I’ve written often about my friend Nell Minow who I’ve known since grade school. But the reason I’ve done so is that she’s simply one of the more fascinating people I know. On the one hand, she's one of the world’s leading experts on corporate governance who has testified before Congress, and on the other, she’s a Class-A film critic who’s been profiled in the Washington Post and New Yorker magazine, filled in for Roger Ebert, was hired to be a correspondent on his last TV series, and gets more giddy pleasure from watching movies than anyone I know, while filled with arcane knowledge about them.
Which brings us to her most recent book.
I was going to say “latest book,” but I’ve been so delinquent in not writing about it immediately that a better phrase seemed more proper. It’s her fifth book about movies (a qualification needed, since she also has several on corporate governance – brilliant, but not nearly as fun…), and her most uncommon. Not just uncommon for her work, but for any book on movies I’ve come across.
The book is 101 Must-See Movie Moments: Memorable Scenes in Overlooked Films and Overlooked Scenes in Classic Movies.
What makes the book such fun is that most books on movies give a fairly general overview of the films its covering, Nell hones in on the specifics. Or rather, on one specific. She does discuss each film, of course, to set the stage, though not as a mere recap but rather going into depth with behind-the-scenes tales, and an explanatory sense of why the movie is so worth attention – but then singles out that one special moment that (as the title says) always gets overlooked at the expense of others, or was so wonderful in a movie you might never have even heard of.
In some ways, the book could have been titled, “Remember That Scene Where…”
That’s the fun of the book, how it brings the joy of the movie-going experience to life. There’s nothing dry about her writing or appreciation of films. (Don’t forget, I did say she’s giddy about watching movies, sometimes two or even three in a day – after having met with corporate shareholders to analysis their situation earlier in the day.) And so what we get here is picking that one unique scene that helps put the whole movie in perspective, and help explain why it works so well. Why we love that film, or why we should see it. Through the focus of one great moment.
It’s an eclectic collection of movies she deals with. Annie Hall, Working Girl, Bad Day at Black Rock, This is Spinal Tap, Dog Day Afternoon, Finding Nemo, Hobson’s Choice, Little Miss Sunshine, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Pulp Fiction, Crash, Rudy, A Thousand Clowns, It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World and many dozens more. From Buster Keaton’s The General in 1926 to Toy Story 3 in 2010. From the acclaimed Godfather Part II to the obscure Miss Tatlock’s Millions.
Her selection for Amadeus, for example, is a moment that, though quiet and simple, is one which in its subtlety delineates the inner-battle of Antonio Salieri that ultimately drives the story. It comes when the official court composer Salieri has written a tune which he plays to welcome Mozart to the court, in front of the Emperor and his nobles. Ever gracious, Mozart compliments Salieri, sits down to show his appreciation by playing it – after having heard it only once.
“And then,” she writes, “one musician to another, caught up in the pure pleasure of playing with notes, Mozart begins to improve the piece, turning it from a simple, predictable, forgettable tune to a piece of complexity and brilliance. Of course he has no sense that he has upstaged or embarrassed Salieri. And it is at that moment Salieri is split in half. The true musician in him is thrilled by Mozart. But he is eaten alive by envy that ‘a boastful, lustful, smutty, infantile boy” should have the genius he so desperately desires.”
Everyone will have their own most memorable scenes, and they might not be the same as Nell Minow’s, though she certainly makes her case for each one. And because the range of films is so eclectic, there will be some that not every reader will want to visit (or re-visit), but it’s in making the lesser-known seem worth tracking down or reminding us why something so celebrated now moved us in the first place that is ultimately always her best skill.
That comes through in her regular reviews on her Movie Mom website. Despite the name, she doesn’t write from a perspective of what’s best for the family. Rather, it’s what a parent should understand a movie to be. A grueling, gripping, edgy thriller might get a rave, while a treacly cartoon will get slammed. But always politely, and always with great though and thorough understanding, not only of what the filmmakers are likely trying to do, but how it fits in its place in historical context. You can’t slip much past Nell Minow.
This is something corporate executives learned long ago -- often with dread. And what moviegoers have learned with pleasure.
For those interested in the pleasure part of the equation, 101 Must-See Movie Moments is available here in paperback or Kindle ebook.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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