The Perks of Being a Wallflower

Sam and Charlie share a moment on a staircase in The Perks of Being a Wallflower

“I can see it. This one moment when you know you’re not a sad story. You are alive, and you stand up and see the lights on the buildings and everything that makes you wonder. And you’re listening to that song and that drive with the people you love most in this world. And in this moment I swear, we are infinite.”

Teen movies usually paint with a pretty broad brush, trying to capture the feeling of youth for as many people as possible. I look at other films like Say Anything or The Breakfast Club and I feel like most of us can relate to what was going on. The Perks of Being a Wallflower breaks this mold by showing us a very distinct subculture of intellectual misfits trying to figure out life while surviving high school. Written and directed by Stephen Chbosky (who also wrote the novel on which this is based, as well as Wonder) and starring Logan Lerman, Emma Watson, Ezra Miller, this is a sharp departure from the feel-good teen movies I grew up with in the 80s and 90s. Depression, abuse, and trauma are just a few of the subjects touched on, and these things have marked each of the main characters, although the film makes a great effort to show that hurting people still manage to live mostly normal lives. This is a different kind of teen movie that probably doesn’t have the wide appeal of some of the others, but it’s a beautiful story that hit pretty close to home for me. I absolutely loved this film.

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Say Anything

Lloyd Dobler and Diane Court share a romantic moment in Say Anything

“What I really want to do with my life—what I want to do for a living—is I want to be with your daughter. I’m good at it.”

Scruffy underdog wins the heart of the most popular girl in school. That’s a story that played out a lot in the 80s and 90s, but Say Anything manages to go deeper than most other films that follow this formula. Directed by Cameron Crowe (Almost Famous, Jerry Maguire) and starring John Cusack and Ione Skye, this film is simultaneously a teen love story and a metaphor for Generation X coming of age. It was for Gen X what The Graduate was for Baby Boomers and what Lady Bird was for Millennials: a chance for them to define their relationship with the previous generation, on their terms. The 80s were a time of great financial growth and security, but also rampant corporate greed and some unscrupulous actions, and Gen X had become old enough to say something about it. But it’s also a great teen love story with emotional depth and humor. Is this the perfect teen movie? If not, it’s awfully close.

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Fargo

Marge Gunderson smiles in Fargo

“And for what? For a little bit of money? There’s more to life than a little money, you know.”

Picture in your head a plot where a man hires two criminals to kidnap his wife so he can keep most of the ransom money paid by her father. There’s murder and a big investigation. Unless you’ve seen Fargo, I highly doubt the picture in your mind is set in small-town Minnesota. Written and directed by Ethan and Joel Coen (True Grit, The Big Lebowski) and starring Frances McDormand, William H. Macy, Steve Buscemi, and Peter Stormare, Fargo turns the normal police-investigating-a-string-of-murders plot on its head by focusing on simple, conservative small-town folks and largely incompetent, unsympathetic characters. These aren’t people in the dark underbelly of some large city, these are people who get excited when new stamp designs come out. Under the hood, this is a black comedy as well as a crime drama, and the writing is top-notch. If you’re looking for something different and clever without being over-the-top, this might be it.

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I, Tonya

Tonya Harding strikes a pose in I, Tonya

“America. They want someone to love, but they want someone to hate. I mean, come on! What kind of frigging person bashes in their friend’s knee? Who would do that to a friend?”

Biopic films have, to me, always seemed like pieces of a far-off history, far removed from my actual life. It’s very rare that one hits as close to home as I, Tonya did. Directed by Craig Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl, The Finest Hours) and starring Margot Robbie, Sebastian Stan, and Allison Janney, this tells the real-life story of Tonya Harding, the infamous figure skater whose scandal rocked the world in the 90s. It’s a story I got a periphery glance at, through media headlines and rumors passed around school, but I never knew Tonya—only the scandal. This film lets you know Tonya, and it does an amazing job of bringing her to life in a way that’s not only sympathetic but also tragic. In-between tragic events are darkly funny happenings and self-aware humor that keep this from getting too depressing. This is a great story that adds some depth to events that I remember from my childhood, and it’s definitely one of the best biopics I’ve ever seen.

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A Streetcar Named Desire

Blanche watches as Stanley takes off his shirt in A Streetcar Named Desire

“I don’t want realism—I want magic! Yes, yes, magic. I try to give that to people. I do misrepresent things. I don’t tell truths; I tell what ought to be truth.”

When I think of the 50s, I often think of the picture-perfect, Leave it to Beaver life put forth in popular entertainment. And of course it wasn’t really like that. They were still recovering from World War II, and there were a lot of not-so-great things happening. The popular response was to sweep all that under the rug and focus on the positive, and that shaped much of the entertainment to come out of the 50s. But there was a strong counterculture movement dedicated to realism, no matter how harsh it may be.

In the 1951 novel The Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield railed against “phonies,” and that cognitive dissonance eventually landed him in a mental institution. Also in 1951, A Streetcar Named Desire showed us two worldviews coming to clash: one of romanticized ideals that ignored the horrible things that were going on, and one of brutal realism that was authentic to a fault, becoming an embedded part of everything wrong with the world. Directed by Elia Kazan (On the Waterfront, East of Eden) and starring Vivien Leigh and Marlon Brando, this is a brutal look at the two mindsets inevitably coming head to head. It admittedly got off to a somewhat slow start, but very quickly in, I was hooked. Few films do drama as well as this one, and the tension builds throughout the film into an explosion near the end.

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City of God

Rocket looks at his camera in City of God

“It was like a message from God: ‘Honesty doesn’t pay, sucker.’ ”

I’m fortunate to have been born with options: education options, occupation options, food options, and social 0ptions. City of God is a film about people who have very few, if any, options in life. Directed by Brazilian directors Fernando Meirelles (Blindness, The Constant Gardener) and Kátia Lund (News from a Personal War) and starring a whole host of locals with little to no acting experience, this was a fantastic film that was very eye-opening for me as a middle-class American. It’s not all doom and gloom, though—there are some fun scenes and characters, and I really enjoyed this rather than simply thinking it was important. The film is in Portuguese with subtitles, but that didn’t really hurt the experience. I’ll admit, I’m not really an expert on films coming out of South America, but I really loved this one.

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Schindler’s List

Schindler's List

“This is very cruel, Oskar. You’re giving them hope. You shouldn’t do that. That’s cruel!”

Schindler’s List is, without a doubt, one of the most important films of all time. If you don’t know, it’s probably the best and one of the most accurate films about the persecution of the Jews in Nazi Germany (and Nazi-occupied Poland) in World War II, and it’s based on real people and events. It’s one I had always known about, but had never seen—partly because I was intimidated by it. The Holocaust is not an easy thing to watch, and I was worried it would be, well, a bit too much. I’m happy to report that, while there were some awful things portrayed, it remains very accessible and I actually loved this powerful film. Director Steven Spielberg (E.T., Jurassic Park) had a tremendous amount of respect for the subject and was careful to make a film that stays true to history, no matter how dark, and honors the survivors, some of whom make an appearance in the final scene. There are some heartbreaking scenes, but this is a truly great film that doesn’t just rely on the historical significance of its subject matter.

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Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

“What a loss to spend that much time with someone, only to find out that she’s a stranger.”

The manic-pixie dream girl is a common trope that pops up in a lot of movies. You know the ones, where there’s a guy who takes life too seriously and he meets this girl who’s wild and free and teaches him to have a new appreciation for life. Think Penny Lane in Almost Famous, or Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, or Zooey Deschanel’s character in any movie she’s in. We always see the beginnings of the relationship and the transformation. But we never see how that plays out. We rarely see that while manic-pixie dream girls can be amazing, they can also be high maintenance, and it takes serious work to keep up the amazing aspects of the relationship—work that not every guy is willing to put in.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind fills that gap by showing us a manic-pixie dream girl relationship after it has failed. Directed by Michel Gondry (The Science of Sleep, Be Kind Rewind) and starring Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet, this film offers a fresh look at what a romantic relationship really means and what it takes to make one work for imperfect people. It maintains a lot of that quirkiness from the other movies, but this one is layered with some heavy bittersweet moments as well. At times funny, at times sad, this is a great film about the ups and downs of love that doesn’t try to water down what makes relationships difficult, but still captures what makes them meaningful.

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The Apartment

The Apartment

“Ya know, I used to live like Robinson Crusoe—I mean, shipwrecked among 8 million people. And then one day I saw a footprint in the sand, and there you were.”

Many films that have tried to seamlessly blend tragedy and comedy together. This took off in the 90s and is still going strong today with films like Life is Beautiful, The Royal Tenenbaums, and Sideways. But in 1960, long before this was popular, The Apartment pulled it off beautifully. Directed by Billy Wilder (Some Like it Hot, Sunset Boulevard) and starring Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine, this film is at times funny and silly and at other times dark and depressing, and the change is never jolting. It also deals with depression in a way that’s way ahead of its time. I had never seen this film before today, and it’s now one of my favorite classic films. If you like a little darkness with your comedy, this might be the perfect classic film for you.

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Gone with the Wind

Gone with the Wind

“If I said I was madly in love with you, you’d know I was lying.”

Gone with the Wind is a film that almost needs no introduction. Directed by Victor Fleming (The Wizard of Oz), who took over after George Cukor (My Fair Lady, The Philadelphia Story) was let go, this four-hour epic is widely heralded as one of the best films of all time, and, when adjusted by inflation, it’s the highest-grossing film of all time by a very wide margin—over seven billion dollars in 2018’s money. But I’ll be honest: I didn’t really understand much about it until I watched it today. I’d heard it was a romance, but that’s only partly true; it’s also about the disintegration of the old South and its culture in the aftermath of the American Civil War. And it’s told from the perspective of the Confederacy, showing an interesting, if somewhat misleading, perspective. The idea of a four-hour romance movie initially didn’t interest me, but this film is every bit as epic as it is romantic—which is to say a lot. The scope is grand, the characters are deep, and the conflict is much bigger than one relationship. I’m a little late coming to the party of reviewing this film, but I think this still holds up pretty well today. It really is that good.

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