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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.

Top Ten Performances Ignored by the Oscars

broken oscar

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

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

10.

john cazale godfather part 2

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

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

9.

denzel washington american gangster

DENZEL WASHINGTON as FRANK LUCAS in AMERICAN GANGSTER (2007)

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

8.

kirk douglas ace in the hole

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

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

7.

frank oz yoda

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

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

6.

Edward G. Robinson Double Indemnity

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

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

5.

ingrid bergman casablanca

 

INGRID BERGMAN as ILSA LUND in CASABLANCA (1943)

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

4.

andy serkis gollum

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

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

3.

humphrey bogart treasure

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

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

2. 

bill murray groundhogs

BILL MURRAY as PHIL CONNORS in GROUNDHOG DAY (1992)

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

1.

Anthony Perkins Psycho

ANTHONY PERKINS as NORMAN BATES in PSYCHO (1960)

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

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

Top Ten Movies of 2015

movies 2015

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

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

10.

ex machina poster

EX MACHINA

Directed by Alex Garland

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

9.

carol poster

CAROL

Directed by Todd Haynes

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

8.

star wars force awakens poster

STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS

Directed by J. J. Abrams

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

7.

creed poster

CREED

Directed by Ryan Coogler

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

6.

steve jobs poster

STEVE JOBS

Directed by Danny Boyle

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

5.

the big short poster

THE BIG SHORT

Directed by Adam McKay

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

4.

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INSIDE OUT

Directed by Pete Docter

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

3.

the revenant poster

THE REVENANT

Directed by Alejandro G. Inarritu

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

2.

the martian poster

THE MARTIAN

Directed by Ridley Scott

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

And finally…..

1.

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SICARIO

Directed by Denis Villeneuve

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

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

5.

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

4. 

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

3.

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

2.

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

And the worst film of 2015 is….

1.

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

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

Top Ten Villain Musical Themes

phantom organ

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

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

10.

GOZER THEME from GHOSTBUSTERS (1984)

Composed by Elmer Bernstein

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

9.

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

Composed by Henry Jackman

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

8.

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

Composed by Herbert Stothart

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

7.

GODFREY THEME from ROBIN HOOD (2010)

Composed by Marc Streitenfeld

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

6.

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

Composed by Hans Zimmer

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

5.

JAWS THEME from JAWS (1975)

Composed by John Williams

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

4.

MAIN THEME from BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA (1992)

Composed by Wojciech Kilar

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

3.

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

Composed by Howard Shore

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

2.

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

Composed by Danny Elfman

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

1.

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

Composed by John Williams

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

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