Friday, June 04, 2010

My top seven favorite movies

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Well, looks like this meme’s on a roll (or, at least, was at the time of starting this). First Jerry Coyne (Why Evolution Is True) posted his twenty favorite movies; then, PZ Myers at Pharyngula and Jen at Blag Hag posted their own top five flicks. Several more probably have as well by the time this is finished. I suppose it’s only natural I continue the burgeoning trend with a little list of my own favorite films. I tend to be a bit more mainstream in my tastes, but what can I say? I don’t get to choose which movies I like or not, and at any rate, it’s not really as though a movie being arthouse or mainstream had any relevance to me and my appreciation for it. If it’s good, it’s good, end of story.

So, without further ado, here are my seven personal favorite films. Why seven? Because it’s a magic number. And is halfway between five and ten. So there. Now, There are so many films I enjoy that naming only a certain few, and especially trying to place them in order, is a rather tricky task. So, consider this as being more of a rough approximation than any sort of definitive indication of my movie-going tastes.

07: I Am Legend

This is easily my favorite disaster-themed movie. The plot, itself, is simple: the year is 2012 and humanity as we know it has been wiped out by a mutated virus, leaving only a single healthy person roaming the deserted streets streets of Manhattan, NYC. Enter Lt.-Col. Robert Neville (Will Smith), a US Army virologist who spends his days pillaging the city in search of food and equipment, in addition to carrying out research and experiments on surviving infected animals in his seemingly hopeless quest to find a cure, all the while accompanied by his ever faithful German Shepherd, Sam(antha). However, as you can imagine, he is far from alone – but I will not spoil anything here, even though you could arguably guess nearly everything that happens just from the setup I’ve detailed.

The movie has been criticized on a number of levels, mostly regarding its scientific accuracy and the overall plausibility of the plot. Naturally, I don’t give a damn about any of those. In terms of pure enjoyment, I Am Legend is the most well-crafted and heartfelt disaster flick I’ve seen, even turning into a veritable tear-jerker at times. The atmosphere and pacing are very well played out, keeping you in your seat and filling you with both wonder and dread at the sight of the hauntingly silent and still streets and buildings of the Big Apple. The performances are solid, especially Will Smith as the lead character, who brings a sense of morose resolution and finds a balance between business-as-usual and anxiety that not many disaster film roles can produce. The score, by the great James Newton Howard, mixes both uplift and depression, alternating from epic sweeping passages to furiously combative percussion segments during action scenes with elegance and subtlety. While not a masterpiece by any measure (particularly with the clusterfuck that is the rather senseless ending, along with the unfortunate inclusion of some annoyingly persistent “God’s plan” themes), I Am Legend is overall a very enjoyable film and has an easy spot in my favorites list.

Directed by Francis Lawrence | Written by Aki Goldsman and Mark Protosevich; original novel by Richard Matheson | Music by James Newton Howard | December 2007

06: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

By far the best of the Harry Potter films to date, Half-Blood Prince – ie. the sixth of seven – finds a way to stay truer to the original books than the previous films whilst still bringing an admirable adaption fit for the silver screen. We meet up with Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), now 16 and seriously edgy what with all the torture and loved ones being killed and being the only one who can fight the Dark Lord Voldemort and so on, as he tries to deal with the mounting forces for darkness that threaten to engulf the Wizarding World and destroy everything. With the help of his dear friends Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and Hermione Granger (Emma Watson), he must find a balance between schoolwork at Hogwarts, mounting teenage hormones and conflicting romantic tensions, and particularly, learning how to defeat Voldemort once and for all before it’s too late.

I gotta admit, this film surprised me; it’s much darker and more psychological than the previous films and succeeds at taking both itself and its audience quite seriously, all while still carrying that bit of whimsy and fantasy we expect and love in the Harry Potter franchise. It’s clearly intended for older audiences than before, that perfect mix of older children and young adults that the books themselves encompass so well. The acting is generally solid, though some performances do come across as a bit plain; the music is the best we’ve heard thus far, bringing back Nicholas Hooper from the previous film (Order of the Phoenix) and taking some of John Williams’ (who composed for the first three films) original themes and giving them a whole new depth, turning the mystical whimsy into darker and (dare I say it) more emotional pieces. The childlike innocence present through the first few movies has been replaced with a much more real-world aura, which only underlines how the movies and its characters are maturing as they age, just as with the books. With an engaging story (for those who know it), great casting choices (particularly Alan Rickman, who’s a better fit for the insidiously menacing Professor Snape than anyone else I can think of), a resonating score and an overall great execution, I have absolutely no qualms with putting Half-Blood Prince right where it belongs, in my number sixth spot.

Directed by David Yates | Written by Steve Kloves; original novel by JK Rowling | Music by Nicholas Hooper | July 2009

05: Princess Mononoke

The conflict between industrialism and the environment takes on a whole new level in this epic masterpiece of animation. From the unparalleled animation genius of Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli (Spirited Away, Grave of the Fireflies), Princess Mononoke (also known as Mononoke-Hime) is set in 1400–1500s-era Japan (the late Muromachi period) and focuses on the quest of one man, outcast prince Ashitaka (Billy Crudup) of the dying Emishi tribe, to find a cure for a terrible curse that he procured whilst saving his village from a horrific demon-monster and that is now eating away at him, both body and soul. Along his travels, he comes across Iron Town, a settlement deep in the mountains that relies on the mining of minerals from the ground underneath the surrounding forests to survive. Problem is, their mining destroys the forest, angering the beasts and ancient spirits that dwell within, including a young woman raised by wolves and known as Princess Mononoke (real name San) (Claire Danes). Ashitaka must decide where his loyalties lie and, after getting to know both sides of the conflict, is no longer certain about his destiny.

This is simply a breathtaking film and a true symbol of just what greatness animation can reach with enough time and effort. There’s almost nothing to really criticize about this film; the animation, obviously the focus of criticism in any animated film, is absolutely flawless and reaches the heights of wondrous at times. The characters and the scenery – oh, that beautiful scenery – are wonderfully drawn, breathing life into what could so easily have been a bland world. This was one of the very last animated films to be done almost entirely by hand, before the genre succumbed to the generalized use of computer animation. Some of the voice dubs can be a bit bland at times, but in general the performances are both credible and relatable. The score, by Studio Ghibli favorite Joe Hisaishi, is one of the more memorable aspects to the film (at least for music-lovers like me): always beautiful, earthly and truly encompassing the epic scale of the story it describes. This comes across as a story out of a fairy tale or some historical myth, an effect that only adds to the film’s charm. This grand film is easily worth a watch at the very least; please, do yourself (and cinematography) a favor and rent this, if you don’t already have it. You might just find yourself infatuated by the end of it. I know I did.

Directed by Hayao Miyazaki | Written by Hayao Miyazaki and Neil Gaiman. | Music by Joe Hisaishi | July 1997/October 1999

04: The Perfect Storm

I honestly don’t have a whole lot to say about this one. To be honest, my love for it is probably more out of lingering childhood adulation than a proper respect for its actual qualities and flaws. I would watch it over and over again, literally several times a day (as I would with any other movies I liked, really), to the point where I could probably recite every single line and camera angle by heart. (Yeah, I was a weird kid at times.) The plot itself is a somewhat loose portrayal of real-life events: in late September of 1991, disgruntled fisherman Billy Tyne (George Clooney) and his team depart from Gloucester, Mass., aboard the 70-feet-long longliner Andrea Gail in the hopes of hauling back one last decent catch before the end of the season. Unbeknownst to them, a deadly system of meteorological events has been set in motion and soon, they will find themselves faced with the “storm of the century”. Will they wait it out and lose their precious catch, or will they tempt fate for the money?

The film is based on the documentary-style book by Sebastian Junger, which I read only a few years ago. While the book stuck quite strictly to the known facts and then allowed some speculation on what might have happened, this obviously couldn’t have worked for a full-fledged motion picture. I won’t go into the details of what happens, although it’s probably simple to surmise how it all ends, if only judging by the beautiful theme. James Horner’s (Titanic, Avatar) score is once again my favorite piece of this movie’s puzzle (as is often the case with movies, really), sticking to traditional orchestral elements and producing passages that are at times epic, at times soft and soulful, at times dark and brooding. The performances in this film were pretty decent, though nothing to put on a pedestal, from the tender love scenes (no, not love-making) to the chaotic fights that break out every now and then. The story tends to take its time, sometimes to the point of becoming a bit boring as we wait for things to really get kicking; even the beginnings of the storm don’t begin until we’re halfway through the film, so those who just wanna see huge storms at once may find this a bit hard to sit through. Of course, though, being a maritime sorta-disaster film, it’s the special effects that steal the show. Orchestrated by Industrial Light & Magic, the realism they put into creating the apocalyptic seas and the poor vessels caught on it, from the increasingly battered Andrea Gail to a massive cargo ship (and a hapless pararescue helicopter caught in the midst), make for one chillingly convincing effect, even by modern standards. You could swear you truly were caught in the screaming winds and 100-foot swells, which all adds up to an experience that merits this movie its place on this countdown.

Directed by Wolfgang Peterson | Written by William D Wittliff and Bo Goldman; original book by Sebastian Junger | Music by James Horner | June 2000

03: Terminator 2: Judgment Day

If there ever were a model for how to make unsurpassable sequels, T2 would be the absolute reference. The plot is somewhat long-winded but simple enough to understand: a robot/machine/cyborg/whatever-the-hell-you-call-it (Arnold Schwarzenegger) is sent back through time to 1995 (the movie’s present) to protect then-10-year-old John Connor (Edward Furlong) from another killer robot (Robert Patrick), also sent back through time from the not-too-distant future where machines have taken over the world and launched an apocalyptic war against humanity. John, along with his mother Sarah (Linda Hamilton) from T1, must try to flee and hide to survive the newer, deadlier terminator, for John is destined to become the leader and savior of humanity against the machines when the war finally hits – unless they can stop it.

There are some movies that seem to be above any real criticism and that, no matter how hard you try, you just can’t find any actual flaws with them. T2 is a symbol for such films. It’s an odd one because while it’s not perfect, which would logically entail it to be the best film of all time, it also can’t really be improved on in any way (at least, as far as I can see). The performances are rock-solid across the board, from Arnold, who seemed born to play the emotionless Terminator, to the young headstrong John, with his fearful yet toughened mother looking after him. You’d expect this to be just another sci-fi shooter, but frankly, it probably fits better in the genre of drama at times than it does action of sci-fi, and this is actually a good thing in this case. The story, though interspersed with plenty of action, fighting and explosions to keep the adrenaline junkies interested, is surprisingly deep, taking its time to develop into a moving and thought-provoking experience. Some scenes are remarkably powerful, be they light-hearted (“learning to smile”) or reflective on the world and human nature. Philosophy, especially morality, is a prominent theme throughout the film, which really takes it to a whole new level of action film that hasn’t really been reached before or since.

Directed by James Cameron | Written by James Cameron and William Wisher Jr. | Music by Brad Fiedel | July 1991

02: WALL·E

Much has been said about Pixar and how they just can’t seem to make a failure. It’s like creating a bad movie is physically impossible for them, and bless their wonderfully warped minds for that. For they gave us WALL·E, a film I honestly considered to be my personal favorite for a while before my unabridged fanboyism cooled down somewhat. The story takes place in the early 2800s, by which time rampant overconsumerism has basically killed life on Earth, forcing humanity to flee centuries previously and leave the planet to its grisly fate. Now, the only living being still roaming the planet is a robot named WALL·E, who in the past centuries of solitude has developed a rather uncustomary quality in robots: feelings. He spends his days piling the bountiful garbage into skyscrapers of rubbish, occasionally pausing to collect some more interesting trinkets, from Rubik’s cubes to bobble-head figurines. At night, he endlessly rewatches an old cassette of Hello, Dolly! and dreams wistfully of finding true love. And next thing you know, he gets some thoroughly unexpected visit from a rather convenient individual …

This film is absolutely brilliant on two separate levels: both as a story and as a technical marvel. The film is entirely in 3D, of course, except for some sparse live-action sequences creatively spliced in here and there, and the animation itself is arguably the best I’ve seen before or since. It truly blurs the lines between animated and reality at times and looks as though it were shot in real-life HD. The landscapes are passionately detailed and the color palette ranges from earthly tones to colorful, clinically clean shades during the different halves of the movie. Several pages could be written up about the sound design in itself, all created and orchestrated by Ben Burtt, the man also behind such iconic sounds as lightsabers and Indiana Jones’ whip-crack. The story itself, about a innocent, naive and endlessly good-natured little robot who falls in love with a veritable kick-ass tomboy who at first gives him naught but the cold shoulder, is very well executed and excels at being humorous, cute, moving and thought-provoking, all at once. There is so much to be said about this film and its themes that I simply can’t do it justice here, so I’ll leave it to you to check it out and see what there is to find in this animated masterpiece.

Directed by Andrew Stanton | Written by Andrew Stanton, Jim Reardon and Pete Docter | Music by Thomas Newman | June 2008

01: Titanic

Okay, so I suppose I’m rather predisposed to falling in love with this movie. After all, it contains just about everything I love: director James Cameron, hauntingly beautiful music by James Horner, wicked visual effects, a touching story, and most of all, it’s about the Titanic, which has always been a passion of mine. (Well, admittedly, it’s seeing this film in ’98 that first introduced me to the saga of the RMS Titanic in the first place, but whatever.) The plot itself is basically a retelling of the archetypal “rich-girl-meets-poor-boy” theme, but it has enough added variety and mastery in its execution so that it never really feels clichéd or contrived. Rich girl (with rich girl name) Rose DeWitt Bukater (Kate Winslet) is being coerced by her overbearing mother Ruth (Frances Fisher) into boarding the Ship of Dreams to America where she is to marry the callous Cal Hockley (Billy Zane) despite her wishes for more. Meanwhile, drifting poor boy artist Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio) finds his way onto the ship through a lucky poker hand, and is able to save Rose from a horrible fate through a chance encounter that eventually develops into more. But, alas, as we all know, the Titanic has a very set fate ahead of its maiden voyage.

This film resonates with me on nearly every possible level, thus naturally explaining my choice of it for my number one spot. There’s honestly nothing I can really criticize about it, other than the occasional silly nitpick. (And even then.) The acting is great; the story is grand, cleverly intertwined with historical fact and quite heartfelt; the effects, particularly the “unsinkable” ship itself, are incredibly realistic, to the point where it becomes quite easy to forget that one is staring at a movie screen and not the actual mountain of steel sailing across the North Atlantic. The music, once again, is probably the best and most memorable part of the whole film: at times heartwarming, other times grim and brooding, and always beautiful. (There’s a reason it’s the best-selling romantic soundtrack of all time.) There simply isn’t that much more I can say about the film that can’t be summarized by a photo of a puppydog with large glittering eyes, so that’s all I will say for now and will conclude this list thusly.

Directed by James Cameron | Written by James Cameron | Music by James Horner | December 1997

Other honorable mentions I could’ve included but that I felt just didn’t quite make the cut include Edward Scissorhands, Gladiator and Casino Royale, all excellent films in their own right. As I said before, there are so many movies I truly enjoy that any list is simply going to feel incomplete no matter how I cut it, so this is more of an approximation rather than anything definitive. What are your favorite films? And why do you like them so much? Sound off below! … Y’know, if you want.