Jul 2, 2012

My Favorite Films from Director Oliver Stone

Everyone who loves movies has a director actor that they admire or who inspires them.  I have a long list of such names, but the one that stands out the most for me, and really caught my attention as a young man obsessed with movies was director Oliver Stone.

Nobody has drawn as much controversy as Oliver Stone has given that his movies usually very strong political statements and theories.  As political as Mr. Stone is though, he is first and foremost a filmmaker, and the art and craft of movie making and storytelling always comes first.

While Mr. Stone's approach has been often cited as the "cinema of excess", this is one of the reasons I admire his work so much.  He is a very smart man who knows how to keep your attention riveted - even if that attention means absolutely hating what you are seeing.  It can never be said that an Oliver Stone film is dull.  His films always get the most violent reactions whether it be love or hate.  Usually from me it's love (except ALEXANDER although I am starting to appreciate the "Final Cut").

If you ever want to hear really smart DVD commentaries, you need to look only so far as Oliver Stone's work. While other commentaries have actors and directors prattling on about unimportant things like their hair or remembering things that may have happened on the shoot day, Mr. Stone packs his with fascinating historical details, where he found his references as well as behind-the-scenes tidbits on the movie itself.

The movie that really captured me was JFK in 1991.  I went to see it several times, and cannot view this movie without walking away with something new to think about.  The movie and the director were both blasted upon release given that the subject matter of whether or not there was a grand government conspiracy surrounding the assassination of John F. Kennedy is a very controversial topic - but I never for one second believe that Mr. Stone is setting out an absolute theory here.  Instead he presents evidence for the viewer to ponder, questions that prevail and overall the message is - don't just accept what we're told...think about it, there could be more than meets the eye.

I once had the pleasure of interviewing for an intern position at his (then) company Ixtlan.  I didn't get the job, but sitting in the lobby listening as the receptionist forward calls to Mr. Stone (then in production on NIXON) and staring at a poster for WALL STREET, I couldn't help but feel I was Bud Fox waiting to meet my Gordon Gekko.  Yes I know, I am a nerd (and proud of it).

I used to say that Oliver Stone should direct a modern day JULIUS CAESAR, and told my co-workers that while working in Development at a Warner Bros. based production company (we also had a strong association with one of Mr. Stone's agents, so I was trying to work it).  After saying this, I had the pleasure of being on hand when Oliver Stone got his star on the walk of fame which just happened to be around the corner from my apartment at the time.  It was on March 15, and he made the joke about the Ides of March and how an assassin could be lining up a shot from the Roosevelt Hotel which was right across the road.  I pretty much nerded out over that.

Sure Mr. Stone has had his share of misfires (ALEXANDER and HEAVEN & EARTH come to mind) but in honor of his latest film SAVAGES being released on July 6, I present my favorite Oliver Stone directed movies.

1.  JFK (1991)

JFK quite literally blew me away - and yes as groan worthy as it is, pun intended.  You'll notice there is a number by this title and this title only.  While the rest of this list is kind of in order of preference yet not exactly a top 10 list, JFK sits firmly at #1 for me.  In fact, I rate JFK as the best movie released during the 1990s - and I stand by that statement in 2012.  It's the only movie from the 90s on my list of top 25 films.

I went to see this movie on December 20, 1991.  I remember that because this was the film where I decided I was going to collect every movie ticket for every movie or screening I attended and I still have the ticket from that night.  Many people remember what they were doing when JFK was shot (like most of us do now with 9/11) I remember clearly going to see this movie and the effect it had on me.

I am a bit of a history buff (USA history that is) and knew quite a bit about the assassination of President Kennedy.  But that's not what caught me with this film.  JFK made me think outside the box.  It presented new ideas, new theories and did it in a way that made me question...well...everything.  Many people jumped all over this movie when it came out.  In fact, many people jumped on this movie BEFORE it came out.  There is a JFK book that contains every article ever written about this movie along with Oliver Stone's rebuttals and also includes historic documents and the script (there is also one for NIXON - see below).  So with that in mind, this movie became very quickly politicized. 

I don't care about the politics.  As a film, I view this as a masterpiece, and in no way do I believe that Oliver Stone has a clear message as to how President Kennedy died.  This is a movie about questioning things.  Questioning the people in charge, the media, events as they are told to us.  JFK is a revolution happening right on screen.  Mr. Stone throws facts, images and question at a rapid pace, and never once did I come away buying into any one theory, but instead was transported by the style and subtext and superb film-making craft.

Kevin Coster as attorney Jim Garrison is a flawed hero.  First screening I viewed him as a crusader of the truth, but subsequent viewings reveal a character who at times goes too far - risking his family and career in pursuit of a truth he will never truly find.  You wonder if the trial at the end is even justified as the evidence against Tommy Lee Jones' character isn't exactly the most clear cut.  

JFK is a masterpiece - plain and simple.

NIXON (1995)

It only makes sense to follow JFK with NIXON.  Oliver Stone's fascination with power and corruption is evident, and you would think a movie made by him would be very one sided against President Nixon - that is if you're close minded.  Oliver Stone presents here a tragic and very insecure, flawed man that rose to power and then let those same insecurities lead him to disaster.  Anthony Hopkins as Richard Nixon always seems at odds with himself and paranoid of pretty much everything and everyone around him.  This is a fascinating character study of a man who turned a country upside down, and whose acts at the highest office of power and his downfall completely changed the political scene in the United States and how the public views the office of the President.  

I saw NIXON twice over the Christmas holidays of 1995 at the (now closed) Hollywood Galaxy on Hollywood Boulevard (it's an L.A. Fitness Center now).  Also of note is one of my college classmates knew I was a great admirer of Oliver Stone's work, and he stole a large sized poster of NIXON from a bus stop in Los Angeles for me.

Oh and Joan Allen as Pat Nixon is one of the her best performances.

A great companion piece is of course Alan J. Pakula's 1976 masterpiece ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN.


Before he lost his mind, Charlie Sheen was Bud Fox an idealistic and ambitious young man about to be swept up in a wave of greed on 1980s Wall Street and Michael Douglas wins an Academy Award for his performance of Gordon Gekko.

I don't believe I actually "got" WALL STREET the first time I saw it....I was too young.  But when I got to college, I did a study on the collaboration of Oliver Stone with Robert Richardson for my Cinematography class and ended up becoming more than obsessed with this film.  

I am a consumer, and believe in the American dream, and no matter what you think of it, the "Greed Is Good" speech has a lot of truth to it.  You may find yourself disgusted by it - especially in this day and age following the sub-prime mortgage crash - but there is a lot going on in this moment and I think everyone at some point in their lives have craved the good life, and the luxuries that come with vast wealth.  

WALL STREET taps into that, and again is a cautionary tale about power and corruption - a common theme in Mr. Stone's work.

PLATOON (1986)

If there is any moment in history that can be pinpointed to shaping Mr. Stone's work and his view of the world it absolutely has to be the time he spent in the army during the Vietnam war.  

PLATOON is Mr. Stone's most personal movie as an clean-cut idealist (Charlie Sheen) finds himself in a war that is anything BUT clean.  Drugs, death, an epic power struggle between his commanding officers and the realization that what he thought he was fighting for may not even exist.  

PLATOON not only won Oliver Stone his first Academy Award for directing, but the film also took home the top prize for Best Picture of 1986.


NATURAL BORN KILLERS is another movie directed by Oliver Stone that divides opinion.  Some revile it, others praise it - I fall in the second category. 

From a story by Quentin Tarantino (who a few months later was going to hit the big time with PULP FICTION) NATURAL BORN KILLERS is about a world spun out of control.  Where brutal killers are treated like movie stars and we are all sucked in by a media influence that is cold and vicious.  

Woody Harrelson proved he was more than the simpleton behind the bar at CHEERS and his movie career was truly off and running.  Juliette Lewis is just downright amazing in this movie, and Robert Downey, Jr. (I believe this would have been in the midst of or at least tail end of his "messed up" phase) is spot on as the reporter turning serial murderers into instant celebrities.  

The final scenes were shot in a prison, and the tension of the environment is evident on screen.  I can't imagine this coming across the same way had it been shot on a sound stage.

The night I saw NATURAL BORN KILLERS, I came out of the theater shaken.  I got a movie I hadn't even come close to expecting, and the world just seemed....different.  I was on a busy street where people were just starting to head out to the clubs (it was on the opening Friday night) and a bunch of them started yelling obscenities at me and laughing and they came off like the animals I had just seen in the movie.  It was like the world gone insane that I witnessed on that movie screen was spilling out into the streets.  


TALK RADIO caught me by surprise.  I remember it showing at the local Cineplex and seeing the trailer in front of HALLOWEEN 4: THE RETURN OF MICHAEL MYERS, but I don't remember coming away with much of an impression.

I finally got around to seeing it when it came out on Videocassette - at the time I was working at a Video Rental store.  Not knowing anything about Oliver Stone at the time even though I had seen PLATOON, I was really taken by this movie and the emotional intensity of it.  Here we have a Talk Radio "Shock Jock" who is just an arrogant ass whose show is about to go National.  On the eve of that happening, his arrogance and controversy catches up with him as a night on the air starts to spin out of control.

Taking place almost entirely in the radio station and broadcast booth - a very claustrophobic space - the intensity of this movie just keeps rising as it moves along and the hatred that surrounds this character starts to overtake him.

Such a powerful emotional ride, this is cinema in its most raw and energetic form.  I doubt a movie like this would get made today - at least by a studio.


Oliver Stone revisits the Vietnam war, wins a second Oscar for directing and Tom Cruise proves that he is more than a pretty face.

Cruise plays Ron Kovic, your standard all-American boy.  He's clean cut, athletic, is one of - if not the - most popular guy in school and above all he loves his country and is ready to fight for it.  And fight for it he does, (SPOILER ALERT) however he gets shot in the back and is paralyzed as well as accidentally kills one of his fellow soldiers during combat.

Kovic returns home to find the country he left isn't so eager to have him back, and he must face his own demons as well as the shame of a nation that would rather forget hi as he transforms and seeks redemption.

The funny thing is when I first saw the trailer for this (I was at a sneak preview - of all things - SHE-DEVIL starring Roseanne Barr and Meryl Streep.  Yeah ok...I know.  Don't judge me alright) I made fun of it.  I was kind of going through an "anti-Tom" phase thanks to COCKTAIL which had come out the year before.    Then of course, I saw the movie and over repeat viewings it really took hold of me.  

I was very happy to discover that Universal is releasing this title on Blu-ray Disc as part of their 100th Anniversary celebration fittingly on July 3, 2012 (which as of this writing is tomorrow!).

THE DOORS (1991)

Like in 1986, Oliver Stone had 2 big movies released in 1991.  The first was THE DOORS which came out in the late winter/early spring, and the second of course was JFK (see above) in December.  

As usual I went opening night and there was a group of bikers that saw fit to sing along with the songs.  They were there to experience the music of the Doors (and I'm pretty sure were very high) and didn't care much for the movie part.  Thankfully the usher threw them out fast because while I didn't care much for the Doors' music going in, I sure did when I left.

THE DOORS is a flawed movie, but a good one.  It may look like a standard Hollywood Bio-pic from the outside, but is anything but.  Again Mr. Stone explores the deeper subtext of the life of Jim Morrison (excellently portrayed by Val Kilmer) and the counter-culture it sprang from.  

Jim Morrison is a character that gets lost in his own excess and his fall is epic.  Yeah the story is your standard biopic formula, but Mr. Stone gives it an energy those other biopics just don't have.

I love how Oliver Stone is so influenced and shaped by this decade (1960s/1970s America) that instead of just translating stories from it to the screen, he goes deep in to the psyche of a nation going through drastic cultural changes.  He neither condones or condemns those changes, but seeks out and makes us want to think about what those changes were and how they affect us now.


As I mentioned above, 1986 like 1991 saw the release of 2 Oliver Stone directed films - Best Picture and Director winner PLATOON and this movie, SALVADOR.  

SALVADOR isn't quite as flashy as his later work, but regardless still has the same impact.  James Woods is a photojournalist who gets himself into plenty of trouble in El Salvador.


Oliver Stone takes on professional sports - here football ( in a league that isn't the NFL, but is like the NFL) and shows it to be the cutthroat gladiatorial arena that it is off and on the field.  He even goes so far as to have BEN-HUR screening in the background during a dinner scene between Al Pacino and Jamie Foxx.  A little too on the nose you may say, but that's Oliver Stone a director who doesn't pull any punches.

Pacino is the old-school coach dealing with the new ethics of Football which seems to be more celebrity driven.  Jamie Foxx is the young quarterback who steps up when veteran Dennis Quaid is injured.  Also representing the new guard is owner Cameron Diaz who would like nothing more than to move the team to a more profitable market.  The movie perfectly juxtaposes the sport on the field with the business and with the parties where the players who dress to the nines mingle with a high society who probably wouldn't even give them a second glance if they weren't sports stars.

Players make noises like faceless animals before they charge in and violently tackle opposing players.  This is a sport of combat, modern gladiators hurting themselves to the delight of millions of fans who drop everything on Sunday to watch the games.  Millions of dollars at stake, this is no sport....this is life or death.  

Football is the perfect sport for this, but it could be any sport really.  I'm sure if this movie had been Canadian, it would have been Hockey given the violent nature that seems to drive the game.  

Of course I need to point out that one of my team - the Los Angeles Kings - are this year's Stanley Cup Champions.  That has nothing to do with this movie, but I thought I'd mention it.

W. (2008)

How about this....a controversial biopic about a President who was still in office when it was released.  Ok so it was during his last days in office but still. 

Whatever you think about President George W. Bush (and I don't plan to take any sides or get into that debate here - this is about the movie only) he will go down as a very colorful and controversial President in American history.  You can imagine that Oliver Stone isn't exactly on his Christmas card list, but again here Stone doesn't go out to embarrass the President, but portrays him as a flawed figure with Father issues (former President George H.W. Bush) who somehow made his way into the highest seat of power.

Not to say that Mr. Stone is completely kind to him either.  The movie plays like a kind of absurdest theater, and you get the feeling that most of the time Mr. Stone and the makers of the movie are scratching their heads wondering how this administration not only came into power, but held onto it for 2 full terms.

One need only look at Thandie Newton as former Secretary of State Condalisa Rice if you want to get a sense of the approach to this movie.  Her impression of her character is so plastic you wonder if it is done on purpose - and I think that ultimately it is.  That's my story at least, and I'm sticking by it.

Rounding out the Directorial Filmography:

SEIZURE (1974)
THE HAND (1981)
U-TURN (1997)
COMANDANTE (2003 - Documentary)
SOUTH OF THE BORDER (2009 - Documentary)
and of course....
SAVAGES (2012)