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  • Leathem’s Top 5
    • Star Wars
    • The Godfather
    • Apocalypse Now
    • Heat
    • This is Spinal Tap

Jeffrey Leathem reveals his five favorite films

January 11, 2019

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Jeffrey Leathem reveals his five favorite films

He may be a high school teacher, but this is Leathem’s true uniform.

He may be a high school teacher, but this is Leathem’s true uniform.

Jeffrey Leathem

He may be a high school teacher, but this is Leathem’s true uniform.

Jeffrey Leathem

Jeffrey Leathem

He may be a high school teacher, but this is Leathem’s true uniform.

As anyone that’s been in one of his classes knows, Jeffrey Leathem has some strong opinions on movies and the film industry, and he has the knowledge to back them up. After reading about other teachers’ lists, Leathem shared his opinions on their choices, sharing which ones he liked and which ones he didn’t. I decided to sit down with him for a discussion on his five favorite films, the hero archetype, and the history of the film industry.

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Star Wars

I picked “Star Wars” for a couple of reasons; I think that it’s cinematically important because it launched a whole different kind of space movie, though it’s not science fiction in any way, shape, or form, it provided the blueprint for all future science fiction movies to come.

For 20 or 30 years now, there have been films that are blatant ripoffs of “Star Wars.” When you go back and watch it, there’s something that’s still magical about the process for Lucas, because he obviously hasn’t been as good as that film ever again. There’s some kind of raw creative process that’s really excellent. The western aspects of it seem to suit the themes in the movie better than science fiction would have, and the movie’s especially meaningful for me because I think I saw it for the first time when I was three when it came out in 1977, and then it was on HBO, and we taped it on HBO when I was a kid, and then I watched it over and over and over. I mean hundreds of times I think I’ve seen that film.

SP: ​I think you’re the first person I’ve talked to that’s chosen a major franchise movie as one of their top five. What are your thoughts on franchises as they get older, like movies that started on their own, like “Star Wars” in the ‘70s, and have reached the franchise level they’re at now.

JL: ​I think franchises are great. Obviously, anybody who’s been in my class knows that I’m a huge fan of the hero archetype, and the hero archetype seems to find a place in every culture for the last 5,000 years. I think in American culture, the franchise film is the place where the archetypal hero finds an audience from the mainstream public.

Look at what the highest grossing films have been over the last decade. They’re superhero films or they’re “Star Wars” films, and they all have that quintessential archetypal hero. That’s why I think that they absolutely have a place on my best-of list.

SP: ​I’ve seen predictions, from people like Steven Spielberg, that the superhero genre is going the way of the western. What are your thoughts on that, like superheroes dying out like westerns did after a few years?

JL​: I don’t think the western has died out, to be honest. I mean, obviously you have stuff like Westworld on HBO, and there have been a couple of significant westerns over the last few years, and they seem to pop up every once in a while. I think Clint Eastwood is still making westerns, he just sets them in LA or wherever, but it’s still a man on the frontier, holding his own against the Horde. That’s essentially the western. So even though Hollywood westerns may have left us, the spaghetti westerns—

SP:​ The Italian made ones?

JL:​ Yeah, all the Italian films, but I think that westerns are still very much a part of the American cinematic landscape, and I think they will continue to be. I think that if a comic book movie represents what a western represents, which is a few people holding the line of civilization against the bandits, I think it’s a good inheritor of that tradition. I don’t think it’s going anywhere.

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The Godfather

I watched “The Godfather” later, after it came out, and I saw it with my dad in the early ‘80s, so that film was beyond me when it first came out in the 1970s, but “Star Wars” and “Godfather” are both interesting because their their histories are intertwined from their filmmakers’ histories.

They both went to USC film school, Coppola and Lucas. Lucas was Coppola’s protege and was one of the original filmmakers that was hired into American Zoetrope Pictures. Lucas’s first film, “THX 1138,” was the first film made by American Zoetrope with Coppola and it bankrupted American Zoetrope, so Coppola had to make a film in order to make money so he could relaunch American Zoetrope and that film was “The Godfather.”

It was supposed to just be this gangster film, you know, a cheap Hollywood gangster film that he of course, because he’s an amazing filmmaker, did something truly remarkable. It was something that nobody thought was coming. And it had a fantastic cast.

I think it’s also interesting to note that “Star Wars” and “The Godfather” both share a common inspiration that both Lucas and Coppola were researching “The Searchers” by John Ford when they were both actively shooting those two films, and they both incorporate different elements of the film. I almost put “The Searchers” on the list, but it’s really racist. It’s a great John Wayne film, but it’s really racist and a little dated with some really subpar performances.

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Apocalypse Now

My third film was “Apocalypse Now,” which was supposed to be the second film made by American Zoetrope after “THX 1138.” It was supposed to be directed by Irvin Kershner, who did “Empire Strikes Back,” but after Zoetrope went bankrupt, it got pushed all the way to the back of the list. Coppola decided to do it in ‘79, and as a war film and as a psychedelic film that’s a product of the Vietnam-era of the ‘70s, I don’t think that, shot-for-shot, there’s a better war film than “Apocalypse Now.” It should have won an Oscar; it didn’t. It has fantastic performances from Martin Sheen, and Robert Duvall, and of course Marlon Brando, among others, with a cameo by Harrison Ford and then a young Laurence Fishburne actually lied about his age in order to go to the Philippines to shoot. The Philippines were fighting a war while they were shooting, so the helicopters that you see in that movie are active Philippine Air Forces who weren’t killing rebels on the days where they were shooting.

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I’ll do “Heat” next. “Heat” is a break to the ‘90s for me. I watched “Heat” a lot when I was in college, and it’s a Michael Mann film. Mr. Kautz and I were talking about this last week, and we discovered that it’s a remake of a made-for-TV movie that Mann made just five years before that.

He wanted it to be a pilot, NBC refused the series idea, and he filled it into a full blown made-for-TV movie. There are some similarities between both movies, but then obviously when you get the likes of Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, and Val Kilmer, the project seems to take on a whole different level.

“Heat” is a great heist movie, and maybe my favorite heist movie. I think it has the best shootout that I’ve ever seen in any film during the bank robbery sequence in downtown LA; it’s intense, the sound engineering is spectacular in this sequence, and the pacing of the cuts is exemplary. Even in the fight sequences, the actors are acting, they’re not just performing a bit or going and hitting their marks; there’s actual tension and actual acting in that fight sequence. There are stakes.

It’s an interesting movie, because it’s the first time that I think I really understood anti-heroes in film were Pacino’s cop is as much a troubled, flawed human being trying to make his way the best way that he can as De Niro’s bank robber is a flawed, troubled human being trying to make his way the best he can, so they’re kindred spirits. Neither one of them is really a good person; they’re both they’re both really troubled.

It’s also the first time the two of them ever acted on screen together during the famous cafe sequence. So for those reasons, I threw “Heat” on the list mainly because I wanted to hit different genres and I really like that gunfight.

SP:​ I noticed you had Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Marlon Brando, and Francis Ford Coppola twice each on your list. Would you say that they’re your favorite actors or favorite directors, or would you say you have a different favorite director and a different favorite actor?

JL: ​I think it won’t come as a shock to anybody who knows me that I struggled not putting Tom Cruise on this list because I really admire him. I think his work is fantastic, but it’s tough to look at a Tom Cruise film and try to replace it with one of the ones that I picked for the list.

I think that these films that I picked are kind of foundational to my film aesthetic; I tend to like dark films, I tend to like troubled heroes, and I don’t like clean solutions to a problem. I think that every single one of these films offers that. Even “Star Wars,” which is probably the clearest definition between good and evil, gets muddled at the end when Luke has to choose between technology or his instincts.

I think all of these films really struggle with the cultural landscape at the time and have been important films for other directors to reference as they make their own films. I think that you can’t watch a Vietnam film like “Tropic Thunder” without seeing “Apocalypse Now.”

I don’t think that you can see a modern gangster film, like anything by Scorsese, without seeing Coppola in it. And I certainly don’t think that you can watch a science fiction film without seeing George Lucas. So that’s why there I love the films themselves, but I also think they’re terribly important.

SP:​ You said “Star Wars” is probably the clearest definition of good and evil on your list, and even though the prequels are universally derided, I think those three movies play a part in blurring that line between good and evil in the universe by showing Anakin’s path, because it shows that not everything is just black and white, right?

JL:​ I mean, I agree with that. Those films really just suffer for some really bad writing and some horrible set design. Those green screens just didn’t work.

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This is Spinal Tap

Finally of course, there’s the one that’s a strange outlier: “This is Spinal Tap,” which is Christopher Guest and Rob Reiner film. That’s what also laid the groundwork for all of those other Christopher Guest films that people are probably more familiar with, like “Best in Show” or “Mighty Wind.”

SP:​ You picked a lot of movies that influenced you when you were younger, like ones you saw when you were in college and right when they came out. Are there any movies now that, if you that were remaking your list, have come out in like the last 10 to 20 years that you would include on your list instead of these?

JL:​ I think “Birdman” is brilliant. That movie blew me away the first time I saw it. Michael Keaton is spectacular, and that direction with the fluid cuts, which are seamless, make it almost like you’re watching a stage production on film, but you don’t miss anything that you would expect cinematically in that movie, and I think it’s great.

I’m also a huge Natalie Portman fan, and I think “Black Swan” is her best work. I would have put that one on the list from the more recent films.

“Django Unchained” is a really fantastic epic film from Tarantino, and he seems to have a little bit more patience in that film to develop scenes. He lets the actors do a little bit more work between cuts in “Django” than I think that he does in some of his other films, and I really liked his efforts there. Those are three good films that I would include on a list like this.

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