Moneyball comes out on September 23rd, and if there were any doubts in your mind about whether you should see this film about a baseball manager (Brad Pitt) who uses computer analysis to assemble his team we have just three names for you: Bennett Miller, Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin. These individuals have contributed to many of the best films and television series of the last several decades, including Schindler’s List, A Few Good Men and Capote, and none of those classics even topped our list of The Top Ten Films from the Makers of Moneyball. What classic film did? Find out below…
10. A CIVIL ACTION (written and directed by Steven Zaillian)
Steven Zaillian’s second outing as a writer/director was A Civil Action, an icy legal thriller starring John Travolta (still riding his popularity wave of the late 1990s) as a hotshot attorney whose pride gets in the way of an environmental pollution case. Although on the surface the film is about a town suing a corporation for polluting their water supply, the real meat of the story comes from Travolta’s personal failings. He’s on the morally right side of the case, but he himself is less of an attorney, and maybe even a man than his opponent’s attorney (Robert Duvall, Academy Award-nominated for his performance). Travolta sabotages himself, the case, and the well-being of his clients. It’s not a life-affirming film (Erin Brockovich came out a year later and did much better at the box office with a more feel-good take on similar material), but it’s still the work of consummate filmmaking professionals working at the top of their game.
9. AWAKENINGS (written by Steven Zaillian)
Penny Marshall’s arguably best film came from a screenplay by Zaillian, based off of Oliver Sacks’s 1973 memoir. Robin Williams plays neurologist Malcolm Sayer (a fictionalized, American version of Sacks), who achieves a life-changing breakthrough with his catatonic patients by “awakening” them all using an experimental new drug. With a new lease on life, the patients – including an Oscar-nominated Robert De Niro – begin to make up for lost time, and eventually start to revolt against their doctors, whom they view as their captors. But tragedy finally sinks in when De Niro, the first patient to awaken, slowly reverts back to his catatonic state while the rest of the patients watch in horror at the hell that awaits them. It’s beautiful and tragic, and be sure to watch for an early, uncredited appearance by Vin Diesel as a hospital orderly, eight years before his breakout role in Saving Private Ryan.
8. CAPOTE (directed by Bennett Miller)
Bennett Miller’s second film (and first narrative feature) tells the story of famed writer Truman Capote as he writes his masterpiece, In Cold Blood. Philip Seymour Hoffman won a much-deserved Oscar in the lead role of a man who befriends two death row inmates, gains their trust, writes a brilliant book about their vile exploits, and then waits impatiently for them to die so he can finish it. In Hoffman’s hands Capote is at turns a sympathetic figure, an egomaniac, a monster and a child. But if you ask us it’s Clifton Collins Jr. who deserves the most recognition for his brilliant performance as real-life murderer Perry Smith, a man who vainly hopes that Capote will come to his rescue. A smart, rounded and exceptional biography that thoroughly overshadowed another movie on the exact same subject, Douglas McGrath’s Infamous, which came out the following year, also to great reviews.
7. MALICE (written by Aaron Sorkin and Scott Frank)
Not his best-known film – in fact, it seems all but forgotten – Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay for Malice, co-written by Out of Sight screenwriter Scott Frank, is a masterful work of suspense, brought expertly to life by Taps director Harold Becker. Bill Pullman plays a college dean whose students are being menaced by a serial killer. Meanwhile, hotshot surgeon Alec Baldwin moves in with Pullman and his young, vivacious wife Nicole Kidman. Coincidence? What appears at first to be a standard, if very well written “Whodunnit” swiftly becomes an altogether fresh cinematic experience as the plot twists and turns faster than a car with no brakes on the expressway. Splendidly acted and full of impressive misdirection (that serial killer story does not go where you think it does), Malice deserves more recognition as a daring piece of mature entertainment.
6. A FEW GOOD MEN (written by Aaron Sorkin)
Aaron Sorkin made his first big splash in Hollywood with A Few Good Men, a classy legal thriller from RobReiner at a time when everything he touched turned to gold (like Stand By Me, The Princess Bride and Misery). Tom Cruise stars as a U.S. Navy attorney representing two Marines undergoing a court martial for the accidental murder of a fellow soldier. Their defense is that they were ordered to punish the victim by their superior officers, a justification that the young and rebellious Cruise just can’t seem to fathom. Reiner turns what could have been a fairly academic story into a rousing tale of overcoming the odds, culminating in a now-famous standoff between Cruise and Jack Nicholson at the witness stand in which Cruise insists that he can, in fact, handle the truth. Sorkin adapted his own stage play to the screen in a superlative piece of classic Hollywood storytelling.
5. CHARLIE WILSON’S WAR (written by Aaron Sorkin)
One of the many films that fell under the radar because they were about The Middle East, which many audiences feel like they were getting enough of on the news, Mike Nichols’s Charlie Wilson’s War is actually one of the best films to tackle the subject in the last decade. It may have something to do with the fact that it’s actually fun to watch. Tom Hanks stars as Congressman Charlie Wilson, whose unexpected efforts to arm the militia in Afghanistan was a crushing blow to the Soviet Union, and had a direct impact on the nation’s collapse and the end of the Cold War. We say “unexpected” because Wilson is a womanizing lush who only has the time to get involved because his district is so small that he has few other responsibilities. Sorkin’s witty, smart screenplay never calls attention to the fact that Wilson’s efforts indirectly (and arguably directly) led to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which keeps the film from ever feeling preachy, although the context throws a bitter aftertaste on an otherwise heroic tale of a man who made a difference when no one else felt like they could be bothered.
4. SCHINDLER’S LIST (written by Steven Zaillian)
Yes, its #4. Before you take up arms, realize that this has less to do with the quality of Schindler’s List and more to do with the quality of our top three picks, which may be about less important events but never dip awkwardly into sentimentality the way Steven Spielberg can when he’s not careful. This Oscar-winning epic is so famous that little needs to be said about it: Liam Neeson plays Oskar Schindler, a weapons manufacturer who saved the lives of thousands of Jewish refugees during the holocaust by putting them to work in his factories. The constant threat of annihilation, personified by Ralph Fiennes’ devilish SS Officer Amon Goth, keeps the tension palpable as Spielberg turns his iconic eye to one of the most disgusting events in human history. It’s a powerful film and arguably the best to ever put the tragedy on film. We just think that there are some better films about there, regardless of subject matter. Bennett Miller, Aaron Sorkin and Steven Zaillian each made one of them.
3. THE CRUISE (directed by Bennett Miller)
Bennett Miller’s superlative documentary about New York City tour guide Timothy “Speed” Levitch may be one of the finest films ever made in the medium. Essentially plotless, Miller follows Levitch throughout New York, a city with which he has a love affair more powerful than hardly any ever captured on celluloid. He knows every square foot of the historic metropolis, the life stories of its greatest inhabitants, and seemingly every word ever written about it. His own life is a mess – he’s an ex-con, utterly paranoid, and has a tendency to call out people who made him feel alienated over the course of his existence – but through his occupation he has shared his knowledge, his poetry, and the joy of life itself with God knows how many people visiting his metropolis. Miller wisely stays completely out of his movie’s way, never once appearing on camera, questioning his subject or even giving his film a voice-over. The result is a movie that places you right in the middle of one of the greatest cities in the world, and right next to one of its most exciting – if unsung – figures.
2. THE SOCIAL NETWORK (written by Aaron Sorkin)
Aaron Sorkin won a richly deserved Academy Award for his screenplay to The Social Network, a film that somehow turns the origin of Facebook into one of the most thrilling stories in many years. Jesse Eisenberg plays Mark Zuckerberg, a hopelessly antisocial guy who developed a system for improving social interaction that rapidly changed the world, alienating all his own friends in the process. That irony is the heart of David Fincher’s film, which is less about the actual events that led to the foundation of Facebook – a pretty dry story, frankly – and more about human interaction as a whole. The need to be “liked,” the need to acquire “friends,” and the overall commoditizing of popularity, these are all subjects that in lesser hands could have been preachy or stolid, but Sorkin’s funny, brisk screenplay is a marvel of restraint, insight and entertainment. The Social Network is truly exceptional.
1. SEARCHING FOR BOBBY FISCHER (written and directed by Steven Zaillian)
Talking about Searching for Bobby Fischer is tricky because it’s just as easy to build it up too much as it is to make it sound dull. Steven Zaillian’s directorial debut is a borderline flawless film about a child chess prodigy (Max Pomeranc) and his father, played by Joe Mantegna, whose tireless efforts to support his son begin to rob the child of his own identity. Exquisitely acted (Joan Allen, Ben Kingsley, Laurence Fishburne and more each turn in incredible performances) and beautifully shot by the late, great Conrad Hall, Searching for Bobby Fischer is inspiring without ever overplaying its hand (or whatever the appropriate chess analogy would be). Exciting filmmaking, sensitive storytelling and boasting a climactic chess match that’s just as thrilling as your favorite World Series, Searching for Bobby Fischer isn’t just the best film from the makers of Moneyball, it’s one of the best movies. Period.