“You don’t understand, Jill. People like that have something inside… something to do with death.”
Even after the “spaghetti” Western The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly established Italian director Sergio Leone (A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More) as a master of the genre, he still had a lot to offer. Once Upon a Time in the West, starring Henry Fonda, Charles Bronson, and Claudia Cardinale, is another great epic Western on the same level as Leone’s previous masterpiece, and that’s no small feat. Unlike Leone’s original Dollars trilogy, which were mostly about the adventures of wandering gunslingers, this one is a revenge tale that focuses on more stable parts of civilization like a young wife and a railroad tycoon. But even with a home to go back to, there’s plenty of turmoil for the characters here. And Leone is still a master at crafting suspense and general moodiness, so this is a very entertaining Western as well.
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Mental illness in the movies is about as mixed a bag as you can get. Portrayals range from surprisingly accurate, as in Silver Linings Playbook, to horribly offensive, as in Me, Myself & Irene. But does it matter? Well, when you consider that an academic study showed that 90% of community college students surveyed learned about mental illness primarily through movies, yes, it makes a huge difference.
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“But now I’m not so sure I believe in beginnings and endings. There are days that define your story beyond your life. Like the day they arrived.”
Science fiction is a genre that makes us think by asking questions about our advancement as a species. Some sci-fi movies eschew emotion to focus on the thoughts and ethics of their subject matter, like Ex Machina. Others dive head-first into emotion, making that the focus rather than the ideas, like Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Very few films do a good job of stimulating both the intellect and the emotions of the viewers; Arrival is a smart film that does exactly that. Directed by Denis Villeneuve (Blade Runner 2049, Sicario) and starring Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner, this film shows us a first contact between humans and aliens who have chosen to land here. This isn’t an action film—it’s a much more cerebral and thought-provoking experience, although it’s not hard to follow or boring. In fact, it’s rare that a film that makes you think like this is made for mainstream audiences, let alone made so well, earning it a spot on this list.
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“I like to be in America, OK by me in America, everything free in America, for a small fee in America!”
Musicals have been declining in popularity since the 70s, but they used to be big business in the movie industry. Classics like Singing in the Rain, The Sound of Music, and even some that only recently got movie adaptations, like Les Miserables, are all revered as amazing films. West Side Story, a 1961 musical directed by Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise, comes from a changing era when the old classic musicals were still popular, but the world was changing and they were becoming less relevant. It attempts to bridge that gap by giving us a story set in inner-city New York about two rival gangs fighting for control of their turf. This is still every bit a classic musical, and having every gang fight take the form of a choreographed dance number does tend to understate the inherent danger, but this film does do a good job of remaining fully a classic musical while also addressing modern topics. It honestly does feel a bit dated today, but I still had fun watching it and many other modern viewers do too.
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“People gotta talk themselves into law and order before they do anything about it. Maybe because down deep, they don’t care. They just don’t care.”
When you think of classic Westerns, several things jump to mind: epic gun fights, fast horse chases, and brave heroes with supernatural skills. High Noon, a 1952 Western directed by Fred Zinnemann (A Man for All Seasons, From Here to Eternity) and starring Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly, turns this formula on its head. It spends much more time pontificating and talking about morals than showing us gun fights and chases, and the heroes of the story are (rightly) scared out of their minds and would rather avoid the confrontation altogether. This film takes its time laying out why these characters are the way they are, and exactly what they’re thinking in this hard situation. It was so different that career cowboy and genre poster boy John Wayne said it was “the most un-American thing I’ve ever seen in my whole life.” In a 1971 interview, 19 years after the film was released, he was still complaining about it. This isn’t exactly a fast-paced Western, and it’s definitely not a traditional classic Western, but the writing and acting in this were phenomenal and captivated me for the relatively short runtime (85 minutes).
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“Reminds me of that fellow back home that fell off a ten story building. As he was falling, people on each floor kept hearing him say, ‘So far, so good.’ ”
Sometimes remakes aren’t terrible. The Magnificent Seven, a 1960 American Western directed by John Sturges (The Great Escape, Gunfight at the OK Corral), is a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Japanese masterpiece Seven Samurai. It’s pretty much universally accepted that the original is a superior film; but this American remake is still a great movie—so much so that when Kurosawa saw the film, he sent Sturges a ceremonial Japanese sword as a gift. Today, this feels like a classic Western, but it broke enough of the classic Western customs that American audiences weren’t too crazy about it. Thankfully, it saw amazing success overseas, particularly in Europe, which would start producing hit “spaghetti Westerns” of its own just a few years later. But regardless of what style it is, this is a great Western film with excellent character development, thrilling action sequences, and an honest and hard look at the lives of the gunslingers of the Old West.
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“I would like, if I may, to take you on a strange journey.”
There’s no film that embodies the term “cult classic” more than The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Directed by Jim Sharman (Shock Treatment, The Night, the Prowler) and starring Tim Curry, Susan Sarandon, and Barry Bostwick, this delightfully deviant rock opera started showing in 1975 and saw its greatest success with midnight showings. Some theaters have been hosting midnight showings regularly since 1975, making this the longest theatrical release in history. This quirky film gathered a strong cult following and became a cultural phenomenon, and it’s widely regarded as one of the most successful independent films in history. Despite coming out in 1975 (with the original stage play coming out 1973), this is still sharper and edgier than most films being made today. It doesn’t really discuss controversial topics so much as celebrate them, and this is more fun than most other films from any era.
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“Because some men aren’t looking for anything logical, like money. They can’t be bought, bullied, reasoned, or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn.”
2008 was a good year for superhero films. Iron Man put the Marvel Cinematic Universe on the map, and The Incredible Hulk followed later that year; Hellboy II was a surprise hit; we even got Hancock, an interesting take on the superhero genre (even though it wasn’t that good). But The Dark Knight came along and it made the rest of these films look like child’s play. Best superhero movie of all time is a hotly debated title now, but back in 2008, The Dark Knight was the undisputed winner. Directed by Christopher Nolan (Inception, Interstellar) and starring Christian Bale and Heath Ledger, this is a smart crime film and a competent action film in addition to a superb superhero film, and it, along with Iron Man, showed the world that superhero movies could have an appeal beyond comic book fans, being artful blockbusters in their own right. This is a brilliant entry in the superhero genre and it will be remembered as one of its great classics.
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“Listen, if you hate someone, you take the consequences.”
12 years before The Hunger Games became a worldwide hit, the Japanese film Battle Royale did the same thing, but with a more assertive stance. Directed by Kinji Fukasaku (Fall Guy, Crest of Betrayal), who turned 70 years old during the production of the low-budget ultra-violent film, this was a story so controversial that the Japanese parliament tried (unsuccessfully) to get both the novel and the film banned, and Germany actually did get the film banned for quite some time. But this film is more than just senseless stylized gore—there’s some intelligent plotting and well-developed characters here, and a great point underneath it all. For one reason or another (it’s actually disputed why), this film didn’t see any sort of release in America until very recently when it hit Netflix, so this film became an underground cult classic among hipsters and film buffs lucky enough to get their hands on a copy. The film is far from perfect, but I really enjoyed the film and what it had to say.
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Film is a great medium for entertainment, but it can also be great for telling stories that increase our understanding of the world and people around us. Whether you want to learn about different people, difficult scientific concepts, or historical events, there are films that do a great job of showing us something we’re probably not familiar with. Here are 10 films that stood out to me for bringing greater understanding to the general public on issues that mainstream culture isn’t really familiar with. Give these a watch—you might just learn something. Continue reading “10 Films That Will Teach You Something”