Rochester students of all ages are sent home with a summer reading list. So that the rest of us have something to do on rainy days, as well, I’ve created a summer “screening” list of essential contemporary classics that everyone ought to be exposed to. Watch them closely, there will be a test.
Gangs of New York (2002)
Director Martin Scorsese sets his most epic film against a backdrop of 19th century New York City’s notorious “Five Points” and all the contentions we may have heard about but have never seen personified: the Draft Riots, Irish immigration, Boss Tweed’s legendarily corrupt Tammany Hall. Yes, it sounds like a history class we slept through, but Daniel Day-Lewis, Cameron Diaz, and Leonardo DiCaprio (in his first of many Scorsese collaborations) bring it to life.
Defending Your Life (1991)
Albert Brooks dies in auto accident and wakes in Judgment City where he must justify his life in order to move forward in the universe, elsewise he will be relegated back to Earth to try again. Meryl Streep co-stars as his motivation to push past the fears that hold him back. A visit to the Past Lives Pavilion is particularly revealing. Brooks’ best comedy.
Rain Man (1988)
It was the best film of 1988 thanks to brilliant performances by Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman. Cruise is the headstrong Charlie Babbitt who only learns he has an institutionalized autistic brother when he returns home for the reading of his father’s will. Raymond got three million dollars (but he didn’t get the rose bushes), so Charlie takes him on a cross-country road trip assuming the bequest comes along for the ride. It doesn’t, but when it’s over, Charlie gets something more valuable, “a connection.” My favorite moment: “Rain Man, let’s play some cards.”
Man on the Moon (1999)
In case you didn’t know, Andy Kaufman was a hit-or-miss entertainer. But when he hit it was amazing. “You're insane,” Danny DeVito, as manager George Shapiro, concludes, “but you might also be brilliant.” In truth, Kaufman, who Jim Carrey masterfully channels here, was both and this film, like the similarly titled R.E.M. track, is a dignified tribute.
Kurt Russell does an admirable job as the righteous Wyatt Earp in the lawless west but it’s Val Kilmer as sidekick Doc Holliday who steals the show delivering innocuous lines like “I’m your huckleberry,” and “let’s have a spelling contest” with such panache they’ll forever be part of your own vernacular. Easily the best of all modern westerns and to Silverado fans who’ll call me out for that endorsement I say, “You’re a daisy if you do.”