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7 Great Survival Stories

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This has been a banner year for stories of survival, including the excellent film “All Is Lost,” starring Robert Redford. These tales, whether in movies or the printed word, bring us to the brink of what it means to be human. Are we reckless? Resilient? Reflective? Yes to all three. In any case, here are seven terrific stories of trying to survive. No spoilers here, but I will point out that some of the protagonists live and some of them die. What they have in common is that all of them put up a fight.

GRAVITY

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A dazzling, seat-of-the-pants adventure, “Gravity” has grabbed tons of attention – and deservedly so. The special effects are stunning, the central performance by Sandra Bullock is perfect and there’s not one wasted moment in the film. Like many survival yarns, it offers something beyond the notion of trying to stay alive. In this case, Bullock’s plucky astronaut is grieving the loss of her daughter as she tries to dodge shards of floating space debris.

TO BUILD A FIRE

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This classic short story by Jack London was published in 1908, and it is as riveting now as it must have been back then. With no frills and an almost clinical attention to detail, it is the story of a man who sets out with his dog near the Yukon Trail on a day much too cold for safe travel. The temperatures are 75 degrees below zero, and dropping. Every decision, good and bad, has immediate consequences, which gives the story a chilling clarity.

CAST AWAY

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Here we have survival as transformation – a common theme in this List. Tom Hanks is his usual, charismatic self as a guy stranded on a desert island. He endures only to the extent that his knowledge and will allow him – but is that enough? Why does survival matter? What is the point of existence? If only there was a bloody soccer ball around to tell us.

127 HOURS

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Based on a true story, “127 Hours” stars James Franco as a fun-loving adventurer whose hand becomes wedged between immovable rocks during a solo climbing trip. The inner journey takes center stage, as this man takes stock of his young life and considers what he is willing to do to stay alive.

LEININGEN VERSUS THE ANTS

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To some extent, hubris is the subtext of many of these stories. That’s certainly the case with the short story, “Leiningen Versus the Ants,” written by Carl Stephenson and published in 1938. Leiningen is a swaggering plantation owner in Brazil, who decides to stand his ground against a miles-long army of hungry ants. His true enemy, one he valiantly combats, is panic. If the plot sounds familiar, it may be because the story was made into a 1954 movie, “The Naked Jungle,” starring Charlton Heston.

BURIED

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Unlikely premise, but an interesting movie. Ryan Reynolds plays a man buried alive in a coffin, trying to get out. He’s got his cell phone, so it should be no problem – except that he doesn’t know where he is. Gulp.

ALL IS LOST

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I can’t say enough about the extraordinary work Redford does in “All is Lost.” All alone on a sailboat on the Indian Ocean, Redford lets his iconic face do the talking as a freaky accident sets in motion a brutal chain of events. The movie is heartbreaking and inspiring, without caving in to unnecessary sentiment.

I limited myself here to singular survival tales. Any good ones I left out?

Great Typewriter Scenes

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As someone who well remembers what it was like to compose and express thoughts using a typewriter, seeing an old Royal or Corona pop up in a movie is always fun. These are some of my favorite film typewriter moments. Clickety-clack!

SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE (1972)

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Thank goodness we had the typewriter scene early in “Slaughterhouse-Five.” Getting across the trippy, time-hopping aspect of Kurt Vonnegut’s classic novel would have been rough without it. These days, it probably would have been done with a narrator, which isn’t nearly as effective as reading over Billy Pilgrim’s shoulder that he was “unstuck in time.”

ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN (1976)

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This great newspaper story is made all the more real because of the constant clatter of words being typed. You see Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman feverishly converting their intricate reporting into sentences and the movie culminates in a series of paragraphs typed across the screen.

RUBY SPARKS (2012)

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How about a magical typewriter? That’s what Paul Dano has in “Ruby Sparks.” He types up a soul mate for himself – and she comes to life.

SCHINDLER’S LIST (1993)

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Ben Kingsley says it exquisitely in “Schindler’s List.” “This list … is an absolute good. This list is life. All around its margins lies the gulf.” Indeed, the power and urgency of names typed on sheets of paper has never seemed so real.

NAKED LUNCH (1991)

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Now for something unreal. In “Naked Lunch,” a typewriter isn’t just a collection of metal parts daring you to write; it’s a feisty bug with an attitude. What writer hasn’t felt this way on occasion?

MISERY (1990)

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Talk about deadline pressure. James Caan is an injured novelist forced to work under the watchful eye of a deranged fan, played memorably by Kathy Bates. There’s plenty of physical pain in “Misery,” and I’m not just talking about how tough a Royal typewriter can be on the pinky fingers.

WHO’S MINDING THE STORE? (1963)

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For delightful silliness, there’s nothing better than watching Jerry Lewis type on an imaginary typewriter. Complete with typing sounds and music, Jerry is a total keystroke maestro.

STARTING OUT IN THE EVENING (2007)

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In this beautiful little character study from a few years ago, Frank Langella is an aging fiction writer coming to grips with family, mortality, loneliness and a novel that just isn’t right. His typewriter is a sacred object, to be treated with respect and reverence. The rest of his life isn’t quite so tidy.

HIS GIRL FRIDAY (1940)

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Anyone who bemoans the hassle of lugging around a laptop would do well to see Rosalind Russell putting a typewriter through its paces in “His Girl Friday.” She writes just as fast as she talks – which is pretty damned fast – and her faithful machine appears to weigh as much as a block of cement.

SAVING PRIVATE RYAN (1998)

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“Saving Private Ryan” has a couple of compelling typewriter moments. One is when Tom Hanks recruits a kid for a dangerous mission, and the young man attempts to bring his typewriter with him. It’s movie shorthand for saying that there are some jobs that can’t be accomplished with words. But in another scene, we see rows of women typing condolence letters to families who have lost a loved one to the war. That’s movie shorthand for saying sometimes words are the only comfort we have.

BARTON FINK (1991)

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It would take a much smarter individual than me to piece together all of the symbolism and meanings of “Barton Fink.” It’s a moody mix of creative angst, murder, sex, religion and the value of artistic integrity. Fink (John Turturro) is a New York playwright lured out to Hollywood to write movie scripts in the 1940s. For much of the film, he painfully sits in his hotel room, unable to writer. Another character calls him a “tourist with a typewriter.”

YOU’VE GOT MAIL (1998)

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In a much lighter vein, you have Greg Kinnear’s nostalgic love of typewriters in “You’ve Got Mail.” His character is something of a pompous windbag, too enamored with his own observations, but he does have a point when it comes to the sweet sound of typing.

THE SHINING (1980)

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Only Stanley Kubrick could make a stack of typed pages this scary. Poor Shelley Duvall knows that her husband (Jack Nicholson) has been acting crazy, but she doesn’t truly understand the severity of the situation until she goes into the room where he writes. She finds hundreds of sheets repeating the same phrase: “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” Yikes!

Frankly, I don’t see why there can’t be a typewriter tossed into every movie. It definitely would have helped “John Carter.”

Best Imaginary Friends

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Some fictional characters are more fictional than others. Take imaginary friends, for instance. In movies, TV, books and comic strips, they’re one step removed from the action – but they provide key insights into the minds of other characters. Here are some great ones.

HOBBES

Hobbes is an awesome, witty, slightly moody tiger who roars to life in the mind of a young boy named Calvin. Their comic strip adventures together – snowball fights, wagon rides and the like – are rivaled only by their hilarious banter. Calvin is all about impulse and action; Hobbes is a calmer, more playful influence.

MRS. BEASLEY

Mrs. Beasley, the doll carried around by Buffy (Anissa Jones) on TV’s “Family Affair,” hewed pretty closely to the classic, imaginary friend. She was part security blanket, part confidant, to a little girl who had lost her parents.

TYLER DURDEN

Here was a great role for Brad Pitt. In the 1999 movie “Fight Club,” he got to combine his penchant for bug-eyed comedy with some macho coolness as Durden, a guy who liked to punch and be punched. This film’s cult popularity has taken on a life of its own, and Pitt is the big reason why.

HUMPHREY BOGART

A fictional, imaginary version of Bogie is the gimmick in Woody Allen’s Broadway play and 1972 film, “Play It Again, Sam.” Bogart appears periodically to give Woody dating advice, usually with comic results.

MR. SNUFFLEUPAGUS

Aw, who doesn’t like Snuffy? Here’s the thing, though: Initially, Snuffleupagus was Big Bird’s imaginary friend. No one else around “Sesame Street” could see him. But then the TV show’s producers had a change of heart and made Snuffy a character who interacted with everyone.

TONY

Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 film “The Shining,” based on the Stephen King novel, has one of the great imaginary friends ever. It’s “Tony,” and he exists only as the bent index finger of a little boy. Tony speaks through young Danny in a croaky voice; he knows there are evil spirits at the deserted mountain resort where Danny’s parents (Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall) are working. In a freaky sort of way, Tony is the only rational character in the whole affair.

HARVEY

Likewise, the audience doesn’t really get to see Harvey, the giant rabbit friend of Jimmy Stewart in the popular 1950 movie, “Harvey.” Although mental illness is certainly brought up in the movie (and stage play version), the central message seems to be that imagination and pleasantness are preferable to conformity and rational intelligence.

CHARLES HERMAN

In “A Beautiful Mind,” imaginary friends (and enemies) hold the protagonist back rather than help him. Paul Bettany played one such friend, Charles, in this acclaimed 2001 movie biography of Nobel prize winner John Nash.

WINNIE THE POOH

Pooh Bear, as everyone knows, headed up a stable of stuffed animal friends for young Christopher Robin in the Hundred Acre Wood. His lumbering, good-natured manner made him all the more endearing.

BIANCA

In the little-seen 2007 movie, “Lars and the Real Girl,” Ryan Gosling plays a disturbed man who pretends a sex doll, Bianca, is his girlfriend. Even more amazing, various relatives and townspeople decide to go along with the idea. Gosling is very good here.

WILSON

Really, has there ever been a ball that sparked so much emotion, outside of the World Cup? Wilson, Tom Hanks’ silent companion in “Cast Away,” was a brilliant construct. Without him, the audience would have been adrift about Hanks’ inner thoughts and gradual descent into madness. WILSON!!!

But those are only MY favorites. Now tell me YOURS.

Great Cast, Terrible Movie

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Sometimes, a movie’s casting math just doesn’t add up. You get a couple of terrific leads, surround them with dynamite supporting players and you end up with – a great big mess. It’s quite amazing, actually. Here are some of my favorite, star-studded disasters.

MIXED NUTS (1994)

Get a load of this cast: Steve Martin, Adam Sandler, Jon Stewart, Madeline Kahn, Garry Shandling, Robert Klein and Rob Reiner, plus Liev Schreiber, Rita Wilson, Juliette Lewis and Anthony LaPaglia. Its a comedy juggernaut, except it’s really, really not. This royal stinker, about a suicide hotline at Christmas, is stunningly bad.

AIRPORT ’77

I could have chosen just about any disaster flick of the 1970s, such as “Earthquake,” or “The Towering Inferno,” but this is the one I always found particularly annoying. You had heavyweights such as Jack Lemmon, Jimmy Stewart, Olivia de Havilland, Joseph Cotten, M. Emmet Walsh, Christopher Lee and, of course, George Kennedy, all pretending they were in a better movie.

AMERICA’S SWEETHEARTS (2001)

This one is inexplicable. The cast included John Cusack, Julia Roberts, Billy Crystal, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Christopher Walken, Stanley Tucci, Alan Arkin, Seth Green and Rainn Wilson. To say this romantic comedy didn’t gel is a vast understatement.

LOVE AFFAIR (1994)

Speaking of bad romantic comedies, this Warren Beatty-Annette Bening picture is one of the worst ever. It’s stultifyingly bad. The thing is, it also dragged down the great Katharine Hepburn, Garry Shandling, Pierce Brosnan, Harold Ramis and Lisa Edelstein with it. This was no way to treat Hollywood royalty.

SHADOWS AND FOG (1991)

I’m using one example here to represent the many, later-period Woody Allen films that wasted great casts. “Shadows and Fog,” an ode to German expressionist films, was a boring movie that seemed to taunt audiences with all the talent going underutilized: Woody, Mia Farrow, John Malkovich, John Cusack, Jodie Foster, Lily Tomlin, Kathy Bates, William H. Macy, John C. Reilly, Wallace Shawn and Madonna. And that’s just a partial list.

EARTH GIRLS ARE EASY (1988)

Underneath all that colorful fur are Jim Carrey, Damon Wayans and Jeff Goldblum. It’s a shame, really. The movie makes a great effort to be fun and funky – but that fur!? Come on. Also along for the ride are Geena Davis and Michael McKean.

DEATH TO SMOOCHY (2002)

Dark, dark comedy here that might have been too caustic for its own good. It’s a story about egos gone amok in the children’s entertainment industry, with valiant efforts by Robin Williams, Edward Norton, Catherine Keener, Jon Stewart and Danny DeVito. No sale.

SPHERE (1998)

Sorry, but Dustin Hoffman in space does not work for me. When I see Hoffman, Samuel L. Jackson, Sharon Stone and Liev Schreiber on a cast list together, I want a feisty, gritty urban drama – not a cold, slow-moving space thriller.

THE AVENGERS (1998)

This update on the stylish Brit TV series is a bit of a steaming pile, wot wot. It’s like some horrible hallucination in which Ralph Fiennes, Uma Thurman, Sean Connery, Jim Broadbent and Eddie Izzard recite gibberish and run around in odd clothing. As I mentioned in a previous list, Connery actually dons a teddy bear costume in this one. Yikes.

BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES (1990)

Tom Wolfe’s famous novel about class collisions in New York City made for a glorious train wreck of a film. There was absolutely no chemistry, and often the actors seemed to be taking wild stabs at how to play the material. We may never see Tom Hanks, Bruce Willis, Morgan Freeman and Kirsten Dunst in another movie together.

That should get us started. Add to The List!

Movie Stars You Forgot Were in a TV Series

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Oh, how quickly we forget. A good many of the actors we’ve come to love on the big screen spent at least part of their career on the little screen. Sometimes it was when they were just starting out, and other times it came much later. Either way, it’s entertaining to see these stars in a different setting.

JIMMY STEWART

It’s hard to picture the great Jimmy Stewart in a TV series, but he actually did two of them! First came “The Jimmy Stewart Show,” 1971-72, in which he played a college professor. Despite tons of publicity, it lasted only one season. He tried again in “Hawkins,” a 1973-74 series about a country lawyer. It fared no better.

SANDRA BULLOCK

Many years before winning her Oscar, Bullock starred in 1990’s TV version of the hit movie “Working Girl.” The show was pulled after a dozen episodes.

CLINT EASTWOOD

Clint, on the other hand, was a TV success story. He played Rowdy Yates on the hit western, “Rawhide.” The show, about the adventures of the longest cattle drive in history, ran from 1959-65. Clint, it should be noted, was not the main character – a situation he would rectify in his subsequent film career.

LEONARDO DiCAPRIO

Leo has been in two series: “Growing Pains,” in 1991; and “Parenthood,” in 1990. It’s unlikely we’ll see him again as a TV regular until his movie success winds down. Which brings us to …

TONY CURTIS

Curtis tried TV twice. He was the star of “McCoy,” a mercifully short-lived drama from 1975-76, and “The Persuaders,” an absolute guilty pleasure from 1971-72. In “The Persuaders,” Tony played a very cool, very American adventurer in England. His co-star was Roger Moore, pre-007.

HALLE BERRY

In 1989, a young Halle Berry was part of “Living Dolls,” a show about a teen modeling agency. That’s a young Leah Remini in the photo, lower right.

BING CROSBY

Yep, Der Bingle did a TV series. But, in keeping with his cool, unruffled image, he didn’t stray far from his comfort zone. In “The Bing Crosby Show,” 1964-65, he played an ex-entertainer who was attempting to lead an ordinary, domestic life with his wife and two kids. As you would expect, his answer to most problems involved singing.

TOM HANKS

Lots of people will remember Hanks from his TV series days, but it’s still amazing to think that a two-time Academy Award winner once starred in a 1980-82 sitcom in which he played a guy named Kip who pretended to be a woman named Buffy – in order to get a decent apartment.

CHARLES BRONSON

Classic movie tough-guy Bronson did multiple tours of duty in TV series. He played an adventurous photographer in “Man With A Camera,” 1958-60; a ranch hand in “Empire,” 1962-63; and leader of a wagon train in “The Travels of Jaimie McPheeters,” 1963-64. In that last one, his character was Linc Murdock, a much more suitable name for him than Jaimie McPheeters (a young Kurt Russell).

DENZEL WASHINGTON

Mr. Washington was an excellent part of the ensemble in one of my favorite shows, “St. Elsewhere,” from 1982-88. The incredible cast also included David Morse, Ed Flanders and, yes, Howie Mandel.

SHIRLEY MacLAINE

“Shirley’s World,” featuring MacLaine as a magazine photographer and writer, had one season only, 1971-72. But it had a real international flavor, with much of the show set in England.

GEORGE C. SCOTT

By far the most interesting TV series work the great Scott did was “East Side/West Side,” 1963-64, in which he played a crusading social worker in New York City. One of his co-stars was Cicely Tyson. Later, Scott did some uneven series work: “Mr. President,” 1987-88, a comedy about a U.S. president; “Traps,” 1994, in which he played a retired cop; and “New York News,” 1995, set at a newspaper.

HENRY FONDA

It was something of a big deal when Fonda starred in “The Smith Family,” a 1971-72 drama about a police detective. What many viewers had forgotten was that Fonda played a marshal in “The Deputy,” from 1959-61.

MICKEY ROONEY

Mickey has done tons of TV during his long career, including at least five series. I’m only going to mention one of them: a 1982 comedy called “One of the Boys,” in which his co-stars were Dana Carvey and Nathan Lane. Now that’s entertainment!

MORGAN FREEMAN

This one’s my favorite. Morgan Freeman, an actor whose work I dearly love in films, also has a place in TV history as a member of “The Electric Company.” This kids’ show from 1971-77 afforded him the chance to play such characters as Dracula and the utterly sublime Easy Reader. Well done, sir.

Well, that gets things started. Which great examples did I forget?

Good Guys Gone Bad

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Want to know what’s really scary? It’s when an actor normally associated with good-guy roles decides to go bad. In fact, it adds a whole other dimension to the badness. These are some of my favorites.

DENZEL WASHINGTON IN “TRAINING DAY” (2001)

Washington’s performance as corrupt Det. Alonzo Harris is full of explosive, confident power. By turns witty and violent, it’s a role that builds to a crescendo of creepiness. It also won Washington an Oscar.

HENRY FONDA IN “ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST” (1968)

The guy who played Tom Joad, young Abe Lincoln and the old dude from “On Golden Pond” is a very bad man. He’s a revelation, actually, playing a hired killer in this Sergio Leone western. Fonda exudes the same patient intelligence here that he does to all his movies, but in the service of greed.

CHRISTIAN BALE IN “AMERICAN PSYCHO” (2000)

When Bale commits to a part, he goes all the way. In this gory tale, he’s a rich banker with a taste for blood. Remember the crazy eyes Bale brought to “The Fighter” last year? Just add a dash of sociopathic glee and you’ve got “American Psycho.”

ROBERT MITCHUM IN “NIGHT OF THE HUNTER” (1955) AND “CAPE FEAR” (1962)

One of the all-time greats, Robert Mitchum gives a surreal performance in “Night of the Hunter,” as an insane preacher who stalks a pair of children in an attempt to find some hidden cash. Equally creepy is his Max Cady in “Cape Fear,” in which an ex-con takes revenge on the lawyer who put him in jail. There’s a terrifying scene in which Mitchum sneaks aboard a houseboat where the lawyer’s wife (Polly Bergen) is hiding. Gives me the chills.

RUSSELL CROWE IN “3:10 TO YUMA” (2007)

Here’s a classic example of an actor having more fun in the villain role. Crowe plays Ben Wade, a charismatic outlaw being escorted to the train that will take him to jail. It’s a part that is full of guile, humor and perceptiveness.

PAUL NEWMAN IN “HUD” (1963)

Towering performance by Newman in one of his best movies. Hud Bannon is a selfish, flawed, petty man who never fails to hurt those around him in a small, Texas town. Yet he’s absolutely electric and able to manipulate people who ought to know better than trust him. Nobody played simmering resentment better than Newman.

MORGAN FREEMAN IN “STREET SMART” (1987)

A lot of people haven’t seen this movie, yet it’s the reason Freeman became a prominent film actor. He played a New York City pimp named Fast Black who threw a good scare into Christopher Reeve’s character, and the audience.

HARRISON FORD IN “WHAT LIES BENEATH” (2000)

It certainly seemed as if Ford relished this opportunity to be menacing rather than macho. I won’t give away any plot details, other than to say this is a “things that go bump in the night” flick, and Ford is responsible for some of the bumps.

BURT LANCASTER IN “THE SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS” (1957) AND “SEVEN DAYS IN MAY” (1964)

Speaking of macho, there’s the always-intense Burt Lancaster. In “Sweet Smell of Success” he’s a sadistic, powerful newspaper columnist (go figure), and in “Seven Days in May” he’s an egomaniacal general trying to overthrow the government. Either way, you don’t want to cross him.

TOM HANKS IN “ROAD TO PERDITION” (2002)

This one might need an asterisk. Yes, Hanks plays a hit man during the Depression. Yes, he does dastardly deeds. But he spends much of the movie trying to protect his young son, so you’re still kind of rooting for him.

BEN STILLER IN “DODGEBALL” (2004)

What, you thought comedies didn’t have any good guys gone bad? Think again. Stiller is a wonderful sleazebag as evil gym owner White Goodman, who tries to ruin Vince Vaughn.

ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER IN “BATMAN AND ROBIN” (1997)

Pretty much everyone hated this movie, and I’m fine with that. But Arnold was masterfully campy as Mr. Freeze, like it or not. And his accent worked here, for once.

GREGORY PECK IN “THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL” (1978)

On the other hand, I am not as enamored of this performance. Why is it on the List? Because of its incredible hubris, friends. “The Boys from Brazil” asks us to belief Atticus Finch – ATTICUS FINCH – as Nazi monster Dr. Josef Mengele. That’s a tough one, Scout.

DON CHEADLE IN “OUT OF SIGHT” (1998)

This is what a good actor Cheadle is. Despite being so small of stature, he’s utterly convincing as a career criminal capable of sudden violence. He has the ability to play smart, funny and realistic all at once, while still being frightening. Terrific movie, by the way.

DICK VAN DYKE IN “NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM” (2006)

Not an extremely big role, but come on. This is Rob Petrie. This is Bert from “Mary Poppins.” And he’s just so … mean.

HEATH LEDGER IN “THE DARK KNIGHT” (2008)

Here’s our big finish and justifiably so. Ledger took an iconic character, the Joker, and transformed him into something both original and exciting. This is a great movie and Ledger is the best thing in it. You can’t take your eyes off of him, first of all. What’s more, he’s hilarious. And mysterious. And malevolent.

That’s all, folks. So who did I leave out?