Tag Archives: Top 10 List

Top Ten “Passion Project” Films That Worked

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

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

Top Ten Movie Posters

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

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

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