Walk the Line

Walk the Line

“Hello, I’m Johnny Cash.”

There are a few things in life that rarely impress me. Biopics, musical performances in movies, and country music are on the list. So you’d think I would hate Walk the Line, a musical biopic about country artist Johnny Cash—but I didn’t. Directed by James Mangold (Logan, Girl Interrupted) and starring Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon, this film does everything right. Its musical performances move the plot forward and aren’t just for decoration. It focuses on real-life characters without relying on nostalgia and idealized, romanticized versions of them. The music is excellent (Phoenix and Witherspoon performed all numbers live and did an amazing job), the characters are deep and fascinating, and the plot, while not wholly original, walks a careful line between dark and sweet. This is a biopic that would work just as well as a work of fiction, and that says a lot about the level of art involved.

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Apocalypse Now

Apocalypse Now

“You have to have men who are moral, and at the same time who are able to utilize their primordial instincts to kill without feeling… without passion… without judgment… without judgment! Because it’s judgment that defeats us.”

The mark of a philosophical film is that it poses tough questions about life without good or easy answers. In that sense, Apocalypse Now, directed by Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather) and starring Martin Sheen, Marlon Brando, and Robert Duvall, is very much a philosophical film, as you’ll probably finish the film with more questions than answers. It’s complex and thought-provoking, dealing with the nature of war and what it does to a man, and it refuses to answer for us what’s truly right or wrong. It’s left entirely up to the viewer to draw their own conclusions from the movie—there’s a good case for (and against) both sides of the argument presented here. This is perhaps the most thought-provoking movie to cover the Vietnam War, and that’s saying a lot, as there have been some great movies to cover that era.

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Good Will Hunting

Good Will Hunting

“You could be a janitor anywhere. Why did work at the most prestigious technical college in the whole world? And why did you sneak around at night and finish other people’s formulas that only one or two people in the world could do and then lie about it?”

J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye is one of my all-time favorite books. In many ways, Good Will Hunting is kind of a spiritual successor to that book. Directed by Gus Van Sant (Milk, Elephant) and starring Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, and Robin Williams, this drama captures tortured genius better than most other movies, and it gives a very detailed look at how such a man could develop—and eventually be saved. It also captures the aimlessness of youth without making the whole movie about it. It’s a moving drama with a smart script and witty dialogue and stands out as one of the best-written movies of the 90s.

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The Deer Hunter

The Deer Hunter

“You have to think about one shot. One shot is what it’s all about. A deer’s gotta be taken with one shot.”

(This review has some spoiler-free discussion of the ending.)

Every once in awhile, there’s a movie that has a strong and profound emotional impact on me, and I can’t articulate exactly why. Lost in Translation and Stand By Me are on that list—and, now, The Deer Hunter is also on that list. Directed by Michael Cimino (Heaven’s Gate, Year of the Dragon) and starring Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, John Savage, and Meryl Streep, this is a deep and emotional drama set during the Vietnam War. While most war movies, like Platoon and Full Metal Jacket, focus on the war, less than 40 minutes of this 182-minute movie are set in the war. Most of the rest of the movie takes place before and after the soldiers go to war and shows the devastating changes it makes on them. It’s personal in a way that no other war movie is, and it’s a fantastic drama in its own right.

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Grave of the Fireflies

Grave of the Fireflies

“Why must fireflies die so young?”

I’m reluctantly a fan of some anime, but I’ll admit, the medium has been really hit or miss for me. There are some brilliant stories and a lot of stuff that’s just not for me. But when I heard about an anime film that shows World War II through the eyes of two orphaned Japanese children, I knew I had to give it a shot. Grave of the Fireflies, directed by Isao Takahata (The Tale of Princess Kaguya) who was a colleague of Hayao Miyazaki, is a moving and heart-breaking story about the horrors of war and the importance of family in a setting that American viewers don’t often think about. I’ll warn you now: it’s quite sad, and your soul will undoubtedly die a little bit as you watch this. But it’s still a beautiful story that I’m glad I experienced. And if you’re wondering, there is an English dub and it’s pretty decent.

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The Breakfast Club

The Breakfast Club

“You see us as you want to see us: in the simplest terms, in the most convenient definitions. But what we found out is that each one of us is a brain, and an athlete, and a basket case, a princess, and a criminal. Does that answer your question? Sincerely yours, the Breakfast Club.”

There are teen movies that are simply about teenagers, and there are teen movies that define universal teenage experiences. The Breakfast Club, directing by John Hughes (Home Alone, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off) and starring a host of 80s teen stars, is one of the latter. This movie not only defines and portrays universal teenage experiences, but it shows teenagers discovering that many of the things they thought were unique to them are, in fact, shared amongst all of them. Admittedly, this movie will probably not be mind-blowing for anyone over 30; but younger folks, especially those in high school and college, may walk away with some new insight into life. It shows that, no matter who you are, there are no good guys or bad guys in life—there are only people with different experiences, different outlooks, with probably a lot more in common with you than you think, and anyone can choose to be good or bad no matter where they are in life.

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The Graduate

The Graduate

“It’s like I was playing some kind of game, but the rules don’t make any sense to me. They’re being made up by all the wrong people. I mean, no one makes them up. They seem to make themselves up.”

(I typically keep reviews spoiler-free, but this one will have some discussion of the ending.)

I’ve always considered the 60s to be one of the weakest decades of cinema. There are some gems, to be sure, but the carefree, whimsical spirit in most of the movies of that era just didn’t connect with me. That’s a shame, as the cultural revolution in the 60s is actually a fascinating thing—I really wish there were more movies about that. Well, The Graduate, directed by Mike Nichols (Closer, The Birdcage) and starring Dustin Hoffman, is the movie the 60s needed. No movie summed up the revolution’s conflict—and its consequences—so eloquently as this movie. Even if you don’t dig into the symbolism, it’s a very competent comedy in its own right, with smart writing, a killer soundtrack, and just the right amount of drama hiding under the surface.

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Secretary

Secretary

“Who’s to say that love needs to be soft and gentle?”

BDSM used to be a pretty taboo topic—until the godawful Fifty Shades of Grey exploited it as an artless debacle. But back in 2002, it was a pretty foreign topic in cinema, often used as a raunchy joke if it appeared at all. Secretary, directed by Steven Shainberg (Rupture, Hit Me) and starring Maggie Gyllenhaal and James Spader, could have been either a sermonizing condemnation of the subject matter or a gratuitous exploitation of it; but the way the movie respects the relationship it portrays elevates this from the drivel that usually surrounds the topic. And with great writing and great performances from both leads, this is a fascinating portrait of how a real relationship with BDSM aspects could develop.

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Sideways

sideways

“Half my life is over and I have nothing to show for it. Nothing. I’m a thumbprint on the window of a skyscraper. I’m a smudge of excrement on a tissue surging out to sea with a million tons of raw sewage.”

There are two types of jerks in this world: those overwhelmed by a crippling lack of self-esteem, and those overwhelmed by a crippling excess of it. Sideways, directed by Alexander Payne (The Descendants, About Schmidt) and starring Thomas Haden Church and the criminally underrated Paul Giamatti, shows a small road trip with one of each type. The movie is subtle, deep, and complex, although not necessarily hard to follow. There are also a lot of smart wine metaphors and tidbits—so much so that this movie actually boosted the sales of Pinot Noir and hurt the sales of Merlot the year it came out. It’s also a great comedy-drama that I thoroughly enjoyed.

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12 Angry Men

12 Angry Men

“We may be trying to let a guilty man go free, I don’t know. Nobody really can. But we have a reasonable doubt, and that’s something that’s very valuable in our system. No jury can declare a man guilty unless it’s sure.”

There are some movies that nearly everyone would enjoy, and there are some movies that nearly everyone needs to see at some point in their lives. 12 Angry Men is universally loved (it’s one of the few films to achieve a 100% rating on movie review aggregator site Rotten Tomatoes), but it’s also one I think everyone needs to see. The movie is not only an excellent drama; it’s also an excellent primer on the American judicial system, and a great parable for justice and prejudice in the modern world. Directed by Sidney Lumet (Dog Day Afternoon, Network), this relatively simple movie is absolutely flawless and earns its place as one of the best films ever made.

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