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.
Chappie ***1/2 (out of 5)
Starring: Sharlto Copley (voice), Hugh Jackman, Dev Patel, Ninja, Yo-Landi Visser, Jose Pablo Cantillo, and Sigourney Weaver
Written by: Neill Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell
Directed by: Neill Blomkamp
The furor and my personal excitement surrounding the announcement of another Alien film may have had me biased towards director Neill Blomkamp’s latest film Chappie. I admit that I fawn over his gritty, real-time visual style, and his big ideas. I also don’t shy away from his too-obvious social commentary, either. That being said, I was still prepared for an incomplete experience- after all, he had four years to bring us his District 9 follow-up in Elysium, and that offered little in the way of enjoyment, other than the idea. Chappie, is a slightly more developed film, on both the ideas and execution front. Even Hans Zimmer’s Blade Runner-esque score works. Sure, it is something of a mess at times, has some unnecessary gore and two characters that cinema and the world can do without; but I liked the mess, especially as it plays as an earnest mess.
Chappie (the robot) is an incredibly likable character, and never ventures into silly “Johnny 5” territory. His naiveté, eagerness to please, and hyperactive behavior embody an endearing and fascinating look at what a manufactured intelligence might actually do, how quickly it would develop, and what lengths it would go to understand itself and humanity. Chappie is almost literally thrown into the fire with humanity, and in the process gets a crash course in understanding us. That the robot can even function with the chaos surrounding it is remarkable, and Blomkamp frames his experience well. Also boosting the character is Chappie’s design- his chassis is conducive to allowing for fluidity with the CGI, as well. Not once did I doubt that Chappie was a tangible, real being. Even the designs of the computer programs used to upload firmware, etc, are believable and grounded, unlike most tech films. The science and the science-fiction behind the A.I. ideas in Chappie are is better than anything films like Transcendence, and dare I say even Terminator 2, have to offer, which I suppose is more a commentary on how poor Transcendence is than the quality of Chappie. The film gives us (maybe a bit too obviously) clear examples of how humans can be so inventive and yet so destructive. I’ve come to the conclusion that Blomkamp may actually prefer robots and aliens to humans, or simply enjoys using them as a tool for self-reflection. In his dealings with supposed lesser beings, we see how his filmmaking is possibly a reflection of his own upbringing, and his way of covering social injustices or opinions. Is it overdone and a bit ham-handed? Possibly. If you’re looking for that, you’ll find it.
Sharlto Copley (Elysium, District 9) is Chappie. The best of him as an actor comes through as he only voices the role, and the worst of him is left out. Hugh Jackman is actually pretty great as a frustrated, foolish, lonely man with a mullet. He’s the embodiment of every middle-aged conservative that believes their patriotism should automatically result in fortune and glory, or that the sword is always mightier than the pen. You know the type. Dev Patel brings a believability to the role, even if he’s not all that charismatic. On the other hand, Die Antwoord (Ninja and Visser), for all the odd, shrieking rapping talents they may have, took far too much of the spotlight. We get it, Neill, you like their music, but they needed to tone it down- or go away. I vote for going away. Are they an embodiment of post-Apartheid South Africa, and that’s why Blomkamp chose them? Are they perfect match for him? He may have started down the road of possibly casting them, then figured it worked for whatever image of urban Johannesburg he wanted. Weaver, as she has been for some time, is lost here, constantly moving her head oddly about, but never grinding her teeth. It pains me to say that I long for the scenery chewing of Ellen Ripley, or even the demanding of respect as the first lady in Dave. Now we get the random and ill-conceived Avatar role, or lacking the leadership she should exude here.
It’s no mistake the film invokes the term ‘black sheep’; this film knows it is different, or an “acquired taste” if you will. Look beyond that to find the heart of it, and may just see it. As I see it, Chappie is simply the red-headed stepchild of Blade Runner. Obviously, I liked Chappie, and the glimpses of creativity we see from Blomkamp are such a wonderful breath of fresh air. I’m just a blogger, though. Most professional critics have lined up to swat at this film like a proverbial pinata. They want to hate this film, and from what I’ve read, many of them have. Many have resorted to lazy puns in describing the film, such as “Chappie is a scrap heap of regrettable storytelling”*, or in multiple places ‘crappy Chappie‘. Sigh. In one breath, they’ll praise the aforementioned Blade Runner because it’s artsy, and in the next breath they’ll decry this, the more direct film. I saw through the noise, and understood Blomkamp’s intention. Am I giving him the benefit of the doubt because I want him to be good? Sure, but as my review for Elysium stated, I have no issue blasting him, either. I liked Chappie in spite of what I’d like to change about it.
The sum of Chappie opinions show a clear critic/audience divide, and I think it warrants further examination. Chappie is the best “fan film” you’ll ever see- made by a geek with an excellent eye and a nice budget. I’m a geek, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I gathered that Blomkamp isn’t a master filmmaker, but there are certain parts of this film that spoke to the unrealized, undeveloped, yet creative young geek in me. Critics, on the other hand, lack the wherewithal to see this, and they refuse to respect geek material and/or culture. It’s why superhero films and comics are sometimes loved, but usually loathed, and have blanket opinions on the quality, or even an acceptance of their existence, thrown on them. If The Dark Knight comes along, then of course it’s a sheer miracle that it is good. It’s a superhero, or simply a geek film, not just a film. I’ll take a stand here and say that bias prevented others from enjoying the majority of Chappie– but it won’t prevent me from recommending it.
*Fanboy Nation, 3/6/15
“Divergent” ** (out of 5)
Starring: Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Jai Courtney, Miles Teller, Zoe Kravitz, Ashley Judd, Tony Goldwyn, Ansel Elgort,and Kate Winslet
Written by: Evan Daugherty & Vanessa Taylor (screenplay), Veronica Roth (novel)
Directed by: Neil Burger
divergent [dih-vur-juhnt]: diverging; differing; deviating
If you find yourself lost in the apparent endless sea of similarly themed young adult novels & movies these days, please allow me to join you in your malaise. Sifting through the titles can easily become annoying, as it is chock-full of semi-colons and non-sensical word pairings (i.e. “The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones”- huh?). Imagine my relief when I first learned that “Divergent”, based on the first in a trilogy of novels, only had one word to remember for each book. How refreshing!
Combined with the dual casting of young Shailene Woodley (brilliant in “The Descendants” but restricted here) and Kate Winslet (trying her best to keep a straight face), I allowed a modicum of hope to creep in my head for this project. Perhaps this would be the one young adult adaptation up to the task of legitimizing the genre, thus allowing discerning audiences to take it seriously. Try as it may, “Divergent” struggles mightily to make logical sense, drags on for an eternity, and leaves us scratching our heads in befuddlement. Ironically, this offers very little in the way of deviation, or divergence, if you will, from its’ genre predecessors.
Please allow me to illustrate, for it is the crux of the film’s failure. Strong, free-spirited heroine that can’t be held back by the constricts of society? Check. Token description of a brutal, world-changing ‘war’ with no resonance or background? Check. Dystopian future with a factionalized society convinced to the point of law that human nature is the enemy? Check. Mysterious absence of babies or seniors? Check. Initially misunderstood, controversial hunk turned sensitive, wounded lover? Check. Hushed references to life beyond a ‘wall’ that is never explored, much to our bewilderment? Check. Young people required to perform adult actions without the film lending the gravity that those moments require? Check.
There are more, but I’ll spare the reader additional sarcasm. What I mean to point out is the film’s sincere lack of any fresh ideas or believability, despite its’ protestations that the ideas it presents are clearly a big deal. How can we take the ‘test’ seriously when we aren’t given the slightest dose of scientific reasoning behind it? Shoot, even if it’s an awful “Jurassic Park” half-hearted version of an explanation, at least give us something. For that matter, how can the ‘test’ be so important in determining where one belongs, yet the individual still has the ability to choose their destiny? Is the plot telling us that free will is an illusion? Does the plot know what it’s telling us? How can we buy that heroine Tris (Woodley) is able to wake from an unconscious stupor to catch up with a speeding train thirty minutes after Four (James) tells us she has “no muscles”?
It would be preferable to take the film on its’ own merits, and not allow silly things like logic, science, or cynicism to cloud my judgment. After all, it does appear that films like this are critic-proof; they simply need to satisfy fans of the source material, quality be damned. For fairness purposes, please consider that I gave the film a shot to impress. In fact, one particular scene struck my fancy, nudging me in the direction of satisfaction. On the eve of “Choosing Day”, the Prior family (Tris, her twin brother Caleb (Elgort), and her parents) shares a few quiet, tender, tense moments as Ellie Goulding’s entrancing “Hanging On” plays into the next scene. In this, I sensed the filmmakers deciding to elevate the source material and create a more human film.
Alas, ’tis but a fleeting moment, for the film nosedives into the typical immediately afterward. Tris goes against the grain and chooses “Dauntless”, quite possibly the most awkward-sounding, goofy name for a faction ever created. We’re treated to scene after scene after scene of training, training, training, with nothing particularly cool, noteworthy, or original to speak of. All the while, this Chicago-based society (where is the rest of the world???) is trying to eliminate ‘divergent’ minds. Conveniently (lazily), divergent Tris is tested by the one government-sanctioned tester that’s sympathetic, or we wouldn’t have a movie, I suppose. Think about this, though- murdering someone who doesn’t conform is a cold, ruthless, interesting, albeit unoriginal science-fiction premise. This isn’t the type of film that wants to understand or explore those big ideas, unfortunately.
In the time that has passed since viewing “Divergent”, I’ve actually grown more weary and less accepting of the film. Maybe I’m just tired of the genre’s attention. Perhaps I’m raw that the far superior weekend release (“Muppets Most Wanted”) will garner less box office and less audience affection. The likely truth is that I’ve grown more weary of ‘products’ marketed as films, especially in this particular genre. When there’s nothing new to take from the experience, and I feel like I’m simply contributing to the greenlight of a sequel, it’s an empty feeling. Whether it’s Gryffindor, District 12, or ‘Dauntless’, it’s all starting to run together for me.
“Divergent”, like others before it, and presumably more to follow, simply offers a structured way to package an entire entertainment experience in a consumable bundle, masquerading as a moving parable for our time. In the end, I feel less like having just seen a film, and more like I just got swindled by a used car salesman. It’s confusing, illogical, lacking in chemistry, and just doesn’t mean anything. Presumably, those familiar with the novels but somehow not bewildered by this film will inform me that I shall ‘understand’ by the end. Frankly, I can’t imagine caring less what happens to these characters. Give me the story of those living outside the wall, or the likely interesting and complicated series of events that lead up to the film, and I might just be on board. This? There’s nothing remotely ‘divergent’ about it.