Tag Archives: Top 10 List

Top Ten Mystery Science Theater 3000 Episodes

mst3k cast

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

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

10.

THE UNDEAD (SEASON 8, EPISODE 6)

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

9.

 GAMERA VS. GUIRON (SEASON 3, EPISODE 12)

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

8.

TEENAGE STRANGLER (SEASON 5, EPISODE 14)

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

7.

EEGAH (SEASON 5, EPISODE 6)

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

6.

RED ZONE CUBA (SEASON 6, EPISODE 19)

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

5.

THE FINAL SACRIFICE (SEASON 9, EPISODE 10)

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

4.

SANTA CLAUS (SEASON 5, EPISODE 21)

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

3.

MITCHELL (SEASON 5, EPISODE 12)

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

2.

SPACE MUTINY (SEASON 8, EPISODE 20)

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

1.

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

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

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

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

Top Ten Favorite Epic Musical Themes

fantasia orchestra

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

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

10.

“ESCAPING THE SMOKERS” from WATERWORLD (1995)

Composed by James Newton Howard

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

9.

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

Composed by Miklos Rozsa

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

8.

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

Composed by Randy Edelman & Trevor Jones

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

7.

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

Composed by Michael Kamen

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

6.

“BATMAN THEME” from BATMAN (1989)

Composed by Danny Elfman

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

5.

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

Composed by Basil Poledouris

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

4.

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

Composed by John Williams

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

3.

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

Composed by Maurice Jarre

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

2.

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

Composed by Howard Shore

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

1.

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

Composed by John Williams

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

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

Top Ten Movies of 2014

movies

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

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

10.

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THE IMITATION GAME

Directed by Morten Tyldum

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

9.

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LOCKE 

Directed by Steven Knight

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

8.

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GONE GIRL 

Directed by David Fincher

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

7.

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EDGE OF TOMORROW

Directed by Doug Liman

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

6.

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THE LEGO MOVIE

Directed by Phil Lord & Christopher Miller

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

5.

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SNOWPIERCER

Directed by Bong Joon-Ho

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

4.

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INHERENT VICE

Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson

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

3.

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WHIPLASH

Directed by Damien Chazelle

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

2.

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GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY

Directed by James Gunn

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

Which leads us to…

1.

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BIRDMAN 

Directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu

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

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

5. MALEFICENT

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

4. TRANSFORMERS: AGE OF EXTINCTION

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

3. THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING

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

2. THE AMAZING SPIDERMAN 2

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

And the absolute worst movie of 2014 is…

1. KIRK CAMERON’S SAVING CHRISTMAS

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

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

Top Ten Scary Moments in Family Movies

evil queen disney

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

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

10.

CHITTY CHITTY BANG BANG (1968) – THE CHILD CATCHER

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

9.

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

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

8.

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

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

7.

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

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

6.

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

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

5.

FANTASIA (1940) – NIGHT ON BALD MOUNTAIN

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

4.

THE BRAVE LITTLE TOASTER (1983) – THE NIGHTMARE

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

3.

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

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

2.

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

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

1.

PINOCCHIO (1940) – THE DONKEYS OF PLEASURE ISLAND

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

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

Top Ten Giant Movie Monsters

monster movie

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

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

10.

cloverfield

THE “CLOVERFIELD” CREATURE from CLOVERFIELD (2008)

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

9.

gamera

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

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

8.

flying kaiju

THE WINGED KAIJU from PACIFIC RIM (2013)

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

7.

kraken

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

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

6.

jaws

THE GREAT WHITE SHARK from JAWS (1975)

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

5.

smaug hobbit

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

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

4.

stay puft

THE STAY PUFT MARSHMALLOW MAN from GHOSTBUSTERS (1984)

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

3.

t rex

THE TYRANNOSAURUS REX from JURASSIC PARK (1993)

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

2.

kong

KONG from KING KONG (1932 ORIGINAL AND 2005 REMAKE)

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

1.

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

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

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

Top Ten Worst Adam Sandler Movies…So Far

sandler

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

Top Ten Failed Oscar Bait Movies

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

Top Ten Movies of 2013

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

Top Ten Favorite Villains

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

Top Ten Movie Endings That Left Us Stunned

 

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

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

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

SEVEN (1995) – “WHAT’S IN THE BOX?”

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

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

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

THE BIRDS (1963) – “LEAVING TOWN”

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

BONNIE AND CLYDE (1967) – “LOVERS AMBUSHED”

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

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

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

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

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