Five Important Hollywood Movies, and Why These Films Matter
Hollywood shapes our culture
There are many Hollywood films significant for their effect on society. Often a movie will change the way films themselves are perceived. Perhaps they add to the legacy of filmmaking as an art form, with breakthroughs in sound or picture quality, animation, or special effects. For example, Avatar offered a 3-D film unlike any we have ever seen before, and in doing so set a new standard for 3-D effects. A movie might also become noteworthy for its contributions to popular culture. Decades ago, Saturday Night Fever helped make disco a fashionable musical style, and campuses across America held toga parties and food fights after Animal House premiered.
Some films are noteworthy for more subtle reasons. Nuances in plot or character development can cause us to perceive a story in unexpected ways. We might find ourselves liking unusual characters or feeling sympathy toward villains. We might cry when we thought we would laugh. When Hollywood accomplishes a breakthrough on this level, it adds texture and complexity to the art of storytelling. These efforts are typically replicated in other films, and they become an important component of cinematic storytelling.
The movies listed here are not from a “top” or “favorite” films list. The following five movies helped shape Hollywood storytelling or popular culture in significant ways. Some changes are innovative and groundbreaking, while others are more subtle in their effect on the history of filmmaking. All are from different film genres, but they share a common theme.
These movies share a common theme
Five significant films
The Godfather (1972--Crime. Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, James Caan, Talia Shire, Diane Keaton, Robert Duvall.) Mario Puzo’s immensely popular novel is brought to life through Francis Ford Coppola’s masterful direction and a star-studded cast. This film is highly respected by critics worldwide and is considered one of the finest movies ever made. According to Wikipedia, Entertainment Weekly voted it the greatest film of all time, and the American Film Institute lists it as the second greatest American film ever, after Citizen Kane.
This powerful movie is riveting from start to finish. The acting is superb throughout and includes perhaps Marlon Brando’s most memorable role. Al Pacino was a relative newcomer before his performance as Michael Corleone catapulted him to stardom. The other outstanding members of this cast also did not disappoint.
The Godfather is significant in its portrayal of mobsters and ruthless killers as multifaceted personalities with many admirable qualities. It blurred the boundaries between good guys and bad guys and paved the way for more complex depictions of mobster life, evinced by Goodfellas and the television series The Sopranos. It suggests that perhaps there is nobility in even the most hardened of criminals.
American Pop (1981—Animated.) Animated feature film produced by Ralph Bakshi. American Pop traces four generations of a Russian immigrant family through the music of each successive era. Zalmie, Benny, Tony and Pete each travel a different path with music the common theme. Along the way is heartbreak and pain for each of them, and their collective story is sad but touching. Zalmie has ties with the mob, Benny is killed in World War II, Tony succumbs to drugs, and Pete is raised in the streets and on the road. The tale is one of survival, but frequently on the most basic levels and with modest results. Although “Little Pete” earns a modicum of success by the end of the story that eludes his ancestors, it is gained through a life of desperation and compromise.
Before there was Toy Story, Cars and the Impossibles—there was Ralph Bakshi’s incredible animated films. His techniques were revolutionary and bridged the gap between Disney and their adopted son, Pixar. Bakshi owed his remarkable animation techniques to a process called rotoscoping, where live actors were filmed with the footage drawn over by animators. Bakshi also utilized water colors, computer graphics, live action shots and archival footage to create this illustrative masterpiece.
The Hustler (1961—Drama. Paul Newman, Jackie Gleason, Piper Laurie, George C. Scott.) Paul Newman stars in one of his greatest roles as “Fast Eddie” Felson, a small-time pool hustler who dreams of a shot at the big time. He challenges Minnesota Fats (Gleason) to a high-stakes game of pool and finds himself involved with an unscrupulous manager Bert Gordon (Scott). Bankrolled by Gordon, Felson eventually beats Fats, but is warned never to enter a pool hall again.
This movie is important for several reasons besides outstanding performances by Newman, Gleason and Scott. It is credited with helping to spark a resurging interest in pool. Pool champion Willie Mosconi has a cameo in the movie, and another player later assumed the name Minnesota Fats to gain notoriety on the pool circuit.
The focus of the movie is on unsavory characters in immoral situations, but they are portrayed with such depth of feeling, we understand and sympathize. In the first half hour of this riveting movie, Fast Eddie plays Minnesota Fats in a high stakes game of pool and the depiction of Fats dominating Felson both physically and psychologically as they play is masterful.
Jesus Christ, Superstar (1973—Religion. Ted Neeley, Carl Anderson, Yvonne Elliman.) Categorized at times as both a religious film and a musical, Jesus Christ, Superstar popularized the term “rock opera” with its story of the final week in the life of Christ. The story is told entirely through music, with Judas serving as the audience’s “eyes.” Judas feels Jesus is a brilliant man, but not God. He is worried that the adoration of the masses has gone to Jesus’ head, and ultimately feels he has no choice but to betray him.
The strength of this movie lies both in the music and in depicting Judas, Pilate and the rest as human, emotionally torn figures. Jesus Christ, Superstar was originally criticized by religious groups, but was ultimately well-received and is now included in any discussion of films about the life of Christ. It is credited with helping many American youth “find” God through encompassing religion in a rock-and-roll package. Shot on location at the ruins of Advat in Israel, it is a visually stunning offering from director Norman Jewison.
High Plains Drifter (1973—Western. Clint Eastwood.) Clint Eastwood directs and stars in this western film about a stranger hired to protect timid residents of the mining town Lago from three gunfighters. The three gunmen previously killed Lago’s sheriff, and because the Stranger experiences nightmares of a brutal death, it is suggested that he is a reincarnation of the murdered marshall. He abuses the townsfolk mercilessly while teaching them to defend themselves from the gunmen, and in the end he kills the gunfighters and presumably exacts his vengeance—both on those that murdered him and the cowardly citizens of Lago who stood by and watched him killed in his previous life.
When Eastwood’s Stranger rides into the town of Lago, everyone he encounters is so corrupt that not only do we sympathize with the vicious actions he perpetrates against the town, we applaud them. He protects a town that does not deserve his services and makes them pay a price for their safety. This movie is significant not by virtue of establishing the “unknown stranger rides into town” convention, but for (more or less) ending it. It is in many ways the best of Eastwood’s western films—he is completely comfortable in the genre and stamps it with his own style and character. He performed his role so well there was no reason to revisit it in subsequent films.
Fast Eddie explains pool excellence
What do these movies have in common?
There are many significant movies that influenced Hollywood or society in general, and these are far from the most important. These five movies, however, are linked thematically: they take us inside the psyche of “villains” or unsavory characters and display their humanity. From Pontius Pilate to Vito Corleone; from “Fast Eddie” Felson and Minnesota Fats to Little Pete; from Judas Iscariot to the mysterious Stranger, we are shown people committing unscrupulous acts and are asked to understand and sympathize. We are made to realize that circumstances have shaped the actions of these individuals and in some cases, we might respond in a similar manner. Villains become heroes and good and evil are relative terms. It is even more impressive that this message is delivered in such a variety of genres. From these movies sprung powerful films such as A Clockwork Orange, Midnight Cowboy, and anti-heroes who believe the ends justifies the means, like “Dirty Harry” Callahan and Wolverine. These fine movies helped make Hollywood films what they are today.
Jesus Christ, Superstar: Heaven on Their Minds
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