Category Archives: Top Ten Lists

Top Ten Performances Ignored by the Oscars

broken oscar

The Academy Awards has come under fire many times for feeling out of touch with the movie going public, but this year has been particularly brutal for the presenters of the prestigious Oscars.  For the second year in a row, we have all of the acting nomination slots completely filled with white performers, with no people of color represented.  Is it unfortunate?  Of course it is.  Is it representative of a racist attitude on the part of the academy?  Hardly.  The unfortunate aspect of the Academy nominating process is that they have only a tiny amount of slots to fill and sometimes many worthwhile performances will be left out.  I believe that it has more to do with what kinds of movies Hollywood is able to make each year, and few if any focus on non-white subjects, at least as far as high profile projects.  Of the movies this year that focused on a non-white subject that I felt deserved more recognition from the Academy, I would say that Creed should’ve gotten more in the way of nominations.  But, at the same time, I don’t hold it against the Academy either.  If you look at the whole history of the Academy Awards, they have only ever gotten it right a small percentage of the time.  Despite being the highest honor the industry can bestow, the Oscars have also been responsible for making some questionable choices that don’t always stand the test of time.  And some of their most questionable decisions are not their choices of nominees, but the ones they’ve left out all together, and that extends beyond the factor of race, gender and politics all together in the deciding factors.

For this article, I will highlight some of my choices for the biggest acting omissions ever at the Academy Awards.  Remember, these are my own choices for the most baffling forgotten performances, based on the strength of each role and the legacies they’ve left behind.  These are all iconic roles that have turned into legendary characters that have long stayed with us long after their initial releases, and at the same time were ignored completely by the Academy Awards.  Some of these actors did eventually win the big award (sometimes for lesser roles), but sadly a few others on this list were never even given a nomination throughout their entire career.  Before I get into the list itself, I also want to highlight some of the performances that almost made my list that the Academy also forgot to nominate, but have since become beloved:  Jimmy Stewart in Vertigo (1958), Cary Grant in North by Northwest (1959), Marilyn Monroe in Some Like it Hot (1959), Sidney Poitier in In the Heat of the Night (1967), Gene Hackman in The Conversation (1974), Rober Shaw in Jaws (1975), Laurence Fishburne in Boyz in the Hood (1991), Gary Oldman in Dracula (1992), Jim Carrey in The Truman Show (1998), and Albert Brooks in Drive (2011).  And with that, here are the Top 10 performances ignored by the Oscars.

10.

john cazale godfather part 2

JOHN CAZALE as FREDO CORLEONE in THE GODFATHER PART II (1974)

Here we have an example of a performance that got lost in the shuffle while the movie that featured it was graced with countless praise and awards.  John Cazale is considered today to be one of the greatest actors of his generation and he managed to be a featured player in many of the most beloved films of the 1970’s (Dog Day AfternoonThe Conversation, and The Deer Hunter).  But, his best remembered role is that of Fredo Corleone in the The Godfather trilogy, with Part II being the film that really put him in the spotlight.  When The Godfather Part II made it’s triumphant showing at the 1974 Oscars, nominated for 11 awards including five acting nods (3 alone in the Supporting Actor category), there was one very notable omission, and that was Cazale.  Lee Strasberg and Micahel Gazzo were both nominated for their standout but minor roles, as was eventual winner Robert DeNiro as a young Vito Corleone.  But, Cazale’s role as Fredo in the movie is the far more memorable one in the long run and has much more significance to the plot and it carries over much more from where he started in the first film.  Sadly, it seemed that the flashier newcomers overshadowed his briliant work and Cazale was the odd man left out.  Even still, he was well beloved by his peers and would continue to be given great roles in future movie.  Sadly, his life was cut short by cancer while he was working on The Deer Hunter, so he never got another shot at a nomination.  But the interesting thing about his career is that he only appeared in five films, and all five were nominated for Best Picture.  He was a good luck charm in the end for these films, even if none of that luck fell back onto him.

9.

denzel washington american gangster

DENZEL WASHINGTON as FRANK LUCAS in AMERICAN GANGSTER (2007)

If there is something that is even worse than the Academy’s lack of foresight in their choices over the years, it’s their desperate attempts to correct their past mistakes, which can often lead to even more baffling choices.  One pattern you see in the Academy’s history is the way that they give out Oscars based on whether it’s that Actor or Filmmakers turn or not.  Often this is given out to an actor who has been overlooked for many years and has developed a groundswell of support from fans who are demanding that the Oscars finally take notice, and that leads to the eventual awarding of that said person (we are seeing this play out right now with Leonardo DiCaprio as I write this).  While the actor is without a doubt deserving of an Award for many different films, there also is the unfortunate compulsion by the Academy to jump the gun in their decision and Award the actor for a less deserving role, just as a way to quickly right the wrongs of the past.  I feel that this was the case with Denzel Washington when he won the Oscar for Best Actor for Training Day (2001).  Is he good in that movie?  Yes, but it’s far from being his best work.  It was a showy performance, and one that the Academy responds quickly to, but it’s not representative of the actor’s talent.  I felt that if the Oscars waited a couple years more, they would have found an even better performance to Award Denzel for in Ridley Scott’s American Gangster.  In this movie, Denzel shows what he’s best at and that’s a cool, measured intensity, something which he also showcased in Spike Lee’s Malcolm X (1992).  It’s one of his best roles ever, but because he already got his turn with Training Day, this role was sadly overlooked despite deserving at least a nomination.  In the end, timing became it’s biggest fault.

8.

kirk douglas ace in the hole

KIRK DOUGLAS as CHUCK TATUM in ACE IN THE HOLE (1951)

It’s hard to believe that in all the 99 years that Kirk Douglas has walked this Earth (as of this writing) he has never won an Academy Award; at least not competitively (he given an honorary award).  Though nominated a couple times, the Academy sadly never gave him the Golden Boy, despite being one of the biggest stars in Hollywood.  Some of his nominations were no-brainers (1952’s The Bad and the Beautiful), but some of his omissions were pretty egregious (1960’s Spartacus).  But I think his biggest overlooked role was also his greatest overall, and that’s the one in Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole.  Ace probably fell victim to an outdated point of view on the Academy’s part, because the main character that Douglas plays in the film is no hero, and is in fact very unlikable.  Perhaps the Academy was not keen on nominating an anti-hero role like this, but as time has gone on, this kind of character is exactly what appeals to the Academy today.  The shaky morality of Kirk Douglas’ Chuck Tatum is fascinating to watch, seeing just how far the actor will go to become unlikable by the end; it was a gamble on Douglas’ part and he pulls it off extraordinarily well.  Today, you can see shades of this kind of character in Oscar Winning performances from Faye Dunaway in Network (1976) and from Kirk’s own off-spring Michael Douglas in Wall Street (1987).  Had Ace in the Hole had not been released in the less cynical, more moralistic 1950’s it might have been Kirk Douglas’ best shot at winning an Oscar.  Unfortunately, it stands as a standout performance that was too ahead of it’s time.

7.

frank oz yoda

FRANK OZ as YODA in THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (1980)

Apart from the Academy’s bad sense of timing, which can be accidental, there is also the valid complaint that they can be snobbish towards certain types of movies and certain types of performances.  Genre films are especially ignored by the Academy, and they tend to favor performances that are not quirky and are grounded in reality.  That’s why you see so many winning performances from actors playing real life figures as opposed to original creations, because I guess that the Academy believes that the key to acting is the art of imitation.  But, what I find particularly disheartening is when they dismiss a great performance purely because it’s a non traditional form of acting, as was the case with puppeteer and filmmaker Frank Oz’s amazing work as Yoda in Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back.  Yes, Oz is performing through a puppet as opposed to himself on screen (along with his own voice), but there is talent in bringing a puppet to life and it takes a certain amount of acting skill to pull it off.  His work as Yoda is nothing short of astounding, making the Jim Henson Company created creature feel absolutely real and alive.   Not only that, one would argue that it gives one of the most lively and heartfelt performances in the movie overall.  Sadly, it was not nominated because the Academy saw the character of Yoda as a special effect, and not as a performance.  For the Academy to overlook this purely because they don’t view this as real acting is unfortunate and I’m not the only one who thinks this.  George Lucas himself appealed to the Academy to get Frank Oz a nomination for his work here, but it was sadly for not.  Even still, regardless of what the Academy thinks, Frank Oz gave a standout performance as Yoda and it’s one that remains beloved today.  Indeed, even a special effect can display real emotion, just like any other actor.

6.

Edward G. Robinson Double Indemnity

EDWARD G. ROBINSON as BARTON KEYES in DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944)

If one were to pick out the most overlooked Actor in the history of the Academy Awards, it would be Edward G. Robinson.  The versatile actor had an astounding career that spanned five decades in Hollywood, appearing in countless movies, many of which are considered classics today, from Little Ceaser (1931) to Soylent Green (1973).  And all that amazing work resulted in zero nominations for his entire career.  Sadly, the Academy rarely awards performers who fall under the character actor category.  These are the kinds of actors who give valued support and memorable characterizations to many classic films, but rarely are the headlining star, and Robinson is often hailed as one of the greatest ever in this category.  Out of all the overlooked performances he gave over his career, the one that sticks out as particularly dubious on the Academy’s part is his role in the great noir classic Double Indemnity.  As Insurance agency manager Barton Keyes, Robinson takes command of every scene that he’s in, often outshining his costars Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck (who was nominated).  One scene towards the middle in particular, where Robinson rattles off every insurance claim category he knows without a single break in between, is a singular tour-de-force of acting, and yet no nomination.  I’m sure that this is one performance that even the Academy itself would admit they should’ve remembered.  Regardless, Edward G. Robinson is still a valued icon of Classic Hollywood.  Towards the end of his life, that value did earn him the spotlight and the Academy rightly awarded him an Honorary Award.  Sadly, he passed away in 1973 only days after learning he had been given the honor.

5.

ingrid bergman casablanca

 

INGRID BERGMAN as ILSA LUND in CASABLANCA (1943)

Casablanca is rightly considered one of the greatest movies ever made and is still a highly influential production.  It was also a situation where the Academy got the timing right, at least for most of the categories.  Though produced at a time when other movies of the same ilk were flooding the marketplace, the Academy recognized that Casablanca was far superior to the rest and rightly rewarded it with Best Picture, as well as Director to Michael Curtiz and for Best Screenplay, recognizing the film for it’s high quality film-making.  Humphrey Bogart and Claude Rains both received deserved nominations, but there was one glaring omission that year that has only grown more peculiar the longer this movie gains more legendary status, and that’s the lack of a nomination for actress Ingrid Bergman, the film’s female lead.  Though Bogart is the focus of the film, there’s no doubt that Bergman’s Ilsa is the heart, and her stunning screen presence is usually what people take away most from the movie.  Not only that, but it was a star making role for her, announcing to the world that she was a matinee idol worth raving about.  She exuded beauty, charisma, as well as strength in the key role of Ilsa and made the audience believe that she was indeed the kind of girl that the fate of world peace would hinge upon.  All of that should have earned her a nomination in a movie that was already destined for Oscar glory, but it sadly did not turn out that way.  Bergman would be redeemed with 3 Oscar wins over her long career, including one the year after for 1944’s Gaslight.  But, sadly the role she is best remembered for is also the one that the Oscars left out.  Thankfully, it’s a role that stands on it’s own without it.

4.

andy serkis gollum

ANDY SERKIS as GOLLUM in THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE TWO TOWERS (2002)

Like Frank Oz’s Yoda before him, the Academy likewise seemed to view the character of Gollum as just a special effect and not a real performance by an actor.  But that claim feels incredibly dismissive with regards to what director Peter Jackson and actor Andy Serkis accomplished with the character.  In The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Jackson and company broke new ground in the advancement of CGI animation, and no more so than in the field of motion capture animation.  Andy Serkis believed that he was initially just cast as the voice of Gollum, but he soon learned that Peter Jackson intended him to be an on set presence in every scene with the character interacting with the other actors.  Through his movements, the animation team were then able to puppeteer a digital model of the creature Gollum and the end result is an amazingly lifelike character that feels like it’s a part of the real world.  Peter Jackson loved Serkis’ work so much on set that he publicly shared the untouched footage of the actor on set, showing just how much of a real performance he gave as an actor.  It’s particularly astounding when you watch the dual personality conversation scene from The Two Towers, and just how much Andy Serkis’ facial expressions and mannerisms are faithfully transplanted into the CGI Gollum.  Sadly, the Academy didn’t seem impressed, and Andy Serkis’ breakthrough role was overlooked.  in the years since, Serkis has continued to champion the practice, playing other amazing motion-captured characters as the medium continues to be refined, like King Kong and Ceasar in the Planet of the Apes reboot, showing that this is indeed acting just like in any other form.  Gollum still remains his signature role and it’s one omission that I hope the Academy will ultimately regret passing on.

3.

humphrey bogart treasure

HUMPHREY BOGART as FRED DOBBS in THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE (1948)

A lot of the performances I’ve highlighted have resulted in the Academy either ignoring them purely out of bad timing or by unfair standards.  This particular omission is one of the more baffling because it’s the exact kind of performance that the Oscars should have gone crazy for, and yet they didn’t.  Bogart at the time of the film’s making was one of the biggest stars in Hollywood and had been honored with many accolades, including a nomination for Casablanca.  When The Treasure of Sierra Madre was released, Bogart’s performance was heralded as his best yet, and to this day it’s widely considered to be the best performance of his career.  With praise surrounding his role, and the fact that he had yet to win the Award, you would think that he was due for the honor finally, or at least be considered with a nomination.  Well, when the nominations were announced, the film was recognized in the Best Picture category, as well as for Director John Huston and Supporting Actor Walter Huston (both of whom ultimately won their awards).  But shockingly Humphrey Bogart was left out.  Did the academy just forget and run out of room in the category, or was Bogart’s intense performance as the greedy and amoral Fred Dobbs too dark for their tastes.  It’s hard to know why, but it’s odd today to see what is widely considered to be one of the greatest performances in movie history be completely ignored by Hollywood’s highest honor.  Bogart thankfully won a deserved Oscar a couple years later for The African Queen (1951), but it’s an honor that he shouldn’t have had to wait so long for.

2. 

bill murray groundhogs

BILL MURRAY as PHIL CONNORS in GROUNDHOG DAY (1992)

One actor who’s developed a ground swell of support from fans who want to see him win an Oscar has been Bill Murray.  The Saturday Night Live alum and beloved comedic actor did finally gain a nod for his work in Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation (2003), but I believe that fans’ (myself included) desire to see him win the Award stems more from this movie than anything else.  Groundhog Day has rightly become a beloved classic of both comedy and fantasy, and at it’s center is a remarkably nuanced performance from Murray himself.  Yes, the movie does play upon his comedic talent, but it goes even deeper than that, taking Murray’s acting abilities into some dark and sometimes personal places.  Murray’s Phil Connors is a very Capra-esque hero, someone who becomes a better person when he learns to think less in his own interests and more about those around him, and Bill Murray brings that out perfectly.  It’s a deeper characterization that doesn’t really fit in with most other categories that the Academy usually goes crazy for, which might have explained why it was overlooked at the time.  That and the fact that the movie was released early in the calendar year and comedic performances tended to be devalued by the Academy.  But, in the years since, people have recognized that Murray’s work in the film is not only Oscar-worthy, but might be one of the best performances of that era in film history.  It certainly has made many of his fans vocal about their desire to see him eventually win an Award.  Hopefully a role will come along in the years ahead that finally answers their prayers.  Regardless, Bill Murray’s work in Groundhog Day is certainly one of the best overlooked by the Oscars.

1.

Anthony Perkins Psycho

ANTHONY PERKINS as NORMAN BATES in PSYCHO (1960)

Of all the performances that the Oscars have overlooked that I’ve highlighted, I would say that this is the most perplexing.  Some of the previous ones had other factors that caused them to be ignored, but Anthony Perkins’ omission was just out of plain ignorance.  Here you have a breakthrough, nuanced performance in what would become one of Hollywood’s most iconic characters in a classic movie from one of the industry’s most filmmakers.  Sadly, Perkins was left out of a nomination that he would almost certainly had run away with.  This was unfortunately a trend with Hitchcock films, with both Jimmy Stewart and Cary Grant both being overlooked by the Academy for their career best work in Vertigo and North by Northwest respectively.  But as great as they were, none were as memorable as Norman Bates; one of the most fascinating villainous characters to ever be put on screen.  The brilliance of Perkins’ performance is the subtlety, helping to deceive the audience about what is truly going on with the character.  It’s a performance that not only stood out in the film, but would help redefine cinema as a whole.  Hitchcock’s Psycho redefined the character of a Hollywood murder mystery,as well as redefined what makes a person villainous, and with Norman Bates they showed that the good-natured boy next door could be the monster in the end.  It’s a monumental performance by the perfectly cast actor, and sadly the Oscars didn’t recognize that significance at the time.  In the years since, the Academy has been kinder to darker and more sinister performances, like Anthony Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs (1991) or Kathy Bates in Misery (1990), but they’re unfortunately opportunities that opened up as a result of this overlooked performance that made a difference.  That’s why it stands as the Academy’s most baffling omission of all time.

So, though the Oscars unfortunately must live and die by their restrictive standards that limit the nominations given out each year, it doesn’t mean that the performances left out are doomed to be forgotten forever.  The Academy Awards are really just a time capsule of how the industry reacts in the moment, and are not a reflection of how the movies will stand over time.  Some of the best movies ever made have become so without winning a single award, and some actors and filmmakers have become legends without ever holding an Oscar in their hands.  But, there are those cases where you just look at the snubs over the years and you wonder what on Earth was the Academy thinking.  Sometimes an actor’s best work is overlooked and is later made up for by awarding them for a lesser film, which is another unfortunate result of the Academy’s sometimes blind ambition to appear relevant to contemporary tastes.  But, there are other times when the industry is moving too fast for them and new types of acting roles push the boundaries of what is considered acceptably worthy in the industry, like say acting through a special effect.  The Academy sometimes tries, and can often get somethings right, like honoring African-American actors long before Civil Rights became the norm in society or honoring Tom Hanks humane performance as an AIDS stricken man in Philadelphia (1993) at a time when the disease still carried a stigma around it.  But, when you are limited to only a handful of nominations a year, some worthwhile choices are inevitably forgotten, some more egregious than others.  The only reason we take this so seriously is just because of the Oscar legacy, which if you look at the whole of film history, it shouldn’t matter all that much.  Even still, with some of these choices on this list, it would have been nice to have seen the Academy share the honors where they were deserved.

Top Ten Movies of 2015

movies 2015

The year of 2015 has come and gone and what a year it turned out to be.  Hollywood of course is pleased with how it all turned out because it ended up being a year for the record books.  No less than 5 movies crossed the billion dollar mark at the world wide box office this year, with a few more nearly reaching that mark as well.  Overall, it was the biggest box office ever in a single year, reaching $11 billion domestic for the first time ever.  And this astronomical number was surprisingly lifted by box office hits that came from long dormant franchises.  This turned into a year where we learned that big business can still be made from franchises that most people thought were done for good, and that fandom should not be underestimated.  But it mattered that these movies also delivered on what their audience was asking for, and it helped that the people making them have long been fans of the titles themselves.  That’s why these movies hit as big as they did; they appealed to the audiences sweet spot, but also made them feel fresh at the same time.  And, in the case of Star Wars and Jurassic World, we are seeing the kings of old dominate once again.  But, overall, this was also a year that delivered some of the biggest surprises as well as some of the most crushing disappointments.  That’s why, here at the end of the year, it made compiling this list more difficult than usual.  Of all the movies this year, a good amount of them made a very strong case to be on my best of the year list; particularly at the top.  It’s just a sign of the quality of entertainment this year; a lot of great films floated to the top, while the rest sank to the bottom, with not a lot in between.  Regardless, I still narrowed it down to my top ten, and it’s a list that I feel confident about now.

Before I begin though, I’d like to share with you all the movies that I did enjoy this year, but felt that they fell just short of my top then.  Some of these were particularly close to making it, and I still strongly recommend that you see them because they are thoroughly enjoyable.  In alphabetical order: Avengers: Age of UltronBlack Mass, Bridge of Spies, Brooklyn, Cinderella, Crimson Peak, The Hateful Eight, Jurassic World, Kingsmen: The Secret Service, Love and Mercy, Mad Max: Fury Road, Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, The Peanuts Movie, Spectre, Spotlight, Straight Outta Compton, Trainwreck, and The Walk.  So, with those out of the way, let’s get into my choices of the Top Ten Movies of 2015.  Keep in mind, though I watch more new movies than the average person, I still haven’t seen every movie this year, including some of the late or limited releases, so sorry Room, Beasts of No Nation and Son of Saul; your absence here is purely because I haven’t run across you yet.  And so, let us begin the countdown.

10.

ex machina poster

EX MACHINA

Directed by Alex Garland

Perhaps the most fascinating indie film of the year, Ex Machina is a stunning debut for first time director Alex Garland.  Though the movie can sometimes become a little too languid and ponderous at times, it makes up for it with it’s well executed ideas.  Detailing a bizarre weekend in the secluded compound of an eccentric tech industry tycoon, where said tycoon uses one of his clueless employees as a guinea pig for testing his new invention (an advanced artificial intelligence housed in a nearly human like robot), this is one of the more unique science fiction films to come in recent years.  And what’s great about this movie is that it makes remarkable use of it’s limitations.  Using only a single location (the compound) and only three main actors, this movie feels intimate while at the same time allowing you to contemplate some very big concepts within the story.  But, what makes this movie work most of all are the characters.  Domhnall Gleeson plays a likable sap in his role as the smart but gullible hero.  Alicia Vikander brings remarkable life to the challenging role of the robot, making her feel strangely human but distant as well, perfectly challenging the audience with that same question placed on the hero.  But, the movie truly belongs to Oscar Issac as the eccentric billionaire.  He steals every scene he’s in and gives one of the best and most unpredictable performances of the year.  His bizarre dance scene in the middle of the film may also be one of the greatest moments of the year in my opinion.  It’s a strange little film that should absolutely be experienced, especially for the performances, but also for the interesting questions it raises as well.

9.

carol poster

CAROL

Directed by Todd Haynes

It was a landmark year for gay rights, with the Supreme Court’s landmark decision.  But, Hollywood has often had a difficult time bringing gay themes into their films in a believable way.  Sure, Hollywood has long supported gay people for a while now, and some of the reason peoples’ minds have changed over the years towards the issue is because of the way sympathetic depictions of gay characters in most movies.  But, an unfortunate by product of this is that many films from Hollywood that are trying to appeal to the notion of Queer Cinema often are unfocused and rely too heavily on melodrama to accurately portray the gay experience in their movies.  As a result, too many gay-themed films feel inauthentic and often cliched, making their gay characters sadly too one-dimensional.  That’s what makes Carol so refreshing.  This movie could have been handled very poorly, either being too melodramatic, preachy, or just plain old boring, and thankfully it avoids all that and instead just focuses on it’s characters and their story.  Todd Haynes, a pioneer in the rise of Queer Cinema over the last few decades, imbues this movie with a warm rich atmosphere that recalls the classic melodramas of classic Hollywood, and yet he also manages to keep the sentimentality to a minimum, making this the least melodramatic of melodramas.  It also spotlights a segment of the gay community that I feel is underrepresented in Queer Cinema by focusing on a love story between two lesbian women.  The performances are excellent here, especially Cate Blanchett who’s stunning to watch on screen in every scene she inhabits.  Rooney Mara likewise delivers her career best work as well.  It’s Todd Haynes most assured and beautifully constructed film to date that thankfully pays homage to classic Hollywood glamour while also acknowledging the moral distinctions that we’re aware of today, and never once forces the story to be anything other than what it needs to be.

8.

star wars force awakens poster

STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS

Directed by J. J. Abrams

Let’s face it; all of 2015 was leading up to this movie right here.  Right from the moment the movie was announced after the handover of Lucasfilm Ltd. to the Disney Studios, people were excited.  Finally the Star Wars saga was going to continue beyond where it left off with Return of the Jedi.  Then we heard that J.J. Abrams was going to direct, and that many of the original cast was returning as well, and we got more psyched.  And then, over the course of the last year, we were treated to several expertly crafted trailers, that boosted the anticipation even more.  Perhaps no other movie in history has come to theaters with so much hype behind it, which led me to worry that it could also have been the year’s biggest disappointment if it didn’t deliver.  Thankfully, it not only did not disappoint, it was even better than I expected.  There are flaws, sure, but they are so minor compared to all the things they get right.  The characters are the film’s biggest triumph, both old and new.  I’m also amazed by how well the film managed to deal with the expectations put on while still feeling confident enough to not deviate from the story it needed to tell.  There is one particular shocking moment late in the film that I won’t spoil, but I will say that had it been poorly handled, it would have angered fans everywhere and would’ve sabotaged the master plan for the series as a whole.  Thankfully, the moment was handled perfectly and it’s a game-changer that brings stakes back into the franchise and helps to build anticipation for what’s next.  Many have debated what the better revival was this year; Star Wars or Mad Max.  While I do admire what George Miller did with his gritty franchise, I felt that Star Wars hit more of the right notes for me overall.  It was the year of Star Wars in many ways and it’s so refreshing to see a blockbuster that actually is worthy of the hype that preceded it.

7.

creed poster

CREED

Directed by Ryan Coogler

But, despite the amazing work done in both Mad Max: Fury Road and Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the best franchise revival of the year belongs to Creed, a remarkably stirring continuation of the legendary Rocky franchise.  Not only does this movie perfectly continue the long running story of boxer Rocky Balboa, but it may actually better than any of the films that have come before it.  The story focuses on the rise of boxer Adonis “Creed” Johnson, the illegitimate son of Rocky’s one-time rival turned friend Apollo Creed, and follows his own underdog story as he trains hard in order to come out of the shadow of his famous father, with the help of none other than Rocky himself as trainer.  It’s a story we’ve obviously seen before, and yet director Ryan Coogler makes it all feel new.  What’s amazing about this movie is how well Coogler manages to revive the feeling of what made the Rocky films great in the first place, but at the same time manages to feel unique on it’s own.  Michael B. Jordan delivers a knockout performance as Adonis, capturing a complex individual who has more to prove about himself than what his name gives him.  However, it’s Sylvester Stallone who stands out the most.  He delivers what is probably his best performance ever continuing in a role that has come to define his career.  His aging Rocky is lovingly reborn in this new film and he reminds us once again why we fell in love with Rocky Balboa in the first place.  Coogler clearly meant this movie to be a love letter to the franchise, and the nods to the past Rocky films are expertly displayed here.  And boy, did this movie pick the perfect moment to include the famed Bill Conti theme.  This movie proves that it’s not just worthwhile to continue the Rocky franchise; it’s essential.  It’s expertly crafted, heartfelt, and brilliantly acted and easily one of the years best.

6.

steve jobs poster

STEVE JOBS

Directed by Danny Boyle

This was probably the most interesting cinematic experiment of the year.  Could you tell the story of a real life person (and cultural icon for that matter) and do it with only three scenes.  That’s the approach that director Danny Boyle brought to his biopic of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, one of the 20th Century’s most influential visionaries.  All two hours of the movie is devoted entirely to three half hour long scenes, showing Steve Jobs balancing both personal and professional dilemmas behind closed doors on the eve of the product launches of some of his most famed creations; the Macintosh computer in 1984, the NeXT computer in 1988, and finally the iMac in 1998.  Jobs meets and clashes with all the same people in each scene and the film turns into a fascinating exploration into how people change over the years and how regrets and grudges tend to grow over the passing years.  It’s a cinematic experiment that works amazingly well, and helps to redefine the rules about how to make a biopic.  Danny Boyle makes good uses of his usually flamboyant style here, but the real key to this film’s success is the sharp as a nail screenplay by Aaron Sorkin.  It’s clear to anyone that nobody writes two sided arguments better than Sorkin does, and there are a few here that are more edge-of-your-seat compelling than a dozen action thrillers, particularly one in the middle between Jobs and Apple CEO Joe Cooley (played by Jeff Daniels).  Michael Fassbender also does an amazing job disappearing into the role, which is especially impressive given the very public identity that Jobs had.  Kate Winslet is also great as Job’s resourceful and long suffering assistant.  And best of all, the movie smartly doesn’t try to turn it’s subject into a saint either.  Steve Jobs accomplished great things, but this movie perfectly shows the monster than he could be in between the moments of brilliance.

5.

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THE BIG SHORT

Directed by Adam McKay

It’s hard to believe that the same guy responsible for many of the Will Farrell comedies over the last decade, which includes Anchorman (2004) Talladega Nights (2006) and Step Brothers (2008), could also be responsible for what is the smartest and most gutting and politically charged movie of the year.  Well, as was true in the medieval times, the person best able to speak truth to power when no one else would turned out to be the court jester, and that’s what makes the usually comedic director Adam McKay’s new film such an eye-opener.  The Big Short details the difficult to explain housing market crash of the late 2000’s, an economic disaster that nearly destroyed the entire world economy.  It’s a subject that is difficult to explain to the average viewer, and the movie does a masterful job of explaining the un-explainable in both funny and enraging ways.  What I liked best about this movies is the take-no-prisoners approach to the satire.  Everyone is to blame for the corruption and fraud that led to the market downfall in this movie; the bankers especially, but also the politicians, the regulators, even us in the audience who still remain ignorant to the problem.  The movie has a great gimmick where the film will cut away to celebrity guests who will explain to us the things we don’t understand, showing how the power of distraction was a tool that allowed the problem to go on for so long without being noticed.  A great cast, led by Christian Bale, Steve Carrell, and Ryan Gosling among others portray the men who saw the disaster coming, and the movie smartly shows that even they were just as guilty of profiteering from the disaster as some of the worst offenders.  It’s hilarious, but also enlightening and it will anger you in ways that few other political films do.  It’s a satire of the highest level, and would be laugh out loud if it weren’t so painfully true.  And it shows that sometimes the funny man can be the smartest person in the room.

4.

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INSIDE OUT

Directed by Pete Docter

Pixar is one of the most revered brands in all of film-making, let alone the world of animation.  But, after a lull in quality over the last couple years, people were wondering if they were still capable of making classics like they did in their heyday.  Thankfully this year, we were treated to an instant classic called Inside Out, which is not just one of the best movies this year, but one of Pixar’s all-time greats.  The movie is a stunner from beginning to end, taking us into the most unlikely of settings: the mind of a pre-teen girl.  What I liked about this movie the most were the incredible characters.  Each emotion is a fully developed personality, each perfectly embodying the emotion they represent.  The scene-stealer of course is Sadness, whose characterization is just perfection and is brilliantly voiced by The Office’s Phyllis Smith.  In addition, every moment in the movie is an ingenious execution of one great concept after another.  It’s great to see a movie take on a subject like psychology and the workings of emotions and portray it in a way that is both entertaining and informative to audiences of all ages.  This will probably be a great introduction to the science of psychology to children, showing that life shouldn’t be lived by one emotion alone, but through a mixture of all of them.   And there is plenty of drama and knowing humor that will keep the adults entertained as well.  And it’s amazing to think that a movie can make us shed a tear for a character named Bing Bong (“Who’s your friend who likes to play?”).  Director Pete Docter delivers an assured and fully-rounded cinematic experience that is eye-popping and mind-opening from beginning to end.  And it proves once again that Pixar still has it.

3.

the revenant poster

THE REVENANT

Directed by Alejandro G. Inarritu

Director Inarritu is on a career high right now.  After years of making small, mostly non-linear films that featured large ensembles, he decided to change things up recently and try his talents in different genres.  And this has been an experiment that has paid off.  Last year he made Birdman, a dark comedy set in the backdrop of Broadway, and it ended up winning the coveted Academy Award for Best Picture, as well as an Oscar for directing to Inarritu himself.  That film was also my own choice for the best movie of last year, which put a lot of heavy expectations on what he would make next.  Thankfully, he delivered something really spectacular as an encore.  The Revenant is an “Epic” worthy of the word and shows that Alejandro Inarritu is capably of creating a trans-formative film in any genre.  After going light with his last movie, here he goes dark and bloody, telling the harrowing story of Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), a fur trapper in the American wilderness in the early 19th century, who’s left for dead after a bear attack and must fight his way back to civilization in order to kill the man who murdered his son.  The visuals in this movie are stunning, accomplished by back-to-back Oscar winner Emmanuel Lubezki, and there are many “how did they shoot that?” moments that will leave people amazed.  Really, this was the best visual experience of the year for me.  DiCaprio once again proves why he’s one of the best actors working today, and this shoot must have been a hard one to go through.  But, it’s Tom Hardy who steal the film as the villain, becoming almost unrecognizable in the role.  It’s a brutal cinematic experience, but one that’s rewarding by the end, and it shows that the newly crowned Oscar-winning director still has a lot more to show us.

2.

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THE MARTIAN

Directed by Ridley Scott

One of the year’s breakout hits, The Martian also proved to be one of the surprising cinematic experiences as well.  While a lot of people expected this to be a thrilling, action packed extravaganza, I’m sure that no one expected this to be as smart, funny, and ultimately inspiring as it turned out to be.  The film tells the story of astronaut Mark Watney (a perfectly cast Matt Damon) who is left behind when his crew leaves him for dead on the Martian surface after their camp is hit by a sand storm.  After surviving the incident, Mark must find a way to live on the inhospitable terrain of Mars before a rescue team can come and retrieve him; a process that may take up to 4 years.  Much of the joy of watching this movie is seeing the ingenious processes that Mark Watney undertakes to stay alive, and the unwavering determination of the people back on earth to bring him home safely.  It’s the positivity that the characters approach their missions with that makes this movie so refreshing.  While many other science fiction films will often get bogged down in melodramatic contrivances, The Martian instead celebrates the ingenious and cooperative progression that the characters takes.  And best of all, it puts the Science back into Science Fiction.  In a time we live in now when Science is so often villified, whether it’s denying climate change or dismissing the benefits of vaccination or just flat out denying the fact that man has walked on the moon, it’s great to finally see a movie that celebrates the use of science and praises the work of scientists.  Director Ridley Scott of course delivers on the visuals, but it’s also a treat to see him work with a story built around optimism rather than tragedy.  Plus, it’s got a great disco based soundtrack as well.  It’s one of the years finest film-making achievements and one of the more pleasurable cinematic experiences as well.

And finally…..

1.

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SICARIO

Directed by Denis Villeneuve

This was one of the most unexpected and haunting cinematic experiences this year.  Sicario was a punch to the gut for me as movies go, and I still haven’t been able to shake it from my mind.  It works on just about every level; from the relentless and oppressive atmosphere, to the deceptively sparse screenplay, to the flat out amazing performances.  It was the movie that stuck with me longer after seeing it than any other this year.  The movie follows a rag tag group of law enforcement agents fighting in the drug war along the U.S./ Mexican border.  The movie starts off with a chilling discovery in a horror house filled with decaying corpses out in the middle of the Arizona desert and it takes us from their into a nightmarish journey down the rabbit hole into the madness of America’s War on Drugs against the ruthless Mexican cartels.  Some of the imagery throughout the movie will stick with you, like the bodies of the Cartel’s victims hanging off the edge of a highway bypass, or the unbelievably brutal final confrontation at the end.  I won’t spoil what happens, but let’s just say it’s the most shocking moment in any movie I saw this year.  And yet, with all this horror and mayhem, it still proves to be a rewarding experience, and that’s because of how truthful it is to both the subject and the characters.  The performances are amazing throughout.  Emily Blunt proves once again how versatile she is and becomes a perfect witness for the audience to identify with through all the craziness.  Josh Brolin also offers some much needed levity as the cynical smartass Agent Carver.  But it’s Benicio del Toro who owns the movie.  His mysterious Agent Alejandro may be my favorite character of the year, and it’ll be a crime if he’s not nominated for an Oscar for this performance.  It’s a cinematic experience all of you should see, and it stands as my favorite of the year in a very crowded field.

But, of course I can’t tell you my best of the year picks without also sharing my picks for the worst.  I usually steer clear of bad movies in the theaters as you know, but there were some that were just unavoidable, even if I could see them coming.  So, here are the Top Five Worst of 2015.

5.

TOMORROWLAND –  Without a doubt the year’s most disappointing film.  Believe me, I wanted to love this film, given the talent behind it.  But sadly, what we got instead was a tired, cliched wannabe sci-fi classic that never fully explored the promising ideas that it only hints at.  I wanted to see a grand adventure, and all I ended up with was a road movie.  Please don’t let us down again Brad Bird.

4. 

ALOHA – Speaking of wasting away a lot of promise, director Cameron Crowe just can’t seem to recapture the creative drive that once made him a standout many years ago with movies like Jerry Maguire and Almost Famous.  Aloha represents yet another poor attempt by Crowe to recapture some of that lost inspiration, but even the pretty Hawaiian locales can’t save this movie from a boring story and lackluster characters.  Not to mention it has the notoriously bad miscasting of Emma Stone as a part-Asian character.

3.

TED 2 – The crumbling of the Seth MacFarlane empire has been going on for a while now, and this lame sequel is just another sign of that.  I did enjoy the first Ted back in 2012, but the novelty has worn off since.  This over long, contrived comedy fails on all levels to be worth the effort.  Only a well-done cameo by Liam Neeson managed to get a laugh out of me while watching the film.  Other than that: crickets.

2.

TERMINATOR: GENYSIS – In a year when we saw triumphant revivals of legendary franchises, the Terminator series was the only one that we saw sink further.  This uninspired sequel manages to have the gall to go back to the original classic and disrupt the timeline, wiping the slate clean.  This might have been interesting had the end result not been so lame.  Yes, it’s nice to see Arnold back in the iconic role, but every other character is a one-dimensional bore.  And how dare they make Sarah Connor such a bland character.  It’s tired, predictable, and a disgrace to the once mighty franchise.

And the worst film of 2015 is….

1.

FANTASTIC FOUR – Yeah, you probably knew this was coming.  I tore this movie apart in my earlier review and the opinion still stands.  This was a trainwreck of a movie on every level; visually, narratively, performance-wise, everything.  Even the people who made it have expressed how horrible the experience was.  The only ones who seem to want to keep this disaster going are the studio heads at Fox, who are just greedily holding onto the rights in order to keep the characters away from Marvel.  It’s a cynical business ploy that represents the worst kind of film-making.  Hopefully, Fox will learn that this no way to make a movie and will give up their grip-hold on these characters, and allow this travesty of a film to be forgotten.

So, there you go.  My picks for the best and worst of 2015.  It was an interesting year that brought us some grandiose and record breaking entertainment.  But, we were also treated to many surprises that also proved to be worthwhile.  Looking ahead now, we begin another year of movies that again looks promising, if a bit less ambitious than the previous year.  We’ll get an extra large helping of Superhero films this year including two big crossover events like Captain America: Civil War (May) and Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (March), plus the anticipated sequel X-Men: Apocalypse (Memorial Day), as well as the introduction of a new face to the mix: Doctor Strange (November).  Plenty of sequels await (Alice Through the Looking GlassFinding DoryIndependence Day:ResurgenceStar Trek Beyond) plus a couple of re-imaginings (The Jungle Book) and even a revival (all-female Ghostbusters).  Plus, we’re going to get ambitious new films from some of cinema’s great masters like Steven Spielberg (The BFG), a first ever screenplay from famed Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling (Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them), and a stand alone Star Wars flick to help keep us satisfied in between Episodes VII and VIII (Star Wars: Rogue One).  It’s going to be an unpredictable year, and while I don’t think we’ll see some of the box office highs that we witnessed this last year, I’m sure there will be plenty of worthwhile entertainment to be had.  And I’ll be sure to cover as much as I can of it for you my readers.  Happy New Year and let’s all still have a blast watching and talking about the movies.

Top Ten Villain Musical Themes

phantom organ

Earlier this year I shared with all of you a top ten list of my favorite epic musical themes of all time.  Beyond each of them being my favorite movie tunes to listen to, the other thing they usually had in common was that they were associated mostly with the heroes of their selective movies.  Whether it was the moody Batman theme from Danny Elfman or the triumphant “Throne Room” theme from John Williams in Star Wars, there’s no doubt that some of the most beautiful music ever written have usually been reserved for heroes.  But, not all memorable themes are written just for them.  Sometimes a villain’s theme may be even more beloved in a movie than the hero theme, or can even be the main musical tune of the film itself; such as Bernard Herrman’s haunting Psycho theme.  Though hero and villain themes usually serve the same purpose in telling a story, they are characteristically very different, and it’s that contrast that really helps to make the villain themes much more memorable.  Usually they are sinister, aggressive, or just plain foreboding, and yet we can’t help but love hearing them.  Hollywood has provided just as many memorable villain themes as they have memorable villains, and you can’t help but love the way that many composers have fun trying new things as they delve into the dark side with their music.

Given that it’s Halloween, I have decided to list a few of my own favorite villain themes, since they can make an enjoyable playlist for the holiday.  Keep in mind, these are my own choices based on how much I enjoy them personally, as well as how I judge them by their significance in the history of cinematic music.  These are all purely orchestral themes, and not villain songs.  That’s a whole other category that I might cover someday; more than likely dedicated almost exclusively to Disney villain songs, since they’re so good at them.  This list may not be everyone’s choices, and some of you may be surprised by a few of my picks.  I just hope that a few of you might discover an unexpected surprise here, alongside some of the more obvious choices.  In addition, I’ll detail exactly why I chose these movies, and include the musical pieces themselves in video form.  Overall, my picks reflect the effectiveness that the themes embody each villain’s character, as well as stand on it’s own as just an overall great tune.  Sometimes, even minor villains might have a great theme or a great villain can have a forgettable theme.  And if both end up being great at the same time, all the better.  So, it’s time we begin this monster mash of music as we countdown my favorite villain musical themes of all time.

10.

GOZER THEME from GHOSTBUSTERS (1984)

Composed by Elmer Bernstein

First off we start with an effectively spooky theme heard in one of the greatest comedies ever made.  Ghostbusters is an interesting movie because even though it plays it’s premise for laughs, it’s also not afraid of throwing some really scary images at it’s audience.  Amazingly, the movie is able to balance the comical and the creepy perfectly and a large part of that is due to the excellent musical score written by the legendary Elmer Bernstein.  Bernstein had one of the most prolific careers in Hollywood as a composer, writing for a wide variety of projects that ranged from the grandiose epic The Ten Commandments (1956) to the intimate social drama To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), and he managed to brilliantly capture the right mood for each project.  His later career had him writing for action films and comedies, which made him a perfect choice here.  Bernstein’s whole score for Ghostbusters is wonderfully spooky in a playful way (making particularly good use of classic horror movie music elements like the theramin), but if there was a standout, it would be the theme for the movie’s sinister, Sumerian God villain, Gozer the Destructor.  The theme plays throughout the film to great effect, building up to the arrival of Gozer at the film’s climax, helping to establish the overwhelming threat that the villain holds for our lovable band of quirky heroes as they face off against an enemy of Biblical proportions.  It only makes sense that a composer of biblical epics would find just the right sound for such a vengeful, destructive force in this classic comedy.

9.

MAGNETO THEME from X-MEN: FIRST CLASS (2011)

Composed by Henry Jackman

Here we have a relatively new villain theme, but one that is nevertheless memorable.  Magneto is one of the more fascinating villains to have ever come out of the world of comic books.  His tactics are harsh and unforgiving, but his motivations come out of a tragic past; one which helps to make him far more sympathetic.  He’s a perfect example of someone who is not born a villain but is turned into one.  This aspect was explored perfectly in the Matthew Vaughn directed X-Men: First Class.  We watch as the mutant Magneto is shaped by his circumstances to become crueler and harsher until ultimately he becomes the unforgiving villain that will forever undermine the good deeds done by the heroic X-Men.  Henry Jackman’s score for the movie primarily tries to emulate the sound of the era in which the movie takes place, which is the 1960’s.  All the other music in the movie fits this motif, except this very modern sounding piece, and I think that it was intentional.  It plays at the very end when Magneto (played brilliantly by Michael Fassbender) makes his first appearance as his newly minted villainous persona, which underlines the idea that this is the birth of a new evil in the world and helps to give us an idea of the mayhem he will bring.  It’s thematically perfect, but also great to listen to.  It only makes sense that a villain with the power to control magnetism would have a theme that’s so, well, metal.  I just enjoy the energy this theme brings.  It’s dark, sinister, and perfectly embodies the state of mind of such a dark and conflicted character.

8.

THE WICKED WITCH OF THE WEST THEME from THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939)

Composed by Herbert Stothart

This is one of the most legendary villain themes to come out of Hollywood.  In the early days of cinema, especially during the silent era, villain themes would often use popular classical music that tended to have a macbre edge to them.  One example of this was Bach’s Toccata Fugue in D Minor in Tod Browning’s Dracula (1931), which was a suitable theme for the legendary bloodsucker.  Original themes became more prevalent in the early sound era, and one of the greatest scores to come from this time was The Wizard of Oz.  Known primarily for it’s songs, The Wizard of Oz also had some orchestral themes that brilliantly underscored the movie, none more so than this villain theme.  The Wicked Witch (played memorably by Margaret Hamilton) is the only main character who doesn’t have a song in the movie, and that’s because she doesn’t need one.  This theme perfectly characterizes the dastardly witch; a swirling cacophony of music not unlike the twister that brings Dorothy to Oz.  I also like how it instantly establishes itself in the movie from the very beginning, as it’s first heard when the sinister Miss Gulch (also played by Hamilton) enters the movie.  Using it for this effect helps to signify for the audience that danger is approaching and whoever follows with it is up to no good.  It’s a great effective way of differentiating the villain from the rest of the cast, with her menacing sounding theme, and this particular piece of music has been a highly influential one over the years.  Many villain themes since have taken their cue from the Witch’s example and it’s still a memorable piece of music to this day.

7.

GODFREY THEME from ROBIN HOOD (2010)

Composed by Marc Streitenfeld

Here we have an example of a great musical theme written for a very bland and forgettable villain.  The Robin Hood adaptation from Ridley Scott has a lot of problems, but the musical score by Marc Streitenfeld is not one of them.  In fact, the music is the best thing about it, and this villain theme is the clear highlight.  Sir Godfrey is the film’s stand-in for the Robin Hood’s legend’s main antagonist Sir Guy of Gisbourne, and though he’s played by a fantastic actor (Mark Strong) he is largely forgettable and stock standard as far as villains go.  And yet, Streitenfeld felt that a grandiose villain theme was needed here.  Though let down by the underwritten character in the movie, I’m certainly glad that Streitenfeld went above and beyond with his theme.  It’s an effectively creepy musical piece that would be better suited in a monster movie than in the legend of Robin Hood.  I especially like the pulsing use of the flutes and how they play alongside the heavy percussion that follows.  It’s the kind of music that crawls under your skin in an unpleasent way.  I remember first hearing this music when I saw the movie in theaters a while back and was struck by how much this theme instantly defined itself.  I’m sure that many of you probably have never heard this one before, so my hope is that this will be a surprise to you.  In my opinion, great pieces of music can come from even the lamest of movies, and this is a perfect example of that.  It does what all the best villain themes should  do and that’s to give it’s character an instant identity.  I just wish the character hadn’t been such a wet blanket throughout the film.  Hopefully, heard apart from the film, I’ve helped to highlight this great sinister piece that I feel hasn’t been given it’s due yet.  It’s a chilling piece of music that deserved a much better villain and a far better movie.

6.

THE KRAKEN THEME from PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: DEAD MAN’S CHEST (2006)

Composed by Hans Zimmer

Han Zimmer’s scores for the Pirates of the Caribbean series are just as wild as the films themselves.  Mixing a lot of different types of styles together, from classical to heavy metal, his music is a perfect accompaniment for this unconventional series.  Naturally people remember the main theme the most, but Zimmer also wrote some memorable scores for the villains in the series.  The main antagonist, Davy Jones gets his own melancholy villain theme that is powerfully centered around the pipe organ instrument.  But, I would say that the more memorable villain theme in the movie belongs to Davy Jones’ loyal “pet;” the monstrous Kraken.  This musical piece is as wild as the monster it underscores.  We’ve heard many themes used in movies that effectively characterize the dangers of what lies out in the open ocean, but none have sounded as ferocious as this one.  When first seen in action the movie, the Kraken rips apart a full sized galleon ship and the music effectively reflects that epic scale savagery.  But, what I like best about this theme is that when heard outside of the context of the film, it does stands on it’s own as a great piece of music.  It’s the kind of villain theme that paints a picture all on it’s own, and it’s a brutal and frightening one at that.  I certainly think it’s one of Hans Zimmer’s best because of that and absolutely one of the best villain themes of all time.  You just can’t overlook a beast like this.

5.

JAWS THEME from JAWS (1975)

Composed by John Williams

And speaking of beasts from the depths of the ocean, here’s the granddaddy of them all.  The main theme from Jaws could very well be the most famous two notes in all of music.  The moment you hear those bass strings play those notes, you instantly know what you’re in for.  Fun fact: when John Williams first played this theme for director Steven Spielberg back during the film’s development, Spielberg thought it was a joke.  But, as the famed director soon learned, the theme based on those two notes would not only be perfect for the movie, but also a life saver as well.  Spielberg was plagued with production problems throughout filming with a mechanical great white shark that never worked properly, and he was forced to edit around the creature, merely implying the villainous monster’s presence through most of the movie.  That’s where Williams’ score came to the rescue.  Even though the audience doesn’t see the shark, the music helps us to know that it’s coming with it’s countdown clock-like immediacy.  I don’t think there has ever been a better piece of music ever written to convey that sense of creeping doom.  Once the shark finally makes his appearance, we’re already prepared to fear it, and that’s a testament to the overall effectiveness of Williams’ theme.  What I also like is the way that the music reinforces the merciless nature of the beast; as the beat grows louder and louder like it’s catching up to you and when it crescendos, that’s when you know that the monster has hit it’s mark.  It’s a brilliant villain theme that belongs to one of cinema’s most unforgettable monsters, and John Williams’ managed to do it with a melody based purely on just two notes.

4.

MAIN THEME from BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA (1992)

Composed by Wojciech Kilar

Naturally, a Halloween icon such as Dracula should get a memorable theme of his own, but it wasn’t until Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 adaptation of the Bram Stoker novel that we got a musical theme worthy of the Count.  The classic Bela Lugosi Dracula films were mostly silent with only classical pieces used sparingly like the already mentioned Toccata Fugue.  Many of the subsequent Dracula adaptations also played on that same silent terror over the years.  But Coppola’s feature was meant to be epic and operatic, and he called upon Polish composer Wojciech Kilar to give Dracula a truly memorable theme.  And that he did.  This is a wonderfully creepy piece of music, and grandiose in all the right ways.  The constant drumming beat creates a nice sense of rising tension and each movement adds more and more instruments to the mix, helping to build to a sinister cacophony of sound, sort of like a sinister version of Ravel’s Bolero suite.  The piece is perfectly suited for Coppola’s twisted retelling of the Dracula legend, and it gives it the right amount of epic grandeur that helps to set it apart from other versions of the story.  Of all the themes on this list, this is the one that really feels at home in this Halloween season, giving the listener a true sense of feeling like something monstrous is on it’s way.  It’s the type of music you can imagine playing in the background of a haunted house tour.  But the best thing about it is that it gave the iconic Dracula a worthy musical theme that he was sorely lacking.

3.

ISENGARD THEME from THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING (2001)

Composed by Howard Shore

Howard Shore’s multiple Oscar-winning scores from the Lord of the Rings trilogy feature many memorable and now iconic musical themes.  Most of them are tied to the many different cultures an peoples of Middle Earth, giving the series a deep sense of history as Tolkein’s world is brought to life.  Shore also gave specific characters their own memorable themes, the best of which belong to the trilogy’s many memorable villains.  Each villain’s theme is great in their own right, including the delirious “Barad-dur” theme for the main villain Sauron, the twisted “Minas Morgul” theme for the Witch King, as well as the melancholy one for Gollum.  Why, even the Ring of Power itself gets it’s own villain theme.  But, if I had to pick the best villain theme out of the bunch, it would be the one that belongs to the white wizard, Saruman.  This is far and away the most memorable villain theme from the series and one of my absolute favorites as well.  It perfectly reflects the persona of the villainous Saruman, which as the character Treebeard states in The Two Towers (2002) is now “a mind of metal.”  Howard Shore took many industrial sounding instruments and incorporated them into his theme, which helps to underscore the scenes within the mines of Isengard perfectly.  Not only does it convey the industrial theme perfectly, but it also sounds menacing at the same time.  This was a perfect sounding theme to associate with the wizard, and it couldn’t have been better suited for a physically imposing actor like the late, great Christopher Lee who played the role.  Of all the great music in Howard Shore’s epic scores, this is a real standout, and that’s saying something.

2.

WALTZ TO THE DEATH (THE JOKER THEME) from BATMAN (1989)

Composed by Danny Elfman

Of all the great comic book villains that have received a suitably dark and menacing villain theme over the years, you just know that the absolute best has to belong to the Clown Prince of Crime; The Joker.  Now, there are excellent villain themes to be found in The Dark Knight trilogy by Hans Zimmer, notably the ones for The Joker and Bane.  But, it’s Danny Elfman’s masterpiece of a musical score from the original Tim Burton Batman that has the more memorable musical pieces.  Namely, this amazing tune from the movie’s climax.  Of all the villain themes on this list, this is the most unconventional.  Instead of creating a dark and sinister theme for the Joker, Danny Elfman wrote this colorful and exuberant piece that is perfectly evocative of this particular villain.  It’s comical, but also unnerving and wild; just like the villain himself.  It’s especially well used in the movie, as Jack Nicholson throws himself hilariously in the role as he waltzes around with Kim Basinger’s unwilling Vicki Vale while Batman fights the Joker’s henchmen in the background.  Elfman’s score is full of pleasant surprises, and none more so than this piece.  Though used in pieces throughout the film, we don’t hear it in it’s full form until the climax and it’s presented gloriously.  What I like best about it is that it’s the perfect antithesis to the moody and dark theme of the hero, showing the duality of the hero and the villain perfectly.  The only music suitable for a clown is the kind that is terrifyingly silly, and this Joker theme is just that.

1.

THE IMPERIAL MARCH from STAR WARS EPISODE IV: A NEW HOPE (1977)

Composed by John Williams

Really, what else was going to top this list other than one of the most famous, and possibly the most recognizable villain theme of all time.  And once again, a piece of music from John Williams tops my musical theme top ten list.  But, I don’t think there won’t be any doubt about that here.  This is probably the first piece of music that comes to mind when someone thinks of a typical villain theme.  Though most commonly associated with the iconic Darth Vader, the music is actually themed to the entire force of the Galactic Empire and it’s military might.  This overwhelming threat in the film series is perfectly characterized by this music.  It’s a percussion and brass heavy beat symbolizes a feeling of unstoppable power and unbending will.  And with the presence of Darth Vader onscreen, it becomes a theme of rigid superiority and overwhelming might.  Basically, when heard today, it symbolizes the power of authority, and many people will sometimes use it as a fun way to mock either their bosses at work or a politician they don’t like, given it’s near universally recognized reputation.  As a story element, it’s also a perfect theme for the villains in the Star Wars series, conveying a sense of approaching danger every time it’s played.  John Williams’ Star Wars score is considered the greatest ever written by many and his Imperial March is certainly one of the jewels in that crown.  It’s also just a plainly great tune on it’s own; instantly recognizable and perpetually beloved.  Really is there any other villain theme out there that people of all generations, young and old, can hum along to right off the top of their heads.  That’s the sign of a truly memorable piece of music.  All together now; duh duh duh, duh d-duh duh d-duh.

So, there you have it, my choices for the best villain themes of all time.  Some of these are no brainers like the Imperial March and the Isengard theme, as well as the classic Jaws and Wicked Witch themes.  But, my hope is that I’ve alerted some of you to villain themes that haven’t yet been given their due recognition, like the Godfrey theme from Robin Hood.  That one was just as much a surprise to me, but I still think it is worthy of being listed here.  Some of you may have favorites of your own, and I’m sure they are good as well.  The great thing about music, especially those from the movies, is that anyone can find something that suits their tastes, and it can come from the unlikeliest of places.  That’s why I find it so intriguing that some of the best and more beloved pieces of music are given to the villains more than the heroes.  I think that it’s because the villains are the more operatic and definitive characters in the story, so their musical themes should reflect their larger impact on the narrative.  They are the more impactful characters, so each melody devoted to them must be grander as well.  Thankfully, many great composers have devoted some great music to some of our best villains and hopefully I’ve highlighted some of the best here for all of you.  This will hopefully be a nice selection of tunes to give your Halloween a suitable playlist.  And with that, have a Happy and Scary Halloween.

Top Ten Mystery Science Theater 3000 Episodes

mst3k cast

In the not too distant future, somewhere in time and space, a silly little comedy show developed into a influential cult hit that continues to be watched and enjoyed by audiences today, even a decade after it ended it’s run.  Mystery Science Theater 3000 was the brainchild of comedian Joel Hodgson (not too different from you or me), who started the series out of a public access cable station in Minnesota in the late 1980’s.  As crude as some of the earliest episodes were technically, it did introduce a novel idea that quickly caught the attention of people in the comedy world, and the show developed into a genuine underground hit.  The cheesy but endearing premise had Joel Robinson (Hodgson) stranded on a Space Station orbiting the planet, where he is forced by his masters at the evil Gizmonic Institute to watch horrible movies as part of their diabolical experiments.  In order to keep his sanity in tact, Joel makes the best of the situation and openly mocks the films as he watches them.  This has become a practice known as “riffing,” which Mystery Science Theater 3000 (MST3K) certainly popularized, if not outright invented.  And though Joel is a funny enough comic to hold his own during the riffing on the show, it was made even better with the inclusion of two robotic sidekicks who also join in on the fun.  Those puppeteered robots of course were the hilariously hyperactive Crow T. Robot and the hilariously suave Tom Servo.  After their short run on public access, the show was picked by The Comdey Channel (now known as Comedy Central) and quickly went from an underground discovery into a bona fide national hit.

And in all it’s 10 years on the air (7 seasons on Comedy Central and 3 more on the SyFy Channel thereafter), it’s amazing to see how well the show retained it’s identity and stray very little from it’s humble origins.  I think that it really has to do with the purity of it’s gimmick.  The show is really just Masterpiece Theater for the B-Movie crowd, and it brilliantly captures the insanity and camp of the movies that it spoofs.  Not only that, but the silhouetted image of Joel and the bots sitting in front of a movie screen has become the singular iconic image of the show and it’s legacy.  The show went through many different cast members over it’s decade long run, with Joel Hodgson himself leaving in the show’s fifth season.  His replacement, Mike Nelson proved equally adept and hilarious in the lead human role, and marked a welcome departure from Hodgson’s funny but dry delivery.  Writer and Puppeteer Kevin Murphy remained behind the persona of Tom Servo for most of the show’s run, definitively giving the robot his boisterous personality.  And Crow T. Robot went through the biggest change during the switch to another network, changing voice and persona when Bill Corbett took over for Trace Beaulieu; still remaining hilarious, but in a different way.  But, during all this, the show remained true to it’s character, and audiences remained pleased.  Even today, the show is still widely watched by loyal fans who continue to circulate the tapes all these years later, introducing the show to newer audiences.  I for one  consider MST3K to be one of my absolute favorite shows, and it still holds up 15 years after it’s end.  It’s not just the riffing or the skits that make the show such a classic; it’s also the sheer joy of discovering movies so hilariously bad that they need to be seen to be believed.  What follows are what I think to be 10 of the absolute best and most hilarious episodes the show had during it’s run.  I included clips from YouTube for each pick, so that you can hopefully see why I loved these particular episodes so much and get some of you who haven’t seen the show interested by showing you the best bits.

10.

THE UNDEAD (SEASON 8, EPISODE 6)

Of course a show that highlights the most notorious examples of cheap and schlocky horror would run across the likes of B-Movie king Roger Corman eventually.  And you could tell that the cast knew they had something special in store.  Just seeing the notorious filmmaker’s name in the opening credits makes Crow shout out “We’re Doomed,” right from the get go.  Though not the only Corman film to get the “MST” treatment, this is certainly the funniest.  This cheesy movie finds a modern day woman given hypnotic treatment, which sends her subconsciously back into medieval times.  And by medieval times, I mean a mist shrouded soundstage decorated with a few prop trees.  Yeah, the MST crew gets a lot of mileage out of the ridiculous cheapness of the movie.  I especially love Mike Nelson’s riff on the cylinder shaped helmet that one of the actors playing a knight wears in the movie; “Gee, I hope I don’t look stupid in this.”  But, like most of the MST3K episodes, a lot of the jokes come from making observations over how dated the movie has become.  And not just for the bad production values, but also from the stilted acting and rampant misogyny of the male characters.  Over the course of the episode, we get some of the best examples of 50’s B-Movie camp, which would become a popular go-to source of comedy for the show.  But, it’s the moment when the evil hypnotist yells out “STAY” to the female lead that the episode hits it’s high point, because of how out of left field it is.  The MST crew’s reaction is both genuine and hilarious, and makes this a classic episode as a result.

9.

 GAMERA VS. GUIRON (SEASON 3, EPISODE 12)

If there was ever a reliable source of cheesy and oddball movies just waiting to be riffed on the show, it would be the nation of Japan and their large collection of Kaiju monster movies.  MST3K did take on the legendary Godzilla in two back to back episodes (Godzilla vs. Megalon and Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster), but the show actually got more traction out of another legendary Kaiju; Gamera.  The show’s 3rd season featured no less than five Gamera titles in it’s lineup, making the monster almost like a reoccurring guest star.  And the corny yet earnest productions from Japan lent themselves perfectly to the show.  MST3K‘s riffs almost had as much influence over raising Gamera’s stock in the eyes of the worldwide audiences as the films’ original American distributor Sandy Frank did; another reliable source of material for the show.  Honestly, any of the Gamera episodes could’ve made my list, because they are all hilarious in their own way and they pretty much riff on the same things.  If there was one to choose out of the bunch, however, it would be this one, where Gamera travels to a distant planet to save two kidnapped Japanese children from the knife headed monster Guiron.  Most of the episode’s best riffs come from the reactions to the silliness on screen, particularly Guiron’s hilariously cartoonish appearance.  And speaking of appearances, there’s a lot of funny comments also made about one of the children’s resemblance to actor Richard Burton; “Don’t talk about Gamera, Martha.”  Any fan of classic monster movies will get a good laugh out of this episode and the MST crew does not disappoint.

8.

TEENAGE STRANGLER (SEASON 5, EPISODE 14)

Now here’s an example where the MST crew finds something really strange in a particular movie and exploits it to it’s fullest potential.  Teenage Strangler (or Terror in the Night as it has also been titled) is a mostly dull and dated B-Movie thriller from the 60’s that is hardly worth remembering.  That is until we are introduced to Mikey, the little brother of the movie’s protagonist.  Mikey, played by a then young actor named John Humphries (no relation, and any of my family members reading this will see it as a hilarious coincidence given my own brother’s name) is of the oddest characters that the MST crew has ever come across.  Bespectacled, effeminate, socially awkward and speaking with an odd Southern twang, this character is the movie’s most memorable element, and the guys get most of their best lines just from his presence alone.  Mostly they poke fun at how out of place Mikey is, but certainly his odd physical appearance gets touched upon as well.  The mid show sketch even has Mike Nelson and the bots doing their best impersonations of the character, which is hilarious on it’s own.  I especially cracked up at Mike Nelson switching in and out of the character in the sketch.  Overall, it’s an episode that really represents how an episode can hinge around one particular element and become a classic as a result.  This episode belongs entirely to this one odd little character, who becomes one of the show’s greatest little discoveries.

7.

EEGAH (SEASON 5, EPISODE 6)

Another great element of the show was whenever they would run across a single moment in any movie that was so unexpected and bizarre that it became a running gag later on in the program.  That was the case with this cheaply made “caveman” movie from the 60’s, starring the late Richard Kiel (Jaws from the James Bond franchise).  The film itself is a nice campy relic, and the MST crew gets a lot of mileage out of the cheapness of the film, and also with the odd-looking male lead, Arch Hall Jr., who looks more artificial naturally than the make-upped Kiel does as the caveman.  But, what ends up being the most memorable part of the episode is when the crew encounters what has to be the worst ADR in movie history.  When a private investigator in the movie examines the scene of a sighting of the caveman Eegah, he instructs the male and female lead characters to follow him.  At this moment, coming from out of nowhere is a voice saying, “Watch out for snakes,” which doesn’t match the action at all and is different from any of the characters on screen.  It’s a seriously “what the f***” moment and the MST crew responds appropriately by asking, “Who said that?”  It’s bizarre and hilarious at the same time, and still to this day is one of the funniest single moments from the show.  In the years since, whenever the crew encountered a scene in any movie that involved characters walking aimlessly through a desert, one of the them would shout out, “Watch out for snakes” in reference to this movie.  It’s a great example where one hilarious moment could take on a life of it’s own and become a defining element in the series.

6.

RED ZONE CUBA (SEASON 6, EPISODE 19)

Over the course of the MST3K‘s run, the crew would often devote episodes to some of the most famous auteurs of bad movies ever to have come out of Hollywood, like the aforementioned Roger Corman, the legendary Ed Wood, and special effects loving Bert I. Gordon.  But, if there was one notoriously bad director who received special recognition because of this show, it would be Coleman Francis.  MST3K managed to devote episodes to the director’s entire body of work; all three of them.  This included the military propaganda film, The Starfighters, as well as the Tor Johnson headlined monster movie, The Beast of Yucca Flats.  But, the best of the bunch would have to be Coleman Francis’ magnum opus of crapitude, Red Zone Cuba (aka Night Train to Mundo Fine).  Red Zone Cuba is a meandering mess of a movie, where three escaped convicts enlist in a top secret military mission to invade Cuba and assassinate Fidel Castro.  You heard that right.  Not to mention that the entirety of their military training takes place over a single weekend, which is also hilariously pointed out.  The MST crew is given a lot to riff here, not least of which is Coleman’s clearly present ego all over the film, as he was also the writer and star of the production.  They brutally savage Francis’ odd directing choices and his unappealing main character.  Also riffed are some of the film’s geopolitical and historical context, mocked in hilarious and insightful ways, making this one of the more high brow episodes; not that they didn’t shy away from some low brow jokes either.  Often throughout the series, the guys would mix up some really obscure and sophisticated references in amongst the cornball goofing, which has been one of the endearing things fans have grown to appreciate about the show, and Red Zone Cuba is one of those episodes that gives the audience the best of all worlds.  In addition, a long forgotten filmmaker also gets his moment in the sun again, for better or worse.

5.

THE FINAL SACRIFICE (SEASON 9, EPISODE 10)

Just like how the Teenage Strangler episode capitalized on one particularly weird character in the movie, this episode also found great material related to a singular character, only in a different way.  This strange early 90’s film from Canada follows a young boy who discovers the existence of an ancient city hidden deep underground, and is soon hunted down by a zealous satanic cult looking to harness the city’s immense magical power.  The young boy, Troy, soon receives help from a pickup driving drifter with possibly the most awesome name in movie history; Zap Rowsdower.  Rowsdower of course is the subject of most of the MST crew’s jokes in the episode, particularly with regards to his distinct appearance.  Think John Ratzenberger, but with a mullet.  And more overweight.  Sure, some of the fat jokes are cheap shots, but the many hilarious ways they use them are what makes this episode such a classic.  If anything, all the jokes actually help to endear Rowsdower to both the MST crew and the audience.  His unforgettable and hilariously unkempt presence has made this a particularly popular episode to many fans and has earned the film and character something of a cult following.  The show also gets a lot of jokes out of the Canadian setting, sometimes even going as lowball as young Troy popping his head out of the pickup truck’s window and the boys adding the line, “Oh shoot, I’m in Canada.”  But all the Great White North references are top notch and stay hilarious throughout.  With them and Rowsdower, this stands as one of the show’s most consistently funny episodes.

4.

SANTA CLAUS (SEASON 5, EPISODE 21)

Now we get to one of the stranger episodes in the show’s history.  MST3K always included holiday themed episodes from time to time, including the legendarily awful cult hit, Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964) and the Russo-Finnish import Jack Frost (1964).  But, this Mexican produced family film about jolly, old St. Nick is one of the most bizarre things that the MST crew has ever come across.  Featuring trippy uses of color and sets, way out-of-date racial stereotypes, and a nonsensical story, there was plenty of material here to riff on.  Not to mention, it’s also a movie where Santa battles the Devil.  The jokes come fast and furious in this episode, but often times the funniest moments just come from Mike and the bots purely reacting to all the bizarre things going on.  One particularly hilarious moment comes when Santa winds up his creepy toy reindeer that drive his sleigh and they begin to laugh in an almost maniacally unsettling way.  This only leads to the boys laughing madly along with them and Mike Nelson pleading to the movie, “What’s happening?”  A lot of humor does touch upon holiday traditions as well and they lead to some of the episode’s best jokes.  When Santa receives his letters from children all over the world in one scene, the MST crew adds the line “There’s a dollar in every one.  My chain letter scam worked.”  I also love the line after Santa reads a letter from a child asking for a new baby brother; “Ho Ho. Can do.”  This episode stands as both a great holiday special, as well as a truly trippy and unique experience in it’s own right, and stands as one of the overall best and funniest experiences on the show.

3.

MITCHELL (SEASON 5, EPISODE 12)

This episode is a monumental one for the series.  It marked creator Joel Hodgson’s departure from the show and the passing of the torch over to Mike Nelson as the series lead.  The changeover is handled perfectly, with Joel getting sent home by the evil Dr. Forrester (Trace Beaulieu) by mistake and Mike, being in the wrong place at the right time as Gizmonic Institute’s new temp, is unwillingly sent up as his replacement.  It’s a hilarious culmination of Joel’s arc on the show, and thankfully he’s sent off with a strong episode.  The subject this time was a bad 70’s cop movie starring Joe Don Baker called Mitchell.  The episode is a hilarious dissection of cop movie cliches and it finds plenty of material in the slovenly appearance of it’s main star.  Joe Don Baker isn’t the most handsome leading men, and his character is unfortunately very unappealing as well, making it so easy for the MST crew to poke fun at him here.  Drunk and overweight jokes are plentiful throughout, with the addition of lyrics to the Mitchell musical theme being an especially funny highlight; “Mitchell; heart pounding. Mitchell; veins clogging.”  But probably the episode’s high point is the many riffs made during the film’s awkward sex scene between Mitchell and his girlfriend, played by Linda Evans.  Not only are the riffs funny, but so are their reactions; “Baby Oil!?!? AHHHHHH!!!!”  There are so many jokes that hit their marks throughout the episode and it has since become one of the most beloved by fans, including yours truly.  It also stands as one of their best for making the show transition from one era to the next in such a classic and suitable way.  In addition, it also showed the incredible evolution of a show as it went from a cheesy public access program to a fully accepted comedy standard that could live on even when some of it’s principal cast were no longer a part of it.

2.

SPACE MUTINY (SEASON 8, EPISODE 20)

This is a prime example of the late 80’s cheese that the MST crew loved to chew into.  This cheap looking, oddly cast, and just plain corny sci-fi thriller has a lot of unintentionally hilarious bits that Mike and the bots perfectly lampoon.  Whether it be actor Cameron Mitchell’s resemblance to Santa Claus, or the clearly older than she’s trying to portray female lead, or the over the top villainous performance by actor John Phillip Law, this episode has plenty to laugh at.  But, what puts this episode so high on my list is the inclusion of what is probably the best running gag in the show’s history.  Throughout the movie, Mike and the bots throw out different nicknames for the movie’s main hero Dave Ryder (played by B-movie idol Reb Brown), as if that name wasn’t already corny enough.  And boy does this running gag enhance the episode greatly.  It’s almost like the three cast members are trying to outdo each other throughout the entire episode, trying to find an even sillier name for the hero than the last.  Some names are hilariously absurd like Slab Bulkhead, Splint Chesthair, Bolt van der Huge, Fist Rockbone, Rip Steakface, Gristle McThornbody, Buff Hardback, and probably my personal favorite, Big McLargehuge.  This gag runs throughout the entire show and never gets old, which is quite the accomplishment, even given the high standard these guys have set.  Easily the best episode during the program’s final run on the SyFy Channel, this episode proved that the show wasn’t just getting more polished with age; it was also getting funnier.  Overall, if there’s ever a perfect episode to introduce a novice to the experience of watching MST3K, this would be it.  Space Mutiny is one of the most consistently funniest episodes in the show’s history and an episode so clearly defined by one brilliant bit of riffing.

1.

MANOS: THE HANDS OF FATE (SEASON 4, EPISODE 24)

Of course the top spot has to go to the episode that officially put MST3K on the cultural map.  Though many episodes have become popular with fans young and old, none have had the impact outside of the show that this one has.  The MST production team had always dug deep into film vaults all over the country looking for movies that were both hilariously bad and bizarre, as well as obscure.  Amazingly, they came across this almost forgotten horror movie made by and starring a fertilizer salesman from El Paso, Texas named Hal Warren.  The crew realized they had a gem right away and the episode perfectly exploits all of the weirdness and hack film-making on display.  It’s a consistently hilarious episode, with Joel and the bots hitting bulls eyes all the way through.  But, what I’m sure the guys didn’t expect was the life that this movie would take on beyond the original airing of the episode.  Manos has since developed a cult following and has drawn the attention of both film historians and aficionados who are just flat out fascinated by this odd little enigma of a movie.  Entertainment Weekly even devoted a whole article to the film, asking whether it has earned the title of “Worst Movie Ever Made.”  That’s quite the legacy left by a little movie that wouldn’t have seen the light of day had it not been for the MST crew.  Even separated from all this, the episode is still a classic, delivering everything that makes a MST3K episode special.  The best gags especially revolve around the creepy and insane housekeeper in the movie; Torgo.  The character even had a reoccurring role in the mid-show sketches, with Mike Nelson doing a hilarious imitation.  Everything about this episode, from the jokes to the peculiarity of the experience, to the lasting legacy it left behind easily makes this the greatest episode in the show’s history.  Now just try to get that Torgo musical theme out of your head after you’ve heard it.  It’s not easy.

So, there you have it; my top ten picks for the best episodes of Mystery Science Theater 3000.  Though I only had room for 10, there are still many more that are equally worth watching out of the 189 episodes they made over ten years.  Some I would recommend are the two Master Ninja movies, The Unearthly, Cave DwellersThe Day the Earth Froze, Warrior of the Lost World, Zombie Nightmare, The Magic Sword, Deathstalker and the Warriors of Hell, Time Chasers, Overdrawn at the Memory Bank, Warewolf, Hobgoblins, Quest of the Delta Knights, Merlin’s Magical Shop of Wonders, and Soultaker.  You can find many of these available on DVD as well as on demand and streaming on Netflix.  Some kind souls have even put up the full episodes on YouTube for anyone to enjoy, keeping the tradition alive of circulating the tapes to new audiences from back in the VHS days of the original show.

Even though the original cast has put the show behind them and crash landed the Satellite of Love for good, it doesn’t mean they’ve stopped doing what they love either.  Joel Hodgson recently reunited some of his old MST3K cast mates like Trace Beaulieu, Mary Jo Pehl, J. Elvis Weinstein, and “TV’s Frank” Frank Conniff back together again to create Cinematic Titanic, a spinoff series which retains the same irreverent humor and silhouetted style of the show, but applies it to even more obscure and ridiculously gory films that they never were able to do before; even bringing the experience to live venues for performances.  And the SyFy Channel cast of Mike Nelson, Bill Corbett and Kevin Murphy created their own spin-off website called Rifftrax, which publishes downloadable commentary tracks to recently released movies featuring the famous riffers, showing that even mainstream Hollywood hits aren’t safe from their particular brand of humor.  Indeed, the legacy of MST3K lives on with these spin-offs and looks to continue for many years to come.  Probably the show’s greatest legacy is the fact that it helped many people gain an appreciation for B-Movie Hollywood that they normally wouldn’t have had.  Sure, the guys make fun of these movies, but the sheer entertainment value of these cheesy, horrible films also comes through as well in each episode.  Honestly, I would rather watch some of the movies from the show again before I watch any new Michael Bay-style garbage that Hollywood keeps putting out.  And it’s that valuing of “good” bad movies that I’ll always cherish this show for.  You are missed Mystery Science Theater 3000, but never forgotten, and I will continue to keep your best episodes fresh in mind.  Now to end this top ten list, I would also like to share with you some of the best shorts ever featured on the show, all for your amusement.  Until next time, push the button Frank.

Top Ten Favorite Epic Musical Themes

fantasia orchestra

For such a collaborative process, the quality of a movie usually boils down to the quality of the different people who make it.  It’s not just the director that makes the movie worthwhile; his job is mainly to serve as the coach pushing his team across the finish line.  A final product must also rely on an inventive cinematographer, creative production designers, fearless and professional actors, as well as an editor with a lot of patience.  But, sometimes the person who may end up having the biggest impact on the final film is the person who puts on the finishing touches; the composer.  It’s remarkable how much influence music can have on narrative.  Done well, it can punctuate a moment and instantly make it memorable.  If done poorly, such as an out-of-place music cue, and the emotion of the moment is spoiled.  Sometimes filmmakers can even mold their films around a particular piece of music if it stands out well enough.  Think of Rocky’s training montage without Bill Conti’s rousing theme or Jaws without the rising tension of John Williams’ two note beat.  Music is the corner stone of great cinema, and is the marker of a completed production.  What ends up happening with any particular film’s popularity is that it reflects back on the music too, and a film’s soundtrack has the extra benefit of being an extra source of revenue for the film studios that make them.  Film composers as a result end up becoming some of the more recognizable crew members in the industry, and that’s a distinction that I believe is well earned.

I for one love the music of the movies.  In particular, I am a big fan of rousing, epic musical themes.  Epic music usually is big and bombastic and it often has it’s basis in the classical style, which I also love.  If it’s backed by a full orchestra and is able to give my body goosebumps, than it’ll definitely end up on my favorite playlists.  And given Hollywood’s great love for epic-scale cinema, there hasn’t been any shortage of great musical themes written over the years.  The 1980’s and 90’s was a particularly strong Golden Age for film scores, with great composers like John Williams, Danny Elfman, Hans Zimmer, and James Horner among others coming into their own.  My favorite pieces usually fall within this time period, but that’s also because these were the decades that I grew up in, so my choices are more or less tied to my childhood preferences.  Even still, I do admire all the great music that Hollywood it’s entire history.  Sometimes, even mediocre films can contribute a memorable tune that stays fresh in my memory for years to come.  What follows is a top 10 list of my personal favorite epic musical themes from movies.  I have also included audio/video tracks of each piece, to let you hear exactly what I’m referring to with each.  Keep in mind, this list is made up of entirely orchestral themes from non-Musical films.  Popular songs are left for another list entirely, and these picks are of one particular track of music, and not the whole score itself.  For the most part, these represent the rousing, epic theme music that I continually listen to time and time again.

10.

“ESCAPING THE SMOKERS” from WATERWORLD (1995)

Composed by James Newton Howard

Waterworld, to be frank, is a pretty big mess of a movie.  With a confused script that touches on larger environmental and societal issues but never fully commits and actors not quite knowing what they’re doing (except the great Dennis Hopper, who’s a blast to watch in his hammy performance as the villain), the movie is all ambition but no heart.  Couple that with a bloated production that nearly sank the careers of all involved, and you’ve got one of Hollywood’s most notorious flops.  But the one saving grace for this Kevin Costner-headlined movie is it’s musical score.  Composed by James Newton Howard (one of the many composers of this Golden Age era), the music of Waterworld is effectively epic and no more so than this particular theme.  This is probably the most recognizable piece from the whole movie and with good reason.  Underscoring the climatic battle scene of the film’s finale, Escaping the Smokers is a perfect example of the music themes typical of the era.  Bombastic, fast-paced and instantly memorable, this piece like many others of the 80’s and 90’s was meant to give it’s film an identity.  The rousing repeated beat easily grabs a hold of you and helps you to identify this as uniquely a part of the Waterworld  experience.  The same holds true for many of the others on this list, but Escaping the Smokers makes it onto mine purely because I just like listening to it.  It’s got an energy to it and it’s a great example where even a flawed and mediocre film can indeed be home to some great music.

9.

“PARADE OF THE CHARIOTEERS” from BEN-HUR (1959)

Composed by Miklos Rozsa

Another remarkable era for film orchestration was in the 1950’s, when Hollywood was bingeing on elaborate historical and biblical epics.  Though most of the scores of this period usually all sounded the same, there was no denying that the trend of this period leaned more in the big and grand direction.  There were standouts, like young Elmer Bernstein’s breakthrough work in The Ten Commandments (1956), or Alex North’s contemporary influenced Spartacus (1960).  But if there was an epic score that really defined the era, it would be the music of Ben-Hur, composed by Hollywood veteran Miklos Rozsa.  Rozsa had built a stellar career in Hollywood, contributing scores to nearly 100 films for over four decades.  Ben-Hur was by far his biggest project, and his exceptional and spiritually moving score easily won him a well deserved Oscar.  There are plenty of tracks that are noteworthy in the movie, but the one that really stands out for me is this piece, the Parade of the Charioteers; used as the lead up music to the film’s iconic chariot race.  There’s no way to know how processional music of the Roman Empire might’ve sounded in real life, but Rozsa’s melody sounds authentic enough to feel just right for this movie.  I love the way that the marching beat keeps building in this, along with the trumpets that really helps to boost the grandness behind the march.  In the movie, this music is played as the charioteers make their way around the arena before their race, and it’s a scene played almost dialogue free.  It’s a beautiful example in the movie where the music helps to guide the moment, allowing it to take the spotlight.  As far as classic Hollywood music goes, they don’t get more grand than this.

8.

“PROMONTORY” from THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS (1992)

Composed by Randy Edelman & Trevor Jones

Now a decidedly more modern sounding musical theme.  Promontory is one of the more unusual themes to find it’s way into a historical epic, but that’s what makes it such a great piece of music as well.  Befitting the tastes of director Michael Mann (not the most likely of names to be associated with a period drama), this piece of music has a very modern beat to it, with electronically enhanced rhythms.  But, even still, it does feel right for the movie that Mann created.  Based on the early American classic by James Fenimore Cooper, The Last of the Mohicans is a gritty epic that delves deeply into the fractured relationship between English colonialists and the Native Americans with whom they are clashing.  The piece of music itself actually compliments this dichotomy perfectly, with the Native American drumbeat mixed beautifully with the English strings.  And the pulsing melody builds to an exhilarating conclusion; which in the movie plays out during the memorable and dialogue-free finale.  The Daniel Day-Lewis headlined film marked a stark contrast with other epics of the time.  While many of the epics of this period were more rousing and upbeat, with music that supported that style, The Last of the Mohicans was considerably darker and less glamorous.  Promontory is a perfect representation of that melancholy mood.  Michael Mann called upon two composers for his film, but the end result doesn’t feel disjointed.  In fact, it’s a rare case where two minds managed to make the entire piece feel like a cohesive whole.  Though the whole score of the movie is strong, Promontory is by far the standout, and probably the most haunting piece on this list.  It’s also a good movie theme to have on your workout playlist, given the steady buildup of the score’s beat.  It’s the kind of music that really helps to reve yourself up.

7.

“OVERTURE” from ROBIN HOOD: PRINCE OF THIEVES (1991)

Composed by Michael Kamen

Say what you will about Kevin Costner, but his movies seem to always deliver in the music department.  And no more so than this beautiful piece by the late, great Michael Kamen.  Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves is not exactly beloved by everyone.  Some find it corny with an unsubtle screenplay and some fairly laughable performances (especially when Costner tries to feign an English accent).  But the one thing that people can’t complain about with this movie is the musical score, and indeed the whole soundtrack may in fact be composer Kamen’s best work.  The Overture is exactly what the name entails, which is the opening theme over the titles, shown over images of the famed Bayeaux Tapestry; a fitting mix of sound and visuals to open an epic adventure.  It’s also a nice example of a contemporary composer writing something with a classical sound.  This theme could have played perfectly well in any era of Hollywood epics, but it’s also not too out of place in our own time either.  To be honest, I’m actually an unapologetic fan of this entire movie.  I acknowledge that it’s cheesy, but that’s part of the charm for me.  And a big reason why I love Prince of Thieves so much is because of how good the musical score is.  Really the whole soundtrack is worth listening to.  The rousing melody here perfectly invokes the meaning of the word “epic” and the Overture, which gives us the main recurring theme of the film, is easily the most recognizable and beloved part of the movie.  It’s a piece of music that was widely reused in a lot of film trailers for many years, especially immediately after it’s premiere.  And when other movie studios like you music so much they use it for their own marketing, that’s when you know you’ve got something great.

6.

“BATMAN THEME” from BATMAN (1989)

Composed by Danny Elfman

Probably the best source for epic theme music today comes from super hero genre, given the recent boom in the market.  And while many of them are stirring and sometimes memorable, there’s also the danger of having them sound too much alike as well, with composers playing more with what works rather than getting creative.  John Williams definitely set the bar high when he created his iconic Superman theme for the 1978 Richard Donner film.  But, if there was ever a piece of music that broke the rules of the Super Hero genre and did something so far removed from John Williams’ theme, it would be this equally iconic piece of music from Danny Elfman.  Elfman is one of those rare film composers who has a distinctive sound that is all his own.  A Danny Elfman tune is easily recognizable and it seems he always saves his best bits for his long time collaborator Tim Burton.  I’m sure that both Burton and Elfman were seen as odd choices to bring the Caped Crusader to the big screen, but it turns out they were exactly the right men for the job.  Much like the movie itself, Elfman’s music perfectly encapsulates what Batman is; dark, Gothic, menacing, with just a hint of melancholy and a tiny bit of weirdness.  It’s a perfect melody to announce to the world that Batman has arrived.  Hans Zimmer also wrote a memorable theme for Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight  trilogy, but even that doesn’t have the same kind of imprint on the character that this theme does.  Nobody brought out the best in the Dark Knight more than Danny Elfman, and this is easily my favorite musical theme ever for a super hero.

5.

“RIDERS OF DOOM” from CONAN THE BARBARIAN (1982)

Composed by Basil Poledouris

Going from something moody to something just plain “BIG,” this piece of music is the very definition of the word epic.  It’s a textbook example of how to pump up a cinematic moment with music.  The relentless drum beat, the soaring strings, and the overwhelming vocal choir.  Composer Basil Poledouris almost seems like he wants this to be the epic theme to end all other epic themes.  Surprisingly in the movie, which was Arnold Schwarzenegger’s first starring role, the music isn’t used for any epic moment though.  You would think that it belongs with a huge battle scene or a climatic showdown between hero and villain.  But, that actually isn’t the case.  Instead it’s used to introduce the titular “riders” into the movie as they lay waste to a small village.  Either director John Milius didn’t realize the gold that he had with this music, or Poledouris went above and beyond what he was called upon to do.  Either way, this is an exceptional piece of music.  It probably stands better to listen to this piece separated from the movie itself.  Nintendo famously used this music to promote an upcoming release of their beloved Legend of Zelda series in a pre-lease trailer, which is befitting given the game’s medieval battle motif.  Other film companies also have used the music for their movie trailers too, which shows once again how a popular piece of music can have a life of it’s own outside of the movie.  I for one just love the energy of this piece.  It’s the kind of music that gives the listener goosebumps, knowing that they are listening to something with power to it; something which all the best pieces of music can do.

4.

“THE THRONE ROOM” from STAR WARS EPISODE IV: A NEW HOPE (1977)

Composed by John Williams

Yeah, you knew Star Wars was going to end up on this list at some point.  Widely considered the greatest film score of all time (and certified as such by the American Film Institute), Star Wars is a tour de force of cinematic music.  John Williams, who became an instant legend with his work on this film, broke from the standard of 1970’s theme music (which favored quieter and more intimate orchestrations) and delivered a musical score steeped very much in the classical style.  Inspired very heavily by the works of Igor Stravinsky, John Williams’ Star Wars score is big and assertive, and it perfectly matched the bold vision of George Lucas’ groundbreaking space opera.  But, with a film score this iconic, which one of it’s melodies stands out as the best?  It’s a tough choice because there is so many to choose from.  The unforgettable Opening Theme, the dreamy Force theme, the oppressive Imperial March, or heck even the cheesy Cantina Theme.  If I had to choose the best one, it would be the final piece at the end called The Throne Room.  It’s a triumphant orchestration that really cements the score as a whole, leaving the audience with a strong reminder of the glorious thing they have just witnessed.  The sound of the trumpets over the rest of the orchestra is what really sells the grandness of the piece.  Seen as part of the movie, where it plays over the scene where Luke Skywalker and Han Solo are given medals for their service, the music perfectly establishes the epic feel of the moment.  Had George Lucas not called upon John Williams to score his film, I don’t think the movie would have developed the following that it has today.  His contribution is what ultimately helped to send this adventure beyond the stars.

3.

“ARRIVAL AT AUDA’S CAMP” from LAWRENCE OF ARABIA (1962)

Composed by Maurice Jarre

I’ve said it before, but again Lawrence of Arabia is my all time favorite film and the music is a big part of why I love it so, naturally it also earns a place on this list as well.  The entire score, brilliantly composed by Maurice Jarre, is both epic and intimate.  At some points it will blow you away with it’s grandiosity, and then in other moments it will slow down into a moody, contemplative tune.  And it all perfectly matches the setting and the narrative of the story, showing the life of an English officer who helped to lead an Arab revolt against the Turks in WWI.  It’s equal parts classical and modern, which underlies the theme of a changing world that’s entering the 20th Century.  But, while I do like the moody, and very Arabic inspired melodies during the film’s quieter moments, my favorite parts are still when the score really hits it’s big moments.  And the score’s high point would be this almost biblical scale piece called Arrival at Auda’s Camp.  In the movie, Lawrence and his companions are invited by Sheik Auda abu Tayi (brilliantly played by Anthony Quinn) to come to his camp in the valley of Wadi Rum, which he jokingly refers to as a “poor place.”  Of course, Wadi Rum is anything but poor, and the music perfectly underlines just how majestic the valley really is.  Maurice Jarre’s music really celebrates the scale of the scene, giving the moment grandiosity but also establishing a jovial beat as well.  Seen with the unbelievable visuals, the music is almost transcendent; very much underlining the epic scale of the whole production.  Jarre deservedly won an Oscar for his work on the film, and no doubt this particular piece helped to earn the film it’s widespread acclaim.

2.

“THE LIGHTING OF THE BEACONS” from THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE RETURN OF THE KING (2003)

Composed by Howard Shore

Peter Jackson’s groundbreaking epic trilogy is still fondly remembered today for it’s grandiose music just as much as for it’s out-of-this-world visuals.  What was surprising to some was the fact that the entire trilogy’s musical scores were composed by someone like Howard Shore.  Shore came from the world of scoring zany comedies and oddball action thrillers.  He even got his start in the business as a music director for Saturday Night Live.  Not the kind of resume you would expect for someone tasked with bringing the music of Middle Earth to life.  But not only did Howard Shore deliver the goods in this trilogy, he ran away with them as well, taking home three Oscars in the process.  The whole trilogy is full of instantly recognizable themes, from the iconic “Fellowship” theme of the first movie to the haunting Rohan theme of the second.  But Howard Shore saved his best for the finale as The Return of the King features two of probably the grandest musical arrangements ever brought to film.  One is the glorious Charge of the Rohirrim, which is one of the greatest battle themes ever written.  But even that amazing piece is overshadowed by what I think is the trilogy’s highest point.  That of course is a piece called The Lighting of the Beacons.  This arrangement is the epitome of “epic,” starting slow and then building up to a mighty crescendo that easily will raise anyone’s goosebumps.  Peter Jackson clearly wanted to showcase Howard’s music in the movie, as this musical theme plays over a montage of epic visuals that perfectly matches the rising momentum of the melody; those visuals being flyovers of the landscape of Middle Earth as beacons are lit on the high mountaintops between the nations of Gondor and Rohan.  Even with all the amazing work done up to that point in the trilogy, Shore still managed to deliver a knockout in the third film, and it clearly showed why he was the right person in the end to bring the music of Middle Earth to life.

1.

“PARADE OF THE SLAVE CHILDREN” from INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM (1984)

Composed by John Williams

Of course John Williams takes the top spot, but many of you may find this an odd choice for #1.  Why this piece, out of all the amazing scores that Mr. Williams has written.  Well it just comes down to personal preference.  I’m a huge fan of Indiana Jones and Temple of Doom is my favorite film in the series, thanks in no small part to Williams’ score.  But, beyond that, I also just believe that Temple of Doom is top to bottom John Williams’ strongest score in his entire career; even more so than Star Wars Episode IV.  It is the master composer at his most epic and the whole score is filled with unbelievably rousing orchestral themes.  Chief among them though is this piece titled Parade of the Slave Children.  The music underscores the scene where Indiana Jones (a pitch perfect Harrison Ford) helps the enslaved children held captive by the Temple’s leaders escape.  While the scene doesn’t call for anything truly epic or memorable, John Williams somehow saw potential in this moment and delivers what is probably his grandest theme yet; at least in my opinion.  I love everything about this piece of music; the rising, slightly metallic downbeat, the big orchestral sweeps, and just the fact that it easily conjures up the feeling of adventure.  While I do like the Indiana Jones March a lot too, this is still the melody that embodies the Indiana Jones movies the most for me.  It’s Dr. Jones at his most epic.  I always have this piece at the top of my playlists and it’s a great tune to reve myself up for anything, whether it’s working out or writing.  It’s also the musical piece that best represents the idea of “epic” for me.  While many of the others on this list are quintessentially epic as well, none manage to grab my attention more than Williams’ work in Temple of Doom, and that’s why I give it the highest spot on my list.

So, that’s my list of my favorite Epic musical themes from movies.  While I’m sure that some of you can think of other musical pieces that stick with you more than these, my hope is that I still made a list that best represents the value of epic scale orchestrations in movies.  Indeed, sometimes it’s the music that ultimately makes or breaks a final film.  It all depends on how much effort the composer puts into his work.  If he’s just cashing in a pay check, then it’s likely that the movie’s score will sound generic and uninspiring.  But, if inspiration hits that same composer in unlikely ways, than something special can come out in their music.  Usually it’s the composer who tries to experiment with new things that ends up leaving the biggest impact.  And great trend setters like John Williams, Danny Elfman, and Hans Zimmer have easily earned their place as icons of the industry by continually pushing their limits and the movies they work on are the better for it.  Hopefully, my list helps to highlight some really great pieces of music and has helped a few of you choose some new melodies to put on your playlists.  Whether it’s big and bombastic or small and intimate, music is one of the most powerful tools in film-making and one that I hope continues to be used in creative and interesting new ways.

Top Ten Movies of 2014

movies

The past year has come and gone and we can now look back on the cinematic highs and lows of 2014.  At a glance, 2014 proved to be a rather quiet year for Hollywood.  There weren’t any mega hits this year (with one or two exceptions), but at the same time there weren’t any massive bombs either.  Sure some movies disappointed (ExodusSin City, Godzilla), but at the same time, we didn’t see any flops on the level of last year’s The Lone Ranger, or 2012’s Battleship.  2014 actually represented a lot of trends being broken, best represented by a stronger than usual Spring season.  Movies like The Lego Movie and Darren Aronofsky’s Noah proved that you could release a commercially viable film in the early part of the year and still be remembered by year’s end.  Not only that, but the summer season also proved to be uncharacteristically strong.  Sure, none of this summer’s many tent-poles were record-breaking at the box office, but a surprisingly high number of them won critical praise and have remained popular all the way up to the end of the year, appearing on many critics top ten list (including mine as you will see).  Couple this with a remarkably underwhelming Oscar season in the fall, and you can see why 2014 became such an unusual year.  Though, as unpredictable as it may have been, Hollywood should still feel confident that all the studios had a good if not spectacular year (unless you’re Sony Pictures, for which you’re probably wishing 2014 never happened).  But, to show you how I observed the previous year in movies, it’s best that I share my picks for the overall 10 best of 2014, as well as the 5 worst.  Keep in mind, even though I saw over 50-plus films this year, there were some that eluded me towards the finale.  Unfortunately that includes some highly anticipated titles like American SniperWild, and Selma.  For this list, I’m strictly limiting it to the ones I saw in this calendar year.

Before I start my list, here are the movies that nearly made it, but had to be left off.  They are, in no particular order, Boyhood, Calvary, John Wick, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, Interstellar, How to Train Your Dragon 2, Fury, 22 Jump Street, Jersey Boys, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Noah, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Nightcrawler, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, X-Men: Days of Future Past, and The Interview.  Now, lest’s get to the all important Top 10.

10.

imitation game poster

THE IMITATION GAME

Directed by Morten Tyldum

Prestige pictures are pretty much a staple of this end of the year cycle at the movies.  Films that try so hard to pluck at the heartstrings of the audience in order to appeal for the coveted Oscar gold.  Most of these kinds of movies usually are so superficial that the attempt to garner an Oscar win often backfires.  But every now and then, one movie ends up working the formula in it’s favor and actually achieves it’s goal.  The Imitation Game is that kind of movie.  Much like a similarly Oscar bait-y movie that succeeded years back, 2010’s The King’s Speech, this movie is elevated by two things: a sharp and witty screenplay and a standout performance by it’s lead.  The Imitation Game manages to avoid the trap of trying to play things too sentimental, and actually keeps focus where it needs to be.  The movie expertly displays the impact that mathematical genius Alan Turing made in ending WWII by deciphering the “unbreakable” Enigma code, and how his engineering skills led to the advancements we see today in modern computers.  It also shows the disgraceful way that post-war society destroyed the man purely because of his homosexuality.  But at the same time, the movie doesn’t turn Turing into a martyr, which greatly helps to make him a far more interesting and complex character, which star Benedict Cumberbatch brilliantly captures in a very nuanced performance.  Sure, The Imitation Game may seem old-fashioned and formulaic, but sometimes following the recipe still yields a satisfying meal.

9.

locke poster

LOCKE 

Directed by Steven Knight

This was one of 2014’s most interesting and unique cinematic experiments.  This film centers around a Welsh construction foreman named Ivan Locke (Tom Hardy) who spends the night driving from Manchester, England to central London, where he is going to witness the birth of a child he had with a mistress.  On the way there, he has to keep all the other issues in his life under control, including the final preparations for an important construction phase in the morning as well as confessing the truth of his infidelity to his family.  What makes this movie so remarkable is that the entirety of the film is played out inside of Ivan Locke’s car while he drives, with Tom Hardy being the only onscreen presence for the entire 85 minute run-time.  All of Hardy’s co-stars are merely disembodied voices heard over the phone line during the character’s long drive.  It may seem like a tedious experiment on paper, but thanks to Tom Hardy’s restrained and natural performance, you become completely engrossed into Locke’s harrowing night.  It’s an amazing exercise in restraint and working within boundaries in order to create a true cinematic oddity.  Tom Hardy proves once again with this picture that he’s an actor who can just disappear into a role and command a presence as just about anyone, even in something as intimate as this.  Who knew that watching someone drive and take phone calls for an hour and a half could make for captivating cinema?  It’s proof that are still some fresh ideas in cinematic experimentation out there.

8.

gone girl poster

GONE GIRL 

Directed by David Fincher

I already talked a lot about this film in my review, but it’s worth restating just how much of an impact a director like David Fincher leaves on cinema in general.  In less capable hands, Gone Girl could have turned into a soapy, ham-fisted murder mystery that we’ve seen done a million times already.  What Fincher manages to do, however is to really delve into the larger themes that author Gillain Flynn intended to address in her best-selling novel, which is the tabloidization of news media, the competitiveness between genders, and really the darker side of human nature itself.  With all the many twists and turns that this story takes, it’s clear to see why Fincher chose to tackle this rather unconventional story.  There’s so much going on under the surface, and unraveling every thread is part of the fun of watching this movie.  It also marks a career best performance from actor Ben Affleck, who perfectly captures the complex nature of a very flawed individual.  However, his role is overshadowed even more by a breakthrough performance by actress Rosamund Pike as the titular missing person.  This is one of the most talked about and widely debated movies of the year, and with good reason.  With this film, David Fincher once again proves why he is one of the great artists and storytellers working in cinema today.  Only he could have managed to get a great performance out of Tyler Perry for one thing.  And if that’s not the mark of a master director, than I don’t know what is.

7.

edge of tomorrow poster

EDGE OF TOMORROW

Directed by Doug Liman

Proff positive that I’m not the greatest forecaster when it comes to movies.  I highlighted this film as one of my “Movies to Skip” in my Movies of 2014 preview, based on what I saw as a really unremarkable and lousy ad campaign.  But, once I saw the actual movie, my whole perception changed and I’m just as surprised as anyone to see it here on my top ten list.  Essentially, I believe the pitch for this movie may have been ” could we take Groundhog’s Day and turn it into an action movie?”  Well they did, and it is awesome.  Director Doug Liman actually makes the outlandish premise behind this movie, about a military officer (Tom Cruise) forced to repeat the same losing battle in a war with an alien race hundreds of times until he finally succeeds, work remarkably well and with surprising creative finesse.   Cruise once again proves that he can carry an action thriller with a charismatic but never false performance.  Emily Blunt steals the film, however, playing the ultimate warrior in this seemingly un-winnable battle.  Her chemistry with Cruise helps to elevate this story above most other action thrillers and it’s their combined energy that you’ll remember long after the movie is over.  Also, the film is just a refreshing departure from most action fare, letting the gimmick of the movie flow naturally within the story, as opposed to overwhelming it.  It’s just unfortunate that the movie was saddled with such a poor marketing campaign.  It’s a movie that deserves a whole lot more and will hopefully get the recognition it’s due in the years ahead.

6.

lego movie poster

THE LEGO MOVIE

Directed by Phil Lord & Christopher Miller

A movie that came out so long ago, that you’d think it belonged on last year’s top ten.  But, that just goes to show just how memorable this movie was in 2014.  Directors Lord and Miller have proven themselves to be one of the best pairs of humorist in today’s media.  Along with their live action effort, 22 Jump Street, they’ve achieved remarkable success making movies that should never have worked in the first place turn into bona fide classics.  I’m sure that when most people learned there was going to be something called The Lego Movie, their first thought was that it was going to be nothing more than a self-aggrandizing 90 minute commercial for the LEGO company.  Thankfully, what we got instead was an animated comedy that not only pleased audiences of all ages, but was also insightful and heart-wrenching as well.  I loved what the movie had to say about creativity and how it defines us as individuals, and how society as a whole functions on everyone’s own creative contributions.  I’m also sure many people were surprised by the fact something like The Lego Movie could even make them cry.  But overall, it also proved to be the most consistently imaginative and hilarious movie of the year.  Beautifully animated and filled with a cast of delightful characters from all corners of pop culture, The Lego Movie was much more than a commercial.  It was a celebration of imagination, embodied perfectly on the shared experiences that we have had through different generations of playing with LEGO’s.  And the movie also gave Batman a song, which was spectacular.  Everything is awesome in this animated gem.

5.

snowpiercer poster

SNOWPIERCER

Directed by Bong Joon-Ho

In my list from last year, I named Neill Blomkamp’s Elysium as my worst movie of 2013.  This was mainly due to the lack of originality in it’s presentation and the unsubtle and ham-fisted way that it delivered it’s social commentary.  Korean director Bong Joon-Ho tackles similar themes in his action film Snowpiercer, but delivers it so much more effectively.  Like Elysium, the story takes place in a not-too-distant future where mankind is forced to adapt to a changing and unforgiving world.  But, instead of overpopulation, the scourge on the planet is climate change, and Earth has become unlivable for mankind after a deep freeze has covered the planet.  The only survivors exist on a perpetually running train that circumnavigates the planet, and tensions over the years have risen due to the gap between the “haves” at the front of the train, and the “have nots” in the back of the train.  Joon-Ho’s film clearly has a Socialistic bent to it, but’s it still is engaging to watch even if you don’t share it’s worldview.  The characters are all complex in the right way, with the heroes not being entirely pure and trustworthy, and the villains not entirely evil.  Joon-Ho works with an English-language cast for the first time here and he gets some truly outstanding performances out of stars like Chris Evans, John Hurt, and Tilda Swinton.  Also, the production design of this movie is amazing, giving character to each new section of the train that we visit, leading us on a great journey as the characters make their way to the engine room.  It’s proof that you can make social commentary work in science fiction again, and also make it transcend beyond it’s message.

4.

inherent vice poster

INHERENT VICE

Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson

The always unpredictable P.T. Anderson delivers yet another quirky entry into his already impressive filmography.  I should note that if you’re expecting something more dramatic and meditational like his last two films, 2012’s The Master and 2007’s There Will Be Blood, then you might come away from this movie disappointed.  Inherent Vice marks a return to the quirkier side of Anderson’s style, probably best featured in his earlier dark comedy classic, 1997’s Boogie Nights.  And it’s a return that I greatly welcome.  Truth be told, I haven’t read the Thomas Pynchon novel that this movie was based on, but Anderson’s presentation leads me to believe that it’s a fairly faithful adaptation.  Set in Los Angeles during the waning days of the counter-culture movement of the 60’s and 70’s, the movie follows the adventures of private detective Larry “Doc” Sportello (a stellar Joaquin Phoenix) as he tries to unravel the mysterious disappearance of a Southland real estate tycoon and how that connects with a shadowy organization called the Golden Fang.  The plot meanders deliberately and doesn’t really resolve in the end, but that’s not really what P.T. Anderson intended for the film.  This, more than any other movie on this list, is more about the journey than the destination, and I credit Anderson for making the journey a whole lot of fun.  The overall vibe of the film is like a mixture of Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974) and the Coen Brothers’ The Big Lebowski (1998), and it includes the best of both worlds in that regard.  It’s not a movie for everyone, but it certainly hit all the right notes for me and was an easy pick as one of the year’s best.

3.

whiplash poster

WHIPLASH

Directed by Damien Chazelle

Who knew that attending music school could be such a harrowing experience?  This little indie surprise may not seem like much on the surface, but after seeing it, Whiplash proved to be one of the most intense movie experiences of the year.  It follows the tumultuous story of aspiring drummer Andrew Nieman (Miles Teller) as he begins his training at the best music school in the country.  His confidence is soon tested once he runs into the ruthless Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), who pushes his pupils to the brink of insanity in the pursuit of absolute perfection.  Over the course of the movie, we see Andrew push himself harder than he is physically possible in order to win the approval of a truly heartless individual, even to the point of drumming until his fingers are bleeding.  It’s a movie that is going to take you for a ride in the most unexpected ways and it absolutely took me by surprise when I first saw it.  Miles Teller certainly cements his status as a rising star with his memorable turn here.  But the movie mostly belongs to veteran character actor J.K. Simmons, who delivers the performance of a lifetime as the ruthless Fletcher; a terrifying presence so intense, that he makes R. Lee Ermy’s drill sergeant from Full Metal Jacket (1987) seem humble by comparison.  Simmons will almost certainly be in the running for the supporting actor Oscar this year, if not already standing as the clear front-runner.  Overall, the experience of this movie is something you have to enjoy for yourself.  It perfectly encapsulates the lengths some of us will go to become the best at something, even if it means compromising our own well-being in the process.

2.

guardians poster

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY

Directed by James Gunn

The year’s big breakout hit, and it’s easy to see why.  This is a movie that just has it all; humor, action, amazing characters, and the promise of greater things to come.  What makes Guardians so remarkable however is that it comes from an unlikely source.  The Marvel Comics it’s based on has a fan-base, but nowhere near as large as some of Marvel’s other titles.  And yet, with an assured adaptation by director James Gunn, Guardians went from a C-grade comic brand into an A-lister overnight.  It’s amazing to see how well this movie connected with audiences, and for the most part, I believe that it’s largely because of how well they brought the cast of characters to life in this movie.  Star Lord charmed us, Gamora amazed us, Drax intimidated us, Rocket Raccoon made us all laugh, and Groot, well Groot just warmed our hearts.  Overall, this movie had the best character dynamics of the year, even letting minor characters like Yondu and The Collector shine through as integral parts of the story.  Overall, this movie just shows us how successful Marvel Studios has become at bringing their titles to the big screen, and Guardians may just be their crowning achievement; so far anyway.  I would actually say that it’s the first space based adventure in a long time to actually capture some of the same magic that Star Wars did many years ago.  Amazingly, Marvel has managed to create a viable franchise that can stand well on it’s own, even set apart from the larger cinematic universe, although I am excited to see how these characters will fit within the grander scheme of things.  It’s the first time in a long while where the highest domestic gross of the year actually belonged to a movie that deserved it.  The classic rock based soundtrack was also delightful byproduct of the film as well.  I honestly can’t wait until the next adventure we get to have with this eccentric family of oddball characters.

Which leads us to…

1.

birdman poster

BIRDMAN 

Directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu

Top honors belong to what is truly the most original and captivating cinematic experience that I had all year.  Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s career has largely been defined by dark, socially-conscious dramas, but Birdman marks a big departure for him because it’s his first full-on comedy, albeit a very dark one.  I’ve already gushed about the remarkable cinematography, and it’s reliance on long unbroken takes, but there’s also a lot more to this movie that makes it a standout film.  Michael Keaton delivers a career best performance as a down-and-out actor trying to make a comeback after years away from the spotlight and being synonymous with playing a big screen superhero; a somewhat auto-biographical role for the man who once donned the cape and cowl as Batman.  There are also brilliant supporting performances from other heavyweights like Edward Norton, Naomi Watts and Emma Stone, all performing at their highest levels.  The Broadway setting also is used remarkably well, making you want to leave and visit the city of New York in a heartbeat.  But, with all the style and performances on display, Birdman stands out as 2014’s best film purely because there is nothing else that quite matches it.  It takes the medium of film to places that we haven’t seen it go before, and that’s quite an impressive feat for something that was done on a relatively modest budget.  Innaritu’s film also marks yet another outstanding entry from a Mexico-bred filmmaker.  This along with Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim and Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity (which was my #1 from last year) shows that these “three amigos” went 3 for 3 in this cinematic round, and hopefully the trio continues their hot streak in the years ahead.  With groundbreaking cinematography, career-defining performances, and an almost dream-like flow to the narrative, Birdman is easily the best experience that I had at the movies this year.

So, with my choices for the best of 2014 laid out now, it’s now time to share my picks for the 5 worst movies of the year.  These may not be the worst movies of all time (although one comes very close), but when compared with the rest of the year’s entries, these stood out as the movies that angered me the most, and represented the worst aspects of the film industry.  So, let’s start counting down.

5. MALEFICENT

Despite a surprisingly strong performance by Angelina Jolie, this movie takes a legendary fairy tale and it’s classic adaptation by Disney, and deconstructs it into an insulting piece of fan fiction.  It glorifies one iconic character to the detriment of the rest of the story, and it only makes you wish you were watching the original animated film instead.  It’s strange to see a fairy tale feel so lacking in magic.

4. TRANSFORMERS: AGE OF EXTINCTION

This one’s pretty obvious.  What was promised as a revitalized reboot of the mega-hit franchise only proved to be more of the same.  Once again, the Transformers are sidelined for most of the movie, with director Michael Bay filling the bloated 2 1/2 hour run-time with needless banter between the uninteresting human characters.  Even removing Shia LeBeouf from the equation and replacing him with the more charismatic Mark Wahlberg did nothing to help.  And the sad thing is, because of the international success of the movie, there’s still more over the horizon for this franchise.

3. THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING

Where The Imitation Game was a formulaic, Oscar-bait movie that actually succeeded, The Theory of Everything is an example of the exact opposite.  Based on the life of genius astrophysicist Dr. Stephen Hawking, Theory unfortunately devolves into melodramatic tripe that teaches us nothing about Hawking’s impact on the world of science and instead focuses way too much on his disability brought on by Lou Gehrig’s disease.  But probably most insulting are the obvious “Oscar moments” in the movie, and the fact that Hawking’s story gets overshadowed by that of his long suffering wife.  Dr. Hawking deserves so much better than this pandering piece of garbage.

2. THE AMAZING SPIDERMAN 2

One of Sony’s many headaches this year, Amazing Spiderman 2 marks a franchise low for the once mighty box office draw.  With a ludicrous story-line and too many characters needlessly stuffed together with no real purpose (seriously, why did the Rhino need to be in this movie at all), this was effectively the Spiderman equivalent of Batman and Robin.  Plans for future expansion of this franchise have been put on hold after the movie’s mediocre performance, and rumors suggest that Sony may indeed give the character back to Marvel Studios, which is where he belongs.  This movie was a studio mandated mess and hopefully it marks the end of Sony’s run with the character.

And the absolute worst movie of 2014 is…

1. KIRK CAMERON’S SAVING CHRISTMAS

Shocking right?  I mean it’s only the worst movie of all time according to IMDb’s Bottom 100.  But, if there was ever a movie more deserving of that distinction, it’s this un-watchable film.  I had to see it through a bootleg copy, because one I didn’t want to give Kirk Cameron any of my money, and two I needed to see just how bad it was.  And boy is it bad.  The movie seems to exist purely for Kirk Cameron to pontificate his already warped world view (which by the way doesn’t represent Christianity authentically in any way) and more shamefully, he tries to wrap his own beliefs into every Christmas tradition possible.  Calling this a movie even does a disservice to cinema in general.  It’s a propaganda piece and nothing more.  The worst Christmas movie of all time, and easily the worst of 2014.

So, this is my breakdown of the year 2014 at the movies.  It was quiet for the most part, but not one that put Hollywood in the red either.  I’m certainly happy that so many big summer tent-poles actually delivered this year, showing that Hollywood is filling a demand for quality entertainment on a bigger scale and doing it better than in years past.  The year ahead hopes to continue that trend further.  What I find most interesting about 2015 is how the upcoming releases are mostly returns to old school franchises (particularly ones from the 80’s).  We’re getting a new Terminator, another Mad Max, as well as a return to Jurassic World.  Also ahead are not one but two films from animation power house Pixar (Inside Out and The Good Dinosaur) as well as the conclusion of Marvel Studios’ Phase 2 with Avengers: Age of Ultron and Ant-Man.  007 also makes his big return in Spectre. There are also big new films from high profile filmmakers like Robert Zemekis (The Walk), Quentin Tarantino (The Hateful Eight), Guillermo del Toro (Crimson Peak), and Brad Bird (Tomorrowland).  And of course, probably the most anticipated new film of 2015 is the return to that galaxy far, far away with J.J. Abrams’ Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens.  Overall, 2015 looks to be a spectacular year with many highly anticipated new films from some of Hollywood’s best talent.  And I will most certainly do my best to keep up with it all and continue to share my thoughts with you over the following year.

Top Ten Scary Moments in Family Movies

evil queen disney

Off all the emotions that we love to feel at the movies, the one that seems to be the most popular is fear.  That’s probably why Horror movies are always great communal experiences.  There’s nothing better than watching an audience react all at once to some unexpected jump scare, even when it comes in movies that aren’t meant to be scary.  It’s manipulative, yes, but when done right and put into the right moment, it can actually help to enrich the movie as a whole.  But this is also tricky as well, because as audience members grow up, they become harder to scare, especially when they’ve become so used to it.  While Horror attempts to scare us with the grotesque and the shocking, our reactions as an audience usually differs based on the tolerance level that we have towards such images.  What is particularly interesting about this is that depending on experiences in childhood, we react to horrifying images in movies differently.  This is usually because some of the things that were passed off to us a kid-friendly entertainment sometimes features some truly terrifying moments themselves.  It is surprising how many movies from our childhood have featured some dark and scary moments, whether it was in animation or in colorful live action fantasies.  Family entertainment has become more sanitized over the years, but in years past, filmmakers were not afraid to test their younger viewers with moments of terror.  One wishes that more filmmakers would take that kind of risk today, because it does show a degree of respect to young audiences that I think they would appreciate in the end.

For this article, I am choosing to highlight some of the most noteworthy examples of movies intended for young children that were not afraid to drift briefly into darkness.  In particular, I’ll be highlighting the moments that stood out in those movies and rank them based on their effectiveness and their noteriety.  Some of these moments are pretty legendary, and have been scaring young children for generations now, but others are some brief WTF moments of terror that stand out in otherwise cheerful movies.  Most importantly, what makes these scenes noteworthy is how they contrast against the brightness of the scenes around them.  What you won’t find on this list are family movies that already had a scary tone to them in the first place; so sorry, no Secret of NIMH (1982) or The Neverending Story (1987) on this list.  For these moments to stand out, they have to really come out of nowhere.  It’s moments like these that made us close our eyes in fright as kids, and at the same time, they also helped to enrich our experience and ingrain that love of being scared that we now carry over into our adulthood.  So, with that, here is my pick for the top scariest moments in family movies.

10.

CHITTY CHITTY BANG BANG (1968) – THE CHILD CATCHER

This character makes it onto the list mostly because of the creep factor.  A secondary villain in this light-hearted musical, the Child Catcher is a surprisingly terrifying presence in an otherwise harmless movie.  The character is hired by the film’s main villain to kidnap the children of the fictional land of Vulgaria after their presence there has been made illegal.  While this is a dastardly deed to begin with, the creepiness comes more from how the Child Catcher seduces the children into his clutches; with candy and clownish dancing.  But, it’s clear to anyone of all ages that this is a dangerous character under the cheerful facade.  There’s something about the way he says “Come and get your lollipops” that just sends a shiver down your spine in the wrong way.  Pretty much, this is a prime cinematic example of the “stranger danger” scenario played out, and while the film never goes into that direction entirely, you can imagine a character like him being a possible representation of a pedophile or child killer in a more horrific story-line.  Indeed, there are other cinematic examples of characters like the Child Catcher in films like in Fritz Lang’s M (1931), but the fact that a character like this exists in a movie as sweet as Chitty Chitty Bang Bang just makes the idea of what he does all the more terrifying.  Ian Fleming (of James Bond fame) wrote the original book, but the creation of the Child Catcher actually goes to screenwriter Roald Dahl, who himself was known for creating stories for children with dark undertones.  Not surprisingly, the Child Catcher feels like a very natural creation from this notably dark  author.

9.

SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARVES (1937) – THE EVIL QUEEN’S TRANSFORMATION

No other filmmaker left his mark of family entertainment more than Walt Disney, and for the most part, many of his movies are easy-going fare for all audiences.  That being said, even he wasn’t afraid to take his film’s into dark places once in a while, which was especially true for some of his earlier work.  What is amazing about the darkest moments in Disney movies is just how vivid they are.  Walt Disney was not one to miss an opportunity, and when a story-line called for a terrifying or dark moment, he did what was best for the story.  This is something you see in many early Mickey Mouse shorts like The Haunted House (1931) or The Mad Doctor (1933), which featured some really macabre visuals that could chill audience members of all ages.  But, when his films became more sophisticated and complex, especially when his studio began working on features, Walt Disney still was not afraid to push a few buttons.  That’s clearly evident in his first feature Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.  The movie is a light-hearted musical romp, but what people remember most vividly is the terrifying, villainous Queen at it’s center.  Her character is chilling enough through most of the film, but it is this scene where she transforms herself into a crone that people remember as being truly terrifying, especially when they were kids.  Probably the most legendary scary moment in any family film, though not the most particularly frightening,  this vivid portrayal of dark villainy would go on to inspire many more moments like it, like with the Wicked Witch in The Wizard of Oz or countless other Disney villains since like Maleficent or Ursula.

8.

CORALINE (2009) – “OTHER MOTHER’S” DEN

In a time when it’s become increasingly difficult to make children’s entertainment chilling and dark, the Laika studios have helped lead the way, creating refreshing new scares for younger audiences to enjoy.  They pulled that off particularly well with their first feature film Coraline.  The movie is more grim in tone than the average modern animated movie, but it’s darkest moments don’t come until the final stretch.  Before then, the movie is charmingly surreal and delightfully comic, albeit with a tinge of the macabre always present.  However, what makes this movie most notable is the primary antagonist that goes by the name “Other Mother.”  Other Mother creates a fantasy world for the main hero, Coraline, that is the embodiment of all her dreams.  But over time, Coraline learns the dark side of this dream and soon realizes that Other Mother is actually a child-eating monster named the Beldam.  Created by author Neil Gaiman, and directed by Henry Selick, Coraline is a superbly dark fairy tale that’s not afraid to be terrifying, but is also smart enough to know when to bring on the scares.  It’s not exploitative, and in fact it uses it’s scares sparingly, helping to make their impact all the more effective.  The final confrontation in the Beldam’s den is particularly chilling and makes perfect use of it’s atmosphere.  I particularly love the spider-like motif of the character, and her sultry, devilish way of speaking (provided by Teri Hatcher of all people).  Other stop motion animated films lend themselves well to the bizarre and the frightening (Nightmare Before Christmas for example) but Coraline managed to go even further, helping to create a scene that can bring out terror in any audience member, young or old.

7.

PEE WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE (1984) – LARGE MARGE

Now you would think that a Gothic filmmaker like Tim Burton’s first feature would be as dark and macabre as some of his later work.  But in reality, Pee Wee’s Big Adventure is a fun, quirky comedy; albeit still firmly in the realm of the bizarre.  For the most part, the movie is colorful and harmless.  That is until we get to this scene.  During Pee Wee’s travels, he gets lost in the woods in the middle of the night and has to resort to hitchhiking to get where he needs to go.  He is picked up by Large Marge, a deeply disturbed lady trucker, who recounts to Pee Wee her story of the worst traffic accident that she has ever seen.  Told like a campfire ghost story, Large Marge spares none of the gruesome details, and shows in what is probably the film’s most hilariously frightening and out-of-nowhere moment what the truckers corpse looked like when it was pulled from the wreck.  In that moment, Large Marge’s face transforms into a bizarre mess of hellish proportions, and then returns back to normal like nothing had happened.  In this moment, we see the kind of storytelling that Tim Burton would become notable for years later.  Here he manages to distill terror and shock into something funny, without sanitizing it at the same time.  This is something that he would take to more extremes in his next film, Beetlejuice (1988).  The Large Marge scene however still stands out today due to it’s unexpected nature and it’s hilarious payoff.  The fact that it comes out of nowhere is what makes the fright feel all the more rewarding, especially when it’s played off of Paul Reuben’s innocently naive Pee Wee Herman to hilarious effect.  Remember, tell them Large Marge sent ya.

6.

ALL DOGS GO TO HEAVEN (1989) – CHARLIE’S DREAM

Animation director Don Bluth got his start working for Disney Animation during the transition period following Walt Disney’s passing in the late 60’s.  During that time, Bluth became increasingly frustrated by the aimless direction of the company, which was increasingly relying on soft, harmless fare that he felt restricted the possibilities of the medium.  He felt that animation should not be afraid to explore some darker themes, and as a result, he left Disney Animation to start his own studio in order to make this ideal come true.  And indeed, many of the earlier films made by the Bluth Studio were much darker and more mature than anything else that was coming out at the time.  Films like The Secret of NIMH (1982) and The Land Before Time (1988) pushed the boundaries of animation into darker realms, and it earned Bluth the notoriety of being a respected filmmaker who took chances.  But perhaps the scariest moment in any of his movies comes from one of the least likely places.  It happens in All Dogs Go to Heaven, which is itself primarily an animated comedy.  It does deal with death in a direct way, but mostly played for laughs.  However, when the main character Charlie cheats death only to fall back into his bad habits, he soon has a dream that brings out his subconscious fears.  What follows is a surprisingly vivid portrayal of Hell, complete with demons, fire and brimstone, and the fear of no escape.  In this scene, Don Bluth best represents his ideal of animation being unafraid to go into dark places.  Sadly, most of his later films like RockaDoodle (1991) and Anastasia (1997) would play it more safe, but All Dogs Go to Heaven’s most notorious scene still has the power to frighten, and it shows that it helps to be a little dark sometimes.

5.

FANTASIA (1940) – NIGHT ON BALD MOUNTAIN

We now turn from a subconscious Hell to a literal Hell on Earth, brought to life by Disney Animation in it’s early heyday.  Fantasia was created as a blending of two artistic mediums, animation and classical music.  The result gave us many beautifully drawn renditions of orchestral masterpieces.  While many were easy listening like Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Sweet and Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, Disney made the peculiar decision to craft a sequence of the film around Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky Gothic orchestral piece Night on Bald Mountain; a notoriously dark sounding piece of music.  Disney pulled no stops with it’s rendition of the composition, and the result is one of the most vivid pieces of Gothic and macabre animation ever created.  The segment is littered with ghosts, goblins, ghouls, and at the center of it all is one of Disney’s best remembered villainous entities; the demon god, Chernabog.  Pretty much a representation of the Devil in the segment, Chernabog is a striking creation, showing off some of the best character animation that Disney was churning out at this time.  Much of the segment’s resonance comes from the moments that he’s on screen, and he remains a terrifying presence.  The segment is foreboding, without ever being truly terrifying, but it’s still remarkable to see an animated movie portray evil in such a vivid way.  In the end, it provided a perfect match for Mussorgsky’s dark music and it represents another example of early Disney animation taking some chances by going into grim and unyielding places.

4.

THE BRAVE LITTLE TOASTER (1983) – THE NIGHTMARE

One thing is pretty clear.  The Brave Little Toaster is one weird little movie.  Charming, and also a little brilliant, but very very weird.  On the surface, the movie is a very colorful and humorous musical about household appliances setting out into the open world in hopes of finding their old owner, a little boy that they refer to as “Master.”  Sounds like a trial run for the story line of Toy Story, which wouldn’t be far off; future Toy Story scribe Joe Ranft also worked on this story as well.  But what this movie also has is a large number of surprisingly dark moments throughout.  The main characters in this movie go through some very harrowing moments of peril, and in some cases end up becoming brutally maimed in the process, including electrocution and being crushed by giant gears.  But perhaps the movie’s darkest moment comes in this particular dream sequence, which is unbelievably frightening and creepy, even when re-watching it as an adult.  The titular toaster dreams of good times spent with the “Master,” until he starts to catch fire and looses his friend in the smoke.  But the nightmare hits it’s zenith when the horrifying Fireman arrives in the form of a demonic clown.  Why is it always clowns?  I remember this moment really messing me up as a kid, and even watching it as an adult, I still get that unsettling feeling when I see that clown appear.  It’s like something out of the darkest recesses Stephen King’s imagination.  This movie is still an excellent animated flick that deserves a second look and the fact that it doesn’t shy away from some really dark moments works very well in it’s favor.  Just keep in mind that there are some moments in the movie that will almost certainly scare your little kids.

3.

WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT? (1988) – JUDGE DOOM REVEALED

Who Framed Roger Rabbit? has become a beloved comedy classic over time and it’s largely due to it’s mature story-line and themes, which contrasts perfectly with the wilder cartoonish segments in the movie.  But, at it’s center is also a memorably dark villain named Judge Doom (brilliantly played by Christopher Lloyd).  While Doom is depicted with brooding menace for most of the movie, the true nature of the character comes out during the final confrontation between him and the movie’s hero, Eddie Valiant (a remarkable Bob Hoskins).  Thought to have been crushed to death by a runaway steamroller, it is suddenly revealed that the notorious toon-hater is actually a toon himself.  And not only that, but the same maniacal toon that murdered Eddie’s brother.  This revelation is especially frightening when we see the blood red cartoon eyes appear on Christopher Lloyd’s face, making Doom more monster than man; and it looks terrifying.  This scene has all the terror of a scary monster movie, without feeling like it’s out of place in this mash-up of cartoon lunacy and film noir mystery.  I give the filmmakers and Mr. Lloyd a lot of credit for pulling off that revelation perfectly.  Handled differently, I don’t think the moment would have had the same kind of power that it does.  The high pitched screaming by the character especially heightens the terrifying quotient of this scene even more.  And, appropriately enough, Doom’s death is played out in gruesome detail, as he is literally melted away by the same chemical “Dip” that he was going to wipe out the city of Toontown with.  It’s a fittingly grim ending for a character that managed to creep us out right to the bitter end.  Even today, this scene still manages to be creepy, and that’s all because of how well executed the scary aspects are.

2.

WILLY WONKA AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY (1971) – THE WONKA FACTORY TUNNEL

The best scares in movies, even in the ones that aren’t supposed to be scary, are the moments that come completely out of nowhere.  Usually it is by design, and then other times it comes from strange artistic choices.  Case in point, this truly WTF moment from this classic musical based on Roald Dahl’s children’s novel, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.  As part of Willy Wonka’s (a perfect Gene Wilder performance) tour of his factory, the characters take a boat ride on a river of chocolate.  Things go gently at first, until they reach the tunnel, and that’s where all the really messed up stuff happens.  The characters are never in any real danger, but they are bombarded by images on the walls of the tunnel displaying some really frightening and grotesque stuff.  Willy Wonka may be the only G-Rated movie in existence to show a real chicken’s head being chopped off by a cleaver.  But that’s not the only creepy part of this scene, because as the boat ride continues, Wonka himself seems to be slipping into madness when he starts singing, and then reciting macabre poetry and then finally screaming hysterically.  It’s at that point where you start to wonder if Willy Wonka is really a harmless candy maker or something far more sinister.  The whole scene is one of the best trippy moments ever put on film, and it’s only made better by Wilder’s incredibly unhinged performance.  According to the actors who filmed the scene, Wilder’s performance was so convincing that they actually believed he had really lost his mind.  Roald Dahl was very notable for injecting dark elements into stories meant for kids, and while most of Willy Wonka seems like a sanitized version of his novel, this scene definitely feels true to the author’s own style.  And it’s an excellent example of how to make a dark turn in a light-hearted story work to a film’s advantage.  Yes, the danger must be growing.

1.

PINOCCHIO (1940) – THE DONKEYS OF PLEASURE ISLAND

Of course the scariest moment ever in a family-friendly movie had to have come from the imaginations of the Disney animators.  Pinocchio may very well be the darkest single movie in the entire Disney canon, and it is largely because of scenes like this.  Truth be told, the original book by Carlo Collodi was far more violent than Disney’s film, but give Disney credit for going absolutely as far as they could go.  The movie itself starts off much lighter in tone, as the innocent and naive Pinocchio experiences the larger world for the first time, but the second half of the film takes a considerably dark turn, especially when Pinocchio finds himself on Pleasure Island.  The island seems like a fun place to be at first, but pretty soon the awful truth is revealed.  As all of the boys on the island indulge themselves in their bad behavior, they literally make Jackasses of themselves, and are rounded up by the villainous Coachman who intends to sell the transformed “donkeys” to circuses and mines all over the world.  This is horrifying to begin with, but the revelation hits it’s apex in this specific moment, where Pinocchio witnesses his friend Lampwick transforming before his very eyes.  The scene is played out in horrifying fashion.  The moment when Lampwick’s hands turn into donkey hoves is just as disturbing as anything you’ll see in a horror movie.  And his final cries for his mother just brings an extra level of despair to the moment that leaves a chill in the spine of every viewer.  Another horrifying aspect about the scene is the helplessness of the characters.  Pinocchio is powerless to stop this from happening and he’s only saved by making a run for it.  No such salvation exists for the other boys.  This scene is the best example ever of how to implement  a terrifying moment into a family friendly movie, and it has rightly received that distinction among many animation fans for many years.

So, why do we still accept horrifying moments in movies and shows that are meant to entertain younger audiences.  You would think that many filmmakers would rather not alienate their audience too much, and indeed there are many filmmakers who do take that into consideration.  I think that scenes like this exist because they help kids understand at a young age the importance of a happy ending.  Before you can appreciate the light, you need to go through a lot of darkness, and that’s what these moments are meant to do.  We need frightening monsters and moments of terror in our fairy tale adventures in order to see why it was all worth it in the end.  It’s an essential way of teaching young kids the value of happiness and the differences between right and wrong.  Even still, scary moments can be entertaining in themselves, and what I’ve found is that the darker the moment, and the bigger the contrast it has with the rest of the movie, the more likely it will be appreciated by audiences for years to come.  I hope that more filmmakers in family entertainment take those same kinds of chances and not be afraid to go a little dark sometimes.  Sometimes you have to walk that thin tightrope, but the end result could become all the more satisfying.  And indeed, some of those dark moments in movies from our childhood become our favorite movie moments as adults.  Those classic dark moments in Disney animation are still celebrated today, and the Willy Wonka tunnel scene still resonates with audiences.  And in this bewitching time of year, audiences of all ages are in the mood for a good scare, and these moments show that they can be found in even the unlikeliest of places.

Top Ten Giant Movie Monsters

monster movie

It’s funny how our tastes in movies are sometimes dictated by whatever mood we are in.  Sometimes we gravitate towards thoughtful, provocative and classy pictures, and then other times we just like to see shit blow up in a loud action flick.  The latter of the two is probably the kind of movie that draws more people in, and that’s not necessarily a negative.  Action movies offer a great deal of entertainment value, and sometimes what appears on the surface to be dumb action fun can actually have an intellectual undercurrent to it.  That’s probably why a lot of smart filmmakers out there dabble every now and then in a larger than life action flicks.  Hell, even subversive filmmaker David Lynch had made a loud sci-fi action film called Dune (1984), and many of his fans didn’t see it as a sell-out for him.  I think the reason why action films are such an attractive avenue for film-making is because they offer more opportunities to let the imagination go.  And indeed, this has become true for a whole generation of filmmakers that were weened on B-Movie flicks from yesteryear.  Once a sub-class of filmmaking that was looked down upon by critics and studio execs in Hollywood’s early years has now become mainstream, with big idea filmmakers like Steven Spielberg, James Cameron, Peter Jackson, and yes even Michael Bay leading the way.  Nowadays big money rules the action genre, and more and more ambitious filmmakers are getting their chance to take these concepts they learned from all of those cheap and campy B-Movies of the 50’s and 60’s, and bring them to their full potential.  And the most common of those B-Movie inspirations that seems to have left an impact on the big screen in recent years is the presence of giant, larger than life monsters wrecking havoc on modern civilization.

A staple of 50’s sci-fi, Giant Monsters have become some of the most beloved cinematic creations in movie history.  Whether created by science, or through magic, or are visitors from another planet, we always seem to love watching these creatures wreck havoc on society.  But, what is it about them that has let them to leave such an impact?  I think it’s due to the overwhelming threat that each of them poses and how humanity is able to deal with it.  Some of these creatures are based off of animals that we are all familiar with in real life, and also ones we know how to deal with if they threaten us.  When that same creature is many times it’s normal size, then the stakes are raised, and humanity’s best laid plans are not quite as effective.  It’s the point where human beings become vulnerable to creatures that are beyond their comprehension that we find most interesting in these movies, and the more creative the creature, the more we are entertained by all the chaos they create.  True, nowadays we have CGI technology to help bring these massive creatures to life, but in the early days, you either had to use puppetry or stop-motion, or a combination of both to bring these iconic creatures to life, or just trick photography.  And if you were making monster movies in Japan, more than likely you would be using a actor in a rubber suit.  But, even with those crude techniques, we saw many unique and varied monsters come to life; anything from giant ants; to giant lizards; to even giant people. What follows is a list that I put together of what I think represents the most iconic of these modern movie monsters, based on the creativity of their design, their impact on the movie, and how well they left an impression on audiences.

10.

cloverfield

THE “CLOVERFIELD” CREATURE from CLOVERFIELD (2008)

This J.J. Abrams produced, Matt Reeves directed movie about a monster attacking New York City could not have been more mysterious when it was due to premiere in early 2008.  The first trailer for the movie didn’t even have a title listed, and when it was revealed to the public that the movie was going to be called Cloverfield, I’m sure that it left people even more confused.  All we knew going in was that something big was wrecking havoc in the middle of NYC and it very well could have been anything.  Thankfully, when the monster was fully revealed nearly half-way through the film, it was actually worth all of the teasing.  The design of the creature is like nothing we’ve ever seen before; sort of a mix of a giant spider with what looked like the enormous appendages of a crippled  horse.  And boy was it big too.  At least over 200 feet in height.  This was truly a monster that not only looked terrifying, but felt like it was indestructible; as if nothing could stand in it’s path of destruction.  The movie also chose to wisely to hold off on showing the creature until it would have the best impact, successfully pulled off with the narrow viewing of a hand-held camera.  Had the monster not worked in Cloverfield, I’m sure the found footage gimmick would have failed, so thankfully for the filmmakers, they created a beast that definitely stood out.

9.

gamera

GAMERA from THE “GAMERA” SERIES (1965-80)

Japanese cinema in the 50’s and 60’s emulated a lot of the same formulas that were popular in the west, and that included many of the B-Movies that were imported overseas.  Not to be outdone, Japanese filmmakers sought to make action movies of their own, and that included taking concepts known in their culture, namely the idea of Kaiju monsters, and bringing them to realm of Sci-fi.  Kaiju literally means “giant monster” in Japanese, so it could be a good term to use for any monster on this list, and indeed it was the Japanese “Kaiju” films that popularized the concept to an international audience.  Many popular monsters came out of this era in film, but one of the standouts was definitely the giant Snapping Turtle known as Gamera.  Unlike many of the other Kaiju monsters, Gamera was not malicious in nature, and indeed, in some of his later films he acted more like a savior to mankind than a threat.  That’s not to say that he wasn’t ferocious.  He had a lot of signature moves, like his fiery spinning attacks, which helped to make him a favorite to audiences worldwide and certainly among on the Japanese culture’s marquee names, along with another on this list.  Because of monsters like Gamera, the Kaiju concept has lived on and left a lasting impact that while still distinctly Japanese in origin, nevertheless has influenced filmmakers all over the world.

8.

flying kaiju

THE WINGED KAIJU from PACIFIC RIM (2013)

Speaking of filmmakers influenced by Japanese “Kaiju” movies, director Guillermo del Toro put his own spin on the genre when he created his critically-acclaimed action thriller, Pacific Rim.  He went so far as to name the alien creatures in his movie simply Kaiju, clearly stating the overall Japanese influence in his film.  The movie’s plot is pretty straightforward; it’s nothing more than giant monsters fighting giant robots called Jaegers.  But what makes the movie so memorable is just how well that concept is executed.  Many of the numerable fight scenes in the movie features Kaiju monsters that would easily find their way on to this list, most of which were designed by del Toro himself.  But if I were to single out just one, it would be the Winged Kaiju that’s featured in the movie’s most extended and memorable action sequence.  We see the creature attacking the city of Hong Kong and searching high and low for it’s target; specifically the character played by actor Charlie Day.  Once it finally encounters the memorable Jaeger robot named Gipsy Danger, we get what is probably the film’s most pleasing showdown, and it’s a fight that brings out the full potential of del Toro’s imaginative concepts.  This particular Kaiju gets the nod for being the right kind of foe in the best part of the movie, bringing Gipsy Danger to the absolute brink of it’s power, taking the machine even into the outer limits of space.  Luckily they thought to give Gipsy a sword for just such an occasion, which also gives this memorable creature an even more memorable sendoff.

7.

kraken

THE KRAKEN from PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: DEAD MAN’S CHEST (2006)

Though a popular staple in many fantastical cinematic adventures, such as Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954) or the cult classic Clash of the Titans (1981), the monster known as the Kraken has been present in literature all the way back to ancient Norse mythology.  Essentially a giant squid that is large enough to destroy a ship with it’s mighty tentacles, The Kraken represents a very different kind of monster; one that represents people’s fears of the unknown and what lies deep down in the abyss of the mighty ocean.  Naturally, this makes the Kraken a perfect adversary in stories of Pirate lore as well, and indeed that is how the creature became a part of Disney’s grand scale Pirates of the Caribbean series.  Featured prominently in the second film of the franchise, Dead Man’s Chest (2006), the Kraken is summoned by the film’s villain Davy Jones to destroy any sailing ships they come across, so that Jones can collect the souls that the creature destroys.  What makes this version of the creature so memorable is the absolute ferocity of it’s destruction.  When the Kraken has it first appearance in the film, it is a truly brutal scene, showing that the creature is a force to be reckoned with and perhaps the deadliest predator in the entire ocean.  When it uses it’s two largest tentacles to smash a ship apart, the full scale of the creature becomes apparent, and it was smart on the filmmakers part to not reveal too much of the creature.  By doing so, they left it up to our imaginations to determine what the true scale of this monster was.  Much like the fabled creature that it’s based on, this Kraken is a mighty force that will definitely stick in one’s mind, and probably one of the best things to come out of the Pirates franchise.

6.

jaws

THE GREAT WHITE SHARK from JAWS (1975)

Probably the most realistic monster on this list, the shark from Jaws is no less a monumental movie monster in cinematic history.  This beast was the brainchild of famed novelist Peter Benchley, who conceived the idea of a creature from our familiar natural world but with an unnatural ferocity that makes him far more threatening than any other average shark in the ocean.  The shark in this movie is larger and more keen on eating humans than any other of it’s kind, and that’s what makes him so memorable in this story.  Sharks are of course a creature to be feared to begin with, but after this film made it to theaters, there was actually a sharp decrease in oceanside vacationing across the country, because people thought that sharks like the one in Jaws were lying in wait just about everywhere.  This shows the magnitude of just how well Spielberg’s adaptation of Benchley’s novel was.  The shark in question was a mechanical puppet that gave the film’s crew many nightmares during production, which actually turned out to be a blessing in disguise.  Because the shark barely worked on set, Spielberg shot around those moments by taking the camera underwater and showing us the world from the shark’s point of view.  By doing this, Spielberg actually heightened the impact once we finally see the full body shark, and it also gave us the unsettling tension of watching what it’s like to see a shark stalking it’s prey from it’s own perspective.  Altogether, it makes this Great White Shark a truly menacing and fear-inducing monster.  He may not be one of the largest creatures on this list, nor one of the most other-worldly, but there is no doubt that he’s still one of the most frightening creatures that has ever been brought to the big screen.

5.

smaug hobbit

SMAUG from THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG (2013)

Author J.R.R. Tolkein created some of the most imaginative creatures in his Middle Earth novels, as well as some of the most terrifying monsters as well.  When Peter Jackson took upon the adaptations of Tolkein’s work, he sought to use all the best film-making and visual effects tools to bring those same creatures to life.  While there are many monsters that stood out in the Lord of the Rings trilogy that would deserve a place on this list, like the Balrog from The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) or the Mumakils from The Return of the King (2003), the most remarkable creature from Middle Earth that has made it to the big screen is actually from The Hobbit trilogy.  That honor goes to Smaug the Dragon; a truly immense creature that dwarfs all others in these Tolkein universe.   Smaug truly does represent the culmination of everything that Peter Jackson’s production team has learned to date and you can see that fully in how well they made the creature feel both authentic and other-worldly all at the same time.  The way that Smaug moves around in the golden vaults of the Lonely Mountain is animated with such beauty and it displays the fully weight and size of the creature.  Also, Smaug is the only creature on this list that can speak; with the voice of Benedict Cumberbatch.  So, not only is Smaug an imposing force physically, but he also has human-like intelligence, which makes him an even more deadly foe.   Truthfully, it was a risky thing to give the character a voice, considering that no such ability was established with any of the other creatures in the Rings and Hobbit movies, but doing so stayed true to Tolkein’s novels and the final result managed to work in the end.

4.

stay puft

THE STAY PUFT MARSHMALLOW MAN from GHOSTBUSTERS (1984)

Probably the strangest of of the creatures on this list, the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man is also one of the most imaginative.  The living manifestation of Sumerian god Gozer’s destructive Traveler monster, it takes the form of whatever it’s victim chooses.  Since the Ghostbusters themselves were left to chose the Traveler’s form, they tried to consciously avoid making that choice.  Unfortunately, ghostbuster Ray Stantz (Dan Aykroyd) thought up something that he thought would be harmless when he should have thought of nothing, and low and behold, the Traveler arrived in the form of cuddly corporate icon, Mr. Stay Puft.  The Stay Puft Marshmallow Man really does represent the movie in a nutshell; being altogether hilariously silly and horrifically terrifying at the same time.  Though he may look adorable, make no mistake, he is out to destroy you.  He appears briefly in the film, but still manages to tear up a good portion of Mid-town Manhattan in the meantime.  He even destroys a church, which really gets the Ghostbusters steammed.  What I love best about this particular monster is just how well executed it is.  If you look at the idea on face value in the original script, this should have been the most ridiculous idea for a climax ever in an action comedy, and yet Mr. Stay Puft perfectly fits within the irreverant nature of the whole film.  When he shows up at the end of the movie, it’s a perfect punchline to the whole adventure that the Ghostbusters have been on.  Not only that, but the creature has also become an iconic element of the film, becoming just as popular as some of the main characters.  We may not remember every little detail of the movie itself, but we remember a monster like Stay Puft, which is what all the best monsters do.

3.

t rex

THE TYRANNOSAURUS REX from JURASSIC PARK (1993)

Like in the shark in Jaws, another Spielberg production, the tyrannosaurus is a real life monster from our own naturalistic history; albeit transplanted from a different time and place.  When put into contact with human beings in this movie, the dinosaur does what all great movie monsters do and that’s to become a larger than life threat that cannot be controlled.  Brought back to life through genetic cloning, the T-Rex in the movie is certainly the film’s most iconic creature.  Spielberg cleverly used a variety of techniques to help bring this monster to life, using both animatronic puppetry as well as breakthrough CGI animation.  The end result is a truly spectacular creation that really makes you believe that dinosaurs have come back to life.  Amazingly, those CGI-animated scenes still hold up after 20 years.  But it’s not just the gadgetry behind it’s creation that makes the T-Rex such an iconic monster; it’s also the way he’s used in the film.  The scene where he first makes his escape is one of the most tension filled scenes in movie history.  I’m sure that a lot of people remember every moment of that particular scene, from the the iconic ripple in the water to the moment when the T-Rex eats the man sitting on the toilet.  The T-Rex in Jurassic Park represents a perfect example of taking a wild animal out of it’s element and letting it run wild.  A lot of credit is due to the sound effects team, who gave the T-Rex a truly memorable and terrifying roar.  Though the T-Rex may not be the ultimate foe for the heroes in the movie, and in fact he saves the day by attacking the villainous Raptors, he is still the standout part of the film and one of cinemas greatest giant monsters.

2.

kong

KONG from KING KONG (1932 ORIGINAL AND 2005 REMAKE)

Essentially cinemas first iconic giant movie monster, Kong made an impact not just in the visual effects world when he first debuted in 1932, but also on all film-making in general.  For the first time ever on screen, we saw a visual effect actually give a performance in a movie, and in some cases show more personality than his live action human co-stars.  Everything about the original has become legendary today; his first appearance out of the jungles of Skull Island, his fights with the menacing dinosaurs that also call the island home, and also his unforgettable trek to the top of the Empire State Building.  Kong is without a doubt a groundbreaking character, and justifiably has earned his spot among the greatest movie monsters of all time.  Not surprisingly he has influenced many of the other movie monsters that have come since, like the Japanese Kaiju’s and the creatures that inhabited many of those classic B-Movies of yesteryear.  But, what is most surprising is that unlike many of the other monsters on this list, Kong is not inherently malicious.  In fact, he’s pretty docile for the most part and only attacks humans when provoked; much like how wild animals are in real life.  This was something that was explored more fully in Peter Jackson’s 2005 remake, where Kong actually acted as a protector to his human companion Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts), who in turn grows more sympathetic towards the monster as the film goes on, and slowly begins to see the humanity underneath Kong’s rough exterior.  That’s not to say that Kong isn’t a push-over either.  His fight with a group of blood-thirsty dinosaurs in the remake is particularly brutal and shows just how mighty the giant ape is.  Brought to life by motion-capture from actor Andy Serkis, Peter Jackson’s Kong brings out a lot of the extra personality that was hinted at in the original and does an excellent job of updating the mighty monster to the modern age, while still being respectful to what was there before.

1.

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GODZILLA from THE “GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS” SERIES (1954-PRESENT)

We’ve seen many iconic monsters in the movies over the years; from giant turtles, to giant apes, to even a marshmallow man.  But if there is one that has managed to become the mightiest of them all, it would be Godzilla, the King of Monsters.  Godzilla is without a doubt the most iconic of the Japanese Kaiju monsters, and has enjoyed a long running shelf life in movie theaters that has been going on for 60 years strong.  Starting off with his debut in the 1954 Japanese classic Gojira, Godzilla has gone on to international fame and notoriety.  Even people who have never seen a single movie in the franchise can recognize the spiky tailed creature just by looking at him, showing how strong his cultural impact has been.  He’s appeared in over 20 films to date and has clashed with many other monsters, almost always coming out as the victor.  Hell, he even has gone up against two other monsters on this list in various films; King Kong and Gamera, and even they were no match for the mighty Godzilla.  He earns the top spot on this list mainly because no other monster has had the same kind of over-arching legacy that he has had.  Found in all sorts of different media, from movies to television, and even in animation, Godzilla is without a doubt a cinematic icon.  Although he’s still a firmly Japanese cinematic property, he has managed to become popular enough to get the Hollywood treatment twice; first in the disastrous 1998 Roland Emmerich misfire, and again in the better but still flawed 2014 film.  The good thing about the latter production is that it did right by the monster himself, and when he was allowed to show off his best talents, it was done spectacularly well.  Thankfully, Godzilla’s legacy is still going strong and will continue to cement his reputation as the undisputed King of all Monsters.

So, there is my list for the greatest Giant Monsters in movie history.  Though there are many more noteworthy creatures that could have made the list, these I thought best represented the best of the concept on the big screen.  When you want a memorable display of destruction captured in a movie, you’ve got to have a worthy foe capable of causing the biggest amount of mayhem. And certainly, the bigger the foe, the greater the odds are against our heroes, which helps to make the tension in these action movies all the more exciting.  Sometimes it’s good enough when the mighty beasts are just forces of nature, like the Great White Shark or a T-Rex, but it’s sometimes even more unforgettable when the monster comes from the unknown like Mr. Stay Puft or the ferocious Kaijus.  Even more dangerous is a malicious monster with an intelligent mind, like Smaug.  Overall, these are the creatures that leave an impact on us when we watch a great action movie, and it shows all the many creative ways that filmmakers can make the extraordinary happen.  In the end, that’s what makes it alright to appreciate an over-the-top action thriller, because our imaginations really hit their highest points whenever we dream up the most trying of adversaries.  Not only that, but it’s also just a lot of fun to see big monsters having fun destroying things.  That’s cinema for you.

Top Ten Worst Adam Sandler Movies…So Far

sandler

How do you sum up the movie career of one Mr. Adam Sandler?  The former Saturday Night Live alum has had a film career that is surprisingly resilient, despite also being responsible for some of the worst movies in recent memory.  But as a result of relying so heavily on formula, Adam Sandler has inadvertently closed off his range as a performer, becoming something as a one trick pony rather than a quality actor.  Believe me when I say that I believe that Sandler is indeed a talented performer, and sometimes even a great actor.  When given a meaty role to work with (which rarely happens), like he had in the woefully under-appreciated P. T. Anderson film, Punch Drunk Love (2002), he can actually be quite good; Oscar-worthy even.  But, unfortunately no one pays to see a serious Adam Sandler performance.  It’s the goofy Sandler that brings in the money.  And you know, there was a time when that was welcome too.  Sandler’s first two headlined films, Billy Madison (1995) and Happy Gilmore (1996) are both very funny, and surprisingly still hold up nearly 20 years later.  But recent years have brought a steep decline in the quality of Sandler’s cinematic output, and it only seems to be getting worse.
One thing I noticed from his movies is that most of them more or less interchangeable  and follow the same kind of formula.  They usually involve Sandler acting with a man-childish personality; they contain numerous jokes involving bodily fluids; they usually feature actor Rob Schneider as an offensive racial stereotype; and they often try to shoehorn an uplifting message at the end as some sort of concession to make audiences less repulsed by what they just saw.  At the same time, I noticed that Sandler is looking less interested in these films with each new release; like he’s phoning it in just until the check clears.  Given that he’s also the producer of his movies, through his production company Happy Madison, it’s clear that he’s continually putting less effort into his onscreen presence, instead using his movies as a means to keep his affluent lifestyle going.  This is most evident in his recent films, which includes taking trips to exotic locations.  Is this his way of saving money by getting a paid vacation?  Whatever motivates Adam Sandler’s movies, it’s very clear that most of them feel lazy, or even worse, offensively insulting to it’s audience.  What follows is my list of the 10 worst films he has made to date, and what ended up surprising me was not what made it in, but rather what made it off the list; because there are just so many bad ones.
10.
justgowithit
JUST GO WITH IT (2011) 
One of the other notable trends in Adam Sandler’s film career is his proclivity for remakes.  This particular one is based off of the 1969 Walter Matthau/ Ingrid Bergman film Cactus Flower.  That movie was a charming story about middle aged professionals pretending to be a couple so that the Matthau character can impress a much younger girl that he’s got his eyes on, played by a very young Goldie Hawn in a performance that won her a Supporting Actress Oscar.  Ingrid Bergman played the other professional in question, and the film was about her coming out of her awkward shell and becoming more of the ideal woman for Matthau’s character, making the entire film a nice complex character driven comedy.  Adam Sandler took that same set-up, removed everything that made the original charming and replaced it with pointless slap-stick and formulaic plotting.  By no means the most offensively horrible Sandler film, but probably by far his laziest.  There is absolutely no effort put into this movie.   The 45 year old original will probably make you laugh more frequently.  The only person who comes away from this film with any kind of dignity is co-star Jennifer Aniston, and even she looks like she would rather be doing something else.
9.
bulletproof
BULLETPROOF (1996)
The first cinematic flop of Sandler’s career, this movie was released right on the heels of the enormously popular Happy Gilmore.  I for one remember being excited to see this movie because of how much I enjoyed Sandler’s first couple films, and the fact that this was his first R-rated flick.  That fact alone should have signaled this as a must-see, because it meant that we were going to see Sandler completely unrestricted.  Instead, what we got was a weak comedy/action thriller, with a completely charmless performance by Mr. Sandler himself.  Bulletproof is trying to be like a reverse of the 48 Hours movies, with Sandler filling in the Eddie Murphy role and fellow comedian Damon Wayans in place of Nick Nolte, only it fails on every level.  The action scenes are lame, the comedy is weak, and the characters never amount to more than simplistic caricatures.  While Adam Sandler wasn’t really known for his range just yet (or ever), this film should have been a great opportunity for him.   Instead it just made us long for more movies like Billy Madison, which is what we got for better or worse.  Perhaps Adam Sandler’s lack of originality in his later films can be linked all the way back to the failure of this one, because it forced him to not play outside of his comfort zone.  That, or because he just didn’t have a fun time making this, which isn’t surprising.
8.
longestyard
THE LONGEST YARD (2005)
Yet another Adam Sandler remake, only this time he takes on a sports movie classic.  The Longest Yard was a 1974 film about a former football pro (played by Burt Reynolds) serving time in prison and who is forced by the warden to form a team of inmates who will take the field against an opposing squad made up of the prison’s sadistic guards.  It was a smart, character driven movie about teamwork and overcoming oppression through peaceful means.  Adam Sandler’s remake on the other hand took out all the subtlety of the original and again replaced it with more slap-stick humor and stereotyped characterizations.  What’s more upsetting is that Burt Reynolds came on board this film to play the coach of the team, in a lame attempt to give this movie some credibility and pay homage to the original.  Sandler’s version again lacks effort and feels more like a Cliff Notes of the original and better movie.  Add to this some of the more annoying aspects of Sandler films, like ethnic and gay stereotypes, a self-centered main character, plot conveniences, and yet another Rob Schneider cameo, and you’ve got a movie that doesn’t pay homage to a better movie, but instead disgraces it.
7.
grownups2
GROWN UPS 2 (2013)
The first Grown Ups (2010) was no masterpiece either, but the fact that Sandler and Co. managed to eek out another flick from the already weak premise of the original film just makes this movie all the more unnecessary.  The first film was about four high school friends reconnecting in their adult years during a Fourth of July weekend trip.  The second movie is exactly the same plot, only it’s Spring Break and the four friends (Sandler and co-stars Chris Rock, David Spade, and Kevin James) must contend with aggressive college kids who have invaded their favorite vacation spot.  Not surprisingly, this is not a plot driven film.  The movie is more or less a collection of unfunny vignettes involving crude body humor and pointless slapstick.  Sadly, everyone in this movie looks again like they are phoning it in, and of course with a movie centered around vacationing, you can probably guess the true purpose behind the making of this movie.  And it’s too bad because I know some of the other actors here can be really funny, Chris Rock and David Spade in particular; Kevin James less so.  But, given that this is a Sandler-produced picture, it is indicative of the larger problem of Adam Sandler movies in that it’s just playing to the lowest common denominator with no real purpose other than to make the star more money.
6.
 mr_deeds
MR. DEEDS (2002)
Yet another remake of a classic film, and this one is by far the worst.  The original movie, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936) is a beloved masterpiece that starred Gary Cooper as a simple, working man who inherits a fortune and is raised into the upper-class overnight, leading to a lot of misunderstandings and heartwarming life lessons.  Directed by Frank Capra, who won an Oscar for his work on the film, the movie was an intelligent and humorous look at class differences in Depression-era America and a brilliant expose on the true nature of the American dream.  Adam Sandler of course had no use for smart socially commentary in his version and he instead used the premise to just show off his trademark brand of sophomoric humor, once again.  Why Sandler thinks he can improve upon these beloved classics is beyond me.  The gap between the original and Sandler’s version is most pronounced here.  Gone is the touching portrayal of Cooper’s original protagonist, replaced by an obnoxious man-child who enjoys showing off his frostbitten foot.  Just what the original needed more of: frostbite.  Do yourself a favor and watch the original masterpiece instead.  The fact that Adam Sandler thought we wouldn’t know about the original at all is enough to earn this terrible movie a spot on this list.  And it just get’s worse from here.
5.
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CLICK (2006)
What’s worse than doing a lazy and crude remake of a classic story?  It’s taking a wholly original idea and spoiling any potential it had.  That’s what happened with Adam Sandler’s high-concept comedy Click.  The movie follows the story of a man who gains control over his complicated life when he gains possession of a magical remote control, given to him by a strange salesman played by Christopher Walken.  Naturally, this leads to some hi-jinks where Sandler has near God-like control over time and space, and it typically is crude in nature.  But that’s not where the movie falters.  What happens is that the movie has a huge 180º turn in tone, where the story goes from silly to deeply serious.  Sandler’s character begins to lose control of the power given to him and his life flashes ahead faster than he can appreciate it, creating a very dour and dark final act.  This whiplash in tone is what ultimately sinks the movie.  Had the film stayed true to this dramatic tone, it could have worked, but given that it’s following about 90 minutes of crude, sophomoric slapstick, it feels like a cheat meant to shoehorn sincerity into a movie where it doesn’t fit.  Not only that, but the shift is handled so poorly, that the movie becomes this weird mishmash of two very different types of movies.  Probably more than any film on this list, this is the one that disappointed audiences, and myself, the most.
4.
jackandjill
JACK AND JILL (2011)
This film on the other hand did not disappoint.  Pretty much from the moment everyone saw the trailer to this movie, we all knew that this was going to be terrible; and it certainly was.  The movie mainly exists to let Adam Sandler act in drag and the result is one of the most obnoxious characters that he has ever created; and that’s saying something.  The Jill character will grate on you from the moment that she appears to the very end.  Even worse is the fact that Sandler’s Jack, the twin brother, is also a self-centered jerk, so we get two awful characters from Sandler for the price of one.  The plot again serves no purpose other than to string together many different comic situations, most of which are not funny.  One really odd subplot has Jill being pursued by a lustful Al Pacino.  Yep, the Al Pacino.  The film also shows the characters taking a cruise, so once again, we are pretty much watching another one of Adam Sandler’s vacation videos.  Unlike most of Sandler’s other comedies, however, this movie actually under-performed at the box office, showing that even his fan-base were growing tired of the shtick.  It lived up to it’s already notorious reputation, but there’s wasn’t anything particularly reprehensible about it, unlike the following movies.
3.
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THAT’S MY BOY (2012)
You’ve got to really question a comedic performer’s sensibilities when he bases the premise of his film around the issue of pedophilia.  That’s exactly what happened with That’s My Boy, and it’s an uncomfortable subtext that just sabotages everything else in this film before anything else takes hold.  At the start of the film, a pre-teen boy is seduced by his attractive and much older teacher and the two end up having sex and producing a child from this.  The teacher goes to jail and the irresponsible boy ends up raising the baby, and this is all played for laughs.  Would it be funny if the genders were reversed?  It’s not funny either way, and the movie seems to think that this is no big deal.  Sandler plays the boy as a grown man, and he’s again resorting to his obnoxious man-child persona, only with none of the charm of Billy Madison or Happy Gilmore.  The child he raised is grown-up as well, and is played here by Sandler-in-training Andy Samberg, who at least attempts to play a likable character.  Unfortunately nothing in the movie escapes the reprehensible nature of it’s premise and everything that follows is not funny enough to make us forget it.  I don’t usually dismiss movies when they poke fun at something taboo, but this is one example where the film clearly crossed the line and fails to make up for it with anything worth watching.
2.
eightcrazynights
EIGHT CRAZY NIGHTS (2002)
You would think that someone as cartoonish as Adam Sandler would fit perfectly in an animated film.  Unfortunately, Eight Crazy Nights is just as irritating as the other movies on this list.  What makes this movie worse is the fact that it is posing as a movie made for all ages, and in addition, tries to emulate classic Holiday specials from the past.  How the Grinch Stole Christmas this is not.  In fact, I would take the Grinch over the jerk that Sandler voices here any time.  Named after a verse from Sandler’s popular “Hannakuh Song,” Eight Crazy Nights follows the story of a dead-beat who slowly relearns the meaning of the holiday season after interacting with a couple of ostracized care-givers.  What could have been a heartwarming story is undermined by Sandler’s typical crude and gross-out humor, which I’m sure upset a lot of family audiences who probably were tricked into seeing a PG-13 movie because it was animated.  Surprisingly, the animation in this movie is really good (done by the same team that worked on 1999’s The Iron Giant, believe it or not) which makes the fact that it’s wasted on poop jokes and racial stereotypes all the more infuriating.  In addition, Sandler provides the voices of all the main characters, including the elderly care-givers who come off as horrible Semitic caricatures.  Even Mel Gibson wasn’t this insulting to the Jewish people, and Sandler himself is a Jew.  The whole thing is a baffling assortment of awful ideas and easily the worst holiday themed film ever, if not worst animated one too.
1.
chuckandlarry
I NOW PRONOUNCE YOU CHUCK & LARRY (2007)
And now we come to the absolute worst movie of Sandler’s career.  Why is this movie the worst?  Where to start?  The story is about two heterosexual firefighters played by Sandler and Kevin James who pretend to be gay so that they can take advantage of the State of Massachusetts then newly legalized same-sex marriage and marry each other in order to receive family medical benefits as a couple.  The movie centers around this deception and is merely just an excuse to throw in every gay joke in the book.  Now, the fact that they are poking fun at homosexuality is not what makes this film so offensive, though it certainly contributes.  There are plenty of comedies that exploit gay humor well (Mel Brook’s The Producers (1968) for example).  What makes Chuck & Larry so reprehensible is the fact that it tries to pass itself off as a pro-gay film, with some shoehorned message at the very end.  The idea that Adam Sandler thought he was making a movie favorable towards gay rights after exploiting every tired stereotype beforehand is what truly makes this film so hate-able.  If you wanted to make a positive movie about gay marriage, you should show a gay character having his or her rights restricted and then reclaiming it by the end.  That’s not what Sandler did.  Instead most of the plot centers around how uncomfortable the two leads feel doing things that gay men and women are completely comfortable with.  Sure, Sandler probably sympathizes with the causes of gay people, but this movie clearly shows that he made no effort trying to understand them, and that’s why this film is not only bad, but insulting as well.
So, these are my choices for the worst movies of Adam Sandler’s career.  Of course, given that he’s still relevant in Hollywood, there will probably be many more to come.  This weekend brings the latest entry in his filmography called Blended, costarring Drew Barrymore and it looks as formulaic as all the others.  But, like I said before, when Adam Sandler leaves his comfort zone, his films can actually sometimes be good.  The reason why his movies tend to suffer is because they try to please too many people, being both crude but also heartwarming, which creates an uneven mixture.  When Sandler films work, it’s because they are either genuinely heartwarming (2002’s Punch Drunk Love and 1998’s The Wedding Singer) or they completely embrace their insanity (2000’s Little Nicky and 2008’s You Don’t Mess With the Zohan).  And again, Billy Madison and Happy Gilmore are still funny today, so that does say something.  If Sandler want’s to be taken seriously as a performer, he probably should look at his collective work and recognize what has been missing all these years.  Well, now that I’ve ripped apart Adam Sandler for an entire article, I thought that I should conclude with some moments that I genuinely enjoyed from the man.

Top Ten Failed Oscar Bait Movies

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When we look at all the movies that have taken home the top award at the Oscars, there will naturally be a few that will divide public opinion over whether they were deserving or not.  The Academy Awards are never 100% correct and usually they have made efforts to correct past mistakes whenever they’ve snubbed a film that has gone on to become a classic.  But there’s one thing that’s for sure and it’s the fact that earning an Oscar is tough game for anyone.  Studios pour millions of dollars into Oscar campaigns, and even still they may come up empty.  Like most political campaigns, it all comes down to persuading a large group of people to all think the same way, and in order to do that, the studios will more than likely appeal to the hearts rather than the minds of the voters.  One thing you will notice about many Oscar-winning films is that they usually have a message or a cause behind it.  Hollywood is a politically minded place, so it seems natural that they would honor films that speak directly to their worldviews.  Many well-deserving message movies have been awarded at the Oscars over the years (1962’s To Kill a Mockingbird for example), but every now and then, the movie industry tries a little too hard to appeal to the emotions of the Academy’s voting block.
That is when you see what we commonly refer to as Oscar-bait movies.  While you can say that pretty much any film released around award season is an Oscar-bait movie, the ones that do earn the moniker though are the ones that are so transparently crafted for this purpose.  The definition of an Oscar-bait movie is not easily defined, but characteristically it is the kind of movie that panders to it’s audience and demands recognition, whether it is deserving or not.  And usually when they pander, they will do so in the most embarrassingly manipulative ways.  There are some common characteristics that usually defines these kinds of movies: they usually center around a great tragedy (the Holocaust being one of the most exploited); they will have a main character that is handicapped in some way; they usually shoehorn their message in so awkwardly that it actually defeats the purpose of the story; and are more than likely it is too simplistic to be taken seriously.  Not all Oscar-bait movies fail; and some are actually very good as a stand alone film.  You could argue that some of this year’s favorites fall into this category (Dallas Buyers Club, for example).  But when you do recognize that some movies are made purely for Awards attention, it does cast a dark cloud over some of the choices that the film industry has made.  What I find fascinating are the failures in this particular class of film, mainly because some of them are among the most notorious failures in cinema history.  What follows are my picks for the 10 films that tried too hard to win the gold and failed the hardest.
10.
jedgar
J. EDGAR (2011)
Directed by Clint Eastwood
This one had all the makings of a sure-fire Awards juggernaut.  A notorious historical subject with numerous exploits to draw a story from.  An A-list star (Leonardo DiCaprio) in the lead, backed up by a strong supporting cast.  A script by recent Oscar-winner Dustin Lance Black (2008’s Milk).  And it was directed by one of the Gods of Hollywood; Clint Eastwood.  So, what went wrong?  This is one movie that I think illustrates the idea of Hollywood trying too hard.  There’s no real focus to this movie, despite some nobly mounted attempts.  The lack of focus only highlights the flaws in the movie and anything that does work gets overshadowed.  Black’s screenplay seems more interested in the personal demons of the notorious FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, but it never really establishes exactly why Hoover was the monumental force that he was famous for being.  I do admire the film’s bold attempt to depict Hoover’s secret homosexuality honestly in the movie, but that only gets overshadowed by the heavy-handed delivery of the film’s subtext.  Not to mention the horrendous old-age make-up used on DiCaprio and his co-star Armie Hammer.  Clint Eastwood is known as a subtle and no-nonsense director, but this film is very uncharacteristic of his style, and not surprisingly, it fell short of his usual success at the Oscars.
9.
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JAKOB THE LIAR (1999)
Directed by Peter Kassovitz
The Holocaust has regrettably become one of the most overly used subjects for Oscar-bait movies.  The success of Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993) at the Oscars sparked a frenzy in  Hollywood to try to find more interesting stories to tell from this heartbreaking period in history.  While more discussion of the Holocaust is a good thing, few film have been able to match what Schindler’s List accomplished.  It was a gritty, brutal film that took it’s subject seriously and brought the horror of it all to life in a way that felt natural.  Jakob the Liar was the complete opposite.  The film makes the horrible mistake of trying to be a Holocaust movie as well as a starring vehicle for comedic actor Robin Williams.  Now Mr. Williams can be a versatile actor and has pulled off a great dramatic performance now and again (i.e. his Oscar-winning work in 1997’s Good Will Hunting).  But, this movie doesn’t allow him to expand his dramatic chops.  Here, the film has Robin acting as a shopkeeper in a Jewish ghetto who impersonates a radio program, delivering news of the war in a fun way in order to give hope to the people in his community.  That’s right, this is a film that allows Robin Williams to do his comedy shtick, in a Holocaust movie!!  While the film isn’t too offensively out of tone, this nevertheless feels like a blatant attempt to give Robin Williams an Awards season boost, which thankfully backfired.  The movie was dumped off in early September, effectively leaving it forgotten by Awards time.
8.
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STAR! (1968)
Directed by Robert Wise
One of the earliest examples of Hollywood going for Oscar gold, and failing in spectacular fashion.  Only a couple years after the booming success of The Sound of Music (1965), 20th Century Fox decided they wanted to invest in another grand-scale musical starring Julie Andrews.  They reunited her with Sound of Music director Robert Wise and chose for the film’s subject legendary English stage performer Gertrude Lawrence, a role that seemed to be a perfect fit for Ms. Andrews.  The film hoped to piggy-back off of the success of Music, and Mary Poppins (1964) for that matter, but unfortunately Fox failed to predict how public tastes would change in the coming years.  By the time Star! was released, it was seen as too old-fashioned and audiences could not have been less interested.  Unfortunately, Fox had gone over-budget on the film, and the movie bombed almost instantly.  The Sound of Music may have been an awards juggernaut in 1965, but it had the luck of being exactly what the audiences wanted at the time.  Star! showed that you can’t repeat that kind of success twice in a row, even with all the same players; something that commonly happens with many Oscar-bait movies in the years since.  Ironically, Star! lost out at the Oscars to another musical; the grittier, and much shorter Oliver (1968), directed by Carol Reed.  The ingredients may work well, but it all depends on whether it’s what we ordered in the first place.
7.
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RADIO (2003)
Directed by Michael Tollin
This is one of the more notorious types of movies that we consider Oscar-bait; the ones that center around a character with a disability.  Usually the uncomfortable factor comes from the fact that these characters are most often portrayed by able-bodied actors, who we know don’t suffer from these real ailments but they still try to make us believe that they do.  Sometimes this works in movies if the actor does put the work into making the disability feel real and honest; like with Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man (1988) or Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump (1994), or to a minor extant with Colin Firth in The King’s Speech (2010).  I would’ve put Sean Penn’s notorious performance in I Am Sam (2001) here, but I left it out because Penn’s a good enough actor to almost pull it off.  Almost.  Unfortunately, Cuba Gooding Jr. was a little out of his league with his role in the movie Radio.  Mr. Gooding is a good actor, but his performance is uncomfortably bad in this movie, mainly because he brings little depth to the character.  All we see is a actor trying to play mentally-challenged and it just derails the entire film.  Not only that, but it makes the movies feel like another pandering attempt to earn the actor an Oscar, which is only deserved if the performer actually shows restraint and humanity in the role.  It reminds me of the now infamous monologue delivered by Robert Downey Jr. in the movie Tropic Thunder (2008).  You never, ever go “full retard.”
6.
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PAY IT FORWARD (2000)
Directed by Mimi Leder
Another common trait among Oscar-bait movies is the film with a message.  Now, most movies have their hearts in the right place and can present a message that is well worth delivering.  The way that an Oscar-bait movie can ruin this is by taking away all subtlety out of their message and tries to force feed it to an audience.  That is the problem with a movie like Pay it Forward.  The movie presents the idea of spreading harmony around the world through random acts of kindness done for a stranger, thereby leading that same person to do the same for others, and so on.  This pyramid level, trickle-down theory sounds inviting enough and surely deserves a better movie than this.  The problem with Pay it Forward is that it doesn’t trust it’s audience to pick up the message naturally, so the message is delivered by characters who are far from realistic and who speak in trite, on-the-nose philosophical dialogue that no normal human being says in reality.  The most obnoxious example of this is the character of Trevor McKinney, played by Haley Joel Osment in his first post-Sixth Sense starring role, who comes up with the titular theory of the movie.  The character is little more than an adorable tool used by the filmmakers to draw up sympathy for the movie’s message, considering that he has no other personality otherwise.  The even more insulting aspect of the film is the fact that it tries to drive home the message by killing off Trevor at the end.  That’s exactly what you want in a feel good message movie; a child’s horrible death.  The movie was thankfully overlooked by the Academy, and showed that you can’t always pander your way to a award.
5.
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COME SEE THE PARADISE (1990)
Directed by Alan Parker
Historical dramas are also a sure-fire way to gain attention from the Academy, especially if they have a message to them too.  Come See the Paradise is a largely forgotten historical drama that centers around the internment camps set up here in the United States to hold Japanese American citizens during WWII.  One of the more regrettable actions taken by the US government in recent history, it has become the subject of many films since.  Alan Parker’s movie made such an attempt, depicting the events of this time in our history through a fictionalized account of an white American soldier (Dennis Quaid) who is drafted to fight in the war, while his Japanese American wife (Tamlyn Tomita) is held captive in one of the camps.  The film could have worked, had it not made the mistake of indulging too much in the love story at it’s center.  Like most other failed historical romances, this movie leaves the historical elements as an afterthought, making it all look like the filmmakers were using them as a means to make their flimsy love story feel more important.  Sometimes it can work in a movie (1997’s Titanic); sometimes it fails (2001’s Pearl Harbor).  Come See the Paradise falls short of these films mainly because it just feels lazy.  Alan Parker’s direction lacks subtlety and it just makes the movie feel like a historical soap opera, rather than an honest account of the trials that Japanese Americans faced in the camps.  History matters to people, and any lackluster attempts at it will make people see films like this as pandering.
4.
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PATCH ADAMS (1998)
Directed by Tom Shadyac
Oh, Robin Williams.  Are you really this desperate to win another Oscar?  Patch Adams is a notoriously misguided movie, but it’s also distinctive for showing us the depths to which Hollywood would sink to trying to win an Oscar.  The real Patch Adams, Dr. Hunter Doherty Adams M.D. is an award winning medical doctor known for helping his patients recover through the use of laughter and fun.  He’s also someone who takes his profession seriously and works hard to help people around the world.  This movie doesn’t acknowledge that and, like Jakob the Liar, instead uses the film to let Robin Williams act like a clown and do his own brand of shtick.  The film’s most shameful act, however, is in how it shifted aspects of the real Patch Adam’s life in order to make a more “interesting” story-line.  Patch lost a close friend and colleague in a tragic murder early in his career, and the movie includes this in the plot.  But it does the shamefully pandering act of changing the sex of the real life person to turn him from a male into a female, so that the movie could have a love interest for Patch, which did not in fact exist.  This alone gives you some idea of just how desperate some movies are for Oscar attention.  Thankfully, the film was rightfully panned before the Academy could even consider it.  Also, the real Dr. Adams has been strongly critical of the film, and with good reason.  It’s better to be honest with your film’s subject matter, especially when he can still speak for himself, and shows a lot more intelligence and creativity than the movie ever did.
3.
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ALL THE KING’S MEN (2006)
Directed by Steven Zallian
Here’s a rare example of Hollywood actually attempting a remake of a Best Picture winner, in the hopes that it will have the same outcome.  The original All the King’s Men won the Oscar for Best Picture in 1949, along with a Best Actor award for it’s star Broaderick Crawford.  The remake was undertaken by Oscar-winning screenwriter Steven Zallian (Schindler’s List), who brought together top-tier talent to craft a lavish production based off the original.  The cast included Sean Penn, playing Southern politician Willie Stark, who was supposed to be inspired by the real-life Huey Long.  Also on board was a cast of A-list actors, like Jude Law, Kate Winslet, and Anthony Hopkins.  It all looked like the makings of a movie destined for the Academy’s top award.  Instead, the movie was delayed a full year, was dumped off in early September, and was critically panned on release.  What went wrong?  Again, it’s Hollywood trying too hard to win the gold.  Steve Zallian’s script and direction both lacked subtlety, not to mention Penn’s wildly over the top performance.  Everyone could see what the true purpose was behind this movie long before it even made it to theaters, which was to wow the Academy with it’s lavish production values and all-star cast; and no one was buying it.  The reason why I put it so high on this list is because of how so much was done to achieve so little, and how the hype only helped in dooming the final product.  It proves that you can’t manufacture a sure-fire Oscar caliber film, especially if it’s a remake of another winner.
2.
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EXTREMELY LOUD AND INCREDIBLY CLOSE (2011)
 Directed by Stephen Daldry
This film reads like an Oscar-bait movie checklist.  Child with a mental disorder? Check.  Grandparents are Holocaust survivors? Check.  Father dies tragically in the 9/11 disaster? Check.  My god, even the main character’s actual name is Oscar.  Couple that with incredibly pandering dialogue and self-empowerment message so full of itself that it would make even Oprah gag, and you get a text-book example of an Oscar-bait movie.  This film, probably more than any of the others so far, was manufactured solely for the purpose of winning multiple Oscars.  There’s not an inkling of authenticity in this entire movie.  It makes it all the more insulting do to the fact that there were so many talented people involved, and none of them are good (except maybe actor Max von Sydow).  This film is notorious for a lot of things; particularly for the image of Tom Hanks falling from the top floors of the Twin Towers on 9/11.  But, what makes me dislike the movie more than anything else is the main character, Oscar.  He’s Trevor from Pay it Forward, only less subtle and far more obnoxious.  And again, he’s less of an authentic child and more like a tool used by the filmmakers to hammer home the message.  This, honestly, is one of the worst movies I have ever seen in my entire life, and I’ve seen a lot of bad movies.  The reason it doesn’t top my list here is because it nearly succeeded at it’s goal.  It inexplicably managed to earn a nomination for Best Picture, despite being critically panned.  Still, it probably illustrates the most blatant example on this list of a movie made purely as Oscar-bait.
1.
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HEAVEN’S GATE (1980)
Directed by Michael Cimino
This movie tops the list mainly because no other film has crashed and burned more heavily in it’s quest for Oscar gold than this one.  Michael Cimino set out to create an epic to end all epics with Heaven’s Gate and he had the clout in Hollywood to do it after his hugely successful The Deer Hunter took home Best Picture in 1978.  United Artist bankrolled his follow-up, hoping to capture that same success with Cimino and take home a Best Picture win for themselves.  What ended up happening was an out-of-control production where the budget skyrocketed and the prospects of an Oscar win dimmed very quickly.  Eventually, the film was released after costing $44 million (well over $250 million today) and it made only a 1/10 of that back at the box-office.  Not only that, but the movie only managed to scrounge up one Oscar nod in the end; for Art Direction.  It lost, of course.  Heaven’s Gate is still considered one of the biggest blunders in Hollywood history.  Cimino’s reputation as a director never recovered, and United Artists went into bankruptcy, eventually having to sell itself to a bigger studio, MGM.  And all because they wanted their shot at a big Oscar win.  It’s not a particularly bad movie by any means, and 30 years later it did get a Criterion home video release, which I wrote a review of earlier.  The reason I put it at the top of the list is because it represents the biggest failed attempt to create an Oscar winning movie.  Much like All the King’s Men, it shows that you can’t just can’t manufacture Oscar glory; only King’s Men didn’t cause the same level of destruction that Heaven’s Gate did.
So, with Oscar Sunday happening tomorrow, I’m sure there will be a lot of second guessing among those who tried hard to win, and didn’t get it.  This year, I think there were fewer film’s that were screaming out for Awards attention.  Sure, some of them are clear examples of the movies that the Academy likes to honor, but I think this year’s nominees were genuinely made for the purpose to entertain and to inform.  None of them seem transparently manipulative or are as pandering as the films that I highlighted on this list.  The reason why these movies have a notorious reputation has less to do with the stories themselves, and more to do with the presentation.  Audiences, particularly those who vote for the awards, are much more aware and intelligent than some filmmakers like to think they are, and they can tell when they are being manipulated; most of the time.  If a movie tries too hard to appeal to the hearts rather than the minds of it’s audience, that same audience will not take it seriously.  All movies are manipulative, but if there’s no substance behind it, then it becomes obvious to us that the filmmaker’s only motive behind the manipulation was to garner attention.  I think that’s why I like the Oscars more than most other awards.  The members who vote are from a diverse crowd of the industry elite, and they don’t all agree on the same thing, and are even less easy to manipulate as a whole.  It’s that unpredictability that makes some of these failed attempts so fascinating, because really there’s no easy way to work the Academy in your favor.