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 Originally made in 1937, then remade in 1954, then remade again in 1976, then actually remade in India as Aashiqui 2 in 2013, it’s just been remade again in 2018, and it is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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Rain Man

Charlie and Raymond walk down a street in Rain Man

“He’s capable of a lot more than you know!”

Issues-based movies can be vital for the progress of the causes they portray, but many sacrifice plot and character development to focus on the issue, ironically hurting both the film and the cause. Rain Man is a great issues-based film that sacrificed nothing and was actually made stronger by its issue. Directed by Barry Levinson (Wag the Dog, Toys) and starring Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman, this film features a major character on the autism spectrum and gives us a good look at the disorder, both good and bad. Seeing as I knew almost nothing about autism until well past college, around 2003, this movie was years ahead of its time when it came out in 1988. If this film came out today, there would still be a majority of viewers who would learn something from it. Whether that’s a comment on how progressive this film was or how abysmal society is at understanding this condition isn’t for me to say. I will say that this is an outstanding drama in addition to being probably the best film about autism spectrum disorder, and it hasn’t lost anything in the 30 years since it came out.

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Close Encounters of the Third Kind

A massive flying saucer lights up the sky in Close Encounters of the Third Kind

“He says the sun came out last night. He says it sang to him.”

Movies about making contact with aliens ask a lot of different questions. What if they’re hostile? What if we’re hostile? What if they come to warn us? What if we can’t coexist? Close Encounters of the Third Kind asks and answers a much simpler question: wouldn’t it be cool? Director Steven Spielberg (E.T., Jaws) wrote the script to try to capture the mood of a childhood memory of him and his father going to see a meteor shower, and that childlike wonder shines through here. Unlike most sci-fi films, this doesn’t pose ethical dilemmas or ask us to consider the implications of modern society. This is more of a straight-up drama that uses sci-fi elements to elicit deep emotions of curiosity and wonder. It’s admittedly more of a kids film, but this is extremely well-done and can be a happy little escape from the harsh demands of the real world for adults as well.

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Spanglish

Flor hugs Cristina in Spanglish

“When people exist under one roof, a tiny society forms—the stuff of novellas. Masters and servants unconsciously dancing in lockstep. So that when things go wrong, problems converge.”

When someone mentions the American immigrant story, we have lots of examples of Europeans coming to America in the 1800s to start their new life in the new world, but we don’t have a lot of examples of modern immigrants from other places who are trying to do the same thing. Spanglish gives us the perspective of a young girl immigrating to America with her single mother from Mexico. Written and directed by James L. Brooks (Terms of Endearment, As Good as it Gets) and starring Paz Vega, Adam Sandler, Téa Leoni, and Shelbie Bruce, this is a film that really captures the beauty of Mexican-American culture and evokes some deep feelings that you don’t often see in film. It’s definitely more of a feeling movie than a thinking movie. The plot feels at times like a sitcom and some of the situations feel a bit forced. But the feelings it stirs up and the ideas it deals with are specific, unique, and very real. How many other films deal with cultural appropriation, white guilt, and gender stereotypes while keeping things light, funny, and watchable? Reviews on this film were very mixed—as of writing this, this is the lowest-ranked film on my list according to review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes with a 52% approval rating. But this is a film I’ve loved for years and enjoy every time I watch it.

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V for Vendetta

V juggles some knives in V for Vendetta

“Beneath this mask there is more than flesh. Beneath this mask there is an idea, Mr. Creedy, and ideas are bulletproof.”

1984 is one of my favorite novels, but I have to admit: in movie form, V for Vendetta does 1984 better than 1984. Directed by James McTeigue (The Raven, assisted on The Matrix) and starring Natalie Portman and Hugo Weaving, this is a highly political action-thriller based on a comic book written by the legendary Alan Moore. There are a few well-choreographed fight sequences and some good tension throughout, but what this film does best is talk about political ideas in a very down-to-earth manner. This was topical when it came out in 2005, but it’s become even more relevant in light of recent political events. (Fun fact: Trump supporters are leaving negative reviews on this movie every place they can, calling it liberal propaganda. That’s relevance!) It is a comic book film, so, although it’s more mature than most comic book films, it does have some larger-than-life characters and moments. That doesn’t hurt the point the film is making. In fact, it actually helps make the open discussion of these big ideas seem more real.

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