“You’re getting older, and you’ll see that life isn’t like your fairy tales. The world is a cruel place. And you’ll learn that—even if it hurts.”
Pan’s Labyrinth is really in a class of its own. Directed by Guillermo del Toro (The Shape of Water, Pacific Rim) and starring Ivana Baquero, Ariadna Gill, and Sergi Lopez, this is a curious mix of fairy tale and brutal war film, and it’s more imaginative than just about any other movie on this list. The movie comes to us from Spain, and it’s set during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). We see most of the film through the eyes of the young girl Ofelia, who isn’t completely aware of what’s going on with the war and instead finds herself thrust into a fairy tale world of fauns, fairies, and monsters, traveling back and forth between the worlds and seeing things unfold in both. There’s a deeper story, of course: Ofelia’s adventures in the fantasy world she discovers serve as an allegory for what’s going on with the war, and there are strong parallels between the two worlds in the film. This film is brilliant, beautiful, magical, and at times quite creepy, and there’s really nothing else like it.
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“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.
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“A boy’s best friend is his mother.”
When Paramount agreed to let Alfred Hitchcock (North by Northwest, Vertigo) make Psycho, they were sure it would be a flop—so much so that Hitchcock actually negotiated 60% of the profits rather than a flat rate. I had never seen the movie before last night, and I’ll admit, I wasn’t sure how good it would be. Well, Hitchcock proved Paramount and my doubts wrong—this is a masterpiece. Starring Anthony Perkins, Janet Leigh, and Vera Miles, this is as clever as it is classic, and, while it may be a bit tame by today’s standards, the suspense holds up very well. I’m not usually a big fan of horror movies, but I thoroughly enjoyed this one. It’s endured as one of the best horror films of all time, and that position is well-earned.
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“You still don’t understand what you’re dealing with, do you? The perfect organism. Its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility.”
The sci-fi genre has produced some brilliant movies; but for a long time, it failed to produce one thing: heightened suspense. Sci-fi movies made you think, but they rarely got your heart racing. Alien, directed by Ridley Scott (Blade Runner, Gladiator) and starring Sigourney Weaver and John Hurt, changed the genre. With a tagline like, “In space, no one can hear you scream,” you know you’re in for a wild ride. It’s not just a great sci-fi suspense movie—it’s probably one of the best suspense movies ever made. It doesn’t skimp on the science fiction, but this movie is downright terrifying, and it does it without resorting to cheap jump scares or excessive gore. Though often imitated, this is a movie that stands up very well today and earns its spot on the watch list of any serious cinema fan.
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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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“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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“John, if The Pirates of the Caribbean breaks down, the pirates don’t eat the tourists.”
It’s hard to think of a 90s movie more iconic than Jurassic Park. Directed by the legendary Steven Spielberg (E.T., Jaws) and starring Sam Neill, Laura Dern, and Jeff Goldblum, this is a movie that captivated everyone who saw it in theaters. Like all great sci-fi movies, it sparked our imagination for what science could do while also reminding us of the importance of ethics. It has all of the classic sci-fi qualifications along with a thrilling plot, great special effects, and a better original score than most sci-fi films. And it’s just as impressive today as it was when it came out 24 years ago.
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I’ll admit: I’m not the biggest fan of the horror genre. But The Shining does what most horror movies don’t even dream of: it’s truly a work of art. Directed by the legendary Stanley Kubrick (2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange), based on a book by horror master Stephen King, and starring Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall, it’s a horror movie that escapes the pitfalls of many other horror movies, such as cheap scare tactics and shallow characters. The result is a beautiful and well-written movie that’s frightening without being over-the-top.
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“All right, Popeye’s here! Get your hands on your heads, get off the bar, and get on the wall!”
The gritty police movie is familiar now; but when The French Connection came out in 1971, this was a pretty novel concept. Directed by William Friedkin (The Exorcist, Rules of Engagement) and starring Roy Scheider and a young Gene Hackman, this is a police movie more real than even most today. It’s actually based on real-life events and characters. Scheider and Hackman went on patrol with the real-life policemen who inspired the movie, learning the ins and outs of the real work they did. The NYPD was also involved in the movie, making script edits and even working with the film crew to help capture a car chase without getting the proper permits from the city. This is not the typical Hollywood police good guys versus evil criminals, where good ultimately triumphs in the end. Truth be told, I was a little shocked with the ending, although it fit the movie perfectly. All in all, this is a well-written police thriller with plenty of realism and bite.
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