10. A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001)
Stanley Kubrick wanted to make A.I. since the ‘70s, but knew modern technology wouldn’t match his vision (he wanted the lead role, a robot boy named David, to be played by an actual robot.) Eventually, Kubrick asked his good friend Steven Spielberg to take over as director, but Spielberg refused, saying he would produce the project, but Kubrick should still remain its director. Following Kubrick’s untimely death in 1999, Spielberg made A.I. his top priority. The result? Depends who you ask. I’ve always enjoyed the film’s chaptered narrative and stellar visuals, and while the final few segments run a little too long, I consider A.I. a wonderful passion project, and an even better dedication from one friend to another.
9. Milk (2008)
Gus Van Sant was set to direct a biopic on America’s first openly gay politician, Harvey Milk, back in ‘92, with Robin Williams cast as the lead. When that fell through, Van Sant stuck with the project, despite few leads in several years. In the mid-2000s, Van Sant discovered a spec script (a script written independently, not one commissioned by a studio or a producer) by Dustin Lance Black. And while I would have loved to have seen Williams’ take on the character, after watching Milk, it’s very difficult to imagine anyone other than Sean Penn embracing Milk so effortlessly.
8. The Fountain (2006)
Whether you like The Fountain or not, you have to give Darren Aronofsky credit for sticking with it for so long. He fought for years to get his complex sci-fi film made, eventually getting a green light from the studio, spending millions in pre-production and casting two huge stars (Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett). Then everything fell apart. Pitt backed out, the studio got nervous, and The Fountain was ultimately shut down. Years later, with the budget now cut in half and Hugh Jackman cast alongside Aronofsky’s then girlfriend, Rachel Weisz, Aronofsky finally brought his baby to life. I absolutely love the film, but it’s fair to say it has just as many supporters as detractors. If early buzz is any indication, Noah may be preparing for a similar reception.
7. Grindhouse (2007)
Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez, enthusiastic over their shared love for experimental cinema, teamed up to create this double feature as an ode to the exploitation flicks from their youth. Tarantino and Rodriguez were clear from the beginning that they were going for the experience, not artistic merit. They wanted kids of today to know what it feels like to walk into a theater and experience a double dose of B-movie bliss, with trashy fake trailers thrown in for good measure. And they succeeded – they created an experience unlike any other you can find in contemporary cinema. Problem was, no one showed up. At more than three hours long, the target demographic simply wasn’t interested. The movie bombed commercially and was met with mostly unfavorable reviews. Me? I loved the tacky carnage of Rodriguez’s zombie flick, Planet Terror, and the thrills of Tarantino’s revenge film, Death Proof. Admittedly, the experience the filmmakers were going for is all but lost at home, but I give them credit for trying something new.
6. The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) & Gangs of New York (2002)
Martin Scorsese wanted to make separate films about Jesus and early New York since he was a child. He pursued the religious story first, getting close in 1983, but ultimately having the plug pulled by Paramount. A few years later, Scorsese slimmed the budget, and cast all new actors, delivering one of the most controversial films ever made. Gangs of New York had a similarly rocky road, albeit a much longer one. Scorsese secured the rights to the material in the late ‘70s, but it took more than two decades for him to finally make it. My sentiments for both films are decidedly equal. I appreciate the work that went into them, but wouldn’t call them perfect. Regardless, it’s obvious that both films were born from one of cinema’s most passionate minds, and I’m grateful that he was able to get them made.
5. Che (2008)
Che was the film that ultimately pushed Steven Soderbergh into early retirement, but the movie itself was actually Benicio Del Toro’s passion project. Del Toro spent years on the film – securing financing, commissioning a screenplay, prepping his performance, and eventually asking Soderbergh to come on as director. When the film was met with critical indifference and commercial neglect, Soderbergh abruptly announced that he would retire from filmmaking in five years. The bitch of it is, Che is a damn fine film. Split into two distinctly different features, Che will be remembered as one of Soderbergh’s grandest experiments. Although the audience results may not have been what he wanted, it’s such a shame that Soderbergh was pushed to cease work as a film director. If he does make a return, many of us will be eagerly waiting.
4. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)
The Assassination of Jesse James didn’t endure a terribly lengthy road to production, but it stands as proof that no matter who you are, making a movie is far from easy. You’d think Brad Pitt could come on as a producer, throw his weight around, and make any film he wants. Such is not the case. He battled Warner Bros. through every step of The Assassination of Jesse James’ production, resulting in a masterful film that nearly no one saw. I adore the film as is now, but I would love to see the original version director Andrew Dominik and Brad Pitt agreed on.
3. Apocalypse Now (1979)
Having passion doesn’t always merit pleasant results. By now, the tumultuous production of Apocalypse Now is infamous for a number of reasons. Lead actors were recast during filming, the production soared over budget, typhoons destroyed sets, Martin Sheen had a heart attack, Marlon Brando refused direction – all pushing Francis Ford Coppola to the brink of madness. But, as they say, Coppola left it all on the field and delivered a timeless classic. Reading about the production of this film (or watching the masterful documentary, Hearts of Darkness, which details it in full), I’m shocked that Coppola didn’t give up. Whatever your opinion on Coppola’s later career may be, this man has earned a career pass and then some.
2. Fitzcarraldo (1982)
Determined to convey the story of rubber baron Carlos Fitzcarrald with the utmost authenticity, Werner Herzog set his masterful epic, Fitzcarraldo, deep in the Peruvian jungle, regularly suffering the unforgiving hell of nature. Additionally, for the film’s most memorable moment, Herzog’s crew pulled a massive steamship over an actual mountain without using special effects. But all that was a picnic compared to the wrath Herzog endured from his sociopathic star, Klaus Kinski. Kinski was a monster throughout production, eventually attempting to shoot Herzog dead. As a result, the Peruvian natives offered to kill Kinski for Herzog, but the director declined. Without a star, the film could not be finished, and that, for Herzog, would be the greatest sin of all.
1. Schindler’s List (1993)
Poldek Pfefferberg was one of “Schindler’s Jews,” who, after emerging from the Holocaust alive, spent the rest of his life determined to share Oskar Schindler’s story with the world. It was Pfefferberg who inspired Thomas Keneally to write “Schindler’s Ark” and Pfefferberg who tirelessly pleaded with Steven Spielberg to adapt that book into a film. But Spielberg didn’t think he was ready. He attempted to pass the project on to Roman Polanski, Martin Scorsese, and Sydney Pollack, who all declined, insisting that Spielberg make the film himself. So he did. He made Schindler’s List on a modest budget without taking a salary. He assumed the film would bomb, thereby ruining him emotionally and professionally. Thankfully, he was wrong. As it stands now, Schindler’s List is one of the leading artifacts of Holocaust remembrance. Poldek Pfefferberg is the person to thank for that.