“If you ladies leave my island, if you survive recruit training, you will be a weapon. You will be a minister of death praying for war. But until that day, you are pukes. You are the lowest form of life on Earth. You are not even human beings.”
There are a lot of good movies about war. Full Metal Jacket is a movie about soldiers. Directed by Stanley Kubrick (The Shining, 2001) and starring Matthew Modine, Vincent D’Onofrio, and R. Lee Ermey, this movie shows how war affects soldiers, but each soldier responds a little differently. In true Kubrick fashion, the message is not neatly wrapped and handed to the viewer, and it’s ultimately up to the viewer to decide what he or she feels afterward. Also in true Kubrick fashion, the movie is absolutely brilliant and masterfully executed. It stands out as a deeply personal war film with excellent art direction that’s worth seeing today.
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“In four years, every time you dance, I see you obsessed, getting each and every move perfectly right—but I never see you lose yourself. Ever! All that discipline for what?”
If you think “terrifying” and “ballerina” don’t belong in the same sentence, you need to see Black Swan. Directed by Darren Aronofsky (Requiem for a Dream, Pi) and starring Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis, this is a psychological thriller as much as a drama, and it is anything but boring. The pressure and uncertainty that most artists face is amplified and captured in horrifying detail as the lead character Nina loses herself in her role as the Swan Queen. It’s a different kind of thriller: very character-centric and rich with symbolism. After watching it, you’ll never look at ballet the same again.
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“It’ll be just like in the movies: pretending to be somebody else.”
Every once in awhile, a movie comes along that makes you question everything you’ve seen. Fight Club and Donnie Darko have walked this path; but very few movies do it as masterfully as Mulholland Drive. Written and directed by surrealist filmmaker David Lynch (Eraserhead, Twin Peaks) and starring Naomi Watts and Laura Harring, this is a movie that takes the typical Hollywood ending and shoots it and leaves it in a gutter to die. Most movies will cleanly wrap everything up by the end of the film, but this one seems to introduce new questions right up until the unexpected ending. Truth be told, it’s best that you go into an initial viewing without knowing a lot about the movie, so I’m going to leave the conversation on this one pretty sparse and reveal absolutely no spoilers. The movie is brilliant, though, if you’re willing to put in the time to piece things together.
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“There are two kinds of people in this world: winners and losers.”
In modern society, there’s a lot of emphasis placed on winning, while failing is an uncomfortable subject we don’t talk much about. That’s something Little Miss Sunshine tries to remedy. Directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (Ruby Sparks and many music videos) and starring Steve Carell, Toni Collette, and Greg Kinnear, this is a movie that says a lot about failure by talking about success. The point it makes is not heavy-handed or forced—in fact, it’s understated and quite entertaining. At its core, it’s a comedy with some dramatic elements that lets us know it’s alright to fall down from time to time.
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“Look, if history proves one thing, American history proves that everybody’s got a chance to win. Didn’t you guys ever hear of Valley Forge or Bunker Hill?”
A nobody can become somebody. Given the right chance, a talented nobody can find the power to rise to the top, and that power may have been within him the entire time. Regardless of whether it’s true, that’s the American dream: it’s the land of opportunity where anyone can rise to the top. Stories like that have been told before, but none seem to do it better than Rocky. Directed by John G. Avildsen (The Karate Kid, Rocky V) and starring Sylvester Stallone and Talia Shire, this is a success story that few can deny the power of.
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“I have lost something. I’m not exactly sure what it is, but I know I didn’t always feel this… sedated. But you know what? It’s never too late to get it back.”
The famous painting American Gothic by Grant Wood was heralded as an instant classic for capturing the essence of rural America in the 30s. Despite some exaggerated features, people lauded the realism—with one exception. The people of rural Iowa—the very people depicted in the painting—hated the piece, with some even threatening violence against Wood. It may have hit a little too close to home for them, or it may have been too exaggerated in their minds, but whatever the reason, the portrait made them uncomfortable.
In many ways, American Beauty, directed by Sam Mendes (Road to Perdition, Revolutionary Road) and starring Kevin Spacey, provides a similar, albeit darker, caricature of American life in the 90s, chronicling a time when the American dream seemed to die. We’re shown a cast of characters each trying to live out their own American dreams, and it’s not flattering—in fact, it’s very uncomfortable to watch. The ennui and discontent of knowing that even “making it” will never give sufficient meaning to life is stated eloquently in this movie, attempting to explain a decade characterized by apathy and resentment. As I said, it’s uncomfortable—but it’s very much worth watching.
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“The only people who can afford to be artists in New York are rich.”
Danish Existentialist philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, in his book Either/Or, writes out a debate between two viewpoints on life: the aesthetic, which focuses on beauty and integrity, and the ethical, which focuses on morality and responsibilities. In the end, the answer is that nothing we do in this life, whether aesthetic, ethical, or anything else, will give us the meaning and fulfillment we desire—we have to find purpose independent of our beliefs and actions in something larger than ourselves. In a way, indie movie Frances Ha, co-written and directed by Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale, Greenberg) and co-written by and starring Greta Gerwig, has a similar message. It’s a movie about the idealism and values many modern young people cling to, and it paints a vivid picture of the dream of many young in their 20s.
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“In the real world, people die, and no self-promoting asshole in a fucking leotard can stop this.”
If you were to go back to the year 2000, when the first X-Men movie came out, and tell me that one of the best character studies I would ever see would be about Wolverine, I would have laughed in your face. Since then, we’ve had movies like The Dark Knight and Iron Man 3 that have brought their lead characters and the genre to new levels of depth. These paved the way for Logan, a deep and moving story about the complex character of Logan, better known as the Wolverine. Directed by James Mangold (Walk the Line, Girl Interrupted) and starring Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart, Logan is more of a drama than a superhero film, although it will satisfy both audiences. It sets a new standard of writing for the superhero genre, and I’m excited to see what films follow in its wake.
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“Mom and me versus you and Dad.”
In general, movies put forth a caricature of real life rather than a snapshot of reality. Reality can be boring at times, yes; but reality can also be a lot more harsh than what we want to see in movies. Every once in awhile, a movie comes along that’s so emotionally real that it hurts. The Squid and the Whale is that kind of movie. Noah Baumbach wrote the script based on his own childhood and originally pitched it to Wes Anderson to direct. Anderson loved the script, but felt that Baumbach should direct it due to how personal it was to him. The writing and acting are brilliant. Emotionally raw and brutal, this movie captures the nuances of divorce unlike any other film I’ve seen.
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“Let’s never come here again because it would never be as much fun.”
Lost in Translation, written and directed by Sofia Coppola (The Virgin Suicides, Marie Antoinette) and starring Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson, is a hard movie to describe. It’s a strange mix of comedy, romance, and soul-searching without fully being about any of those things. The movie is beautiful and evokes strong feelings that are hard to pin down in words. Overall, it’s a journey, not a destination, but it’s a journey I’m very glad got recorded.
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