, I’m aware that neither I nor anyone else has seen Bond 23, which doesn’t come out until April 2020 — but I’m willing to tuck it in here. As to my rationale? Come on! These are the greatest action movies of the last 15 years, and Craig is absolutely in command of the legendary role.

Saving Private Ryan (1998): The greatest war movie I’ve ever seen; no Top Ten list of my design would be without it. Yes, Spielberg brilliantly recreated the Normandy landing, and Tom Hanks effortlessly embodies American goodness as an ordinary soldier, but this movie did something else. It changed the way I look at pictures of the war. For example, I recently tried watching The Great Escape for the first time. I thought the Germans came across as a joke and the good guys as well-dressed, well-fed funsters — in a POW camp setting. It didn’t work for me (in spite of my admiration for Steve McQueen). SPR was like the scales falling from my eyes. War would never be fun, or convenient, or clean, or Hollywood-ized again. War is an apocalypse, and Spielberg drives that point home with blood and tears.

Schindler’s List (1993): Spielberg again, and I shouldn’t have to justify the inclusion of this one. It’s his best film, which speaks volumes. It’s also an angry, unflinching look at human depravity. I can’t watch this one unless I’m in the mood for it, which is just as it should be.

The Silence of the Lambs (1991): This was probably the most influential movie of the 1990s, in that it ushered in a slew of FBI dramas, police procedurals, criminal genius flicks, rookie-cops-in-distress novels, and gruesome serial-killer thrillers that focused on blood while missing out on soul. Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins are endlessly watchable, and the movie has a calm humanity about it that makes the people-eating scenes more horrifying than the average slasher. Also great dialogue.

The Star Wars series (all 9 episodes): Yes, I’m including all nine Star Wars movies as a single listing, as there is no other way of thinking about them. Some are better than others; the prequels have poor acting and some genuinely bad dialogue; and I can’t get a handle on the overall story arc of the sequel trilogy. Nor have I seen The Rise of Skywalker. No matter. Everything begins and ends, for me, with Star Wars.

Taxi Driver (1976): Here is a true horror film, viewed through the eyes of a lost soul. Robert de Niro’s best performance and Scorsese’s other best film. Grimy, gritty, harsh, ultra-realistic, and ageless, there will never be another movie like this one.

Honorable mentions:

Heat; Patton; Jaws; The Godfather III; Dances With Wolves; Rio Bravo; Toy Story; Batman (1989); Thief; the Mission: Impossible series; The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011); Citizen Kane; Apocalypse Now; Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome; The French Connection; 2001: A Space Odyssey; The Shining; Magnolia; The Blair Witch Project; Alien; Pulp Fiction; Unforgiven; Zodiac; Platoon; El Camino: A Breaking Bad Story; Jackie Brown; Gladiator; No Country for Old Men; The Right Stuff; Goldfinger; Fargo; Sling Blade.

 

 

 

 

 

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Taxi Driver

Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver has been viewed a couple of times in my house in the past few days, and I’ll admit what by now should be painfully obvious: it just keeps getting better. Indeed, Taxi Driver is a film that is both solidly of its time and place (New York City, 1976) but still powerfully relevant today. I don’t think it’ll ever “get old.” It’s one of those movies you can watch a dozen times in your lifetime and interpret differently each time. It remains fascinating on every gritty, grimy level and is probably Scorsese’s best film.

For some, Scorsese has always been an acquired taste. His films are personal, New York-centric, violent, operatic, and hard to like. I once knew a film fanatic who, for whatever reason, never got all that deeply into Scorsese’s work, though he admired it, I guess, on an abstract level. Parts of Scorsese’s resume, in my opinion, are overrated, and he won the Oscar for entirely the wrong film, The Departed, which is more or less unwatchable. But the good parts of his resume are resoundingly great. GoodFellas will remain one of my 10 favorite films, and The King of Comedy, The Wolf of Wall Street, Shutter Island, Raging Bull, Casino, The Aviator, and Taxi Driver, for sure, are equally unforgettable.

The movie might not be so well-regarded without Robert De Niro’s incredible portrayal of Travis Bickle. It’s one of the great screen performances, for a host of reasons other than just “you talking to me?” He burrows deep into the sick, feverish, twisted mind of Bickle, who stares out of his cab every night to see a bleak vision of New York City. The place is a hell, a depraved prison in which pimps, whores, junkies, muggers, robbers, adulterers, lunatics, and other assorted street trash act out their daily dramas without regard for the rest of humanity. Travis is sickened by them, while others in the city – the so-called normal people – seem immune. Bickle, who seemingly has no defenses against the moral rot of New York, descends deeper into madness.

It’s hard to think of another movie that portrays loneliness and isolation with more detail or sympathy. Travis is alone and knows he is alone; detached, wandering, he forgets how to interact with other people. He sees only what he wants to see – the street trash – and indulges this fetish by driving a cab at night. He pulls in decent tips but lives in a classic New York City coldwater flat, which is barely large enough to accommodate one man. He tries striking up friendly conversations with people, but he’s awkward, weird, and hard to like. Also, there seem to be multiple versions of Travis; it’s almost as if he’s trying on different personas to see which one works. There’s gregarious Travis (awkward), standoffish Travis (more awkward) and obnoxious Travis (even more awkward). Nothing sticks; he has no social skills whatsoever. His inability to connect with others makes life a prison of its own.

De Niro suggests Travis’ desperation by making him quiet and still; when Travis breaks out into a grin, you know there’s a screw loose somewhere, but De Niro keeps everything internalized, so that we can’t quite comprehend the nature of the problem. Travis himself is barely able to articulate his complaint. In an affecting scene, he tries talking it out with Wizard (Peter Boyle), but can only communicate a few meaningless syllables. “I feel like … I don’t know, I feel like doing something,” he mumbles, clearly aware that he’s capable of something terrible, but unable to explain it.

Two women stand out in Travis’ waking nightmare: Betsy, a political operative played by Cybill Shepherd, and Iris, a 12-year-old prostitute played by Jodie Foster. Both are blonde and blue-eyed; both, in Travis’ twisted view, require saving from exploitative systems. Unfortunately, Travis fails to communicate effectively with either woman. He takes Betsy on an abortive date to a porno, and annoys Iris with his moralizing lectures. Unable to get through to Betsy, he plots to assassinate her boss, a powerful politician, and in order to save Iris, he gears up to murder her pimp, Sport (played by Harvey Keitel). His personal failures trigger him to go on a mission to fulfill his darkest fantasies.

Travis spirals through a hell of missed opportunities, garbled communications, and walking hallucinations. He desperately needs sleep – or some time in a mental ward – but like so many other crazies, he’s loose on the street, engaged in destructive fantasies with little or no bearing on the real world. His craziness seeps out of his pores; he is unable to hide it. Betsy knows there’s something “off” with Travis, but dates him, anyway, perhaps out of sadistic curiosity. Travis’ fellow cabbies know he’s sliding over the edge, but are powerless (or unwilling) to help. Only the Secret Service agent who Travis unwisely engages in conversation realizes he is unstable, but by then, the situation cannot be reversed.

Travis reaches a turning point (even admitting as much on the soundtrack) when he purchases a bunch of handguns off an amoral street dealer dressed like a banker. This is my favorite moment in the movie, as the dealer lays out his wares and describes each pistol in loving detail. Travis fondles the guns, sighting down their barrels, zeroing in on people on the street. He asks good questions and gets solid, reliable answers. Clearly, he’s going to kill people with these guns, but the dealer doesn’t care.

Another favorite moment comes when Travis confronts Sport for the first time. Sport sees something dangerous in Travis but can’t put his finger on it, marking him, incorrectly, as an undercover cop. This offends Travis – you can see it in De Niro’s eyes. “Hey, I’m no cop,” he insists, but Sport, who is nothing if not street smart, still smells a rat. Later, when Travis comes back with guns and a Mohawk, Sport finds out exactly who he is.

The final shootout in which Travis kills a number of ostensibly bad guys in the name of “saving” Iris is straight out of a horror movie – gory, frightening, realistic. Why does Travis do it? Because that was the road he was going down the entire time. His whole life has built to this moment. He tells us early on that “a real rain” is going to wash away the scum, and the men he kills fit that description.

The closing moments are puzzling, and it is possible that we shouldn’t take them literally. I think they are Travis’ dying fantasy, and Scorsese suggests as much by showing Travis’ eyes in the rearview mirror, glancing at something, fleetingly, that isn’t there. The movie is a night terror, an insomniac’s hallucination.

Remove the toddler

We are headed into dangerous, uncharted waters with Trump.

He is lashing out at any and everyone in sight, blaming all comers but himself for his predicament, and attempting to foment revolt by using the coarsest language aimed at 1) demonizing Schiff, Pelosi, et al, and 2) portraying himself as the victim.

The one thing he isn’t doing is taking into account the future of the United States, its position in the world, or his own reputation, which he himself is flushing down the toilet (although it can reasonably argued that his reputation never left there). Just today, the idiot held a press conference in which he PUBLICLY asked ONCE AGAIN for foreign assistance in investigating his perceived 2020 election rivals. THIS IS IMPEACHABLE.

Make no mistake: Trump is blatantly violating the Constitution in front of the television cameras, willfully inviting the aid of such countries as CHINA (which just celebrated its 70th year as a communist nation), just as he did three years ago when, in full view of the public, he asked Russia to help him check into Hillary’s emails. “Russia, if you’re listening …” Turns out, Russia was not only listening, but doing things to help their willful fool win.

Today, of course, Putin finds the whole situation so amusing, and the U.S. so ineffectual, as to joke about Russian meddling. All because of Trump, mind you. If Hillary were in office, none of this shit would be happening, and Donald would be selling steak knives on the Food Network.

We’re often fooled into thinking there are two sides to every story. FOX News tricked people into believing that line with its “fair and balanced” moniker, which everyone knows hid the truth: that FOX parrots only one line, and that is the far-right wing. There are not two sides to Trump. There is Trump himself — who I don’t even consider a Republican — and everybody else, by which I mean the United States of America. He stands alone. There is no “other side.” Anybody demanding “equal time” in this impeachment argument is either a fool or a Russian stooge. There is nothing else to consider. Trump is willfully, gleefully breaking the law, in public. He is lawless. He needs to be taken down. There is nothing else to consider. It is time for adults to act accordingly and remove the toddler from the room where the nuclear weapons are stored.

 

Casino

I don’t know what it is, but there is something insidious about Martin Scorsese’s 1995 Casino. Maybe it’s the incessant use of the F-word; maybe it’s the frenetic editing; maybe it’s Robert De Niro’s stoic, humorless performance juxtaposed against Joe Pesci’s foul-mouthed antics; maybe it’s the epic violence, or the threat of violence; maybe it’s the colors, the incessant 1950s and ’60s-era pop romantic tunes on the soundtrack; maybe it’s all of the above, but Casino, after about the first hour, starts to make a psychological impact on the viewer.

This wasn’t my favorite movie in the Nineties, but I am now having a re-evaluation of it, and I’ve come to realize there is almost nothing more entertaining than Pesci ranting in De Niro’s face. Casino has lots of that — most of its best scenes involve Pesci ranting in the legendary Bob’s face — and more, lots more. It’s a three-plus-hour epic about the mob in Vegas, and while it might require the specialization of a few taste buds, it’s worth the effort.

This is a Scorsese movie through and through, boasting all of the director’s signatures: the pop-rock soundtrack, the chatty narrator, the intricate knowledge of mob politics, a detailed analysis of organized crime, a compromised anti-hero, a vicious hoodlum, strong women, black humor, random violence, and an operatic sense of grandeur. The more you watch it, the more you get caught up in it. You endure long stretches where nothing much happens, only to see characters get beaten with hammers or baseball bats, or shot or stabbed, or clubbed with telephones. This is a movie about implied violence; it either comes, or it passes like a rain shower that never falls. We’re relieved, but we know there’s always another chance of rain in our forecast.

The movie reminds us of GoodFellas, and probably got snubbed at the Academy Awards because it is so very similar to Scorsese’s earlier, equally-Oscar-challenged, mob classic. After all, it stars De Niro and Pesci in roles reminiscent to those they played in GoodFellas, and both films describe, in loving detail, how the Mafia makes its money, kills people, etc. But Casino is still its own thing and Scorsese directs it with just as much passion. This movie should have had Oscars falling out of its pocket, but that year, the Academy went with Mel Gibson and Braveheart. Oh, well.

Mob movies by Scorsese probably aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, and I understand that. The characters are selfish, self-obsessed, broken, addicted, controlling, scheming, violent and profane. The screenplay drifts from event to event, rather telling a cohesive story. We are neither asked nor expected to admire the characters. But like most of the best Scorsese films (and there are a lot of great ones), it hypnotizes; you can’t look away. I would rank this one with GoodFellas, Taxi Driver, and yep, The Wolf of Wall Street, as one of his best. You can’t look away.

Impeachment inquiries begin and we shouldn’t be surprised

We’ve entered the most historic (thus far) and dangerous phase of Donald Trump’s presidency, with Nancy Pelosi and House Democrats finally finding the moral and political wherewithal to begin an official impeachment inquiry into The Donald’s aberrant, un-presidential behavior. I say dangerous because Trump is becoming increasingly unhinged, spewing profanity on his preferred forum of choice, Twitter, calling for various retaliatory actions against Democrats, etc. There is no telling what he will do to fend off impeachment or distract the public from his dire position.

For the record: a whistleblower has let it be known that Trump used the power of his office to withhold aid to Ukraine in hoped-for (and verbally requested) exchange for dirt on Joe Biden, Trump’s likely opponent in the 2020 election.

Yes, this is illegal, yes, this is a betrayal of Trump’s duties, no, we shouldn’t stand for it, yes, we should have done something about Donald a long time ago, yes, he should be impeached.

But here’s my question — did ANYONE seriously look at or listen to Donald Trump in 2016 and NOT BELIEVE that he would commit the greatest crimes of any president once installed in the White House? Wasn’t it obvious that he would? Is this any surprise? Is the fact of his impending, can’t-miss trial in the Senate only the mere embodiment of what we all knew would happen — the manifestation of something that was only a matter of time? Isn’t this all inevitable? Whether it was Mueller or Comey or Russia or grab-em-by-the-pussy or “good people on both sides,” we all knew this shit was coming, right? Wouldn’t you have to be a moron to have believed otherwise?

Even Trump’s awful, vile, wrong-headed, potentially traitorous supporters — and I’m talking about regular citizens here, not just Senate Republicans — would have to agree that Trump’s criminality would have eventually surfaced in the White House. That’s probably part of what turns them on about Trump, because they have only ever been interested in fucking the country over in the name of “whataboutism.” “BUT WHAT ABOUT OBUMMER?” “BUT WHAT ABOUT KILLARY?” These are the mantras of people who have traded their true patriotism for fear, racism, xenophobia, and outright spiteful hatred of everything our government and Constitution stand for.

There should be no surprise whatsoever that Trump would get a foreign leader on the phone and say something so irrefutably egregious. Yet here we go, with the usual suspects decrying anything that might so much as land a glove on their Teflon-coated pussy grabber. Here we go with the cries of “fake news,” “bullying,” “coup,” et cetera. I loved it when Trump bleated that he should be “entitled” to interview the whistleblower (whom he has already falsely accused of treason). ENTITLED is the one word Trump understands, right? So naturally he feels he should be. After all, he didn’t win the election — the fucking Electoral College GAVE IT TO HIM.

Large chunks of the electorate must be under some form of hypnosis. How could they ever have believed that Trump would not do the worst thing? How could anyone have expected anything other than such behavior, knowing as we all did that Trump was thick with Russian ties, tight with mob lawyers, and known to be a New York City scam artist, whose own autobiography was ghost-written by a hack who now calls Trump a psycho? There is something wrong with US, as huge swaths of the population have apparently swallowed the greatest con job of the 21st century.

BUT BUT KILLARY, BUT BUT OBUMMER.

These people who parrot these lines should have their voting rights revoked. Oh, and while we’re permanently scrubbing them from the rolls due to making a hideous error that might cost us our country, if not our very lives, let us also cancel, permanently, the Electoral College, so that our avowed enemies — Russia and North Korea — will no longer have a useful fool who can be so easily manipulated into doing their will. (Let us not discount the possibility that he is still a Putin asset — what information is contained in Trump’s tax records, and why is Putin so concerned about Democrats releasing the contents of his private phone calls with Trump, which have been placed in that “top secret” server? Hey, we’re paying for all this shit. Don’t we have a right to know?)

More as it develops.

 

 

JW3: Third best

Occasionally — once in a very, very great while — I revisit a book or film or piece of music and recalibrate my judgment on it. This rarely rises to the level of discussion, but I think now might be a good time to explore a few new ideas pertaining to John Wick: Chapter 3.

A few points about the movie troubled me on seeing it for the first time and haven’t gone away. Keep in mind, I think it’s a good action film — but I am no longer convinced that it’s on the same high level as John Wick: Chapter 2, which remains as good a film of its genre as I’ve ever seen.

Story problems plague JW3, and no amount of re-viewing can explain them or make them go away. I hope the screenwriters will write a better script next time, one that ties up loose ends instead of creating quite so many. I’ll go through the problems as succinctly as I can.

  • The movie tries too hard to resolve all possible questions arising from the end of Chapter Two, without developing a strong enough plot on its own. It is useful to think of the two sequels as one long movie chopped in half, similar to the two Matrix sequels (which the John Wick series increasingly resembles).
  • The beginning both takes too long and feels too rushed. There’s a chase between John on horseback and two assassins that ends too abruptly and is handled kind of clumsily. Maybe they should have jettisoned it? There are enough fights and chases already, including another motorcycle chase later in the film. Too much is too much.
  • The fight scenes are long and repetitive. A couple of them — the fight in the hall of knives, the library fight — are absolutely fantastic, but the climax, set on multiple levels of some kind of glass tower containing sarcophagi of crystal skills, goes on too long, has too many fights and too many bad guys. Again, too much is too much.
  • Not enough Adjudicator, though she is an interesting character. Not enough of the Director, played by Anjelica Huston. Maybe they’ll come back for Chapter 4 (already promised).
  • Sofia, the character played by newcomer Halle Berry, is a pointless character in a part of the movie that feels needlessly inserted in the screenplay for no reason other than to give the director something else to cut to besides New York. I just don’t feel that she’s necessary. Hence …
  • The big gunfight in the middle of the movie, featuring Halle Berry and two attack dogs, feels too long and basically kills the momentum of the story.
  • The guy in the desert isn’t clear enough in his goals and intentions. Why is he in the desert? What role does he play in the High Table? Why does he give John yet another black suit?
  • There’s no way … in hell … John Wick could have survived the fall from that building. Put it this way: if a bad guy had taken the same header, he would have gone splat and died. John just wakes up with a headache. My suspension of disbelief has been stretched too thin.
  • Likewise, the Bowery King SURVIVED the 7 Cuts? No way. Just … we saw him die!

I am hopeful that the fourth film will dial down the bullshit factor just a tad and return to the lower-key revenge antics of the first John Wick film. Long may the character rule, but JW3 is definitely third best in the series.

Outlaw Women

Hank Williams Jr.’s “Outlaw Women” is a haunting song. It’s very simple and straightforward but very catchy and highly dangerous.

It’s an example of the outlaw country period from the late-1960s to early 1980s, a period that is more than over and done with, but worth revisiting in light of what can only be referred to as contemporary country. Outlaw music was defined by such luminaries as Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson and Waylon Jennings (among myriad others), and Hank Jr. was certainly of their ilk.

“Outlaw Women” is a slow, quiet, contemplative song about a “kind of woman” that seemed to “arrive” on the scene in the late Seventies … honky-tonking, pleasure-seeking women “riding high in 79.” Williams adopts a sing-speak style of vocal, soulful and world-weary, the voice of someone who’s seen it all and appreciates the loose-living attitude of these female outlaws.

The lyrics find these ladies “in the bank or in the store,” marking them as “rich girls or poor.” Williams’ character loves them all, and respects them. There’s a word he won’t bring himself to use to describe women who like to “listen to the band” and “make love with their kind of man.” There’s no point in my using it here, either, but it’s pretty obvious what he’s talking about.

Williams identifies with the ethos of the outlaw woman. “She’s a lot like me,” he croons. “She don’t give a damn about society.” Vows of matrimony and other ethical boundaries dissolve; both Williams and his women are “out for fun.”

The spare, laidback production and Williams’ deep baritone set a dark, sensual tone. In the final stanza, we hear the most explicit reference to the word he refuses to use. Some folks call these outlaw women “ladies,” Williams tells us, or there are “other names.” The song closes on a warning: “you won’t ever call her that around me and my gang.” It’s a threat: Williams loves these ladies and their lifestyle and is protective of them. I’m not sure who is his “gang,” but it’s a helluva way to end a song. I’ve never heard anything quite like it. If you’re going to listen to country, this is the country to listen to. The rest of it is just Easy Listening.

 

Why not play Willie at your wedding?

My wife and I recently photographed a wedding, and while we of course wish nothing but the best for the newly-married couple, I couldn’t help but notice the music selections for the pre-and-post-ceremony events.

These are young people and they chose for the site of their wedding not a church or chapel or public hall or living room, but an open hay field, adjacent to a deer camp. While this presented challenges from a photographic perspective (bald sunlight, little shade, heat, stubbly mown grass), it was also a challenge in terms of convenience. But somehow, the party managed to get a DJ station set up, complete with lights and speakers. And the music chosen to score the entire event was country.

Not just country, but contemporary country. Now, I don’t wanna sound like Old Guy talking, but I have to say I am not an admirer of today’s “contemporary” country. It’s a cross between party pop of the 1980s and “Today’s Christian,” which means it is a nauseating mixture of “Hey boy, ain’t we having a good time, pass the beer” and “ain’t it swell knowing Jesus loves me?” You can’t have a party without loving Jesus, and parties involve the usual mixture of country-fried sex and booze.

It’s a loathsome scene, and I have to say I would have preferred a much different genre of music for a wedding. Why not something more traditionally romantic? Why not a good ole mix of pop and rock songs? Or, why not some traditional country?

To investigate further, I delved into some Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings over the weekend, and came away with a much deeper appreciation of what I’m going to call “real” country music. “Real” country is about, well, real human emotions — the “teardrops and the laughter,” to quote Mr. Jennings. You can’t find country that is any more meaningful or just plain genuine than Willie and Waylon, and I would love to direct our newlyweds to this version of the genre. (Though it is highly likely that they are already familiar with it.) First off, I would suggest that “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys” be a selection at EVERY wedding where the groom fashions himself a would-be modern cowboy, complete with the hat, boots, Levis and buckle. It’s a message that needs to be heard. And it’s a real country song, sung by the two greatest desperadoes who ever picked a guitar.

Digging deeper into the catalog, I discovered Willie’s Red Headed Stranger, which I just played in its entirety for the first time. I was struck by the spare, uncomplicated, straightforward beauty of the entire recording, Willie’s voice, which captures the essence of every song, and the invisible production, which more of today’s so-called “country” artists (and their writers and producers and managers) should learn more about. Because ultimately, it’s about the song, not the flash and dazzle, and no one ever taught that lesson more effectively then Mr. Nelson.

Maybe the old songs just aren’t as much fun as the new ones, and maybe old-school country just doesn’t appeal to the 20-something-set these days. But if nothing else, I’ve found some great old music to listen to, as I transition from what I once found indispensable into a new stage where things are a little slower and perhaps just a tad more meaningful.

You had me at ‘the money’

I’m not typically big on movies where the guy gets the girl or the girl gets the guy or whatever combination of elements constitute what we think of as the “chick flick” (though there are a couple of filmic Jane Austen adaptations I enjoy.) But Jerry Maguire, a romantic comedy disguised as a sports movie, is a big ole exception to the rule. Is it as good as I remember it from the Nineties? Yes, yes, yes — in fact, it was one of the best movies of the Nineties.

It’s also one of the best, if not the best, movie of Tom Cruise’s career, and it’s a standout for director Cameron Crowe, whose films have been hit-or-miss for me. This is a genuinely sweet (as in non-saccharine), heartwarming (but not in an icky way!) and frequently hilarious A) comedy first and B) romantic film second, that in no way falls into any of the usual rom-com potholes.

That’s largely because of Cruise, who can do lots of things but doesn’t do gooey-sweet romance. He starts the movie as a shark in a suit and ends it as a regular guy who’s found a way to balance his personal life with his work. Along the way, Cruise gives what I can only describe as a tour-de-force, hitting all kinds of notes as he charts Jerry Maguire’s transformation from a shallow sports agent to a devoted (step-) dad and caring husband.

He’s ably assisted by Cuba Gooding Jr. (who won the Oscar) as ace Arizona Cardinals running back Rod Tidwell and Renee Zellweger, who made her debut here as Jerry’s lovely, frazzled, single-mom love interest, Dorothy Boyd. There’s also Regina King as Mrs. Tidwell, Jay Mohr as Bob Sugar and Bonnie Hunt as Dorothy’s wiser older sister. Everybody is not only good, but stellar, and everybody gets at least a handful of memorable lines.

With the exception of the prevalent use of faxes and beepers, the movie doesn’t seem to have aged a day. It’s not all that great of a sports movie — the climactic ballgame, in which Rod basically manipulates his fans into “loving” him — is pure bullshit, but on an emotional level it feels real, and that’s about all that matters.

What we invest in are the characters, and watching Cruise ping off of Zellweger and Gooding is the movie’s biggest pleasure. Rod and Jerry are doubles, each trying to find his own personal “kwan.” Their exchanges, which range from passionate bro-mance to testy personal clashes, are exceedingly well-written and acted. This was lightning in a bottle and I’m sure neither Cruise nor Gooding could repeat themselves in a sequel.

The movie has five or six lines of dialogue that have entered into the lexicon (“You complete me,” “You had me at hello,” and, of course, “Show me the monnneeeeeeeee!”) but none of them feels forced when uttered by these actors. Cruise delivers his final monologue with such low-flame conviction that you wonder how on earth he didn’t pick up an Oscar himself. And Zellweger is so beautiful and warm that you root for her to find happiness.

It’s too bad Cruise will probably never do another movie like this. His career is too big and the risks are too great. Jerry Maguire came along at a time when movie stars weren’t afraid to take chances, and it looks like Cruise will spend the remainder of his career making Mission: Impossible and Top Gun sequels (not that there’s anything wrong with that). That only makes the movie that much more special.

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