Top ten most watchable films on TV

         Posted April 19, 2009         Reddit      Digg this

Which movies have the most permanent staying power not in the theaters, but on television, and in particular cable TV? One writer’s opinion — but the following ten have stopped many a viewer while channel-surfing or choosing a rental. Note that several great films, such as “The Godfather” or “Star Wars,” do not make this list because they lose something in cinematography on the small screen, might be too long, or might be subject to too many cuts on channels such as Bravo, AMC, FMC, TNT, Spike, etc. (although they would be intact on premium cable such as HBO, Starz, Cinemax, Showtime). Note: this is not a list of the ten most watched movies.

10. Wall Street

A favorite of Not the perfect movie, but endlessly watchable scenes of Michael Douglas’ Gordon Gekko, greed, and high-testosterone humor. Perfect for its time (1987), has lost a small amount of relevance since the market crashes of 2000-’02 and 2008 and thus can’t rank No. 1. Despite Oliver Stone’s message, the preeminent film of those dying to get rich.

9. Serpico

An early celebration of the discovery (thanks to “The Godfather”) of one of cinema’s most riveting actors, Al Pacino, in a devastatingly sober whistleblower role that is by most accounts true. There exists the cliche of the doomed relationship at home; those scenes are the weakest scenes, but otherwise the alarming police misconduct, hints of retribution and the edgy tone keep the drama moving. Movie’s image perhaps hurt by rightful appreciation of New York police since 9/11. An early Pacino powerhouse that makes younger fans wonder, “why did Al Pacino’s voice change?” The widely believed answer is smoking.

8. The Towering Inferno

The standard-bearer of 1970s disaster films remains watchable, albeit long for television at 165 minutes. Legendary stars, and one of the greatest cinematic tributes to firefighters. Often referenced after 9/11, and for some poses troubling parallels. Steve McQueen and Paul Newman shared top billing in a landmark arrangement. Not one of Newman’s best, but a trophy for McQueen. “The Towering Inferno” cast is similar to an elevated “Love Boat” episode, including William Holden, Jennifer Jones, Fred Astaire, Faye Dunaway, Richard Chamberlain and O.J. Simpson. Perhaps too much footage of crumbling stairways. But passable high-rise photography and effects still hold up on TV, and the nod to firefighters is powerful and sincere.

7. Friday Night Lights

Fabulous portrayal by Billy Bob Thornton is so good, it might be too good and more reflective of an NFL coach than a high school coach. Perhaps a couple unneeded cliches (the star athlete who doesn’t care about school and plans for the pros suffers devastating injury) but soaring, emotional drama about the love for a small-town team that sometimes is taken too far. Given the presence of the popular and highly regarded TV show of the same name and theme (the “Friday Night Lights” movie cast differs from the TV stars), might not receive the full appreciation it deserves.

6. Saturday Night Fever

Coming after “Friday Night Lights,” no pun intended. Perhaps the most powerful dancing (by John Travolta and a Puerto Rican couple) ever put to film, exploding in a certain environment where something must. Doubtlessly superior in theaters for the music, but it’s not noteworthy for cinematography, only dancing, and holds up beautifully on TVs with superior sound. Values messages are a bit mixed, but by the end, Tony “gets” the big picture. The Bobby C. character’s story remains tragically undertold. “Saturday Night Fever” filming locations are vintage Brooklyn.

5. Road House

The best butt-kickin’ movie of all-time, one of the great villains of all time, a modern staple of cable television. “Road House” lines are likely the wittiest and funniest of any action film. Patrick Swayze and Ben Gazzara do not click so well together but operate magnificently in their own element. Because drama is a bit underdeveloped (Dalton’s previous demons are never shown and only referenced in conversations), and maybe a bit too much ham-and-egger silliness is afforded, critics never signed on. Too bad, they missed a great moment of cinematic comeuppance when Brad Wesley is told — not by Dalton, but the regular people — this is our town, and don’t you forget it. Unfortunately, many great lines are cut in edited cable TV versions.

4. A Few Good Men

Some can’t handle the truth. Just about anything with both Tom Cruise and Jack Nicholson is going to be good. Rob Reiner and Aaron Sorkin crafted a unique military-crime drama out of what could’ve been tired courtroom fare. Some call the famous quotes legendary; others dubious. Cruise elevates the film in court scenes and overcomes a few cliches. Movie delivers much-needed respect and reverence for the Marines at Guantanamo and elsewhere. One of the first things most ask: Is “A Few Good Men” based on a true story? Yes, a case his sister, an attorney, handled, according to Sorkin, though there was no death in the real case, and Sorkin used other references.

3. In the Line of Fire

Stellar, thrilling, highly satisfying presidential drama, one of Clint Eastwood’s greatest but not just a Clint star vehicle. Would be a run-of-the-mill cop pursuit, except both tormented villain and JFK-guilt-ridden agent are remarkably unique and interesting. Rene Russo was meant for this role and flourishes, beautifully. In a refreshing cliche reversal, Frank’s romantic life gets better, not worse, as the pressure builds. Loses little on the small screen. With this portrayal in “In the Line of Fire,” John Malkovich cemented himself as one of cinema’s greatest character actors.

2. Rocky III

What should’ve probably been a tired threequel designed only to cash in while enough nostalgia remained for the “Rocky” series instead delivers nearly as much comedy as “Caddyshack,” with enough “Rocky” formula to pass muster. Sylvester Stallone, who impressively wrote and directed it, crafts with Hulk Hogan (Thunderlips) a more entertaining wrestling sequence than what Darren Aronofsky depicted in the rightfully acclaimed “The Wrestler.” Rocky’s foe Mr. T (“Pain,” “C’mon, Creed”) is all at once fearsome, intense and funny. Talia Shire delivers her one needed line, “What’s the truth, damnit?” The famous Rocky III painting was done by LeRoy Neiman and serves as a film prop. Movie is a bit like a pro wrestling episode, but better.

1. Scarface

The movie that should’ve been “The Godfather, Part III.” Undeniably and unapologetically over the top, helmed by one of history’s greatest actors, Al Pacino. Tony Montana’s surprisingly alternating values heighten the suspense and suggest his downfall is not evil, but hubris. Great quotes with Sosa. Extreme violence is always edited on cable TV. The “Scarface” movie poster remains a treasured icon. Evidently lobbying by Brian De Palma is why “Scarface” is rated ‘R’ and not ‘X.’

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