Christopher Nolan

The Film Fan Perspective’s 20 Favorites

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The Film Fan Perspective’s 20 Favorite Films

In “celebration” of the fact that my blog still exists after two years, I’d like to share with the readers the movies that are closest to my heart and mind.  You may already be aware of them, but the idea was to guess as many as possible.

So, without further ado, here are my twenty favorite films, in countdown order:

 

20. High Fidelity-  “What came first, the music or the misery?”  Exactly.  With all of his odd takes on society and politics lately, it might be hard to remember when John Cusack was the stand in for all of us neurotic, fast-talking, hopeless romantic white guys.  The film adaptation of Nick Hornby’s novel High Fidelity is the high point of Cusack’s career.  The actor’s inherent neuroses fit the character of Rob Gordon, as we both loathe and love him for being so talented yet so indecisive.  His desperate need to not grow up and his need to cling to the ‘fantasy’ speaks to all the males that just haven’t figured it out yet.  Oh, and Jack Black is an absolute force of nature here as a record store employee that just keeps showing up.  Let’s not forget the graceful and gorgeous Iben Hjejle, and the outstanding soundtrack.  It gave me a new angle on music, which led to what my current tastes are.  It’s amazing how I loved the movie at first for being so crisp and funny, but now I love it for understanding it.  Every guy should meet a Charlie, but end up with a Laura.

19. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan- Those unfamiliar with ‘Star Trek’ lore may not understand the carnal hatred that exists between Captain James T. Kirk and the nefarious Khan, but it matters not for this sci-fi classic.  It works on so many levels, from the hell-bent rage of Khan to the overarching themes of birth, re-birth, and death that you don’t have to be a fan to enjoy this, the best of the ‘Trek’ films.

18. The Lion King-  As I navigated my pre-teen and early teen years, I wrote off Disney.  In my eyes, everything was princesses accompanied by radio-friendly adult contemporary tunes.  Then I took a chance and saw The Lion King while I was chasing after a girl (surprise!).  It was transformative, for not only would I never see Disney with a jaded eye again, I kept looking for that next Lion King, that next masterpiece.  It’s both a darker and more beautiful film than Disney had ever attempted, and every single scene is near brilliance.  That soundtrack- not just the well-crafted Elton John pieces, but the Hans Zimmer score as well, just brilliant.  It’s just the best thing that Disney has done before, and may ever do, save for Finding Nemo.

17. Alien- It may not be the original “original” sci-fi horror movie, but nonetheless it’s the modern standard for the genre, and the benchmark of female heroine characters.  Ridley Scott and crew created a claustrophobic, organic/metallic spaceship, and brilliantly made the choice to hire gothic artist H.R. Giger to design the xenomorph and its’ interiors.  Many have imitated, nothing has duplicated, even in its’ own saga.

16. Once- It would be impossible to limit my love of this film to a cell on a spreadsheet.  Once is full of wonderful singer/songwriter music, unspoken passions, unspoken loves, missed opportunities, and incredible “moments in time” that seem to last forever, but are limited to 2 hours.  The final scene is both touching and heartbreaking in a way that no other film has given me, and the soundtrack is pure, original magic.

15. Monty Python and the Holy Grail- Monty Python’s magnum opus of farce is still the funniest film I’ve ever seen.  From catapulted livestock to enchanters named “Tim”, how can one not find this supremely hilarious?  Admittedly, humor can be a tricky subject, and some may not find this brand of English witticism to their liking.  Me?  I think it’s the best comedy ever made.

14. Finding Nemo-  Pixar’s best film, in this guy’s opinion, is director Andrew Stanton’s masterpiece.  Funny, for sure, but sublimely touching, Nemo is also the most beautiful animated film I’ve seen.  Maybe it’s the color of the fish, the interesting way water works with animation, maybe the brilliant Thomas Newman score, I’m not sure.  Maybe it’s that I feel exactly like Marlin in the way I see my own son.  Wow, I’m getting teary-eyed just thinking of this movie.

13. E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial- This film has meant different things to me at different points in my life.  At age 3, it was complete wonderment at the sight of aliens, rousing music, and funny moments.  As a teen, I was ambivalent and couldn’t find a copy to watch.  As an adult, I was bummed about the special edition changes, but rejoiced when the original edition became available, and enjoyed it with my child.  It’s a nostalgic, touching film about how children’s innocence occasionally triumphs over adult paranoia.

12. The Dark Knight- There is no doubt that this is the penultimate superhero film.  It’s hard to even consider this a superhero film- it’s more of a crime thriller with a moral center.  With perhaps the most bravura performance in recent memory, Heath Ledger cemented the Joker as one of entertainment’s best villains, and the chaotic nature of the film’s events make this just as much of an experience as a movie.

11. Shakespeare In Love- Despite the clamor to strip this film of its’ Best Picture Oscar, it really is an amazing film, stooped in romance, whimsy, and as Gwyneth Paltrow’s character calls it, a ‘stolen summer’.  It may not be an accurate account of Shakespeare’s life, but who cares.  It’s the most enjoyable romantic drama I’ve ever seen, topping even the material that it apparently inspired, “Romeo & Juliet”.

10. Contact- No film to this date has better encapsulated the hope, spirit, and arrogance of the human race as it relates to space travel and the universe than this film.  Based on Carl Sagan’s novel about first contact, Foster plays my favorite role of hers as Ellie Arroway, a stubborn yet determined astrophysicist.  I watch it every July 11th to celebrate the film’s release.

9. Star Wars, Episode IV: A New Hope- Although not my favorite, it’s the best film of the saga, and one could argue that modern cinema exists in the fashion that it does because of this film.  It’s constructed so well, and so delightful in every way that we forget George Lucas created it.  It may just be the most popular film of all-time as well.  There’s nothing I could say that would be revelatory.  Everyone already knows Star Wars.

8. Poltergeist- To me, this is the penultimate ‘scary’ movie.  Steven Spielberg’s brilliant mind is all over this project, even if he isn’t credited as director.  The touches of nostalgia, the subtle commentary on suburbia, post-Vietnam paranoia, and Reaganomics, and the graceful way Beatrice Straight explains the possibilities of an afterlife are the hallmarks of this classic.  I watch it every year in October now, and it seems to get better every time.

7. Field of Dreams- Don’t mistake this as being simply a ‘sports’ or ‘baseball’ movie.  While it certainly is both of those, it’s more of a father and son movie, and learning to accept and love who your parents are after you learn they’re real people, and not superheroes.  The fact that the film’s main set piece is still available to visit and play on certainly helps to play up the aura of the film.

6. Star Wars, Episode VI: Return of the Jedi- Not the best of the saga, but always my favorite.  The nostalgia oozing out of this film always brings out the best in cinema for me, despite its’ obvious flaws.  This film may be the most important to me on this list, simply for the awe factor involved with this being the first real blockbuster saga I experienced.

5. 2001: A Space Odyssey- THE quintessential science-fiction film for me.  It holds more sway when taking in the entire story, including the subsequent sequel film and novels.  Groundbreaking for its’ time, but perhaps no longer as relevant due to the lack of wide interest in the space program, it is interestingly the most spiritual story I know.

4. Aliens- Not only does this deliver on thrills and science fiction goodness, but Weaver’s Ellen Ripley is perhaps most enjoyable female role I’ve ever watched.  This is a classic as a sci-fi film, a special effects showcase, a well-honed script, and a blockbuster.

3. Raiders of the Lost Ark- A throwback film to a time when movie serials existed, Spielberg’s adventure masterpiece deftly weaves heroism with archaeology, and manages to make history exciting.  Harrison Ford has never really been better, and Karen Allen’s spitfire of a sidekick/love interest is still one of my favorites.

2. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King- No other film that I’ve watched has combined so many varying emotions into one and pulled it off with flying colors.  It’s an astonishing accomplishment that pushes all of my emotional and technical “film buttons”.  Hard to defend as one of my ultimate favorites, and I just recently unseated it- but I still love it, and the whole series.

1. Cloud Atlas- It took me over eleven years to find a new favorite film, and dare I say that I didn’t even realize it until recently.  From the film’s extra-long final trailer to the end of my first viewing, I was moved to tears by this sci-fi fable.  The tag line of ‘everything is connected’ is far too simple a phrase to explain the emotional impact this had on me.  Sometimes, we ‘put’ things onto a film based on what we want to get from it.  Sometimes, the film not only fulfills what we want, but seems to explain that the filmmakers believe it too.  The Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer took a beautiful premise and gave it the respect it deserved, resulting in an honest experience that doesn’t pull punches.  It is a brave film, occasionally gory and violent, moving to abstract and odd, then tender and graceful.  This story blends everything I love about film, and the potential it has to take the fantastic to a higher level of entertainment.  It may be pretentious, but maybe I’m pretentious.  Or maybe I just fill in the gaps well.  Whatever the case is, this is my favorite film.

*honorable mention: Groundhog Day, Casablanca, Seven, L.A. Confidential, Garden State, Ghostbusters, Batman (1989), Pulp Fiction, Fargo.

 

 

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Film Review- ‘Interstellar’ (*****)

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Alright, alright, alright.  Lots of ice here.
Alright, alright, alright. Lots of ice here.

“Interstellar”  ***** (out of 5)

Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Michael Caine, David Gyasi, Wes Bentley, John Lithgow, Casey Affleck, Topher Grace, Ellen Burstyn, Mackenzie Foy, and Matt Damon

Written by: Christopher Nolan & Jonathan Nolan

Directed by: Christopher Nolan

 

**POSSIBLE SPOILERS AHEAD**

Admittedly, I fawned over the concept of Interstellar long before actually viewing the film, as I hold a deep passion for the subject of space exploration, and all the dangerous beauty therein.  The thought that master filmmaker Christopher Nolan would create a space exploration epic whipped me into a frenzy.  Trailers confirmed what I already suspected, that Nolan was making a film which spoke to humans’ long-lost love affair with the heavens, and begged us to recall our true nature as explorers.  The truth is, we really have forgotten who we are.  What once was an optimistic and romantic venture has taken huge steps backwards, to the point where the general consensus is to shun space exploration altogether.  Fear, technological limitations, money, and even religious beliefs have kept us, for the most part, Earth-bound.

Nolan, the man with the tactical skill of a blockbuster director and the heart of an independent, will have none of that.  Interstellar is a film, an experience, with remarkably bold ideas, proudly embodying the explorer spirit of the human race in all our ugliness and beauty.  Even more triumphantly, it is a film keenly aware that our collective strengths far outnumber our weaknesses, and always will- even up to the point of extinction.  After all our trials and tribulations, this film knows as I do that we should always dare to experience the awe of our universe beyond our home.  This is a film that dares to stand up and proclaim that our spirit of discovery should be celebrated, never withheld.   I adored Interstellar, but mostly for reasons that extend beyond the actual quality of the film, and instead what it roused in me.  I love that Nolan has attempted to re-ignite our passion for exploration through a movie.  I love that he cared to explain the actual science of interstellar travel without bogging our minds down in technical babble.  I love the ‘tactfulness’, the attention to detail, and the understanding of who we really are. Every plot point, every piece of action, every struggle a character endures seems to point to the human condition, then pushes forward with a positive nudge.  I love that the film still pays respects to the dangers of space and nature, yet doesn’t buy in to the dogma of our time that says space travel isn’t ‘worth’ the cost.  I love how truthful this film is to the human condition; that honesty, paired with the film’s scope and beauty, make it one of the year’s best films, and an experience I will not soon forget.

McConaughey stars as Cooper, a former pilot whose expertise with machines helps him farm amidst a global-wide famine.  Massive dust storms constantly ravage the land, crops die out, and humans can see their extinction in the rear-view mirror.  An “anomaly” leads Cooper and his daughter Murph (Foy) to discover a hidden bunker, where, you guessed it, secret plans are being made by secret scientists to help take care of the Earth’s problem.  Their solution?  Find another suitable location for humans.  We know nothing of that sort exists in our solar system; in theory, we should be out of luck.  However, these scientists have found a ‘wormhole’ (or  an Einstein-Rosen bridge for you science nuts) located outside of Saturn’s orbit.  That ‘hole’ allows for the literal possibility of travelling to a galaxy far, far away.  In perhaps the film’s weakest moment, the scientists choose the one man (Cooper) who found their secret location (but weren’t looking for him before) and ask him to pilot their craft.  After all, he has all of the skills, knows the man leading the project (Caine), and mostly, the plot requires it.

Nolan crafts characters here with real depth though, considering their situations and all of the grand things going on about them.  Case in point- Cooper is a pilot, but also the father of two children.  His situation presents the main problem for anyone considering interstellar travel: time.  To begin with, he must consider the fact that he’s leaving his children (who’ve already lost their mother), possibly for good.  Then, once he makes that decision, there is a possibility that if he returns, enough time will have passed on Earth that his children may be dead.  Every hour he spends in an alternate galaxy, seven years pass on Earth.  Imagine the difficulty that decision brings, compared with the gargantuan task of saving the human race from extinction.  His mission team for project ‘Lazarus’ have their own responsibilities that they wrestle with, and I love that the script acknowledges both the brilliance and vulnerability of the individuals.  After all, they are still human, and have to endure completely new experiences in the harshest of environments.  Even Nolan’s robot creations have personalities.  TARS and CASE (Interstellar’s amazing droids) are both stunning to look at and carry unique personalities.  They represent, quite possibly, the nearest thing to mission-assisting AI in film history- clunky, yet useful, and wholly believable.

The ‘Lazarus’ mission presents the crew with two possibilities- first, that the astronauts might find a habitable world to transport Earth’s survivors to; second, they find a world to begin a new colony, but only if the first plan fails.  By the time Cooper comes upon this project, teams have already been through the wormhole, and have scouted potential homes in advance of the following team.  Nolan gives us ground-breaking, astounding visuals as the crew traverses time and space, from the unbelievable slingshot that is the wormhole to the various alien surfaces and through a giant black hole.  At the same time, there is something familiar about what we see; Nolan knows that the audience expects a degree of reality from him, and something fantastical, a la the psychedelic colors of 2001: A Space Odyssey, wouldn’t seem right in his film.  The alien planets should look like Earth; after all, that is their goal.  That’s party why the film works so well; being grounded in reality and the familiar allows you to accept what happens as plausible.

I must admit that I admired Christopher Nolan long before the arrival of Interstellar.  I now feel a different, and perhaps greater, admiration for his work. His film bothers to challenge us and ask difficult questions.  If we damaged our planet beyond repair, should we not seek out a different home, even if it runs contrary to logic or religious beliefs?  Should we be willing to sacrifice our ‘greatest gift’, life, to achieve that goal?  Should we not examine every possibility, up to and including the illogical, to save our species?  Should we shun our true natures because of difficulty, or fear of difficulty?  This is a film interested in confronting the grand dangers of human and Mother Nature, and respectfully picking ourselves up and pushing forward when She knocks us down.  As the film states, she is “formidable, but not evil”.

The great 2013 film Gravity represents our primal, logical, conservative “right” brain, asking us to take Ms. Nature as a literal force to be reckoned with.  We feel the intense connection Sandra Bullock’s character has for her Mother Earth at the end as she emerges from the water, gripping the ground with intense gratitude.  We feel her character understanding her place in the universe, content with fearing the unknown once more.  On the other hand, Interstellar mirrors our cinematic left brain, examining all creative and scientific avenues.  We feel Cooper almost stretching his hand out into the void of space and fearlessly admiring the beauty of what it may hold, yearning for a greater understanding.  Interstellar challenges us to think bigger, as it should.  If you want to be simply entertained by loud noises, overly maudlin storytelling, and vague explanations not based in real science, this won’t be for you.  You’ll need to don a thinking cap, and that’s refreshing.  It is representative of the very reason we go to the theater, and why we always have.  It entertains, but asks you to participate; it stays with you, asking you to consider that the human race is better than what we’ve done or where we came from, and that we should always move forward.

It is possible that the experience of this film will never again be replicated for me.  I sat front and center to an IMAX screen, my body shaken by the deep bass of space engines and rockets, my mind enveloped by the journey.  Like most cinematic ‘experiences’, however, it may not translate well to the home screen.  At that point the grand ideas of Interstellar should take center stage, and if you’re willing, it can take you places.  At a time when there seems to be so much pessimism towards the notion of space exploration, this film offers the view that we should never give up searching. That sense of discovery, that thirst for knowledge, brings forth the most positive of feelings, and stirs our primal souls.  Nolan is right to frequently quote Dylan Thomas in this film- we should never go gently into that good night.  We should always rage, rage, against the dying of the light.  This is a film that truly knows what that means.

Film Review- ‘Transcendence’ (**)

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"Evelyn, I've done it!  I'm just like Max Headroom!"
“Evelyn, I’ve done it! I’m just like Max Headroom!”

“Transcendence”   ** (out of 5)

Starring: Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall, Paul Bettany, Kate Mara, Cillian Murphy, and Morgan Freeman

Written by: Jack Paglen

Directed by: Wally Pfister

 **POSSIBLE SPOILERS AHEAD**

To paraphrase a cliché, judging a book by its’ cover can backfire in the other direction, as I have frequently discovered with cinema.  You might envision that a movie depicting the merger of artificial and real intelligences could be both entertaining and mind-bending.  You might think that a film with Christopher Nolan’s cinematographer of choice Wally Pfister at the helm might be as intricately constructed and well-written as Nolan’s films.  You’d be wrong- at least as it pertains to Pfister’s “Transcendence”.  Whether they lacked the skill, courage, or means to create a more resonant film, it most certainly does not resonate.

Johnny Depp stars (kind of) as Dr. Will Caster, the world’s foremost expert on artificial intelligence.  We know this because the film makes sure to ID his brilliance on fake magazine covers, and also because he’s dressed like my former professors.  Through the character’s speech at a ‘TED’-style conference, we also gather that he has a thorough understanding of humankind’s ability to approach the threshold of ‘transcendence’, a term that can have multiple definitions.  In the film’s context, it is meant to explain the act of elevating a consciousness from a human state to a computerized state (or so I surmised).

Well, where there are scientists ‘playing God’, there’s sure to be tech terrorists waiting to prevent such heathenism (science) from happening.  Lo and behold, a tech-savvy terrorist group led by the cutest murderer ever, Bree (Mara) steps in and poisons a lab with multiple innocent people, then shoots Dr. Caster in a crowd.  (If it seems like I’m giving something away, they show all of this in the trailer)  This is a hard group to sympathize with, with their efforts to prevent science from happening and all.    The film doesn’t offer much to get us to understand their point- they are simply obvious thugs.  They’re even shown scowling most of the time, walking ‘oafishly’ through their scenes with thug intent.  Since the film isn’t interested in distinguishing these people from straight-up murderers, why bother investing time in trying to understand them?

Back to Dr. Caster- with death looming, his wife and partner Evelyn (Hall) and best bud Max (Bettany) see an opportunity: this is the chance to attempt transcendence and keep Will’s mind alive.  After all, as they all agree, what’s the worst that can happen?  Sure, they’re all ignoring the potential side effects of their actions, just like all the responsible scientists from “Jurassic Park”, but hey- why not?  The moments leading up to the actual ‘transcendent’ event itself would be fascinating if actual science were involved.  Here we are, in a room with three of the world’s top minds, and the script gives us next to nothing in the way of legitimate scientific discussion.  Sure, they’re hooking Will up to a bunch of computer screens, and attaching electrodes, but what are they actually DOING?  Sure, we notice an errant dry erase board in the background with some random equations scribbled, but what do they mean?  This movie makes history by gathering all sorts of intelligent souls, then not bothering to illustrate their intelligence.  Brilliant!

Dr. Caster does achieve the impossible- transcendence.  He then does all sorts of wonderful/terrifying things to show off his delightful new role as Max Headroom (I’m likely dating myself with that reference).  What does artificial Johnny Depp do with all this newfound power?  First, he steals gobs of money for Evelyn, allowing her to build up a sprawling solar-powered facility in the middle of Nowhere, New Mexico to satisfy his growing needs for space and energy.  Then, he begins experimenting with cellular regeneration through ‘nanobots’, a technical word for ‘creepy, microscopic metal bugs’, and invites the community to his place to fix their ailments.  Naturally, there are complications, but I won’t divulge everything here.  Plus, the result is neither surprising nor interesting.

I did have some questions about Omnipotent Will that the film didn’t answer:  why would a transcendent being limit themselves by interacting with humans at all?  For that matter, why improve humanity when all of the fun answers are beyond humanity’s reach?  Sure, it’s a nice thought, but hardly believable that an AI would bother with us once it realized what it was and what we are.  Why would this intelligence even need to defend itself?  Couldn’t it just move somewhere else– after all, it’s connected to the internet, not confined to a physical body.  Why wouldn’t something that duplicates itself thousand-fold not bother to send a version of itself into space, or at least beyond the limits of Earth so that it could expand eternally?   Unfortunately, this film doesn’t have the capacity or the bravery to explore the multiple facets of the very thing it is named for- transcendence.

I believe there is a better film hidden in the ideas presented by “Transcendence”.  I just can’t help but think those ideas would be more realized with better script, and perhaps a better director.  Pfister has created something that seems more interested in the controversy surrounding the act of transcendence than the act itself, a thoroughly depressing missed opportunity.  Fair or not, I viewed the marketing for this film and the movie itself through the rose-colored glasses of a Christopher Nolan fan, assuming that his ‘directing tree’ would produce another progressive, smart film.  Naturally, Pfister’s camera produces images that look like Nolan’s, feel like Nolan’s, but clearly miss that key ingredient- meaning.  I wouldn’t write off his future as a director yet- that would be unfair.  This is a very good looking film, with the feel of something grander.  The truth, however, is that his debut is a resounding bore-fest, a film supposedly about the dangers of science and technology, just without the benefit of any critical scientific thought, or at least the slightest bit of wonder.