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Top Ten Scariest Places in Movies

When we want to watch a scary movie, we often seek out the films that have the most gruesome monsters or the most grisly of deaths.  But one thing that I don’t think gets enough credit for making scary movies work are the settings themselves.  The best horror movies have memorable monsters for sure, but it’s the location that makes them legendary as well.  Setting helps to build atmosphere, drawing the viewer in by giving them the stage on which the horror plays out.  Sometimes, it the setting that does most of the work, utilizing shadows and creepy sounds that both hide and spotlight the terror within.  One thing that is noteworthy about all the various iconic horror films is that they usually take the standard idea of a scary setting and try different things with it.  There’s no rule in horror that says that a horror movie needs to be set within a haunted house or even a spooky castle.  Horror movies have made just about any place scary over the years, including schools, hospitals, amusements parks, and even nurseries.  In fact, it almost works better to have a horror movie set in a usually safe space rather than a traditionally spooky one.  There are plenty of great horror movies that do make use of the tried and true scary settings, like graveyards and haunted houses, and that why those places have continued to carry an aura of menace to them today.  For this week’s upcoming Halloween, I want to list some of the greatest scary places to ever appear on film.  I am only limiting this to locations that are purely cinematic creations, and not based on real places (like the Amityville house).  Also, I’m opening this list up to scary places found in non horror movies as well, because some of those movies have frightening locations that stand shoulder to shoulder with the best found in horror.  So, let’s take a look at 10 of the scariest places in movies.

10.

DRACULA’S CASTLE from DRACULA (1931)

Let’s start this off with the groundbreaking film that really cemented the visual inspiration for Hollywood Gothic horror for most of the industry’s history.  Sure, Dracula was not the first movie to use setting to build spooky atmosphere.  The German Expressionist movement had been utilizing groundbreaking techniques of light and shadow and Gothic design to frighten audiences for many years before, with iconic horror classics like Nosferatu (1922) and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920).  But director Tod Browning brought those techniques to the mainstream with Dracula and created the template on which decades of future horror films would be made.  The gloomy, cobweb adorned castle of Count Dracula perfectly accentuates the chilling performance of Bela Lugosi in the title role, and helps to give us the feeling of unease that danger lurks within every nook and cranny of this place.  The movie was made at a time when you couldn’t show any onscreen violence or blood, and even just implying the threat of violence faced scrutiny from censors.  So, with Dracula, the filmmakers had to let the setting be the thing that frightened audiences and made them feel that ever crucial sense of dread.  And they did this by implying the sense of decay of Dracula’s castle.  It’s dark, empty, and rotten, and yet is still a threat to anyone who enters; much like the master who inhabits it.  In the years since it’s release, you can see the fingerprints of Dracula in countless other horror movies, all of which still use the dusty, cobweb adorned interiors that worked so well before.  Even Francis Ford Coppola’s big budget remake took much of it’s visual cue from some of the same techniques found in the original.  It may not seem as scary today, but Dracula’s Castle from the original classic earns this spot just from the impact it’s had on the genre as a whole.

9.

BUFFALO BILL’S BASEMENT from THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (1991)

Not every scary place in movies needs to necessarily be haunted; sometimes it just needs to house a truly horrifying monster.  This was the case with The Silence of the Lambs, which has two such places that you could spotlight as among the scariest settings of all time.  One of those places is the cell block that holds Hannibal Lecter behind bars (or in this case bullet proof glass).  And though those scenes are terrifying on their own, I think they are edged out by the horror show that is the underground dwelling of serial killer Buffalo Bill.  At least with the cell block, you get the feeling that the monster inside is neutralized to a degree, but in Buffalo Bill’s basement, we see his full, deranged life laid bare before us in a truly disgusting way.  Most horrific is the dried up well in which he holds his victims captive before killing them and harvesting their skin.  The movie’s most terrifying scenes show Buffalo Bill psychologically torturing his most recent captive as he forces her to apply skin lotion or else he’ll spray her with a garden hose, all the while calling her an “it” which shows the disconnected, dehumanization that plagues his mind.  The dreariness of the setting is also very well realized, giving Bill’s living space this rotten feel to it.  The fact that these scenes are also the only ones colored with sickly greens and oranges in the movie, which is mostly filmed in cold grays and blues, also sets it apart and shows just how unnatural it is compared to everything else in the movie.  The whole setting may not be outwardly scary, but it puts the audience in a sense of unease that still effectively helps us dread every time the movie returns to it.  Creepy is just as effective as horrifying, and that’s what helps to make Buffalo Bill’s basement on of cinema’s most terrifying places.

8.

SHELOB’S LAIR from THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE RETURN OF THE KING (2003)

Proof that you don’t just find scary places in horror movies along.  Peter Jackson’s epic fantasy trilogy based on the novels by J.R.R. Tolkein all have their fair share of memorable spooky locations; the mines of Moria, the tower of Orthanc in Isengard, the dead city of Minas Morgul, and even the expanse of Mordor itself.   But none of those places carries the sheer terror that is found in Shelob’s Lair.  The iconic scene from Tolkein’s novel is horrifically realized in the movie, with a remarkably grotesque representation of the massive spider who lives within it.  What Peter Jackson brilliantly gets across in the film is the sheer terror of feeling like a fly trapped in a spider’s web, or in this case a burrow.  After Gollum leads Frodo Baggins in the tunnel, we follow the harrowing experience through his eyes, and feel the same isolation that he feels.  The most terrifying aspect of the scene is the disorientation that Frodo experiences, not knowing from which corner the massive spider Shelob is going to pop out from.  The fact that even with all that extra weight, Shelob is still able to move with the same agility and speeds as a tiny spider makes the scene all the creepier.  It’s not surprising to learn that Peter Jackson is arachnophobic by his own admission, and it’s apparent that he funneled all that fear and anxiety into this scene, effectively terrifying us in the same way he would be terrified.  In a movie series already heavily populated with iconic and terryifying monsters, it really takes special effort to make something like Shelob rise above the rest, and the design of her lair really does a lot of help to make that happen.  The isolation and wildness of it really sells the terror of the setting, giving us the sense that this is a place where even the most evil of creatures would not set foot in.   And that as a result puts it in the same league as many of the scariest places from actual horror movies.  Even fantasies can rise to that level of terror.

7.

THE FREELING FAMILY HOME from POLTERGEIST (1982)

The movie Poltergiest broke new ground in the horror film genre by moving away from the old fashioned template that had existed for years in Hollywood.  It showed that a haunted house didn’t need to look rundown, broken and dilapidated in order to be effectively creepy.  A haunted house, it turns out, could look just like any other suburban home.  That’s the case with the Freeling family in this horror classic, as they move into a freshly developed new property with a house that has all the modern fixtures that a upper middle class household would want.  But, over time, it becomes apparent that they are not alone, as all sorts of paranormal activity begins to terrorize them, even leading to the capture of the youngest child who gets trapped in the spectral plane with all the terrifying ghosts.  This Tobe Hooper directed, Spielberg written film brings a sense of terror out of the audiences fears of witnessing a home invasion, only that the invaders are ghost.  We feel safe in our homes, but the sense that this peacefulness can be broken by the supernatural really drives it home for audiences, who probably return home wondering if their living space might also be haunted.  We do learn the source of the family’s haunting; their new neighborhood was built on land previously used a cemetery, and the greedy land developer moved only the tombstones and not the bodies underneath, desecrating the remains of many and angering their souls.  But even without that explanation, the fact that a pristine new home can turn into a house of horrors is one that still leaves audiences in a state of apprehension.  The impact of this movie is still felt in many modern day horror films, like the Paranormal Activity series, which uses the same aesthetic of a normal home violated by the presence of ghosts.  More than anything, it’s terrifying because it gives us the dreadful sense that no place is safe in the end.

6.

THE SEWERS OF DERRY, MAINE from STEPHEN KING’S IT (2017)

There is no doubt that the master of the horror genre for the last half century has been writer Stephen King.  His endless string of novels have inspired a whole generation of writers and filmmakers to shape the current identity of the horror genre, and his books have also been the source for some of the scariest movies ever made.  Probably most surprising is the fact that he still uses his home state of Maine as the setting for so many of these stories; which is odd because if you’ve been to Maine, there’s nothing there that really screams out to you as Gothic or spooky.  For Stephen King, he ‘s created his own alternative Maine, which is the focal point of so much of the world’s evil and home to many of it’s most frightening creatures.  One of the greatest creations of his horror mythology is the demon clown Pennywise, who is the focal point of the novel It (1986).  King’s iconic novel has since spawned two classic adaptations; a TV mini-series starring Tim Curry as the clown, and last years big screen feature, starring Bill Skargard in the same role.  Though the TV version is admirable, the movie does a much better job with making the setting truer to King’s vision, and that’s no more apparent than in the way it envisions the sewer dwelling of Pennywise.  Much like Shelob’s Lair, the sewers create the disorienting feeling of entrapment and that the monster could be lurking just about anywhere.  Thanks to the better resources from a larger budget, we are given a more surreal and terrifying setting that feels truer to the menace of the character.  But to the original TV series’ credit, it does match the same creepiness with the movie when it comes to that introductory scene of Pennywise lurking up from a storm drain.  Like what we read from King’s novel, it’s the darkness underneath the clown face that really is the thing of nightmares.

5.

THE PALE MAN’S DINING HALL from PAN’S LABYRINTH (2006)

Guillermo Del Toro has left his mark in numerous fields, such as science fiction (which earned him a coveted Oscar), fantasy and horror.  Of those different genres, however, he feels more closely at home in horror, which is clear from his most direct cinematic and literary inspirations.  An devout fan of the writings of Edgar Allen Poe and H. P. Lovecraft, Del Toro has often tried to fill most of his movies with creatures that stem from the darkest of nightmares, even if the movies themselves are not inherently scary.  The most interesting visions of horror actually come from his trio of historical dramas set around or are influenced by the dark history of the Spanish Civil War.  There are Cronos (1993) and The Devil’s Backbone (2001), both of which have their spooky elements, but it’s in the third feature, Pan’s Labyrinth, that we see his twisted imagination in full display.  And in this film, we find what is probably the single most terrifying figure that the visionary director has ever conjured up in his entire career; the terrifying Pale Man.  Played through breathtakingly detailed make-up by Del Toro regular Doug Jones, the Pale Man is a literal nightmare come to life.  With it’s pale, drooping skin, monstrous teeth, and creepy eyeballs that it holds in it’s hands, it’s like no creature you’ve ever seen before or would want to see again.  Paralleling this creature with the very human monster in the real world, the Fascist captain Vidal, Del Toro visualizes the nightmarish realities of his characters lives in a terrifying way, and this is emphasized very vividly in the Gothic decadence of the Pale Man’s banquet hall.  Del Toro’s twisted designs extend from the character through the setting, and makes yet another dark web like others on this list ready to entrap it’s prey.  Though briefly seen in the film itself, the Pale Man’s Hall is still scary enough to frighten our memories long after we’ve left it behind.

4.

THE NOSTROMO from ALIEN (1979)

Ridley Scott’s Alien may seem on the surface like any other science fiction thriller, but there is plenty of things about the movie that owes more inspiration to the genre of horror.  The cargo freighter space ship Nostromo is essentially a cosmic haunted house and instead of ghosts, we get a bloodthirsty humanoid alien.  Scott manages to make the ship terrifying by using the same techniques used in horror; darkness and shadow, loud disorienting noises, and creepy scenery throughout every moment.  The Nostromo is not some clean, pristine interstellar vehicle that you would find in an episode of Star Trek.  It’s a beat up, unglamorous utility ship meant for shipping cargo.  And the fact that it looks so dingy and corrupted helps to reinforce that sense of it being just as menacing to the main characters as the creature that hunts them from within it.  There are some inspired moments where Ridley Scott stages some of the movie’s most frightening scenes, like a hanger where Harry Dean Stanton’s character is caught by the alien, with water leaking from nearby pipes and iron chains dangling from the ceiling.  It really does make the scene feel like a haunted house, even though the setting is wildly different.  The movie released with the tagline, “In space, no one can hear you scream,” so they knew the connection they were making with this.  Ridley Scott did an effective job of melding genre tropes together to make Alien arguably the scariest science fiction movie ever made.  And it all is due to the fact that they created a space ship that lends itself perfectly to that horror aesthetic.  Other horror films set in space would follow in it’s footsteps, like 1997’s Event Horizon, but there’s no doubt that the Nostromo still holds that iconic place in Sci-Fi and horror fans hearts today.  It’s still a place that makes us scream, even if it’s lost out in space.

3.

THE BATES MOTEL from PSYCHO (1960)

Alfred Hitchcock proved with the movie Psycho (1960) that not all scary places needed ghosts to be haunting.  With the iconic Bates Motel as the setting for much of this movie, we see a very real depiction of the lingering effect that evil acts have on a singular location.  The murders that occur within the unassuming walls of the hotel suites are shocking to first time viewers, who will probably come away worrying about the next time they stop for the night in while out in the middle of nowhere.  The reason why the Bates Motel turns out to be so frightening in the end is because it’s true nature reveals itself to us quietly.  The rooms themselves are accommodating, but the large Gothic house that looms over it projects that feeling of unease very quickly.  The interesting thing about it is that the house is not where the danger lies.  It’s a haunted house without a ghost.  The real menace is the low lying rooms themselves, with the caretaker Norman Bates being the real monster.  The Bates Motel is like a rattlesnake ready to pounce on it’s victim.  The house looks ominous, but it’s just the warning rattle, as it’s the fangs that are really the danger.  All that said, the Psycho house is rightfully iconic in it’s own right, and is enough to scare audience on it’s own.  It still exists in it’s original state on the Universal Studio’s backlot and is still a highlight of the tour.  The genius of Alfred Hitchcock was to present a false sense of anticipation on the audience’s part, as they never expected the Motel itself to be the real house of horrors.  He created another icon of the genre by subverting the idea of safe zones, and showing us how evil can indeed lurk just about anywhere.

2.

REGAN’S BEDROOM from THE EXORCIST (1973)

There is no more terrifying idea than the invasion of evil into the most innocent of places.  We see that played out to the extreme in William Friedkin’s iconic horror classic The Exorcist.  The movie details the possession of a young girl by a particularly menacing demonic presence.  As the movie goes along, we see the demon progressively corrupt young Regan (Lind Blair) and make her nearly unrecognizable by the end.  That same corruption manifests itself as well into the room where she is kept.  The bed she sleeps on is broken and the posts are padded in order to prevent any further damage to her body.  As the movie goes on, all light and warmth is also removed from the room.  All that’s left is minimal lamplight in an otherwise pitch dark room.  And that effect perfectly constructs the very unsettling atmosphere that makes the film’s climatic finale so memorable.  It’s disturbing to think that this once warm living space for a young, full of life child has devolved into this chilling battlefield between good and evil by movie’s end.  William Friedkin makes this all the more effective by gradually changing the room over time, until it becomes the nightmarish setting of the finale.  An extra special detail is found in the way that we see the breath of Fathers Karras and Merrin blow out when they speak, giving us the feeling of how cold it really is in that room.  The stark lighting is another effective feature, taking cue especially from early German Expressionist techniques.  But perhaps the reason that this setting is so memorably scary is because Friedkin made it feel so authentic.   There’s no feeling of manipulation on the director’s part; no jump scares or visual effects.  He puts you in that room with the characters and makes you feel the terror right alongside them.  That’s what helps keep this little bedroom one of the greatest visions of hell on earth ever put on film.

1.

THE OVERLOOK HOTEL from THE SHINING (1980)

All of the places on this list have their own great effect on exploiting the fears of the audience.  But none are more relentlessly frightening than those seen in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining.  Another original creation from the mind of Stephen King, the Overlook is without a doubt single most terrifying place in all of cinema, and that’s because it’s shocking presence doesn’t come in just small doses; it permeates the entire movie.  From the opening credits on, Kubrick puts his audience into a state of unease which doesn’t let up until the end, and even beyond that.  The effectiveness of the movie comes from the feeling that there is no escape.  Every corner of the Hotel is ripe for scary the hell out of us, and that’s largely because Kubrick broke one of the crucial rules of horror film-making.  He casts every scene in bright light, making shadows non-existent.  Most horror movies usually use a brightly lit scene to reassure a moment of safety for the characters, as all the shadows are the bastions of evil, lurking in places unseen to entrap our heroes.  Because the shadows are absent in The Shining, there is a consistent sense of feeling that no place in the hotel is safe, and that is terrifying.  There are countless moments in the movie that could rank high among the scariest of all time; like the confrontation between Jack and Wendy on the staircase, the chase in the hedge maze, the horrifying encounter in room 237.  Perhaps the most iconic moment though is the appearance of the two twin girls at the end of the hallway, beckoning young Danny to come play with them.  Again, it’s brightly lit without shadows and sneaks up on us the audience without warning, reinforcing the idea that not one part of this hotel is safe.  King was not happy with Kubrick’s adaptation, because he felt that the movie minimized the evil of the hotel, but I would argue that Kubrick amped up the terror that was in the novel by making it so random and immediate.  For all the scary places in other movies, they at least bring the audience back home to a sense of comfort.  Kubrick dismantles that idea and gives us the most horrifying place in movie history with a setting where there is no place to hide.

So, there you have my choices for the scariest places in movie history.  Some are certainly scarier than others that rank higher on the list, but the effectiveness of each is also what really matters.  One pattern that I noticed from my own tastes on the subject is that the scariest places I observed are usually traps set by evil creatures to prey on the innocent.  Whether it’s actual monsters like Pennywise from It and Shelob from The Lord of the Rings, or human monsters like Norman Bates from Psycho and Buffalo Bill from The Silence of the Lambs, the home bases of these different monsters often are terrifying reflections of the evil they embody.  Of course, there are also the places that are transformed by evil acts like the house from Poltergeist or the Nostromo from Alien.  And then you have just the relentless evil of a place like the Overlook in The Shining, which just leaves it’s dark mark on anyone unfortunate enough to be living within it.  Whether it is haunted or not, a place often becomes an embodiment of our greatest fears and it’s aura permeates even beyond the evil deeds done there.  This can be attributed to entertainment reinforcing superstitions throughout the course of history.  There really is no real inherent danger when you walk through a graveyard, especially during daylight hours, but because they have this connotation with the supernatural, most people avoid venturing through them without reason.  We give places the power to scare us, and it usually is the result of wanting to create a notorious reputation for something that is otherwise benign.  And that’s something that has helped horror become as beloved a part of our collective narrative as anything else.  It’s interesting to see that a dark past can be put on just about anything, and that’s evident in all the greatest scary places found in film.  The ones from this list are perfect examples of that and there are plenty of more ways we can continue to scare one another by finding the mystery and terror found in even the unlikeliest of places.

Top Ten Favorite Comedies

There are several genres of film that leave a great impact on my own experiences.  I will say that I am partial to the historical drama more than any other, as my favorite film is Lawrence of Arabia (1962), and I include many other epics as among my favorites as well; like Braveheart (1995), Ben-Hur (1959), The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), and so on.  But, if there were a genre that I can point out that has given me the most consistent entertainment over the years, it would be the Comedy genre.  The best feeling to have in a movie theater is the ability to laugh, and it’s the one and only genre where people actually enjoy the communal experience of watching a film with an audience of complete strangers.  Laughter is infectious and the more people laughing together translates into a better experience overall.  Not every comedy is good though, and sometimes the worst films out there are the comedies that fail to make us laugh in any way.  They are extremely hard to make, as comedy is subjective to every individual audience member.  But, when a comedy can hit all the right notes and appeal to a huge audience overall, then it can become an instant classic.  And for many people, they can easily point out the comedies that have left the best impact on them and have informed their own sense of humor.  As a movie fan, I certainly have my own favorites as well.  Some are movies that left an impact on my own development as a person and a movie fan, and others are just the ones that make me laugh the hardest.  Here, I have listed the comedies that are my absolute favorites.

Before I begin, I do want to list off some comedies that I do love, but just narrowly missed my list; This Is Spinal Tap (1984), The Jerk (1979), The Producers (1968), Caddyshack (1980), Coming to America (1988), Home Alone (1990), Dumb & Dumber (1993), Airplane (1980), Shaun of the Dead (2004), Some Like It Hot (1959), His Girl Friday (1940), Wayne’s World (1992), and Deadpool (2016).  And with all that out of the way, let us begin the countdown.

10.

THE SANDLOT (1993)

Directed by David Mickey Evans

There are comedies that make you laugh, and comedies that make you think.  And then there are comedies that take you back to a bygone time.  When The Sandlot was first released, I was 10 years old, not that far off in age from the characters in this movie.  And this comedy was one that really struck home for the pre-adolescent me.  Here was a movie that celebrated the simple pleasures of boyhood, and mined it perfectly for all the comedic potential that it could bring.  Its about the friendship building experiences of summertime baseball games, getting sick on carnival rides, telling scary stories during tree-house sleepovers, and even faking your own drowning so that you can sneak in a kiss on your first crush.  In many ways, it’s a movie that you can identify strongly with as a child, and still look back fondly with as an adult.  And it still makes me laugh 25 years later.  I love the fact that nearly all of the second half of the movie is devoted to a string of comedic set ups as the boys try to retrieve a Babe Ruth autographed ball from a back yard Wile E. Coyote style, trying desperately to outsmart the fearsome guard dog that patrols it.  There’s also a lot of hilarious adult humor snuck in, like Ham’s trash talking behind the plate trying to psyche out the opposing batter.  But, also like a lot of other family oriented comedies made at the time, it’s also a sentimental film, mostly touching upon the coming of age of all the boys in the story.  Most films like this end up turning sappy by the end, but Sandlot manages to balance it all out and it remains a comedy that I can still reflect back on very well and still laugh at the same way that I did when I was younger.

9.

ANIMAL HOUSE (1978)

Directed by John Landis

This is definitely a movie that could never get made today.  Given the #MeToo movement’s widespread influence on the film industry today, a movie like Animal House would have died on the vine long before a single frame of film would have been shot.  So, the fact that the movie exists at all, and is still regarded as a masterpiece of comedy today is something of a miracle.  Is it racist, misogynist, and nihilistic.  Sure, but the entire movie is such a cartoon that it’s hard to make any claim that the filmmakers were at all serious about any of that stuff while they were making it.  The clear goal of director John Landis and writers Harold Ramis, Douglas Kenney and Chris Miller was to provoke humor through shattering conventional tastes and adding a rebellious sense of fun.  The whole movie is anti-authoritarian, and that’s helps to make the movie feel so fresh all these years later.  A big part of the movie’s success was largely due to the incredibly funny cast, and most especially to the breakout performance of John Belushi.  Belushi had that special ability to get a laugh out of people with just a simple look, something showed off brilliantly like the memorable smile at the camera during the peeping tom scene or the annoyed look he gives right before smashing a guitar on the staircase.  Other moments like the Toga party, the horse in the office prank, and the climatic parade debacle are all still just as funny today as ever.  I’ll say that another reason why I love this movie so much is because it was shot in my hometown of Eugene, Oregon, so it always feels like a homecoming for me when I re-watch it.  We Oregonians still hold this comedy up proud (the “Shout” sequence even plays on the jumbo screen during football games) and even if it’s values may not have aged well with the times, it still makes up for it by remaining relentless in it’ s humor.

8.

THE GENERAL (1927)

Directed by Buster Keaton

The silent era was a golden age for slapstick comedy.  Since synchronized sound made it impossible to tell jokes in movies, humor had to be communicated through movement, and this in turn led to some of the greatest visual comedies of all time.  The era sparked the legendary film careers of famous vaudeville comedians like Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, Laurel and Hardy, as well as of course, Buster Keaton.  Each comic left a profound impact on film in general, sometimes pushing the medium to new heights as they each tried to out do each other with their incredibly complex routines.  And while Chaplin is often considered to be the greatest artist among this class of comedy, I actually find myself more partial to the works of Buster Keaton.  Chaplin had some amazing set pieces to be sure, but Keaton’s films have comedic bits that still boggle the mind over 90 years later.  It can be seen in films like Sherlock Jr. (1924) and Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928), where you wonder how in the world he didn’t kill himself performing the stunts in these movies.  There are so many amazing stunts in his movies, and they help to make his films still incredible to watch today.  But, it’s The General that remains his masterpiece.  This Civil War set comedy finds Keaton working with the most dangerous of moving props, real locamotive trains, and using them for some of his biggest stunts yet.  There is an especially harrowing moment when he sits on the grill of a train and uses a piece of lumber to knock off another piece of lumber off the rail tracks with only seconds to spare.  Had he mistimed that by a second, he would have been dead.  It just shows how far some would go to get a laugh and Keaton went further than most, always putting hmself in harms way to do it.  And it results in comedy that still grabs our attention nearly a century later.  The fact that he also does all this with an unwavering deadpan expression is just another reason why Buster Keaton is one of the greatest comedic minds in history.

7.

HOT FUZZ (2007)

Directed by Edgar Wright

One of the most misused forms of comedy over the years has been the parody.  Though pioneered by the likes of Mel Brooks and the team of Zuckers/Abrahams during the 70’s and 80’s, the subgenre has sadly slid off in recent years and has often been associated with the characterization of lazy comedy.  But one filmmaker has managed to take the parody film and reinvent it into something new that’s all his own.  British filmmaker Edgar Wright doesn’t specifically reference certain movies, but instead pokes fun at the genres themselves.  He spotlights the cliches, and spins them around into hilarious bits that drive some of the biggest laughs in the movie.  Much in the same vein as Mel Brooks, Wright is clearly affectionate towards the things that he mocks, and his movies often work just as well as any of the other movies from the genres that they are poking fun at.  His parody films have formed what has become known as the Cornetto Trilogy, and it includes the Zombie film Shaun of the Dead, the cop thriller Hot Fuzz, and the sci-fi extravaganza The World’s End (2013).  While all of them are comedy classics, I would choose Hot Fuzz as my favorite.  It’s the most consistently funny of the movies, with the most pointed of genre send-ups.  Wright clearly takes inspiration from the hyper-kinetic style of Michael Bay for this film, and using it in the setting of a quaint town in the English countryside just makes it all the funnier.  Comedic partners Simon Pegg and Nick Frost also relish the humor here, acting perfectly in tune with all the crazy antics that unfold in the movie.  The bullet-flying finale is an especially strong highlight as the duo take on many beloved English character actors playing the townsfolk, including a devilish turn by former Bond, Timothy Dalton.  Along with Wright’s flashy editing style, this is modern comedy classic that we desperately needed.

6.

GHOSTBUSTERS (1984)

Directed by Ivan Reitman

High concept comedies are also especially hard to pull of consistently.  Mixing humor into other genres usually doesn’t translate all that well, but when it does, it can create some of the most unique comedies out there.  Fresh out of Saturday Night Live, actor and writer Dan Aykroyd had the idea to create a comedy centered around a pair of ghost hunters as a new vehicle for him and his Blues Brothers partner John Belushi.  But, Belushi’s untimely death in 1982 put the project on hold, until Aykroyd reworked the script with Harold Ramis and expanded the team to include Ramis, Ernie Hudson, and fellow SNL alum Bill Murray into the mix, and what resulted was a monster comedy hit.  What makes the movie work as well as it does is because it manages to blend the comedic styling of it’s cast perfectly with the genuinely scary images produced through some groundbreaking visual effects, making it a perfect genre mash-up.  It is interesting watching the movie and jumping back and forth between riotous laughter and uneasy tension from the scary imagery.  Honestly, it’s that tension that helps to sell the jokes, because of the stark contrast.  One moment that sticks out is the possession scene where Sigourney Weaver’s Dana starts speaking in the guttural voice of the demon Zuul (which is unsettling), and then it is undercut with Bill Murray jokingly complimenting her on a “lovely singing voice.”  You also don’t get much zanier once a destructive god appears in the form of a fluffy marshmallow man.  There was an attempt to repeat the success of this movie with an all-female remake in 2016, which was well-intentioned but poorly executed.  The able cast was undermined by a terrible script that had none of the punchiness of the original.  And that’s really because Ghostbusters was a one of a kind phenomenon that couldn’t be replicated, and it still remains so 30-plus years later.  Even still, these are the one’s who we are going to call.

5.

DR. STRANGELOVE or HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE BOMB (1964)

Directed by Stanley Kubrick

When comedies come to mind, the last person one would think of as an icon of the genre is Stanley Kubrick.  The 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and The Shining (1980) auteur worked mostly in darker territories of cinema, with humor coming through as a rarity in his movies rather than the norm.  And yet, Kubrick is also responsible for a movie that is not only considered one of the funniest movies ever made, but also one of the most important too.  The subject of Kubrick’s one and only comedy could not be more unlikely either; nuclear war and Armageddon.  And yet, he managed to find the inherent comedy within the same situations that could drive humanity towards annihilation, and mines it for some incredibly funny moments.  Mostly it comes down to grown men acting out their frustrations in a child like matter once they feel inadequate or threatened that becomes the catalysts for war in this movie.  A general orders a nuclear strike on Russia after he believes that fluoridation of water has contributed to his impotency in bed; a Russian premier puts his wife on the phone because he feels that the U.S. President hurt his feelings; another general believes nuclear strikes are better than looking weak in front of the enemy, etc.  Some filmmakers would believe that such things are no laughing matter, but Kubrick manages to make it hilarious, mainly through the exceptional cast.  Peter Sellers commands the film with a triple headed performance as the President, a put-upon lieutenant who might save the day, and as the titular Dr. Strangelove, in a truly demented comedic turn.  However, it’s George C. Scott that actually steals the movie in a hilarious over-the-top performance as General Turgidson.  And there has been no better image for the absurdity of war than Slim Pickens riding a nuclear warhead like a bucking bronco, waving his cowboy hat all the way down.  Kubrick may not have been a purely funny guy, but he told one hell of a good joke here; one that still resonates today.

4.

THE BIG LEBOWSKI (1998)

Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen

The Coen Brothers are likewise not known as humorists, even though they have produced their fair share of comedies.  Some of their most noteworthy comedies like O Brother Where Art Thou (2000) and Raising Arizona (1987) often include a sense of melancholy underneath the surface, and some of their darker films surprisingly have an unexpected absurdity to them as well, like Fargo (1996) and No Country for Old Men (2007).  It’s probably just a result of their unique style as filmmakers.  But there is one all out comedy in their filmography and it is easily one of the single funniest movies ever made.  The Big Lebowski was seen as a disappointing follow-up to the critical success of Fargo when it was first released, but over the years it has built a devoted fan base that has made it cult classic.  I for one believe that it is the greatest character driven comedy of all time.  Every single funny bit in this movie is derived from the ridiculous personalities of the main characters and how each of them interact with each other.  It’s a movie of extreme personalities, led most effectively by Jeff Bridges “The Dude”.  Bridges created a true original with this character, and it’s just a delight to watch him stumble his way through an increasingly absurd series of events as the movie unfolds.  Add into the mix John Goodman’s unhinged and hilariously vulgar role as Walter Sobchak and you’ve got one of comedy’s most hilarious duos ever.  I also get a kick out of John Tuturro’s shamelessly zany performance as Jesus (“Eight year olds, Dude.”)  A lot of the humor is also enhanced by the beautiful flourishes brought in by cinematographer Roger Deakins; especially in the iconic dream sequences.  Some of the hardest laughs I’ve ever had in my life watching a movie have been when I watched this, and that’s why it remains one of my favorites.  The Dude abides indeed.

3.

BLAZING SADDLES (1974)

Directed by Mel Brooks

One can’t talk about movie comedies without mentioning the work of Mel Brooks.  The legendary humorist all but invented the parody film and is responsible for many of the most acclaimed comedies of all times.  Though his Oscar-winning work in The Producers is rightly celebrated, as are other classics like Young Frankenstein (1974), High Anxiety (1977), and Spaceballs (1986), I believe the most consistently funny movie in his whole oeuvre is Blazing Saddles.  Much like Kubrick’s Dr. StrangleloveBlazing Saddles stands out so much more as a comedy due to the fact that it’s punches aim so much higher.  In it, Brooks pays ode to the Western classics of Old Hollywood, but he does so with an eye to the racial divisions that those movies would have never even dreamed of addressing.  It was a risky move to make, but Brooks manages to make the presentation work due to the fact that no group is spared; White, Black, Gay, Straight, Man, Woman, everyone is targeted for ridicule in this movie.  And it is hilarious in it’s relentlessness.  It helped that Brooks got assistance from another provocative comedic entertainer, Richard Pryor, who helped give the racial commentary the bite that it needed.  The cast is also uniformly amazing in the film including Cleavon Little as the hot rod sheriff who stirs up the racial division in the quaint town of Rock Ridge.  We also see Gene Wilder at his most restrained playing the Waco Kid, Jim.  Harvey Korman is also perfect as the villainous Hedley Lamarr, as is Madeline Kahn in the Marlene Dietrich spoofing role that earned her an Oscar nod.  Satire, especially when it touches on a subject like race, can be a tricky one to pull off, and Blazing Saddles is one of the greatest examples of it.  It turns Hollywood on it’s head, addresses harsh realities about race in America, and still manages to remain funny as hell all the way through.  That’s why Mel Brooks still stands among the best in his league when it comes to comedy.  It’s also the only issue film you’ll ever see where a horse gets punched in the face.

2.

MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL (1975)

Directed by Terry Jones and Terry Gilliam

While I often find myself quoting one or two phrases from many of these comedies in casual conversation on a daily basis (“You’re killing me Smalls.” “That rug really tied the room together.” “Ray’s gone bye-bye Egon”), I would say that the comedy that has gotten the most mileage for me as the most quotable is Monty Python and the Holy Grail.  The legendary group of British comedians perfectly translated their sketch style comedy to the big screen with this off-kilter take on Arthurian legends.  And the one liners are too numerous to list.  How many times have any of us gotten a cut on our body and jokingly quipped “Tis but a scratch,” in response?  Or have had the absolute urge to shout the word “Ni” for no reason.  Some of us have even gone further and have memorized the full passage from the Book or Armaments describing in prayer how to use the Holy Hand Grenade.  But apart from it’s endlessly quotable script, Holy Grail is just a rollicking hilarious film to watch.  It is Silly with a capital “S”, and perfect utilizes the nonsensical sense of humor that Monty Python was notable for.  Whether it’s smashing coconut shells together in place of riding on horseback, John Cleese’s Sir Lancelot slaughtering his way through a wedding party, a Black Knight refusing to loose a battle even as his limbs are chopped off, or King Arthur’s troop getting defeated by a bloodthirsty bunny rabbit, this is one endlessly hilarious ride of movie.  No matter how many times I’ve watched this movie, it has never failed to get a strong laugh out of me.  Even when I watch it with an audience, I can’t help but repeat some of the lines back at the movie, which doesn’t become a problem, because most of the audiences I’ve seen it with were doing just the same.  Both as a comedy and as an experience, there is hardly anything else like Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

1.

GROUNDHOG DAY (1993)

Directed by Harold Ramis

This may not be the most consistently funny movie on this list, nor the one that I quote the most or laugh at the most.  But, Groundhog Day is my favorite comedy of all time simply because of the fact that it’s also one of my favorite movies of all time, period.  Groundhog Day appeals to the part of me that wants to experience a movie that works on so many more levels than just by how funny it is.  It is a very layered movie, delivering a dizzyingly cerebral concept of a man living the same day over and over again.  This is the kind of thing that you would find in an episode of the Twilight Zone (which I think it might have been at some point), but here it becomes a hilarious set up for the comedic talents of Bill Murray.  Murray gives the best performance of his career as a man who evolves through his desperate attempt to escape the same repeating 24 hours of his life.  It’s an existential experience that makes the viewer also take consideration as to how they live their own lives, and that’s something that you rarely seen coming through in a comedy.  Like many of the other films on this list, this movie was guided by the irreplaceable comedic genius of Harold Ramis, who was never better behind the directors chair, as well as showing off his range as a comedic writer.  The movie evokes a bygone era of Capra-esque comedies from the 30’s and 40’s and transposes it perfectly into the modern day without loosing a bit of the charm.  It’s a very non-cynical film, which is something rare in comedies today, and I wish that more movies were like this one.  I went further into length about this movie in my retrospective here, but I just want to point out how brilliantly Ramis executed the concept of this comedy into the film-making, making every repeated action work to the advantage of the comedy and never once letting it grow weary and stale.  I love this movie deeply, and it easily earns it’s place as my favorite comedy ever.

So, most likely my list of comedies will probably differ greatly from everyone else’s.  Comedy is subjective and people have their own tastes, which often ranges to varying degrees.  But, more than likely, the top names in comedy will be similar on most people’s lists.  The names of Mel Brooks, Harold Ramis, Edgar Wright, and the Coen Brothers probably show up very frequently when discussing the Kings of Comedy when it comes to the movies.  And I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in calling The Big Lebowski and Monty Python and the Holy Grail as one of the greatest comedies ever made, as both have their rabid fan-bases that have grown into the millions over the years.  Mostly, when I consider what stands out as the comedies that left the biggest impact on me, I look at more than just how much they made me laugh.  I grew up with movies like Ghostbusters and The Sandlot, which went a long way towards informing my tastes in comedy.  And as I became more literate in the art of cinema, I discovered more about the amazing work that went into creating comedies like Dr. Strangelove and The General; comedies made well before my time.  Times and attitudes may change, and stuff that may have been hilarious 10 years ago might seem quaint or inappropriate today.  But, if your comedy can withstand the rigors of time and still make people laugh the same way so many years later, that’s when you know that you’ve made not just a great comedy but also a great film.  I hope that spotlighting some of these has helped a few of you see how important it is to have a good laugh at the movies.  Especially in trying times like the ones we live in now, humor is not only needed, but essential.  Humor is the best medicine after all.

Top Ten Movies About the City of Los Angeles

There’s a lot to say about the “City of Angels” known as Los Angeles, California.  The second largest city in America, after New York, it is one of the world’s most important hubs for finance, productivity, and most importantly, culture.  Often called America’s cultural capital, Los Angeles is home to many artistic ventures that branch out and define the culture at large, but none more so than the industry that was birthed right in it’s own back yard; cinema.  Hollywood is used to define the industry as a whole, but it’s name derives from the district of this city in which it was started, making it eternally linked to LA as a whole.  The whole reason for the population boom that the city has experienced over the last 100 years is because of the exposure that the film industry has brought to the community, and in some ways, it has grown the city too fast in order to be sustained.  Oftentimes, many people immigrate to LA with hopes of making their big break, and soon realize there’s just not enough room for everyone.  Even still, it’s a city rich in culture and history, and it’s connection to Hollywood is vital to it’s identity.  The city has also served as a backdrop to many classic films, some of which are among the most influential ever made.  For this list, I will be looking at the ten movies that best represent the city of Los Angeles, both as a place and as a character within the narrative of it’s story.  I will be excluding movies that take place in LA, but remain secluded to a single area; so no Die Hard (1988), since it only shows the area around a single high-rise.  I’m also excluding movies like Clueless (1995) and Beverly Hills Cop (1984), because while Beverly Hills is part of the LA area, it is it’s own independent city.  They are all fine southland tales, but this is a list about Los Angeles; how unique it is to the rest of the world and how well that is represented by these movies on the big screen.  So, with that, let’s take a look at the movies that best represent the place I currently call home, Los Angeles.

10.

LA LA LAND (2016)

Directed by Damien Chazelle

You just knew that the moment a song and dance number began to break out on a freeway offramp in the middle of a traffic jam that this movie was going to be a love letter to the city.  And in many ways it is.  Apart from the remarkably staged freeway sequence that opens the movie, the film utilizes many LA landmarks as a backbrop for it’s story; from the backlot of Warner Brothers studio in Burbank, to the Angel’s Flight railway in Downtown, to Grittith Park and the Griffith Observatory.  And while the movie does display the majesty of the city in a glorious light, it also at the same time portrays the unfortunate downside to living in LA as well.  Namely the way that many people have to give something up of themselves in order to gain a foothold in this city.  Whether it’s a person’s free time, their dreams, their personality, or worst of all, their dignity, many artists often come out of LA far less hopeful than when they went in, just because of the unforgiving way that the city works.  In the case of the the two main characters played by Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, what they have to give up is a happy life together in order to pursue the careers they desire and live to their own high standards.  It may seem trite compared to some of the harsher realities about Hollywood, but it speaks a lot to the common experience that many would be artists face when they come to LA.  This city provides the strongest test possible for a person’s creative motivations, and those who persevere are the one’s who likely did so with leaving their past behind.  La La Land provides that medicine amongst the pretty visuals, helping to ground it and feel authentic as a portrait of the city and it’s inhabitants.  Also, it provides a great checklist for things to see and do while in LA, as I have also gone exploring throughout the city.

9.

BOOGIE NIGHTS (1997)

Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson

Here we have a different kind of movie that puts the spotlight on another industry that, for better or worse, is also tied to the city of Los Angeles; the porn industry.  Showing the rise of pornography in the San Fernando Valley during the free-loving disco era of the 1970’s, the movie Boogie Nights is a magnificent recreation of what Los Angeles was like at the time.  It was an era of sleaze and decadence, which ultimately transformed the character of the Southland in a way that you can still see traces of today.  Paul Thomas Anderson, who himself was born and raised in the Valley, was no doubt fascinated by the impact that this time period had on the city, and it was something he explored very early on in his movies.  Boogie Nights is the first in what you might call his “LA trilogy,” which also included the films Magnolia (1999) and Punch-Drunk Love (2002).  Though all three share the Los Angeles (and mostly Valley based) setting, it’s Boogie Nights that really feels like it portrays the city itself as a key part of it’s story.  All the different characters we meet, from Mark Wahlberg’s up-and-comer, to Burt Reynold’s domineering auteur, to Heather Graham’s perky Rollergirl, to Julianne Moore’s tortured starlet, all represent some of the kind of people that rose and fell during those turbulent years in the porn industry, and to this day represent some of the characters that you’ll still likely meet in parts of the city; unlucky in some cases.  Anderson’s period details are exceptional in this movie, as is the way that he immerses you into a different time in which Los Angeles was very different.  You can see this in the spectacular long shots he uses, like the opening shot of a neon theater marquee, or another one showing the different goings on at a pool party.  It may not be glamorous, but Anderson certainly makes it fascinating.

8.

COLLATERAL (2004)

Directed by Michael Mann

This may not have been the first Los Angeles based thriller that director Michael Mann had worked on.  His 1996 film Heat is rightfully considered a masterpiece of the crime genre, and it makes effective use of parts of Los Angeles for some of it’s most harrowing, action packed moments.  But, I feel that the movie he made that is tied more closely to the City of Los Angeles is this more intimate, tension filled piece.  Set during a single night in the heart of the city, the story follows a hitman (played by Tom Cruise) who has hijacked a cab driver (played by Jamie Foxx) and is forcing him to drive to every job he needs to complete that night.  It’s a fantastic character study, but even more than that, it captures an often unseen element about the city that’s rarely been shown on film before.  I find that Collateral is the movie that best represents the feeling of Los Angeles at night.  Sure, you have the bright lights of the glitzy neighborhoods that you’ll find in most other cities, but the movie also shows you what nighttime is like outside of those districts.  There is this greenish-brown glow that seems to hang over the city at night, fed through the ever present street lamps and vehicle traffic that never stops no matter what time it is.  Combine this with a starless sky above, and you’ve got a sense of how eerie and oppressive nighttime in Los Angeles can be.  Utilizing digital photography, Mann captured this unique element in his movie and made it an essential part of his narrative.  Nothing underlines the dire situation that Foxx’s cab driver is in than the de-saturated colorscape of Los Angeles at night.  This one of the most unsung masterpieces of the 2000’s and a movie that really captures not just parts of the city, but the feeling of the city.

7.

THE BIG LEBOWSKI (1998)

Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen

If you were ever to look for a movie that clearly defined the identity of the quintessential Angelino, it would be The Big Lebowski.  This classic farce from the Coen Brothers gives us a hilarious tale centered around the kind of characters that while are not necessarily representations of the city itself, are nevertheless bi-products of it.  Jeff “The Dude” Lebowski (played to perfection by Jeff Bridges) is a remnant of the Southland’s brief flirtation with the “flower power” generation, which didn’t take hold the same way like it did up North in San Francisco, so he is left to be a island unto himself in a culture that has left him well behind.  But the Coen Brothers use their movie to celebrate this kind of aspect of his character and tie it to the identity of Los Angeles in general.  From the iconic view the San Fernando Valley aglow at night, we follow a tumbleweed as it takes us deeper in, until we finally arrive at grocery store where a bearded, bath-robed man is browsing the dairy section for the freshest milk.  In these opening minutes, we see the Coen Brother’s intention which is to go from how Los Angeles would like to view itself (the breathtaking glowing metropolis) to showing it’s true face (an old man buying milk).  From then one, the Dude is our guide through a Los Angeles seldom seen; with the shabby rows of apartment complexes, to the hole in the wall studios where bizarre excuses for art are made, to of course, the bowling alleys untouched by time.  His encounter with the titular Big Lebowski also makes an interesting statement on the wealth gap that also defines much of LA.  As the movie states, “The Dude is a man for his time” and that time still illustrates the divide that continues to define the city itself.

6.

BLADE RUNNER (1982)

Directed by Ridley Scott

This movie represents a view of Los Angeles that never has existed and probably won’t.  Considering that we are rapidly approaching the furturistic year of this movie’s setting, 2019, and the city doesn’t look all that dissimilar to how it did 35 years ago when this movie first came out, it’s pretty clear that this is far from the truest representation of Los Angeles on screen.  But it does offer another interesting insight into the city’s identity, which is how it once saw it’s trajectory into the future.  Back in the early 80’s, Los Angeles was one of the world’s most polluted cities, with smog being a near constant occurrence in the atmosphere.   In addition, the constant sprawl of the city continued to spread out, making it appear that Los Angeles was going to see urban growth that would spiral out of control in the near future.  That’s why in the movie, Blade Runner, we see this nearly-post-apocalyptic landscape of a city no longer recognizable as it once was.  The movie’s influential visuals give us a look at a city that abandoned all identity in order to build bigger and faster in order to accommodate an unforgiving world.  Thankfully things haven’t turned out as dire as it did in the movie, and we still have a Los Angeles today that still feels the same, only a little cleaner.  But one thing that the movie does portray accurately about the city is it’s melting pot culture.  You see this in the market place scenes where Harrison Ford’s Dekard frequents and finds information.  And Ridley Scott did manage to work genuine Los Angeles landmarks into his movie, like the iconic Bradbury Building in Downtown, where the film’s memorable climax takes place.  While not a representation of reality, Blade Runner still represents a fascinating view of a Los Angeles that could have been as was feared to have eventually become.

5.

BOYZ N THE HOOD (1991)

Directed by John Singleton

Here we have a movie that shows a very often overlooked community in the City of Los Angeles, which is the inner city known as South Central.  This was the birthplace of rap music and street art, which have since gone on to become touchstones of the city’s cultural footprint, but South Central and nearby Compton were also where some of the city’s most ruthless street gangs emerged.  Movies that depict this part of the city often do so with the wrong intention, or completely miss the point and just end up misrepresenting it.  Fresh out of film school John Singleton took it upon himself to tell the story of his Los Angeles from an authentic inner city point-of-view.  This isn’t a movie that exploits gang warfare for action set pieces, nor glorifies the life of a gangster.  It’s about the struggle of regular people living in this community trying to lead a normal life amongst the threat of gang violence as well as with the oppression of a racially prejudiced police force.  The movie follows three young men, played by Cuba Gooding Jr., Morris Chestnut, and Ice Cube as they all struggle to take command of their lives while the harsh realities of the ghetto would keep pulling them  back and force them to do things against their best interest.  Eventually, some make it out of the cycle, while others fall victim to it, and the movie does a superb job of illuminating the kind of realities that inner city residents must deal with every day.  This movie was a revelation for many, and as we would learn, keenly observant.  The following year would see a massive riot engulf the city because of outrage over the brutality of the bigoted law enforcement system that went unchecked for far too long.  It was shocking to many, but was all too clear to someone like Singleton whose own experience in the city was reflected in the story he told.  For him, it was clear that this was the portrayal of Los Angeles that he wanted to share with the world, and it’s movie that rightfully changed a lot of viewpoints and brought another identity to the city as a whole.

4.

PULP FICTION (1994)

Directed by Quentin Tarantino

Another filmmaker brought up in the City of Angels presenting another unseen side of the city.  Quentin Tarantino used LA as the backdrop for a number of movies, including Reservoir Dogs (1991), Jackie Brown (1997), and his upcoming film centered around the Manson Family murders.  But it’s Pulp Fiction where he really explores the many different shades of the city, and in particular, the parts that were appealing to him.  Tarantino’s style of film-making involves what I would describe as Angelino kitsch.  He takes many of the more garish parts of the city, such as the sun-worn stucco, the cramped strip malls on every block, the deteriorating art deco buildings long past their glory, and off course the sports cars that the city was built for.  You can see that Tarantino has an affection for this side of Los Angeles because it’s a call back to the type of cinema that he himself was brought up on.  During the maverick years of the 70’s, Grindhouse cinema became a lucrative business, and it often involved filmmakers working outside of the luxury of the studios, and instead scrambling out into the city, sometimes into some pretty drab and defunct areas.  Quentin wanted to embody that kind of maverick spirit in his own work, and he shows us this beautiful mosaic of a city that thrives on the edge.  He also plays around with the image that Los Angeles likes to project to the world, especially in the Jack Rabbit Slims restaurant scene, where Hollywood icons are reduced to novelty dining experience.  Tarantino’s portrait of the city may be a bit on the sensational side, but it is reflective of an identity that often hits pretty close to home for Angelinos, which is the rough edges brushing alongside the beautiful sheen of the city, and that’s something that the director is proud to show.

3.

REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE (1955)

Directed by Nicholas Ray

This widescreen classic from the 1950’s provides a beautiful time capsule of an evolving city that was hitting a turning point.  The movie is about several teenagers who are struggling to define themselves in a post-war America that was somewhat still clinging to the past.  This is personified most dramatically in James Dean’s career defining role as the titular rebel.  He wants to fight against something, but he can’t describe exactly why.  For the most part, it’s a struggle against himself that defines his character and what pushes him into a dangerous world of gang fights and street races.  The movie perfectly captures that angst of a generation that grew up under the prosperity of their parents but were resentful of the structures and expectations that this prosperity laid upon them.  A story like this is perfectly supported by it’s Los Angeles setting, because LA itself was a city going through it’s own growing pains, as sprawl seemed to be engulfing the entire vicinity.  Director Nicholas Ray utilized the widescreen process to exceptional effect, capturing Los Angeles landscapes and landmarks in beautiful compositions.  The Griffith Observatory in particular is eternally tied to the movie as it provided the setting for some of the movie’s most memorable moments, including the emotional finale.  It’s place in Los Angeles history is so profound, that it even received an affectionate homage in La La Land.  The city itself also recognized the esteemed place that the movie has and a monument stands today at the Griffith Observatory on the same spot where James Dean filmed the famous knife fight, honoring the tragically short lived actor.  To see a fine example of what Los Angeles was like back in a relatively simpler time, this is absolutely the kind of movie you should check out.

2.

SUNSET BOULEVARD (1950)

Directed by Billy Wilder

This movie is not just one of the most searing portraits of Los Angeles in general, but also perhaps the quintessential movie about Hollywood itself.  Billy Wilder’s scathing satire about the dark side of showbiz presents an unnerving narrative about how fleeting fame can be and the many different ways that the industry ends up exploiting those who come into it.  Taking it’s title from the famous road that passes through Hollywood on it’s way towards the mansion filled hills, the movie focuses on Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson in a comeback performance), the most delusional of has-beens.  In her own words, “I am big.  It’s the pictures that got small,” and her belief is that it’s the studios that has kept her away from the world, rather than her own uncompromising, self-interested behavior.  In the film, she ensnares a troubled screenwriter (William Holden) looking for a break of his own, and he only becomes wise to the pit that he has dug into when it becomes too late.  What Billy Wilder does brilliantly with his movie is to dismantle the glamorous side of Hollywood and show the ugly side underneath.  Norma Desmond lives in one of the city’s most extravagant homes (the now demolished Getty Mansion, which was also used in Rebel Without a Cause), but it’s antiquated furnishings and deteriorating state makes it feel almost like a haunted house, and then ultimately a prison.  Essentially, we see what fame costs an individual in the end, which is often their dignity, their sanity, and in the screenwriter’s case, his life.  That’s the lasting impact of Sunset Boulevard because it makes us aware of the truth that underlies the glitzy falsehoods that the city likes to project.

1.

CHINATOWN (1974)

Directed by Roman Polanski

If there was ever a movie that illustrated the character of a city, this would be it.  Chinatown is both a glorious celebration of the visual splendor of the great city of Los Angeles, while also a scathing indictment of the widespread corruption that made it’s expansion possible.  The story is a fictionalized account of how the San Fernando Valley was suddenly incorporated into the Los Angeles City Limits, allowing for corporate interests to exploit the precious water supply that fed most of the farmland out there, and do so at a cost to the farmers who were scrapping by, all uncovered by a fearless private eye played by Jack Nicholson.  This is the backdrop for the story told by director Roman Polanski and writer Robert Towne.  To give their story a unique feel, they drew inspiration from classic film noir of the 40’s and 50’s.  It’s actually quite an easy connection to make considering Los Angeles’ surprisingly robust history in film noir.  When you look at most classic noirs like Double Indemnity (1944), The Big Sleep (1946), and yes also Sunset Boulevard, they all use LA as their setting, which is unusual because noir is meant to epitomize dark, shadowy subject matter and photography, and LA is quite famous for it’s abundance of sun.  But, that rich history lends itself perfectly over to Chinatown, which uses it’s LA setting to beautiful effect.  The colors in particular are perfectly saturated to give this movie a by gone era look, despite the the fact that it’s subject matter is decidedly modern.  It’s that beauty found in the collision between the glamour and the savagery of Los Angeles that makes Chinatown the quintessential Southland tale.  You’ll never find a better movie that presents the duality of a complex city quite as well as this one does.

So, as you can see from this list, the thing that defines Los Angeles is it’s many contradictions.  It’s a city full of glamour and rich culture, but also one with a dark edge to it too.  Certainly it’s defining feature is the film industry, which continues to fuel the massive wealth that the city enjoys, but the city is also one struggling to deal with the costs of it’s own rapid growth.  That’s what makes the movies on this list so distinguished, because they all capture the essence of this multi-faceted city that has many different sides to it.  You see the colorful but less glamorous side of the city portrayed in The Big LebowskiPulp Fiction, and Boogie Nights, while La La Land and Sunset Boulevard show off the glamour but illustrate the toll that it takes on the people.  And then there’s a valuable movie like Boyz N The Hood, which brought a much needed voice to a segment of the city that had long been marginalized.  I myself see the many different shades of Los Angeles in my own life.  I live outside the heart of Hollywood, making my home in the Valley where it can be comfortable, but far from glamorous.  I don’t go to extravagant parties in opulent mansions or eat in the swankiest of restaurants.  But, I am only a stone’s throw away from some of the world’s most famous and extravagant movie palaces as well as near many of the landmarks seen in these movies.  I have strolled through Griffith Park, walked through the front doors of the Griffith Observatory, and have bowled on the lanes as the Dude.  While Los Angeles can be a tough place, I am still happy to call it home, and these 10 movies all illustrate the many reasons why I love it so much.  It’s only fitting that the industry it helped foster would reflect back and show the character of this one-of-a-kind city to the rest of the world.

Top Ten Movies of 2017

We come to the close of a pretty turbulent and unpredictable year when it comes to the movies and Hollywood.  If you’ve read anything regarding the industry itself this last year, you will undoubtedly have followed the countless career ending scandals that have rocked Hollywood, and all the fallout that has come after in the wake of such revelations.  This was also a year of highs and lows at the box office, but for the most part pretty low.  Grosses were down from the year before as the summer season failed to hold it’s own like it usually does every year.  We also saw the largest merger to ever take place within the film industry, as Disney acquired 20th Century Fox, creating the largest single media company in the world, but with the worry of many layoffs happening because of the redundancies within the company because of such a deal.  Couple this with a culture that is becoming increasingly polarized and you got the makings of a generally miserable year for many people, both in and outside the industry.  But, there were plenty of positives to come out of 2017 as well, especially with regards to diversity within the industry.  This was a groundbreaking year for female directors in particular.  Patty Jenkins broke every record that a female director has held at the box office with her incredible handling of DC’s Wonder Woman, a smash hit that was deserving of every accolade it received.  Sofia Coppola also became the first American woman to win the directing honor at the Cannes Film Festival (and the first in half a century) with her new film The Beguiled, and we also saw acclaimed films from Kathryn Bigelow (Detroit) and Greta Gerwig (Lady Bird) this year.  Comedian Jordan Peele even managed to turn genre films on it’s head with his politically charged horror flick Get Out, which also has been extensively praised.

Like every year since I started writing this blog, I will be counting down my 10 favorite movies of the year.  My choices are based mostly on how well I responded to these movies while watching them and by how well they left an impression on me afterwards.  Entertainment value is certainly a key ingredient, but there were others here that lingered in a good way that made me appreciate them a lot more after I had time to think about them.  In addition, I will also be sharing my picks for the 5 worst movies of the year.  Before I begin though, I’d like to run down the 10 movies that were close to making my list, but came up short.  My honorable mentions, in no particular order are: Wonder Woman, The Big Sick, Coco, Detroit, I, Tonya, Get Out, The Post, John Wick: Chapter 2, Spider-Man: Homecoming, and Baby Driver. And with that, let’s look at the best movies of 2017.

10.

THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI

Directed by Martin McDonagh

The English playwright turned director, McDonagh, has won plenty of raves for his pitch black comedies like In Brudges (2008) and Seven Psychopaths (2012).  But instead of bringing his sardonic wit to a crime thriller set in an ancient European city or on the outskirts of Hollywood, this time he has instead applied his talent to a character study set in the American heartland.  The movie’s at times is a little drier and methodically paced than his previous work, but his ability to deliver some knockout dialogue is still present in this very original comedy.  I imagine that McDonagh’s screenplays are just as fun to read as they are to listen to.  He is a master with character dynamics, and the most thrilling part of the movie is not knowing what each character is going to say next, because oftentimes it’s the last thing you would expect.  I also love the way that he builds this community within the film, showing the town of Ebbing as a character in it’s own right.  But the film’s shining star is definitely Frances McDormand as the grieving mother who takes to extreme means in order to turn up the heat on an inept police department that has yet to solve the murder of her daughter.  Talk about an unpredictable performance, because McDormand is a firecracker of a character in this movie, delivering one of her greatest performances yet.  I could watch her spout out poetic profanities like she does in this movie all day, and she is easily the best possible mouthpiece for Martin McDonagh’s off-kilter wordplay.  Rounded out with an excellent cast including Sam Rockwell and Woody Harrelson, this is yet another strong effort from one of my current favorite writers.

9.

LADY BIRD 

Directed by Greta Gerwig

This is one of those movies that grew on me over time.  At first, I didn’t know how to feel about the movie.  It’s not particularly groundbreaking in any way.  It’s a coming of age story that we’ve all seen done a million times before.  So, what was about this movie that made it linger in my mind so long after?  What ended up making this movie special is the very personal way in which it is told, and surprisingly, I found myself relating very strongly to it.  Actress Greta Gerwig drew heavily from her own life when crafting this story, and the passion she put into it is palpable.  The movie manages to be a love letter to her hometown of Sacramento, California; something I never thought I would see on the big screen.  But the part of the movie that I loved the most was the very detailed way that it showed the experience of being a middle class kid going to a private Catholic school.  I myself went through the exact same thing and what Gerwig does so well in her movie is to show the anxieties of living within these social confines.  Of course, there’s the desire to express oneself freely despite the strict morals of your religious academic setting, as well as the stress of trying to keep up appearances just so you could fit in better with your more affluent and straight-laced fellow classmates.  She captures that so well through her titular main character (played wonderfully by Saoirse Ronan) and makes her a fully rounded character who seeks to break free of her life, and yet comes to learn how valuable that life experience really is.  It made me reflect more on my own Catholic school upbringing, and made me remember the experiences I had during that time and how those have shaped me as well.  I may not have been just like Lady Bird herself, but I certainly knew people like her, and was probably just like some of the people she crosses paths with throughout the movie.  It’s a fantastic debut by Greta Gerwig, and one of the most subtle and tender movies of the year.  It may be a familiar song, but it’s perfectly tuned and sung beautifully.

8.

THE DISASTER ARTIST

Directed by James Franco

It can never be said that actor/writer/director James Franco is one to rest on his laurels.  Hollywood’s modern day Renaissance man has poured himself into numerous passion projects over the years, some of which are too off-the-wall and impenetrable to ever reach a massive audience.  But his latest project is one made with a lot of love for the subject it’s depicting, and as a result, it’s his greatest film to date.  The movie tells the story of Tommy Wiseau, the mysterious oddball amateur director who created what many claim to be the worst movie ever made, The Room (2003).  The Room has over time developed a cult following, of which Franco and his friends are certainly a part of, and this movie tries to explain the what, when , where, how, and most importantly why this movie even exists at all.  More than anything, it is a love letter to process of movie-making, showing how even the most depraved and dysfunctional of films come from a place of passion for the art of cinema.  The movie has a lot in common with Tim Burton’s Ed Wood (1994) in how it breaks down the conditions in which such inept film-making can happen while at the same time humanizing the unorthodox mind behind it.  Franco delivers his best performance to date in a near perfect imitation of Wiseau, managing to find the man behind the enigma.  I also give a lot of praise to the way that he acts alongside his real life brother Dave in the movie; both managing to disappear into character and making you forget they’re siblings.  The movie is especially funny to anyone and at times cringe-worthy to anyone who has worked on a film set, as you see the events of The Room’s creation unfold in some wild, absurd moments.  It may be a tad too reverential at times, but Franco does make you appreciate the glorious process of film-making with this fascinating behind the scenes look at the most notorious film of it’s time.  And all fans of the original film should stay during the credits to catch some added surprises.

7.

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2 

Directed by James Gunn

At the beginning of 2017, there was real concern about the direction that the super hero genre was going.  Many people thought that genre fatique was starting to set in, and that we were more or less getting a repeat of every cliche in the book with every new entry, and that each film was mainly just there to set up the next.  But, then something unexpected happened; the Super Hero genre had a banner year of excellence in 2017.  Marvel continued to roll along, as both Spider-Man and Thor completely reinvented themselves and saw franchise best box office totals in return.  DC even managed to surprise everyone as they finally got the formula right bringing Wonder Woman so perfectly to the big screen.  But, the best movie of the genre had to be the sequel to Marvel’s shiniest jewel in it’s crown, Guardians of the Galaxy (2014).  Vol. 2 was without a doubt the most fun I had watching a movie this year, and it achieved exactly what I was hoping for with a follow-up to one of the best comic book movies ever made.  It does lack the novelty of the first, but that’s all that was missing, as everything else was on par with it’s predecessor.  Some people felt let down by the movie, because it stuck too close to formula, which I don’t see as such a bad thing because I loved everything about the original formula, and this movie felt like a great second helping.  James Gunn is carving out his own niche in the Marvel universe with these Guardians films, and they stand as incredible popcorn adventure at it’s finest.  I especially love the way this movie delves deeper into the emotional connections with the heroes, really capturing the family dynamic that is at the heart of the franchise.  It even touches upon heavier themes, like how we define our families and how that in turn defines who we are.  The movie manages to balance the emotional moments perfectly with the zany, laugh out loud moments, and continues to make this series the best out of an overloaded genre that needed some fresh life brought into it.  And greatest line of the year, “I’m Mary Poppins ya’ll.”

6.

PHANTOM THREAD

Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson

Director Anderson and star Daniel Day-Lewis are two artists that make us wait an extra long time between projects, but when they finally do make something new, it’s bound to be extraordinary.  Things are even more amazing when the two collaborate together, as they did so memorably in my favorite film of 2007, There Will be Blood.  The two have joined forces again in one of the years most surprisingly subversive films.  Set within the fashion world of 1950’s England, the movie has Daniel Day-Lewis playing a temperamental designer looking for a new muse to inspire him to create a new wave of eye-catching dresses for the social elite.  He finds that person in a German waitress (played by Vicky Krieps) he discovers in the countryside near his estate, and the two begin a working and romantic relationship that proves to be more bombastic than either of them ever realized it would be before they met.  The movie feels like a departure at first for the usually dark-edged Anderson, as it starts of as a straight-forward behind the scenes look at the inner workings of a fashion studio.  But, as the movie goes on, the veil of extravagance begins to lift off, and we soon realize that this movie is just as dark, twisted and unpredictable as anything Anderson has made before.  I won’t spoil for you how the plot unfolds, but let me just say that like a hail of frogs at the finale of Magnolia (1999) and the bowling alley murder in There Will Be Blood, the movie takes a strange left turn that I found both unexpected and brilliant, which is a signature of Anderson’s style.   Again, him and Daniel Day-Lewis make a fantastic team, and though I doubt it will be the case, if this is Lewis’ final performance on screen, it’s certainly a great way to go out.  It’s also a visually stunning movie too, and if you are lucky enough like me to have seen it screened in 70mm, you’ll really appreciate the craft that went into it.  Another masterpiece from one of cinema’s most twisted artists.

5.

CALL ME BY YOUR NAME

Directed by Luca Guadagnino

One of the most pleasing things to happen in the last few years in Hollywood is the way that queer cinema has become mainstream.  No longer relegated to a fringe sub genre, now we are seeing a flourishing of films tackling stories of gay characters much in the same way it would be handled if the characters were straight.  Moonlight‘s Best Picture win certainly opened a lot of doors, and that continued progress sees another bright star in the form of the gorgeous romantic drama, Call Me by Your Name.  What I really loved about this movie is the delicate and subtle way it presents it’s story.  Following the growing sexual awakening of an intelligent young teen named Elio (played in a career making performance by Timothee Chalamet) over the course of a summer in the Italian countryside, the movie unfolds with an almost aching amount of intimacy.  As he falls for a visiting graduate student played by hunky Armie Hammer, the movie builds a bond that is believable and without a doubt romantic.  Regardless of one’s sexuality, I believe that everyone who sees this will wish their first love had been or will be this magical.  I know I wish mine had.  The real reason this movie lands as well as it does is because of the incredible chemistry of it’s two leads, who make the most appealing of on screen lovers.  In addition to this, director Luca Guadagnino captures incredibly lush visuals of the Italian setting, making you wish you could be there yourself in the sun dappled splendor of it all.  And a special mention should go to the incredible supporting work of actor Michael Stuhlbarg as Elio’s father, who delivers a knockout of a monologue, encapsulating in one tender scene everything that a gay youth would want to hear their parent say.  The fact that queer cinema has now come to this point where such an intimate story can be treated as mainstream is definitely progress in the right direction.

4.

MOTHER!

Directed by Darren Aronofsky

And now for something completely different.  One thing is for sure, this new movie from auteur director Darren Aronofsky was certainly the year’s most polarizing film.  There was little to no middle ground on this one.  People either loved this movie with a passion, or hated it thoroughly.  I find myself surprisingly in the former category.  Aronofsky is not one to pull any punches, and I found myself watching his new movie with utter fascination, wondering to myself how anyone could have the audacity to pull a movie like this off.  Filled to the brim with heavy themes, the movie does a lot within it’s running time; it’s an environmental allegory, a psychological thriller, a haunted house story, and most surprising of all, a condensed retelling of the Bible and human history with regards to religion.  I think that one thing that put many people off about this movie, among several other things, was the fact that Aronofsky is not very subtle with his intentions here.  You quickly pick up on his blatant messages, and there is little room for deeper meaning.  But, my argument is that Aronofsky isn’t trying to be subtle here.  He explicitly wants to spell out the subtext for us, because these are themes that he seriously wants us to consider while we’re watching the movie.  Jennifer Lawrence gives a powerful performance, with the camera almost uncomfortably close to her face for most of the movie, and she perfectly conveys all the fury and frustration one would feel as the increasingly manic events of the movie unfold.  Few other filmmakers challenge his audience the same way that Darren Aronofsky does, and I for one thoroughly enjoy the challenge.  This will probably be a movie that ends up on a lot of worst of the year lists too, and I don’t blame other critics for their distaste of the movie.  Me, though, I embraced this mother! with a lot of love.

3.

THE FLORIDA PROJECT

Directed by Sean Baker

This little indie darling has been one of the underdogs of award season so far.  Produced on a minuscule budget with a handful of fresh faced actors, director Sean Baker has made one of the year’s most universally human stories on the big screen.  After making a splash with his last film, Tangerine (2015), which was shot entirely on iPhone cameras, Baker shifts his lens to a different unseen world that proves to be endlessly fascinating.  The movie shows the everyday lives of residents living in a shabby motel on the outskirts of the Disney World property in Orlando, Florida.  You see in this film a light shed on a world you never knew existed, and yet is painfully all too real.  What goes on in the borderlands around the Magic Kingdom are people attempting to soak up some of the business that the park brings to their community, but will sadly never get to experience for themselves in the same way.  They live and work in places pretending to be like Disney World, with bright pastel colors abound, but it all proves to be a false front to what’s really underneath.  And yet, Baker never judges his flawed characters harshly, and in fact he gets us deeply involved in their plight as people, making us feel their pain when everything falls apart by the end.  The mother and daughter at the center of the movie are two of the most captivating characters I’ve seen in a movie this year, and the girl especially (played by newcomer Brooklynn Prince) is heart-wrenchingly good here.  Willem Dafoe is also solid as the put-upon manager of the hotel, putting up with all sorts of problems the best way he can.  The movie is very akin to Italian Neo-realism and becomes a fascinating window into this world.  I found myself completely transported by this movie, and more than any other movie this year, it was the one that felt the most honest about the human condition.

2.

THE SHAPE OF WATER

Directed by Guillermo Del Toro

At first, I didn’t know what to make of this movie when I first saw it advertised.  I’m a fan of Del Toro’s work, but felt that this Cold War era set fairy tale centered around a sea creature like the one from the Black Lagoon might be a step backward for the edgy filmmaker.  I couldn’t have been more wrong.  Not only is this movie in line with many of the director’s other works (combining a perfect blend of the whimsical and the grotesque) but it is one of the more sublimely executed films that I’ve seen from him as well, undoubtedly making it one of the most pleasing experiences I’ve had at the cinema this year.  This is a movie that has everything; it’s got tension, it’s got laughs, it has a remarkably well handled romance at it’s core, and it even manages to fit in a delightful music and dance number as well.  It is also shows Guillermo Del Toro’s exceptional command of genre, as all of these different elements come together in a delightfully rich and full experience.  Sally Hawkins is especially good as the mute woman at the heart of the movie who finds a kindred spirit in the form of an aquatic monster snatched away from his home and kept prisoner in a military laboratory.  Frequent Del Toro regular Doug Jones also does incredible work underneath a lot of makeup, managing to express a ton of personality through simple body language.  And one of my favorite actors, Michael Shannon, steals the show once again as the sinister G-Man that means to dominate his will over both the monster and the girl, creating what I think to be the best villainous role of the year.  Del Toro delivers one of his best films to date with The Shape of Water, and proves that he indeed can bring his cinematic sensibilities into any kind of genre.  With this and Call Me By Your Name, this has been a year of Hollywood breaking down barriers when it comes to expressing true love on screen.  Who knew the year’s most romantic movie would be between a woman and a creature from the deep.

And the best movie of 2017 is…

1.

DUNKIRK

Directed by Christopher Nolan

All the other movies that made my list had left some effect on me based on either emotional impact or the effectiveness of it’s execution.  Christopher Nolan’s newest feature did all that too, but it showed me something even more.  With Dunkirk, Nolan is showing us all what the cinematic medium is really capable of, by pushing the limits of what you can capture within the lens of a camera.  Dunkirk is a tour de force of film-making on every level, and it was an experience that was never quite topped by anything else this year.  It helps that I saw this movie not once but twice in it’s intended format (projected in 70mm IMAX) and this made all the difference.  It’s a movie that demands the largest screen possible, and thankfully I just happened to have been living near theaters that screened the film the proper way.  Apart from this, Nolan’s recreation of the events of the Dunkirk evacuation are incredible in it’s detail.  He puts his lens right in the middle of the action, giving us a “you are there” feel unlike anything we’ve ever seen in a war movie before, save for the opening 30 minutes of Saving Private Ryan (1998).  The fact that he manages to do this through the whole movie is astonishing.  He also takes us to all sides of the event, chronicling the experiences of the hopeless soldiers trapped on the beach, the civilians who bravely sailed their private ships into the heat of battle, and the brave pilots who tried to clear the skies as best they could of the menaces from above.  Nolan has topped my best of the year lists twice before (2005’s Batman Begins and 2010′ Inception) so the fact that he’s once again topping my list this year is a real testament to his unparalleled talents as a director.  Dunkirk is a stand out in Nolan’s already impressive resume, and without a doubt the movie that blew me away the most this year.  One of the best war movies ever made, without question, and possibly one of the best made movies in general, in my opinion.

So, now that I’ve shared the best, it’s time to run down the worst of the year as well.  Keep in mind, I usually have steered clear of movies that I know I’m going to hate at the movie theater, so the films here are either on this list because I found myself incredibly disappointed or had no other option than to watch to see just how bad these could be.  So, let’s take a painful look at 2017’s worst.

5. THE DARK TOWER – Stephen King had a bittersweet 2017.  For one thing, the well crafted remake of IT became a record breaking smash hit.  But it sadly came on the heels of this thoroughly disappointing train-wreck.  The fact that they tried to water down and condense King’s epic multi-part tome into a single 90 minute feature is one of the most insulting things that any studio could have done to such a beloved series, and sadly, we may never get the right cinematic treatment that this book series is due.

4. BRIGHT – Thank God I didn’t have to pay to see this one in a movie theater and instead just stream it on Netflix.  This big budget production from the streaming giant has an intriguing premise, a parallel world where fantasy creatures coexist with humans in a modern day, urban environment, but squanders it with a generic and ironically unimaginative story of inner city cops trying to keep a witness alive.  Sure one is human and one is an orc, but the novelty wears thin quickly and the lack of chemistry between leads Will Smith and Joel Edgerton makes the experience all the more painful.

3. THE MUMMY – To be honest, it was entertaining to see Universal’s planned Dark Universe marketing strategy fall flat on it’s face with the failure of this first entry, but seeing the whole film itself made for a thoroughly unpleasant experience.  The whole movie just feels like a commercial for all the potential shared universe crossovers that Universal was no doubt planning for the future.  Unfortunately, they never came up with a compelling story to make us want to care.  It shows that you can’t just follow the same beats of Marvel’s cinematic universe and expect the same results.  The only funny aspect is that all those Easter egg teases end up meaning nothing in the end.  The normally charismatic Tom Cruise can’t even muster anything out of this lame cash grab.

2. BEAUTY AND THE BEAST – It might seem contrarian of me to hate on one of the highest grossing movies of the year, but I clearly when it first came out how much I despised this movie.  It takes everything memorable about the animated original and waters it down, making it a shallow imitation of what’s come before.  The songs are butchered, the character redesigns are ugly, and the new additions to the narrative make absolutely no sense.  And I’m sorry, Emma Watson cannot hold a tune; her acting is still fine, but oh god is her signing painful.  Disney has had mixed results with their live action remakes so far, but Beauty and the Beast is by far the worst one yet.  Thankfully, it just reaffirms my appreciation for the original, which is still a classic today.  Time, I don’t believe, will be as kind to this travesty.

And the worst of 2017 is…

1. THE EMOJI MOVIE – Without a doubt, the most soulless mainstream movie to come out this year.  There’s nothing that is done right with this movie.  The comedy are terrible, the characters are bland, the story is a joke.  But, the thing that is especially hateable about this movie is the seemingly shallow reason why it exists at all.  It is merely there to capitalize on the perceived “Emoji Craze” that the filmmakers believe is a part of pop culture right now.  I don’t know what they were thinking.  Emoji’s aren’t interesting, they are merely just something there to punch up our text messages.  There’s no drama to mine from that.  The makers of this train-wreck obviously thought they could jump on the LEGO Movie bandwagon and turn any marketable item into a popular film, but they failed to see how LEGO managed to work a meaningful story into it’s movie.  Emoji Movie is heartless, meaningless, and more than anything, just unpleasant to sit through.

So, there you have my choices for the best and the worst of 2017.  Overall, despite my bottom five, this was actually a great year for movies all around.  The box office numbers might not reflect it, but I actually found there was a higher quantity of better made films to come out this year than in years prior.  I actually found this Top Ten list harder to make because there were so many good movies that were pushing my limit of ten.  Any other year, these honorable mentions probably would have shown up higher, but this was a competitive year so I had to make some painful cuts.  Still, all the good movies I mentioned before are well worth seeing, and even some mid range movies throughout the year are also worth your time, like Split, Thor: RagnarokBlade Runner 2049, and Star Wars: The Last Jedi.  More than anything, it was pleasing seeing so many directors bringing their A game this year, including many established players like Christopher Nolan, Paul Thomas Anderson, Guillermo Del Toro, Steven Spielberg, and Darren Aronofsky, along with bright new directorial debuts from Jordan Peele and Greta Gerwig.  I am also pleased with the direction the industry is taking, with female directors holding their own in genres that typically have been male dominated, such as what Patty Jenkins did with Wonder Woman last summer.  And the success of a beautiful love story like Call Me By Your Name makes me hopeful about the future with the stories that Hollywood is ready to tell to the world.  Here’s hoping that 2018 brings us quality entertainment as well as strong box office in the months ahead.  And like always, I will try my best to keep up with it all and look back on the year with a full outlook.  So, have a happy new year and continue to enjoy the world of cinema.

Top Ten Favorite Villains in Disney Movies

Only a few months ago I shared with you my choices for the greatest heroes in Disney movies.  With Halloween just around the corner this year, I decided to look at the flip-side of the coin and share with you my choices for my favorite Disney villains.  The collection of Disney Villains is a fascinating one, considering the widespread popularity they enjoy.  In many cases, you’ll find that it is the villain that becomes the most popular character from the movie, and not the hero.  And why is that, particularly in Disney’s case?  I think that it’s because Disney has figured out , more than with any other type of characters, the formula for crafting memorable and captivating personalities that instantly pop out to us on the screen.  They are often flamboyant, passionate, and they revel in their dastardly deeds and are unapologetic about it.  It also helps that Disney makes them physically stand apart from the rest by color coding them most often in black clothing.   But, more than anything, I think that we respond to the Disney villains more passionately because they embody the earliest notions of evil and dark intentions that we all have growing up.  Disney movies were often intended as morality tales for younger audiences, and it is true that our first comprehension of social evils like greed, jealousy, prejudice, and violence often come from the ones we see committed by one of Disney’s many villainous characters; that is if those social evils aren’t already present in our lives when we are young.  With Disney villains, we see those evils distilled down (some would even say watered down) into vividly imagined antagonists, and that’s why they capture our imagination so much.  Disney has made their rogues gallery one of cinema’s most memorable, and with this list, I intend to share with you the ones that have stuck with me the most, both growing up and continuing on as an adult.

Before I get to that though, I would like to highlight some honorable mentions who fell short of this list: The Evil Queen (Snow White and the Seven Dwarves), The Coachman (Pinocchio), Chernabog (Fantasia), The Headless Horseman (The Adventures of Ichabod an Mr. Toad), The Queen of Hearts (Alice in Wonderland), Shere Khan (The Jungle Book), Gaston (Beauty and the Beast), Hades (Hercules), Dr. Facilier (The Princess and the Frog), and King Candy (Wreck-It Ralph).  Also, I’m limiting this list to just Disney Movies.  The characters can be adapted from classic literature, but they can’t come from a source acquired by Disney long after the original creation, so no Star Wars or Marvel villains here.  And with that, let’s count down the greatest Disney villains.

10.

YZMA from THE EMPEROR’S NEW GROOVE (2000)

Voiced by Eartha Kitt

As far as Disney Villains go, Yzma is not your typical rogue.  Her fiendish plan ends up being one of the most incompetently executed, as her adversary is turned into a llama as opposed to being poisoned as intended.  Then her dimwitted accomplice ends up losing that same victim (the true ruler of the land by the way) and both him and her must trek aimlessly through the countryside in order to find them and finish the job right; which of course never happens.  As a villain, Yzma probably maintains the lowest batting average of success as anyone on this list.  So, what makes her so special?  In many ways, she earns this spot for being just a fantastic character all around, even with all of the missteps she faces.  Disney’s underrated comedy jem, The Emperor’s New Groove, is first and foremost a farce, often calling attention to and mocking tropes of past Disney films, and Yzma is a perfect villain for this type of comedic tale.  Most of the film’s funniest moments often come out of her constant frustration upon dealing with her incompetent sidekick, Kronk (voiced to perfection by Patrick Warburton).  I especially love the moments in the movie where she attempts to indulge in her sweet villainy, and the moment is broken apart by the ill-timed and idiotic interjections of Kronk.  A bit where Kronk means to gather information by speaking to a squirrel provides one of Yzma’s most hilarious breakdowns of frustration.  A large part of Yzma’s character comes through in the exceptional voice work by the legendary Eartha Kitt, and who would have thought that the screen and stage legend would have found her comedic match with Warburton of all people.  Together, they make the greatest pairing of villain and sidekick in any Disney movie.

9.

SCAR from THE LION KING (1994)

Voiced by Jeremy Irons

The Lion King  is often referred to as Hamlet in Africa, so it’s not at all surprising that it’s villain retains some Shakespearean qualities of his own.  Serving as a combination of Claudius from Hamlet (for the fratricide) and Edmund from King Lear (for being a second son manipulating politics behind the scenes in order to gain power), Scar is very much a villain formed out of literary inspiration.  But, even with those thoughts in mind, Scar is still a memorable character in his own right.  For one thing, he stands out among other Disney villains as being the first one to murder his victim on screen.  Other Disney films tend to value showing the aftermath of such a despicable act, but The Lion King did not shy away, showing Scar making the defining move to shove his brother Mufasa off of cliff and into a Wildebeest stampede.  This was different than say hearing a gunshot taking out Bambi’s mother off-screen.  Here, young audiences saw the terrible consequences of someone’s quest for more power, and it was terrifying.  Apart from that, Scar remains one of Disney’s most vivid portrayals of villainy; he’s deceitful and ruthless, but also consumed by a obsessive sense of self-worth.  He feels that powered is owed to him because he sees himself as smarter than everyone else.  But as we see the consequences of his actions, we come to learn that the “lion’s share” of brains does not equal noble leadership skills, and the scary thing is that Scar will never see that, and will destroy anyone who questions his role.  Disney was blessed to receive the talents of Oscar winner Jeremy Irons for the role, who really brought out the Shakespearean qualities in the character.  Motivated by a tragic sense of jealousy, Scar earns his place among the best Disney villains ever.

8.

PROFESSOR RATIGAN from THE GREAT MOUSE DETECTIVE (1986)

Voiced by Vincent Price

Sometimes Disney gives their villains a more subtle portrayal that delves deeper into their character, and then other times, they drop all pretense and just let their baddies be evil for the sake of it.  And sometimes, even the less subtle villains are a lot of fun to watch.  Professor Ratigan is that kind of villain, done to absolute perfection.  He certainly has his source in literature too.  If his archnemisis, Basil of Baker Street, is Disney’s re-imagining of Sherlock Holmes, than it’s obvious that Ratigan is the stand-in for Holmes’ own nemesis, Professor James Moriarty.  And Disney did not waste their opportunity to exploit the best out of that legendary rivalry out Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s novels.  Ratigan, probably more than anyone else on this list, relishes his role as a villain.  He even gets a song where he sings about all the evil plots he’s committed, with not an inkling of shame.  What I love best about the character is the unabashed delight that Ratigan takes in developing his schemes, providing an engaging balance between the humorous and the menacing.  A lot of this comes out of the vocal performance given by the legendary Vincent Price, who you can tell is having a blast playing this part.  Price rightly steers clear of his more macabre sounding line readings which he had long been famous for, and instead perfectly embodies the voice of a megalomaniac genius criminal thug.  One of my favorite bits in the movie is the geeky way that he spells out how he’s going to destroy Basil, by using all his weapons at once (“Snap, Boom, Twang, Thunk, SPLAT!!!”).  They don’t come any more dastardly than Ratigan and that’s why he has earned a spot here.

7.

CAPTAIN HOOK from PETER PAN (1953)

Voiced by Hans Conreid

One thing that usually defines many Disney villains is their often narrow minded commitment to a singular goal, with little consideration to anything else.  Oftentimes, their goal is either for power or for wealth, but there is one villain that lives to enact one goal that’s different than all the others; vengeance.  That is the primary motivation behind Captain Hook and it makes him quite unique in the Disney canon.  There have been many interpretations of James M. Barrie’s iconic swashbuckler, but I don’t think you’ll ever see one quite as memorable as Disney’s version.  In many ways, Disney brought a bit more nuance to the character than what had been there before.  This version of Hook is intimidating, but at times can be quite comical as well, with the movie never quite breaking that fine line between those two aspects in his character.  We’re able to laugh when he runs afoul of the man-eating Crocodile, in some brilliantly animated moments of physical comedy, but then feel chilled by the next scene where he deceitfully manipulates Tinker Bell into revealing the hideout of Peter Pan.  Disney does an amazing job of giving their version of Hook so many layers to his personality, and it makes him a magnetic presence in every scene he’s in.  I especially like the detail where he tries to maintain his identity as a “gentleman pirate;” going as far to keep a promise not to lay a finger (or hook) on Peter.  Of course, he works around that by using a bomb instead; further illustrating his cunning.  Veteran character actor Hans Conreid brings out all those aspects of the character, relishing the suaveness of Hook at his most deceitful and bellowing out the infantile cries for help to “SMEE” whenever the Crocodile is near.  Overall, he’s a perfect example of how Disney can turn an already iconic character and make him one of their own.

6.

JAFAR from ALADDIN (1992)

Voiced by Jonathan Freeman

One complaint that is leveled against some Disney villains is their often lack of subtlety, which as stated with Ratigan, is not necessarily a bad thing.  But, it can sometimes be a negative when it becomes clear that narrative shortcuts were made with the depictions of a films characters, especially villains.  This means falling back on overused tropes and stereotypes when crafting your character, and the villain of Disney’s Aladdin could have easily fallen into this trap.  I mean seriously, look at him.  How could any of the other characters in the movie not recognize that the guy dressed all in black and with a cobra shaped staff was up to no good?  And yet, Jafar manages to rise above those same tropes and manages to be not just the best villain for his particular story, but one of Disney’s best overall.  I think that he works as well as he does mainly because he perfectly fits the tone of Disney’s take on the Aladdin legend.  Aladdin was very much meant to be a homage to old Hollywood spectacle as well as over the top Broadway productions, and Jafar is a prime example of that kind of style choice.  Heavily inspired by Conrad Veidt’s portrayal of the evil vizier in Alexander Korda’s technicolor classic, The Thief of Baghdad (1940), Jafar is equal parts camp, class and menace.  The stuffiness of his character is perfect counterpart to the unhinged mania, which comes to the surface once he’s granted the wishes he’s always desired.  Broadway vet Jonathan Freeman was perfectly suited for the role, finding that right campy tone that fit with the character.  Interesting fact; many years later, when Disney brought the movie to the Broadway stage in a new adaptation, they gave the role of Jafar to Freeman, making him the only person to play the same role for Disney on both the stage and screen.  That tells you right there how much of an impact his performance left on audiences.  Jafar may be an obvious villain, but he is by no means a weak one, and it shows that sometimes even a stereotypical villain could be just what the story needs.

5.

URSULA from THE LITTLE MERMAID (1989)

Voiced by Pat Carroll

In the years following Walt Disney’s untimely death, the company he founded was struggling to find it’s identity going forward.  Movies continued to be produced, but they were lacking some of the same qualities that were found in the movies from Walt’s time; namely, memorable villains.  Sure, Ratigan managed to stand out, but do many of you remember Madame Medusa, The Horned King, or Edgar the Butler as fondly.  When it came time for Disney to really stretch themselves again, and make an animated classic like they used to, it made sense for them to put a lot of effort into making a villain to stand among the all time greats.  Or in this case, swim.  Ursula was the realization of this renewed effort on Disney’s part, and along with the movie that she comes from (The Little Mermaid), she was a large part of the beginning of the Disney’s Renaissance.  Taking her inspiration from Hans Christian Andersen’s original unnamed Sea Witch, Ursula is a master class depiction of villainy.  What makes her so memorable is not just her design, which along is brilliant; taking inspiration from the body of an octopus.  It’s the depravity of her character that makes her so memorably loathsome; preying on desperate individuals, forcing them into contracts, and then collecting them into her grotesque garden of lost souls.  She knows how to manipulate the system by exploiting these “poor unfortunate souls” and do it all legally through contracts, which makes her villainy all the more hurtful.  She also is one of the most mesmerizing Disney villains, fully embracing her campy aspects.  Ursula was said to be inspired physically by famous drag queen Divine, which is a bold choice on Disney’s part.  Pat Carroll’s sultry voice also lends a lot to the character, reinforcing the camp aspect of the character.  Ursula, by being both groundbreaking and a return to form for Disney, easily earn her place among the best villains the studio has ever created.

4.

CRUELLA DE VIL from 101 DALMATIANS (1961)

Voiced by Betty Lou Gerson

There are few crimes out there that seem to be universally reviled as cruelty towards animals.  Combine that with an unglamourous portrayal of vanity taken to the extreme, and you’ve got the making of one of Disney’s most iconic villains.  Cruella De Vil is a classic villain in every sense.  Her character design as garish, aging fashionista along makes her easily identifiable, but that’s not the only thing that makes her memorable.  She is also one of the most exquisitely animated character in any Disney film, villain or otherwise.  Just look at the memorable introductory scene of her in the movie 101 Dalmatians, where she blows through Radcliffe household like a tornado demading to know where the puppies are, leaving a rotten trail of cigarette smoke in her wake.  Animated by legendary artist Marc Davis, this scene is a masterpiece of character animation, delivering all we need to know about the character in quick and often erratic gestures; her greediness, her lack of empathy, and her larger than life efforts to always be the center of attention.  As the movie goes on, we see the further depths of her character, as her plan to create dog skin coats from Dalmatian puppy fur unfolds, and she becomes one of the easiest Disney villains that we love to hate.  But, apart from her cartoonish aspects, she stands out as a fully realized interpretation of something very real that we see in our society; the self-obsessed social climber.  She not only has to be the center of attention; she has to do it in the most obscene way possible, including slaughtering puppies for her own fashion.  Of all the Disney villains, she has probably entered the cultural lexicon more than any other, as you often see many people dismiss self-obsessed divas in our culture as a “Cruella.”  Regardless of that, she certainly remains one of Disney’s greatest villains, being both a great symbol of evil as well as an entertaining character in general.

3.

LADY TREMAINE from CINDERELLA (1950)

Voiced by Eleanor Audley

Otherwise known as the Wicked Stepmother to Cinderella, Lady Tremaine is a perfect example of a villain that strays from the typical norm of Disney villains.   She has no magical powers, nor any murderous plans.  She evil simply for the fact that she holds so much power over one person, and exploits it to an unforgivable degree.  In many ways, Lady Tremaine becomes one of Disney’s scariest villains because of how realistic she is.  It is conceivable that someone in real life is capable of the same evil acts that she commits in this movie; forcing our heroine into abject slavery and submitting her to humiliating torture both mental and physical by her own true born, selfish daughters.  Cinderella is the embodiment of a light shining through the darkest of times, and Lady Tremaine finds her evil identity by extinguishing that light at every turn, giving Cinderella less to hope for and manipulating her into thinking that this is the only thing she is good for.  Mental abuse is a very real evil act, and that’s what makes Lady Tremaine all the more vivid a villain in her film.  One scene in particular illustrates not only how evil she can be, but how diabolical she is with her darkness.  When she and her daughters prepare to leave for the ball, they are shocked to find that Cinderella is ready to go to, with a dress of her own.  Instead of stopping her, Tremaine deceitfully compliments the details of her dress, pointing out that it features scraps that her daughters had discarded, which then makes the selfish daughters turn possessive and start tearing Cinderella’s dress to pieces.  In this act, Lady Tremaine has simultaneously scarred and humiliated Cinderella without ever laying a finger on her, showing just how powerful and diabolical her villainy can be.  And let’s not forget, she has one of the most chilling stares ever committed to film; one that sinks into your soul.  Almost too real for comfort, Lady Tremaine is a masterfully realized villain.

2.

JUDGE CLAUDE FROLLO from THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME (1996)

Voiced by Tony Jay

This late Disney Renaissance film is mostly regarded as a classic, albeit with a few flaws.  But, if there is anything about Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame that has received universal praise, it’s with the villain, Judge Frollo.  It was a bold undertaking by Disney to find a way to turn Victor Hugo’s dark literary masterpiece into something that’s suitable for all audiences, but if there was anything that captured the essence of the original novel, it was Frollo.  Much like Lady Tremaine, Frollo is a villain whose frightening to audiences because of the realism of his villainy.  In fact, history has often seen too many people of Frollo’s ilk, especially in modern times.  The pious, xenophobic overlord uses his power to unjustly hunt and pursue gypsies that he believes are infesting his “pure” city.  In Hugo’s novel, Frollo was a man of the church, giving his villainous intents the air of hypocrisy as well.  Disney strips their Frollo of religious affiliation (probably to avoid complaint from religious viewers) but his character is no less hypocritical in his moral authority with which he uses to justify all of his horrible acts.  I believe this makes Frollo all the more frightening in his villainy, because there is no rhyme or reason to his bigotry; as is true in real life as well.  People are just inclined to hatred, and giving that kind of feeling power is the worst thing we can do as a society.  Disney’s Frollo is also given the grotesque aspect of having lustful feelings towards the heroine Esmerelda, which shows the even further depravity of his character.  But, more than anything, Frollo remains one of Disney’s greatest villains because of the sheer fearlessness that the filmmakers took in depicting his character.  There are no soft spots to mock about him, nor campy aspect that make him alluring.  He is the most vivid portrayal of unadulterated human evil that Disney has ever put on screen.  I also applaud Disney for casting the right voice for the character, which didn’t end up being a known celebrity, but instead went to veteran voice actor Tony Jay, who delivers a knockout performance.  Disney has rarely taken the steps to show real evil on screen, but with Frollo, they managed to do so in a captivating way.

1.

MALEFICENT from SLEEPING BEAUTY (1959)

Voiced by Eleanor Audley

Who better to top this list than the “mistress of all evil.”  Maleficent’s placement here shouldn’t be all that surprising to those of you that have read my list of the greatest movie villains of all time, seeing as how she was the only Disney villain to make it on that one.  But the main reason why I consider her the greatest Disney villain off all time is because she has since become the gold standard by which all others are judged by.  Walt Disney may have created the archetype of a Disney villain when he developed the Evil Queen from Snow White, but with Maleficent, he perfected it.  Maleficent is everything you want in a Disney villain; larger than life, uncompromising, exquisitely designed, and able to command every moment of screen time she’s in.  Even when Maleficent isn’t present on screen, you feel her presence, especially in the fear that all the other characters live under because of her.  King Stefan wouldn’t burn every spinning wheel in his kingdom, nor would the three good fairies live without magic for 16 years based on any idle threat.  They know what Maleficent is capable of and it terrifies them.  Maleficent certainly embodies these frightening aspects, but she is more than just that.  Her ethereal presence is also iconic in it’s own right, and is often imitated.  No one commands attention better than her, and she is well aware of it.  She almost relishes the flair she puts into her speeches, often adding plenty of poetic flourish to them.  This was also enhanced by the ideal casting of veteran character actor Eleanor Audley to the role (who also gave chilling voice to Lady Tremaine).   Maleficent also set the standard for villain designs in future animated films, with her long black robes, staff, and horned headdress.  I’ve heard Jafar from Aladdin referred to as the male Maleficent, which is not necessarily an insult.  He even makes a monstrous transformation near the end, just like Maleficent, which is another trope that she pioneered, through her iconic transformation into a fire-breathing dragon.  So much of our concepts of what makes a great Disney villain can all be traced back to her, and that in a nutshell is why she earns the top spot as the greatest Disney villain of all time.

So, there you have my choices for the greatest Disney villains.  In some of these cases you see them make definitive versions of already established characters, or create profound portrayals of villainy from scratch.  But, regardless of origin, they all share the same aspect of being iconic symbols of evil within the Disney canon, and by that extension, within cinema in general.  But, why do we love these characters so much despite the evil that they do.  It’s the same reason why we love Hannibal Lecter, or Darth Vader, or Hans Landa.  We are all attracted to great characters, and sometimes the best characters in any story are the villains.  We don’t condone what they do, but we hold them in high regard because they brought out something fantastical in their selective stories that we respond very highly to.  It’s something that occurred to me when I saw Rogue One last year, when I saw the last few minutes of the movie with Darth Vader.  While what Vader did in those few moments was horrifying (slaughtering a whole crew of soldiers) I found myself so overjoyed by the experience of seeing it, because I saw a return to form for the character that has been missing for years.  Essentially, I was happy that the movie stayed true to the darkness of the character and exploited that perfectly on screen.  For all these villains, they capture that same magnetic power that helps us to appreciate their selective stories even more, and helps us to enjoy the feeling hating a character so much that we love them for it.  That’s the power that Disney villains have had over the years, and you can see that cross over into several generations.  When I attended this most recent D23 Expo, I can tell you that I saw far more people cosplaying as villains than heroes.  In story-telling, you need to balance the light with the darkness, and Disney perhaps has done too good a job making their darker characters stand out.  But, that’s what makes their movies even better, so who can blame them for putting so much effort into making their villains so good.

Top Ten Favorite Heroes in Disney Movies

So, if you’re a regular reader to this blog, or know me personally, you’re probably already familiar with my fandom for everything Disney.  Whether it’s indulging in their many cinematic properties, or enjoying a day walking through Disneyland, or just grabbing whatever collectible catches my eye, I have many years of Disney fandom under my belt.  It’s one of the things that has brought me to my current residency in Los Angeles, which is home to much of the core of the Disney company’s many properties.  Not only is the Studios themselves here, but so is Disneyland, and plenty of other Disney related experiences that pop up every now and then in the city.  One of those is the D23 Expo in Anaheim, California; Disney’s bi-annual convention.  Just like the previous conventions that I covered in 2013 and 2015, I will of course be attending that one as well.  Leading up to this event in 2 weeks, I decided to give Disney the spotlight for most of this month of July, and to start off, how about I share another Disney themed top ten with you.  For this article, I want to spotlight who my favorite heroes from Disney movies are.  This list will focus on just the heroes from Disney movies, instead of favorite characters, since a good chunk of my favorite Disney characters would fall under the category of villains, and I actually want to save a future top ten for just them.  Also, I’m only focusing this list on characters original to Disney itself, so sorry, no Marvel or Star Wars either.  I am including live action characters though, since there are a couple that really stand out to me.  So, let’s take a look at the greatest heroic characters to come from the collective imaginations of the great artists that have worked and continue to work at Walt Disney Pictures.

10.

SCROOGE MCDUCK from MICKEY’S CHRISTMAS CAROL (1983) and DUCK TALES: TREASURE OF THE LOST LAMP (1990)

Voiced by Bill Thompson (1967), Alan Young (1983-2015), and David Tennant (2017-)

A list of the greatest Disney heroes wouldn’t be complete without the world’s richest duck on it.  Originally created in a series of Donald Duck comic books by famed Disney artist Carl Barks, Scrooge eventually found his way off the page and onto the screen, both big and small.  Though his first animated appearance would be in the educational short Scrooge McDuck and Money (1967), his true glory days wouldn’t come until the mid to late 80’s.  He first made it to the big screen in the exceptional adaptation of Charles Dickens’ holiday classic in Mickey’s Christmas Carol, playing who else by Ebeneezer Scrooge.  His acclaimed appearance then lead to a Saturday morning cartoon series called Duck Tales, which is really what turned the character into a household name and endeared him to a whole new generation of fans, like myself.  From there, he has continued to be an ever present and popular part of the Disney family.  The long running Duck Tales series even led to it’s own cinematic spin-off, showing that old McDuck could even carry his own weight on the big screen as well.  What made Scrooge such an appealing character to many of us was that perfect combination of elderly wisdom and a fearless sense of adventure.  He’s the kind of person we all wished or imagined that our grandfather’s were like.  Adorably old fashioned and curmudgeonly, but never afraid to stand up for what’s right.  A lot of what made Scrooge so effective as a character was the warm, Scottish baroque given to him by actor Alan Young, who played the role well into his 90’s and up to his death in 2016.  An exciting new era awaits the character with the upcoming Duck Tales reboot, with former Doctor Who David Tennant stepping into the role.  No matter what, the world’s richest duck will always remain our favorite.

9.

EDDIE VALIANT from WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT? (1988)

Played by Bob Hoskins

Here we have the first of my favorite heroic characters from a live action Disney movie.  Who Framed Roger Rabbit? is that rare confluence of opportunities all coming together to create a great cinematic document that sadly may never happen again.  Directed by Robert Zemekis and produced by Steven Spielberg for Disney’s Touchstone Pictures banner, Roger Rabbit managed to see unprecedented cooperation between animation studios to create the shared Toontown community that would become the focus of this brilliant neo-noir cinematic experiment.  It will probably be the only time that you’ll ever Mickey Mouse sharing the screen with Bugs Bunny, which is an achievement itself.  And yet, it’s the human characters that really makes Roger Rabbit the masterpiece that it is today.  In particular, it’s the grizzled old sleuth Eddie Valiant that we all come away loving the most from this film.  It’s amazing to think that in a film filled with colorful characters, both animated and live action (or both), it’s the most down to earth and humorless character that we find most endearing.  This is largely due to the sheer brilliance of the late, great Bob Hoskins’ performance.  Hoskins is perfectly understated in the role, making Eddie the perfect straight man to bounce all the looneyness of Toontown and it’s citizens off of.  Also, considering that Hoskins often had to act against nothing on set makes his performance all the more remarkable, because you really buy the fact that he’s interacting with cartoon characters on screen. Apart from that, Eddie Valiant stands out because it’s his growth as a character that we all love.  He’s fighting against not only to save the day, but himself as well and all his demons (fighting his alcoholism and learning to trust the toons again).   Such a grounded, human character should feel out of place in a story like Roger Rabbit, but Eddie Valiant is exactly the hero it needed.

8.

BEAST from BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (1991)

Voiced by Robby Benson 

Of all the Disney characters to have the most profound of character arcs, none stands out more than the Beast from Beauty and the Beast.  While many favor Belle as their favorite character in the movie, I for one found myself more absorbed in the Beast’s story-line.  And this is largely due to the fact that he’s the one that goes through the most change in character.  Belle more or less remains the same person throughout the movie, which is not a bad thing particularly, but it doesn’t make her all that compelling either.  From the moment we first see the Beast in the film, he is a creature worthy of our greatest fears.  The remarkable trick accomplished by the movie itself is to methodically convert the Beast’s character over time and make the change feel natural as he goes from monster to man.  By the end, we can believe that someone like Belle would fall in love with such a ghastly looking creature, because like her, we slowly begin to recognize the true pure heart inside.  The Disney animators who created the Beast did a remarkable job creating a truly original design; creating a version of the character that only the medium of animation could bring out.  Even more remarkable is the casting of one-time Hollywood heartthrob Robby Benson as the voice of the Beast.  Not only does he command a ferocious sounding roar for the character in his fiercest moments, but he also brought emotional tenderness that I sure cemented the character into the hearts of most fans.  Finding the right mixture of ferocity and humanity, Beast stands out as a true masterpiece of character for Disney, and a perfect example of how some heroes evolve into their true potential over time.

7.

MERRYWEATHER from SLEEPING BEAUTY (1959)

Voiced by Barbara Luddy

Apart from the main heroes of their movies, Disney has also had a long history of popular sidekick characters who stand out as heroes in their own right.  Most people usually think of Jiminy Cricket from Pinocchio (1940), or Tinker Bell from Peter Pan (1953), or more recent characters like Sebastian the Crab (The Little Mermaid, 1989), Abu the Monkey (Aladdin, 1992) or Timon and Pumbaa (The Lion King, 1994).  But, one of the best examples of how to use sidekick characters in a Disney movie can be found in the fairy tale masterpiece that is Sleeping Beauty.  In the film, we are introduced to the three good fairies; Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather.  The fairies, it can be argued, are the film’s main characters; even more so than Princess Aurora.  They do have more screen time than every other character, and are often the ones who actively drive the story.  It’s even them who come to the rescue of Prince Phillip who’s been captured by the evil Maleficent, so without them, there would’ve never been a triumph over evil in the end.  Though all the good fairies are great characters, I have a special place in my heart for Merrywether.  She is without a doubt the highlight of the film for me.  Spunky, opinionated, and ready for any challenge, she is everything I love in a Disney character.  She also fills the important role of being the film’s most cynical character, helping to keep the movie from ever turning too saccharine.  I also love her fearlessness.  She’s never afraid to speak her mind, even to someone as ominous as Maleficent, and she’s always ready to stand her ground.  Even in the final battle, when Phillip charges at Maleficent in dragon form, Merryweather nearly charges at Maleficent herself, with only the other fairies holding her back.  How can you not love a character like that?  Though she’s small and dainty, inside Merryweather beats the heart of a warrior.

6.

BASIL OF BAKER STREET from THE GREAT MOUSE DETECTIVE (1986)

Voice by Barrie Ingham

Okay, so it’s kind of a little too easy to include a character on here who’s just a carbon copy of one of literature’s greatest heroes in general.  But, when the adaptation is this good, it’s hard to leave him out.  Heavily inspired by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s immortal super sleuth, Sherlock Holmes, Basil is a perfect addition to Disney’s roster of great heroic characters.  Mirroring all of the best aspects of Doyle’s iconic creation, Basil is an endlessly engaging character whose adventures are always worth investing in.  He also carries over most of Sherlock’s quirks as well, and thankfully none of his vices (it’s G-Rated Disney after all).  I especially enjoy the way he’s devoted to his profession almost to a fault, where it sometimes leads him to be oblivious to others around him, and their well-being.  It’s a character aspect that gives him a flaw, which itself makes him far more interesting.  I especially like how the movie plays around with his growing unease with having to work with others, in particular his Watson stand-in Dr. Dawson, and a lost little girl named Olivia.  Part of what I love about the film is Basil’s evolution through the movie where he begins to let others into his life and doesn’t just try to do everything himself.  But, more than anything, the movie hits it’s high points when we get to watch Basil use his intellect to escape from a jam.  His daring escape from a death trap set up by his nemesis, Professor Ratigan, is a spectacular set-piece that represents the character at his best.  He may not be the most original of Disney heroes, but he certainly stands out as one of the most entertaining.  It’s also a shame that he’s often one of the more forgotten Disney heroes.  If there was ever a Disney character deserving of a sequel, it would be Basil of Baker Street, because it only feels like we’ve just scratched the surface with the adventures of the great mouse detective.

5.

MARY POPPINS from MARY POPPINS (1964)

Played by Julie Andrews

Another hero from the live action medium, Mary Poppins certainly feels right at home with her animated peers in the Disney family.  She is heroic in a different kind of way compared to other characters on this list, in that she’s not here to face off against some great force of evil or facing some kind of life threatening challenge.  Mary Poppins instead serves as a hero by showing guidance to those who need it in order to live their lives more fully.  She serves as the perfect example of a role model, filling a void in people’s lives by being their mother-figure, their counselor, their confidant, their supervisor, and at most times, their friend.  She is more than just a household nanny; she is a do-it-all fixer-upper.  And it’s the pureness of her character that makes her such an endearing presence to many.  We find over the course of the movie that she’s not just there to protect the children and teach them important lessons like responsibility and charity, but she’s there to also bring a broken family back together.  It may be dangerous to center a movie around such a flawless character, and indeed the movie goes a step further by even having her proclaimed as “practically perfect in every way,” but when she’s played with such grace by someone like Julie Andrews, it’s hard to argue with it.  Indeed, Mary is the ideal Disney heroine, enriching all the lives she touches and never once losing her integrity.  She only lets her guard down once near the end, as she seems to be saddened by the departure of the Banks family from her life, but it’s a moment well earned, given how well she leaves behind a solid foundation for their future.

4.

CINDERELLA from CINDERELLA (1950)

Voice By Irene Woods

Of all the groups of Disney characters to stand out as the very cornerstone of the company, it would be the Princesses.  The very first feature they ever made centered around the character of Snow White, and it’s a line that has continued all the way to the present with the likes of Anna and Elsa from Frozen (2013), as well as their most recent addition, Moana, from her own self-titled film.  But, if I were to pick my favorite Disney princess out of this line-up, it would be Cinderella.  Disney’s version of the character is without a doubt the best version that has ever existed.  She has a purity to her character that is unmatched, even among her Disney peers, and that is largely due to the way that she faces adversity.  In the movie, her struggle is all about holding onto her dignity in the face of overwhelming hatred.  Forced into servitude by her step-mother and stepsisters, she dutifully tries to keep her head on her shoulders, never once answering their cruelty with hatred of her own.  One complaint that I often see unfairly labeled against Disney princesses is that they are one-dimensional characters due to their passivity.  But, I never saw that as the case with Cinderella.  She stands up for herself when she needs to, like when she reminds her stepmother that she has every right to attend the Ball too, and she sticks up for her animal companions whenever they are in danger’s way.  And, unlike the other Disney princesses, she’s the one who determines her own fate in the end.  After it seems like the stepmother has destroyed all hope for her by breaking her glass slipper, she uses her cunning to outwit her and present to the Grand Duke her other hidden slipper.  No need for a brave prince to step in to save the day; Cinderella is the hero of her own story, and that’s why she is my absolute favorite.

3.

MICKEY MOUSE from FANTASIA (1940) AND MANY OTHER SHORTS

Voiced by Walt Disney (1928-47), Jim MacDonald (1947-82), Wayne Allwine (1983-2009), Bret Iwan (2010-)

Of course, you can’t make a list of the greatest Disney heroes and not include the big Mouse himself.  From the very first moment we saw the spunky like rodent piloting that steamboat down a river in his debut short, Steamboat Willie (1928), Mickey would become a hero for all the world to enjoy.  Today, you will probably never find a character more recognizable across the world than Mickey Mouse.  One of the great appeals of Mickey as a character is his versatility as a hero.  The classic cartoons had Mickey doing battle with pirates, gangsters, mad doctors, and even giants, and that was all before his shorts were in color.  As the animation medium became refined, so did his character.  Mickey became the embodiment of the every man underdog hero, something that audiences gravitated towards during the Depression and wartime years.  He has had many cinematic variations over the years, but none left as much as an impact as his appearance in Fantasia, where he was the star of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice sequence.  Though it’s ironic that his most famous screen appearance in Fantasia also shows him at his least heroic, being the source of mayhem rather than the solution to it.  Still, Mickey is a quintessential hero, constantly standing up for what is right and often facing overwhelming odds in the process. It also makes him an ideal stand in for some re-tellings of classic stories, like in Mickey and the Beanstalk (1947) and The Prince and the Pauper (1990).  Certainly with being the iconic figure and symbol of the Disney company, the intent will always be there to keep Mickey purely heroic in everything he does.  The only question is if Disney will allow their character to evolve over time, or being handled with care too much, choosing to never blemish the face of their company in any way.  Variety of character helps to make him more interesting, but then again, few other characters have as much burden to carry as Mickey does.

2.

ALADDIN from ALADDIN (1992)

Voiced by Scott Weinger

Now we come to a heroic character from the Disney family who we not only want to look up to, but also wish we could be just like him.  The “diamond in the rough” that is Aladdin is a great example of an underdog character who comes from nothing rising up through extraordinary circumstances to having everything he desires.  But, all the while achieving his dreams, he never loses the essence of his character, that being a good heart underneath all the bravado and quirkiness.  It’s a good sign of his character when he doesn’t hesitate to tell the Genie that he’ll use his last wish to set him free.  And when he’s confronted with the possibility that he may have to rescind that promise later on in the story, it tears him up inside.  Aladdin isn’t perfect as a human being; he lies in order to protect his cover, but he also does it to avoid hurting others feelings.  He also steals, but it’s for his survival mostly and even still he’ll give up his stolen goods to some hungry children out of the kindness of his heart.  It’s these edges to his character that really makes him a well rounded hero, and one that endears us to him as he goes off on his adventure.  The Diamond in the Rough moniker could not be better applied, as he see a hero shaped by hardship, and a heart free of shameless self-service.  By the end, when Aladdin has the opportunity to have everything he has always desired, he still uses his wishes to do the right thing and grant freedom to the Genie.  And that selflessness still gets him happiness in the end, including the love of Princess Jasmine and a home in the palace.  It’s a perfect example of how true selfless heroism reciprocates into it’s own fortune by the end of the journey, and it’s what makes Aladdin one of the best heroes of all.

1.

PETER PAN from PETER PAN (1953)

Voiced by Bobby Driscoll

My favorite Disney hero of all time shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, since I’m sure that he’s the favorite to many other fans as well.  Adapted from J.M. Barrie’s classic play, Disney’s Peter Pan is a perfect translation of the character from the page to the screen.  For one thing, animation allows for the character to take actual flight, unassisted by hidden strings.  Also, the spirit of Peter Pan is one that any avid Disney fan can identify with, and that’s the desire to not grow old.  Every Disney fan lives with a deep sense of nostalgia and it’s something that we take from childhood and hold onto throughout our adulthood.  It’s also something that we love to pass down to the next generation as well.  That’s why Disney always says their goal is to appeal to “young and the young at heart.”  That’s why the boy who never wanted to grow up remains such an endearing character to this day, and Disney’s version brings that aspect out in the best way possible.  Though Peter has his flaws (he’s sometimes dangerously negligent to other characters’ well-being), his carefree attitude still reveals a sense of duty to helping others.  He also makes for a perfect foil for the stuffy and vicious Captain Hook.  But, more than anything, he’s just a purely fun character to follow around.  I for one have had a special fondness for the character throughout my life.  Peter, along with Aladdin, were two of the only Disney characters that I dressed up as for Halloween as a kid.  They are two heroes that I could easily fit into the shoes of and pretend to be for a while as a kid.  That’s why they both rise to the top of this list because both were the ones who stuck out the most from my own childhood.  Peter Pan gets the edge slightly just for embodying that childhood wonder that defined my love for Disney more closely, and that’s why he stands (or floats) over all of his heroic Disney peers.

So, there you have my choices for my favorite heroes in Disney movies.  Some have been favorites all throughout my childhood development, while others have grown on me over the years.  I certainly appreciate a character like Mary Poppins more now as an adult, seeing the strong influence that she leaves as a mentor.  Others just rise to the top because of how much I enjoy seeing them act on the big screen.  I certainly think a character Merryweather should be considered one of Disney’s greatest heroes, because she showed that you don’t have to be big or carry a huge sword to be seen as brave.  And characters like Basil and Cinderella showed that you can overcome evil just by using your brain and outwitting your enemies.  I think it all stems back to Walt Disney’s original emphasis on the underdog hero, embodied so perfectly in the persona of Mickey Mouse.  If a small little mouse can beat the odds and save the world, why can’t anyone else.  It’s a thing that has always defined the Disney company; that while they themselves are the big dogs of the industry, they are always championing the ideal of the little person achieving greatness through perseverance and a good heart.  You see that also in the choices of other properties that they bring into their fold.  It’s understandable why they would welcome story-lines that follow a lowly farm boy who learns to become a Jedi master, or a 90 pound weakling who goes through a science experiment to become a powerful super soldier called Captain America.  It’s a theme that has served them well up to now, and let’s hope that it remains true for many years to come.  There’s no shame in holding onto the heroes of your childhood well into adulthood, especially when they are strong role models like the ones made by Disney.

Top Ten Opening Scenes in Movies

The best movies ever made are usually defined by the strength of their individual moments.  As many of them stick to the basic three act structure of storytelling, the viewer will commonly find that a movie hits it’s high points at crucial junctures in the story; sometimes with a crossroads for a character’s development, sometimes with a harrowing motivating incident, and also sometimes with a shocking twist at the story’s climax.  Some movies even find their best moments in charming plot sidetracks that reveal more about the characters.  But, one thing that proves to be a crucial part of a story’s success is not so much how it progresses, or even finishes, but rather how it begins.  A strong opening statement from the very first scene could itself be the very thing that makes a movie go from good to great.  An opening scene does the most important job of establishing tone and character into the movie.  It’s the point of the movie that tells the audience exactly what they are about to get into, even if much of what follows is not what they expected.  And there are so many ways that a movie can get off on the right foot.  A movie can throw us right into a hectic moment of action (like the opening of 2015’s Mad Max :Fury Road), it can shock our senses (like the murder opening of 1996’s Scream), it can throw a moment of absurdity our way (like the migrating coconut debate from the opening of 1975’s Monty Python and the Holy Grail), it can make a statement directly to the audience (Ewan McGregor’s “Choose Life” monologue from 1995’s Trainspotting), or it can soak us up into the atmosphere of it’s world (the prologue from 2001’s The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring), all in the first couple minutes.  And it’s these moments that help to give a movie an identity.  What follows bellow are my top ten choices for what I think are the greatest opening scenes in movie history.  They run the gambit of being either just a fantastic opening shot or a full lengthy sequence, but what they all have in common is that they made a profound statement that set the bar high for each of their selective movies, and stand alone as singular great cinematic achievements in their own right.

10.

THE GODFATHER (1972) – “I BELIEVE IN AMERICA”

Francis Ford Coppola’s multi-generational epic begins not with a bang, nor a extravagant set piece, but rather it begins in a quiet, dark room where old men discuss business.  And yet, you could not have asked for a better start to one of the most compelling films ever committed to celluloid.  Coppola plunges us into this world of Mafiosos and the criminal underworld by showing us the characters in their own element.  In this opening scene, we meet Bonasera, a desperate man who has come to the home of Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando), the “Godfather” of the powerful Italian Mafia family.  In his plea to the don of the family, seeking vengeance for the rape of his daughter, Coppola keeps the camera tight on his face and slowly zooms out to slowly reveal who he is speaking to.  It is a simple camera trick, but one that is beautifully executed by cinematographer Gordon Willis.  And it’s simplicity is what makes it so profound.  It’s made all the more powerful by how well Coppola and Willis use the light in the scene, or lack there of.  Beginning the speech with a complete blank screen also puts special emphasis on the opening words; “I believe in America.”  Subliminally it tells us the audience that this will be a quintessential American story, while at the same time revealing a world unseen to us as well.  It’s profound as a statement, but it also is one of the greatest character introductions we’ve ever seen in a film.  Without revealing Vito right away, we are able to learn from Bonasera the kind of power that Vito is able to command and the respect that he is able to summon.  Only after the long pull out do we see the man himself, and by then his legend is set.  It’s a deceptively simple moment and is iconic in every way.  It’s the kind of opening that you would expect to see from one of cinema’s greatest achievements.

9.

REAR WINDOW (1954) – WELCOME TO THE NEIGHBORHOOD

Alfred Hitchcock always was a filmmaker who loved to show off all the things that could be possible in the cinematic medium.  Many of his films also like to build their mystery directly from the opening moments.  Without tipping his hand, Hitchcock leaves clues within a scene that will inevitably payoff later in the film.  You can see this in most of his greatest films like North by Northwest (1959), Psycho (1960), and Shadow of a Doubt (1943).  But, if you were to find the greatest opening to a film in his whole oeuvre,  it would be the spectacular opening sequence in Rear Window.  In the opening scene, Hitchcock shows off the amazing courtyard set that was built especially for this film (the largest interior set ever built at the time).  The scale of the set is impressive on its own, but the special quality of this opening scene comes from the way that Hitchcock pans across the scenery, showing us a small window into the lives of all the people who live in this complex, and all the little side-stories that they are living in at the moment.  But, it’s a point of view that’s still from a distance, and we learn towards the end of the scene that we are watching all of this from the apartment of Jimmy Stewart’s character.  The shot continues, revealing that Stewart’s Jefferies is wheelchair bound with a broken leg, and the shot then scans across his own apartment, showing us more about his life, including the accident that left him with a broken limb.  It’s an immersive way to open a film, showing so much without a single line of dialogue.  Not only does it show off the amazing set in a spectacular way, but it gives us so much information right up front, allowing us the audience to understand the characters and the world they live in before the story itself begins.  Few others could use these kind of tools of storytelling as well Hitchcock, and it’s a scene that perfectly illustrates his very voyeuristic view of everyday life.

8.

INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS (2009) – THE JEW HUNTER

Quentin Tarantino is a filmmaker who especially puts special emphasis on his opening scenes.  For a man raised on international and exploitation cinema, you would think that the idea of a movie that starts off in a big way would be one that’s clearly on his mind.  And throughout his body of work, you can find plenty of great, unexpected opening scenes.  There’s the restaurant robbery from Pulp Fiction (1994), the airport arrival in Jackie Brown (1997), the diner conversation from Reservoir Dogs (1991); none of which are exactly bombastic scenes, but they nevertheless do an excellent job of announcing themselves to an audience the way that Tarantino wants them to.  But, out of all of opening scenes from Tarantino’s filmography, I don’t think there has ever been a greater one than the opening to Inglourious Basterds.  Like the others, it’s a dialogue driven scene, but one that is so profound and brilliantly written, that it easily stands tall among the rest.  It, for one, introduces us to one of cinema’s greatest villains, Colonel Hans Landa, and establishes perfectly everything that this character is about.  With his calm, pleasant demeanor, he breaks down this French farmer who’s been harboring refugee Jews in his basement, and does over a kind conversation with a glass of milk.  Christoph Waltz is absolutely compelling in this moment, and I knew immediately after watching this scene for the first time that he was going to win an Oscar for his performance (which turned out to be true).  Tarantino himself has even stated that this is one of his favorite scenes too, and that he’s especially proud of it.   Who would have thought that a calm, dialogue heavy 20 minute opening sequence would provide one of the most chilling, suspense moments in cinema history?  It’s Tarantino at the height of his powers and proof that he can open a movie up like no other.

7.

PATTON (1970) – THE GENERAL’S ADDRESS

Here we find a opening scene that breaks from convention completely.  In this biographical film about the famed World War II commander, we don’t find ourselves looking into the general’s history, nor do we instead find him already in the thick of battle, like so many other historical films would have.  No, instead, this Franklin J. Schaffner opens up with a sprawling American flag, a small platform stage, and George C. Scott center screen in the role of General Patton in full regalia.  For the next six minutes, we see nothing else but this, and Scott delivers a speech not unlike how the real man would’ve to his battalions of troops during the war.  It’s an iconic image that perfectly establishes the mythic aura of the General, showing how he presented himself to the world, and how he probably wanted others to view him as well.  The remainder of the film breaks down the person that he was and shows us the more human side of the general, which is why this opening scene is so crucial for the film.  The movie is a great examination in the differences between man and myth, and you will never find a scene that helps to make a man look more mythic than the opening one here.  Scott is remarkable in this scene, bringing fire to every word of the speech (which was compiled by screenwriter Francis Ford Coppola from dozens of real speeches the general gave over the years.  I especially love how Patton flavors some of the language, going from poignant to vulgar effortlessly (like the famous “crap through a goose” statement).  It’s an often parodied moment that still holds up well today.  You’ll rarely find an opening scene that manages to leave such an impression while at the same time shows so little.

6.

TOUCH OF EVIL (1958) – BOMB IN THE CAR

One of the most popular creative ways that some filmmakers like to open their movies up with is the single, long take.  What’s great about these shots is that it establishes the atmosphere of a scene far better than a more heavily edited sequence would.  The only problem is that these scenes are hard to pull off, especially when they get more complicated.  Some of the best examples of these complicated openings include the 7 minute introduction of the Hollywood studio from Robert Altman’s The Player (1992) and the 13 minute opening shot from earth’s orbit from Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity (2013).  But, if you were the find the greatest movie opening using a long unbroken take, it would be the granddaddy of them all from Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil.  With this 3 1/2 minute sequence, Welles set the bar high for this kind of cinematic trick, and all the other filmmakers who have used this technique have all aspired to come close to this scene, with only a few managing to match it.  It’s an astonishing complex scene for it’s time, starting on a close-up of the bomb itself, we see it placed within the trunk of the car, and from then on we follow the trek of the vehicle through the streets as it makes it’s way to the border checkpoint.  All the while, the camera also catches the introduction of our two leads, Charlton Heston and Janet Leigh, who follow close behind the vehicle, establishing them into the story and helping to connect them with what’s going to happen.  The camera finally cuts once the explosion is heard, and by then, so much groundwork has been laid for the unfolding mystery.  It’s an amazing cinematic moment and one that shows how well Orson Welles style remained strong over the years.  To this day, it is still the high water mark for this kind of opening shot.

5.

THE DARK KNIGHT (2008) – THE JOKER ROBS A BANK

Christopher Nolan had already earned raves for his first venture into the world of the Caped Crusader with Batman Begins (2005).  When a sequel was green-lit, and it’s was discovered that the iconic villain The Joker would be involved, you could understand why Nolan felt that he had to up the ante this second time around.  With The Dark Knight, Nolan insisted on shooting select scenes with IMAX cameras, which would bring even bigger scale to the already extravagant marquee sequences.  And of these moments, the real stand out is the opening bank robbery sequence that introduces us to the Joker.  It’s an all around amazing opening, utilizing the full potential of the IMAX image.  From the opening flyover to the final reveal of a caravan of school buses, it’s a sequence that takes us for a ride and perfectly sets up the adventure that we are going to have for the remainder of the film.  But the opening’s best element is how it builds up the reveal of the Joker himself.  Heath Ledger remains hidden behind a mask the entire scene, appearing anonymous with the rest of his crew, until he has ensured that all of them have been taken out, leaving him the last man standing.  Then, being confronted by the wounded bank manager (played by William Fichtner), he finally shows his grotesque clown face under the mask, giving us one of the most iconic introductions in cinema history.  It’s an amazing way to establish an already iconic character into this new retelling.  Nolan would also give the villain Bane a strong introduction in his follow up sequel The Dark Knight Rises, but this sequence is still the better of the two.  With a chilling performance by Heath Ledger and spectacular IMAX cinematography on display, this was perfect way to open up a movie in a big way.

4.

A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (1971) – THE KOROVA MILK BAR

Stanley Kubrick is another director that puts special emphasis on the opening scenes of his movies.  Whether it’s using an atmospheric introduction like the “dawn of man” sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), or a scenic “god’s eye” view like the opening credits of The Shining (1980), or a non-sequitur moment like the haircuts from Full Metal Jacket (1987), he makes very deliberate decisions when it comes to starting off his movies in the right way.  But, for the greatest opening to a Kubrick film overall, you can’t find anything better than the opening shot from A Clockwork Orange.  This sequence is defined solely by one singular image, and that’s of actor Malcolm McDowall in the role of Alex DeLarge staring menacingly right down the barrel of the camera lens.  It’s an unsettling stare that remains unbroken for the entire minute and a half of the shot.  From the extreme close-up, the camera slowly zooms out revealing the full tableau of the Korova Milk Bar in one of Kubrick’s trademark camera moves.  Even while more of the scenery is revealed, the focus still remains on the central figure of Alex, spotlighting him in the scene and establishing his importance, which will play out through the movie.  Like Patton before, it’s an opening shot that stands out as an iconic image on it’s own, defining the movie we are about to watch right from frame one.  What is also so remarkable from this scene is how well Kubrick makes it work with such stillness, with the only movement being a sip of milk from Alex and the camera itself.  Add to this the chilling synth version of “Funeral Music for Queen Mary” and you’ve got one of the most unsettling and brilliant openings in movie history.

3.

THE LION KING (1994) – CIRCLE OF LIFE

Disney’s animated films have always tried to start off their films in a big way, usually through a lavish musical number.  Most are memorable in their own right, but I don’t think you will ever see a stronger opening than the one from The Lion King.  Even the very first frame of the movie is epic on it’s own, with the iconic sunrise being punctuated by the powerful “NAAAAHHH” chant of the chorus.  From that stunning image, we see what the sequences main purpose is all about, and that’s to establish a sense of place for this picture, which is the stunning beauty of the African Savannah, and all the amazing creatures that call it home.  The sequence is beautifully presented with the accompaniment of Elton John’s now legendary tune.  Even before we meet any of the main characters, this movie has already transported us and put us into another world.  Of course, the sequence saves it’s most epic moment for the reveal of the iconic Pride Rock, where the characters of Mufasa, Rafiki, and of course infant Simba are introduced.  And finally, it ends on one of the most iconic images Disney has ever brought to the silver screen; that of Rafiki holding the baby Simba up high for all to see, with a ray of sunshine beaming down on them.  No animated movie before or since has ever announced itself as strongly as The Lion King has.  It’s kinda hard to believe that in it’s early development, The Lion King was considered the B-picture at the studio.  When this sequence finally came together, I bet that distinction wore off quickly because this is an A-quality opening to a movie.  It’s almost too strong of an opening sequence, because Disney tried for many years after to replicate it’s success and failed.  With beautiful visuals, a stirring song, and a powerful statement right from the beginning, this is the animated opening that’s king of them all.

2.

STAR WARS – EPISODE IV: A NEW HOPE (1977) – IN A GALAXY FAR, FAR AWAY

Director George Lucas had to prove a lot of naysayers wrong when he set out to create a return to the old sci-fi serials of classic Hollywood.  What seemed to be a silly space based adventure in the beginning  proved to be in the end a stellar cinematic achievement.  With earnest direction, groundbreaking visual effects, and a stirring John Williams score, Star Wars proved to be a great success, and all those successful features can be found right there in the opening scene.  After the triumphant theme starts with the opening title and the introductory crawl (a nod to the classic serials) we pan down from the vastness of space to the see the colossal horizon of a planet beneath us, and from above a small spaceship comes into from.  This alone would’ve been nothing too special for audiences (especially those who had already seen 2001), but what follows the ship is our first  glimpse of what we know now as a Star Destroyer; a massive fleet ship that is so vast that even the widescreen panorama can’t quite capture it’s true scope.  This is the moment that announced to the world that Star Wars was no silly B-Movie, but instead a true force to be reckoned with.  It’s an amazing combination of visuals, music and audacious vision, which thankfully continues all the way through the picture.  From there, the movie plunges us right into the action, with little time to waste explaining it all.  We soon are introduced to this world’s character which includes the droids R2-D2, C-3PO, the fearless Princess Leia, and of course the menacing Darth Vader, who gets the most iconic introduction of all.  You could say that an empire was built alone right here in these crucial opening minutes, and that is enough to put it near the top of this list.

1.

SAVING PRIVATE RYAN (1998) – STORMING OMAHA BEACH

The other entries on this list are defined by either masterful cinematic techniques, exceptional displays of writing and performance, or through singular iconic imagery.  This scene makes it to the top purely just for the visceral impact that it leaves on the viewer.  Steven Spielberg opened his war epic with a 20 minute recreation of the D-Day invasion of Normandy by Allied forces.  We are put there on the ground, seeing the battle unfold from the soldier’s point of view, and witnessed mostly from the perspective of Tom Hanks’ Captain Miller.  In this sequence, we see the true brutality of combat, with soldiers dying left and right all around the periphery of the camera’s frame.  It captured war in a “you are there” way that no other film had managed to before, and this is how Spielberg chose to open his movie.  The reason it remains so powerful is because of this witness point of view.  Hanks acts as our eyes, drawing our attention to the horrors around us in the scene, some of which is still horrifically graphic.  But, apart from the impact it leaves, you also are left marveling at the way it is crafted.  Spielberg used handheld photography to give the movie a documentary like feel (much of which he shot himself), and every explosion and blood spurt feels genuine, and not like something done for a movie.  It blurs the line between reality and make believe better than any other war movie I’ve ever seen, and presents war combat in probably the truest sense possible; even capturing the triumph of winning the battle honestly.   To pull a scene like this off in the middle of a film alone would be quite an achievement, let alone having it be the opening to your film.  It’s one of the greatest cinematic moments ever and easily the greatest movie opening in history.

So, there you have my choices for the greatest opening scenes in movie history.  Despite the fact that these movies are elevated by the strength of their opening moments, it doesn’t necessarily mean that every great movie needs a great opening.  Can any of you recall the opening scene from Rocky (1976), or Casablanca (1943), or even Psycho (1960)?  Maybe you do, but you would never consider them one of the highlights of the movie, and honestly neither of those films needed to open in a big way.  Nevertheless, a great movie is still made even better by an opening scene that stands out.  You have scenes like the opening of Star Wars and the “Circle of Life” that already set the bar high for the rest of the movie to live up to and the fact that they do make you appreciate the film even more.  There’s also the openings that instill imagery that will never your mind like the opening shots of Patton and A Clockwork Orange.  And then you’ve got moments of just pure cinematic power like Saving Private Ryan’s Omaha Beach scene.  All of these did the best thing that a movie could have asked for which is to establish a strong foundation on which the rest of the movie could comfortably build from.  In many ways, your beginning may be the hardest thing to create for a movie, and these films in particular offer some perfect guides with regards to how to do it right.  If you grab the attention of your audience within the first few minutes, than you have a better chance of holding on to them for the remainder of the movie and there lies the value of great opening scenes in the whole of cinematic history.

Top Ten Movies of 2016

So, 2016 is over, and to many that is a blessing.  Not to delve into the politics of the world, but it’s safe to say that there was a lot of turmoil that shook people to their core and made them weary of the state of things looking into the future.  Naturally, when people are depressed or in need of a pick me up, they turn to the escapism of cinema, and this year’s box office numbers reflected that.  Last year saw a record number of grosses at the box office, with the Disney company alone accounting for nearly 20% of all that.  Disney’s mammoth year saw the huge success of both their animated films Zootopia and Moana, plus two more huge hits from their Pixar and Marvel brands (Finding Dory and Captain America: Civil War, the two highest grossing films of the year coincidentally enough), as well as big returns from their Jungle Book remake, and also from a little thing called Rogue One.  Apart from that, 2016 also saw surprising success in the off seasons as well, with Spring films in particular like Deadpool and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice doing amazingly well.  This year also saw it’s fair share of failures too, with former powerhouses like Johnny Depp and Tom Hanks taking a hit with their respective flops, Alice Through the Looking Glass and Inferno, as well as well respected filmmakers like Steven Spielberg and Oliver Stone failing to make an impact with their new ambitious features, despite some critical praise (The BFG and Snowden).  In general, 2016 was an offbeat year, and the movies this year reflected that, both good and bad.  Naturally, like every year, I have put together my picks for the top 10 films of the year, as well as my bottom 5.  And in a year as unpredictable as this one, my choices were just as surprising to me as I’m sure it will be to you.

First of all, before I go into the list itself, I would like to spotlight the movies that nearly made my top 10.  Out of the over 60 movies I saw this year, there were plenty to choose from, and though these fell short, they are still worth seeing.  So, in alphabetical order: 10 Cloverfield Lane, Arrival, The BFG, The Birth of a Nation, Captain America: Civil War, Doctor Strange, Fences, Finding Dory, Hacksaw Ridge, Kubo and the Two Strings, Loving, Moana, Pete’s Dragon, Rogue One, Silence, Sing Street, Star Trek Beyond, Swiss Army Man, and War Dogs.  Also, keep in mind, these are all movies that I saw in the calendar year of 2016, so any critically acclaimed movies released in the last year that I didn’t get to like 20th Century WomenFlorence Foster JenkinsNocturnal Animals, Queen of Katwe, and Paterson won’t be on this list.  I hope you find all of these interesting choices.  I tried to reflect in this list the movies that left the biggest impact on me this year, and not what I think will be everyone else’s favorite.  So, with that, lest’s begin the countdown.

10.

LA LA LAND

Directed by Damien Chazelle

Perhaps the most talked about film of this still young awards season, Damien Chazelle’s sophomore feature after his Oscar-winning breakout Whiplash (2014) is a one of the year’s most audacious films.  Chazelle tells a story of the movie capital of the world today with some of the tools that the city was built upon.  With classic style musical numbers that harken back to memories of movies like Swing Time (1939) and Singing in the Rain (1952), La La Land is blissfully nostalgic, but it’s the story in between the songs that really makes this movie stand out.  The movie is about the harsh reality that many young dreamers have to go through when they move to a place like Los Angeles and find that their dreams of love and success may sadly always be out of their reach.  In the film, we follow two characters played wonderfully by Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, who seek love as well as success, and sadly realize towards the end that in order to achieve one, they may have to give up the other.  In this movie, director Chazelle clearly knows his film history, and he tries his best to bring the magic of the old Hollywood dream machine into a very modern story.  It’s a celebration of the wonder that is Los Angeles, as well as a cautionary tale.  And, considering that I myself am an aspiring writer living in Los Angeles and trying to find success on my own, it’s easy to see why I identify a little with the main characters of this story, and the ups and downs they go through.  Chazelle’s direction may be at times a little too inconsistent, but when you have moments as creative and unique as a dance number on an LA freeway during rush hour, you can easily forgive the shortcomings and just enjoy the spectacle.

9.

EYE IN THE SKY 

Directed by Gavin Hood

One of the most interesting discoveries this year was this little seen but extremely effective thriller about military drone strikes.  After struggling in the Hollywood machine for the last decade, with underwhelming to bad films like Ender’s Game and X-Men Origins: Wolverine, director Gavin Hood finally delivers a provocative and intense film that shows the full potential of his talents.  Taking place in real time, the film presents a scenario of a difficult military decision to surveillance potential terrorist and decide whether or not to preemptively strike once they learn of the deadly plot that is being hatched.  The fascinating part of this movie is that we see the entire decision making process unfold from all the participants and how such decisions must go through several hurdles before they are executed; which becomes especially complicated when they are faced with the possibility of severe collateral damage when an innocent little girl ends up in the crossfire zone.  Told from three different perspectives (the command center in Britain, the drone pilot station in America, and on the ground with the spies watching the terrorists closely) the movie plays out like 12 Angry Men in a war film, and it’s the debate before the actual strike that provides the best tension throughout.  The actors play their roles well, and are surprisingly effective against type in some cases.  Helen Mirren is wonderful as always, and Breaking Bad’s Aaron Paul holds his own with some heavy hitters.  But especially memorable is Alan Rickman in what is sadly his final film role.  Watching him perform here just reminds you how much he will be missed, and it’s a worthy finale to his incredible career.  This movie was, so to speak, under the radar all year, but it is well worth seeing because it’s more than just your average war film and it spotlights an issue that’s well worth talking about more.

8.

DEADPOOL

Directed by Tim Miller

I know that in my earlier review of this movie that I was a bit more reserved in my judgement on the film, knocking some points off for some of it’s generic super hero origin bits.  But, if there was ever a movie this year that grew on me, this would be it.  It’s hard to believe that the best Marvel super hero movie of the year was one that was not made by Marvel Studios.  Sure, I like Civil War and Doctor Strange well enough, but in the long run, I think that Deadpool offered something more to the genre; that being a very much needed skewering.  With a script that was worked on for years and a lead actor who believed so much in this role and could not have been better cast, Deadpool is a near perfect translation of Marvel’s iconic “merc with a mouth” to the big screen; far better in fact than most other characters we’ve seen from other recent Marvel and DC properties.  It is also one of the flat out funniest movies of the year.  From the hilarious opening credits to the appropriately absurd film end credits tag, every moment of this movie is perfectly constructed to tickle our funny bone.  Whether it’s Deadpool’s constant fourth wall breaking quips, the running gag centered on the main villain’s real name, or the several jabs at a certain Aussie actor from the X-Men franchise, every gag hits it’s mark.  This was a movie that actor Ryan Reynolds and crew had to make under the radar at Fox and it’s great to see it pay off.  And for a genre that’s starting to show signs of fatigue, this movie was very much needed right now.  It’s a genre send-up that holds it’s own among the finest.  If The Avengers (2012) was the super hero genre’s Magnificent Seven (1960), this would be it’s Blazing Saddles (1974), and that’s a high, high compliment.

7.

THE NICE GUYS

Directed by Shane Black

The even better genre throwback starring Ryan Gosling from 2016.  This movie finds the genius mind behind Lethal Weapon (1987), The Last Boy Scout (1991), and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2004) back on familiar ground and in his element.  After a disappointing venture into the Marvel universe with Iron Man 3 (2013), director Shane Black feels much more at home working within this tongue-in-cheek throwback to buddy cop movies of the 1970’s.  But what is especially surprising is that he got these comical performances out of two actors not known for their comedic chops.  Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe prove to be remarkably adept at matching the sometimes absurdist style of Black’s character driven comedy, feeling almost like they’ve been working off each other for years like an Abbott and Costello style team.  Gosling in particular gets the film’s biggest laughs as a perpetually drunk and inept private eye.  One bit where he tries to bust open a window with his bare hand only to cut open his wrist and bleed in the process is one of the movies best moments and a brilliant dissection of a genre cliche.  The whole movie is like this and it makes for both a great parody of a long worn out Hollywood genre as well as a worthy representation of it.  And like the previous genre throwback with Ryan Gosling on this list, it is also a fantastic love letter to the city of Los Angeles, only this time spotlighting the grittier, sleazy side of the city that defined it in the 1970’s, in which this movie is set.  My hope is that Shane Black continues to deliver more character driven genre farces like this one, and that both Gosling and Russell Crowe continue to branch out into more comedic territory, because this movie showed that they have a surprisingly strong knack for it.

6.

HELL OR HIGH WATER

Directed by David Mackenzie

There are some movies out there that really transport you into a different place that feels like a different time, but is really just a window into the everyday world that the people in this setting live everyday.  This Neo Western comes from the same screenwriter (Taylor Sheridan) who wrote my favorite film of 2015, Sicario.  And like SicarioHell or High Water throws the viewer head first into it’s world with all it’s detail, only instead of showcasing borderland drug wars, this movie focuses on the quiet isolation of West Texas.  Following two bank robbing brothers (played by Chris Pine and Ben Foster) as well as the dogged state trooper in pursuit of them (played by wonderfully grizzled Jeff Bridges) the movie plays out like a snapshot of Americana come to life, with rich characters and setting driving the narrative.  I loved the way that this movie sort of steps backs and let’s the story play out naturally without any melodramatic tampering.  It’s gorgeous to look at, with the wide Texas plains dominating the landscape, and the detail put into the setting is exquisite.  There is plenty of local flavoring that gives this movie character, like a great bit where Bridges stops at hole in the wall diner and has to deal with the tough as nails waitress who works there.  The performances too are exceptional.  Bridges is in his element here, riding a fine line between being affable and intimidating.  The way he teases his put upon partner (played by Gil Birmingham) also gives the movie some much needed levity.  Chris Pine also is wonderfully restrained here, and helps to ground the movie as a whole.  But, it’s Ben Foster that steals the movie with his performance as the brother on a deadly death wish spiral throughout the movie.  It’s one of the year’s most beautifully atmospheric films and a modern Western that does the genre proud.

5.

MOONLIGHT

Directed by Barry Jenkins

This little indie wonder takes a very difficult and often times overlooked subject, and paints this beautifully visual poem around it.  The movie follows the life of a young African-American boy living in the projects of the City of Miami through three different ages in his life; late childhood, high school, and early adulthood.  And in those different time periods, we see him struggle through many different issues that plague his life and ultimately close him off from the rest of the world.  He suffers through an abusive relationship with his drug addicted mother (played brilliantly by Skyfall’s Naomie Harris), finds a father figure in a drug dealer (played by House of Card’s Mahershala Ali), get’s bullied in school, and all the while he is struggling to deal with the growing awareness of his homosexuality.  The movie is grounded in it’s humanity, but it’s also not afraid to delve into some very lyrical moments.  There are some beautifully constructed moments that are both dreamlike and nightmarish at the same time, giving a cinematic window into the inner turmoil of our main character.  The three actors who play the main character (going by the names Little, Chiron, and Black at the different stages) all do a superb job.  You really get a sense from this movie of the evolution this person has gone through, and how he has been shaped by where he has come from and the people he has known.  I also really admired the very delicate way that it deals with the issue of being gay in the black community.  It doesn’t sensationalize the issue, but instead makes the character’s struggle a very personal one, and as a result make it feel much more authentic as an issue.  It’s hard to believe that this is a feature debut for director Barry Jenkins because his grasp of style and story is remarkable here and it stands as one of the better artistic statements made at the movies in recent years.

4.

HAIL, CAESAR!

Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen

This movie came out so early in the year, that I think a lot of people have forgotten that this was a 2016 release, which unfortunately has led to it being mostly forgotten by year’s end.  However, I didn’t forget and I especially want to give it it’s due as one of the year’s best because this is yet again another masterpiece from some of the best filmmakers working today; the always brilliant Coen Brothers.  Hail, Caesar is a pitch perfect send up of classic Hollywood; much more so than the also commendable La La Land.  In it, we see all the quirks behind dream factory, and the often eccentric people who live and work within it.  Like all the best Coen Brother comedies, it’s the characters that make this movie memorable; from George Clooney’s dimwitted leading man, to Scarlett Johansson’s foul-mouthed beauty queen, to the wonderfully hokey singing cowboy played by the scene-stealing Alden Ehrenreich.  And like other Coen Brother movies, the film is grounded by a put upon character in the form of Josh Brolin’s studio executive, who unfortunately has to keep his studio under tight control even with all the missteps committed by his sometimes lackwitted cast and crew.  There was just something about this movie that tickled the classic Hollywood cinephile in me, and I think the thing I adored the most were the beautifully constructed representation of old Hollywood film-making.  Really, every single parody of a classic film within this movie is something i would honestly watch without sarcasm.  You can tell this was a cinematic love letter, but, it’s also not without the Coen Brothers’ patented sense for the absurd.  With literal Communist conspiracies, misguided self-destructive behavior, and tabloid driven back stabbing, the Coens show that the Hollywood dream machine was often built on a very corrupt and shady foundation.  And through that, the Coen’s find the catalyst for some brilliant comedy.

3.

MANCHESTER BY THE SEA

Directed by Kenneth Lonergan

Veteran screenwriter Lonergan rarely steps behind the camera, with 2000’s You Can Count on Me and 2011’s Margaret being his only other two directorial efforts.  But, when he does, he proves to be a master at portraying slice of life stories in small town America.  Manchester by the Sea is a brilliantly told story about a man (played in a stand out performance from Casey Affleck) dealing with grief that too often proves inescapable.  In the movie, Affleck’s character learns of his older brother’s untimely death and has to return to his titular hometown in order to look after his teenage nephew (played by Lucas Hedges).  As he deals with this new tragedy in his life, we also slowly piece together what exactly made him leave town in the first place, and it’s a devastating revelation that tells you all you need to know why someone would turn their back on a quaint little paradise like Manchester.  The movie is very deliberately paced and never melodramatic, which helps to greatly absorb us the viewer into the story.  Lonergan has this incredible knack for capturing authenticity in his characters, and making it feel like they are real people to us, and not just actors giving a performance.  Affleck in particular gives one of the best performances of the year in a quiet, understated portrayal that perfectly conveys the mindset of a tortured soul just trying to make it through life.  The supporting cast is also wonderfully realized in their roles, including Michelle Williams as the ex-wife who has one scene in the movie where she confronts Affleck’s character that is heartbreaking and achingly authentic.  The wintertime New England setting is also beautifully presented and does a wonderful job of transplanting us into this community.  It’s another triumph for Kenneth Lonergan who, even though he has a small body of work to his name, still shows amazing talent as a director.

2.

ZOOTOPIA

Directed by Byron Howard and Rich Moore

Disney had a stellar year at the box office, but it seems fitting that the best film to come from the studio this year was from out of their legendary Animation department.  Zootopia is not just the best animated film of the year, but also one of the best animated movies ever made, and one that stands strong alongside many of the other classics from the legendary studio.  The premise seemed simple enough from the outset; a world like our own, only inhabited by animals instead of humans, which is brilliantly realized in the film.  But beyond the skill of the animation, it’s the story behind it that really made this movie exceptional.  This is one of the smartest scripts I’ve ever seen for an animated film, as it tackles the very serious subject of prejudice in society in a way that speaks to audiences of all ages.  Most other animated films tend to sugar coat issues like racism and bigotry in their movies, or sometimes forget the subtlety of their portrayals as well.  Zootopia deals with it perfectly by showing the full reality of it head on, and how sometimes even the good guys can be guilty of perpetuating an unfair system of prejudice.  Honestly, if there was ever a movie that summed up the year 2016, this would be it, as issues of racial division, excessive force from law enforcement, and a political climate manipulated to drive communities apart for the benefit of a select few have dominated our public discourse this year.  But, even with the more serious subject matter, Zootopia is wonderfully entertaining in the way that the best Disney films are.  Also, Jason Bateman and Ginnifer Goodwin give some of the best vocal performances in recent memory for an animated film, and endear their characters of Nick Wilde and Judy Hopps as among Disney’s best.  It’s amazing that the best portrayal of human behavior in our modern society this year came from a movie starring an all animal cast.  It’s a cinematic social lesson that I hope leaves a valuable impression on younger audiences, and motivates them to rise above the prejudices that plague us in society today.

And finally….

1.

A MONSTER CALLS

Directed by J. A. Bayona

It was a tough call between this and Zootopia as the best film of 2016 for me, but in the end, A Monster Calls just won me over with it’s devastatingly beautiful story.  I caught the film in limited release here in LA, and it is just now being rolled out nationwide, and I strongly recommend it to everyone.  Although, be forewarned; this is a devastating movie that will drive some of you to tears.  The movie deals with a young boy (played by newcomer Lewis MacDougall) who is trying to cope with the failing health of his cancer-striken mother (played by Rogue One’s Felicity Jones) which leads him to a surprising confrontation with a giant, tree born monster (voiced by Liam Neeson) who asks the boy to listen to three stories.  The stories of course are meant to educate the boy and help him deal with his grief, and it proves to be a surprisingly effective form of therapy for him.  The movie may not be for every, and I acknowledge that some of the movie is intentionally manipulative.  But, I was completely absorb by the near perfect execution of this film.  It represented the best cinematic storytelling that I saw all this year and it’s what propelled it to the top of my list.  It felt like a spiritual successor to the character building boyhood movies of my childhood like E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) and The NeverEnding Story (1987), which underscored the story of a young boy’s coming of age with extraordinary supernatural elements.  The animation of the monster himself is exceptional, riding that fine line between feeling authentically alive, but still cartoonish enough to be a magical manifestation.  Also, Lewis MacDougall gives one of the best performances from a child actor that I’ve seen in recent memory and he carries this film on his shoulders like a true pro.  Blending fantasy and reality together in such a vivid way, A Monster Calls is a new classic in the making and the best cinematic experience I had this last year.

Now, as promised, I will include my choices for the worst films of the year. Keep in mind, I usually try to avoid wasting my money on movies that I know will be bad, but even still, I still managed to wander into a few that sadly reinforced all my worries about all the bad things about the Hollywood machine.  And like 2016 itself, some of them were too ugly reminders of the society we live in.  So, let’s go through the worst movies I saw this year.

5. ALICE THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS – The Tim Burton movie was bad enough, but this lifeless sequel added nothing better, and just felt like nothing more than the obvious cash-in that it was.  And again, it’s another troubling failure for the once reliable Johnny Depp, who is in desperate need of a new direction in his career.

4. THE LOBSTER – Sometimes there are surrealist films that manage to land and become entertaining, and then there are those that have their head up their ass.  This one is sadly the latter.  A surrealist film that’s confused whether it wants to be a comedy or a drama, and succeeds at neither.  It also wastes committed performances from the likes of Colin Farrell and Rachel Weisz.  In the end, it was one of the most boring experiences I had at the movies this year.

3. THE BROTHERS GRIMSBY – Sascha Baron Cohen rocked the world with his delightfully absurd film Borat (2006), but a decade later, he has lost much of the brilliance in his comedy and is now sadly just falling back on disgusting bodily humor to carry his films.  This spy movie spoof makes you sit through scenes of elephant sex, teabagging, and many more gross-out scenarios that only makes you cringe and never laugh.  Even a bit where Donald Trump ends up accidentally swallowing AIDS tainted blood falls flat.

2. GHOSTBUSTERS (2016) – Honestly, the ugly controversy surrounding this film was worse than the movie itself, but the movie was still bad regardless.  The all-female cast was one of the better aspects of the film, but they are handcuffed by a lame script that is completely devoid of any of the brilliance that was found in the original Ghostbusters (1984).  What we get instead is a studio driven cash-in that is masquerading as a revival of the series.  This movie is a lesson in Hollywood hubris and how you can’t just manufacture a hit franchise, you need to let it be it’s own thing.  Never did I ever think that a movie called Ghostbusters would fail to entertain me, but here it is.

And the worst of 2016 is…

1. INDEPENDENCE DAY: RESURGENCE – There were plenty of bad sequels in 2016, but this monstrosity managed to stink the worst of all.  The original Independence Day (1996) was a dumb movie as well, but it had charm to it, as well as a charismatic performance from star Will Smith.  Both the charm and Smith are missing from this movie, and it’s probably the smartest move for an actor’s career since Keanu Reeves sat out Speed 2 (1997).  Sadly, the other returning actors were not as smart.  Even the always entertaining Jeff Goldblum can’t save this.  Unlike most other filmmakers who refine and mature with every new feature, Roland Emmerich somehow seems to get worse with each new film he makes; and Resurgence is his worst one yet.  Seriously, fans of the original had to wait 20 years for this?  How is it possible that the visual effects for a two decade old movie look better than the ones seen in it’s “more advanced” sequel?  This is a mind-numbingly dumb movie and far and away the most infuriating movie experience that I had last year.

So, there you go.  My 2016 film experience in a nutshell.  Overall, it was a mixed year.  There were fewer movies that I outright hated this year, but also very few that actually left a positive impact as well.  It was more a less a year of passable cinema, which to some is not a good sign of things to come for the industry.  I for one am hoping for 2017 to be a year of pleasant surprises.  In the months ahead, we are going to see if DC Comics are able to sink or swim in this competitive super hero genre as they release their long awaited Justice League and Wonder Woman movies.  Disney hopes to continue it’s hot streak with the ambitious Beauty and the Beast remake, as well as films from their Pixar (Cars 3 and Coco) and Marvel (Guardians of the Galaxy 2, Spiderman: Homecoming, and Thor: Ragnarok) divisions.  Also, let’s not forget the juggernaut that is Star Wars, with the continuation of it’s saga in Episode VIII.  There are also ambitious continuations of the Fast and the Furious, Pirates of the Caribbbean, Alien, Planet of the Apes, and Transformers franchises as well; some audiences are looking more forward to than others. We are also going to see the next big epic from Christopher Nolan (Dunkirk), as well as some new re-imaginings of old monster movies as well (The Mummy and Kong: Skull Island).  Of course, the upcoming festival season will also provide us with movies to look forward to in the more critically acclaimed fall season, but it’s anyone’s guess where the best and worst of 2017 will be found.  As every year before, I will continue to share my thoughts and critical opinions on all the new offerings this year.  I hope my 2016 list helpful for spotlighting some great films you may have missed and that you all continue to have a fun time watching movies this next year.

Top Ten Ghosts in Movies

ghost-in-movie

Horror has long been popular in the world of cinema, and with it, all the many horrific monsters that come along with it.  Movie monsters like the Frankenstein monster, the Wolf Man, the Mummy, as well as vampires like Dracula are always reliable icons of the genre to fall back on year after year.  But, if there was one reliable source for tales of the horrific and macabre, it would be ghost stories.  Ghosts are probably the most widely used supernatural entity used in movies today, and that’s largely because they are so varied and they lend themselves so well to the medium of film.  Ever since filmmakers of the silent era learned how to transpose one image onto another through cross processing of their films, creating a transparent ghostly effect, spirits and specters have remained continually a part of cinematic history.  Even though they are largely associated with the horror genre, you can still find ghost characters in a variety of different types of films. There are ghosts found in romantic films (Ghost and Truly, Madly, Deeply), comedies (Ghost Town), and even in Science Fiction (Event Horizon).  For the most part, their presence means a variety of things; either to haunt our protagonists if they have hostile intentions, or to reach out and deliver important guidance to the main character if they’ve lost their way.  Not all movie ghosts are the same, and yet having one in your film nevertheless brings a spooky, unworldly element to the story.  Some movie ghosts even become stars in their own right, outside of their place in the film’s story, and because of this, I decided to spotlight some of the more notable.

What follows is my list of the top ten movie ghosts.  As you will see, not all of them come from what you will call “scary movies.”  In fact, the majority of them are benevolent in their intentions; only a couple here will haunt your nightmares.  My choices are based on how well they stand out in their selected movies, how well they represent the embodiment (so to speak) of a ghostly image, and their overall effectiveness as characters.  Some of these choices are noteworthy in film history, and I should pre-warn you, there will be some plot spoilers ahead; including one particular one that i’m sure some of you will see coming.  I’m also excluding any ghost that’s come out of urban legends after a movie’s release, so no Three Men and a Baby ghost boy on this list.  Not all of these may be your own favorites, and some of them might be surprises.  Overall, I just wanted to show all of you just how varied ghosts can be on the big screen.  Whether scary or not, there are more than you’d think.  And so, let’s spook up our top ten happy haunts.

10.

shoeless-joe-jackson

SHOELESS JOE JACKSON from FIELD OF DREAMS (1989)

Here we have an example of ghosts in a movie whose appearance is miraculous rather than frightening.  In the movie, Kevin Costner’s Ray Kinsella hears a disembodied voice telling him in the middle of a cornfield, “If you build it, he will come.”  After clearing his cornfield to build a baseball field, which his family and neighbors see as a sign of insanity, Ray is soon greeted by the spirit of Shoeless Joe Jackson, a real life baseball player.  And not only that, but the entire 1918 Chicago White Sox team, all of whom were banned from baseball for purposely throwing games in the World Series for mafia backed gamblers.  And, of course, they begin playing ball again, on the field that Ray has built for them.  Shoeless Joe in this movie represents the most common kind of benevolent ghost that you’ll see in movies, and that’s the messenger spirit, or as some might interpret, the guardian angel.  Whether he was the voice Ray heard in the field is unclear, but Shoeless Joe’s place in the story is to show Ray why his good deeds are important.  The movie is about redemption, and it’s fitting that a talented ball player like Jackson, whose career was clouded by one terrible mistake, would return from beyond the grave to reach out and deliver this message to others in need of guidance.  Ray Liotta does a fine job playing Jackson, and the other ghosts in the story are just as fascinating.  In this unlikely ghost story, it’s interesting how the movie can make the supernatural more hopeful than scary.

9.

santi

SANTI from THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE (2001)

Though ghosts who deliver messages to our protagonists tend to be for the most part pleasant in nature, there are a few that do appear in grotesque forms.  That is definitely the case with Santi, the ghost boy from Guillermo del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone.  Set during the final days of the Spanish Civil War, the movie revolves around the life of a boy named Carlos, who is haunted by Santi in a remote Orphanage in Spain, which is about to be in the cross-hairs of Republican and Fascist forces in one final battle.  Santi is not a hostile ghost, but he is nevertheless a frightening presence.  Del Toro is one of those rare directors who can delicately walk that fine line between the ethereal and the horrific, and this dichotomy is perfectly embodied in Santi.  His design is beautiful in it’s grotesqueness, pale white with sallow, rotten eyes and a eggshell like crack on his forehead with blood not dripping out of his head, but instead flowing upwards like a cloud of smoke.  All these features present in the person-hood of a little boy makes the imagery all the more unsettling.  And yet, Santi is there to be a spiritual guide rather than a nightmare for our main character Carlos, warning him of the coming danger as well as helping him discover what really led to his untimely end; making his story all the more tragic.  Santi would prove to be a monumental character for Del Toro, as he would return to the same techniques of portraying ghostly characters in Crimson Peak (2015).  Though the ghosts in that movie were memorable too, Santi still remains one of the macabre director’s more standout creations.

8.

moaning-myrtle

MOANING MYRTLE from HARRY POTTER AND THE CHAMBER OF SECRETS (2002)

Now for a ghost child of a different kind, we turn to Moaning Myrtle from the Harry Potter franchise.  The ghosts of Hogwarts play a minor but still important factor in the series as a whole, whether it is Nearly Headless Nick (played by John Cleese) adding humor and playfulness to the character of the wizarding school, or the White Lady (played by Kelly MacDonald) giving an important clue to Harry in the final showdown of the series.  But, it’s Myrtle that stands out the most for a variety of reasons.  First, she’s a scene-stealing character with wild mood swings that generates a few laughs out of the audience.  And secondly, she’s notable for being the first ever victim of the murderous rampage of the series’ main villain, Voldemort.  Killed by Voldemort’s obedient servant Basilisk during his years as a student at Hogwarts, Myrtle is forever doomed to haunting the girls bathroom, lamenting the fact that no one liked her up until her death, and beyond.  Myrtle could have come across as obnoxious easily, and it’s a testament to actress Shirley Henderson for finding the humanity in the character and making her sympathetic while also ridiculously pathetic.  Amazingly, Henderson was 35 years old at the time she played the character, showing just how talented she could be at embodying the persona of an angsty teenager from beyond the grave.  She would show up again in the fourth Harry Potter film, only this time less dreary and more affectionate to Harry, in a hilariously uncomfortable way.  Though physically and purposely a haunting spirit in every way, Myrtle is a ghost that’s easy to love, if you can get her to stop crying.

7.

delbert-grady

DELBERT GRADY from THE SHINING (1980)

Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining is the perfect example of a modern ghost story; with a hotel literally infested with malevolent spirits.  Kubrick does a brilliant job of portraying the ghosts in a different way than most other movies would.  Unlike other films, where ghosts would appear transparent and be able to float or pass through walls, Kubrick’s ghosts appear out of nowhere and appear as lifelike as any normal human being.  The ghosts appear around the corner or reveal themselves through a revere shot edit; simple cinematic tricks that are done to an unnerving effect.  Audiences will never forget the first time they saw the two little girl ghost appear at the end of a hallway in the memorable Steadicam tracking shot; an iconic moment that doesn’t use or need a special effect to convey a moment of terror.  And while the girls are terrifying, it is actually their father that ends up being the more memorable, and terrifying ghost in the movie.  Delbert Grady, who we learn was the previous caretaker of the hotel, appears to Jack Nicholson’s Jack Torrance during a ghostly ballroom scene.  After spilling wine on Jack’s shirt, the two men clean up in the bathroom, leading to one of the most brilliant moments in the movie.  Played magnificently by Phillip Stone, Delbert Grady embodies the evil nature of the Hotel perfectly; pleasant on the outside, dark and foreboding on the inside.  He appeals to Jack’s darker instincts and convinces him to murder his own family, a fate he himself succumbed to.  It’s a subtle performance by Stone, but one that is memorably creepy.  Grady proves that the scariest kinds of ghosts don’t always have to be hidden in the shadows, or appear as decayed like a corpse.  Sometimes the worst kinds of haunts can be soft spoken and well-dressed.

6.

mufasa-ghost

MUFASA from THE LION KING (1994)

Death is strangely all too common in Disney movies, especially those of a loved one to our main heroes.  From Bambi’s mom to Anna and Elsa’s parents in Frozen, parental deaths are a particularly repeated trope used in Disney films.  However, only one of these departed parents has ever reached out from the great beyond to help their child out on their journey and that was Mufasa in The Lion King.  After being blamed by his uncle Scar for the untimely death of his father in a Wildebeest Stampede, Simba the lion cub retreats into exile.  But after many years, Simba is confronted with the fact that he must take his rightful place as king, and the message is made all the more clear when the spirit of his father Mufasa appears to him.  In a spectacular sequence, Mufasa appears larger than life out of the clouds and sets Simba straight, telling him to “Remember who you are.”  Shakespearean in it’s tone and epic in scale, Mufasa’s appearance is a memorable one.  The way he forms out of the negative space between the nighttime clouds is a particularly interesting way to represent his ghostly presence, and is unlike most other ghosts we’ve seen in films, animated or not.  Along with the booming voice of James Earl Jones, Mufasa’s spirit’s appearance is one of the most iconic moments in animation history.  And it’s interesting that it happens in a story that up until then contained no supernatural elements (unless you count the fact that you’re watching animals speak).  But at the same time, it feels thematically right, and it makes sense that such a life-force as Mufasa would return in such a way.

5.

malcolm-crowe

DR. MALCOLM CROWE from THE SIXTH SENSE (1999)

I warned you about spoilers before and this is why.  For those who have yet to see this movie, or know about it’s twist ending (are there really any of you left), I am about to spoil it right now.  For most of The Sixth Sense’s running time, we are led to believe that Dr. Crowe (played by Bruce Willis) is helping to provide psychiatric care to a troubled little boy (played by Haley Joel Osment in a breakout role) who says he can see ghosts.  We follow the two as they form a growing bond throughout the movie, and after the boy Cole accepts his gifts and is able to open up to friends and family, Crowe feels it’s time to return to his home and rebuild his marriage with his estranged wife, only to learn “SPOILERS” that he’s been dead this whole time.  The reason why Dr. Crowe stands out as one of cinemas most notable ghosts is because of that huge plot swerve at the end.  Now, when looking back on the movie, it doesn’t seem like that huge a shock, but the reason it worked so well is because of how well built up it is, thanks to both director M. Night Shaymalan’s expert storytelling and Willis’ performance (probably the best of his career).  We see Crowe’s murder in the opening scene, at the hands of a deranged former patient, and yet by shifting focus to Osment’s Cole afterwards, we forget about that incident, believing that Crowe had somehow managed to recover.  By playing things subtly throughout, we believe that Crowe is indeed still alive, which makes the revelation all the more shocking.  Clever clues throughout present the truth for us, but it is only in retrospect that we end up knowing that they’re there.  Malcolm Crowe is that rare movie ghost who doesn’t realize he was dead all along and it’s a miracle how well this movie made us all believe he was really there too.

4.

slimer

SLIMER from GHOSTBUSTERS (1984)

It would be unthinkable to not include on of the many iconic spirits from this comedy classic.  Gozer doesn’t really count since she is a deity that can neither be living nor dead, and the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man is the earthly form taken by an inter-dimensional demon, so you can’t really call him a ghost either.  There is however one standout ghost in Ghostbusters, and that is Slimer.  While more of a nuisance than any real threat, Slimer stands out as the first ghost captured by the titular team of ghost exterminators.  He certainly makes an impression right off the bat, being the glutton that he is, he haunts a swanky New York hotel and consumes all the room service carts.  When confronted by Bill Murray’s Peter Venkman, he immediately rushes towards him and slimes Peter head to toe, hence giving him the name.  Out of all ghosts that appear in the movie, Slimer is definitely the breakout star.  An animated series based on the movie shortly afterwards even featured him as a major character; as a Scooby-Doo like mascot no less.  But it’s easy to see the appeal.  With the grotesque, obese build and the bright green skin, Slimer was no doubt destined to be a stand out.  He was particularly popular toy for most kids of that era (of which I was one).  It’s also interesting that he was a favorite among the filmmakers too.  Dan Aykroyd even joked on the set that Slimer was the ghost of his beloved and collaborator John Belushi, who had died only a couple years before.  That in of itself only adds to Slimer iconic status as one of cinema’s greatest ghosts.

3.

obi-wan-force-ghost

OBI-WAN KENOBI from STAR WARS EPISODE V: THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (1980)

When beloved Jedi and Mentor Obi-Wan “Ben” Kenobi sacrificed himself to save Luke Skywalker from Darth Vader in the original Star Wars (1977), we thought we saw the last of the old man.  But, then we learned in the sequel, The Empire Strikes Back, that there was a thing called “Force Ghosting” and as it turns out, Obi-Wan was still capable of carrying out his mission in the afterlife.  While not a ghost in the traditional sense, Obi-Wan’s force ghost is still one of cinema’s most famous ghostly characters.  His mortal body was destroyed in his sacrifice, but his life force became one with the Force itself, allowing his consciousness to prosper.  As we see, Obi-Wan is able to still follow Luke and guide him, even though he has no physical form, although he can create a projection of himself, which fans of the series have dubbed his “force ghost.”  It’s a clever way to allow the series to still use actor Alec Guinness in the role, but it doesn’t feel out of place either.  It’s an interesting concept as well, which gives some merit to the idea of what an afterlife may be.  Science tells us that when we die, the energy within us also leaves us as our bodies decay and is reclaimed into the universe at large.  That cycle of life is part of the basis behind George Lucas’ concept of the Force, so it seems natural that life, death, and afterlife could all fall under that same idea of transferring energy throughout the cosmos.  Now, of course they still use the cinematic shortcut of making Obi-Wan’s Force Ghost appear like any other movie ghost, but the idea behind it is still an interesting one to contemplate.  And it only shows how powerful a Jedi he is when Obi-Wan can master the Force so well that he can appear to us again out of pure energy.

2.

freddy-kruger

FREDDY KRUGER from A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET (1984)

Some of the ghosts on this list are friendly, and others just want to scare you for a little fun.  But here we have a ghost quite literally out of our nightmares.  Freddy Kruger is a ghost serial killer, committing his murders on victims while they sleep comfortably in their own homes by invading their dreams.  He’s frightening, but also delightfully over the top and campy too.  You can tell that actor Robert Englund is having a blast playing the part, even under the layers of make-up that I’m sure took hours to apply.  But, don’t let the one-liners and hammy acting fool you.  Kruger is a monster in every shape and form, and some of his sadistic tortures are hard to watch at times.  But, it’s the invasion of privacy that makes this particular ghoul so frightening.  It’s the fear of everyone whose afraid of ghost that some unseen presence is around you and watching your every move.  Now add the idea of not being safe within your own mind while you sleep and you can see what makes Freddy such a terrifying character.  Director Wes Craven plays up this aspect quite well in his film, with his characters being driven into madness as they attempt to avoid the killer spook by keeping themselves awake to extreme ends.  Since his debut, Freddy has been an icon of the horror genre.  With the inhuman mask of burned skin and those menacing blade fingers of his, he is as nightmarish as they come.  If you have to pick out the scariest of big screen ghosts, Kruger would certainly be among the top picks.  And he is quite literally the kind of ghost that will keep you awake at night.

1.

beetlejuice

BETELGEUSE from BEETLEJUICE (1988)

All of the spirits on this list are memorable in some way, but how could I possibly not give the top spot to the “Ghost with the Most.”  Betelgeuse, or Beetlejuice depending on who you ask (both spellings are used in the movie), is every ghost rolled into one.  He’s a monster, a clown, a friend, a nuisance, a cartoon character, everything.  The brainchild of filmmaker Tim Burton, Betelgeuse is the quintessential Burton character.  Grotesque and yet ridiculous, you can tell he was a culmination of dreams from someone who grew up watching cartoons and horror movies and loving them both equally.  The visual design of the character is also inspired, with his striped suit, green hair and cadaver like face, Betelgeuse is the quintessential demon clown.  Ironic, given this performance, that Tim Burton would tap actor Michael Keaton to play Batman instead of the Joker, since this character seems like a test run for the later.  But, even still, Keaton is a wonder in this role.  Vulgar, obnoxious, and endlessly hilarious, it’s a thoroughly entertaining performance that indeed turned Keaton into a star.  Though he’s primarily a funny character, the movie still gives him a menacing side too.  His transformation into a serpent halfway through the film (animated in some impressive stop motion) is a particularly scary scene, even if it still contains some campy humor in it.  Even many years later, Betelgeuse still stands as an iconic cinematic ghost, and one of my personal favorites.  He’s still a hallmark in the careers of Keaton and Burton, and one of the greatest ghouls we’ll probably ever see on the big screen.  Just don’t say his name three times, or else there will be trouble.

So, there you have it; my choices for the greatest ghosts to ever appear in the movies.  Some are more traditional than others, and only a handful are particularly dangerous.  It’s just my way of showing the variety of types of ghosts that you can see used in so many different genres.  Whether it’s someones as benign as Shoeless Joe, or as menacing as Freddy Kruger, or a combination of all types like Betelgeuse, ghosts have some surprising roles to play in movies.  More often than not, you’re more likely to find the traditional horror movie representation of ghosts, with the transparent appearance and ethereal glow in dark corridors, most of the time and that’s understandable.  With Halloween around the corner, ghosts become a popular icon for the season and one of the best traditions around this time is sharing ghost stories with one another.  Ghosts are as common to storytelling as anything else, and they have a long proud tradition in our culture dating back centuries.  Whether you believe in their existence or not, you are bound to find ghosts in just about any storytelling medium you can think of.  Cinema has contributed some of the best to the world, and this Halloween season is made the better for it.  Let’s just hope that the haunting stays on the screen where it belongs, although depending on how memorable and potent the ghosts and ghouls are in the movie and also the type of movie you watch, you may also find your dreams and nightmare haunted by them as well.

Top Ten Animated Films Not Made by Disney or Pixar

pixar watching movies

Many animation companies have risen and fallen over the years, but if there is one that has stood tall as the standard, it would be Disney.  Disney has continuously put out animated features for nearly 80 years now, and will continue long into the future, and through all that time, it has grown stronger despite facing respectable competition at times.  One of the reasons it has remained at the top is because Disney has been the one that has more or less charted the direction of the industry.  Whenever Disney touches upon a big hit, it will have ripple effects across the industry as all the other studios try to follow their lead.  For instance, when Disney animated musicals based on fairy tales started becoming popular again in the 90’s with films like Beauty and the Beast (1991), it spawned a bunch of similar movies from rival studios trying to capitalize on the same success, like The Swan Princess (1994) and Anastasia (1997).  That’s not to say that Disney has always remained ahead all the time.  Sometimes a string of failures would catch up to them, or a change in the market leading to tougher competition.  Pixar Animation, more than any other, has had the same kind of effect on the industry, being the trend-setter and innovator, and it was very smart of Disney to partner up with them when they did; otherwise Disney’s days at the top would’ve ended.  But, even with these two dominant brands leading much of the animation market, it doesn’t mean that none of the other animation studios have put out an inferior product.  In fact, some of their movies are just as good as anything by Disney and Pixar.  In this article, I will list what I think are the 10 best animated movies not made by Disney or Pixar, because honestly if I had to make a list of the greatest animated movies of all time, those two would dominate.  The reason I want to highlight the other studios here is to show the incredible diversity that you’ll find in animation, both today and from the past.  So, let’s begin.

10.

rango

RANGO (2011)

Directed by Gore Verbinski

Not many people knew what to make of this film when they first saw it advertised.  The visual designs were bizarre, as were the characters, and the main protagonist was a squeaky voiced lizard wearing a Hawaiian shirt.  But, when the movie was released in the spring of 2011, audiences and critics were surprised to find that this Nickelodeon made film was actually a lot of fun to watch.  The voice cast, led by Johnny Depp as the titular lizard, was top notch.  The visuals were imaginative and well-executed.  But, more importantly, it was also hilariously written.  What I took away most from this film was the brilliant way that it parodied the Western genre, right down to the smallest details.  The design of the western village, made from scrap pieces of junk found by the critters that inhabit the town, is clever, as is a hilarious Apocalypse Now reference when the townspeople try to escape from a mole colony.  It’s all hilarious, beautifully animated and it even functions as a true Western.  In fact this works better as a Gore Verbinski directed Western starring Johnny Depp than The Lone Ranger (2013) did.  Verbinski spent years in visual effects before becoming a director, so this movie really shows him in a creative comfort zone; free to make whatever he wanted.  What this movie does perfectly is to not waste it’s premise (basically a spaghetti Western with critters) and bring it to it’s full potential.  The best I can say about it is that it doesn’t resemble any other animated film that I know of, and still feels familiar enough to understand.  It’s refreshingly original and shows that not every animated film needs to stick close to a standardized formula.

9.

triplets of belleville

THE TRIPLETS OF BELLEVILLE (2003)

Directed by Sylvain Chomet

Europe has a long history of crafting beautiful animated features themselves.  Whether it be English made films like Watership Down (1978) or Yellow Submarine (1968) or the French made sci-fi classic Fantastic Planet (1973), animation is a proud art-form found all across the continent.  The finest example of European animation in my opinion would be this fairly recent film from French animator Sylvain Chomet.  His style is unlike anything else I’ve seen in animation and it gives the world of this movie a unique identity.  The movie follows an elderly old woman with a club foot as she crosses the ocean in search of her kidnapped grandson, who’s also a Tour de France cyclist.  On her journey, she reaches the city of Belleville where she befriends the titular triplets (a long retired night club act) who agree to help her out.  The movie is told with minimal dialogue and it’s amazing how well Chomet is able to tell his story purely with visuals.  And those visuals are amazing.  Every frame of this hand drawn masterpiece is stunning and finely detailed.  Not only that, but the characters are wonderfully realized (visually and narratively) and the humor is charmingly twisted as well.  Keep an eye out for a small little mechanic character who bears a close resemblance to another famed animator.  Suffice to say, this is a very French movie, complete with characters dining on frog legs.  But, that’s also part of the joke too.  Chomet’s designs really stand out as being stylistically unique; and very non Disney.  If you haven’t checked this one out before, please do so.  It may not be what you’re used to, but then again, it’s very much worth taking in some international flavor when watching some quality animation.

8.

paranorman

PARANORMAN (2012)

Directed by Chris Butler and Sam Fell

Stop motion animation has been a popular medium for many decades, but it wasn’t until 1993’s The Nightmare Before Christmas that a full length feature was made utilizing the technique.  Since then, plenty of other stop motion animated films have been released.  I could have easily included something from Aardman Animation on this list, like Chicken Run (2000) given the UK-based studio’s high regard in the industry.  But, for what I consider to be the best film to come from the medium, I would have to say it’s this film from the Portland, Oregon-based Laika Studios.  Laika made a splash right away in it’s still young history with the critically acclaimed Coraline (2009).  But, it was with their follow-up ParaNorman that they really showed off what their capable of.  ParaNorman is a spectacular animated film, featuring a surprisingly mature story about social acceptance and over-coming prejudice.  It’s also got plenty of self-aware humor to it as well, poking fun at horror movie cliches. The animation is also astounding.  The 3-D printed models used for the characters are a far cry from the clay-molded ones of yesteryear, with incredible life-like detail to them.  It’s hard to believe sometimes that you are watching something crafted and animated by hand rather than with computers.  Like Disney and Pixar, Laika is taking it’s art-form to the next level and leading the medium forward, and it’s doing so on it’s own terms.  With a well-rounded story and stunning animation, ParaNorman showcases what stop motion is capable of more than any other feature in it’s class to date.

7.

south park

SOUTH PARK: BIGGER, LONGER, AND UNCUT (1999)

Directed by Trey Parker and Matt Stone

South Park isn’t the only animated TV series to spawn it’s own film.  The Simpsons finally got their own movie in 2007, and there have also been films based on Spongebob Squarepants (2004), Powerpuff Girls (2002), and even with classics like The Flintstones (1994) and The Jetsons (1990).  But, what is interesting about the South Park movie is that it made it’s way to theaters very early in the show’s run.  This was released in the middle of the show’s third season and today the series is still on the air getting ready for season number 20 this fall.  During all that time, the show has evolved and matured, and yet, the movie still holds up well.  The fact that it’s uncensored as opposed to the show makes this an especially fun movie to watch, because it shows the duo of Parker and Stone at their most irreverent.  Like all the best satires, the movie takes aim at everybody; whether it be Canadians, overly-sensitive parents, political leaders, religion; even Gandhi isn’t spared.  And it’s all laugh out loud funny.  What also makes this movie memorable is it’s musical score; mocking the Disney musical cliches while at the same time standing on it’s own lyrically.  The movie was even nominated for an Oscar for the song “Blame Canada,” although the musical highlight for me is still the hilariously obscene “Uncle F***a.”  I also get a kick out of the show’s depiction of Saddam Hussein, who it turns out is in a homosexual relationship with Satan here.  The way the character is animated, with a Photoshop cut-out of the real-life dictator’s head, and the high-pitched voice that they chose to give him are both silly to perfection.  All the show’s characters transition well to the big screen, especially the foul-mouthed Cartman, who gets much more free reign here to say whatever he wants.  It’s a perfect translation of a still legendary series that took full advantage of the creative freedom of the cinematic experience.

6.

akira

AKIRA (1988)

Directed by Katsuhiro Otomo

Of course, you can’t look at the whole of animation history without taking note of the world of Anime, imported over from Japan.  Japanese animation is unlike anything else that we see in the genre; using limited character animation in conjunction with highly artistic and sometimes stylized background art.  There are many different types of anime out there, from really cartoonish to hyper-naturalistic, but despite all this diversity, Anime still has a distinctive look that characterizes it.  One of the first Anime films to really grab a hold of Western audiences was this punk-infused dystopian masterpiece, Akira.  At a time when Disney was getting back into the groove of making colorful fairy tales once again, Akira was wowing audiences with it’s dark atmosphere, it’s sometimes shocking use of violence, and it’s jaw-droppingly beautiful animation.  It was also grand in scale, at a time when few other animated features were allowed to be, even at Disney.  Akira follows a group of biker gang members who get caught up in a conspiracy involving genetic mutation and children with extraordinary psychic powers.  When one of these children named Tetsuo begins to run amok, it’s up to his friend Kaneda to try to stop him, before he loses control and destroys the city.  The near-distant future-scape is stunningly realized, but not overdone.  It appears that director Otomo draws just as much inspiration from action movies from that time period as he does from other animated films, and it’s a combination that works really well.  Akira is considered one of the most important and influential Anime films of all time, and it’s a distinction that’s well deserved.

5.

THE LEGO MOVIE (2014)

Directed by Christopher Miller and Phil Lord

One of the most unexpected animated classics to come out in the last few years, period.  I’m sure that none of us ever expected The Lego Movie to be as good as it ended up being.  When originally announced, I’m sure that most of us thought that this was just going to be a crass commercial exercise in order to sell the public into buying more LEGO sets.  But what we ended up getting was much more than that.  It was a brilliantly crafted comedy full of so many sight gags and in-jokes that it’s hard to count.  It really is a movie that has everything we could want in a feature.  The duo of Miller and Lord have also been responsible for the 21 Jump Street (2012) movies, which also ended up being much smarter and funnier than people had expected.  All the pop culture references are hilariously executed, but the jokes also work because effort is put into the central story.  The film’s main protagonist, Emmett, really helps to ground the film and make it work, and he’s portrayed with a lot of heart by actor Chris Pratt.  Other new characters like Vitruvius (Morgan Freeman), Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks), and Good Cop/ Bad Cop (a hilarious Liam Neeson) are also great in the film.  But, what also makes this movie stand out is the amazing animation.  The film is CGI, but it’s animated to look almost like stop motion, making the whole LEGO world appear as if it was hand-crafted.  It’s visually amazing to watch, especially when the finished result looks like real LEGOS, right down to the smallest detail.  By being both stunningly animated and laugh-out-loud hilarious, The Lego Movie has become an instant masterpiece.  And, it also gives Batman his own song, which is just awesome.

4.

secret of nimh

THE SECRET OF NIMH (1982)

Directed by Don Bluth

During the years following the sudden passing of Walt Disney, the Disney company found itself stuck in a mire of self-doubt and lack of direction.  No one in the animation department knew what to do without Mr. Disney at the helm, so for several years they just resorted to coasting on formula rather than making breakthroughs in their medium.  This naturally led some of the animators working for Disney to become frustrated with the direction of the company, and one of those animators was Don Bluth.  Bluth famously parted ways from Disney and set out to create his own, independent animation studio to directly challenge the stranglehold that Disney had over the industry.  His goal was to make riskier and more mature animated features that would help elevate the animated medium over the “kid-friendly” stuff that Disney was making.  And over the next decade, Bluth indeed created a stellar body of work, including An American Tail (1986), The Land Before Time (1988), and All Dogs Go to Heaven (1989).  Though all his movies for the most part took risks and refrained from falling into formula (at least at first), no movie better illustrated his mission statement than his first feature, The Secret of NIMH (1982).  NIMH is a remarkably assured and gripping animated feature, different from Disney in every way, and yet animated to a level on par with Disney at it’s best.  Following the trials of farm mouse Mrs. Brisby, the movie is harrowing and unforgettable; and even not afraid to be a little violent at times, without sensationalizing it.  Bluth’s latter films like Rock a Doodle (1993), Thumbelina (1995), and Anastasia (1997) would fall into a formulaic hole later on, but The Secret of NIMH was at least a much needed shot in the arm for animation in it’s time, and gave an animator who had something to say his due respect.

3.

HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON (2010)

Directed by Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois

For the last decade or so, the animation industry has been defined by one primary rivalry, and that’s been Disney vs. Dreamworks.  Dreamworks made a splash in the industry with their enormously successful Shrek franchise, and for many years they were also the box office champions in the animation world.  The only thing that eluded them though was critical praise, as most of their animated films were viewed more as crowd pleasures that were just okay, rather than all-time masterpieces.  Pixar, under the roof of the Disney Company, was instead soaking up all the accolades and awards during this same time.  This was until a movie called How to Train Your Dragon was released in 2010.  Created by two Disney ex-pats, Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois, Dragon is just as strong as anything from Disney and Pixar, both visually and with it’s story-telling.  The movie is exceptionally well written, relying more heavily on character development than pop culture references and slapstick gags, something that unfortunately characterized a lot of Dreamworks’ earlier films.  The animation is also high-caliber, giving Dragons a sense of scale few other animated films ever try for.  The central relationship between the protagonist Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel) and his dragon companion Toothless is also the heart and soul that drives the movie; reminiscent of movies like E.T. (1982) or even Lilo & Stitch (2002), which these same directors are also responsible for.  This was also the first ever time where I ever felt  that Dreamworks actually bested Pixar, with the similarly themed Brave (2012) feeling  un-compelling by comparison.  Dreamworks’ Dragons deservedly garnered universal praise, and it showed that they were capable of creating more than just commercial entertainment; they could create popular art as well.

2.

spirited away

SPIRITED AWAY (2002)

Directed by Hayao Miyazaki

Like I highlighted before with Akira, Japanese anime was and is a medium that’s unafraid to push a few buttons in the world of animation; even going to extremes in terms of depicting violence and sex on screen.  But, not all of anime is defined by this.  There are other animation studios from Japan that also have made a name for themselves by portraying a more colorful and lighthearted view of the world.  This has been the defining characteristic of the acclaimed Studio Ghibli, and also the style of it’s creator, Hayao Miyazaki.  Miyazaki is often considered by many to be the Walt Disney of Anime, and it’s not hard to see why.  His animation style is very grounded, but also highly imaginative, setting a high standard that the rest of the industry tries hard to emulate, even outside of Japan.  Though Miyazaki has created violent films from time to time (Princess Mononoke for example), his films often are more characterized by more innocent, fairy-tale-like stories; not all that dissimilar from Disney.  Some of his movies like My Neighbor Totoro (1988), Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989), and Ponyo (2008) are beloved family classics, but what many consider to be the director’s finest work is the Oscar-winning Spirited Away (2002).  Spirited Away is without a doubt one of the finest anime films ever made, if not the best.  Following the story of a lost girl named Chihiro in a world inhabited by spirits and monsters, every frame of this film is a work of art.  The best moment in the film though is the train ride sequence.  It’s a quiet, reflective moment that you rarely see done in an animated feature and it shows the confidence that Miyazaki has in the art-form, showing that even animation can have a contemplative side to it.  It’s moments like this that make Spirited Away a masterpiece and Miyazaki one of the industry’s greatest artists.

1.

THE IRON GIANT (1999)

Directed by Brad Bird

If I had to choose any animated film that would stand on the same level as anything from Disney and Pixar, it would be this Brad Bird directed masterpiece.  Made by the short-lived Warner Brothers feature animation studio, The Iron Giant is a movie that gets everything right; from the high-quality animation, to the voice casting, to the unforgettable coming-of-age storyline about the bond between a young boy named Hogarth and his 100 foot tall robot friend.  Though it was a flop when it first premiered, the movie has steadily been rediscovered and is now universally beloved.  Not only does it represent the best that animation can do today, but I would dare say that this film is exactly what Walt Disney would’ve made in his time, or at least would’ve approved of.  And that’s probably the kind of result that Brad Bird was aiming for.  He was trained in art school by some of Walt Disney’s own top artists, so really The Iron Giant is a manifestation of the lessons he took to heart during his education.  Of all the films on this list, this movie shows the greatest representation of a Disney style film made outside of the influence of the Disney company.  The characters are especially what makes this a standout; never once falling into archetypal caricatures and instead feeling like fully fleshed-out individuals.  The depictions of Hogarth and the Giant are especially effective, and whoever could’ve predicted that Vin Diesel of all people could touch so many hearts as the voice of the Iron Giant.  If you don’t feel anything the moment when the Giant says “Superman” as he saves the day, then you my friend are made of stone.  Brad Bird eventually became part of Disney company later, making hits like The Incredibles (2004) and Ratatouille (2007), but his only feature outside of the House of Mouse is still what I think is his best work, and absolutely one of the greatest animated features ever made.

I’m sure that after reading this that some of you will probably complain over some omissions, and I certainly understand that.  There are so many good animated features made outside of the long reach of Disney, and more are created every day.  These are what I believe to be the best of that crowd, and it’s based not just on how good they are, but also by what they represent.  For the most part, these movies represent different animators or animation studios finding an identity that’s all their own that can stand the test of time.  One of the big problems in the world of animation is a lack of identity, instead choosing to just look at what Disney is doing right at the time and just copying their formula.  Copycat movies are an unfortunate result in the animation industry, but the good thing is that audiences have discerning tastes in the market as well, and they resoundingly reject animated films that choose to be unoriginal and lazy.  Overall, we need a big studio like Disney to set the standard for the industry, because their success pushes all competitors to up their game in order to compete.  And if there is anything to understand from a list like this is that the best animated features are the ones that rise to the challenge.  In some cases, like with How to Train Your Dragon and The Iron Giant, we’ve seen strong cases for animated films that may have actually bested the powerhouses of Disney and Pixar at their own game.  Animation is a great art-form, and made better still when everyone involved works toward making a better product overall.