“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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“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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“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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“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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“Have you ever noticed how it just keeps destroying everything in its path but it never looks down?”
Mark Twain once said, “If you send a damned fool to St. Louis, and you don’t tell them he’s a damned fool, they’ll never find out.” Now, Mark Twain clearly had something against St. Louis, but that’s not my point. My point is that if you’re ignorant about something and you live in a place where nobody is going to point that out to you, you’re likely to remain ignorant about that your entire life. I lived in small-town Florida for most of my adolescent and young adult life, and let me tell you: in those towns, it is very hard to come by people who will challenge you to think outside of the microcosm of small towns in America.
Colossal, written and directed by Nacho Vigalondo (Timecrimes, Extraterrestrial) and starring Anne Hathaway and Jason Sudeikis, is a high-concept film with a lot to say about life in a small town. It’s very metaphorical, but it’s hard to pin down exactly what it’s trying to say. That’s not a bad thing, because it has a lot to say and it will probably speak differently to different people. It’s kind of a dark comedy, kind of a story of redemption, and kind of a giant monster movie (in a literal sense). It got some bad reviews from people who likely missed the points it was trying to make and saw it as an ill-conceived monster movie, but there’s a lot here for people who are willing to dig into the film a bit more.
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“I’m sorry for calling you an inanimate object. I was upset.”
There are many films about hitmen, but In Bruges is different. It doesn’t show a slice of life like similar films do. Instead, it uses light allegory, dark humor, and razor-sharp wit to tell a story of growth and atonement for two distinct characters who both happen to be hitmen. Written and directed by Martin McDonagh (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Seven Psychopaths) and starring Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson, this film is at times funny and at other times depressing, and it goes way deeper than telling the story of a string of contracted hits. This film hits the deepest parts of the soul for these two flawed protagonists as they struggle emotionally with the lives they live. This film is funny, poignant, and definitely worth a watch.
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“Oh captain, my captain.”
The 80s were a time of great financial growth, but also great greed, and Generation X was getting old enough to have an opinion about it. Gen X started their own cultural movement in the 90s and basically torched everything to the ground, but it started with some general unease in the 90s. Dead Poets Society, directed by Peter Weir (The Truman Show, Witness) and starring Robin Williams and a host of young talent, makes an interesting statement to the emerging Gen X ideology by showing how their parents dealt with that same problem of greed and success at the detriment of truth and beauty in the 1950s. This is admittedly not a universal movie—it delves deeply into Romantic and Transcendentalist ideologies and definitely appeals to lovers of old books more than the general population. But there’s a lot here that teenagers of any age will relate to. Whether you agree with Walt Whitman and Henry David Thoreau or not, there’s plenty to think about and plenty to like in this film.
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“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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“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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“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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