Category Archives: Top Ten Lists

Top Ten Movies of 2013

movies

We have reached the beginning of a new year, and that inevitably gives us all a chance to look back at the year that was 2013.  This was for the most part a tumultuous year for Hollywood.  While a few films performed very well, there were many others that crashed and burned, and in larger numbers.  This year we saw a great deal of $200 million budgeted films bomb, which has led many people in the industry to reconsider what films they should be making.  For me as a viewer, I do agree that 2013 was a mixed bag.  This summer in particular featured a lot of underwhelming films, apart from a few bright spots.  Thankfully the end of the year proved to be strong, with all of the Oscar contenders coming out in the Fall; many of which are very deserving of their accolades.  Thanks to the fall season’s strong showing, I was able to have enough good choices to fill out my list of the ten best films of the year, and given the overall quantity of movies that I watched in 2013, I was also able to choose five picks for my worst movies list.
Before I begin, I want to list the films that didn’t make my top 10, but were still ones that I liked and are worthy of an honorary mention: 42, Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues, Blue Jasmine, Captain Phillips, The Croods, Inside Llewyn Davis, Monsters University, Prisoners, Rush, Star Trek Into Darkness, Thor: The Dark World, This is the End, The Wolverine and World War Z (probably the biggest surprise of the year).  Now keep in mind, I haven’t seen movies like Her or August: Osage County yet, so you won’t find them here, and they wouldn’t count anyway because I’m only counting films I saw in the calendar year.  With all that said, let me start the countdown of the BEST FILMS OF 2013.
10.
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THE DALLAS BUYERS CLUB
Directed by Jean-Marc Vallee
This was a stellar year for Matthew McConaughey, moving away from the “surfer dude” persona he held onto for many years to where he is now taking chances as an actor with some very challenging and gritty roles.  McConaughey left a mark with his critically lauded indie film Mud early this year, and he also turned in a memorable cameo in Scorsese’s Wolf of Wall Street, but this is the film that really left a mark on me and made me respect McConaughey even more as an actor.  In the movie, he plays a real-life character named Ron Woodroof, a bigoted rodeo cowboy who gets infected with AIDS and the film chronicles his transformation into a crusader for reform in the American health system.  The reason why I liked the movie so much is because it challenges us, mainly through McConaughey’s stellar performance, to follow the character arc of a very flawed human being and rewards us with a narrative that touches the heart without pandering to it.  McConaughey lost a staggering amount of weight for the role and looks unrecognizable as the AIDS stricken Woodroof.  It’s a performance that proved to be a breakthrough and helped to make this one of the best movie experiences of the year for me.
9.
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THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG
Directed by Peter Jackson
Peter Jackson’s adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkein’s classic novel has left a lot of people mixed, debating whether or not the book should have been split over three films.  And while these Hobbit movies still don’t quite meet that high standard left by The Lord of the Rings films, they nevertheless are still a lot of fun to watch.  Like the first Hobbit movie, The Desolation of Smaug managed to just squeeze into my top 10.  In some ways, I think it may actually be better than the first movie.  It’s better paced, larger in scale, and it features one of the most spectacular giant monsters ever put on the big screen.  The titular dragon is definitely the film’s greatest triumph, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he was everyone else’s favorite part of the movie as well, even among the films many critics.  But, the reason why I loved this film, and all the other Tolkein movies that came before it, is in the way that it reveals the world of Middle Earth to us.  Peter Jackson utilizes his native New Zealand beautifully as the locations in this movie, and every new location revealed helps to fill out the map of this spectacular world that the books and movies have shared with us.  My hope is that the Hobbit series ends in a spectacular way with There and Back Again this next December and lives up to the foundation left by these first two films.
8.
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NEBRASKA
Directed by Alexander Payne
Alexander Payne is one of the most unassuming filmmakers working in the business, and he continually surprises me with his simple and yet thoroughly enjoyable films.  In 2002, I picked his About Schmidt as my favorite film from that year and Nebraska thankfully falls into the same kind of vein that that film did.  Nebraska, at it’s heart, is a tale about family bonds, and about how all the struggles and quirkiness in our daily family life defines our relationships to one another.  Alexander Payne does this kind of film better than anyone and he’s mastered this kind of Capra-esque portrayal of small town American life in his movies; highlighting all the foibles of society while at the same time showing the humanity as well.  Having come from a large, strongly bonded family in a rural state myself, I connected a lot with this movie.  Given that Payne himself is from the titular state, I’m sure that this film has a special connection to him too.  The performances, from Bruce Dern and SNL-alum Will Forte, are perfectly subdued, and actress June Squibb is a knockout delight as the no holds barred mother.  Also, the movie is one of the most beautifully shot black and white films that I’ve seen in a long while.  It is definitely worth seeing Alexander Payne’s love letter to Mid-Western Americana, and I’m sure no one will come away from this film in a bad mood.
7.
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SAVING MR. BANKS
Directed by John Lee Hancock
There has been a recent trend by the Academy Awards to reward films that make Hollywood look good or heroic; for good and for bad.  But no matter how the Academy votes, people should understand this; Saving Mr. Banks, while following that same pattern, is an excellent film regardless.  I had my doubts about this film, but thankfully the film surprised in many rewarding ways.  The movie shows author P.L. Travers early and tragic childhood in some unforgettably emotional flashbacks, and this is juxtaposed with her fights with filmmaker Walt Disney over the film rights to the Mary Poppins stories, which Travers refused to have altered.  What I loved about this movie is that, more than any other film I’ve seen, it is about the pre-production process of film-making.  We never see any actually filming of Mary Poppins (1964); instead we see what went into the planning of the movie, particularly from a writing standpoint, which makes this film especially intriguing for writers like me.  It’s shows film-making as a process of compromise and learning to let go of something dear for the good of the production.  In addition, the film has a well-rounded cast, led by Emma Thompson and Tom Hanks as Travers and Disney respectively.  I’m happy that the Disney company shared this little page of their own history for us, and better yet, didn’t try to water it down too much.
6.
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THE WORLD’S END
Directed by Edgar Wright
One of the big movie trends of 2013 that I’m sure most people recognized was a string of films focused on the apocalyptic end of the world.  The best of these films, however, was this hilarious British import from the team behind Shaun of the Dead (2004) and Hot Fuzz (2007).  The World’s End caps what director Edgar Wright has dubbed the Cornetto trilogy, named after an ice cream treat that appears in each of the three films, and The World’s End is a worthy addition to this series.  Without a doubt the most consistently funny film of the year, World’s End follows a group of middle-aged friends, with Simon Pegg as the dysfunctional leader, as they try to complete a bar crawl that they failed to finish when they were young, only to find out that everyone else in town have been replaced by androids intent on world domination.  Along with Pegg’s frequent co-star Nick Frost and a great ensemble cast, including The Hobbit‘s Martin Freeman and former 007 Pierce Brosnan, World’s End is one inspired comedic bit after another.  Connected in the Cornetto trilogy or not, I would have still loved every moment of this movie.  At a time where you find few original comedies that are actually fearless and take chances, The World’s End is like a breath of fresh air.
5.
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AMERICAN HUSTLE
Directed by David O. Russell
Director David O. Russell has been on a roll lately with The Fighter (2010) and Silver Linings Playbook (2012) performing very well at the box office and at the Oscars.  American Hustle continues that trend and may be in fact Russell’s strongest film to date.  This movie has a lot going for it; strong performances from pretty much everyone in the cast, an intriguing plot at it’s center, and a visual aesthetic that perfectly fits within the time period it is depicting.  Not only that, but it’s also a lot of fun to watch.  The film is also kind of subversive in an entertaining way; where the main characters are taking down crooked politicians through the Abscam sting operation run by the FBI, and yet the politicians come off as more sympathetic.  In many ways, Russell is trying to do his own take on a Scorsese movie, and he pretty much accomplishes this task perfectly.  The period detail is astounding, completely drenching the audience in 1970’s sleaze.  The performances are uniformly excellent.  Russell seemed to have put together a super cast made up of the headliners of his last two films, with Fighter star Christian Bale at it’s center.  Amy Adams delivers probably her sexiest role to date and nearly steals the movie.  Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence also do great work here, as does an actor in a surprising cameo that I won’t spoil for you.  All in all, this movie deserves all the praise it’s gotten and features probably the best overall cast of the year.
4.
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12 YEARS A SLAVE
Directed by Steve McQueen
Probably this years most challenging film, 12 Years a Slave depicts the horrors of slavery in the most visceral way yet that I’ve seen.  Adapted from the memoirs of Solomon Northup, which surprisingly hasn’t been adapted into a movie until now, this film chronicles the story of an African-American musician who was born and raised a free man, but was kidnapped, taken away from his family and sold into slavery, which he suffered through for the titular 12 years before he finally was set free.  Director Steve McQueen is known for his very artsy style in films like Hunger (2008) and Shame (2011), and he utilizes it again to good effect here as well.  In many ways, the stylistic flourishes of the movie actually makes the shocking moments feel even harsher, because they contrast so much with the beauty put into the production design.  It’s a brutal movie, but one that I believe to very rewarding, much like how Schindler’s List (1993) would push it’s audience to the brink but in the end would leave them with a better understanding of the subject matter.  Actor Chiwetel Ejiofor is unforgettable as Solomon Northup, and he commands every moment he’s on screen.  He’s also given solid support from the remaining cast including Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Giamatti, and Michael Fassbinder as probably the most frighteningly sadistic plantation owner ever depicted.  It’s an enriching historical epic that I’m sure will stick with everyone.
3.
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PACIFIC RIM
Directed by Guillermo del Toro
In a summer full of depressing, bland wannabe blockbusters, Pacific Rim was like a godsend and still ranks as one of the best experiences that I had at the movies this year.  Brought to us from the fertile mind of Guillermo del Toro, Pacific Rim does what any big-budget blockbuster should always do and that is to entertain, which it does right from it’s opening shot to the end credits; and even further if some of you caught the mid-credit extra scene.  What I love most about this movie is how assured it is.  It doesn’t try to make the plot too complicated or needlessly heavy in tone.  It’s also not winking at it’s audience, showing you how self-aware it is.  It revels in it’s silliness, and that in turn lets us the audience feel comfortable in enjoying the ride it takes us on.  The look of the film helps with the appeal.  It’s colorful and imaginative, especially when it comes to the designs of the monsters and the giant robots.  The actors in the movie likewise fit the tone of the film.  Their characters are generic archetypes, but done in the right way, helping to guide us along with the plot without showing off.  It’s pleasing when a prestigious director like Del Toro decides to just make something that’s fun and not pretentious.  He clearly knows the kinds of movies that he has fun watching, and thankfully he has shared that with us all as well with this film.  This movie should stand as a textbook example of how to do a tent-pole blockbuster right.
2.
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THE WOLF OF WALL STREET
Directed by Martin Scorsese
I mentioned before that American Hustle represents another director’s successful attempt at making a Scorsese style film.  But one thing’s for sure, you can never top the master himself.  The Wolf of Wall Street is Scorsese’s most ambitious and stylistically alive film in many years.  A spiritual successor to movies like Goodfellas and Casino, this film has also proven to be one of his most controversial as well.  With it’s three hour run-time and unwavering depiction of sex, drugs and excesses in wealthy American society, it stands to reason why this film has been met with a lot of criticism.  I for one still loved the movie, and my appreciation for it continues to grow every time I think about it more.  Scorsese has never shied away from tough subject matters, and it impresses me a lot that he’s still capable of making a film this outrageous and fearless at his age.  I think over time people will understand more what Scorsese’s original intent was with this movie, and hopefully it will be considered one of his best works when all is said and done.  The film was certainly one of the best experiences I had watching a movie this year, even at three hours long.  I also think this may be the best performance I have seen yet from Leonardo DiCaprio, which is saying a lot.  He has managed to be in 3 of my number one picks for film of the year over the last decade: 2006’s The Departed, 2010’s Inception, and 2012’s Django Unchained.  And while he and Mr. Scorsese came close to the top again this year, they’ll have to settle for second, because….
1.
GRAVITY
Directed by Alfonso Cuaron
This was the best overall movie that I saw in 2013.  While many of the other best films were unforgettable and entertaining in their own rights, this was the movie that I believed pushed the medium of film-making further, and created a truly unique experience.  It probably helped that I saw it on an IMAX screen, but even if I hadn’t, I would have still been impressed with this movie.  Director Cuaron has proven himself as a great visual artist through every movie he has made so far, but here he takes all of his tricks and utilizes them in ways we didn’t know were possible on film before.  The movie is like a checklist of every film-making technique done to perfection; with the use of first-person POV, unbroken single shots, and hand-held photography taken to the very extremes and executed flawlessly.  The story at it’s center is simple, and it doesn’t need to be anymore complicated than it is.  I like the fact that Cuaron just focused on the situation at hand and didn’t try to fill the movie with needless exposition.  At the same time, I don’t believe there has ever been a movie that was set entirely in outer space like this before.  Even Kubrick’s 2001 gave us more Earth-bound moments.  This movie was a conceptual and visual triumph, delivering on all of it’s potential.  For a movie to make the top of my list, it has to raise the bar for quality film-making better than any other film in the year and no movie did that better than Gravity.
So, these are my choices for the best films of 2013, but given that I saw quite a few movies this year, I’d also like to share with you 5 movies that I considered to be the worst of 2013.  Keep in mind, I tend to ignore movies that I know are going to be bad, instead choosing to see films that I am more interested in and hoping are good.  That’s why you won’t see Adam Sandler’s Grown Ups 2 or M. Night Shaymalan’s After Earth on this list.  Instead, these are films that were not only bad, but disappointing to me in the end.
5.
IRON MAN 3 – What could have been an entertaining sequel to some really fun movies is undermined by a horrible twist in the second act that derails the entire film.  Not to mention that it also ruins a famous character from the comics and spits in the eye of anyone who wanted to see this character fully realized in this movie.  Not even Robert Downey Jr. could save this enormous disappointment
4.
A GOOD DAY TO DIE HARD – The sad mediocre end of a once proud franchise.  This one especially hurt me as a fan of the original Die Hard and it’s lesser but still enjoyable follow-ups.  It’s probably time to retire John McClane as a character, but this is hardly the sendoff he deserves.
3.
WHITE HOUSE DOWN – The lesser of the “Attacking the White House” movies this year.  Olympus Has Fallen had some cheesy fun to it, but White House Down was just maddeningly dull and stupid.  It also represents a new low for director Roland Emmerich, who’s track record is already not too good.
2.
JACK THE GIANT SLAYER – Of all the big box office bombs that came out this year, this was the most insufferable to sit through.  Clumsily acted by a cast that should have been better, and lazily directed by Bryan Singer, who I know can do better, this was a baffling mess of a movie.
And the worst film of 2013 is…
1.
ELYSIUM – I already ripped this film apart plenty in my review, but this makes the top of my worst list simply because it angered me more than any other movie.  Pretentious, horribly acted, ugly to look at, childishly simplistic in it’s morals, and just overall infuriating to sit through.  This doesn’t encourage me at all about the trajectory that director Neill Blomkamp’s career is taking, especially considering how much I liked District 9.  This film is the very definition of a sophomore slump.  Where Pacific Rim was an example of a “summer” film done right, Elysium is a perfect example of the opposite.  A colossal failure on every level and one that I hope Blomkamp never repeats again.
So, these were the films that defined the year of 2013 in my opinion.  This was a significant year for me considering that I began writing this blog during this time.  Hopefully 2014 will be a better year for movies.  Some of the films that I’m looking forward to are the third and final Hobbit movie, There and Back Again, as well as a couple biblical epics from Ridley Scott (Exodus) and Darren Aronofsky (Noah), as well as a hopefully strong return to form for Bryan Singer with X-Men: Days of Future Past.  And let’s hope that 2014’s summer season will be a better one than last years.  I promise to continue writing this blog and covering my thoughts of the year in cinema just like I have over the course of 2013, and hopefully it will be a thought provoking discussion for both myself and all of my readers as well.

Top Ten Favorite Villains

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One of the ways that you can gauge the success of a story is in the strength of it’s villain, or more specifically it’s antagonist.  A successful and memorable villain is something that can always make or break a good narrative, because when we follow a story-line, there has to be someone or something driving the tension.  A lot of the greatest villains that we’ve ever seen have not only effectively filled their role in a story-line, but have also become the thing we’ll enjoy and remember the most in them.  Cinema has given us a great variety of memorable villains over the years, and some of the best ones have not only stood out in their own films, but have transcended out into our pop culture in general.  I guarantee that the majority of Halloween costumes that are going to be worn in the next week are going to be based off famous movie villains.  Take a count next time at a Halloween party and see how many Draculas, or Darth Vaders, or Jason Voorhees you can spot in the room.  And it’s understandable; we as an audience love villains.  They are usually the most interesting characters and, depending on how diabolical they are, the most entertaining.  Actors often say that they enjoy playing the villain more than the hero, because it allows them to indulge in some of the baser aspects of the humanity.  In other words, it feels good to act evil.
So, as part of this Halloween season, I would like to share my own list of favorite villains.  Interestingly, after looking through them all, I noticed that not all of them are particularly scary characters or overtly mean-spirited.  The reason why I chose these characters is because they were the ones that left the biggest impression on me, and were part of the reason why I enjoy their individual films so much.  Mainly, these are the villains that I just love to hate.  Some are pretty obvious choices, while others might surprise you.  I’m was also surprised how so many of the characters on this list also start off seeming so normal at first, until you start to peel the layers back.  I think that’s a character development that I enjoy seeing the most; darkness hiding in plain sight.
But before I delve into the list itself, I want to share some of the villains that didn’t make the list that are still worth mentioning:  The Wicked Witch of the West (Wizard of Oz), Darth Vader (Star Wars), Hannibal Lecter (The Silence of the Lambs), John Doe (Seven), Reverand Powell (The Night of the Hunter), Cruella deVil (101 Dalmatians), Nurse Ratched (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest), Saruman (The Lord of the Rings), Max Cady (Cape Fear, both versions), Hans Gruber (Die Hard), Voldemort (Harry Potter series), Annie Wilkes (Misery), and Frank Booth (Blue Velvet).  Now, here’s my list for you to read and rip apart if you wish.
10.
molaram
MOLA RAM from INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM (1984)
Played by Amrish Puri
Here’s the first choice that may surprise some of you.  Of all of the villainous characters in the George Lucas stable, how can I choose this character over Darth Vader?  The truth is that Darth Vader may be a great villain and a great character in general, but he never scared me as a child.  Mola Ram did.  Because of that, he left a much bigger impression on me and to this day, I still enjoy seeing this character every time I watch the movie.  Unarguably the best villain in the entire Indiana Jones franchise, Mola Ram stands out because he seems to be the very personification of unchecked evil.  His evil nature is shown most clearly in how he holds power over his cult of followers and in how he has exploited everyone towards his dark ambitions; including enslaving children.  He even turns Dr. Jones evil at one point, which is quite an accomplishment in itself.  Surprisingly, for such a memorable villain, he actually has very little onscreen time.  His first appearance doesn’t happen until halfway through the movie, but man what an entrance.  Indian actor Amrish Puri makes the most of his limited scenes and steals every moment he’s in.  Plus, no one has looked more badass pulling a living heart out of someone’s chest.
“Kali Ma. Kali Ma.”
9.
NoahCross
NOAH CROSS from CHINATOWN (1974)
Played by John Huston
Here’s an example of a villain whose true evil nature is hidden below the surface.  Chinatown is a great throwback to classic noir mysteries, and for the majority of the film, we follow along as Detective Jake Gittes starts to believe that energy supply tycoon Noah Cross isn’t the fine upstanding businessman that he pretends to be.  But, when the film reaches the final act, we learn that Mr. Cross has done far more horrible things than just illegal business practices.  We discover that he had raped his own daughter in the past and that a child out of incest was born as a result.  Jake confronts Noah about it, and it turns out he feels no shame about what he’s done.  In one of the greatest villainous lines ever delivered, Noah Cross explains the way he sees the world by saying, “Most people never have to face the fact that at the right time and the right place, they’re capable of ANYTHING.”  The scary thing about the character though is that he’s become so powerful and influential, that he’s now untouchable, and will probably go on doing his deprave things unimpeded until he dies comfortably at an old age.  A lot of credit goes to director turned actor John Huston for portraying that aspect of the character so chillingly.  Huston was an imposing figure both on and off the screen, and he makes Noah Cross one of the cinemas great villains in a terrifying yet subtle way.
“It’s not worth it Mr. Gittes.  It’s really not worth it.”
8.
HansLanda
COLONEL HANS LANDA from INGLORIOUS BASTERDS (2009)
Played by Christoph Waltz
You know you’re a memorable antagonist when you appear in the same film as Adolf Hitler, and you’re still considered the main villain.  That’s the case with Hans Landa, aka the “Jew Hunter”, in Quentin Tarantino’s WWII epic.  Brilliantly portrayed by Christoph Waltz in an Oscar-winning performance, Col. Landa is one of the greatest examples of portraying a character in the opposite way than what is usual.  The majority of time, Nazis are appropriately portrayed as sadistic monsters; best example being Amon Gothe in Schindler’s List, played brilliantly by Ralph Finnes.  What defines Hans Landa, however, is his pleasantness.  He’s polite and courteous, even when he’s committing the most evil of acts.  Behind that beaming smile we know there lies the mind of a true monster.  He lures you in with his pleasant personality, but the moment he turns silent and the smile disappears, that’s when you know you’re in trouble.  The only time he reveals his true nature in the movie is the scene where he chokes the double agent actress to death after returning her shoe, and of course once the deed is done, he smiles again like nothing has happened.  Both Christoph Waltz and Quentin Taratino deserve a lot of credit for creating a villain like this that changes around character archetypes, and as a result, created a true original in Hans Landa.
“Ooooo, that’s a BINGO.  Is that how you say it?”
7.
Maleficent
MALIFICENT from SLEEPING BEAUTY (1959)
Voiced by Elanor Audley
Disney Animation can be credited with creating many of the most memorable villains in cinema history, and it’s mainly due to the fact that their dark villains stand out a lot more in comparison to the usual light-heartedness commonly found in a Disney film.  In many cases, that contrast has led to some notably sinister villains and villainesses; some of whom have inspired some of our darkest nightmares in our childhood.  And if there was a Disney villain that you could pick out as the gold standard of the bunch, it would be Malificent.  The evil fairy from Disney’s Sleeping Beauty has not only become a memorable villain in her own right, but she has gone on to influence many other villains in animated films in the years since.  Anytime when you see an animated film’s villain transform into a giant monster at the film’s climax, it calls back to Malificent’s own transformation into a fire-breathing dragon in the finale of Sleeping Beauty.  That’s an impact that few other villains have had, and Malificent deservedly continues to be popular to this day.  Outside of her film appearance, Malificent has gone on to become the unofficial arch-nemesis of the whole Disney universe, thanks to highlighted roles in things like the Fantasmic show at Disneyland and in video games like Kingdom Hearts.  To be considered the top dog in a rogues gallery as impressive as Disney Animation’s, it’s understandable to see how impactful Malificent has been.
“Well, isn’t this a pleasant surprise.  I set my trap for a peasant, an lo, I catch a prince.”
6.
Longshanks
KING EDWARD I (LONGSHANKS) from BRAVEHEART (1995)
Played by Patrick McGoohan
Some of the villains on this list have made it here because they scared me as a child while other have made it because I find them so fascinating.  In terms of Longshanks, however, he made this list just because I find him so entertaining.  The movie Braveheart undoubtedly takes a lot of liberties with history in service of the story, and the portrayal real historical figure King Edward I is no different.  The reason why the film works is that it is unashamed about being a romanticized account of history, through both the writing of the story and the portrayal of it’s characters.  Longshanks, as he’s called frequently in the film, is probably the most transparent, mustache-twirling villain on this list, but he earns his place for just being so overt and over-the-top in his evilness that he becomes entertaining.  Actor Patrick McGoohan is a delight to watch in the role, and he takes such pleasure in being so diabolical.  A lot of the character comes out in the writing as well.  Every line that Longshanks delivers is a snarky put-down to someone else, whether it’s directed at William Wallace or to his own king’s council.  One of the reasons why I hold the film Braveheart in such high regard is because well Longshanks works as a villain.  And only the greatest villains are the ones that command repeat viewings.
“The trouble with Scotland, is that it’s full of Scots.”
5.
 hal9000
HAL 9000 from 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968)
Voiced by Douglas Rain
HAL 9000 is one of the most unusual villains to have ever been conceived for a film.  What makes him such a frightening villain is the fact that he is all intelligence and no emotion, which as it turns out leads to the impulse to murder in this film.  HAL 9000 was created by scientists to perform all of the higher functions of a space shuttle while it’s crew hibernates on the way to their mission near the orbit of Jupiter.  Unfortunately, he was programmed to make sure that nothing got in the way of completing the mission.  With out much wiggle room or clarity in that order, HAL saw the crew itself as a threat to the mission’s success, and he begins killing them off one by one by cutting their life supports.  Only Astronaut Dave Bowman survives and he promptly shuts down HAL before he can do any more damage.  It’s amazing how director Stanley Kubrick could turn such a featureless and zero personality character into such a compelling villain, but the trick works to perfection here.  HAL 9000’s cold, emotionless voice helps in selling the chill factor, as does the omni-presence of the unblinking red eye.  And given our increasing reliance today on electronic devices in our everyday lives, the concept of a dangerous computer mind like HAL’s doesn’t seem that far fetched nowadays.
“I’m sorry Dave.  I cannot do that.”
4.
Mrs_JohnIselin
MRS. ELEANOR ISELIN from THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE (1962)
Played by Angela Lansbury
It’s a chilling thought to think that you greatest enemy in the world could be your own mother.  But that’s the case in the brilliant John Frankenheimer film, The Manchurian Candidate.  The film centers around a multi-layered conspiracy to assassinate a Presidential candidate that includes brainwashed POW soldiers, Chinese communists spies, a firebrand Senator that’s obviously inspired by Joseph McCarthy, and the Queen of Diamonds.  At the center of the conspiracy is Golden Boy war hero Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey), who has been displaying unusual behavior since his return home.  When the mystery starts to unravel, we soon learn that the one pulling all the strings is non other than Raymond’s mother, Elanor, who is married to the fiercely anti-communist Senator and Vice-Presidential candidate John Iselin.  In one of the greatest casting against types ever, Angela Lansbury portrays a truly terrifying mother-figure in Elanor Iselin.  She creates a truly nasty character by balancing the motherly aspects of the character with the more vitriolic aspects.  She also portrays the Oedipal aspects of the relationship with her son in very fearless, and ultimately grotesque ways.  In a political thriller where political games leads to a lot of people doing bad things, Elanor Iselin stands out as a truly dangerous and ruthless manipulator.
“I wanted a killer from a world filled with killers and they chose you.”
3.
Joker
THE JOKER from BATMAN (1989) and THE DARK KNIGHT (2008)
Played by Jack Nicholson (Batman) and Heath Ledger (The Dark Knight)
I’m cheating a little bit here, by selecting two different versions of the same character.  It was hard to pick just one, so I thought it was better to put the them together.  The Joker is not only one of the greatest cinematic villains, but also arguably the greatest comic book villain of all times.  A brilliant counter-point figure to the caped crusader, Batman, The Joker has that special ability to be laugh-out-loud funny one minute and then horrifically frightening in the next.  There have been 4 cinematic takes on the character (special mention to Cesar Romero in the 1966 film, and Mark Hamill in the 1993 animated feature Batman: Mask of the Phantasm.)  But the two most notable version are the ones played by Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger.  Jack Nicholson seemed to be born to play the part, and his performance in the Tim Burton directed feature proves that to be true.  Albeit, he plays up the funnier aspects of the character a little more, but when the movie calls for it, he can be truly terrifying in the role.  Heath Ledger, however, was not the choice people had expected when director Christopher Nolan cast him in the role for The Dark Knight, and he had to overcome a lot of doubt in the audience’s eyes.  Not only did he prove us all wrong, he set the bar even higher with his performance, creating one of the most terrifying villains to ever appear on screen.  Both versions have their merits, but I might rank Heath Ledger’s a little higher, just because of the impact he made.  That’s not to say that Jack’s version is any less fun to watch.  The great thing about the Joker is that like Batman, he will continue to be remade and reinterpreted in both films and comics for years to come.
“Wait until they get a load of me.”
“You want to know how I got these scars?”
2.
NormanBates
NORMAN BATES from PSYCHO (1960)
Played by Anthony Perkins
Like many of the other villains on this list, Norman Bates doesn’t come across as purely evil, until you start to look deeper.  Taking the term Mama’s boy to the ultimate extreme, Norman has become one the greatest villains in cinema history mainly because of how compelling his character is.  He seems so normal and harmless at first, which helps the audience to identify with him right away; that is until we see what he’s really capable of.  Director Alfred Hitchcock always enjoyed subverting conventional wisdom and Hollywood archetypes, and here he transforms the boy next door into a homicidal killer.  We don’t see Norman do a lot of killing in the movie, but that’s not what makes him terrifying.  It’s the psychosis behind the character that makes him a chilling villain.  Anthony Perkins pulls of that balancing act to perfection.  His charming personality in the first half of the film fools us into believing that he is no where near capable of committing murder and that the homicidal one is really his mother.  That notion proves wrong once we see his mothers rotting corpse in the basement and him in his mother’s dress with a butcher knife.  The most terrifying aspect though is that Norman has progressively been loosing more of himself to his psychosis and that he’s developing a split personality based on his mom.  The idea that he sits alone all day having a two way conversation with a rotting corpse is definitely enough to make anyone’s skin crawl and it definitely certifies his place among the most memorable villains ever.
“A boy’s best friend is his mother.”
1.
 alexdelarge
ALEX DELARGE from A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (1971)
Played by Malcolm McDowell
In most films, a villain will sometimes be a more compelling character than the main protagonist.  In Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, the main protagonist just happens to be the villain.  In this classic film, we are presented with probably the most compelling and memorable portrayal of a true psychopath, and the journey that his life takes.  Alex is an unapologetic violent thug who terrorizes the streets of his hometown along with his gang of followers, whom he calls his Droogies.  Much like the Joker, he also takes delight in doing the most horrible things, and never once feels guilty about it.  He is just pure unchecked evil, which makes his villainy all the more unsettling to watch, especially considering how young he is; in the original novel, Alex is only a teenager.  What makes Alex even more fascinating, however, is what happens to him once he becomes reformed in the latter half of the film.  After being arrested, Alex volunteers for a new experimental treatment, which leaves him docile and unable to give in to his more baser instincts.  As a result of this, he is unable to fight back, and all the people he has wronged start to take out their revenge in ever more increasingly violent ways.  It’s as if Alex is a lightning rod for all evil actions in the world, and if he’s not the one doing it, then he’ll bring it out in even the most good-natured people around him.  Malcolm McDowell plays both aspects of the character brilliantly and unlike most other villains, he makes Alex a villain we want to root for.  I wonder what that says about humanity; that we value even the most extreme of anti-heroes, or that there’s evil instincts in every one of us that we enjoy seeing others act out.  All of this is what makes Alex what I believe to be the best villain in movie history.
“I was cured alright.”
So, these are my choices for the greatest movie villains of all time. I hope that some of these picks are among yours as well.  Out of all this, it’s clear that a great villain has to come from a great story, but that’s not always the case.  Some mediocre story-lines can be improved upon if the villain is memorable enough.  The worst thing that a movie can do is to make their antagonist weak and insignificant, even if their hero is a compelling one.  Villains drive the tension of the film, so it’s essential to make them a worthwhile character. For me, the best villains are the ones that are unexpected and multi-layered.  Overtly evil characters can work some of the time, but the ones that will frighten us more are the ones that are the most like us, which shows the thin line that we all walk between right and wrong.  That’s what makes villainous characters such an integral part of our movie-going experience.  We just enjoy watching characters being bad and loving it.

Top Ten Movie Endings That Left Us Stunned

 

Thats_All_Folks
This weekend we say goodbye to one of the most unforgettable and cinematic television shows of all time; Breaking Bad.  But, like all great TV shows, there is enormous pressure on this one to deliver on what will be the final 60 minutes of the series, given how every episode before has led up to this.  So many great TV shows try to go out big and even take some risks with their finales, in order to put a final stamp on everything.  What is interesting is that while TV shows benefit from having multiple episodes available to build their story-lines over time towards a big, shocking conclusion, movies on the other hand have very little room to give us a similar unexpected ending. Movies deviate little from the standard three act structure and it’s almost inevitable that everything in them leads to a nice clean ending where good triumphs over evil.  But, every now and then, there are movies that decide not to play it safe and throw out all audiences’ expectations in favor of an ending that challenges the very idea of happy endings all together.
It’s a risky thing for filmmakers to pull of, given that you have to set everything in motion in the story towards a finish that may anger people.  Not only that, movies have only a two hour limit to make us invested enough in what’s going on in order for the ending to have any impact.  For an movie ending to leave an audience stunned, it usually ends up doing one of a handful of things:  it let’s evil win in the end, or has the main hero suddenly killed, or has a deus-ex-machina interference steer the story in an entirely different direction.  While many films have tried this over the years, I have chosen ten here that I think represent the best stunning endings to a movie ever.  These are the endings that left a chilling impact once the credits started rolling and while some came at me like a punch to the gut, there were others that took their time and still surprised.  But what they all have in common is that they took major risks and still ultimately satisfied.
10.
THERE WILL BE BLOOD (2007) – “I’M FINISHED”

You could say that this scene delivers on what the title promises.  But what’s surprising about it is the fact that it’s the note on which we leave this film.  Director Paul Thomas Anderson is known for his ability to throw in some way out-there endings to his movies, but this scene in particular is his most perfectly constructed and ultimately his most satisfying.  The movie There Will Be Blood follows the rise of an oil baron named Daniel Plainview (brilliantly played by Daniel Day-Lewis) who uses his intelligence and cunning to build a successful drilling operation, while at the same time running at odds with a local small town preacher named Eli Sunday (Paul Dano).  The ending finds Mr. Plainview old and alone in his opulent mansion and being visited by Eli who’s looking to start up a business deal with him.  Most other films would have Daniel Plainview see the error of his ways and repentant to the underdog Eli; but not this film.  Instead, the atheistic Plainview turns the tables on false prophet Eli and he takes out his revenge, beating him to death with a bowling pin.  It’s an inevitable conclusion given that it’s what happens when you put two horrible people in the same room together, but the surprising thing is the joy that we take in seeing this scene play out.  A bad guy learns nothing and commits murder in the movie’s final moments, and that makes for a happy finish to this film.
9.
2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968) – “STAR CHILD”

Stanley Kubrick’s grand opus has so many big things going on throughout it’s 148 minute running time.  So, how does he end it all?  By confusing the hell out of all of us.  And as a result, it became one of the most unforgettable and most debated endings of all time.  The film concludes with astronaut Dave Bowman finding a mysterious Monolith floating in orbit around Jupiter which then leads him into a Star Gate and on an unforgettable, trippy ride.  He soon finds himself in an eerie white room where he ages rapidly; ultimately revisited once again by the monolith and then transformed into a “star child,” a supposedly next step in human evolution.  The whole of 2001 is a mind trip, but it’s these last few ponderous scenes that leaves audiences bewildered all these years later.  It’s a genius move by Kubrick to leave things unexplained; instead letting the journey there be the thing on which to conclude the film.  It’s both awe-inspiring and a little unsettling, as we see the evolved Dave floating down to Earth.  Is this new being going to be a gift to human kind, or a harbinger of the end.  Kubrick didn’t need to answer that question.  The other-worldly image is enough to go out on.  And a little help from Richard Strauss doesn’t hurt either.
8.

SEVEN (1995) – “WHAT’S IN THE BOX?”

Some of the most shocking endings come about when the filmmakers make the decision to have the villain become the victor in the end.  That was definitely the case in David Fincher’s crime thriller Seven.  At the end of the film, a serial killer who’s been choosing his victims based off of the biblical Seven Deadly Sins willingly turns himself in.  The detectives on the case (played by Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman) make John Doe (Kevin Spacey) lead them to the location of his last murder.  What happens next is both shocking and unexpected; John Doe has planned this moment all along, having a package delivered to their very location containing the head of Pitt’s girlfriend inside.  John Doe wants the distraught cop to kill him as a fulfillment of his whole plan, which ends up happening.  It’s a challenging finale, because even though the villain is slain, he still got what he wanted.  The ending is one of the bleakest ever put on screen, defying most Hollywood conventions.  Few filmmakers would ever dare make audiences sit through a disturbing and often grim crime thriller only to deliver no peaceful resolution in the end; but Seven took that risk and gave us an unforgettable conclusion.  Given the right actor and a good build up, audiences can willingly accept an unforgiving ending like this.
7.

THE GODFATHER PART II (1974) – “FREDO SLEEPS WITH THE FISHES”

On the other end of the spectrum, here’s a case where the villain gets what he wants, and it destroys him.  Director Francis Ford Coppola concluded the first Godfather with another montage of slaughter, but this one has more of a sting based on who gets whacked in it.  In this one, we find Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) ordering his men to take his older brother Fredo (John Cazale) out into the lake to go “fishing.”  Inter-cut with the assassination of Corleone rival Hyman Roth (Lee Strasburg) and the suicide of turn-coat informer Frankie Pentangeli (Michael Gazzo), our final image of Fredo is of him quietly reciting the Hail Mary, which then cuts back to Michael staring out from his porch, lowering his head when the gunshot is heard.  This ending marks the complete disintegration of Michael’s soul and it’s a notorious conclusion to such an epic story.  While inevitable, it was still no less shocking to audiences to see a big movie end on such a grim note.  But that’s what makes the Godfather movies so memorable.  The fact that the once noble Michael became so ruthless that he would order the death of his own brother ruined any notion of redemption by film’s end and the final image of Michael sitting alone in his garden is a sad but suitable conclusion to the movie.  It’s a rare case where a bleak finish becomes the most satisfying.
6.

THE BIRDS (1963) – “LEAVING TOWN”

Alfred Hitchcock was no stranger to making his films dark.  Three years earlier he shocked the world with the murder thriller Psycho (1960).  But his bleakest ending would actually come in this follow-up.  While most Hitchcock movies have shocker endings, they almost always finish with the villain getting their comeuppance.  In The Birds, the antagonist is Mother Nature herself, so how does our cast of characters overcome this.  In the end, they don’t.  The final scene of the movie finds our main character Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) scarred both physically and emotionally after an attack from a flock of birds in her lover’s (Rod Taylor) safe house.  The survivors in the house must quietly flee and leave the bird infested town behind in order to get Melanie the help she needs.  The helplessness of this scene is what makes it so chilling.  At this point in the movie, the main characters have no options left but to leave everything behind, effectively giving up.  Few movies in this period of time would let a movie end with it’s heroes defeated so thoroughly; even a Hitchcock movie.  But the master director had the confidence to pull it off and as a result gave audiences an effectively bleak conclusion.  You  can still see the impact this film has had to this day in the way that modern disaster films have tried to copy the resonance of this ending; albeit with less successful results.
5.

BONNIE AND CLYDE (1967) – “LOVERS AMBUSHED”

This ending isn’t surprising for anyone who knows the history behind the true life story.  Bonnie Parker (Faye Dunaway) and Clyde Barrow (Warren Beatty) are gunned down after a long string of notorious bank robberies that garnered them national attention.  What makes this scene so shockingly memorable is the unflinching carnage of the moment.  We feel the characters’ pain as they look into each other’s eyes the moment before the bullets begin to rain out, knowing that there is no hope left for them.  The gunfire is loud and impactful, just further enhancing the brutality of it all.  Audiences had never seen this level of violence in a movie before, and this also led to a backlash from critics, many of whom claimed that the film was reveling too much in the onscreen violence.  Director Arthur Penn never meant for this scene to be exploitative at all.  The extended slaughter was meant to be impactful, making the conclusion more true to life than what movies had done before.  The scene continues to be memorable to this day, even after modern movie violence has diminished the shock value of this scene.  Bonnie and Clyde may have not been shocking as a historical retelling, but it did stun audiences enough to leave an impression on cinema as a whole.
4.

THE USUAL SUSPECTS (1995) – “KEYSER SOZE REVEALED”

Once again, a shocking ending featuring Kevin Spacey.  Released in the same year as Seven, this became one of the most talked about movie twists ever.  Kevin Spacey’s character, Verbal Kint, tells his side of a story to Det. Dave Kujan (Chazz Palminteri) about how he was the only survivor in his group of crooks who were ambushed by a master criminal named Keyser Soze.  The whole film, we are left wondering who Keyser Soze is and if he will reveal himself by the end of the movie.  The answer comes at the end when Det. Kujan lets Verbal Kint out of his custody, confident that he’s gotten all he can out of him.  But moments later, Kujan realizes that everything he has been told was actually a lie, pieced together from things and names right there in his office. Verbal Kint, who’s been seen as a cripple for the whole movie is seen dropping his limp and we soon realize that he was Keyser Soze the whole time.  This ending takes the incredible risk of making the audience accept the fact that everything they have watched so far was a lie, which can put off an audience if executed poorly.  The scene manages to work on the strength of Spacey’s performance and the confidence in the story that director Bryan Singer had.  Audiences were stunned by this lie pulled on them, but it made learning the truth all the more satisfying.
3.
THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (1980) – “LUKE…I AM YOUR FATHER”

You rarely see a big franchise picture take a big risk and end one of their films on a shocking and downbeat note.  But that’s what George Lucas and company did in Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back.  In this movie, it seems like none of our main characters can catch a break in the unforgettable final act.  After being betrayed by his friend Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams), Han Solo (Harrison Ford) is frozen in carbonite and taken off by Boba Fett as a reward for helping Darth Vader (voice of James Earl Jones).  On top of that, young Jedi Luke Skywalker loses his right hand in a duel with Vader himself and is cornered and defeated.  But the moment that left audiences more stunned than any else was the moment when Darth Vader reveals that he didn’t in fact kill Luke’s father in the past; he is Luke’s father.  This was a bombshell to drop on audiences who had thought they knew where the story was going.  After this ending, anything was possible in the Star Wars universe.  It was risky for Team Lucas to make their characters suffer so much in what was effectively the middle film of a trilogy.  Thankfully for them, it was a risk that paid off and it solidified the Star Wars franchise as one of the greatest story lines ever put on the big screen.
2.
PLANET OF THE APES (1968) – “DAMN YOU ALL TO HELL”

One of the most famous twist endings of all time, this finale’s impact is still seen in Hollywood today.  This action thriller starring Charlton Heston was a bizarre ride when it was first released in the late 60’s, and while the ending fits well with the apocalyptic nature of the story-line, most audiences were still taken back by how impactful the final image was.  After crash landing on a strange planet run by intelligent, human-like apes, Astronaut George Taylor (Heston) escapes imprisonment from his militaristic captors and their leader, Dr. Zaius (Maurice Evans), only to discover that he can never go back to his home planet; he’s already there.  His trip through space has sent him thousand of years into the future and in that time, mankind has destroyed civilization through war, leaving only ruins behind.  One ruin in particular, the Statue of Liberty, is found by Taylor and his realization of what has happened leads to an unforgettable breakdown, which Heston milks perfectly.  The screenplay was co-written by Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling, and it shows.  This ending would feel right at home with any Twilight Zone episode given it’s bleak message and the hopeless state it leaves the character in.  Like most twist endings, it relies on the goodwill of the audience to work, and audiences accepted this ending as an appropriate conclusion to such a dark and weird film.  In many ways, it has gone on to become what most other twist endings strive to be, but few actually end up being.
1.
CHINATOWN (1974) – “FORGET IT, JAKE”
 
This ending may be one of the bleakest scenes in movie history, if not the most.  Private Detective Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) discovers some shocking truths about the case he’s studying; that not only has wealthy tycoon Noah Cross (a chilling John Huston) been illegally manipulating water supplies in Depression-era Los Angeles, but he’s also hunting down a daughter born out of an incestuous rape of his own legitimate daughter (Faye Dunaway).  Finding himself captive by the ruthless Cross, Gittes follows Dunaway’s Evelyn to the titular neighborhood, where lawlessness is rampant.  Evelyn tries to escape with her sister/daughter, but Cross’ men fire at her and the film concludes with Evelyn dead behind the wheel, Cross with possession of the girl she was trying to save, and Jake left helpless to stop all of this chaos.  Roman Polanski, the director, is a survivor of the Holocaust, so he knew too well how cruel life could be, but this was something few audience members were prepared for.  In a matter of minutes, this film goes from a loving homage of film noir to a Greek tragedy, and it’s a gut punch for anyone who expected things to be tied up all neat by the end.  It’s amazing to think that a Hollywood studio (Paramount) would give the okay to a film with this unforgiving of an ending, but in the end, it’s a commendable commitment that pays off. Jack plays the moment perfectly, looking as if he’s lost all hope in humanity, and I’m sure it’s a feeling likewise shared by many in the audience.  No other ending has really ever given an audience a shock to the system like this one, and there’s no other statement the film can say other than, “It’s Chinatown.”  Forget it?  No one ever will after seeing it.
And that’s my list of movie endings that left audiences stunned.  Some are definitive conclusions that can’t be topped (Chinatown, Bonnie and Clyde), while others blew open so many other possibilities that broke away from convention (Empire, 2001).  But, overall, these are endings that still resonate with us after the credits started rolling and have gone on to be influential as well as impactful.  Going out with a bang is something you can get away with more often in television, but it’s also pleasing to see a film take that big step as well.  Hopefully more films take a risk in the endings of their stories and break away from tradition in order to deliver something memorable.  It may not always be pleasant, but it will surely be memorable.

Top Ten “Passion Project” Films That Worked

This summer, The Lone Ranger and After Earth came into theaters amid a lot of bad buzz and with bloated budgets.  The failures of these films are noteworthy, but not surprising.  They follow a long line of “Passion Projects” that have come out of Hollywood every now and then.  What makes a movie a “Passion Project” is when a filmmaker puts too much personal investment into a film project that other people, or a studio, doesn’t believe will be a commercial success; but because of the clout that that filmmaker has, the project still moves forward regardless of the risk and the expense. This has often led to disastrous results.  Last week, I highlighted one such example of a film driven by unchecked egos: Heaven’s Gate.  The Lone Ranger  and After Earth do fit the mold of “Passion Projects” that have failed, albeit for different reasons; one was the misguided attempt by producers who felt they could transform any old property into a money-making juggernaut and the other was a movie star trying to elevate his not-ready-for-the-spotlight son into becoming a blockbuster star in the wrong kind of movie.

Though these ego driven  movies often do fail, there are exceptions when they do succeed. Sometimes it happens unexpectedly, while other times it’s when a filmmaker deviates from their proven formula and takes a risk that proves rewarding.  A good “Passion Project” is a film that resonates beyond a good story.  It’s one where you can feel the personal touch of the filmmaker, and see their love for the material on display.  For this column, I have selected 10 films that I believe showcase the most successful “Passion Projects”; some with very unexpected results.
10.
ThatThingYouDo
THAT THING YOU DO (1996)    Directed by Tom Hanks
Tom Hanks was riding high in the mid-90’s, having just won two back-to-back Oscars and starring in another highly acclaimed blockbuster (Apollo 13); so he had the power to do whatever he wanted at this point in his career.  What he chose next was to direct and write his own film, which chronicled the rise and fall of a 60’s rock band.  Though there wasn’t much risk in the actual production of the film, considering it’s modest budget, there was talk about whether or not Tom Hanks was risking his star power in the making of a movie that had limited genre appeal.  This was long before shows like Mad Men made 60’s nostalgia cool, and the story line was very insider driven, detailing the making and marketing within the music industry.  Luckily for Tom Hanks, audiences did soak up the period nostalgia and the film became a modest success.  It didn’t win any awards, but it did cement Tom Hanks’ place as a force to be reckoned with in Hollywood beyond his talents as a actor.
9.
malcolmx
MALCOLM X (1992)    Directed by Spike Lee
Racial politics have always been a touchy issue in movie-making.  Most of time, Hollywood tries to avoid an intelligent argument over race and usually just dumbs down the issues in an attempt to not offend anyone.  Spike Lee has made a reputation of tackling racial issues head on in his films, which he did with the universally praised Do the Right Thing (1989).  Thanks to that film, Lee was able to grab the attention of other filmmakers, who were eager to see what he was going to make next.   What Mr. Lee had in mind was a 3 1/2 hour biopic centered around one of the most divisive leaders of the civil rights movement; Malcolm X.  Suffice to say, producers were worried about how audiences would react to such a film; plus Spike Lee was still a young filmmaker who had never tackled a film on this kind of scale before, or with this kind of seriousness.  The end result ended up being a surprising nuanced and fulfilling epic.  Bolstered by a solid performance by it’s star, Denzel Washington, the movie was praised by critics and generally accepted by audiences. While not a blockbuster, the film did garner a favorable reputation over the years and it showcased the maturity of Spike Lee as a filmmaker.
8.
nightmare christmas
THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS (1993)  Produced By Tim Burton
Back in the late 70’s and early 80’s, Tim Burton was a struggling animator at the Disney Studios. After working on films like The Fox and the Hound (1981), Burton wanted to pitch a project of his own to the studio based around his own artistic style.  The studio heads scoffed at the idea, saying that Burton’s art and story-line was too dark for the family audiences that they were aiming for.  Soon after, Burton left Disney to start a new career as a film director.  He found success with films like Pee Wee’s Big Adventure (1985) and Beetlejuice (1988) before hitting it big with Batman (1989).  After Batman crushed box office records, Disney was ready to listen again.  Tim Burton had the clout now to make his story about the collision of two holidays finally become a reality.  But instead of doing it in Disney’s traditional animation style, he decided to have it animated with stop-motion.  The project was a risky sell for Disney, considering the Gothic style, but the end result proved to be a success.  Twenty years later, the film’s hero Jack Skellington has become one of Disney’s most popular characters.  Which goes to show that it’s sometimes worth it to hold on to a good idea until its ready.
7.
INCEPTION
INCEPTION (2010)          Directed By Christopher Nolan
Christopher Nolan supposedly worked on the script to this film over 10 years.  Initially, he had planned to pitch it as his next film after Memento (2001), but at the time, he didn’t have the reputation as a director to pull off something on the scale that he wanted.  Inception was an enormously complex story that required a lot of time to get right, and Nolan chose to sit on the script for a long time as he continued to build his talents as a filmmaker on subsequent projects. Before long, he was trusted with the struggling Batman franchise, which he brought back in a big way.  After The Dark Knight (2008) became a box office phenomenon, Nolan felt the time was right to finally make Inception.  By this time, he had a script that had been finely polished and was ready to be green-lit.   Warner Bros. approved a substantial budget for the film, based on the goodwill Nolan had earned with them, which helped the director achieve the scale that he always wanted for the film.  The end result paid off as Inception became a box office hit; unusual for a high-concept film like this that’s based off an original idea and not a sequel.
6.
citizenkane
CITIZEN KANE (1941)      Directed by Orson Welles
Though Mr. Welles did have an enormous amount of personal clout in the entertainment industry as he took on his first film project, the movie did prove to be a risky adventure.  For one thing, his film targeted the most powerful man in media at the time, William Randolph Hearst, as it’s subject. Orson Welles had already had the reputation of stepping on powerful toes for the sake of art in his years working on the stage, but going after someone like Hearst was an enormous risk, because it could have led to the end of Welles’ career in Hollywood completely.  Not only that, Welles was putting incredible personal effort into doing things his way on the film.  He was given something that few first time directors ever get in Hollywood; complete artistic freedom, which can be misused if given to the wrong person.  Welles did persevere through the controversy, and the movie was a success when it first premiered.  Over the years, it has been considered one of the best films of all times, if not the best.
5.
titanic
TITANIC (1997)        Directed by James Cameron
James Cameron had earned the reputation of being a larger than life figure in Hollywood.  Someone who would always take enormous risks, and in some cases indulging his ego a bit with what he was capable of getting on film, but would always be counted upon to deliver at the box office.  After a string of successful action films, Cameron decided his next project would be an epic love story set around a notorious catastrophe.  The project went forward based upon Cameron’s reputation as a filmmaker, but soon the project looked to be in big trouble.  The budget ballooned to a then unprecedented $200 million, which no one believed could ever be recouped.  Critics believed that the movie would be dead on arrival the moment it reached theaters, earning the project the nickname “Cameron’s Gate.”  And for a film that was over three hours and featured two unproven stars as it’s leads, it looked like Cameron’s luck would run out.  When the film finally was released, it became not just a hit, but the biggest moneymaker of all time, disproving every preconception in the book.  $600 million dollars and 11 Oscars later, Cameron’s reputation in Hollywood was sufficiently secured.
4.
snowwhite
SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS (1937)    Produced by Walt Disney
While America suffer through the depression in the 1930’s, the Disney Studio was thriving.  Walt Disney had built enormous success with his animated shorts, especially the ones starring the company’s star character, Mickey Mouse.  Seeing the potential of the medium, Disney decided to take the next step forward and make a feature length animated film.  Most of Hollywood thought the idea was ridiculous, believing that audiences would be bored by an animated film longer than 7 minutes.  Walt Disney set out to make it work by putting enormous personal investment into the crafting of the story and the refining of the artwork.  He chose the story of Snow White for the project, which was familiar enough for audiences to understand, but presented its own challenges, particularly with the portrayals of the Dwarfs in the story.  After a while, Walt Disney spent so much money on the project that he actually had to put up his studio and his home as collateral in order to get bank loans to complete the project.  When it finally premiered, the film not only was a success, but it became the biggest hit of the year, out-grossing all other films.  With that success, Walt Disney became a household name and a player in Hollywood to be reckoned with.
3.
passion
THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST (2004)    Directed by Mel Gibson
Before he had his public meltdowns, Mel Gibson had a strong reputation as both an actor and as a filmmaker.  He won an Oscar for directing Braveheart (1995), but it would be years before he would take another stab in the director’s chair.  When he chose his next project, it was one that turned quite a few heads in the industry.  The very devout Catholic Gibson wanted to make a film about the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, depicted in very graphic detail and with characters speaking entirely in ancient languages like Latin and Aramaic.  Setting aside the overtly religious nature of the film, and the controversial accusations of antisemitism, this was a project that the film industry was understandably weary of.  Mel Gibson, in an attempt to preserve his artistic vision, decided to fund the film himself, investing $30 million of his own money.  To help promote the film, he went the unconventional route and previewed the movie for church organizations, in an attempt to earn their seal of approval.  When the film opened on Ash Wednesday in 2004, it shocked the industry by earning $120 million dollars over a five day period.  Hollywood didn’t know what to make of this, and the film ended up changing the way movies with controversial subjects are marketed today.  After grossing $375 million, Mel Gibson had sufficiently earned back his investment and left a significant mark on the film industry.
2.
schindler
SCHINDLER’S LIST (1993)            Directed by Steven Spielberg
Spielberg’s reputation as a filmmaker in the 1980’s was one of someone who made films that had childlike wonder to them, but unable to make anything deeply serious.  That all changed when Spielberg chose to tackle the horrors of the Holocaust in this film.  Documentaries had begun to bring attention the events of the Holocaust, but no one knew how to dramatize it.  Initially, Spielberg approached the project as a producer, taking a personal interest in the subject matter due to his own Jewish heritage.  He handed it off to a variety of directors, including Martin Scorsese and Holocaust survivor Roman Polanski, but in the end, he decided to take on the project himself.  Thanks to Spielberg’s goodwill in Hollywood, he was able to find financial backing, but few believed that he had it in him to give the subject matter the seriousness that it needed.  Not only that, but Spielberg chose to shoot the film in black and white, and the final cut ran a staggering 3 hours and 16 minutes.  No one believed that audiences would be able to sit through such a harsh reconstruction of the horrors of the Holocaust for that length of time, but Spielberg stuck to his vision.  The end result became a touchstone film, earning the Best Picture Oscar as well as a Best Director award for Mr. Spielberg.  The film also earned over $90 million at the box office, proving that audiences would in fact sit through a film like this.  In the end, Spielberg did finally grow up as a filmmaker.
1.
rocky
ROCKY (1976)                                      Directed by John G. Avildsen
What makes Rocky the number one overall “Passion Project” is because of it’s seemingly inexplicable success and underdog status.  Sylvester Stallone wrote the screenplay at a time when he was struggling as an actor.  He didn’t have any clout or any reputation to uphold.  He merely had a deeply personal story to tell about beating the odds and succeeding.  Getting the movie made at all came as a blessing to Stallone.  Much like the hero in the story, the production of Rocky was about underdogs rising to the challenge and not bowing to pressure.  With a modest budget, an unknown cast, and an unproven director, no one expected much out of Rocky.  The movie was also an optimistic story made in a very cynical, post-Watergate time.  As it turns out, that proved to be Rocky’s greatest strength.  It hit a bulls-eye with audiences and became a phenomenal hit that transcended it’s genre.  Stallone became an A-list star over night and the film would go on to win the Oscar for Best Picture.  Overall, Rocky represents the best example of putting personal investment into film-making.  Stallone put what little he had into a story he believed in and it paid off it bigger ways than anybody ever expected it to.
Whether an underdog surprise like Rocky or an expensive gamble like Snow White or Titanic, a successful “Passion Project” can end up pleasing more than just the ideals of the filmmaker, it can mark a significant achievement in film-making and become an unforgettable experience for audiences.   The ten films I chose fit that ideal, and each has a story behind their creations that is just as interesting as the movies themselves.  Good art takes passion, and though it may fail sometimes when the vision is unclear, a successful attempt is all the more worthwhile.

Top Ten Movie Posters

Apart from the making of a good movie, the most important thing in the film industry is being able to sell your production to a wide audience.  A movie can be made and undone on the effectiveness of its marketing, regardless of the quality of the film itself.  The greatest outcome of a good marketing campaign is when great works of art can come out of it.  Movie posters have become popular collectors items over the years, and in some rare cases, can become more famous than the film itself.

Oftentimes, a great movie poster creates an iconic image that not only conveys the film its trying to sell, but can also stand alone as a work of art.  I know of many people who will gladly hang a movie poster up in their home or apartment instead of a classic painting.  Great artists like Saul Bass and Drew Struzen have dedicated their entire careers to crafting film art, and have left an incredible legacy in their wakes.  I have chosen here what I think represent the best of the best.  The following are chosen mainly for how well they draw the eye of the consumer in, convey the basic elements of the movie and how well they stand on their own as a work of art.

10.
Vertigo_Afiche
VERTIGO (1958)
One can’t talk about film art without mentioning the name of Saul Bass.  This artistic Renaissance man was the most prolific designer of his time.  He designed everything from movie posters, to title designs for a films opening credits (many of the Hitchcock films), to novel covers (James Bond Series), to even corporate logos (like AT&T and United Airlines).  Bass’ was a favorite of Alfred Hitchcock, and his artwork is all over a film like Vertigo.  The poster above represents Bass at his absolute height, and features some of his most haunting imagery.  The spiral at the center immediately draws your attention and gives the observer a sense of falling, which is interpreted well with the silhouetted figures floating within the center.  Bass almost always used large blocks of color and sharp geometric shapes to convey an image.  The poster for Vertigo stands apart because of how perfectly it ties all of Bass’ many tricks together.
9.
 moon
MOON (2009)
One of the more striking and original posters in recent memory was this image from the brilliant, but sadly under-seen indie film Moon, directed by Duncan Jones.  Designed at the All City Media agency in Britain, this poster is a perfect example of the “less is more” approach.  The image contains the film’s star, Sam Rockwell, standing on a spherical spiral, against an empty black space.  The design seems very influenced by the work of Saul Bass, given the geometric and patterned sphere in the place of an actual Moon surface.  The poster is able to very simply convey the film’s theme of isolation, without giving anything away about the plot.  And again, the shapes draws your eye in; with the strange patterns that your vision creates when you look at a spiral for a period of time.  This poster shows how even a small, quiet film can have an A-quality movie poster.
8.
silenceofthelambs
THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (1991)
The Silence of the Lambs had a lot of elements that could have easily been exploited in an ad campaign.  Although, at the same time, the controversy of the subject matter may have caused the marketing team to stress caution when selling this film.  Either way, audiences were treated to the striking image above, which not only presented us with creepy imagery, but also an ambiguous-ness about what it means, which perfectly underscores the fact that this is a mystery film, and not just a horror show.  What strikes me is that the designers (BLT Communications) never used the iconic character of Hannibal Lecter in any of the poster art.  Instead, we have a ghostly image of star Jodie Foster, with her mouth covered up by a moth with a skull-like pattern on its back.  When you watch the film, the moths are hardly a factor in the story at all, and not once do they fly onto Jodie’s mouth.  The team behind this poster had the good sense to draw on their own imaginations and create a poster image that instantly drives the viewers curiosity, and appeal to their twisted sides, even when it’s detached ultimately from what the film is about.  In the end, getting the mood right is what matters.
7.
Casablanca
CASABLANCA (1943)
This is the quintessential classic movie poster.  It does what every good ad from the era should do, and put its stars front and center.  The poster is appealing because of the way the different characters are collaged together, with their eyes all meeting to an axis point in the center.  The titles also do a nice job of selling the stars as well; with the names Bogart, Bergman, and Henreid in big, bold letters.  The title of the film is boldly highlighted in red lettering, which instantly grabs the attention of the viewer.  Back in the old studio system, the stars meant everything when it came to selling a film, and this poster presents that idea with great style.  I particularly like how Bogart has his gun out and ready, obviously drawing upon his already strong reputation from the crime films he had done in the past.  The poster is packed, but not cluttered, giving each character a clear mugshot on the poster; though Bogie is given preference to be sure.  This poster is often the inspiration for many retro posters for period films we see today (i.e. Captain America), which shows a good classic design never goes away.
6.
darkkight
THE DARK KNIGHT (2008) – JOKER ONE SHEET
Comic book films often inspire some great artwork for their ad campaigns.  Sometimes, the posters can simulate a feeling of a comic book come to life better than the movie itself.  The Dark Knight Trilogy from Christopher Nolan took it’s source material in a particularly gritty direction, especially when it came to the characters.  In the middle film, The Dark Knight (2008), audiences were treated to the return of Batman’s arch-nemesis, The Joker, and it is clear that the marketing for the film wanted to give this iconic character his due.  There was a lot of Joker related artwork made to sell this film, but the one above really stuck out.  It’s a disturbing, ghostly image of the Joker, standing in front of a window glass and writing the phrase “Why So Serious” out in what appears to be blood, complete with a bloody Joker grin.  This image, also from BLT Communications, sets up this new take on the Joker perfectly, being both chilling and alluring at the same time.  This poster took on a whole different resonance only weeks after its release, due to the passing of Heath Ledger, the actor who played the Joker in the film.  The fact that actor is obscured within a ghostly mist in the image, makes the artwork feel all the more haunting.
5.
jaws
JAWS (1975)
Jaws marked the beginning of the age of Blockbusters, and that was in large part due to the inventiveness of its advertising.  Artist Roger Kastel was commissioned to create an image that would perfectly sell a troubled movie production about the hunting of a Great White Shark.  What he came up with is the now iconic image of a female swimmer on the water surface, with Jaws the Shark lurking and ready to attack right underneath.  It’s a frightening image that tells a story all on its own, without any context with the movie itself.  In the actual movie, the shark doesn’t actually appear until halfway through, but that didn’t matter in the end.  People’s imaginations were already piqued by the image on the poster and they were willing to sit through the first half, just so that they could see the Shark once he finally appeared.  In many ways, the poster image helped to save the filmmakers who were worried that there weren’t enough scenes that showed the actual shark, due to technical problems.  The audiences filled in all the off-screen mayhem with their imaginations, knowing what kind of creature was causing all of it and in the end, the shark did work. Just not the one on the screen.
4.
Chinatown
CHINATOWN (1974)
Being both a retro flashback and a sleek work of modern art itself, the poster for Chinatown is almost a great metaphor for the movie that it’s selling.  The movie, directed by Roman Polanski, is a brilliant neo-noir that is clearly inspired by the era that it’s trying to recreate, the 1930’s, but done with the styles and and the cynicism that were a part of the era of the 1970’s.  In the poster image, painted by artist Jim Pearsall, we see that mixing of two eras in a striking and beautiful way.  The image of Jack Nicholson, playing Detective Jake Gittes, looks like its been pulled off the cover of some pulp crime novel from the height of the 30’s.  Above that, we get a trail of smoke that frames the ghostly image of actress Faye Dunaway’s face.  This part of the image feels very psychedelic in nature, which is representative of the period in which this film is made.  Like the movie, the poster is both very classical and very modern; using the best of both styles to create an instantly striking image.  The colors also balance well off each other, with the sickly yellows, greens, and blues.  It’s a beautifully layered image that reveals a lot more than what’s on the surface.
3.
Amadeus
AMADEUS (1984)
This is one of the best examples of movie posters as an art-form.  Inspired by the original stage production art, the movie’s ads kept the same iconography, but embellished it more, creating the image above.  I have always been struck by the image of the masked figure in this poster.  The piercing eyes instantly draws your eyes in, like a macabre Renaissance portrait.  In addition, the tri-fold hat it’s wearing looks like a crown, with the performer surrounded by stars in the center looking like a radiant jewel on top of it.  And the figure holds out its arms, like it’s trying to embrace you and welcome you in.  I was fascinated by this image for years before I even saw the film.  Nothing about this image told me that it was about the story of Mozart, and that the mysterious figure is a representation of his father, but I was still fascinated none-the-less.  Thankfully, the film lived up to the promise.  The poster is a great example of transcending the story it’s trying to tell.  Yes, the image does represent a key part of the film, but even without that, it is still intriguing to the eye.  It does what great art should do; make the observer want to look deeper into it.
2.
JurrassicPark
JURASSIC PARK (1993)
This is the best example of simplicity in poster art.  Steven Spielberg’s thriller showcased some of the most remarkable visual effects ever put on screen, and featured some of the most realistic looking dinosaurs anyone had ever seen.  Yet, the marketing for the film avoided showing all that; at least in the one-sheets.  In the poster art, we get nothing but the logo used in the film for the titular park, set against a black background, with the phrase, “An Adventure 65 Million Years in the Making” below.  And in the end, that’s all we really need.  The image of the logo alone perfectly conveys what the movie is about; an attempt by man to control nature and recreate a race of extinct creatures, merely for the purpose of amusement and financial gain.  In a way, the poster is almost mocking the idea of targeted marketing, with the innocuous design of a corporate logo, while at the same time trying to market the film.  The designers knew about the power of logo design and used it perfectly here as a way of marketing the film without revealing too much.  Simple and effective, and instantly recognizable; all of which makes a great poster.
1.
backtothefuture
BACK TO THE FUTURE (1985)
Drew Struzen is the not a household name, but he should be.  The man has created some of the most iconic poster art in the last 30 or more years.  He’s the guy responsible for the poster art on all 4 Indiana Jones films, along with several other Spielberg blockbusters.  He’s also done poster art for the Star Wars prequels and movies like Blade Runner, The Goonies, Harry Potter, and The Muppet Movie just to name a few.  With his hand-painted artwork, Struzen has the remarkable ability to not only convey the elements of a movie, but to also make it feel as big as possible, even if the movie is not as epic as he’s portraying it.
 What I think best exemplifies Struzen’s style, and what also makes it the best film poster of all, is the one above for Back to the Future.  The movie at it’s most basic level is a Sci-fi comedy, done on a modest budget with a solid script.  In the hand’s of Drew Struzen, we’re delivered an image that seems to convey a great Sci-fi adventure, just by the way the poster is composed with it’s coloring and staging.  Struzen took the image of Marty McFly and the DeLorean time machine and embellished it with a glowing aura coming from within the car itself.  Add to that, the fire tracks on the ground and the smoke in the sky and we get a sense just by looking at the image that something amazing has happened.  This poster is actually one of Struzen’s simpler designs, which makes it a standout.  Struzen’s art is often imitated, but I’ve rarely seen one out there copy this.  It’s a great example of simple design that gets the point across while at the same time making it seem larger than life.  This is a poster that you’ll find in many film geek collections, and with good cause.  It’s represents Struzen at his best and is the best movie poster ever created.
That’s my list of the Top Ten film posters of all time.  I’m sure this list could change over time whenever there are more great ad campaigns in the future.  For those reading this, I would gladly like to hear what you think are the best movie posters ever made.  I will also gladly hear any suggestions for future top ten lists.  I may do a worst 10 poster list someday, but it may be a while, given that there are so many bad ones out there.  Anyway, thank you for reading.