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Pittsburgh-made films include some gems

| Sunday, Dec. 5, 2010

Well, the stardust has settled after Pittsburgh's month of silver-screen ubiquity -- a November that saw, for the first time, three major big-budget movies shot in Western Pennsylvania on national screens at once: "Unstoppable," "The Next Three Days" and "Love and Other Drugs."

Sure, it's a little weird to see Russell Crowe sporting Pirates gear onscreen. But other than that, the remarkable thing is how unremarkable Pittsburgh-shot movies have become these days.

Movies have been made in Pittsburgh since "The Perils of Pauline" in 1914, but the biggest boom began in 2006, and will continue through next year, at least, when films like "Abduction," "One for the Money" and "I Am Number 4" hit screens. It's one of the few industries that has boomed here during the Great Recession.

Of course, this could all dry up and blow away at any time, if the state's film tax credits aren't extended next year -- which is a distinct possibility, given Pennsylvania's current budgetary realities.

So, if this is the Golden Age of Pittsburgh moviemaking, are any of them keepers• Where do they rank among the best Pittsburgh movies of all time?

The Pittsburgh Film Office has a great list of virtually all the movies made in Pittsburgh on their website, . It's a fun list, full of surprises, with lots of obscure, intriguing names like "Hambone and Hillie" (1983) and "Blood Sucking Pharoahs in Pittsburgh (1988). And who knew "Robocop" (1987) was at least partially shot in Pittsburgh?

Of the 127 movies (and TV shows) on the list, there are five that really tower above the rest -- an ultimate made-in-Pittsburgh film festival. Two have fairly serious cinematic aspirations: The Deer Hunter" (1978), a massive, sprawling epic about a group of tough steeltown boys going to Vietnam, and the ultimate serial killer-thriller, "Silence of the Lambs" (1990). Both would be at home on anyone's list of the greatest movies of all time.

Then there's three cult classics, landmarks of genre filmmaking. First, there's "Night of the Living Dead" (1968). Horror movies would never be the same after its explicit gore spawned the slasher/splatter genre, and created an obsession with zombies that's still going strong. It's also a landmark of independent filmmaking, as George Romero's all-local cast and crew simply made do with a microscopic budget, by Hollywood studio standards.

Then there's "Slap Shot" (1977) shot largely in Johnstown, one of the best and funniest sports movies ever made. Seeing "Slap Shot" is a rite of passage for hockey fans, and explains the pugnacious, blue-collar soul of the sport perfectly.

Finally, "Dawn of the Dead" (1978) was a worthy followup to "Night of the Living Dead," and a clever social satire of our consumer society to boot, as a few lonely survivors try to ride out the zombie apocalypse holed up in Monroeville Mall.

Below the big five, there's a second tier of good-to-great Pittsburgh movies. At the top, I'd put "The Wonder Boys" (2000), a coming-of-age collegiate comedy-drama based on the book by novelist Michael Chabon, which turned out a lot better than the lackluster adaptation of his book "The Mysteries of Pittsburgh" (2006), starring Sienna Miller.

Then, throw in "Flashdance" (1983), which has held up surprisingly well despite its dated music and welder-turned-dancer premise. And as defiantly dumb comedies go, there are few funnier than "Kingpin" (1996), about a washed-up bowling champ (Woody Harrelson) who trains a naive Amish lad (Randy Quaid) as his protege, in order to defeat his arch-enemy (Bill Murray).

Here, it seems, is where a cluster of decent recent made-in-Pittsburgh movies make the cut. "The Road" (2008) was a disappointment, given its cast (Viggo Mortensen, Charlize Theron) and source material (Cormac McCarthy's Pulitzer-winning novel about life after the end of the world). Despite a screenplay that pulled its punches way too often, it still had its moments of brilliance, and an impressive lead performance by Mortensen.

"The Next Three Days" (2010) won't win any Oscars, but it's an extremely tight, surprisingly thoughtful thriller -- and one that really uses Pittsburgh scenery to its fullest. "Unstoppable" is also a pretty decent action movie. Come to think of it, so is "Robocop" (1987).

Then there's "Adventureland" (2007), a coming-of-age comedy starring Jesse Eisenberg as a brainy college grad forced to work a summer job at a crummy, rundown amusement park. It's a fun, surprisingly low-key movie with a little romance, a little slapstick comedy, some '80s nostalgia, and a lot of Kennywood (where it was shot).

"The Bread, My Sweet" (2000), a locally produced love story about a banker-turned-biscotti baker in the Strip District, stacks up well against the usual star-laden Hollywood romantic comedies. The documentary "The War that Made America" (2004), about the French and Indian War, is also a good example of the genre.

There's another category of locally made movies, that I wouldn't call good , but they're sort of fun, especially if you're a Pittsburgher. This includes "Striking Distance" (1993), with Bruce Willis as a river-cop, and "Sudden Death" (1995) with its insane casting choice of Belgian martial arts master Jean-Claude Van Damme as a Pittsburgh fireman trying to thwart a terrorist attack on the Civic Arena during the Stanley Cup Finals. It's awful on so many levels, but where else are you going to see a helicopter crashing through the Civic Arena's open roof?

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