Six Years, 100 Movies

Six years is the iron anniversary, so enjoy this…horse with a nose piercing?

It’s the 6th anniversary of The Horse’s Head! As I reflect on the 600+ movies I have covered so far on the blog, I wanted to do something a little different. This is a list of my 100 favorite movies I have covered on the blog so far. Please keep in mind this is not my pick for the 100 greatest movies ever, nor my 100 all-time favorites. Think of these more as my Horse’s Head staff picks. Most were favorites before I started this list, but a surprising amount are movies I discovered here for the first time. Presented in alphabetical order, because ranking takes too much time.

Thanks for sticking with me for six years. More to come.

Happy Viewing,

Tony

  1. 12 Angry Men (1957) 
  2. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
  3. Airplane! (1980)
  4. All About Eve (1950)
  5. All That Jazz (1979)
  6. All the President’s Men (1976)  
  7. Anatomy of a Murder (1959)
  8. The Apartment (1960)
  9. Back to the Future (1985)
  10. Beauty and the Beast (1991)
  11. Blazing Saddles (1974) 
  12. Bonnie and Clyde (1967) 
  13. Casablanca (1942)
  14. Chinatown (1974)
  15. The Conversation (1974)
  16. Cool Hand Luke (1967)
  17. Destry Rides Again (1939)
  18. Disneyland Dream (1956)
  19. Dog Day Afternoon (1975)
  20. Do the Right Thing (1989)
  21. Dr. Strangelove (1964)
  22. The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
  23. E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982) 
  24. Eve’s Bayou (1997)
  25. Fantasia (1940)
  26. Forrest Gump (1994)
  27. Freedom Riders (2010)
  28. The Front Page (1931)
  29. Funny Girl (1968)
  30. The Godfather (1972) 
  31. The Graduate (1967)
  32. Grey Gardens (1975)
  33. Groundhog Day (1993)
  34. Growing Up Female (1971)                                 
  35. Hair Piece: A Film for Nappyheaded People (1984)
  36. The Heiress (1949)
  37. It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
  38. Jaws (1975) 
  39. The Kidnappers Foil (c. 1936-c. 1952)
  40. Lambchops (1929) 
  41. Laura (1944)
  42. Let’s All Go to the Lobby (1957)
  43. The Maltese Falcon (1941)
  44. Marty (1955)
  45. Mary Poppins (1964)
  46. The Middleton Family at the New York World’s Fair (1939)
  47. Multiple SIDosis (1970)
  48. The Muppet Movie (1979)
  49. The Music Box (1932)
  50. The Music Man (1962)
  51. My Fair Lady (1964)
  52. National Velvet (1944)
  53. Network (1976)
  54. A Night at the Opera (1935)
  55. North by Northwest (1959) 
  56. Pariah (2011)
  57. Peege (1972) 
  58. Peter Pan (1924)
  59. Planet of the Apes (1968) 
  60. Precious Images (1986)
  61. The Producers (1967)
  62. Psycho (1960)
  63. Pulp Fiction (1994)
  64. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
  65. Rear Window (1954)
  66. Rebecca (1940)
  67. Roman Holiday (1953)
  68. She’s Gotta Have It (1986)
  69. The Shop Around the Corner (1940)
  70. Show People (1928)
  71. The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
  72. Singin’ in the Rain (1952)
  73. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)
  74. Some Like It Hot (1959)
  75. The Sound of Music (1965)
  76. Star Wars (1977)
  77. Stop Making Sense (1984)
  78. A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)
  79. Sunset Boulevard (1950)
  80. The T.A.M.I. Show (1964)
  81. Theodore Case Sound Test: Gus Visser and His Singing Duck (1925)
  82. There It Is (1928)
  83. They Call It Pro Football (1966)
  84. This Is Cinerama (1952)
  85. This Is Spinal Tap (1984) 
  86. To Fly! (1976)
  87. To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) 
  88. Tootsie (1982)
  89. Toy Story (1995)
  90. Vertigo (1958)
  91. WALL-E (2008)
  92. What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)
  93. Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)
  94. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)
  95. Why Man Creates (1968)
  96. Wild Boys of the Road (1933)
  97. Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971)
  98. The Wizard of Oz (1939)
  99. Woodstock (1970)
  100. Young Frankenstein (1974)

#634) Pariah (2011)

#634) Pariah (2011)

OR “A Lee Grows in Brooklyn”

Directed & Written by Dee Rees

Class of 2022 

The Plot: Alike, aka Lee (Adepero Oduye), is a Black teenager struggling to keep her sexual identity hidden from her parents (Charles Parnell and Kim Wayans), to the disappointment of her out-and-proud best friend Laura (Pernell Walker). Although Alike’s parents suspect their eldest daughter is gay, they say nothing, dismissing it as a phase and focusing instead on their deteriorating marriage. As Alike starts to develop feelings for her classmate Bina (Aasha Davis), the struggles of teenage emotions are only further exacerbated by the pressure Alike feels to conform to parents’ ideals. It’s a touching coming-of-age movie that introduced us to the filmmaking talents of Dee Rees.

Why It Matters: The NFR gives a rundown of Dee Rees’ journey to making “Pariah”, calling it “a key film in modern queer cinema”. Kim Wayans’ “emotional performance” is also highlighted.

But Does It Really?: Spoiler: This post will be one of my total gush-fests. This was my first time watching “Pariah”, and I absolutely loved it. All throughout “Pariah”, I was reminded of an important rule in filmmaking: No matter what kind of movie you’re making, always tell your truth. In a remarkably confident feature film debut, Dee Rees shows us her truth about being a Black queer woman in America, and the result is an emotionally gripping, pitch-perfect movie. “Pariah” is a film that I’m embarrassed to admit was not on my radar, but I’m glad the film exists, and especially glad the NFR has inducted it, guaranteeing that future generations of film lovers will seek out this wonderful film.

Everybody Gets One: Born and raised in Nashville, Tennessee, Dee Rees initially had zero filmmaking aspirations, until her job in brand management found her on a shoot for a Dr. Scholl’s commercial. She enrolled in NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and was mentored by, among others, Spike Lee, who hired Rees as an intern on his film “Inside Man” (Lee would subsequently be an executive producer on “Pariah”). It was also during her time at NYU that Rees came out to her parents, and she wrote “Pariah” as a way of working through how she was feeling at the time. For her graduate thesis, Rees took the first third of her “Pariah” script and made it into a short film, with actors Adepero Oduye, Pernell Walker, and Sahra Mellesse appearing in both the short and the eventual film.

Wow, That’s Dated: Although there isn’t too much that dates “Pariah” to the late 2000s, we do get plenty of flip-phones, plus a passing reference to the ancient art of CD burning.

Seriously, Oscars?: No Oscar love for “Pariah”, but the film did receive its share of critics awards, and won the John Cassavetes Award (best film made for under $500,000) at the Independent Spirit Awards.

Other notes 

  • Like many an indie before and after, “Pariah” was shot on a shoestring budget. In fact, at no point during production did Rees and her team have the entire budget at the same time, instead applying for various grants, and then applying for more once that money ran out. In addition, because they believed in the film’s importance, the crew worked on the film for free, only getting paid their rates after “Pariah” got a distribution deal, which was never guaranteed.
  • One of Dee Rees’ production hacks bears repeating for its sheer brilliance. The “Pariah” team could not afford a location manager for on-location shooting, so Rees hired a realtor, who showed her a three-story brownstone in Brooklyn that wasn’t selling (this being the Recession and all). Rees rented the brownstone for two months, with each story serving as a different character’s apartment. Genius!
  • The moment that got me hooked on this movie was watching Lee, on the bus coming home from a lesbian bar, changing into more “feminine” clothes before she gets home. This simple moment told me everything I needed to know about this movie and its protagonist, and I was feeling for Lee every second after that.
  • Shoutout to this whole ensemble, especially Adepero Oduye, who convincingly plays a teenager even though she was in her early 30s during production! Co-star Aasha Davis was in her late 30s, and adheres to a version of my patented “Ponytail Stratagem” called the “Headband Subterfuge”: the use of a headband to make yourself appear younger. Bina’s rarely without one in this film. Side note: Aasha Davis is currently a regular on “Drunk History”!
  • This may be the first NFR movie to feature a strap-on. I say “may” because I still haven’t seen “Boys Don’t Cry”, the only other movie on this list that could realistically have one.
  • One of the things I noticed about the acting in “Pariah” is – interestingly enough – connected to its cinematography. The film is shot mostly in close-ups and mediums. There are very few wide-shots, giving the whole film an intimate, borderline claustrophobic feel. This of course means that the acting can’t be too broad, as it would appear overblown when shown on a big screen. The “Pariah” cast across the board does a wonderful job of playing their characters with realistic subtleties.
  • Shoutout to Kim Wayans, wonderfully powerful as Audrey, and the first member of the Wayans family to make the NFR. I predict Marlon will be the next one thanks to his work in “Requiem for a Dream”. Kim also gets the only line in the movie that got a genuine laugh from me: “Too much lip gloss”.
  • Two notes on Charles Parnell: 1) With his rich, commanding tone, it is no surprise he has found a steady career in voiceover and 2) He most recently appeared in “Top Gun: Maverick” which, since my “Top Gun” post from two years ago, has finally been released and is like the greatest movie of all time or something like that I guess.
  • I didn’t take a lot of notes during my viewing of “Pariah” – always a good indication that I’m enjoying the movie – but there was something even more incredible about this viewing for me. I didn’t feel my usual urge afterwards to do a lot of research or over-contextualize the film for this blog post. Part of that is because the film is so recent, with admittedly a shorter legacy. But more importantly, the film felt so real to me. It was alive. I believed these characters as real people, and felt for them in their struggles. I bought the film’s reality so much that I didn’t want to pull back the curtain and learn about the actors or the process, and it was a few days before I finally felt up to the task. I can’t think of another movie that had this kind of effect on me.
  • Overall, my reaction to “Pariah” was the same as Mrs. Alvarado’s reaction to Lee’s poem at the end: All I could really do when the movie ended was nod my head and say “Yeah…yeah…” The film said everything it needed to say, and said it beautifully. Also, at 86 minutes, thank you Dee Rees for reminding us all that great movies don’t need to be so goddamn long.
  • A few takeaways from the end credits: “Pariah” is one of the few movies to credit its background extras, and is most likely the first NFR movie to be partially funded by Kickstarter.

Legacy 

  • “Pariah” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2011, with Focus Features picking up the distribution rights, giving the film a limited release of 24 theaters in December 2011. “Pariah” was only the second Black queer film by a woman to receive a major release (the first was fellow NFR entry “The Watermelon Woman”). While the film did okay in its run, it was a critical success, and even got a shoutout from Meryl Streep at that year’s Golden Globes! In the last decade-plus, “Pariah” consistently appears on critics list of great films by queer directors.
  • Dee Rees’ next film was the HBO movie “Bessie” (with Queen Latifah as Bessie Smith). Her next theatrical film was 2017’s “Mudbound” which earned Rees an Oscar nomination for Adapted Screenplay, the first Black woman ever to be so honored.
  • The 2010s saw an uptick in more diverse films getting made and recognized, including such notable films about Black queer identity as “Tangerine” and “Moonlight”. While we still have a long way to go making sure Black queer voices are heard in American films, “Pariah” is one of the movies that helped open the door a little wider.

#633) Stop Making Sense (1984)

#633) Stop Making Sense (1984)

OR “And You May Tell Yourself, ‘This Is Not My Beautiful Blog!’”

Directed by Jonathan Demme

Written by Demme and Talking Heads

Class of 2021

The Plot: By 1984, Talking Heads had already made a name for themselves in the rock scene. With their effective blend of new wave, punk, art rock and world music, Talking Heads gave us such hits as “Psycho Killer”, “Burning Down the House” and “Once in a Lifetime”. To promote their 1983 album “Speaking in Tongues”, Talking Heads went on a U.S. tour, with their stop at Hollywood’s Pantages Theater being filmed by Jonathan Demme. The resulting film features all of their hits, as well as some impressively energetic performances from the band, plus an extra-large business suit that continues to linger in pop-culture.

Why It Matters: The NFR calls the film “as inventive visually as it is sonically” and “the quintessential get-up-and-dance experience.” The “charismatic” David Byrne is highlighted, as is Demme’s direction.

But Does It Really?: If any movie can claim the title of best concert feature ever, it’s “Stop Making Sense”. In a sleek 88 minutes, Jonathan Demme captures Talking Heads at the height of their fame with top-notch renditions of all their best songs (of course it helps if you’re a fan of their music, which I am). “Stop Making Sense” might not be an essential American movie in the vein of your heavy hitters, but it continues to rock four decades later, and is iconic enough to deserve its spot on the NFR.

Shout Outs: Among the random words projected on the background slides is the phrase “Star Wars“. Also noteworthy are the film’s credits, designed by Pablo Ferro in the style of his “Dr. Strangelove” opening.

Everybody Influential New Wave/Rock Band Gets One: After an early stint as The Artistics, Rhode Island School of Design students David Byrne, Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth moved to New York, naming their new band Talking Heads after the TV term for a head and shoulder interview shot. From 1977 to 1980, Talking Heads had a meteoric rise with three popular albums and such hit singles as “Psycho Killer” and “Life During Wartime”. After a three year hiatus, Talking Heads returned in 1983 with the album “Speaking in Tongues”, and went on a promotional tour. While performing at L.A.’s Greek Theatre in August 1983, the group met filmmaker Jonathan Demme. Fresh off the disastrous production of “Swing Shift” and looking for a change of pace, Demme proposed filming the performance. Talking Heads raised the entire $1.2 million budget themselves, dipping into their respective life savings, which they would eventually get back in profits.

Title Track: The film’s original working title was “Electric Guitar”, but was eventually changed to “Stop Making Sense”; derived from the lyrics of “Girlfriend Is Better”, which is performed in the film. When asked by L.A. Weekly why he had picked that title, Jonathan Demme responded “That’s a good question.”

Seriously, Oscars?: Although “Stop Making Sense” missed out on an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary, the National Society of Film Critics gave the film its documentary prize, as well as third place for its Best Film of the year. For the record: the Oscars gave Best Documentary to fellow NFR entry “The Times of Harvey Milk“.

Other notes 

  • Talking Heads performed at the Pantages Theater from December 13th-16th, 1983 specifically for this film. To be as unobtrusive as possible, Demme placed his cameras in different spots in the the theater every night; stage left one night, back of the house the next, etc. The bulk of the final film comes from the performance on the 15th.
  • The beginning of the concert has a bit of a narrative thread, with the first few songs on the setlist mirroring the band’s evolution. We start with David Byrne alone on stage performing “Psycho Killer” (the band’s first hit) on guitar accompanied by a boombox. This is a bit of historical revision on Byrne’s part, as Byrne was not the band’s sole founding member, nor did he write “Psycho Killer” by himself.
  • I was struck by how young David Byrne is in this. Byrne was 31 when they filmed “Stop Making Sense” and looks like a cross between Cillian Murphy and Daniel Day-Lewis.
  • Following “Psycho Killer”, Byrne is joined for each number by more band members: Tina Weymouth joins for “Heaven”, while “Thank You for Sending Me an Angel” adds drummer Chris Frantz, who apparently didn’t get the “all grey clothing” memo with his bright teal polo. Subsequent numbers bring in guitarist/keyboardist Jerry Harrison, percussionist Steve Scales, and backup singers Lynn Mabry & Ednah Holt. I was really hoping this pattern would continue throughout the whole movie, and by the end the stage would be filled with performers. But alas, the culmination comes with the night’s sixth number – “Burning Down the House” – in which we get the rest of the band (Guitarist Alex Weir and keyboardist Bernie Worrell) and a shit ton of percussion.
  • As often noted, part of what helps distinguish “Stop Making Sense” from other concert features is the focus on the actual performance. No behind the scenes interviews, no cutaways to the audience, just the performers on stage doing their show. It effectively captures the energy of a live performance, and subsequently helps the film age better than most other concert films. The other thing this movie has going for it is that everyone seems to be having a good time. The whole movie has a relentless energy about it (at one point Byrne runs laps around the stage), and you get caught up in the sheer joy of performing everyone has in this. Like all good movies, “Stop Making Sense” is as fun to watch the 100th time as it is the first.
  • I guess all that energy is really paying off because my god everyone is sweating buckets in this. Were the first few rows warned they were in the splash zone?
  • Around the halfway point you really start to see the art school influence on these guys. The backdrop becomes a series of slides with random words and phrases like “Dollface”, “Onions”, “Under the Bed”, “Pig” etc. I don’t know what it all means, but I’m sure someone does. On a related note, I’d like to claim the name “Digital Babies Dustballs” for my alt rock band.
  • “This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)” is one of my favorites, with this live performance highlighted by David dancing with a standing lamp. Eat your heart out, Fred Astaire. I was hoping the lamp would get some sort of shoutout in the credits. “Lamp courtesy of Al’s Lamp Emporium of Pasadena. Mention ‘Stop Making Sense’ and get 10% off your first purchase.”
  • Another favorite of mine (and everyone’s), “Once in a Lifetime” is captured here in almost entirely one take. This is the song where you really appreciate David Byrne’s incredible physicality as a performer. With his lanky figure and seemingly impossible dexterity, he’s like an over-caffeinated Ray Bolger.
  • Just want to point out that a good chunk of this movie’s playlist comes from “Speaking in Tongues”, making this one of the rare times in history that a band retained an audience while playing stuff from their new album.
  • “Genius of Love” is a bit of a detour courtesy of Tom Tom Club; a side band Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz created during their Talking Heads hiatus. I didn’t realize “Genius of Love” is that “I’m in Heaven” song that everyone samples. Tom Tom Club’s performance serves the double purpose of giving Tina and Chris a moment in the spotlight, while simultaneously giving David a chance to go backstage and change into his big suit. Fun Fact: Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz have been married for 45 years!
  • We have arrived at “Girlfriend Is Better”, the song that gives us the lyric “stop making sense” AND David Byrne in his big gray suit. Shoutout to costume designer Gail Blacker, who designed the suit, calling it “more of an architectural project than a clothing project”.
  • I love the moment during “Girlfriend Is Better” where David holds his mic in front of a crew member operating a hand-held stage light, and the crew member sings along without missing a beat! This is immediately followed by Byrne jokingly pointing the mic at the camera. Can he see me?
  • “Take Me to the River” is one of my favorite songs of all time, and includes the greatest bridge in music history (“Hug me/SQUEEZE me/Love me/TEASE me”). That being said, call me a godless heathen, but I prefer the album version over this live rendition. Also, I didn’t realize this was a cover of an Al Green song. I’m glad that the good Reverend is getting royalties from all this.
  • The show’s curtain call goes across both final songs. David uses a break in “Take Me to the River” to introduce the band by name, while “Crosseyed and Painless” gives the crew a much deserved moment of recognition. “Crosseyed” is also the song where they bump up the houselights and show us there was an audience the whole time!

Legacy 

  • “Stop Making Sense” premiered at San Francisco’s Castro Theater in April 1984, going into wide release that October. Critics loved it, with Leonard Maltin declaring it “one of the greatest rock movies ever made”, and the usually dismissive Pauline Kael calling the film “close to perfection”. The live album of the tour (also called “Stop Making Sense”) routinely ranks on lists of the best albums of all time.
  • Jonathan Demme spent the rest of his film career alternating between narrative and documentary films. Among Demme’s post-“Stop Making Sense” highlights are “Married to the Mob”, “The Silence of the Lambs” and “Philadelphia”. The subjects of his subsequent concert films ranged from Neil Young to Robyn Hitchcock to Neil Young again to Justin Timberlake to Neil Young yet again.
  • Unbeknownst to anyone at the time, the “Speaking in Tongues” tour would be the last tour Talking Heads ever embarked on. Talking Heads spent the rest of the ’80s making new albums, but disbanded in 1991 when David Byrne left the group. The original members did reunite briefly in 1999 to promote the 15th anniversary re-release of “Stop Making Sense”, and the group performed together one final time in 2002 as part of their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Although Tom Tom Club still performs occasionally to this day, members have stated several times over the years that a full Talking Heads reunion is unlikely.
  • The closest this film has ever gotten to a sequel is “American Utopia”, the stage tour of David Byrne’s 2018 album of the same name, with a 2020 filmed version directed by Spike Lee.
  • “Stop Making Sense” is one of those movies that gets referenced more than parodied. One of the few full-on parodies comes from “Documentary Now!” and the episode “Final Transmission”. While I do love me some “Documentary Now!”, man is that episode a letdown. Maybe it’s just my overall dislike of Fred Armisen’s brand of humor. Ah well, they can’t all be gems.
  • When “Stop Making Sense” gets referenced in pop culture it’s almost always about the big suit. My first introduction to the big suit came from – of all things – an episode of “Doug”. Think Big.

Listen to This: Talking Heads made the National Recording Registry in 2016 with their 1980 album “Remain in Light”. The NRR calls the album “Talking Heads at their most essential – contradictory.” The official NRR write-up includes not one but two essays, as well as an interview with David Byrne and a Studio 360 piece about “Once in a Lifetime”.

And with that, we finish up the last Horse’s Head post of 2022 and Year Six! Thanks for reading along with me as I hit the 75% threshold of the National Film Registry! We’ll be back in January with a few selections from the NFR Class of 2022.

Happy Holidays and Happy Viewing,

Tony

The Horse’s Head: Class of 2022

Merry NFR Day to those who celebrate!

The National Film Registry has unveiled the latest 25 films to make the list, bringing the total to 850 movies! Here they are in chronological order. Those with a * symbol are movies I submitted for consideration this year, while movies with a + symbol are ones I have submitted in previous years.

  • Mardi Gras Carnival (1898)
  • Cab Calloway Home Movies (1948-1951)
  • Cyrano de Bergerac (1950)
  • Charade (1963)       
  • Scorpio Rising (1963)
  • Behind Every Good Man (1967)
  • Titicut Follies (1967)
  • Mingus (1968) 
  • Manzanar (1971)
  • Betty Tells Her Story (1972)
  • Super Fly (1972)
  • Attica (1974)
  • Carrie (1976)*
  • Union Maids (1976)
  • Word is Out: Stories of Some of Our Lives (1977)
  • Bush Mama (1979)
  • The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez (1982)
  • Itam Hakim, Hopiit (1984)
  • Hairspray (1988)
  • The Little Mermaid (1989)+
  • Tongues Untied (1989)
  • When Harry Met Sally (1989)*
  • House Party (1990)
  • Iron Man (2008)+
  • Pariah (2011)  

This year two of my 50 nominated films made the cut. Not my best year, but not my worst either. According to the NFR press release, my submissions were 50 of the 6,865 titles suggested for consideration this year, so with those odds two is an impressive number. And once again I sadly have to announce the current score: Movies on the NFR with Jane Fonda: 0, Movies on the NFR with Buddy Hackett: 2.

This year the NFR really outdid themselves in terms of the diversity of its selections. 15 of the 25 films were directed by women, people of color, and/or LGBTQ+ filmmakers (shoutout to Dee Rees, the center of this Venn Diagram!). While the Class of 2022 leans more towards obscure titles, I believe this says more about us as a moviegoing public not giving these movies the attention they deserve. As always, I look forward to these films broadening my horizons a bit. We’ll be covering a sampling of this year’s roster in January.

As always, you can nominate up to 50 movies for NFR consideration every year. You can fill out a nomination form here, and check out the NFR’s handy guide to movies not yet on the list. And may I humbly suggest checking out my FYC page, which includes some of the films and stars I have tried to get on this list over the years.

Happy Viewing and Stay Safe,

Tony

#632) Buena Vista Social Club (1999)

#632) Buena Vista Social Club (1999)

OR “Havana Good Time”

Directed by Wim Wenders

Class of 2020

The Plot: In 1996, a group of musicians from Cuba’s “musical golden age” of the 1940s and 1950s were recruited by composer and producer Ry Cooder to record “Buena Vista Social Club”, an album of classic Cuban music (cha-cha, mambo, rhumba, etc.) from this long-forgotten era. The album was a worldwide success, and their subsequent performances were captured by filmmaker Wim Wenders. In addition to filming their Amsterdam performances in 1998, Wenders highlights each member of the band, most of them in their 70s and 80s, telling their stories and recapturing the glory of their Cuban youth. The tour culminates in a one night concert at New York’s Carnegie Hall, which was ultimately the final performance with the original Buena Vista Social Club.

Why It Matters: The entire NFR write-up is cribbed from critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, who calls the film “the best Win Wenders documentary to date”, and his filmmaking “uncommonly sensitive and alert”.

But Does It Really?: Both Buena Vista Social Club the act and the movie were names I knew of but couldn’t tell you anything about. Like many a concert doc on this list, I enjoyed listening to the music and watching these performers clearly having a blast, but overall I appreciated that this movie was focused on the people rather than the music. You are watching a group who thought their lives were over being given an extraordinary second life with newfound attention and acclaim. These aren’t the likes of Bob Dylan or The Band letting their youthful arrogance get in the way, but rather some long-lost talent letting their age and experience help them savor every moment, and it’s hard not to be moved by their stories. A yes for “Buena Vista Social Club” making the NFR, not only for its outstanding story telling, but also its representation of this Cuban music revival, as well as the work of Wim Wenders.

Shout Outs: A Buzz Lightyear action figure can been seen in Compay’s house when he and Cooder rehearse “Black Bottom”. Movie memorabilia from “The Wizard of Oz“, “Rebel Without a Cause” and “The Sound of Music” is on display when the band is window shopping in Manhattan.

Everybody Gets One: Wim Wenders was one of many filmmakers to come out of the New German Cinema movement of the 1970s. His breakthrough films in America chronicled his fascination with Americana, best exemplified with 1984’s “Paris, Texas” (which has surprisingly not yet made the NFR). “Paris” was Wenders’ first collaboration with muscian Ry Cooder as his composer. While working on the 1997 film “The End of Violence”, Cooder told Wenders about his experience working with Cuban musicians (See “Other notes”), which inspired Wenders to make “Buena Vista Social Club”.

Wow, That’s Dated: The movie doesn’t show its age until the band arrives in New York, in which among the ’90s sights they see are a billboard promoting the 1998 remake of “Godzilla”, and the marquee for “Cats”, which was in year 16 of its 18 year run at the Winter Garden Theatre.

Title Track: Rubén Gonzalez’s piano skills are on display when he performs the movie’s title track, with Ry Cooder on slide guitar.

Seriously, Oscars?: “Buena Vista Social Club” earned Wim Wenders his first Oscar nomination, though the film lost its Best Documentary Feature nod to “One Day in September”, Kevin Macdonald’s film about the tragedy at the 1972 Olympics. (For those of you keeping score, that’s two movies in a row on this blog that lost major awards to a movie about the ’72 Olympics. What are the odds?) Though Wenders has received two additional nominations in this category – for “Pina” and “The Salt of the Earth” – he has yet to win an Oscar outright.

Other notes 

  • BVSC came to be thanks to Ry Cooder and his lifelong work as a “musical archaeologist”, exploring the music of different cultures and finding their common roots. In the early 1990s, Cooder was commissioned by record producer Nick Gold to explore the connection between Cuban music and West African music (the percentage of Cubans with African heritage is anywhere from 30 to 60%). When the African musicians couldn’t travel to Cuba, Cooder gathered 20 musicians within Cuba – many long retired from the music scene – and helped them find their commonalities to record an album together. The resulting album “Buena Vista Social Club” (named after a famous club in Havana) was a worldwide phenomenom, winning a Grammy and launching the tour profiled in this film.
  • This is arguably the most international production on the NFR, with the film being funded by five production companies in five different countries: the United States, Germany, Cuba, France, and the United Kingdom. Thanks to the contributions of L.A. based Kintop Pictures, “Buena Vista Social Club” qualifies as an American film, and therefore eligible for this list.
  • The film begins with BVSC singer Compay Segundo and the crew driving around Havana trying to find the original Buenavista Social Club, which had been closed shortly after the Cuban Revolution of 1959. I appreciate any movie that bothers to stop and asks for directions.
  • I don’t know what kind of camera Wenders and his cinematographer Jörg Widmer are using, but some of these scenes have that ’90s camcorder feel to them. I was not expecting this movie to look like “The Blair Witch Project”.
  • The Amsterdam concert opens with “Chan Chan”, BVSC’s breakthrough hit. Surprisingly, despite the band’s nostalgic appeal, this song was written in the early 1980s.
  • One of my favorite moments is early on when singers Ibrahim Ferrer and Omara Portuondo perform the song “Silencio” in the recording studio, filmed with the cameras moving 360 degrees around the two, highlighting the intimacy of the recording. Side note: These recording sessions were for the BVSC follow-up album “Buena Vista Social Club Presents: Ibrahim Ferrer”.
  • I will admit, if you’re going into this movie cold, some research on the history of BVSC and Cuban music would help. I ended up watching this movie twice for this write-up, and I got a lot more out of it the second time after doing some homework.
  • Man, the Amsterdam crowd is lovin’ this. Every song gets recognition applause. It must be the hash.
  • I think the reason there are so many concert docs on this list is because music is universal, and therefore translates better for a wider audience. I also suspect that due to the age of its subject matters, “Buena Vista Social Club” is easily the most mellow concert doc in the NFR.
  • Compay Segundo was 90 years old when they filmed this! I would kill to be that cognitive (and talented) at 90.
  • I’m gonna go ahead and say this is the most cigars in a single NFR film. There’s even a shot of factory workers making cigars, a shot which allegedly was filmed without permission.
  • Whoa, Cuba’s got some king tides going on! Imagine what they’re like now.
  • There’s a lovely scene of Rubén González playing “Begin the Beguine” on piano in a large auditorium, while kids practice gymnastics. Both the artist and the athletes stick the landing.
  • Oh man, Ibrahim just mentioned he was shining shoes – “zapatos” – and now I’m hungry.
  • “El Cuarto de Tula” is fun, until you realize it’s a song about someone’s house being on fire. Singer Pío Leyva is literally shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater! During the song break, Barbarito Torres plays the laúd behind his back! I didn’t know Cuba had a Jimi Hendrix.
  • It’s satisfying to watch Pío win a game of dominoes. Also, is it just me, or does Pío Leyva kinda look like Richard Pryor towards the end of his life?
  • The film ends with Buena Vista Social Club performing at Carnegie Hall. For many of the group, it was their first trip to America. After learning about everyone for the last hour and a half, it’s wonderful seeing their wide eyed wonder at New York (I love the moment where Rubén comments on how small the Statue of Liberty is). There’s something lovely about Ibrahim Ferrer walking Manhattan’s street and declaring what he sees “beautiful”. Turns out these Cubans share Wenders love of Americana. Side note: The first song from their Carnegie set is “Quizás, Quizás, Quizás”, which is covered in English as one of my favorite songs, “Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps”.
  • Do you think the Buena Vista Social Club ever got into rumbles with “The Joy Luck Club”? Or would they join forces to fight “The First Wives Club”?

Legacy 

  • The success of “Buena Vista Social Club” (both the album and movie) led to a revival of Cuban and Latin American music, and gave these musicians an unexpected career boost. Sadly, most of the band members featured in this documentary would pass within the decade, with Compay Segundo, Rubén González and Ibrahim Ferrer all passing away in the early 2000s.
  • The original Buena Vista Social Club folded in 2015, with their final tour being filmed by Lucy Walker for the 2017 documentary/sequel “Buena Vista Social Club: Adios”. Surviving members continue to tour under the name Orquesta Buena Vista Social Club.
  • Wim Wenders continues to make films, though his focus seems to be shifting away from narrative features and more towards documentaries. His most recent offering is a tribute to his Catholic upbringing: 2018’s “Pope Francis: A Man of His Word”.

Further Viewing: Wim Wenders best film that’s not eligible for this list: 1988’s “Wings of Desire”, a romantic fantasy filmed in his native Germany, considered one of the greatest films of the decade. You gotta love a movie where Peter Falk plays himself!

Listen to This: Buena Vista Social Club’s self-titled 1997 album was added to the National Recording Registry this year! The band’s historical context is given, as well as an interview with Ry Cooder, and an essay by Ry Cooder expert Fred Metting.