Once Upon a Time in America

Four poor Jewish kids in 1920

This film has been featured on my podcast, Peculiar Picture Show. You can listen to the podcast episode here.

“I’d have put everything I ever had on you.”

The Godfather (parts 1 and 2) may be the top pick for the epic crime genre, but Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America deserves a mention both for its detailed look at its characters and the enormous scope of the film, covering 48 years of the lives of a few characters. Written and directed by Italian director Sergio Leone (Once Upon a Time in the West, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly), who had originally been approached to direct The Godfather but turned it down and regretted it for the rest of his life, this was his attempt to recapture some of the greatness that he had passed up earlier in life. The Godfather was a thoughtful film about a crime family, but Once Upon a Time in America has a lot more heart and really shows us the deep connections that formed in the Jewish ghetto of New York City in 1920 and lasted nearly 50 years. This film is not perfect—some of the dialogue is clumsy, the time jumps can be confusing, and the characters are certainly not likable—but this film captures the humanity of getting into, and out of, a life a crime more than any other I’ve seen.

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Dances with Wolves

John Dunbar sits in a field with Two Socks the wolf in a promotional photo for Dances with Wolves

“Nothing I have been told about these people is correct. They are not thieves or beggars. They are not the bogeymen they are made out to be. On the contrary, they are polite guests and I enjoy their humor.”

Dances with Wolves was a huge film in its time, although it’s not flawless. The drama at times borders on melodrama, and the length of the film can cause it to drag in some places. But despite its flaws, this is a film that just works, and it was a major milestone in the Western genre. It was also a major milestone in portrayals of Native Americans in film—a group that has historically had little voice on screen. The Sioux tribe made director and star Kevin Costner an honorary member for his respectful depiction of their culture. I myself am a member of the Tlingit tribe, so this movie is very dear to me as well. The film won seven Oscars, including best picture, best director, and best adapted screenplay, so it caused quite a stir in the film industry as well—which is especially impressive considering the hurdles it had to jump over to be made in the first place. Even with its flaws, this is an epic Western masterpiece that should be watched by everyone.

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Django Unchained

Calvin Candie wags a cigar in Django's face in Django Unchained

“Kill white people and get paid for it? What’s not to like?”

Revenge stories can be gratifying to watch, but director Quentin Tarantino (Pulp Fiction, Inglourious Basterds) frequently makes them even more so. Taking a page from his 2009 historical revenge tale, Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino turns his eyes to a dark time in American history: slavery in the American South. Starring Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, and Leonardo DiCaprio, this story pulls no punches in its portrayal of how brutal and dehumanizing slavery was, and its portrayal of an escaped slave taking righteous revenge on vicious slavers fits well with the stylized violence and witty dialogue Tarantino is known for. The raw brutality, though necessary to tell this story of slavery, can be hard to watch, but the pay-off at the end is completely worth it.

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The Sting

Johnny Hooker and Henry Gondorff put their hands up in The Sting

“What was I supposed to do—call him for cheating better than me, in front of the others?”

I love a good con. Most modern con movies are so obsessed with being intricate and overly complicated that they lose their touch with reality, with mythical characters with superhuman abilities, unrealistic technological devices that are closer to magic than reality, and eleven, twelve, or sometimes thirteen people essential to the plan. In 1973, The Sting brought the con back to its early cinema roots in the 1930s, and it’s everything I wanted to see in a con movie: cleverness, real danger, and humor. Directed by George Roy Hill (Slap Shot, Slaughterhouse Five) and starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford—reuniting the three of them for the first time since the hit comedy-Western Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in 1969—this movie was a huge hit in its time, winning the Oscar for best picture as well as several others for cast and crew, and it holds up very well today. It’s intriguing, it’s well-constructed, and it’s fun—what more could you ask for in a con movie?

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The Shawshank Redemption

Red and Andy in prison uniforms in The Shawshank Redemption

“I guess it comes down to a simple choice, really: get busy living or get busy dying.”

Redemption is a word, much like many others, that carries multiple meanings. The most common definition is an act of paying for a fault or mistake; the second most common definition is a rescue or deliverance. The Shawshank Redemption focuses on both. Written and directed by Frank Darabont (The Green Mile, The Majestic) and starring Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman, this aptly-named film focuses on the redemption of both of its lead characters, and there’s an amazing emotional payoff in watching this film start to finish. It doesn’t shy away from the harsher realities of prison and what it does to people, and as such it can be heavy and even heartbreaking at times, but this is a powerful story that should be watched by everyone.

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A Star is Born (2018)

Ally sings as Jackson plays guitar in A Star is Born

“I think you might be a songwriter. And don’t worry, I won’t tell anybody. But I’m not very good at keeping secrets.”

Some plots are so great that they endure through generations. A Star is Born is one of those. Originally made in 1937, then remade in 1954, then remade again in 1976, then actually remade in India as Aashiqui 2 in 2013, it’s just been remade again in 2018, and it is every bit as amazing as you would expect a movie that was remade four times to be. In his directorial debut, Bradley Cooper directs and stars (and co-wrote the script), and musician Lady Gaga co-stars (not her acting debut—she’s done some television shows before). So when this film was announced, audiences had two questions: Can Lady Gaga act? Can Bradley Cooper direct? It’s hard to say after one film because a big part of the answer to both of those questions is range, but I will say that both did an amazing job with this film. The film feels raw and real, and both Cooper and Gaga put on amazing performances. Also, as a musician myself, I was quite pleased with the musical performances in this film. This is a top-notch film that will go down as one of the best remakes in history, and it’s a powerful story that’s totally deserving of all the hype it’s getting right now.

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The Green Mile

Paul Edgecomb and John Coffey look at something offscreen in The Green Mile

“I just can’t see God putting a gift like that in the hands of a man who would kill a child.”

When someone mentions a movie with miracles, that usually brings to mind some very specific images: a struggling family, an overly sentimental problem, and a religious leader, for instance. The Green Mile gives us a story showing that miracles can occur anywhere—even in a prison block reserved for inmates on death row, even in the midst of senseless brutality, even among people who can’t bring themselves to believe in a god at all. This film is adapted from a Stephen King novel and directed by Frank Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption, The Majestic), and it stars Tom Hanks, David Morse, and Michael Clarke Duncan. This is an outstanding drama that will stick with you long after the credits roll, but be prepared: it’s quite sad at times and downright disturbing in a few spots. In the end, though, it’s totally worth it.

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Arrival

Louise and Ian contemplate things in Arrival

“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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High Noon

Will Kane and Amy ride a wagon together in High Noon

“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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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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