Category Archives: List

The Best Movies of 2012

Now that the Oscars have come and gone I guess I have to get off my butt and write something about 2012 in review. There’s a few I haven’t seen that have been delaying a year in review piece, not to mention my general inertia. 2012 was a good year for movies. We had smart blockbusters, moving and intelligent dramas and creative genre flicks. It was not, disappointingly, a banner year for animation. Pixar’s Brave, despite its Oscar, was good not great; Wreck-It-Ralph was middling if above-average; the year’s stop-motion offerings never sold me on investing the time to watch them (we can’t all be Coraline, I guess). There are lot I would still really like to see, including the early-year Studio Ghibli offering from Disney The Secret World of Arrietty. If you’ve any desire to watch that, ArgoBeasts of the Southern WildSeven Psychopaths or something that I overlooked, call me up and let’s get together.

Here are my top 10:

10) The Cabin in the Woods

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If you’d like to see a Joss Whedon movie from the past year which holds up under multiple viewings and whose last act is not its weakest half hour, The Cabin in the Woods is your bloody alternative to The Avengers. Written by Whedon and directed by Drew Goddard (Cloverfield), Cabin is a riotous deconstruction of the horror genre with loads (buckets?) of third act payoffs.

9) Silver Linings Playbook

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Silver Linings somehow manages to feel sharp and loose at the same time. As evidenced by the all around nominations for its leads (Jennifer Lawrence, Jacki Weaver, Bradley Cooper and Robert DeNiro), the story is lit up by vivid characters with believable personalities that aren’t romanticized. Director David O’Russell cooked up a spicy jumble with their various talents, but the different roles don’t quite coalesce into a cohesive dramatic texture. DeNiro is Acting and Cooper is Acting but often next to each other rather than in conversation. Still, the film is an interesting personal story involving mental illness, family and healing. Even if it doesn’t quite have the subtle charms of great drama, it’s involving nonetheless.

8) Flight

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Compared with its predecessor on this list, Flight is the better film about mental illness. It gets a lot about addiction right, even if Denzel’s DWI pilot skills strain credulity. His raw magnetism helps the film focus around the character and draw us into the question of what will become of his self-destructive behavior.

7) Moonrise Kingdom

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Wes Anderson’s latest changes gears by focusing his childish aesthetic on actual children rather than childish adults and/or adults with troubled childhoods. In a sense, the central question of the film is whether these kids will be allowed to thrive or whether they’ll one day wear that thousand yard stare Bill Murray always affects with such comic detachment. Its delightfully rewatchable, even if at times it feels like Anderson’s silliest effort.

6) Django Unchained

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Tarantino’s second revenge-themed historical fiction isn’t as narratively tight or philosophically intriguing as its predecessor Inglourious Basterds, but its hard to begrudge a film that wants to put slaveholders under the knife. Django may be the bloodiest, wildest and most uncomfortable of Tarantino’s myriad works. That said, the tone befits the subject material. There is no reverent historical detachment here: just queasy, loquacious cruelty.

5) Premium Rush

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Too few films have the single-mindedness of David Koepp’s Premium Rush, a film so committed to its namesake that it reminds you of how threadbare elements can be masterfully spun into tension and thrills. The bicycle chase premise sounds lame but the movie makes a breathless, nail-biting go of it. What would seem to be the throwaway picture in Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s stellar year is actually the stand out winner.

4) Indie Game: The Movie

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Perhaps less deserving than all the acclaimed documentaries I didn’t see this year, Indie Game does for game developers what Exit Through the Gift Shop did for street art: reveal a little known and understood subculture as a lively home for the artistic soul. The film focuses on three very small development teams and illustrates how they put their hearts and bank accounts on the line in the process of trying to bring their games to market. If Roger Ebert still cares about whether video games can be art or not, Indie Game: The Movie should settle the question for him.

3) Les Miserables

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My friends (i.e. my readers) may be surprised to hear that Les Mis is one of the most critically contentious films of the year, seemingly drawing the intense ire of some voices due a perceived threat to what counts as “good art” in the film world. I have to say, there are a lot of creative choices in this film that don’t really work. But, like other adaptations of the same, Les Mis works nearly in spite of itself. It helps that the source material is so strong, the musical so well-written and deeply moving. But understand, those aren’t strengths of the movie–the critical question is how well this particular adaptation handles the various parts. But I’m willing to engage with it as a surface experience in toto, and in that regard it was one of the most moving films I’ve ever seen.

2) Zero Dark Thirty

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Otherwise known as the best Law & Order episode ever made, the ever-sharp Kathryn Bigelow has given us the War on Terror as the ultimate police procedural underscored by the heartfelt cost of human lives weighed against the ethical cost of “enhanced interrogation”. The film’s torture scenes read nothing like the grisly fare one might be expected to see at the movies, yet they’re deeply unsettling for their closeness to home and reflection of reality. Zero Dark Thirty sidesteps questions of rah-rah jingoism by recasting patriotism as hearts panged with the loss of innocents and faced with the dehumanized treatment of POWs. The film is tense, single-minded, emotionally arresting and by all accounts a masterwork of filmmaking.

1) Lincoln

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Finally, though Lincoln doesn’t have the austerely taut perfection of Zero Dark Thirty, I’m giving it extra points for moving dramatic sweep. Spielberg frames Daniel Day-Lewis’s superb turn as the sixteenth president with the political process of the constitutional amendment to end slavery, sublimely underscoring the connection between the personal and the political. Like Les MisLincoln celebrates the Christian-liberal virtues of human dignity and equality–it just makes a seriously fewer number of mistakes in being a movie that does that and is so much stronger for it.

While I am sure I am eventually going to get to the smaller films I didn’t see this year, I have to say this was a great year for studio movies. Even the year’s biggest film, The Avengers, had the wit and verve of Joss Whedon animating it. I am disappointed that the year’s animation offerings weren’t stronger, but what is most clearly an artist’s medium will surely yield great works again in the future. It would be great for there to be a 2D animation renaissance driven by a Miyazaki-like auteur, though it’s safe to assume the CGI films will continue to dominate the market.

I am happy that the some of the strongest films on offer this year were full of hope. I still love No Country for Old Men, but I think our culture doesn’t need any help in being amoral and nihilistic. Les Miserables has proven the deep and broad appeal of fundamental Christian proclamations, probably showing the church part of the direction it should take in order to intuitively appeal to our culture. Lincoln has this moral urgency as well; even its twisted counterpart Django Unchained has its own morality, however bloodthirsty. And Zero Dark Thirty stands at their intersection, squeamishly juxtaposing heartfelt humanism–and its enduring symbol, the immutable value of a single life–and bloodthirsty revenge.

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Who Should Direct Star Wars 7?

I’m cautiously optimistic about the Disney buyout of Lucasfilm. Apparently there’s plenty of nerd rage circulating the interwebs about it right now, with cries of, “NO! That’s not true! That’s impossible!!” and whatnot.

But, as with most Jedi devotees, the purity of my love for the series was forever ruined by The Phantom Menace and its follow ups. I’ll never forget the series of disappointments that film piled on, the slow realization as it went on that it wasn’t going to fundamentally redeem itself. Lucas et al did not seem to have considered what made the original trilogy work, but rather treated the material as an intellectual property that could be strip mined for flimsy stories sold on their special effects.

Lucas knew that people would go see the movie, and did not waste time with things like mystery or working to get us invested in the characters. Lucas, legal and creative despot of the Star Wars and Indiana Jones properties*, had free reign to make whatever the heck he wanted. The prequels have the feeling of half-baked ideas run amok, ultimately flashy, hollow products lacking any compelling aesthetic or narrative sensibilities. I’m overstating my case somewhat, but it fuels how I feel about the Disney takeover of the intellectual property (from here on, IP).

Because Lucasfilm has already reduced the Star Wars brand to an IP to be mined for corporate entertainment, it makes sense for it to be taken over by a company who often succeeds at doing that to great effect. Not that Disney hasn’t churned out its fair share of crappy movies, but, like many others this past week, I would point to the Disney takeover of the Marvel and Pixar brands of positive examples of what the Mouse House can do with pre-existing IPs or studios. This is the framework (effective corporate takeover of an entertainment IP) that should shape how think about which directors are best suited to the task of helming Star Wars 7.

First off, there are some big name directors who are just not viable options. Industry moguls like James Cameron, Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson are invested in their own projects and studios and would surely never deign to be squeezed into the Disney’s re-energizing of the Star Wars franchise. Two other fan favorites, Chris Nolan and Joss Whedon, are less impossibly unlikely yet ill-fitting for various other reasons. God spare us gritty or post-modern turns in the Star Wars film canon.

There are other highly talented directors who haven’t been as widely proposed but might at first seem like good fits. Guillermo del Toro, master of the truly alien, is too infested in his brand of subversive fantasy-horror to come to a gee-whiz IP like Star Wars. Brad Bird, who gave us The Incredibles and Mission Impossible 4, is too witty and kinetic–I don’t see him thriving in broadly epic adventure mode. Insanely talented stylists like Alfonso Cuaron and Ridley Scott don’t fit, precisely because Star Wars has never really been about style.

The worst case scenario is that we get some awfully pedantic director hired for bringing effects heavy tent-pole films to the screen on time and under budget. Chris Columbus, of the first two Harry Potter‘s, would be one, Jon Turteltaub of the National Treasure films would be another. Stephen Sommers helmed the first two Mummy films and was entrusted with the second installment of G.I. Joe. Shawn Levy gave us the Night at the Museums, the three-letter nick-named McG both Charlie’s Angels as well as Terminator 4. And then there’s Brett Ratner–*shudder*. Anyone who fits this bill would count as a loss to me.

Here are some guys I think could make it work–and seem like realistic possibilities given that it’s Disney doing the hiring.

Andrew Stanton (Finding NemoJohn Carter)

Despite the colossal mess that was John Carter, a lot of its problems seem inherent to the unlimited freedom the studio gave to Stanton to make a convoluted fanboy indulgence rather than a streamlined and effective pop thrill ride. Stanton is a talented director, and Carter shows the promise of a large-scale, effects-driven adventure that could have been.

Gore Verbinski (Pirates of the CaribbeanRango)

Verbinski oversaw Disney’s most lucrative franchise of the past decade, and while the Pirates sequels weren’t as fun as the first, they remain agreeable effects-driven tentpole films. Additionally, Verbinski’s penchant for weirdness and art design could really serve the Star Wars universe well. He could bring back some of the strange textures that the Jim Henson workshop imbued Empire and Jedi with.

Robert Zemeckis (Back to the FutureThe Polar Express)

Zemeckis has finally broken his decade long absence from live action film with the highly acclaimed Flight, and could follow that up by taking over SW7 for Disney. He made Who Framed Roger Rabbit? with them in the late 80’s, and has been obsessed with effects-driven films for virtually his entire career. He’s made some highly popular classics like Spielberg and Cameron, but he doesn’t seem to be tied up in future projects in the same way that they are.

Joe Johnston (The RocketeerJurassic Park 3Captain America)

Johnston is a serviceable director who tends to work with effects, and his pop-classicism would be a great fit for the Star Wars universe. Captain America was an especially great showing for him, and the Marvel-Disney connection might get him on the list.

Jon Favreau (ElfIron ManCowboys & Aliens)

The same goes for Favreau. He has a both a great eye for action and snappy dialogue timing. If the next Star Wars has any of the verve of the Iron Man films it will be better for it.

Pete Docter, Andrew Adamson, John Lasseter (various)

These guys, like Andrew Stanton, are all talented directors working in animation. Adamson has already made the transition to live action (from Shrek to The Chronicles of Narnia) but Docter (Up) and Lasseter (Toy StoryCars) could both reasonably break out of Pixar and make a fantastic Star Wars film. Although Lasseter certainly knows how to make an entertaining film, as current head of Disney Animation Studios he is the least likely of the three to take or be offered the job.

In My Dreams: Hayao Miyazaki

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Top Ten

It has been in the news this past week that Vertigo supplanted Citizen Kane as the #1 film on the once-in-ten-years Sight & Sound critics poll. The list, which can be found here, is a technical one, with all kinds of academic choices mostly meaningful to critics and other film analysts. What it ultimately means is up for grabs, although without a doubt we’ll soon be seeing Vertigo re-issues boldly bearing the “Best Film of All Time” label. And, also inevitably, it has inspired pretty much every critic I’ve come across to compile a list of their own.

List-making in film criticism is a fun activity, a bit silly, and usually a way of saying “I really liked these movies!” Some have academic reasons for their choices. Citizen Kane, a great film yet absent from my own list, has often been declaimed supreme for its stylistic and narrative innovations which have become mainstays of filmmaking ever since. Personally, I don’t write or think in the style of the rigorous film academic; I tend to go with my gut. Criticism for me is a way to examine that gut reaction, to understand how a film is put together and how it effectively (or ineffectively) engages me as a watcher. I therefore don’t present the following as a serious engagement with all of film history, but as a reflection of my haphazardly cultivated taste in film and my watching habits (you’ll find nothing made before 1958 on this list).

List-making, for someone who love movies with some degree of seriousness, is hard–especially anything bearing the “all-time” label. Sometimes this is done in consensus, which is an easier process but one that yields less satisfying results. The consensus of the critical community has kept Citizen Kane at the top of the list because everyone can recognize its greatness, but it may have kept films intensely loved by individuals out of the running. The conspicuous position of Vertigo on my list may to some seem like a cheap ploy for cred, but I really can’t place it any differently for the sake of avoiding that impression. This is a list of films I love: love to watch, to think about, to rewatch, to defend, to show to other people, to enjoy in all their vivid cinematic richness. I had to eliminate films I really wanted to include and directors I wanted to forefront–there’s no Minority Report, no Coen brothers, no Tarantino. No Pixar or Wes Anderson, no Star Wars, no Raiders of the Lost Ark. I have had to forego my desire to honor the films that have been influential and memorable, and think about which ones are most so, or are the deeper cinematic wells which contemporary directors have drawn on to craft their masterpieces.

10. Pan’s Labyrinth

Guillermo del Toro’s Spanish-language fairy tale isn’t for kids, though adult viewers will be reminded of what it was like to learn about the darkness in this world. It’s a film set in two worlds that exist right on top of each other, where it’s clear even the things of nightmares are no more hellish than what humans are capable of ourselves. The fantastic and mythical have a vibrant weirdness here, and a danger that undermines typical Marxist reductions of religiosity to “opiate”. The film’s most “religious” character–Olivia, the protagonist girl who frequents the fairy world–is a somewhat naughty child, an independent at heart, and a sharp contrast to the pseudo-Catholicism of her Fascist stepfather.

9. Dr. Strangelove

I struggled with how to place this movie, which began my love of “art” movies in college through its darkly absurd comic approach to nuclear annihilation. It’s a stunningly potent work of satire from just before the social upheaval of the late 60’s, whose sharp focus on the foolishness of American warhawks would no doubt have drawn the ire of McCarthy’s witchhunts just a decade before. In black and white, long after that era had past, its color scheme mirrors the for-us/against-us duality of the Cold War while clearly lambasting both sides of the nuclear arms race as arrogant idiots who almost seem eager to send humanity to hell in a handbasket.

8. Blade Runner

As far as I can tell, the noir twist to Blade Runner is innovation of the filmmakers and not inherent to Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. Director Ridley Scott engineered a lavish production for this brooding genre-crossover. It has wondrously intricate sets, special effects that still look pretty good, considering, and a vibrant color palette that especially pops on the “Final Cut” released a few years ago. The images here have clearly been labored over to produce and stylize, not just examples of technical proficiency but intentional artistic composition. Perhaps more than any other science fiction film, it presents a lived-in world which yet clearly belongs to the movies. Ever since Scott has been able to excise studio-imposed elements like Harrison Ford’s atrocious Bogart-style voiceovers, the film has taken on a meditative quality. The scenery-conscious pace, the vivid colors and Vangelis’s synth score all come together to suggest a dreary future of intersecting flesh and circuitry.

7. Jaws

Yes, the shark still looks fake. The technical problems with that shark, however, forced young upstart director Steven Spielberg to keep it from full view for most of the movie, half-inadvertently yielding a masterpiece of tension and the fear of the unseen. The film has a primal power in its three-men-and-the-sea, man versus nature dynamic, the ludicrousness of the serial killer shark notwithstanding. Spielberg’s excellent compositions and staging elevate the material, as well as his pointed human touches like the scene where Brody’s son mimics him or the famous scar-comparison sequence that leads into old salt Quint’s monologue about the USS Indianapolis. It’s a tightly-constructed film with no unnecessary moments and lots of stunning ones, not least the sequence where Chief Brody witnesses a shark attack from the beach. In Spielberg’s subsequent career he has gone on to revisit thrilling adventure and primal terror in one way or another, but never so succinctly and effectively as in Jaws.

6. Singin’ in the Rain

The first time I saw Singin’ in the Rain was only a day or so after a viewing of Moulin Rouge. Whereas the latter film contains song and dance sequences which might have been edited in a wood-chipper, Singin‘ celebrates the unmistakable talent it’s showcasing while following a plot about the artifice at the heart of the movies and the vanity of stardom. The song and dance numbers of stars Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor and Debbie Reynolds have been captured in long takes which showcase the amazing legwork of its stars even though, as acknowledged in the plot, there’s no way to prove any of them are singing their own lines. Kelly’s ode to full body music crescendos in an extended sequence that takes place entirely in his character’s head as he imagines what the most spectacular and stunning song and dance movie would look and sound like. It’s an abstracted flight of fancy allowing for long-form performances unfettered by the pedantic constraints of plot and dialogue.

5. 2001: A Space Odyssey

2001 is often remembered for its second act plot about an A.I. gone rogue, but did you know that the film is an epoch-spanning conjecture about unseen extra-terrestrials guiding human evolution? Stanley Kubrick went to renowned science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke to see about making the definitive science fiction film. Simultaneously developed as both a novel and screenplay, the film does its best to grapple with human existence vis-a-vis the vast unknown of the universe with special attention to the role technology has played in human development. The dialogue-free twenty minutes which begin the film involve a herd of missing link man-apes who learn to use tools after encountering a mysterious black slab (named by Clarke as “the monolith”) and gain the upper hand over the tribe with whom they’ve been fighting over the local water hole. In an edit encompassing the ancient past and unknown future of technology, the bone-as-weapon employed by the man-apes is tossed into the air only to segue directly to a roughly bone-shaped spaceship. Such is the film’s scope and ambition.

Kubrick approaches the events with a curious anthropology in view. Future humans (of the fictive year “2001”) are no more able to comprehend what the monolith is when they find one on the moon than their evolutionary forebears. And when astronaut Dave Bowman encounters the third monolith in the outer reaches of the solar system, viewers are treated to a psychedelic sequence of color and light which they’re no more able to understand than the man on the screen. In sharp contrast to the bold claims of the “new” atheists, Kubrick shaped a film which approaches questions of human existence as an ineffable mystery rather than one easily teased out by the scientific method.

4. Spirited Away

Speaking of ineffable, try feasting your eyes on the fanciful grotesqueries of Hayao Miyazaki’s 2001 twist on Alice in Wonderland. Like Singin’ in the RainSpirited Away is all about the sheer artistry of what’s on the screen. Such an overwhelming amount of color, motion and detail has been used to conjure this spirit world that Disney productions compare more favorably to still life paintings. Director Miyazaki employs these wild and wonderful images for the story of a whiny preteen girl introduced to a world of danger when her parents anger the spirits inhabiting a run down bath house. The pleasure of the film is as much the budding of her steely resolve as it is Studio Ghibli’s artwork, the two potently coinciding in a wacked out climax that pits the young girl against a greedy hunger demon. Miyazaki deftly weaves together a coming of age story with themes of love, selfishness and hard work, suggesting visually through so many images of contorting fluids the dynamic nature of human personality and development.

3. Psycho

Hitchcock’s films set in America often played off a contrast between the “normal” surfaces of middle class life and the dangers lurking around the corner or underneath the squeaky-clean surface. Every Wall Street power executive was a potential secret agent, every secretary a potential grand larcenist. Psycho begins with the latter, continuing to turn over pristine appearances for their seedy underbellies through the first murder and on to the film’s final reveal. It all hinges on Anthony Perkins’ complex performance as a good natured American boy with all kinds of psycho stuff lurking just beneath the surface. What’s terrifying about the movie is the charmingly awkward way he has with Marion when she first arrives at the Bates Motel, only gradually doling out hints of underlying malice. Norman Bates could be anyone–the boy next door, so to speak–and therefore anyone could be psycho.

Psycho begins with an impulsive moment of theft which spirals Marion Crane’s life–and those who care about her–out of control. Not only does Norman’s apparent normalness suggest the tenuous reliability of appearances, but the rippling consequences of Crane’s actions suggest the fragility of the social contract in the way that it leads to death and danger for herself and others. Hitchcock, as in the gradual reveal of Norman’s dangerous nature, carefully doles out these consequences to the other characters in wondrously suspenseful sequences of innocents walking into a trap.

2. Goodfellas

If Psycho tried to show the dark things lurking just beneath the surface and the “normal” people who might turn on a dime, Goodfellas says the surface is for schnooks and paints the lurker’s life a colorful joyride of easy cash and taking what you want. Scorsese has no interest in the buttoned down secret-bearers of Eisenhower’s America–his world is powered by big personalities, big emotions and the blood spilled between them. His protagonist isn’t a white collar conservative from middle America but a blue collar kid from the Bronx who “always wanted to be gangster”. Goodfellas gives us three decades in the life of Henry Hill, a real-life Irish-Italian kid who started doing small jobs for the local mafia and ascended through the ranks alongside of bigger than life personalities who pulled ambitious heists like the multi-million dollar Lufthnasa job depicted in the second part of the film.

It’s hard for me to put into words why I love this movie, but I can say that it works like a drug. It’s an addictive, thrilling story that gets you caught up in this alternate world that exists or once existed alongside our own. The performances are sharp, compelling, giving us a voyeur’s look at violent and confident characters who seem to act on instinct and craft their own little animal kingdom where murder and wealth go hand and hand. Goodfellas makes it easy to understand why someone would get into that life and why they would want to get out, simultaneously teasing us with the glamour while turning us away with the gore. It’s an electric movie, epic in scope, revolting in detail, aggressively rewatchable. Organized crime has never looked so good looking so bad.

1. Vertigo

If you haven’t seen Vertigo and at all have an appetite for moviewatching, go see this right now. Films lauded as this one have been are often open to charges of inaccessibility and sluggish pacing, but if you’ve ever enjoyed a psychological thriller you’ll like Vertigo. Alive with color and skillful images, Hitchcock’s definitive film chronicles the budding obsession of cop-on-leave Scotty Ferguson with the woman he’s been paid to tail by a concerned husband. Bernard Herrmann’s evocative score reflects the mesmerizing effect she has on him, the way he is drawn into events he has no understanding of through his basic compulsion. The film has nothing to do with buttoned-down secrets and everything to do with something mysterious and uncontrollable about the impulses that drive us to be who we are and do the things we do. In retrospect, even when Scotty seemed at most in control of his obsessions it is clear how they steered him to his fate; even if one can’t quite sympathize for the man the film does everything in the medium’s power to communicate the power this woman inadvertently comes to wield over him, makes his actions plausible (if never defensible) with respect to him as a character.

Whew. That list was both hard to whittle down and hard to write. Distilling the essence of a movie such that it reads as a compelling “best ever” candidate is a chore and I’m not sure I was up to the task in every case. In the end, my choices were based on the je nais se quois of my moviewatching, that compelling spark that some movies have which draws me to them over and over again.

Do you know what I mean? Do you have a top ten? What movies should be higher/lower? Which ones do you think are terrible? What did I miss? Let me know in the comments.

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10 Good Mythic Films

Snow White and the Huntsman reminded me of how easily attempts at mythic movie-making can fail. “Mythic” films tell archetypal stories which tend to have a fable-like quality suggesting that the particulars of their plot have universal resonances. Some of the most beloved and profitable films fit this category: here I offer my thoughts on which ones I think are the best.

10) Avatar

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Yes, it’s campy, but at heart James Cameron’s techno-epic is a warrior’s tale–not primarily of a grunt going native, but of a crippled fighter thrown into a whole new world who makes war for conscience’s sake. The audience, like Jake Sully, is drawn into Pandora spectator-style, meant to identify with his embrace of identity apart from either faction, to be drawn into the emotional rush of fighting for a worthy cause. The fact that Jake commands his alien army by tapping into their mythic memory, infusing them with hope via the taming of a great beast, drives home the point further.

9) King Kong

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This story of a strong native imported to American shores where it breaks free of domination only to be subdued again plays out like a postcolonial tragedy of Western hegemony. The white explorers are hopelessly weak in Kong’s jungle (they would never have captured him without exploiting his weakness for Ann Darrow); Kong is fearsomely dangerous in New York but ultimately manageable, thanks to technological violence (gun-mounted airplanes). The film’s power comes from the unsettling conflict between man and beast, civilization and nature.

8) Hellboy II: The Golden Army

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Civilization and nature provide ripe fodder for Guillermo del Toro’s refined sequel to Hellboy, where the hero’s struggle to keep the paranormal peace is contrasted with contemporary society’s casual contempt for the natural and spiritual. The film paints a vivid picture of a mythic world existing just underneath the surface of our own, a surface from under which even the gods rise to challenge our modernistic attempts to control and consume our environment.

7) Princess Mononoke

Irontown

You can just barely make out that the sloping embankments surrounding the town are freckled with jutting, sharpened tree trunks as a bastion against the outside.

Del Toro’s aforementioned film so closely hews to this film’s themes (right down to the foliage-spawning forest god) that it seems unthinkable that it did not serve as direct inspiration. The setting, however, is at the birth of modernity, where industrial towns are freshly hewn from nature and must fight the gods tooth and nail in order to stand their ground. Beloved (especially by me) writer-director Hayao Miyazaki curiously paints his combatants in shades of gray (though not fifty, thank God) while lionizing the brave but cursed Ashitaka for his attempts to bring peace between man and nature.

6) The Matrix

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What if I took both? Whoa.

The first action film to show us a truly malleable reality gloriously enfleshed its technological advancement within a script which skirted the edges of real and unreal, teasing us with hints of an otherness unknown to ordinary life. We’re right there with Mr. Anderson on his journey through the rabbit hole, desirous to know what mysteries lay beyond the purview of workaday existence. It’s probably the one of the best films about liminality, and more time spent before reaching the bullet-ridden climax could have proved interesting. Ironically, ignorance of the things which were to come in sequels proved to be the real bliss.

5) Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

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I really do mean to treat this film/book separately from the rest of the series, as it was in Rowling’s conclusion that all the themes of the series really came through most clearly and sharply. She has given us a great saga about death and redemption, the filmmakers great mythical moments like the animated “Tale of the Three Brothers”. Love saves the day in Harry Potter, the whole series adding up to a religiously fervent rebuke to death itself.

4) No Country for Old Men

And this would be Harry Potter’s cynical counterpart. The simple tale of greed and violence is framed by the old fashioned musings of Tommy Lee Jones’s aging sheriff, who finds himself wanting in the face of true evil. Brilliantly adapted from the novel by the agnostically prankish Coen brothers, we’re presented with a laconic world of blood and men behaving like animals, left wondering whether or not anything can ever be done about it.

3) The Lord of the Rings

To give a just treatment of these three films would take more time and energy than I’m willing to give. Tolkien’s tale at heart depicts a dire conflict between evil and those who resist it. It’s length derives from his focus on the unexpected journeys in which resistors will almost always find themselves embroiled. And it’s about as well done as can be conceived. Peter Jackson used the source material as an opportunity to showcase further developments in effects technology, while mixing in all kinds of old-fashioned techniques for lovingly layered and always awesome visuals. He gave us the first taste of impossibly vast digital armies going to arms for our entertainment, a once-impressive feat which has now become unfortunately rote.

2) Pan’s Labyrinth

Del Toro’s magnum opus (so far) is not so much concerned with man and nature as it is with death and hope. A young girl copes with the cruelty of her Franco-philic stepfather via a gnarled faun who tests her fitness for the mythical world. Neither the “natural” nor “supernatural” world promise safety to the threatened girl, but her journey offers the hope of a world not bound by the cruelty and hate of postwar Spain circa 1944.

1) Star Wars

As with Harry Potter, I again mean to treat one film separate from its counterparts, although this time the first one instead of the last. George Lucas the myth-remixer is on full display here, doling out information with restraint rather than flinging the whole story at the screen all at once, letting the lonely isolation of Tatooine set in such that the audience is hungry like Luke for something more. The film’s opening shot is a powerfully condensed picture of human history: the strong preying on the weak. From then on every action and moment is a response to that problem, the Force giving hope that something beyond us will equip us in the struggle against bondage, oppression and cruelty.


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