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.
Cloud Atlas ***** (out of 5)
Starring: Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Ben Whishaw, Doona Bae, Jim Sturgess, Hugo Weaving, Susan Sarandon, David Gyasi, Keith David, James D’Arcy, Xun Zhou, and Hugh Grant
Written by: Lana Wachowski, Andy Wachowski, and Tom Tykwer (screenplay), based on the novel by David Mitchell
Directed by: Lana Wachowski, Andy Wachowski, and Tom Tykwer
*Note- this review contains excerpts from a previous, shorter review of the film I completed in 2013.
“Our lives and our choices, each encounter, suggest a new potential direction. Yesterday my life was headed in one direction. Today, it is headed in another. Fear, belief, love, phenomena that determined the course of our lives. These forces begin long before we are born and continue long after we perish. Yesterday, I believe I would never have done what I did today. I feel like something important has happened to me. Is this possible?” – Cloud Atlas, author David Mitchell
Is it rational to think that right now, writing this review, I have been influenced by a decision made three hundred years ago? Is it rational to think that my praise of this film may, somehow, effect an individual hundreds of years from now? Of course not, but Cloud Atlas is not about rational, logical thought, nor is it a standard film. If I have interpreted the film accurately, it is about possibility, dreams, risk, chance, fate, our connection to each other, and the inherent responsibility of our choices. It is about how our actions, small as they may be, can have a ripple effect on people, places, and things. Rarely does a film come along that actually makes the connection between ethereal, spiritual thought and precision film making, yet Cloud Atlas, with its’ sublime color pallet, rousing score, and honest delivery, now exists as the supreme triumph of both in my eyes.
I’ll try my best to elaborate. When a work of art speaks to you on a deep, personal and emotional level, I think it becomes increasingly difficult to argue its’ merit. Cloud Atlas is the prime example of that conundrum for me. It may just be the greatest film I’ve ever seen, but I don’t believe for a moment that I can sway a regular moviegoer to my way of thinking. What I can say is that three directors collaborated to create a deeply soulful, spiritual film, spanning all genres, inspiring all emotions, and touching on all of the things I love about seeing a movie. It is perhaps the most unusual film of our time- it seemingly came from nowhere, had an extended trailer, opened wide in both 2-D and 3-D, defied convention, bombed at the domestic box office, and practically begged viewers to see it as multiple copies collected shelf dust. I simply ask that you keep in mind my absolute bias for the film as you read, and know that I cannot convince you that this is the best film of all time. I’m simply quite comfortable in my assertion that it is.
Cloud Atlas could have been an expensive disaster, making no sense and cementing (in my head) that the films of the Wachowski siblings (The Matrix trilogy) and Tom Tykwer (of Run Lola Run and The International) are no longer appointment viewings. Instead, this beautiful and occasionally brutal film exceeded my expectations, in both tone and execution. The broad story spans roughly 600 years, from the days of seafaring clippers to a possible post-apocalyptic future. From a sick lawyer that tries to overcome his inherent racism to a grandfather finally able to find ease with his tumultuous life, we’re treated to a multitude of relationships, past, present, and future. A journalist strikes up a relationship with a scientist, and in the process uncovers a massive threat. An understudy to a great musician puts music to his words, creating the timeless title sound. A genetically engineered waitress breaks code and inspires the world as a result of the kindness of a rebellious stranger. A post-apocalyptic forager must overcome his hallucinations and simple upbringing to get humanity to connect again. How the directors were able to weave this plethora of storylines and characters together and still have it make narrative sense, I’ll never know. What I do know is that it works, just like a random collection of notes strings together to form a symphony. What this symphony wants to tell us is that the evil of then is the evil of now, and in the future. The love of then, now, and in the future is the same. It is simply up to us to find our common threads, learn from them, and decide which true fate we want for ourselves and humanity.
A film like Cloud Atlas can be misunderstood as perhaps too philosophical, or asking too much of its’ audience, which leads to the unfortunate label of ‘pretentious’. The problem with applying that specific label on this film is that an actual pretentious film may try to affect what isn’t there. The directors of Cloud Atlas, whilst exhibiting most of the qualities you might find in pretentious filmmakers, aren’t. I mean no disrespect of course, but I’m of the belief that they simply haven’t shown themselves to be nuanced enough with their on-screen work to be aware that what they’re doing could be pretentious. They’re all bombastic heart and soul, a mindset that doesn’t lend itself to pretentious results. It may lead to failed results (see Jupiter Ascending, The Matrix Revolutions, Speed Racer, The International), but even with those films, I appreciated their completely dedicated and earnest results. Everything they have is on-screen, and they seem to love it, even if we might not. If you can fault them for anything, it would be a lack of focus. I’ll take that over sheer pretentiousness any day.
I often worry, like the Wachowskis might, that I am pretentious. I often wonder that I may want to be so that my opinion somehow matters. The reality, instead, is that I simply have something in common with the directors of Cloud Atlas. We’re cinematic soul mates. I am content to be thought foolish, willing to wear my heart on my sleeve, outside opinions be damned (even if it may secretly hurt a bit). I’m always prepared to enjoy an incomplete, or perhaps a metaphysical idea of a film, provided that I’m able to draw conclusions and enjoy the experience. Cloud Atlas has gaps, and asks us to bear with it as we see an awful-toothed Tom Hanks in one era, then as a neo-language spouting future woodsman. It asks us to step outside of our comfort zone and accept that a piece of music may link people hundreds of years apart. It asks us to accept a possible near future in which the neon hues and wardrobe choices of a progressive Asian culture dominate the landscape. This kind of free-range boldness is incredibly endearing and rare, and I rode that wave through the film’s humbling conclusion.
I would ask the skeptical to allow for the possibility that what happens in this film could be a reality. If you can separate the rigidity of our regular lives and the realities that we’re ingrained with in this world, Cloud Atlas can stir that sense of hope and purpose within you. I feel it gives a voice and a narrative for what I believe is missing in many of our lives- a connection to the universe, and some meaning to what we do. In other words, it does for me what organized religion maybe should do. Interestingly enough, I’ve found myself not standing alone with my love for the film, and my thoughts for it. Those that like this film appear to share a kindred spirit, and an optimistic outlook on what we as a species could do. I say this being fully aware that I’m placing these opinions and feelings on the film, and it is altogether plausible that the original author and the directors had no intention of speaking to us as I’ve interpreted. I’m not buying that for a moment, however.
Cloud Atlas is too soulful, too all-encompassing an emotional tale to simply be meant as a popcorn film. Consider the fictional “Cloud Atlas Sextet”, as it has been wonderfully imagined in the film by composers Reinhold Heil, Johnny Klimek, and Tykwer himself. Imagine it as a tangible, audible thing that we can hear, a real thread of sound that permeates time and space. Think of what a thing of beauty it would be, how that shared connection can link all of us together, our decisions, or triumphs and failures, our ups and downs, and how it would mirror the greatest of symphonies, the most resonant of sounds. It is a timeless piece, something I would never tire of hearing, as if the memories of a thousand souls were wrapped up in the single stroke of a piano key or the bow of a violin. I love this film, for everything it says to me, and for what I hope it will say to others once they see it. Perhaps my words will encourage you to be of a certain mind when you watch it, perhaps not. If nothing else, my hope is that viewers allow the film to wash over them, and not give in to the pessimism and preconceived notions of what a ‘Wachowski’ film might be. You may be pleasantly surprised.
Jupiter Ascending ** (out of 5)
Starring: Channing Tatum, Mila Kunis, Sean Bean, Eddie Redmayne, Douglas Booth, Tuppence Middleton, Maria Doyle Kennedy, and James D’Arcy
Written and directed by: Lana & Andy Wachowski
History will suggest that Jupiter Ascending was an utter disaster; it teeters ever so close to the edge of that, but a disaster it isn’t. Consider the sad state of affairs for blockbuster story ideas in Hollywood when I’m praising a bad film for trying. Lana and Andy Wachowski, the sibling duo behind the ambitious, and occasionally brilliant Matrix trilogy and the wonderful Cloud Atlas, have created a monstrosity with their new film. It makes little sense, suffers from a lack of focus, is loud and dumb, and is utterly forgettable- but I absolutely adore that someone out there bothered with an attempt to make an original blockbuster, and well, it is beautiful to gaze upon.
Channing Tatum co-stars as Caine, a genetically engineered, half man/half wolf bounty hunter with a past. This past is not integral to the plot, but it is included anyway to give his character more of an ‘edge’. His mission is to track down Jupiter Jones (Kunis), a young woman who may or may not be the ‘recurrence’ of a dead alien queen. Tatum and Kunis actually do develop some decent chemistry in their roles, and manage to give the film some much-needed charm, even if it barely lasts. Kunis is her usual stunningly beautiful self, but her ability to pull of humility is what solidifies her in the role. Tatum and his abs “air-skate” through the movie, much of it with his shirt off for the pleasure of ‘oglers’ everywhere.
It says a great deal about the rest of the film that they’re the only ones that seem to be having any fun, however. The convoluted plot finds Jupiter hunted by various factions, some interested in her claim to various worlds (including Earth), some interested in just plain killing her. Balem Abrasax (Redmayne), the current big man on the universal campus, is the baddie here, apparently suffering from some sort of laryngitis along the way. If I hadn’t been assured from critics everywhere that his performance in The Theory of Everything was brilliant, I’d have wondered if Redmayne was actually trying for ‘most miscalculated delivery ever’. Not only is it a difficult performance to watch and listen to, the character doesn’t make much sense. What is his problem, really? If Jupiter is truly the reincarnation of his mother, wouldn’t that be a good thing? If he’s the ruler of the universe, why would he risk everything for Earth? Is he not aware of global warming or the depletion of our natural resources?
Let’s not forget the Abrasax siblings, specifically Titus (Booth). Space Caligula here wants Jupiter- yes, his mother reincarnated, for his wife. Sure, we know that he’s just interested in her hereditary claims and titles, but the thought is still disgusting, right? Jupiter, as grounded as she is, sees no choice in the matter, for if she doesn’t relent, Balem can and will ‘harvest’ the Earth. This ‘harvest’ I speak of? I won’t spoil it, but let’s just say the film never bothers to present it as starkly as is necessary- yet another missed opportunity. Kalique (Middleton), the other sibling, is just as gross and awful. The sibling rivalry is akin to a midday soap opera, substituting Romanesque archetypes instead of wealthy urbanites.
Similar in many ways to Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element, The Wachowskis have created a world with this film in which they were allowed to play at will, and seemingly spend money at will. Make no mistake- those dollars ($179 million of them) are on-screen here. They’ve made a miscalculation on what the film should have been, however. When your title has Jupiter in it, and the gas giant is prominently featured in the film, one should take the time to properly explore the awe of the planet itself. I envision this whole idea working with a change of tone and a change of focus. Instead of a popcorn flick, why not take an additional chance and make this an abstract, strictly sci-fi film? Why not let the wonder of a familiar yet still mysterious planet be the centerpiece of your film? Why not make the horror of the ‘harvests’ the real villain and not the painfully typical Emperor Emphysema? Instead of generic action cues for music, why not have the great Michael Giacchino develop something inspired? Maybe he had little to inspire him? Likely.
Jupiter Ascending never quite reaches the ‘so awful that you should create a drinking game to mock it’ level, but it certainly never aspires to be great. The Wachowskis should know better than to play it lame like this, for this critic believes they’re quite capable of the greatness, making this all the more disappointing. The Wachowski’s seeming obsession with messiahs or saviors is on clear display, when a better, more watchable film is well within their grasp, especially with the budget allotment they received. At the same time, I hope this grand financial failure isn’t the figurative nail in the coffin for their creativity. I hope they continue to get opportunities to showcase their abilities. I also hope they use some of that creativity to reign themselves in, to find ways of producing films with more focus and direction. After all, that is what Jupiter Ascending so desperately lacks- and that’s all on the filmmakers.