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My Five Favorite Animated Movies

How-to-Train-Your-Dragon-2-Hiccup-Toothless

In honor of the greatness that is How to Train Your Dragon 2 I’ve decided to make a list of my top 5 favorite animated films.  As a qualifier let me say that I have not chosen these because I believe them to be the best animated films of all time.  No, I’ve chosen these 5 as my favorites.  Do I think they’re well made?  Of course, but I’m not going to argue that they’re the finest artistic masterpieces ever produced.  There are no Hayao Miyazaki films to be found here.  So let’s begin.

 

#5  Monsters Inc.

This makes the list for the originality of its premise.  The concept of monsters harvesting the screams of children for energy is brilliant, and the twist at the end is even better.  It’s a simple message, that love and joy are ultimately more powerful than fear and despair, but wrapping such a profound truth in such a funny and interesting package makes it hit home.  The relationship between the little girl Boo, and Sully, the “scariest” monster in the world, offers a lesson in the power of contrasts.  There’s humor in how frightened a big monster is in the presence of a small child, and there is meaning in the fact that the small child’s effortless laughter is more powerful than all the screams the big monster could force.  It’s original, funny, and touching.   Also, I have a soft spot for Billy Crystal that probably came from watching the Oscars as a kid.

 

#4 How to Train Your Dragon 2

I know it’s rather soon to put this movie on a top 5 list, but let me explain my reasoning.  I would have placed the original on this list, and in the #4 spot, but the sequel is better than the original.  The characters are more developed and the world feels larger with more possibilities.   The core relationship between Hiccup and Toothless is tested past the breaking point and then reinforced ten fold.  When I find myself caring more for these animated characters than any live action characters I’ve seen in a long time, that tells me I’m watching something good.  It’s moving, exciting, and full of lessons about life and family and sacrifice and human nature.  I recommend it to everyone with a beating heart.

 

#3 The Lion King

Lionkingcharacters
When I was a kid they were pumping out Disney animated feature films that became instant classics. The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Beauty & the Beast etc were in regular VHS circulation in my house. But really, and I mean really now, can we all agree that The Lion King is the best of these?  It’s based directly on Shakespeare’s Hamlet, after all.  I’m fairly certain that an entire park at Disney World wouldn’t exist without this movie.  It’s epic, it’s funny, it has the best sidekicks and memorable songs.  Also, Ferris Bueller is in it.

 

#2 Toy Story 3  

The original Toy Story is an all-time classic.  I remember going to Burger King immediately after seeing it and getting a Whopper Jr. and a Woody doll.  Anyway, we should all be on the same page when it comes to the goodness and significance of the first Toy Story.  The immediate sequel wasn’t all that great, in my opinion.   Jesse the Cowgirl was a little whiny and melodramatic, that penguin was a jerk,  and the heart just wasn’t there as the plot wrestled with abandonment issues.  Toy Story 3 turned that around in a big way Instead of being about abandonment, this one tackled the issue of letting go even before that Frozen song got stuck in your head forever.  If Toy Story 2 asked the questions, “Does the master care about me and does life have a purpose?”, Toy Story 3 answered, “Yes of course the master cares, but that purpose involves painful self-sacrifice for the benefit of others.”  You see, that evil bear couldn’t let go.  He couldn’t forgive and move on so he got strapped to a garbage truck.  The other toys recognized that their master loved them and that he had a purpose in leaving them with the little girl.  This is all profound stuff about the nature of existence and I love it.

 

#1  The Iron Giant

Heart, heart, heart!  This is about identity and purpose.  The Giant was clearly created as a weapon by some aliens far away.   He happened to find a boy who taught him that he could be a good guy, and not just a gun that kills.  Violence begets violence but love saves the day.  The characters are real and funny.  The Giant is a reflection of the battle within each of our souls.   “You are who you choose to be.”   Will we destroy ourselves out of fear and give into our baser instincts of self-preservation?  Or will we choose something greater than ourselves, and enrich the lives around us?   The Giant makes his choice and it gets me every time.

 

Honorable Mention

The Brave Little Toaster

Cinderella

The Land Before Time

Wall E

Up

It’s A Wonderful Life: Why George Bailey Never Left Bedford Falls

 "Now, we can get through this thing all right. We've got to stick together, though. We've got to have faith in each other."

“Now, we can get through this thing all right. We’ve got to stick together, though. We’ve got to have faith in each other.”

Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life. – Proverbs 13:12

You need to see It’s A Wonderful Life and you need to see it immediately.  It’s difficult for me to understand how an American citizen can successfully dodge this most classic of films.  What heroic lengths one must go to avoid their television during the Christmas season.  This is a film that receives near universal praise from the viewing public, and is a staple of the American Christmas tradition.  Every year, NBC ritualistically plays It’s A Wonderful Life on Christmas Eve night to be shared by all in the land.  If you haven’t seen it, do so at your nearest convenience and don’t bother reading any further.

Today I’m writing to my old Building & Loan pals about a subject that I personally haven’t seen addressed in my perusing of internet articles and discussion boards.  Everyone knows that George Bailey wanted to leave Bedford Falls to see the world.  Walking home after the high school dance George says to Mary:

I’m shakin’ the dust of this crummy little town off my feet and I’m gonna see the world. Italy, Greece, the Parthenon, the Colosseum. Then, I’m comin’ back here to go to college and see what they know. And then I’m gonna build things. I’m gonna build airfields, I’m gonna build skyscrapers a hundred stories high, I’m gonna build bridges a mile long…

Of course, we know that George never does any of those things.  And as far as we’re told, George never even leaves town.  It’s like he’s living his own version of The Truman Show where forces have worked to keep him from stepping foot outside the borders of his little bubble.  A man with strong desires to move up and out from his place of origin is destined to stay put indefinitely.   How can this be?  If George Bailey wants out so badly, what’s preventing him from getting his wish?  Time and time again he has an opportunity to leave, but extenuating circumstances seem to beat him back like a pebble getting pushed onto shore by relentless crashing waves.  Poor George, right?  Well, maybe not.  And that is what I want to talk about.  Did George Bailey have to stay in Bedford Falls, and what do his actions reveal about the deeper desires of his heart?

The way I see it, there are 7 critical moments where George could have chosen a different path, allowing him to leave town to pursue his dreams.  I’ll cover them quickly for you.

  1. Pa Bailey’s Death: When George’s father dies he chooses to forgo a trip to Europe in favor of taking care of his father’s business.
  2. Potter Moves to Dissolve the Building & Loan: Mr. Potter tries to convince the board that Bedford Falls no longer needs the B&L.  George gives an impassioned speech about his father’s character and the reasons why his fellow citizens need the B&L to continue.  The board decides that if George stays on they will keep the business alive.  George chooses to give up college and lets his brother Harry go in his stead.
  3. Harry Gets Married & Breaks His Promise: When Harry returns from college, George learns that he has a wife and a new career.  Unfortunately, the plan was that Harry would take over for George, giving him the chance to get an education and leave Bedford Falls.  George chooses not to make a fuss and, though we don’t see the exchange, it appears that he doesn’t hold Harry to his original agreement.
  4. The Ground Floor in Plastics: This one is easily overshadowed by the loving embrace that follows, but when Sam Wainwright offers George an opportunity to get in on plastics, he effectively misses an opportunity to make a fortune.  Sam even acknowledges that George turned him down in a later scene for the sake of sticking by the B&L.
  5. George Marries Mary: Now, this might be somewhat controversial for lovers of the film, but I see George’s marriage as another choice that results in him staying in town.  Consider how fiercely he tries to resist his attraction to her.  He knows that marrying Mary is another tie to Bedford Falls and another step away from the free life he wanted to live.
  6. The Bank Run: During the Great Depression, the citizens of Bedford Falls panic and rush to the bank to withdraw their funds.  Those who have money at the B&L want George to give them everything they have, but George reminds them that it doesn’t work that way.  He sacrifices his honeymoon and $2,000 of his own money to keep the B&L open.  He could have ignored it all and went on his honeymoon, or he could have let the B&L collapse.  But he fought to keep it open, choosing to stay tied down to it.
  7. Potter Offers George A Job: If you can’t beat ’em join ’em.  Mr. Potter realizes that he would be better off paying George Bailey a fortune (about $300,000 a year in today’s money) than competing with him any longer.  George quickly realizes that he can’t accept this deal with the Devil and storms out of the building.  He chooses to stay with the B&L, giving up his last chance to be a rich world traveler.

You could look at all of these things as external factors that prevent George from pursuing his dreams, but at the end of the day it’s critical to realize that George made a choice at every critical juncture.  If he wanted to get out more than anything else he would have left to visit Europe after attending his father’s funeral.  Even if he stayed a while, he could have let the board dissolve the B&L.  He could have fought with Harry to keep him in Bedford Falls, and so on and so forth.  Yet, George Bailey stays in a town he wants to leave and works at a job that robs him of his dreams.  There must be something greater below the surface.

All you can take with you is that which you've given away

“All you can take with you is that which you’ve given away”

Above all else, George Bailey is driven by the love he has for his father.  Consider every major choice he makes.  Every choice he makes reflects a desire to uphold his father’s “high ideals” and image.  His whole life plays out in his shadow.  He has the same job, co-workers, passion to serve his community, and even the same enemy in Mr. Potter.  George wants to live his own life, but he ends up living his father’s life.  He lives for his father.  Before facing the frightened and angry crowd, George takes a moment to look at his father’s picture.  Underneath it says, “All you can take with you is that which you’ve given away.”  This is the core belief of George’s father, and the core belief that George adopts throughout the film.

The reason George almost kills himself is that he has lived according to his father’s ideals without experiencing the gratification promised by them.  George has given himself away: his dreams, his money, his pride.  But when he is faced with jail-time and scandal and ruin, he looks back at a life lived for others as a complete waste.  Not only has he wasted his life, he has come to believe that his father was wrong.  Perhaps that terrible belief, the belief that his father was a fool who led him to a life of ruin, is what really made him want to jump into that icy water.  The man who taught him right from wrong becomes unreliable.  Mr. Potter, who tells George that he’s worth more dead than alive, now has more credibility.  Mr. Potter tells George what he already fears, that his life of sacrifice for the benefit of others was in vain.  All evidence points to the falsehood that his father now represents.

If not for divine intervention, George would have killed himself, and Mr. Potter would have viewed the whole affair as an affirmation of his warped worldview.  The true turning point comes when George turns to another father for help.

Clarence, a guardian angel,  is sent to show him the value of his life by giving him a glimpse of what the world would be like without him.  George is brought to a point where he desperately wants to live again, and God gives George his life back, but not as it was before.  All of the people that he sacrificed for, all of the hope deferred to give hope to others finally comes back in a joyous celebration of George’s worth within the community.  Now it’s clear that his life was not a waste, and that his father is worthy of all the love and respect George lived to give.

Within all of us is this conflict between our desires and beliefs.  George wanted to see the world and do great big things, but his beliefs about his father and the work he did caused George to deny his dreams.  He served his community through the Building & Loan, all the while keeping Mr. Potter from harming the town.  When it appeared that he had denied himself for no good reason, George despaired at the thought of a wasted life lived in the shadow of a fool.  But the reality of God, the ultimate source of the meaning both George and his father lived for, redeemed the whole story.  The focal point of George Bailey’s life is his father, and the linchpin of It’s A Wonderful Life is God the Father.

So Merry Christmas you wonderful old Building & Loan!

Summer Movies and the One Thing I Need From Them

Characters I hope to care about from Pacific Rim

Characters I hope to care about from Pacific Rim

(The following contains Spoilers for: Man of Steel, Iron Man 3 and Star Trek: Into Darkness)

I’m about to say something that should be obvious to everyone. Now, when you read it I want you to keep in mind that there are plenty of obvious things in this world that people seem to forget all of the time. Things like “play fair” and “try your best” and “treat people the way you want to be treated” are pretty obvious to most of us, but how quickly we can forget them when the moment comes to put them into practice. I make this point, in all honesty, to validate the very simple statement I’m about to make. That statement is this: relatable characters matter more than anything when telling a story. Perhaps you disagree with that statement or have come up with a quick one or two exceptions to the rule (something artsy and abstract), but know that the stories I’m referring to are the ones that the general public will potentially invest themselves in. I’m talking about the stories that impact our culture and capture the hearts and minds of millions (billions).

Every summer we are exposed to a fresh batch of films. The biggest ones get to be called blockbusters. Yes, summer is open season for the movie lovers, and our game of choice is original spectacle. We want to see something new and awesome. Show me something that will fill me with awe, and give it a massive budget. I’m thinking of Jaws (1975), Star Wars (1977), Terminator 2 (1991), Independence Day (1996), The Dark Knight (2008), and The Avengers (2012), just to name a few. These movies were loved by the people who couldn’t help but throw millions of dollars back at them. But what makes these, and many other blockbuster movies so influential in our popular culture is not their massive budgets. Big budgets can make a good movie look better, but they are powerless to transform a bad movie into a good one. It’s similar to the way technology can improve a good business, but it can’t make up for the shortcomings of a bad one. Summer blockbusters can be as loud and big as they want to be, but if the characters don’t come alive or impact us within the story, we’ll be zoning out halfway through the first explosion.

So far, in the summer 2013 blockbuster season, I’ve been largely disappointed by a lack of relatable characters. Iron Man: 3 was really the only exception, with Robert Downey Jr. playing the well-developed and deeply flawed character of Tony Stark. Director Shane Black seemed to understand the importance of character, as seen most clearly in Tony’s interactions with a scientifically gifted kid who shares the same dark and sarcastic sense of humor. In the middle of this super hero blockbuster film we watched Tony Stark talk and joke with a kid in the middle of a small town, and it was one of the more memorable parts. They were characters acting like people, and I cared because I could relate.

After Iron Man came Star Trek: Into Darkness, which was a just fine movie, but I couldn’t seem to invest in the characters beyond what I’ve already invested as a fan of the Star Trek universe. The Wrath of Kahn will remain a more significant film within our pop- culture consciousness because we enjoy the characters more. Ricardo Montalban has a certain charm to him that was lacking in Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal. And Kirk was just another non-hero with a lot of issues that made him more irritating than charming. Worst of all, when many people are killed in the end, none of the characters seem moved by the tragedy. That apparent lack of compassion makes already unappealing characters into heartless monsters, which is unfortunately a perfect transition into Man of Steel.

Brooding, Intense, Dark, Unrelatable

Brooding, Intense, A Force of Destruction, Unrelatable

I’m a big fan of the character of Superman. One of my favorite films is Superman:The Movie (1978) starring Christopher Reeve. In that film we see a Superman/Clark Kent who genuinely wants to help people. He does some big things to help, like stop California from falling into the ocean, but he also does some small things. I believe it is the small things that make Reeve’s Superman so relatable. He certainly has a genuine nice guy quality to him, but beyond that he portrays a level of compassion and societal awareness in every scene. This Superman talks to authority figures with respect, and goes out of his way to help them out. He is an inspiration to people, and isn’t too important to rescue a cat out of a tree. You just feel glad to watch him be so good to people. You want to be that good. I feel good just writing about it! Anyway, I came into Man of Steel with the hope that Henry Cavill’s portrayal of the character would reflect the same heart for service and compassion for humanity. You can imagine my horror when I watched him carelessly punch villains into skyscrapers full of people and destroy property like a child knocking over his Lincoln Logs. I understand that the filmmakers were trying to make a more realistic and gritty Superman, but they sacrificed his heart to do so. Even a tiny indication that he cared about the hundreds of thousands that were dying all around him would have gone a long way for me. Instead, it’s all about him finding his identity while punching bad guys through skyscrapers, and the little people in paper houses are objects to be used as fodder for explosions. Heck, all of these people are dead or trapped in rubble, and Superman’s more concerned with making out with Lois Lane (while making some random comment about being better than humans when it comes to romance) and finding new creative ways to punch down buildings. Even with that ending where he makes a huge sacrifice to save a few people, it was too little too late. He saves people when it doesn’t interfere with punching villains into crowded areas. Every life should matter to Superman, and because this Superman showed a disregard for the sanctity of life and property, I cannot embrace him. I can’t let this character matter to me, because he doesn’t care about what matters. He’s a false Superman, in direct conflict with the character I’ve been relating to for years.

So that was my overview of what has been a mostly disappointing summer blockbuster season. I’m sure many will disagree with my analysis, but I am confident that time will reveal these films to be insignificant within our popular culture because the characters in them weren’t relatable or particularly enjoyable. It is important to mention that all of these characters that I’ve mentioned have already existed for decades, and I’m confident that plays a role in reducing their cultural impact. Superman and Captain Kirk are especially troublesome, as they are associated with specific actors who no longer play them. But hey, I don’t want to end on a negative note…

There’s still hope for this summer. Pacific Rim comes out July 12, and from what I’ve seen, this thing has the potential for some original and relatable characters with heart. If all we get are big monsters and big mechs fighting each other amidst a sea of destruction, the movie will fall flat and lose any chance for cultural resonance. But if the characters controlling the big mechs are interesting and we can find a little of ourselves in them, this summer blockbuster could become a part of the larger conversation for years.

It’s all about characters we can relate to.

Parents and the Children Who Bring Them to Rated-R Movies

I once saw a rated-R movie at 10:30 pm and there were children younger than 8 running up and down the aisles.   Unfortunately, that wasn’t a surprise for me and my friends.  We have gotten to the point where we expect to find little kids in theaters showcasing films with ratings of PG-13 and higher.  For the toddler, it must be a strange transition to go from Dora crossing rainbow bridges to Lisbeth Salander hog-tying a naked rapist.  I wonder if this phenomenon comes out of the parent’s shameless ignorance, or is it just plain old-fashioned negligence?

I suppose I could go down the road of society’s ever eroding standards of right and wrong.  Parents feel less societal pressure to abide by any set standard of acceptable behavior, since standards are so darn oppressive, and this makes it less shameful to bring your kid to see something like Superbad or Bridesmaids.  Nah, who am I?  I don’t even have kids.

 

So this is what I’m going to do.  I’m not going to make any judgements about what might have gotten the kids into the theater.  Instead, I’m just going to write about why they shouldn’t be there.

For one, it is a huge distraction to have babies crying and toddlers speaking loudly amidst the presentation of a film geared toward adults, and especially at late hours.  When someone takes out a loan to see a movie like The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo at 9 o’clock at night, they expect to avoid the Nick Jr. crowd.  It is hugely inconsiderate to everyone else in the theater when a parent brings their child, who is either too young to understand what they are seeing or too young to handle what they are seeing, to an adult crowd.  Perhaps I have it all wrong and these people are brave pioneers in the fight against responsible boundaries, but I’m pretty sure they just don’t care enough about their kids.

Another reason these pre-pre pubescents should stay home is that the things they are being exposed to are truly terrible and sometimes disturbing.  I remember flipping the channels as a kid, and stopping on a movie about giant mosquitoes that bit people until their eyes exploded.  This affected me for quite some time because I was still too young to know that stuff like that didn’t happen.  Little kids are still a long way off from knowing the difference between reality and pretend.   And even if they did posses the processing power to know that a film was fake, they still lack the mental and emotional maturity to respond appropriately to the images and messages being shot at them.   The contents of many films today, even PG-13, are not appropriate for young minds.  Perhaps I have it all wrong, and kids are more advanced these days, but I’m pretty sure they shouldn’t be exposed to murder, gore, and violent sex.

Children shouldn’t be allowed into rated-R movies.  It’s annoying and negligent.  It serves no one but the selfish parent who won’t get a babysitter.  Stop doing it.

Now.

 

How to Judge Movies

I’ve seen many movies.  I’ve seen too many movies.  It is impossible for me to justify how much time I’ve spent watching them.  It has been said that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become a master at something.  Well, I don’t think I’m quite there but I’m close enough to claim some authority on the subject of film.  For today’s purpose I will write on the subject of judging the quality of a movie: a topic I have pondered much.

Do you believe movies, or any form of art, can be judged objectively?  Can two people with entirely different tastes watch the same film and agree upon the value of its content and structure?   Or are they entirely at the mercy of their individual interpretations, feelings, and opinions?  Could it be both?

When I watch a movie many things occur inside of my head.  I become a part of the viewing experience and allow myself to be subject to the unfolding drama.  Perhaps I am deeply moved, or maybe I am irritated.  One or more characters might resonate with me, and I feel connected.  Inversely, I may not feel any connection to either the story or the characters.  The movie does nothing to reach me, and I walk away unaffected.  All of these reactions have to do with my personal experience with the film.  This is one of two ways that we can judge a movie, and this is likely the way that most people judge them.

The second type of judgement is more detached and objective.  Objectivity is best exemplified, in my opinion, in math.  2+2=4 no matter what any crackpot philosopher says.  When you plug a concrete value into a concrete equation you get a concrete result.  If I challenged the answer of 4 in the equation of 2+2 I would be either a fool, an intelligent fool, or a brilliant fool.  No quantity of words and abstract explanations could change the answer. It is accepted as truth.  So can a film be objectively good, even if I don’t particularly enjoy it?

An artist is an intentional and purposeful being.  Even those artists who say they are making something strange and undefinable operate due to some knowable motivation.  Consider the Terrence Malick film, Tree of Life.  I have heard that even he doesn’t have the words or knowledge to describe what it all means.  And one could argue that any good piece of art can’t be easily defined.  Even so, he understood that to make a movie he needed a plot and some characters.  He needed a setting and some themes.  It is clear in watching that grace and truth are themes, as well as life and death.  The conclusions of the film are abstract, but it doesn’t take away from the necessary and concrete pieces that all stories must contain.  You must have character, plot, setting, theme, and a structure that serves them all.  Tree of Life was nominated for best picture because it can be judged along the same lines as The Artist.  They are very different in content and effect, but the academy understood that both were masterfully constructed by artists who understand the core makeup of a good film.  Movies must follow the rules of good storytelling, and for that reason they can be judged objectively.

Think of a house.  It has been designed by a master architect.  The woodwork has been crafted by a master carpenter.  The plumbing has been installed by a master plumber.  This house is designed to stand and function properly.  It serves the purpose of a house.  No one intentionally builds a house to have leaky pipes.  Now, you might love this house.  You think the layout suits your tastes and needs.  The color scheme is fantastic.  The tiled bathroom seems to call out your name.  Then again, you might not like this house at all.  It’s too big, or too small.  Maybe you don’t like the neighbors.  The house is well-built, but it just doesn’t feel right for you.  It is the same with a movie.  It could be well put together, following the crucial building blocks of a good story, but you don’t find yourself captivated by it.  You don’t  want to spend much time living inside of it because it doesn’t speak to you.  Of course another scenario might be that the movie isn’t well put together, like a house that’s falling apart, but you find some special charm about it that makes you want to stay a while.  A movie can be objectively bad, but subjectively satisfying.  Face/Off and Independence Day come to mind for me.

I hope this has cleared things up for you.  This is how I judge movies; on two levels.  I think it allows for much freedom, to like a bad film and to dislike a good one.  It also distinguishes between the realms of the heart and the mind without putting up a wall between them. So whether a movie touches your heart, your mind, or both, take some time to admire the fine craftsmanship.

Nate King’s Unconventional Christmas Movie List

By Nate King

Over the holidays most sit down to a prescribed dose of traditional Christmas movie cheer. I, like anyone, have my own list of films that usually wind up getting watched every season. Classics like A Christmas Story, It’s a Wonderful Life, Home Alone, National Lampoon’s Christmas Family Vacation and Elf (Yeah it’s a classic, don’t fight me on this) are watched without fail at least once every November/December.

However I’ve discovered another list of films, films that don’t seem to be recognized quite so often under the average persons category of “Christmas movie”, yet ones which also find their way into my home the same time every year. This is a list of all those movies, and believe it or not they are all Christmas movies.

1. Die Hard 1 and 2

It’s reasonable to assume this list owes it’s entire existence to these first two films. I only noticed this unconventional Christmas habit after discovering just how often Die Hard had been watched in my home each season. It’s also the first out-of-the-ordinary Christmas film I remember watching and it would be foolish to think it hasn’t lead to others. See, my mom apparently has a thing for manly men solving the worlds problems with guns, which must have made John McClane a particular attraction of hers, because every year without fail me and my mom have wound up in front of the TV watching Die Hard together. A Christmas party turned hostage situation laced with one man’s pain and sacrifice for the good of his soon to be ex-wife. What could be more seasonal? And the sequel, sure it’s pretty bad but it only follows naturally, what do you expect us to do; not watch it?

2. Lethal Weapon

Murtough and Riggs: Two cops with only one thing in common, a hate for working in pairs. It’s the story of two of the most dissimilar people on the planet being forced together over the holidays and having to make the best of it. It’s like every family Christmas gathering you’ve ever been to! Throw in a climax leg choke-hold in a jollied up, Christmas lit, suburban neighborhood and you’ve got yourself a Yuletide classic. Bonus points for direction by Richard Donner.

3. Road to Perdition

One of my favorite films of all time. I suppose it’s less a habit of watching this one during the Christmas season than it is watching it all year round, which happens to include the Christmas season. A Christmastime tale of family love, loyalty, and betrayal, all leading up to the greatest use of a Tommy gun in cinema history. Good and evil archetypes are woven into a simple yet seamless story, while every frame remains purposefully shot, and every actor (including my Hombre) chomps away at the chilly set pieces. Set in the winter of 1931 it’s an incredibly moving examination of the powerful relationship between father and son. You know who else was a father and son? God and Jesus.

4. Fellowship of the Ring

The greatest of all three of The Lord of the Rings films. Never let anyone tell you different, and don’t dare refute me. The series holiday release schedule may have sparked its position on this list, but this film’s particular tear-jerking execution of the books greatest promises: themes of friendship, love, sacrifice and death, ensure its survival in the dvd player throughout the cold winter months. You shall not pass through the season without watching this movie at least once.

5. The Proposition

Perhaps the greatest western made in the past decade, it’s not a western at all. Or is it? Well it’s not, but wait – then again – you’re wrong – it is! Get what I mean? Set in the Australian outback it’s far from anywhere that the word “western” might be applicable as a descriptor, just the same it exemplifies the genre keeping all the bells and whistles, style and substance that one would associate with Sergio Leone himself. This tale follows an alienated brother of outlaws as he seeks redemption for himself and his youngest sibling, all the while paralleling the life of an English law enforcement officer struggling to protect and provide for his wife during the Christmas season, in one of the least Christmasy places on earth.

6. In Bruges

One of my new favorites and an instant Christmas classic. Set in Bruges over the holiday, two assassins wrestle over the soul of a young man. A story revolving around judgment and death, it’s themes garner bonus points for intricate reflection upon the concepts of heaven and hell, right and wrong and the true origins of Christmas, Christ and our relation to him.

7.The Bourne Identity

It’s the classic scrooge tale, following a botched mission causing him to lose his memory, a once brainwashed super soldier so deeply enmeshed in the CIA covert ops system only one man knows he’s on our side is forced to come face to face with the reality of just who and what he is, and change his ways in light of the holiday season. It’s a tragic tale concerning lost identity and found purpose, and leads us to one of the greatest questions of our own lives; just who are we really and what is it we’re fighting for? When the Christmas season rolls around are we the person who finds it better to give, or receive?

8. Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang

A throwback to film noir’s golden days, it’s a detective comedy set in LA narrated by Robert Downy Jr. A crazy Christmas caper with Christmas trees, Christmas lights, Christmas hats and other Christmas doodads filling up scenes from the same writer as Lethal Weapon. And Val Kilmer as “Gay Perry”.

9. Batman Returns

I really don’t see the need to explain this one. It’s Christmastime Batman with working Bat-presents. However I will defend its greatness. It’s a film that accepts its established character to such an extent its focus shifts entirely to the villains. A number of movies could learn a thing or two from this film. And it hosts the greatest performance of Michelle Pfeiffer’s life.

10. The Iron Giant

There’s a theory floating around that I created this film myself, and that somewhere in the post development process I simply hit my head so hard I, and every other member of the cast, crew and production just plain forgot. It only stands to reason because it encapsulates everything I love about everything so well. Don’t let my own biases fool you however, it’s an incredibly affecting modern day feature that everyone is sure to enjoy. Despite floundering at the box office upon release, it is one of the most intelligent science fiction movies in recent years, perfectly satirizing the militaristic fear of its 1950’s McCarthyite backdrop. It’s the heart wrenching tale of a boy and his giant weaponized space-invading robot who, with the help of Superman, learns the value of pacifism. Love, fear and sacrifice culminate in this epic story to tell us, We Are Who We Choose To Be.

11. Fargo

There is so much snow. So. Much. Snow.  It only seemed fitting to end this list with another movie I first experienced with my mother. The overwhelming parka use is enough of a reason to turn this movie on during a brisk winter night, but it’s important to know going in that the comforting images of bundled cast members are the best this movie has to offer in the way of making you feel all warm and tingly inside… well that and Frances McDormand. A wood-chipper? A wood-chipper???

Honorable Mention

Gremlins. It fell out of the loop a long time ago. It’d be a lie to say I still appreciate it the way you can argue I should. But those things are creepy man.

Super Honorable Mention

Superman The Movie (1978). Please, what list wouldn’t this movie be on? Lets hear it for the greatest portrayal of the person everyone should aspire to be, ever. No not the guy with superpowers who turns back time, the guy who puts everyone else before himself and who always finds time to recognize the partnership with his fellow man. “Don’t thank me warden, we’re all part of the same team.”

Additional Credit to: Nate King

Special Thanks: Nate King

Are Movies About Pure Escapism?

While I was getting my haircut last week, the barber discovered that I had a strong affinity for movies.  This led to her statement, “I understand that it’s nice to escape from the world while you’re watching a movie.”  I simply nodded my head, but inside I recoiled.  Is that really how she feels about movies?  And is there any truth in that statement for how I feel about movies?  Needless to say, I have been thinking this over ever since.

I’m sure there are people out there who watch most movies just to be entertained and swept off to a new life and environment.  Just look at the success of Avatar.  The main attraction wasn’t the characters or an emotionally engaging story, but the film’s ability to convince you that Pandora exists and you are a resident.  That was the selling point of the movie.  Many millions of people bought it.

There is a level of truth to the desire for escapism when anyone watches a film.  We like to experience new places, people, and events.  But is that the driving force behind my own love for the cinema?  I don’t believe that it is.

A good film makes you forget that you’re watching it.  I often catch myself getting lost once a film has encouraged my engagement with its characters and plot.  This is the magic of movies.  They sweep you off to a place you’ve never been.  Yes, but what happens once you’re there?  Do you simply absorb pleasure from various types of sensory stimulation?  Do you think to yourself, this is nice, but it has nothing to do with my real life?  I can say with great certainty, I don’t.  The value of a good movie isn’t just found in its ability to temporarily suspend our belief, it is also found in its implications for our real lives.

Consider the film, It’s a Wonderful Life.  It does a wonderful job of convincing us that Bedford Falls, NY is a real place, and that George Bailey exists.  The characters act like normal people (Mr. Potter may be a little more blatantly evil than a real person) and the events of the film make sense in context.  We are even willing to accept that an angel intervenes in George’s affairs in order to save his life.

It is very satisfying to watch George find peace and redemption.  But what is it about this film that really impacts so many viewers?  I believe it is its simple, true, and profound message about life.  Every life has a purpose, and every person has the ability to influence others and the world in positive ways beyond their understanding.  The film causes us to consider this for ourselves.  Do we truly believe this for our own lives?  What amazing implications if this film is speaking the truth.

When we watch a character suffer, we have the opportunity to relate, and even draw strength.  Remember Samwise Gamgee’s speech in The Two Towers film?

Frodo: I can’t do this Sam

Sam: I know. It’s all wrong. By rights we shouldn’t even be here. But we are. It’s like in the great stories Mr. Frodo, the ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were, and sometimes you didn’t want to know the end because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come and when the sun shines it’ll shine out the clearer. Those are the stories that stayed with you, that meant something, even if you were too small to understand why. But I think Mr. Frodo, I do understand, I know now. Folk in those stories had lots of chances a turnin’ back only they didn’t. They kept going, because they were holding onto somethin’.

Frodo: What are we holding onto Sam?

Sam: (Picks Frodo up by the arm) That there’s some good in this world and it’s worth fighting for.

 

When we relate to characters, even fictional ones, we see ourselves in them.  We wonder, could I have the same courage and strength?  Could I endure so much hardship?   Even though they’re not real, they have a real impact on our lives.

 

Movies (books too, and even video games.  All stories)  entertain.  Movies allow us to escape this world for a time.  But movies also teach us about the world, and ourselves.  A good movie has vast implications for our lives and the world.

So don’t go on about pure escapism!

The Subtle Heart of A Christmas Story

 

A Christmas Story is a holiday classic.  It plays for twenty-four hours straight on TBS every year.  People love it, and for good reasons.   It is hilarious.  It is comforting.  It is a Christmas tradition.  But there is an aspect of A Christmas Story that I have never heard mentioned before.  Today I would like to address it.

At the heart of this film is a loving family.  They are silly characters, but they are endearing because they love each other.  You can see it in the way they interact.  I’ve seen families who interact with such a heightened tension that, to an outsider, the air becomes heavy and oppressive.  A family of anxious actors is hardly an indication of love.  On the contrary,  I’ve experienced the love between families who feel no need to put on a facade.  I consider myself lucky to be a member of such a family.  In such a loving environment you find much laughter accompanied by uninhibited feeling and brutal honesty.  Such transparency can only exist in the presence of love.  A loving family is an institution of grace and truth built on a firm foundation of love.

Did you ever consider what led to Ralphie getting his BB Gun for Christmas?  Surely, his mother discussed it with his father.  She must have told him that it was too dangerous.  But his father must have known how much Ralphie desired the gift, and he considered the joy it would bring him.  In the scene where Ralphie finally gets the gun, his father asks him, “Did you get everything you wanted?”  Ralphie replies with a sigh, “Almost.”    The father then says, “Almost huh, well, that’s life.”   The father knows that you can’t get everything you want in life, but he loves his son and wants to bring him joy.  Watch his reaction when Ralphie opens his present.  He can hardly contain his happiness at the sight of his son’s joy.  It reminds me of the Bible verse that says, “If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!” (Matthew 7:11)

The next time you watch A Christmas Story, look for the body language between the parents.  You’ll be surprised to find how affectionate they are.  It’s subtle, but it’s undeniable.  What I really want you to notice is the final scene where the mother walks downstairs to the father who is sitting in a chair and watching the snow.   With their children resting peacefully upstairs, they share a moment.  I’m touched by how the father gently rubs the mother’s back.  Now, Ralphie never saw this happen, but I like to think that as an adult he recognized the relationship his parents shared.  Not only did they provide him with shelter and food and clothes, but also an illustration of love.

A Christmas Story touches our hearts because it is brimming over with love.

 

 

My Five Favorite Christmas Movies

Christmastime is a special time. Songs about snow and presents and Santa and Jesus play on the radio.  Lights adorn the bushes and gutters of homes and offices.  Decorations fill our shelves and ornaments hang from evergreens.  But even among these holiday staples, one tradition outshines them all..

The Watching of Christmas Movies.

Over these past twenty-four years, I have developed a special affection for a few particular holiday films.  The following five are most precious to me.

#5-   The Homecoming aka The Walton’s Christmas (1971)

This began as sort of a joke in my family.  My mom bought it because she liked it, but my brother and sister would make fun of it.  Nevertheless, we watched it every year.  Over time, I began to develop a liking for the film.  After all, the main character is a young man who wants to be a writer during the Great Depression.  The people are simple, and it paints a picture of a time in America long passed.  On Christmas Eve, John Boy (the aspiring writer) goes on a secret mission to find his father who has not returned home from his job.  The father works far away, and only comes home on the weekends.  When news is heard of a bus overturning along the route the father takes home, John Boy’s mother becomes fearful of the worst-case scenario.  We learn that John Boy is struggling to become a man in the eyes of his father, so this journey becomes a symbol for his passage into manhood.    The film is filled with a number of touching scenes.  My favorite involves a talk between John Boy and his mother about how he doesn’t think he could ever become a writer.  This makes it into the top five due to its warmth, purity, and likeable characters.  And it led to the long-running series, The Waltons.

#4-  The Nativity Story (2006)

Before seeing this, I was skeptical.  My thought was that it would be a watered-down version of the Biblical account of Jesus’ birth.  I am pleased to say that I was very wrong.  Sure, it’s not word for word the story told in the Bible, but it presents the story without shying away from Jesus’ divinity through the virgin birth and Mary’s humanity.  In fact, what I like most about this film is the way Mary and Joseph are portrayed.  They are poor and simple people who love God, and trust Him even through difficulties.  One of my favorite lines comes from Joseph.  He is traveling with his pregnant wife to Bethlehem, and while they are resting by a small fire he says to Mary, “I wonder if I will be able to teach him anything.”  This is such a wonderful line, since we know that Jesus will become a carpenter like Joseph.  Another great line also comes from Joseph when he passes the temple in Jerusalem.  It has become a place of trade and corruption.  Joseph says to Mary, “This was meant to be a holy place.”  Jesus would return years later to declare, “You have made my Father’s house a marketplace!”   The end of this film, the birth of Christ, gives God glory as He is the greatest gift of love the world has ever known.

#3 –Scrooge (1970)

This is the musical Scrooge starring Albert Finney.  A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens, has been made into at least a dozen different movies.  My family has them all, and we watch them every year.  There’s the Alistair Sim, and the George C. Scott, and the Muppet, and the Mickey, and the Patrick Stewart, and the Reginald Owen etc etc…  I think they’re all great, but they aren’t quite as special as Scrooge.  The movie itself is entertaining and full of catchy songs.  But the real reason it’s so high on my list is the special place this film has with my parents.  On Christmas night, 1970, my parents saw this in the theater.  They were only dating at the time.  A few years ago I had planned to watch it a few weeks before Christmas, but my father stopped it.  He said that it was too early to watch this one.  To him, this film has a special meaning.  He never said it plainly, but I know that this is the one Christmas movie that really means something to him because it is the one he saw with my mother while they were young and just starting out.

#2- A Christmas Story (1983)

I haven’t known a Christmas without A Christmas Story.  This funny and heartwarming film has such a place in my family’s Christmas tradition, it feels like a piece of home.  Every time we went to cut our tree someone would always say, “Hell, this ain’t no tree” or “Darn thing looks like it was made of green pipe cleaners.”  Our holiday dialogue is rich with Jean Shepherd’s wonderful lines.  If you haven’t seen this, or if you don’t like it, I can’t understand how that is possible.  It’s hilarious and brilliant.  It’s indescribably beautiful.  It reminds me of the fourth of July!

#1- It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

“No man is a failure who has friends.”

This film is a masterpiece.  It is the story of a man who had great dreams, but had to sacrifice them for the good of others.  Everything he ever wanted was denied him.  Yet along the way he touched the lives of many.  On Christmas Eve, at the end of his rope, he stands on a bridge ready to take his own life.  Only by God’s intervention is he saved and redeemed.  He is shown that with great love, no life is meaningless.

Wonderfully acted, beautifully scripted, and masterfully directed, It’s a Wonderful Life is a gift to humanity.  It reminds us to have faith, perseverance, and hope.  It reminds us that even the mundane aspects of life are invaluable.

Christmas celebrates the existence of love and hope.  It’s a Wonderful Life points us to both.

My Hopes for Tron:Legacy

The original Tron came out in 1982.  At the time, the special effects were groundbreaking.  It didn’t kill at the box office, but Tron has had a lasting impact on our culture.  I’m willing to bet you’ve at least heard of it.  If you haven’t, I’m sure you will hear plenty after the upcoming sequel hits theaters on December 17th.

The basic story of the original is that a computer programmer named Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) gets trapped in a computer mainframe.  The main antagonist is called Master Control Program,  which is a highly advanced artificial intelligence.  It has big plans to take over the Pentagon because it believes it is more capable to run the world than humans.  Flynn makes his way through the mainframe with another program named Tron.  Tron is a program that was designed by Flynn’s friend and fellow programmer, Alan Bradley.  The two eventually face Master Control and Flynn is returned to the real world.

Tron: Legacy takes place about thirty years after the original.  Watch the trailer to get up to speed.

 

My Hopes

  • The movie is going to look fantastic.  At the very least, the special effects will offer a feast for the eyes.  It’s also a unique environment, and it’s always nice to see someplace new.
  • The fact that the main character is a no-name actor will help the suspension of belief.  I like it when the main character is a new face, so I can’t associate him or her with other movies.  There is also the potential that this new actor will be great.  I’m hoping he’s great.
  • It won’t be too preachy.  I think this movie has the potential to be preachy, but I’m hoping they don’t pull a Happy Feet on me.  In one of the trailers they mention that Flynn had discovered something that would change the world, and even religion.
  • The focus is on the relationship between father and son.  It seems like this will be the case based on the trailers, but there is a chance that the love interest in the movie will take some of the spotlight.
  • The main love interest (Olivia Wilde) will be cute and have substance, and not be sexy and shallow.  Olivia Wilde is pretty great, and I like her in the things she has been in, but she is very good-looking.  I hope they make her more than a sex object and actually develop her as a character.  Megan Fox in Transformers is a great example of what I’m afraid of.  The trailers indicate that she will have substance.
  • Jeff Bridges will be great.  Of course he will.  He’s the Dude.
  • I won’t be distracted by the computer animated younger version of Jeff Bridges.  It looks a little off, but I’m hoping it won’t be distracting.  You know, like Batman’s voice in The Dark Knight.
  • The movie will not suffer from the planned sequels.  Often times, when a movie is made with a sequel in mind, the quality of the story suffers.  Every film should be able to stand on its own even when it is one of many sequels.
  • The story won’t be secondary to special effects.  Every big-budget film faces this temptation.  Why develop characters and a story when people will just eat up the visuals?  Avatar *cough*.
  • It will be at least an 8 out of 10.  An 8 means that the movie is very good with memorable characters and a meaningful story.

 

Many have been burned by having high expectations going into a movie.  Nevertheless, I have hope for this one.  And unless it turns out to be absolutely terrible, I think you should see it.