Top Five: Houston Movies

At Saturday's U.S. premiere screening of Mao's Last Dancer, Houston was treated to a welcome addition to films set in our city. The movie chronicles former Houston Ballet dancer Li Cunxin's rise from his remote peasant upbringing in China to his tour-de-force performances on downtown Houston stages--and his dramatic 1981 history-making defection at the Chinese Consulate in Montrose. While only exterior shots of Houston were used in the film (directed by Bruce Beresford and shot mainly in China and Australia), it nevertheless captured a sense of Houston in the '80s. Li Cunxin and stars Kyle MacLachlan and Bruce Greenwood were on hand for a champagne reception and Q&A between the two sold-out screenings.

The film's premiere got Art Attack thinking about the best Houston movies--not insipid, product-selling trash like Urban Cowboy, but films that use the Houston landscape as a palette for inspired storytelling. Here are the top five.

5. Rush Houston and surrounding areas act as the backdrop for this gritty, realistic tale of undercover narcs (Jason Patric and Jennifer Jason Leigh) who become addicts while infiltrating a drug ring. The film also takes a hard look at the Texas legal system, which succumbs to corruption in order to appease a wealthy citizen. Character actor Max Perlich (Gummo, Drugstore Cowboy) steals all his scenes as an addled informant.

4. Reality Bites An over-hyped Gen-X melodrama to some, Reality Bites is nevertheless the most enduring of the thankfully dead genre. It actually contains smart performances by Ben Stiller (also making his directing debut), Janeane Garafolo and Steve Zahn, serviceable ones from Winona Ryder and Ethan Hawke, and sharp writing by Houston-raised Helen Childress. Unlike the grunge-era Singles, which screamed "Seattle" in virtually every frame, Bites managed to kindly represent Houston as its setting without resorting to pandering.

3. Tree of Life Yeah, we know it hasn't been released yet (scheduled for this Fall), and no one knows much of anything about it, but it's on the list for three reasons: legendary director Terence Malick (Days of Heaven, Badlands), Sean Penn and Brad Pitt.

2. Rushmore Wes Anderson's second feature film launched his film career and achieved for Bill Murray what Pulp Fiction did for John Travolta. Shot in Houston but set in an unnamed city, Rushmore's lush, deep-focus, widescreen compositions captured Houston in a highly theatrical way. The tale of a bizarre love triangle between a precocious teenager (Jason Schwartzman), a rich businessman (Murray) and an elementary school teacher (Olivia Williams), Rushmore managed to endow Houston with an English air in its location choices (especially South Blvd. near Rice) and the driving British Invasion soundtrack.

1. Brewster McCloud From its preposterous, false-start opening to its wild circus of a finale, the late Robert Altman's profoundly strange 1970 film Brewster McCloud (recently released on DVD) perfectly captures Houston at the city's boldest and weirdest moment in history. Altman had just made M*A*S*H, still the biggest success of his career, and he had the audacity to follow it up with an absurd freakshow that polarized critics and audiences. Bud Cort's title character lives in the basement of the Astrodome constructing a winged apparatus to realize his dream of flying. He's assisted by a guardian angel played by Sally Kellerman (M*A*S*H's Margaret "Hot Lips" Houlihan). When Brewster's bullies start turning up dead and covered in bird shit, HPD calls in San Francisco supercop Frank Shaft (Michael Murphy doing Steve McQueen) to catch the killer. The Icarus-esque allegory culminates in a wild, Bullitt-style chase scene, followed by Brewster's brief, triumphant flight inside the Dome. Altman famously said Brewster McCloud was his favorite of all his films, and Houston should be proud to own it. Signature shot: Altman's camera zooms straight down Montrose Blvd., capturing Kellerman bathing topless in the Mecom Fountain. For that shot alone, Brewster McCloud wins.

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