This week’s word in the Top 6 Words series is “rock.” Immediately what comes to mind are the six “Rocky” movies, but we can be much more exact than that.
My favorite movies with the word “rock” in the title follow the jump, but try thinking up some “rock” titles on your own before peeking. Chime in with your own list in the comments section.
I was surprised how many good choices there are for this one. The first title I thought of was Jailhouse Rock, and I just assumed that was good enough to make the cut. But then I came up with six better ones. Four of my top six are not just good movies but largely unheralded good movies, so it’s nice to have the opportunity to talk about them.
6. Red Rock West (1992)
John Dahl is not a well-known director, but perhaps he should be. His most famous (but probably weakest) film is Rounders (1998), my favorite is the Hitchcockian thriller Joy Ride (2001), and he made a strong war film in The Great Raid (2005). His earliest films are neo-noirs: Kill Me Again (1989), Red Rock West (1992), and The Last Seduction (1994). All three are fine examples of the genre. They tell convoluted suspense stories of crime and intrigue but are really about the passions and obsessions that torment us and drive us to desperation.
5. The Rock (1996)
This makes the second Nicolas Cage flick in a row.
Regular listeners will know of my passionate dislike of Michael Bay films, but I still have to give him credit when he gets one right. His best movie to date is The Rock, which does suffer from the usual action flick implausibilities and minor plot holes but is just too much fun for them to be overly bothersome. Tension and adrenaline is cranked to the max almost from the start. The three leads, Sean Connery, Nicholas Cage, and Ed Harris are a sheer delight to watch and miraculously make their characters dynamic and full-fledged even though the action seldom slows down (and never for very long).
The plot? Ed Harris is tired of the government failing to honor men who die in combat or on secret missions, or appropriately compensating their families; as a last resort to get the government to listen, he takes control of Alcatraz and holds a tour group hostage. Connery and Cage are hired to break in and deactivate Harris’ chemical weapons. One noteworthy flaw is Michael Bay’s quick-cut editing, which is used more for style than to complement the action on screen, and as such is an unwelcome distraction. But it’s not terrible, as it became in his later films, and does not prevent The Rock from being thoroughly riveting entertainment and a must for action film fans.
4. The School of Rock (2003)
This movie shouldn’t have been this good. I put it on my Top 6 surprisingly good movies list, because, hey, even in hindsight, who would figure a zany Jack Black comedy where he finds himself teaching music at a school funny? This is not fertile movie territory. Consider that Sister Act 2 and Kindergarten Cop are among the best movies in this vein. You see what I mean.
But it works, I suppose because its love for music is infectious, and the kids are people rather than props and plot devices. Jack Black’s enthusiasm for rock music is never treated as a comic foible but a genuine passion. We can understand it and why and how it enriches his life, and so we root for him to succeed when he decides to try to share that love with his students.
3. The Hot Rock (1972)
The Hot Rock is a lot of fun, and it’s a bit of a rarity: it plays as a straight, sincere heist caper, but the plot is a pure comedy of errors. Robert Redford leads a fine ensemble — which includes Zero Mostel in a delightfully slimy role — and director Peter Yates strikes just the right balance between tension and humor.
2. Bad Day At Black Rock (1955)
One of the great westerns. Spencer Tracy stars as a one-armed man who rides into town on a train and receives a mysteriously cold welcome. Why is everybody so wary of him, and what’s he doing here in the first place? This movie works wonderfully on a surface level, but it takes on a new dimension if you look deeper: the film is a subtly subversive with much to say about the Hollywood blacklist, personal honor and responsibility, and racial prejudice. It’s portrayal of a town imprisoned by fear is haunting, and it doesn’t hurt that it sets the stage for some tense action.
1. Picnic At Hanging Rock (1975)
Peter Weir’s Picnic At Hanging Rock is a masterpiece of mood and setting. Perhaps it should have made our Top 6 list of movies with a strong sense of place, because if this story were transported to some other time or place, it would not be the same story at all. But what is the story? Reviews have a hard time pinning it down. It’s said to be about some girls at an Australian boarding school who disappear during an outing, but that’s only the part that can be conveyed in words. What the film is really about is something more elusive and personal. Roger Ebert compares it to David Lean’s A Passage To India and identifies sexual hysteria in a repressed society as a common theme. He writes: “The underlying suggestion is that Victorian attitudes toward sex, coupled with the unsettling mysteries of an ancient land, lead to events the modern mind cannot process.” It’s an accurate and remarkably perceptive observation, and yet it still fails to pin down the peculiar spell this movie weaves. It’s easy enough to conceive of an entirely different interpretation of the film that would be as convincing. There is nothing overtly sexual in the film, for instance, nor anything overtly supernatural. There’s really nothing overt in this at all, which is maybe why it is so haunting: with a simple nudge in one direction or another, we could maybe invent some closure for ourselves, with the confidence that, even if we haven’t figured out all the details, we’re at least on the right track.
But solving the mystery isn’t the point. The point is that there is one. That the mysteries of the human heart are impenetrable enough on their own, as are the mysteries of lands older and wiser than we are. Put the two together, and who knows what can happen.