What makes a film a classic? What irrepressible spark illuminates a flick past those first few weeks in theatres and keeps it lighting up screens and imaginations for decades to come? With over 100 titles, from childhood favorites to Technicolor wonders, in this year's Paramount Summer Classic Film Series, we revel in the glow of some of these memorable movies and find what allows them to stand the test of time.
All right, I'll say it – When Harry Met Sally... is the quintessential romantic comedy. Name another with characters this charming, dialogue this witty, and turtlenecks this glorious ... impossible! You probably know the premise by now: Dark-humored Harry (Billy Crystal) meets bright-eyed Sally (Meg Ryan), and after a couple of chance encounters over the years they decide to give friendship a go. But can men and women just be friends?
That may be an outdated question these days; in most progressive circles the answer is obviously yes, but it's naive to pretend sex doesn't at least cross the mind, and that's something the film certainly takes into consideration when forming its own answer.
There's a whole generation of people who base their idea of love on the way it's written by Nora Ephron. While her other films may endorse grand gestures (looking at you, Sleepless in Seattle), this one provides a different kind of blueprint – the best relationships begin as friendships, built not solely on attraction but respect and open communication. Harry and Sally's frank discussions provide them with new perspectives and establish an intimacy that eventually leads to something more. They first and foremost enjoy each other's company, and that's way more rare and special than mere sexual desire.
Rom-coms since have often used this friendship-first formula, but none have perfected it quite like When Harry Met Sally.... The film boasts no high concept, no fantastical meet-cute, no elaborate gimmicks. It is simply two people hanging out and talking, and somehow nothing seems more romantic than that. I, for one, will have what they're having. – Shalavé Cawley
When Harry Met Sally... (1989), Fri., May 24, 7pm, Paramount.
I was about 10 years old when I first saw Napoleon Dynamite, and ever since, I've clung on to it like Napoleon to tater tots. The 2004 sleeper hit follows the average life of the eponymous high schooler, played by Jon Heder, and the weird collective of characters around him. From his older brother Kip (Aaron Ruell) who chats with babes online all day (jealous?) to hotshot Uncle Rico (Jon Gries) to scrunchie-wearing Deb (Tina Majorino) and Napoleon's best friend – and soon-to-be student body president – Pedro (Efren Ramirez), who I can recall being my first time actually seeing and relating to a fellow Latino leading onscreen. The awkward friendships between characters and their deadpan humor are what send this indie comedy over the top.
It's an ultimate comfort-food movie, producing some of the most recognizable, gut-busting sequences and quotes of our generation. For my middle school talent show, a group of kids re-created Napoleon's dance number down to the curly wigs and hip thrusts. In high school, you could never fail to point out a kid wearing a "Vote for Pedro" shirt. (I even knew a Pedro who frequently wore a "Vote for Pedro" shirt.) This simple movie of a high schooler in a small town paints a genuinely real and hilarious look at adolescence. There'll never be anything close to Napoleon Dynamite, making it among the greatest high school comedies of the 2000s, and possibly ever. – Savannah J Salazar
Napoleon Dynamite (2004) 15th anniversary screening with a conversation with Jon Heder, Efren Ramirez, and Jon Gries, Sat., July 13, 7:30pm, Paramount.
"Their films had color even when they were in black and white." – Billy Wilder on Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
You know you're a classic when your best bits get stolen. See: the end of Captain America: The First Avenger – the part where Cap, in free fall, says goodbye to Peggy over the wireless – borrowing the beginning of 1946's A Matter of Life and Death. The latter puts David Niven's dishy RAF pilot in the cockpit, hurtling to earth and certain death. Only he doesn't die – a clerical error on the part of an archangel – and the pilot then has to book it upstairs to a heavenly tribunal to plead his case to stay among the living.
The original brief was for UK director-writer team Powell and Pressburger to make a propaganda film with the goal of improving Anglo-American relations. Then the war ended, and A Matter of Life and Death shifted to a loftier goal – to make a case again for living, not just surviving. (The tell? Heaven is rendered in severe black and white; Earth in rapturous Technicolor.) The themes may be weighty, but the touch is featherlight: witty, romantic, and technically dazzling. The movie confounded audiences at the time, who deemed it too cerebral, or maybe too surreal, and in America the title got dumbed down to Stairway to Heaven. (The stairway itself, the masterstroke of production designer Alfred Junge, will drop your jaw.) Seventy-some years later, Powell & Pressburger are generally considered to be two of the greatest filmmakers of all time (Martin Scorsese is a particular fan) and A Matter of Life and Death may very well be their best. More telling is that after all this time, the film – its humanism, artistry, and ardor – hasn't aged a day. – Kimberley Jones
A Matter of Life and Death (1946), Wed., July 24, 9pm, Paramount.
The final film of the late, great Stanley Kubrick, Eyes Wide Shut is a dizzying psychosexual odyssey. Tom Cruise stars as Dr. Bill Harford, a man thrust into an emasculating nightmare on Christmas Eve when his wife, Alice (Nicole Kidman), challenges his insecurities by revealing her sexual fantasies. Over the course of one evening, Bill experiences his own version of A Christmas Carol, reckoning with the sexual ghosts of past, present, and future. Jarred by the notion of female sexuality and pleasure, Bill confronts his own deep-seated insecurities in this darkly comic marital thriller.
Perhaps the true genius of Eyes Wide Shut is the manner in which Kubrick successfully desexualizes the erotic (as with the infamous cult orgy scene), presenting it in such primitive visual terms as to make it wholly uncomfortable. That Cruise and Kidman were a real-life married couple at the time contributes to the film's voyeuristic bent, lending an additional veneer of psychosexual realism that is at once both discomforting and strangely delightful. Based on Arthur Schnitzler's 1926 novella Traumnovelle, Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut is an unnervingly profound meditation on the sexes in which Bill's archaic ideas of female desire (and willful ignorance of his own insecurity) are provoked by the briefest exposure to the inner fantasy life of Alice – who proves, with one simple anecdote, that she will not be reduced to the mere title of "the doctor's wife." – Britt Hayes
Eyes Wide Shut (1999), Tue., Aug 6, 7:30pm, Paramount.
"All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." It's a nice enough sentiment, but one that doesn't exist in the world of the late Agnès Varda's deceptively, if not comically, sprightly Le Bonheur (trans: happiness). A carpenter, François (Jean-Claude Drouot), who despite proclaiming he's hella happy with his wife Thérèse (Drouot's real-life wife Claire) and two children (also portrayed by the couple's actual children) wants his cup to runneth over just a wee bit more, so he strikes up an affair with postal worker Émilie (Marie-France Boyer). I won't spoil the ending, but it's fair to say that François' adulterating changes absolutely everything and nothing at all. Varda's third feature reminds: If you're a dude, you can have your own, your wife's, and your mistress' cakes and eat them, too, and you'll be damned if someone calls you out because you, dear sir, are on the path to happiness.
Writing for the British Film Institute, film historian Katherine McLaughlin advises Le Bonheur as where not to start with the Belgian-born French director's work, and I couldn't disagree more wholeheartedly. Labeled "shocking" and "provocative" upon release for its pro-yet-decidedly-not-pro-feminist stance, Le Bonheur's seeming fixation on a utopia where a married man can vacillate between wife and mistress with no apparent guilt or consequences was perceived as subverting feminism, as well as criticizing the growing free love movement. But I think that's where we're led astray. Le Bonheur's always winking, with its radiant and carefully constructed color palette and cloying Mozart soundtrack, contrasted with a devastating ending, Varda's keying us into a melancholic reality underneath the film's impressionistic pastoral scenes. – Beth Sullivan
Le Bonheur (1965), Fri., Aug. 9, 9pm, Stateside.
A film is a world. The viewer may never see all the way over the horizon, but they have to be confident that the story extends beyond the limits of a soundstage. Few fantasies have ever created so perfect a world as Frank Oz's The Dark Crystal, a masterpiece of puppeteering that has rarely been matched to this day. It wasn't just that audiences fell in love with the struggle of the last two members of the elflike Gelfling race – brave Jen and resourceful Kira – to restore balance to the broken world of Thra, or that everyone wanted their own Fizzgig (imagine a Tribble with teeth). It was that Thra felt like a world with a past and a future, an elaborate ecosystem that blended magic and science. From swamps to mountains to deserts, the locations never felt like they were created for the convenience of the script, but because that's where the stars in the very real sky took these creatures made of fur and felt and leather and metal and heart.
Designer Brian Froud's accompanying book, The World of the Dark Crystal, explains the entire cosmology and the connection between the sinister, power-hungry Skeksis and their peaceful mirror images, the Mystics; yet, beautiful as it is, it's never essential to comprehend how this incredible realm exists. When Aughra, the mysterious one-eyed astronomer, spins her orrery of unknown asteroids and unfamilar comets, we can feel the ground move beneath our feet. – Richard Whittaker
The Dark Crystal (1982), Sun., July 21, 1pm, Paramount.
The Forgotten Man. In Gregory La Cava's Depression-era screwball comedy My Man Godfrey, that's the handle slapped on William Powell's character, another penniless soul knocked into obscurity by the Great Crash. But now the tag could apply to the actor himself. Though royalty in Hollywood's Golden Age, Powell is lucky if modern moviegoers can recall even one of his films. (If they can, it's The Thin Man.) Not that I won't raise a glass to his Nick Charles, the dapper detective who solved crimes between martinis with Myrna Loy's intoxicating Nora, but Powell's specific star quality – the urbane upper-cruster with the common touch – shone still more brilliantly in pictures that allowed him more emotional range.
Here, his Godfrey is lifted from Hooverville to Fifth Avenue to "butle" for a clan of self-absorbed swells – a job brimming with the high-society hijinks of white-telephone comedies. Powell plays the foil to this histrionic crew with restraint that shows a rare comic elegance, but it's the way the actor grounds his portrayal in gratitude and generosity – aspects of someone who knows how fortunate he is to have been saved from the streets and is determined to do what he can to help others – that elevates his performance above the screwball norm. It makes Godfrey's growing affection for the madcaps he works for, especially daughter Irene (Carole Lombard, irrepressible, luminous), palpable and touching. The story, the style, the acting, the comedy – most everything about My Man Godfrey is memorable. The work of its leading man, though: unforgettable. – Robert Faires
My Man Godfrey (1936) Wed., May 29, 7pm, Paramount.
If longing is graphed on the axis of repression and lushness, oh boy, is Carol a chart-topper. An adaptation of The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith (of The Talented Mr. Ripley fame), often credited as the first lesbian novel with a happy ending, Carol follows the romance between department store clerk and aspiring photographer Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara) and the titular Mrs. Aird (Cate Blanchett), a mother in the midst of escaping an unhappy marriage, in 1950s New York.
When you have a love that dare not speak its name, looking becomes pretty important and Carol is nothing if not full of gazes – questioning, wry, inscrutable, and plainly aching. Us watching Therese watch Carol buy a Christmas tree in the snow manages to be about falling in love, the mystery of other people, and what it means for queer people to be observed in public, and obscenely beautiful on top of it all.
Buoyed by dreamy cinematography, some devastatingly tailored skirt-suits and a haunting Carter Burwell score, Carol both launched a thousand queer crushes on Cate Blanchett and achieved the impossible – making last-minute Christmas shopping, spinach over poached eggs, and roadside motels sexy. – Rosalind Faires
Carol (2015) Thu., Aug. 8, 7pm, Paramount.
Howard Hawks' postwar film noir classic The Big Sleep re-teamed Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall to tremendous, thrilling effect despite a boozily serpentine storyline so deviously convoluted that multiple viewings are not only desired but required. Screenwriters William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett, and Jules Furthman, adapting from Raymond Chandler's hard-boiled and greedily nihilistic 1939 novel, fought off the Hays Code censors by replacing the original text's references to sleazy sexpots, pornmongers, and homosexuality while still managing to make Chandler remark later that this was his personal favorite filmed version of any of his books.
As iconic, archetypal shamus Philip Marlowe, Bogart gives a career-defining performance alongside new wife Bacall. The pair had met two years previous while working on Hawks' To Have and Have Not and while The Big Sleep never surpasses that film's woozy, sun-baked eroticism, the dynamite chemistry between the two is never less than intoxicating.
Actually there's electricity, often heady, sometimes deadly, between Bogart/Marlowe and every other female co-star and character in the picture, not least Dorothy Malone's bespectacled Acme Book Shop clerk, whom he meets while surveilling the bad guy across the street during a sudden rainstorm. "You know, it just happens I've got a bottle of pretty good rye in my pocket. I'd a lot rather get wet in here," the ever-ready Marlowe quips. Malone slinkily flips the shops "Open" sign, pulls down the shade, and replies, "Well, it looks like we're closed for the rest of the afternoon." Talk about a sizzle reel!
For all its vertiginously cynical noir intensity, the script is peppered with comic-erotic moments like this for Bogart to sink his teeth into and he tears into them with dazzling, jaded panache. Bogart was born to play a lot of roles, but for sheer, doomy entertainment value, you'd need a hefty pair of brass knuckles to beat The Big Sleep. – Marc Savlov
The Big Sleep (1946) Wed., July 10, 7pm, Paramount.
Once, as a high schooler in a small Alaskan city, I had my own Waiting for Guffman experience. Our choir instructor had invited an old friend – then a third-tier music producer in California – to attend our end-of-year concert. Afterward, he gathered a group of select performers and made vague promises regarding our future as an ensemble. We left with stars in our eyes and utter certainty that this was the moment of our discovery.
This is not meant to be a sad story. This is meant to be a universal one. Every small town across the country invites artists to town to inspire their fledgling music and theatre departments. What makes Waiting for Guffman – the story of small-town singers who believe the perfect original musical could land them on Broadway – the best of Christopher Guest's films is not just the caliber of the jokes or the star-studded cast. It's the film's gentle understanding of its characters' hopes and dreams.
The eventual production of Red, White, and Blaine may not be the perfect musical (there isn't much worse in Hollywood history, fictional or otherwise) but it's certainly the best the fictional city of Blaine (actually Lockhart, filling in for Missouri) could offer. Moreover, it was constructed with the kind of feverous passion that only amateurs left with nothing to lose can muster. With standout performances by regular Guest collaborators like Eugene Levy, Catherine O'Hara, and Fred Willard, Waiting for Guffman is a filmmaker finding the perfect balance of concept and heart. – Matthew Monagle
Waiting for Guffman (1997), Wed., June 26, 8:40pm, Paramount
The Paramount Summer Classic Film series runs through Aug. 31 at the Paramount and Stateside theatres. Tickets and details at www.austintheatre.org/film/classic-film-series. For more Chronicle recommendations, visit austinchronicle.com/screens.
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