“Sextus, you ask how to fight an idea. Well, I’ll tell you how: with another idea!”
It’s hard to tell from today’s cinema landscape, but big Bible epics used to be huge, and the best is undoubtedly Ben-Hur (the 1959 version, not the terrible 2016 remake). Directed by William Wyler (Roman Holiday, The Best Years of our Lives) and starring Charlton Heston, Jack Hawkins, and Stephen Boyd, this is a film that seems simple on the surface but has some big ideas operating behind the scenes. This is a true Bible epic made by a Jewish man intending to present ideas that appealed to people of all faiths. Though slow at times, this film has some of the best action sequences of its time, with one sequence in particular being very impressive even today. While not perfect, this holds up as a great classic epic film with some depth to back up the tension and action, and I’m glad I got a chance to watch it.
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“Actually, Werner, we’re all tickled to hear you say that. Quite frankly, watchin’ Donny beat Nazis to death is the closest we ever get to goin’ to the movies. Donny!”
There are a lot of revenge films out there, but I can’t think of any that try to take revenge retroactively for a historical act of genocide—except for, of course, Inglourious Basterds. Written and directed by Quentin Tarantino (Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs) and starring Brad Pitt and Cristoph Waltz, this film is basically a revenge fantasy enacted by the Jews against Nazi Germany in World War II, and it even goes as far as to change some pretty major historical events for the sake of the story. Given that and the fact that it’s a Tarantino film (typically bloody and brutal) I wasn’t sure I would enjoy it—but I did. Quite a bit. The revenge is sweet, and the film is a perfect concoction of suspense, action, humor, and wit. While intelligently written, this isn’t really a thinking film—but it’s extremely entertaining, and there are some very memorable characters and scenes. I was initially hesitant to consider this film for my list, but after watching it, I can honestly say that I loved it and it absolutely deserves to be here.
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“I’m telling you, you’re coming along at a very dangerous time for rock and roll. I mean, the war is over. They won. And 99% of what passes for rock and roll these days… silence is more compelling.”
They say hindsight is 20/20, so it shouldn’t be too surprising that one of the greatest films about rock and roll came 30 years after the fact. Rock and roll was a movement born out of the cultural revolution of the 60s, but that intellectual purity couldn’t last forever. Almost Famous, directed by Cameron Crowe (Say Anything, Jerry Maguire) and starring Patrick Fugit, Kate Hudson, and Billy Crudup, attempts to capture the moment when rock and roll changes from a movement to an industry. It’s also a great coming-of-age story and a very effective comedy. It’s full of memorable scenes, quotable lines, and just the right amount of drama, and this is definitely one of the most likable movies on this list.
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“I love you, but you don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Do you remember the first time you fell in love? That’s the feeling Wes Anderson tried to recreate with Moonrise Kingdom. It’s a story that focuses primarily on two kids—a rarity for Anderson. Even his children’s movie, Fantastic Mr. Fox, focused on the father of the family. The closest he’s come to this before was with Rushmore, which focused on a high school student. Moonrise Kingdom focuses on a pair of 13-year-olds, and it is, appropriately, filled with a sense of wonder and innocence that’s missing in most of his movies, which are more about disenfranchised adults who have trouble with relationships. Those adults are still here, but they’re in the background. The real story is in how these kids come together, although the relationships the adults have serve as a terrific foil for this. I wouldn’t say this is Anderson’s best film, but it’s probably his sweetest and most wholesome, and it absolutely deserves some attention.
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“Once you do something, you never forget. Even if you can’t remember.”
Think back to the Disney movies you probably watched as a young child. There was that sense of wonder and enchantment, like you were swept away into a new, magnificent world that just seemed so magical. I don’t really get that feeling from Disney movies anymore, nor do I from most movies. That’s one of the sad parts about growing up. Spirited Away, directed by Hayao Miyazaki (Princess Mononoke, Howl’s Moving Castle), brings me right back to that place of magic and wonder. Miyazaki is often described as the Japanese Walt Disney, but that’s not a fair comparison. Miyazaki’s work is often more mature, a little darker, and even further into the realm of fantasy. And this film may be his best work. It’s the highest-grossing film of all time in Japan, and the only anime film to be nominated for—and win—an academy award. It rightfully earns its place among the best animated films of all time.
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“It’s 106 miles to Chicago, we got a full tank of gas, half a pack of cigarettes, it’s dark… and we’re wearing sunglasses.”
The Blues Brothers (the band) was an interesting phenomenon. Blues music was waning in popularity and was listened to mostly by music enthusiasts. Through a mixture of great music and comedy, they brought blues music back into the mainstream for a brief moment and made it cool again. The Blues Brothers (the movie), directed by John Landis (Coming to America, Animal House) and starring Dan Akroyd and John Belushi, captures some of that magic as well as the music. Yes, it’s ridiculous and over-the-top; but the cameos and musical performances are amazingly fun and entertaining, and the comedy is pretty great too. I can’t say it’s brilliant, but I still have a blast every time I watch it. There have been movies that have tried to be The Blues Brothers, but there’s really no other movie quite like it.
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“You’re gonna need a bigger boat.”
The summer blockbuster is what every production company hopes for: a movie with a little something for everyone, that people will line up at the theaters to see, that people will be quoting for years afterward, that makes a ton of money. It’s a staple in American culture now. But the movie that more or less invented this concept was Jaws, back in 1975. It made back over 32 times its production budget. It’s not a stretch to say that almost every moviegoer in 1975 saw this movie. Steven Spielberg (E.T., and come on, you know who he is) is arguably the king of modern blockbusters, and it was this movie that propelled him to to superstardom. Is it great? Honestly, it does a lot of things well, but I don’t think there’s anything it does that other movies don’t do better. But in true blockbuster fashion, there’s something here for just about everyone—no matter who’s in the crowd, this movie will probably get a positive response, even today.
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“Nature, Mr. Allnut, is what we are put on this earth to rise above.”
In the classic era of cinema, female characters had an interesting but disappointing trait: they relied on the male characters to move the plot along. Though there were some strong female characters in the 30s and 40s, they were usually portrayed as less capable than the males, and the plot usually didn’t go anywhere until the males got involved. In most movies of that era, the females were also very dependent on the males. (I know there will undoubtedly be some exceptions, but this was the norm.) This era started to die off in the 50s (although traces of it can still be seen today), and for that, we owe a huge debt of gratitude to the 1951 movie The African Queen. Directed by John Huston (The Maltese Falcon, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre) and starring Katherine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart, this is a movie that not only defined the romantic adventure genre (Romancing the Stone and Pirates of the Caribbean are modern derivatives), but it also showed that a female lead who is in every way her male co-star’s equal can make for a successful film.
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“Hawaii. All right, that’s good. That’s hard to trace, I guess. Wait… you changed your name to… McLovin?”
Two teens go on a minor quest to score with some girls. It’s a tale as old as time, and one that’s been done to death in film. What sets Superbad apart isn’t an original idea, but excellent execution. Directed by Greg Mottola (Paul, Adventureland) and starring Michael Cera and Jonah Hill, this is a highly accurate representation of high school life, and it is hilarious. And despite its often raunchy humor, the ending is actually fairly sweet and heartwarming. This is a stand-out film in the teen genre that will be remembered as a classic.
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“Times are hard for dreamers.”
You know Revenge of the Nerds? Amelie is Revenge of the Emotional Introverts. Directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Delicatessen, The City of Lost Children) and starring Audrey Tatou and Mathieu Kassovitz, it’s a film of immense beauty and feeling, and the story it tells gratifies the soul. The movie, like the title character, fixates on the little things that bring people joy and seeks to bring joy to everyone. It’s definitely more of a feeling movie than a thinking movie, but it’s done so masterfully that it brings out the romantic in everyone.
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