Battle Royale

Shuya and Noriko look frightened in Battle Royale

“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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The Grand Budapest Hotel

The Grand Budapest Hotel

“You see, there are still faint glimmers of civilization left in this barbaric slaughterhouse that was once known as humanity. Indeed that’s what we provide in our own modest, humble, insignificant… oh, fuck it.”

Wes Anderson films have sort of carved themselves their own genre: quirky, beautiful, smart, and funny, with a lot going on behind the scenes. It’s that last bit that makes or breaks them for audiences. Sometimes, the deep metaphors are essential to understanding and enjoying the film, as is the case for some of his less popular works like The Life Aquatic and The Darjeeling Limited; others are enjoyable whether you grasp the deep and usually obscure underlying themes or not. The Grand Budapest Hotel, starring Ralph Fiennes and Tony Revolori, is one of the latter. There are some deeper themes here that I admittedly don’t fully understand, including some parallels to the Holocaust, but the film is accessible for a general audience that doesn’t want to watch the film multiple times to pick up all the subtle clues. This all adds up to one of the most purely entertaining Wes Anderson films in his collection, keeping everything that makes his films great while going light on what held audiences away from some of his earlier films.

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Ben-Hur

Ben-Hur

“Sextus, you ask how to fight an idea. Well, I’ll tell you how: with another idea!”

It’s hard to tell from today’s cinema landscape, but big Bible epics used to be huge, and the best is undoubtedly Ben-Hur (the 1959 version, not the terrible 2016 remake). Directed by William Wyler (Roman Holiday, The Best Years of our Lives) and starring Charlton Heston, Jack Hawkins, and Stephen Boyd, this is a film that seems simple on the surface but has some big ideas operating behind the scenes. This is a true Bible epic made by a Jewish man intending to present ideas that appealed to people of all faiths. Though slow at times, this film has some of the best action sequences of its time, with one sequence in particular being very impressive even today. While not perfect, this holds up as a great classic epic film with some depth to back up the tension and action, and I’m glad I got a chance to watch it.

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Inglourious Basterds

Inglourious Basterds

“Actually, Werner, we’re all tickled to hear you say that. Quite frankly, watchin’ Donny beat Nazis to death is the closest we ever get to goin’ to the movies. Donny!”

There are a lot of revenge films out there, but I can’t think of any that try to take revenge retroactively for a historical act of genocide—except for, of course, Inglourious Basterds. Written and directed by Quentin Tarantino (Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs) and starring Brad Pitt and Cristoph Waltz, this film is basically a revenge fantasy enacted by the Jews against Nazi Germany in World War II, and it even goes as far as to change some pretty major historical events for the sake of the story. Given that and the fact that it’s a Tarantino film (typically bloody and brutal) I wasn’t sure I would enjoy it—but I did. Quite a bit. The revenge is sweet, and the film is a perfect concoction of suspense, action, humor, and wit. While intelligently written, this isn’t really a thinking film—but it’s extremely entertaining, and there are some very memorable characters and scenes. I was initially hesitant to consider this film for my list, but after watching it, I can honestly say that I loved it and it absolutely deserves to be here.

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Almost Famous

Almost Famous

“I’m telling you, you’re coming along at a very dangerous time for rock and roll. I mean, the war is over. They won. And 99% of what passes for rock and roll these days… silence is more compelling.”

They say hindsight is 20/20, so it shouldn’t be too surprising that one of the greatest films about rock and roll came 30 years after the fact. Rock and roll was a movement born out of the cultural revolution of the 60s, but that intellectual purity couldn’t last forever. Almost Famous, directed by Cameron Crowe (Say Anything, Jerry Maguire) and starring Patrick Fugit, Kate Hudson, and Billy Crudup, attempts to capture the moment when rock and roll changes from a movement to an industry. It’s also a great coming-of-age story and a very effective comedy. It’s full of memorable scenes, quotable lines, and just the right amount of drama, and this is definitely one of the most likable movies on this list.

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Moonrise Kingdom

Moonrise Kingdom

“I love you, but you don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Do you remember the first time you fell in love? That’s the feeling Wes Anderson tried to recreate with Moonrise Kingdom. It’s a story that focuses primarily on two kids—a rarity for Anderson. Even his children’s movie, Fantastic Mr. Fox, focused on the father of the family. The closest he’s come to this before was with Rushmore, which focused on a high school student. Moonrise Kingdom focuses on a pair of 13-year-olds, and it is, appropriately, filled with a sense of wonder and innocence that’s missing in most of his movies, which are more about disenfranchised adults who have trouble with relationships. Those adults are still here, but they’re in the background. The real story is in how these kids come together, although the relationships the adults have serve as a terrific foil for this. I wouldn’t say this is Anderson’s best film, but it’s probably his sweetest and most wholesome, and it absolutely deserves some attention.

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Spirited Away

Spirited Away

“Once you do something, you never forget. Even if you can’t remember.”

Think back to the Disney movies you probably watched as a young child. There was that sense of wonder and enchantment, like you were swept away into a new, magnificent world that just seemed so magical. I don’t really get that feeling from Disney movies anymore, nor do I from most movies. That’s one of the sad parts about growing up. Spirited Away, directed by Hayao Miyazaki (Princess Mononoke, Howl’s Moving Castle), brings me right back to that place of magic and wonder. Miyazaki is often described as the Japanese Walt Disney, but that’s not a fair comparison. Miyazaki’s work is often more mature, a little darker, and even further into the realm of fantasy. And this film may be his best work. It’s the highest-grossing film of all time in Japan, and the only anime film to be nominated for—and win—an academy award. It rightfully earns its place among the best animated films of all time.

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The Blues Brothers

The Blues Brothers

“It’s 106 miles to Chicago, we got a full tank of gas, half a pack of cigarettes, it’s dark… and we’re wearing sunglasses.”

The Blues Brothers (the band) was an interesting phenomenon. Blues music was waning in popularity and was listened to mostly by music enthusiasts. Through a mixture of great music and comedy, they brought blues music back into the mainstream for a brief moment and made it cool again. The Blues Brothers (the movie), directed by John Landis (Coming to America, Animal House) and starring Dan Akroyd and John Belushi, captures some of that magic as well as the music. Yes, it’s ridiculous and over-the-top; but the cameos and musical performances are amazingly fun and entertaining, and the comedy is pretty great too. I can’t say it’s brilliant, but I still have a blast every time I watch it. There have been movies that have tried to be The Blues Brothers, but there’s really no other movie quite like it.

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Jaws

Jaws

“You’re gonna need a bigger boat.”

The summer blockbuster is what every production company hopes for: a movie with a little something for everyone, that people will line up at the theaters to see, that people will be quoting for years afterward, that makes a ton of money. It’s a staple in American culture now. But the movie that more or less invented this concept was Jaws, back in 1975. It made back over 32 times its production budget. It’s not a stretch to say that almost every moviegoer in 1975 saw this movie. Steven Spielberg (E.T., and come on, you know who he is) is arguably the king of modern blockbusters, and it was this movie that propelled him to to superstardom. Is it great? Honestly, it does a lot of things well, but I don’t think there’s anything it does that other movies don’t do better. But in true blockbuster fashion, there’s something here for just about everyone—no matter who’s in the crowd, this movie will probably get a positive response, even today.

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The African Queen

The African Queen

“Nature, Mr. Allnut, is what we are put on this earth to rise above.”

In the classic era of cinema, female characters had an interesting but disappointing trait: they relied on the male characters to move the plot along. Though there were some strong female characters in the 30s and 40s, they were usually portrayed as less capable than the males, and the plot usually didn’t go anywhere until the males got involved. In most movies of that era, the females were also very dependent on the males. (I know there will undoubtedly be some exceptions, but this was the norm.) This era started to die off in the 50s (although traces of it can still be seen today), and for that, we owe a huge debt of gratitude to the 1951 movie The African Queen. Directed by John Huston (The Maltese Falcon, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre) and starring Katherine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart, this is a movie that not only defined the romantic adventure genre (Romancing the Stone and Pirates of the Caribbean are modern derivatives), but it also showed that a female lead who is in every way her male co-star’s equal can make for a successful film.

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