See that poster? The list of names? If you’re over 25 years old, you might recognize all of them because they’re all legendary.
One of the finest casts ever assembled. Superbly written and directed. Vastly underrated. Unless I missed something in the past decade or so, I don’t think Hollywood makes movies like this anymore. There would be a perceived lack of box office draw, as it doesn’t fit neatly in a particular genre and it’s not based on an existing property, albeit it was helmed by the already established Phil Alden Robinson (Field of Dreams), Walter F. Parkes (WarGames), and Lawrence Lasker (also WarGames). This is no Ocean’s Eleven, or cookie-cutter crime/dramedy ensemble. It doesn’t resort to big action pieces, evil villains, or contrived twists, which conceptually it could have very easily gotten away with. Sneakers is what I would refer to as a “low-key thriller,” although even that moniker isn’t quite accurate. Watch it yourself, then try to label it. A thriller with hints of comedy? A spy drama?
And you know what the best part is: the “Item” the heroes are trying to recover? We never know what exactly made It in such high demand (the Item is a spy device code breaker. . . thing). It doesn’t matter. By the time we get to the end, it’s all about the characters and the heist, and the payoff is that they stopped the bad guys from doing bad things. Too often studio films place so much emphasis on the stakes that the “what” inevitably outweighs everything else way more interesting–the “how,” the “who,” and the “why.”
. . . did I mention the cast? That they’re legendary? Because they are.
The Living Wake (2007)
A smidgen biased, as this was the first produced film from Script Pipeline’s Chad Clough, but I had nothing to do with its production, development, or marketing. So we’re good. Fan of Jesse Eisenberg (The Social Network, American Ultra)? Don’t let this one slip by your radar. Also features notable appearances by comedian Jim Gaffigan, Eddie Pepitone (The Bitter Buddha), and Ann Dowd (The Leftovers). The film has a bevvy of memorable one-liners only a burgeoning classic can provide.
I’ve seen The Living Wake called “absurdist” by critics, including the inference of such made by Variety, but by definition, and perhaps contrary to Mike O’Connell and Sol Tryon’s intent, I don’t think absurdist cinema entirely applies. It’s a hyperbole, an exaggeration, a heightened experience for the dramedy genre. . . . But with a purpose. In the end. And through its musical numbers (not a typo), silly tangents, and a cast more suited for a John Kennedy Toole novel, it’s one of the most nonchalantly poignant indies you’ll ever see, realized only in the final sequences. A commentary on life and death impossible to comprehend without examining the sum of all its preposterous parts.
The ‘Burbs (1989)
This point is arguable, but in retrospect, I feel like The ‘Burbs entirely sums up 80s comedies, which would make sense, since it caught the tail end of the decade. A chronicle of suburbia and the burgeoning middle-class like no other.
The premise is actually really grounded, yet wonderfully stupid: a working-class father begins to believe his new neighbors murdered his previous neighbors, and he and his dumb friends conspire to break in to their house when they’re away and find the damning evidence. Which they do. Makes perfect, crazy sense. Honestly, the plot has less holes and believability issues than most recent comedies.
Not even the most causal of Tom Hanks fans are familiar with The ‘Burbs. Hanks, by the way, is marvelous in his role as white-collar-guy-on-vacation Ray Peterson. I’m not saying he’s better here than in Saving Private Ryan or Philadelphia. I’m saying he’s better here than both combined.
But the minor moments in The ‘Burbs solidify its place in the annals of comedy lore, like a vintage episode of Seinfeld. So many quotable pieces of dialogue that will go forever unquoted unless everyone bands together to make this a true cult film. Together, we can make it happen. Go forth to social media. #TheBurbs
The Money Pit (1986)
I know I picked two Tom Hanks films, but I could have easily had three (Big–obviously–part of the trinity of stellar Hanks dramedy roles). I opted instead for this gem of the 80s, the perfect companion to Top 10 List #1 80s romcom Romancing the Stone.
You could equate The Money Pit to another movie on this list, The Long Long Trailer, in that both showcase an object as a representation of a couples’ relationship. Here, it’s the crumbling house Hanks and Shelley Long buy from Maureen Stapleton because who wouldn’t trust Maureen Stapleton? The more it gets remodeled, the more their marriage begins to deteriorate, due in part to the jealously of Hanks over the dashing flaxen-haired Alexander Godunov. One of the last lines sums up the point of everything, as Hanks and Long stand apart in their new home, a huge space between them: “But the foundation was good. . . and if that’s okay, everything else can be fixed.” On-the-nose, maybe, but bringing depth and purpose to a comedy is a prerequisite, and The Money Pit nailed it like few others.
Like The ‘Burbs, doesn’t have much of a cult following, to my knowledge. Go forth again to social media, and don’t forget to tag @tomhanks on Twitter (like he’ll ever retweet you, but doesn’t hurt to try). #TheMoneyPit
The 21st century obsession with the “Spectacle” of big-budget filmmaking aside, only a handful of films have combined such a rich, exhaustive character study with the glory of a biblical (sorta literally) epic as William Wyler’s Ben-Hur. Based on the novel by Lew Wallace, Charlton Heston, I would say, is in his marquee role. His magnum opus, really. Planet of the Apes: too one-dimensional. The Ten Commandments: too much about the Spectacle. So what’s left? Soylent Green? El Cid? I only know those exist because I had to IMDB them, no offense if you’re a fan.
Cliff notes summary: Ben-Hur is accused of murdering a Roman general, and he’s sent away to the BC equivalent of a traveling prison after an apparent betrayal by a friend, meets Jesus a couple times, rescues a big-wig Roman during an ocean battle (“We’re going to be rammed!”), is granted a position with the Roman government, finds out his mother and sister are lepers, and wins a chariot race against the so-called friend, who’s trampled over and dies. Then sees Jesus again. To paraphrase.
How they found a way to make the dialogue sound authentic without coming off as stiff is worth noting for period/historical screenwriters.
Watch it for the chariot race scene alone.
The One I Love (2014)
A relationship micro-saga with Elizabeth Moss and a Duplass brother, heir-apparents of low-budget character indies? Tolerable. Only because Mark Duplass makes things tolerable with continuously excellent character work as an actor (see: Togetherness). And Elizabeth Moss is Elizabeth Moss–one of the best actresses of the past 10 years. Though director Charlie McDowell and writer Justin Lader are, or were, relative unknowns, they combine here to form a small masterpiece. Trust the cast to deliver on a stereotypical rom-dramedy.
Only it’s not a stereotypical rom-dramedy–15 or 20 minutes in, we’re thrown such a ridiculous curveball, you’re either going along for the ride, or turning it off, deeming it too contrived. Get past that, and we’re presented with a gift-wrapped twist on the relationship-on-the-brink premise, with a sci-fi/fantasy bow stuck on top. Halfway through, we get the gist, the point the film is trying to make, but by then we’re so invested in Moss and Duplass’ characters, our immersion in their story wholly outweighs our interest in how it (the movie itself) is going to end, good or bad or indifferent. Instead, you’ll merely seek closure. Like any good or bad or indifferent relationship. I don’t know if that was intended by the filmmakers. Let’s pretend it was.
The world could use more outside-the-box writers like Justin Lader to resuscitate “dying” genres, yet cling to universal themes that allow us–encourage us–to suspend our beliefs for a second and discover the latent, underlying message. Preachy? Yes. But without the choir.
The Long Long Trailer (1953)
Not to be confused with a preview of a James Cameron film, the Desi Arnaz / Lucille Ball team-up was their first film together, never to be surpassed in quality. Probably. Who would want to watch another after this one? Though I have and can confirm Trailer is the best of the bunch.
On the surface, it’s what you would expect–almost like a 2-hour I Love Lucy special minus the Mertzes, which would normally be cause for concern (William Frawley was that whole show). But the silliness and physical humor peppered throughout belies how deep the commentary runs on marriage and relationships, shockingly far more introspective than most modern rom-coms. All of which is exemplified through the rather long yellow trailer. The trailer is kind of representative of any marriage: it’s a huge commitment, needs a tune-up once in a while, is a pain in the ass to park in a small driveway, and if you don’t steer it the right way, it’ll fall off a cliff and blow up.
Yeah. Marinate on that a while.
Y Tu Mama Tambien (2001)
I first saw it in Santa Monica in 2001. I was on a date or something, and on the drive back to her campus dorm, the girl kept saying how much she didn’t like it and how nothing made sense and how the actors were terrible and she hated reading subtitles.
I dropped her off on the street and never talked to her again. I think her name was Brenda. Or Bailey. . . or something. Bella? Either way, I’d imagine she’s living a soulless, art-deprived life as a factory worker somewhere in Manitoba.
Y Tu Mama Tambien transcended every foreign film, every drama, I had seen up to that point. I’ve only seen it four or five times total, beginning to end, in the last 15 years, but remember each scene like it’s Return of the Jedi (I’m at 83,000 viewings and counting there, FYI). Credit the acting from Maribel Verdú, Diego Luna, and Gael Garcia Bernal, and without question, the writing/directing from Alfonso Cuarón, who paints a true intimate portrait of a dying woman recapturing the joyous impulsiveness of youth, only we have no clue that’s what we witnessed until the last two minutes. Cuaron illustrates the story with a rough grace that sticks with you for years.
Like it was this morning, I remember saying to myself as I left the theater, “This dude Cuaron is gonna be huge.” At times, in the middle of the night, I imagine myself in the car with these three, magnetized to the visually eloquent backdrops of the Mexico countryside.
But more often, I wonder if Brenda ever saw Gravity. It hits the mainstream crowd. Some big explosions. George Clooney, Sandra Bullock. No subtitles. She probably enjoyed it, right. . . ?
Back to the Future II (1989)
When Bob Gale wrote the scene at the end, that moment Western Union delivers the letter (“It’s from the Doc!“) to Marty McFly, did he stop typing, gaze out the window, and think to himself, “This is it–I’ll never write a cooler ending to a sequel.”
And, um, he actually never did. But in is defense, no one has since.
The reason BTTF2 is so lauded by fans stems from an affinity to the characters, of course, but the plot has such a great motor after Marty makes the mistake of buying the almanac, and the script keeps its foot on the gas from start to finish. The paradigm of a “fun” popcorn move. Exploring the idea of alternate timelines and integrating real science (okay fine–“pseudo-science”) within the context of the plot is seamless. For the most part. I mean, what are the odds Marty Jr. will look exactly like Marty Sr.? And they left Jennifer, an impressionable teenage girl, on a sketchy porch swing in a very violent 1985, but she wakes up in the revised 1985 in the same spot? Questionable.
You could–and should–make a case for The Godfather II and The Dark Knight, even Terminator 2: Judgment Day. But for the genre, it is, without reservation, a most tremendous sequel.
The Gruffalo (2009)
I know. It’s not a feature, it’s a short. Plus, it’s based on a children’s book, so adaptation, as far as the writing, is easy.
No. Of course it’s not easy. It’s extremely difficult. Don’t ever think shorter = easier, or family audience + animation > broad audience + live-action.
As entertaining as they come, and worthy of multiple viewings, The Gruffalo achieves brilliance as a creative whole–writing, production value, musical score, and casting. The poignancy of the tale, too, lies in the intricate simplicity of its plot structure, highlighting a perfect bookend to the mouse’s journey through the “dark, dark wood” complemented by valuable lessons about perception vs. reality and might vs. mind.
And I still don’t know what it is about British actors making everything seem so lovely and colourful. Helena Bonham Carter: she should be the voice-over of all our lives.
*if I missed something here you thought should be included, feel free to tell me on Twitter, in all caps
For 13 years, Matt Misetich has worked in development as a script analyst and story consultant for production companies, managers, top writing competitions, and filmmakers. He has been a core executive at Script Pipeline since 2008 and helped a number of writers break into the industry, including contest-winners Evan Daugherty (Snow White and the Huntsman, Divergent) and Tripper Clancy (The Ambassadors, Stranded). Besides instinctively quoting The Simpsons in everyday conversation, he’s writing literary fiction and developing feature and TV content that will probably not win many awards.