“Let’s face it—this is not the worst thing you’ve caught me doing.”
It’s hard to imagine this time, but superhero movies used to be, well, pretty terrible. DC Comics franchises had a surprise hit in 2005 with Batman Begins, but Marvel Comics franchises had been mediocre at best. We had the X-Men movies, and the Spider Man movies, and a few oddballs like 2003’s Hulk and Daredevil. Each of these had problems. Lower budgets meant special effects suffered in places where they really shouldn’t have suffered. Characters were often shallow, and the acting matched. The direction of the movies gave them this larger-than-life feeling that felt far removed from what we saw everyday. What we needed was a down-to-earth, relatable hero, played by a charming actor or actress, placed into extraordinary circumstances with a special effects budget to match. In 2008, Iron Man finally delivered.
Directed by Jon Favreau (Elf, The Jungle Book) and starring Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, and Jeff Bridges, this was a surprise hit for many reasons. Of course the track record for Marvel-franchise movies was bad, but director Jon Favreau hadn’t directed anything like Iron Man before; star Robert Downey Jr. had been in and out of rehab and wasn’t known as a reliable actor; and the character of Tony Stark was very different than the heroes we had seen in film thus far: arrogant and full of vices. But Iron Man worked better than I think any of us were expecting it to, introducing viewers to the now hugely successful Marvel Cinematic Universe, which pulls in hundreds of millions of dollars every year. Comic book movies had, up until this point, been mainly for die-hard comic book fans, but this film opened up the genre to general audiences and opened the door for some of the amazing movies we’re getting today.
“Reminds me of that fellow back home that fell off a ten story building. As he was falling, people on each floor kept hearing him say, ‘So far, so good.’ ”
Sometimes remakes aren’t terrible. The Magnificent Seven, a 1960 American Western directed by John Sturges (The Great Escape, Gunfight at the OK Corral), is a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Japanese masterpiece Seven Samurai. It’s pretty much universally accepted that the original is a superior film; but this American remake is still a great movie—so much so that when Kurosawa saw the film, he sent Sturges a ceremonial Japanese sword as a gift. Today, this feels like a classic Western, but it broke enough of the classic Western customs that American audiences weren’t too crazy about it. Thankfully, it saw amazing success overseas, particularly in Europe, which would start producing hit “spaghetti Westerns” of its own just a few years later. But regardless of what style it is, this is a great Western film with excellent character development, thrilling action sequences, and an honest and hard look at the lives of the gunslingers of the Old West.
“Because some men aren’t looking for anything logical, like money. They can’t be bought, bullied, reasoned, or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn.”
2008 was a good year for superhero films. Iron Man put the Marvel Cinematic Universe on the map, and The Incredible Hulk followed later that year; Hellboy II was a surprise hit; we even got Hancock, an interesting take on the superhero genre (even though it wasn’t that good). But The Dark Knight came along and it made the rest of these films look like child’s play. Best superhero movie of all time is a hotly debated title now, but back in 2008, The Dark Knight was the undisputed winner. Directed by Christopher Nolan (Inception, Interstellar) and starring Christian Bale and Heath Ledger, this is a smart crime film and a competent action film in addition to a superb superhero film, and it, along with Iron Man, showed the world that superhero movies could have an appeal beyond comic book fans, being artful blockbusters in their own right. This is a brilliant entry in the superhero genre and it will be remembered as one of its great classics.
“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.
Bond films have been around so long that it’s hard to remember how innovative they were in the 60s. Now, there’s a precise Bond formula, and everyone knows what to expect in a Bond film—so much so that when Die Another Day turned the formula on its head in 2002, audiences hated it. If you’ve seen a few Bond films, you know what I’m talking about: James Bond finishes up a job, then reports back to his agency, where Q introduces him to some new gadgets. Then he meets the villain and does some gambling and wins. Then he meets the villain’s attractive female henchman. There’s lots of great action and witty one-liners to keep things light. Bond is suave and sophisticated, but tough when he needs to be. Some laws of physics are broken, but Bond films aren’t meant to be serious.
Well, that formula hasn’t been baked into every Bond film since the start. 1964’s Goldfinger, directed by Guy Hamilton (who would go on to direct other Bond films) and starring Sean Connery (the only real James Bond), may not have been the first film to feature the titular spy hero, but it was undoubtedly the first real Bond film. Its two predecessors were much darker in tone and different in structure to what we know as Bond films today. Goldfinger was the first to introduce us to Q and Bond’s gadgets, and lay out the blueprint for almost every Bond film to follow. It’s also probably the best the sprawling series has to offer. If you’re a stranger to James Bond, this is a great place to start. (Also, disclaimer: this is actually the first Bond film I’ve seen, so sorry if I get some of the details wrong here!)
“What if there were some mistake and the progression went wrong and something like an amoeba was given power like a human’s?”
I wouldn’t describe myself as an anime fan. I like some of the better movies and series, but there’s a lot of the genre I don’t particularly enjoy. The few other anime on this list, I’ve described as being different than your typical anime—full of rich drama and characters that will appeal to movie-watchers who wouldn’t normally get into anime. Akira, on the other hand, is pretty much exactly what you’d expect from an anime: a psychic guy attacks a futuristic city and it’s up to a teenage boy to stop him. This seminal anime film is written and directed by Katsuhiro Ôtomo (Steamboy, Mushi Shi: The Movie), and the fact that this feels like a lot of other anime is a testament to how influential it was in 1988, before the typical anime really existed. This film was huge in Japan, and it opened the door to the Western world for anime, where the genre had previously gone largely unnoticed. Is it good? Well, yes, it’s very good. It’s got a great sci-fi plot, a gritty dystopian setting, and action that’s entertaining without being so over-the-top that it’s ridiculous. It feels a bit like a cross between an action movie, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and 1984. Again, I wouldn’t describe myself as an anime fan, but this is one of the best movies the genre has to offer, and it’s endured as a classic for a reason.
“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.
“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.
“Wax on, right hand. Wax off, left hand. Wax on, wax off. Breathe in through nose, out the mouth. Wax on, wax off. Don’t forget to breathe, very important.”
I’ll be honest: I initially didn’t want to include The Karate Kid on this list. Directed by John G. Avildsen (Rocky) and starring Ralph Macchio, Pat Morita, and Elisabeth Shue, it follows the underdog formula popularized by Rocky, but brings it into the 80s with the now-familiar stereotypes: the everyman teenage boy, the evil bully, the sweet girlfriend, the parent who just doesn’t get it. On paper, it looks very cliche and much like the sea of other 80s teen movies. I didn’t want to like it. But on a recent viewing, I realized that The Karate Kid has actually aged very well. The dialogue, while cheesy at times, has moments of clarity and humanity to keep the movie grounded. The villains are surprisingly well-written in the end (especially with some of the deleted scenes). Daniel is just such a likable character that it’s very hard not to like him. Even the martial arts aspects are very down-to-earth and not overdone (with a few notable exceptions from sensei Miyagi). If you can look past a bit of 80s camp and stereotyping, this is a real gem of a movie that still holds up well today.
“My mommy always said there were no monsters—no real ones—but there are.”
It’s rare that a sequel surpasses the original. Terminator 2 and The Dark Knight come to mind. I’m actually pretty new to the Alien franchise, but, after watching the second installment, I believe Aliens fits that bill too. Alien was a brilliant movie, but the sequel Aliens was phenomenal. Directed by James Cameron (Terminator 2, Avatar) and starring Sigourney Weaver, Michael Biehn, and Paul Reiser, this is an action-packed sci-fi thriller that maintains the depth and suspense of the original but brings the energy up to the highest frenetic levels.