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Charlotte critics discuss major movies they missed

It's fair to assume that any serious film critic has seen just about everything that's ever come down the pike, from the classics of silent cinema to the blockbusters of today. Good or bad, big or small, hit or flop -- film reviewers eat, drink and sleep movies 24/7, not allowing much to escape their attention. Sure, they'll let an occasional Kangaroo Jack or Agent Cody Banks 2 slip by, but when it comes to the movies that matter, they've seen 'em all.

Or have they?

A few months ago in Entertainment Weekly's Ask the Critic column, a reader asked Owen Gleiberman which staple of classic cinema he had never seen. (His answer, incidentally, was the John Ford-John Wayne Western, Stagecoach.) This got us thinking: Which hallowed titles have Charlotte's contingent of critics never watched -- and why?

After coming up with my own picks, I posed the question to three other local film reviewers. The criteria wasn't just movies that are considered must-sees of world cinema; also eligible were critical and/or commercial hits that made a big splash in their day and are still fondly remembered.

Here, then, are my own admissions of negligence, followed by those from the Charlotte Observer's Lawrence Toppman, Charlotte Theatre Magazine's Lon Bumgarner, and South Charlotte Weekly's Sean O'Connell.

The 400 Blows (1959). When it comes to the giants of international cinema, I've seen my fair share of Kurosawa, Bergman and Fellini. But Francois Truffaut? Astonishingly, in my youth, the only Truffaut flick I saw was one of his lesser works (Mississippi Mermaid), and I only caught up with his beloved Day For Night about six months ago. But Jules et Jim? Shoot the Piano Player? The Last Metro? No, nope and ix-nay. Still, I'm most embarrassed over never having seen any of the films in his Antoine Doinel series, most notably the first one. Along with the same year's Breathless (co-written by Truffaut -- and yes, I've seen that one), The 400 Blows was a seminal picture in the dawning of the French New Wave, an influential movement that captured the fancy of audiences and film scholars worldwide and affected the way many movies were -- and still are -- made. I don't exactly know why I've never made time for Blows; maybe it's because I've seen its famous final shot -- the freeze-frame of young Antoine on the beach -- so many times that I feel as if I've seen the movie itself.

East of Eden (1955). With the exception of Marilyn Monroe, no other film icon has had his image reproduced as much as James Dean (posters, coffee mugs, calendars, you name it). His film career was oh-so-brief, yet he's considered one of the giants in his field, mentioned in the same breath as fellow Method men Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift and Paul Newman. Plus he's merely the epitome of "cool," still emulated by any number of actors, posers and thugs. So with only three starring roles before his death at the age of 24, it's not exactly an exhaustive resume to work through. Yet I didn't see Giant until my mid-20s, I didn't catch Rebel Without a Cause until two years ago, and I have yet to screen this acclaimed adaptation of the John Steinbeck novel. Dean earned one of his two posthumous Best Actor Oscar nominations for this film (the other was for Giant), and by all accounts, he's terrific in a movie that still packs an emotional wallop to this day. But I wouldn't know. . . yet.

A Woman Under the Influence (1974). Jim Jarmusch, Steven Soderbergh and Miramax Pictures are often given credit for the success of the modern American independent film, but seriously, folks, one has to go back to John Cassavetes to find its true roots. Of course, independent cinema has been around as long as the film medium itself -- whether it was Oscar Micheaux making films for African-American audiences from the 1910s through the 1940s, or enterprising young filmmakers churning out ultra-low-budget splatter flicks in their own backyard, the maverick spirit has always prevailed on the fringes. Yet it was Cassavetes who's largely credited with garnering mainstream approval for Hollywood's bastard children, by creating personal movies that were more raw than almost anything the big studios were producing -- and garnering widespread acceptance (not to mention Oscar nominations) along the way. A Woman Under the Influence, starring his wife Gena Rowlands, is considered by many to be his crowning achievement, but it pains me to state that I haven't seen it -- ditto Faces, Husbands and most of his other acclaimed indies.

The Music Man (1962). It was a commercial and critical hit and managed to even snag a Best Picture Oscar nomination. Still, I've been burned by too many musicals to let myself foolishly watch another one without having my guard up. It's not that I have a bias against musicals -- there are moments of pure bliss in classics like, say, Top Hat, Singin' In the Rain and Meet Me In St. Louis that allow me to experience cinematic nirvana like nothing else -- but I am wary when it comes to musicals based on Broadway hits of the 50s and 60s. Too many of these overproduced extravaganzas lumber when they should lift, and despite the presence of Robert Preston, I have a hard time making room on my schedule for this celebrated piece of melodious Americana.

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