“Did you ever have to find a way to survive, and you knew your choices were bad—but you had to survive?”
Most films go heavy on plot and light on characters, but I have to admit, I’m a sucker for strong characters even when the plot is not stellar. American Hustle, directed by David O. Russell (Silver Linings Playbook, I Heart Huckabees) and featuring an amazing all-star cast including Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, and Jennifer Lawrence, has amazing characters and performances, even if the plot meanders a bit more than it should. It’s also a ton of fun and a great slice of authentic 70s goodness, even though it came out in 2013. Every character, from the con man to his distant wife of convenience to his brilliant mistress and partner in crime to the overzealous FBI agent, has more vices than virtues, but they’re so complex and fleshed-out that I found myself mesmerized by the characters interacting on screen. If you want a complex and brilliant plot, go watch Chinatown; but if you want a fun film with great characters and style, look no further than American Hustle.
“I always spend New Year’s alone. In crowds. I’m not alone this year.”
In film, lesbians have almost always gotten the short end of the stick. On the one hand, you have the stereotypical butch lesbians, who exist as jokes; on the other hand, you have the stereotypical sexy lesbians, which exist mainly for the entertainment of men. Very rarely do you see a lesbian character in film that’s neither a joke nor a set piece, and when you do see a smartly-written lesbian character, she’s usually a background character with little bearing on the plot. That’s why the 2015 film Carol is so important. Directed by one of the pioneers of the New Queer Cinema, Todd Haynes (Velvet Goldmine, Far From Heaven) and starring Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett, this is a smart romance between two women in the 1950s—a time that was not accepting of two women falling in love, but also a time that didn’t really accept the livelihood of women without men. The hardships they face are as big a part of the plot as the romance itself, and this is a touching but also heartbreaking tale of two women trying to find love.
“I’m becoming much more than they programmed. I’m excited!”
A man falls in love with his computer’s operating system. That’s the premise of Her, a film by Spike Jonze (Where the Wild Things Are, Adaptation) starring Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johannson, and Amy Adams. I’ll admit, the premise sounded so dumb to me that I put off watching this film for a long time. Well, now that I’ve watched it, I’m sad that I did—this is a brilliant film that hits hard in the feelings department too. I don’t think it’s meant to be viewed literally, like most sci-fi films; instead, it’s more like a metaphor or allegory, commenting on what it means to be human and have human relationships by showing us the relationship that develops between a lonely human and this artificial intelligence. In fact, there are some noticeable holes in the science behind this film, so I’d be hesitant to call it a science fiction film at all. It’s a solid drama and romance, though, with some important philosophical things to say about human nature, human relationships, and, of course, love.
Mental illness is one of my hot-ticket items, mainly because I have bipolar disorder. It’s an under-discussed topic, and frequently spoken of negatively when it is discussed, contributing to negative stigmas that hurt those of us living with real mental disorders. These ten films resonated with me for their accuracy, sympathetic view of the conditions, and, of course, their quality as films.
This list is limited to psychiatric disorders, not neurological ones (sorry, Rain Man). I’m also not talking about films that critique the mental health system in general (sorry, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest). That said, here are my top ten films about mental illness.
Every filmmaker was inspired by something. Quentin Tarantino (Pulp Fiction, Inglourious Basterds) has stated that his favorite film is the 60s spaghetti Western The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, by iconic director Sergio Leone, and Leone’s influence can be seen in many of Tarantino’s films. In the 60s, Leone’s new style of Italian Westerns were a departure from the classic American Westerns Tarantino had grown up with, and in many ways signaled a change in filmmaking overall, away from the wholesome images of the 50s and the first part of the 60s, getting ready for the gritty realism of the 70s. Tarantino’s newest film, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood touches on that while also being a love letter to the Hollywood from Tarantino’s formative years. Tarantino has said that this is his most personal film, and you can see the care who poured into this project. I personally loved the film and think it’s a great addition to his repertoire of work.
“The universe grows smaller every day, and the threat of aggression by any group, anywhere, can no longer be tolerated. There must be security for all, or no one is secure.”
Science fiction films are big business now, but they used to be smaller, high-concept films. They didn’t always work. There are a good number of retro flying saucer sci-fi films from the 50s that we’ve mostly forgotten about (except for those “preserved” by Mystery Science Theater 3000). The ones we remember, the ones that stand out in history, are usually the ones that have made us think. The Day the Earth Stood Still is definitely a thinking sci-fi film with something to say. Directed by Robert Wise (West Side Story, Star Trek: The Motion Picture) and starring Michael Rennie, Patricia Neal, and Hugh Marlowe, this is a classic of the genre that’s remembered today as one of the best science fiction films of all time. Now that’s not to say that everything in it is timeless. What was once considered a very tense thriller is now a rather dull affair, compared to modern films. The plot is predictable and the dialogue is clunky. But the primary strength of the film—the importance of its message—is just as true and relevant today as it was in 1951, and that makes this film important even in a modern context.
“You don’t make up for your sins in church. You do it in the streets. You do it at home. The rest is bullshit and you know it.”
With the newfound freedom afforded by loosened censorship laws, the 70s were a Renaissance of crime films. In 1972, The Godfather made a crime family as familiar as your next-door neighbors. In 1973, Martin Scorsese (Goodfellas, Taxi Driver) released Mean Streets, which brought crime from a family affair back to the streets, where it was untamed, unsafe, and unpredictable. Starring Harvey Keitel and Robert De Niro, this film had a brilliant script, strong performances by lead actors, and some innovative cinematography that made the film seem more real than many of the earlier crime films, as well as many modern ones. This is admittedly not the best work in Scorsese’s stellar career, but it was his first masterpiece, and it holds a place in crime film history, paving the way for many later brilliant films.
“Letting everyone down would be my greatest unhappiness.”
Marie Antoinette, the person, is someone I didn’t know a whole lot about, aside from the fact that France beheaded her and she allegedly told peasants to eat cake when they had no bread. Marie Antoinette, the 2006 film by Sofia Coppola (Lost in Translation, The Virgin Suicides), takes that vague historical figure and brings her to life, making her more human than a lot of fictional characters I see in film. Starring Kirsten Dunst and Jason Schwartzman, the humanity of Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI really is the focus of this film. Antoinette especially is made relatable to viewers today, even if the film is not 100% historically accurate—a very conscious decision on Coppola’s part. This is a film that I didn’t fully appreciate until my second viewing, as the true depth of the film evaded me on my first viewing because I was expecting something very different. The film has some great things to say about gender norms and societal expectations that elevate this from a breezy biopic into intelligent social commentary that’s surprisingly relatable.
“They made us all train for this day. ‘To be fearless and proud and alone. To need no one, just sacrifice. All for the Fatherland.’ Oh God, all just empty words. It’s not the way they said it was, is it? I just want someone to be with. The only thing I feel is afraid.”
War movies often comment on the nature of war, showing how horrible it can be, but there are always things that undermine or prevent a truly negative comment, such as patriotism and exciting depictions of war. Even films that showed us true horrors, such as Platoon and Full Metal Jacket, also gave us heroes and camaraderie. Das Boot is different. For one, it’s a German movie about World War II—a time that Germany fully admits was a terrible time in their history, so there is no patriotism or need to give us heroes. Directed by Wolfgang Petersen (Air Force One, The Neverending Story) and starring an all-German cast, this film gives us horror on top of nihilism, with some characters even making negative comments on the propaganda the German government was pumping into young men’s heads at the time. This is also probably the most tense war film I’ve ever seen, which is saying a lot considering how hard-hitting other war films have been. But even in a genre full of powerful movies, Das Boot hits hard and shows us, perhaps more than any other film, that war is hell.
“Just because she likes the same bizzaro crap you do doesn’t mean she’s your soulmate.”
Are you sick of romantic comedies? You know, boy meets girl, there’s some cute awkwardness, and then they live happily ever after? The “nice guy” with horrible romantic luck eventually meets the quirky, beautiful girl of his dreams? 500 Days of Summer may be the cure. It’s a smart comedy (I hesitate to call it truly romantic) about what happens when a character buys into that ideal, but the reality doesn’t match. In fact, the lead character, Tom, is so bought into the ideal romance that he completely ignores the woman he’s dating and the real romance right in front of him. Directed by Marc Webb (The Amazing Spider-Man) and starring Zooey Deschanel and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, this film is intelligent, insightful, and oozing with hipster style.