14. Ride with the Devil – Featuring Jewel – (dir. Ang Lee, 1999)
Ang Lee has directed some of the most beloved films of the last two decades including Sense and Sensibility, The Ice Storm, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and Brokeback Mountain. However in 1999, a civil war film directed by Ang Lee was released and has since been mainly overlooked and under-appreciated. Ride with the Devil stars Tobey Maguire as Jack Roedel, a Missouri Bushwhacker that abandons the Union to seek revenge on Jayhawker abolitionists from Kansas that murdered his friends in violent and bloody raid.
Roedel joins Jack Bull Chiles (Skeet Ulrich), George Clyde (Simon Baker-Denny) and Daniel Holt (Jeffrey Wright) to track down the Jayhawkers. Holt, a freed black slave, joins the group because of his relationship with Clyde, the man who freed him. In this film, war is less about ideology than personal grudges and settling vendettas.
Jewel, in her big screen debut plays Sue Lee Shelley, a pretty war widow that falls in love with one of the Bushwhackers. When the man she loves is critically injured, Jewel and the others deal with his pain and his potential loss. Jewel, with her crooked sweet smile, is innocent and insecure as Sue Lee and very convincing in the role. She won praise from various critics for her performance and has gone on to do various TV roles, including starring as June Carter Cash in the TV movie, Ring Of Fire.
Although “Ride with the Devil” was considered a box-office dud, it is a film not to miss and was recently re-released by the Criterion Collection with a new director’s cut.
13. The Book of Life – Featuring PJ Harvey (dir. Hal Hartley, 1998)
In the early 1990s Hal Hartley was an indie darling that could do no wrong. Hartley practically defined independent cinema of that decade. His films Simple Men, Flirt, and Amateur, were revered by critics and the independent scene for his unique ability to find beauty and spirituality in the ordinariness of life.
Hal Hartley’s last great film of the 1990s is “The Book of Life” which reunites some of the cast from his most remarkable film Henry Fool. Book of Life stars Martin Donovan and Thomas Jay Ryan in a spiritual comedy about the second coming of Christ. Donovan plays Jesus, sent from Heaven to put an end the current world and judge the wicked. As Jesus learns about his Father’s plans, he becomes conflicted and would rather solve the world’s problems with love and forgiveness. Jesus forms an unlikely bond with Satan (Ryan) who prefers the current state of the world as it is. The devil is content as he has his pick of souls to steal, and does not want this to change.
PJ Harvey, in her only acting role, plays Mary Magdalene. Harvey had been friends with director Hartley for some time. They often connected in New York and Hartley featured her song in his film Amateur. Hartley cast PJ Harvey as Mary Magdalene because of the complexity he wanted for the character. PJ Harvey is an especially nice, modest, English woman, but on stage she is 100% adrenaline and libido. She is Hal Hartley’s Mary Magdalene because of these two unique sides.
12. Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid – Featuring Bob Dylan & Kris Kristofferson (dir. Sam Peckinpah, 1973)
In the 1960s and 1970s, Sam Peckinpah’s films were notorious for their explicit violence. The Wild Bunch, Straw Dogs, and his other films led to controversy for their perceived glamorization of blood and brutality. However despite the controversy, his films continue to attract new audiences today because of the depth of his characters and realism of his stories.
Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid is no exception. Despite the film being a bomb at the box-office and notorious at the time for the rocky relationship between the director and the studio, today the film is often hailed as one of his masterpieces. It stars James Coburn as Pat Garrett, the new Sheriff of Lincoln County. Garrett’s first job is the task of ridding the county of his longtime friend, Billy the Kid (Kris Kristofferson). Garrett tracks his old friend, across the region to bring him to justice. Along the way, there is enough blood spilled to fill a river.
The film features two music stars. Bob Dylan plays Alias, a stranger that helps Billy when he is confronted by several men wanting to kill him. The role is Bob Dylan’s first on the big screen. Dylan was offered the role after Peckinpah listened to some of the songs he produced. Dylan is great to watch as he wields a knife and gives a thumbs-up after slaughtering a man.
The film also marks one of the early film roles for Kristofferson.Kristofferson started his career in Nashville as a singer-songwriter. His most famous song includes Me and Bobby McGee which was later immortalized by Janis Joplin. (Kristofferson and Joplin dated for some time before her untimely death). Also of note, Kristofferson, who has had a long prestigious acting career, won a BAFTA for Most Promising Newcomer in this film for playing Billy the Kid.
11. Precious – Featuring Mariah Carey (dir. Lee Daniels, 2009)
Precious is based on the novel Push by Sapphire and chronicles the life of a poor, illiterate, obese, sixteen year old girl growing up in Harlem during the late 1980s. The character’s name is Claireece (Gabourey Sidibe) but she goes by her middle name, Precious. Her name is certainly incongruous with the way she is treated. Throughout the film, Precious goes through unbearable trauma. She is physically and psychologically abused by her mother (Mo’Nique). She is continually raped by her father and pregnant with their second child. Precious is neglected, unloved, and unwanted.
Due to her pregnancy, Precious attends a new school and becomes inspired by a teacher (Paula Patton) and social worker (Mariah Carey) that actually care about her. Mariah Carey plays Ms. Weiss in a stripped down, raw, and incredibly human performance. The role is so unlike her diva pop-star image that we almost don’t recognize her. While Mariah Carey has appeared in other films, her role in Precious is beyond what she has ever done before.
The film is challenging due to its realism, but it’s also an important and touching story about the human condition and personal resilience. Precious was nominated for six Academy Awards including Best Picture. It won for Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Supporting Actress (Mo’Nique). Precious was only the second film in which a black director was nominated for an Oscar.
10. Short Cuts – Featuring Lyle Lovett (dir. Robert Altman, 1993)
Director Robert Altman’s Short Cuts is based on nine short stories by poet and writer, Raymond Carver. Like most of his films, Altman leverages an ensemble cast of almost two dozen key characters to present stories about love and death and infidelity. Robert Altman was a huge fan of Lovett and cast him in Short Cuts and several of his other films including The Player, Prêt-à-Porter, and Cookie’s Fortune.
In one of the storylines of Short Cuts, a family’s life is turned upside-down. Howard and Ann Finnigan (Bruce Davison and Andie MacDowell) are in a panic as their young son is critically injured in car accident. Lyle Lovett plays Andy, a baker who telephones the Finnigans about a birthday cake they ordered and is unaware of the circumstances that the family is dealing with.
When the Finnigans hang up on him due to concern for the son, Bitkower is incensed at their rudeness. In retribution, he begins a series of highly obnoxious, harassing phone calls to the Finnigan family. Lovette’s role as Bitkower is his best and most memorable. In the film we are disgusted and uncomfortable by his character’s actions, but in a weird way can maybe relate to his initial rage.
Short Cuts won a special award at the Golden Globes for Best Ensemble Cast and Altman was nominated for an Oscar for the film. However in 1994, Altman lost the Oscar to Steven Spielberg who dominated that year with the extraordinary Schindler’s List.
Short Cuts also features singer-songwriter Tom Waits as Earl Piggot, the husband of the driver that hits the Finnigan boy.
9. Carnal Knowledge – Featuring Art Garfunkel (dir. Mike Nichols, 1971)
Mike Nichol’s Carnal Knowledge stars Jack Nicholson as Jonathan and Art Garfunkel as Sandy, college roommates who are opposites in personality and in their dealings with the other sex. While Jonathan is selfish, distrustful, and looking for conquests, Sandy is mature, sensitive, and considerate. The film explores their evolving views of women and sexuality in a friendship that spans more than two decades.
This thoughtful and influential sex-comedy also stars the gorgeous triad of Candice Bergen, Ann-Margret, and Rita Moreno. Ann-Margret was nominated for an Academy Award and she won a Golden Globe for best Supporting Actress. The film also marks the debut of inimitable Carol Kane. Mike Nichols’ impressive body of work includes Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Silkwood, Biloxi Blues, Closer, and The Graduate.
While Nichols’ The Graduate featured the music of Simon and Garfunkel, the casting of Garfunkel for this film was a bold one as he had acted in only one feature film before. However Garfunkel’s relationship with Paul Simon had come to a close with their final album Bridge Over Troubled Water, and he was looking for new directions in his life. Garfunkel’s acting was strong in Carnal Knowledge and he was nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actor. Years later Garfunkel starred in other powerful films including Nicolas Roeg’s Bad Timing, and Jennifer Chambers Lynch’s Boxing Helena.
8. Down by Law – Featuring Tom Waits (dir. Jim Jarmusch, 1986)
Writer and director Jim Jarmusch’s third feature film, Down By Law stars Tom Waits, John Lurie, and Roberto Benigni as three men arrested and locked up in a New Orleans jail. Waits plays Zach, an unemployed disc jockey, Lurie is Jack, a small-time pimp, and Benigni, in his first international role, plays Bob, an Italian tourist with limited English and held for manslaughter. The three men claim to be innocent and are held in the same cell. While incarcerated the three men misunderstand each other, clash, and finally form an alliance to escape.
Down By Law was nominated for the Palme d’Or at Cannes Film Festival. Shot in beautiful black and white, this atmospheric noir is one of Jarmusch’s best.
Tom Waits has performed in several great films including The Outsiders, Dracula, and Ironweed but his infusion of blues, folk and jazz is what he excels at. Waits has had some commercial musical success, but he mainly thrives by a cult following, and has had a significant influence on a number of musical artists today. Waits has also won a number of Grammys and was inducted in the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame. Jarmusch valued Waits’ authenticity as an artist and has also featured him in his other works including Mystery Train and Coffee and Cigarettes.
Down By Law also features Ellen Barkin as Zach’s girlfriend, Laurette, in a sexy and emotionally raw performance.