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.
The Best of 2014
What appeared at the beginning to be a down year for blockbusters and good films in 2014 ended up an absolute boon for film lovers like me. From smaller, less recognized gems to the year’s typical blockbuster fare, I can’t help but be rather thankful for all we had last year.
It is time for me to reveal my top 10 list for 2014, as all good and pretend film critics must do. Feel free to comment with a list of your own, or share this story with anyone that wants to catch up.
10. Inherent Vice– The easy comparison to Paul Thomas Anderson’s California stylish stoner comedy/epic farce would be The Big Lebowski, but there are subtle differences that make Vice stand on its’ own. For one, Joaquin Phoenix’s Doc character’s love for Shasta (played by the stunning Katherine Waterston) grounds the story. Also, the character names alone would make me love this movie- the aforementioned Shasta, Sortilege, Ensenada Slim, Petunia Leeway, and Sauncho Smilax. Those names belong to characters in a stoner dream, which, I suppose, is exactly what this is. Of the ten films on this list, it’s possible that Inherent Vice will be the one I watch more than any of them. It really is that much fun.
9. American Sniper- Clint Eastwood’s docudrama on the life and times of Chris Kyle is an intense film, executed to near perfection. Aside from the skewed opinions of many, the film itself is masterful, crafting a linear story of a complicated man. Allowing your politics to influence how you feel about this film is the wrong choice. Instead, allow Eastwood’s deft direction to guide you through the experience of not just Kyle, but perhaps our whole military for the past 12 years.
8. Under The Skin- Jonathan Glazer’s adaptation of Michel Faber’s novel is one of those films- you know, the ones that are more atmosphere than content, that suggest rather than elaborate, that rely on the simplest facial movements rather than unnecessary dialogue. The shrill strings that accompany the brilliant score by Mica Levi assist in bringing this film to the ultimate tension level. I also admit to being thoroughly frightened by a particular scene, and even 9 months after seeing the film, it still bugs me. Some may say this drags on, but I’d say watch it again- it got even better the second time around.
7. Whiplash- Director Damien Chazelle’s semi-autobiographical tale of master and apprentice is an extraordinary battle of wills. Miles Teller shows what an excellent actor he is when he’s not involved in Divergent nonsense, and J.K. Simmons’ alpha male gives the year’s best supporting performance as, well, a villain. What truly makes this a great film is Chazelle ‘s ability to place doubt in our mind. Is greatness truly derivative of madness? You might say no, but this film brings a great argument to the table.
6: Chef- Of all the 2014 films I saw, Jon Favreau’s Chef may be the one I revisit the most. The love of food is an important theme, sure, but the life of a brilliant chef, and the relationships he acquires and maintains through the visage of brilliantly prepared food is the focus with this film. It helps that a man I know and care about is the spitting image of Favreau’s character, and his words and actions certainly call him to mind as well. Aside from the focus on Cuban cuisine, the film handles family relationships with a real sensibility, especially between father and son. It’s one of the more enjoyable films in recent memory.
5. Selma- Whether or not Martin Luther King Jr’s family endorsed this or not, this snippet of the great man’s life is a truly powerful and important film. Director Ava DuVernay transports us inside that moment in our country’s history so deftly that the film never becomes a fluff biopic, nor does it shy away from being critical of King, our nation’s leaders, or the ugly, hateful place America has occasionally been. It’s also the best looking film of the year, and David Oyelowo, matching Dr. King step for step, gives one of the year’s best lead performances, Oscar snubs be damned.
4. Nightcrawler- Director Dan Gilroy’s moody, satirical melody of American journalism and capitalism is hard to watch, sure. The film’s “throwback-to-the-80s” score, the focus on “dirty L.A.”, the take on today’s sexual politics, and the brilliant Jake Gyllenhaal’s manic performance steal the show. Even Rene Russo deserved awards talk for her portrayal of a news director having to push the limits to stay viable. This is another one of ‘those’ films- the atmospheric, dark type of comedy that boosts my confidence, knowing that I’m smart enough to understand what it has to say, and mature enough to enjoy the ‘adult’ of it all.
3. Wish I Was Here– Zach Braff’s funny and deeply emotional ‘thirtysomething’ version of Garden State hit home for this ‘thirtysomething’. It’s a crisp study of a character at a crossroad in his life, and the emotion necessary to get someone to transition from one point to another. The real relationships on display in this film carry it, but on a personal level, I feel Braff is the cinematic voice of my generation. I simply wish he didn’t need a decade to get what he has to say to his followers.
2. Enemy- Jake Gyllenhaal gives two, yes TWO, Oscar-worthy performances in this “paranoia-du-force” thriller. Every camera angle, every color wash, every piece of music in this film seems right in place to present a very Hitchcock-style film. It’s a real shame that critics everywhere forgot about this, but not me. Denis Villeneuve’s film is nearly perfect- he misleads his audience, or so we think, only to pounce on us in the end. Few films in the past number of years have kept me thinking “what just happened” as this one does- and that ENDING. Seriously, just see it, and tell me that it isn’t incredibly thought-provoking.
1. Gone Girl– This is a flawless film. How does a pulpy, Lifetime-esque subject become a masterpiece? David Fincher, that’s how. He crafts Gillian Flynn’s script into glorious intrigue, laced with multiple narrations, twists, gore, gender role commentary, and even murder mystery. It has that Fincher-sheen, that all-too-familiar camera focus, and such a wit that you can’t help but grin, even as awful people are doing awful things. It’s the best film of the year, and to be honest, it isn’t all that close.
*Honorable mention to: Boyhood, Begin Again, Birdman, The Babadook, Blue Ruin, Interstellar, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, How to Train Your Dragon 2, and Life Itself
“Wish I Was Here” ***** (out of 5)
Starring: Zach Braff, Kate Hudson, Mandy Patinkin, Josh Gad, Joey King, Pierce Gagnon, Jim Parsons, and Ashley Greene
Written by: Zach Braff and Adam Braff
Directed by: Zach Braff
Perhaps more than any filmmaker working today, Zach Braff is adept at focusing on a pivotal moment in a character’s life and capturing the emotional depth and lasting impact inherent in said moment. His 2004 masterpiece Garden State was a seminal film for me, and influenced not only my musical tastes but permeated my thoughts for some time. It seemed to exist solely to speak to my state of mind. Of course, it’s a film that I believe spoke to many in my age group, but that is the idea I’m attempting to convey- it captured something specific in that character and mirrored the emotions of the audience. Wish I Was Here is more of the same, yet different, if that makes sense, but a joy in its’ own right. As Braff the director, actor, and person has grown, his output appears to have followed, and it translates into one of the year’s best films.
Braff directs himself as foul-mouthed yet spirited father and struggling actor Aidan Bloom- inching towards 40, yet still not entrenched in a ‘life’s work’ situation. His two children (King and Gagnon) are reasonably well-adjusted, and his marriage, despite its’ financial difficulties, is strong. He and his on-screen wife (Kate Hudson) depict an unlikely film duo- realistic, likable, supportive, yet cognizant of their struggles, working together for something better. Their portrayals are a welcome breath of fresh air to on-screen couples- still sexy and oozing chemistry despite having to talk about all that silly ‘real life’ stuff. Other filmmakers could learn a thing or two from what Braff does here- respecting his characters enough to have intelligent, real thoughts about their lives and not harbor mounds of regret- or look for an escape.
Aidan’s life, as a whole, is at a crossroad. Like men his age everywhere, he feels the need to take stock and find a direction forward. His cancer-stricken father (Patinkin) is not-so-subtly disappointed in his professional choices, his disconnected brother (Gad) lives by himself and doesn’t want to help, and he can’t get steady work. Braff makes a conscious choice here to do something different with this character. As opposed to falling back on a typical cinematic storyline for a character in dire straits, where they cheat on their wife, go on a lavish vacation, or buy a flashy car, Braff writes his character differently by allowing him to go back to what makes him happy. He daydreams about the good parts of his childhood, including the rich, make-believe world he and his brother created where they were heroes, escaping a ‘hooded’ dark figure on some remote planet (insert vague paternal symbolism joke here). He takes his children on a ‘quasi-vacation’ to places that gave him comfort before, spending only what he needs from the family’s ‘swear jar’. He makes a sincere attempt to bring his estranged brother back into the fold- for after all, as the oldest, it’s important to feel that sense of responsibility. These may seem like very ‘un-cinematic’ choices to make, but their simplicity actually enriches the story, and results in a series of touching, funny, and emotionally resonant scenes.
I must mention the brilliant accompanying soundtrack, which lends a very specific richness to the material. Braff clearly has the gift of matching songs to moments- whether or not he was directly or indirectly responsible for the music of “Scrubs”, it was generally spot-on. The music of Garden State was also a revelation- a compilation that led me to a side of the musical world I barely knew. Here, he uses Paul Simon again, Bon Iver twice, Badly Drawn Boy, and a wonderful track entitled “Raven Song” by Aaron Embry. As opposed to most modern cinema, where music is nothing but an odd, off-putting distraction or the set up for a punchline, Braff creates a real companion piece here with his selections, informing the plot as opposed to taking us out of it. I recognize that ‘indie’ music brings with it an air of pomposity, and Braff has been criticized for an overly emo/acoustic/hipster sensibility. Regardless of a person’s musical preferences, the music here is subtle, seamlessly flowing with the story.
Sure, there are countless films that tackle ‘life crossroads’, or the emotional impact of a parent’s illness. There are plenty of films that use indie sounds and sensibilities and symbolism ad nauseam. Wish I Was Here is all of those things- it’s just better than about every one of them. This is a script that takes its’ time to recognize poignant moments, has enough intelligence to hold back when it should, and a love for each character, giving every lead an important scene that makes their existence sensible and resonant to the story. I connected with this film on a deeply emotional level- perhaps it is because I like what Braff does; perhaps his character’s age simply mirrors mine and the emotions I tend towards now; perhaps there are just some films that seem to ‘get’ us more than others. This is a film that most definitely ‘gets me’, but in fairness, succeeds in spite of me as well. I can say with a degree of giddiness that I anxiously await Braff’s next creative project, but as the cliché states, sometimes genius takes time. Ten years between directing gigs may seem extensive, but if it results again in one of the year’s best films, it will undoubtedly be worth the wait.