Dances with Wolves

John Dunbar sits in a field with Two Socks the wolf in a promotional photo for Dances with Wolves

“Nothing I have been told about these people is correct. They are not thieves or beggars. They are not the bogeymen they are made out to be. On the contrary, they are polite guests and I enjoy their humor.”

Dances with Wolves was a huge film in its time, although it’s not flawless. The drama at times borders on melodrama, and the length of the film can cause it to drag in some places. But despite its flaws, this is a film that just works, and it was a major milestone in the Western genre. It was also a major milestone in portrayals of Native Americans in film—a group that has historically had little voice on screen. The Sioux tribe made director and star Kevin Costner an honorary member for his respectful depiction of their culture. I myself am a member of the Tlingit tribe, so this movie is very dear to me as well. The film won seven Oscars, including best picture, best director, and best adapted screenplay, so it caused quite a stir in the film industry as well—which is especially impressive considering the hurdles it had to jump over to be made in the first place. Even with its flaws, this is an epic Western masterpiece that should be watched by everyone.

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It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World

Eight motorists argue in It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World

“Look! We’ve figured it seventeen different ways, and every time we figured it, it was no good, because no matter how we figured it, somebody don’t like the way we figured it! So now, there’s only one way to figure it. And that is, every man—including the old bag—for himself!”

It’s not often that the word “epic” is attached to the word “comedy.” Epics are usually found amongst crime dramas or historical or fantasy pieces and are more serious affairs. But 1963’s It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World took that epic formula and effectively brought it to comedy. This was directed by Stanley Kramer (Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner) and stars virtually every name in comedy in the 60s, including older names like Buster Keaton and the Three Stooges (with many only appearing in cameos). And with a runtime of over three hours, this is the Lord of the Rings of comedy. It spawned a number of ripoff epic race comedies in the 60s, though none were as memorable—or as epic—as the original. Is it funny? I’ll admit, there are times when this film feels tedious; its saving grace is that when it works, it really works. This is a fun watch with some very memorable characters and scenes, which is no small feat considering the scope of the film.

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Finding Nemo

Nemo swims toward a boat with a determined look on his face in Finding Nemo

“Just keep swimming. Just keep swimming. Just keep swimming, swimming, swimming. What do we do? We swim, swim!”

Most animated feature films are adventures of some sort. We have toys trying to get back to their owner, a lion fleeing his country and then returning to save it, an ogre trying to save the homes of fairytale characters, and even embodiments of emotions trying to get through a brain to set things right emotionally. The adventure formula of having a character or group of characters set out on a quest to accomplish something is well-known and well-loved. In my opinion, though, there’s no better animated adventure than Finding Nemo. Directed by Andrew Stanton (WALL-E, A Bug’s Life) and Lee Unkrich (Toy Story 3, Coco), this is a bit unique for an animated feature not only because it’s about fish, but also because there’s not really a villain. Most Disney and Pixar films will be a man-versus-man plot, with a principal character trying to accomplish something and an antagonist trying to stop them. This film sets the principal characters against nature and fate, which prove to be just as cruel and powerful a foe as any villain ever was. I think this helps the adventure formula, which I’ll get into below. But audiences agreed: this film surpassed The Lion King to become the highest grossing animated film of its time. It’s a great adventure film, and truly one that just about anyone in the family can enjoy.

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The Wizard of Oz

The four principle characters stand in awe of the great and powerful Oz in The Wizard of Oz

“Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore. We must be over the rainbow!”

There are a ton of kids movies out there, but there’s just something magical about The Wizard of Oz that’s endured for 80 years—and will for many more. Directed mostly by Victor Fleming (Gone With the Wind) and starring Judy Garland, this film has sold so many copies and had so many television screenings that it very well might be the most watched film of all time—the Library of Congress seems to think so. I’d seen this film at least ten times, but recently had the chance to watch it with my four-year-old nephew. That’s really how this film should be viewed: as a child, or with a child. The visuals, the plot elements, and the characters all set the imagination into motion, and it’s because every part of this film was meticulously planned and executed. Though the film may be a bit campy for adults, it’s an undeniably classic film that’s not only the best of its time—it may be the best of the medium.

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Forbidden Planet

Commander Adams, Altaira, and Robbie the Robot in Forbidden Planet

“Welcome to Altair IV, gentlemen. I am to transport you to the residence. If you do not speak English, I am at your disposal with 187 other languages along with their various dialects and sub-tongues.”

Old, classic sci-fi films bring some very specific images to mind, and Forbidden Planet has all of them in spades. Directed by Fred M. Wilcox (I Passed for White, Three Daring Daughters) and starring Walter Pidgeon, Anne Francis, and Leslie Nielsen (back before he was a comedic actor!), this film has flying saucers, clunky robots, strange monsters, alien worlds, and advanced technology—everything you’d expect from a classic sci-fi. I initially sat down to watch this for a bit of classic, campy fun, but the point it eventually makes is deep and thought-provoking, and I think even more relevant today than when it was released in 1956. The old sci-fi mechanisms and tropes may seem a bit goofy to today’s audiences, but the message and entertainment factor still have a lot to offer.

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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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The Grand Budapest Hotel

The Grand Budapest Hotel

“You see, there are still faint glimmers of civilization left in this barbaric slaughterhouse that was once known as humanity. Indeed that’s what we provide in our own modest, humble, insignificant… oh, fuck it.”

Wes Anderson films have sort of carved themselves their own genre: quirky, beautiful, smart, and funny, with a lot going on behind the scenes. It’s that last bit that makes or breaks them for audiences. Sometimes, the deep metaphors are essential to understanding and enjoying the film, as is the case for some of his less popular works like The Life Aquatic and The Darjeeling Limited; others are enjoyable whether you grasp the deep and usually obscure underlying themes or not. The Grand Budapest Hotel, starring Ralph Fiennes and Tony Revolori, is one of the latter. There are some deeper themes here that I admittedly don’t fully understand, including some parallels to the Holocaust, but the film is accessible for a general audience that doesn’t want to watch the film multiple times to pick up all the subtle clues. This all adds up to one of the most purely entertaining Wes Anderson films in his collection, keeping everything that makes his films great while going light on what held audiences away from some of his earlier films.

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Ben-Hur

Ben-Hur

“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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Inglourious Basterds

Inglourious Basterds

“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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Almost Famous

Almost Famous

“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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