Saturday, April 2, 2022

Still Life with Robin: Our Oscar-Worthy Town - The Sequel

Movie Poster, 1950 release
by Peggy Robin

Last week's "Still Life with Robin" column listed more than a dozen movies set in DC -- many of them multiple-Oscar winners or at least multiple nominees --followed by another half-dozen that were snubbed at the Oscars but still managed to show off our highly cinematic city.

In that column I admitted it was an incomplete list -- and I wasn't wrong! Quite a few of you wrote in to tell me about this or that good one that should have been included.

So here's my make-up column with some of the very best movies set in DC that either were or shoulda been contenders.  This time around, I haven't looked up all the stats on which ones snagged a stauette -- or even a nomination -- or were shamefully overlooked -- just noted a few of the more prominent winners. If you want the full picture, there's always IMDB.

And now.....(deep announcer voice): Presenting TWELVE Award-Worthy Movies Set in or Near DC (this time in alphabetical order):

Absolute Power (1997). Clint Eastwood stars in this thriller of murder and political intrigue. A sexually rapacious and easily manipulated President is caught up in a conspiracy to cover up a murder. Some critics dismissed it at the time as unbelievable that such a figure of such evil, combined with such stupidity, could ever be elected to to the highest office.


Air Force One (1997). Harrison Ford is a macho man/war hero former pilot and now President. A quarter of a century ago, this was boffo stuff at the box office, mainly because Ford was so plausible as man-of-action President and decorated flier. Meanwhile, back In Real Life, actor Harrison Ford has had no less than six reported incidents due to pilot error, including two crashes.


Arlington Road ((1999). OK, Arlington Road's in Bethesda, not in DC -- but it still counts! The main character is a college professor who starts to suspect that his friendly new neighbors just might be terrorists. Question: Even in 1999, was the salary of a single-parent professor enough to afford a detached house in Bethesda?


Born Yesterday (1950). If you have time to see just one of these movies, make it this one. Bubbly and sparkling, but with some sharp political ribs showing through, Born Yesterday is a comedy about a would-be power couple, a corrupt scrap-metal dealer/tycoon and his naive but not-so-dumb blonde mistress, played by Billie Holliday in a Best Actress-winning performance, who move to Washington with the aim of becoming members of the power elite. When the tycoon hires a journalist to try to teach his rough-edged mistress the manners and airs of Washington high society, he is shocked to discover that she has learned far more than how to talk "couth": she's learned far too much about his corrupt business dealings -- and has learned she has the power to do something about it, too.


Enemy of the State (1998). Will Smith (does that name ring a bell?) plays a young Washington lawyer who gets entangled  in a conspiracy to murder a congressperson and ends up on the run as the main suspect. Of course, the handsome and resourceful leading man is no patsy, and does whatever he needs to do to avoid capture and eventually clear his name. Smith won two awards (neither of them Oscars) for the role: Favorite Actor in an Action/Adventure Film from Blockbuster Entertainment, and Outstanding Lead Actor in the NAACP's Images Awards for 1999.  


In the Line of Fire (1993). Clint Eastwood plays a secret service agent on the JFK detail on that fatal day in Dallas - and he's been wracked with guilt ever since -- and has to track down a new threat to the president's life. Eastwood sticks to his usual gruff, wooden, man-of-few-words persona; the real scene-stealer here is John Malkovich, madly chewing the scenery as the insidious assassin who taunts and torments the secret service agent about his past failure to save the president's life. 


Jackie (2016). Spend a bit under two hours with a depressed and sometimes suicidal (but always beautiful) Jackie Kennedy, as embodied by Natalie Portman, as she reminisces about her husband's murder, her stillbirths and miscarriages, and other times gone by. Does this sound like a good way to pass an evening? Well, that may be why I passed on it -- but it did win Best Costume Design at the BAFTAs (British equivalent of the Oscars). 

Die Hard 2 (1990). If you loved the original "Die Hard," (1988), you might enjoy this DC-adjacent sequel, set mainly at Dulles Airport (Northern VA), which has its hero, John McLain, single-handedly battling some bad guys who have taken over air traffic control and are keeping dozens of planes in the air. The gaping plot holes are not the only trouble with DH2 - it's also got a bunch of small but annoying production errors - most notably when McLain rushes to a pay phone (for those of you in Gen Z, it looks like this: that is emblazoned with the logo "Pacific Bell," a phone company you would not have found, back in those days, anyplace east of the Pacific time zone. 


Slam (1998) is a movie set in real locations around DC, from the poorest projects (fictionalized with the nickname "Dodge City") to the real DC jail and courthouse, and on to one of the ritziest parts of town - our own Cleveland Park. A poor boy but talented rapper is caught up in a cycle of drug violence but wants to break free. The film won a number of prestigious awards for independent filmmaking.


St. Elmo’s Fire (1985). The "brat pack" actors play recent Georgetown grads now making their way in the working world of Washington, DC. There's a lot about jobs, apartments, hookups, commitment and marriage -- all bound up in the usual '80s angst. Plus a lot of drinking at their favorite hangout, St. Elmo's bar -- and an awful lot of talk. If you like most of John Hughes's body of work (The Breakfast Club, Sixteen Candles, et. al.) you'll probably like this one -- though it was not directed by Hughes but by Joel Schumacher.


Strangers on a Train (1951). Hitchcock's clever crime game makes DC mansions and streets seem gloomy and sinister -- still, not quite as menacing as the atmosphere at the small town amusement park where much of the non-DC part of the action takes place. While the movie is a dark and cynical take on life in and out of the nation's capital, the original novel by Patricia Highsmith is even darker and more sinister yet


Thank You for Smoking (2005). Can you make a funny movie about a morally bankrupt but sometimes charming lobbyist for Big Tobacco? Author (and former Cleveland Park resident) Christopher Buckley managed to pull it off in the book,, but whether the movie be the judge.

Still Life with Robin is published on the Cleveland Park Listserv and on All Life Is Local on Saturdays.

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