It’s a mixed bag of genres, ages and styles this week, including some of my favorite comedians, an entry from my favorite trilogy, and some of the finest sci-fi/fantasy films ever. Enjoy!
—In any screenwriting class the teacher will tell you to write what you know. If you don’t write what you know there’s no way you can connect with anything real in the world. Director Oliver Stone, a Vietnam veteran, saw all the evil that had been done under the sun, or the jungle in this case, and knew his material as well as anyone. Man needs a purpose and community. Stone points to a disconnect in both. Without community and purpose there is a vanity to life that can lead men to do unspeakable things. In this film, and Vietnam (so argues Stone), men do horrific things to each other in the absence of humanity. Winner of 4 Academy Awards, including Best Picture.
Directed by Oliver Stone, 1986. Starring Tom Berenger, Charlie Sheen and Willem Dafoe.
—Akira Kurosawa is easily one of the greatest filmmakers of all time, creating stories of masterful depth, grace and beauty in the existential dilemma of post-atomic Japan. Does life have value in a world where one machine can obliterate entire populations, or in a world where one man can rouse the hatred and bigotry of an entire nation, leading to the deaths of over 6 million Jews? Is there beauty and justice in this world? That Kurosawa reshapes Shakespeare’s Macbeth, with the element of man’s conscience lingering over his acts, as well as the ultimacy of the downfall of evil, fits achingly into the milieu of post-war Japan, and Kurosawa’s late ’50s philosophic framework.
Directed by Akira Kurosawa, 1957. Starring Toshiro Mifune
—Forrest Gump is a powerful reminder of the magic of motion pictures. It is a funny, heart-wrenching, and inspiring journey. Robert Zemeckis directs with a steady eye, and Tom Hanks is affective at the most human of levels. What many people do not realize about this is that it boasts some of the best visual effects of the era. It is not used to draw attention to itself, but used to enhance the magic of the story by sucking the audience in even more (like Lt. Dan’s leg, and talking to and shaking hands with President Kennedy). It won the Oscar for its visual effects. Now, people will sometimes point to Jenny’s amorality as a reason to dislike what they believe is a fun, family journey, but the movie is anything but that. Forrest Gump gives us a lens by which we can see pain and hopelessness in the world in light of the joy also present. This movie, coated with movie magic, does not think its audience stupid, or its story trivial. Winner of 6 Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Actor (Hanks).
Directed by Robert Zemeckis, 1994. Starring Tom Hanks, Gary Sinise and Robin Wright Penn.
—The sensational sequel to the mega-hit Star Wars is perhaps the best of all the Star Wars films. It takes the same originality and great story and kicks it up a notch. The introduction of the iconic Yoda, and the classic line, “Luke, I am your father,” as well as the scream that proceeds it, are some major highlights from this classic. The first Star Wars film was just an introduction to this universe, but this second installment opens the audience’s eyes to a whole different side. It’s like getting swept away for the first time all over again. And I loved that the filmmakers were comfortable leaving the ending as precarious as it is. It’s a marvelously large film that knows how to stay within itself, because after all, story is king here, everything else supports. Winner of 2 Academy Awards.
Directed by Irvin Kershner, 1980. Starring Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher.
—Ridley Scott’s incredible science fiction opus is one of the most refreshing and terrifying films of the 1980s. It not only sets a new standard in science fiction, but establishes the career of director Ridley Scott, and changed the way people thought about Harrison Ford. Up to this point in his career, Ford had played pretty much all good guys. Deckard is certainly the protagonist of Blade Runner, but he’s not necessarily a good “guy”. It just so happens that Ford was convincing enough to make it really count. Another thing that strikes me about this film is all of the layers, and all of the intrigue Scott puts into his characters. It is remarkable that this film is able to establish its credibility so early in the film so that it can vicariously earn the tenderness of its finale without heavy-handedly dipping too far into tickling our need for visceral sensation. This is a pretty magnificent piece of filmmaking! Nominated for 2 Academy Awards.
Directed by Ridley Scott, 1982. Starring Harrison Ford, Sean Young and Rutger Hauer.
—Some consider A Night at the Opera the Marx Brothers’ funniest film, and though I would give that distinction to Duck Soup, this is still certainly one of the funniest films ever made. The Marx Brothers pull off some of the funniest jokes and sight gags in cinematic history because they were masters with wordplay and visual comedic tension. They consistently generated and executed some of the most impressive [even by today’s (sorta low) standards] comedic sequences to grace our collective memory. The crowded boat sequence, the hotel room chase scene, the contract scene, and the final opera sequence are hysterically unforgettable! The Marx Brothers were easily my favorite comedians growing up, leaving teams like the Three Stooges and Abbott & Costello to eat their dust. Watch all the Marx Brothers you can; your life will be greatly enriched by them.
Directed by Sam Wood, 1935. Starring Groucho, Harpo, Chico Marx and Margaret Dumont.
—Toy Story is perhaps the finest example of any children’s film ever as to the infinite value of friendship and community. Maybe any movie ever. I haven’t done that much research. This might not even be the best Pixar film, but without this Finding Nemo, Wall-E, The Incredibles, and Up don’t get made, and don’t get made the way Pixar intended them: telling “true” stories that touch deep human realities. Though a fairly conventional American animated piece, Toy Story refuses to fit categorically as a child’s film. The leitmotif (musical motif) of Randy Newman’s You’ve Got a Friend in Me, while typical, is extremely affective. Through good times and bad, friends remain committed to each other. As new friendships form there is no amount of hate that can cover the committed love of friends. I believe this film is of parabolically biblical proportions. If I had children I would show them this film alongside of Scripture because its power lies in truth. Nominated for 3 Academy Awards.
Directed by John Lasseter, 1995. Starring Tom Hanks and Tim Allen.
—The Apartment is one of those rare mixes of incredibly intelligent, very funny, and dramaticly terrific. The film works as both a straight comedy and a straight drama, as writer/director Billy Wilder and his stars Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine do a magnificent job of displaying great human detail and emotion in even the funniest and darkest of scenes. It is a film that finds hope and love in the midst of the oppression and injustice of everyday life. Fred MacMurray also delivers a terrific performance, and Wilder’s script is as brilliant as they come! Winner of 5 Academy Awards including Best Picture.
Directed by Billy Wilder, 1960. Starring Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine and Fred MacMurray.
—American Beauty is, in my estimation, often a misunderstood film. I remember when it first came out, the talk surrounding it was naturally about Lester’s (Kevin Spacey) infatuation with a high school girl, and the celebration of his mid-life crisis. To view the film as such completely disregards the tag-line urging us to “…look closer.” There is so much more here than we often want to give it credit for because, while hilarious at times, is a difficult movie to absorb. The film asks that we too press into the pointlessness of life. There is nothing in this existence except, as the the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes mentions, a chasing after the wind. All things are vanity. We work and work and struggle, and for what? Death. Who can truly enjoy the life they’ve been given in a world full of so much pain, hopelessness and strife? Unlike many of us, Lester recognizes this, and in light of death’s inevitability, and life’s vanity, he decides to find out what it means to live again. And while he decides to take a route of amorality, he discovers the inexplicably bewildering Transcendent beauty in the world that leads to peace. The paradox of life’s simultaneous beauty and pointlessness is a profound tension to find yourself living in. And the film (as well as Scripture) implore us to look closer and discover this seemingly mystifying beauty. Winner of 5 Academy Awards, including Best Picture.
Directed by Sam Mendes, 1999. Starring Kevin Spacey and Annette Bening.
—Like looking in a mirror, this hilarious satire is a pretty fascinating look at the TV business, especially now. Jerry Springer, Howard Stern, all those judge and lawyer shows… none of it existed until after this film. Legendary screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky, like a great prophet, saw where all the things we hold dear would lead us, and its an absurd future where we consume primarily that which tickles our senses and entertains our fickle impulses, and a future where the only virtue is (as it has been before) money. Great cast! Great story! Winner of 4 Academy Awards, including Best Actor (Finch) and Best Actress (Dunaway).
Directed by Sidney Lumet, 1976. Starring Peter Finch, William Holden, Faye Dunaway and Robert Duvall.
PS: I do realize the misquote in Empire Strikes Back.