5. Heaven’s Gate (Michael Cimino, 1980)
Written and directed by Michael Cimino, Heaven’s Gate is a notorious film as it was a critical and, maybe more importantly, a huge financial failure, which single-handedly caused its studio to go bankrupt.
It basically also killed Michael Cimino’s career, who had been a critical favourite two years earlier with the Deer Hunter, made westerns unpopular for at least a decade and is often cited as being the film that ended the New Hollywood era as studios were no longer willing to take artistic and financial risks, increased their control over their productions and started putting all their bets on big summer blockbusters instead.
Loosely based on the Johnson County war, the film follows the struggles of poor European immigrants against rich cattle barons, representing the rise of capitalism in the United States around the 1890s. Wealthy land baron Frank Canton (Sam Waterston) plans to kill 125 poor settlers as he accuses them of being thieves and to consolidate the power of his syndicate.
He hires Nate Champion (Christopher Walken) as his main enforcer, who happens to be friends with the idealistic county marshal Jim Averill (Kris Kristofferson), who is caught between the the two sides although his sympathies clearly verge towards the immigrants. To complicate matters even further Averill and Champion both have their eyes on bordello madam Ella Watson (Isabelle Huppert). As tensions rise, both the love triangle and the conflict between the barons and settlers will explode into violence.
Still seen in some circles as one of the worst movies ever made, this couldn’t be any further from the truth. Whilst there is no doubt that director Cimino produced a self-indulgent and unwieldy behemoth, which was a huge financial disaster, the film is also a stunning a piece of work.
Huge in scope and virtually unrivalled in regards to period detail, the movie also features an extraordinary cast, which also includes John Hurt, Jeff Bridges, Brad Dourif, Joseph Cotton, Richard Masur, Terry O’Quinn and Mickey Rourke, a wonderful score and stunning cinematography by Vilmos Zsigmond.
Whilst its troubled production, over-indulgent director and financial failure may have tainted the critics’ and audiences’ views at the time, Heaven’s Gate comes highly recommended and might in fact be one of cinema’s most under-appreciated masterpieces.
4. A Late Quartet (Yaron Zilberman, 2012)
The feature film directorial debut by Yaron Zilberman, who also co-wrote and produced the film, A Late Quartet is a musical ensemble drama with outstanding performances by all of its four leads, including a fantastic and beautifully restrained role by Christopher Walken.
A real actor’s film with four strong leads, A Late Quartet tells the story of a world-renowned string quartet who have to deal with the possibility of breaking up after the eldest member, played by Christopher Walken, starts displaying the first symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. Meanwhile two of the other members, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Catherine Keener, face marriage problems whilst the fourth member falls in love with their daughter, complicating matters even further.
Walken is in fine form in this movie as he gets to really show his acting chops and is not just playing an idiosyncratic weirdo, which he is relegated to doing so often nowadays, whilst Hoffman and Keener put in great performances as a couple facing some serious relationship problems.
Slightly melodramatic but never overly sentimental and just wonderfully acted by all involved, A Late Quartet is a slightly overlooked little film and well worth seeking out, especially for fans of Walken.
3. True Romance (Tony Scott, 1993)
Written by Quentin Tarantino and Roger Avary, the same guys who one year later would bring us Pulp Fiction, True Romance might have been sold to the studio before Tarantino directed Reservoir Dogs but the dialogues are nonetheless 100% classic Tarantino (before there was such a thing as classic Tarantino) and endlessly quotable.
Clarence, a comic book shop clerk, and Alabama, a call girl who has been hired by his boss to get him laid on his birthday, fall in love at first sight and get married straight away. As Clarence goes to Alabama’s pimp to pick up her belongings, he gets involved in a shoot-out and takes the wrong suitcase along with him which is filled cocaine.
The love birds decide that this is their way one chance out of their tedious lives and drive to LA to sell the drugs. But the drugs belong to the mafia and they want their stash back, whilst the police is hot on their tail too.
Apart from the fact that True Romance has an absolute killer cast for a movie of its kind: Christian Slater as Clarence, Patricia Arquette as Alabama, Gary Oldman as her Rastafarian pimp (go figure), Dennis Hopper as Clarence’s dad, Christopher Walken as a bad-ass Sicilian Mafioso, Michael Rapaport as Clarence’s goofy actor friend, Brad Pitt as his stoner housemate, Tom Sizemore and Chris Penn as two cops, Saul Rubinek as a relentless movie producer, Bronson Pinchot (Balki!) as his assistant, James Gandolfini as a Mafia though guy (way before Sopranos fame), Val Kilmer as Elvis (albeit only in Clarence’s head) himself and cameos from Victor Argo and Samuel L Jackson to boot, it’s also the only truly great film ever directed by Tony Scott.
Somehow his approach to treat the story as some sort of romantic fairy tale works absolute wonders and it’s not hard to imagine that had this film been directed by Tarantino instead, we would have ended up with a totally different type of movie.
And then there’s that amazing scene between Hopper and Walken in which Walken is trying to get Hopper to tell him the whereabouts of his son and Hopper, knowing he’s not going to live through this interrogation, proceeds to tell him his views on how Sicilians came to have darker skin than other Italians. Whilst it’s the only scene in this movie Walken appears in, it’s so good it deserves a top three spot on this list.
2. The Deer Hunter (Michael Cimino, 1978)
The Deer Hunter was one of the first films in which Hollywood started dealing directly with the Vietnam war, a conflict which had not really been addressed in mainstream cinema yet. Together with Coming Home, which was released the same year and which was one of the movies to compete with The Deer Hunter for Best Picture at the Academy Awards, and Apocalypse Now, which was released the following year, the movie opened the floodgates for films dealing with this touchy subject.
The movie follows a group of friends from a small steelworker’s town in Pennsylvania as some of them are about to go off to war in Vietnam. The film starts off with the wedding celebration of Steve (John Savage) and a final deer hunt before he, Mike (Robert De Niro) and Nick (Christopher Walken) are shipped off to Vietnam. Once there we follow the men as they have been captured by the Vietcong and are forced to participate in brutal games of Russian roulette.
The friends manage to escape but Nick gets separated from the other two whilst doing so. Their war experiences have deeply traumatic effects on all of them as Steve loses his legs and becomes partially paralyzed, a severely psychologically damaged Nick remains behind in Saigon and Mike becomes a changed man. When it comes to Mike’s attention after he and Steve have made it back to the U.S. that Nick might still be alive in Saigon, he decides to go find him and bring his old friend home.
Michael Cimino’s second feature was an epic three hour film examining the effects of war on both the men who go off to fight them and their loved ones who remain behind. The film provided Christopher Walken with his breakthrough performance and also features a fantastic supporting cast which included Meryl Streep, John Cazale and George Dzundza.
The Deer Hunter clearly echoed the general ambivalence felt about the Vietnam war and the disillusionment experienced in its wake. The film was released for one week in December 1978 to make it eligible for the Oscars and the strategy worked wonders as the movie was nominated for nine Academy Awards, ultimately winning five, including Best Picture and Director. The movie was then re-released on a wider scale and, due to the Oscar buzz surrounding it, became a huge financial success.
1. King of New York (Abel Ferrara, 1990)
King of New York is one of Abel Ferrara’s best films and has a strong cult following. This largely has to do with the dark tone and idiosyncratic take on the material as well as the amazing cast, which features Christopher Walken as Frank White, who the title refers to, Laurence Fishburne as his right-hand man, David Caruso as the cop who’s after them and Wesley Snipes, Steve Buscemi, Giancarlo Esposito, Paul Calderon and Victor Argo filling out the rest of the cast nicely.
Frank has just been released from a lengthy prison bid and has great plans for the future. Realising how much he has taken in the past, he wants to give back to his city and the poor and underprivileged that inhabit it. So he decides to build a new drug empire to be able to fund the building of a large hospital in Brooklyn for those who need it most. In the process he starts wiping out all rival gangs, not so much because they stand in his way but more so because they don’t want to cooperate with his altruistic plans. Meanwhile the cops, jealous of his wealth and uninterested in his motivations, are hot on his tail for the carnage he’s leaving in his wake.
An original modern take on the Robin Hood story, where some criminals aren’t all that bad and some cops aren’t all the good, King of New York is a very original take on the gangster genre with some serious themes on ethnicity and morality lurking just beneath the surface. It’s one of the rare films in which Christopher Walken actually has the sole lead role (only the second movie on this list after The Dead Zone) and with Frank White he created a one-of-a-kind gangster in a one-of-a-kind gangster film.
Author Bio: Emilio has been a movie buff for as long as he can remember and holds a Masters Degree in Cinema Studies from the University of Amsterdam. Critical and eclectic in taste, he has been described to “love film but hate all movies”. For daily suggestions on what to watch, check out his Just Good Movies Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/goodmoviesuggestions.