“My father taught me many things here—he taught me in this room. He taught me: keep your friends close, but your enemies closer.”
The Godfather was a cultural phenomenon when it came out in 1972 for many reasons. It was extremely well-written, and the cinematography and acting were great. Something that’s lost on modern viewers is how revolutionary the concept was. The Motion Picture Production Code, which was in effect until 1968, prevented things like violence and sex in movies, but it also forbid sympathetic portrayals of criminals. Some movies, like 1968’s Bonnie and Clyde, were quick to make use of this newfound freedom and featured criminals as the protagonists; but none had gone into as much depth as The Godfather. Showing a crime family as a real family, with family dinners and drama, had never been done before.
Two years later, The Godfather: Part II came out and delivered more of the same: fascinating character study and the smallest details of what had become the greatest crime empire in America. Once again directed by Francis Ford Coppola (Apocalypse Now) and starring Al Pacino, Robert de Niro, and Robert Duvall, this is a sequel that’s every bit as good as its predecessor—some say even better. It’s almost required to draw comparisons between the two, so here’s my take: the story was tighter and the quotes more memorable in the original, but the sequel goes into greater depth with the characters and has more emotion. For what it’s worth, I actually preferred the sequel, although both are amazing movies.
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“I think he knows what Rome is. Rome is the mob. Conjure magic for them and they’ll be distracted. Take away their freedom and still they’ll roar. The beating heart of Rome is not the marble of the senate; it’s the sand of the coliseum. He’ll bring them death—and they will love him for it.”
With a few notable exceptions, epic films set in ancient Rome were hard to come by, and good ones even more so. This is surprising—the setting is perfect for an epic film with amazing fight sequences, political intrigue, rich story and lore, and strong characters. In the year 2000, before Lord of the Rings reignited our passion for epics, Gladiator filled that gap with an amazing film. Directed by Ridley Scott (Alien, Blade Runner) and starring Russell Crowe, Joaquin Phoenix, and Connie Nielsen, this is a film that brings the expansive and powerful Roman Empire to life like never before. I won’t say it’s a perfect film—it has its flaws. It’s stuck in a weird spot between a political drama and an action movie, and there are a few scenes that place dramatic flair above realism. But Gladiator is just so entertaining that it more than makes up for its flaws.
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“Hello, I’m Johnny Cash.”
There are a few things in life that rarely impress me. Biopics, musical performances in movies, and country music are on the list. So you’d think I would hate Walk the Line, a musical biopic about country artist Johnny Cash—but I didn’t. Directed by James Mangold (Logan, Girl Interrupted) and starring Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon, this film does everything right. Its musical performances move the plot forward and aren’t just for decoration. It focuses on real-life characters without relying on nostalgia and idealized, romanticized versions of them. The music is excellent (Phoenix and Witherspoon performed all numbers live and did an amazing job), the characters are deep and fascinating, and the plot, while not wholly original, walks a careful line between dark and sweet. This is a biopic that would work just as well as a work of fiction, and that says a lot about the level of art involved.
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“You have to have men who are moral, and at the same time who are able to utilize their primordial instincts to kill without feeling… without passion… without judgment… without judgment! Because it’s judgment that defeats us.”
The mark of a philosophical film is that it poses tough questions about life without good or easy answers. In that sense, Apocalypse Now, directed by Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather) and starring Martin Sheen, Marlon Brando, and Robert Duvall, is very much a philosophical film, as you’ll probably finish the film with more questions than answers. It’s complex and thought-provoking, dealing with the nature of war and what it does to a man, and it refuses to answer for us what’s truly right or wrong. It’s left entirely up to the viewer to draw their own conclusions from the movie—there’s a good case for (and against) both sides of the argument presented here. This is perhaps the most thought-provoking movie to cover the Vietnam War, and that’s saying a lot, as there have been some great movies to cover that era.
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“You could be a janitor anywhere. Why did work at the most prestigious technical college in the whole world? And why did you sneak around at night and finish other people’s formulas that only one or two people in the world could do and then lie about it?”
J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye is one of my all-time favorite books. In many ways, Good Will Hunting is kind of a spiritual successor to that book. Directed by Gus Van Sant (Milk, Elephant) and starring Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, and Robin Williams, this drama captures tortured genius better than most other movies, and it gives a very detailed look at how such a man could develop—and eventually be saved. It also captures the aimlessness of youth without making the whole movie about it. It’s a moving drama with a smart script and witty dialogue and stands out as one of the best-written movies of the 90s.
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“You have to think about one shot. One shot is what it’s all about. A deer’s gotta be taken with one shot.”
(This review has some spoiler-free discussion of the ending.)
Every once in awhile, there’s a movie that has a strong and profound emotional impact on me, and I can’t articulate exactly why. Lost in Translation and Stand By Me are on that list—and, now, The Deer Hunter is also on that list. Directed by Michael Cimino (Heaven’s Gate, Year of the Dragon) and starring Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, John Savage, and Meryl Streep, this is a deep and emotional drama set during the Vietnam War. While most war movies, like Platoon and Full Metal Jacket, focus on the war, less than 40 minutes of this 182-minute movie are set in the war. Most of the rest of the movie takes place before and after the soldiers go to war and shows the devastating changes it makes on them. It’s personal in a way that no other war movie is, and it’s a fantastic drama in its own right.
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“Why must fireflies die so young?”
I’m reluctantly a fan of some anime, but I’ll admit, the medium has been really hit or miss for me. There are some brilliant stories and a lot of stuff that’s just not for me. But when I heard about an anime film that shows World War II through the eyes of two orphaned Japanese children, I knew I had to give it a shot. Grave of the Fireflies, directed by Isao Takahata (The Tale of Princess Kaguya) who was a colleague of Hayao Miyazaki, is a moving and heart-breaking story about the horrors of war and the importance of family in a setting that American viewers don’t often think about. I’ll warn you now: it’s quite sad, and your soul will undoubtedly die a little bit as you watch this. But it’s still a beautiful story that I’m glad I experienced. And if you’re wondering, there is an English dub and it’s pretty decent.
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“You see us as you want to see us: in the simplest terms, in the most convenient definitions. But what we found out is that each one of us is a brain, and an athlete, and a basket case, a princess, and a criminal. Does that answer your question? Sincerely yours, the Breakfast Club.”
There are teen movies that are simply about teenagers, and there are teen movies that define universal teenage experiences. The Breakfast Club, directing by John Hughes (Home Alone, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off) and starring a host of 80s teen stars, is one of the latter. This movie not only defines and portrays universal teenage experiences, but it shows teenagers discovering that many of the things they thought were unique to them are, in fact, shared amongst all of them. Admittedly, this movie will probably not be mind-blowing for anyone over 30; but younger folks, especially those in high school and college, may walk away with some new insight into life. It shows that, no matter who you are, there are no good guys or bad guys in life—there are only people with different experiences, different outlooks, with probably a lot more in common with you than you think, and anyone can choose to be good or bad no matter where they are in life.
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“It’s like I was playing some kind of game, but the rules don’t make any sense to me. They’re being made up by all the wrong people. I mean, no one makes them up. They seem to make themselves up.”
(I typically keep reviews spoiler-free, but this one will have some discussion of the ending.)
I’ve always considered the 60s to be one of the weakest decades of cinema. There are some gems, to be sure, but the carefree, whimsical spirit in most of the movies of that era just didn’t connect with me. That’s a shame, as the cultural revolution in the 60s is actually a fascinating thing—I really wish there were more movies about that. Well, The Graduate, directed by Mike Nichols (Closer, The Birdcage) and starring Dustin Hoffman, is the movie the 60s needed. No movie summed up the revolution’s conflict—and its consequences—so eloquently as this movie. Even if you don’t dig into the symbolism, it’s a very competent comedy in its own right, with smart writing, a killer soundtrack, and just the right amount of drama hiding under the surface.
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“Who’s to say that love needs to be soft and gentle?”
BDSM used to be a pretty taboo topic—until the godawful Fifty Shades of Grey exploited it as an artless debacle. But back in 2002, it was a pretty foreign topic in cinema, often used as a raunchy joke if it appeared at all. Secretary, directed by Steven Shainberg (Rupture, Hit Me) and starring Maggie Gyllenhaal and James Spader, could have been either a sermonizing condemnation of the subject matter or a gratuitous exploitation of it; but the way the movie respects the relationship it portrays elevates this from the drivel that usually surrounds the topic. And with great writing and great performances from both leads, this is a fascinating portrait of how a real relationship with BDSM aspects could develop.
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